The Once and Future Prez

James K

James is a government policy analyst, and lives in Wellington, New Zealand. His interests including wargaming, computer gaming (especially RPGs and strategy games), Dungeons & Dragons and scepticism. No part of any of his posts or comments should be construed as the position of any part of the New Zealand government, or indeed any agency he may be associated with.

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114 Responses

  1. Glyph says:

    I guess I’ll just say, the way I was trying to say on the OP comments, that it’s explicitly a religious story. The political aspect is a red herring (well, not totally, since people frequently expect their political leaders to be able to do things that would be “miracles” if they could be accomplished – so in this story, that expectation is turned on its head – the “miracles” ARE political acts). That the story isn’t “realistic” is part of its nature, and part of its point.

    What is the “point” of the story of Moses leading his people to The Promised Land? Look how THAT turned out for everybody. “Milk & honey”? More like “sectarian strife at the Sbarro’s”. And parting the Red Sea? Ridiculous!

    And don’t get me started on King Arthur!

    I think it’s pretty funny that nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, we still aren’t sure what the point of a story about being nice to people for a change is. Under Christian (and Jewish, and Muslim, and etc.) theology people aren’t expected to wait for Prez/Jesus/Mohammed/Buddha to come and make everything better – people are expected to, as Prez (the myth) did, be kind and work to make the world a better place, and forgive those who trespass against us.

    If we did this one day out of every 365 the world would be a fractionally better place than it would be otherwise. Once Prez was gone, his world went back to the same way it always was, but the storyteller tells his story in hopes of inspiring others to follow Prez’s example in any small way they can. It’s a story of Tikkun Olam (hat tip to NewDealer, I think he is the one who introduced me to the concept here).Report

    • Mike Schilling in reply to Glyph says:

      It’s an awfully naive idea that one good man can make that much of a difference. Unless, of course, he can fly and beat bad guys up, too.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        If I am fully grasping the layers of implied irony intended here, then we are in 100% agreement. 😉Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        What if Prez’s superpowers were the power of persuasion and inspiration and motivation and projecting a calm and assurance and confidence and trust that allowed him to accomplish all that he apparently did?

        It seems you are saying that super powers like flying are acceptable but super powers like negotiating skills are not.Report

        • Kolohe in reply to Kazzy says:

          The Shat is fine, but the ubermench that really comes to mine is The Mule.

          The problem then becomes, what happens when that dude or dudette leaves the stage?

          It’s not so much that such a superpower exists, it’s that it’s treated as a good thing.Report

          • Glyph in reply to Kolohe says:

            This one issue that arguably (I disagree that this is what it’s doing, but let’s run with it) presents the rule of one perfect man as the solution for all the world’s ills, would still hardly cancel out the other 74 issues in which we clearly and repeatedly see that our protagonist, an absolute monarch with absolute power over his own kingdom (and great power even outside it), is in fact a deeply-flawed individual responsible for causing as much pain as he prevents (monarchs in general usually don’t come off that great in Sandman’s universe).

            This is just one myth told by one one-off character, out of the dozens (hundreds?) the story deals with. It has even less effect on the story as whole than, as I allude elsewhere, Yoda’s and Ben Kenobi’s religious myths have on their own story.Report

        • Shazbot5 in reply to Kazzy says:

          Does Saruman’s voice-magic count as a super power of persuasion?Report

      • James K in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        Reading this story gave em greater appreciation for the people who criticise the message of most superhero stories. If that was the objective of this story, then I call it a success.Report

    • BlaiseP in reply to Glyph says:

      One of Neil’s favourite authors is GK Chesterton:

      I know of men who believe in themselves more colossally than Napoleon or Caesar. I know where flames the fixed star of certainty and success. I can guide you to the thrones of the Super-men. The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums. Report

    • Fnord in reply to Glyph says:

      That doesn’t exactly address the point about the Manichaean views it promotes.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Fnord says:

        To think it is “promoting” such a POV is missing the point. Sandman ain’t a Manichean universe (far from it), and the Prez story isn’t prescriptive scripture or remotely what we’d call “truth”. Myths by their nature can’t be…and yet they still are (which is nearly a direct quote from elsewhere in Sandman).

        In all sincerity, I guess I don’t know how to explain what I mean any better than that, sorry. The failure to communicate is mine.Report

        • Fnord in reply to Glyph says:

          On the contrary, I see what you’re saying about the nature of myths, and you’re exactly right. But you go wrong when you suppose that that nature means there’s no political content to myth, or that it’s inappropriate to criticize that political content (usually both “criticize” and “political” are meant in a broad sense, though they also apply in a somewhat narrower sense in this specific case).

          This is hardly unique to the “Prez” story. In fact, it’s entirely possible that the “Prez” story, by casting its political content in a light that’s so explicit and familiar to modern American audiences, is (in part) reminding those readers to be aware of the political content of other myths.Report

            • Glyph in reply to Fnord says:

              I guess I would understand the criticism more if I thought in any way Gaiman were presenting the story to us as prescriptive, if the storyteller in-story (the Asian man) were just a thinly-veiled mouthpiece for Gaiman’s own views.

              But I see him strictly as a religious character, casting his religious story/myth as true & prescriptive, as he would.

              If a Scientologist comes up to me in an airport and tries to push “Dianetics” on me, I might tell him his views make no sense to me or are flat-out wrongheaded (I would apply criticism to his worldview and his foundational myths).

              If a Scientologist character in a story does the same to another character in that story, I don’t criticize the character’s espousing of “Dianetics” as nonsensical or pernicious; not unless I feel the story’s author is pushing that viewpoint on me, the reader.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Glyph says:

                “My system will help you reconcile yourself to the universe!”


