The Superhero America, with its Systemic and Infrastructural Problems, Deserves


Vlad Savov has an interesting essay at The Verge in which he laments that popular superheroes as they are written are rarely called upon to use their extraordinary powers to do more than fight, as opposed to tackling some of the bigger, more systemic problems faced by societies and civilization. He writes, for example:

Superman’s reduction to a punching machine — particularly prominent in his movie outings — is … less excusable than Batman’s since the Man of Steel actually has superhuman powers. He can hear, see, smell, and remember things in ways the rest of us can only dream of. His strength is otherworldly, and he can literally fly out into space on a whim. Think of all the impossible construction and exploration projects we could complete if we had a real Superman to help us. Instead, he gels his hair back, puts on a cape, and manhandles a different set of anonymous thugs to the ones Batman’s taking care of. …

But don’t we deserve a higher class of hero to match the Joker’s better class of criminal? Every news broadcast will tell you how terribly unfair and unjust the world is: from corruption in the highest echelons of power to basic lack of opportunity, the themes of iniquity are as ancient as human civilization itself. To be my hero, you have to do something to change these awful societal habits, not merely contain them.

I pondered this a bit, because I think it’s a legitimate grievance with the limited scope of superhero storytelling. I did manage to think of one superhero, though, who does just what Savov is asking for, a hero who used his amazing powers to genuinely solve world problems. There are lots of days to save before the term is up!

I’m talking, of course, about President Jed Bartlet.

Bartlet isn’t a superhero in the sense of being a costumed crime-fighter with mega-strength or the ability to fly or shoot beams from his eyes. But he does possess skills and abilities that, let’s admit it, no real-life mortal does: successfully defeating intransigent GOP Congresses, manipulating and reversing public perception of incredible scandals and mistakes, persuading enemies to see things his way, recalling facts, quotes, and passages from scripture and literature, fluently conversing in foreign and dead languages, all at the drop of a hat. He even survives an assassination attempt, stays one step ahead of multiple sclerosis, and manages to have (and win?) an argument with God. If that’s not a superhero, I don’t know what is.

He doesn’t use his powers only for beating up bad guys (though he does use his military and his security detail to do that), but to make things better. Crises emerge not in the form of supervillains (though, again, sometimes), but in the form of natural disasters, foreign policy predicaments, economic emergencies, and the overall push to make life more fair and prosperous for hundreds of millions of Americans. And he gets help from his White House-based Justice League of flawed but formidable allies, with CJ Craig perhaps being his closest rival in overall super-powerful-ness.

Oh, and he also had a catchphrase: Upon the completion of some heroic objective, no time is wasted before he asks his team, “What’s next?” There’s more saving-the-day to do!

I think for a very long time politicians were my superheroes, and that President Bartlet and his team represented the apotheosis of that feeling. Yes, politics is ugly and slow, but for a while I did have heroes who I thought were using their amazing and near-superhuman abilities to make the world a better place. Think of the super-clever and super-charismatic Clinton, or the super-intelligent and super-prophetic Gore. Even the super-principled Ralph Nader. In the 90s and early aughts, these were my Justice League. Barack Obama, back in 2006 to 2008, seemed more like a superhero than any of them! Then, anyway.

Not anymore. They all seem like the clichéd disappointing actor in the frayed superhero suit, now. The Oz behind the curtain, but without the great-and-powerful part. The supervillains are all still there, of course, but now they run the place. The superheroes were never really there.

So anyway, maybe we need a President Santos-era West Wing comic book, followed by a blockbuster Marvel movie, complete with a team-up with Bartlet, Santos, Craig, and maybe the Hulk. That’d be cool.

Last-Minute Cure for Election Day Ignorance from Google

If you’re like most Americans, you have no idea what it is your about to be asked to vote for on Election Day. (Actually, if you’re like most Americans, you won’t be voting at all.) You probably know who you’re voting for in races for governor, Congress, and maybe for mayor. But then there’s all those city council seats and sheriffs and treasurers and ballot initiatives. How do they work? You probably got a sample ballot in the mail, but come on, you don’t read it.
Well, it’s Google to the rescue. Now, maybe you knew this already, maybe it’s been around for years, but I just found out about it and I’m impressed. There are only hours to go before Election Day, and my wife and I were discussing this very subject, how we have no idea what it is that’s about to be asked of us on the ballot, and so I typed something-something-Maine sample ballot into the Google machine, and all of a sudden it asked me for my location, which I provided, and BLAMMO:

Screen Shot 2014-11-03 at 9.31.58 PM

More or less everything that will be on my ballot is right in front of me, complete with fleshed-out links to searches on each race and topic. So now you have no excuse for going into the ballot booth blind tomorrow. Type “sample ballot” into Google, and off you go. The truth is in the cloud.

