Friday, June 6, 2014

Superheroes And Politics

Pandora comes today
As she dazzles and she dances
You find hope and lose yourself again
She never stays the same
She changes moods like summer thunder
Still you look for sunlight through the rain.
And when she laughs you see danger
She can be cold like a stranger
And you try but you won't change her anyway
And I can see how she makes it
It's a game and still you take it
It's a spell until you break it, you must stay
And lose yourself again.

Pandora takes the time
To tell you stories of her past
That everybody knows just can't be true
The reason and the rhyme
Are twisted 'til you can't believe her
Still you keep pretending that you do.
And when you try to get to her
And you tell her you've seen through her
She'll just say you never knew her anyway
And you still let her fake it
It's a game and still you take it
It's a spell until you break it, you must stay
And lose yourself again.

Pandora comes today
The warning signs flash in her eyes
The old familiar feelings rise again
The pleasure and the pain
Are like two colours run together
Still you can't go on too long this way.
If it's a game you can't win it
I don't know why you stay in it
You could leave her any minute, any day
It should be easy to shake it
But you just can't seem to make it
It's a spell until you break it, you must stay
And lose yourself again.

[Al Stewart]

I've written about the superhero craze before, and this morning I find it much on my mind once again. There are a number of reasons for this, as those Gentle Readers well acquainted with my drivel will already have suspected.

The Whittle video in the piece below is part of my maunderings this morning, along with the barrage of comments I've been getting from my fiction fans about this novelette. The connections -- some bright and hopeful, some dark and foreboding -- have become overwhelming.

If you'll allow me a few painfully obvious (cf. "overlooked") observations as a launching platform:

  • We all seek heroes;
  • Hero-oriented fiction is the most popular sort;
  • Fictional-magnitude heroes are undersupplied in real life;
  • Most real-life "heroes" don't really qualify for the title and shouldn't have been given it.

Does that seem obvious to you, Gentle Reader? It surely does to me. Nevertheless, there seems to be a significant segment of the electorate that believes in real-life heroes of comic-book magnitude, and so fervently that they'll elevate a skillfully promoted poseur with a smooth enough line to that status even if he's never accomplished one single BLEEP!ing thing.

Indeed, so great is our desire for such larger-than-life figures that a sufficiently plausible fictional hero, such as my readers' all-time favorite among my characters, will sometimes elicit plaintive queries about whether the author knows -- or is -- such a person. God knows I've received enough such queries. It's always saddening to have to reply to them. ("No, I'm not Louis. Louis is a fictional character. Really! And I'm an old married Catholic, so thanks for your interest and your many delightful suggestions, but...")

The tremendous popularity of Lee Child's novels of ex-M.P. Jack Reacher is part and parcel of this. Note that when a movie was made based on one of those novels, the action, especially the conclusion, emphasized that Reacher "doesn't care about law, or justice; he only cares about what's right." Fascinating, eh, that separation of "law" and "justice" from "what's right" -- ? It speaks volumes if you've got your ear cocked just so.

The unwillingness to live in the real world, with one's perceptions unclouded and one's reason undistorted by propaganda or wishful thinking, just might be the worst malady Mankind has ever suffered.

During the era of the Russian Empire, especially during the reign of Nicholas II, one of the typeset phrases one would hear among the common people was "good Tsar, evil counselors." For those unacquainted with that phase of Russian history, things were pretty crumby there and then. Nicholas himself was a lightweight; Barbara Tuchman has described him as the possessor of "a mind so shallow as to be all surface." Other historians of the era largely concur. In consequence, court propaganda issued to protect Nicholas against a popular uprising would seek to blame the misfortunes of the Russian commoner on bad advice from "evil counselors." Inasmuch as at least one such counselor -- Grigori Efimovich Rasputin, the "Mad Monk" -- did indeed have influence on Imperial decisions through Tsarina Alexandra, the notion was not entirely unfounded. However, it didn't prevent the October Revolution from deposing Nicholas, and ultimately costing him his life.

Why did the Russian common people endure such brutal, destructive rule for so long? Simply because they needed to believe in the good intentions of their monarch, whose family had ruled the Russian Empire for three centuries. This might seem a strange need, given that the Russian people had no part in putting Nicholas II on the throne, yet there is no other equally plausible explanation. When one reflects on the typical Russian commoner's conception of what was possible -- i.e., the impossibility (until 1917) of bringing down the House of Romanov but the greater vulnerability to removal of the counselors that surrounded the emperor -- it acquires more credibility.

That would seem tragic enough by itself, but there's a sting in the tail: the steady advance and refinement of propaganda techniques, coupled to thorough and studious control of the organs of public information, made it possible for Stalin, a man so evil that there's hardly anyone to compare to him, to raise himself above the ire of his subjects, and above that of even Western observers who surely ought to have known better, in exactly the same way. As an example of the tortures inflicted upon language by Stalin's English defenders, George Orwell wrote thus:

Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, "I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so." Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:
"While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement."

The PR campaign inflicted upon Soviet commoners was far cruder, elevating Stalin to demigod status:

“Should you ever run into difficulties at work, or suddenly doubt your abilities, think of him – of Stalin – and you’ll find the necessary self-confidence. Should you feel tired at a time when a man should not be tired, think of him – of Stalin – and work will become easier. Should you be at a loss as to how you should act, think of him – of Stalin – and your decision will be the right one.”

From here, we turn to present-day America.