                “My system will help you better regulate your endocrine system by helping you learn how to think about yourself in relationship to the universe!”

                Um… alright, maybe it works that way… I’d have to talk to the Doc first…

                “My system will help teenagers not think about sex!”

                Klaxons should be going off here. All of them. All of the klaxons.Report

              • Fnord in reply to Glyph says:

                The point is you don’t have to be explicitly casting your story as “true & prescriptive” for it to have political content.Report

              • Stillwater in reply to Fnord says:

                Question: To what extent do reader’s attribute political content to stories?Report

              • Stillwater in reply to Stillwater says:

                I mean, if the perception of political content in myths and whatnot can be accounted for by contributions the reader makes, then it might not be the case that all myths/stories contain political content.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to Stillwater says:

                It’s all projection, really. James Carville once said we choose our politicians via the same route through which we fall in love. There’s nothing rational about our choices: we don’t know how these politicians will act once in office. Their promises are just so much foo-foo dust.

                Presidents are mostly there to guide us through the Unknown. We don’t elect them on the basis of some agenda: we project all sorts of nonsense onto our chosen candidates. Hopes and dreams and all that jazz — and heaping abuse on the Guy We Don’t Like. All these guys are stage managed within an inch of their lives, affecting gravitas, going through the motions, the studied pauses — it’s all so much posturing and strutting and fretting, trying to get us to Give Them the Power.

                Bush43 was arguably the worst POTUS, ever. He was elected and re-elected on the basis of one character attribute: loyalty. He began as a loyalty enforcer for his dad. He cultivated loyalty in his staff and was loyal to them in turn — far longer than was wise in the cases of Rumsfeld and Cheney — and far shorter in the case of Colin Powell, who was never part of his inner circle.

                And that’s what Boss Smiley wants — loyalty. Loyalty will cover a multitude of sins and shortcomings. It is the only virtue worth cultivating in politics.Report

              • Kim in reply to BlaiseP says:

                lol. tell that to lieberman.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Judas Lieberman and the Connecticut Democrats truly deserved each other. Neither could be trusted with a handful of quarters. The very idea, that those DailyKos weenies thought they could run off a three-term senator because he wasn’t Librul Enough. They never knew what hit them.Report

              • Kim in reply to BlaiseP says:

                oh, is that so?
                If your eyes were as observant as your tongue is silvered,
                you’d learn more.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Kim, I don’t know how to put this to you, kindly, but Age and Cunning will defeat Youth and Beauty all seven days of the week. Idealism is the province of the idiot.

                In the Waite Tarot deck, The Fool is seen walking off the edge of a cliff, his eyes closed. At his heels, his little dog is attempting to keep him from falling into the abyss. Those who would be Idealists might pay attention to those little white dogs in their lives — that, and keep their eyes open. Be not merely good. Be good for something.Report

              • Kim in reply to BlaiseP says:

                It’s not idealism what got us a new mayor around here.
                Lieberman was ultimately unimportant.
                and that’s enough of a clue for a man of your age to exercise
                his wisdom and think a bit more deeply for a change.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Kim, I don’t think Deeply. Mostly, I just process what comes into view. As Will Rogers once said “All I know is what I read in the papers.” Lots of papers. In many different languages. From many different viewpoints.

                A man my age is rather past all that Furrowed-Brow Surrus Thinking. I have heard it all before. A man whose father told him to save all his ties because they’ll come back into fashion, if you will. Dad was right.

                In the fullness of time and the indelible nature of the Intertubes, I do hope you live long enough to revisit all these obstreperous and intemperate comments you’ve sprinkled all over League. May I advise you to develop a sense of humour between now and then: you’ll need it. That, or you’ll wither in embarrassment.Report

              • Kim in reply to BlaiseP says:

                At least mine aren’t published for the ages.
                A good friend of mine got stories published as a teenager.
                He says they’re horrid.
                … but they got published, for crissakes!
                How bad could they be?Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Kim, here’s how it works: if you’re any good at what you do, all your early stuff looks like crap. The older you get, the crappier it looks. That’s because you’ve learned a thing or three in the interval.

                I would only repeat myself in saying I wish I knew half as much as you think you know. That is all.Report

              • KatherineMW in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Blaise, you’re being patronizing.

                And youthful idealism wins sometimes, when it’s combined with action, committment, and determination. PBS has a stunning documentary on the Freedom Riders; most of those people were younger than me, in their late teens and early twenties, and look what they accomplished. I’m currently reading another book about the Civil Rights Movement called The Children.

                It’s untrue and deeply unhelpful to tell people who still have idealism that’s its naive and futile. It’s only futile if the cynics manage to convince enough people that it is.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to BlaiseP says:

                I could not possibly patronise Kim. That would imply I am wrapping my comments in some sordid wrapper of seeming civility.

                Ideology is for chumps. Take it from someone who used to be one. Want to save the world from evil, feed the hungry, tend to the refugees? I tried all that. Curiously, the world seems quite as evil and sick and hungry and dispossessed as when I started on my little quixotic quest. I still do these things but now I don’t suffer from the sad delusion that hope to change anything thereby. Cuts way down on disappointment and allows me to see the world as it is, accept the gratitude of those I do help, even if it changes nothing.

                And I’ll tell you something else for free, as someone who worked for civil rights and whose parents and grandparents did, as well, people who knew Martin Luther King both Senior and Junior. Dr. King failed. America remains as racist as ever and even more segregated, though not by law, now. By choice. Dr. King failed because he never had a white counterpart, which is exactly why Gandhi failed — he never had a Muslim counterpart. Nelson Mandela succeeded because he did have a white counterpart in De Klerk. Nelson Mandela was more than an idealist, he was a man of action.