The Collision: Enforced Religion Meets the Internet

Miriam Badawi, daughter of Raif, from the Free Raif Badawi Facebook page.
Every human being alive today, provided they have access to even the most rudimentary computing hardware, is now a broadcasting platform. Compared to generations past, even for the least electronically visible among us, we have many times the reach for any thought or opinion we care to express. And we rarely have full control over who hears what we say.

The consequences for the expression of religious belief (or lack thereof) have been enormous. To my mind, the collision of the democratized Internet with the innate restrictions of certain faith traditions is the most significant development in the world of religion today. Never in human history have supernaturally based belief systems, so specific in their proscriptions for behavior and thought, been so open to scrutiny and criticism, and on such a mass scale.

And it is a collision, because the free expression of dissenting ideas are anathema to dogma, particularly state-enforced dogma. Incidents of heretics and religious dissenters are not unique to our era of course, but never has it been so easy to broadcast one’s dissent, for religious authorities to become aware of said dissent, and for the rest of the world to be awoken to how those dissenters are being persecuted. They are no longer isolated to villages or insular nations. A heretical tweet can land one in jail, but one’s next tweet can then rally a movement to demand your freedom.

This collision has sparked a global crisis, a crackdown on free expression from serial offenders such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, to countries that fancy themselves democracies like Turkey, Russia, and even Greece. Often these prohibitions against religious dissent are given names like “hurting religious sentiments” or “insulting religion,” but they all fall under the rubric of blasphemy laws.

It is remarkably easy to commit blasphemy today. Some victims of persecution have been willing agitators, intentionally trying to bring about change within their own societies, such as Saudi Arabia’s Raif Badawi, who began a website for the discussion of liberal opinion; or Alber Saber, the Egyptian secular activist arrested in 2012 for allegedly sharing links to the video “The Innocence of Muslims,” which sparked enraged protests and violence across the Islamic world. But on the other hand, we also have people like Alexander Aan, an Indonesian civil servant who has begun quietly expressing atheistic opinions on Facebook, and soon faced the violent wrath of an angry mob and several months in prison as a result.

In other words, one need not seek out controversy to find it, and one need not look to publicly commit blasphemy to find oneself in existential danger as a result of expressing dissenting beliefs. A casual Facebook conversation or tweet can land one in just as much peril as being an intentional rabble-rouser online.

The silver lining to this is how easily the rest of us can become aware of this crisis, and each instance of it. Alexander Aan began his travails alone, but soon found that he had won the support of countless allies around the world, including leading human rights organizations, such as the one that employs me, the Center for Inquiry. These newfound allies, friends he could never have known he had without the same technology that allowed him to be placed in danger in the first place, rallied to his cause and leveled a degree of political pressure to Indonesian authorities that they could not have anticipated when the first locked Alex up.

And for Raif Badawi – along with his fellow dissenter, Saudi human rights activist Waleed Abu Al-Khair, who also sits in prison for blasphemy-related offenses – their cause has likewise brought to bear the combined efforts of activists, human rights organizations, and even casual users of social media to push back against their persecution. Their case was recently brought before the UN’s Human Rights Commission by my organization, which was an important enough step in itself. But when delegates of the Saudi government manically tried to silence our own representative, Josephine Macintosh, as she delivered her rebuke of Saudi’s human rights abuses, the video of the altercation went viral, exposing to tens of thousands of individuals the extent of Saudi Arabia’s crimes, the plights of Badawi and Al-khair, and the fact that a growing movement was working so hard to push back.

But without Twitter and Facebook and other online media, we in the West might never know any of this. We might go on wholly unaware and uninterested in the challenges faced by atheists and other religious dissenters around the world. Miriam Ibrahim, originally of Sudan, is a Christian woman who was sentenced to death for refusing to convert to Islam, but the outcry for her right to follow the faith of her choosing was heard at first exclusively online, and largely from atheists and secularists. The sheer volume of attention brought to her cause online led to breathless “mainstream” media coverage, which in turn brought the heat of the world’s gaze upon Sudan, who eventually released her. She is no agitator. She didn’t have a blasphemous blog or tweet religious satire. She, simply and quietly, refused to violate her conscience, and the online world turned up the volume on her behalf.

Religious belief, whatever good can be ascribed to it, nearly always brings with it the expectation of conformity of thought and deed, lest one earn the wrath of the creator of the universe. The Internet is, among other things, an engine for sifting, parsing, and critiquing information and opinion. The collision of these two phenomena in this early part of the 21st century is one whose shockwaves will be felt for generations to come.

Editors’ NoteThis article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Patheos community here


You can learn much more about blasphemy laws and the fight for free expression at CFI’s Campaign for Free Expression.

