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A R T S   &   C U L T U R E
Attack of the Mutant Liberals
Eve Tushnet "X-Men" and the Politics of Sci-Fi
September 2000

In one of the first sequences of the new "X-Men" movie, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen get to confront one another and revel in their classically-trained hamminess. It's fun to watch, like the rest of "X-Men," and it's as close as the movie ever comes to intellectual depth. 

The confrontation takes place in the near future, at a Congressional hearing on the Mutant Menace. All across America, a sudden spurt in genetic mutations has produced folks who look like you and me (most of the time), but who can twist metal with their minds, create fire at will, or do various other superpower stuff. 

The mutation-as-homosexuality theme is pronounced: "Do Americans want mutants teaching our children?" So we know that this movie is going to be a Plea for Tolerance. Okay, I can handle that. But I'm disappointed that "X-Men" raises and then ignores a far more exciting question: Can humans evolve? 

This is the subject of that confrontation between Stewart and McKellen. Stewart plays Professor Charles Xavier, bald mutant do-gooder intellectual; McKellen plays Magneto, chess-playing metal-twisting mutant Machiavellian. 
Magneto saw his family murdered by the Nazis, so he's not as hyped on human nature as Xavier. He's the Malcolm X figure-mutant equality by any means necessary. Xavier tells him not to worry; after all, humans have "evolved" since 1945. 

That's when Magneto delivers what may be the only sensible line in the entire movie: Yes, he says, humans have evolved. "Into us." 

Homo Superior
Now, this line may be meant to suggest that humans have evolved into mutants. But in context, the statement seems to be a flat-out rejection of the proposal that every day, in every way, humans are getting better and better-that there is evolution in morality, so that what is later is more virtuous.  Magneto rejects the idea of a "Homo Superior" (as the comics, but not the movie, called mutants). 

This line makes Magneto a conservative (if only briefly), according to Glenn Loury's definition of conservatism as the belief that "human nature has no history." 

Unfortunately, "X-Men" doesn't care about coherence, so ultimately it refuses to take a stand. It neither develops Magneto's insight nor rejects it. "X-Men" forgoes one of the key attractions of science fiction from Wells's Time Machine to "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine": the belief that in the future, we will overcome the defects of human nature, or even learn that we never had a nature to begin with. This is the hope that shines in the title of one sci-fi anthology, There Won't Be War. Humans will evolve, not into mutants, but into Supermen. 
 

"You would prefer yellow Spandex?"
"X-Men" is a good time at the movies. Things fly around. There are love interests, some terrific backdrops, and lots of industrial light and magic. 
The plot is somewhat convoluted. But the basic idea is: Martin Luther King or Malcolm X? Will Magneto's troops or Xavier's high-schoolers and technicians win the battle for the hearts and minds of the world's mutants? And will society at large ever learn to love mutants? 

That last question can't be answered, since there is not a single significant non-mutant character. So we never get to meet a sympathetic person with no superpowers-just a few barroom brawlers and bigoted Senators. The script leaves the impression-which friends assure me is alien to the comic series-that mutants really are morally better than us, as well as 
sexier and more powerful. Even Magneto's mutants have all been poorly treated, so they come off as misguided victims. 

The movie alludes to intellectual positions, but never fully addresses them. For example, at one point Professor Xavier assigns his classroom of mutants to write an essay on "the strong and weak anthropic principles." These are theories which claim that the universe shows empirical evidence of being designed, due to the extreme unlikelihood that life (in the weak version) or human life (in the strong version, which sees the universe as a people factory) arose by random chance. 

A good sci-fi writer could have built a fantastic story on the bricks this scene provides: a mutant learns about the strong anthropic principle, and begins to wonder if the human race is part of a mutant-making machine. Is that machine designed by man or God or something else entirely? This search for origins could even be connected up to one of the least developed and most interesting subplots, Wolverine's (ACTOR) quest to recover his lost memory and learn who he really is. 