                Idealism is the province of the idiot. It never makes it off the page into the real world.Report

              • Kim in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Of course he’s being patronizing.
                That said, he puts his own failures on the rest of us.
                And asks us to shirk our duty because he has failed.

                We have a duty to change the world for the better.
                Whether or not we actually accomplish that…?

                Each stone, each step that we take builds on others’ work
                (including Blaise’s, for all that he’s convinced he’s failed).

                I’ll wager I’ve made the world better — confounded evil,
                increased freedom — all of that.

                Is there still evil afoot? Yes, and plenty of it. Including
                a good deal in high places (and low).

                To make evil howl and scream in frustration?
                No better game exists. Me, I’m not skilled enough to play
                Happy to fund it though.Report

              • Stillwater in reply to Fnord says:

                And btw, I don’t disagree with you’re claim that myths contain political content. I’m just trying to locate where it actually resides.Report

              • Glyph in reply to Stillwater says:

                I don’t disagree with that claim either, FWIW. I think one thing that makes this discussion so confusing-yet-interesting is due to a separate “location” problem, present in any fictional narrative, multiplied by a zillion in something like this nested Sandman story arc. Which is:

                Are we criticizing Gaiman’s view, or the character’s? I can’t criticize Gaiman’s, because I highly doubt he is so naive as to think the world really works (or could ever work) the way Prez’s world does. He’s not a simpleton.

                So to me it’s the character’s religious view, and now we shift, because people who believe in high ideals, religious or not, don’t have to be simpletons – we are now in the realm of “ought” vs. “is”. We don’t see *how* Prez did what he did – we see why, and what kind of person he was in doing it (upright, compassionate, dedicated, unyielding in the face of temptation).

                While there may be some symbolic truth to be found in Prez’s story as told by his acolyte/disciple, that truth is as limited as would be expected – maybe even more limited than if the story were to be told to us in real life. Limited by the vagaries of memory and the demands of hagiography. Limited by our own human inability to ever live up to such ideals. A million real-world constraints.

                And then there’s the side-topic of “am I reading too much into this?”. I might think that the conception of “The Force” and how it works is morally questionable/problematic; but unless I feel like Lucas is trying to push such a worldview on me (or unless that worldview causes in-story problems), it’s just some s**t that Yoda believes; as long as it serves as an explicable motivator *to him in-story*, it is what it is.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to Glyph says:

                While the story teller speaks, a door within the fire creaks;
                Suddenly flies open, and a girl is standing there.
                Eyes alight, with glowing hair, all that fancy paints as fair,
                She takes her fan and throws it, in the lion’s den.

                Which of you to gain me, tell, will risk uncertain pains of hell?
                I will not forgive you if you will not take the chance.
                The sailor gave at least a try, the soldier being much too wise,
                Strategy was his strength, and not disaster.

                The sailor, coming out again, the lady fairly leapt at him.
                That’s how it stands today. You decide if he was wise.
                The story teller makes no choice. Soon you will not hear his voice.
                His job is to shed light, and not to master.

              • Fnord in reply to Glyph says:

                Not being involved in the book-club, or reading the works in question, I can’t answer the specifics of location problem in this specific case, but…

                We can either criticize the author, or we can join the author in criticism of the character. Those are exhaustive solutions (though not always mutually exclusive). The story is fictional. Everything in the story is there because of a choice by the author. There are no “vagaries of memory”, save those the author intentionally gives the characters; the “demands of hagiography” are irrelevant unless the author chooses to include them, either to say something about them or to participate in them.Report

              • Fnord in reply to Glyph says:

                I should add, for clarity, that I mean criticize in a broad sense, too, along the lines of literary criticism, and it may be more correct to say that we criticize the text, rather than criticizing the author.Report

              • Glyph in reply to Glyph says:

                Fnord, my point is that a well-drawn religious character telling his own foundational religious myth is (if the author is any good, and Gaiman is more than adequate) subject to the same issues that his IRL counterpart would be.

                That the character believes something, just means that the character believes that thing – not that the belief is necessarily correct in-story, nor that the author believes it is correct.

                We can interrogate the character’s beliefs against our own, but at most, all that gets us to is “This character’s worldview is wrong”; this is in itself a totally valid criticism to have, but it doesn’t tell us much more, unless we suspect proselytizing on the author’s part via that character’s beliefs (and I don’t – this character’s story is a one-off, one piece of a huge mosaic that is itself about myths and stories, in which most of the rest of the work argues strongly against the possibility of one perfect person ever being the answer to the world’s ills).

                In a weird way this whole discussion reminds me of some fans’ reaction to the Buffy the Vampire Slayer ep. “Normal Again” – a standalone episode in which the protagonist is dosed with a poison that makes her hallucinate that everything “real” that has occurred in the entire series up to that point – monsters, demons, apocalypses – are actually grandiose delusions that she has been having in her locked mental ward as a psychotic teenage patient; that if only she will allow the medical staff to dose her with medication to suppress these delusions, she will be “normal” again. She will have back family and friends she thought long-gone, etc.

                She must choose whether to take the medication and leave behind everything we have seen for a chance to be a normal, happy teen; or not take the medication, and slip back into her usual world of pain and unending battle. And the ep. has a bit of a horror-movie ending and leaves it a bit ambiguous as to which “reality” is really the “real” one.

