Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Allusions, allegories and Huey Long in "X-Men: First Class"

By: Mike Reiff
As much as the initial three X-Men films, and especially X2, are evidence of Bryan Singer wrestling with issues facing gay and lesbians in our society (familial, social, governmental) it seems to me that a different “issue” is at hand in the Singer-produced but Matthew Vaughn helmed X-Men: First Class. By de-emphasizing the younger students and their adolescent identity struggles, fertile grounds for previous sexual and gender issues, and re-emphasizing the philosophical and ethical clash between Erik Lehnsherr (Magneto) and Charles Xavier (Professor X), Vaughn, it seems, is embracing a different, and more chronologically precise, social issue: black civil rights, specifically in the context of the Black Panther movement.
While the film doesn’t explicitly reference this movement, it does time the correlation of events well. As much as the film dwells on the advent of nuclear adventurism in the developed world in the 1960’s, this is also historically the initial years when the Black Panther political party was being formed (First Class of course takes place around 1962, while the Panthers were fully formed in 1966, but obviously black nationalism philosophy was evolving and developing far before the specific party’s iteration). And as much as the film may meditate on the way in which we treat, handle and exploit possibly dangerous new entities (nuclear weapons / weaponized people) it dwells even deeper, more astutely, and more clearly on the way a group protects its own.
In the same way that Black Panther party founders Huey Newtown and Bobby Seale initially established their movement to protect African Americans from real or perceived police harassment and brutality in the 1960s through political and philosophical means, we see Charles and to a lesser extent Erik acting in the same way in the beginning of the film. The two men work to protect their younger brethren from the harsh world surrounding them. In the same way that the Panthers attempted initially to engage with the government to better their situation, we see Charles and Erik working with the C.I.A. to both protect and legitimize their existence.
Of course, by 1968, as one of the founding members, Long, was jailed for murder (a charge initially denied but later embraced), the latent militarism became far more virulent and pronounced in the Black Panther movement, in the wake of perceived white American unfairness and conspiracy. In that same vein, we see Erik become far more militant throughout First Class, finally becoming the creature humans most feared when confronted with his own perception of human genocidal conspiracy, as much as the Panther movement briefly validated fears of Black militarism in the late 1960’s. Throughout the film Erik espouses, albeit quietly and over chess games, this violent methodology, while sporting the sartorial iconography of the Panther’s movement (black turtlenecks and berets; later, once convinced of his righteousness, Mystique also wears iconic Panther garb, notably the double-breasted black leather jacket, ubiquitous in Panther fashion.) By the end of First Class, “Magneto” has not only thrown off the shackles of moderation and peace, has not only denied his given name, but also becomes both a validation of Xavier’s worst fears, as well as the creature he, Magento, once most despised – a despot believing in racial superiority and genocidal methods. It could be argued that at its most violent nadir, the Panthers allowed themselves to become the same paradoxical enterprise.
Towards the end of the film, when Charles and Erik play chess by a crackling fire, they debate the merits of violent action vs. tolerant dialogue. It’s the perfect way to foreshadow the climax of the film. It is also a possible reflection of a debate that could have taken place within the Panther movement, between MLK Jr. and Malcolm X, between Cicero and Caesar. As much as First Class may act as a specifically good allegory for the Black Panther movement – due to its narrative / historic alignment with the actual movement, its aesthetics and its philosophical discussions – the film also lives in the tradition of the power of X-Men, and great comic heroes and villains in general. Through First Class, Vaughn is able to use these characters to achieve fresh perspective on an old meditation, and not simply the moral validity or criminality of the Panther movement, or the Civil Rights movement at large, but also the tension between violence and peace within the context of productive change and the protection of minorities. That the X-Men could provide such fertile allegorical ground for two distinct sets of groups within a decade of cinema is a testament to its lasting intellectual relevance.
Now if only Clint Eastwood would direct the The Dark Knight Returns and make it an allegory about ageism in Hollywood…

Monday, October 31, 2011

Everyone should read this article:

In reading it, I was thinking about a common argument that Bank Defenders (those brave souls) have been making--namely, that the Too Big To Fail Crowd hasn't really been doing anything illegal (I'll accept that for the sake of argument, but let me just titter madly over it for a moment), they've just been taking advantage of perfectly licit loopholes and such. Loopholes that allow little things like this:

"When GM bought the finance company AmeriCredit, it was able to marry its long-term losses to AmeriCredit's revenue stream, creating a tax windfall worth as much as $5 billion. So even though AmeriCredit is expected to post earnings of $8-$12 billion in the next decade or so, it likely won't pay any taxes during that time, because its revenue will be offset by GM's losses."

