Dystopian fiction and radical politics


Monday, November 5, 2018

Supergirl: Man of Steel

The CW's Supergirl has taken a dystopian turn this season, in an admirable attempt to say something meaningful about America's current tilt toward xenophobia.

Unfortunately, it's a bit of a mess, and it reinforces some pernicious myths about extremism.

In a recent episode, "Man of Steel," the show's writers tried to flesh out a major villain for the season, Ben Lockwood, aka Agent Liberty, an anti-extraterrestrial-alien extremist, or an anti-immigrant Earth Firster. The episode hits you over the head with the metaphor, which is fine, except that people might think this is what radicalization actually looks like.

All of the problems below are fairly common to fictional stories about terrorism and extremism, and they are understandable, given the need to tell a dramatic story with an interesting villain. But particularly now, as America is grappling with a wave of real-life xenophobic radicalization, it's important to understand where fiction fails.

"Man of Steel" perpetuates three major myths about radicalization, all of which serve to legitimize extremism in an effort to humanize its villain.

MYTH ONE: The True Grievance 

It's common knowledge that extremists have grievances. What is less well-understood is whether those grievances are legitimate. While some extremists are, in fact, radicalized by genuine grievances, it's also very common (particularly in the xenophobic style) for those grievances to be exaggerated at best, and imagined at worst.

Not so Ben Lockwood! His grievances are right out there and real. His house was burned down and his family nearly killed by aliens! His company was put out of business by aliens! Unlike most extremists, he has been directly negatively impacted by aliens.

These events are writ large in part because it would be a pretty boring story if Lockwood was radicalized by memes on Twitter, but nevertheless, it distorts the narrative. This is a common problem in most depictions of terrorism, of course, most recently seen in Amazon's Jack Ryan series. Fictional terrorist villains are forged in fire, rather than being, say, rich kids with too much time on their hands.

MYTH TWO: The Elites Don't Care

Catco Editor-in-Chief James Olsen meets with Lockwood (because "he always has times for subscribers," which is actually the least realistic thing in this episode). Lockwood wants Olsen to do a story about the impact of aliens on ordinary people. Olsen is completely tepid about a story that any real-world newspaper would totally do, and then he tips his hand at the end by revealing that alien-loving Lena Luthor now owns Catco. Any extremist narrative worth its salt warns that the elites are working with the out-group and oblivious or even hostile to the extremists' in-group. It's true in this case! Both Lena and Olsen really are aligned with the aliens, and Olsen is really indifferent to how current events are affecting the in-group. Lena is seen to be similarly indifferent in various scenes, although she eventually makes a day-late-dollar-short effort to do lip service to Lockwood's problems.

MYTH THREE: The Otherness of the Other

This is a perennial problem when using extraterrestrials as an allegory for human conflict, and one reason I really don't like it when creators do this.

Extremists believe that their out-groups -- whether religious, racial or national -- are not really human. Sometimes they see out-group members as less than human, akin to animals, sometimes they see them as more than human, usually in demonic terms, as in the case of Christian Identity, whose adherents believe non-whites are literally descended from Satan. Because their enemies are not fully human, the extremists feel justified in opposing them, often with violence.

But aliens really aren't human! It's hard to argue with the fact that bullets bounce off of Supergirl or that aliens with super-strength can do heavy labor more efficiently than humans. Extremists create a narrative that out-group enemies are not human, but it's not true. Aliens are really, incontrovertibly different and, in the world of superheroes, they are usually physically or even mentally superior to humans. Klingons really are warriors! Cardassians are devious! Wookies are really strong! Predators really are violent predators! Protomolecules are... well, it's kind of hard to say, but they're definitely different.

While the more thoughtful works peel back these assumptions a bit (as Star Trek sometimes does with Klingons, and sometimes really fails to do), fictional depictions of aliens tend to paint with a broad brush that validates stereotyping of the other. That doesn't mean it's OK for characters in these stories to hate aliens, but when you use aliens as an allegory for racism or xenophobia, you reinforce the idea that the subject of the allegory (in this case, immigrants and refugees) really is different from the human in-group.

All of this might be seen as nitpicky and unfair, and maybe it is. No one wants to watch a story whose archvillain's backstory is that he was an ordinary middle-class kid who spent too much time on 4chan. But these misconceptions undercut the good intentions of shows like Supergirl, and the claims to authenticity made by shows like Jack Ryan.

It's more challenging to create stories that deal with extremism as it exists in the real world, but it's certainly possible. For instance, It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis captures a lot of dynamics about how society falls into extremism and conveys less kinetic concepts like feelings of helplessness through superior craft. The Expanse does a pretty good job with these issues, by incorporating terrorism, extremism and identity politics without necessarily making them the main focus of the story. For other types of shows, and Supergirl is definitely one of those types, the challenge is much greater. It's worth undertaking, perhaps, but some nuance and authenticity would make the allegory more effective.

A lot of people, both in and out of the extremism studies and practitioner communities, feel like radicalization is a process that can be explained intuitively, but intuitive explanations of extremism are often wrong. If you want to use art to send a message about extremism and its causes, it's probably a good idea to push past these seemingly obvious tropes in search of something deeper.




Books/short stories read: 95

Films and TV series watched: 124


The Turner Diaries, the infamous racist dystopian novel by neo-Nazi William Luther Pierce, has inspired more than 200 murders since its publication in 1978, including the single deadliest act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history, the Oklahoma City bombing.

The book is arguably the most important single work of white nationalist propaganda in the English language, but it is not a singular artifact. The Turner Diaries is part of a genre of racist dystopian propaganda dating back to the U.S. Civil War. A new paper from J.M. Berger documents the books that directly and indirectly inspired Turner and examine the extensive violence that the novel has inspired.



Deliver Us From Dystopia

When? A Prophetical Novel of the Very Near Future

The Turner Diaries on PBS American Experience

Logan's Run

Dystopian Robo-Call

The Spook Who Sat by the Door

The Turner Legacy

Racism and Radiophones

The Unparalleled Invasion

The John Franklin Letters


J.M. Berger is an author, consultant and analyst studying extremism. He is an associate fellow with the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism -- The Hague and a fellow with George Washington University's Program on Extremism. For more about Berger, click here.


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