Luke Cage is a narrative drawing heavily on popular antiracist politics, so why is it so suspicious, narratively, of populism? And how did the Democratic ruling class's own contempt for populism cost them an entire election and usher in four to eight years of proto-fascist stoogery? This article's two interwoven threads explore these questions and freely allows Perfect to be the enemy of Good, because sometimes "good" doesn't translate to "good enough," and god dammit, there's a whole lot of things that just aren't good enough anymore.
This article is basically a 4500 word primal scream and it is not designed to make anyone feel better about anything at all. Instead of reading this deeply bitter article you could play this as loud as possible. The experience is probably roughly the same.
Luke Cage, the third in a series of connected Netflix projects set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in New York City, converging inexorably towards a TV version of Marvel's successful Avengers formula of heroes teaming up is, in a lot of ways a good series. Certainly the first half has a compelling structure to it, interesting twists and turns, and perhaps best of all, a resolute will to depict experiences of blackness that are not designed to accommodate a white audience in terms of reference points. Luke Cage is a series about a black man who is impervious to bullets (and practically everything else for that matter) which is unavoidably political in its symbolism. It is a series that, at its core, is about a wrongfully accused man trying to help his community while hunted by an unsympathetic and corrupt law enforcement. There are like three white characters. It's good stuff.
But there's this word: good. In many ways this is a series that is good--aesthetically, narratively, thematically--and that does good--challenging the aggressive whiteness of geek media, a whiteness that Marvel has happily contributed to with relentless hammering force for nearly a decade.
Being good and doing good, however, are not necessarily the same as being good enough or doing enough good. It's perfectly possible to be good, or at least passively not-evil, or even less-evil-than, while remaining insufficient, while remaining - not just personally but in terms of effect - a disappointment.
I should be used to disappointment by now.
And yet, when I approach a text like Luke Cage which holds so much promise, to see the same anti-populist narratives, the same monolithic heroism narratives, the same reliance on fear of democracy as key narrative points... this is still a disappointment, even if it's a weary one.
This is the setup:
Luke Cage has been set up by the big bad (if we can call him that, he's a pretty dismal villain) Diamondback. I mean, Diamondback has walked up to a Friendly Neighborhood Cop and punched his brains out and then loudly said "Oh by the way I'm definitely Luke Cage see I'm wearing a hoodie" and, as a nod to strict realism, the NYPD all stupidly bought this lousy ploy. If there's one thing TV has taught me it’s that cops really hate cop killers, as opposed to normal killers, which they're pretty cool with so long as they're white. So the cops all go out and rough up some civilians looking for Luke Cage.
The result is that a (black) cop ends up beating the shit out of a young black boy, whose mother happens to be a civil rights lawyer, whoops. More on the staging of this in a moment. She naturally is horrified and outraged and organizes what is, let's not split hairs here, functionally a Black Lives Matter protest, with the help of one Mariah Dillard.
Now Mariah Dillard happens to be another of the villains of the series and she basically co-opts the rally into being about hating superhumans because fucking, sure why not. God knows we needed the X-Men premise recycled another time (more on that in a moment). Thus what is effectively a Black Lives Matter rally is hijacked by the villain for her own ends.
Does that sound familiar? It should. I've talked about this trope at length before. The basic message is straightforward: beware populist support because it's really just a front for Bane or Ra's Al Ghul's daughter or whatever the fuck was happening in that shithole movie. I shouldn't be surprised that it shows up here, and yet on some level it's still jarring to see a show which is explicitly about Black Lives Matter--they deliberately modeled Luke Cage's outfit on Trayvon Martin's for fuck's sake--basically say, well, it's ok I suppose to be angry about things but boy howdy as soon as you actually organize in any concrete way around political change, well, that's Dangerous Shit sonny you better watch out.
