The Compass Rose: Explorations in Thought

Category: Book Reviews

Review of Travis Smith’s “Superhero Ethics”

Templeton Press, 168pp. Paperback $14.94 US

By John Geddert

Travis Smith received his PhD from Harvard University and is associate professor of political science at Concordia University, Montreal. He is principally interested in the intersection of politics, religion, and science, and has published examinations of Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes. He has also been collecting comic books since he first bought Uncanny X-Men #207 in 1986. Smith’s writing has appeared in “The Weekly Standard” and “Convivium Magazine.”

            Our society is not one comprised entirely of heroes. It is unlikely many of us would openly or brazenly use such a word to describe ourselves, let alone actually possess anything nearing the wildly fantastic abilities that warrant one the status of comic-book stardom. Many of us probably wouldn’t even truly desire to have such status and powers, even if they were remotely within the realm of possibility.

Yet, as a society, superheroes have enthralled our interest and admiration, both the stories surrounding them and, more importantly, their character. Ever since the debut of Superman in 1938, youth have avidly consumed superhero stories, growing into adults who continued to consume and create increasingly varied, broad, complex, and diverse superhero media. We live in a world where Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, begun in 2008, has grossed over 14 billion dollars. Although the majority of us, outside of some few comic-book fanatics, would not actually wish to see a world filled with Bat-men and Spider-men, or their assorted nemeses, it is clear that these characters have great potential value and resonance.

Despite this, we are likely inclined toward viewing superheroes as the figures of fairly trivial media, existing on the cultural level of what Classical philosophers, such as Plato, would have classified as ‘poetic’ and pandering to the dramatic whims of the people. We are consequently unlikely to hold Hawkeye, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Black Widow, or Thor to the same level as Hamlet, Jane Eyre, Odysseus, Anna Karenina, or Beowulf (although the comparisons between Beowulf and Thor would be ample). In Travis Smith’s recent book Superhero Ethics: 10 Comic Book Heroes; 10 Ways to Save the World; Which One Do We Need Most Now?, he is not attempting to suggest we hold such characters on an equal level per se, but he is strongly suggesting that they are worthy of serious ethical consideration.

Superhero ethics. A curious and perhaps convoluted idea. To be clear, Travis Smith is not so much interested in discussing the ethics that superheroes themselves follow exactly. He is more precisely interested in viewing superheroes metaphorically, comparing how they symbolically represent different ethical ideas, “so that they are rendered less fantastical and more relevant to the lives of us less heroic, nonsuper beings” (5). It is their extraordinary character and inherent qualities that make these figures truly ‘super’, not their powers, and in their exaggerated nature they provide a simpler imaginative lens through which we can view different approaches to the “quandaries of ordinary life” (8). They offer an accessible poetic metaphor for our modern society. But the question that has always clouded poetic metaphors remains: what metaphor, if any, serves as a model that will bring about the good in our society?

This is the critical question of Smith’s superhero treatise, and it is from this question that he derives the novel format of his book; each chapter shall be a contest between two great superheroes, and in each contest the duo shall compete over who models better an approach to different human questions. The Hulk vs. Wolverine: how to preserve our humanity in face of our beastly natures; Iron Man vs. Green Lantern: how we can use our imagination and will     power to improve the human condition; Batman vs. Spider-Man: our role in protecting our community; Captain America vs. Mister Fantastic: whether the active or contemplative life brings truest fulfillment; Thor vs. Superman: representatives of faith, whether in tradition or in modern progress. These are the stakes of Smith’s curious tournament of ethics. It is a refreshing idea, and hardly what most readers are likely to expect of a Harvard graduate philosopher.

In the interest of avoiding spoilers I will refrain from revealing the victors of Smith’s ethical bouts. However, I will try to reveal Smith’s own goal in pitting these heroes together for ethical comparison. Smith is not attempting to view obliquely the human condition as a whole; rather, he is specifically focused on which hero provides the best model for the here and now, which hero offers the best guidance for modern western society as we currently careen and zig-zag towards and away      from what is best.

