Today is for taboo II
The topic is Marvel mutanthood and racism, and its relationship both to prejudice against black Americans and to Jewish-American identity, or a sector thereof. It’s the sequel to Today is for taboo earlier this month.
Everyone has an opinion about how much Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were going on in the concept and execution of the “X” in The Uncanny X-Men in the early 1960s.1963 is two years before Malcolm X was killed, five years before King was killed. This was the period when King’s activism in the American South was foundering badly. The Freedom Rides were facing violent and institutional repercussions, and were even being condemned by the Kennedy administration. It was also the time of Malcolm X’s ongoing interview series with Alex Haley in Playboy, which would be published much later in collected form as The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and of his break with the Nation of Islam. (For you youngsters: the old joke “I only read it for the articles” is subtler than it looks: the 50s-60s Playboy was one of the best literary and political magazines in the world.)
If you care to know, I’m inclined to think that the X-Men were strongly informed by Lee’s and Kirby’s views on civil rights. This is also tied into Lee/Lieber and Kirby/Kurtzberg as older Jewish Americans in their 40s and 50s respectively, just before the murders of Freedom Riders James Chaney (black), Michael Schwermer (Jewish), and Michael Goodman (Jewish), and a few years before the Six-Day War. That debate can go on and on, but my present point is only that the time was very different from the distorted later narrative of successful, visionary King, and marginal, violent Malcolm.
Lee’s and Kirby’s primary X-Men story about racism came in 1965, #15-16, which introduced the Trask family, the Sentinels and the Master Mold. In a word, although Bolivar Trask’s racist messaging does seem to strike a chord among the masses, i.e., the greater populace is vulnerable to fear-mongering and propaganda, they don’t harbor a nugget of “to be triggered” mutant-hatred at all times. The Sentinels then show that racist programming results in tyranny for those who thought they’d benefit from it. Unfortunately, here’s where my experience shows its limitations because I did not have these comics, and I don’t know when the crucial moment arrived when Master Mold juices up its mutant detector to maximum, to discover that it detects everyone on the planet. Mutant detectors have a squishy relationship to Marvel mutant-hatred in the first place and I imagine tracking their conceptual description and their role in stories throughout the decades would make a dandy Master’s thesis for someone. This moment – whenever it was; I do remember it being referenced in a 1987 issue of X-Factor – totally subverts and negates the very idea of essentialist designation among people, though – the best possible , as I see it. Unfortunately it seemed to gain no traction in Marvel story-telling in the long run.
Roy Thomas picked up the Sentinels in 1972 as The Uncanny X-Men was canceled and the story in that title’s #57-59 continued in the Avengers #102-104. In that case, the bonkers robots were using solar flares to sterilize humanity (not “harming them”) so no mutants would be born ever again; that no one would be born didn’t concern them. So again, well and good: you can’t really separate mutant vs. human as concepts or in practice; racism is not only immoral but factually entirely mistaken, therefore acting upon it is insane. This sequence also includes one of the most impressive heroic action moments in superhero history, when Quicksilver defeats a Sentinel alone through clear thinking and at great personal cost. It’s his peak moment of matching his loyalty to his sister/fellow-mutant with genuine service to all persons.
So fast-forward into the mid and late 1970s, via the 1967 and 1973 wars, and the period in between which includes the War of Attrition and the Black September events in Jordan, as well as actions such as the Munich Massacre and the events on the Achille Lauro. Some of American Judaism has undergone a major shift of attention to Israel, which has itself undergone its single most significant shift in governance, not quite so much in actual policy but very much so in domestic demographics and open rhetoric. Lots of variables were involved but came to be symbolized in a new coalition which effectively became a party, Likud, and one of its co-founders who was elected prime minister in 1977.
