Saturday, March 28, 2020

Freedom and Bondage: The Dark Origin of Wonder Woman

Three main characters of Wonder Woman
My knowledge of Wonder Woman (and by extension, comic books) is severely limited. This is partly due to my overall lack of interest in them both now as well as during my childhood. Although I would occasionally dress up as Spiderman, Zorro and a few times as a cowboy, I did not find having superpowers or being invincible particularly appealing. My childhood ideals ranged from Russian writers like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Scandinavian philosophers and filmmakers like Kierkegaard and Bergman to French directors like François Truffaut and Eric Rohmer all of whom were making waves in cinema, literature, and philosophy. There was neither room nor interest for the likes of Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. I am neither proud nor ashamed of my lack of knowledge regarding comics and superheroes but just state it as a case and matter of fact.

Since then, and more so in recent times, I have tried to fill some of my gaps – while others are still sticking out like a sore, if not broken thumb – and yet, Wonder Woman has been the most enigmatic and mysterious character to me. Especially considering that she is held up and lifted as an emblem of the current strand of modern feminism, I wanted to know more about her by getting to know a bit more about her background.

As a result, a night before this year’s celebration of International Women’s Day, I decided to watch Angela Robinson’s movie Professor Marston and the Wonder Women available on Netflix. I chose to watch it for two reasons: one, it was made (written and directed) by a woman, and secondly, as I was curious about the background and origin story of Wonder Woman, it fit my purposes like a glove since it could potentially conceal my “wounded thumb.” All I knew about this character was limited to Patty Jenkins’ movie version, which, to be honest and hype withstanding, I found rather underwhelming both in terms of story as well as filmmaking.

In contrast, Robinson’s film was impressive, especially considering that this young aspiring filmmaker has not made previous feature films before. The acting was also quite good, and there were evident moments and pieces of dialogue that made it clear that the film was not only made by a woman but that it was meant to prop up and support the feminist movement and ideology. Case in point, it starts off with a strong female character, Elizabeth Marston, who initially appears to be more knowledgeable and capable than her husband, the eponymous professor actively teaching at Harvard.

She should be the one to receive a doctorate, but the university refuses to hand them out to talented and deserving women and are even less likely to hire females and give them a permanent teaching post at the time. Elizabeth also seems to be the one in charge of the relationship, wearing the proverbial pants in the marriage. As they are looking for an assistant to help them with research of the newly invented lie detector, the professor’s evidently lust-tinged eyes fall on a gorgeous blond student of his.

His wife is not so thrilled at the beginning and perceptively and intuitively calls him out on this. He defends himself, but only feebly so. Then she agrees and relents, and this gives us the impression that they are in an unorthodox open marriage, meaning each member has the freedom and possibility of dating others outside of the relationship. Yet in a subsequent scene and after she has just declared to her husband that she does not care, she bluntly, blatantly and cruelly confronts the young female student Olive telling her not to even think of having sex with her husband. This disconcerts the sensitive student, and she runs out crying.

This was a first instant where words did not correspond with actions, and the gap and hypocrisy go deeper in another scene. During an unintentionally awry discussion regarding Freud’s term of penis envy, Elizabeth takes this literally and claims that women have no desire of having such a member for themselves. Professor Marston needs to step in to correct his wife that Freud’s statement was not meant as a literal thing but rather as a symbolic quest for power and dominance.

The fact that Elizabeth as a trained psychologist would confuse this and see Freud’s idea merely as women wanting to have and physically acquire the male organ borders on a surprising and unexpected level of ignorance given her position and standing. This put a significant dent into and creates doubts about her supposed and self-proclaimed claim of brilliance and of being ready to receive a doctorate. Other incidents and situations in later scenes of the movie would only serve to support and confirm this suspicion.

Although it may look otherwise, at least at first sight, it is really the man, the professor who is in control of the situation and the relationship. He has received help from his wife to fine-tune the lie detector, and the women, or at least one of them, may have inspired him to come up with the character of Wonder Woman, but most noteworthy, he is the only person out of the three to have accomplished something in his life.

Olive basically resigns herself to becoming a live-in domestic partner / homemaker who would engage in regular threesomes and sexual acts of bondage, while his wife, despite having so much potential, ends up as a stenographer to support this unorthodox family. Professor Marston may have lost his position at Harvard due to his extracurricular activities in his private life, but in the film, it is he who comes up with the Wonder Woman idea. In fact, not only is it another man, the creator of Superman, who helps him realize this dream, but his own wife discourages him from the get-go. When he tells her of his initiative of making a feminine comic superhero, she scoffs at him and dismisses his idea, and given perfect hindsight, we can all realize how wrong she is.

