Geeks, Nerdoms, and Politics
Last Thursday was Star Wars Day: May the Fourth be with you! It is a good time to reflect on the intersection between nerd culture and politics. In particular, two questions come to mind. First, how does the nerd culture color and influence people’s engagement with and understanding of contemporary politics? And second, does interest in certain fandoms or genres associated with the nerd culture, for example fantasy or science fiction, influence an individual’s political philosophy? Or to flip the question, do people with certain political views gravitate toward nerdy activities or specific genres within the larger nerd culture?
My engagement with nerd/geek culture (the specific differences between the terms “geek” and “nerd” are endless, but I use them synonymously) goes back to my earliest days: since I began reading fantasy and science-fiction novels in the fourth grade, I’ve never stopped. I co-founded a group for fantasy/sci-fi nerds, went to Anime conventions, immersed myself in the lore of several RPGs and MMORPGs (role-playing games and their massively multiplayer online counterparts), and know plenty of gamers and people into graphic novels (which have recently given rise to the wildly successful films set in the Marvel Universe). The explosion of geek culture into the mainstream in the United States, particularly among young people, over the past two decades is therefore an exciting and interesting development, as are its sociopolitical implications.
I believe this cultural phenomenon definitely affects the way that people engage with and conceptualize politics. However, this is a double-edged sword. We can gain interesting insights about life from geek culture: for example, it is far more conducive for most people to learn how to live a good life by following and emulating a character from a novel rather than through reading the works of Aristotle. In a culture increasingly cut adrift from the ancient wisdom of religion and philosophy, we can welcome the fact that young people are being drawn toward the reassuring moral lessons found in much of the nerd culture. Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and Batman are all examples of stories in which the good-evil dichotomy is a central theme.
On the other hand, despite the need for moral clarity in many aspects of life, politics, social, and economic issues are complex, the products of the needs and ideas of disparate groups. Such issues, which affect and divide millions of people, cannot be reduced to simplistic formulations and analogies, such as the notion that Trump is basically Voldemort because his rhetoric against immigrants and minorities is similar to Voldemort’s against mudbloods (wizards and witches from non-wizarding families). Additionally, many people saw the portrayal of the rebellion against the Empire in the Star Wars franchise, for example in the movie Rogue One, in terms of fighting against the Trump administration (although some small-government conservatives also identified with the overthrow of big government, i.e., the Empire).
This geek culture is being used now to facilitate resistance against Trump because, in the words of one writer, it “provide[s] a common language for everyone to understand—and share on social media. With thousands of potential movie/television lines and moments to use in GIFs, memes, and quotes, protesters can vent their fear and anger. … [It] serves as a unifying force for Americans of all colors and creeds.”
But this oversimplifies things. Politics in general isn’t so black and white. Although I am not a supporter of Trump and did not vote for him, and am not a Republican, I cannot ignore the fact that he came to power because of legitimate economic concerns possessed by at least half the population of the United States. We need to derive our tools for engaging with politics from other sources, primarily history.
The breadth of history is vast. Its canvas covers thousands upon thousands of years of recorded civilization throughout the world, testimonies to the deeds of men and gods. Within the annals of the past, humanity has experienced almost every conceivable situation. We ought to be using historical—and by extension, political, geographical, and sociological—information from our collective historical experience to draw analogies and explanations for contemporary politics. This represents a failure of our media and education systems, one that narrows our ability to interpret and appreciate the complexity of political phenomenon. It is more useful, for example, to interpret modern American political trends in the context of the late Roman Republic, as Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry has argued:
There may not be grain riots, or large landholds, but there is definitely a patrician class, and a plebeian class, and they are definitely at loggerheads. And the inability of the political and economic system to deliver an outcome that leaves both classes doing well keeps intensifying the conflict. … America rejected a patrician and elected a tribune.
The Founding Fathers and other political philosophers certainly studied history and drew insightful lessons about the nature of politics in a democracy that are more enlightening than a study of Star Wars. It is only with a deeper understanding of history that we can appreciate the complexity of contemporary issues.
Nerd culture seems to be adapting, though. Fantasy and science fiction are now moving away from their earlier simplicity, and toward a more nuanced, gray portrayal of politics and human motives. This is best exemplified by Game of Thrones, the TV show based off of A Song of Ice and Fire, a yet-to-be-finished series of novels by George R.R. Martin. Although Martin is quite leftist and idealistic in real life, his work, which emphasizes the need for realism in politics and the importance of power, can be read in a conservative manner, in which the idealism of social perfectionism is discarded in favor of working with preexisting institutions and mores. In The Stormlight Archive and Mistborn, two series by one of the most popular contemporary fantasy authors, Brandon Sanderson (a devout Mormon), characters in positions of power have to grapple with reconciling their ideals, often religious in nature, with their ultimate goals and political realities: these works are beautiful meditations on the nature of morality and goodness in complicated and difficult circumstances.
While nerd culture cannot be used as an effective template for conceptualizing political activism, it can serve a useful purpose in clarifying and molding the underlying political principles that guide people.
