More Power, More Responsibility

(Soundtrack: Live —The Distance To Here)

Okay. Here’s why the “superheroes are fascist” argument is ludicrous:

1. the genre is uniquely American

2. As Louis B. Hartz has demonstrated, quite convincingly I think, American culture was “born liberal”

3. Fascism cannot take root in a culture that has never embraced the concept of hierarchy… In North America, the only example of this type of society is my own home province–which still has metro stations named after Nazi-boostin’ cleric Lionel-Groulx and Ultramontane pro-slavery pontiff extraordinaire Pius IX…

This is why the shrillest complaints about the authoritarian implications of superpowers have tended to be voiced by Europeans. As Milo George points out:

All this [talk about Fascist superheroes] may sound silly to us, but that’s mostly because the only Fascist dictators we’ve ever personally encountered were our parents when we reached our teens and maybe some really really strict teachers in high school.

So much for that.

However, this is not to say hyper-individualistic societies don’t have problems of their own, or that superhero comics can’t help us to think about them!

Take a look at this passage, by Stanley Elkins, one of the most important American historians of the twentieth-century:

…Transcendentalism was quite unable to “transcend” its culture and its age at all: far from revolting against the age, Transcendentalism embodied, in aggravated form certain of its most remarkable features–its anti-institutionalism, its individual perfectionism, its abstraction, and its guilt and reforming zeal. Moreover, the intellectual features of the reform movement most relevant to this inquiry–abolitionism–very strikingly duplicated those very features just enumerated, particularly guilt and its counterpart, moral aggression.

Sound like any characters we know? Elkins’ betes noires are “intellectuals without responsibility”–maverick moralists like Garrison, Emerson, Wendell Phillips, Theodore Parker, etc. who refused to moderate their rhetoric or work to find institutional solutions to the problems of the Antebellum period. Basically, he blames these folks for the Civil War. Personally, I don’t think the conflict could have been avoided, but more about that later… For now, I just wanted to point out that Spider-Man, Animal Man, and, perhaps most importantly, Gruenwald’s Captain America, are perfect examples of this American type–for whom “great power” brings a “great responsibility” to act out upon their convictions which, from a certain point of view, can actually seem irresponsible!

I’m not a fan of Elkins–and, since I’m a supporter of PETA, I’m sure you can guess which side of this argument I fall on!–but he must be dealt with. We can just forget about the fascism stuff though–it’s a “red harangue”…

Alas, I must be off to work!

Good Afternoon Friends!


  1. Dave,

    Call me paranoid, but…

    As you might imagine, I have to disagree about America being somehow protected by its history of liberal traditions from fascism. My friends are always mystified at why I watch Fox News and listen to right-wing talk radio, but the reason is that I want to hear what kind of news and pop political discourse are popular to a lot of people and are shaping more official political discourses. And I can tell you from paying attention to this widespread and highly influential far-right media that fascism has taken quite strong root right here in the U.S. Whether there will be a tree is anybody’s guess, but it’s certainly here in all its glory: the worship of strength of will, the sacralization of armed violence, the inferiority of the enemy, the danger posed by “the enemy within”, the exaltation of purity of conduct, the dismissal of “the feminine” and more. I’m serious when I say that you really should try to listen to Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, Bill O’Reilly or whoever you can find (maybe you could read their books, but even I would never go that far); and, of course, watch Fox News if you can; you can take every item on that little list I made and check it off every time one of them speaks. I don’t know how representative these views are of the American population, but from the popularity of Fox News, I would say we’re talking about one-fourth of the U.S. population, or at least the newswatching, voting population.

    You’ve heard my rant before, so you know I think that this is thanks in part to the alliance of far-right money with consolidating corporations that have the very real technological and economic power to drown out all dissenting voices. This is more than ideological or theoretical: it’s material, a matter of who has the money, who makes the laws and who owns the radio and TV stations. Combine this bombardment of essentially fascist messages with a fairly poor public education system that provides next to no history and terribly little information about America’s liberal traditions (and no information at all about anybody else’s traditions) and we’re well on our way to having more than just roots. Just about the only good sign is that the only way quasi-fascist politicians get elected is by posing as freedom-loving populists, which suggests that the moral compass is still pointed in the right direction, even though all other indicators have failed dismally.


  2. Like John, I’m afraid I can’t share your optimism that American culture is naturally inoculated against fascism – let alone against hierarchy!


  3. Shit, man. Stop dogpile-ing the fascists. What did they ever do to you?

    Not like democracy did such a fantastic job.


  4. Dave

    I always feel like America is flirting with facism sometimes but (optimist that I am) the people correct the situation.

    Sad that the Stanely Elkin you mentioned was not THE Stanley Elkin, but a mere historical imposter.


  5. Jamie –Stanley Elkins, the historian. Not Stanley Elkin the pomo novelist, or Stanely Ellin the crime novelist.

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