Fabio Paolo Barbieri (fpb) wrote,
  • Mood: depressed

“YOU’VE BEEN DRINKING POISONED WATER FROM THE FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH…”

By now, all my friends, as well as a very large number of people who will never be my friends, know that I have a kind of gift for online brawls and battles. I once made carlanime laugh by remarking that there was something unnatural about having a great big online brawl without me. That was a joke; in point of fact I am not particularly happy about this, but it is a fact, and I am hardened to it.

Not everyone, however, may be aware that there are times when the opposite is the case: where, having come to conclusions that I really thought would offend readers and bring about major rows, having effectively steeled myself for ferocious opposition, rage, insults -- I found supposedly incendiary arguments simply sink into an ocean of silence, or perhaps receive a few unconcerned remarks from people who could not see what the fuss was. This can be a deflating experience, and on the whole is not much more pleasant than being covered with insults; at least the latter means that someone takes an interest in what you said.

Of all such experiences, by far the most surprising to me is the repeated lack of interest that has greeted three versions of an essay originally printed on my old fanzine THE COMICS IRREGULAR , reprinted here: http://fpb.livejournal.com/883.html , and reworked here: http://fpb.livejournal.com/195754.html . Each time I published it I did so in fear and dread, but also determined that the horrific interpretation I proposed had to be put before some sort of public; and each time the reaction was a yawn – if it went so far. Of all the readers I had, only the then patchworkmind, now affablestranger, seemed to catch and agree with my meaning. Each time, I felt like a man who had tried to rouse my neighbours to wonder and terror, only to find that everyone found it perfectly normal and of no great interest to have an enormous and very angry-looking elephant in the room.

For the record and in no uncertain terms, the thesis I proposed in those essays was that the doctrine that underlay the X-Men franchise, not from its very beginning, but certainly from about Uncanny X-Men #141 (the “Days of Future Past” two-parter), is a variant of Nazism. Not just racism, not just historicism, but Nazism, plain and simple. Consider:
- human beings are divided between genetically superior (homo superior) and genetically inferior races.
- The ultimate goal of mankind is to evolve, and therefore
- anyone who for any reason interferes with the evolution of mankind is in the wrong and must be stopped. However,
- groups that are incapable of evolution themselves somehow feel and resent their inferiority, and are therefore ridden with fear and hatred for the numerically smaller bearers of a glorious future. This is the exact reason why Nazis supposed Jews and other “genetically inferior” races to hate them, plot against them, attempt to destroy their genetic purity, and in general to be enemies that must be faced and defeated.

I am saying that the most popular superhero franchise in modern America has a black ideological core. I am saying that the spirit we thought crushed under the ruins of whole nations and drowned in oceans of blood has been reborn, while nobody was looking, in the very heart of American popular culture. I am saying that Sauron sits near the throne of Numenor and whispers in the King’s ear. Is this not something that should concern us?

The appalling idea of genetic evolutionism had already been introduced to the Marvel Universe before Len Wein and Chris Claremont resurrected the X-Men. It was invented by Roy Thomas and Steve Englehart – the representatives of the hippy generation among Marvel authors – and used to explain the obsession of two cosmic empires for distant little Earth. The reason why the Skrull and Kree Empires were so obsessed with Earth is that they both represented evolutionary dead ends, and somehow hoped that the humans of earth, who still had the potential to evolve, would provide some sort of way out of their predicament. To Thomas and Englehart, however, it was mankind as a whole that was superior to these imagined and remote Empires. They had resurrected the Nazi image of the Jew in his resentment, his native inferiority, his nevertheless colossal and far-flung power; but they had done so on a wholly imaginary level, to underline the exalted and glorious nature of mankind itself. This was a standard hippy idea (remember Up With People?) which Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams treated with some force in Uncanny X-Men #69, of all places, where Professor X gathers the mental force of all human beings on Earth, and defeats an alien army with the sheer power of polychromous, many-faced humanity.

When Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (both Jews) conceived X-Men, they had no idea of making evolution as such a moral issue. To the contrary, Kirby – the one of the two who was most interested in the issue of genetic mutation – repeatedly said that genetic change made no difference to the moral issues of human life. As he said in his last strip on the matter, Silver Star, “Man by any other name is nothing more than his old sweet self”; what changes is the amount of power available, not the natural history of good and evil. Kirby would have agreed with Chesterton and Tolkien:

"Reason and justice grip the remotest and the loneliest star. Look at those stars. Don't they look as if they were single diamonds and sapphires? Well, you can imagine any mad botany or geology you please. Think of forests of adamant with leaves of brilliants. Think the moon is a blue moon, a single elephantine sapphire. But don't fancy that all that frantic astronomy would make the smallest difference to the reason and justice of conduct. On plains of opal, under cliffs cut out of pearl, you would still find a notice-board, `Thou shalt not steal.'"
(from The Blue Cross)

“How shall a man judge what to do in such times?”
“As he has ever judged. Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a Man’s part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house.”