The themes of good versus evil, and the little guy (often a peasant or farmer) taking on a powerful, wicked, and corrupt big boss (dark lord/Sith/corrupt king/usurper) can appeal both to liberals and conservatives in the American political spectrum. On one hand, the idea of resisting authority, as represented by powerful figures such as Voldemort or the Emperor Palpatine appeals to liberals and social-justice warriors. Yet the themes of good versus evil, heroism, and moral absolutism appeal to conservatives. Perhaps, then, conservatives and liberals aren’t really that different in their values, but differ in how and toward what ideas they direct these values. Both J.R.R. Tolkien and J.K. Rowling drew on classical and religious sources for their works, though one identified as a traditionalist and the other as a liberal. This is why the question of whether science fiction and fantasy can be associated with liberalism or conservatism is ultimately difficult to answer, and not definitive in any case.
In general, readers of fantasy tend to skew liberal, while science-fiction readers are more conservative or libertarian. Perhaps this is because science fiction, especially space-based fiction, fuels the hope that idealized libertarian societies will be founded on distant and remote planets in the future. Additionally, gamers tend to be more libertarian than the average population; this may be because games are about making choices. In some games, one can essentially do anything one wants as long as it doesn’t violate the game’s fundamental mechanical framework or storyline, for example in the Elder Scrolls series. (It is unclear if people predisposed to libertarianism game more, or if gaming more nudges people in that direction.)
Fantasy is a more interesting case, because it frequently draws upon a nostalgia for the past in constructing its worlds and should thus be more closely aligned with conservatism. After all, most of the liberal viewers of Game of Thrones are hoping some great house or the other gains power and rules justly, an essentially aristocratic desire. Nobody is pushing for a liberal democracy in Westeros.
Most fantasy readers and authors are of a fairly liberal bent, however. Perhaps that is because the alignment between libertarianism and fantasy is minimal; after all, libertarianism is generally an American phenomenon, while fantasy worlds are generally based on premodern societies characterized by strong communal ties and networks of social relations. There is no place for radical individualism in a traditional, agricultural society, the livelihood of which depends on cooperative wheat or rice cultivation.
One explanation is that progressives tend to gravitate toward fantasy because of the similarities between the idealism found throughout much of the genre and the progressive notion of progress and the perfectibility of humanity. George R.R. Martin sums up the meaning of fantasy in this sense very nicely on his blog, noting that fantasy is “written in the language of dreams”:
Fantasy is silver and scarlet, indigo and azure, obsidian veined with gold and lapis lazuli. Reality is plywood and plastic, done up in mud brown and olive drab. Fantasy tastes of habaneros and honey, cinnamon and cloves, rare red meat and wines as sweet as summer. Reality is beans and tofu, and ashes at the end. Reality is the strip malls of Burbank, the smokestacks of Cleveland, a parking garage in Newark. Fantasy is the towers of Minas Tirith, the ancient stones of Gormenghast, the halls of Camelot. Fantasy flies on the wings of Icarus, reality on Southwest Airlines. Why do our dreams become so much smaller when they finally come true?
Fantasy gives us wonderful visions, ones that drew me into the genre as a kid, but alas, ones that do not necessarily reflect the realities of human nature. George R.R. Martin knows this perhaps better than any fantasy author, for his is a work on politics and power.
Another convincing explanation for the lack of conservatism in the genre is found on the popular fantasy and science-fiction website Tor.com, where Liz Bourke argues:
If epic fantasy is second-world fantasy that shapes its arc in the form of a grand mythic quest (or several), that plays with tropes such as the return or re-establishment (or sometimes the purification) of a monarch, then it’s, by nature, conservative in structure, and by habit conservative in the political institutions it portrays. But it’s not necessarily conservative in its attitudes towards power, relationships, and orientation towards divinity.
Indeed, many series, like The Wheel of Time, Narnia, the Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter, encourage readers to think about power and relationships in fairly egalitarian terms. Kings and those in positions of power like Rand al’Thor, Aslan, Aragorn, and Dumbledore treated everyone, high and low, with respect and understanding despite their positions. Nonetheless, these leaders owed their positions and distinct wisdom to traditions and hierarchy, and not through the consent of the masses—in fact a character like Dumbledore often needed to go against the grain of the Ministry of Magic in order to do the morally right thing. As a result, despite the egalitarian elements of fantasy, especially in regards to how people should treat each other, it really does advocate a traditional view of politics: an unelected, wise leader often has better solutions than mass-based populism.
Ultimately, nerd culture is here to stay and will remain a big part of the larger culture. Although it shouldn’t serve as the basis for specific policy formulations or analogies for complex political issues for which history is a better mirror, the impact that novels, games, and movies have on shaping and clarifying our political principles is fascinating and should be welcomed. After all, people are affected by the things dear to them, and given the dedication many people have to their various nerdy fandoms, it is understandable that this phenomenon will continue to affect the way people conceptualize morality and politics.
Akhilesh Pillalamarri is an editorial assistant at The American Conservative. He also writes for The National Interest and The Diplomat.