Luke Cage seems to simultaneously want to adopt conspicuous symbols of resistance--there's a shot of Cage punching through concrete that directly alludes to the Black Power fist for example--while playing a conciliatory game with the establishment. The cop wailing on a black child is, remember, black himself, not white as would be, frankly, far more plausible. The cop killed by the (black) villain is white though (despite the fact that anyone out there assassinating cops is likely to be a white male militia nut) and he seems to be a Well Loved Beat Cop or whatever, a friend to the community. And, of course, there's the fundamentally inescapable fact that the community as a whole and a human rights lawyer in particular are apparently trivially diverted by Mariah from fighting against police brutality to... fighting for the police against Luke Cage. No matter what way you spin that, the people at the rally come off looking like real rubes.
And this, at its core, is the problem: the perception of common people as merely a bunch of rubes who need to be told what to do, and the truth lies somewhere in the middle, and so on and so forth. There are moments of radical imagery in Luke Cage but they are counterbalanced by a conciliatory stance toward totally deranged misreadings of reality. This is, let's be clear, not merely a political failure but an artistic one: the series warps its world in order to accommodate a narrative where Blue Lives Matter, in which black supervillains go hunting for white cops to kill, and in which leftist organization is just a front for demagogues. The fact that these things are balanced, seemingly, elsewhere in the narrative does not change the fact that fundamentally one understanding of the world is false, and one is true. Reality has a leftist bias.
It is disappointing to see writers on, apparently, the same broad side as me constantly make these concessions, because these concessions do not fit the facts. They do not fit the facts about the way our world actually works, and they do not acknowledge the fact that the Right will never, ever make an equivalent concession to the Left. For the Right, there can be no middle ground where Black Lives Matter has a point and maybe some cops are bad. For the Right, this is just racism against white people. In failing to acknowledge the reality of conservative refusal to give even an inch, even a fraction of an inch, liberal writers, pundits, politicians, and yes, TV producers have been dragged by an unrelenting reactionary force straight to hell.
Let's start with a hard fact: Donald Trump did not win this election. This statement is true in a number of ways. First, Donald Trump lost the popular vote, by a shocking number of people. It is strictly inaccurate to say that America voted for a fascist, no matter how many clicks that title will net you. Not only did a majority of voters not vote for Trump, when you view Trump's vote share accurately as a percentage not of voters but of eligible voters, or even of all people living in the United States, it is clear that only a tiny minority voted for him. Most people voted for nobody at all.
The response to this from Democrats has been predictably moronic. If all of these people had voted for Hillary Clinton, they whine, we would have won. Fine. But if all those people had voted for Jill Stein, we'd have a Jill Stein landslide mandate. If all those people had voted for fucking Vermin Supreme HE'D have a landslide mandate, and we would all have a free pony! Come on, Dems, don't let perfect be the enemy of good, or specifically, everyone getting a free pony.
Sometimes this is more restrained and plausible at first glance, though still ultimately wretchedly stupid. If all the people who DID vote but who voted third party voted for Clinton, we wouldn't be in this mess. Sure, if you assume that all the Libertarians, who are always one step away from lacing up jackboots and putting on white hoods at the best of times, voted for Hillary Clinton instead of Donald Trump maybe she could've done it. That absolutely sounds like a credible scenario, guys, I can't imagine how you lost with a strategic plan that good.
The throughline here is contempt for the proles who won't do what the DNC and pundits tell them to do. Oh, sure, liberals have predictably adopted the language of social justice here: nonvoters or third party voters, the new line goes, are too privileged. It's really only cishet white men who would vote for a third party candidate, and Bernie Sanders nearly winning the Democrat primary is just, no matter how mathematically unfeasible, because of a small group of "Bernie Bros" whose suspicion of literal war criminal Hillary Clinton is merely sexism at work.
And yet, mathematically these claims ARE unfeasible. Carl Beijer characterizes 2016 as the "apathy election" and it's easy to see why based on the numbers. The fact is, less people came out to vote in this election than in the last Presidential election, and much of the dropoff was on the side of Democrats.
