Sunday, May 3, 2009

Vigilantism in our politics, or: Mr. Smith suiting up?

It appears that ordinary citizens are declaring themselves superheroes--you know, masked vigilantes, citizen crimefighters, protectors of the innocent--in several American cities. Highest-profile is Shadow Hare from Cincinnati.

The linked article makes lots of fun of everyone involved, and I understand perfectly well why (not to mention it's from the UK Daily Mail). But I can't bring myself to just laugh outright. Maybe I've spent too much time with alternative comic books that investigate what superheroes signify, and with novels about comic books and superheroes, to take them unseriously. I've read far more in the metaliterature about superheroes (Watchmen, Kavalier & Clay, even Sandman to a degree) than I ever have in the actual superhero canon, and so when I think superheroes I really don't think flat (yet muscular!) characters in silly suits with unlikely adversaries and bad onomatopoeia for sound effects. I immediately think about mythology, cultural signifiers, narratives of good and evil, and perceptions of "the times we live in."

Along with that goes a certain affection for the notion of people who just decide "screw it, I'm dressing up and going out there." I'm not saying that such people, fictional or otherwise, are the sanest or best-adjusted; nor am I saying there is nothing laughable about them. But they do mean well in a much purer and easier sense, I think, than many other people who otherwise are similar. (Certainly they do in fictional cases.)

At any rate, via the video in the article it seems many of these people hang out at The World Superhero Registry, which has some rather forbidding language on its front page:

This website deals with the actual incorporation of the superhero archetype into daily life. As a consequence of the complex and ever-changing nature of the legal system and the diverse and unusual activities that may be involved in such alternative lifestyles, some of the activities described herein may be in conflict with local laws in some areas. None of the creators of this web page specifically condone any of the described activities or the possession of any of the equipment related to those activities. We are not legal experts and lack the expertise and resources to research the legality of any of the practices of our members, or visitors.

This does make one worry for their good intentions. (This is, of course, one of the eternal superhero dilemmas: don't we have laws for a reason? How can you be sure that your forces for good, once unleashed, will stay good? And what if there are disagreements about the good? But I digress.) I have no idea whether my reproducing content from the website would count as the sort of thing for which they require permission, as I am not a member of the press, but I'll avoid direct quotes.

I am fascinated by the Registry. There are three immediate requirements: costume (signifies dedication), heroic deeds (above and beyond your average concerned citizen), and motivation (personal, uncompensated, and spontaneous). The website has things you'd probably consider essential: tutorials, a forum, a map of superheroes around the world, and a place to request assistance. But there are also book and movie reviews, a photo gallery of self-made "gadgets", a support forum, a press kit, and a philosophy section. It is, in short, an online community not unlike special-interest websites that have been started before; it is actually eerily reminiscent of Glenn Beck's 9/12 project.

The similarity is no accident: I think there are some broad connections to be made between our politics and superhero fetishism and/or vigilantism (the two overlap but are not identical).

Firstly, I think the level of superhero activity--real and imagined--in this country at a given time is probably rather analogous to "right track/wrong track" polling: the U.S. is in a bit of a ditch at the moment and people feel the need to do something about it. Happily, not everybody expresses this impulse in the manner of Timothy McVeigh. Sure enough, the superhero map shows the highest concentration of superheroes in North America (by which I mean almost exclusively the U.S.), followed by South America, perhaps one guy in Finland, and a few in the UK. (Some of these people are clearly funning, but shhh. Some of them definitely are not, particularly in the U.S.)

Superhero mythology lends itself particularly well to clear-cut battles between good and evil (or at least the desire for such in the face of more difficult troubles), and particularly in the case of the Batman/Gotham storyline can be seen to be reflective of a notion of a tide of societal evils, venality and disintegration battering at the weakening bastions of order, justice, and virtue. I find it interesting that as far as I can tell, The Registry's superheroes are not interested in fighting terror--they want to improve the lives of the people around them. They want to improve their neighborhoods and (of course) themselves. The struggle here is not abroad, not Us (whoever We are) against The World, but Us against Ourselves.

