Thursday, June 25, 2009

American Superheroes and the Myth of Justification

The American fascination with superheroes is something that is not only a huge marketing binge, but also reveals much about the cultural values of American society. However, there is more to this than a simple obsession with large explosions, stunning powers and the ability to remake the world in the image they so desire. There needs to be an exploration of how the need, desire, or allure of superheroes is based in the simple idea of justification through cultural context. Superheroes are not a legal authority (for to be so would be to defeat the purpose of being able to step outside the law when required to truly get the job done), but are they even a moral authority? Do superheroes posses the necessary moral judgment and fortitude to ALWAYS make the right decision? And who becomes the judge of who is right and who is wrong? Will it be the people who are saved from a situation? Will it be those who actually have legitimate authority? What about those whose very lives are disrupted by the acts that the superhero needs to undergo in order to get the job done? It seems to me that the very nature of what it means to be a superhero also becomes the point of greatest abuse. Since they need to step outside the boundaries of law in order to achieve their ends, that essentially means that no law will bind them if it becomes constricting. It will mean that laws serve only to control the actions of those that do not have the superhuman powers to defy them. Is this the system in which we wish to live? But the breakdown of the system of authority does not stop there. Who gets to determine what powers mandate or empower individuals to be able to step outside the law at a moment of their choosing? Is it some internal force that compels the hero to step forth, put themselves at risk and break good laws in the name of the greater good? Who decides if that is real motivation, or if that is simply a justification for the pursuit of greater power?

The dependence upon moral responsibility for the breaking of law seems problematic to me. We cannot sense the intent of someone who claims that they are simply keeping the greater good as a central, motivating factor. If we could sense intent, well, that would lead to all sorts of regulations and power conflicts. But since we cannot sense intent, there is no check on the actual goals of the hero. Does that mean that justification comes after the fact? That the results of a hero’s actions are what is truly judged? This seems to be a terrible road to walk in my mind. It sets up a situation where the ends always justify the means. But what happens if the end is not what we intended? Do the means then still justify it? Or is that when it become evil? Now there is a problem and all of these unjustifiable acts have been committed to achieve a goal that is unachievable.

To a certain extent, I think this is how the Bush administration has viewed Terrorism. The US is the superhero, doing whatever is necessary in order to bring about the greater good. But have we? Or have we lost sight of it somewhere along the way? Perhaps we lost sight of it when we took on the mentality of the end justifying the means. Perhaps that is the downfall of all moral society’s that claim that they know better than what the law lays out. If we step outside the law in order to achieve the greater good but we must act unlawful in order to do so, does that not destroy the very fabric of the culture that we are seeking to protect? If we use the war on Terror as a backdrop for a story of a struggle between a superhero and a villain, it becomes clear that there is a connection between superheroes and cultural perspective. The US is the hero, bringing democracy (even though we don’t operate as a democracy and often oppose leaders that are democratically elected if we don’t like their policies) and light to the world. The idea of terror is the villain, a symbol of oppression and violence. The US goes after the villain, but finds that the villain cannot be defeated by traditional methods. We have already stepped outside the boundaries of law to engage in this fight, what is one more step if it is used to serve the greater good? If it means bringing democracy more quickly and ensuring the safety of our world, is it really too much to ask? And so the hero begins to become more and more like the very thing that it was trying to destroy. Collateral damage is piling up, lives are destroyed and a moral compass is lost. And finally, the last straw. Torture. The hero has finally done it. The hero has finally chosen to become just like the villain in order to defeat that very villain. But it doesn’t work either. Now what? The goal is lost over the horizon, the moral fortitude that initiated the quest for action is in question and the rule of law has been completely broken. For once, the end does not justify the means.

The American obsession with superheroes is dependent upon one thing and one thing alone…that in the end, even if they appear defeated, that the superhero will win the day. That by sheer determination, if necessary, the good guy will defeat the bad guy. Americans love seeing someone come from the brink of danger to save the day. Americans love seeing someone who does their civic duty to protect the greater good. If a few laws are broken along the way, that’s fine as long as everything is put right in the end. Who wouldn’t love a world where things actually happened like this?

But this isn’t real. This is a fantasy world. The world in which we live does not work like that. Good does not always overcome evil, things are not always put back the way they were, and people do not willingly put aside power. And to throw this fantasy even further off base, the simple notions of good and evil are often relevant to their given cultural context. We live in a world where there is very little black and white and often times we don’t have all of the information. We live in a world where there must be a standard that self-justified action cannot break lest we degenerate into chaos where might will once again make right.

-Thomas Saul

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