Menachem Begin came to Israel late in its early days as a refugee from Europe and as the perennial Other Party leader during David Ben-Gurion’s long – pretty much lifelong – premiership. After the latter’s death, Begin finally hit upon a winning political combination in the Labour government’s bungling of the 1973 war, the discontent among nonwhite Israelis, the national confusion and frustration over having become occupiers and effective governors of 3 million (more) Palestinians in the 1967 events, the occupation of Gaza, the Sinai, the Golan, and the West Bank, and the power of organizing via conservative religious networks. The real power in Likud was held by Ariel Sharon, but Begin’s rhetorical intensity and emphasis on racial-nationalist unity among all Jewish Israelis was its selling-point. His style of public speech wigged out more than one lefty Israeli observer: weeping, fist-shaking, leading chants in crescendoing shrieks, all about seizing and holding territory, low on reasoning and high on belligerence. Jewish intellectuals in the U.S. of the 1950s, including Albert Einstein, protested his appearance in the country as an obvious fascist.
So how does any of that relate to black civil rights in the U.S..? Murkily. In the early 60s and before, the most common attribution to Jewish Americans was radicalism and communism, both pilloried for daring to demand change regarding Jim Crow and voting discrimination. HUAC’s assault on communism often focused on Jewish targets for just that reason, and as another way to look at it, many vocal and visible northern activists for southern black civil rights were Jewish and openly leftist. But by the late 1970s, this association – however strong or consistent it really was – had disappeared. There’s not enough public discourse about this. The best I’ve got so far is Jonathan Kaufman’s Broken Alliance, which bluntly investigates northern racism and landlord abuses (this is the book that explained “white flight” to me, it’s an incredible scam) as well as a series of specific events in New York school districts which overtook the larger issues. I think more could be brought in, specifically the 1970s construction of myths about both King and Malcolm X, the little-known course of the 1973 war, and a deeper look into how civil-rights-y the larger Jewish-American population of the 1950s and 1960s really was. The latter would by no means devalue the real and politically-important presence of many young Jewish Americans in the civil rights movement.
It also should be read in close partnership with Eric Goldstein’s The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity, Karen Brodkin’s How Jews Became White Folks, and especially, Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People. What happened in Israel is very different from what happened in the U.S.: Begin secured the nonwhite vote for the Likud by appealing to militarism, exceptionalism, and automatic national loyalty, but Jewish-American support for the Likud is tagged by disdain for nonwhites. (There’s a lot to talk about here. Briefly, ethnically-Arab Jewish Israelis, Mizrahi in Hebrew, bought non-Arab-ness via their willingness to despise Palestinians, just as at the same time, Italian, Polish, Jewish, and Scots-Irish Americans bought whiteness by distancing themselves from black Americans.) All of this ties in as well to the issues raised today by Philip Weiss regarding privilege. Ooh! This just in: Keith Feldman’s new book A Shadow Over Palestine, which looks to be exactly what I was seeking, so it’s next on the reading list.
Kaufman explicitly calls out Marty Peretz’s 1974 acquisition and long-time editorship of the previously liberal-radical magazine The New Republic as a key opinion-making organ for Jewish Americans, and for liberal elites in general. Briefly, it eradicated both the presence and memory of the Jewish leftist-radical from American culture, and contributed greatly both to identifying U.S. interests with those of Israel, and to disavowing black civil rights as a concern for anyone who isn’t black. There is a lot of subcultural history here, in which I’m not particularly involved. I’m a Left Coaster, and the designations of upstate WASPs vs. New Yorkers, and whatever nuances of Long Island or the Catskills, isn’t part of my experience. I easily see how deeply-felt they are via literature and film, as in Salinger, Roth, Allen, and others, but I’ll leave discussion to others, except to say that I have never understood this publication’s reputation as liberal or intellectual. It seems to me ethnocentric and dishonest, the smiling face of a particular form of American exceptionalism which in application is not particularly opposed to the ham-fisted and openly vicious version. It may not have invented, but certainly promulgated the pathologizing of black anger, whether due to the “history of slavery” or innate deficiency. Yeah, you heard that right – consider the later topic of its extensive support for The Bell Curve, which any actual scientist or statistician (I am both) wouldn’t trouble to spit on if it were on fire, and which remains disturbingly entrenched, and underlies a recent spate of further nonsense misappropriating the prefix “bio-.”
