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The Politics of the Superhero

I haven’t seen The Incredibles yet, but after watching the trailer online I intend to. Even without seeing the movie I find some of the commentary about it a bit strange.

Suzy Hansen and Sheelah Kolhatkar wrote a piece about who’s saying what for the New York Observer.

The first hit of the Bush II years, The Incredibles pulled in $70.5 million in its first few days. The movie is about a family of superheroes forced by the government to go into a superhero-relocation program, suppress their awesome powers and hide out in the beaten-down, charmless miseries of suburbia—among tract homes, leftovers, cubicles, commutes, and dreary elementary-school commencement ceremonies in which every kid is celebrated for being “special.”

Eventually, of course, the superheroes—up against it in a dangerous world—release their superpowers, break free of Anytown, U.S.A., and explode with enough personal initiative to make The Fountainhead look like a bedtime story. They’re superheroes! The film is inspirational, a hopeful jolt for anyone feeling like they’ve buried their own superpowers, like they’re losing in this big, crushing society. But the funny thing is that even though the film’s primary target seems to be suppressed America and its credo pure libertarian, among the joyful recipients of its message are New Yorkers—and all blue staters—who, God knows, feel like losers these days.

But it’s hard not to be suspicious of the winners. Any winners, for that matter, and that includes The Incredibles. While The Incredibles’ battle against conformity and mediocrity screams anti-oppression to some, it’s obviously Randian to others. In that sense, the film is being touted as the latest proof that, on top of everything else , the right wing has even wit and creativity on its side these days: This is a world turned upside-down!

Whoa. Superheroes are right-wing? Anytown USA, conformity, and charmless suburbia are left-wing? Really? When did that shit start? The sixties really are over if that’s how it is.

The article quotes everyone’s favorite bitch-slap boy Ted Rall.

It’s kind of ironic that superheroes now have these fascist, right-wing connotations.

Now I really can’t wait to see the movie. I’m dying to see how Mr. Incredible and the supercool black dude (he makes instant ice) make knee-jerk leftists think of Hitler. I’m gonna need a large popcorn for this one.

But there’s this:

Is it simply that, after four years of being beaten up with good-versus-evil rhetoric and post-9/11 fear, somehow all superheroes seem vaguely Republican to us?

I have never, ever, not once in my life, thought of superheroes as Republicans. Although I guess I can sort of see it now. John Kerry wanted to do many things in office, but saving the world wasn’t one of them. I always thought it was liberals who wanted to save the world, not Texas Republicans, but alas and alack it’s a bizarro world as they say.

I’m not making fun of the article. It’s really quite interesting. The authors note how Superman was a liberal in the Roosevelt mold, how Batman could be construed as a centrist, how a liberal superhero would never be chased into Canada by a Republican president. The whole thing is worth reading.

And check out what The Nation had to say about it.

Bird’s biggest achievement in The Incredibles is to have inflated family stereotypes to parade-balloon size. His failing is that, in so doing, he also confirmed these stereotypes, and worse. Helen mouths one or two semi-feminist wisecracks but readily gives up her career for a house and kids; women are like that. Bob’s buddy Frozone, the main nonwhite character in the movie, can instantly create ice; black people are cool. The superheroes are in hiding because greedy trial lawyers sued them into retirement; and, while concealed, they chafe at their confinement, like Ayn Rand railing against enforced mediocrity. The family is the foundation of our society. Freedom is on the march.

I can see the point (assuming it holds up in the actual movie) about the stereotypes. But what, exactly, is the problem with showing the family as a foundation of society? It is at least one of the foundations, whether that family is nuclear (2.5 kids and all that), single-parent, double-lesbian, or whatever. What’s the complaint?

And what, pray tell, is wrong with freedom being “on the march”? Movies about superheroes who don’t rise above mediocrity and who take freedom away would make lame audience-pleasers. Here comes Super Nanny! She snatches smokes, censors cable, bleeps out bad words, and turns down the volume on stereos! No. Americans don’t pay money for that kind of superhero. If that makes us “right-wing” then, well, whatever.

More Advice

I’m sure most Democrats are sick to death already of the unasked-for post-election advice. They’ve had to put up with a lot of it. No doubt the tables would have been turned had the Republicans lost.

Still, conservatives could use a little post-election advice as well. I suggest starting here.

Voting coalitions are ruled by the least commited members. So the question to the cultural conservatives is: do you want 2004 to be the Republican high water mark or would you like to extend the string.

