09 December 2013

Stuck in the Past

As I described yesterday, in 1986 DC Comics published a two-part story about Titans member Starfire confronting the apartheid regime of South Africa.

At the time, the US and UK were debating economic sanctions on that country, meaning that people who’d have no qualms about seeing a superhero use violence against an oppressive imaginary government felt the need to write in about the political implications of this storyline.

Associate Editor Mike Gold published several letters praising and criticizing the issues, starting with an anonymous complaint in Teen Titans Spotlight, #5. A proud Chicago leftist, he tended to snap back at critics. The fact that publisher Jenette Kahn had enthusiastically approved the issues probably offered some reassurance.

One letter, for example, complained that the magazine hadn’t reported that the South African government had repealed its pass laws. Gold replied that that had happened after the magazines had gone to press, and that the letter-writer hadn’t reported the government’s harsh new emergency decree.

Teen Titans Spotlight, #6, printed six letters on the Starfire story, three from outside the US. Two writers asked that their addresses, and in one case name, not be printed. Two of the writers identified themselves as having spent some time growing up in South Africa or Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, and a third had spoken to a friend who had. Significantly, none identified himself as black or in contact with black Africans. Neither did any of those writers identify himself as white—their whiteness is obvious from their comments, and they treated that status as the unspoken norm.

The critics offered various concerns about the story, starting with a fourteen-year-old saying, “Just please focus on things that kids can identify with, because I really don’t think apartheid is one of them.” Many of those arguments were familiar in the period: that blacks in South Africa were better off than people in selected other African countries, that the “liberal-left” media ignored aspects of the conflict or would do so in an imagined future, that establishing democracy in South Africa would bring on “a bloody melee of warring tribal factions.” Those writers left out important facts, like the South African military activity in neighboring states or the apartheid government’s work to roil ethnic rivalries.

Most of the critics insisted that they personally opposed apartheid and racism. Larry J. King of Vermont stood out by calling the Starfire story “an almost totally untrue diatribe about the benign government of South Africa.” He asked, “Instead of picking on South Africa, why didn’t you have Starfire end up in one of the Communist countries and smash their corrupt form of government?” In reply Gold noted that many comics had used Communist regimes as villains.

(Three years later King turned in some names from the comics industry to The American Spectator’s “enemies list”: Alan Moore, Danny [sic] O’Neil, Frank Miller, and George Pérez. What had they done wrong? O’Neil “criticized mankind’s treatment of the environment”! Miller was “afraid that the religious right intends to censor his work”! Pérez was “a committed feminist”! What’s more, King complained, several people in the comics industry opposed homophobia. He appears to have been a boilerplate reactionary, in other words.)

Teen Titans Spotlight, #6, also ran a heartfelt letter from a Scottish teenager named David Stalker whose father had moved the family to South Africa in the early 1980s and then died in a mining accident. Stalker remembered his disdain for the poor black Africans he’d seen and the kindness of white South Africans to his family. He didn’t see the latter people reflected in Marv Wolfman’s story (in which all the whites are officials of the apartheid government, particularly security forces). But Stalker also acknowledged that he was coming to see more wrong with the apartheid system now that he was home in Scotland. Stalker went on to become an executive in the video game industry, indirectly responsible for bringing Grant Morrison into that field.

I didn’t read those Teen Titans Spotlight issues back in 1986; I was busy in college. Therefore, I first encountered them in the past decade, after the apartheid regime had been dismantled, the Cold War had ended, Mandela had served a term as President of South Africa and retired. Not only was the story now a historical artifact, but so were those right-wing responses to it.

Nevertheless, those doctrinaire Cold-War positions proved still to be alive this week after Mandela’s death. Some on the American right felt compelled to object to praise for him, even from their political allies. He was, they shouted, a “Communist”! A “terrorist”! An advocate of “anti-white racism”! It was as if those right-wingers were stuck back in 1986 with no knowledge of what has actually happened since.

When Teen Titans Spotlight, #2, was in stores, it was possible to imagine scenarios for South Africa that might justify continuing to do unfettered business with the apartheid regime. But we’ve run the experiment now. The sanctions put pressure on the National Party. Mandela was freed and took power in a democratic election. He advocated racial and sexual equality, reconciliation, and unity. He stepped down from power after one term. There has been no race war, no government takeover of the economy, no support for armed rebellion against other democracies. South Africa has become an economic and political anchor for its region. National Review Online writer Deroy Murdock had the class to say he’d been wrong about Mandela. If only more on the right could do the same.

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