Liberalism vs Identity Politics In “X-Men: First Class”

Posted in Society and Culture by Karthick RM on July 13, 2011

I had to watch X-men: First Class. It was high priority on my list of to-do things in Chennai once I landed here from Delhi. Since I had watched all the other X-men movies, I was intent on seeing this one considering that it was supposed to explain the origins of some of the main characters.

The politics of the movie aside, it was good entertainment and I will suggest it to superhero movie buffs. The director Matthew Vaughn was blessed with a great cast. While James McAvoy as Charles Xavier gave a good performance, he was dwarfed by the towering Michael Fassbender who played Erik Lensherr/Magneto. Fassbender seemed to be at ease with expressions of rage, pain, sadness and above all, loss, probably the toughest of emotions to enact unless genuinely felt. Veteran artist Kevin Bacon played the role of arch villain Sebastian Shaw with élan. And the other characters acted their roles pretty well too.

For those who are beginners to X-men, here’s the deal. There are humans and mutants and tensions are brewing between them. Amongst mutants, there are ‘good’ mutants led by Charles Xavier alias Prof. X and his band of X-men, who believe that it is possible for mutants and humans to live together in peace and harmony. The ‘bad’ mutants, led by Erik Lensherr alias Magneto, believe that this argument is a farce, that humans will always persecute mutants owing to their fears and prejudices, and that the only way for mutants to survive would be to overthrow human rule by force. While the humans in general are suspicious of the mutants and there are some among them who seek to use these sentiments to the detriment of the mutants, there are the good humans too. So, the fight is basically between the good side of the mutants and humans against the bigots of both sides in order to usher in an era of multiculturalism and tolerance – the American way. That’s the theme of the earlier X-men movies in brief.

Now to the politics of this particular movie. In the entire series, X-men: First Class had, in my view, stronger political tones than its predecessors. The clash between liberalism and identity politics, which was an underlying theme in the earlier movies, came out much clearer in this one. Charles Xavier leads the liberal camp. Accordingly, he has the power to read and manipulate the minds of people – as liberals think they can. (Had he been a radical, he would have been a Leninist. But that’s another story!) Despite having grown in opulence, he thinks he can authentically feel the pain of others, as he tells Lensherr. He conducts personality development classes for fellow mutants so that they can be… ‘better’ mutants, or mutants who will be liked better by human beings (Vaguely remember a liberal Tamil politician making a statement that if the Sinhalese hated the Tamils, it is our responsibility to make them love us. Oh Xavier!). The priority is clear here. He recognizes the difference of the mutants and its corresponding discrimination by the humans. But he does not want to emphasize on them. He is the multiculturalist who believes in mutual tolerance and coexistence. He personifies the ‘American Dream’ and its accompanying drama. He is the ‘home nigger’ of Malcolm X, the conformist, the mutant who tries to be more human than humans themselves. The director favours him obviously. Necessary for the reel triumph of liberalism.

The ideologues: Xavier (McAvoy) and Lensherr (Fassbender)

I, on the other hand, the viewer with my freedom of interpretation and reading into signs, am predisposed to supporting Erik Lensherr. A Polish inmate of Nazi camps as a young boy, he realized his powers under brutal conditions. He controls metals and electro-magnetic fields and, as if living up to his name, is indeed an magnetic personality on screen (maybe the director’s hint at how radical identitarianism attracts hard things and people and is eventually dangerous). He witnessed the execution of his mother by Shaw, another mutant who worked for Nazis, and his powers developed further under Shaw’s torturous manipulations. Here is the monster created by greater monsters. Xavier wants Lensherr to understand that though the grievances of the persecuted may be legitimate, there are boundaries they cannot cross. Of course, who devises the frames of these boundaries is a question that Xavier does not deeply consider.

