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Art Is Always Political

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There’s a certain strain of argument that goes around every now and then. You’ve probably heard it. It goes a little like:

Street art in New York City. Art is always political, reflecting the artist's beliefs about the world.
Is this political? Yup. (Credit: pxfuel.com)

“Why did they have to put politics in their book/comic/video game/whatever other piece of media?”

This is often uttered by a very particular audience—one that seems to lack understanding of a fundamental truth. Art is always political.

I know this, because I work in the industry. I’ve seen how it goes, behind the scenes. So let’s take a look into this, pull back the veil. Politics, whether you like it or not, is always there in some capacity.

Politics? In My Art? It’s More Likely Than You Think

I’m a writer myself, and my politics are always creeping into my writing. I’m usually very explicitly political. Riding the Dragon, for example, suggests a worldview that pitches the notion human beings are all inherently horrible.

It pitches the idea that the universe is a horrible place meant to screw us all over. It suggests we can push back toward some polar opposite—love.

Cover for Riding the Dragon. The book presents a particular view of the universe, informed by my own politics.
Riding the Dragon presents a particular view of the nature of the universe, informed by my own beliefs.

On the surface, that doesn’t seem terrible radical or even awfully political. But scratch a little deeper, and you’ll see it is.

Why?

Because the current dominating worldview is one that suggests human beings are inherently awful. Give someone an inch, they’ll run a mile. You always have to be looking out for #1, because someone else is just waiting to screw you over. Screw other people over before they do it to you. Trample everyone underfoot.

The Seductive Lie of Self-Sufficiency

This plays back into the notion of individualism—that we’re all responsible, somehow, for everything that happens in our own lives. The idea of the independent lone wolf is very attractive to many people. This person is “free.”

But it’s not really true. We’re enmeshed, even from before we’re born, in tangled social webs. No human being has ever existed without the assistance of other human beings.

Yet the dominant paradigm—capitalism—would like us to think this. If we do, we’re responsible for our own successes or failings. It allows the myth of the “self-made billionaire” to exist. It allows us to blindly think that if we just work hard enough … we’ll get there.

By ourselves. And if we don’t? That’s on us.

It’s also the paradigm that asks us to only include husband-wife and children when considering health insurance. As though we don’t have a web of of people around us that we care for: aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, godparents, adoptive relatives, friends.

But we all have to be responsible for ourselves. Self-sufficiency, y’know. Only parents care for children, and then those children grow up and get their own damn health insurance. Who cares about Granny and Grandpa?

And this worldview informs our politics, how we relate to each other. If you think other people have made their own misery, that they’re responsible for their “moral failings,” you’ve bought into this paradigm.

And it informs how you think we should govern our society. You might argue poor people need to be punished for being poor. You might think we shouldn’t help them too much because they’re lazy, stupid, useless folks who should just learn to stand on their own two feet.

Right?

Exploding a Myth

In Riding the Dragon, this myth is pretty thoroughly exploded through Cad’s backstory. His drug addiction develops as a result of PTSD and physical injury. His marriage falls apart. He then gets cut off from his social networks, as well as his financial safety net. He turns to drugs, and then ultimately gets booked as a criminal and jettisoned into space.

Cad is bitter about this, because he’s been abandoned by the people and systems that should have helped him. Instead, they see him as a criminal, treat him as one—and they believe his misery is of his own making.

Is he at least partly responsible for how he reacts to certain things? For sure; Cad still makes decisions on his own behalf. But he isn’t always being given good options. Nor is he necessarily being given the support he needs to make better decisions.

Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

This is true of many, many people in our society; most of us are just getting along the best we can with the (often shitty) options presented to us. Drugs might seem like they’re cheaper than therapy, so we turn to “crime” and become “criminals” in order to cope with our everyday existences.

Homeless people may have addictions, which could stem from traumas or be coping mechanisms. They may have other mental health conditions. Or they may simply have fallen on hard times. Yet we criminalize them and penalize them for the crime of …

Not having anywhere else to go.

Because we blame them. They are, somehow, the authors of their own misfortunes.

Riding the Dragon suggests it’s this framework—driven by capitalism, which wants to isolate us—that leads Cad to where he is. It’s this idea that we’re all selfish, greedy little pricks willing to screw each other over that lets him fall through the cracks.

That’s an inherently political stance. Riding the Dragon then goes on to suggest that maybe it doesn’t have to be like that. Perhaps human nature isn’t quite as brutish as Hobbes and his modern-day disciples would like us to believe.

That’s Just You!

Nope. Not just me, sorry to say. I’m very expressly political; I acknowledge and understand that what I’m writing has political underpinnings. I understand that I’m dumping my worldview into my book.

Riding the Dragon is me wrestling with this. I’m much like Cad in that I’ve been raised in an environment that wants me to see myself and other people as the sole authors of our fate. We alone are responsible for everything that happens to us.

