Recently I was discussing the latest Trump-related hysteria with a friend, who was upset about what he perceived to be a progressive double standard. Basically, he was arguing that in cases where Trump is just doing the same thing that Obama was doing, then Obama’s supporters ought to be willing to admit that they’re either both right, or both wrong. He thinks they’re not being consistent.
But I think they are being consistent, albeit in an unexpected way.
That is, I think that where politics is concerned, people reverse some of the normal rules of inference. In particular, instead of starting from the premise
If a politician does bad things, then he’s a bad politician.
people start from the premise
If a politician is bad, then the things he does are bad.
To someone who reasons this way, it’s entirely possible for Obama to be right about separating children from parents who are caught illegally crossing the border, while Trump is wrong about doing exactly the same thing. Obama is good, therefore he does good things. Trump is bad, therefore he does bad things.
If it’s not the actions that are right or wrong, but the actors, then this is all perfectly consistent.
Young children enjoy cartoons like Road Runner, or Tom and Jerry, because it’s easy to tell who is the good guy, and who is the bad guy. And the bad guy always gets his comeuppance in the end. Most superhero comics are the same way.
The problem with this is that it trains kids to see the world in terms of good guys and bad guys — a worldview that many of them never outgrow.
This explains why campaign rhetoric sounds the way it does. The way you get elected isn’t to offer substantive ideas about significant issues. You get elected by being better than your opponent at being seen as ‘the good guy’, or better at framing him as ‘the bad guy’. Which is why so many electoral contests have the same level of sophistication as a Warner Brothers cartoon.
(To take just one example, I’ve seen more inches of copy discussing the crassness of Andy Sanborn’s sense of humor than discussing the soundness of his voting record.)
But comics seem to have been taking an interesting turn in recent years, blurring these lines by showing us heroes who act like villains, and villains who might actually be acting heroically.
For example, in Injustice: Gods Among Us, we see Superman taking over the world, because he doesn’t think people are capable of governing themselves. (Good guy doing… a bad thing?) In Avengers: Infinity War, we see Thanos killing half the population of the universe, but only because he wants to save the other half. (Bad guy doing… a good thing?) In The Pro, we have… well, I’ll let you look into that one for yourself.
But it seems to me that companies like DC, Marvel, and Image are doing us a huge public service by using their comics to explore the idea that maybe you should judge people — if at all — by the actions they take, rather than judging actions by the people who take them. And that labels like ‘good guy’ and ‘bad guy’ aren’t all that helpful when electing people to office, discussing public policy, saving the universe, and so on.
You couldn’t pay people to read ‘serious works’ about this issue, but dress a bunch of men and women in tights and give them superpowers, and you have millions of people who will eat it up. And maybe learn something important.
So in the end, comics like these may end up doing more to improve the quality of political discourse than all the campaign laws, special investigations, and social media purges put together. Which is ironic, given the way that comics have been censored and stigmatized as ‘low value speech’.
Who knows? Maybe next, they’ll take on fake news.