Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Superman the fascist


Moral panics are as old as civilization itself. Socrates was executed for ‘corrupting the minds of the young’, a perennial fear among the old, among those who have reason to fear. Socrates was a threat to any kind of self-satisfied gerontocracy, but moral panics have alighted on far more innocuous things than his demanding dialectics; things like comic books!

I’m continually indebted to the stimuli I receive from other bloggers, paths opened before me that I might not otherwise have explored. Jeremy Janson drew my attention recently to an article in The Washington Post by George F. Will, published towards the end of last month. It concerns a case before the Supreme Court, a challenge to a law passed in California banning Postal 2, a violent video game.

Lawyers acting for the games manufacturer are arguing that this ban violates the First Amendment, guaranteeing free expression. They have also, rather ingeniously, drawn the justices' attention to previous moral panics over cultural ephemera, including one in the 1950s over comic books. The whole thing is just so amusing, an insight not only into the character of moral panics, the absurdity of moral panics, but also into American cultural history.

In the early 1950s American legislators were so concerned over what was referred to as ‘juvenile delinquency’ that the Senate even established a sub-committee to look into the problem. Comic books, read by an estimated 90% of children, were quickly singled out as a possible contributor to the phenomenon.

It should not be assumed, though, that this was just more evidence of prejudice and conservative reaction against popular culture. The Senators would have been able to draw on sociological support for their deliberations, including the work of one Frederic Wertham, a political progressive. A psychiatrist by profession, he had previously opened a clinic in Harlem, which he named after Paul Lafargue, Karl Marx’s son-in-law, the man responsible for translating the old beast’s Das Kapital into French, “thereby facilitating the derangement of Parisian intellectuals”, which Will offers as the sting in the tail of the scorpion!

Since 1948 this fellow had been campaigning against comic books, in 1954 publishing a book entitled Seduction of the Innocent, suggesting a causal connection between them and the desensitisation of young criminals – “Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic book industry.” I find it difficult to believe, but this tendentious, pseudo-scientific rubbish quickly became a best seller. It was even praised by C. Wright Mills, left-wing sociologist and the doyen of progressive thought at the time.

So, would you like to know what concerned Wertham the most? Was it pulp fiction horror comics? Was it ghouls and vampires? Yes, but his targets also included Superman. Superman! Gosh, if one were to choose an archetype for the all-American ideal one could do no better than alight on Superman, clean-cut, decent and horribly goody-goody! Not so, said Wertham: in his ongoing fight against the bad guys Superman paid no attention to due process, which made him a “crypto-fascist.” And as for Batman and Robin, they demonstrated “homoerotic tendencies.” Absolutely, it could not be clearer: the older man and his little chicken!

It’s all terribly droll, but just as the Fatty Arbuckle scandal had been responsible for a crackdown on movie makers in a previous generation, lurid suggestions like this quickly impacted on the comic book industry. Hill says that more than a dozen states passed laws restricting the sale of comic books and some civic groups even staged book burning sessions, I suppose reducing that ‘crypto-fascist’ Superman to ashes.

As movie producers previously adopted their own standards of censorship in response to the political climate so, too, did comic book publishers. But silly panics of this kind are most often replaced or sublimated by other panics. By 1956 the hysteria over comics had been replaced by Elvis and his pelvis!

Will concludes his article with some pertinent observations about Progressivism in general, which he defines as a “faith-based programme”, a secular substitute for the religious admonitions of a previous age. Though Progressivism is a uniquely American intellectual and political phenomena it belongs to a wider current, to what I would refer to as the fascism of the left, the fascism of any philosophy based on the belief that people can be made perfect through the actions of the state. At the one extreme there is the attempt to modify action by censorship; at the other there is eugenics and the sterilisation of ‘bad stock’, a programme that at one time united people as diverse as Adolf Hitler and H. G. Wells.

47 comments:

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  5. Liberal institutions cease to be liberal as soon as they are attained: later on, there are no worse and no more thorough injurers of freedom than liberal institutions. Liberalism: in other words, herd-animalization.

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  6. The very expression calls to mind a certain exhibition in pre-war Munich. I'm a libertarian, Adam, I point I have made reputedly, not a liberal. But if I had been alive at the time of Bright I would certainly have supported the Anti-Corn Law League.

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  11. To the innocent, all things are innocent; to the perverse, all things are perverse.

