Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Why not another blog?

The detail-minded among my readers will notice that there's a new link over to the right. The Counterfictionals blog is a group project that grew out of the discussion of the "What makes the Bat" post (which was reposted on the new blog).

At the moment, there's a lot on the blog about Batman, and Star Wars, but the goal is to expand it to considerations of and alternate possibilities for a wide variety of fictional characters and narratives. (Note that this is not an "alternate history" website a la Harry Turtledove. No "what if the UK got kicked out of the Faulkland Islands?" or "what if Ghandi had an AK-47?" More "what should we be doing with Mickey Mouse if he were in public domain?" and "what's up with those people who act like Sherlock Holmes was a real person?" Stuff like that.)

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

What makes the Bat?

In honor of the upcoming The Dark Knight, and in the hopes that Heath Ledger's performance changes the way I look at the Joker forever, here are five key traits of Batman's world, according to Gavin. (Sources will be cited, but like Frank Miller's bat-universe, my bat-universe may diverge slightly from accepted continuity.)

1. Bruce Wayne is the mask. Batman is the real identity.

There are a number of sources for this idea, but the first place I heard it articulated was by Kevin Conroy, who did Batman/Bruce Wayne's voice for the Batman Animated Series. I would go a bit further and play with the idea of Bruce Wayne being just one of Batman's masks. There is some precedent for this in the comics: Matches Malone, Lefty Knox. Batman can be anyone, anywhere. Paranoia is at least as powerful as physical intimidation. The man you've worked with for years, your best friend, could be the Bat. The Bruce Wayne: Fugitive storyline also plays with the idea of a Batman without Bruce Wayne, and the Over the Edge episode of the Batman Animated Series provides another key to that door. Batman would still be Batman even if the Bruce Wayne mask were taken away.

2. Never during the day.

This is a throw-off line from Frank Miller's Batman: Year One, which writers ignore at their peril. The Bat doesn't make public appearances. He doesn't testify in court. The only time you will ever see him is when he takes you down or saves your life, and even then, only for a moment. The Bat only works as a secret, a rumor, a myth. The Bat can never be captured, tied up, or examined under light. The mask is flimsy, and the only way to keep someone from pulling it off is to wear it sparingly. Other masks (see #1) are more durable, and just as useful.

3. The utility belt has a finite number of pouches.

Batman: Year 100 has the best take on this. Making Bruce Wayne a man with unlimited resources is ultimately a mistake. Batman is interesting only in his limitations. No superpowers. The only available tools are what he can carry silently. In this spirit, there is no Batmobile. (Also see #2.) Batman does not travel in a marked car that stops at traffic lights and signals left turns. If he drives, it is in an unmarked car, without the mask. Motorcycles make more sense, since a helmet is a mask, but still only something plain and unmarked. Something that can be abandoned.

4. There is something deeply wrong with Batman.

Grant Morrison's Arkham Asylum is a good source for this. Batman can't be written as totally crazy, because the sense of right and wrong is so essential, but Batman is so hell-bent on rightness, on structure because of something missing inside of himself. He has to spend every moment of his life building order out of chaos because he doesn't have that order inside of him. Detective fiction is also instructional: Batman is obsessive/compulsive (look at his trophy room in the Batcave), and either a bit autistic or sociopathic. He can't forget and constantly has to organize the information in his head before he loses his place. He can't relate to people, but is a tremendous actor. He's jarringly detached, but he can never let go of anything.

5. Jason Todd

He was Robin. He died. He's dead. Bringing Jason Todd back was the worst decision a Batman writer has ever made, and that's saying a lot. The false Jason Todd in the Hush storyline is interesting. Jason Todd really being alive is not. Losing a Robin, and the guilt Batman feels (or doesn't feel?) about it is key to his character. His inability to stop using a sidekick is key, too. Hell, at the time she replaced Tim Drake, Batman didn't even like Stephanie Brown. Why do children keep seeking the Batman out, and why is he, the strongest will in the DC universe, unable to say no?

Friday, July 11, 2008

I'm not wrong, just not as insightful as I'd often like to be

Short Schrift has posted a response to my Obama post which is well-considered, well-organized, and cogent in a way that my original post is not. He and I have also discussed the post between ourselves, and between the two responses I have become well aware of the interpretations I invited by my own lack of a strong thesis, but somehow I still don't think I'm wrong. Mounting a defense, however, requires a clear statement of ideas, which is something I did not do (or even consider terribly important) in my original post.

One of the big problems with my question "is Obama a lefty?" is the ambiguity between the terms "leftist," "liberal," and "progressive," which I use interchangably in the post, and while I'm not ready to provide more than a working definition, I don't really think that they mean the same thing. A leftist is a politician informed by or sympathetic to socialism. A progressive, in terms of the current campaign, would be more closely related to the term populist—someone concerned with something akin to social justice, with the implication of changing the operations of Federal government from its current system of interests to something different (whatever that may be). A liberal is a term opposed to "conservative," and largely meaningful only in that opposition, perhaps most specifically someone who believes that it is the proper function of government to serve the interest of individuals directly.

