These blog posts have all been an examination of a single metaphor, manifesting itself in myriad forms: the hero. "The Hero With a Thousand Faces," as Joseph Campbell said (and kudos to whomever won the betting pool as to how long it would take for me to bring him into this mess.) But not just any hero. No, I've been trying to come to grips with how the hero manifests now, whether he or she is named Buffy Summers, Harry Potter, Olivia Dunham, Hiro Nakamura, Veronica Mars, Jack Bauer, Deborah Morgan, Jaimie Reyes, Kim Possible, Jack Harkness, Kate Kane, Virgil Hawkins, Renee Montoya, Aang, Stephanie Brown, Malcolm Reynolds, Martha Jones or Ryan Choi. And I think, amid all of this, something's become clear to me: We're still struggling to enter the 21st Century.
You'd think something like that would be as easy as turning a calendar, wouldn't you? But it isn't. The past and the future are siege engines firing back and forth at the present, to steal a line from someone or other (Warren Ellis, maybe?), and we stand somewhere in the fallout. Everything around us changes, and we find ourselves facing questions that seem almost ridiculous, questioning assumptions about race, misogyny, homophobia, war, violence, economics, health care, even the distribution of information. Even the fairness of the platform we move that information around on. It's almost mind-boggling, and I think I can have a modicum of sympathy for people overwhelmed by it all, this idea that some of our basic assumptions of the world need to not only be re-evaluated, but built entirely from the bottom up. I listen to some of the Tea Party fever rage, and I keep hearing the same phrase, over and over again. "I want my country back."
Here's the sharpest, kindest answer: You can't have it. No one ever gets the past back, no matter how badly you think you want it. And really, you probably don't want it anywhere near as much as you think you do. History, for all its hardships, generally does move in the right direction. As a whole, we do become collectively more free, healthier, less violent and more comfortable as we move forward, but it sucks a lot along the way. It, really, really does. Every 80 years or so, American history pretty much takes a nose dive, and spends 10 to 20 years or so rebuilding. We're probably in the middle of that right now, and to tell you the truth, I have no idea what the other side is going to look like. History says it'll probably be a bit better, all around. History lies a lot, to steal another line, and there are still places in this country (never mind the rest of the world) where it still won't look that great. History's a zigzagging line, but the progression, over all, is usually upward.
But the past doesn't go away, either. Sometimes that's a good thing. The Bill of Rights becomes the syntax of our political vocabulary, sometimes holding it up like scripture, sometimes stewing when it gets in the way of what we think we want or need. Sometimes, we struggle over interpretations of what it means, or what it means today. Because we do live in a different world than it was in 1776. That's OK. Women can vote, we don't own slaves and non-property owners can vote. Never mind inoculations against a good many infectious diseases. The world's a better place than it was, and for all our struggles with it sometimes, over free speech and the right to bear arms, and just about any other issue we can conjure, it's still one of the things that makes us better than what we might have otherwise been. And we keep Superman around, too, as dusty and oddly quaint as he often seems. Because it's still, in the end, a good ideal. One worth remembering.
Still, some relics from the past can change. From the end of slavery to women's suffrage, from the Civil Rights Movement to the repeal of DADT, we do get better. We tinker and rebuild things for the future all the time. Stephen Moffat offers a Sherlock Holmes in the 21st Century, detached from others, choosing mostly to communicate via technology, and it works. Grant Morrison gives us a Batman who, rather than fighting a solitary war against crime in one city, turns costumed crime fighting into a franchise (like 7-11, or Al-Qaeda), with decentralized Batman operatives around the world, including a French one who is an Algerian Muslim immigrant, with requisite racist backlash from people who've not actually read the story, but who instead simply balk at any positive portrayal of a Muslim. As if such a large group of people -- about a sixth of the planet -- were all one thing. As if none of them are capable of being heroes. As if Muslim police and firefighters in New York weren't heroes on 9-11, some sacrificing their lives to save others. (But then, we don't always treat those real-life heroes all that well, do we?) Some of it is worth holding onto. It's not perfect, but it can be refitted.
But a lot of it? A lot of it can go. I raised the question earlier of no African-American poets being included in Anis Shivani's roundup of major poets discussing the influences of major poets. To his credit, Shivani responded, and said it wasn't for lack of trying. But that seems beside the point, because as much better as things have gotten, the shadow of history still falls on our literature as much as it does any other aspect of our culture. Writes critic Jordan Davis, "Literary history, at least as far as race in America is concerned, is stuck, and the doctrine of separate but equal has to be overturned again and again, with every book published. If the doctrine were dead, then it would be common knowledge that Robert Hayden is at least as remarkable a poet as Robert Lowell, or that the Hugheses—Ted and Langston—run about even; or that it would be ignorant of a young poet to study Elizabeth Bishop to the exclusion of Rita Dove, or vice versa. It would also finally be possible to assess the claim that Amiri Baraka's work—his early work as LeRoi Jones, anyway—outdoes them all. ... It can be difficult to be a young black poet now. You're courted by publishers and anthologists, by the halls of academe; yet post-colonial and subaltern and diaspora scholars, who fight turf battles over what to call themselves, tell you what to write and how to write it, questioning your language and your motives (or, worse, applauding them) before you've written a line. Easier, I suspect, to be a young poet everyone is ignoring. Easier for what? To do what? Write a memorable poem that makes everyone around take notice? Then where are all the show-stopping thousands of young ignored poets? Is their game good enough to stand up to some of the best trash talk of our times, talk so dismissive it doesn't even bother with the second person?" (Thanks to Daniel Nester for the reference.)
It's overwhelming, and the smart money's on fighting the exhausting series of small battles, one after the other, because they're the ones that actually add up, over time, to effective change. You can't simply elect a Barack Obama and walk away. He's a change, but not the totality of it. The changes that need to be made burble up from the culture, eventually flowing into some sort of tide. Literature -- fiction, poetry, cinema, theater, comic books -- are where that plays out, and what wins in that arena is what smacks of truth, not which suits an ideology. You can pass a billion bills in Congress, and I'm forced to wonder how much of it adds up to a single comic book page of a teenage girl -- the newest Batgirl, Stephanie Brown -- slapping Batman.
Writes the author of that comic, Bryan Q. Miller, "Stephanie’s journey over the course of the volume leading up to this issue was all about self-awareness. And about validation. She had finally started to get some traction regarding being okay with who SHE is/was. And then this legend, this symbol, shows back up. This man she probably thought she’d never have to deal with again. A man who’s approval she’d never truly been able to procure. But then, as soon as she saw his face, as soon as she realized Bruce was up to his old tricks again, that they were dancing to a very familiar tune, Batgirl realized something - not only did she not want Bruce’s approval… she didn’t NEED it. And that he would dare to presume to tell her what she did and did not need AND-THEN-SHE-TEA-KETTLED-AND-SLAPPED-
It's magic. Sometimes the past -- even the past worth keeping around, in some form -- needs to get slapped, to be reminded that for all the good it's done, no matter how much we may love it, it doesn't own this moment. Because when the culture is dictated by nostalgia and habit, it's the present that gets neglected.