Publick Occurrences 2.0

January 18, 2009

Power and Responsibility: What Barack Obama Learned from Peter Parker

Filed under: Obama Administration,Political culture,Popular culture,Presidency — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 11:48 pm

We’re all aware that this is a huge moment in the social history of the presidency — first African-American president, first president born after 1960, etc. — but it’s also an interesting moment in the cultural history of the presidency. Doubtless most readers have seen the publicity about Barack Obama’s appearance in the current issue of Amazing Spider-Man, which Marvel Comics editor-in-chief Joe Quesada described as a “shout-out back” to a president-elect who was outed as a former comic collector some time ago. [Read some of the key panels here.] What we didn’t know was that the idiom of the comics our generation (“X ” or Jones or whatever) grew up with had become part of his political language. Actually, I suspected as much, but today we have proof.

My wife noticed the following in what was billed as Obama’s inauguration letter to his daughters, published in this morning’s Sunday newspaper supplement, Parade Magazine.

“I want every child to understand that the blessings these brave Americans fight for are not free-that with the great privilege of being a citizen of this nation comes great responsibility.”

This is a paraphrase of Spider-Man’s motto — “With great power comes great responsbility” first presented in Spidey’s origin story from Amazing Fantasy #15 [see below] and repeated frequently thereafter. It was the guiding philosophy not only for Peter, who gave up his career to stay home and help, er, organize his community, but for the whole Marvel superhero line.  Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Captain America, the X-Men and the rest regularly fought right-wing demagogues, racists, neo-Nazis, war profiteers, and colonialists along with the Green Goblin and Doctor Doom, who come to think of it were good enemies for a liberal hero, too, an irresponsible businessman and an unreconstructed monarchist, respectively.

Sure that “responsibility” line was in the movie, too, but I feel quite certain that Obama first read it in the original. And he also may not be the only member of his generation to pick up some of his liberal ideas from the House of Ideas [one of Stan Lee's many nick-names for his company]. One idea in particular was that a decent person or nation had a duty to do something with whatever gifts it had been given — freedom, a sharp mind, spider-powers, a nuclear arsenal, or whatever — besides showing off.  I do believe today was the first time Parade Magazine ever choked me up.


November 14, 2008

I Knew I Liked That Guy, I Just Didn’t Know How Much

Filed under: Generations,Obama Administration,Popular culture — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 12:31 am

Several times I have expressed my appreciation for the fact that Barack Obama was the first presidential candidate, and now will be the first president, from my generation, the original Generation X who grew up in the 1970s. Now it turns out that the science fiction and comic book geekery that seemed something of a shameful secret in the Kansas of my youth, was actually a universal experience, at least among the future-educated: : 5 Things We Hope Obama Learned from Spider-Man
Not only has America elected its first African-American President, it’s looking more and more like we’ve elected our first Geek-in-Chief. He’s read Harry Potter, he’s addicted to his BlackBerry, and his Mac laptop has a Pac Man sticker on it. Do we need any more evidence he’s one of the nerd generation?

Most recently, the President Elect has acknowledged that he collected both Conan the Barbarian and Spider-Man comic books growing up (although he identifies with Batman as well as Spidey).


August 28, 2008

He had me at Kansas

Filed under: 2008 elections,Democrats,Generations — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 11:55 pm

Obama’s speech was the only part of the convention my first-week-of-classes self could manage to watch live. It was not quite what I expected, but probably better. Democratic candidates since JFK and RFK have had a tendency to go for the soaring Ted Sorensen rhetoric that never seems to sound right coming out of non-Kennedy-accented, educated-after-the-1940s mouths. Unsurprisingly, most of these Kennedy wannabees did not pan out as national candidates. In a high-flown speech, Obama could never have matched the expectations for ultra-eloquence he has engendered, and he would have fed into the “show horse” meme pushed by the Clinton and McCain forces and the Baby Boomer-dominated media. Instead he came across as very direct and grounded, making the Rovian semi-smears and coded slurs of the past month seem as stupid and counter-productive as they were.

Once again, I found my response to Obama was very personal. His name may not be common in Kansas, but he does sound like a guy from there, and seems to represent the best aspects of the state where I grew up. Perhaps it will not come as a surprise that I tend to identify more with the Free State side of the Kansas tradition — the anti-slavery, pro-education, progressive side — rather than the anti-evolution, homophobic, paleo-Christian side that has been more on display in recent years. Then there’s the generational aspect: my Mom had an early 70s young mother dress just like the one Barack’s mom wears in one of the pictures in the biographical video that was shown; watching the moon landing as a small boy was one of my strong early memories, too; and one of his best lines against McCain was a crappy 70s TV reference. On a more serious level, we finally get a candidate whose outlook was not shaped by the whole coonskin cap to Woodstock to Weather Underground arc that we are all so very tired of hearing about.

I could live without the tax cut bidding war aspect of Obama’s economic plans, featured in the speech and heavily featured in the commercials that have been running during the Cardinals games lately. Yet, as typically New Democrat centrist as the speech was in some ways, it was, as Andrew Sullivan writes, “unashamedly liberal” in others. Obama actually spoke contemptuously of the idea that the market would solve all problems. He copped to the belief that corporations could not necessarily be trusted to work for the good of all without the government placing some limits on their behavior. And now that I think about it, that middle-class tax cut, combined with other proposals, sounds suspiciously like what they used to call a “transfer payment,” down the economic scale for once. Go transfer payments!


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