On the one hand, I stand by my assertion that only Fox News and sympathetic parties can make a straight-faced argument that Obama is a leftist. Likewise, while I would say that Obama is clearly far more progressive than Bush or McCain, Mike Huckabee's campaign has made the progressive label far more complex and less a domain of one specific political party than it has been since I can remember. At the same time, by any meaningful definition, Obama is indeed a liberal, although I stand behind my skepticism as to whether Obama is meaningfully more or less liberal than Clinton.

In fact, I don't see Obama as being that different from Clinton. As a leftist, I see Obama and Clinton as similarly compromised (in the sense of my own leftist standards), but from different angles. I see Clinton as someone who has had to move rightward for political survival, and has had no qualms about doing so. In perfect equilibrium, I might largely be in agreement with her, but no politician exists in a world without external forces, and the only views of Clinton's that I care about are the ones she expresses on the floor of the Senate. I actually believe that Obama has had to compromise his default principle less at this point, and that his rhetoric has been more honest than Clinton's. If Obama is willing to do the things that Clinton has only talked about, or tried and failed to do, then he will have a better claim to being a liberal than she, but his call for telecom immunity and expressions of support for faith-based initiatives have been, shall we say, less than encouraging to me, and I'm pleased to see that I'm not the only one. The point of my post was not that I think Obama a secret conservative or a liar, but that I find a certain resonance in Koppelman's description of members of the "progressive net roots" who are dissatisfied with a number of Obama's positions. The point that Koppelman seems to find most cogent is not that Obama should be opposed, but that

Obama isn't ours, he never was, and we shouldn't pretend he is or else we are throwing away the opportunity to have real progressive policies enacted sometime over the next few years.

Once you absorb this state of affairs, it's a fairly optimistic path forward. All of the work going into getting Obama elected is helping to build the progressive movement and teaching millions of people to get involved, give money, run for office, etc. These people have progressive sympathies and are attaching themselves to important political networks. Some of them paid attention to FISA who were not paying attention in 2006, which is good. The network is just bigger and stronger.

Obama, in this light, can still be an agent of change, but it is a reminder that no politician ever belongs to a movement, even their own. Whatever one's agenda is, it should never be entrusted to a politician, especially one that agrees with you.

Is Obama really a lefty?

Well, unless you're a follower of a certain radio pundit whose initals are R.L., the answer has always been a clear no. As a Paul Krugman reader, I think there's been a valid debate over whether Obama or Clinton really represented progressive interests—that is to say that it's not really clear that either Clinton or Obama could really be described as liberal or progressive, much less that one of them could be said to be more progressive than the other. Actually, as an unrepentant socialist, I think it's rather depressing that there was ever any genuine possibility of the deeply centrist Clinton operating as the "progessive" side of any equation.

Alex Koppelman at highlights Obama's progressive "net-roots" supporters' concern with his "vote for FISA legislation (and to a lesser extent, his recent positioning on the death penalty, Iraq, abortion and faith-based initiatives)."

To understand where . . . net-roots leaders are coming from, it's important to remember that there have long been concerns in those quarters about Obama's positions on a variety of issues: his "bipartisan" rhetoric; his claim that Social Security is in "crisis"; his support for a residual troop commitment in Iraq; his relationship with anti-gay ministers; even his healthcare plan, have all drawn fire. He didn't become the preferred candidate of the progressive net roots until the contest became a one-on-one fight with Hillary Clinton.

Even then, net-roots enthusiasm for Obama was mainly attributable to appreciation for his revolutionary use of Internet technologies to raise money and organize volunteers, and his early opposition to the Iraq war (compounded by hostility toward Clinton), rather than any general approbation of him as a progressive stalwart.

So all the current talk we are hearing, much of it from chortling conservatives, about the net roots' love affair with Obama coming to an end, should be tempered with the understanding that for many, it was always a complicated relationship. Maybe some love has now been lost, particularly for net-roots activists who backed Obama from the beginning. But what's really emerging, or reemerging, now is a partnership based on cold political realities.

A partnership based on cold political realities? How Clinton-esque.

My point, of course, is not that Obama is bad. It's simply that it looks like the Clinton/Obama dichotomy was largely a rhetorical mirage. Is there really that much difference between a liberal who tacks to the center (Clinton) and and centrist in progressive clothing (Obama)? While either Clinton or Obama would be immeasurably better than either the current regime or McCain, I have always been skeptical of the argument that Clinton somehow represented an "old" way of doing politics and that Obama offered something new.