Mutatis mutandis

Last week we went to hear Paul Berman expound the ideas contained in his new book Terror and Liberalism, and last night we went to see X2: X-Men United, and the two culture products have become hopelessly entangled in my brain.

You see, Berman believes (I summarize his summary, not having read his book yet) that liberals tend to underestimate the nastiness of the enemies of liberalism, because liberals believe as a matter of principle that people should be given the benefit of the doubt and trusted to act rationally, even if they hate you. But from time to time, groups of people fall prey to a kind of political disease, with distinctive symptoms: anxiety that the group is impure and is being weakened from within, fear of overwhelmingly powerful outsiders who want to destroy the group, an idealization of murder and suicide, and a wish for a utopia that will at once revive an edenic past and instantiate a way of life so modern that it has never been seen before on earth. This disease has taken the forms of Nazism, fascism, Soviet communism, and now Islamism and Baathism. It is also more or less the plot of X2.

In the movie, it’s the United States that has this political disease. And Charles Xavier, the mild and paternal leader of the mutants, is, like Berman’s liberals, incapable of responding to the antiliberal danger with prompt and appropriate force. Because Xavier fails, antiliberalism rises up within the mutant community.

The script must have been written after 9/11. Are the mutants a fantasy identification with the international Muslim community? They’re different, they’re a rising power, some of them already live in our country, some (but not all) of them seem to want to wipe us out, and we’ve declared war on them in response — so what does it feel like to be them, anyway?

And yet it’s too simplistic to interpret the mutants as Muslims, because upon reflection, they’re just gay. They spend their childhoods having the occasional funny feeling, but otherwise unsuspecting of their identity, until suddenly, in adolescence . . . A few further pieces of evidence: the ice-breath boy has tried making out with his girlfriend, but whenever he kisses her, it feels like his life force is draining away and he’s about to die. When Mystique is asked why, since she has the power to resemble anyone she pleases, she insists on walking around as a demonic piece of Alessi kitchenware, she hisses flutily that mutants shouldn’t have to pretend, even if pretending is something they’re good at. Ian McKellen tells a sulky young thing “You’re a god among insects, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise,” and it is clear at once from the wooziness in the boy’s eyes that he would be willing to hold hands at the next Academy Awards.