Where Criticism Is Acceptable

The Washington Post has run the latest in what has become a standard genre of cultural criticism: someone complaining about how a comic book movie is unrealistic in some way.

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          It&#8217;s worth looking at what people choose to focus on as the subject of unrealism, and what they let slide. Henry Farrell is a political scientist, so he finds fault with the politics of Captain America: Civil War. The film, Farrell says, &#8220;ducks the real political issues that superheroes would pose.&#8221;
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          Notice that Farrell does not find issue with a human-shaped sentient computer that can hover and shoot lasers out of its forehead jewel, or with a woman who can somehow implant fear into people&#8217;s brains and shoot red fire things out of her hands. And, since the movie in question is Captain America, Farrell does not seem to have a problem with a 93-year old genetically reengineered cryogenically preserved super soldier who once punched Hitler in the face.
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          It is this film he complains is unrealistic about politics.
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          And truth be told, the post is perfectly cromulent as a work of political criticism &#8212; hell, I criticize the <a href="http://joshuafoust.com/the-federations-anti-politics/">politics in science fiction</a>! And since the fundamental assumption of the universe, which is superpowered humans and non-humans, cannot be criticized without criticizing the entire foundation of fictional storytelling and worldbuilding, I supposed politics is the one thing that <em>can</em> be picked at. But one thing does strike me is that, as a genre, criticism of modern politics and international relations as told through sci-fi and comics has grown massively in response to a closing down of space to do so in a more general sense.
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          There is still room for hyperpartisan sniping &#8212; Republicans still attack Democrats and vice versa, and there are always the brave &#8220;J&#8217;Accuse&#8221; articles decrying Trump or Clinton or Cruz or Sanders or whatever. But the space in which to debate and criticize politics in a non-partisan way has more or less shut down, consumed by the &#8220;view from nowhere&#8221; media style that reduces everything to a both-sides-do-it milquetoast irrelevance. Rather than taking politicians at their word and analyzing what those words mean, the conversation instead is wrapped in layers of subtext and kremlinology.
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          So, that leaves us movies. In film, and TV, and books, and so on, we can still ply the philosophical ideas that undergird our life without immediately running over a horrifying minefield of right wing and left wing triggers for acrimony. It&#8217;s like narrative art has become the last bastion of credulous debate. You can&#8217;t do it about politics anymore, but you can do it with movies. This isn&#8217;t philistinism, but desperation.
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          For the life of me, it reminds me of how political criticism sometimes worked in the Soviet Union, where artistic output was heavily censored and political debate tightly constrained, but they were free to pick apart the class consciousness and government repression of the West. It provided a mild, indirect way of highlighting the fundamental contradictions in Soviet society without tripping over the secret police and the art censors.
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          Obviously, things in America are not that bad. But it&#8217;s telling to me that there is far more detailed, nuanced discussion of the politics in the Marvel Cinematic Universe than there are of the politics in the real world &#8212; like all the energy we once spent on actual policy is now being redirected into cultural criticism because the stakes are lower.
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          So yes, let us criticize the political views expressed in comic book films. It&#8217;s fun! But I hope we can also keep in the back of our minds how much not-obviously-partisan debate itself has been closed off.
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