Superheroes for the Empire

UpdateThis piece, originally titled “Holy unwashed masses, Batman!”: The anti-populist, elitist message of “justice” in 3 superhero films from 2012, was included in the March-April 2014 issue of Against the Current #169, a socialist, feminist, and anti-racist organization.

“I had hoped that the…moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.” –Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter From A Birmingham Jail”

“Peace is not the absence of conflict but the presence of justice.” –President James Marshall, Air Force One

Ever since Captain America punched-out Hitler during WWII, superhero texts promise the fantasy of invincibility and moral certitude. This promise has been particularly appealing given the last several decades of American global dominance, during which time, our empire’s actions as unchallenged global master have produced tremendous violence abroad and inequality at home. Consequently, our pop culture works to palliate the feeling that “we might not be the good guys.” Ideological messages are best received when they don’t seem to exist at all, and superhero films, with their fantastic subject matter and aimed primarily at young audiences, are particularly effective at concealing their ideology. You’re not being asked to believe anything “political,” you’re just asked to believe a man can fly.

captain-america_hitlerSuperhero movies represent a particular kind of American wish-fulfillment, unleashing our id and assuaging our fears.  Some reviewers and film theorists made the connection that much of Spider-Man’s (Sam Raimi, 2002) enthusiastic reception had to do with its telling a New York superhero story the summer after 9/11. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008) was widely read as an allegory for the Bush administration—an ethically just hero who extraordinarily renders, beats up prisoners, and warrantlessly surveils in order to protect his city from the ticking time bomb scenario that is endlessly invoked in real life to justify all manner of horrors. Both Raimi’s Spider-Man franchise and Nolan’s Dark Knight series deal with contemporary anxieties and reified Manichaean ideas of Good vs. Evil, but the War on Terror parallels in Dark Knight were obvious to many, while “very few critics picked up on [Spider-Man’s] symbolic resonance.”

The different ways audiences received both film’s messages illustrates how much more effectively ideology is communicated when it’s invisible. Similarly, three superhero films were released in 2012 with anti-populist messages; one was overt, two communicated that message insidiously. Of The Dark Knight Rises (Nolan, 2012), The Amazing Spider-Man (Mark Webb, 2012), and Chronicle (Josh Trank, 2012), only the former was singled out for what was called its anti-Occupy message. In the third act of Rises, the villain Bane unleashes popular outrage against the status quo using the language of economic justice. Over the course of a brief montage, things go very French-Revolution very quickly in Gotham City. Nolan implied that the existing order is maintained—tenuously—for the good of society, and it’s elite plutocrats like Bruce Wayne who do the onerous task of upholding the status quo. If the authorities loosen their grip, it’s only a matter of time before the commoners break out the guillotines. The message was so widely received that Nolan assured viewers that the film “wasn’t political”; as though such a thing could ever be possible.

After attacking Wall Street, Bane unleashes the city's underclass, who ransack the Upper East Side.

After attacking Wall Street, Bane unleashes the city’s underclass, who ransack the Upper East Side. Kangaroo courts to punish the wealthy come next.

No one asked similar questions of Mark Webb or Josh Trank. Their films eschewed overt, politically resonant imagery like the roving underclass mobs of Rises. Where Nolan’s hero was a billionaire ninja, Webb and Trank’s heroes were teenage everymen. The villains in Spider-Man and Chronicle, though, are both motivated by a desire to stop greater criminality. The law being enforced out by the heroes of Spider-Man and Chronicle is the sort of justice that protects the powerful against accountability from the masses they exploit. In 2012, the same year these three films came out, voters handed a second electoral mandate to a popular Democratic president whose first term articulated a clear vision of elite impunity. In his first term, Obama made good on the Democratic embrace of elite lawlessness from the 2008 campaign trail, rendering bipartisan the idea that law is something applied to commoners, not oligarchs. Where Dark Knight Rises evoked the dangers of too little authority in a blunt, obvious way, Spider-Man and Chronicle evinced these ideas much more effectively, masking the ideological underpinnings under their gee-whiz spectacle. With the deceptive oratorical finesse of Obama himself, these films offer audiences an elite, authoritarian conception of order where justice exists to protect the powerful from the exploited. Continue reading

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Women lose and patriarchy wins when we ask “who’s more sexist?”

