I quote from Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols:
Let us finally consider how naïve it is altogether to say: “Man ought to be such and such!” Reality shows us an enchanting wealth of types, the abundance of a lavish play and change of forms – and some wretched loafer of a moralist comments: “No! Man ought to be different.” He even knows what man should be like, this wretched bigot and prig: he paints himself on the wall and comments, “Ecce homo!” But even when the moralist addresses himself only to the single human being and says to him, “You ought to be such and such!” he does not cease to make himself ridiculous.”
Today’s news has brought to my attention two things of which I feel you lot ought to be aware. First, there is Indiana’s terrible, terrible law just passed by the state legislature, known as SB101, which would basically allow establishments to discriminate based off of sexual orientation or religion. Second is this app called CleanReader, which is an app that would censor out naughty words from books.
I’m going to be frank: if neither of those things bother or offend you in any way, it is very unlikely we can be friends. Sorry.
Fortunately, the writing and geek community at large is with me on this one. GenCon is threatening to leave Indiana if SB101 is passed into law, while Joanne Harris and Chuck Wendig have some very pointed words for the creators of CleanReader. As you can imagine, Wendig’s argument is rather…vivid.
But so what, though? So what if Wendig says “fuck” a million times? They are his words and he gets to say them and that, so far as I’m concerned, is the end of the conversation. This extends to Indiana: so what if somebody likes to have sex with their same sex? So what? What, it makes you uncomfortable? Who gives a shit if you’re uncomfortable? You know what? People who sneer at gay people make me uncomfortable, yet you don’t see me parading laws through Congress to make pricks like Jerry Falwell inadmissible to Pizza Hut. If I own a restaurant and some little shit comes in spouting racist bullshit and makes distasteful jokes about gay people to his buddies, he still gets to buy food there. Yeah, he makes me uncomfortable and I don’t like him, but it’s a free country. So long as he does no actual harm (like harasses other patrons) and commits no crimes, he gets to stay.
I try not to wax political on this blog – not my purpose – but some discussion of morality is apropos to my book (The Iron Ring – see sidebar), so I’m going to wax moralistic for a spell.
Bear with me. Nietzsche, I feel, has a good argument (up to a point): Who the hell appointed (insert group here) as supreme arbiters of what is right and wrong? Now, both sides of our political and moral landscape are operating under the assumption that the other is the group inside those parentheses. Liberal secularists think that Christian conservatives are trying to dictate our behavior and vice versa. The thing is, though, that the things each side are trying to control are different. Speaking broadly, liberal secularists wish to make it illegal for people to inflict harm on others in the form of prejudice, discrimination, and mistreatment. Conservative Christians wish to make it illegal for people to act or behave outside the bounds of what they consider to be proper. Yes, there is some variation there – neither side is like that on 100% of the issues – but the characterization, I feel, is generally fair.
Here is the operative difference between those two positions and why, for the most part, I take the side of the liberal secularists: One is defending people against actual harm, and the others are defending themselves against feeling icky. The first category is what I would categorize as legitimately moral and the second I characterize as illegitimate morality. Seeing two dudes making out does you no harm – none, zippo, nada. Letting those two dudes file taxes jointly and letting them inherit each other’s property and letting them adopt children also does no one any harm (seriously – zero evidence to the contrary). So, other than the fact that certain people behave in a way that irritates your virginal sensibilities and contradicts some words you got written down in some book you think is from a god, we aren’t actually talking about anything important. Sure, you can still believe these things (and maybe make me feel uncomfortable about it), but you can’t force everybody else to stop making you feel icky. No.
What you can do, however, is prohibit people from harming others. What constitutes harm? Well, harassment, social discrimination, prejudice, and abuse based upon sex, creed, race, or orientation. Censorship of an author’s work without consent. Curtailment of public discourse. Physical incarceration or financial penalties on the basis of the above. That is not okay. You do not get to make me into a criminal or pariah just because I make you feel icky or uncomfortable. Nobody is saying you have to buy my books, but if you do, you are going to have to read about all the gay sex and profanity I feel is appropriate to the story. Suck it up, cupcakes. You don’t like it, then I guess that’s fine – don’t read my stuff. It’s a free country.
For now, anyway.
