We’ve just seen the back of a tough year for us all. This was a year where the UK left the European Union, the United States elected the shavings of a cancerous scrotal infection into presidential office, and populist-facism returned to Europe. And also Bowie died.
It’s already become a (well-worn to the point of disintegrating) internet cliché, how bad a year 2016 was – already the joke about how 2016 will be every answer to every pub quiz question of the future has become common stock, a joke available to us all, on the mutual understanding that we will each share and retweet every variation of the joke we see out of communal misery.
In reviewing the year there are two ways to go. Option #1 is to list every bad thing that happened this year and review the entire thing in a detached, ironic way and use laughter to hide the fact that behind the keyboard we’re desperately chugging lighter-fluid, and Option #2 is to provide a falsely optimistic recap of the year going over the incidental happy moments and to provide an alternate history where maybe everything will be alright because some of the art was OK and the best Superman comic this side of Grant Morrison happened to come out this year.
Both options are terrible. The first is terrible because you are already aware of how bad things are, and the second is terrible because as a white man with a posh accent I have nothing to personally fear from the rise of xenophobic facism, so any calls of “Hey, everything will be fine!” coming from my corner will ring as hollow as your dad promising he’ll try to remember to ring you on your birthday.
The problem is I want to write something optimistic but I’m not sure how optimistic I feel. The things that need rebuilding right now will need decades to be rebuilt. I’m a sucker for the idea of art being a tool of inspiration, and something that can drag you through darkness, but in practical terms I don’t think there’s anything artistic expression can do. I don’t know what art can do to stop the rise in racist attacks, or acts of terror around Europe.
So take everything to come with a pinch of salt, but I sincerely believe Superman can save us.
“Save us?” you say, sarcastically, rubbing my forehead onto a graph that undeniably proves the rise of violent crimes against transgender people. In response I can only use a loose definition of “save”, and a definition of “us” that explicitly just means “me”.
There are two amazing things about Superman, that are both the same thing. The first thing just happens to be a shorthand version of the second thing. The first thing, and here I will say “thing” just one more time so that it loses all meaning, is that Clark Kent will do the right thing purely because it’s the right thing to do. This trait defines all my favourite heroes. You can keep your morally complex anti-heroes, but the stories I love, that I hold dear to my soul, are ones where a character goes out of their way to do something entirely due to the fact that it is the best thing to do.
Superman does this all the time. All Star Superman is the primer I throw at people when they pretend to find him a boring character despite never having read a single comic. There are asides in All Star where Clark just straight up saves someone because he happens to be passing. Not only is it the right thing to do, but he feels obliged to act because he has the power to do so.
This is where the first thing becomes the second thing. As has been elsewhere expressed more eloquently than I can hope to achieve, Superman has the best powers and in having the best powers you would expect, at some point, some kind of exploitation of that power. But rather than absolute power corrupting him absolutely, absolute power absolves him of greed, pettiness, and the other selfish distractions that come from mortal existence. What does money mean to a god? What does property mean to someone who can breathe in space? What does self-preservation mean to someone who cannot be killed? Absolute power, in Clark’s case, removes him from the worst instincts of humanity. In place of corruption, all he feels is compassion and responsibility to people he can aid.
This is where I think Superman can save us. I hope you’ll excuse the sentimentality but it’s been a long year and I think I need this. We’re facing a time of hatred in many forms. The volume has been turned up on everyone’s voice at once, and it turned out there’s a lot more vitriol and viciousness in the world than we dared to fear. Pettiness is winning. Hatred is winning. Scape-goating is winning. The world is scared and angry.
There’s also nothing you can do to stop it.
Except that’s not true. Largely. Truth is, you probably won’t have a chance to help with any of the fractures that are going on right now. What are the chances that you’ll be in the right place, in that one-in-a-million spot, where being good will actually make a difference?
Except that’s also not true. Being nice to one person makes a difference of exactly one person. Whether that’s worth the bother of trying is down to your judgement entirely, but I can tell you that, in every hypothetical situation, Clark Kent would say it was worth it.
One person at a time. That’s the deal. That’s all anyone can do. The difference of one person. Donating to a refugee centre, standing by your friends who are the victims of whatever forms of passive or active prejudice, and taking a moment to fix your own warped hateful thoughts. These actions fix the world one person at a time.
I’m in no position to vouch for this mode of operation because honestly this feeling of goodwill is something that, in me, evaporates on contact with air. I scoff at a hateful world but then recede into inaction because that’s the easiest thing for me to do, thereby endorsing the status-quo and making the world all-round a worse place to live in.
But you listen to this you motherfucker and you listen good. We are getting through this one person at a time and you’re dragging me with you. What does money mean to us when income inequality is so stark? What does property mean when homelessness is on the rise? What does self-preservation mean when 2500 people drowned fleeing to Europe this year?
Superman isn’t an ideal far above our capability, because, in actuality, the second thing is in fact the first thing. The right thing to do is easy because it is the right thing to do. There are fights that need fighting and people that need defending and all you have to do is help one person at a time.
What does helping one person look like? I have absolutely no idea. It’ll be different for everyone, based on what you see and what you happen to walk near. Maybe you can intervene in someone being harassed on the street. Maybe you can write to your MP to vote on an important issue in parliament. Maybe you can just really fucking be there for someone who feels like the world doesn’t want them. Maybe you can make someone laugh milk out of their nose on a day where there wasn’t any light on the horizon for them.
Maybe things aren’t OK for you, and the difference of one-person that you make is actually the difference of yourself, remembering that despite all the bad things that are happening, that you are still here and are still capable of being a window-shaking thunderstorm personality who won’t stand for hatred or division.
It won’t be enough. It never is. There are things that can’t be fixed. There will be days when you forget. But on the days you remember, you’ll be making the world better one person at a time.
Brick by brick, person by person, we have a world to rebuild. Get your cape ready.
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