Saturday, February 21, 2009

Champion of the Oppressed

If you've ever met me, and we've talked for more than a few minutes, superheroes probably came up somehow in the conversation. And, if we discussed it further, the conversation probably led (as conversations with me on superheroes invariably tend to lead) to Superman.

Now, I know that most people who like comic books are into to Marvel. That's fine. They make great comic books, and I'm all for people supporting the industry regardless of which companies titles they read. Personally, I find Marvel's superheroes to be lacking that certain something that makes them heroic. A lot of people enjoy Marvel characters because they can relate to their failures and shortcomings. That's fine. Sometimes, it's even great. But, I want something more from my heroes. If my heroes are just like me, then I don't really have any reason to look to them as examples of how I ought to live my life.

That's why I've always been a fan of Big Blue. Say what you want about him, I've heard it all: he's too powerful to be interesting, he's just a boring boyscout, he's a total loser without his superpowers, he's a crude caricature of America, etc. But, at the end of the day, I think there's a reason that Superman has been around for 70 years: because people want hope. If our heroes don't inspire us to become better than we have been, if our heroes are no better than we are, then hero worship is merely just a matter of empathy.

Lots of things have changed about Superman over the years: his relationship with Lois Lane, just how powerful he is, whether or not he can age, his supporting characters and the villains he battles, etc. The main constant in the Superman mythos is this: Superman always does what he believes to be the right thing. His rigid moral character, his indomitable will, his love for humanity: these are things that make Superman a hero, not heat vision or super strength.

Now, to maybe help you have an idea of what I'm talking about, here are some examples of why I love Superman from a couple of my favorite Superman stories. The first is Red Sun, a what if story where Superman grows up in the USSR in the 50's instead of America. The context of this soliloquy is that a satellite is falling toward Metropolis, threatening to destroy the city.

"They called me a soldier, but that just wasn't true. I was never a soldier. A soldier always follows orders. A soldier knows and hates his enemy. A soldier only fights and dies for his own people. I just fought for what was right... A cluster of support cables groaned and snapped. People screamed for someone to save them. Not my people, but I never refuse a cry for help. All the lies they spread about me. The propaganda they engineered at the height of the Cold War. None of it mattered for a while on that bright afternoon. Just for a single moment. They realized I was here to save them."

These are not Superman's people. But, at the same time, they are. Superman does not belong to a single state or principality. Superman belongs to the world, and we are all his people, regardless of our personal philosophies, skin colors, sexual orientation, or the crimes we have committed. We are all his people.

The second and third examples are from Kingdom Come, a story set in the future where the new generation of superheroes have become petty and corrupt, and our heroes come out of retirement to show them the way that heroes are supposed to behave. The first story deals with why Superman retired, and the second deals with what happens when things get out of control in the rehabilitation of the new generation.

This quote is in the context of Magog, the "hero" who replaced Superman addressing him in the middle of a nuclear explosion decimated Kansas, a result of Magog's recklessness:

Magog: "They were calling you old-fashioned when I was a teenager. World's oldest boy scout...but you wouldn't change. You wouldn't get in step. You wouldn't flex with the times. Remember? The Daily Planet asked if that's why the Joker got so many notches on his belt when he blew into our town. How many did he take out just that last time? Ninety-two men?..."

Superman: "And one woman."

Magog: "Hell. We both tore up the city looking for that bastard. I really thought you or Batman would get to him first. Even I almost missed him. Almost. I will never forget the look on your face when you saw me standing over that smoking creep. All the way to Jail, I thought, what a sap. What an old woman. Blue boy's dragging me in for having stones he doesn't. 'Times are tough. Joker'd been deserving worse than 'cuffs for years. So I took it upon myself to lay him down. I can't be judged for that.' And I was right. I was a hero. But you just wouldn't roll with it. You had to get in a last shot and piss me off. I wanted that torch passed. I wanted to cement my claim as Metropolis' new number one. I asked for a title bout between you and me, and I won by default when you flew off with your cape between your legs... I always thought you were afraid of me. A lot of people did. But that wasn't it. You were afraid that I was the man of tomorrow. You were afraid of the future I represented. Well, look around you. This is what I represent."

