Sunday, July 02, 2006

Superman, and Defense of the American Way

“I'm here to fight for truth, and justice, and the American way.”
Lois Lane
: (Laughs) “You're gonna end up fighting every elected official in this country!”
: “You don’t really mean that, Lois.”
Lois Lane
“You’ve got to be kidding…”
“Lois…I never lie.”

- “Superman” (1978)

Superman (replacing U.S. flag on top of the battered White House): “Good afternoon, Mr. President. Sorry I've been away so long. I won't let you down again.”

- “Superman II” (1980)

Got some free time for a “feature-length” blog entry? Y’all ready for a world history, civics and comparative cultures/politics polemic with an American twist?

It is almost the Fourth of July, after all.

“"We were always hesitant to include the term 'American way' because the meaning of that today is somewhat uncertain.

"The ideal hasn't changed. I think when people say 'American way,' they're actually talking about what the 'American way' meant back in the '40s and '50s, which was something more noble and idealistic."

"I don't think 'the American way' means what it meant in 1945. He's an alien, from Krypton; he has come to Earth to be kind of a savior for this world, not our country ... And he has no papers."

Those above quotes were gleaned from various interviews conducted with the screenwriters, Mike Dougherty and Dan Harris, of the latest Superman movie – which I have to wait another three-and-a-half-weeks to see in theaters! Great Caesar’s ghost!

I’m sorry…do they mean to say that the “American Way” (of life, of government, of idealism; basically, all that the term “American Way” implies) is out of style? They say that the meaning is uncertain, and yet…the ideal of it hasn’t changed. Yet isn’t as relevant today as it was then? That’s…kind of stupid. Naןve. Are they saying that Superman (whom they wrote and collected their paycheck writing for) and the example he provides is too old fashioned for today’s America, and by extension today’s world? Is patriotism now wrong? Has America changed so much that what makes America America and Americans American is no longer…appropriate? Modern? Good?

Well, in point of fact, the “American Way” is the reason that the screenwriters of “Superman Returns”, who don’t think it is any longer relevant, have a job in the first place. Were it not for “the American Way” of building a country (yes, mistakes and massacres were made at times), there wouldn’t be a Hollywood to begin with. All of California would either be Spanish, Mexican or Russian (you did know that there were several Russian colonies in California once upon a time?).

Now, look, you can have a movie where Superman doesn’t outright say he stands for the American Way. Perry White, editor of the Daily Planet, can wonder if he still stands for “truth, justice, and all that stuff…”. This is because, thanks to 68 years of comics and movies, it’s well-established that at the core of it all, no matter the movie or convoluted comic book storyline, “Truth, Justice and the American Way” is in the end the basis of what Superman fights for. And for fairness’ sake, unlike the screenwriters, the director of “Superman Returns”, Bryan Singer, has said he sees Superman for what he is – an American superhero, who saves people regardless of nationality. He said it’s been well-established in the earlier films. ‘Nuff said, right?

Well… there is a bigger issue here though, that anyone with or without x-ray vision should be able to figure out. And it isn’t with the director. I’ll judge the movie when I can see it.

What worries me, what angers me, though, is when those in positions of influence – in the entertainment industry, no less – do what they can to sow doubt amongst the people. They do not simply get them to doubt what it means to be American, but whether it is even permissible to be proud to be American today. This is the implied, yet unstated, opinion of the screenwriters of “Superman Returns” (Look, Dad…I’m reading between the lines!). And it goes beyond simple comic books and big-screen blockbusters. It is part of a debate, a campaign of self-questioning and self-blame, that goes along with our post-9/11 world seemingly quite well. Usually, unfairly, that blame is mostly on President Bush (and not on the terrorists who have killed Americans, or are constantly trying to).

The screenwriters wanted Superman to be more internationalist, more palatable and relevant to the sort of “multi-polar” world the French would like to create (and this, of course, is out of an ongoing French desire, since day one, to stunt America’s power and influence). They make this asinine argument, too, when America is much more “internationalist” than many other countries and societies in the world. Who funds 25% of the United Nations, as ineffective and corrupt as it is? The American people do…yay, taxes!