The foundation for these “bio-ethnic” narratives lies in the emphasis Peretz’s version of the magazine laid on Jewishness as ethnicity, as opposed to Judaism as religion – a phrasing I first encountered from my girlfriend during the mid and late 80s, at the very time that I was getting back into comics and becoming a considerable X-head. She was enticed into Marvel comics via me, especially the X-titles, and became quite a fan along with me. We were together for a long time (my longest relationship prior to my late 30s and my eventual marriage at 38) but baffled one another on this very issue: to me, naively or at least very regionally, Jewish-American tradition was founded in civil protest and painful awareness of anti-Communist and hard-Christian persecution, and had much in common with Unitarianism; to her, Jewish meant Jewish wherever she was, with latent anti-Semitism surrounding her pretty much anywhere that happened to be, and non-negotiable respect for Israel no matter how much liberal one was otherwise. This was also when I learned that “Democrat” didn’t mean anything similar from place to place in the U.S. For perspective, when Maus came out in book form we were both impressed with it and discussed it a lot, and we were also big fans of Magneto’s now-established history. So we didn’t clash about these things but we never could see eye to eye either.
Ready yet? Here it is: Zionism, Aryanism, most late 19th-century ethno-nationalism, and the resulting offspring, Cold War Americanism, are all the same things. Bellicose, bigoted, non-negotiable, acquisitive patriotism raised to the level of a national religion, official or otherwise, and tied tightly to a local ethnic power-structure that does not stint at exploitation and savagery of all kinds. Beginism + New Republic Judaism, better described as Israelism, is one of many heightened and explicit examples, refined and redefined at this time in a specific relationship to the United States. In other words, Israelism in the U.S. goes hand-in-hand with anti-black prejudice. It taps into institutional Northern racism which gets a pass because it’s not stereotypically Southern. It leads white people to ask “Why are you still so angry” because they keep thinking it’s about voting or lynching in far-away states and about how virtuous they are in comparison, instead of the every-state, every-city War on Drugs, the gross misuses of arrest and sentencing for black Americans, the strict tacit social rules regarding which few black Americans may succeed professionally, and the hideous impact of No Child Left Behind and its predecessor policies. These policies were not generated by the New Republic and in no way can be laid on the lap of Jewish Americans as a body, but the magazine fanned those flames across the whole spectrum of political intelligentia, and in no small way in the service of Zionism.
Like it or not, that’s my observation, unfortunately among real people I know. Does it characterize Jewish Americans? I’m convinced it does not (I don’t think any one term does or could, for any designated group). Is it a powerful political force, often through specific individuals, Jewish and otherwise? I think it is, and would prefer to call that out honestly without distractions. I am particularly unsympathetic to the response called “whataboutery,” for instance citing American black support for Palestinian rights (for which I see no reason to criticize), and which also invokes false equivalence. Black Americans were and are subject to unacceptable rights abuses(Charleston: Do Black and Palestinian lives matter?; How poor black lives matter to US capitalism today) and that’s what I’m talking about.
So here we are in the 1980s, with black civil rights and Jewish political organizing certainly not paired any more insofar as they were, but with the details or significance becoming very sticky in the American mind. Specifically, idealism about Jewish American activism has been confounded with Israeli power (there’s a long-standing issue there too, from the earlier romantic notions of the Zionist “socialist endeavor”), and black Americans are being told that civil rights was victorious, King’s Dream is fulfilled, so what’s your problem. In my experience, these tensions appeared, often with much emotion, in campus arguments about Jesse Jackson and Spike Lee’s first two films, my point being that plenty of semi-lefty liberal students were well-prepared to argue against college-libertarian Reaganites, but not at all against this new and unfamiliar critique from within their own midst.
And here we were with our 1980 comics, well into the development of mutie-hatred as the primary thematic content at Marvel. And now, to some extent beginning back with Len Wein’s New X-Men, then radically so with God Loves, Man Kills, and firmly established in the comics of 1987-1988, the whole Marvel setting of mutantdom shifted into some distinctive new features.