I’m not going to touch what happened in Colorado. It’s monstrous, and I have things I want to shout the same as everybody else. Shouting, though, is seldom wise and never calm, and wisdom and serenity are most important in the face of terrible acts.
So, to shift gears a bit and steer us away from the immediate and into the realm of the metaphorical (as is the wont and duty of every spec-fic writer), let us consider Superman and Batman. Of the two, Batman is much, much more popular. He has the best stories, the best writers, the best of everything. To call him ‘better,’ though, is to betray a cultural bias, not state a fact. Batman and Superman are poles on a spectrum of behavior. Their goals are identical, their heroic roles in society are similar, but their philosophical underpinnings are fundamentally at odds.
Criminals are, by nature, a superstitious, cowardly lot. To instill fear into their hearts, I became a bat. A monster in the night. And in doing so, have I become the very thing that all monsters become – alone.
All societies posit values through the heroes they idolize, and Batman is no different. If he is popular, it is because he scratches something we want scratched. So, what is that thing?
Batman is an avenger. He fights crime with terror. He responds to criminal threats with threats. He is the visceral, essential wish-fulfillment of a society which has lost hope in the goodness of its own societal framework. When you look at the news and recoil in horror at the terrible thing some jackass has done to someone else and you feel that deep, cold knot deep in your guts – that’s Batman. Batman would go and kick that guys ass. He’d break every bone is his goddamned body until he was weeping with terror and begging for mercy. And then, because Batman (because we) is the hero, he gives it to them. He gives it to them, though, with a promise: I’m letting you go, but if you ever…
Batman doesn’t mess around. He doesn’t pull punches. He doesn’t hold hands. He’s a regular guy who’s made himself superhuman by dint of his own personal obsessions, which is itself a perverse reflection of the American Dream. He devotes his massive wealth to populist causes, but we know and he knows and everybody knows that the real work to improve society happens on the street. That’s what we go to see – Batman making the people who terrify us quake in terror. His mania is our release; his story is stress relief for the modern urbanite who fears for their safety.
He’s also identifiable. He’s flawed, lonely, and mortal. We see ourselves in him more readily and wish to be him with more ease. His life seems at once idyllic and adventurous – wealthy, carefree playboy by day; courageous, brilliant hero by night. Every kid’s dream, right? Even once we grow up and see the cracks in Wayne’s psyche, we still find Batman’s life appealing. That says something about us. Something very important.
They can be a great people, Kal-El–they wish to be. They simply lack the light to show the way.For this reason above all – their capacity for good – I have sent them you… my only son.
~Superman, the Movie
Superman is different; Superman is not us. Superman is held to a higher standard than Batman. If Batman fails somehow, if corruption continues to spread despite his efforts, if he beats the Joker unconscious and the Joker lives to kill again, we accept this as part of Batman’s humanity. He doesn’t need to be perfect. Superman does and, to some extent, Superman is.
Superman’s the nice guy with the great physique and the gleaming smile who does the right thing, all the time. He works hard for little pay as a reporter, trying to tell people the truth. When he stops crime, there isn’t much fuss – they can’t stop him, they can’t harm him. He walks into the bank, bends the crooks’ guns in half, and marches them off to jail. He does this in plain sight; he is not frightening. He doesn’t use tools like terror or cruelty, even against those who deserve it. He smiles a lot. He’s chivalrous to women. He tells the truth.
Superman is not as popular as Batman, and it should come as little surprise that it is because of what Superman represents, ultimately, to the viewer. In Superman stories, it isn’t Superman who fails or makes mistakes. He is not culpable, morally or otherwise, in the terrors that afflict Metropolis. This is distinct from Batman who, as a wealthy person and a regular human being, is de facto embroiled in and responsible for the society in which he lives. The Kryptonian (and country farmboy) is not so tainted by the stains of humanity and the big city. He is a faultless paragon; if anyone has failed or made mistakes, it is us. While Batman holds up a shadowy mirror in which we may examine our own faults, Superman stands on a pedestal as an exemplum of what we ought to be.
