Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Arguing Against the Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics



I'm extremely late to this, but a friend linked me to this post by Matt Yglesias from all the way back in 2006 on what he called the "Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics." Here is an excerpt:

As you may know, the Green Lantern Corps is a sort of interstellar peacekeeping force set up by the Guardians of Oa to maintain the peace and defend justice. It recruits members from all sorts of different species and equips them with the most powerful weapon in the universe, the power ring.

The ring is a bit goofy. Basically, it lets its bearer generate streams of green energy that can take on all kinds of shapes. The important point is that, when fully charged what the ring can do is limited only by the stipulation that it create green stuff and by the user's combination of will and imagination. Consequently, the main criterion for becoming a Green Lantern is that you need to be a person capable of "overcoming fear" which allows you to unleash the ring's full capacities. It used to be the case that the rings wouldn't function against yellow objects, but this is now understood to be a consequence of the "Parallax fear anomaly" which, along with all the ring's other limits, can be overcome with sufficient willpower.

Suffice it to say that I think all this makes an okay premise for a comic book. But a lot of people seem to think that American military might is like one of these power rings. They seem to think that, roughly speaking, we can accomplish absolutely anything in the world through the application of sufficient military force. The only thing limiting us is a lack of willpower.

I don't take issue the assertion that neoconservatives of the Bush era naively believed that the United States could solve the world's problems by exercising military power. Nor do I disagree that this isn't the best way of approaching international relations.

No, I'm merely surprised that Yglesias is using the Green Lantern as a point of comparison. According to him, the power ring is the American military. It can only be wielded properly by someone with sufficient abilities to overcome fear. Completing the analogy, this would mean that Hal Jordan (or whoever you favorite Green Lantern is) is really George W. Bush, commander of the American military. The Guardians of Oa, then, are basically the people who elected Bush & Co., believing he possessed the requisite skills to command an army.

Sure, the Guardians of Oa award power rings to only those members they consider having surpassed a certain threshold of bravery, fearlessness, and willpower. But having the "guts" to engage in international military conflict isn't exactly what the Guardians had in mind. In my view, the power rings are not awarded to individuals with enough fearlessness to use them, but with enough fearlessness not to.

No one would be afraid of using a power ring haphazardly. It's a power ring. It's awesome. Who wouldn't want the opportunity to shoot things with it and fly around in space? Any fool can put on a ring and blast away to his or her heart's desire. The idea is, however, that when faced with a crisis, the fearful people would be more willing to use the power ring in vastly excessive and inappropriate ways. This would more likely distrub the peace, rather than preserve it.

This is why the Guardians gave the ring to Hal, someone who they thought possessed the ability to use the ring only when absolutely necessary. In this context, "willpower" does not mean overcoming your fear of using power offensively. It means overcoming your fear of abusing the power. It means having restraint.

As evidence of this, consider what happens to Hal after the destruction of Coast City. He attempted to use the power ring solely for personal gain (i.e. to rebuild the city), an action the Guardians condemned. In response to this, he attacks Oa in a forceful, but ultimately futile attempt to gain control of the Central Battery, which eventually allowed him to be taken over by Parallax, a demonic and parasitic fear agent.



What we see here is that Hal's hubris, which was in fact brought on by fear (not courage), weakened him enough to be possessed and subsequently resulted in the death of several of his fellow Green Lantern corp. The lesson is that fear is associated with the abuse of power, whereas true courage and willpower is associated with caution, thoughtfulness and restraint.

To further amplify this, take a look at who the Guardians chose as Hal's replacement: Kyle Rayner. Recall that rather than being a fighter pilot like Jordan, Rayner was actually a struggling graphic artist living in Los Angeles. Not exactly the image one conjures when thinking of a traditionally brave, fearless person, right? Yet, the Guardians were shrewd this time. Though this was never apparent, my guess is they wanted to avoid a repeat of the Hal situation. So, they gave a power ring to someone with a gift for creativity; someone who they viewed would think critically about the most effective ways of using this new found power.

I'd be interested to hear what Yglesias (and of course you guys) thinks about all of this.