- The concept of retooling one’s “freak” feature into an advantage is replaced by plain old superpowers, no more “children of the atom” humanizing their disabilities, but instead Nature’s next step into demigod status.
- The squicky notion that “Homo superior” is taken as a given rather than as a delusion put into Magneto’s mouth as the obvious ravings of an obvious bad guy.
- The sudden psychosis of “everyone hates us” becomes bluntly literal, the default for any non-mutant [also a New Republic motif, that anyone not Jewish harbors a hidden or not-so-hidden uncontrollable hatred for Jewish people, always on tap for a new Holocaust, and for which the modern telltale is to be critical of Israel].
What seems to have been completely junked and forgotten is the prior notion from the Sentinels stories (again, whenever it was!), that everyone’s a mutant, that the entire human/mutant divide is a false construct. That’s crucial: the difference between racism being factually incorrect vs. racism being factually correct but we’re on the top, not on the bottom. It perfectly matches the difference between the mid-20th century so-called Red Jew, in which the tradition of Jewish-American participation in civil rights is grounded, and the late-20th century New Republic ineradicable ethnic identity, which invokes that tradition as a cover while reversing its every precept. (Again, this and its associated Israelism cannot be said to have swept or “converted” any single group as such. But it exists, and it’s present in the corridors of power.)
There’s the question, capital-Q: to what extent is the mutantdom of these comics a legitimate Other – to be addressed as a thematically charged issue – vs. genuine “Homo superior” … that is, this is completely tied to the issue of Magneto is right, but about what? What do the comics say, as text? Do they provide that “match” I’m describing as content (the bad kind), or as provocation (the good kind)? That’s completely up for debate. I think, for instance, that the more unpleasant interpretation is textually showcased in “Days of Future Past,” perhaps the ur-X-Men story, which not only comes down to “Magneto was right,” but also, “yes muti-hatred is unfathomably extreme and reflexive,” and “what the hell are the X-Men playing at.” But there are other stories too. Like a lot of superhero comics, the issue gets teased, taken to extremes, reversed, and generally experimented with. Does the larger sweep of the X-Men, specifically the mid-70s through the early 90s, come down on that end like that? I’d like to think not. I’d even like to be debated about it and to lose.
And now let’s cause further trouble by getting into the real taboo discussion territory, particularly among just-an-inch-left-of-center Americans. I think the picture here is more grim. It’s frankly squicky that I’m trying to think of a single black American mutant character at Marvel during my time of reading (say, up through the early 90s), across all those X-titles … and hardly coming up with any, and of those, fairly irredeemable bad guys, like Masque (maybe – this character was variously depicted). Has no one noticed this? Still, I don’t go so far as to call Marvel mutantdom openly racist toward black people, but it’s such a match with the “soft” or liberal version of this newly-minted 1980s pro-Israel ethnic-Jewish identity that it can’t be ignored.
I remember this panel well from those comics my girlfriend and I avidly bought, read, and discussed. “You a mutie then, Pryde – like him?!” “Gee, I dunno, Phil — are you a nigger?” At first glance, and I submit that this first glance was important for me because I was not at all familiar with the New Republic mindset, this exchange appears anti-prejudice, pro-civil rights, essentially humanistic: racism is bad no matter from whom or directed toward whom. That might even be its intention; I have no reason to think otherwise. However, notice the agrammatical, forward-aggressive, squinting black presentation, and Kitty’s recovered flinch (via the hair motion) but resolute response, with fearless and also mocking wide-eyed sarcasm. Note the ambiguity of whether she’s saying “you’re not, so I’m not,” or “yeah I am, and guess what you are.” If it’s not crossing the line into the world in which ungrateful blacks spew Jew-hatred now that they’ve been “freed” from oppression, and in which newly staunch Jews face down ancient hatred with superior wit, then it’s at least standing on it. [I use the noun forms here, and only here, for a reason; the “world” I speak of is an objectified one]
Here’s a sequence which in my mind is the primary late-80s display of the new construction of Marvel mutant-bigotry, especially in its subtlety. As I recall, in the previous page or two, either Rogue or some of her teammates just saved two honest working-men, one white and one black, from an accident on a Manhattan street. Then Rogue is subjected to racist abuse.