                Some people got really mad about that. They wanted answers, dammit, because if it was one way and not the other, then everything they had spent hours and hours watching wasn’t “real”, and it didn’t “count” anymore. (Never mind that NONE of this is real, it’s a TV show).

                Which struck me as missing the point of fiction. Why WOULDN’T we examine stories from all sorts of angles? Why does a story have to be one way, and not another?Report

              • Fnord in reply to Glyph says:

                To simply say a story told by a character “just means that the character believes that thing” is a cop-out. We can do quite a bit more than simply stand in ignorance about author versus character. Indeed, you’re doing exactly that, by pointing out the larger context of a meta-narrative frame tale.

                It may be that you’re right, and the point of the meta-narrative is different from the point of the sub-narrative (although, worth noting, that wasn’t really the first place anyone went, including you). But the meta-narrative has a point, and the sub-narrative exists within the meta-narrative for a reason.

                Or maybe (probably) more than one reason, of course. But the fact that there’s more than one reason ought to spur additional criticism, not to act as a brake.Report

            • BlaiseP in reply to Fnord says:

              Only in the very broadest sense could we drag the notion of “politics” into myth, especially the Tales at the Tavern at World’s End. All the tales are about Unfinished Business, cracks and crevasses in time and space, the intermediate world of dreams and visions. From C.S. Lewis:

              “This is the island where dreams come true.”

              “That’s the island I’ve been looking for this long time,” said one of the sailors. “I reckoned I’d find I was married to Nancy if we landed here.”

              “And I’d find Tom alive again,” said another.

              “Fools!” said the man, stamping his foot with rage. “That is the sort of talk that brought me here, and I’d better have been drowned or never born. Do you hear what I say? This is where dreams—dreams, do you understand—come to life, come real. Not daydreams: dreams.”

              There was about half a minute’s silence and then, with a great clatter of armour the whole crew were tumbling down the main hatch as quick as they could and flinging themselves on the oars to row as they had never rowed before; and Drinian was swinging round the tiller, and the boatswain was giving out the quickest stroke that ever had been heard at sea. For it had taken everyone just that half minute to remember certain dreams they had had—dreams that made you afraid of going to sleep again—and to realize what it would mean to land in a country where dreams come true.

              Boss Smiley wants Prez Rickard’s loyalty and praise. In a sense, Prez is a Dr. Faustus who rejects the overtures of Mephistopheles. Prez doesn’t sell out, doesn’t bow the knee. Prez becomes a bodhisattva, a messenger of hope, spanning the many-worlds version of America.

              An ideal is an unreachable asymptote. Arthur’s Camelot was a dream, but an important dream. Arthur is not the only sleeper, Merlin sleeps too. The legends say they will return when the world needs them. These stories can’t be reduced to political dialectic. At best, the politicians are pawky parodies, dispensing ersatz hope to a cynical world grown sick of such promises.

              Mitt Romney’s slogan was “Believe in America.” America is rather larger than any one person’s belief structure. Maybe Romney hoped we’d believe in his version of America. I don’t believe in Romney’s America. Give me Whitman’s America:

              Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,
              All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,
              Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
              Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,
              A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,
              Chair’d in the adamant of Time.

              • Fnord in reply to BlaiseP says:

                I did say that I meant “political” in a broad sense. It’s certainly not about the specific politicians and elections (well, sometimes it is, but certainly not always). But all those meaning you cite in your post are themselves political.

                The notion of an ideal king of an ideal court, sleeping, legendarily to return when needed, contains multiple levels of political content. Not least, as the Pythons pointed out, the implicit claims about government, monarchy, and divine right.Report

              • Glyph in reply to Fnord says:

                I have to say, Dennis the peasant’s speech in that movie is a masterpiece of rhythm and timing, both in script and delivery.

                “Strange wimmin’, lyin’ in ponds, distributin’ swords, is no basis for a system of government!”Report

              • Mike Schilling in reply to Glyph says:

                “Just because some watery tart threw a sword at you…”Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to Fnord says:

                I question the validity of assigning any political content to myth. It’s rather like the problem of separating Church and State. At best, politicians attempt to cast themselves as Heroic Figures, appealing to the slimy, body-temperature, irrational parts of our anatomies. They always fail in this regard. The Heroes and Saviours can only exist in the World of Dreams.

                Engels says the Ideal never makes it off the page into the real world: Letter to Mehring.

                Ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker consciously, indeed, but with a false consciousness. The real motives impelling him remain unknown to him, otherwise it would not be an ideological process at all. Hence he imagines false or apparent motives. Because it is a process of thought he derives both its form and its content from pure thought, either his own or that of his predecessors. He works with mere thought material which he accepts without examination as the product of thought, he does not investigate further for a more remote process independent of thought; indeed its origin seems obvious to him, because as all action is produced through the medium of thought it also appears to him to be ultimately based upon thought. The ideologist who deals with history (history is here simply meant to comprise all the spheres – political, juridical, philosophical, theological – belonging to society and not only to nature), the ideologist dealing with history then, possesses in every sphere of science material which has formed itself independently out of the thought of previous generations and has gone through an independent series of developments in the brains of these successive generations. True, external facts belonging to its own or other spheres may have exercised a co-determining influence on this development, but the tacit pre-supposition is that these facts themselves are also only the fruits of a process of thought, and so we still remain within that realm of pure thought which has successfully digested the hardest facts.

                If there’s any political content to myth, it’s — well — mythic. The myths are tricksy. They lead us down dark corridors.

