I finally watched Spider-Man: Homecoming the other day, which I think was the only Marvel movie I hadn’t already seen.
For those of you who don’t know, we actually meet the latest iteration of Spider-Man in Captain America: Civil War (which came out before Spider-Man: Homecoming). I had been reluctant to watch that one because I really don’t like when friends turn against one another and then all the other friends have to choose sides. Remember Toy Story? The original one? I was always so stressed out watching that as a kid. I couldn’t handle the jealousy. I would always watch the movie anxiously awaiting the ending where Woody and Buzz would make up and co-exist with the other toys and Andy.
I just wanted them to all be friends.
Anyway, in Civil War, Iron Man recruits Spider-Man from his apartment in Queens to help him fight Captain America over disagreements surrounding the Sokovia Accords (long story). So, teenage Peter Parker goes to Berlin for the battle, swoops in, and steals Captain America’s shield with his web. Not a bad entrance.
In their first verbal interaction, Captain America asks Spider-Man what Iron Man had said about him. Peter’s response:
“That you think you’re right. But you’re wrong. That makes you dangerous.”
Here’s the problem with that, though. There isn’t always an obvious right or wrong. Yes, it would be very nice if all bad guys had a tell-tale identifier, like a red skull or a zealous obsession with [fill in the blank], but that never happens in real life. The conflict in Civil War is much more representative of something we might actually have to face one day.
After all, sometimes what’s right for me might be wrong for you, and vice versa. Sometimes one thing isn’t right or wrong at all, and it’s all just a matter of opinion.
Either way, we’re all doing and fighting for what we think is right, whoever or whatever we think it’s right for. That is, unless you’re actively just trying to thwart something for someone else even though you know it’s wrong. In that case, you’re just a bad guy.
That “doing and fighting” is driven by a need to act, because after a while, it’s hard to sit by and not act. There’s only so much people can witness or tolerate before they, at the very least, speak out about something.
Jayar Jackson from The Young Turks said it the other day (speaking regarding the recent midterm elections):
“We have faith in like-minded voters…but they also don’t pay attention to things that happen right in front of them because, ‘It doesn’t really affect me. I wish you guys luck – black and brown folks, Muslims, whoever else is discriminated against – It’ll come around, right?’ They’re still not fully invested…’Yeah, this is a big deal, but it’ll take care of itself, right? Everyone sees how bad it is, right? I don’t have to do anything yet, do I? Because that’s a lot of work.’”
He has a point. It’s hard to go out of your way to speak or act on behalf of something that doesn’t completely affect you or your loved ones. That momentum is hard to maintain.
But, in the words of the young, idealistic, and newly powerful Peter Parker/Spider-Man,
“When you can do the things that I can, but you don’t, and then the bad things happen – they happen because of you.”
In a perfect world, all of our greatest talents would be put to the greatest possible use, because only then are we each being utilized in the way that would most benefit the world. A creative mind is wasted in a cubicle crunching numbers from 9-5, and a philanthropic heart wouldn’t be able to thrive as say, a social media manager.
We were each born with a unique set of traits, skills, and talents, and as we grow and experience the world, we develop and nurture additional ones. If you can play the violin beautifully, but no one ever hears it, what’s the point?
Of course, we can’t all be pop stars because we all think we sound just like Brian McKnight, but ideally, we’d identify our best offerings to society and then find a way to deliver it.
The 2018 Midterms
A recurring theme throughout the 2018 midterm elections was the idea of protecting the disenfranchised, standing up for those who could not effectively do so for themselves, and coming together against a common enemy (like climate change or authoritarianism, for example).
Yet, while the notion of sticking up for the little guy generally sounds good to people, it became highly contested and problematic. The argument that would inevitably crop up against it time and time again was something along the lines of,
“If they have X, then I don’t get to have Y.”
First of all, not everything is a zero-sum game. Sometimes X and Y can coexist with one another. Second of all, even if sacrifice has to be made somewhere for the sake of balance, equality, or a more sustainable future, do you really need Y, or do you at least need as much of it as you’re currently consuming? For instance, do you really need a 16oz filet, or could you make do with an 8oz and fill the rest of your plate up with some fiber that I can only imagine your digestive tract is starving for?
I know, I know. Compromise is not in line with the American dream of abundance to the point of excess and wastefulness.
With all of that, along with the rise of self-proclaimed Democratic Socialists, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a recurring conversation that came up during the midterm debates had to do with the difference between socialism and capitalism.
The United States has often equated socialism with communism, leading many Americans to look at it as being maybe more negative than it actually is. In Texas, I saw an airplane flying with overhead carrying an anti-Beto O’Rourke sign saying,
“BECAUSE SOCIALISM SUCKS.”
Socialism would contradict and infringe on our largely capitalistic society, so generally, the government is fine with people demonizing socialism.
That said, the United States runs various social, or welfare, programs already (MedicAid, CHIP, SNAP, etc.). These programs can sometimes be controversial when people refer to them as “entitlement” programs, even though they each have their own eligibility requirements and application processes. By design, each program has its own flaws, but the general idea for them is that they’re there to help lift you up when you fall on hard times. They’re not intended to incentivize you to keep having children without working and contributing back to society. However, with so many loopholes and ways to abuse the system built into it, it’s tempting for people to do just that.
