Look Both Ways

Like many kids of the sixties I grew up watching Batman. I mean Batman—the campy, goofy, live-action version of the caped crusader that was must-see TV for young boys and other hero wannabes. This was all hung upside-down, as it were, by Tim Burton’s reboot of the troubled crime-fighter. Then came Christopher Nolan’s canon. The Dark Knight remains one of my favorite movies as it seems unstintingly honest. We are all part Joker and part Batman. Neither is ideal. More than that, this movie was my first introduction to Harvey Two-Face Dent. You see, I didn’t grow up reading Batman comics, and the television adventures never featured him. At least not as far as I can remember. Two-Face is a fearful foe because you can never tell when he’s telling the truth. That can be very scary.

The other day I asked my mother about someone I remembered from church growing up. This was a woman I hadn’t seen since the Nixon Administration and I was curious how she was doing, and even if she was still alive. My mother told me she was still around, but she doesn’t talk to her any more because the friend is “two-faced.” Among evangelical Christians this is one of the most feared of epithets. Telling different “truths” to different parties is a certain way to demonstrate want of moral fiber. Hypocrisy. It’s also a non-refundable ticket on the bus heading south, if you get my meaning. Christians want to be thought of as honest, if nothing else. Harvey Dent would’ve had real trouble being an evangelical (with some noteworthy exceptions).

JanusVatican

Businesses, however, are disciples of Janus. I often ponder the sheet number of items that companies classify as “public facing.” What, I wonder, is the antonym? I’ve even heard of corporations that will take legal action against former employees who honestly admit how business is done. No one is permitted to speak of what happens in the entrepreneurial boudoir. Corporations, under the law, are persons. They are afforded the secret inner life of real individuals. There was a “naked business” craze in early in the millennium, but that petered out. We have a public facing face and a reality that no one is allowed to know. Trade secrets. Information that only one corporation may have. Over in Gotham, Two-Face slips into a dark alley and escapes. In little white churches across the country, those who speak different truths are shunned. In the corporate high-rise, businesses are now people. They are, however, two-faced. I miss the Batman of my youth.

True Heroes

supergirls As a guy with a healthy sense of the weird,it strikes me as odd that rational people can suppose that we’ve solved all of life’s great mysteries. As a student of biology, chemistry, and physics in high school—and a reader of non-technical aspects of the same throughout my adulthood—it always seemed that there was an undefinable “something more.” Reading Jeffrey Kripal’s Mutants and Mystics led me to an interest in comic books. As a child I did not have many of them since we didn’t have much money to spend on luxuries. The few I had, however, were read and reread and reread, assaulting my imagination with endless possibilities, many of which defied everything I was to learn of biology, chemistry, and physics. My interest in feminism and new-found appreciation of the proto-graphic novel, led me to read Mike Madrid’s The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heroines. As a boy surrounded with brothers, I clearly knew which comic books were for males. Madrid’s book delves into this super-hero world with the question of why females have always struggled to be taken seriously in this fantasy land.

Many of the characters explored in Supergirls were heroines I’d never encountered before. Madrid’s analysis often appears spot-on as he traces their histories through the decades as they mirror, and occasionally lead, society’s expectations of what women should be. The one that I had no trouble recognizing was Wonder Woman. And the reason for that was she used to have a TV show. Not mentioned by Madrid was the mighty Isis, also a heroine from television. She began as a character opposite Captain Marvel, and did not have her origin in a comic book. Isis was, of course, an ancient goddess, and as I learned from Supergirls, Wonder Woman was not far behind. The way that women could be as strong as men was to be divine. For human females, life was much rougher.

Wonder Woman, Madrid notes, was one of the Trinity of early, lasting comic book heroes. Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman are cast as the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, respectively. Like her theological counterpart, Wonder Woman is the most amorphous, least understood of the three. Her career and persona change over time, almost losing any kind of supernatural ability. Her origin story, however, began as a helper of oppressed women everywhere. Today we see Superman and Batman on the big screen, but Wonder Woman has fallen behind. Despite great strides, our society still isn’t ready to accept rescue of men at the hands of a woman. More’s the pity, because we clearly see the mess that masculine leadership has spawned. Mike Madrid has discovered a secret identity for our old foe, sexism. And it might take the world of comic books to help us see clearly that which mainstream analysis still denies.

The Price of Tolerance

While on a trip to New England recently, my family had taken an exit to look for a bite of lunch. We followed one of those innocuous dinner-plate symbols that often grace roadside signs next to a stylized hotel bed and a gas pump that looks like a suicidal robot. This particular exit, however, seemed unwilling to deliver on the food part. As we wound down an unfamiliar road, we came across the golden cupolas of a Sikh temple. This was the first Sikh temple I’d ever seen, and my daughter asked why she’s never heard of Sikhs before. “Because they never cause problems,” was my reply. Of the major world religions, Sikhism is notable for its lack of overt violence even though a sword is one of the religion’s symbols. Unfortunately, over the weekend, violence found some innocent Sikhs.