                “Yes, yes,” said Gollum. “All dead, all rotten. Elves and Men and Orcs, from a great battle long ago. Careful, or hobbits go down to join the Dead ones and light little candles. Follow Smeagol! Don’t look at the lights!”Report

              • Fnord in reply to BlaiseP says:

                I question the validity of assigning any political content to myth. It’s rather like the problem of separating Church and State. At best, politicians attempt to cast themselves as Heroic Figures, appealing to the slimy, body-temperature, irrational parts of our anatomies. They always fail in this regard. The Heroes and Saviours can only exist in the World of Dreams.

                Engels says the Ideal never makes it off the page into the real world: Letter to Mehring.

                Yes. Reality is no myth. That’s all the more reason to be critically aware of the political messages implicit in myth, lest we consume them uncritically. Because those messages are there.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to Fnord says:

                No. The politicians invoke the myths. The only political myth I know is that of Homer, where men were merely chess pieces on the plains of Troy.Report

              • Fnord in reply to Fnord says:

                A story has no existence separate from its telling, whether the telling is in spoken words, in ink on a page, or in the mind of someone telling the story to themself. If the telling of a story is political, then the story is political. There is no platonic form of a myth, separate from the dirty political humans who invoke it.Report

              • Kim in reply to Fnord says:

                Oh, truly, blaise?
                Barbarossa, Joan of Arc, half a dozen on Washington.
                The amazons, too (wars were genocide back then).Report

              • Glyph in reply to Fnord says:

                There is no platonic form of a myth, separate from the dirty political humans who invoke it

                Not to sidetrack you guys, because I realize you are talking about something outside Sandman rt now, but this sentence is something I think the Sandman universe explicitly and repeatedly rejects; and that may or may not be relevant to this discussion. In-story there ARE platonic forms of the old myths, and they recur over and over and over; trying to change adapt for your own purposes never really works, because they always revert to their true archetypal shape sooner or later.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to Fnord says:

                Barbarossa was a real man. The King Under the Mountain is a story as old as Find mac Cumail. Myths grow on dead men like moss on gravestones. The dead are in no position to contradict the myth makers.Report

              • Stillwater in reply to Fnord says:

                I question the validity of assigning any political content to myth.

                My issue is that myth A is chosen over myth B in the Cultural Cannon because of political properties contributed by individuals within a culture. A myth, in one sense, is politically neutral. It just tells a tale. And it’s only because people attribute political content to it that it gains in status or ubiquity.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to Stillwater says:

                I have a German belt buckle my grandfather brought home from WW1. It reads “Gott Mit Uns” == God is with us.

                Well, God wasn’t with the Germans. And for all his invocation of Wagnerian myth, the Teutonic Knight kinda failed, too.

                See, that picture says it all. Men might try to wear the myth like so much shining armour but let’s not confuse the Austrian Corporal with Lohengrin the Nameless Knight. Myths invariably betray those who invoke them.Report

              • Mike Schilling in reply to BlaiseP says:

                I have a German belt buckle my grandfather brought home from WW1. It reads “Gott Mit Uns”

                Did the buckle have a little hook to hang the mittens on?Report

              • J@m3z Aitch in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Heh, Mike, that’s an especially good joke to me because that’s about how Michiganders pronounce mittens, with a hellacious glottal stop (when I go to the drive through for my morning coffee, I have to endure a perfectly nice young girl saying, “Welcome to Tim Hor’uns”), and Johanna and I are trying our best to keep our children from becoming quite that local.Report

              • Mike Schilling in reply to BlaiseP says:

                I stole it. If you haven’t read Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time, which is about a war being fought through all of time and space by repeated changing of the past, well, you should read it. Exactly as you wouldn’t expect from that description, it’s quite a short book, and very play-like, being set over a few hours in one location.

                Huh. Looks like someone forgot to renew the copyright, because it’s free at gutenberg.Report

          • Glyph in reply to Fnord says:

            Also, I forgot to say, this:

            In fact, it’s entirely possible that the “Prez” story, by casting its political content in a light that’s so explicit and familiar to modern American audiences, is (in part) reminding those readers to be aware of the political content of other myths.

            was a really great insight/comment.Report

        • James K in reply to Glyph says:

          The source of my confusion Glyph is that while I don’t expect the theme of a story to be a straightforward promotion of the ideas raise dint hat story, I can’t figure out what the ideas behind the story actually are. Penetrating as deeply as I am able I only find absurdities or enormities (if only mild ones).

          If there’s a lens on this I’m not getting, I’m really interested in seeing it.Report

          • Glyph in reply to James K says:


            Try this (and I am thinking out loud as I go here, so this may not wind up in any satisfactory fashion or neat conclusion, apologies in advance).

            If the story in itself doesn’t make sense, let’s pull the lens out. This story is part of a larger arc, patterned explicitly on Canterbury Tales. Each traveler is telling a story, and those stories themselves all involve journeys, each of which contain a mystery at its center.

            The ones so far:
            The man who gets lost in a sleeping city (told second-hand).
            The girl who pretends to be a boy and sets sail in search of sea adventure (told first-hand).
            The feckless faerie who is sent on a mission under orders from his sovereign (told first-hand).
            And Prez, the boy wunderkind President who could somehow do anything he set his mind to, even fix the ME by sheer good vibes (told second-hand).

            What do these stories have in common? The people on those journeys – WHY did they go where they went, the seed of ANY story of a journey?

            We have, as Motivations: 1.) Accident 2.) Wanderlust 3.) Compulsion by rulers and 4.) Religious impulse/belief (both Prez’s, to make the world better, and his disciple who spreads The Gospel of Prez).

