The panels below—from Amazing Spider-Man #584 (April 2009)—are dedicated to a conversation between two super-villains (the Shocker and Boomerang) about the importance of voting.
Soon after I came upon the panels in early 2009 I wrote about them on my old blog. Later I updated what I wrote slightly for The Middle Spaces in time for the 2012 election. I’ve updated the post a little more and present it in place of a new post today, since it’s election day and I think most of my usual readers are probably a little too freaked out by the possibility of a Trump presidency (however, small) to read a new post. So instead here is an old one made new(ish).
In the panels, the two villains are discussing not the presidential election, but the fictional mayoral one that the events of the Spider-Man title at that time had been swirling around. However, it is fairly clear that the writer, Marc Guggenheim, took the occasion of the fictional election to comment on the actual historic one that took place a few months before (and comics being written how they are, the scripting of these panels probably pre-date election day 2008).
The Shocker scoffs when asked for whom he is voting. He’s a super-villain, why should he vote? To which Boomerang responds that it is his civic duty. He says, “Dude, thousands of men and women are dying in Iraq and Afghanistan right now to preserve democracy. You don’t vote, it’s like telling them everything they’re sacrificing doesn’t matter.” As far as I know Boomerang is Australian and a felon, so shouldn’t be able to vote, even though I think felons should regain voting rights when they have completed their sentences. Shit, even people in jail should be allowed to vote. Voting is a right, not a virtue.
I am amused by Guggenheim’s attempt in these panels to paint the idea of voting as virtuous and patriotic, as such a basic moral force that even the foes of law and order—people who put the lives of innocents in harm’s way in countless comic tales—feel that it should be adhered to.
The myth of voting as a virtue and the essential goodness of democracy runs deep in our nation, and I guess that should be no surprise. It replaces the fire of the revolutionary movements that found democracy with a new narrative that preserves power for those who fill the roles of leadership in a post-revolutionary society.
There is the possibility that the writer of this comic understands the irony of having a super-villain saying these words, and whether it was intended or not, we can certainly read Boomerang’s assertion as a flagrant disruption of the narrative of democratic virtue. Perhaps instead of seeing these words as underscoring the essential civic duty of voting, we can see—through their source’s willingness to contravene law and endanger people’s lives—that this so-called virtue is a joke, no more good or evil than any other social institution. Since our own leaders willfully disregard the law and put the lives of countless innocents at risk for nothing more than their own hubris, with the added benefit of lining the pockets of their corporate cronies with the blood money profits earned serving soldiers hot meals, maintaining the logistical infrastructure of a war effort, and securing first access to our victim’s and allies’ resources, the notion of villains asserting the virtuousness of this system is supposed to be satirical. Maybe Cheney and Rumsfeld and Haliburton are to be thought of as Baron Zemo, Doctor Doom and Hydra… Maybe Obama’s war drones are like rogue sentinels that have mistaken Muslim weddings for mutant rallies. Certainly, the naïve and/or disingenuous reference to the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan makes a knowledgeable person reading this comic think as much, because who believes that soldiers are dying to preserve democracy?
Too many people…That’s who. The comic book’s words are just echoing the platitudes and justifications long used to support the cause of war, and the truth is that most people reading this comic probably aren’t all that educated about the war, about why wars are really fought (and what they accomplish—what I call “the myth of the efficacy of war”) and are happy to swallow some bullshit idealized vision of democracy that they imagine could exist even if its current incarnation under eight years of Bush/Cheney and eight more under drone-happy Obama might not have been it. Such a fantasy will not and cannot exist, but the notion it could justifies a lot of atrocities in the meantime. Or worst of all, people that believe such a “better America” might have actually existed at some time in the past, as if Captain America could be a real person, and that such rhetoric is not the provenance of white nationalist blowhards to whom history and erasure are synonymous.
And of course, the most awful part that these panels is that Boomerang’s words echo another more poignant and troubling truth that most people, even those who oppose American wars have a hard time accepting, and that is that those men and women are sacrificing their own lives, the lives of innocents abroad, and destroying the peace of families back home, for nothing. Absolutely nothing. Voting isn’t going to change that, whether you vote for Clinton or Trump or Stein or Johnson. Voting awards you a tiny bit of power, the smallest increment of change within a predetermined range, and elections have never changed that range.
All the important changes that have happened in this country have happened not because of voting, but because people went into the streets, whether it was women’s suffrage, the labor movement, civil rights, the Vietnam War. The threat of civil unrest changed the country enough to make leaders that might take up those causes even an option. When it looks like shit might get burned down, you make concessions… Or when the ugliness required to try to quell those mobs raises the ire of enough people who are at home watching it all on TV, or else somehow threatens their own kind even indirectly, it is then that “working in the system” has a chance to work, but first you must threaten that system—see how it breaks and bends. Hell, even slavery ended as a side-effect of civil unrest caused by a force that happened to be pro-slavery and that were frightened by even unsuccessful attempts to force the issue, like that by ill-fated mad hero John Brown.
Every time I have a chance to put my body out there to be one of thousands or millions of others for some cause or another, I try to put my body out there. And when I get a chance to document how the institutions of our local and federal governments react to those bodies, I do that too. But don’t tell me that my not voting somehow downplays some other person’s sacrifice, rather it is people’s willingness to accept that it is a sacrifice and a noble one at that, that continues to make such meaningless slaughter acceptable.
I should probably add that none of this is to suggest that I don’t care if Donald Trump becomes president, or that there would not be a notable difference between his election and that of Hillary Clinton, but rather I am trying to point out that the systems of power that’d enable their administrations have the same ideological underpinnings while nevertheless allowing for a range of approaches to consolidating support and maintaining its dominance. What I am saying is, that all the shaming of third-party voters or those who choose to abstain from voting altogether, overvalues the power of the single vote, or even large swathes of votes, and those who espouse that position are swallowing an ideological truism that ties a sense of individual agency to a sense of civic duty in the service of oligarchy not greater democracy. Being free means being free to not vote, to abstain from the ritual entrenchment of power, and to challenge the narratives of what those choices mean. Along those same lines, I am not trying to shame people who do decide to vote for Hillary Clinton (if you do vote for Trump, then you should be ashamed, no way around that; a vote for him is a tacit endorsement of his petulant lecherous anti-immigrant racist woman-hating worldview), but don’t fool yourself into thinking that voting is some righteous act, not merely a cathartic one. Voting is occasionally politically expedient (especially in local elections with direct outcomes and low voter turnout), but refusal to participate is not only understandable, it is a legitimate form of political action.
Update: Given the results of yesterday’s election, I think it bears repeating how our system’s lack of options, design features made to shape elections in particular ways (i.e. the electoral college), its failure to require sitting governments to build coalitions across smaller party lines, and the emotional basis by which most votes are cast, are all to blame for the result. Oh, and rampant racist dogma, xenophobia and misogyny, of course, all of which also maintain the virtue of war, and tacitly support white supremacy as the justification for death abroad and injustice at home. We can blame this result on people who voted for Gary Johnson in Florida or Pennsylvania, but those people have a right to vote for the candidate of their choice (and let’s face it these are people who wouldn’t have voted for Hillary anyway), and the only other option is narrowing our range of choices even more. Seems like an approach bound to lead to more authoritarianism, not less.