I was initially somewhat skeptical of Smith’s presumption that he might accurately and truly determine in this context which ethical issues are most relevant to the here and now. It was sometimes difficult to get a sense of some strong overarching      philosophical theme, which almost seems natural considering the multifarious qualities of the (literally) colourful characters being discussed. However, as broad as the discussion is, Smith does a good job of illustrating some pertinent issues. A frequent topic of consideration is the way in which our modern technological society often “absolve[s] individuals of the need to practice personal and interpersonal responsibility” (72), and the prevalent conviction these days that the universe does not have objective standards of morality, but only subjective, ‘self-determined’ contingencies which themselves can be overcome through willpower. He also recurrently discusses the challenges of modern mass democracy, the proliferation of corrupt power, and the apathy and general lack of direct and responsible involvement of the citizenry. It is critical to point out that Smith is primarily interested in finding the most widely applicable hero model—imitable by the greatest number of people, whose metaphorical example will have the most salubrious effect on our political society—not a model for the ideal human life.

Indeed, in a different time and context, different heroes might prove victorious. Smith is not being a subjectivist in this; he is simply acknowledging the truth that different contexts call for different approaches. His book is meant to be accessible, and focused on our context, as modern North Americans. Superhero Ethics succeeds at mirroring the accessibility of the medium it discusses; though Smith may reference Francis Bacon, or Plato, or the broad issues of modernism, the reader needn’t be a philosopher to follow and appreciate the depth of the conversation. At the same time, the book is never overly watered down, like mere ‘coffee-table philosophy’. Superhero stories are accessible to all, and offer relatable symbols of conflict and approach. Fittingly, Smith’s book should be accessible to any concerned citizen of modern society. If you enjoy either superheroes, ethics, or both, you will enjoy the ruminations of Travis Smith.

Book Review – “In Defense of a Liberal Education”

Zakaria coverIn Defense of a Liberal Education

Fareed Zakaria

204pp. Paperback $15.75

Zakaria is an American author and journalist, a contributing editor of the Atlantic and a columnist for The Washington Post. Zakaria has authored four books including international bestseller The Post-American World. He is best known as the host of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS.

A review by Stacey Harper

Liberal Studies is under attack, and everyone from Obama to my mother-in-law seems to have an opinion on its usefulness. Have you seen that meme “The only thing that can stop this asteroid is your Liberal Arts degree”? No? Let me paraphrase: NASA employs a barista to head a team of astrophysicists attempting to nuke an asteroid hurtling to Earth …. Because they “need someone with four years of broad-but-humanities-focused studies and the ability to reason across multiple areas of study… When you’re lowering a hydrogen bomb into a craggy mass of flying astronomic death with barely any gravity, you’re going to need to draw on all the multidisciplinary analysis you’ve got”.[1] As far from the point as it is deliciously sarcastic, this kind of barbed criticism is part of an entrenched trend in post-secondary to devalue the Liberal Arts. When did literature, philosophy and history become so useless to our lives? Isn’t that what we would be saving the world for?

It was nothing short of heart warming to see best-selling author, intellectual heavyweight, and popular television commentator Fareed Zakaria take on the fight.

Zakaria presents a concise, well-defended argument, traversing the revolutionary (and of course uniquely American), nature of the Liberal Arts. He takes us through the history of how Americans have funded and valued higher education. He speaks eloquently on the polarization of knowledge—the way science and the arts have become somehow mutually exclusive. Zakaria highlights the need to see these two aspects of general education meet again in some common forum—as symbiotic aspects of grooming future minds. Liberal Studies is guilty of failing to teach its students even the basics of scientific principals and Science students need to develop the values, political literacy, and familiarity with the humanities that can give an ethical framework to technological development. And I heartily agree with his proposition of a “common core” for all undergraduates, giving a strong basic framework that students can specialize from within.

Zakaria argues his points well and would make fast work of my friend David who likes to crack jokes about Liberal Studies and “platonic dioramas” at my dinner parties, but I will admit that I found Zakaria’s defence more of a pandering appeal to business than an incisive cutting defense of literature and philosophy. He easily devotes 26 pages to dropping the names and opinions of American CEOs like Jeff Bewkes, Time Warner (69) or Jeff Bezo’s founder of Amazon (74), or Fortune’s Adam Lashinsky, or Norman Augustine CEO of Lougheed Martin (74).  I assume because all things considered, it is Zakaria says, economically useful to “have a well-trained population“ (97).

As a Liberal Studies major with technical training in business I am constantly defending my educational choices: “Why Liberal Studies instead of Commerce, for example, or a Bachelor of Business Administration?” I regularly trot out many of Zakaria’s arguments:  I have learned how to learn. On top of my technical skills, I am skilled in research. I am an excellent writer and communicator able to present, defend ideas, and collaborate with co-workers. “I am a flexible thinker,” I tell those potential employers, “I have not simply learned that A=B and memorized a sequence of transactions—I can think on the ground and work well in ambiguous situations where I must use judgement and weigh possible outcomes.” I also argue that Liberal studies allowed me to develop a strong ethical sense; an increasing concern in business these days – as the Enron scandal and the 2008 financial crisis might highlight.

