Like everyone in Maryland, I’ve been watching the coverage of the Baltimore riots.
Like everyone who grew up on Marvel Comics, and a lot of people who didn’t, I’ve been watching and enjoying the hell out of the Netflix original series Daredevil.
Last night, while gathered with friends to watch Marvel’s Agents of Shield, we naturally discussed both topics. And the thought crystallized in my head that the two topics actually fit together very well.
I knew I wanted–needed–to say something about the unrest in Baltimore, the closest city to my home. It is not my “hometown.” My hometown is 500 miles away, even though I never lived there and wasn’t born there. My hometown is the town my parents came from, the town much of my family still lives in, the town where we still own a home built on land once owned by my great grandfather. I may be a permanent guest in Maryland, but I will always be a guest. I am a Southerner, not a confused Mid-Atlantican. But I have some things to say about the Baltimore riots. Perhaps nobody else cares what I have to say, but I do. Some things you just need to say.
And it all ties in to Wilson Fisk and Matt Murdock.
My friend June was commenting that she hates the character of Fisk, played so magnificently by Vincent D’onofrio in Daredevil. Of course, you’re supposed to hate the villain, but June finds him whiny. She calls him “The Kingpussy.” (Fisk’s super-villain name, for the non-comics readers among us, is “The Kingpin.”) Yes, bad stuff happened to him as a child, but does he have to whine?
But that’s the genius of this version of Daredevil. (Every TV series, movie or even every run of a comic book by a different creative team is really that–a version of the character. I find I get less angry if I look at it that way, and I lose less sleep over the fact that Frank Miller’s Dark Knight and Adam West’s Batman are not even the same species, much less the same man.)
Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk are, as Fisk has pointed out, the same in so many ways. They both work outside the law. They both hide their identities. They both use violence as a means to their end. They both lost their fathers at a young age. They both want to make their city a better place. Each man is the hero in his own story.
But, objectively, Matt is a hero and Fisk is a villain. Why? There are many reasons. Matt doesn’t engage in mass violence, and Fisk does. Matt never attacks or harms an innocent person, and Fisk does. Matt’s father was killed by organized criminals and Fisk, an organized criminal, killed his own father. Matt doesn’t seek revenge and Fisk does. (Qualification on this last: I believe a hero can seek revenge. Like Boston Legal’s Alan Shore, I believe there is a moral component to revenge. But that revenge can’t be moral if it’s completely out of proportion with the original crime, or if it harms those who didn’t commit the original crime. Killing a man because he talked to your mother is not revenge, it’s psychotic murder.)
The principal difference between these two characters is summed up in the advice given them by their fathers, shortly before each father died.
Dad Murdock: “Murdocks always get back up.”
Dad Fisk: “Keep kicking him! Keep kicking him!”
Context: Matt’s father was a boxer. No matter how many times he was knocked down, he impressed on his son the importance of always getting up. Never quit. Never surrender. Wilson’s father was a bully. After his son was beaten up by a boy in the neighborhood, Mr. Fisk took Wilson to find the boy, beat the boy to the ground, and then encouraged young Wilson to keep kicking the boy once he was down. That, he said, was “being a man.”
Translation into adult life: Matt never gives up, even in the face of overwhelming odds. He loses his sight in an accident and still becomes a lawyer and a superheroic vigilante. Fisk’s goons beat Matt, bloody him, threaten and kill his friends. Matt keeps getting up and fighting. Fisk keeps kicking. He keeps those around him on the ground, in pain and under his control. Matt’s father’s advice was a message of self-control and personal accomplishment. Fisk’s father’s advice was a message that you must control others in order to succeed. You must put others down in order to advance.
Matt is good. Fisk is evil. There are some wonderful shades of gray in the series and some wonderful moments where Matt questions his own motives, and the viewer looks on Fisk in sympathy. But all that wonderful gray doesn’t change the black and white truth: Matt is good and Fisk is evil, because, as reasoning individuals, they have each chosen the path of good or evil.
And so it is in Baltimore. There are shades of gray. Some of the people on the side of good are making stupid choices and saying stupid things. Some of the people on the side of good have questionable backgrounds and have actually committed crimes. Some of the people who are nominally on the side of good may have made mistakes and hurt people, and may be guilty of consistently hurting people because they’ve taken moral shortcuts, racially profiled, relied on stereotypes, forgotten that even a person who has committed a crime is still a person and should still be treated with respect and dignity. If violence is never the answer, then violence against a criminal is not the answer either.
Yes, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is a poor leader and a tap-dancing spin-control artist. Yes it is scary as hell that a young man died in police custody and no one knows why. Yes, it is ironic that groups of men that exist (so we’ve always been told) solely for criminal purposes are standing side-by-side with police and the National Guard in an effort to keep peace.