To Save Us From the Police, It’s Cameras All the Way Down

In order to bring more justice into the American criminal justice system, we may all need to point cameras at each other.

That’s where a lot of the conversation is going in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting, which of course led to the days-long crisis in Ferguson, Missouri. The thinking goes that if police officers are all equipped with cameras that record every interaction with civilians, we may actually get better results from both ends of those interactions.

In a report by German Lopez at Vox we get an idea of what the aim of police body cameras woud be:

The devices are small cameras that can be attached to a police officer’s uniform or sunglasses or worn as a headset. Such a camera could have fully captured the entire confrontation between Brown, an 18-year-old black man who was unarmed at the time of the shooting, and Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson.

But without the cameras, the public is left with conflicting accounts from police and eyewitnesses about what, exactly, happened.

Jay Stanley of the ACLU told Vox why that organization is backing the idea:

[Cameras] have the potential to be a win-win situation. A lot of departments are finding that for every time they’re used to record an abusive officer, there are other times where they save an officer from a false accusation of abuse or unprofessional behavior.

It’s undeniable that this, in the abstract, would be invaluable. Imagine the grief, effort, time, and expense saved when what transpires between police and civilians were reliably recorded.

Communities that have already adopted this kind of thing have reported encouraging results, with fewer complaints filed against police and the police themselves using less force. The New York Times last year quoted one such police chief as saying:

When you put a camera on a police officer, they tend to behave a little better, follow the rules a little better … And if a citizen knows the officer is wearing a camera, chances are the citizen will behave a little better.

Your privacy-concern flags should be going up at this point, and for good reason. The most obvious problem is determining exactly who controls whether that camera is on or off. From my reading it seems the only solution is making it the rule that they must be recording with all interactions, but I’m not sure how you prove that this is done reliably. One might consider controlling the cameras remotely, so that the officer can’t choose when the camera goes off, but what if the officer needs to go to the bathroom, or call their spouse about a private matter? Do they need to request the camera be turned off? And then how do we know they are requesting it be turned off for legitimate reasons?*

We don’t. And this is where we get to an even more interesting idea, this one from Mike Elgan, here writing at Computerworld, in which he, too, advocates for cameras recording every police-civilian interaction, but he wants the cameras to be pointed in the other direction. “Shouldn’t recording your own police interrogation be a constitutionally protected right, like the right to an attorney?” he asks.

Elgan doesn’t limit his thesis to interactions with police, also advocating for the free recording of politicians and lobbyists, children and caregivers, and others. Here’s what he has to say about police encounters:

It should be perfectly legal to openly videotape the entire conversation, as well as when we’re questioned or interrogated. They’ve got a dash cam or interrogation room camera pointed at us. We should have one pointed at them, too. (The knowledge that such cameras are allowed might prevent abuse…)

The principle he invokes is a compelling one, that as the surveillance state grows (inexorably?) in its breadth and power, we as individuals should claim that power for ourselves as well. Accountability for our actions goes both ways, as those who make the rules and enforce the rules also have to follow them. A civilian surveillance state, a surveillance grassroots if you will, could theoretically create the balance that many worry about when it’s only the police who have control of the cameras. And now this is especially feasible since the technology readily exists for us to do so. You probably have a device more than capable of recording video or audio of a conversation with anyone within your grasp right now.

But to take a step back, here’s Jonathan Coppage at The American Conservative worries about what good cops might lose if they go around “dressed as Google Glassholes”:

One only has to glance in the window of a local patrol car to see the sprawling array of screens, keyboards, and communication devices designed to link the officer to all the information they could need. The problem being, of course, that the most important information the common cop needs still can’t be pulled up within his car: the knowledge gained from building relationships with those in the community he patrols.

That relationship-building is a core component of a police officer’s mission … [and] requires a certain amount of discretion, getting to know a neighborhood’s warts as well as its virtues. The conversations that give an officer an accurate picture of the seedy but not destructive side of his citizens’ lives could very well be more difficult or awkward should the policeman’s sunglasses be rolling film.

It’s clearly dicey. And despite what seems like the utter omnipresence of smartphones, we can’t presume everyone can have one easily at hand, or to have the wherewithal to start recording extremely stressful and often hostile confrontations. But as a tool, mutual surveillance might still be extremely useful for keeping the peace and encouraging cooler heads in tough spots. After all, the officer may only need suspect he’s being recorded for some pressure to be released.

Update 8/27/14: Missouri’s Sen. Claire McCaskill has just said that she believes all police officers, nationwide, should be required to wear cameras, though she has not introduced legislation.

*The public radio program On the Media has a great piece on cameras in interrogation rooms that complements this topic very well, where the question of who gets to turn the camera off is also raised.