Breaking my bubble with art

I’ve been struggling a lot lately with how to break out of my political bubble. I hoped that a quick change to my facebook newsfeed might be helpful, adding the National Review and America Magazine to my diet. This lasted maybe a week as I found I couldn’t stomach a lot of what the NR was publishing and that America Magazine was more inside my bubble already than out. Evidence of this? How about this article that was published back in February that, if anyone looked too closely, one might assume I plagiarized in a recent blog post about the same topic. In reality, this is just evidence of the greatness of contemporary music speaking to two people in different corners of the world – but it also speaks to how America Magazine is not going to be what breaks my bubble.

This weekend I participated in my most recent ministry interview with the United Chruch of Canada. A pastor and good friend drove me down to Belleville for the day and on the way we discussed all the arts and culture that usually populates our conversations between discussions and reaffirmations of theological issues. He’s from Ontario, but has family in the States and did his post-secondary education there as well. Both he and the other chaplain at my school played a big role in keeping me from the front lines of vitriolic hatred in political discourse. In light of Trump’s election, it is so easy to just ignore the opposition. But here I’ll say something that might surprise you: avoiding debate with the opposition is not a bad thing. I have no interest in having political discussions with people on the other side of the aisle from me for two reasons. 1) I am not a politician and have no access to political power that could use compromise to move forward on certain issues that can be agreed upon. 2) I don’t see people on the other side of the aisle as completely human in the way that I ought to. In the same way that our culture asks us to objectify and dehumanize everyone around us, I have an idea of what “The Right” is and that is likely divorced from the lives of those people. I hear stories from people of colour, queer folk, immigrants, and women in my spheres that place me squarely against ‘those’ people; however, that is no excuse for trying to at least understand them complexly.

But how do I do that? I still firmly believe that protesting keynote speakers coming to colleges and shutting down the platforms accessible to the most vocal of The Right is perfectly within my rights as a human being. Just because I don’t believe that the government shouldn’t have the authority to throw people in jail over what they believe does not mean I believe all spaces are spaces for “free speech.” It was during and after this car ride that I had a realization about how I can begin to imagine others complexly without inviting vitrolic conflict into spaces where it can only do harm.

I was introduced to this song which has some really beautiful poetry in it about how Alabamans imagine themselves. But more importantly, it sparked in my brain the notion that art could be the first place where I could start to break through my bubble.

This wasn’t the first time I had done this; black metal is a genre that I engage with to understand how pain and anger at the church and God can reveal beauty and truth. I don’t have to agree with the artist to see how their art is calling to the transcendent in this world, even if it’s a different transcendent to the artist than it is to me. The same is true with the Right and with the South. In a similar vein to my piece on passing the microphone, I want to hear the good and the bad about communities from people within those communities. I want to listen to Lynyrd Skynyrd to understand how white southerners construct their identity in the same way that I listen to Outkast to understand how black southerners do the same. I want to listen to the Drive-by Truckers to hear critiques and celebrations of Lynyrd Skynyrd instead of listening to Neil Young’s decrying of those southern men. I want to remember that neighbourhoods, cities, states, countries, and religions are not monolithic. They are complex and multidimensional, containing voices that can speak inward and outward with more authority than any old liberal culture critic. Because isn’t that really the lesson that both the Bible and contemporary social justice writers have been telling us? The Bible demands that we talk to our communities differently than we talk to the rest of the world because we hold ourselves to higher standards. Social justice authors have been begging us to listen to the lived experiences of the suffering as long as social justice has been written about. If you can’t go and debate and discuss with people on the other side of the aisle, I do not blame you. But it doesn’t absolve us of our responsibility to try and imagine others complexly. When we have the strength and courage to do so (understanding that a lot of the time we just don’t) I think this is a way to start peering outside our bubbles.

And to celebrate here’s some Skynyrd.

In my younger and more vulnerable years…

In my younger and more vulnerable years…

I’m sitting in my Aunt’s basement after having watched two films for the first time in longer than I’d like to admit, and I look at a bookshelf near the couch I’m sleeping on. Among the assorted titles are Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, but as you can tell by the picture below, I was immediately drawn to the older titles on the left.

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It’s an eclectic collection to say the least. From Salman Rushdie to the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen and The Brothers Grimm. There’s something that sets the other three titles out though.

It’s hard to make out in the photo, but there are actually two different editions of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – one as part of a compilation with Dubliners and Chamber Music in a sleeve that makes me feel it was printed in the 90s. The other, a 1928 printing from The Modern Library with faded binding and sloppy underlining through the text. What stood out to me about this edition though is this faded inscription on the inner front cover.

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If I’m reading that right, this 88 year old book was once owned by a Jo Morgan. So many literary analysts spend so much time and effort trying to figure out what can be gleaned about the author of a book from the prose. Yet at this moment, I’m more interested in who this Jo Morgan is and what I can glean from the notes that he took, however many years ago.