If the right-wing culture warriors get cocky (and some of them already have) they’ll rue the day. It’s real simple. Here’s why.

Did any of you remember Bush asking for the RINO vote in the last days of the campaign (“you may not agree with all my positions but I want your vote”)? So you going to throw them off the bus now that you have won? That is not nice. People remember.

Yep.

They Ain’t Studying War No More

The 1960s New Left thought “Ain’t gonna study war no more” was a good idea and a clever slogan. It was neither. It was a way of admitting in public that they were entering a phase of willful ignorance.

Bill Clinton won the 1992 election in part with a slogan that said “It’s the economy, stupid.” If he and his party said “Ain’t gonna study the economy no more” they would have gone nowhere.

I haven’t heard that silly 60s slogan in a while, but I see the effects of it constantly. Some intellectuals on the left (both pro- and anti-war) do take national security seriously. You’ll find them writing for publications like Dissent and The New Republic, but you won’t find them many other places.

So I’m happy to see that at least some people on the soft left understand this. Here is Kevin Drum at the Washington Monthly.

If Democrats are going to engage in navel gazing, our gaze really ought to be directed toward the one topic we continue to avoid like the plague: becoming more credible on national security. That’s where Kerry and the Dems lost the election. Like it or not — and I can almost hear the outrage brewing already in the comment section over the mere fact that I’m mentioning this — fighting terrorism is the major swing issue of the day, and perceived Democratic weakness toward terrorism is likely to remain our biggest electoral albatross for quite a while.

He then pointed to this article, published two years ago, by Heather Hurlburt. How refreshing it is to read an article like this from a member of the anti-war left.

Democrats are in this position precisely because we respond to matters of war politically, tactically. We worry about how to position ourselves so as not to look weak, rather than thinking through realistic, sensible Democratic principles on how and when to employ military force, and arguing particular cases, such as Iraq, from those principles. There are a lot of reasons for this failure, including the long-time split within the party between hawks and doves. But we will never resolve that split, nor regain credibility with voters on national security, until we learn to think straight about war. And we will never learn to think straight about war until this generation of professional Democrats overcomes its ignorance of and indifference to military affairs.

[...]

The reasons for this apathy aren’t hard to discern. Many Democrats who came of age during the Vietnam War retain a gut-level distrust of the military. Younger staffers, who may not carry the same psychological baggage, have few mentors urging them toward military or security issues. I speak from experience: My main qualification for my first Washington job–covering European security for Congress–was that I could locate the Warsaw Pact countries on a map and correctly identify the acronyms of the relevant international organizations.

But lack of expertise is only a symptom. The malady is an irresponsible lack of interest. The issues that drive most contemporary Democrats into politics are reproductive rights, health care, fiscal policy, or poverty, not national security. Even those young Democrats who are interested in foreign affairs tend to be drawn to “soft” subjects such as debt relief and human rights. Aspiring foreign policy wonks will often get pulled into military affairs by way of, say, their work on demining. But when these young people visualize exciting jobs in the next Democratic administration, they think State Department, not Pentagon.

[...]

After Vietnam, the old Cold War liberalism no longer seemed credible to the party’s core and to many of its leaders. Many Democratic officeholders and operatives responded by focusing on those foreign policy issues that they and their base were comfortable with, such as human rights and arms control, while others shied away from international policy altogether and focused on domestic issues. At the same time, most Democrats understood that a reputation for being “soft” on defense issues was a serious political liability. But instead of grappling with the substance of war and national security, Democrats began to approach their vulnerability as a problem of tactics and political positioning.

[...]

Without the White House, the Democrats had no institutional or organized way to think through national security issues. The Georgetown salons–like those Madeleine Albright held to nurture Democratic foreign policy in the dark days of the 1980s–had dissolved. And although plenty of Democrats populate foreign policy think tanks like the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Brookings Institution, such above-the-fray outfits are no match for aggressively conservative institutions like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute. The latter two are known today as the places where the current Bush hawks, formerly members of the Reagan and Bush I administrations, sharpened their critical knives during the 1990s. Unlike their mainstream equivalents, the national security programs at Heritage and AEI exist not so much to contribute ideas to the public square as to influence very specific policies and legislation on defense. Democrats have no equivalent. As Evelyn Farkas, a Democratic staffer for the Senate Armed Services Committee, puts it, “Part of the reason we don’t have a clear message on defense is that we don’t have a place where people argue and create one for us.”

[...]