(from The Two Towers, bk.3, ch.2, The Riders of Rohan)

I do not think it is exaggerated to say that this sort of view, coming from the Jew Kirby or from the Catholics Chesterton and Tolkien, is in absolute contradiction with the basic notion of the Marvel mutant ideology. For the central point of the latter is that, since mutants have appeared on earth, the quality and content of moral choices really has changed. Morality really is one thing among homo sapiens without mutants, and quite another in the relationship of homo sapiens with mutants; or, if you will, one thing among Men and another in the dealings of Men and Elves. The poisonous step taken by Claremont was to bring down to earth, and place among men themselves, the imaginary distinction between imaginary alien races unable to evolve and a real mankind that is. Men are distinguished between mutants and those who hate mutants; and the hatred for mutants is something instinctive, unreasonable, repulsive.

Marvel’s mutant genetic evolutionism is a kind of Calvinist heresy of the all too well known fad of Eugenics. While Eugenics is in principle will-centred – if we do such and such, the race will improve – Mutant evolutionism is inevitabilist: the race will inevitably improve, unless we do such and such. The premise that the improvement of the race is a good thing is the common point. However, the theory as such is secondary: what matters is that it is the pseudo-scientific version of a mentality, not the root of the mentality itself. Karl Popper and CS Lewis called it Historicism; but I think that the man who came closest to its essence was, as so often, G.K.Chesterton, who spoke of “the [Prussian] vice… which is to regard success not as an incident but as a quality” – as something that is inborn in you. What, if not this, did it mean to suggest that one’s race was the height of human evolution, and the channel through which further evolution was to come? You are born into the race of the successful, the race through which further evolution is to come. (Of course, this is roughly as scientific as Stan Lee’s superhero stories – which, in turn, are a scary indication of what an intelligent, articulate middle-class American of the mid-twentieth century thought scientific. I wonder whether the public at large has ever understood science. They certainly did not understand Evolution; the misconception of it having anything to do with progress is almost universal.)

The opposite term to this idea of evolution/progress/improvement is not stability or even stagnation: it is vicious regress. Claremont lives in an imagined America full of murderous mobs ready to pour on the streets to hunt down and murder anyone they perceive as “different”. Such an America has indeed existed in the past, but even then as a minority grouping, largely in the rural south; and it was dying out even in Claremont’s youth – hunted, broken and finally made impotent by the great FBI campaign of the sixties against the Ku Klux Klan. Claremont does not acknowledge either fact: his monster-America may be found everywhere (particularly, I have the impression, in suburban areas) and has no time dimension whatever. Far from being in retreat or in any way defeated, it waits to be unleashed at every street corner. To him, they are ever-present, ever real. He does not have to argue that there is an innate tendency in homo sapiens to hate and fear that which is superior; he just has to parade images of lynch mob violence, of twist-faced spit-mouthed racism, of raving group brutality, and he feels the point is made. He grew up with these images, after all; they were still a live problem in the American fifties and sixties. He is haunted by them: as repulsively alien, as uncomprehending, as it is incomprehensible to him. One can envisage him as a young man, watching on TV (he is hardly likely to have met them in person!) these people who are supposed to be his fellow-countrymen, speaking the same language, under the same laws – behaving in this wholly alien way.

It is of course all too easy to point out the flaws in Claremont’s conception. The KKK’s hatred was, no doubt, a reactionary and destructive element; but that does not mean that its objects were in any special way endowed with the chrism of evolution. The connection between American blacks fighting to be treated like any other free person, and mutants incarnating the road to the future, and destined to supersede Homo Sapiens, simply does not exist, and indeed, if stated in so many words, is nothing but ridiculous. Nobody imagines a future world in which a superhuman black race will replace the current run of mankind. Far from reacting to a perceived threat of obliteration from a more powerful and promising race, the KKK and its supporters were disgusted at the idea that what they regarded as inferior should be treated as their equal. Their reaction was based on an injured self-love that demanded that blacks (and, originally, Jews and Catholics) should be kept in permanent inferiority, so as not to challenge their self-image. What they opposed was not evolution, but equality – another of those permanent principles which, as Chesterton said, grip the remotest and the loneliest star.

