The Once and Future Prez
This post is a pre-emptive comment rescue, of sorts.
As you may (or may not) be aware, Jaybird runs a weekly bookclub over at Mindless Diversions of the seminal graphic novel series Sandman. We’ve reached book 8, and the stories we covered this week: Hob’s Leviathan, a story of a sailor and hidden depths, and The Golden Boy, a story about a young man who becomes the bestest president in all the world, or any other world.
Hob’s Leviathan was an easy story to discuss, but the subject matter of The Golden Boy made it a little trickier to talk about. Because the subject matter of The Golden Boy touches heavily on politics, and to a lesser extent religion there are aspects of it that can’t really be discussed properly without violating Mindless Diversion’s “No Politics, No Religion” rule. Since Doc Saunders and I at minimum have some things we want to say about this story, but couldn’t I decided to move the conversation to a more open forum.
I won’t summarise the story here since it’s summarised in the bookclub post (see the link above). The conversation begins after the jump.
I disliked The Golden Boy for several reasons:
The first, and simplest reason is that it shattered my suspension of disbelief. Prez sweeps into power, and solves old and long-standing problems without effort. Conflict in the Middle East? Solved! National debt? Gone! He’s beloved by everyone, and wins two terms from outside the political duopoly. Simply put, this cannot happen. So what, you might say, this is a comic book. And that’s a fair point, readers are frequently asked to swallow far less likely propositions. But for some reason, Prez’s improbable problem-solving abilities are a bridge too far for me. Maybe it’s because I’m a social scientist by training, and this stray near enough to my own area of expertise for it to cause me problems. Or perhaps its because the problems Prez grapples with are human problems. For things to work the way they do in The Golden Boy people would have to be very different to the way real people are. And the whole point of stories is to grapple with questions of humanity. What is the point of having a story based on people who don’t act like real people?
But then, this is not necessarily a story to be taken literally. It’s not even a story, it’s a story within a story, so it might not even have happened in canon, let alone the real world. But what purpose is it supposed to serve? The teller of the story is a religious acolyte of Prez, spreading stories of him in the hope he can fix every world, just as he fixed his own. This interpretation is deeply problematic. What is it supposed to teach us? That we should just wait for some supernormal figure to turn up and solve all our problems for us? And we’ll know when they have arrived because everyone will love them and the world will be great? There are two big problems with this idea:
- It encourages learned helplessness. If you have a problem, don’t bother trying to solve it, just wait for your Prince (or your Prez) to come.
- It feeds into a Manichaean view of politics. It boils down to the idea that politics is divided into Good People and Bad People, and governments do wrong because the Bad People got in charge and did Bad Things. The way to fix politics in this model is to drive out the Bad People and vote in Good People who will do Good Things and make everything better. The most extreme version of this are “New World Order” style conspiracy theorists, but it’s ubiquitous in mainstream politics as well. It’s also utterly naive, the bad things that happen in politics are due to a complicated combination of bad incentives, insufficient information and the sort of random crap that drives history more than most people are prepared to admit. If some charismatic figure seizes the public zeitgeist with a bold vision that claims to be able to sweep all the problems plaguing the nation away, terror is a more sensible response than joy.
OK, so maybe the point isn’t to wait for a Prez, but rather to become more like Prez? While that would be better, it still doesn’t work. For that to be the moral of this story, we would need to have more of a picture of Prez actually did to solve those problems. The story creates the impression that all he had to do is want the problems to go away and then they did, which is makes the story useless as as exemplar.
So am I missing something here? Is there an interpretation that makes this work? Because I really don’t get it.