Getting Democrats to take defense issues seriously will not be easy; it means changing the party’s basic mode of thinking. But it can be done. After all, it took less than a decade for Democrats to go from being the party of deficits to being the party more trusted for fiscal responsibility. This transformation happened because enough Democrats got tired of losing elections and did the hard work of crafting innovative and effective ideas in areas like crime and economic stewardship that the party had previously ceded to Republicans. National defense is perhaps the last big area where Democrats have not really done this. And in a time of war, it’s the one area where they can’t afford not to.

This is exactly right. It is possible to be some kind of anti-Bush lefty and write thoughtful books and articles about national security without being a backseat heckler who opposes but offers no alternate vision. Paul Berman has managed to do it. But he labors away in an inhospitable left-wing environment that hardly has any room for him. For someone like me who doesn’t have a lifetime’s worth of street cred in the lefty press, I’m all but forced to play in the right’s sandbox whether I like it or not. (But I don’t dislike it as much as I did, and that’s bad news for the Democrats. An entire genre of intellectuals like me exists and has a name — neoconservatives – because mine is all-too common a storyline.)

These kinds of problems are self-reinforcing. The fewer intellectuals there are on the left who study military history and strategy, the less likely any otherwise left-minded person who is interested in such things will want or be able to work with or for liberals and Democrats. What has been happening is a nation-wide brain-drain from the left to the right — at least in certain areas.

I have a sinking feeling things will remain this way in the future to the horizon. Come on, Dems. Prove me wrong, would you please?

UPDATE: Texan Thucydides weighs in:

Listening to neo-conservative voices is important for Democrats, because contrary to popular belief, these people used to be liberals. This constituency should be a natural member of the Democratic coalition. They believe in a moral foreign policy that is driven by values instead of cold, hard, Realism.These are the intellectual heirs to the Scoop Jackson Democrats. The reason they left the Democratic Party is because we lost credibility on foreign policy issues when we decided to embrace the Marxist worldview as our primary ordering principle in the late 1960′s. Should we bring them back into the fold, we’ll be a majority party once more.

And Totten is right, we can’t fake this. It can’t just be an electoral ploy, we need a whole new series of serious democratic think tanks, focused on influencing policy. We can start in the Senate, where we have serious Democratic politicians who will be receptive to serious ways of thinking on foreign policy. They just need to be willing to take a leadership role and stand up to the liberal establishment. After a thorough defeat at the polls, now’s the time.

News from the Rift

London’s Telegraph reports that the Spanish media are blasting Prime Minster José Luis Rodr“guez Zapatero as the anti-American asshat that he is.

The Spanish Socialist prime minister, José Luis Rodr“guez Zapatero, yesterday faced a barrage of derision over his government’s anti-Americanism following a snub by President George W Bush.

Mr Zapatero was one of the first premiers to send a congratulatory telegram to Mr Bush after his election victory last week.

But, in what was a stinging confirmation of the poor state of relations between Washington and Madrid, he has yet to receive a reply.

Mr Zapatero had also telephoned Mr Bush before the election result was made official but was not put through to the president.

Spain’s newspaper columnists, the opposition People’s Party and satirists have made much of the silence between Washington and Madrid.

Mr Zapatero wrote himself firmly into the White House’s black books by accusing Mr Bush and Tony Blair of lying over the reasons for going to war with Iraq.

In the summer he immediately honoured an election pledge to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq.

He then backed John Kerry in the presidential election and cancelled a standing invitation for US forces to participate in Spain’s annual military parade.

Anti-war policies may be popular with the public, but even supportive sections of the media have said that the prime minister’s anti-American stance had gone too far.

Most sectors of the Spanish press concluded that the telephone spat was “infantile” but that Mr Zapatero needed to act fast to recover Spain’s loss of face abroad.

Zapatero’s political opponents in the next election can make a plausible case that he “pushed our allies away.”

New Column

My new Tech Central Station column is up: Bomb My House…Please. It’s about Fallujah.

Holland Snaps

It keeps getting uglier in the Netherlands since the murder of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh.

Volkskrant reports (see Slate for details in English) that 5 Christian sites and 10 Muslim sites have been attacked in the past week.

More worryingly, the Turkish Press notes:

a recent poll showed that a staggering 40 percent of Dutch people “hope” that the 900,000 Dutch Muslims in a total population of 16 million “no longer feel at home here” after the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a suspected Islamic radical.