            Or put another way: random chaotic chance; desire to see things that would normally be denied one; predestination/fate (Cluracan had no choice in the matter, he even says things he has no control over, prophecies which foretell the fate of others); and love of fellow man.

            Does examining each story as a facet of a larger whole tells us anything relevant to the story of our protagonist who himself is on a journey, though he is largely absent from these stories? Why does Morpheus (or anyone) do what they do, and go where they go?

            Should we come back to this question when we finish the arc (or series)? I’m not being coy or mysterious here – I don’t know that there IS a satisfactory answer (or at least one that will satisfy everyone).

            But this issue obviously brings out all kinds of questions that others don’t, and it’s also very unlike any other story in the series (though I do think that Prez as an immutable, immortal, unyielding “idea” who refuses to drop what he sees as his responsibilities, and can do whatever he sets his mind to in his own “realm”, has obvious applications to Morpheus). So I wonder if we are somehow missing the forest for the trees here.

            I also have some half-formed idea of Prez as wish-fulfillment for Morpheus, as another “son” who, when presented with the temptation to resurrect his own dead “wife” (fiancee, but still), wisely rejects that offer, unlike Orpheus.Report

            • Glyph in reply to Glyph says:

              Also, from wikipedia (in which I am additionally glad to see I am not the only one who thought those were Watchmen nods):

              “Prez is ultimately a Messiah figure for the American dream; young, perfect, idealistic and brilliant, and therefore essentially fleeting and transitory.”

              The story is *supposed* to be impossibly-beautiful, and beautifully-impossible.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Fnord says:

        Sadly, the Manichaeans have been reduced to a binary cliché. They weren’t, you know. Hugely complex theology and worldview. The Mandaeans are still around, though very few in number: they’ve largely been expelled from Iraq, where they arose. I’ve met several of them, the John the Baptist Christians they’re sometimes called.

        Prez Rickard is not a Manichaean avatar of goodness and light. He represents the Innocence of Youth, the innocence of a young Arthur, the idealism which entropy has not yet corrupted and transmogrified into the cynicism of the Realpolitik of Boss Smiley.

        You probably weren’t around for Robert Kennedy: people saw in RFK the same sort of idealism, though all the Kennedys were deeply flawed men, shysters all.

        The whole of World’s End is Neil is simply expanding on a Chesterton poem, Child of the Snows.

        There is heard a hymn when the panes are dim,
        And never before or again,
        When the nights are strong with a darkness long,
        And the dark is alive with rain.

        Never we know but in sleet and in snow,
        The place where the great fires are,
        That the midst of the earth is a raging mirth
        And the heart of the earth a star.

        And at night we win to the ancient inn
        Where the child in the frost is furled,
        We follow the feet where all souls meet
        At the inn at the end of the world.

        The gods lie dead where the leaves lie red,
        For the flame of the sun is flown,
        The gods lie cold where the leaves lie gold,
        And a Child comes forth alone.

        I sure wish some people read more poetry and less philosophy. for the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

        Stop trying to squeeze this stuff into simplistic meta-narrative. Sandman doesn’t work that way. Read Chesterton, folks. It’s all in there.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Fnord says:

        Good vs. Evil. In a comic book? Totally unacceptable.Report

  2. Kazzy says:

    I didn’t read the stories, but having seen some of the comments here, I have to ask: Is the story allegorical for God myths?

    Because: “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.”

    How did Jesus do his miracles?Report

    • Glyph in reply to Kazzy says:

      I think it’s interesting that the story, by mixing up political and religious and superhero conventions the way it does, is throwing several kinds of people for loops. James K is pretty explicitly irreligious, IIRC, and the Doc (again IIRC) is a man of faith.

      And both of them are saying “wait, what?”

      It may just be that it’s a bad story, or badly-told. But I don’t personally think that, and I think the fact that it generates the questions that it does (that its “point” isn’t unambiguously clear to all of us) is indicative of its power as art.Report

      • James K in reply to Glyph says:

        I can’t speak for the Doc, but I’s possible that my irreligious nature is part of what makes me look at this story askance. I’ll lay out my loci, and we can see if others agree with me.

        Let’s compare this story to the Gospels. If you leave all the plot-connector stuff to one side, the bulk of the New Testament consists of two things – miracles (where Jesus does something implausibly awesome) and parables (where Jesus tells a story, or takes some non-miraculous action to make some kind of point).

        As an example of a miracle consider Jesus Feeding the Multitude. Now what I am supposed to do with this tale? I’m not even going to dignify the idea that I should treat it as a literal description of events. But what about as some kind of a moral lesson? Is the lesson that we should feed the hungry by hoping for a miracle? Because that lesson is worse than useless. Is is simply that we should seek to feed the hungry? But even then it’s useless because it gives us mere mortals nothing to work with. Here are three alternative approaches that would have been better as moral lessons:
        1) Jesus persuades local farmers and merchants to supply the hungry with food. Lesson: The more fortunate should help the less fortunate by giving some of what they have.
        2) Jesus has the presence of mind to invite local merchants to set up food stalls nearby, giving the hungry multitude a chance to buy food. Lesson: Fulfilment depends on foresight, planning and dedication.
        3) Jesus organises the multitude to catch fish at a nearby lake, leading to a massive feast. Lesson: prosperity depends on hard work and cooperation.

        None of these alternatives are necessarily plausible, but they at least point to virtues real people can cultivate in themselves. You could replace every Gospel Miracle with “And then Jesus was awesome” and nothing would change. I think Jefferson thought along similar lines, which is why he cut them out of his version of the Gospels.

