Wednesday, May 11, 2011

"The United States of Babylon," or, Truth and Justice, Hold the American Way

Whatever happened to "Truth, Justice, and the American Way"? With Action Comics 900, the answer is all-too-clear…

Superman is considered one of the most iconic America characters ever created, known all over the world. So, then, when the Man of Tomorrow renounces his citizenship, the phrase "United, We Stand" threatens to become anachronistic, highlighting what I call “America Babylon,” the scattering of American ideals through the speaking of different ideological tongues…

As mentioned, the incident appeared in the 900th anniversary issue of Action Comics. For those living under a rock (or, who still think that the death of bin Laden has healed all wounds), here’s the synopsis:
When Superman drops in on an Iranian protest to stand with demonstrators in an act of nonviolent civil disobedience, the U.S. government takes him to task for acting as an instrument of national policy. Superman responds by renouncing his American citizenship and proclaiming himself a citizen of the universe.
It’s a short story, in itself, so there’s a lot either left out, or inferred. That vagueness, in true “Babylonian” fashion, allows for a few different readings, not just of the story, but of Superman himself, since he’s been written by many writers with disparate viewpoints throughout the years. (And although the Seduction of the Innocent scare created the Comics Code Authority and "sanitized" superheroes into "wholesome" all-Americans, the Superman comics of the seventies were already exploring controversial issues like this, too.) But more than that, it illustrates the “Babylonian” nature of America itself, the conflict of values that no longer allow for a monolithic definition of just what it means to be “American.” The story’s description has some worthy causes listed, and those worthy causes are what allow liberals to get away with a lot...and the Superman as “alien immigrant" angle can be a double-edged sword; an affirmation of the "melting pot," that America was an idea for all, or a warning against importing contradictory ideals into the mix in the name of "multiculturalism.” The outcry over the change in the Justice League cartoon (“Truth and Justice, not just for America, but for the whole world), or in Superman Returns of the phrase “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” to “Truth, Justice, and all that stuff” reveals the belief that Superman has always said that, and has always been a Reagan-esque puppet (well, if Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns is any indication). But a closer look reveals the opposite, and that the seed for today's news was there from the beginning...

To begin with, the phrase, as associated with Superman, did not originate in the comics, but on the television show. As detailed in a New York Times article after the Superman Returns movie:

In the first screen incarnation of Superman, the Max Fleischer cartoons that ran from 1941 to 1943, each episode's preamble informs us not only of the origin and powers of this relatively new creation (Krypton, speeding bullet, etc.), but also the kinds of things he fights for. It's a shorter list than you think. Before World War II, Superman fought "a never-ending battle for truth and justice." Back then, that was enough.

By the time the first live-action Superman hit the screen - Kirk Alyn, in a 1948 serial - the lessons of World War II, particularly in the gas chambers of Europe, were obvious. That's why Pa Kent tells young Clark he must always use his powers "in the interests of truth, tolerance and justice."

It wasn't until Superman came to television in the 1950s that the phrase became codified in the form most of us remember it: "a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American way."
The original phrase “truth and justice,” without the American Way, leaves the field wide-open, without context. To get the full context, consider the motives of the original writers, Siegel and Shuster:
(From Wikipedia): An influence on early Superman stories is the context of the Great Depression. The left-leaning perspective of creators Shuster and Siegel is reflected in early storylines. Superman took on the role of social activist..., fighting crooked businessmen and politicians and demolishing run-down tenements. This is seen by comics scholar Roger Sabin as a reflection of "the liberal idealism of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal", with Shuster and Siegel initially portraying Superman as champion to a variety of social causes. In later Superman radio programs the character continued to take on such issues, tackling a version of the KKK in a 1946 broadcast. Siegel and Shuster's status as children of Jewish immigrants is also thought to have influenced their work. Timothy Aaron Pevey has argued that they crafted "an immigrant figure whose desire was to fit into American culture as an American", something which Pevey feels taps into an important aspect of American identity.

It is important to note the “Progressive” strain of politics here, and how they were at odds at what we know as “the American Way.” Franklin’s New Deal is associated, then and now, with the infiltration of communism into American life. Despite some worthy issues like fighting the KKK and women beaters, the “social causes” of the time were also associated with unions, trust-busting, you know…all that “stuff.” Tied up in “all that stuff” is the idea that America was a “democracy,” which does not mean “equality,” but mob rule, or the submission of one’s rights, if enough people vote on it.