But addressing any major philosophical question would force "X-Men" to take a stand. Are mutants just like us deep down inside, or are they different? Different worse or different better? Is there a human nature? Can we change? The movie leaves other works to fight that battle. 

You Say You Want an Evolution... 
Some liberals like to contrast liberalism, "the party of hope," with conservatism, "the party of fear." Liberals believe in the expansive power of the human mind, of rationality, and of free individuals, while conservatives stress constraint, human weakness, faith and tradition. Liberals, the story goes, look to the future while conservatives look to the past. 

Science fiction, then, is primarily a liberal domain. (Walter Miller's brilliant A Canticle for Leibowitz is a rare exception, a postnuclear novel in which human nature and ultimate truth remain constant while everything else crashes and buckles around them.) The liberal dream exalts human power, especially power over nature-not just "nature" as in rocks and stars and dilithium crystals, but "nature" as in human nature. The title of one of the best sci-fi books ever, Samuel Delany's Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, captures this exhilarating sense of freedom and power. 

In science fiction, the imagination can claim political rights. Authors don't have to prove their assertions on the messy ground of real human lives. They can simply claim, without evidence, that we could live differently. We could live without gender (it is no coincidence that so much feminist fiction, which seeks to escape from our lived experience that sex roles are real, is science fiction), without states, families or cold hard cash. 

The "Star Trek" media empire shows a growing liberal tendency. The original series often fell back on the unimaginative premise that critters everywhere were more or less like humans. In various episodes, we learned that Romulans, Klingons, and even a big angry rock had motivations and responses that were just like ours. Kirk and Co. visited scores of planets whose inhabitants were just like Earthlings-Nazis, 1920s gangsters, Native Americans and so forth. 

The series took a lot of criticism for this lack of daring. But the new Star Trek brands are just as conformist, this time to the liberal-Left branch of sci-fi. The "Next Generation" theme song is definitely Lennon's "Imagine"-no religion, no possessions (no money and no businessmen, anyway), it's easy if you try. 

Human liberals may find this vision inspiring. But they should watch out-in the name of freedom, in the name of the imagination, the liberal projectdestroys one of our most effective protections against tyranny. 

Red Dawn
If we do not believe that there is an unchanging human nature, we cannot investigate the content of that nature. If we do not believe that the past is a good-enough guide to the future-if we think someday there won't be war, or there will be androgyny-then we have no basis for claiming that we know anything about the nature of man. Where would we get our evidence? 

If we can change our natures by will, or if they change against our will in response to changing material conditions (the Marxist view), we cannot predict what we will need tomorrow. We can't know what will be good for future generations, because we can't know what they will be like. 

This position denies the most powerful argument against Communism: that it is against our natures, that totalitarian control can never bring human happiness or fulfillment. Hayek's Road to Serfdom predicted that a socialist state must become a dictatorship, because power corrupts and we will not willingly cede control over our economic decisions. Hayek claimed that human nature is fundamentally opposed to Marxist doctrine. 

Meanwhile, the social imagineers and political sci-fi artists of Marxism assured us that the future would be different. They acknowledged that in the transition period we would be somewhat unhappy-before our natures caught up with our institutions. 

This is the same claim many feminists today make for androgyny, or many liberals for easy, one-sided divorce, or many anarchists for, well, anarchy (although their arguments tend to be better). Sure, in the past we thought masculinity and marriage and cops were necessary, but now we know better. Now we know that our history doesn't tell us much about our nature. A "classical liberal" friend recently argued that we could abolish the family, because it was constricting and he could personally imagine a happy world without it; he knew we'd never seen life without the family, but he didn't see any reason why. 

This argument marks the end of political thought. Without belief in a fixed and knowable nature, we can't make political predictions, and thus we can'tmake political judgments. There can be no politics of the Evolving Man, the ever-changing and ever-improving Man of the Future. He can only be a projection screen for the wishful thinking of his creator. 

Eve Tushnet, Former Editor-in-Chief, is an alumna of Morse College.
 

 
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