Black Panther and the fragmentation of our sense of what it is to be human

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There is an awful lot being written about Black Panther  which seems to point to significance far beyond its value as a work of entertainment – or even art. There is undoubtedly something extraordinary about it. There is also, however, something about it which nags – is this, on two fronts, just a bit too much more of the same? On the entertainment front, when one gets used to the wonderful African settings and the casting which the story demands, there is little about it to separate from the rest of Marvell’s universe. It is in its familiar ideological tropes, however, that its predictability mostly undermines the film.

Is Black Panther just one more barrage of cannon fire from the legions of Social Justice Warriors or is it more than that? A writer in America magazine, a solid SJW ally, says this is the movie Hollywood – and America – needs. On the other side of the divide Tom Slater in the contrarian Spiked.com complains that it just represents one more example of culture’s enslavement by politics.  “Superhero films are, let’s not forget, mainly for kids. That some political commentators seem to be discussing Wakanda (the idyllic fictional country at the heart of this Marvel artefact) as if it’s a real nation shows how ethereal, how obsessed with surface issues, how trivial, in fact, so much of supposedly radical politics now is.”

This is not a review of the movie. It is more an expression of uneasiness of what it and other elements of our culture may tell us about the path on which we, as human beings, now find ourselves.

There is no doubt but that we now live in a world where popular culture – and a great deal of the higher stuff as well – is undoubtedly in thrall to political correctness. The annual round of award events for the entertainment industry has ceased to have any real reliability as a guide to artistic merit. Instead they serve as a guide to the periodic shock-waves prompted by the revelation of the faux or real outrages trending on social and mainstream media. Indeed they are spoiled for choice when it comes to things to be outraged by. When award ceremonies are not infected with outrage, they are used to compensate for the shortcomings of past ceremonies. It is all pretty tiresome.

The critical consensus so far seems to be that Black Panther is a significant work of art. What it certainly seems to be is a work of ideology. That is no bad thing in itself. Ideologies should be judged on their merits, their correspondence with truth and justice and nothing else. Probably the worst of all ideologies is the ideology of ‘no ideology’.

Tom Slater asks that culture be liberated from politics. But the underlying problem is not really that political viewpoints emerge in art.  Great art has frequently been preoccupied by social and political issues. Consider the work of Victor Hugo (Les Miserables), Charles Dickens (Hard Times), Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness), to name but three.

The real problem is deeper and it is a problem which is manifested in contemporary culture across a whole range of issues. It is the problem of our descent into chaos caused by the utter fragmentation of our consciousness of what it is to be human. If there is a problem with the ideology permeating a phenomenon like Black Panther, it is that it is a symptom of this same fragmentation.

The preoccupations which increasingly seem to dominate our culture today – in the broadest sense of that word culture – are race, gender, religion, entitlement and equality. Our engagement with all these issues is ostensibly to seek some semblance of social justice for the oppressed or for those perceived as oppressed. Our efforts however, in many cases, seem to go in the opposite direction and all we achieve is a state of war rather than peace and real justice. The common thread which runs through all of them is a pursuit of identity. Each separate identity which is asserted then seems to have to pit itself against other identities in order to create and vindicate itself. For movements which purport to be inclusive, this is an incredibly divisive process and ultimately cannot but lead to chaos.

The implicit ideology underlying an artefact like Black Panther is that one race, a race which in one part of the world – which we generally call the West – has been viciously oppressed for centuries, is in fact a race superior to all others. It preaches this lightly and with some humour – but it still preaches.

Twentieth century Irish nationalism was a symptom of just such an ideology. One of the many tragedies of Irish history was the opportunity which was lost when an outward looking Celtic consciousness which had been beautifully woven together and fostered by the poets, playwrights and novelists of the literary revival of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was cruelly corrupted by a narrow nationalist ideology. This nationalism defined Irishness as a crude ‘not other’ identity, that is, “not British”. This, for most of that century, crippled the Irish popular imagination and at its most extreme boundary generated a hatred of that “other”.

The illusion which fed that hatred was that the injustices experienced by the oppressed in the past – and even in the present – were at source racially driven. Race – if it is meaningful at all – is a neutral amoral force. Racism, on the contrary, is a personal sin, personally driven by a flawed morality. The source of all injustice is ultimately in the individual human heart. The solution to all injustice, institutional or otherwise, must be sought in the same place – the human heart. In the Irish context the moral evolution of the heart and soul of W.E. Gladstone, one of the “others”, is an example of how such a journey might be made. The tragedy of his failure is an indictment of the divisiveness of narrow nationalism. Narrow racism is even more heinous. But it is not the sin of a race. It is a personal sin, of which only persons and not a race is culpable.

