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I recently saw a video online taking pot-shots at an academic whose studies included deconstructing the representation factors in older roleplaying games, specifically Dungeons and Dragons. The video by Michelle Malkin is a screed against the supposed politically correct ‘party poopers’ intent on ruining games like D&D by bringing ‘social justice warrior’ politics into the picture. I won’t link the video itself (because it’s from a Facebook channel that’s pretty horrendously conservative) but I think the tag below it on Facebook…

Social Justice Warriors are the biggest party-poopers on the planet!

Is there no realm safe from the diversity police?!

… that really says it all.

It’s no secret the last few years have seen an ongoing march towards progressive creation in the creative arts. The fight for better representation in comics, film, television, toys, and games have sparked debates that have reached from the smallest communities to the largest stages of media coverage. You can tell how big the discussion is when films not yet released are dissected for their representation of minority groups and feedback is received by companies immediately from consumers. And whether you like this immediate feedback loop or not, it’s clear the days of companies simply producing material without considering the economic ramifications of a growing progressive demographic are over.

Still, in the face of such creative evolution and representational progress, there has been a significant backlash by those who believe progressives are trying to ‘ruin fun.’ People calling for better representation in creative fields are labeled ‘liberals’ and ‘social justice warriors’ and far worse terms. They’re called crybabies, party poopers, people out to turn everything into a political debate rather than just letting others have a little harmless fun. (Clearly, they never ascribed to the idea that everything is inherently political, but that’s a debate for another time). Instead, their response is to decry any discussions about progressive feedback so we can all just sit back and have a good time without interrogating what we’re enjoying.

The funny part is by making this very discussion, they’re doing exactly what they rail against: they’re looking critically at the material they’re being presented with and making an opinion on its content. They ARE questioning the politics of their media. They’re just choosing a different response than progressives. They’re choosing a different view, an opposition to growth, which I’m calling protective nostalgia. They put down ‘liberals’ for being social justice warriors when they’re taking up their own warrior mantle themselves. These ‘traditionalists’, these ‘conservatives’, are what I like to call Nostalgia Warriors.

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Picture it with me: a new game hits shelves, and the hordes are attacking. They come with their banners of ‘Better Representation Now!’ and chants of ‘What About Us?’ They bury fun new products in political discussions, drowning out the chance of escapism with constant reminders of blah blah representation and blah blah stereotyping and blah blah blah. The noise distracts from the chance to just sit back and have fun, like in the days of yore, when no one assaulted the fun! When it was just about basements and friends, sitting together and enjoying without complications or political rhetoric! Yes, these fun times and beautiful memories are under assault by the SJWs and are in need of defending!

And lo, the defenders arive, with their cries of ‘Party Pooper!’ and ‘Can’t It Just Be Like It Was?’ Their shields are the memories of times gone by, when things were simpler, and media was just fun. They are the Nostalgia Warriors! Ready to tell you you’re wrong for having progressive opinions! Ready to insult, degrade, and dismiss any idea challenging the status quo! And all armed with the greatest cry of all…

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These Nostalgia Warriors stand on their ramparts, zealously protecting new media in the name of what’s come before. They use the happy memories they have of simpler times, when people didn’t talk about the politics of media creation so actively, as proof that such conversations are ruining fun now. After all, they had fun in the past with their TV shows and comic books without these silly discussions about race and gender representation, why would it be needed now? In fact, looking back at the media before and criticizing it only defiles the memory of their beloved favorites. And how dare those pesky Social Justice Warriors go after their favorites, entwined so deeply with the sugar-coated memories of the past.

To take a step back for a second, I don’t want people to think all nostalgia is bad. Nostalgia can be a good thing! It gives us a chance to look back over our lives and see the good things amid the bad, the positive experiences we had cleaned up so they provide bright spots in otherwise complicated lifetimes. It lets us hold up things we find beautiful, things we find important to our identity, and present them with all the love we had for them when we were younger. Nostalgia can be beautiful, our memories can be beautiful, and the way they formed our fundamental years is a testament to experience building the people we are today.

To my people, those who hold fondly to the television shows and comics and films of the past with love and true nostalgia, I embrace you as brothers and sisters! The past gave us amazing, wonderful, fantastic things that should be cherished. This argument isn’t here to dismiss or attack all Nostalgia, or all media in the past that is important to people or beloved.

But.

But.

It’s hard to accept that our pasts are as fraught as our presents and that our futures are going to be just as hard. So we shine up our best experiences and hold them up as examples that in the past, everything was better. Everything was easier then and our precious favorites had no problems, or else those problems didn’t matter, because we loved them. And they gave us joy. And no one can assault our joy without assaulting a fundamental part of ourselves.