Next up is the edition of Great Expectations. Not nearly as old as the Joyce as the most recent printing listed is 1976, but this book seems for more loved by its previous owner.

Kate Sharpe, I have to assume, was a student when she owned this book. There are coffee stains everywhere and only rarely are there any marks on the pages which makes me think that Kate found out where the important scenes were and underlined everything to make it seem like she had done her homework. I can’t help but find is just a little funny, the geneaology of students struggling through great literature for school.

The last book (Gatsby) though is by far the most interesting because of who’s name is on its inside cover.

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That my friends, is my father’s signature. Whenever he owned this, he only highlighted two passages. The first is the infamous, “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!”But the second is more interesting.

The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God — a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that — and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty.

This isn’t the quote I think of when I think of Gatsby, but I’ve got to say it’s an interesting choice. I wonder what was going through his mind when he highlighted this.

But the reason I started writing this actually has to do with the advice Nick Carraway’s father gave him – which I found on the first page as I opened this book for the first time in years.

“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

This makes me think of all the politics of privilege that I’ve learned about in my university education. It makes me think of the nature of patience and long-suffering my religious upbringing has given me. It makes me think of how I’m glad that my response to all these books was wonder rather than ambivalence. I have the advantage of posterity, and I hope that someone someday picks up a book with my name in it, and thinks about the enormity of time and experience to which physical books grant us access.

X2: X-Men United (2003)

Okay, my optimism has rewarded me on the analogy front and has also shot me down to a degree. X2, the second of what will soon be 7 X-Men films (blatantly) continues the analogy from the first film that mutants are gay.  It also continues the Malcolm X/Magneto, MLKR/Professor X train of the analogy and actually gives it more substance and complexity (even if it is still somewhat problematic in conclusion).

The first aspect of the film to mirror a rights struggle analogy is in the opening battle sequence. Nightcrawler attacks the white house, almost killing the president with a knife that has a ribbon attached to it with the words, “Mutant Freedom Now.” I unfortunately see that as an attempted knock at more militant activist groups (in the American consciousness most commonly associated with the Black Panther Party) and a continuation of Magneto’s problematic nature in these films.

The analogy then takes a more progressive/realist turn with an attack on the school. The raid seems reminiscent of the raids on gay bars that eventually led to the Stonewall riots and the film rightfully portrays this raid as a flagrant abuse of power that should be righteously rebelled against (as done by Wolverine).

Because of the raid, Wolverine, Iceman, Pyro, and Rogue flee to Boston to Iceman’s house where we are treated to a classic “coming out” scene. The mom has such great lines as, “when did you first know that you are a…” and “have you tried not being a…” Never being able to say the word mutant. While funny, it does come off as a little too on the nose until the police arrive. The best part of this scene is the younger brother who storms out angrily and calls the cops. He is made to represent the rejection that these teens face when coming out and it is done really effectively.

The other perfectly done part of this film happens between the villain Robert Stryker and Professor X. It is a short scene with other elements that transcend the analogy but a key piece of dialogue woven in involves Xavier saying, “Mutation is not a disease,” and Stryker screaming back, “YES IT IS.” It is jarring and feels like the honest denial of a homophobic parent. It also highlights his character’s relationship to the analogy through his son. He sent his son to Xavier’s school to be “cured” and then took him out when he realized that wasn’t Xavier’s goal. It then seems to become Stryker’s goal in life to reform mutants, turning him into the hyper-conservative gay reformer we think of today.

Then the film does something truly interesting. For about an hour Magneto becomes an anti-hero and teams up with the X-Men to stop the antagonist. Magneto’s methods are condoned for a large portion of the film as necessary due to circumstances. Where Xavier’s pacifism would have failed, Magneto’s violence seems to succeed through most of the film as a means of saving Xavier. It’s unfortunate that he eventually tries to use Xavier’s powers to kill all human beings, again feeding into the revolutionary-as-villain trope. But the film at least complicates the issue this time and I give it points for that.

The other aspect of the film that I want to comment on even though I have no firm conclusions is the concept of naming. Xavier uses a mix of birth names and mutant names in reference to his X-Men. Ororo Munroe is Storm and Scott Summers is Cyclops but Phoenix is Jean Grey and Wolverine is Logan. Stryker and Magneto on the other hand use the mutant names almost exclusively. For Stryker it is a method of demeaning and dehumanizing the mutants but for Magneto it’s something different.

There is a scene where Magneto is talking to the young mutant John Allerdyce and asks him his name. John replies that it is “John” but Magneto then asks for his ‘real’ name to which he replies, “Pyro.” Magneto then affirms Pyro that he is a god among insects and to never be ashamed of his powers.

This complements another scene when Nightcrawler asks Mystique why she does not always stay morphed to look “like everyone else.” She replies that it is because she shouldn’t have to.