As of the moment, no one is able to identify the motives of the man who gunned down four Sikhs preparing to worship in Wisconsin. For many Americans the religion is a mystery. We hear of Hinduism and Buddhism in the course of many historical and literary ventures. Sikhism is somewhat newer on the world religious scene, but it still predates regular European trade with India during the “age of exploration.” Although the classification of religions is always disputed, Sikhism is generally considered around the sixth largest world religion in terms of numbers, and they have avoided the limelight in the western world, showing that a religion can rest on its principles. One of the truly praiseworthy principles of Sikhism is toleration, an idea that his held in very high regard.

From WikiCommons

Toleration often clashes with gun ownership in the United States. Just weeks after twelve people were murdered for going to the movies, we have more headlines of private citizens (some mentally disturbed) with ready access to firearms. And more innocent people are dead. Even the shooter is dead, so we will never likely know whether this was simply a case of mistaken identity or hideous intolerance at work. In my time in Wisconsin I came across many Christians who were extremely intolerant of any viewpoint other than their own. Fortunately, they were the vast minority among the people that I knew. Still, the paradigm that I see emerging disturbs me to the core: we claim it is our right to own guns while identifying with a deity who let himself be tortured to death rather than harm anyone. I wonder if a culture can spell schizophrenia?

Another Dark Knight

Batman was dreamed up in the late 1930s as an ambiguous character that fought crime and protected innocent civilians. The backstory emerged that he had witnessed his parents being shot down as a child, and eventually adopted the identity of a bat to frighten the perps. Batman never, in principle, used guns. Of course, the DC Comics character eventually scored a wonderfully campy television series that entertained many of us as children. It even spawned a movie. Then, fifty years after the original, Tim Burton gave us a darker, more serious Batman. The series of promising movies degenerated into the unforgivable Batman and Robin, and many assumed the flash in the pan was over. We didn’t need any super heroes. Christopher Nolan resurrected this bat in Batman Begins, and when I first saw The Dark Knight I was stunned. Good and evil danced a waltz so delicate that you were never sure who was leading. The frisson was palpable.

Thursday night the Nolan series’ final episode was released. I’ve not seen it yet, but from the moment I step out of the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Times Square until I arrive at work, I will have seen several multi-story Batmen looking down on the real life Gotham, explosions erupting and everyone wondering if Batman will survive this film. Yesterday morning the news opened with a horrifying story from real life in Aurora, Colorado. A gunman opened fire on a crowd of opening night movie viewers, killing at least twelve. Several children were shot. The gunman, like a real-life character from Arkham, was apprehended and claimed to have explosives in his house. I stared at the story and wondered what has become of humanity.

Facebook has turned into a venue for flying political banners. I’m always surprised to see how conservative people I knew in school have become—in those days no one had me beat for non-progressive thought. I’m truly amazed, at times, by the glorification of America’s gun culture that accompanies conservative causes. People want to shoot and want to glorify their right to shoot. I have, on rare occasions, shot rifles for sport—only at targets and only when others have asked me to. There is no denying the rush of power one feels, knowing that, like God, you can destroy the thing far distant from you with just a squeeze of the finger. I’m not sure I’m happy in a universe populated by such gods. I grew up a conservative, but also a pacifist. I grew up watching Batman defeat evil so clearly defined that no room remained for ambiguity. Yes, I grew up a conservative, but then I just grew up. I will watch The Dark Knight Rises and will not know what to expect.

Neither good nor bad.

Kings and Codes

I readily acquiesce to the suggestion that others are smarter than myself. In a world of overly competitive commerce that has wormed its way into higher education, I have found myself ill-equipped to compete against those who are more clever at working the system. At times I can be decidedly pre-medieval in my perception of fairness. Thus it was a combination of self-denigration and legitimate surprise to find a brief piece in the May edition of Wired magazine on the Code of Hammurabi. In this arena I would have supposed myself to be on firmer ground. The piece by Joel Meares appeared in the Blast from the Past section of the “Humor Issue” of the erudite magazine. The writers at Wired are by default well beyond my ability in the tech scene, but this piece was a consideration of how Hammurabi’s justice still plays its way out in popular culture. Beginning with the 1970’s movie series Death Wish, Hammurabi is given credit for inspiring Hamlet, The Count of Monte-Cristo, Red Dead Redemption, Frankenstein, Moby Dick, and Batman. Holy pedigree, Hammurabi!

Each semester I try to explain to my students why study of the ancient world is still relevant. It may be overly simplified to suggest that Hammurabi directly inspired all these works (the Akkadian language wasn’t really deciphered until the middle of the nineteenth century, CE, long after Shakespeare), but clearly the trajectory had been set long ago. Even before Hammurabi. The earliest known law-codes predate Hammurabi by many centuries and demonstrate that our sense of justice and fair play were being bandied about by the gods long before Hammurabi was a twinkle in Shamash’s eye. If we want others to play nice, the best way to convince them to do so is to lay the dicta in the realm of the gods.

Maybe I can’t figure out where Death Wish and Moby Dick share anything beyond a cursory resemblance to Hammurabi, but it is clear that the Mesopotamians were the first to articulate the idea that the gods set the rules and it is our duty not to upset them. Of course, in our society fair play is frequently sublimated to corruption at various levels. Someone is always willing to bend the rules if the covert payment is enticing enough. After all, doesn’t it look like Hammurabi is placing his fingers to his lips while receiving a kickback from Shamash on the pinnacle of the famous stele bearing the code that now bears his name?

Hammurabi winks at Shamash