On Christmas, DC Comics released Wonder Woman 1984 in theaters and on HBO. The following day, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris posted her Kwanzaa greeting on Instagram. The contrasting themes of the film and video illustrate—seriously—the most profound philosophical divisions of our time.
Wonder Woman 1984 might be the most subversively countercultural mainstream film in recent years. While most comic book movies, especially those of the Marvel universe, safely and predictably riff on the governing ideals of contemporary liberalism, Wonder Woman 1984 turns these on their head. Though packaged in a disarmingly familiar pop culture idiom, the film delivers a surprisingly strong denunciation of our reigning philosophy of expressive individualism and its associated ethics of authenticity.
The movie’s central plot device is that humanity nearly destroys itself when individuals are each granted one wish, with the main villain granted many. Some of these wishes are political, others merely private, but all represent the desires of unencumbered, atomized individuals—rather than, say, the wishes of married couples, families, neighborhoods, churches, unions, or towns. Contrary to expectations, every new wish fulfilled contributes to rapidly escalating personal misery, cultural chaos, and social strife.
The supervillain, Maxwell Lord, is an atypical comic book bad guy. He’s no psychopathic genius bent on destruction but merely an ordinary man of weak character—in fact, a victim of childhood mistreatment—who is simply given what he wants. And what he really wants is simply more. “We want what we want, Diana,” he tells our hero, “Just like you did. You can have it all; you just have to want it.” Along with the wish-fulfillment of countless others, his wish is enough to usher in a near world-ending catastrophe. Humankind is brought back from the brink of mutually assured destruction only when Lord and his followers freely renounce their personal wish for the sake of the common good.
That a magical Make-a-Wish Foundation stone for ordinary people would rapidly lead humanity on a downward spiral to nuclear destruction may strike us as counterintuitive. Indeed, the dominant animating myth of modernity holds that the fulfillment of individual desires, so long as this does not hamper others’ pursuit of the same, should lead to individual well-being, generalized contentment, and social concord. From Jean-Jacques Rousseau to the poets of Romanticism, from Norman Vincent Peale to the purveyors of the Prosperity Gospel, we are assured that pursuing our desires—realizing the uncorrupted inclinations at the root of individual identity—constitutes our authentic path to self-realization and human flourishing.
Anything that hampers or hinders this pursuit, whether subtly repressive social structures and conventions or overtly oppressive traditional moralities, constitutes an intolerable obstacle to the pursuit of happiness. As Rousseau famously put it, man is born free and everywhere in chains. In The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, Carl Truman explains, “Society and its conventions are the enemy, suppressing desire and perverting the individual in a way that prevents the real, authentic self from being able to express itself.”
“Be yourself” is the axiomatic golden rule of our age. In previous times, individuals found their identity primarily by looking outward to their culture, their history and tradition, or to a transcendent source of truth beyond themselves. Today we discover our identity primarily through an inward psychological gaze—a private interrogation of our deepest desires and individual aspirations. We then present this internal discovery to the external world to be recognized and affirmed in our authenticity. Any resistance to this expression and acceptance is seen as repressive, irrational, and unjust—motivated by ignorance and backwardness at best, or animus and hostility at worst.
Countless recent films, from Happy Feet to How to Train Your Dragon, follow this basic character arc: the hero finds happiness through the overcoming of traditional taboos and social strictures through the remissive liberation of the authentic self. These stories catechize the young in the tenets of expressive individualism. The liberated individual must reject any form of dependence on external sources of authority or meaning—whether these be prior expectations of society, the family, history, culture, or divine revelation. Truth is found only within.
Kamala Harris’s Kwanzaa greeting succinctly expresses this philosophy of life:
My favorite [of Kwanzaa’s “seven principles”] was always the one about self-determination—Kujichagulia. It’s essentially about . . . be. Be and do. Be the person you want to be and do the things you want to do. . . . It’s about not letting anyone write our future for us but going out and writing it ourselves.
Harris echoes here more solemn pronouncements by our leading institutions. To take one example among many, the same philosophy of expressive individualism underwrites several Supreme Court majority opinions authored by former Justice Anthony Kennedy, opining on the most contentious social issues of our time. Consider a passage that Antonin Scalia derisively dubbed the “sweet mystery of life” clause: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life” (Planned Parenthood v. Casey). Commenting on another majority opinion where Kennedy claimed to have discovered a constitutional right to “define and express one’s identity” (Obergefell v. Hodges), Scalia lamented that the nation’s highest court had descended from disciplined legal reasoning to “the mystical aphorisms of the fortune cookie.”
The evil power in Wonder Woman 1984 is not defeated by the hero’s superpowers or strength but only by acts of self-renunciation. It is not just any possession or attachment that people must sacrifice to avoid catastrophe, but the one personal desire most precious to each. These wishes were not necessarily bad in themselves—who would not want, as Wonder Woman does, to have the love of one’s life come back from the grave? But what the characters most wanted was not what they most needed.
Diana appeals to Maxwell Lord, a fraud and a con man, to recognize the truth: “Nothing good is born from lies. And greatness is not what you think.” She explains, “Everything has a price. . . . You cannot have it all. You can only have the truth. And the truth is enough; the truth is beautiful. . . . Do you see the truth?” Only the truth can defeat worldly power. Not my truth or your truth, but the shared truth that precedes and transcends us.
Truth is thus not the province of a sovereign and self-creating will, but the mind’s apprehension of a transcendent order of being, a logos in which each of us participates by the light of intellectual intuition and conscience. Truth does not bind or coerce; it liberates. It is neither a constraint upon the will nor an obstacle to human self-realization. Truth gently commands our assent without compulsion or force.
But for the truth to set us free, we must first submit to it, renouncing anything not in conformity to it. Our capacity to assent to the truth when we apprehend it, to shape our lives in accord with it, is what finally and fully makes us human. This ability to “live not by lies,” come what may, grounds our shared human nature as rational and relational animals—the only foundation of any lasting social or political order.
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