Black Panther: Tradition vs. Ideology

My wife recently forced me to visit an AMC theater so that I could have the pleasure of paying $19 a ticket to watch Black Panther in a theater filled with American theatergoers who use film only as a backdrop to loudly consume a Hefty-bag’s worth of popcorn slathered in fake butter and washed down with enough Coke-a-cola to drown a small village of pygmies.

And I say that I was “forced” to see Black Panther not because I’m a modern Republican terrified of movies that showcase black actors but because I hate your stupid comic book movies. Fine if you’re a kid, sad if you’re an adult.

However, I’ll readily admit that Black Panther was entertaining. In fact, it was pretty great. The visuals were often splendid, at least when Forrest Whitaker wasn’t trying to be taken seriously while gesticulating before an obvious green screen in footage that could have been shot by Tommy Wiseau, and I personally love watching strikingly beautiful black women kicking ass in some awesomely choreographed fight sequences.

However, my viewing of Black Panther did call to mind a few observations that I would like to address:

1. Vibranium

If their kingdom is defined by its monopolized access to Vibranium, the most indestructible element in the universe, why then do Wakandians choose to construct the fences used to corral two-and-a-half-ton rhinoceroses out of nothing but several rotting logs held together by frayed shipping twine? You know, as opposed to constructing them out of, oh, I don’t know, Vibranium? That’s like going to bed with Lindsay Lohan and using a spent piece of Saran Wrap instead of an industrial strength Trojan.

2. Tradition 

Perhaps deciding the leadership of your vastly superior, technologically advanced civilization on a single bout of ceremonial hand-to-hand combat isn’t a sustainable system of government.

I understand that America’s electoral college system isn’t much better, but at one point toward the end of the film, after Killmonger has taken the throne and begun running Wacanda into the ground, Nakia asks Okoye, “Why should we hand the reins of the kingdom over to someone who only appeared here several hours ago?” That is an excellent question deserving of more attention, and yet Okoye’s response is essentially to shrug and say, ‘Well, we have no choice–it’s our tradition.’

One of the things Black Panther illustrates is the futility of venerating traditions over ideology. Bear in mind that traditions, insofar as they describe “cultural continuity in social attitudes, customs, and institutions,” do not invoke an ideological position predicated on a concept of better versus worse, good versus bad, or right versus wrong–traditions only prescribe the past as a guide for the present.

Put another way, traditions constitute adherence to the persistence of the way things were done as opposed to the way things should be done.

The point here is that just because something was done in the past does not make it inherently good, or right, or better. Invoking tradition and the fact that practices were performed in the past as the basis for continuing them in the present is therefore a disarticulation of concepts of good, right, or better because traditions are only an insistence on the past itself as inherently valuable, regardless of any intervening argument predicated on a practice’s merits.

In other words, to insist upon traditions is to reject any critical assessment of a practice’s merit. Likewise, any critique of a traditional practice in an effort to assess its merit constitutes a wholesale rejection of the principle of tradition—to critically interrogate traditions in search of their merits is a rejection of the past as inherently valuable, becoming instead an insistence upon a value assessment predicated on merits irrespective of the past. And this is true even if some, many, or even all of the practices associated with tradition survive this interrogation and are deemed valuable for the present.

For example, consider the case of male and female circumcision. Both are cultural practices rooted in tradition and in both cases, though to a lesser degree the latter, still performed today in certain parts of the world.

However, in many cases male circumcision persists not out of dedication to tradition but because it is understood to provide tangible health benefits. That’s why in developed countries it is available soon after birth in a hospital setting, while female “circumcision” is regarded with almost universal condemnation because it has absolutely no health benefits and rather results in adverse and traumatic health effects.

The point is that both are traditional practices, but male circumcision persists, in particular when outside of a religious setting, for entirely different reasons that only coincidentally align with a foregoing tradition. The practice’s merits, and not its history, comprise the basis for its survival, which entirely divorces it from tradition altogether.

Black Panther’s narrative, then, calls into question the value of blind adherence to tradition insofar as it allows Killmonger to appear from out of nowhere and, after a ceremonial bout of hand-to-hand combat, claim the throne and enact policies that run contrary to both Wacanda’s and the world’s interests. T’Challa represents both moral and ideological superiority, but because tradition has no relationship to ideology such that tradition constitutes a disarticulation of it, tradition creates an environment in which stronger ideas are sublimated in favor of the persistence only of a valueless past.  

