Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Liberal War on... Comic Books?

George Will is in a bit of a tizzy because "progressives" do crazy things like talking to scientists when they form opinions. He insists that this transforms progressivism into a "faith-based program" premised upon a "cult of expertise - an unflagging faith in the application of science to social reform." To a degree he's describing a subset of liberalism from some decades ago, but not a type that actually worked from social science. He's describing the reactionary counterpart to, say, himself - who operates from the belief that social science is unnecessary, or should only be examined to the degree that it supports his own pre-existing beliefs, as he forges ahead with his own personal agenda.

Take for example the "welfare state" George Will despises. If you look at the facts, it is largely a success story. Many millions of people have received assistance when they were at the poverty line and subsequently were able to both rise out of poverty and reach self-sufficiency. There are a lot of people who are now successful, even wealthy, who were on food stamps as children. The typical recipient of welfare has historically been a single parent who, following a crisis such as divorce, needed a bit of financial help for a period of up to three years to get back on her feet. (Yes, it's usually but not always the mother). The downside, of course, is that a system that wasn't really designed but instead came together in an ad hoc manner also served to create cultures of dependency and poverty among long-term welfare recipients. It's not immediately clear what the alternatives are - after all, even with welfare reform we still provide support for families with minor children - but it is clear that you can't win the 'war on poverty' simply by giving people money (or benefits that can be used in a restricted manner, such as food stamps or a rent subsidy). Heck - we know that from what often follows a middle class windfall, such as an inheritance or lottery win.

Of course, this isn't a one-sided picture. As Will himself exemplifies, conservatives are sometimes proud in their contempt of science. Will's current column addresses social science, but he's previously embarrassed himself with his attacks on the hard sciences. Don't bore him with anything that may get in the way of his jerking knee. So we get "conservative" solutions to crime and poverty such as "three strikes" laws, "compassionate conservatism", "faith-based initiatives" where government money is passed through religious organizations rather than being used for the direct support of people in need, etc., and... they prove ineffective or even counter-productive. But, you know, whatever, right?

Recently, John Casey at The Nonsequitur compared the logical fallacies of Michael Gerson to those of George Will, touching on this column:
Our point here is that Gerson attempts to make the Willian hollow man move–"liberalism" is the key word usually, or "progressivism" (hey look it up in today's Post!). It basically goes like this. Mention the word "liberalism," and do not mention the words of any particular liberal–you're not dialoguing with them (that's critical)–and set up a hollow man. Then engage hollow man, showing hollow man argument to be foolish, liberals as a consequence to be lazy, dishonest thinkers, etc.
What does Will offer up as "evidence" that progressives are puritanical and censorious? Nothing, really - after providing a largely irrelevant and partial history of censorship of comic books, he quotes somebody who makes that bare claim.
The lawyer for the video-game industry warned the Supreme Court that "the land is awash" with contemporary versions of Anthony Comstock (1844-1915), the crusader for censorship of indecency, as he spaciously defined it. "Today's crusaders," the lawyer said, "come less from the pulpit than from university social science departments, but their goals and tactics remain the same."
Will is apparently alluding to Schwarzenegger v Entertainment Merchants Ass'n, but I'm not sure where he found that quote - it doesn't appear to come from either the brief or oral argument. To the extent that he's alluding to the respondent's brief, although the brief does (as you might expect) cherry-pick past overstatements of the potential harm of new media to argue that we should assume that current criticism of videogames are overstated, which I admit to be an appealing argument despite (or perhaps because of) it's obviously fallacious nature (a mix of ad hominem tu quoque, guilt by association and appeal to ridicule), but how convenient for Mr. Will. "Somebody else says something I agree with so I can simply quote that person instead of providing actual evidence for my thesis or substantiating my hollow man argument."

The primary target of George Will's essay is the late Fredric Wertham. (Note to John Casey: George Will is apparently not afraid to "name names" when the targets of his criticisms are... dead, partially undermining the parenthetical portion of your suggestion that he only "nam[es] opponents who can respond (or whose words can be checked).") A big problem here is that Will doesn't actually present any evidence that this solitary, deceased figure upon which his argument is premised was in fact a "progressive". He appears to have been a Marxist. He does appear to have been concerned with the impact of modern culture on children. Or perhaps he doesn't believe that Wertham was a progressive, but it's enough that a book he wrote on the subject "was praised by the the progressive sociologist C. Wright Mills", also long deceased, with Will attaching the label "progressive" to his name apparently out of convenience - at some point he had to at least try to make his case, so why not find a guy who has been dead for almost fifty years, call him a progressive, say that he praised the book of another dead guy who doesn't appear to have been a progressive in any meaningful sense, and call it a day?