One of the other major tropes of superheroics is, of course, transformation. Whether there is a paramount transformative moment (Peter Parker being bitten by the spider; the creation of Dr. Manhattan) or an everyday transformation (Bruce Wayne into Batman), or even a more essential transformation through which one discovers one's true nature as a mutant (X-men) or an alien (Superman), at some point the hero crosses a line from ordinary citizen to extraordinary activist. We are currently in a moment of intense economic upheaval; more than that, we are undergoing a profound national political unmooring in terms of conventional policy wisdom as well as our national self-definition on some key issues (torture, a social safety net, gay marriage, legalized marijuana). The increasing chasm between conservatives' and their opponents' views of what is currently happening in this country and what it may mean illustrates how much we are in free fall. We have found ourselves at what feels like an inflection point, and it seems necessary to redefine or at least investigate what it means to be an American as well as what it means to be a citizen of a democracy that has gotten so big, so delocalized, and so distant from its government. I give you Jim Manzi:

Suppose we had a 9/11-level attack with 3,000 casualties per year every year. Each person reading this would face a probability of death from this source of about 0.001% each year. A Republic demands courage – not foolhardy and unsustainable “principle at all costs”, but reasoned courage – from its citizens. The American response should be to find some other solution to this problem if the casualty rate is unacceptable. To demand that the government “keep us safe” by doing things out of our sight that we have refused to do in much more serious situations so that we can avoid such a risk is weak and pathetic. It is the demand of spoiled children, or the cosseted residents of the imperial city. In the actual situation we face, to demand that our government waterboard detainees in dark cells is cowardice.

On its face, this passage is about waterboarding and about torture, but it is also very much about American notions of citizenship and representative government. Notice the distinction so easily and, it seems, unthinkingly drawn between a Republic, which makes demands on its citizens, and an imperial city (no capitalizations), which cossets its residents. In that contrast alone are notions of environment, borders, locality, global standing, and the relationship between a state and its constituents. These are the sorts of questions we are grappling with.

Many of the Registered Superheroes may have suffered their own economic dislocation. Some of them may be social conservatives who think the entire country is on the brink of sliding into the political, economic, and cultural sea. Some of them may be people who have been dissatisfied for a long time and have been hoped and changed and grassrootsed enough to try to go on and do something about it. Indeed, the relationship between ordinary and extraordinary persons and their ordinary and extraordinary acts is an essential one in American politics: activists try to convince people (in oddly Catholic fashion) that they, the ordinary, by good works can be transformed into the extraordinary, while politicians allow them a Protestant claim of grace newly discovered (did I mention that we are the ones we've been waiting for?). Watchmen vs. X-men, one might say. Similarly, American exceptionalism and certain forms of cultural nationalism on the right exult in the sheer ordinariness of certain tropes as signifiers of an exceptional nature--it is through ordinariness, and its inherent virtue, that we are transformed. Some of our most beloved political bedtime stories, such as Mr. Smith's much-vaunted trip to Washington, can be easily seen as a sort of whitewashed form of vigilantism in which everyone is a winner.

Despite all of this complicated hot air, some of these superheroes are definitely 11-year-old boys. Not everyone thinks in these terms, nor should they (if you think the economy is bad now, hoo boy do I have a doomsday scenario for you). But I do believe in zeitgeist and in discourses, and these currents are in the air.

What I want to know is, have phenomena like this arisen at every moment of national freefall? Is this happening now because a national movement like the Civil Rights movement or the anti-war movement of the 1960s and '70s is so deeply absent? Did this work remotely similarly before the internet, and if not, how essential is the reinforcing presence of colleagues in crimefighting? How analogous is this to other, more sinister forms of vigilantism? How does it relate to acts of domestic terrorism like the uber-conservative attacks on liberal churches and groups we saw a few months ago? Are these different responses to the same broad stimuli (with different triggers, clearly)? Is the difference in degree, kind, or both? What's the explanation for the apparent concentration of registered avengers in the eastern half of the country (in an unexpected twist, they are evenly distributed between North and South)? Finally, I think this could make a brilliant case study for some of the conservative critiques of the delocalizing, isolating, and concentrating effects of communications technology on culture (such as can be found at Front Porch Republic). What can I say, I love giving out free tips.

On a less political note (I can't help myself): I'm fascinated that the press's gentle mocking of these gentlefolk seems to center around their lack of physical impressiveness. I don't think even those commenting on the superheroes realize that their criticisms are precisely based in the superhero mythology they find so ludicrous. One would think that in this age of technological advancement we would find it less necessary to have someone's moral strength be so concretely represented in his or her physicality, but I suppose our culture is still plenty body-obsessed--perhaps particularly at a moment of disorientation and dislocation. (Plus, they don't quite have the gadget gallery up to Stephen Hawking's level.)

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