And this points out another important feature of Claremont’s nightmare America. Claremont was not black, Jewish, or even Catholic; nothing in his writing suggests familiarity with the favoured targets of KKK hate and prejudice. However, there can be no doubt that he regards that kind of world as directly hostile to him. The fear and hate embodied in his stories leave no doubt that he regards them as a personal threat. That is not the way someone like me would regard the KKK, or any of the other murderous movements and conspiracies that left their bloody tracks across history. My attitude is one of indignation, even anger, but, in a sense, from outside. I do not regard them with the real terror – one might say the paranoia – that pervades the X-Men franchise as Claremont shaped it, with its hideous futures and the horrible things that come from them. The hatred of Claremont for his nightmare America is personal and comes from a direct sense of menace.

(I keep on saying Claremont because he is the man who shaped the mutant mythos. Even after he lost control of the X-Men continuity, those who followed had to live within his parameters, keeping such things as the Sentinels, the hatred of sapiens for superior, the fear of concentration camps, etc. A few sane people, foremost among them Alan Davis, tried to open the road to a more breathable and tolerable atmosphere, but I am afraid that at this time of day, X-Men without a persecution complex would cease being X-Men.)

The sense of direct menace connects with an identification of the party of good with the party, not so much of progress, as that has progress built into itself. And you can also see the kinship and derivation from the ill-grounded hippy optimism of Thomas and Englehart, designing an imagined opposition to their adoring view of mankind: to both, “evolution” was the one live issue, and resisting it for any reason the one evil. The succession of mutants from human is both positive and inevitable; unless of course the hate and fear of Claremont’s nightmare America (or nightmare human race – by now it does not make much difference) manages to stop it. And if it does, it will turn the future into one of the many nightmare scenarios with which the X-Men mythology is so rich.

I hardly have to argue that the identification of reader and writer is with the “mutant” world; “the others” are the enemies of progress, and as such guilty of perverting the future. In other words, “ours” is the party of progress and evolution, and “theirs” that of destruction, regress, and tyranny. This is the moral world of the X-Men franchise.

A few things should be clear. First, while the vehicle of these values is imaginary – nobody believes that super-powered human mutants exist or will exist – the values themselves are to be taken very seriously indeed. They reflect on the real world. Consciously or unconsciously, Claremont has drawn on his own experience of his country (although derived from the media rather than from personal encounters) to create and organize the imagery of the mutant mythology. It is his horror (and ignorance) of small-town and suburban America that generates those nightmare visions of Sentinels and death camps; it is his belief that progress and evolution are good in and of themselves that generates the whole notion of mutant mankind. (Of course, he had found the concept of mutants ready made in Lee and Kirby’s original idea; but, as I pointed out, neither Lee nor Kirby were ready to equate evolution with moral improvement. As a matter of fact, in one of their later Thor stories, mutants were presented as a future degeneration, rather than an improvement, of mankind. This mutant race, of course, had nothing to do with the X-Men’s Homo Superior, and I suspect that by the time the ever-busy Lee and Kirby, owners of the two worst memories in the Western hemisphere, had got to that story, they had both forgotten their sixteen issues of X-Men.)

And there is one further matter that adds to the poisonousness of this cocktail: the identification of America with progress as such is so dangerously easy to make that in such minds as Claremont’s it was probably present literally from the word go, practically from birth. The best explanation for the abiding, disjointing shock that vibrates in his imagery, is that Claremont had understood, from a child and without doubt, that his country stood for progress, and that progress was in and of itself good. To be then faced with the “Missisippi Burning” version of America – rural, uneducated, “backward”, reactionary, violent, and clearly in the way of what young Claremont regarded as progress – would indeed be dislocating. Who are these people? Is this my country? Why do they hate everything we stand for?

However, although Claremont is at the core of this appalling process, we cannot speak as though it concerned him alone. He has long since ceased to be anything more than a bit player on the sidelines. Dozens of other writers – in the end, practically every other writer at Marvel – have joyfully taken up his ideas and run with them; and hundreds of thousands of comics readers and hundreds of millions of film and animation watchers have bestowed on them the chrism of sustained sales success. That is what is really horrifying about the X-Men ideology: how many people are willing to live with it, work with it, accept and enjoy it – how many people find it a suitable foundation for an imaginative reaction to reality. With Civil War, it has come to dominate the whole Marvel Universe. I repeat: the spirit we thought crushed under the ruins of whole nations and drowned in oceans of blood has been reborn, while nobody was looking, in the very heart of American popular culture. And that being the case, we must ask: where did it come from, and why is it so hard to kill?