I did enjoy this part of Will's criticism of Wertham:
Wertham was especially alarmed about the one-third of comic books that were horror comics, but his disapproval was capacious: Superman, who gave short shrift to due process in his crime-fighting, was a crypto-fascist. As for Batman and Robin, the "homoerotic tendencies" were patent.
If Will were a thoughtful person, or even bothered to do slight research on his subject, he would likely have quickly discovered that over the past several decades comic books have devoted considerable amount of space to the tension between superhero action and vigilantism, a considerable evolution from the J. Jonah Jameson attacks on Spiderman. We're well past the early conceit of Superman being deputized so as to make him an all-powerful partner of law enforcement, and well into the era of the "Dark Knight", the brooding Batman with his acceptance that he's a vigilante and his oddly set internal compass defining the lines he's not willing to cross. As for the notion that Batman and Robin could be construed as in a homosexual relationship, some fifty-six years ago Wertham may have been among the first to say it out loud, but he was far from the last. The oft-referenced panel of that era:

Moving to modern times, it's hard to miss the Dynamic Duo as the inspiration for this parody:

But let's give Will his due.... Let's say that fifty-six years ago one "progressive" wrote a book critical of popular culture, suggesting that comic books have a negative influence on young people, and that another "progressive" stated that he liked the book. So what? My guess is that a lot of conservatives and religious leaders also endorsed Wertham's book. Certainly if you look to the subsequent history of censorship, book banning, and odd theories about which cartoon figures might be gay, you'll find far more examples coming from the political right than the political left. Even Will's penultimate reference to Anthony Comstock is to a man whose censoriousness appears to have been driven by his religious beliefs, and not even will purports him to have been a "progressive". Yes, if you limit your search to social science you'll find that it is largely produced by... social scientists. But is that really a surprise?

And you know what else? Sure, by today's standards the "disturbing" images from comic books of the early 1950's seem pretty tame, but that doesn't of itself mean that the images at issue from the current generation of video games are as tame, or will be viewed as innocuous in a half-century. Nor would it necessarily be good for society if the graphic, photo-realistic nature of future video game violence were so overwhelming that today's near photo-realistic images of death and mayhem seem innocuous. I am not presenting a slippery slope argument - I'm not favoring the banning of video games or arguing that if we don't take action now we'll see much worse stuff in the future - but I am observing the general trend and, yes, that trend suggests that video games will continue to become more photorealistic in their violence, and that the comparison to sixty-year-old comic books will be even less apt than Will's current effort.

In what should be a surprise to no one, in fact you can find examples of people who want to "protect the children" from the insidious effects of popular culture on all points of the political spectrum. Contrary to Will's argument that on the political left this is driven by social science research, in fact it's largely driven by a personal sense that certain aspects of popular culture cannot possibly be good for kids. If social science, in whole or in part, seems to back that up, obviously you will see advocates of child protection embrace those elements when they make their case for censorship. For goodness sake, the name at the top of the case to which Will alludes is that of Arnold Schwarzenegger, a man whose personal fortune was built on action movies, and who is presently the Republican Governor of California (although I'll duly note that the A.G. is a Democrat). Couldn't Will have at least dragged Tipper Gore or Joe Lieberman into his editorial, rather than carrying on about events from a half-century or more ago? Has he turned into Grandpa Simpson?


  1. I was going to write something on that post, but it wouldn't have been as good as this. Thanks for the note--I think you're right. He'll quote some of the words of the dead. He uses that technique a lot, now that I think of it, when he wants to paint a particularly distorted version of someone's argument. I think I called it "quote picking" or something like that.

    Again, great post.

  2. "...but it wouldn't have been as good as this."

    Thanks, but at risk of being accused of being unable to take a compliment I'm thinking it would have been at least as good. ;-)