‘Designated Survivor’ and Political Optimism

Courage, my friends, ’tis not too late to build a better world.

Tommy Douglas, an icon of Canadian progressivism said that. Designated Survivor  embraces this concept completely – no matter what bad things happen or how scary the state of the country and world looks, Tom Kirkman doesn’t give up. He keeps fighting for a better tomorrow. Fitting, seeing as Douglas was Kiefer Sutherland’s grandfather.

We don’t have to agree upon everything, but we do need to share common values and believe in the principle that all people have a right to equal treatment and protection under the law. Kirkman is a registered independent that leans left in his political views, but his most important ally during the first season was a Republican Congresswoman. And the reason that’s important is that they disagreed on policies. Not issues.

The polarization of politics isn’t bad if it’s about actual issues. Of course not. We shouldn’t compromise on core values. There are things in this world that are a matter of right and wrong, with no room for debate. Discrimination, gun violence, abuse, workers rights violations – we might not agree on how to fix them, but if the disagreement is over whether or not they are problems, then someone is wrong. Polarization becomes a problem when it’s over superficial differences. When it’s a matter of, it’s okay when we do it.

There was a fantastic moment in the second season when the Kirkman administration was trying to get approval to launch a military strike on American soil against Patrick Lloyd, an American citizen. Senator Hunter challenges it, and when Aaron questions her and asks her to trust Kirkman to not abuse his power and to not ask for this if he had any other choice, she says that she does, but that she still can’t let him to order the strike, because a time will come when there’s a president she doesn’t trust to make that decision.

That is something I wish we had today. One of my issues with the Democratic Party over the past several years was the blind Obama worship. I touched upon it in this post. I do believe that Obama did good things, while also finding some of his positions abhorrent. But now, every time someone criticizes Obama or the Democratic Party, people jump in with the same whataboutism they rightfully criticize when it comes from Trump or the Republican Party. Saying that I disapprove of the Obama administration’s prosecution of whistleblowers or his extrajudicial drone strikes does not take away from my disapproval of Trump and his travel bans and incitement of racist violence. We have to hold everyone to the highest standards, otherwise there’s no point.

Congress does not exist to blindly support any president and be a yes-man. It exists to separate the judicial and executive branches of federal government. It exists as part of the system of checks and balances required for a functional democracy. It exists to police the executive branch and force it to make the best, most ethical decisions it can.

I loved that Designated Survivor actually shows what a government should be. It’s not perfect, because the world isn’t perfect. There are bad politicians that care more about their own agendas and prejudices than about helping people. There are hard choices that need to be made. But Kirkman is a good man that wants nothing more than to do the right thing, both in and out of the country. Senator Hunter sometimes opposes him, but she’s also a good person, just with a different role to play. And together, they worked to rebuild a devastated country.

The world is messy. Not all choices will be easy. But it is possible to make better ones and improve the world we live in.

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The Realistic Optimism of Zack Snyder’s DCEU

As a woman of colour and a child of immigrants and even as a female engineering student, I know that racism and sexism exist. I know that there is vast inequality in the world that can be seen everywhere. And I also know that I have it a hell of a lot better than most.

Maybe it’s a sign of my relative privilege that I don’t have to constantly engage with that fact, or maybe it’s just that life is stressful enough without having to face the fact that the  world can be an awful place, but for whatever reason, I love escapist fiction. I like comedies that I don’t have to think about. I like fantasies that let me focus on problems that aren’t mine and that don’t exist in my universe. Zack Snyder’s DCEU movies don’t let me do that.

Snyder’s movies handle real problems, and handle them seriously. They don’t make jokes about genuinely awful things, because we shouldn’t find them funny. Bruce Wayne’s obsessiveness and paranoia and the way that he copes with his trauma by dressing up as a bat and beating up criminals in the night aren’t funny. They’re tragic. Snyder helps us feel for Clark, because he’s a person, not just some fantasy for people to project onto. These movies are thoughtful, not flippant, and they’re told compassionately enough that I can enjoy them, rather than feeling worse.

They don’t force me to confront things that I’d rather not think about without offering me any support, because they tell me that while there are things to fear, I don’t have to face them alone. That the world is tough, but it’s all of our problem. They never embrace cynicism. Characters aren’t mocked for idealism or naivete. They’re proven right. They’re the people we’re supposed to aspire to be like. Growing up doesn’t have to mean becoming jaded. It means being able to do something. In Batman v Superman, Jenet Klyburn told Lois that what makes her a good reporter is that the bad in the world still surprises her. That’s true. We cannot make the world a better place if we’re resigned to the fact that bad things will happen. We should prepare for the worst while still hoping for the best, and believing in the good of humanity.

