Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Villain Morality: what is villainy?

"Angel's Dance", starring Jim Belushi and Sheryl Lee, is otherwise forgettable. But Belushi does a great job portraying a casual, detached assassin. When asked about the morality of killing by his trainee, he casually responds, "I believe in reincarnation". He's built his morality around his job.

Some villains have high-minded goals, at least when they start the life. Some are in it for money, power, sex, love, adoration, or any number of other ambitions. Some of us feel that it's our personal calling, that we should do the thing we're good at and have fun with it. Sooner or later, though, some villains stop and wonder, "is what I am doing what I should really be doing?"

To help you answer that sort of question ahead of time, I'm writing a series on villain morality - moral, philosophical, and religious systems, the ethics of super-powered crime (and crimefighting), and more.

To kick it off, I want to answer the basic question that defines us, the one we rarely really think about: "what is villainy?"

Merriam-Webster's dictionary gives us these definitions for "villain":
  1. A "villein". This basically means a peasant from the Dark Ages - someone who was subservient to a Feudal lord.
  2. An uncouth person, or boor.
  3. A deliberate scoundrel or criminal.
  4. A character in a story or play who opposes the hero.
  5. One blamed for a particular evil or difficulty.
If we read Shakespeare, we see "villain" used in a mixture of these senses - an insult by comparison to a common, low-born person. In Titus Andronicus, when Aaron says "villain, I have done thy mother", Shakespeare was doing more than inventing the first yo-mama joke. He was giving an example of the first truth of villainy: the villain is someone looked down upon by civilized society.

Richard O'Connor paraphrases the French novelist HonorĂ© de Balzac by saying: "Balzac maintained that behind every great fortune there is a great crime." The original quote is a little more forgiving, and translates to "The secret of great fortunes without apparent cause is a crime forgotten, for it was properly done." John Steinbeck wrote, "Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires." We idolize wealth and power, even when they originated in criminal activities, or facilitate them.

In 1934, Major General Smedley Butler testified in front of the McCormack-Dickstein committee that a group of wealthy businessmen were conspiring to overthrow FDR and institute Fascism in America. The committee found the allegations credible - yet no one was persecuted. Prescott Bush, who had done quite well for himself, was connected to these allegations. His son - former director of the CIA - became President of the country. His grandson - who kept breaking the companies he was given, and who kept being given new ones to break - was also elected President. Under his administration, the United States employed methods of interrogation which had gotten people prosecuted for war crimes during World War 2. I want to say this again, just so it's very clear. The son and grandson of a guy strongly suspected of collaborating with the Nazis and overthrowing the United States government both got put in charge of that government.

This is hardly the only time that money, influence, and power have elevated someone to high station. It won't be the last. Why? Because people love winners, especially when they can bask in their reflected glory. This is second truth of villainy: villainy is about condemnation, not criminality.

Piracy was rife in the Age of Sail. Ships carrying the wealth of the New World - whose exploited, smallpox-ridden natives weren't using it anyway, right? - would get attacked at sea by cutthroat buccaneers, arr. You'd find a ship, attack it and force it to surrender, then take its stuff. This was obviously a criminal enterprise, except during the frequent outbreaks of war. Letters of marque, issued by the warring states, authorized those very same pirates to attack the very same ships they'd been attacking, only now it was legal, and called "privateering".

Sir Francis Drake - that's right, he was knighted - was a hero to the English but a pirate to the Spaniards. Henry Morgan, from whom the "Captain Morgan" brand of rum draws its name, was a famous pirate and privateer. These guys were the rock stars and culture heroes of their day, to the extent that they're remembered even today in America. Did they commit crimes, even by the standards of their home culture? Yes! Absolutely. Did they commit acts that would be criminal today? Oh, absolutely yes. But they weren't always villains. Lots of people loved them. Lots of people hated them. It all came down to what they could get away with.

Supervillains are the pirates of the modern day and age. Are we looked down upon by civilized society? Naturally. Are we criminals? Yes - but many powerful criminals hold high office and enjoy widespread admiration from the "common man". We are the outsiders who go our own way. We are the iconoclasts who reject the establishment and build our own. We are the new generation, who have no need of society's protection and need not fear society's disapproval. In short, supervillains are the sovereigns of a new order. We may feel fondness, admiration, or amusement for the old order, but we do not respect it, because it does not respect us.

In future installments we'll talk about specific topics. As usual, write in with questions, comments, and other observations!