My answer is as follows. The tendency of Western politics since 1775 has built a way of thinking about politics and society which is at heart profoundly false. Not only we, but our fathers and forefathers, have lived in a world in which politics was largely a process of presenting demands, struggling against a conservative resistance that predicted that the world would be ruined if those demands are granted, and eventually finding that the demands could be granted without any particular form of universal collapse. It took from 1775 (battle of Lexington) to about 1867-8 (establishment of constitutional rule in Austria-Hungary and of the brief “Empire liberal” in Napoleon III’s France) for representative and constitutional government to become the norm for Western nations; even longer for slavery to be abolished, and only a bit less for trades unionism to become legal and accepted, and for the working classes to receive the vote. Then came feminism and the welfare state; and each demand was received with less difficulty and adopted more swiftly than the previous one. By the time we got to sexual liberation, the demand was almost as soon made as granted.

What was not recognized is that this represented, in effect, a return to the norm and wellspring of Western civilization, which had been literally born with representative and limited government. Monarchy “by divine right”, absolute monarchy, was a sixteenth-century French fad which amounted to a series of usurpations by central government, and which had spread because of its perceived greater efficiency as compared to musty, fusty old assemblies and laws and guilds and internal borders. After a brief period of splendour, this monarchy that was the admiration and terror of Europe underwent a series of humiliating defeats and eventually collapsed, proving itself fabulously inefficient. The very political theorists who had admired the power and control that French institutions gave a single man now made it a cliché, endlessly repeated, that the French monarchy had died of its own waste, because, as Macaulay put it, the court of Versailles cost the equivalent of fifty battalions. The lesson was reduplicated when the new republic arisen from the ashes of the collapsed monarchy suddenly proved able to unleash immense armies at will across Europe.

What I am saying is that the whole progressive mindset is built on sand. They imagine that all history – at least, all recent history – is a moral progress from worse to better, from tyranny to freedom, from racism to egalitarianism, from sexism to feminism. That is basically nonsense. The reason why the political progression that took place across the face of Europe and related countries for the last two and a half centuries felt so much like a progression from bad to better is that it was a restoration of the natural values and structures of Western civilization – societal openness and mobility, independent associations of tradesmen and workers, representative government, carrière ouverte aux talents including women. These were all things that were practically universal in Western Europe about 1200, and reduced to a few surviving outposts in 1750. In Spain, France, Germany, Russia, Italy, old and traditional liberties had been squeezed out of existence. Russia is universally regarded as the home of reaction, caste government and autocracy; few people realize that the notorious Russian caste state was only really established in law by Catherine II “the Great”, Russia’s “enlightened despot”. And this corresponds to developments across Europe; from Spain to England to Italy, caste features were more firmly in place, and inequalities more profound and rooted, as the sixteenth century moved into the seventeenth and eighteenth.

Political progress since 1775, then, has been in the nature of a recovery of the natural balance of a civilization that had been nearly devoured by the virus of absolutism. It was, indeed, a process of liberation, and a progress – a progress towards a definite goal. But it taught people to think that progress of any kind is always positive, and that evolution is improvement. That, of course, is nonsense. From about 1400 to 1750, progress was always towards a more absolute and caste-ridden state. The forces of Darwinian selection of the fittest, as Machiavelli and Guicciardini saw, favoured royal tyrannies with large resources and endangered small, easily divided republics with vast accumulated riches but insufficient armed forces; while on the other side of the sea the immense Turkish tyranny moved apparently at will, picking off Egypt today, Hungary tomorrow. To say that progress was good then would mean that the caste state and the divine right of kings were good things then; an opinion I firmly reject. They may have been, for a time, more efficient; they may even have been politically inevitable, as Machiavelli thought. But that does not make them right, let alone admirable. The doom of the French monarchy, collapsing under the weight of its own irresponsibility and unrepresentativeness, might stand for the verdict over that whole tendency. Let us rather say that a free commonwealth is inherently morally better than a slave one, and often if not always more efficient too; and move on.

