Thursday, October 7, 2021

Green Lanternism


I've never been an aficionado of the Green Lantern, and one of the things I didn't know about him, or them, since there is apparently a whole Green Lantern lineage, sometimes coexisting in an intergalactic Green Lantern Corps managed by the Guardians of the Universe, was this thing in the earlier phases of development in which his magic power ring didn't protect him from attacks with wood, or vegetable matter in general. This is blamed on the very first Green Lantern, or first one on Earth at any rate, in ancient China, one Yalan Gur. Wikipedia explains,

Power ultimately corrupted this early Green Lantern, as he attempted to rule over mankind, which forced the Guardians to cause his ring to manifest a weakness to wood, the material from which most Earth weapons of the time were fashioned. This allowed the Chinese peasants to ultimately defeat their corrupted "champion". His ring and lantern were burned and it was during this process that the "intelligence" inhabiting the ring and the lantern and linking them to the Guardians was damaged.

And the ring and lantern retained this wood vulnerability when they were picked up by the original American Green Lantern, Alan Scott, but it didn't transfer to his successors, beginning in 1959 (Hal Jordan's lantern was vulnerable to the color yellow instead, and the entire topos of Kryptonite knockoffs eventually disappeared from the series).

This story sheds a whole new light on the Green Lantern Theory of the Presidency, a popular myth discovered by Dartmouth professor Brendan Nyhan, as Ezra Klein reported it in Vox in 2014:

"the belief that the president can achieve any political or policy objective if only he tries hard enough or uses the right tactics." In other words, the American president is functionally all-powerful, and whenever he can't get something done, it's because he's not trying hard enough, or not trying smart enough.

I.e., because he lacks the requisite will power, just like an inadequate Green Lantern in the canonical description:

The effectiveness of the ring is tied to the wearer's willpower. A Green Lantern with strong willpower will beat a weaker-willed Lantern in a duel. Anything which weakens the Green Lantern's mind, such as a telepathic attack, may render his ring useless.

It's a myth in that it provides an explanation for that eternal cosmic mystery, why doesn't the president ever do what I want him to do, even when he claims he wants to do it himself?

But the matter of the wood provides a more sophisticated explanation: it's that he used to have unlimited power, as a king or autocrat, but the ultimate power was taken away from him and assumed by the peasants, or the people. Not as sophisticated as Kryptonite, which we could connect to the theory of Superman's Jewish immigrant origins—that's the poison of his Jewish vulnerability, pursuing him from the violently destroyed old country. In fact the wood thing is really remarkably stupid; it's not true, for starters, that most weapons in ancient China were made of wood, at least not by the time they were making rings and lanterns, because most weapons were made of bronze, which is more effective, and Yalan Gur's soldiers would easily stop the peasants in spite of his personal weakness. Then there's just too much wood in the world, when you think about it, and he's in constant danger (he could hurt himself badly by eating in a Chinese restaurant)—and yet it's mostly really inconvenient precisely because it doesn't often come in weapon form. Are his enemies going to attack him with dining tables, or bookshelves? 

It's the clumsiest superhero weakness ever. It makes no sense, and as such it's an especially cogent analogy to the limitations on presidential power, and their constant malfunctions, which have allowed presidents to do really terrible things and yet continually prevent them from doing wonderful ones. At the same time, it comes from nature; its power isn't a product of human intervention, like metal, but inherent in the material itself. The same can be said for many of the means by which government is restrained in the United States—they weren't really planned, but evolved spontaneously, spandrels on the Constitution. The filibuster is a fabulous example of that; originating in an oversight of 1804-05, when the Senate got rid of an annoying rule for ending debate and forgot to replace it with anything better. Nobody thought of using the lack of a rule for anything until 1837, but when they really started using it, in the 20th century, they couldn't stop, and still can't, though I still hope we're about to wear a bit more of it away, maybe in the next weeks.

The legal rules for the restriction of government power in the United States are a product of uncontrolled evolution, like those in the United Kingdom, but are also voluminously written down like European ones, so that it's immensely difficult to ignore them when somebody wants to stop you from doing that, let alone change them. They are irrational and ineluctable, like a dense forest. They can't be wiped out violently, as Second Amendment fetishists imagine they might, because the military has better weapons. You might be able to slip between the obstacles, if nobody with a better title tries to stop you, but it takes cunning, and work, not simply will power, to meet resistance, and it's often not possible at all unless you can muster a majority to push you through. 

They really exist, a feature of our political ecology. They're often very stupid, wooden as it were, but they're real. I'm not trying to tell you it's an invariably good thing (though I'm convinced it prevented Mike Pence from annulling the election)—it's often an unquestionably bad thing—but it's a thing that's genuinely there. Things don't happen except through a procedure, much as we sometimes wish they would. 

This is the point I was trying to make on Tuesday, with the discussion of how even Trump was largely forced to obey the law or get his lawyers to develop workarounds that would take months or years to implement, and tended to end up (as with the Muslim ban or the Wall) completely unsuccessful. It's hard to break them, from either side, and it's very hard to break their power. Even for the Green Lantern, who doesn't exist.

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