This is crucial to understanding the insidiousness of anti-populism in our politics. Some might look at Trump's victory and hail it as proof that populism is a dangerous drug--and we all know that the poor love their drugs don't they? But Trump's base is not substantively greater than Romney's was, and the cavalcade of establishment rightists who during the election played coy with voters about their support for Trump, and are now stepping forward to reveal that of course they voted for Trump, suggests that it is largely the same wretched people. Trump's support, furthermore, runs at a higher median income than Clinton's or Sanders's, not that you'd know it from all the thinkpieces wringing their hands about white bluecollar America.
The fact that the numbers show is not a groundswell for Trump but a catastrophic implosion for Clinton, and it's trivially easy to see why. What the fuck is the point of getting out to vote for Hillary Clinton when the best pitch she has to offer is "At least I'm not Donald Fucking Trump?" This was a campaign characterized by contempt and arrogance, a campaign that did nothing to appeal to, yes, minority voters, the same people for whom the Dems have been supposedly harassing and berating people for a year now. Nine percent less people of color voted for Hillary Clinton than Barack Obama. Nine fucking percent! Triple the three percent of white voters who dropped off from the Dems.
Is some of this a result of the gutting of the Voter Rights Act? Absolutely. Undeniably. But Clinton also didn't exactly offer a promising prospect. Perhaps if Liberals had spent more time appealing to the oppressed instead of screaming over them or at them that only the privileged would fail to vote for their Yasss Queen Meme Abuela we wouldn't be in this fucking mess. But it's far easier to tweet recriminations than it is to recognize that there was no populist candidate in this election--the DNC and corporate media made sure of that!--and maybe it's time to start actually reaching out to the people brutalized and shut out of the system.
The Big Two are obsessed with people hating superheroes. They seem to be absolutely fixated on the idea that the plot of the X-Men must be generalized to all possible cases. This is bizarre and perverse. After all, Marvel and DC are banking on the idea that people will love their characters so much that not only will they watch these movies in which everyone hates superheroes, but they'll buy loads of merchandise as well (meaning, I suppose, more Funko Pop figurines).
But this perverse state in which people are supposed to love superheroes whose only stories are about everyone hating superheroes makes sense if you want to capitalize trivially on narratives of the Underdog without actually threatening hegemonic power in any way. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has thus far had only one female hero headline her own series, and that a series predicated on her abuse and rape, and which has had only one black man headline his own series, still wants to tell narratives about scrappy underdogs.
And so, everyone's got to hate superheroes because Marvel, a company owned by the culture-obliterating behemoth Disney, knows that underdog narratives sell, but telling narratives about actual underdogs is off the table.
Of course, this has some unfortunate side effects when applied to Luke Cage: suddenly the misapplication of the generic underdog narrative in which the whole world is against the hero means that Cage's own community is directed against him. I don't mean to suggest that the Left isn't constantly and cheerfully in the habit of organizing itself into circular firing squads or, perhaps more accurately, of spontaneously deciding that they've seen Goody Proctor with the Devil! But Luke Cage's writers are too busy trying to persuade everyone (unsuccessfully) that Diamondback is as compelling an antagonist as Cottonmouth (or Mariah or hell even Shades) was to actually explore any idea that complex. No, the marks of lazy, bullet point writing are all over this subplot. I honestly don't think that they paid much attention to the fact that they were building a narrative here about a black man being attacked entirely by an angry mob of... other black men and women.
This was a race of underdogs. Everyone was a damn underdog, somehow. This is absurd for both Clinton and Trump, though in different ways, as Jack Graham helpfully lays out in the second of his Faeces on Trump series. Clinton’s supporters have made much of the misogyny of her critics. Fair enough, I suppose. But the contempt her wing of the Democrats showed for any critique, not to mention the contempt for life that Hillary demonstrated in a history of endorsing wars, coups, and drone strikes, can’t be dismissed merely with claims of misogyny, as convenient as that would be. Reasonable doubts about Clinton were positioned as merely attacks from woman-hating Bernie Bros again and again, driving deeper and deeper wedges between Clinton and those who had reservations about her politics.
