Superhero comic book universes (popularly associated with DC and Marvel) have two key advantages over reality: reboots (returning to a hero’s origin and starting again—such as Frank Miller’s reboot of Batman in the mid-1980s and the film rebootings of Spider-Man and X-Men over the past 15 years or so) and alternate universes/realities.
The re-imagining of Spider-Man as bi-racial and Captain America as black are powerful contributions to the superhero genre of comic books—in part for the messages about race and in part because superhero comics have had lingering flaws in terms of race and gender since their beginnings in the 1930s and 1940s.
The irony of these examples is that they represent the power of symbolism in the context of the imaginary commenting on reality.
In reality, however, we are trapped in a mostly linear existence, one that we attempt to qualify with “history repeats itself” or “those who ignore history are doomed to repeating the failures.”
Human advancements are incremental and rarely universal; some women in some places, for example, have achieved some level of equality with men, while many women remain prisoners of horrific misogyny and gruesome social oppression and abuse.
One lesson of the real world, then, may be that we must not allow the pursuit of perfect to keep us from clinging to something, something better, something creeping toward the ideal.
In a country that remains scarred by the inequity of racism, those people in the U.S. who advocate that the election of Barack Obama as the first bi-racial and self-identifying black man is an important symbolic moment in the nation are, I think, entirely justified—notably if we disassociate Obama’s status as president from his policies.
I struggle, however, with that disassociation—notably in terms of military actions/policy and education policy.
Obama’s education policy has continued a failed agenda begun under George W. Bush (an idealized bi-partisan agenda buoyed by the “bi-partisan” instead of credible educational research or authority), and then increased the very worst aspects of that legacy. Obama has now promised that those failures will last past his tenure:
The Obama administration is inviting states to apply to renew their waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act. And according to guidance issued Thursday, these renewed waivers could last all the way through the 2018-2019 school year — locking down some of President Barack Obama’s education policy changes well into the next presidency.
Obama the symbol is undeniably important; Obama as an administration and set of educational policies is a baffling disaster for public education, the teaching profession, and (worst of all) students, specifically impoverished children and children of color.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan embodies the failed discourse and punitive policies that are indistinguishable from W. Bush’s administration except under Obama, everything that is wrong with the policy has been increased: a greater commitment to standards, more testing, expanded blame placed on teachers, expanded shifting of public to private interests and mechanisms.
Under Obama, the U.S. has continued a scorched-earth policy in warmongering (smart bombs, drones) and in public education policy (school closings, teacher firings).
There is no symbolism there we can recover—only a harsh reality of failure and a legacy we can do without.
The Phenomenon of Obama and the Agenda for Education: Can Hope Audaciously Trump Neoliberalism? (IAP, 2011) — soon to be reissued and revised.