Man of Steel and Batman v Superman are serious stories that force the audience to confront the issues that exist in our world through a fantastic lens. Despite that, they’re never pessimistic. They’re grounded in reality, but maintain a sense of optimism. The immigrant refugee can be accepted. The smart, decent guy that feels like an outcast can find a purpose and a place where he feels a sense of belonging. The unethical billionaire can be exposed for crimes and prosecuted. The innocent man can be proven innocent. The bigot can see the error in his ways and change for the better. The journalist can still be unjaded enough to be shocked and horrified at learning about corrupt officials or businesspeople. Oftentimes, these things don’t happen in our world. But Snyder shows us a world in which they can, a world that we can work together to create.

Snyder gives us a genuinely hopeful perspective of the world. He doesn’t try to tell us that the world is just fantastic the way it is, or that we have to love and forgive everyone to be good people, or that . He tells us that despite all the bad, the world is full of good people and decency. That it’s worth fighting for, because it can be better, and it’s up to us to improve it and be our own heroes. Cynicism isn’t maturity. It’s the easy way out. It’s a defence mechanism against disappointment, and it’s understandable, but it’s not the way forward. Nor is blind positivity. We have to recognize that, hey, the world is far from perfect, but we can and should make it better, and that the day we give up on that idea, the day we get too worn out to be shocked and angry about what’s going on in the world, is the day we all lose.

I don’t have the mental or emotional capacity to watch Batman v Superman every day. That’s not a bad thing. There are movies for different times, and there are going to be times when I need to see something less intense. Man of Steel is magical. It’s warm and makes me feel better all the time. It’s comfort food. But Batman v Superman? That’s different. It’s thought provoking. It’s  not the reassurance I want when I’m just having a bad day and I want sympathy, but it is what I need when I’m looking for someone to be both real with me and compassionate about the state of the world.

‘The Gifted’ and the Mutant Metaphor

The X-Men and mutants in general have always represented the oppressed, the persecuted minorities. The movies address the big picture of what that means and sweep over the details. But what The Gifted does, and with startling competence, is address how bigotry and anti-mutant sentiment would affect the life of an average mutant that doesn’t necessarily have a powerful mutation and that doesn’t have the resources of someone affiliated with the X-Men. That is to say, it takes the perspective of a minority without fame, money, or powerful friends. Health care. Criminal justice. Civil rights. All of these are issues that marginalized communities face every day, and The Gifted has been addressing all of them.

Health Care

The second episode pointed out that mutants don’t have access to good health care. Some healthcare providers don’t even know how to treat them. The first is applicable to many minority groups, while the second is somewhat more specific to the disabled. It’s been more than a throwaway line, as well – even outside of the episode where Clarice got sick, which focused quite a bit on mutant health care, the show hinted at the issue of health care in prisons through Lorna. She was assaulted, then thrown into a cell without medical treatment, despite being pregnant.

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Prison System and Mass Incarceration

In both Marvel and DC, inhibitor collars cut off any powers the wearer might have. The prison Lorna is in in The Gifted uses a different type of collar to stop mutants from using their abilities. Unlike the traditional inhibitor collars, they don’t prevent the wearers from accessing their powers – instead they just discourage the usage of them by electrocuting the wearer. That’s torture. That’s inflicting unnecessary and intentional pain. Legally, that’s cruel and unusual punishment. And they didn’t even tell Lorna what it did before putting her in a cell.

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Lorna is an adult with full control over her powers. She can stop using them. She shouldn’t have to, but she can. But what happens to other people? Take, for example, children in juvie that don’t have full control of their powers yet. The show established that any damage caused by mutant powers, whether to a person or physical property, accident or not, is a major crime. These mutant children would be electrocuted, not because they did anything, but because of what they are. And they’ll continue to be hurt, because they’re locked in a prison being punished for something they can’t help, not in the outside world where they should be growing up and learning how to use those powers.

In the fourth episode, Reed explicitly brought up mandatory minimums. This demonstrates how mutants in universe are treated very differently when it comes to the judicial system. If a white baseline human committed an act of intentional vandalism, they would be treated more leniently than a mutant destroying something unintentionally, especially if said baseline human had the money for a good lawyer. This is full on institutionalized racism, and is clearly inspired by the causes of criminal recidivism, especially in the US.

Civil Rights

When people are afraid of the other, they stop seeing civil rights as being of paramount importance. In our world, we see that in the aftermath of terrorist attacks. The fear after 9/11 resulted in Congress pushing through the Patriot Act. All Muslims became viewed as potential terrorists, and the fear of the unknown and of what might happen resulted in people voluntarily giving up their rights and freedoms for more perceived safety. The Patriot Act was directly mentioned in the first episode, and a huge part of the show revolves around how non mutants don’t care what civil rights violations are happening, just so long as they’re happening to mutants.

In the universe of The Gifted, mutant children are separated from their parents and tried as adults in a biased court system. Mutants are taken to secret locations and not allowed contact with their families or lawyers. They’re called terrorists regardless of what their crimes are. The parallels to the so-called war on terror, to Guantanamo Bay, to the reporting of crimes in the media, are clear.