And Trump, of course, is the apex of 1% bloat and mutation. Donald Trump is the final logical stage before we reach the decadence of William Gibson’s Tessier-Ashpool family, a corporate dynasty of increasingly deranged clones whose absolute cocooning within a bubble of absolute privilege both preserves their power while eroding their humanity. Donald Trump is not a revolutionary, and he is already in the process of betraying the supposed blue collar base for his support.
But when you have heroes who emerge from the cocooning halls of privilege to save America from itself, you’ve got to have them be underdogs somehow.
If Clinton and Trump are underdogs, however, it is only because the overwhelming majority of the population despises them both. Their electoral strategy involved selling themselves as scrappy underdogs to the very public that represented the opposition they had to overcome. In that sense, Clinton and Trump were both underdogs fighting against the negative charisma of their own subhuman personalities.
This isn't a new trope of course, in superhero media or in politics. Luke Cage follows in the footsteps of The Dark Knight Rises and the utterly execrable Arrow, which I've written about at length before. Now, Luke Cage, remember, is actually a pretty good series on the whole, so it doesn't get sucked into the dynamics I discuss in My Superpower is Manpain!, where the entire morality of the series warps around the hero to the point where any absurdity seems plausible--absurdities like Arrow's bizarre attitude that, well, it was pretty bad that a bunch of rich people built a literal doomsday device to commit mass murder against the poor, but Arrow's mom is sad about it, and some of those poor people decided to become terrorists in response, and so really isn't it true that there's two sides to this story?
Greg Berlanti, one of Arrow's writers, supported Clinton and is now taking a strong stance against fascism by urging people to "rebel against meanness." His fellow writer Marc Guggenheim meanwhile helpfully tweeted articles about why the right should vote for Clinton, while berating non- or third-party voters, displaying the same simultaneous contempt for the left and obsequious deference to the right that was so common during this shitshow of a campaign. It seems that their apparent mindbending incomprehension of their own narratives is matched by a similar shallowness of thought when applied to actual politics.
Luke Cage, again, never reaches these depths of idiocy. And yet, it is inescapably part of a kind of subgenre of superhero narratives deeply fearful of "Populism," the boogieman haunting elite liberals and conservatives alike. The protesters in Luke Cage have every reason to be outraged at the violent criminal thugs in the NYPD, just as the people of Gotham and of whatever dumbass bullshit city Arrow takes place in have every right to be outraged at the corruption and violence that is ubiquitous at the highest ranks of their societies. Popular rage is perfectly reasonable, and in fact it is not misaimed at all in most of these narratives.
These are fauxlitical narratives, however. In refusing to acknowledge the realities of race, of class, and of actual political parties (Mariah Dillard is simply part of "The Party") the shows become abstract meditations on Power, with only a pretension of real political analysis. The politics are a pretense, and the narratives are pretentious. It's difficult to tell, given how abstract the actual ideas are in media like The Dark Knight Rises, whether the elitist terror at the thought of any actual democratic action is fully intended. It may just be a product of this abstraction: the obsessive need not to tie anything directly to actual existing movements, such as the mass white bourgeois support for Trump which parallels Hitler's bourgeois popularity, means that all populism is tarred with the same brush, all is seen as an equally terrible threat.
Of course, it might very well be intentional! The New York Times, for example, employs David Brooks, who each week tells the proles what they ought to think. Brooks sees Trump's election as an example of populism run mad, a terrifying expression of truculence from a bunch of children who won't just get into line behind his Neoliberal agenda. Brooks never outright states that we should have continued making land ownership a requirement for the vote, but his histrionic pearl clutching makes it unnecessary. Once again, the contempt is right there on the page, obvious long before Brooks reveals his sleight of hand: Trump and Bernie Sanders are the same, and Brooks never has to build any sort of argument about this, he simply slips it in as an assumed premise. We could call this "begging the question" but I think I'll just call it "being a fuckwit." Brooks, in the end, wants one thing and one thing only: for his ruling class to stay in power at all cost and for the populists to shut their idiot mouths and do as they're told. I mean look at this dreck:
There has to be a party for those who are now homeless. There has to be a party as confidently opposed to populism as populists are in favor of it.