40 percent of Dutch people have it exactly backwards. I understand their frustration. But they should hope Muslims learn to feel more at home in the Netherlands, not less. Dutch society is perhaps the most liberal on Earth. It’s not surprising that immigrants from a vastly more conservative culture feel alienated there. If Dutch Muslims ever become as liberal as Dutch Christians the country will not be at war with itself. If Dutch Muslims continue to be shunted off to the side they will continue constructing an anti-Dutch (and hence anti-liberal) counterculture.

So here’s some free advice: Isolate, imprison, deport, or kill (if it comes to that) the extremists. Liberalize those who remain. Otherwise, brace for hell.

The GOP Purge

Hugh Hewitt is still defending dissident Republican Senator Arlen Specter, this time in The Weekly Standard. And he thinks Zell Miller’s tirade against the Democratic Party, A National Party No More, should be required reading for Republicans drunk on power. What will happen if the GOP burns its heretics? The same thing that happened to the Democrats.

Fast forward four years. The Democrats have convened in late summer in Cleveland to nominate former Virginia governor Mark Warner and Senator Barack Obama. It is the third night of the convention, and the Democrats have chosen as their keynote speaker . . . Arlen Specter. Or Olympia Snowe. Or Chuck Hagel. Or some other GOP big who has grown disgusted with his or her inability to have any influence on Republican deliberations. So they have bolted, bringing a message that their party breached its pledge to govern with the interests of the entire country in mind.

This may be a nightmare scenario for most people who read The Weekly Standard. But if liberal-moderate Republicans bolt the GOP for the Democrats, hey, that’s fine with me. It will make the Democrats both larger and saner. Everyone wins…except the Republicans. It’s up to them. Do I think they’ll do the right thing? Naah. Jane’s Law is still on the books.

Heh

Daily Kos has arrived. He made The Onion.

It Was the Moderates, Stupid

I hope this is the last time I need to post about this. But as obvious as it should be, it hasn’t sunken in yet.

E.J. Dionne in the Washington Post:

About 38 percent of those who thought abortion should be legal in most cases went to Bush. Bush got 22 percent from voters who favored gay marriage and 52 percent among those who favor civil unions. Bush even managed 16 percent among voters who thought the president paid more attention to the interests of large corporations than to those of “ordinary Americans.” A third of the voters who favored a government more active in solving problems went to Bush

[...]

These numbers do not lend themselves to a facile ideological analysis of what happened. The populist left can fairly ask why so many pro-government, anti-corporate voters backed Bush. The social liberals can ask why so many socially moderate and progressive voters stuck with the president. The centrist crowd can muse over the power of the terrorism issue. The exit polls found that perhaps 10 percent of Al Gore’s 2000 voters switched to Bush. Of these, more than eight in 10 thought the war in Iraq was part of the war on terrorism.

Also, if you are a Democrat, please read Marc Cooper.

UPDATE: Bush did better in 2004 than he did in 2000 in all states except Maine, Vermont, and South Dakota. That’s because the Democratic Party is less appealing now than it was. Deal with it. Then fix it.

Arafat Officially Dead

It looks like Yasser Arafat is finally – officially – dead.

RAMALLAH, West Bank – Yasser Arafat, who triumphantly forced his people’s plight into the world spotlight but failed to achieve his lifelong quest for Palestinian statehood, died Thursday at age 75. He was to the end a man of many mysteries and paradoxes — terrorist, statesman, autocrat and peacemaker.

Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat confirmed to The Associated Press that Arafat had died. The Palestinian leader spent his final days in a coma at a French military hospital outside Paris.

May the Palestinians find a leader who loves his people more than he hates his enemies.

UPDATE: Jacques Chirac is sad.

Submission, by Theo Van Gogh

Theo Van Gogh (who was related to the artist of the same name) was brutally murdered on the streets of Amsterdam by an Islamic fascist for daring to make an eleven-minute film about the oppression of women in Muslim society.

Click here to see that film. It is called Submission.

It begins in Arabic, but most of it is in English. It is eleven minutes long.

(Hat tip: Harry’s Place.)

The Triumph of Secularism

I wasn’t going to link this article by Christopher Hitchens, as much as I love the man, because I think he paints with (a bit) too wide a brush this time around. But since some people in my comments section insist on lumping me in personally with Christian fundamentalists, despite the fact that I’m a socially liberal atheist, here goes.

