Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Everything I Know About Justice I Learned from Superman

I am an unrepentant comic book geek. Comic art, or sequential art, as Will Eisner - one of the founding fathers of the comic book industry - called it, marries the visual and the literary in way that I continue to find compelling (although for me, bad comic book scripting can never be redeemed by the even the finest comic book artwork).

Comic books have been an on again/off again pursuit in my life, and the medium has changed as our world has changed. By and large, comic books have gotten edgier, grittier and sometimes even cynical. Even that icon of the comic book world, the super-hero, has become more relativistic.

As noir as super hero comics can get these days, the concept of justice is still as basic a part of the super-hero universe as it was way back in 1938 when Superman first lifted an out-of-control locomotive over his head in Action Comics # 1. In a recent issue of Superman, the first meeting of Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne, the respective secret identities of Superman and Batman, is imagined. Neither yet knows of the other’s alter ego. And one of the first exchanges between them is their respective concepts of justice.
“That’s what justice is all about,” says Clark, the eternal Boy Scout in Batman’s eyes, “ – keeping the scales equal, making sure that no one can take advantage of another.” “No,” says the Dark Knight, “justice is about punishing evildoers. Justice is about avenging a crime.”

Two very different views of justice. One – that of leveling the playing field. The other, Batman’s “eye-for-an-eye,” is to my mind more the kind of justice that ensures a never-ending cycle of continuously amplified violence, one that “makes the whole world blind,” as Gandhi reportedly said. By this I do not mean to imply that there is only a relative scale of evil in the world. Only that to synonymize vengeance with justice runs the risk of perpetuating evil.

The irony of comic super heroes and the media industry that grew up around them starting in the 1930’s is that they were the inventions of a caste of Americans born of out of injustice, almost to the last, the sons of immigrants who fled persecution in Europe, Jewish kids for the most part, many of them misfits in their own communities. As Gerard Jones says in “Men of Tomorrow,” his sublime history of the industry: “They were all two or three steps removed from the American mainstream but were more poignantly in touch with the desires and agonies of that mainstream than those in the middle of it.”

An even further irony of the early comic book industry was its penetration by organized crime, similar to the mob’s infiltration of labor unions during the same time period.

Many of these men (for it was a male-dominated vocation) would face further injustice as their creations were wrested from them, and they found themselves denied a slice of the large pie served up by licensing and movie adaptations for their characters. Several fought long, debilitating battles in court that spanned decades to earn themselves a few years of material comfort late in life, as well as some credit for their creativity.

To their credit, neither Superman nor Batman, despite their varying perspectives on justice, has ever taken a life. That is their commonality, and despite their obvious polarities, in the pages of the funny books, they are each other’s most trusted peers, though at times with mutual ambivalence. Both are, without a doubt, quintessential expressions of the light and the dark elements that run through the American psyche and inextricably surround the American concept of justice. As one comic book blogger said: “Superman is how America sees itself; Batman is how the world sees America.”

It is noteworthy that despite Superman’s extraordinary powers, and Batman’s vigilance, not to mention the plethora of other super-heroes that populate their universe, that injustice persists in their world. Not even the combined might of the Justice League of America and the Justice Society of America can bring about a world free of injustice.

So what about our world? One not without heroes at times, albeit none of the Spandex-clad meta-human variety. Sadly, the scorecard is not so great.

Michelle Alexander is an associate professor of law at Ohio State University, and the author of the book "The New Jim Crow." She writes in the current issue of Yes! Magazine:

“Our prison population quintupled in a few short decades for reasons that have stunningly little to do with crime or crime rates. Incarceration rates—especially black incarceration rates—have soared regardless of whether crime was going up or down in any given community or the nation as a whole. Mass incarceration has been driven primarily by politics—racial politics—not crime. As part of a backlash against the Civil Rights Movement, our nation declared a 'War on Drugs' that has turned back the clock on racial progress in the United States. Although people of color are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than whites, African Americans have been targeted at grossly disproportionate rates. When the War on Drugs escalated in the mid-1980s, prison admissions for African Americans skyrocketed, nearly quadrupling in three years, then increasing steadily to a level in 2000 more than 26 times the level in 1983. In some states, 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison have been African American.

“As a nation, we’ve been encouraged to imagine that this war has been focused on rooting out violent offenders or drug kingpins, but that is far from the truth. Federal funding has flowed to those state and local law enforcement agencies that boost dramatically the sheer number of drug arrests. It’s a numbers game. That’s why the overwhelming majority of people arrested in the drug war are the ‘low-hanging fruit.’

“Once branded a criminal, people enter a parallel social universe in which they are stripped of the rights supposedly won in the Civil Rights Movement. The old forms of discrimination—employment and housing discrimination, denial of basic public benefits and the right to vote, and exclusion from jury service—are perfectly legal again. In some major American cities, more than half of working-age African American men are saddled with criminal records and thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives. These men are part of a growing undercaste—not class, caste—a group of people, defined largely by race, who are relegated to a permanent, second-class status by law.”

Just this past week, we in South Florida were served up a flagrant example of a two-tiered justice system, as the scion of a wealthy family was allowed by a judge to essentially buy his way out of serving a prison sentence for killing two men in a hit and run incident. It was then further reported that the defendant’s lawyer was involved in the presiding judge’s campaign for her appointment to the bench!

In 1995, a Stanford educated economist, Dr. David Korten, who had served in Vietnam as an Air Force officer, taught at Harvard, then spent two decades in Asia and Africa with USAID, wrote a book called “When Corporations Rule the World.” In this book, he painstakingly detailed the rise of huge multi-national corporations and the ever-increasing influence and power they were exerting on governments all over the world, forging policy and legislation that served only their interests, their agenda facilitated by three multi-lateral institutions: The World Bank, The International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization. Korten called for a reawakening of civil society and formation of civic networks to counter the anti-democratic excesses of corporatocracy, the blueprint for which he has continued to promote in his subsequent books.

Sixteen years later, Korten’s warning seem prescient, as our own Supreme Court ruled last year in the landmark case Citizens United vs. The Federal Election Commission that corporate funding of independent political broadcasts in candidate elections cannot be limited. At the same time, a number of state governments have launched the fiercest attacks on workers rights in decades.

And meanwhile Charles and David Koch, the third generation scions of the largest privately-held corporation in America, have been pumping millions of dollars into mass-producing fake grass-roots organizations all across the country that manufacture all sorts of deceptive advertizing and media stunts meant to halt any legislation that would inconvenience their corporate agenda.

Two months ago, in the 900th issue of Action Comics, Superman made an unexpected declaration. “I’m tired of having my actions construed as instruments of U.S. policy,” Superman told the president’s national security adviser. “Truth, justice and the American way – it’s not enough anymore,” he proclaimed. “The world’s too small. Too connected.” He then makes the decision to go before the United Nations and renounce his American citizenship.

Imagine that. Superman, the Last Son of Krypton, finally a citizen of the world. Will he now stand for the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all? We cannot have these things in a world debased by greed, hate, racism and poverty. Sadly, as Supes has his epiphany, we in the real world seem to heading down a slippery slope of ever increasing injustice. We won’t get away with it for too long. As poet and agrarian activist Wendell Berry reminds us: "Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do."

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