Superheroes and Smart People

For about a year I’ve been thinking about repeated appearances in literature (and therefore also in film – I know nothing of stage) and television of the superman.  Not the sort of man whose natural good health becomes something superhuman and ageless in the light of the yellow sun, but of the man whose native ability to make sense and understand circumstance in detail and in whole becomes something superhuman in the light of a painfully clear, blindingly bright intelligence.

While the former experiences few conflicts beyond those imposed upon him by the rigors of maintaining sufficient anonymity to function effectively, the latter’s apprehension of the actual world he inhabits is so conjoined with that unfortunate offspring of understanding, empathy, that his primary and constant experience in/of life is conflicted pain.  As I’ve noted to the annoyance of others here, that is a pretty reasonable state to find oneself in.  Usually the protagonist of superhuman strength wishes to use his great physical powers to benefit humankind and his efforts are narrated as meeting with the resistance of one or more opponents of equal or similar physical power and it turns out to be some quality of character or spirit, if you wish, that decides the contest.  Because he is most frequently the one to whom those in great distress appeal in last resort, and while generally well known not usually afforded celebrity status in the way professional athletes or attractive film stars are known (again, in the ‘public eye’ due primarily to their physical features or abilities) the other variety of superman tends to be known by his given name.

My most popular blog post is the one where I quote a section of Lyle Rossiter’s The Liberal Mind.  Rossiter posits that the problem with nanny-statist political and social liberals is that they wish to indefinitely prolong their infancy by forcing all of society to meet their need for a lifelong coercive-but-protective parent/provider by "legally" stealing in the form of taxes ever greater portions of the wealth created and amassed by those of us who work and produce.  The reason for the post’s popularity is doubtless the fact that in it I discuss my old Murry 11/36 riding lawn mower and contrast its performance with that of the used the John Deere GT235E I purchased to replace it.  Back to Rossiter, however, his view taken to the extreme is a stark vista of purely individualistic self-reliance that seems to deny any human longing for love and care that an Evangelical Christian would probably attribute to a "God-shaped-hole" in a human being’s essential (as opposed to physical) heart.

Sure, some of that folk-religious hocus-pocus linked above is pretty cheesy stuff glorifying helplessness and sickness.  The apparent fact that many people seem to have a desire for or a sense that they need or should have the care of someone greater than they may bespeak something qualitatively different than soul and self-destroying sentimentality.  For instance, it may be a neurological artifact from  time in-vitro or a vestigial grasp-reflex having more to do with the human navel than the human heart.  If it can be explained in that way, this sense of need or desire for care still serves to remind the human that generically he is not self-existent.

In literary fiction, Sherlock Holmes is the stand-out superman of his or arguably any age – soaring intellect, uninterested in fame, energetic, able to communicate with and understand the communications of people of every social stations, unimpressed by social station because he apprehends the truth of the human being, experiencing and dulling the pain produced by extreme clarity of understanding.  And in the realm of televised fiction, Dr. Who is the other such figure – both in and out of time, energetic, active in his own and the circumstances of others, seeking human companionship and working to improve the lives of (mainly) humans.

Bold Italics, Sound Familiar?

When we left the flat frozen northern farmland of our Christmas holiday, I also left behind the two books I’d been reading, Metzger’s The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance, and Rossiter’s The Liberal Mind: The Psychological Causes of Political Madness. So, when the first Sunday of January rolled around and we had potluck at the Zachariades home with most of the Cafe Church congregation, I asked to borrow a couple of books. One, a book written for masses purporting to set forth the history of Arthurian legend and fact, and the other, a revisionist tome dealing with the factual basis for the claims and charges of the late United States senator Joe McCarthy.

Yesterday, reading on a break from my own writing and prep-work for today’s interview and testing, I read the following, and found the bit I’ve italicized in bold, infra, particularly applicable to our own time.

As with Chambers and the response to Martin Dies, there was as noted a cultural subtext embedded in the reaction to McCarthy. He was a rough-and-tumble scrapper from the boonies who hadn’t been to Yale or Harvard, spoke in blunt phrases, and taunted the smooth sophisticates in the salons of Georgetown and plush corridors of official power. His targets, often as not, were Ivy League respectable types in the mold of Hiss or Duggan. How could one believe such outlandish charges from such a lout, aimed at his social betters? One couldn’t, and one didn’t.

In which respect, it’s worth recalling that Hiss-Chambers, the original McCarthy fracas, and other security battles this side of the Atlantic erupted in the period 1948 – 50, before the truth about the Philby ring came filtering out from European sources. Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean didn’t abscond to Moscow until May of 1951, well over a year after McCarthy’s initial speeches. Kim Philby would be cleared of “third man” charges in 1955, only to bolt in 1963. Anthony Blunt wasn’t exposed in public as a Soviet agent until the 1970s. Had the truth about the Cambridge spies been general knowledge in 1948 or 1950, it’s likely the Chambers allegations, perhaps even the charges of McCarthy, would have been viewed in a different light. If it could happen in Great Britain, it could just possibly happen here. And, in fact, it did.

The parallels between the British and American cases weren’t coincidental, but sprang from similar intellectual and moral causes. In both countries, there had been a long decline of faith in Western institutions – beginning with religious faith itself, then spreading to other aspects of a culture that appeared in the depression era of the 1930s to be on its deathbed. To many already afflicted with anomie and dark misgivings, the economic/political crisis of the age looked like the coup de grace for traditional views and customs. The supposedly ironclad theories of Marx and Lenin and alleged wonders of Soviet planning were thought to have the answers no longer provided by the older culture.

Aiding the transition was the vast flowering of party front groups that has been noted. In these Potemkin village outfits, Communist ideas and projects were presented in appealing masquerade, and many who weren’t Communist to begin with, or ever, mingled freely with those who were – Marxism and its subspecies made respectable and fairly trendy by the systemic crisis.

Evans, Stanton. Blacklisted by History: The Untold Story of Senator Joe McCarthy and his Fight Against America’s Enemies. New York: Crown Forum, 2007. P. 64, italics mine.