23 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think what Yglesias is saying is not that the military *is* like a power ring, but rather the people using it *thought* it functioned like one. So in keeping with a comic theme, it's as if Hawkgirl *thought* her mace functioned like a power ring. After hitting Doomsday with it and not having the desired effect, she would attribute the failure to her will and not the fact that it might not be the right tool for job. Which would lead her to try over and over again with greater "commitment", which ultimately would not be good either for her or more importantly in the analogy, not good for the mace either. Apologies if the comic analogy's not great, I'm still new to the genre.

Andrew TSKS said...

If we're comparing a Green Lanter to George W. Bush, it shouldn't be Hal Jordan--it should be Guy Gardner. Knowing that dude, he probably voted for Bush in both elections.

Allen Varney said...

The Guardians didn't choose Kyle Rayner. He was a random bystander who got the ring because he happened to be there at the right time. Many fans detested Rayner for that very reason, thinking him undeserving. (And in the early storylines, Rayner himself struggled guiltily with the same idea.)

I'm not sure how this works with your metaphor.

Michael T said...

Whew! A lot of analysis here. The GL mythos is rich and deep, both in our world and its own fictional world. The Guardians first attempts at fielding military force were the robotic manhunters, until they took their mission too literally and decided that "ending evil" could only be accomplished by "ending all life." The Guardians adopted their (some would say obsessive) mission because one of their own had "released" evil into the innocent universe (later retconned to "chaos" or "entropy", raising all sorts of Biblical possibilities.

Meanwhile the narrative forces in our own world shape the storytelling. The Golden Age GL was simply a man with a magic wishing ring. When the Green Lantern concept was updated in 1957(?) it was in a world of sputniks, atomic standoffs, and Tom Corbett-Space Patrolman so naturally the idea of making this a "scientific" device wielded by a cosmic police force that just happened to have more American ideals appealed. In fact, I seem to recall that the real world model for Hal Jordan was Chuck Yeager and/or John Glenn. By the 90s, however, the bloom was off the American hegemony rose, and a new, more cynical readership arose. The writers felt the day of the staunch, fearless military pilot was past and contrive to give the ring to a young, latte-drinking artist; shades of the New Romantics!

Any and all of these can, with a little clever manipulation, obviously represent some aspect of real world geopolitics. ("The evil Qwardians of the antimatter universe are Al Qaeda, with Sinestro, their leader, as bin Laden!") Nevertheless, I suspect that Yglesias might be making a much simpler point: after 1989 (and certainly by 1992), the US was recognized as the dominant military force in the world, the sole "superpower" (hah!). In every conflict, major or minor, of the last 20 years, if the US is not the focus of the struggle, it is the US' participation or choice not to participate that decides the outcome. Similarly, once the Guardians tell their green-clad officers to take part in a conflict, it is the Green Lantern that decides the resolution due to the overwhelming force they can bring to bear. Similarly, if it cares to, the US can resolve any global military conflict one way or the other.

Hey! I just realized that explains the Star Wars prequels! Before the fall of the Republic (a democratically elected body that apparently worships freedom of religion, choice and trade), sending a couple of Jedi to a trouble spot was enough to solve any crisis. The Empire was simply a reaction to that by anti-capitalist forces! Clearly Lucas was merely making a metaphor for the US way of life with the Jedi standing in for the military....

ShadowBanker said...

Anonymous - I see what you're saying. Even still, Yglesias was the one who made the power ring analogy. And I don't think it was the best analogy, as I read "fearlessness" and "willpower" to mean something entirely different than what he does.

Your analogy, on the other hand, was great!

Andrew - Haha, probably.

Allen - That's right. I still think my point is valid, though. What's more is that he turned out to be great.

Michael - I completely agree with you. Of course these comic book institutions (like the Guardians) reflect real-world politics. This is why many people accuse the Guardians of pretty imperialistic And I'm not saying that the Guardians don't reflect the U.S. in some ways. However, I seem to view them as much more diplomatic (at least these days) than Yglesias. Sure, they can resolve conflicts with the use of these very powerful rings. Sure that is similar to 90s US. However, I don't think the Green Lantern Corp. actually equate "willpower" with firing off these weapons as the ultimate solution to intergalactic crises--the way that Yglesias seems to think.

I don't know about the Star Wars comparison. But for an interesting read, check out Tyler Cowen's views on the corrupt nature of the Jedi council: http://www.marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2005/05/the_public_choi.html

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