        Miracles are useless as moral lessons because real people can’t emulate them. Parables, on the other hand can offer useful moral guidance. The parable of the talents for example basically says “prudent asset management doesn’t mean fleeing form every possible risk”, agree with the message or not, it’s something real people can work with, even if they never find themselves in the situation of being servants who are given some money to look after by their master.

        My problem with The Golden Boy isn’t so much its religious tone, but rather that it reads like a miracle, not a parable.Report

        • BlaiseP in reply to James K says:

          The theologians say the miracles are proof of God’s power over the world. History is full of fabulous hagiography of this sort: most inventors cobble together bits of existing technology and call them New Things. They aren’t, of course Most of what passes for novelty in the world is a result of some fortuitous combination, which is why the mathematical symbol for a factorial is the exclamation point.

          Really, your disbelief in miracles is not going to make the stories go away any more than Jefferson’s scissors did. Human beings live in contradiction to much they know to be true. How people square these contradictions up in their own hearts and minds is a greater mystery than any Miracle of Jesus.

          We’re all Superheroes in our own mind’s eyes: we’re constantly fretting and fussing about how awful the world is and the obviousness of the solutions to that awfulness — if only the world had the good sense to listen to us, gosh, wouldn’t life be great? I’m sure, given the power to do something about them, history would record the Era of James K, rex et basileus, to be the dawning of a new age of cooperation, prosperity and reason and improved farming techniques whereby the multitudes would be fed.

          Well it bloody well wouldn’t work out as advertised, no matter how good your intentions might be. Trust me on this: there will always be unfed multitudes and merchants will continue to cheat their customers.

          Miracles are horribly instructive, though you may not think so. If miracles are impossible, so are the possibilities of feeding the world’s hungry and curing their sicknesses and eliminating hatred and tribalism and warfare. Mankind will not be managed like a corporation. There’s no sacking some people: they just won’t get with the Co-Prosperity Plan so wisely advocated by Emperor James and his sagacious vizier Lord BlaiseP, no matter how much it might benefit them. The Miracles stand in evidence of the impossibility of reforming mankind.Report

          • Mike Schilling in reply to BlaiseP says:

            History is full of fabulous hagiography of this sort

            E.g, Reagan destroying the Evil Empire by his combination of sunny optimism and steely resolve.Report

          • James K in reply to BlaiseP says:

            We’re all Superheroes in our own mind’s eyes: we’re constantly fretting and fussing about how awful the world is and the obviousness of the solutions to that awfulness — if only the world had the good sense to listen to us, gosh, wouldn’t life be great? I’m sure, given the power to do something about them, history would record the Era of James K, rex et basileus, to be the dawning of a new age of cooperation, prosperity and reason and improved farming techniques whereby the multitudes would be fed.

            Well it bloody well wouldn’t work out as advertised, no matter how good your intentions might be. Trust me on this: there will always be unfed multitudes and merchants will continue to cheat their customers.

            Believe me, you’re not telling me anything here that I don’t already know. I get to see the government policy sausage factory from the inside. I know full well the problems we face are incredibly complicated, and that no one’s genius plan (including mine) works as well as advertised.

            On the other hand, you want to be careful taking that line of reasoning to far. Perfecting the human condition may be impossible, but improving it isn’t. If the poor will always be with us, it’s only because our rising standards lead us to periodically revise the poverty line up. A billion people have risen out of extreme poverty in the last 20 years, so more of the multitude are getting fed than before. And none of that is due to anyone praying for anything.

            Learned helplessness is a counter-productive attitude when faced by the problems besetting humanity. A better antidote to our utopian excesses would be some good parables teaching about the law of unintended consequences.Report

            • BlaiseP in reply to James K says:

              This presupposes the world is getting better, that the poor are rising from poverty. In case it has escaped your attention, the world is going to hell in a handcart. The largest Arabic-speaking country in the world is now erupting — there’s little work, no tourism, no hope — just blank outrage whipped up by bug-eyed Islamists, opposed by a pitiless military intent upon preserving its own privileges.

              I started an essay on Egypt last week and threw it away in disgust. I predicted all this some while back, to the letter.

              Don’t tell me about a billion people rising from poverty. It’s not true. I don’t have to tell a political scientist of your calibre what happens when a large enough core of disaffected, unemployed people form up. Those consequences are as predictable as tomorrow’s sunrise.Report

              • James K in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Don’t tell me about a billion people rising from poverty. It’s not true.

                It certainly is true, they’re mostly in China and India. China’s economic boom over the past 20 years has been a massive force for good int he world, as far as reducing poverty goes. I’ll grant you that the Middle East is going pear-shaped at an alarming rate, and that the economic malaise in the OECD countries is a damper to optimism, but the trend over decades is positive in most of the world.Report

  3. Mike Schilling says:

    Prez sweeps into power, and solves old and long-standing problems without effort.

    I’m curious why the last two words are there, since among Prez’s outstanding qualities are diligence and dedication. As I commented over at MD, if you take the story literally, it’s about a guy who had all the gifts of the best politicians, plus was completely sincere about wanting to do the right thing, and could shame all the other politicians into doing the right thing too. Prez is not that different from Captain Carrot of the City Watch.Report

    • James K in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      Carrot can bother me too. When his implausible charisma is played for laughs, then it’s fine. But any time his leadership abilities are treated seriously it leaves me cold.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to James K says:

        But people do follow leaders And Carrot is exactly the type: strong, handsome, cool in a crisis, convinced of his own correctness, generous to his followers, and with a long track record of winning. The only implausible part is that he cares more about doing good than about doing well.Report

    • Stillwater in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      Prez is not that different from Captain Carrot of the City Watch.