As for Superman…hello, the guy is already an international superhero in previous movies. Don’t you remember, in “Superman II”, he rescued Paris (and Lois Lane) from nuclear destruction? Had Superman not defeated General Zod, Lex Luthor would have been ruler of Australia! Yes, Australia (where much of “Superman Returns” was filmed, by the way)! See, it’s already an international production!

Now, as for the reported cutting out of “the American Way” and “pro-American imagery” from Superman’s motto and the latest movie, the screenwriters argue this sells movies better. However, in 2002 it was okay in Spider-Man, at the end of the movie, to show the angst-ridden, embattled Wall-Crawler prominently using a flagpole with Old Glory proudly waving behind him as he makes his web-slinging way around New York City. That sure didn’t hurt Spidey’s box office figures (over $700 million worldwide for the first film).

But yes, we’re talking not simply about international cooperation, but also a multi-polar world…in which selfish governments like, say, that of France can play a central, manipulative role. Now speaking of that…did you know the has-never-been-actually-elected Prime Minister of France, Dominique de Villepin, has a hero all his own? His role model, and he isn’t shy about it, is a former dictator: Napoleon Bonaparte.

Hmm…let’s not discuss the “American Way” for the moment. The world, after all, is bigger than America. There are lots of “Ways” out there. And that, my friends, is where the fun begins. The French Way. The European Way. The Russian Way. The Arab Way. The Islamic Way. Just a small taste, mind you, but a taste nonetheless.

Let’s start by talking about the French Way.

The French Way? Say it’s the 1700s. Let’s send tens of thousands of tomahawks to Indians in North America, so that American colonials on the frontiers of the Thirteen Colonies and the British with them might be slaughtered. The French Way? Let’s allow Southern ships to dock in France, in clear violation of neutrality proclamations, and do what we can to ensure the breakup of the United States in the American Civil War. Oh, and at the same time let’s flout the Monroe Doctrine, brazenly put our own guy as “Emperor”, Maximilian, of Mexico – the better to constrict growing American power. Then, after we move this poor Austrian duke/dupe and set him up on the throne in Mexico City as our proxy, let’s…retreat! It’s May 5, and the Mexicans are beating us in battle!

The French Way? Let’s refuse to pay our war debt from the Great War that we owe to America, but demand reparations from Germany! And punish them if they don’t pay! The French Way? We’ve lost World War II, and it’s only just started. Let’s be so collaborationist from Vichy with the Nazis occupying Paris, that we’ll fire upon and sink American and British ships trying to liberate North Africa. And then, we’ll charge ‘em for entering our ports! Also, great idea…let’s turn wine into fuel for Panzers, and turn over Jews to the Nazis. The French Way? Ah, the 21st century! Let’s be as selfish and obstructionist as we can, especially to things like the spread of self-determining democracy and the ouster of dictators in Iraq who owe us money. Oui, the French Way!

What about the wider European Way? Well, what about it?

Let’s fight amongst ourselves for thousands of years. Let’s have a series of entangling weddings between royal families of different countries, and then in the early 20th century slaughter each other anyway when an Archduke is assassinated in Sarajevo. The European Way? It’s World War II - let’s…slaughter millions of Jews, Gypsies, Russians, gays, Catholics…for the fun of it! The European Way? Let’s colonize Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, screw up all them peoples there real good, draw arbitrary national borders, and leave America to clean up the mess – and then, yes, let’s hypocritically blame America when things go wrong!

The European Way? Let’s call Jews defending their country in the Middle East “state terrorists”, and host in our cities Palestinian Arabs who support suicide bombings against Jewish civilians, and let’s call such acts “legitimate resistance of freedom fighters.” The European Way? Let’s appease our enemies some more…it’s good for business. Unlike America, we don’t go to war for oil – we appease for it. Who cares how many lives are lost, or if our countries are taken over? The European Way? God? Who is God? We are enlightened human beings. We don’t need God. We are beyond God. We’re post-Christian. But we’ll still call some political parties “Christian Democrats”. Yeah, European Way, yeah!

Or how about the Russian Way?

Let’s have Tzarist Secret Police, and pogroms, and a couple of failed revolutions. Then, finally, as Europe tears itself to shreds once again, let’s finally have a successful revolution. The Russian Way? Let’s claim we want a “dictatorship of the people” after this revolution, and instead settle for a “dictatorship over the people” (is there any other kind, really?). The Russian Way? The Germans are getting antsy. Let’s carve up Poland between us and Hitler while we still can. Oh, let’s purge our military of effective generals too, because they might want power. What? The Nazis are attacking? The Germans are at the gates of Moscow? Betrayal! Where are my generals?