Yet that means we’re also—somehow—responsible when “bad” things happen. When an insurance company denies you drug coverage. When your spouse decides to cheat on you and your marriage falls apart. When you apply for 100 jobs and don’t get a single callback.

I don’t believe we live in these isolated little pods. I see a deeper social fabric, one that’s been eroded by the rhetoric that we’re all—at heart—really bad people.

A Debate on Human Nature

And I don’t believe we’re all really bad people, not deep down. If I’m not a bad person—or I try not to be, or I don’t want to be—then why do I believe everyone else is so willing to screw me over at the drop of a hat?

That’s my worldview, and yeah, it informs pretty much everything I write. I believe that human nature isn’t quite so bad as we make it out to be. I believe we all want to be good. But we have different ideas of what good is, different ways of performing good. And that brings us into conflict. So people act bad; some people act so bad so long, they eventually become bad.

But they likely didn’t start there.

Other people believe we’re all rotten to the core, that we start that way—and that is their worldview. And when they write a book? That’s what is going to inform their characters, their plots, their world building.

The Personal Is Political

I’m going to borrow from feminism here: the personal is political. And it is because we live in a system where we have to fight for our rights as humans beings. The powers that be are constantly trying to dehumanize us—some of us more than others—in order to justify exploitation.

If you’re not human … then it’s easier to excuse your hunger, your illness, your exposure to the elements, your pain.

To justify not paying you living wages or working you until you’re a burned out shell.

To shrug off your death.

But only if you’re not human.

So capitalism works to dehumanize us on many, many levels—which is where the personal becomes political. What you believe about human nature and human rights fundamentally informs your worldview and how you think we should operate society.

Governing Human Nature

If everyone is brutish, selfish, violent, and nasty, then it makes sense to police us, strip us of our rights, treat us harshly. It makes sense to isolate us from each other, to prevent us from hurting each other.

By contrast, if you think human beings are deeply social creatures who are, at the core, at least trying to be good, then this “punishment” model doesn’t make much sense.

Instead of corralling people and locking them up and jettisoning them into space like Cad, we need to help each other.

Some people—people who subscribed to the “nasty brutish human nature” model—will call me a “bleeding heart” here.

That’s fine. I’d rather be a bleeding heart, because at least I have one.

But that’s my politics versus their politics. They don’t believe humans are all inherently equal, that we’re all good. Thus some people are more deserving than others. Some people are more human than others.

So—this is where personal belief turns to politics. My worldview is personal belief—and it tells me how we should run the world. Someone else’s belief in brutish human nature is also a personal belief. It tells them we should run the world in a very different way.

These outlooks, these worldviews, then bleed over into the art we create—because art is intensely personal. If I believed people were rotten at the core, that the universe is inherently violent, then Riding the Dragon would be a very different book.

Normal Is Political Too

So here’s where the argument “keep your politics outta my whatever” fails to hold water. Your personal beliefs inform your politics and your art. Those beliefs are always, always, always reflected in the art you create.
No creator on the face of the planet can escape this.

JKR is a prime example of this. Dumbledore is gay—but couldn’t be explicitly gay in any of the books or movies. That tells us something about how JKR sees gay people. They exist, but not in any identifiable way.

What about Cho Chang? That tells us that she maybe doesn’t know too much about Asian people. Cho Chang is the only Asian character who appears in the books. JKR’s world is largely white.

The Creeping Insidiousness of Stereotypes

How about the Gringotts goblins? This one should probably stand out as a huge red flag. We have hooked-nosed, money-grubbing goblins who work at a bank.

Hook-nosed. Money-grubbing. Bank. Workers.

Why, hello there antisemitism, fancy meeting you in my children’s book.
The idea of Jews as being unscrupulous bankers goes back to the Middle Ages. The Catholic Church said usury (making money on money) was unnatural and a sin. (Jewish law also forbids collecting interest on a loan to another Jew, but collecting interest from strangers is fine.)

So Christians (in theory) couldn’t give out loans and collect interest on them. This didn’t stop everyone, of course, not even the Church itself. But it did open the door for Jewish lenders to fill some “gaps.”

Naturally, Christians didn’t like this too much, especially when they fell behind on their payments and their Jewish financiers came to collect. Hence the idea that all Jews are untrustworthy loan sharks out to screw you over.

That gets mixed into a whole bunch of other bullshit that floated around Christian Europe—the Jews killed Jesus, Jews were trying to poison wells or kidnap and murder Christian children, and so on and so forth.

And then fast-forward to the year 2000 and some children’s writer was stuffing these stereotypes into her books still.

Is It Just Unfortunate Implications?

