Monday, 14 December 2015
FRS #2: "The Players And The Pawn!"
("We are all in this together.")
Firestar issue 2 is something of a wrenching leftwards skid in certain ways. Gone is the framing of a beautiful, intelligent teenage white girl finding reasons to sulk, and in its place we have... well, OK, really it's pretty much exactly the same thing. This, we learn, is a girl who can sulk about an "awful school" which has given her her own pony.
But everything surrounding Angelica's moping has become radically different. Whereas last issue set up a standard teenage narrative into which the idea of mutantism was then dropped, this installment has something of a political taste to it, concerning itself with the practice of cutting teenagers off from the wider world in order to render them vulnerable to indoctrination. In addition to Angelica's attitude, there's a common theme between the issues of her feelings of alienation, but this time the problem stems not from the banal cruelty of teenage girls, but a deliberate policy of Emma Frost. She and Sebastian Shaw have a plan: Angelica Jones (now called Firestar for the first time) is to be forged into an undetectable assassin. Someone the Hellfire Club could use to kill anyone, at any time, an unremarkable civilian who could incinerate her targets without warning. Frost isn't educating Jones, she's grooming her, as made clear by the hilariously unsubtle metaphor of Angelica getting her own horse to groom.
The idea of young people being kept separate from a wide experience of humanity in order to radicalise then to the point where they think nothing of condemning their fellow humans is a rather hot topic right now. It's just been in the last few days, for instance, that there has been a renewed call to force teachers to act as informants on their pupils, as though teachers get remotely sufficient training (or really any at all) on how to actually spot the signs of radicalisation, and as if this inevitably cack-handed extra scrutiny would stop teenagers becoming radicalised, rather than giving them one more enemy to hate. It's hard enough to persuade fifteen year-olds that your on their side to begin with; add in the idea that you're studying for signs of deviant behaviour takes the comprehensive school one step closer to the battleground everyone always says is the last thing they want it to be (so long as avoiding it doesn't require we spend any money or treat teachers with any respect, naturally).
And it's obvious that comprehensive schools are the targets here. More to the point, Muslim pupils at comprehensive schools. Which is why it's so delightful that in this issue, the people doing the radicalising are rich arseholes from the United States, at an academy for the richest of the rich. Because if we want to talk about enclaves carved out of general society, places of learning where students are exposed to no viewpoints except for those deemed acceptable by those with a deep-seated distrust of alternative political philosophies - those whose political axioms can only survive so long as they go essentially unchallenged - it's far from obvious that teenagers being groomed in our state schools, or for that matter in Middle Eastern madrasas, are the ones who are going to cause the most damage. How many people are immiserated to the point of suicide because David Cameron and George Osborne went to Clarendon schools where poverty was no more real for them than goblins? How many bombs have deviated in air currents and killed innocent people in foreign countries because military adventurism in Africa and Asia is to some people simply what Britain is supposed to do.
Angelica isn't intended to be used as a weapon against those with power . She's intended to be used as a weapon by those with power. Frost and Shaw plan for Firestar to boil their enemies from the inside out; to kill without a trace of accountability. A weapon, in other words, of the elite.
It is these nods to the dangers of sealing young people away from the experiences of pluralism  that makes sense of Xavier's decision here to allow the New Mutants to attend a dance at Frost's Massachusetts Academy. From whatever angle you look at this, it's a ridiculously dangerous decision. There's some dialogue about how Frost is pretty unlikely to actually literally murder any of them in front of her students (because if there's one thing life in the X-Men teaches a person, it's that a telepath is powerless to deal with someone who remembers something they don't want them to), but there's any number of malicious plots Frost might (and does) have afoot that would be served by the New Mutants' attendance even if she doesn't have them all violently massacred. And against this risk we have Sunspot, who argues it's important they go to the dance so he can sniff for tail in a different state.
So what could possibly justify this ludicrous risk? It's Xavier's fear that without this kind of experience, the New Mutants will become too insular, too cut off from the world. He needs to risk their safety because the alternative is them never learning anything from anyone other than himself. And for all that I like to give Xavier stick about his classic white male progressive tendency to insist that all types of people should get a say so long as he can be the ultimate arbitrator of who has a point, his decision here cuts against that ugly tendency.
