Notes on the Atrocities
Like a 100-watt radio station, broadcasting to the dozens...

Monday, July 12, 2004  


The pivotal moment in Spider-Man 2 isn't at the climax, during the final battle with the nefarious Doc Ock. It's earlier in the penultimate battle. Spidey has just been fighting the bad doctor, and is trying to prevent a hurtling train from rocketing off the tracks. Doc Ock has damaged the controls and left Spidey to save the passengers. His first effort at webbing is broken. He tries again and the webbing holds, but it appears that Spidey, hanging onto the webs, might break. His mask had been torn off earlier in the battle, and now he's revealed to the world. It gives us the rare opportunity to watch as his face contorts to hang onto the webbing, to see his fragility and humanity.

Hold that thought.

Yesterday, the United States Senate took up the latest far-right values sortee and debated the constitutional ban on gay marriage. Everyone, including a large majority of senators, who didn't even bother to show up for the debate, knows that this isn't about gay marriage, it's about getting Bush's base out for this year's election. The stunt is effective to this extent, though--it's forcing the world to talk, again, about values.

This word "values" is an invention of the Christian conservatives, not a time-honored element of conservatism. It is coded language to communicate to a secret society about very specific agendas. It says "your way of life is threatened, and you must eliminate the enemy." Call it the "just say no" agenda. Beginning with Reagan, this faction of the GOP decided that it was their business to enforce a code of conduct. Though they used the language of universalism, they were actually trying to make laws that legally excluded people and behavior, the latest example of which is this preposterous gay-marriage ban. In fact, if you were going to describe this value in a single word (and you were an uncharitable partisan like me), you might use the word "distrust."

Until the late 60s, liberals owned values. They were so deeply ingrained that they didn't even know it. They were the moral party, the party of compassion, the party that stood against the predators of industry and oppression. They defeated the JP Morgans, the Nazis, and the segregationists--a hell of a trifecta.

Liberalism is essentially a doctrine of trust. Democracy, the liberal experiment, is the political model of trust. In order for the system to remain a true democracy, citizens must trust those who hold values with which they deeply disagree. That's why the momentum of a healthy democracy is always against power--whether it's the JP Morgan variety or the mob variety.

Spidey manages to stop the train, of course, but it costs him consciousness and possibly more. The passengers pass his prone body mosh-pit style back to a safe clearing, and they lay him out. He eventually snaps out of it and realizes his mask is gone. He's terrified: now that they know who he is, all his loved ones are in jeopardy. But here comes the liberal-minded values. The New Yorkers return the mask, and everyone swears secrecy. Spidey has learned trust runs both ways. The themes of the movie version of Spider-Man are taken whole cloth from Stan Lee's liberal-era comic. The movie looks like the new millenium, but it feels mid-century. Spidey is a superhero of trust. This moment in the movie is a deeply subversive one, because we all long for that kind of democratic value, that JFK-era trust. We want to ask what we can do for our country, not what our country can do to gays and lesbians. It's a moment of spaciousness when one experiences what we've traded away with this new era of politics.

The talk of "values" will go on, and it will go on under the GOP's terms. It's their creation, and their issue. But let's at least call it what it is--the value of mistrust. Then, at least, we can decide if that's really the value we want.


EJ Dionne, Washington Post: Who's Got the Wrong Values Now?

USA Today: Democrats' convention lineup emphasizes 'America's values'

NPR: The Politics of Values

posted by Jeff | 9:23 PM |
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