I have managed to become gainfully employed despite my degree’s lowly coinage … but when did this become the point of higher education—managing to trade your labour for the necessities of life? The increasing commodification of education, the transformation of Universities into trade schools, is a disturbing trend. I flicked through the pages of Zakaria’s defence desperate to find some dazzling logic and cutting social commentary that I could flay Dave with when he next comes over. But it just didn’t arrive. I was downright puzzled by Zakaria’s discussion of MOOC’s (Massive Open On-line Courses) as a viable alternative to well-funded and valued public education system.  I see MOOCS as the fodder of canned program types—for the study of accounting, let’s say, or software programs, typing, and basic economics. Liberal Arts entails the exchange of ideas, reading and arguing in groups, honing one’s writing, and a certain amount of personal transformation—the development of a community of thinkers—not just acquiring basic skills and jumping through credential hoops. Zakaria paints himself as a man of a new age of technology. He argues that we can embrace MOOCs as a way of levelling the playing field and engaging new audiences with the technology youth are so addicted to. However, I can’t help but feel we would lose the skills of readership, debate, and community. And wouldn’t we end up with the monotone and prescribed opinions of the few celebrity ‘greats’ chosen to present?

Zakaria’s take on what constitutes a Liberal Education, and the failings of teaching from a ‘Canon’ of texts, run contrary to my own view. Zakaria tells us “those [courses] I took out of genuine curiosity or because I was inspired by a great teacher have left a more lasting and powerful impression. After all, one can always read a book to get basic information about a particular topic, or simply use Google” (61). Seriously? Uncovering and rediscovering the greats works of our cultural, philosophical, and literary history seem to me to be key to the Liberal Studies project. I disagree with the suggestion that a “Great Books” education clutters young minds with “antique furniture” and a patriarchal imposition of “moral authority” (59). Even when I felt this was the case I was driven to pull the text apart. I thought of a John Stuart Mill quote when reading these passages: “it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.”[2] Smashing into texts like Plato’s Republic, unearthing and exposing new interpretations, or uncovering weaknesses and discarding old ideas is a hallmark of the Liberal Arts. I would also argue that these are “Great Books” because they have stood the test of time. They are the thoughts and writings that have built the world around us; they contain the history of our political, social, and ethical development. Sure, a canon of texts should always be added to, critiqued, and edited. I think the process of having students pick them apart and challenge them, fight about them in seminar, has had great intellectual usefulness … and the process has created a more inclusive and broad range of core texts. I also feel that there is something in the reading of “Great Books” that creates a common language—it moves up the starting point for many difficult conversations by becoming reference points and summations of incredibly complex ideas. Moreover, I depended on my professors to guide me through a series of texts that built upon ideas and understandings. I needed to be shown the pitfalls of relativistic thinking, and the shades of grey in ethical positions I once thought absolute. I learned to vigorously defend my position, which is best done when fully understanding another’s. The kind of “free exploration” Zakaria describes as an alternative strikes me as vastly inferior.

The economic precedence placed on utility versus quality in education is an important debate. Yet, Zakaria’s defence of Liberal Studies occasionally feels like a hollow appeal to commercial viability rather than that of becoming a well-read and thoughtful citizen. However, he does have his moments of real clarity. In a discussion about virtue Zakaria raises a concern that we have become morally inarticulate. He finally points to the true heart of the matter: Doesn’t an educated and thoughtful population have intrinsic value? Good and healthful citizens seek to live together in a just, safe, inclusive, and mutually profitable ways. I think we lose something very valuable in instrumentalizing our youth as factors of production.  Are our societies tools to benefit business and economic value? Or the other way around? Zakaria relies too much on arguments based around global economic positioning and employment forecasting and far too little on the true meaning of the Liberal Arts, which ultimately seeks to answer the question of “Where are we going?” and “How should we live”? When the asteroid hits—is the iPhone 7 the most valuable thing we are going to lose? Is the production of technology what will describe the apex of human potential?

All in all Zakaria’s book was worth the read, and it is excellent prep for Liberal Studies students come job search time—but don’t expect salvation.

[1] http://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/the-only-thing-that-can-stop-this-asteroid-is-your-liberal-arts-degree

[2] On Liberty

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