Of course, that choice leads to disaster, with Frost nudging Cannonball and Firestar together so Angelica can have her first kiss. Frost then sets fire to the nearby stables and kills Firestar's favourite horse, blaming the young woman's lack of control over her powers for both. Combined with the amount of time the White Queen has spent conditioning her with training sessions and dreams to fear the X-Men, Frost hopes this will secure Angelica's loyalty forever, leaving her with literally no-one else to trust. One could argue that this is a major problem with the narrative - if you want to imply the pursuit of pluralism involves a refusal to avoid risks, having such a risk go wrong could be seen as a suggestion that such a risk shouldn't have been taken. Ultimately I think this is some distance from convincing. Partially this is because of plot structure; at most the presence of the New Mutants only very slightly helps Frost's plan. She could just as easily snagged a random teenager from down the street and have him pose as someone from Xavier's. Yes, that would result in a tiny chance of complications if Angelica ever faced the New Mutants in the field and somehow had time amid the punching to ask whatever happened to Random McFakeguy, but this is surely some distance from a deal-breaker.
More importantly, though, this kind of approach bothers me, since it plays too much into a depressingly ubiquitous mode of thinking that says that if a refusal to avoid risks in the name of progressivism fails even once, it's evidence that it should never have been tried. That if you hire a convict despite warnings from others and they rob you, you should take it as proof that hiring convicts is something only the naive and the foolish would do. That if we let in a refugee that ends up a suicide bomber (and Gods help this country if that happens) it's proof that Katie Hopkins was right and we should have let them all drown in the ocean. That insufferably smug Irving Kristol quip about how "a conservative is a liberal who's been mugged by reality" gets cast about endlessly, a line so disgustingly self-satisfied that the Fates punished him by having his son grow up to be Bill Kristol. Not only is it absurd on its face, now more than ever - how was George W Bush mugged by reality? How was David Cameron? Donald Trump? George "Let them eat sneers" Osborne - it sets an almost impossibly high bar for success; if it is not unalloyed, then it cannot exist. This is not only self-evidently too strong a condition for success, it is transparently hypocritical. To date the left has made no headway with arguing that the near- or total failure of every bombing campaign western civilisation has embarked upon this century to achieve its aims might we should stop reaching for it as a first response. It would seem some ideas cannot survive their first failure, and others can survive nothing but. If liberals are mugged by reality, conservatives mug reality themselves and then complain it only didn't work out because their victims had too little money in their wallets.
But I've strayed off the subject. To summarise, the fact that Xavier's risk-taking has benefitted Frost does not invalidate the need to take such risks. Indeed, given how easily Frost could have achieved her ends some other way, it's entirely possible that this whole might ultimately be counted as a net positive. Alternatively, perhaps next issue is stuffed full of dialogue about how terribly Xavier has erred and that the best way to live is in a state of constant paranoia, because when has that done any harm? Obviously, that would suck, but my point is that we shouldn't go down the route of assuming this argument is being made until it's made. Otherwise, it's not the writing at fault, it's us.
 Or more accurately, against those who happen share a nationality with the powerful, or those who happen to be visiting the country of those who share a nationality with the powerful.
 It's interesting that Frost tells Angelica that she's helping her gain practice in using her powers defensively - the kind of defence where you microwave a person to death, naturally - because of anti-mutant sentiment in society. An important step in at least some methods of radicalisation is to persuade the victim that there is no such thing as an innocent person, that the bigotry against them evidenced by society in general means that every member of that society is equally guilty.
Randal states here that it's been four months since Angelica joined Ms. Frost's academy. This issue takes place over approximately four weeks, and features Xavier in the mansion with the use of his legs. It also features Storm, who left for Kenya six days before this story would be set if we used the dates from the last post. I've moved everything back by a week to keep things workable.
Friday 4th April to Friday 2nd May 1984.
X+6Y+32 to X+6Y+60.
The discovery of the AIDs virus is announced by US researchers.
"I didn't ask to be born a mutant!"
OK, so maybe we haven't completely moved past the "standard teenager narrative plus mutantism" model just yet...