Superman: "You must be proud."

Magog: "Proud? PROUD? GOD DAMN YOU! Pround of being the man of tomorrow? Your bastard. The world changed...but you wouldn't. So they chose me. They chose the man who would kill over the man who wouldn't... and now they're dead."

In case you couldn't tell without the pictures, this recounts Joker killing everyone in the Daily Planet building (including Lois) and in turn being killed by Magog after he had turned himself in to the police. Superman's response? Put him on trial for murder. Murder of the man who just killed everyone Superman ever cared about. Superman lost the trial and went into self-imposed exile, incapable of dealing with a world that would condone murder, even murder of a psychopath with the blood of thousands on his hands, including Superman's friends and wife. Because that's how much Superman values the lives of people, even scum like the Joker.

The second excerpt from Kingdom Come is Superman addressing his followers after the "heroes" they are attempting to rehabilitate are refusing to cooperate and have started a riot in their gulag.

Wonder Woman: "So...your world's finally turned completely topsy-turvy. How do we handle this?"

Superman: "I...don't know."

Wonder Woman: "Then I do. We're going to confront the prisoners and give them an ultimatum. They must surrender."

Superman: "And if they refuse?"

Wonder Woman: "Then it's war."

Superman: "But you can't have a war without people dying."

At this point in the story, everyone looks at Superman as though he's lost his mind, then walks away to go and have their war. It's true that Superman's moral code doesn't always work out neatly in his stories. People have been dying all this time as a result of his refusal to take the lives of truly evil people. But, agree or not, you have to admire his refusal to compromise.

I could go on and on about Superman and superheroes in general for hours and days, but I just thought I might give a rough, somewhat preliminary explanation of why I'll always love the Man of Steel as I wander through life.

“The Promised Land always lies on the other side of a wilderness.”

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

An Okie's Initial Reflections On the Ocean

The churning eddy of silvery green and deep, dark blues,
The ebb and flow of the ocean
Caressing and withdrawing from the shore,
The singing and squabbling of birds as they hunt
For unfortunate mollusks and crabs.
An endless vision of blue;
One can barely discern
The waters above from the waters below.
Life scurrying across the sands.
Life thriving in infinite holes and tidepools.
Life ending:
Shriveling after washing up beyond the sea's embrace.
The gentle pulse of the ocean's heartbeat,
Pounding upon the rocks.
The gentle breeze that carries the scent
Of salt and adventure.
The thunder of impending cloudburst.
The beauty of the sea expressed by countless dreamers;
Now I understand.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Politcal Apathy: A Rational Response

I am often chided and have even been (once or twice) verbally assaulted due to my extreme disinterest in all things political. And I thought I might take a minute or two to illustrate why, using a paper I wrote based off the arguments of one of my favorite philosophical articles of all time, "Is it Rational to be an Informed Voter?" by Anthony Downs (I couldn't find the article online, but if you come across it, I highly recommend reading it. I'd even loan you the book I got it from if you ask.).

The main argument Downs gives for why it is irrational to be an informed voter is that the time and effort put forth into becoming informed is not worth the output of being informed.

" a culture so flooded with information (much truer now that it was in 1957 when the article was written), one cannot absorb all the information to possibly be weighed in his decisions before he makes them. You must selectively pick and choose datum from the large supply of data in existence. This is true even if the datum don’t cost money, for they can still cost you time, a commodity which is usually harder to come by than money. The amount of information we should rational obtain Downs defines by this axiom: “It is rational to perform an act if its marginal return is larger than its marginal cost” (Downs 360). That is to say, an act is rational if you get a higher level of return than the time and/or money you invested into it. Since we live in an imperfectly informed world, the exact cost or gain from any decision cannot be known in advance, but this axiom can still be used to speak of expected costs and returns."