It will have escaped no-one that a belief in progress as positive is not easily distinguished from a belief in success as positive. This creeping syllogism is of course particularly dangerous in a nation that has historically experienced both tremendous progress and tremendous success while being, from beginning to end, basically a free commonwealth. It would be natural, though disastrous, to confuse the three, and many people do. And this leads to a further dislocation: if it is felt that progress, that is success, is in the nature of the party that calls itself progressive, then a defeat, let alone a series of defeats and a serious check in its “progress”, can only be felt as a reversal of the proper order of things. Where that is identified with the nature of a free commonwealth (illegitimate though the identification may be), then the opponents of progress and the opponents of liberty are understood as one and the same. And when we speak of an American such as Claremont, if his perception of his country’s values is centred not in what is enduring but in what is progressive, then to identify anything regressive with what is politically wrong is merely natural. He will feel right, justified, indeed patriotic, in believing that the enemies of progress in his country must be fought and defeated. The idea that the party of progress might indeed be permanently checked, that progress might be stopped in its tracks, is, to him, a genuine horror, terrible, unthinkable. All the value, all the strength, has gone out of any notion of liberty that he possesses, and his idea of liberty depends exclusively on progress. He is incapable of imagining a stable or conservative state of freedom, and he equates regress with tyranny. Hence the vast production of dystopias in our day, in which Claremont took an enthusiastic part: if anyone brought up in a “progressive” mentality ever finds him or herself contemplating the dreadful possibility that his or her version of “progress” might be halted or reversed, the inevitable product is dystopia.

As I said, belief in progress means belief in success; not, I mean, in small things – even a dyed-in-the-wool progressive will not believe that his football team is under an obligation of everlasting victory – but in one’s view of the purpose and tendency of human society. This means that it is not only difficult, but literally impossible, logically impossible, to locate an ideological centre to the belief in progress. Those who identify it with Socialism, Communism, Marxism, Gramsci, are plainly wrong; doubly wrong if they realize that the likes of Hitler, Mussolini, or the KKK president Woodrow Wilson also regarded themselves as “progressive” – and therefore conclude that they, too, must have been socialists.

Progressive politics means valuing as morally good that which seems to you to be prevailing in your time. Indeed, it is usually behind the times, because the progressive mentality tends to be formed in youth. Hitler grew up in a time when the growth of Germany to world power, in fact to proto-superpower, dominated the landscape; his “progressive” politics therefore involved the everlasting growth of Germany and at the same time the purification of its essence into an “Aryan” super-Germany – since the “Aryan” barbarians who had settled from Spain to India in the centuries before Jesus Christ were to his mind the first image of this inevitably conquering nation/race. Likewise, Woodrow Wilson grew in a world where the white race not only dominated but expanded across the globe at vertiginous speed, building cities out of nowhere in the Americas, in Africa, in Australia; and he took this to be progress and to be morally right and doomed to last. The rise of the socialist and trades unionist movements across Europe and the European West during the nineteenth century was another apparently unstoppable and inevitable development; and so it was that many progressive minds attached themselves to these movements. The join between socialism and progressive politics is no more inevitable than that between racism and progressive politics. The only essential matter is the short-circuit between success and moral value; and the thing to remember is that progressive politics inevitably involve a claim on the future, and the belief that anyone who works against them works against the future.

It cannot be irrelevant that the Nazi version of progressivism has been reborn in American popular culture; we must a priori suppose that it reflects real, living and effective features of American culture. And our analysis has led us inevitably to connect the Marvel mutant ideology with one definite area of political views, and one alone. To argue that the mutant ideology had anything to do with conservatism, or even with libertarianism, would be ridiculous. To connect it with neoconservatism, barely better. No: the thing which hates small-town and suburban America, which regards the movie Deliverance as a kind of documentary, which reacts with horror, even more than with hatred, when it loses an election, which is calmly and even politely convinced that its adversaries are “fascists” and that if they win they will sooner or later get going with the death camps, which regards political power as something due to it on account of its “progressive” views, and which, when it loses a poll, blames not itself but the ignorant, ill-informed public – we all know which group we are talking about. It is the group now in power; and which, speaking personally, struck me as extraordinarily unpleasant, fraudulent in the struggle and odious in victory, when the great historical triumph was scored. The authors of the musical Cabaret made a ludicrous botch of trying to invent a German patriotic anthem suitable to be sung by a handsome young Nazi; their sorry list of “German” clichés only shows that they were not really suited to understand what was going on in Germany in the 1930s. One thing, however, they did get right: a single line - tomorrow belongs to me. This is the progressive claim down the centuries, and the sentence that came naturally to me when I was contemplating the sorry effects of Obama’s victory on his less well-advised followers.
Tags: american politics, chris claremont, culture history, history, progressive politics, progressivism, x-men
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