Ignorance, power and Wonder Woman

One of the most depressing things about contemporary life is the realisation that, despite the Enlightenment and modern science, we live in societies in which many of the most vocal and most powerful people demonstrate astonishing ignorance.

The Dunning-Kruger effect, which describes the condition in which truly incompetent and/or ignorant people, believe they are really very, very awesome is very, very much in the news these days with Donald Trump as its poster boy. But as details of the views of some of his appointees emerge, for instance in leaked discussions during the recent seven days Trump world tour, it is clear that the condition also affects more in the Trump administration than just him.

The blog, however, has to sometimes remind itself not to knock ignorance too much. After all it has occasionally reflected that one of the reasons it was able to make a living for many years was the absence of elementary knowledge about politics and society among the powerful who employ consultants. Many others have profited similarly. A good example was the CEO who employed, on a huge monthly retainer, a consultant to lobby the Howard Government. Not that unusual one would imagine except that the company’s operations were one of the country’s largest sources of tax revenue. The CEO could have, if he wanted, simply picked up the phone to the PM’s Chief of Staff or even the PM himself and got through.

But while ignorance has its benefits for some there are few societal ones when it is generalised. Jill Lepore’s 2010 book, The Whites of Their Eyes, illustrates how it can become generalised and readers would not be surprised by the Trump advent, the views of those who surround him and those who represent the Republicans in Congress. Lepore is a Harvard history professor and also a regular New Yorker writer. The Whites of Their Eyes looks at the Tea Party and the ongoing campaign by the US right to create fables about US history and society. One should rarely trust publishers’ blurbs but in this book’s case the cover description is apt: the book “reveals that the far right has embraced a narrative about America’s founding which that is not only a fable but is also, finally, a variety of fundamentalism – anti-intellectual, anti-historical and dangerously anti-pluralist.”

But what does this have to do with ignorance and Wonder Woman? Well Wonder Woman has been much in the news lately ranging from hysteria about the UN using her (a cartoon character) as a feminist emblem, to protests about all female screenings of the new Wonder Woman film and, not least of course, to the casting of the wonderful Robin Wright in the film. And, most importantly, the controversy over the cartoon character has largely been carried on in ignorance of the character’s history and creational context. Such a sense of context is provided by another Lepore book – The Secret History of Wonder Woman – which outlines how Wonder Woman’s secret identity (a secretary called Diane Prince) is a match for the character’s secret history.

Wonder Woman, launched in 1941, combines super powers (invisible plane, golden bracelets which stop bullets and a magic lasso which had the power to force the truth from anyone she roped) with strongly feminist undertones as well as the overtones of her being a powerful woman.

What Lepore does is to put all this into context with the character’s creator, Dr William Marston, his family and his milieu. Marston was heavily influenced by early feminists and suffragists including Emmeline Pankhurst and Margaret Sanger, an early birth control advocate. Marston was also the inventor of the lie detector, had a Harvard Ph D and worked across a variety of fields from ‘shell shock’ (now known as PTSD), advertising, sexual difference and theories of dominance and submission. He also lived with both his wife and Olive Byrne, a Sanger niece.

Now it should be said that Wonder Woman’s character has evolved somewhat in the years since Marston created her and since others have drawn and written the series. One consistent theme, however, is the classical Greek mythological framework and Robin Wright will play one of Greek’s fiercest female warriors from the Attic War, Antiope, in the Wonder Woman film – a role she sees as consistent with other roles as strong, independent women.

But despite the evolution Wonder Woman still remains a rare example of a strong woman in the cartoon world. And that’s important because cartoons – along with humour, myths, history and historians – can tell us a lot about societal structures and beliefs, communications and communities. And knowing a bit about them all can also sometimes help us avoid – and combat – ignorance whether innate or induced.