So here is what I want to say on the absolutely crucial matter of secularism. Only one faction in American politics has found itself able to make excuses for the kind of religious fanaticism that immediately menaces us in the here and now. And that faction, I am sorry and furious to say, is the left. From the first day of the immolation of the World Trade Center, right down to the present moment, a gallery of pseudointellectuals has been willing to represent the worst face of Islam as the voice of the oppressed. How can these people bear to reread their own propaganda? Suicide murderers in Palestine—disowned and denounced by the new leader of the PLO—described as the victims of “despair.” The forces of al-Qaida and the Taliban represented as misguided spokespeople for antiglobalization. The blood-maddened thugs in Iraq, who would rather bring down the roof on a suffering people than allow them to vote, pictured prettily as “insurgents” or even, by Michael Moore, as the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers. If this is liberal secularism, I’ll take a modest, God-fearing, deer-hunting Baptist from Kentucky every time, as long as he didn’t want to impose his principles on me (which our Constitution forbids him to do).

[...]

George Bush may subjectively be a Christian, but he—and the U.S. armed forces—have objectively done more for secularism than the whole of the American agnostic community combined and doubled. The demolition of the Taliban, the huge damage inflicted on the al-Qaida network, and the confrontation with theocratic saboteurs in Iraq represent huge advances for the non-fundamentalist forces in many countries. The “antiwar” faction even recognizes this achievement, if only indirectly, by complaining about the way in which it has infuriated the Islamic religious extremists around the world. But does it accept the apparent corollary—that we should have been pursuing a policy to which the fanatics had no objection?

Hitchens seems to forget about the far-more reasonable secular liberals at his own Slate magazine (Jane Smiley’s awful guest column excepted). But his basic point stands. The American right is a better champion for secularism where it is most urgently needed. And for that they have my (partial) support.

The Liberal Case for Bush, Yet Again

Norman Geras has a question for his friends on the left.

The victims of a terrible, murderous oppression in the Kurdish area of Iraq, and those now yearning for a democratic breakthrough against theocratic tyranny in Iran, do not look for solidarity and support to the massed ranks of the marching left, the ‘peace’ movement, as it flatters itself to be; no, they look to a right-wing Republican president.

By your own lights, friends and comrades, is that not a truly extraordinary state of affairs? If it doesn’t cause you some troubling doubts, will anything ever?

I’m being a bit flip when I write these titles. My real intention here isn’t to get American liberals into the Republican tent. That is completely beside the point. What I’d like to see is a little international solidarity between the American left and the oppressed in the Middle East. When Middle Eastern liberals cheerlead Republicans instead of Democrats they know exactly what they are doing and why. The lefties in Paris don’t need your help, folks. Those in Iran and Iraq really do.

Some Advice

Virginia Postrel has some advice for political parties that lose elections.

I told you so. The party that hates America will lose. The party that imagines no positive future, offers no “vision thing,” will lose. The party that thinks it is better than the American people, that makes large segments of the voting public believe they are its enemy, that convinces people it wants the government to boss them around and destroy the things they love, will lose.

Guess when she wrote that? Yep. That’s right. She wrote it in 1998. When else (ahem) could such a paragraph have been written? She continues:

On November 3, that party was Republican. The GOP went down to humiliating defeat, losing close race after close race, plus many that weren’t supposed to be close. The party lost its solid grip on the South and collapsed in California. It managed to lose seats in the House, an extraordinary result that even Democratic pundits failed to predict.

And it deserved to lose.

No kidding. I might have voted for Republican candidates in an alternate universe, but I didn’t in this one. It may have been slightly unfair to think of Ken Starr as their guy the ballot, but only slightly. They ran against someone not on the ballot themselves.

Republicans sold out their economic base, invested all their hopes in scandals involving a president not on the ballot, and ran as the party of scolds, pork, and gloom. No wonder their voters stayed home.

This election was a test of the notion that Republicans can scorn anyone who talks about freedom, treat issues as matters of bribery rather than principle or vision, alternate between patronizing and ostracizing immigrants and women, regularly denounce American culture, and generally act obnoxiously toward the country they supposedly represent–and still win, because the Democrats are worse and Clinton is a sleaze.

Eighth Grade Caricatures

Because I’m a purple state kind of guy, I’m rankled by all the hectoring and sneering at the “Jesusland” red states. I feel like one half of my social circle is finishing up a week-long bitch-fest about the other half. Yeah, we just had an election and the losers are entitled to carp about it. Fine. That’s normal and perfectly understandable. But if you’re going to decry bigotry on the right, see if you can not act like a bigoted jerk yourself.

That goes for you, too, righties. Want to broaden the base of your party? Pay close attention to Matt Welch. He’ll tell you exactly how not to go about it.

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