>> Tuesday, June 11, 2013
Why is it that even after half a century, the standard American president is still Richard Nixon?- David McKay, "Still The One!"4 Quarters, 10 Dimes, June 10th, 2013.
There is a character in the DC Universe called Doomsday. I don't know if you've heard of him: he was created in 1992 and has appeared only occasionally since then. On the one hand, he's not one of these decades-old supervillains like Lex Luthor or Bizarro; although he is old enough to buy booze now (and gosh, do I feel old or what, noticing that?). On the other hand, he killed Superman.
For a few months, I mean. Superman got better. Mostly because the whole thing was a marketing campaign to begin with, although there's also the fact that comics are just really bad at perma-killing anybody: even characters like DC's Barry Allen (the Silver Age Flash) and Marvel's Gwen Stacey (one of Spider-Man's girlfriends) and Jean Grey (sometimes an X-Man and sometimes an X-Man nemesis) who one batch of writers really, really, really honestly meant to kill off for good ended up coming back when a title switched hands and other writers really, really, really wanted the character to come back or a mandate came down from On High that a title needed a sales kick and bringing back so-and-so would do it. But Superman's death was never one of those, Superman's death and resurrection was always supposed to be a one-two marketing punch, or really a one-two-three: buy the collector's issue where he dies, buy the collectible series where other characters fight for the claim to take over the Superman's mantle, buy the collector's issue where the original Superman comes back. The whole thing actually contributed to the comics bust of the mid-'90s, but I've already digressed way too digressively.
Doomsday, we were talking about. Just showed up out of the blue to kill Superman, because that's why he was created, because (1) they needed a new character to market and (2) all the existing villains in Supes' Rogues Gallery had failed to kill Big Blue so many times the writers thought they needed a more credible threat. (I mean, Luthor's failed to kill Superman so many times now, you have to wonder if his heart was ever really in it to start with. Maybe it's all just a ploy for attention, like when your cat knocks something over.) But even when you've just made up a character who shows up out of nowhere and beats the piss out of Superman and then miraculously gets defeated so he can go away again, it's unsatisfying from a narrative perspective; comics (at least these days, since Marvel revolutionized comics narratives in the mid-1960s) are about the mythology, about how all these characters are interconnected and fit into the same universe somehow. So Doomsday needed a backstory.
It went something like this:
Originally known as The Ultimate, [Doomsday] was born in prehistoric times on Krypton, long before the humanoid Kryptonian race gained dominance over the planet about 250,000 years ago. It was a violent, hellish world where only the absolute strongest of creatures could survive. In a cruel experiment intended to create the perfect living being, the alien scientist Bertron decanted a humanoid infant (born in a lab in vitro) onto the surface of the planet--where he was promptly killed by the harsh environment. The baby's remains were collected and used to clone a stronger version, a process repeated time after time as a form of accelerated artificial breeding. The agony of these repeated deaths was recorded in his genes, driving the creature to hate all life. Evolving, the child later became able to survive the high temperatures and searing atmosphere, only to be quickly slain by the vicious predators that inhabited the planet. Eventually, he gained the ability to thrive on solar energy without the need for food or air, to return to life and adapt to overcome whatever had previously killed him, without the assistance of Bertron's technology. "The Ultimate" hunted and exterminated the dangerous predators of Krypton. He then killed Bertron himself, whom he had come to identify as an enemy, due to Bertron having "killed" him thousands upon thousands of times.-Wikipedia, "Doomsday (comics)"
Lots of nerds have poked fun at this story because of its Lamarckism, and not because of, well, everything else about it, starting with there's a planet called "Krypton" with creatures who look like human beings on it. This is what I love about my tribe: we will accept every absurd premise about a comic book, like there's a humanoid alien who can lift battleships out of the water without breaking them and somehow levitate himself into outer space and he's indestructible unless he's exposed to a rock from his homeworld and he can see through solid objects and shoot heat beams from his eyes, but when a villain shows up who was created by "The agony of these repeated deaths... recorded in his genes... Evolving [to become]... able to survive the high temperatures and searing atmosphere... thrive on solar energy without the need for food or air, to return to life and adapt to overcome what had previously killed him," we say, "Um, yeah, no, evolution doesn't work like that." And the extra irony here is that evolution worked exactly like that. Once.
Originally known as a Quaker, Richard Nixon was born in prehistoric times in Yorba Linda, California, long before the Democratic Party gained dominance over the United States about 80 years ago. American politics was a violent, hellish world where only the absolute strongest of creatures could survive. In a cruel experiment intended to create the perfect candidate, the California GOP decanted a humanoid infant into American politics--where he was promptly killed by the harsh environment. The baby's remains were collected and used to clone a stronger version, a process repeated time after time as a form of accelerated artificial breeding. The agony of these repeated deaths was recorded in his genes, driving the creature to hate all life. Evolving, the child later became able to survive the high temperatures and searing atmosphere, only to be quickly slain by the vicious predators that inhabited Hyannis Port. Eventually, he gained the ability to thrive on pure paranoia without the need for food or air, to return to life and adapt to overcome whatever had previously killed him, without the assistance of the Republican Party. Nixon hunted and exterminated the dangerous civil liberties of the United States. He then killed faith in America's political institutions, whom he had come to identify as an enemy, due to their having "killed" him thousands upon thousands of times.
(It's funnier if you gloss over the fact Nixon won the 1946 California 12th Congressional District election. Play along, okay?)
In all semi-seriousness, this is the unpleasant answer to David's question, and this is what I thought about when I was reading his semi-serious post about why the Brits and other folks abroad depict American Presidents as Nixonian types in their TV shows and movies. What if, I thought, the American political system peaked with Richard Nixon? What if the American political system, with its deranged populist bent, its loving mistrust of its own institutions, its paranoid popularity contests, its naked admiration for corruption and moralistic disdain for the same--what if Nixon wasn't just a fluke of this system, but its preordained outcome, the logical terminal iteration of a historical algorithm our forefathers programmed into our political culture and institutions two hundred years ago? And what if the British and others show us ourselves in a mirror, clearly, because they recognize on some level that we've saddled ourselves with a system of mutual mistrust and inter-institutional hostility that can't help spitting out Nixon-like leaders until eventually, every so many decades, it produces a Nixonian leader so like Nixon that... well, he's Nixon? And just to make certain of it (not really intentionally, not because anyone wants Nixon, but because we've created a system that wants Nixon), we have a destructive, Lamarckian electoral system that culls less-Nixonian politicians and reincarnates them as ever-more-Nixonian with every new regeneration? Or maybe they don't exactly recognize it, but the outcome speaks for itself?
Perhaps the system resets itself, slightly: the Nixon appears to ravage the landscape, punch out a few superheroes, kill Superman, and then, strapped to an asteroid, is disposed of. We get an ineffectual Carter, two confused and-out-of-their-depths Bushes and an Obama, a senescent Reagan and an oleaginous Clinton while the system works on another perfect political predator; it already exists, understand, it's just having his face ground into glass right now so he learns not to cry, he (or she) is losing a state house seat so that her (or his) hatred can be heated and pounded into a hardened, much-folded edge then chilled and sharpened to such a fine point it can sever ideological atoms.
This is an ugly thought. That we have an utterly terrible political system that is accidentally designed to deliberately produce Nixons. So prove it's untrue. I don't want it to be true. And yet, here it is, a possible explanation-of-sorts. Nixon is our destiny. We will get the Nixon we deserve. We are all Richard Fucking Milhous Nixon. Created by ourselves to destroy ourselves. The agent of our destruction a sweaty, pallid Doomsday in a rumpled business suit.