From his very first moments on a national stage, Barack Hussein Obama was presented to the electorate as a larger-than-life figure, who by sheer willpower and his innate brilliance -- it's not time to laugh yet, Gentle Reader -- could cleanse the nation, indeed, the world, of the worst of its problems. Moreover, Obama himself encouraged that portrayal. He has admitted that "I actually believe my own bullshit." Was it not he who said, speaking of his own elevation to the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, that it would be remembered as the moment when the seas ceased to rise, the planet began to heal, et cetera ad nauseam infinitam? Was it not he who freely admitted that:

Obama had always had a high estimation of his ability to cast and run his operation. When David Plouffe, his campaign manager, first interviewed for a job with him in 2006, the senator gave him a warning: "I think I could probably do every job on the campaign better than the people I'll hire to do it," he said. "It's hard to give up control when that's all I've known." Obama said nearly the same thing to Patrick Gaspard, whom he hired to be the campaign's political director. "I think I'm a better speechwriter than my speechwriters," Obama told him. "I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I'll tell you right now that I'm gonna think I'm a better political director than my political director."

Such a man would encourage his allies and associates to spread the most exalted imaginable images and conceptions of him, which is perfectly consistent with his socialist-realism-style campaign posters and the fawning treatment he's received from the press. But more to the point, huge numbers of Americans bought the whole schtick. They wanted to believe that they'd finally been given a hero, someone who really could dissolve America's least tractable problems with the power of his steely gaze. The positive feedback Obama thus received virtually guaranteed that he would never accept criticism, listen respectfully to a divergent opinion, or sincerely admit to fault for having blown an important decision.

As the bad decisions and destructive policies have multiplied, some attempts have been made to deflect criticism from Obama's person to his coterie of advisors. We've heard a lot about the baleful influence of Valerie Jarrett, for example. On at least two occasions Eric Holder, or someone below him at the Department of Justice, has been made the scapegoat for some atrocity. And of course we've all heard about "low-level IRS functionaries in Cincinnati" and how the IRS itself, much less Obama, is blameless for the prejudicial treatment of conservative organizations in the run-up to the 2012 elections.

But as Americans are a somewhat less gullible people than the Russians, and have access to a broader range of news and information sources than the Russians of the early Twentieth Century, the sequelae haven't been as favorable for Obama's popular reception as they were for Ossetian strongman Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, a.k.a. "Uncle Joe" Stalin.

I could go on about this for another fifty thousand words, and perhaps some day I will. But that's enough for the present. I'll close with a joke I read some years ago:

Smith was walking down the street, looking hopelessly disconsolate, when a stooped, wizened old woman came up to him and asked what was wrong that he should look so forlorn.

"I'm a bank vice president. A month ago I embezzled fifty thousand dollars from the bank and blew it at the race track, and the auditors are coming tomorrow to grill me about the deficit," Smith said. "I'm sure to lose everything I own and go to prison for years."

The old woman smiled. "Well, this is your lucky day, son. I'm a witch. SHAZAM! The money is back in the account. SHAZAM! All the records of your theft have been expunged. SHAZAM! You can go on with your life as if nothing of the sort had ever occurred."

Smith, dazed, said "Marvelous! How can I ever repay you?" To which the old woman replied "Take me to your home and make mad, passionate love to me." Which, overwhelmed by gratitude, he proceeded to do.

Smith was exhausted and slowly recovering from the most passionate, energetic lovemaking he had ever experienced when the old woman propped herself on an elbow and said, "That was wonderful, but would you tell me something, please?"

Smith nodded and said "Anything! What would you like to know?" And the old woman smiled and said, "Aren't you a little old to believe in witches?"

Aren't you, Gentle Reader?


SABR Matt said...

Fascinating comparison between Czar Nicholas II and Obama in terms of propaganda and scapegoating.

You know why this stuff works on leftists? Because for their basic ideology to work, they need to believe that people who rise to power can still be motivated by the needs of the common man when human history tells us that this is quite impossible. If you don't believe that your leaders are mostly good folks trying to do right by become a small-government conservative by default.

My wife constantly responds to one maidenly stupid, misguided or just plain evil decision after another from Obama with "I just don't understand doesn't make sense...we have to be missing something that makes this make sense!" Followed by "He must have a lot of bad advise in his cabinet..."

The center will not hold for her...soobner or later she's going to be forced to admit that Obama was and is a bad man, not simply a bad choice for President.

Col. B. Bunny said...

“I sympathize [with] the first, the direct and single-minded attack [Red Revolution]. I believe it to have been necessary and inevitable in Russia. It may someday be inevitable in this country [United States of America]. I am not seriously alarmed by the sufferings of the creditor class, the troubles which the church is bound to encounter, the restrictions on certain kinds of freedom which must result, nor even by the bloodshed of the transition period. A better economic order is worth a little bloodshed.” - ~ Stuart Chase (American technocrat, economist, and engineer who is considered an intellectual father to the New Deal), A New Deal (The Macmillan Company, 1932), pp.155-156.

Quoted in Rose L. Martin's, Fabian Freeway. High Road to Socialism in the U.S.A. 1884-1966. Western Islands (1966), p. 257.

KG said...

I really wish you would go on for another fifty thousand words on this subject, Francis.
The need for heroes and the ready acceptance of manufactured fakes in the political sphere is surely at the core of what ails us.
Celebrity-worship blurs the line between substance and image in candidates for office to the point where we're not far from having the media simply appoint a President.