There has to be a compassionate globalist party, one that embraces free trade while looking after those who suffer from trade; that embraces continued skilled immigration while listening to those hurt by immigration; that embraces widening ethnic diversity while understanding that diversity can weaken social trust.
There has to be a patriotic party that understands that the world benefits when America serves as the leading and energetic superpower.
It's difficult to tell whether David Brooks is aware of his own snake oil, or whether he is really so abjectly stupid and delusional as to believe that the proles need to get in line because the world needs America to tell it what to do. It doesn't ultimately matter much. Either way, the contempt is as palpable from Brooks as it is from the writers of Arrow or DC's cinematic stable of jack-booted power wanks. Seeing this material appear in Luke Cage, a show that was supposedly inspired in part by a populist movement against the carceral state and, in many ways, against capitalism, is not just disappointing but infuriating.
What is your option in Pennsylvania if you loathe Pat Toomey-- a man who spent the election playing a game of will-he won't-he with Trump before ultimately voting for the walking perversity--but you don't want your water to light on fire or give your children brain lesions? Your option is shut up and take what the Democrats give you. You will drink that carcinogen water and you will say thank you sir when you are done. You will take the Lesser Of Two Evils even if that lesser evil promises only to delay the rising oceans and food riots by a handful of years. (A promise that is, it increasingly appears based on current climate science, a lie: it may already be far too late to stop the poltergeist that is Global Warming from rending our guts. On the bright side, I guess that means there's no reason to hold back our pillaging of the earth. Drill baby drill!)
A history of supporting the rights of women and queer folk does not, it seems, ultimately balance out against the corruption of the revolving door of environmental regulation, nor against the naked contempt displayed by political elites in the face of nothing short of global annihilation. McGinty, despite a seemingly solid polling position, was defeated by Pat Toomey.
Luke Cage as a series might be read as power fantasy, but whose power and whose fantasy? Cage is, in essence, Hillary Clinton's "Superpredator," and if we might read this series charitably, it might be in seeing the parallel between Mariah and Clinton, both canny women willing to use the fear of black men with superpowers to win votes for somewhat nebulously progressive causes. Luke Cage is a man capable of throwing armed cops through windshields, and he does so. Isn't this the fantasy of white cops everywhere, that they are the sole defensive force standing between a helpless populace and marauding beings at once super- and subhuman?
Not that the whole show is like this of course. Even as I want to stress that there's choices made here that aren't neutral, I want to also stress that they don't all lean in the same direction. After all, Cage's origin story involves his false imprisonment and forced participation by a white prison warden first in internet-streamed fights and then in experimental medical procedures. This doesn't make cops look too great, and if Cage is the nightmare-fantasy of white cops then it's impossible to ignore that in-narrative his power comes entirely from the system exploiting and abusing him. And I’ll give them credit: not only do they make this a narrative of false incarceration and police brutality, but they also integrate it with the long, seldom acknowledged history of scientific exploitation of black bodies.
And yet, and yet, and yet they still made the decision to have the instance of police brutality perpetrated by a black cop. And yet, and yet, and yet, they constantly position the cops as the Good Guys despite four seasons of Netflix Marvel shit set in New York which all hinged on the idea that the NYPD was full of corruption. This sometimes results in narratives that I won't even call problematic so much as absurd: we're supposed to believe that Misty Knight did a Bad Thing by not trusting The System to keep her star witness from getting gunned down. And yet, what evidence is there in the show itself that she could have trusted The System? We watch Mariah and Cottonmouth consistently manipulate the law to their own ends! The entire show is predicated on The System being a colossal failure, which, of course, it is.