Hunted down for being different, yet bold enough to assert his difference, Magneto is the Tamil ‘separatist’ in Sri Lanka, the Kurdish ‘secessionist’ in Turkey, the ‘violent’ Dalit-Bahujan in India. He is fully conscious of his identity and chooses to assert it, to wield it as a weapon, knowing well that a refusal to do so would mean submission to or collaboration with the powers that be. He also contests that humans would never be able to grasp or genuinely empathize with the ‘mutant problem’ and that the only solution lies in the struggle of the mutants themselves. Is it so? An example: the spontaneous feeling of rage and pain that a Tamil patriot experiences over the atrocities committed on her kind in Sri Lanka can never be replaced or represented by an occasional pamphlet or words of denunciation from a Liberal/Marxist/whatever in, lets say, New Delhi. This not to say that solidarity is not required for identity based resistances, but these are only of strategic value. For such politics to translate into radical action, the essential requirement is for the actors to bond on the basis of an identity and to recognize it as what Everett Hughes calls the “master status”, that is, the identity that takes priority over other identities. For me to be a genuine actor in, lets say, a backward caste resistance, I need to identify myself as a backward caste primarily. Acceptance of identity. Assertion of identity. Action on the basis of identity. (A question can arise: Can a brahmin lead an anti-brahminical movement? I would argue that he can support it but the leadership must be in the hands of those affected by brahminism – following Ambedkar’s, Periyar’s and Lensherr’s case for self-representation at all times). Lensherr’s brief advice to Mystique, that we need to accept ourselves if we want society to accept us, sends out a far more powerful message than any of Xavier’s therapy sessions in the movie. As Nietzsche would say, “you must become who you are”.

After Magneto, Mystique is probably the most interesting character in the movie. With the power to change appearances, she has the ability, or rather, the option to appear as a ‘normal human’ – and so she chooses to be for most parts of the movie till she is fully convinced of the force of Magneto’s arguments. In Sartrean terms, she is initially the inauthentic mutant, always striving to pass off as ‘one of them’, but never fully able to do so. Perpetually caught in an ethical dilemma, she personifies what we call ‘identity crisis’. She is the oxymoronic ‘Sri Lankan Tamil’ of Colombo, an elite, a creature trying to underplay the latter part, the part that really matters, of her identity and attempting to live with the herd, a darling child of Sinhala liberals and of collaborator-intellectuals like Ahilan Kadirgamar. She is the Kurd in Istanbul who would, in public, accept that Turkey consists of Turks alone and that she is one of them while wondering deep inside whether such is the case. She is the Dalit in Delhi University who will avoid eating non-veg so as to not offend the sentiments of her brahmin roommate, who will never disclose her caste identity and who shies away during debates on reservations for fear of being identified.

Mystique: As she is

Unable to be true to any side by virtue of her birth and by matter of her choice, her existence is traumatic. With the well-timed advice of Magneto she confronts reality as it is. And when she realizes what she is, she becomes who she is. A mutant, an aberration to the ‘normal’ but a beauty to those with the perspective. So when she proclaims ‘Mutant and Proud’ towards the end of the movie, one is compelled to join with her saying ‘Tamil and Proud’, ‘Kurd and Proud’, ‘Dalit and Proud’. For broken women and men, pride in what they are, what they should become, is the first emotion that needs to be kindled if at all a liberatory praxis on the basis of identity is to be envisaged.

Magneto: Mutant Power

The ethical argument between Xavier and Magneto at the climax is highly relevant for our times. Magneto, who manages to prevent the annihilation of the mutants – including Xavier – by weapons deployed by humans, decides to use his powers to wipe off the humans who launched the attack. Xavier’s argument against this decision is that the men who initiated the attack were “just following orders” but otherwise were “good, honest, innocent men”. Really now? To those who have watched the Channel 4 video on Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields I ask, do we believe that the men who dropped bombs on hospitals in Tamil areas, who shot children at point blank range were “good, honest, innocent men”? Do we presume that the Sinhala army men who were vividly describing the naked bodies of Tamil women whom they had sexually abused and executed with words that would make a pornographer blush were “just following orders”? If the answer is affirmative, let us assume that they were indeed “just following orders” of their superiors… that they may have been “good” fathers to their children, “honest” citizens to their country… but innocent? Well, in the perspective of the Tamils who suffered, Magneto’s rejoinder seems apt – “I’ve been at the mercy of men just following orders… Never again!” – and his war begins from that moment. I am sure that the Tamil journalist Isaipriya, who also was at the mercy of such men, who was raped, mutilated and murdered by these humans, would agree with him too.

The ‘mutant problem’ of X-men and the polar opposite views of Xavier and Magneto not just convey arguments on liberalism and identity politics, they also indicate that choices are to be made. The Tamil ‘mutant’ in Sri Lanka must choose living as a slave, or collaborating, or fighting for her freedom. The Kurdish ‘mutant’ must forego his identity or struggle to secure a land where his kind can exist as they are. The Dalit-Bahujan ‘mutants’ must choose becoming invisible, or fighting for their rights by themselves, or handing over the leadership of their struggle to those will act in their name but will never be one of them. The choice is ours to make. We can assert our identity and fight for our right to be different and to secede from the rest or we can embrace our oppressor communities and live under their shadow. I have made my choice.

What about you, fellow mutant?

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