The Russian Way? Ha ha! The Nazis are finished! The Great Patriotic War is won! Eastern Europe is ours! Let’s install “friendly”, like-minded puppet regimes throughout Eastern Europe, because people are always out to get Russia! The Russian Way? Gulags! Siberia! Political and religious oppression! The Russian Way? Let’s install nuclear missiles in Cuba, 90 miles from U.S. shores – and then lie about it to President Kennedy’s face! The Russian Way? Let’s build a wall in Berlin, not to keep murderous people from the West out, but to keep innocent people from the East in! The Russian Way? When the Iron Curtain falls, let’s play at democracy for a few years and then seemingly lapse right back toward the autocracy we’ve always known! The Russian Way? Da, the Russian Way!

What about the Arab Way (don’t worry, we’ll get to the Islamic Way – though in many, many ways, these sections can be melded together)?

Let’s 1) team with the Allies to try and defeat the Ottomans in World War I, then 2) team with the Nazis to try and defeat the Allies in World War II. Let’s create a bunch of weak monarchies, and let a few of them be taken over by strongmen. Let’s see, we’ve had the West Bank and Gaza Strip for nineteen years…did we create that Palestinian state we claim we want? Ha! Let’s blame Israel and America for our poverty and failed military campaigns, not our own failed economic policies or our idiotic decisions to continue fighting those wars we ourselves started in the first place!

The “Zionist Entity” wants to move Palestinians out of refugee camps? Horrors! We need them as pawns! Let’s throw a tantrum, but not actually do anything for our Arab brothers except keep them in squalor! The Arab Way? Modernity? Hell no…tribalism! Honor killings! (as in, “My daughter went to a movie without my permission? With a boy? Kill your sister, Ahmed! Restore family honor!”) Suicide bombings! The Oil Weapon! Boycotts! Terrorism! Jihad! Yes, brothers, the Arab Way!

But what about the Islamic Way?

Female opinions? Female rights? What are those? Jihad, jihad, jihad! Crush the infidels! It’s the 1800s! A dawn of a new century! Let’s commit acts of piracy (as the “Barbary Pirates”), extort the Europeans and that new upstart American republic, enslave the Christians we capture, and let’s not be shy about all that being a necessity of jihad! The Islamic Way? Convert, die, or be dhimmi taxed to death! The Islamic Way (mixed with Arab Way)? SOAP! (okay, that’s a good thing).

The Islamic Way? Let’s introduce “zero” to these infidels, and hey, let’s unleash the findings of a mathematician's book...take a word from the title, al-Jabr….as algebra! That’ll teach ‘em! The Islamic Way? Let’s say others can’t launch or conduct an ongoing war with Muslims during Ramadan. But really, it’s okay for Muslims to attack Jews in 1973 on their holiest day, Yom Kippur, which for us was the 10th of Ramadan. We’ll even name a city in Egypt as “10th of Ramadan City” to commemorate it! No war during Ramadan – unless we say! Ha! The Islamic Way? It is perfectly acceptable for us to caricature Jews, draw them with hook noses and horns…but ooh baby, when you draw the Prophet Muhammad…JIHAD! DEATH TO THE CARTOONISTS! IT IS THE WILL OF ALLAH! The Islamic Way? Peaceful protest? What’s that? Burn the Danish embassy to the ground, along with “freedom of the press”!

God be praised, but only the Islamic Way!

But wait, is it to be the Shiite Way or Sunni Way? Let’s kill each other in a battle for supremacy to find out!

Who’s up for mass slaughter in Iraq? Heeeeeeee’res al-Qaeda!

God be praised, but only the Islamic Way!

Alright, that’s enough. Of course, many of the above are stereotypical generalizations…mostly of governments, not necessarily applicable to every citizen of the societies, cultures or religions mentioned. And yes, I fully admit, they are my brazenly biased opinions too…especially about the French. But I have empirical justification, and cause, there. Anyway, these generalizations, biases, and my opinions…they are all based on recorded, verifiable history as well as modern news stories. Some of this is straight from the horse’s mouth. Why make this stuff up, when the truth has spoken for itself time and again? You can see it on the History Channel, or look it up in a library.