3. Ancestor Veneration

It should be noted that by the end of the film, Black Panther asserts the following idea, even if it may not intend to: Ancestor veneration is a little ridiculous.

I know this may upset a lot of readers, but stay with me. First, all of the people (Homo Sapiens) that lived on this planet before us were biologically indistinguishable from us. They were us, even if they lacked smartphones and social media, and like us they were concerned with eking out a moderately satisfying and pleasurable existence while trying to survive.

There were great people among them; there were terrible people among them. Some were victims of horrible atrocities; some were perpetrators of horrible atrocities. But the fact of the matter is that each and every one of us alive today is as equally removed from the past as everyone else—no one today is either inherently or actively “closer” to the past than anyone else, making the past, contrary to Faulkner’s famous assertion, exactly that: the past.

I understand that we all (some of us more than others) tend to harbor a fondness for, in particular, our familial ancestors because without them, you and I wouldn’t be alive today. However, there’s nothing beyond that fact which makes them inherently worthy of veneration.

To better appreciate this, consider for a moment your own family today and how many of them you struggle to tolerate for just a few hours at Thanksgiving dinner. Now consider a future several generations from now in which your descendants participate in some venerating, ritualized tradition honoring your racist uncle who coughs on the mashed potatoes and thinks that “ethnics” are ruining daytime television. Hey, he counts as an ancestor, too, but maybe that’s a poor criteria for assessing who should and shouldn’t be an object of admiration.

Also keep in mind that just because they existed in the past and you have some tenuous filial relationship to them doesn’t make them inherently interested at all in you and your existence today because allow me to direct your attention to something else: Your ancestors did not have you in mind when they were reaching climax with their respective lovers.

People of the past were just as governed by their biological impulses as we are today, and when your ancestors were knocking boots, sandals, moccasins–whatever footwear was in vogue at the time, they were most assuredly not thinking of the generations that would come after them. They were simply pounding for the very same reason that you and I do: to break one off and brag to their friends.

For whatever reason, we have a strong tendency to venerate our ancestors simply for the sake of their having lived and died before us, which is, as outlined above with regard to traditions, a disarticulation of right versus wrong, truth versus fallacy because it is an invocation only of the past as a value in and of itself without any consideration of its relative merits. As such, it represents a hagiographic fallacy because once we accept that people of the past were no different from people of today, replete with all of our attendant flaws and fallibilities, then it becomes increasingly naive to regard people of the past through a prism of unquestioned reverence. Again, that uncle who coughs on the mashed potatoes …

But just as there are traditions deserving of preservation for reasons having nothing to do with their having existed in the past and everything to do with their merit, there are reasons to venerate predecessors like Martin Luther King, Plato, Galileo, Einstein, Curie, Hurston, the grandfather or grandmother who taught you compassion, etc. but also for reasons having nothing to do with their ancestral lineage and everything to do with the value of their social contributions.

In other words, venerating ancestors simply for their having preceded you allows your racist uncle through the door, but veneration based on merits is divorced from veneration of the past and prevents your uncle from slipping through the door, keeping him instead out by the kiddie pool sipping a Schlitz in Satan’s backyard.

Coda

Black Panther is ultimately a rejection of both traditions and ancestor veneration because T’Challa rejects the authority of his ancestors, and by extension the permanence of their traditions. He rejects his father’s actions directly when he castigates him for leaving the child Killmonger behind in Oakland, and he rejects the extended ancestral collective by launching, at the film’s conclusion, a community science and technology outreach center in the heart of Oakland that will share Wakanda’s scientific and technological knowledge.

The rejection is further reinforced by the fact that T’Challa’s final actions esteem science and technology and community outreach, practices equally divorced from tradition and veneration of the past. Science is predicated on truth versus fallacy because science is the understanding of the physical world through verifiable and reproducible evidence, while community outreach is predicated on addressing the injustices of the present as opposed to injustices of the past because it is an effort to address current social imbalances with the goal of mitigating their adverse effects. For both enterprises, the past represents only a position on an ever-growing timeline and little more–it does not, for example, represent a hallowed, venerated place that prescribes either current or future practices.

T’Challa’s act of repudiation, then, essentially relegates both tradition and ancestor veneration to some corner dustbin of Shuri’s laboratory–tradition doesn’t survive because the past no longer prescribes the future.

So, what was I saying at the beginning of this piece? Something disparaging about comic book movies and how if you’re an adult fan, that’s sad? Yeah, well, Black Panther’s unexpectedly smart conversation piece is the exception. You’ll see nothing nearly as scintillating while watching Ghost Rider.

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