There was an article here about the way that Luke Cage demonstrates the positive ways communities can come together and make progress in the wake of systemic collapse. There was a good article here about that, because there's good content in the show addressing that very subject. The Netflix subsystem as a whole presents a world in which the heroes can only progress with the help of normal people. Claire Temple and Misty Knight are integral to Luke Cage's success and survival and in fact he is helpless at points in the face of Diamondback's scheming without Claire stepping up and, in my estimation, becoming a hero in her own right. If not for the diabolus ex machina designed to, I don't know, take her down a peg, Misty would be in roughly the same position.
In this much better article than the one you're reading, I talked about solidarity, and forms of protest, and ways of building counter-power within communities. Luke Cage, after all, features a pretty fantastic sequence in which people start wearing bullet hole hoodies in solidarity with the hero, and as a way of baffling and frustrating police efforts to track him down. There's also a rap by Common. You know I normally am pretty irritated by that kind of self-congratulatory storytelling, as we saw in say Supergirl, but you know what? I think they earn it here. It feels like a community adopting Cage as a symbol of wider resistance in the face of systemic collapse.
This article, which more people would have read and enjoyed than this fucking grim deathmarch of an essay, would have drawn parallels between Black Lives Matter as a successful decentralized exercise in community building and mutual aid and the forms of solidarity displayed late in the series. It would have explored the possibility of a kind of superhero narrative that isn't fully centered on the individual will, that doesn't warp its morality around its protagonist, that is ultimately about the heroism of populism, the heroism of the people fighting for what they deserve.
Instead I wrote this article.
Because what I have witnessed is Obama and Clinton telling everyone to give a chance to Trump, a man who just appointed an overt white supremacist (as opposed to the covert white supremacists that make up the rest of the Republican party) to his staff.
What I have witnessed is masses of people saying it's time to show solidarity by pinning a safety pin to your clothes, when as of right now less than one percent of the necessary 100,000 people have bothered to sign a petition urging Chelsea Manning's early release, Chelsea Manning who has been tortured and abused and imprisoned for longer than any other whistleblower by the same Democrats who this election tried to position themselves as "less evil."
What I have witnessed is my people slaughtered in Orlando, and for the establishment to respond by refusing queer blood, polluted blood, fundamentally loathsome blood, denying even the possibility that the community might come together in the spirit of mutual aid.
What I have witnessed is, at every level, disappointment and betrayal.
And I can't seem to get used to it. I can't seem to force myself to compose a positive, easily marketable, reparative reading of Luke Cage. I can't write the article that I know, based on pageviews, that people would rather I write, in which I ignore all the contradictions and flaws and missed chances and incoherences in the show.
I will, for this one article at least, let Perfect be the enemy of Good. Because Good does not mean Good Enough. Because Good does not mean Sufficient.
And sure, I'll go back to writing reparative articles on superhero shit in a week or two because that's what pays the bills. I mustn't let Perfect be the enemy of Not Being Fucking Homeless after all and given I'm a mentally ill trans individual living in exile in Canada with no healthcare, no local support network, no solid hope for the future, and seemingly no ability to break above the roughly $50 or so per article on Patreon I need to make rent, I literally can't afford to not make compromises. Anyway, realistically speaking, writing one article like this was exhausting. I can't imagine doing this all the time.
For this one article, however, I want to make it totally clear how utterly disappointed in basically everything I am.
So to superhero writers I say this:
Fine. Tell your damn story about populist anger hijacked by a strongman. You know you want to, you hate the proles so much because they stole your lunch money you can't help yourself but do so. But if you absolutely cannot restrain yourself whatsoever from recycling your shitty tropes, for the love of Christ the Almighty don't apply that trope to Black Lives Matter you hacks.
And to those writers, and to Hillary Clinton, and to Corporate Media, and to the DNC, and to anyone who cares, I say too:
Don't be surprised when those of us perpetually disappointed stop showing up to rescue your ungrateful asses.