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The X-Men comics and movies are often criticized for being allegories for racism, but not featuring many people of colour, much less in prominent roles. The Gifted isn’t like that. Outside of the Struckers, the four main characters are Marcos Diaz, John Proudstar, Clarice Fong, and Lorna Dane. Out of those four, three are people of colour. It adds a level of realism to the metaphor in addition to providing valuable representation. Nearly as importantly is how the characters of different backgrounds are used.

Out of the four adult mutants, the one that faced violence in prison was the only white one. Lorna was the one that got punched and kicked on top of the electrocution from the collar. People of colour face enough violence in reality – there’s no need to add fictional violence to that. In the context of the show, Lorna is an oppressed minority, while outside of it, she’s not. Using her to illustrate inmate abuse and injustice in the legal system while including mutants of colour in other roles was the most sensitive way to get the point across.

What makes mutants as presented in The Gifted a good metaphor for marginalized groups is that they have aspects of many different marginalized groups. They manifest at different points in life, and oftentimes are ostracized after that, which is reminiscent of LGBT people coming out. They’re seen as criminals to be suspicious of even when they haven’t done anything, like people of colour everywhere. And they don’t have access to the type of decent healthcare they need, like many disabled people. They’re an imperfect metaphor – unlike mutants, who can be unintentionally dangerous, there’s absolutely no reason to fear people of colour, immigrants, the disabled, LGBT individuals – but they’re our power fantasy.

I don’t love all of The Gifted. I don’t think it looks aesthetically great, and some of the effects are pretty cheesy. Some of the performances aren’t very compelling. Caitlin and Reed have somewhat more nuanced characters, but Lauren and Andy seem flat, especially when compared to the adult mutants. I’m willing to give them a chance to develop over the next few episodes, especially as they’re original characters that have potential in principle, but I’d be more lenient if the writers hadn’t already demonstrated through Marcos that they’re capable writing a compelling new character from the beginning. Despite these issues, I think the show itself is valuable. Out of all X-Men related media, it is the most well thought out and intelligently crafted. It combines excellent world building with compassion for individuals, especially the marginalized, and I’m excited to see where it goes from here.

Exclusion and Covert Racism: Canada’s Relationship With Minorities

During the leadership race of the New Democratic Party of Canada, there was a great deal of racism directed towards the man that eventually won, Jagmeet Singh. You wouldn’t know it from the way it was covered, though. Jennifer Bush and her heckling were what got the attention of the general public, something that the general public could decry. That was the story that got international attention. But that wasn’t remotely the only racism Singh’s campaign dealt with. Continue reading “Exclusion and Covert Racism: Canada’s Relationship With Minorities”

Emma Dumont: Engineering and Art

Lorna Dane is my favourite character on The Gifted. So I looked up her actress, Emma Dumont, on Wikipedia, and I was immediately delighted by what I found.

Like many actresses, she’s also a dancer. On top of that, she’s a violinist, a mechanical engineering student, and is into robotics. She embraces both STEM and the arts. So often, people are led to believe that science and art are mutually exclusive, but they’re not. They require many of the same skills, and arguably, they’re more similar than different.

Continue reading “Emma Dumont: Engineering and Art”

Sixty Years of the Space Age: Happy Birthday, Sputnik

October 4th, 1957. A sphere of less than a foot radius. And signals detectable by any average Joe with a radio.  Sixty years ago today, Sputnik 1 was launched, and humanity entered the space age.

It didn’t do much aside from orbiting the Earth, but Sputnik changed the world forever. That first little satellite kicked off the space race. It made more people interested in science, both in general and as a potential career path. It contributed to the creation of NASA. It was the first step towards long distance wireless communication. Towards GPS. Towards environmental satellites and space telescopes. Towards rovers gathering data that humans can’t reach. We can’t know what the world would look like if it had never been launched, but it doesn’t require a huge stretch to think that in a world without Sputnik – and perhaps Yuri Gagarin becoming the first man in space four years later – we wouldn’t have had people on the moon or rovers on Mars. Sputnik may have influenced the development of military technologies, but that is nothing compared to its positive legacy.

Sputnik means travelling companion, and that’s what it was. A different Sputnik took Gagarin into space; all the satellites that bore the same name accompanied the Earth. And the image of that first artificial satellite – that mark of human ingenuity, launched only 54 years after the Wright brothers’ first flight – accompanies all of us as we continue to explore the universe.

Jimmy Carter and Inspiration To Do Better

President Jimmy Carter has been one of my heroes my entire life.

I was born years after his presidency, so I never knew him as a politician. I grew up knowing him as the former president that was out there building houses, fighting disease, and negotiating with world leaders. I remember reading an article once about how he nearly punched the then-president of South Africa for refusing to allow AIDS to be treated. Just a few months ago, he fainted from dehydration on a Habitat for Humanity build site in Canada. He’s ninety three. He’s been doing this kind of thing for decades, and every time I read an article or a quote or one of his books that discusses what he’s up to, I’m inspired. Continue reading “Jimmy Carter and Inspiration To Do Better”