How nice for them.  I'm sure that little maneuver was the result of months of very careful planning in boardrooms and on conference calls, designed to game the system in the most litigation-sheltered manner possible.

Great.  Those are the rules; these golden boys know how to play the game.  And yeah, I know it sucks to have the rules changed in the middle of a game.  No one likes that.  I can almost feel sorry for the MBA-toting geniuses who are contemplating a world where their tricks won't work anymore.

That's why it's only fair that we warn them.  "Start making new plans, friends.  Re-think your strategies.  That loophole is tightening closed. In a year, five, ten, you'll have to have a brand new outlook, a new way of doing things."  I pray that we have the balls to say this to them soon.

Friday, October 21, 2011

White whales and anchovies

I got into a flap with a friend yesterday on facebook.  I hope it wasn't a really serious fight; it's hard to tell across computer screens, but he hasn't replied to my apology, so I worry.  But I bring it up here because the misunderstanding has some interesting underpinnings, I think.

My friend had posted an earnest status update about not knowing where he'd be getting food for the next month or so, and I replied asking him if I could take him out to dinner when I'm in town in a few weeks.  Trying too hard to be clever, I added, "We can discuss the whole give a man a fish/teach a man to fish thing."

He replied, quite reasonably, that this statement was 'unnecessarily sanctimonious' of me.  I was appalled (at myself) that he'd taken it that way, but then I remembered that most people aren't privy to my thoughts until I articulate them, and of course it would seem as though I was scolding him for being shiftless or something.

It actually puked out of my word-hole mostly because I've been thinking about that whole axiom thanks to a couple of my LIS courses, and the ideas that underlie it, and I've come to the conclusion that it's bogus and, yes, sanctimonious.  That was the bit I didn't realize I hadn't conveyed, that I actually wanted to be guffawing about teaching people to fish, with my friend, over, like, foie gras or whatever.  I thought we might get a laugh out of the moralizing and whatnot.

Unfortunately, in the LIS world (that's library and information science, y'all), we're supposed to want to teach everyone to fish.  And that seems okay, on the surface.  People come to the library with an information request; they have no idea how to effectively search databases or whatnot; we teach them; next time they come in, they can do it for themselves--we've provided them with autonomy!  They're in control of their own educational destiny! They'll eat for life!  Woo teachable moments.

It occurred to me, though, that we've sort of built a society predicated on specializations aimed at efficiency.  I don't *want* to learn to fish.  That's what the Gorton's guy is there for.  He fishes; I study library science.  And it goes both ways.  I will be a librarian due to a combination of factors including interests, aptitudes, and lack of other better options.  People with their own interests, aptitudes, and lack of other options will come to me for their information needs.  I'm supposed to make them do my job?  I'm supposed to ignore the autonomy they've exercised in choosing, for whichever one among the many constellations of reasons, not to become a librarian?  No, sir.  I'm there to fish up their information.  Then they go use it, to write a paper or a play or win a bet or cakewalk up the esprit d'escalier or whatever.

If they *want* to learn how to use Lexis Nexis? Of course I'll be happy to teach them.  That is information I can provide, if it's part of the information they want.  If not, I'm not going to disrespect them to the extent of deciding what would be best for them.

I can see the ethic behind the opposite argument, really I can.  I suppose it is a good thing, in a utopia, for everyone to be self-sufficient in every way.  But there's no moral or civil law requiring us to be so.  Indeed, it's a pretty conservative, every-man-for-himself attitude, to suggest that we all must take care of ourselves, always.  I prefer to think that those who can serve ought to, so that the other guy can go fishing.  Anchovies or white whales, whatever rocks his boat; we'll all come out ahead in the end.

So, LC, I hope that you're not mad, and that I can still take you out to dinner.


Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The false political divide: preservation vs. innovation

The origin of this post, and of this blog generally, predates the terrible events in Tuscon.

The shooting that day was the result of a fateful confluence of mental illness, distrust in government, and the prevalence of ever more heated political rhetoric.  I find it hard to blame Jared Lee Loughner for his murderous actions, so much does he present the appearance of a lost soul, afflicted and desperate.

