My Dead Politics
I try very hard on this blog to hide my own specific political positions. I’m never going to talk about my opinion about abortion, marijuana, immigration, or any other hot-button issues here. I avoid getting too specific for a lot of reasons, but the most important reason is that I want to be able to speak to people of as many political positions as possible. I don’t want this to be a progressive or conservative blog; I don’t want it to be a Republican or Democratic blog. That isn’t to say that there’s not a place for those kinds of blogs or writers, or that one can avoid political labels. But for my purposes here, I prefer to deal in the area of political philosophy, writing about abstract principles that can inform a person’s views on particular issues and about comics that explore consequences of political or philosophical positions.
I’m not always successful at hiding all of my particular opinions, of course. Frequent and careful readers will be able to guess at certain principles that I think ought to guide our politics:
First, I think that power ought to be spread as low and widely in a society as possible. Like Tocqueville, I believe that subsidiarity is one of the most important features of a free society. The more decisions we make on a local level, the more liberty we will have.
Second (and also following Tocqueville), I believe that a civil society composed of vibrant and active voluntary associations between citizens is essential for liberty because it protects the people from the power of the State and encourages people to take care of themselves and their communities rather than rely too heavily on the State.
Third, I believe that people can only remain free as long as they regulate themselves by cultivating certain virtues—perhaps most importantly, tolerance, charity, self-discipline, self-denial, and a strong work ethic. A citizenry that refuses to regulate itself will find itself under increasing government control.
And fourth, I believe that government works best when the primary goal of law is to give citizens space in which they can create a just and prosperous society. That is why, for example, I am uncomfortable with both the Democratic and Republican approaches to taxation. Both parties try to predict the future and create tax policies that are designed to bring about certain social or economic conditions. Economics and the future effects of tax laws are far too complicated for anyone to be able to accurately predict what’s coming, so government should focus on creating a just form of taxation, not on coming up with the one most likely to bring about certain economic or social conditions. (And related to this, I think that government ought to spend money far more responsibly than it has for the last century or so.)
I say all these things because it occurs to me every day that my political opinions are essentially dead. By “dead,” I don’t mean that the principles that I described above aren’t good ones; what I mean is that for all intents and purposes, there is no hope at this point of ever electing a government that will adhere to them. Pessimism is awfully tempting.
The main reason for my pessimism is that for us to start following these principles, a lot of people who have roles in politics––elected and unelected officials, CEOs of major corporations, activists, intellectuals in various institutions, powerful people in the industries that produce mass culture, and many others––would have to give up power. And people in power never voluntarily give it up. Moreover, American citizens are increasingly ignorant of how their government works. They think that as long as they can get the “right” person in the White House, everything will be fine. It is hard to believe that such a citizenry is capable of self-governance.
All of this is why I sympathize most with Steve Rogers in Marvel’s 2006 event comic Civil War (on which the 2016 movie Captain America: Civil War is loosely based).
The plot of Civil War is well known to comics fans; a catastrophe leads to a new piece of legislation that forces superheroes to work for the U.S. government. Cap and Iron Man find themselves on opposing sides of the legislation, with Iron Man supporting government oversight and Cap opposing it. Iron Man appeals to security concerns in support of his positions, and Cap appeals to his belief in liberty, privacy, and autonomy. Their disagreement becomes an outright battle, and at the end, Cap surrenders (even though his side is winning the fight).
I side with Cap in Civil War because I agree with him, but I also sympathize with his position in the conflict because for the entire book, it’s clear that he’s fighting a losing battle. There is no way for the anti-registration side to prevail because the public largely rejects their values and philosophy of government. If they persist, then they can only be rebels and traitors––even though morally speaking, they’re right. Nowhere is this clearer than when Cap surrenders at the very moment when the tide of the battle turns in his favor: he realizes that it isn’t enough to be right; you have to be able to persuade other people to your position. Otherwise, you become a totalitarian.
So as much as the moment breaks my heart, I understand what Cap is doing when he drops his shield, takes off his mask, and surrenders at the moment that he triumphs in battle. It simply isn’t enough to be right.
After Civil War, Marvel Comics entered a period known as The Initiative and then Dark Reign. The Initiative was the time when everything seemed to be going well for those who supported registration––a time which some might say vindicated Iron Man and those on his side. During that period it was easy to say that it is better for the heroes to have government oversight, and anyway, the arc of history bends in that direction, so resistance only causes conflict. Iron Man became the director of S.H.I.E.L.D., and how bad could things be for the heroes with a hero at the helm?