Now, look, I know “the American Way” isn’t all rosy and perfect and spotless – or bloodless. There have been bad and regrettable moments, when the U.S. has done some pretty distasteful things – tolerated slavery, encouraged revolutions and then backed out, enforced segregation, helped to prop up the strongmen we’ve later had to fight, and not acted to prevent genocide when we could or should have – Cambodia, Rwanda, and Sudan spring to mind. Not adequately helping out our own people in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was another shameful disappointment.

Yes, we’ve betrayed our ideals and people and groups we’ve claimed to support on too many occasions – but such things, they are contrary to, rather than an example of, the American Way. In the United States, there is corruption, discrimination, and rampant materialism, and so forth – but do these things alone define America? Are corruption, discrimination, and materialism limited to the United States? Ask Muslims in Europe about discrimination. You want to talk about materialism…have you ever been on the Champs- Elysées? Hardly an anti-materialistic roadway, that. Corruption…does the name of former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi ring a bell? (Probably not) Corruption…hello, United Nations!

We went to war in Iraq to get rid of weapons of mass destruction and oust a brutal dictator in the process. So we didn’t find WMDs. So what? At least Saddam Hussein is out. Is it so wrong that we deposed the Butcher of Baghdad? Is it wrong to try and help Iraqis achieve democracy and liberty after decades of repression? The vast, vast majority of Iraqis dying are being killed by their fellow Arabs, not Americans! Was it wrong to oust the Taliban in Afghanistan? Should we not fight the threat of terrorism? Europeans denounce America as militaristic…Europeans, from Europe, that Continental theater of how many truly militaristic leaders, countries, and pointless wars over the years preceding American independence and then following its establishment?

The hope and humanistic principles that were included in the Declaration of Independence…that’s a fundamental aspect of the American Way: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”

The Preamble to the Constitution of the United States itself provides the basis for the stability and security of government and life in the United States which led to the foundation of Manifest Destiny, the American Dream, and by extension the “American Way” that Superman stands for: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

The protections for all citizens embedded in the first Ten Amendments to the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights, and built up upon by certain Amendments to the Constitution in later years…these have helped to define and shape the American Way:

The First Amendment – “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The Fourth Amendment“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

The Thirteenth Amendment“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

The Fifteenth Amendment – “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

The Nineteenth Amendment“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

The Twenty-Fourth Amendment“The right of citizens of the United States to vote in any primary or other election for President or Vice President, for electors for President or Vice President, or for Senator or Representative in Congress, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State by reason of failure to pay poll tax or other tax.”

Basically, the American Way of life and governance that the screenwriters of “Superman Returns” thought was combative to the rest of the world, corrosive to the United States themselves, no longer relevant or – possibly – wrong, is that no matter what mistakes have been made in the past, we can correct them. It’s okay to be wrong, so long as we learn from our mistakes. We’re human. We’re imperfect. Justice is strived for, if not always achieved. Tomorrow can be a better day, if you believe it can be, and, if need be, if you work hard enough for it to be. The American Way, the American Dream, is not so much that dreams come true by themselves. But they can come true, with nudges of our own, and dedication.

The American Way? American Values and Principles? Freedom? Democracy? Liberty? Hope? The Search for a Better Tomorrow? Optimism? That’s all old fashioned? Irrelevant? At odds with the modern world? Seeing the odds, and not giving up, and fighting for victory? That’s old-fashioned?

Fortune favors the bold, as it has done for millions of immigrants to the U.S.A., and as it did for the Allies when, attempting to liberate Hitler’s Fortress Europe, they took a major gamble on the beaches of Normandy, in northern France, because in September 1939, the French Way was to not attack Germany’s 25 divisions in the western Reich with 110 French divisions while the Nazis had the bulk of their forces conquering Poland, and in May 1940 the French Way was to fight like crap and then surrender.

Luckily, then, the British Way after this capitulation was to fight on despite the odds, as Winston Churchill said: “We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God's good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the Old.

What the British Way is now, well…it depends on who the PM is, how anti-Semitic the BBC is or isn’t, and whether the populace can learn the lessons of 7/7, and place the blame where it belongs. Oh, yeah…Northern Ireland…can the British really denounce Israel, given…well, past Troubles?

