Friday, March 23, 2007

Superheroes and Politics - Where's the Line?

Taking a break from grading, I read JLA: Superpower, a Prestige one-shot from 1999 written by John Arcudi that I picked up cheap the other day. Without revealing many details - it's worth looking for, IMHO - it deals with a very eager young hero, Mark Antaeus, who is invited to join the JLA after demonstrating his abilities and devotion. But while he does help the JLA in fighting supervillains and helping victims of natural disasters, he desperately wants to intervene in a political situation involving a murderous (ostensibly fictional) Middle East dictator. The rest of the JLA, while repulsed by the actions of this man, refuse to participate in an assassination attempt, but Mark says he does not plan to kill him, only remove him from power. Nonetheless, the JLA refuses to interfere in "affairs of state," after which Mark quits the JLA and takes matters into his hands. (Read the book for the rest.)

This raises a very interesting point: where does this prohibition on interfering with state affairs come from, and does it strictly rule out interventions to prevent eggregious human rights violations? (I assume the prohibition is based on the U.N., which I believe has a similar provision, chiefly against interfering in civil wars.)

One way to look at the JLA's position is that they respect sovereign nations' laws and policies, whatever their moral status. This reflects the jurisprudential doctrine of legal positivism, that the validity of laws stems (at least primarily) from their source or pedigree, not any independent moral evaluation. But critics of legal positivism - and Mark Antaeus, apparently - believe that there is a higher standard by which to judge governments' laws, a position generally known as natural law. Different natural law thinkers would claim different standards, but all would agree that whatever standard they hold should be used to evaluate even sovereign nations' laws and actions. For instance, human rights groups regularly criticize national governments for violating what they feel are essential human rights, regardless of their legality within each country.

We see this same theme played out in recent issues of Green Lantern, in which Hal Jordan regularly violates the Freedom of Powers Act, a law passed by a group of countries (not including the US) that prohibits the activities of superheroes within their borders. GL's argument is that the whole of space sector 2814 is his jurisdiction - he serves the Guardians of the Universe, not any one Earth nation-state. Just as the early natural law theorists, such as St. Thomas Aquinas, believed that God's law supercedes human laws, Green Lanterns enforce the Guardians' "law" over the laws of any one planet.

And finally, the philosophical battle in Marvel's Civil War can be stated in terms of this debate. Heroes on the Pro-Reg side may have chosen that side because they believed in the intent and prupose of the Superhero Registration Act, or perhaps because they believed that "the law is the law," provided it was instituted through proper legal channels ("primary rules," to use legal positivist H.L.A. Hart's term). (Strangely, Daredevil, who has always espoused a respect for law as law, was Anti-Reg, but maybe the choice was Danny's, not Matt's.) The Anti-Reg forces were opposed to the law because they felt it was wrong, that there were higher ideals threatened by its passage, however legitimate and democratic the process may have been. (This has shades of John Stuart Mill's concept of "tyranny of the majority" - Mill wrote that there are some rights that should be protected even against majoritarian democratic processes, such as those included in the Bill or Rights.) In this light, Captain America's surrender at the end of Civil War #7 can be seen as a concession to legal positivism, that the registration law passed "by the people" should truly be considered to be "for the people," and if his side wants to fight it, they should do so through the proper channels. (There are strong arguments for civil disobedience, of course, but they usually do not include destroying a city in the process, as the final battle in CW #7 was doing before Cap called it off.)

All of this can be summarized in the question: what is justice? Is it defined by governmental laws, or by a higher, "natural" law? Since superheroes are usually understood to be fighting for justice, one cannot avoid these issues, especially in today's more politicized (and philosophical) comics world.

1 comment:

Carsten said...

Two comments:

1) If one is to discuss the question of superheroes and "real life politics" there are several graphic novels/limited series, which should be mentioned: "Watchmen" of course; "The Authority" (especially the issues scripted by Mark Millar, and the more recent "Coup d'etat" and "Revolution" miniseries); and Mark Gruenwald's dated, but still classic, "Squadron Supreme". And, I guess, also "The Ultimates", though I have trouble figuring out how seriously one should take the underlying political setting.

2) One line of argument, which you do not discuss, is the (obvious) similarities between "Superheroes" and "Superpowers". Superheroes and superpowers (at the moment only the US) have the power to impose their will on other nations - to change things for the (hopefully) better. But having the power to do something does not mean that one has the right to do it. So even if Superman (or the JLA) have the power to change things for the better, does this mean that they should do this? This is the question which is at the heart of both "Watchmen" and "Squadron Supreme".

And, as Spiderman keeps reminding us: "With great power comes great responsibility." :-)