Nor is it helpful to join the chorus of blame that has risen against a certain sometime-politician of high ambition and certainly questionable judgment in supporting imagery.  She’ll just end up using the criticism as grist for her mill.  I can picture her smirking interviews in the coming weeks: "Lookit thye laayyymestreeem mee-dya blaymin' me fur this shuutin'.  Thye lyast thying I kyilled in Ayrizoohna was JAHN MAH-CAYN'S prizzidinchal aspuh-rayyyshuns!"
And she’s not wrong.  I loathe her fanning of the flames, but right now we cannot say to what extent, if any, her words (her ‘grammar’ or ‘currency’ perhaps) drove Jared Lee Loughner to pick up his gun, to load it, to fire into the crowd.  The larger issue, into which that Alaska politician plays but for which she is not solely culpable, is the great and widening divide in American politics.
Much has been written about that divide, about senators back in the ‘50s sharing a box of cigars and a piece of legislation but not necessarily a political party or ideology.  And none of the discussion has really explained satisfactorily why this has broken down, why we’re so divided.  “Issues are more extreme.”  Well, no, issues aren’t any more or less extreme, in and of themselves; reactions are, and that gets no closer to explaining why.  “The media is creating a narrative of division to feed ratings.”  Maybe so, but would so many lawmakers be playing into that narrative if it weren’t in their hearts already?

It’s instructive sometimes to reduce complexities to their fundamental ideas to get a better idea of how they relate to each other.  Conservatism and liberalism are many things, but down near the base they correspond to preservation versus innovation.  Now, no one person or political body should be all about the one or the other, but the trouble is that the extreme rhetoric tries to trick us into making just that choice. For conservatives, it’s all about preserving and reclaiming an idealized past.   Liberals, meanwhile, are supposed to be constantly out to re-invent the wheel, resulting in over-complication and invasion of privacy.  So says the rhetoric.  We are presented with easy categories, so we slot our politicians—complex, flawed, interesting individuals—into these categories.

Troublingly, they seem content to do the same to themselves.  They develop their personae.  They strive to check off the box next to each point on the litmus test designed to make a picture of a modern major-general.  Or I should say, of a perfect  conservative or liberal pol.

Preservation versus innovation—conservatism versus liberalism.  We’re told, in words and actions, to pick one or the other.  But how can we let ourselves get tricked into accepting this false dichotomy?  In my own experience, I’m a very strong liberal, politically; but in my personal life, I’m a preserver—I want to nail down every last scrap of movie ticket stub paper under glass in a museum devoted to my past.  So, in a sense, I’m conservative.  I don’t want to let go of things.  That’s okay.  The thing is, I see how to marry innovation—liberalism—with my conservative bent.  Mainly with the computer.  I scan pictures and documents, type old journals up with a word processor, and organize everything into folders and subfolders.  (The best synthesis of conservative and liberal values, I think, can be found in the local libraries and historical societies, following the same set of principles of innovation in preservation as I’ve found.)

I think political conservatives are into preservation, and that’s great, but they don’t innovate new ways for us to access our valuable political and social heritage—that is, the central tenets of the Declaration and Constitution.  They say that they simply Are, and must be protected.  Whereas I would say, they are there, but things are constantly changing, and we need to bring those values along with us.  Life, Liberty and Happiness are great, but we have to get that this isn’t 1776, that there isn’t a village woman who’s good with herbs who’ll bring down your kid’s fever in exchange for meals while she’s working, and the fancy university-trained doctors won’t exchange surgery for your prize bull anymore.

In order for our historic promise to be fulfilled, we must design and implement ways of providing the means to pursue that fulfillment, to provide as level a playing field as possible; that means insurance, that means social programs.  The hate on ‘big government’ that has poured out from the right, and which seems to underlie Mr. Loughner’s psychosis, is baseless and illogical, the inbred philosophical descendent of a time when the US was very nearly a confederate of independent nation-states.   It is this ‘big government’ debate the fuels the tectonics of drifting unity. We’ve come a long way since federalists and anti-federalists, though, evolved new definitions of State and Union.  Barney Frank put it extremely well—“Government is nothing more than the name we give to the things we choose to do together.”    Government doesn’t stalk our dreams, Mr. Loughner, or unplug Grandma, or look for ways to skin the millionaires.  It’s us.  It’s just us, together.