But I have two concerns here that the movie does not demonstrate or delve into. One is about the abuse of authority; the second is the dubitative message and legacy given to young and impressionable children via the character and actions of Wonder Woman. As said before, Professor Marston constantly ends up getting his own way, and he might have sneakily managed to follow and exercise his own theory of DISC theory, which stands for dominance, inducement, submission, and compliance.

He effectively uses his theory both on his wife as well as his new-found mistress, and none of them seem to fully realize this as they merely buy into and comply with his schemes and suggestions. He may appear submissive and compliant to their desires, but it is he who induces and dominates the two women that are part of his life. I am not so sure that the filmmaker realizes these tendencies herself.

Be it as it may, in the end both accept and encourage this three-way relationship. Yet the married couple of psychologists should know better and must be aware that they are taking advantage of a young impressionable woman. Their victim Olive is a young student who has had her fair share of trauma. Her mother has left her, and her aunt, a famous and rich feminist, wants to have nothing to do with her and prefers to continue with her own life and career; her aunt does not to tarnish her reputation as a feminist and refuses to help or support her niece in need. As a result, Olive grows up in a convent and is emotionally vulnerable and susceptible. Although she may think she is strong and independent, she is easily swayed and controlled by this experienced, knowledgeable, and manipulative couple she meets at the university.

Not having any parental guidance, she is easy prey. They are much older than she is, and she is their student who looks up to both, more so to the female counterpart whom she falls in love with. Elizabeth is most likely a representation and projection of Olive’s own missing mother. Yet Olive is indignantly refused and rejected by Elizabeth on various occasions, while Elizabeth always ends up giving in both to her own as well as her husband’s desires. At first, Elizabeth denies her own sexual attraction towards Olive and women in general and later she kicks Olive out of their home only to accept her back in after her dying husband pleads with her.

Yet none of this makes their combined blatant abuse of authority acceptable; in fact, their actions toward Olive are reprehensible and unethical. Not so much the act itself, their choice of having an unorthodox family, which I disagree with personally as a matter of taste and opinion, but the fact that they abuse their position of authority to satisfy their own sexual needs and desires with a vulnerable young woman. That should not be glorified, much less in our day and age, but unfortunately the filmmaker chooses to side with them and presents them as rebellious heroes to follow and emulate.

And the same applies to the legacy of Wonder Woman. She was born, it turns out, not as a liberating symbol of female empowerment but out of the lusty eyes of an unscrupulous man. It is during an experimental bondage session that he is most inspired. He dresses his Wonder Woman the same way he has seen and experienced Olive - sexually suggestive with a whip in hand. This dominatrix is seen, held up and glorified as a sign of female empowerment, but is, in fact, a sexual object, a sexually charged fetish of one man’s imagination.

It is furthermore disconcerting that the comic has so many references to sexual acts of bondage. In this twisted imagination, freedom becomes bondage and bondage freedom. The full spread of the Disc theory ranging from domination to submission, inducement to compliance is being applied to all of us, and we do not even realize this.

As an adult, one may engage in these practices - and I am in no position to criticize what people choose to do in their own private lives - but presenting and including these types of ideas and behaviors in a comic that is predominantly targeted for and read by children is morally irresponsible and unacceptable. I am aware that I will be accused of siding with the unfavorably portrayed judge Josette Frank in the movie, but the sad reality is that she is in the right and he is wrong. And this is not only the family man and parent within me speaking, but I believe it is our moral obligation to do our utmost to protect our children and youth, at least during those impressionable age brackets.

Professor Marston may say he is liberating children and young girls, but in the end, he is captivating and capturing them with sexually suggestive images, and by turn, he is enslaving them. It entails the move from being seen and referred to as a sexual object to becoming a sexual object but remaining an object, nonetheless. Wearing a superhero cap or holding a whip in your hand does not give you superpowers and does not contribute to fulfilling your inherent potential. To have women hold up Wonder Woman as a symbol of freedom and liberty and to use it as a form of female empowerment is the ultimate irony that emerges from this movie.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

The Economic History of Religion

Book cover that includes partial blue sky covered by brown leaves
In the book The Wealth of Religions: The Political Economy of Believing and Belonging by Rachel M. McCleary and Robert J. Barro, religion is viewed and defined not as a philosophical system of faith and worship but rather as a historical entity with economic ties and connections to respective countries and regions. Religion has certainly played a significant and vital role in history and has had far-reaching consequences on politics, ideology and the economy, and it continues to influence our mindset, our way of thinking and interpreting the world.

This perception is certainly not new, and it has been discussed to some extent in Max Weber’s influential and ground-breaking book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, but it is both helpful and useful to gain a better, wider and more through understanding of religious beliefs as well as how and why they shape and impact world economies as well as current political realities. 

The outcome of this analysis is the inherent hope to overcome enmity and intolerance by focusing on more thorough and less biased knowledge and information while at the same time attain a clearer and more balanced perspective and understanding of the past.

