Academic vigilantes and superheroes

Vol. 4, No. 3 (Spring 2023)
Brian Hotson, Editor, CWCR/RCCR

“Only those safe from fascism and its practices are likely to think that there might be a benefit in exchanging ideas with fascists.” – Aleksandar Hemon, Fascism is Not an Idea to Be Debated, It’s a Set of Actions to Fight

IWCA’s theme for their 2023 conference is Embracing the Multi-Verse, a theme taken up by the CWCA/ACCR’s 2019 conference The Writing Centre Multiverse. The 2019 conference’s theoretical basis was Marshall, Hayashi, and Yeung’s Negotiating the Multi in Multilingualism and Multiliteracies (2012). The CWCA/ACCR’s call for proposals states that the authors’ study’s

findings demonstrate how languages, literacies, modalities, disciplines, and genres inform and shape student writing practices in multiple and overlapping ways, particularly in the context of the neoliberal ‘multiversity.’ Writing centres are working in a terrestrial “multiverse” with parallel, sometimes overlapping, spaces of possibility. (CWCA/ACCR, 2019)

IWCA’s Embracing the Multi-Verse takes a similar approach, quoting the 2019 conference’s welcome letter from CWCA/ACCR conference organizers, Heather Fitzgerald and Holly Salmon: “The multiplicity in our Writing Centre work—in our spaces, our positions, the communities we serve, the technologies we work through and with, and, most importantly, in our possibilities—is perhaps the only constant across our various contexts.” In quoting Fitzgerald and Salmon, IWCA’s CFP creates its position: “For too long, our writing centers have been seemingly monolithic, monolingual, monocultural; we want this call to deconstruct our singularity and create space for a multiplicity of voices.” For IWCA’s conference, the CFP asks presenters, “Inspiration for these presentations might come from Kelin Hull and Corey Petit (2021), Danielle Pierce and ‘Aolani Robinson (2021), Sarah Blazer and Brian Fallon (2020), Sara Alvarez (2019), Eric Camarillo (2019), Laura Greenfield (2019), Virginia Zavala (2019), Neisha-Anne Green (2018), Anibal Quijano (2014), and Katherine Walsh (2005)” (IWCA, 2023).

Spider-people and academic vigilantes

Unfortunately, IWCA’s description of its multiverse and its inhabitants is problematic. The CFP asks us to both enter/create a multiverse and to “imagine [ourselves] as spider-people,” in the likeness of Spiderman, invoking tropes of the superhero. The CFP asks attendees to imagine themselves as “academic vigilantes” (IWCA, 2023), which the Oxford Reference Dictionary defines as a “self-appointed group of citizens who undertake law enforcement in their community without legal authority, typically because the legal agencies are thought to be inadequate” (Oxford Reference, 2023). This kind of ​vigilantism, “the extralegal prevention, investigation, or punishment of offenses” (Bateson, 2020, p. 946), the U.S. Department of Justice defines “as acts of coercion in violation of societal limits but intended to defend the prevailing distribution of values and resources from some form of attack or subversion” (Sederberg, 1976). It’s further described,

The Vigilante President, 2019

Because vigilantism’s fundamental objective is the desire to preserve social stability in the face of innovative behavior, it tries to restrict the range of behavior as much as possible. The vigilante-prone personality can be described as having a positive orientation to power, a strong need to order, a fear of impulsiveness, and anti-introspectiveness. Thus, vigilantes engage in violence in order to stabilize the range of acceptable behavior. (Sederberg, 1976)

Richard Maxwell Brown writes of the long and violent history of American vigilantism in, Strain of Violence : Historical Studies of American Violence and Vigilantism (1975),

…vigilante movements [in the U.S.] have usually been led by the element of the local community with the greatest stake in the social status quo upheld by vigilantism: the elite group of leading businessman, planters, and professionals…With the coalition of elite leadership and middle- and lower-class deeds embodied in vigilantism, the typical vigilante movement was a paradigm of the broader local community with its upper, middle, and lower social strata. (p. 93)

American vigilantism is used by the wealthy and conservative to maintain social order, mostly for economic gain. Brown shows how there were vigilante “movements” within U.S. history, with the first movement beginning in 1767 with “as many as 500” of these movements to 1909. It is a phenomena that is particularly American: “American vigilantism is indigenous…European expansion in other areas of the world has similarly failed to produce anything like the American vigilante tradition” (p. 96). He describes American vigilantism as a “violent sanctification of the deeply cherished values of life and property” (97).

David Duke patrols the California-Mexico border in a vehicle marked, “Klan Border Watch” in 1977, (Strickland, 2022, February 17)

Vigilante groups were popular in the US, and were organized in “command or military fashion and usually had a constitution, articles a manifesto to which the members would subscribe” to provide a quasi-legal cover (p. 109). Brown concluded in 1975 that in U.S. history, there were “a round total of 6000” deaths due to vigilante groups, which include victims of the Klu Klux Klan (p. 110), though lynching of African Americans continues (See Vakil, 2020, July 10; Starr, August 8). From Brown’s and others accounting of the depths of American vigilantism in the U.S. from its founding, it’s not surprising that it continues in the present.

