Like everyone else, I’m glad Ta-Nehisi Coates got a NYT op-ed. Unlike everyone else, I haven’t seen X-Men: First Class yet. (Hey, I like comic books.) But I get the general idea, so I’d like to weigh in on the whole Magneto Was Right issue (part ii).
Thing is: it’s not just Magneto, it’s the government, going back to the first film. Everyone is right except Professor X.
The Mutant Registration Act is regrettable but clearly necessary, for public safety, and the loathsome Senator Kelly makes much more cogent arguments than earnest Jean Grey, in that scene from the first film. After all, if you have a critical mass of people shooting lasers out of their eyes – to say nothing of exhibitions of powerful mind-control, shape-shifting, teleporting – most of what we think we think we know about the optimality, even viability, of liberal/republican forms of government falls by the wayside, or needs to be re-thought from the ground up in pretty fundamental ways. Go back to Leviathan (not exactly liberal or republican, but you know what I mean). As the SEP puts it, Hobbes “assumes that people are sufficiently similar in their mental and physical attributes that no one is invulnerable nor can expect to be able to dominate the others.” If you assume the contrary, you might need to adjust a few other pieces as well. Stands to reason.
A related point. Everyone is saying, and I agree, X-Men – the film franchise – has been ‘about difference’. (The third film and Wolverine were a bit weak, but let it pass.) It’s flexible enough, as allegory, that you can plug in your favored value of X, Born This Way-wise. Race, sexual orientation. But there’s something screwy about this. Because the main moral lesson we – as good liberals – always want people to learn about race and sexual orientation is that folks are folks. People are pretty much the same, and the differences people are fixating on (skin color, who people want to sleep with) shouldn’t make a difference. If gayness were, literally, a red laser that shot out of gay people’s eyes, it would make sense to be homophobic. Homophobia and racism drape themselves, publicly, in prudential, civic-minded concern. X-Men-style mutation ought to be equal-opportunity allegory for homophobia and racism, as well as for liberal values of tolerance. They aren’t called the Virtually Normal Men, after all.
Maybe the conclusion should be that Charles Burns’ Black Hole did the whole thing better. But no one would film that as a summer blockbuster, so – hey – take what we can get and it’s all in good clean fun.
But there is something more philosophically authentic about the ethical contradiction at the heart of the X-Men franchise. A similar contradiction is found in Mill’s On Liberty. Everyone gets a private sphere of negative liberty because, within that sphere, we are properly concerned with ‘our own stuff’, and aren’t harming anyone else. The no-harm principle. But you could also call it the ‘no big effect’ or ‘no big deal’ principle. What I do, privately, really oughtn’t to be a big deal, in other people’s eyes. It isn’t their business. But, ultimately, the argument for this no-harm principle assumes the opposite. It’s a consequentialist calculation “grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being” – homo superior, anyone? Major positive changes are to be expected from letting people be Born This Way, however that may fall out, evolutionarily. No sense pretending this isn’t a big deal, even if Mill didn’t have adamantium claws in mind. He did have something a bit like Professor X in mind. Philosophy as psychic power. “Speculative philosophy, which to the superficial appears a thing so remote from the business of life and the outward interests of men, is in reality the thing on earth which most influences them, and in the long run overbears every other influence save those which it must itself obey.”
Mill argues that difference should be tolerated because it’s not likely to make a big difference. (Since I can’t control anyone’s mind, just by thinking, I can think what I like.) And that difference should be tolerated because it is likely to make a big difference. (A few people can powerfully influence everyone else’s minds, just by thinking, if we let them.) So X-Men is maybe not such bad allegory after all.