But then Secret Invasion happened, and Iron Man was discredited. He had been tasked with protecting the country (and the world), and he had failed to stop an invasion by a shape-shifting alien race. The former Green Goblin, Norman Osborne, replaced him as the head of national security, and things took a dark turn in the Marvel Universe. Dark Reign was perhaps the inevitable result of the legislation that was enacted in Civil War. When power gets concentrated at the highest levels, it doesn’t take long for unsavory people to grasp it.
During Dark Reign, it was difficult to imagine how Cap’s principles could ever be recovered. This is best emphasized by the title of the Captain America storyline that followed Civil War: The Death of the Dream. But the Siege storyline brought an end both to the Superhero Registration Act and to Norman Osborne’s political power. Despair is too easy, and it doesn’t give us a realistic picture of the world. Life is full of what J.R.R. Tolkien called “eucatastrophes,” moments when things change for the better at the very moment when all hope seems lost.
Admittedly, comics writers are good at undoing storylines that they don’t like (especially deaths), but that doesn’t invalidate the lessons of the period in Marvel history that ran from 2006-2010. At times (maybe more often than not), it is tempting to be a determinist and say that history takes its own course, that there’s nothing that any of us can do. I admit that this might be some truth to this, but there’s no way for us to know for sure (pacé Hegel and Marx), and despairing means giving up on the possibility that we might have some role in guiding history along its path. If we give up hope completely, then we might bring about the fate that we fear the most.
Now that I’m nearing the end of this post, I realize that if I’m making an argument at all, it’s a somewhat paradoxical one. On the one hand, we have to be able to recognize, as Cap does in Civil War, that even when we’re right, there are times when we we have to give up the fight––at least temporarily. At the same time, we must also not give in to despair (as I am often tempted to do).
Along these lines, I think of Steve’s debate with Tony in Age of Ultron about the cosmic threat that Tony believes is coming:
Tony: That out there? That’s the end game. How were you guys planning on beating that?
Tony: We’ll lose.
Steve: Then we’ll do that together, too.
Tony is justifying his decision to create Ultron without consulting the rest of the Avengers. He had the best intentions in the world when he used an Infinity Stone to create an unpredictable artificial intelligence, but good intentions don’t make an action moral. More astonishingly, there are some things that we must not do even if they’re in the service of saving the world from destruction. Steve, like Antigone from the ancient Greek tragedy, realizes that there are some battles that we must fight even though we know that we’re going to lose. We have to fight them because to do otherwise would compromise our character and our commitment to what is right.
The paradox lies perhaps in how difficult it is to know the difference between when we have to fight for our principles and when doing so will compromise them. At the end of Civil War, Steve understands that he compromises the principles that he is defending by continuing to fight against Tony. And in Age of Ultron, he knows that the only way that they can fight against the coming cosmic threat (a threat that we finally got to see in the Avengers: Infinity Wartrailer that came out last week) is with the accountability that comes from free association. Had Tony not acted rashly and without the consent of the rest of the Avengers, Sokovia would still be standing and the Avengers wouldn’t have been torn apart by the Sokovia Accords, and many people (including Pietro Maximoff) would still be alive.
Encomium for Dead Political Principles
Ultimately, politics––and I use that word in the best sense, meaning rational people deliberating about how to best order their society––is about the long-game. (As I suspect Trump supporters are going to learn within the next eight years or so, short-term gains are often not very meaningful in the long run.) You can’t do it well if you only care about the immediate state of your society. You can’t do it well if you don’t consider the long-term effects of actions, laws, and policies. You can’t do it well if you don’t care deeply about people who aren’t born yet, in other words. And none of us can know the future of our country. In 1775, 1861, 1914, 1929, 1931, 1945, 1989, 2001, 2008, 2016, and at countless other times, people thought that they knew what was coming, and they were wrong more often than not.
So despairing about the health of our society or about the currency of good political principles and virtues is probably a waste. To make a comparison to my own field of work, politics is a lot like teaching: the people who decide how society should run know as little about the fruit of their efforts as teachers know about the what will come of their efforts to educate their students. You hope for the best, but whatever good (or bad) comes of those efforts doesn’t really come to pass until years after your students have moved on and mostly forgotten about you. It takes real humility and love to accept it, but there’s really no way to avoid this truth.
So if you’re like me and tempted to throw up your hands in despair and withdraw completely from the work of self-governance, if you’re tempted to say that it’s pointless to try, remind yourself that you know almost nothing about the future—except that it is coming.