This progression into nostalgia defense is when nostalgia slips into toxic territory. When defending our sacred cows becomes a roadblock towards creative evolution.

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It’s no secret to anyone paying attention that our society is evolving away from shitty behaviors we once found acceptable in the past. I think most middle-road Nostalgiacs (new word again!) would recognize things like systematic slavery, for example, is an institution we thank god destroyed over a hundred years ago. Most would even say things like the civil rights movement, the evolution of the rights of women, all these things were great. Heck, most would say going across the ocean to punch Nazis and stop their genocidal reign of terror was a good thing! These were all examples of Good Progress.

So why is it when talking about the continued progress of our society in media, we see such a vicious backlash, even from people who would otherwise say Big Issue Progress (like those listed above) is a good thing?

This is where Toxic Nostalgia comes in.

(Sure, there are people who would question whether these were good events. They’re called Ultra Conservatives, Neo-Nazis, Misogynists, Racists, Bigots, and all around Backwards Problem Children. And this article isn’t going to find a solution for them, so we’re just going to move the heck on from THAT giant problem. Instead, to them I say this).

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Look, change is difficult. Change makes people look at themselves and the world around them with a critical eye and makes them question what they really believe. It makes them wonder if they’re complicit in big bad things like racism and intolerance, in systematic oppression and institutions of privilege. It makes people feel like they might be the bad guy, or part of a bad group, make them feel vilified and ashamed and attacked.

And when the whole world seems to be talking about rectifying centuries-old systems of oppression, people start taking a good long look at where they are on the power pyramid and all these complicated feelings start coming up. They have to ask ‘am I really profiting from oppression?’ They get defensive, responding: ‘But I can’t be privileged! My life is hard, I suffer too!’ They bring out words like reverse racism and tout the suffering of the white lower classes, of the nice guys being ignored by ‘militant feminists’ and cry about how ‘All Lives Matter.’ And this is in response to the Big Issues being brought up across the media, across the internet. It’s everywhere they live. They can’t get away from it. They have to consider it.

And then, just when they’re sure they’ve had enough attacks on their identity and their status quo, the progressives come for their fun.

And so they cling to the last shreds of safety, the last places where they felt they were comfortable and could forget the politics of progress for a little while. When they watch TV or a movie, when reading a comic, they don’t want to think about the Big Issues. They want to escape for a little while. But unbeknownst to them, the progressives are looking at these media and questioning loudly whether the status quo was representing them well or at all. Whether the people whose representation was always there have taken a look at their privilege lately. Progressives are asking for equality, and to the Nostalgia Warrior, that is a challenge to the last bastion of escapism they’ve got.

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And so, the backlash begins. The outright dismissal and attacks against those calling for critical analysis of media has been unbelievably harsh. But what’s worse is it’s often without substance too. Instead of engaging with the Big Issues being presented in the context of media critique, Nostalgia Warriors deny the need for discussion outright and banish anyone trying to have a dialogue with labels like ‘party poopers.’ And to those who agree with them, it’s the best defense, because who wants to have party poopers around? No one! So get rid of these SJWs and their party pooper ways, ignore them! There’s no need to have an actual conversation about issues! We can just label them with names you’d throw at kids on a playground and call it a day.

Because that’s all the conversation is to the Nostalgia Warrior: a throwback to days gone by, when you could talk about fun things with the simplicity of school age name-calling and maturity. Why be an adult when talking about play? Simply regress to those childhood feelings and defend your stance with the same playground mentality. Hold tight to your play as the last vestiges of childhood you’re allowed and don’t let anyone damage that with talk about Big Issues. Because that would require the adult in the Nostalgia Warrior to have to face change and its complexity.

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Some of the worst offenders in this progressive backlash in entertainment have unfortunately been creators whose work is being critiqued. Whereas these creators, still relevant and important to the evolution of their mediums, could join the new generations of artists and contribute in new and fun ways, they often doggedly cling to the work of the past, defending their creative choices against critique and driving away new thinkers with their derision. What they fail to realize is their defensiveness about their nostalgia, fed by fear of being vilified and becoming irrelevant, is driving them TOWARDS irrelevancy as their mediums march on towards a progressive future. Simply put, the harder they cling to the past, the easier the future and their part in it slips through their fingers.

The sad part about the backlash against progressive thinking by Nostalgia Warriors and conservative thinkers is the ultimate damage it does to creative evolution. Creative mediums have come a long way since the days of cave paintings, Shakespeare, the Rennaissance and even the beatnik generation. Every wave of creation builds upon what came before, informed by the politics and social movements all around them. The fact that each generation has also participated in the see-saw of progress towards greater equality has informed said artistic creation, and to ignore those influences in favor of nostalgia only stunts the growth of new ideas and new forms of art.

