R. Fiore has an essay up on tcj.com about the Watchmen book and comic. He argues, in part that the movie’s weaknesses are those of the book.

the entire movie depends on an idea that became obsolete within a few years after the book came out, which is that nuclear war was such an imminent absolute threat that the only decent course was non-resistance to totalitarianism. What this in turn depends on is a failure to understand the difference between nuclear war and every other kind of war, which is regardless of who was left hobbling, the respective high commands could not hope to personally escape the consequences. Even if they were sheltered during the blast, all the comforts and riches of their capitols would be blasted away. But what really makes the whole idea empty is the belief that conflicts between peoples aren’t genuine, and that they could all be swept away by an imaginary bogeyman. This is an idea as juvenile as any that ever appeared in a comic book.

So first, I don’t think Watchmen is pro-totalitarianism (V is another story). Ozymandias and his final solution are undercut and questioned repeatedly, both by other characters and by the narrative itself. Rorscach and Dr. Manhattan both suggest, for different reasons, that destroying New York may not have been worth the candle, and the final page of the book indicates that the fate of the world hangs, not on Ozymandias, but on some moron with ketchup on his shirt. (If you want to see me natter on about this topic at greater length, you can read this and also this).

I have problems with several of Fiore’s other points as well. For example, if I understand his argument aright, he seems to be under the impression that, because nuclear war would kill everybody, the people in charge of the nuclear buttons would never actually press them. The whole cold-war paranoia thing was just a big dumb mistake; nobody was ever in any danger, since mutually assured destruction was absolutely fool-proof. The lesson of the end of the Cold War was that we never had to worry about the Cold War to begin with.

Fiore’s correct in some sense — if our leaders were rational, we needn’t have worried about nuclear war. The problem, of course, is that they weren’t particularly. I’ve read a bunch of accounts of the Cuban Missile Crisis (most recently one by Garry Wills) and I’m pretty convinced that John F. Kennedy was enough of a preening prima donna that he would have sooner destroyed the world than lose the news cycle. Thus, avoiding nuclear holocaust depended on…Khruschev. As it turned out, Khruschev was more level-headed than even a glass-half-full, turning-dog-turds-into-lemonade, off-to-join-the-Peace-Corps-and-frolic-with-the-happy-natives kind of optimist had any right to expect. But just because things worked out doesn’t mean that people weren’t right to be a little nervous.

I also disagree with Fiore’s contention that Watchmen misunderstands history and people. I mean, yes, obviously, the fake-space-alien-uniting-the-world is not especially probable. Among other things, the plot in the comic relies on the existence of psychic powers broadly distributed among the populace. And a guy who can catch bullets. And the existence of teleportation technology. Watchmen is many things, but a realistic narrative it is not.

But Fiore, obviously, is talking about more than that. He’s arguing that it’s ridiculous and childish to believe that conflicts between people can be swept aside by “an imaginary bogeyman.” He’s saying that miracles not only can’t happen, but wouldn’t work anyway because people are too set in their ways. Ultimately, Fiore seems to be skeptical not just of miracles, but of change.

Like Fiore, I don’t really believe in miracles, and I have my doubts about change. But I’ve been reading Terry Eagleton, who, as a Marxist, has a certain commitment to miraculous social transformation, and he does make you think. In his memoir The Gatekeeper, he discusses at length a Carmelite nunnery where he served as altar boy as a child.

What was most subversive about [the nuns], however, was their implacable otherworldliness. There are tough-minded types who believe that this world is the best we can muster, some of whom are known as materialists and the rest as conservatives. Whatever they call themselves, the hard-nosed realists who claim that there is no need for another world have clearly not been reading the newspapers…For [the nuns], the flaw of the world ran so deep that it cried out for some thoroughgoing transformation, known in their jargon as redemption. Short of this, things were likely to get a lot worse.

Fiore is one of those realists; he thinks the world is what it is. Moore, on the other hand, is suggesting that transformation is possible through a kind of apocalypse. Not Marxist revolution or Christian salvation, but something analogous; a global scale cataclysmic event, killing millions and shifting earth’s concept of its own place in the galaxy.

Contra Fiore, I think that such a massive event would actually really shake people up. 9/11 wasn’t as transformative as some like to claim, but it did succeed in concentrating a lot of minds. And the even Moore suggests would be much bigger — many more dead, and the sudden revelation of a hostile alien race. The only comparison would be the first European encounter with the Americas, which had massive psychological, spiritual, economic, and political consequences, to say the least. If you don’t think a bogeyman on the scale Moore propounds would be enough to change the world, it’s hard to say what would. Certainly, if you’re that assured of stability, it’s hard to see why you would think (as Fiore seems to) that George Bush could have made much of a difference one way or the other.

Moore does suggest that his particular miracle would require gallons and gallons of blood. His willingness to look at that unflichingly and unsympathetically is why Watchmen doesn’t end up endorsing violence or fascism. The revolution may really not be worth it; utopia isn’t necessarily grace.

The funniest thing about both sides of this argument, maybe, is that we know now that both Fiore and Moore are too pessimistic. Fiore argues that the cold war conflict was intractable; Moore argues that it could only be worked out by piling bodies like cordwood. And what happened instead (as Fiore at least should know)? The Cold War ended very rapidly and with (as these things go) little loss of life. Of course, the world isn’t all hunky-dory (and Moore didn’t say it would be.) But things do change, and not always for the worse.

Watchmen is, among other things, about the possibilities and perils of radical political change. It’s not a political treatise; it doesn’t present solutions to the problems it raises. But I don’t think it’s wrong in arguing that those problems could, perhaps, require transformative change, and in further suggesting that, for better or worse, such changes do occur. Fiore says that the plot of Watchmen is hard to believe, but, as Terry Eagleton notes the story of humanity is itself “grossly improbable.” The cynical view that tomorrow will be like today is in fact the most hopeless naivete — more naive, even, than trusting in our leaders not to kill us, or in believing that the fears of our parents were unreal because they no longer happen to be ours. Things do change, in large ways and small. The future is like the past only in being different from the present. Moore got that, which is why, even though its yesterday and tomorrow aren’t ours, Watchmen still seems up to date.

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