Like I said I don’t have anything concrete to say about the use of birth vs mutant names but there are airs of both an analogy to the trans experience of changing names and the general oppressed experience of reclaiming harmful language. It is definitely one of the more interesting parts of this series and something I will continue to keep a close eye for going through the other 5 films.

X2 is a much better film than its predecessor and its use of the primary analogy in the series is better and more nuanced. There are still problems in the film when following the analogy but its nice to watch a superhero film that can have fun while still having meaning.

X-Men (2000)

Anyone who looks for even an inkling of deeper meaning in film is likely familiar with the great X-Men analogy. X-Men are just like us they were just born the way they are and we can’t try and change them. Although we have tried.

It’s a massive analogy for the queer community. The struggle through abusive testing, legislation, segregation, etc. The first film opens with grandiose speeches about human evolution, Nazi-level intolerance, and a presentation to the US Senate about the dangers of forcing mutants to be public and registered with their identities.

There are plenty of details that solidify this analogy. The senator advocating for mutant registration asks, “do we want our children being taught by them?” Logan  was experimented on because of his mutation; which while done for the opposite purpose sounds similar to gay reformation efforts. Rogue hurts anyone she touches, starting with a kiss; a clear parallel to AIDS and the sexual disease aspect of anti-gay intollerance.

This is the primary conflict of themes in Bryan Singer’s X-Men, half of the film is commenting on the rights movement for LGBTQ people and the other half is commenting on broader post-human themes. The narrative about mutation is at many times in conflict with its thematic analogy.

This is probably the film’s greatest strength as well as its greatest weakness. By connecting the struggle of LGBTQ people into the films narrative it is able to make some particularly strong commentary, particularly about the impact that intolerance has on children. And this connection is made stronger by the disconnect between the mutant/queer struggles. At least these mutant children have a place to go thanks to Dr Xavier. When gay or trans kids are forced out of there homes for whatever reason, they go to poorly funded and unsustainable youth shelters. By injecting the two themes together into the story, the real world implications of this kind of intolerance become clear by juxtaposition.

The film also brings other aspects of this analogy to light through its use of language. One of the more interesting would be Magneto’s use of “my brothers” as a greeting for other mutants. There is certainly an aspect of the queer discourse of a hierarchy of identities and the power that lies therein. The most common example of this is in how the identities of trans folk and the pronouns and names they prefer are not respected. Magneto calling Jean Grey and Storm “brothers” rings true to that experience. His ideology trumps his solidarity.

Those are the positives at work in the film’s analogy: now for the more problematic angle.

There has actually been a fair amount written about the other side of the X-Men analogy. I want to make clear before we continue though that for the purposes of the analysis here, we are only focusing on the first X-Men film. This analogy becomes deeper and more complicated through each of the other 5 films (not to mention the history in the comics) and we’ll tackle those films on their own.

So, as the links above describe, there is a comparison to be made between Professor X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Irving Greenberg while Magneto is compared to Malcolm X and Rabbi Meir Kahane. This is something Stan Lee himself has confirmed. King and X in particular were the inspiration for Xavier and Magneto at the point of their creation.

Now considering the change from a racial politics analogy to a sexual politics analogy, it might seem that for Bryan Singer’s X-Men this might have softened a little to acknowledge the problematic nature of comparing Malcolm X to a supervillain.

Unfortunately, the last line that Magneto utters in the film confirms that he is indeed supposed to be the Malcolm X figure. As Charles is visiting him in prison, Magneto reminds that there will still be a war between the humans and the mutants, and that he intends to fight it…

 

It is remarkably unfortunate that this line was included. For those unfamiliar with Malcolm X, arguably his most famous speech ended with this sentence.

We declare our right on this earth to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.” 

And so this film cannot escape the connection between Magneto and Malcolm X that has existed since Magneto’s creation. The X-Men are Professor Xavier’s assimilationist forces combating the revolutionary forces of Magneto’s Brotherhood of (Evil) Mutants. This problem has existed in white America since the time of the civil rights movement: describing Martin Luther King Jr as an angelic figure while Malcolm X is the evil radical activist bent on destroying white people.

This view (which is absurd if you have read the other works of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr) is totally confirmed in the film. Magneto’s plan is to turn all of the world leaders considering the question of Mutant registration into Mutants themselves. Its like taking the worst parts of how straight America sees gay people – wanting to make everyone gay – and the worst parts of how white America sees radical black activists – wanting to destroy their way of life – and putting it all together in this super misrepresentation.

X-Men is a conflicted film in its attempt at progressive politics. It gets the effect of intolerance on youth but it creates a seriously problematic portrayal of any activists that choose to be anything but non-violent. As we go through the rest of the series with this lens I do hope that I find more inspiring portrayals than exist in the latter half of this first film.