Essentially religion, not unlike science or philosophy, attempts to make sense of the world, yet its focus is less on material aspects but rather on the unseen spiritual world connected to questions of meaning, existence, and death. 

Religion may be better suited for certain questions than others. When it comes to assumptions about the physical world, such as the age and shape of our planet, one ought to naturally turn to science for answers, but other areas that pertain to subjective as opposed to objective issues or phenomena, such as the existence of an afterlife or of spiritual entities are – at least under current standards and methods - outside of the scientific realm and inquiry, and hence, religion could help to fill in the blanks or connect the dots.

However, the history as well as the economics of religion are less interested in the truth or validity of religious concepts, doctrines or dogma, but religion is treated in an objective manner by examining and analyzing its effects and repercussions on other fields and areas, such as its evolution, influences, and development of and by economic, political, and social forces.

Previously, I discussed economist Iannaccone’s analysis of religious movements, particularly radical sects and cults and its relation to the economic club membership model. In a cost and benefit analysis, religion is deemed as valuable in terms of its products and services – the benefits - it can provide to its adherents minus the sacrifices – or costs – this may entail.

One’s choice of and identification with a certain religion would often be influenced and set in terms of overall fears and beliefs of the times. For instance, in the 50s and 60s, there was a growing movement towards rejection or revision of established norms and lifestyles; that could range from the hippie movement with its re-definition of moral and sexual values and fashion to a growing attraction for unorthodox movements and cults, whether it was Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple, Hindu ashrams with Indian gurus, or even membership within the Charles Manson cult. In modern times, discontent and instability has led to the practice and formation of Islamic or far-right terrorism with each feeding, preying and playing upon its members’ anxieties.

In each of the cases, people identify with and embrace services that these movements and religions offer them. In other words, people become consumers of a brand that personally appeals to them, and it may be part of a trend, a by-product or a paradigm of the times, but it is almost always driven and fueled by strong emotions. 

In fact, the more extreme the thoughts, ideas, and actions, the stronger and more daring one’s personal identification with a given marginal group will be, and it will be harder to wean them off from the movement in question or to change their mindset about the group’s actions and practices, no matter how immoral they are or seem to others.

Due to the high cost of associating with aggressive or unorthodox marginal groups, many will turn away and be turned off by them, but a minority will find it even more appealing and will embrace it ever more tightly. In each of these groups, whether it is Osho’s ashram of Rajneeshpuram as depicted in the documentary Wild Wild Country or the way the Manson family dressed and talked, they not only tend to physically and often mentally separate themselves from mainstream communities, they also tend to stand out more distinctly in their habits and customs and establish a closer bond with their fellow members even at the expense of immoral deeds and crime. 

In fact, the acceptance of their fellow members becomes more vital to them than that of other peers, friends or family members, hence turning them into more deeply entrenched members and followers of a given cult or sect.

For our purposes here, I would like to focus on two important aspects that both influenced religion and the economy both in direct and indirect ways, namely interest and property rights as well as literacy and individuality.

Interest and Property Rights

One of the most puzzling aspects of the history of religion has been regarding the matter of Islamic civilization. During the Middle Ages, while the West was shrouded in what is known as the dark ages of history and civilization, especially in relation to science and knowledge, Islam was thriving and flourishing in science. How and why was it that their advancement came to a halt with the West overtaking Muslim countries in terms of economic wealth and development after the Renaissance and more visibly during the Industrial Revolution?

Among the simplest answers to explain Islamic economic stagnation and decline relative to Christian countries was the issue regarding interest and property rights. Interest is a necessity when dealing with commercial and financial transactions, and it is often regulated and controlled by authorities. 

In the West, during Calvin’s lifetime, one was allowed to charge up to five percent interest, which was later, after his death in 1564, raised to ten percent by the Genevan government; anything above that amount was considered excessive and designated as usury and could be banned and punished by the Consistory. As a standard of comparison, credit cards nowadays may charge up to twenty percent, which shows how companies have been given relatively free reign in modern capitalist markets. 

Yet it was from the eleventh to the sixteenth century that Muslim regions excelled in scientific discovery and military prowess. This demonstrates that inherently Islam is not incompatible with nor opposed to advances in the pursuit of knowledge and science. The golden age of Islamic cultures was around the 11th century during which Muslim scholars referred to, worked with and built upon discoveries of the Greek and Latin texts, especially when it came to the fields of medicine, mathematics, astronomy, and optics.

Nonetheless, the scientific production in Muslim countries came to a standstill partly due to the growth of religious elites that aimed to suppress independent thinking and judgment. In fact, schools shifted away from fostering critical thinking to embracing more passive and less innovative forms of knowledge, such as rote learning and memorization.