    Moral crusades are mostly just an embarrassing exposure of the dirty minds of seemingly uptight, upright individuals. But they are dangerous, too. The moral-minded can be vicious and ruthless when their secret evil hearts seem likely to be exposed to public ridicule. They happily kill, rather than admit their dark desires.

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  12. Adam, I would have supported free trade, the very basis for this country’s economic and political greatness in the period before the onset of the Great Depression in the 1870s. I would have opposed the narrow sectional interests of the landed aristocracy, which would have kept the country locked in the politics and economics of the eighteenth century. I would have opposed the Corn Laws just as I would have opposed the rotten boroughs of the unreformed parliament. I’m a Tory, alright, but always in a pragmatic and modern sense. If the Tories had continued to adhere to the kind of precepts you advance the party would now be as defunct as the Radicals and the Whigs. Still, none of this has anything to do with comic books and censorship!

    It’s possible to make judgements, certainly. There is good art and bad art, certainly. But when people start using words like ‘degenerate’ to dismiss the things they do not like, then it is time for Ana to leave the building.

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  16. Calvin, yes, there is usually a canker at the heart of such crusades.

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  17. Adam, I'm not an extremist of any description and I simply never lecture. If you like what I write, that's fine; if you don't, that's also fine. My argument was advanced in the context you raised. It was not meant to be taken as a general declaration of principle.

    Look, my intellect ranges across such a wide field. For gooodness sake, there is more on heaven and earth than Disraeli, Powell and Churchill.

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  19. I'm a pragmatist and a realist, not an ideologue.

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  21. There are limits to freedom of expression as there can be negative influences on society .By promoting violent games, films and gangster rap noise and such you desensitize young people to reality . Violence escalates and you have school masacres and gang related crime.

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  22. Great article Ana, your conclusion is by far and away the most powerful part of it, though your sarcasm is very effective as well.

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  23. Adam, it's based on original thought, my own ideas, which spring from my head like Pallas Athene from that of Zeus. Cannot you see that?

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  24. Anthony, so the argument goes but the evidence is far from conclusive.

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  26. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No! It's a crypto-fascist infiltrator!!

    But how bad does something have to be before it's a genuine threat? And how relentlessly insightful do you need to be to recognise it?

    In the 1950's there was actually a debate in Australia about whether television broadcasting should be allowed. I think, on balance, that we'd be better off if the opposers had won. That's something I wouldn't have expected to write in earnest 30 years ago. Now it seems the most natural and sensible conclusion to come to.

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  27. Homoerotic "tendencies". I had almost completely forgotten about that silly description! What kind of tendencies did Elvis's Pelvis have in the 1950s I wonder. Ana, and for all interested, here's an amusing take on the modern day version of eugenics... parenting.

    http://www.slate.com/id/2275596/

    "If we try to engineer perfect children, will they grow up to be unbearable?" Good question.

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  28. Adam, the one thing you will never find in me is fanaticism.

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  30. Retarius, all television? That seems a bit drastic. Mind you the idea of being spared Simon Cowal and Gordon Ramsay has a certain appeal. :-)

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  31. Stephen, as unbearable as me. :-) Thanks for the link. I'll have look in a bit.

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  33. A consevative mind would realize this to be so.

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  34. Anthony, but a libertarian mind would always see virtue in freedom. :-)

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  35. Yes, all. An interesting indicator of the state of affairs in a home is to locate the television/s and see how the rest of the furniture is arranged with respect to it/them. There's something pathetic in a room where the TV is the focus of the seating, like an altar in a temple.

    I drove the false god out of my home about twelve years ago by deciding to not replace the last of its avatars which had infested my space. I still see some of it occasionally in other places but I've never regretted being rid of it. It has two serious evils; it is non-interactive and acts as an anchor to the viewer who is trapped by it.

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  36. Yes,yes, a very good analogy, like some ancient domestic god, except far more demanding!

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  37. There are limits, even for freedom .One should not be cosidered free to harm the common good.

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  39. Did you know an anti-drug Spiderman comic in the..70's almost wasn't be published, cus censorship rules banned any depiction of drugs?

    Coll

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  40. Coll, no, I did not. Do you know which particular number this is?

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  41. Google "Stan Lee" "Comics Code" "Spiderman"

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  42. Coll, thanks, and do have a happy solstice. :-)

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