Check out these two pieces, and see if anything jumps out at you. The first, from Al Jazeera, is titled “Chronic Violence against European women” (3/15/14).

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In early March the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) published a startling new study about violence against women in the European Union. Results show that abuse is pandemic: 62 million women, or one in three, have suffered from violent acts since the age of 15. It is clear that European women continue to endure high levels of violence.

Morten Kjaerum, director of FRA, said of the results: “Violence against women, and specifically gender-based violence that disproportionately affects women, is an extensive human rights abuse that the EU cannot afford to overlook.”

Findings confirm Kjaerum’s conclusions. According to the investigation, 55 percent of women have been sexually harassed and 18 percent have been stalked and 43 percent have faced psychological abuse. One in 10 has experienced sexual violence; one in 20 has been raped and 8 percent of women have been abused in the last 12 months. Of all the age groups polled, young women were found to be particularly vulnerable to violent acts. [Emphasis added]

Europe, like everywhere else on Earth, has a serious problem with violence against women. “Abuse is pandemic”… “high levels of violence” constitute “an extensive human rights abuse.”

Usually, reporting on sexism looks more like this–or, not so much like this, because this looks like an Onion headline:

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The latter, from NPR’s Parallels blog, (“Which place is more sexist: the Middle East or Latin America?” 3/16/14) is probably what American readers are more accustomed to seeing. Forget patriarchy’s global war on women, let’s talk Burqas vs. Bikinis. After you’ve scraped your mind off the back wall WHERE NPR JUST BLEW IT by contrasting women who are like, super covered-up to women who are totally naked (makes u think), we can parse the true nature of sexism: a struggle situated in the global south, embodied by the duality of sexually repressed Muslims against lusty Latinos. A yin-yang of nonwhite sexist depravity.

One of the most interesting things about analyzing media is how much coverage of other countries says about us. For instance, we celebrate other countries’s dissidents to tell ourselves we value their principles, no matter how transparently false that is. Our favorite way of embedding our own exceptionalism is to highlight crimes in other countries as a way to erase those crimes when they happen here. If the perpetrators are non-white, then racism and colonialism will get mixed in to implicate entire groups, and absolve us. Though the contrast between these two pieces is stark, the NPR post is typical of the way we talk about gendered violence.

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“Lone Survivor” is a passion play for America’s civic religion

Lone Survivor, Peter Berg’s film about the doomed 2005 Navy SEAL mission Operation Red Wings, was a pop-cultural phenomenon. The film made $100 million in less than two weeks of release, and Glenn Beck’s website The Blaze posted a picture of a theater in Texas that had cancelled screenings of other films due to the popularity of Lone Survivor. The film’s reception by eggheaded Coastal Elites was more mixed, but critical reviewers were nearly unanimous in drawing comparisons to Mel Gibson’s 2004 megahit The Passion of the Christ. The comparison was made so often that in a piece titled “5 reasons the Left is hating Lone Survivor,” one exasperated Patriot said “enough with the The Passion of the Christ references already…nearly every negative review of Lone Survivor brings up Gibson’s epic.”

The similarities between both films are deeper than just the onscreen violence, though. The comparison is ubiquitous partially because so few films are so devoted to visiting excruciating violence on their heroes and gazing on it in such detail. However, the film’s reception and the cultural space it occupies are totally different than in the cases of other violent films. Lone Survivor and The Passion share more in common than just violence: both are martyrdom narratives. Lone Survivor is received and defended with the same vehemence as a movie like Gibson’s crucifixion epic because the military occupies a quasi-religious space in the American national imagination.