Another battle-cry for the humanist message at first glance, and as such, well and good. But I’m doin’ a little Roland Barthes on you now. First, here’s the openly-genocidal and also unquestionably privileged WASP-y bigot, tall, well-coifed, and well-dressed, buttonholed by the honest in-his-overalls working man with his patriotic tattoo – it’s all about who’s the “real melting-pot American,” and pitches the New York City southern-European immigrant-heritage fellow as him, regardless of the considerable anti-black bigotry that can be observed in that location and demographic. Second, as I have captioned, the black American is invoked as support, but he is unequivocally both absent and silent, in favor of the colorful, non-problematic Calabrese ethnicity. See? Blackness in the U.S. is just like bein’ Calabrese! No biggie! Joey agrees with me, don’t ya, Joey? (crickets) See?
What, no one has cried out “But Storm!” yet? Perhaps because you’re seeing the character’s correspondence with the romantic Israeli narrative of rescuing Jewish Africans: the “not really black” African, any of whose local political history or prior cultural identity is flatly silent, obviously as dross compared to her mutanthood. Or noted how thoroughly de-politicized and reassuring the characters of Misty Knight and Stevie Hunter are, or I should say “were” since they vanished without trace sometime in the mid-80s.
How does the 1981-and-later Magneto relate? Well, that’s why the topic got its own post earlier, but here, and to be textual rather than personal/reflective, as depicted in a flashback set in early Israel (1950s maybe), he certainly seems relaxed and at home. A couple relevant links: Who is the biggest villain; Professor X or Magneto? PART ONE: The Silver Age (1956-1969) and Who is the bigger villain; Professor X or Magneto? PART TWO: The Bronze Age (1970-1985). I have not read the later Genosha storyline about a separatist mutant utopia, so maybe an X-scholar can help with that. There are some larger issues here that I’m not addressing and don’t feel competent to do so: superhero comics as Jewish-American art form, and Jewish creators as agents. Specifically, I’m talking about shifting to the biologized, static concept of mutant “race” as a text feature and it should be discussed in the entire context of U.S. society as a comics-making, comics-buying place. The New Republic POV I’m criticizing was by no means restricted to Jewish Americans, and its presence in U.S. policy-making has been represented mainly by both mainstream and evangelical Christians. Today, it’s arguably more prevalent among and more widely funded by Christian Zionists. Therefore I take a dim view of turning this discussion into an accusation of Jewish agency in the comics.
Let it be said as well that I do not like discussing author motives or intentions in general, and specifically, that Chris Claremont’s birth religion and political views, whatever the latter are or may be, are not my topic and are off-limits in the comments.
Links: The Myth of the ‘Liberal’ New Republic, Comics legends revealed (a dissenting view about the early X-Men), Claremont Re-examined, The Millions: The Survivor (this article’s #4 is crucial), What if the X-Men were black?, there’s a Ha’aretz article on the X-Men/Israel topic too but it’s behind a paywall; see also Mondoweiss. It’s also as good a time as any to point you to the About the Blog page and the social contract PDF embedded there.
Next: Stars and garters
Posted on June 25, 2015, in Politics dammit, The 80s me, The great ultravillains, Vulgar speculation and tagged Alex Haley, Broken Alliance, Chris Claremont, Freedom Rides, Israel, Jack Kirby, Jonathan Kaufman, Kitty Pryde, liberal Zionism, Likud, Magneto, Malcolm X, Martin Peretz, Menachem Begin, mutant detector, mutie hatred, Philip Weiss, Playboy, Rogue, Roland Barthes, Roy Thomas, Sentinels, Shlomo Sand, Spike Lee, Stan Lee, The Invention of the Jewish People, The New Republic, X-Factor, X-Men. Bookmark the permalink. 40 Comments.