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They say there are no new ideas under the sun, only new ways to express them. Yet if we’re only ever looking back to those so-called ‘better days’ thru the lens of willfully ignorant nostalgia, we’re cutting new creative expressions off at the knees. People yawn at remakes and rehashes of the old, asking for new movies, new television, innovative creations, and then complain when those new expressions involve evolving social thematics.

You can’t have it both ways, Nostalgia Warriors. Either you want new ideas or you want things to stay the same. And I have some bad news: things won’t stay the same, no matter how much you shout about it. Progress happens. The world moves on. And your sacred cows lose their shine under the scrutiny of the future. The only question is: will you put aside your blinders and accept the complexity of media and the critical analysis around you, or hold on stubbornly to the past?

The battle for progress continues across all mediums. And wherever people believe fun is under assault, the Nostalgia Warriors will be there, ready to refute every claim with childish rhetoric and nay-saying. And all the while, they don’t even realize they’re already involved in the political conversation: they’re just not doing a very good job at it.

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[[Spoilers ahead for Captain America: Steve Rogers #1]]

569e646046152So apparently, Captain America is a HYDRA agent now. And everyone seems intent on telling me how I should or shouldn’t feel about it.

If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, let me fill you in. Captain America, the star-spangled hero that’s graced the comics since the 1940’s, has had a rough time of it in recent years. First, Cap got aged to an older man thanks to some shenanigans, and had to retire from being Cap. Steve Rogers handed the shield to his friend Sam Wilson aka Falcon. For a time he became the head of SHIELD and even went on to still try to be cap, even in his elder years. But events in the comics recently gave him back his vitality and youth, and he took the name Captain America again to kick some Hydra ass.

Except it turns out, thanks to the new comic Captain America: Steve Rogers, that Cap isn’t the Hydra ass kicker we thought. You see, according to the first issue written by Nick Spencer, Captain America is apparently a Hydra agent.

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“There’s also no Santa Claus.”

Now, I know what you’re going to say. “But it’s a comic book! There’s clearly some mind control going on, or reality changing, or whatever nonsense is going on. This is a gimmick, a ploy to sell first issues!” And yes, all these things may be true. Cap’s youth was returned by an incarnated cosmic cube named Kubiq, and that may account for the odd changes to Cap. But it isn’t just the modern Cap that’s apparently jumped on the squid-faced bandwagon. No, Captain America #1 has a flashback sequence through the book that shows little Steve Rogers with his mother when she’s rescued from her drunk, abusive husband by a woman who radicalizes her into Hydra. The indication then is that not only is Cap a Hydra agent, but he has been for a very, very long time.

The first issue of this Spencer run landed on shelves with a proverbial bang in a week when Marvel needed to score serious press attention. DC was launching the rebrand of their entire company through their event Rebirth and might have otherwise dominated the news cycle. But thanks to this huge heel turn, Marvel drowned out DC’s launch in a big way. And of course they did. Because the hero of America has become the vehicle of a fascist organization, a tool of everything he ever fought against. So, the internet went nuts.

The fan response has been, to my eyes, almost completely negative. A great example of the responses I’ve seen comes from TC Curly, a friend of mine, who said:

I wouldn’t mind a marvel character heel turn, but having cap join hydra is like having aqua man join the Aryan nation. It’s bizarre, It’s drastic, and it just feels really dirty.

Even Chris Evans, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Captain America himself, got in on the concern about the recent reversal, stating on Twitter:

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hail-hydra-shot-my-parents-chimichangas-hahah😂-if-you-2586866There’s been quite a lot of articles about how this is a desecration of everything that Captain America stands for. Plenty more are talking about how this is a gimmick that will just be reversed, although Time magazine’s interview with Cap’s creative team basically says it’s not. Still others point out, rightly so, that having Cap turn into an agent of an organization that were associated heavily and born in the comics from the Nazis is spitting in the face of the origins of the character. Specifically, Captain America was written by two Jewish men, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon. And now, he’s being retroactively written as being a tool of the regime that supported Hitler’s Nazi regime.

And this is where the conversation online has taken an interesting turn. Because while there are thoughtful articles pointing out the problem with associating Cap with Nazis, other articles have taken the time to distance Hydra as an organization from the Nazis and their activities. Specifically, they point to the origins of Hydra in fascism across the globe rather than in the Nazis in specific. And it’s this attempt to bend over backwards to save face for the Spencer storyline that’s got me frustrated and a little angry.