Lone Survivor opens with a credit sequence over real footage of BUD/S training, and takes about half an hour before the discovery of the four-man SEAL team deep in hostile territory that precipitates the film’s brutal battle sequence. During the SEALs’ fight for survival, the four are shot with Kalashnikovs, blasted by rocket-propelled grenades, repeatedly forced to leap off cliffs, and endure bodily harm that most people can’t fathom. The sequence and the real-life events it recalls are meant to impress upon the audience valor, sacrifice, and great physical courage (It’s also meant to recall the event that precipitated America’s posture of endless war. Berg has told interviewers “The cliff jumps were reminiscent of September 11, jumping out of the towers.”).

However, Lone Survivor isn’t unique in its depiction of graphic violence. Plenty of films—12 Years a Slave, for instance—depict gruesome, durational violence. 2013’s Academy Award winner for best picture is undoubtedly brutal. The violence includes a group lynching, rape, a long sequence in which the main character must stand atop his toes to avoid being hanged, and an even longer sequence in which the slave Patsey has the flesh whipped off her back. It’s “visceral, graphic, [unrelenting,] and so very, very bloody.” However, neither 12 Years a Slave nor any other movie in memory has earned all these comparisons to The Passion.

Lone Survivor shares with The Passion a unique symbolic resonance, not just a visual one. The violence in Mel Gibson’s pre-Vatican II opus is the violence of religious martyrdom. The signifiers of Christ’s martyrdom are unique—the crown of thorns, the Via Dolorosa, the crucifixion—but the narrative is universal. In Shi’a Islam, for instance, the martyrdom of Imam Ali commemorated during the Holy Day of Ashura has its own vocabulary but shares the same tropes. Ali and his retinue chose to face an insurmountable force, were brutalized and martyred, and in death provide us an example for how best to live. Lone Survivor resonates because it tells a secular martyrdom story beatifying the sacrifice of its military heroes. Continue reading

Film Review: “Trucker and The Fox”

I learned about the nobility of donkeys from Lawrence Wright discussing his book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. Covering a group as famously prickly and totalitarian as Scientology poses unique narrative challenges, involving the reader’s sense identification with the story. A reader won’t be engaged if they can’t empathize with any of the participants–they must to be able to see themselves getting swept up with the Church of Scientology if the book is to have any weight. Wright told the audience that he solved this problem in 2011 with the defection of filmmaker Paul Haggis. Scientology had for decades been a great white (litigious) whale of journalism, but now he had a chance to tell the story because Wright had found his “donkey.” To the snickering audience, Wright said “I don’t mean any disrespect, the donkey is a noble animal. The donkey carries a heavy load, like my donkey carries the reader through the story.” The donkey gets a bad rap given how it’s provided us reliable, unpretentious service for 5,000 years. People get frustrated with updates to the iPhone OS, but its name has never becomes synonymous with “dumb.” It was a joy, then, to see this film’s eponymous trucker, Mahmood Kiyani Falavarjani, defend the noble donkey. Arash Lahooti’s 2013 film Trucker and the Fox is full of moments like this, part of an incredible true story of an animal-loving long-hauler. Continue reading

“A new world conflict,” realized: an Israeli war crime and the road to 9/11

In a review of John Judis’s new book, Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict, Jesse Singal of the Boston Globe writes that President Truman feared that backing Israel might involve the United States in “a new world conflict.” Philip Weiss over at Mondoweiss picked up on this detail and added:

I especially love this piece because it invites a discussion of all the damage that the special relationship has helped to foster, from the killing of Robert Kennedy to the attack on the USS Liberty to Scott McConnell’s view that Israel has exported its Islamophobia to us, to Trita Parsi’s report that “radical Islam” was something the Israelis began promoting in the 1990s as the “new glue” to keep the US and Israel bonded after the end of the Cold War.

Weiss is right that Americans should discuss what damage has been incurred by unwavering support of Israel. The “special relationship” is one that no other countries enjoy, a relationship in which a client state dictates terms to its Imperial benefactor. Back when he enjoyed American demi-god status, even David Petraeus said that “hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests” in the region, and that “[t]he conflict foments anti-American sentiment.” However, Weiss forgot the most stark example of blowback from the special relationship in American history: how an integral member of the 9/11 attack was motivated by an Israeli massacre.

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