The World is Not a Comic Book

by Will on September 13, 2010

There is a way of thinking about the world that assumes the absolute good or evil of human actors, and derives conclusions from that assumption. This way of thinking leads people to think things like, “Saddam Hussein’s a really bad despot so he has it coming, and therefore we should invade Iraq and depose him.” Or, the current version, “Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and Kim Jong-Il have bad opinions and do a bad job of running their countries, so therefore we should bomb both those countries.” Or “Ronald Reagan brought down the Berlin Wall, so you’re wrong to say that his funding of extremists in Afghanistan was a really bad idea.” When you’re looking at Good versus Evil, it’s quite easy to figure out what should happen.

This kind of thinking works well in the realities of Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne. Kent really is an unbelievably good guy. He does difficult, dangerous work and never seeks compensation. Indeed, he accepts a salary as a lowly newspaperman, when he could make millions with his unique talents. Wayne, similarly, spends his fabulous wealth on high-tech gadgets that allow him to keep the people of Gotham safe, and rather than living in opulent luxury he puts himself in harm’s way every night taking on the criminals who plague the city. Both of these guys take on unsavory characters who try to murder them, and they duly turn these people over to law enforcement and trust the courts to convict them: their code of honor will not allow them to kill. There is just no impugning their motivations and actions: if they’re doing it, you can bet they’re sure it’s the right thing.

Their villainous opponents, meanwhile, are really bad. Every so often it looks like Lex Luthor is engaging in some charitable or benign venture: but every single time he turns out to be plotting some large-scale extortion. The Joker sometimes claims to have been cured, but then he always goes back to killing sprees. These guys are just through and through bad.

However, the world we live in features a conspicuous absence of Men of Steel and Caped Crusaders. Instead, we have people capable of good and of ill, who will pretty much always do some of the former and some of the latter. What tends to determine which they choose is what they’re motivations are, or what they perceive them to be. By manipulating and changing their incentives, you can often alter their behavior.

It is an idee fixe in this country that our nation, in its doings abroad, is always magnanimous and benevolent. People with this idea bristle when others criticize particular outrages that our military has wrought, and accuse the critics of being motivated by hatred of the country. I believe this idea stems from the second world war, when our opponents truly were Joker-level psychopathic villains, nihilistic in their devotion to murder and violence, and where our side championed some pretty unimpeachable ideals. To think that this dichotomy characterizes foreign policy at all times is simplistic. The US was indeed magnanimous to the nations of western Europe in the wake of World War II. But it also imposed decades of military dictatorship on South Korea, French colonial rule on Vietnam, absolute monarchy on Iran, and military dictatorships on numerous Latin American republics (and that does not approach being a complete list). For the most part people in those regions did not appreciate these actions or take them as benevolent, and when they hear Americans protest that we had the best of intentions, that strikes them as pretty weak sauce. So it’s astoundingly arrogant to go around claiming that America is a Clark Kent-grade good guy.

It’s a point that shouldn’t need to be made to adults, but it does need to be made. Comic book stories are made up. We do not live in one.

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