Every religion needs heroes of the faith, so why not the state?
Philosophers and theologians are increasingly trading off the idea that—like the Transformers—there is more to the State “than meets the eye.” It’s not the secular tent it appears to be. Paul Kahn writes, “This is not hidden but celebrated in our ordinary political rhetoric: to serve and die for the nation is commonly referred to as the ultimate sacrifice.” The sovereign state, he writes, “is no more imaginable from without than is a god to those outside of the faith.”
It’s now an ultimate and praiseworthy sacrifice to give one’s life in defense of the state, just as it once was to give one’s life for the faith (an act viewed nowadays as dangerous, possibly pathological). Today we in the Westphalian West change our faith like our pants: different kinds for different seasons, and with an eye to fashion and trend, not settled conviction. But our citizenship, on the other hand, is full of obligations to a mystical, sacred community we are born into, whose borders abruptly begin and end in arbitrary places, whose duties are bound by the punitive powers of the state, the betrayal of which is—in many places—regarded as treason and worthy of death.
In Comment‘s latest print issue, Adam Barkman argued superheroes are the saints of the state, the embodiment of the virtues and rituals, the faith and hope, that underline the so-called secular state. At last week’s Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, a Concordia University doctoral student argued more odiously that today’s superheroes promote surveillance and “statism.”
But surveillance is the least interesting thing about superheroes. In fact, policies of surveillance signal cracks in the ontological edifice of the nation-state. They are a ploy for the desperate, an Inquisition to root out the faithless. Superheroes and saints aren’t about surveilling, but imitating; they cultivate the desire for sacrifice and virtue, on behalf of that community. Surveillance is their failure; surveillance means the saints no longer inspire, and the story and rituals have lost their power.
How curious, then, as we’ve recycled our Cold War (super)heroes in summer blockbusters over the last decade. Like the Christian invocation of Joshua’s genocide, we’ve reached back into our past for sharper moral clarity: when Superman still stood for “truth, justice, and the American way” before rescinding his citizenship in a flight of postmodern malaise.
Can the resurrection of these saints strike the spark of solidarity so badly needed in a decentralized and destabilizing culture?
Men (and women) in tights from the bipolar world of the Cold War might seem a sad bunch to gird our social foundations. When civilizations turn nostalgic, when their creative repertoire turns dystopian rather than utopian, when Inquisition rather than inspiration becomes the rule, not even Captain America may save us. Maybe it’s time for better stories.
For now, the pulpits of our cineplexes are open, a surveillance of the disbelievers sparked. Let us see if the saints can inspire again.