      The beauty of the Carrot story is that his ability to lead resides in his lack of desire to lead. I mean, he has the sword, the lineage, the crown-shaped birthmark – all the trappings of the rightful king. What he lacks is capital A ambition while simultaneously respecting the individuality and basic humanity of everyone he comes into contact with. That’s why people follow him, it seems to me. TP has created a very interesting device in young Carrot.Report

  4. Jaybird says:

    You’ll notice that the vast majority of the problems that the various superheroes solve are problems that are created by supervillains. Problems as unlikely as their solutions.

    “Ha ha! I have created a serum that will turn everyone in town into mutant animal hybrids!”
    “I will instead swap out the serum with the antidote to the serum which, presumably, has no side effects on people who don’t need it!”


    “Ha ha! One of my punches is really strong!”
    “I will punch you back!”

    It’s never “I will do what I can to ensure that the Je—er—*ISRAELI* state is not acknowledged by any Muslim Arabs in the region! This will result in perpetual war!”

    So when a solution comes up that says “I have solved the problem!” and, pretty much, leaves it at that, you’re stuck with knitted brows.

    I mean, if *I* were going to solve the problems in the Middle East, I’d do it thusly: “I have discovered a form of cold fusion that is capable of making small, cheap, *AFFORDABLE* nuclear fission pebble bed generators that are transportable but, because they’re pebble bed, cannot be abused by bad actors unless they have facilities similar to the ones capable of making the generators in the first place. Using these small generators, I have brought air conditioning to the Middle East. Air conditioning is now cheaper than food. Now that people are sitting in rooms that are around 68 degrees, they want to fight less. They’re demanding flat screen televisions and box sets of Dallas.”

    Something like that might elicit a gigglesnort but if someone said that that’s how the Middle East problem was solved in a story, I’d probably say “okay, fine” and plow ahead.

    This story didn’t go to the effort of *SHOWING*, though. It only *TOLD*.Report

    • James K in reply to Jaybird says:

      Yeah, that’s my problem too. It’s useless as an example because it gives us nothing to model ourselves on, not even in the thinnest sense.Report

    • Reformed Republican in reply to Jaybird says:

      >This story didn’t go to the effort of *SHOWING*, though. It only *TOLD*.

      If Gaiman could figure out how to solve the problems in the Middle East, he probably would not be a writer.Report

  5. Jaybird says:

    You know what would have been funny? If Prez got the Peace Prize right after his election.Report

  6. Rufus F. says:

    Great, something else that I really need to read!

    I think the flip side of the mentality that the President can fix everything is that he can ruin everything if he fails to fix everything. It feels like there are more people than ever who would like an American King.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Rufus F. says:

      1st generation Protestants hate the Pope.
      2nd generation Protestants dislike the Pope.
      3rd generation Protestants ignore the Pope.
      4th generation Protestants admire the Pope.
      5th generations Protestants says stuff like “we need a Pope!”Report

  7. Kim says:

    “What is the point of having a story based on people who don’t act like real people?”
    … some people LIKE fairy tales.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Kim says:

      Hrm. Maybe this is the problem.

      It’s not that we had a President who acted Super-naturally.

      It’s that we were asked to assume that the faceless lumpenproletariat in the Middle East suddenly decided to change in response.

      The former? Boilerplate. The latter? Preposterous.Report

  8. J@m3z Aitch says:

    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.

    This is my second biggest pet peeve in politics, after the nirvana fallacy (although this may actually just be a sub-category of that). I’m not sure what would convince conservatives, so many of whom have a Manichean conception of the universe, but in my more optimistic moments I like to think that Obama has managed to dispel liberals of this illusion, at least for a generation.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

      Are you kidding? The Republicans have obstructed him every step of the way!Report

    • BlaiseP in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

      Bill Clinton had this problem well in hand. That man could say anything to anyone — at any time, taking any side of any issue with equal aplomb and deviousness. Obama isn’t much different. I’m not sure either man ever had a stake in the ground on any issue. Obama only beat Hillary because he hadn’t voted on Iraq. Now look at that skinny weasel, fending off every attempt to limit his powers to make war on anyone.

      I wouldn’t say absolute power corrupts absolutely: there’s always some little bit which hasn’t quite been corrupted. But corruption requires some level of dishonesty, some conversion of political power into some other tangible benefit. Doesn’t have to be monetary or sexual in nature, there are other kinds of corruption. No lie is quite so deadly as the one we tell repeatedly — and come to believe in preference to the truth itself.

      Ronald Reagan, the apotheosis of Conservative self-delusion:

      “A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not. Report

    • Mike Schilling in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

      Comparing the Roberts Court to the Warren Court makes it clear how true Manicheanism is.Report

  9. Shazbot5 says:

    I didn’t read the story, but I’m not sure if I’m missing something in your OP, James. (And I love your thought process in general, so I don’t want to miss it.

    I agree that politics should be about us seeing which institutions are good and bad and reforming them, not just picking the most righteous person to save us, but in the minds of many voters and pundits it is not.

    This story seems to (whether ironically or not) fall into seeing politics as picking the most righteous person to save us, and if we really could have a super-righteous person, all problems would be solved, regardless of what the institutions do, and that bugs you.

    Is that right? Is that all you are saying? Or is there more?Report

  10. Shazbot5 says:

    Also, I like to think of the moral-hero type as necessary but not sufficient for problem solving in certain (somewhat rare) cases. (You also need buy in from people in general, and the institutions in the proper state for problem solving. In some cases, the moral-hero isn’t necessary.) Think Ghandi, MLK, civil rights, women’s rights movements.Report