Lessons from the X-Men

I look at what’s happened, and still happening in Ferguson, the attention we’re currently paying to the senseless, needless deaths of young black people in this country, but I think also of the tallying every year of the deaths of trans* folks, the numbers of deaths and violations for native, black, and latina women, I think of the challenges women face daily. And somehow I end up at the X-Men.

Now, you probably think, “what the hell does a comic series/Marvel superheroes/beloved movie series and/or acclaimed series reboot have to do with all this serious political stuff?” or you might have just stopped reading.

But there is something very important lurking in the X-Men, and in that something is the reason why the X-Men are both so successful and often the only superhero comic non-superhero comic reading people have fallen for (Watchemn excluded, that is a discussion for another time).

At the crux of the X-Men lie two things: the notion that people are persecuted because they are different, although that difference has no bearing on their worth as a human being, and the relationship between Professor X and Magneto.

I’m going to come out an say it right here: I’ve never read X-Men comics, my dad is an indie comix guy, and so much of my interest in superheroes was sparked by their recent resurgence in film, and a number of healthy trips to the university library.

But moving on: comparisons to historical civil rights movements have been drawn left and right, from the Civil Rights Movement, to gay rights. Professor X is often compared to Martin Luther King, Jr and Magneto to Malcolm X. And there is no question that they map quite well to the popular understandings of both of them: Professor X is the pacifist who believes that humans and mutants can learn to co-exist and that force should not be implemented by mutants against humans. Magneto is the forceful leader who believes that humans will never accept mutants and that mutants should strike swiftly and forcefully to insure their own survival. (My personal understanding of Malcolm X’s philosophies feels that that’s not an entirely fair comparison, but…)

Now, some small effort is often expended to argue that one perspective is morally superior to the other. But that’s a foolish argument, for it is well understood that the Professor and Magneto are at odds with each other in their beliefs as to the best way to achieve what they both want: a world that is safe for mutants. They are also both, arguably, deeply influenced by the environments they came from: the Professor, as Charles Xavier, grew up in a mansion in Westchester New York. Magneto, as Erik Lensherr was rounded up as a Jew and watched his parents die in a concentration camp.

To believe that human beings will accept individuals with magnificent powers: telepathy, telekinesis, pyrokinesis, tails, the ability to change their physical form… When we cannot even accept those who believe in a different God (or a different Prophet), can feel like a stretch.

Furthermore, much of what supports the relationship between Professor X and Magneto (who engage in physical battle, and then will play a game of chess and debate philosophy), is the understanding that each must follow their own path.

Because, the X-Men tell us, some people need to fight for their rights. They cannot take hit after hit, they cannot escape from where they are, they must fight back with what they have because it is all they have. Those who have the comfort to take the time to find their acceptance can find it easy to dismiss those who will fight tooth and claw, who will spit in the face of “playing nice” or “extending understanding” because it feels unnecessarily combative. We need those people, because there are many dangers in this world that need to be met head on now, because they will kill people and strip them of the things that allow them to live.

On the other hand, anyone who is a militant must be willing to concede that there are other kinds of battles to be fought, slower ones; ones that involve explaining who you are and what you stand for over and over and over again, that involve tenacity rather than swift and unforgiving action. Because there is a long game at stake here, too.

I ended up on the side of the long game: the journalist is always on the side of the long game, because you’re stuck fighting with words and pictures, story and empathy. It is the war that demands you get up everyday and repeat yourself to an unforgiving audience, to try and convince them that what you are saying matters.

But I know those who are fearless, who will spit on you for misusing pronouns, and defend various kinds of safe spaces, these warriors have a kind of strength I will never have, an openly uncompromising spirit that I often envy. But their battle is one that I would not be well suited to.

And so I see it, some of us are lining up with the Professor, willing and ready to offer the benefit of the doubt and an opportunity to explain, and some of us are standing with Magneto ready to rip the old world down to make way for a new one. But often, united by a common enemy, we find ourself back to back, arguing politics and philosophy while trying to keep the forces of intolerance and ignorance and fear at bay, to make way for a better understanding and a more whole world.

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