The supposed outcome of being "informed" (I use this term somewhat loosely, since there are problems knowing the reliability and biases of the information we receive) is that we vote "correctly", i.e. for the outcome with the highest utilitarian interest (utilitarianism has its own set of problems, but, for the sake of brevity, we'll gloss over them). The problem with voting in large elections, however, is that:

'This is the inevitable result of a large electorate: the higher the number of individuals who participates in an election, the lower the weight of each individual vote. Take, for instance, the 2004 presidential election. 1, 463, 732 Oklahomans voted in the 2004 presidential election (Washington Post). Had I been old enough to vote, and chosen to participate, my vote would have added one to this number, raising the total vote to 1, 463, 733. Out of these almost 1.5 million people, my vote would have accounted for only a fraction of a fraction of the percentage of votes cast. And, when we add this 1.5 million voters from Oklahoma to the almost 120 million voters nationwide (Washington Post), the vote of any one individual accounts for only 1/120 millionth of a percent. “Since the cost of voting is so very low, hundreds, thousands, or even millions of citizens can afford to vote. Therefore, the probability of any one citizen’s vote becoming decisive is very small indeed. It is not zero, and it can even be significant…but, under most circumstances, it is so negligible that it renders the return from voting ‘correctly’ infinitesimal” (Downs 361).'

However, I'm sure there are some of you who believe in the electoral process, and believe it to be a rational process. Downs does give four examples of individuals for whom becoming an informed voter is rational. The first is that "you may enjoy being well informed for its own sake, so that the very acquiring of information becomes your motivation for being informed. You feel yourself a good citizen, and your feelings of worth and accomplishment at furthering the democratic process are their own reward." I would agree, but this still gives me no reason to be politically informed, as I gain zero pleasure from the process.

The second reason for being an informed voter is that "you may believe that the election is going to be so close that the probability of you casting the deciding vote is relatively high." However, if 120 million people vote, this is fairly improbable.

The third and fourth reasons for being an informed voter is that "you may need information to influence the vote of others so that you can alter the outcome of an election, or persuade the government to give your preferences more consideration than others" or "you may need information to influence the formation of government policy as a lobbyist". These last two reasons apply to a very small minority, and they certainly don't apply to me personally.

Some would say that the call to being politically informed is made so that we will have a well-informed electorate who will change government policy and make the world a better place. However:

The problem is, we do not require a citizen to be well-informed about the electoral process or even vote at all to share in the benefits of the decisions made by the majority. It’s not as if not voting for a president exempts you from having to live under the reign of that president and follow the precedents he sets. So, as long as a citizen holds the same general opinion as the majority, he will reap the benefits of their decisions whether he actively took part in these decisions or not...In cases such that participation awards you no benefits, the most rational thing to do is simply find the way to most effectively minimize your personal cost, in this case minimizing the cost of your time that would be a waste of resources becoming an informed voter by remaining politically ignorant. However, if all citizens reason this way, then no one bears the cost of democracy and nothing is accomplished.the general solution for such a problem is the implementation of a centralized governmental agency responsible for coercing citizens. Everyone is forced to pay the price, and everyone receives a share of the benefits which (Downs assumes) more than offsets the cost of forced participation. This is the basic thinking behind the collection of taxes by the IRS for things such as national defense and other necessary costs of running a governmental system. The problem, however, is that, unlike the collection of taxes, there is no objective criterion for how informed an individual is, and there is no objective standard for how informed an individual should be. The farthest that any government has taken any such ideas is requiring its public schools to teach classes on civics, government, and history.

Such is the problem of becoming an informed voter. Even if you believe that your vote will not be tampered with, even if you believe that your vote will not be lost or misplaced, even if you live in a state where the Electoral College has to vote with the general consensus, even if you believe that you can actually influence people to behave in more rationalistic ways, you are still only one voice out of 120 million, and as such too much thought about which candidate to vote for will only be a waste of resources that could be better applied in another area of your life.

“The Promised Land always lies on the other side of a wilderness.”