But there is still good in this situation, and there is still evil. Those on the side of the good are the ones trying to keep people from getting hurt and keep property from getting destroyed. They may be flawed people–we all are–but they’ve made the conscious choice to do the right thing, to quell the violence, to investigate the wrong-doing, to clean up the streets and rebuild the burned and broken structures. The side of the good in all this is inspiring. From the mother who made me laugh when she smacked her son upside the head and told him he wasn’t allowed to be a rioter, to the clergy who walked dangerous streets to ask for peace, to the gang members who brought me to tears as they spoke of their love for their young brothers and sisters.
That’s right. I said it. I can’t believe I’m saying it, but, this week, in Baltimore, the Crips and the Bloods are among the good guys. Because they’ve chosen to be. Each of these men, as an individual, has decided to do the right thing. No “social forces.” No “economic pressures.” No “victims of systemic violence and oppression.” These men have suffered, yes, but, right now, they’ve chosen to say, “Hey, kids, it’s wrong to hurt people, it’s wrong to smash windows, it’s wrong to burn police cars.”
The evil? The evil is clear. It’s the actions of people–and it is a minority of people–who smashed windows, burned buildings, threw bricks at public safety officers, cut firehoses, pulled strangers from their cars and beat them, terrorized families who were just trying to drive to a baseball game.
These are the actions of people who have chosen, not to keep getting up, but to “keep kicking.” They want to knock other people down and keep them on the ground. They want to blindly destroy, claiming they want a better world, but, like the idiot rabble who executed the French Revolution, having no clue whatsoever what they going to build in place of what they’re torn down. They have no idea because they don’t know how to build. Anything. They only know how to tear down. Unlike Wilson Fisk, they don’t have the intellect or the resources to put up a shiny, new high-rise in place of the tenements they torch. They just want to hurt those they’ve been told (mostly by manipulative politicians with axes to grind) are responsible for their poverty, their pain and their anger. (And, on the subject of the rioters being people suffering from poverty, I saw some of the cars those looters were driving away from stores. Those are not cars usually driven by poor people. Which only goes to prove that a lot of the violence is not the voice of the oppressed, its just the act of people who are taking advantage of the situation for their own purposes.)
This is evil. It is not “revolution” because the very word “revolution” describes a process of turning. Turning the old so you can bring in the new. The Baltimore rioters didn’t want the new. They can’t envision the new. “This is the voice of their pain?” Isn’t it convenient that the voice of their pain tells them to steal some nice new shoes while they’re tearing down the old order?
I’ve read and heard repeatedly that it’s wrong to refer to the rioters using the words used on the news by the President, the Governor and the Mayor: Thugs. Criminals. Animals.All through this situation, a lot of people have tried to lay down arbitrary rules for what’s allowed to be said, and who’s allowed to speak. If you’re white, you’re not entitled to an opinion. If you’ve never marched in a protest, you can’t say anything. If you own property, you don’t know what it’s like to live in the slums, so shut up.
That’s typical. That’s censorship. That’s keeping people on the ground so they can’t fight you.
Perhaps even more evil than the people doing the rioting are the liberal intellectuals who are encouraging them to do so, claiming that the rioters have a moral right to express their opinions by destroying property. It’s important to remember, as you listen to these “intellectuals” speak, that they do not believe in private property. In the perfect world that they envision but will never build, private property will not exist. Someone, some benevolent authority, will just give each of us what we need to survive, not because we earned it but because we’re people. The authority will decide what it is we need, and they’re not sure who the authority will be, but it’s okay, because they mean well. Intent is very important, you see, unless you happen to be a person who’s been accused of harassment. Then intent does not matter. And, right now, private property does not matter; so it’s okay to destroy it.
This group of ivory tower villains has created a label to use as they attempt to censor dissent: Riot-Shaming. Riot-Shaming is something that the privileged do when they see the oppressed expressing their justifiable anger by destroying property. Like “man-splaining” and “tone-policing,” it’s a bad thing, and you’re a bad person if you do it.
Isn’t it amazing how the PC movement can come up with a new label at the drop of a dime? It’s a good thing we have the Internet now, otherwise we’d never know what the hell these people are saying, they speak in so many catch-phrases and use words in such a narrow, hyper-defined way. They force words into narrow, little boxes, denying them the opportunity to have the rich spectrum of connotation they might otherwise enjoy. They do the same thing with human beings. You are what they label you, and you are not allowed to be anything else.
I recognize that there are also evil people who have tried to keep down people who belong to minority groups, poor people, and LGBT people. That evil must be confronted. If racial profiling and stereotypes caused police officers to treat Freddie Gray or any other suspect as something other than a human being who deserved dignity, then those officers need to be held accountable for their actions. The attitudes which brought those actions about need to be challenged and those who held them educated. But, just as Wilson Fisk is still evil when he blows up buildings and kills hundreds of people in the name of stopping human trafficking, so the Baltimore rioters are doing evil when they smash windows, burn buildings and cars, and hurt people.
A lot of play has been given in both liberal and conservative media to a discussion between CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and a self-proclaimed community organizer, in which the latter accused Blitzer of saying broken windows are more important than broken spines. The question isn’t which is more or less important. The question is, how do we stop people from breaking either?