Ironically, there is something harrowing about this. It’s all well and good to indulge in your darker side with Batman, but appeal to your lighter side? Ask you to do the right thing? Demand that you take the high road, like Superman does? We sneer at that. Some of you are sneering at that right now. “Oh, well, being good is so easy when you’re Superman!” you say, or “Superman doesn’t get dirty because the writers don’t let any dirt stick!” Well, maybe you’re right, or at least partially. The writers don’t let dirt stick to Superman, true, but expecting dirt to stick is simply cynicism. Superman sees in us something good and light and honorable and asks us to bring it out (it is not accidental, the Christian overtones in that quote I put up there). That’s hard work. That’s deeply dangerous thinking. Superman isn’t stress relief or visceral satisfaction, he is inspiration. He is a call to be better people.
It is telling to me that Batman is so much more popular than Superman. It isn’t just because Batman has had the better choice of talent (remember, the talent is attracted to his story, same as us), but also because we think we live in Batman’s world. We don’t have to, though, which is what Superman has been trying to tell us all these years. As a character created as a reaction to the Nazi brand of Fascism (which also built its power upon certain strategies Batman might recognize), he stands in direct opposition to visceral action as a result of that cold feeling in our guts. That feeling makes us love to escape into Batman, yes, but we mustn’t forget Superman, since his is the world and he the example that we all, ultimately, want to become.
Every year around this time we are bombarded by images and stories of people losing their minds in retail environments. People are trampled, beaten, even pepper sprayed, all in the quest to acquire the newest pair of sneakers, some doll that giggles when you tickle it, or God knows what else. It’s crazy, it’s stupid, it’s disgusting, and it’s contrary to what the Christmas Spirit is really all about.
Or is it?
Remember, now, that these people aren’t busting in faces to buy something for themselves. They’re doing it for somebody else. They want to please someone else, improve their lives, let them know that they are loved. To them, they are beating in that other person’s face because, on some level, they believe that it is the best way to make their children and loved ones happy. Deranged as it might be by materialism and cultural expectations, its genesis is a fundamentally good one. Weird, huh?
This is why, of all the wonderful characters in Tolkien, Boromir often intrigues me the most. Boromir represents the fundamental flaw in the human spirit. Boromir is a brave man, a hero, a good son, a good friend, and a man who wants, beyond all other things, to help his country, his family, and the free peoples of Middle Earth. You can’t help but like him. At the same time, though, he is brash, short-sighted, overly proud, short tempered, and foolish. When he tries to take the Ring from Frodo, he’s doing it because he thinks he can help. He believes he is doing the right thing – bring the Ring to Gondor, use it to defeat Mordor, save the world, etc.. Who wouldn’t want that to be the case? Nobody can say Boromir’s an evil man – weak, perhaps, and certainly unwise, but not evil.
Lots of folks can sit back and shake their head at Boromir basically trying to mug Frodo in the woods and say ‘what a jerk’ or ‘how stupid is that?’ Not that many folks, however, can say they wouldn’t be tempted to do the same in a similar scenario. For example, say this Christmas there is a screw-up at Amazon and they send you a new Ipad that you didn’t order or buy. You know the person who should have received it is going to be bummed out, but they’ll get their Ipad eventually and on Amazon’s dime. You could totally keep the Ipad – just a little lie, or even just a sin of omission, and it’s yours.
Well, do you keep it?
Understand this: no matter how you rationalize the keeping of the Ipad, you are now a thief. You have taken that which does not rightfully belong to you so that you can make either yourself or someone on your list happier. Perhaps this is just what your sick cousin needs as he’s laid up in the hospital and bored. Perhaps your unemployed brother could really use a new computer, but he can’t afford one. By taking this Ipad, you will be doing good. Who are you harming, right? It’s just Amazon – faceless corporation, soulless materialistic monolith – it doesn’t have feelings. They won’t even feel its loss! Doesn’t matter, though – you are still a thief.
Don’t get me wrong – almost everybody would keep the Ipad (well, except my wife, to whom this really happened, but she’s more Aragorn than Boromir, anyway). This is why Boromir’s struggle is so wonderful to watch – it’s the same as all of our struggles. Do small evil to do great good? Yeah, why not? Steal that doll from that other person’s carriage – they’ll be okay. Keep consuming – there won’t be any major repercussions, I’m sure, and everybody will be so happy, right? It’s Christmas, man – lighten up!
It’s just a little thing. Such a little thing…