Like this new storyline or not, the Spencer storyline has given people a chance to discuss a really difficult situation: the use of Nazis in a major plot arch through Marvel comics. Like it or not, Hydra was introduced as a major fascist bad guy faction that had its start associated heavily with the Nazis. One only needs to think hard about the very first major HYDRA bad guys and the first one that probably pops to mind would be The Red Skull. Who, in the comics, looked early on a lot like this:

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Yup, that’s pretty blatant there. Swastika and all. Nazi.

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That armband ain’t just a fashion accessory.

Then there’s Baron Von Strucker, a major Aryan ‘purity of races’ kind of guy who was a major part of HYDRA for years. While comics tried to back-track away from Von Strucker’s Nazi associations too over the years and dropped a bunch of his white-power motivations, the guy still sported the ol’ red armband for a long while.

Over the years, Hydra did branch out to back other fascist regimes worldwide in the comics, but a huge part of their past remains with the Nazis. Red Skull remained that swastika wearing presence in the comics, a constant reminder of the genocidal birthplace of the group in comics. Later writers tried to back Hydra away from the Nazis too, but the presence of them in Hydra’s past remains. And while the Marvel Cinematic Universe worked hard follow that distancing tactic, going as far as having Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull give a diatribe about how Hydra was only using the Nazis in Captain America: The First Avenger, that cannot divorce the history of the Nazi’s fictionalized presence in the comic book organization.

[[On another note, the MCU doesn’t always separate the Nazis from HYDRA so much. Agents of SHIELD bad guy Daniel Whitehall actually was a Nazi scientist named Rinehart who experimented and dissected people on the show. All while looking like this.

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“I just got this Iron Cross from a re-enactment event weekend. Really!”

Still questioning whether Hydra is associated with Nazis? No? Me neither.]]

Apparently people can try. Because articles are taking their time now to do so, making it very clear that Hydra is more than just Nazis. But why now? Why have this in-depth discussion about how these genocidal, world-dominating, fascist-supporting aren’t really Nazis now? Because Captain America is now being associated with Nazis. And if they can’t deny the storyline is happening, then at least they’ll deny that the organization is that bad.

It’s this hair-splitting that is leaving a bad taste in my mouth. Guys, Hydra were Nazis. Red Skull was this guy for years. This guy. Right here.

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And instead of just accepting that Marvel is associating our star-spangled hero with the Nazis, people are bending over backwards to explain how its not that bad and mincing whether or not Hydra itself is Nazis. That might be even more insulting to me than what’s going on with Cap. People are having legitimate emotional responses to seeing their beloved hero becoming a Hydra agent. Some of those reactions have to do with the horror of seeing Captain America be associated with the Nazis. For Jews especially, it smacks of an emotional ignorance about the hero Cap was to those who look back at WWII and see the specter of the Nazi holocaust overshadowing their families.

Plenty of folks are having legitimate emotional reactions and saying no, it’s not okay. Instead of acknowledging that emotional response and how it might be insensitive to Jewish readers, people are in a rush to say “They aren’t Nazis! You’re over-conflating it!” It’s comic-splaining at its best and bordering on gaslighting. “You’re seeing Nazis where they aren’t!”

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Ahem. Really? So that swastika is just a tibetan good luck symbol on Red Skull there, huh?

This response smacks of so many cases of people white-washing and ignoring the legitimate concerns of Jews over representation and insensitive treatment that it infuriates me. While I don’t necessarily think the situation is anti-semetic exactly, it feels careless in its consideration of how this plotline might impact those for whom Nazis have a more personal hatred.

I remember showing my grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, Captain America in the comics when I was younger. I told her in the comics that he first showed up punching Hitler in the face. I remember her laughing and shaking her head at it, in this kind of bitter way. I wonder if she thought how funny wish fulfillment art is, though I never asked her how it made her feel. I wonder now how this comic would make her feel, seeing Cap turned to the dark side. Mostly, I wonder how all these “well, actually…” articles about Hydra would make her feel. “Well, actually they’re not Nazis. They just wore swastikas and supported Hitler’s actions in World War II before moving on to be fascists elsewhere. But they’re totally not Nazis themselves. Really!”

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Yup. No Nazis here.

 

 

My grandmother passed away when I was sixteen, so she’s not here to ask how she feels. But I know how I feel about the Captain America thing. I’m going to keep reading so I can see where Nick Spencer and the Cap team is going with this plot. But mainly, I know how I feel about these articles trying to drive away any feelings of discomfort by Jewish readers by comic-splaining away the Nazis. As opposed to listening to those fans’ feelings with compassion and understanding, people would rather we shut up and stop associating Cap with one of the most genocidal groups of all time.

Funny, I would like to stop associating him with them too. Only now, thanks to the comics, I can’t. So let me have my feelings, thanks, without explaining to me why I should sit down and be quiet about it. My comic nerd rage is valid too, especially when it’s fueled by personal history and real-world religious bigotries.