When a people and its culture loses the sense of its core universal humanity, for whatever reason, often provoked by the injustices inflicted by people in one group on those in another, then the risk is that this process of fragmentation will begin. What has to be done to prevent it? The solution is in the recognition and the reinforcement of the truth and beauty inherent in the very fact of being human. Setting in opposition to each other the differences which distinguish one from the other is a path to destruction. Setting man and woman against each other as representatives of patriarchies or matriarchies is a poisonous process. Setting people of one colour against those of another is not only poisonous but also utterly stupid.

Is Black Panther just another symptom of the cancer of identity politics currently and increasingly afflicting our culture and our global community?

Colonialism, imperialism and racism, with a sprinkling of feminism seem to be the contexts around which the underlying ideology of Black Panther revolves. Colonialism and imperialism are endemic conditions which infect all human societies. As the ages progress the first two of these uninvited guests just change their colour, chameleon-like, and continue to worm their way through our world.

But railing against them is about as futile as railing against the weather. Like the poor, they have always been with us and always will be. Like the weather they can be hot or cold, violent or temperate. Like the weather they can both wreak destruction or help cultivate the earth. Just as we find ways to protect ourselves against the weather, with these forces of human nature we have to find ways of taming and managing them.

But unlike the inanimate forces behind weather, the animate phenomena which mankind generates – good, bad or ugly – are rooted in the soul. Their impact on the societies which humans create and inhabit come back eventually to individual human acts. All human acts, as we know, have the capacity to be good, bad or indifferent. In our lives each one of us can do good or evil. Empires and colonialism provide ample evidence of our capacity for both. Mother Teresa of Calcutta would probably never have found herself in India if the British had not been there before her.

Writing of the phenomenon of empires in history, John Darwin in his book on the British Empire, Unfinished Empire, notes that

Few subjects in history evoke stronger opinions than the making of empire. Indeed, some historians of empire still feel obliged to proclaim their moral revulsion against it, in case writing about empire might be thought to endorse it. Others like to convey the impression that writing against empire is an act of great courage: as if its agents lie in wait to exact their revenge or an enraged ‘imperialist’ public will inflict martyrdom on them. These are harmless, if rather amusing, conceits. But they reveal something interesting: that for all the ink spilt on their deeds and misdeeds, empires remain rather mysterious, realms of myth and misconception.

This is partly the result of thinking in monoliths. ‘Empire’ is a grand word. But behind its facade (in every place and time) stood a mass of individuals, a network of lobbies, a mountain of hopes: for careers, fortunes, religious salvation or just physical safety. Empires were not made by faceless committees making grand calculations, nor by the ‘irresistible’ pressures of economics or ideology. They had to be made by men (and women) whose actions were shaped by motives and morals no less confused and demanding than those that govern us now.

He complains that these misconceptions lead to a history in stereotypes; to a cut—and—dried narrative in which the interests of rulers and ruled are posed as stark opposites, without the ambiguity and uncertainty which define most human behaviour. Darwin points out that

This view denies to the actors whose thoughts and deeds we trace more than the barest autonomy, since they are trapped in a thought-world that determines their motives and rules their behaviour. It treats the subjects of empire as passive victims of fate, without freedom of action or the cultural space in which to preserve or enhance their own rituals, belief-systems or customary practices. It imagines the contact between rulers and ruled as a closed bilateral encounter, sealed off from the influence of regional, continental or global exchange.

We need to ask ourselves if Black Panther contributes to this stereotype or helps us to escape from it. On the answer to that question may depend how we judge, regardless of its artistic merit, the political validity of its underlying ideology.

What will ultimately get us to the root of this malaise and deal with the cancer that is racism – and all other afflictions emanating from the illusion that any human being is essentially superior to another?

Perhaps it is only the truth of these words which will cut through and shred the lie behind those illusions, and then repair the fragments of our humanity to wholeness:

‘I will announce the decree of the Lord: the Lord said to me, “You are my Son. It is I who have begotten you this day.”’ The power of the truth of those sacred words has moved men and women throughout history to cut through prejudice, greed, deceit and rapine. We might ask ourselves if all this heightened identity conflict is not the result of the loss of our sense of our core humanity, the true basis of our identity as created beings? We might also reflect on the fact that this fragmenting conflict is a phenomenon generated within western culture and its propagation has not a little of the odour of imperialism and colonialism about it, perhaps the latest manifestation of those perpetually meddling twins.

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