This gets into questions about what constitutes a livable minimum wage. Very, very briefly, sometimes it’s easier for people to stay on welfare programs because they receive more money than they would if they worked full-time at a job paying minimum wage.
We’re not entirely an “every man for himself” nation. While these programs are not without issues, I’d venture that most would agree that some form of socialism is overall beneficial to the people within a country.
That is, if it’s done properly. Completely idealized societies are just sociological and economic theories that are not practiced 100%. Today, some form of socialism is seen in varying degrees in several countries around the world, notably Finland, Canada, and New Zealand. However, when extensive socialism is implemented by humans, who are fallible and each driven by their own individual and often conflicting motivators, problems inevitably emerge.
What you end up with is a system that works for some but not all. The degree that it does not work for some determines the degree of eventual uprising against it.
I used the word “uprising,” but I don’t mean anarchy and lawlessness will ensue. Instead, you’ll see a lot of what we’re seeing today – protests, strikes, unionization, social media campaigns to raise awareness for the plight of those victimized by a social program or by the lack of one, etc. You’ll see calls for things like “free” university education and universal healthcare, for example, which is often equated with socialized healthcare even though they’re not quite the same thing. Then you’ll find people who argue that something like socialized medicine would overburden the healthcare system, which would result in more access to care for more people, but the quality of the care would suffer.
But that’s a whole other topic.
It comes down to government control.
Doesn’t it always?
In capitalistic societies, the people own and operate the means of production, and the more people work and contribute, the more reward they’ll receive. The markets more or less regulate themselves through means of competition, but there is always the threat of a dwindling middle class. There is little government control.
You know the 1%? They exist as a result of capitalism. In the private sector, the means of production are controlled by a few (the 1%), with the rest of the population working for them, earning wages that they are free to spend as they wish. The idea is that the harder they work, the better the company does. However, what the company does with its increased profits are up to those in charge. For example, just because Apple is one of the richest companies in the world, it doesn’t necessarily mean that its money trickles all the way down to its retail employees. The C-suite at Apple might decide that the money would be better allocated to R&D, corporate raises and perks, infrastructure upgrades, etc.
That said, capitalism falls in line with the American Dream – if you work really, really hard and smartly, you have the opportunity to advance in society and status.
Alternatively, in socialistic societies, workers earn wages, but the government owns and operates the means of production. Equality is favored over individual advancement and there is little incentive for people to produce more than they need to.
According to the Russian revolutionary, Vladimir Lenin, socialism is a stepping stone on the way to communism, which is a system of government that eliminates social classes. With communism, the people collectively own all means of production, each benefiting from communal institutions and each contributing to society for the sake of the greater good, forsaking personal or societal ambition and advancement.
Communism is attractive to the poor because it ensures they will have enough to live off of – but just barely. For this reason, communism often results in poverty, low production, and limited innovation. Furthermore, many communistic societies emerge as the result of an uprising against the existing government. When the 99% decides they’re tired of working hard to line someone else’s pockets while they’re still struggling to make rent, they revolt.
Back to the healthcare example…
It becomes a question of whether or not medicine should be privatized, which would increase competition leading to better and ultimately more affordable care, or government-operated, which would mean tax-payer funding for office visits and medical supplies and increased government oversight. Government-run programs don’t always run effectively because the people in charge are not always the most qualified to be making decisions.
Think of it this way. Have you ever had a boss who didn’t quite understand the work you did? They don’t know what you do for the company or how you do it. They don’t understand the everyday ins-and-outs of your job – what helps you work better, what makes your job more difficult, or where work can get done more efficiently than it already is. They may not even know your own personal background and what makes you qualified for that particular job. With all of that gray area between you and your boss, they’re still the one making decisions, enacting protocols and policies, and determining workflows that will have major impacts on your work. This particular argument against socialized medicine is like that but on a much, much larger scale.
Where does that leave us?
To quote Mark from the Broadway show, Rent,
“The opposite of war isn’t peace – it’s creation.”
There have been tomes written about the concepts that I’ve barely scratched the surface of here. There are serious and considerable criticisms for each of these forms of government and society that are more than worth looking into. To be clear, I’m not saying we should be a socialistic society, nor am I championing capitalism. I am saying that we should stop using words like “socialism” and “communism” without context and without fully understanding the actual meanings.
For instance, Trump likes to say that if we adopt more social programs, we’ll end up like Venezuela. It’s quite an irrational leap from our current situation to that of Venezuela’s, though. What Trump is doing is creating a hyperbolic and negative association with a word and concept that already is largely misunderstood. It’s fear-mongering.
As Mark was saying, though, as long as we’re all contributing to society in whichever way we think best utilizes our specific skills set while offering the greatest value to the people and institutions around us, we’ll thrive. Obviously easier said than done, but it starts with a sense of responsibility – responsibility towards our personal function within our communities, responsibility to our neighbors, and responsibility to ourselves.
As we grow, our value grows. When our value is increased, we elevate those things we are a part of.
Peter Parker got a huge upgrade when he was bitten by that spider. After reassessing his value offering to New York City, he understood that he could – and should – do more.
And he did. Thanks, Spider-Man.