As a result, investigation and innovation were hampered as these new measures and methods stifled and stunted curiosity and research. This led to an intellectually rigid system that depended upon given and ready-made interpretations and that underscored the importance of obeying and submitting to the religious authorities. Disobedience in any form and whether justified or not was not only frowned upon but forbidden and prohibited and interpreted as a sinful act of aggression against the divine as well as an attack on universal social harmony.

In contrast, Western Europe was more conducive to the rise of capitalism since individualism was valued and promoted; that led not only to diversification and expansion of knowledge, research, and mass communication but also to a legal system that tended to reflect and inscribe those values, all of which were supported, fostered and propelled by the invention of the printing press.

These movements also had serious repercussions in terms of corporate law and governance. Muslim countries had declined economically since the Industrial Revolution because they were set back by rules and restrictions of inheritance, credit and insurance markets, and contract enforcement, and these regulations would restrain markets and hinder economic growth and development.

In Western Europe, however, legal systems were put in place that allowed and gave room for contracts, the enforcement of contract provisions, and property rights alongside a general absence of restrictions vis-à-vis credit and insurance. Interest within reasonable sets and parameters were not prohibited neither by law nor by the Scriptures, and it was only its more excessive from as usury that was discouraged.

All in all, this created an environment that helped businesses grow and flourish. As such, modern corporations can be considered a Western European concept and invention. In fact, corporations were not recognized in Islam, at least not until 1908. While non-Muslims were permitted to form corporations, this was only allowed under the legal systems of their own country abroad, which led to corporations that were then headquartered in Paris or London and not on Islamic lands.

As Christians and Jews were exempt from stifling local laws, they tended to outperform their Muslim counterparts in those Islamic countries. Since followers of other religions ended up gaining wealth and prosperity on Muslim soil, this was fodder for an underlying resentment against those groups and religions, which may, at least in part, explain why anti-Christian and antisemitic sentiments and movements tended to arise and expand in those given areas.

Moreover, unlike Islam, in Western societies even religion was not immune to social, political and legal changes and challenges; in fact, reforms and revolutions were to occur as a result of them. One notable case of rebellion came during the Reformation in which Martin Luther dissented and disagreed with established doctrine and dogma, and this gave way to the Protestant movement.

Literacy and Individuality

­­While the Catholic church insisted that ultimate authority was and would reside with the Church and its priests, with its highest representative the Pope considered and revered as God’s personal ambassador, Martin Luther would reject those views. In that sense, the Protestant movement was an act of rebellion that led to greater expressions of liberty as well as more freedom and flexibility.

The Protestants encouraged literacy since they wanted each, both male and female adherents to read the Holy Scriptures for themselves and to reach their own conclusions and interpretations; as such, schools were not only established but they were viewed and deemed as compulsory starting from a young age. 

In addition, the relationship with God shifted from the confines and premises of the church - both as a place of worship as well as an institution that would convey, transmit and often filter information - and gave way to a more personal relationship with God and His word via the Bible, which was then written and available in the vernacular and studied not only during service but also at schools and at the comfort of one's home. 

Moreover, Protestant beliefs also fostered traits like work ethic, honesty and thrift, which contributed greatly to the growth of economic prosperity during and after the Industrial Revolution. Protestantism also provided and extolled moral discipline and a psychological compulsion to work hard. In fact, individual intention and responsibility more than good works, compliance and charity, stood at the forefront and core of this religious belief system. Put differently, one was personally accountable not only for one’s actions to oneself and society but to God as well.

While economic failure could be viewed as not fulfilling one’s obligations as devotedly as possible, success and prosperity were considered a sign and blessing from God and fostered the belief that one was chosen and elected by divine providence and would be able to attain salvation in the afterlife. 

This devotion to making money through one’s “calling” - a divine ordinance from God regarding a person’s obligations in the material world - alongside fulfilling one’s vocation would later become more secularized and would be viewed as distinct and independent from religious beliefs and doctrine.

Interestingly, the compulsion to work has rested with us since then. This may come from an inherent aversion to idleness and of being viewed as lazy and unproductive. During Calvin’s times, this was a form of sin because when one was not busy, one had a higher risk of succumbing to temptations, bodily urges and physical pleasures. 

But by constantly working and being on the run, those sins could be left at bay. We have currently swallowed and ingrained those values by stating to ourselves both consciously and unconsciously that time is money and that more time could be spent making more money at the expense of a more balanced and satisfying life.

As a result, we tend to engage in overwork and try to amass more wealth than is necessary for a healthy life. At the same time, we often look down on those who are destitute, poor and living in poverty as we assume that it is due to their personal failings and shortcomings that they are and keep remaining in such a deplorable state. 

However, an analysis of the historical past and a better understanding of religion and its ties with social, political and more specifically economic structures can indeed be helpful to expose those underlying currents, beliefs and misperceptions that may have risen and accumulated over time.