Ok, then, but Superman eventually came to stand for “Truth, Justice, and the American Way,” so we should leave it at that, right? Well, not so fast there, speeding bullet…Let’s turn the x-ray vision to the intent behind that phrase:
(From Wikipedia): The American Way of life is individualistic, dynamic, pragmatic. It affirms the supreme value and dignity of the individual; it stresses incessant activity on his part, for he is never to rest but is always to be striving to "get ahead"; it defines an ethic of self-reliance, merit, and character, and judges by achievement: "deeds, not creeds" are what count. The "American Way of Life" is humanitarian, "forward-looking", optimistic. Americans are easily the most generous and philanthropic people in the world, in terms of their ready and unstinting response to suffering anywhere on the globe. The American believes in progress, in self-improvement, and quite fanatically in education. But above all, the American is idealistic. Americans cannot go on making money or achieving worldly success simply on its own merits; such "materialistic" things must, in the American mind, be justified in "higher" terms, in terms of "service" or "stewardship" or "general welfare"... And because they are so idealistic, Americans tend to be moralistic; they are inclined to see all issues as plain and simple, black and white, issues of morality.
You don’t need x-ray vision to see the contradiction there: “Individualism” versus the “General Welfare”; Spiritualism versus capitalism. Business versus religion. Profit versus service. “Idealism” versus “materialism”. (Hell, that one goes back to Plato versus Aristotle.) In other words, this world versus the afterlife…This goes to the root of American Babylon: the contradiction between the idea of “certain inalienable rights” being given by God, which resulted in the idea of Utilitarianism (capitalism is moral because it creates the greatest good for the greatest number) versus the notion, as identified by Ayn Rand, that rights come from the nature of man’s mind (and therefore, the good is what’s best for the individual), without the supernatural aspect (which, right there, defines the struggle between Superman as a Christ-figure and Lex Luthor as the Promethean scientist stealing fire from the gods.) These conflicting notions, then, have defined and divided the nation from the beginning, and, so, are found throughout the history of Superman, up and to the current incarnation on Smallville, which frequently highlights Clark’s quest for personal happiness versus his “duty” to mankind. With contradictions like that, even a man of steel can bend... (For Landon’s take, see his recent post, “E Tu, Lois?”.)

Back to the present, and to the Action Comics 900: If read out of focus, combined with the vagueness, different people can read and project different things into it, which only highlights how undivided we really stand. My personal take is that it could be seen as quasi-Libertarian, as Superman stands with the Iranian protesters against a theocratic government. But, again, that’s read out-of-focus. By its own internal logic, it seems to make sense, given that Superman, who has visited many worlds (and in this continuity, can see micro-universes, apparently), would see a "bigger picture" than us mere mortals. But as for the writers, they're bound by the same earth-bound, human philosophies, so it's presumptuous for them to inject their own politics into a god-like figure. In short, they limit Superman's metaphysical view to "Democracy." In one way, this is important, because it suggests a universal principle that guides Superman (and it is admirable that he stood on the side of the Iranian protesters when the U.S. Government did not); on the other hand, the "multiculturalism" extends beyond countries to planets and dimensions, and his "American Way is not enough" limits his understanding of America the idea to America as mob rules. (Never mind that America was not meant to be a democracy, but "a republic, if you can keep it...")

A libertarian-minded person, at that, could find common cause with the idea of not being associated with the U.S. government as it currently is, which is currently demanding its citizens give up more of their rights, with its "Patriot Acts," "mandatory" insurance requirements, and TSA screenings of children and babies, and now, unlawful police entry into one's home, while some opponents of that defense are stressing the distinction of the American ideals of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" versus the American statist government, and that Superman is renouncing the baby with the bathwater. Here, I'd submit that this issue is not a recent trend, but another built-in contradiction of our founding father's doing; witness the original debates by the Federalists and Anti-Federalists regarding the Bill of Rights versus the Constitution (it usually begins with Alexander Hamilton). In addition to all that, a libertarian-minded person, tempted to read their politics into the Iranian stand, would have to confront the fact that many of these protesters, despite the cries for "freedom," would potentially just as soon vote for another Islamic theocracy in some countries.

But among the warring factions over the meaning of America, there is still a large percent who stand for the “American Way” as conventionally understood, enough for DC Comics to “
backtrack” on the premise:"This short story is just that, it will not be followed up upon. Superman will remain as American as Apple pie."

DC is known for their “Elseworlds” stories, alternate versions of characters that have no bearing on current continuity. I initially thought it was a stand-alone story, anyway, given that it was buried in the middle of the book among other stories, with no indication of continuity. This was not labeled as such, however, so it’s only fair to speculate that they were “testing the waters,” so to speak. And, for now, the appearance of Superman as the embodiment of all things American is maintained…at least, to those who haven’t read this blog posting…