What about the plethora of issues with the werewolves supposedly representing people with illnesses like AIDs, who apparently bite and infect children? Remember how AIDS in the late 1980s and 1990s was assumed to be a disease that primarily affected gay men?

And remember how until the 1970s, society though being gay was a mental illness?

And remember how PSAs from the 1950s and 1960s suggested that gay men were all pedophiles who would corrupt innocent children?

So lycanism is AIDS, werewolves are gay men, and gay men are running around “infecting” children …

Maybe Dumbledore is also secretly a werewolf.

So—maybe JKR did or didn’t explicitly mean one thing or another. Maybe this was or wasn’t intentional on her part. But it does suggest something about her worldview.

Another (Slightly Less Negative) View

I could give you lots of examples from comics—blatant examples like Captain America punching Nazis, more subtle examples like the X-Men being stand-ins for the Civil Rights movement. I want to turn my attention to a Very Popular Video Game for a moment.

Final Fantasy VII is considered a landmark game. I’ve been digging back into it because the first part of the remake landed earlier this year. Yes, I would like to put on my rose-colored nostalgia glasses, thank you very much.

But one of the things that has struck me is just how political this game is—and has always been.

You play as Cloud, an ex-military operative, who joins an eco-terrorist group. You’re trying to stop an evil corporation that’s draining a non-renewable energy source out of the earth and murdering the planet in the process.

That “evil corporation” is so large, so powerful, so wealthy that they’ve effectively taken over governments, started wars, want to go back to war, have invested heavily in their own (private) military and weapons development.

And please note—that’s all right there in the original 1997 version. There is nothing new about this political stance. Shinra is an evil corporation for a number of reasons. They’re also a pretty blatant reflection of the oil magnates that exist in our own world.

A Video Game Mirror to Our World

Shinra directly parallels the massive corporations that co-opt government policy to build pipelines despite protests, that ask Western governments to stage wars and coups that allow them to then go into oil-producing nations and suck an energy-producing substance out of the earth, while slowly murdering the planet—

Hold up. That sounds like a lot of fucking politics.

And it is. Cloud and co. have always started by blowing up two mako reactors—acts of terrorism. The 1997 version of the game maybe didn’t use that word, but it is what you’re doing, by and large.

The only thing the 2020 version of this does? Makes it more explicit that you may not actually be “the good guys” here. You’re terrorizing the ordinary citizens of Midgar. Shinra plays a more explicit role in the scope of the destruction, sure. They’re looking for an excuse to go back to war with Wutai, and you’re the perfect scapegoat. In 2020, the lines are not so black and white as to who is good and who is bad, who is right and who is wrong.

It’s a denser, more mature look at the web of entanglements that was always there.

So this video game—this very popular, landmark video game—has always been very explicitly political.

“Innocence” Is Not Immune

The point of this discussion is that this game—and video games more generally—have always been political.

Yes, even the games you think don’t have any political bent. Mario rescuing Princess Peach? It upholds a heterosexual view of men and women that most of us think of as “normal” or “natural.” But that’s a worldview.

And that’s ultimately what politics boils down to—worldviews. So when someone suggests they wish there weren’t any “politics” in their games or their books or their comics, they’re actually asking for a particular worldview back—one they consider so normative and natural as to be completely apolitical.

It’s not apolitical. Not at all, because it still informs our thinking on how we should treat other people—we should be individualistic heroes who have to rescue damsels in distress.

Everything Is Political

So, what’s the end result of this? All art is political, and art is always political, because human beings are political. Even the things that seem normal and apolitical are actually “political” when you dig down into it, because we’re arguing on a philosophical level about the nature of human beings and how we should treat them.

Ultimately, that shouldn’t be up for debate—if we all share the same DNA, then we are all equal, with no person being truly more deserving than another. To suggest the inclusion of people who do exist in the world—the inclusion of other worldviews—is “politics” is a problem, to a degree, because politics can and perhaps should be debated.

The idea that all humans beings are worthy, that we all have rights (and the same rights) shouldn’t be debated. How we run the world might be a debate—how we ensure everyone can enact their rights and live dignified lives—but the existence or equality of some persons shouldn’t be what we’re debating.

It’s All Optics

Art that doesn’t include gay people or suggests they’re invisible or even predators infecting children is still political, in the sense that it projects a particular worldview. So JKR’s work is as political as Super Mario and my own work.

The difference is I don’t pretend my work isn’t political, try to hide behind a veil to suggest my work somehow exists in a vacuum separate from my beliefs and worldview. I own up to the idea that all work, including my own, is and must be political, because it is informed by my own beliefs and worldview.

So the next time you want to complain about “politics,” remember that everything you consume is political in some, way, shape, or form. You’ve just been trained to think some of it is so natural and normal as to be fundamental truth—not “politics.” That’s perhaps the biggest sham of all.

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