The first step to a successful revolution is destroy all competing revolutionaries.
— Carolina in “Jehovah Made this Whole Joint for You” by The New Radicals
Lest you think I’m abandoning my non-violent stance, let me assure you the above quote is from a satirical song — though it only features a slight error. I might prefer, instead, “The first step to a successful revolution is destroy all revolutionary competition.” There’s a lot to be said for eliminating enemies from one’s life, but that doesn’t have to mean eliminating the people whom you consider enemies. If you can do so without bloodshed or “mysterious disappearances”, so much the better. Well, let me clarify with another song lyric:
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…
— “Imagine” by John Lennon
I hope we all know that John Lennon wasn’t encouraging unity through decimation of enemies (after all, Hero was still a few decades away…). Lennon wanted us to think about a world without any concept of enmity. Not non-violence, but post-violence. What constructs in our society would become obsolete if our institutions were no longer built around competing for resources and/or validation that “we” are right/best/most/etc.?
Yeah, and if a frog had wings, it wouldn’t bump its ass when it hopped. — Cassandra in Wayne’s World
The great thing about a rhetorical questions is rarely the answer to that question, but rather the tangents that it inspires. We will likely never know what a society without governments or religions would look like, but what steps could we take in that direction? Could we develop more cohesive economies? More tolerant governments? Less global conflict?
And the best question of all: If so, how?
There’s a brilliant piece in the New York Times this week that identifies a rising trend of such questions being asked of more and more countries. The article, by Nicholas Kulish, connects what began as the Arab Spring to ongoing protests and political actions from India to England and even Wall Street. Many of the protesters aren’t attached to specific demands or dogmas; they are questioning the structure of elected power itself and convening to develop better ideas. What I love most about Kulish’s article is that it highlights the vagueness of these demonstrations and frames it as potent, effective, maybe even a GOOD thing. (If I ramble too long about the article, you won’t click the link, so I’m moving on…)
Kulish goes on to trace the timing of current economic woes across the West back to the fall of Communism. For two decades, no construct has threatened Western lifestyles in quite the manner of a true nemesis like Communism. No matter how much the U.S. government and media alarm us with threats of terrorism, slow economic growth, global climate change, same-sex marriage, de-criminalized marijuana, a Black president, a female president, a conservative president, or progressive tax brackets, none of these horrors posits the same heft as an entire nation with a radically different way of life who is itching for an excuse to prove they’re right. (For the record, I’m not here to take sides in the Cold War, but to examine the lingering effects of its very structure.)
You want big news, you have to have big fights. A superhero needs a supervillain, and thanks to you we’ve got none left.
— Vic Weems, superhero publicist, in Mystery Men
What happens to a heroic superpowered entity with no supervillains to fight? Do they get bored and have to look for fights, puffing up weaker threats to match those of bygone scourges? Even if they do, there’s still a lot of free time leftover, an expensive secret lair collecting dust, and a reputation of power and goodness to maintain. Any hero who out-lives zir usefulness could easily turn up as pathetic as a rock star who out-lives their talent. No matter how good they are, without some goal, some target, some constant stimulus, can they ever be as good as they were?
Ideally, what superpowers should do is take that free time to look within, figure out how to make the good better in new ways — I don’t know, seek enlightenment or cure cancer or some crap like that. If they don’t find a new challenge, their internal idiosyncrasies will snowball until introspection becomes necessary — indeed, maybe this is what is happening today on Wall Street. But can you imagine Superman taking up yoga and bumming around Europe to find himself? Great superheros are structured to be defenders, but there is no need of defenders without conflict. They’re like weather vanes without wind, and much of our culture exists purely in relation (or is it retaliation?) to some other aspect of it. Our very government was founded on the concept of checks and balances because no individual or group could be trusted all the time. Our culture doesn’t know what to do without conflict, but it is our thirst for drama that necessitates each conflict measure greater than the last (even Beowulf leveled up!). Have you ever noticed how many action films focus on threats from WITHIN? After the Cold War, you couldn’t get a viable spy movie plot without some (usually former-Cold-War) operative going rogue. Action films went from being about the Iron Curtain to idle hands. Our culture is structured, for better and worse, toward the existence of good guys and bad guys and their inevitable clash.
Without equally potent bad guys, the U.S. and its allies seem destined to either become bad guys or lose their hero statuses altogether.
Do you know what the scariest thing is? To not know your place in this world, to not know why you’re here.
— Elijah Price in Unbreakable, just before declaring himself a supervillain
Most people don’t choose to become supervillains, so could we stand to lose the hero status? Since we’re looking at comic book ideas anyway, let’s look at comic books literally. “Truth, justice, and the American way!” Superheroes are often stand-ins for government. They fill in governmental lapses to fight crime, rally patriotism, and keep life simple. But comic readers have known for decades that heroes cannot remain simple, steadfast, and unambiguous forever. For every supervillain-to-beat-all-supervillains, a good comic has to include a plot involving lost powers, a turncoat ally, or some devastating moral quandary. Create a character devoted to specific rules and those rules must eventually be challenged, subverted, nuanced. It’s just good drama. Eventually, however, unending drama gets so contrived that the comic makers themselves lose track and decide to start over.
I hope that America’s time of reinvention has come. At heart, I think we’ve got the right idea: our foundations are sound, and here the institution of democracy is not so much in question as is its execution. We’re a lazy democracy, so we need to either shape up or accept that our practices just aren’t going to match our ideals. Personally? I’d like to see some new ideas around democracy. Let’s try eliminating political parties, holding instant runoff elections, implementing a Fair Tax, or taxing campaign treasuries to pay for schools. I mean, if we can reboot such an institution as Superman, why not democracy?
We’ve won all the competitions. There’s no one left to prove our might to, so let’s get on with expanding our wisdom more enthusiastically and sharing our compassion more generously.