Current state-sponsored American vigilantism in the U.S. includes the government of Texas’ Operation Lone Star, criticized by in Human Rights Watch. The operation created vigilante Border Protection Units focusing on immigrants along the U.S.-Mexico border,

“Operation Lone Star and Texas’ new immigration proposals are extreme among states in the US and among countries in the world,” said Bob Libal, consultant to Human Rights Watch based in Texas. “Giving Texas police power to vigilantes is dangerous.” (Human Rights Watch, 2023, March 29).

Also in Texas, an abortion-ban law relies on American vigilantism, which “authorizes private citizens to enforce the ban by suing those who perform abortions and anyone who aids or abets an abortion” (Coyle, 2021).

A global history of vigilantism reveals its race-based politics, with its connection to racial violence, especially lynching (Belew, 2014; Blee & Latif, 2019; Jacobs, Malone, & Iles, 2016; Manning, 2020; Sundquist, 2022), white nationalism (Burke, 2016; Jokic, 2022; Rubin, 2012, November 22; Crockford, 2022; Ralph-Morrow, 2019), and white vigilante violence (Burke, 2016; Cunneen, & Russell, 2020; Kleinfeld, 2021; Murray, 1989). In the comics, superhero-as-vigilante is a baked-in trope (Harn, 2022, January 28; , 2022, March 2; Harth, 2022, July 5).

Der ubermensch

The trope of the vigilante superhero, which is described in IWCA’s CFP as “potentially tiresome” in quoting a Variety article, is, in fact, dangerous. Considering the real rise of fascism in the U.S. (Stanley, 2021, December 22; Barlow, 2022, February 11) and its comic book superhero invocation (Berlatsky, 2022, 15 December; Bender & Haberman, 2022, December 22), any equivalency to writing centre work should be a non-starter. In semiotician and novelist Umberto Eco’s Ur-Fascismi (1995), who spent “two of my early years among the SS, Fascists, Republicans, and partisans shooting at one another,” said that “the fascist game can be played in many forms, and the name of the game does not change” (1995, June 22). In Ur-Fascism, Eco provides a “list of features” of what he calls “Eternal Fascism,” including,

Trump trading cards, 2022

Much is written on fascism as a trope of the superhero (Cooper, 2013, November 30; Dittmer, 2013; Malone, 2020; Schimkowitz, 2022, October 9; Spiegelman, 2019, August 17; Weldon, 2016, November 16). Marvel and DC (Detective Comics) comic book movies invoke fascist tropes as part of the on-screen characters; for example,

Batman v. Superman and Captain America: Civil War revolve around a non-powered [non-elected] billionaire attempting to rein in a rogue superhuman, and both engage in the by-now inevitable chin-stroking about freedom and government control. (Weldon, 2016)

And in Peter Taylor‘s piece, U.S. Empire and the Marvel Moral Universe,

The same way ancient Athenian theater reinforced civic ideals of democracy, justice, and honor using the heroes and deities from Hellenic mythology, the Marvel Cinematic Universe draws on the mythology of American comic books to reinforce our culture’s dominant ideals, those of perpetual conflict against perpetual enemies in a world order characterized by American military and political hegemony. (Taylor, 2022, September 22).

This American phenomena, he goes on to say,

Embodying the pattern of the MCU’s [Marvel Cinematic Universe] more or less uncritical depiction of so many of its heroes, Steve Rogers/Captain America balks at the notion of accountability, saying, “The safest hands are still our own.” Captain America’s words can be interpreted as an embodiment of U.S. military impunity at its most extreme, where it operates on the assumption of its continuous infallibility despite its abysmal track record of building democracy through military coercion, not to mention its long list of war crimes and its tendency to treat international law as an easily ignorable suggestion. (Taylor, 2022, September 22)

Vigilante, #37, 1987, January, DC Comics.

The superhero series, The Boys (Sony, 2019- ), provides a view into the superhero trope described as “combined hero worship, celebrity culture, unhinged capitalism, and diseased politics into a view of a country where superheroes really are the ubermensches fascist were waiting for” ( the series characters embody the full-throated fascism of the superhero. When considering the current state of U.S. politics and its magnification of homophobia, excused mass shootings, and institutionalized racism, Noah Berlatsky writes, “The Boys is startlingly good at depicting fascism as it is right now in the United States, the prejudice and weaponized hatred on display at the Republican National Convention, on Twitter, or in the streets” [the link is from the original source] (Berlatsky, 2020, September 16)

With this in mind, IWCA’s CFP asks,

Who is your writing center “superhero”? Create an analog or digital image of a writing center scholar reimagined as a superhero. What is their superhero name and identity? How do their theoretical or scholarly perspectives translate to “superpowers”? (Cosplay is encouraged but not required!) (IWCA, 2023)

Writing centre literature and writing centre principles are framed in social justice (Coenen, Folarin, Tinsley, & Wright, 2019; Diab, Godbee, Ferrel, & Simpkins, 2012; Garcia, 2019; Greenfield, 2019; Inoue, 2016; Rambiritch, 2018; Salem, 2014). Vigilantism and the fascism of superheroes are antithetical to our work. I asked IWCA for a response to the superhero-as-fascist trope in the CFP, and their suggestion is that I propose a session for the conference “that problematizes the superhero theme within a writing center context.”


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