But back to “U.S.”. Is it so wrong that America’s ultimate fictional illegal immigrant alien, who is not bound by Earth’s laws of physics, much less the laws of the American Congress, chooses to be bound by and uphold those man-made laws anyway? And is it so wrong that, when he – in movies or comic books – fights abroad, he does so because he was raised on a farm in Kansas, U.S.A., by farmers who instilled him with human, and American, values? All that power, and he could use it to conquer the world – but Superman uses it to save lives instead, and act as inspiration for Americans and all humanity. Is that so bad? Just because you disagree with the current Administration in Washington, or with why our troops are in Iraq or Afghanistan, does that negate the overall good that the Stars and Stripes represent?

The American Way was and remains a conscious break from the self-destructive Ways of the Old World, a break from the Ways of Inquisition, from pogroms, from expulsions from your country of those who are adherents of certain faiths; the American Way is a break from needless royal dealings and “marriage diplomacy”; the American Way, that Richard Donner, Christopher Reeve & Co. weren’t ashamed to have Superman talk about in the movies in those years following Vietnam or the Iran Hostage Crisis, is a break from the failed appeasement and selfishness of much of the world’s history.

It’s a “can-do” attitude – but it has given way to cynicism, self-doubt, and a thoroughly corrosive sense of insecurity among many that could take the country down a path it need not, and does not deserve, to head down. I’d discuss where the blame lies, but there are those who can do that better than I. It is necessary to be self-critical, but not okay to be so at the expense of justifiable patriotism.

Why be a screenwriter in the U.S. and dilute the principles of an American cultural icon – a fictional hero, but an American hero nonetheless – because of your own insecurity or supposed shame in being American, when (I remind you) the French Prime Minister and indeed many lay French look at Napoleon as a national hero, seeking out inspiration from a Corsican-French dictator in their past who, yes, emancipated the Jews but who also betrayed France’s anti-royalist revolution and for many years drenched Europe in blood out of his own power-hungry ambitions, and who said “I love power. But it is as an artist that I love it. I love it as a musician loves his violin, to draw out its sounds and chords and harmonies,” and “Power is my mistress. I have worked too hard at her conquest to allow anyone to take her away from me.”

This, when many Americans look to the late President Ronald Reagan for inspiration, this president who on June 6, 1984 at Pont-du-Hoc, France, said “The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead, or on the next. It was the deep knowledge -- and pray God we have not lost it -- that there is a profound moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest. You were here to liberate, not to conquer, and so you and those others did not doubt your cause. And you were right not to doubt.”

It is okay, even preferable, that Superman is more than just a pop culture icon or example for Americans, but also for the rest of the world as well. Just this past Friday, by chance I found some “Superman”-themed kid’s toothpaste at a supermarket near my apartment in Jerusalem. We know that Superman means many different things to many different people, but at least little kids needn’t worry what he stands for just yet. To them, he can just be a superhero and a necessary component of dental hygiene. No complications. No debate. No self-doubt. Superman can just be an inspiration for the imagination, and life in general.

Luckily, as we grow up, what Superman stands for is already deeply entrenched not only in the American cultural milieu, but that of the world – both real and fictionalized – that he inhabits. Superman transcends the efforts of insecure, ashamed, sell-out screenwriters trying to de-Americanize him. I’ll take the American Way over any other way, any day, any age, any era…no matter who we have to fight for it on our behalf, and even if no one else but me does. If there are Hollywood screenwriters who abhor or have doubts about championing the American Way, they should leave the screenwriting for movies about American cultural icons – fictional or otherwise – who champion it to others, and then they should move to Europe, or Russia, or the mostly non-democratic Middle East.

Warden (after Superman drops off Lex Luthor at a jail): “This country is safe again, Superman, thanks to you.”
Superman: “No, sir. Don't thank me, Warden. We're all part of the same team. Good night.”

- “Superman” (1978)

Woman overheard in background, after witnessing Superman rescue a child on the Canadian side of Niagra Falls:

“What a nice man! Of course he's Jewish…”

- “Superman II” (1980)


Briscoe said...

Well done post. I'm going to have to rewatch the first two Super-films now.

I've done cartoon on the same subject I think you'll appreciate:

Cartoon: Welcome Back, Superman

Anonymous said...

don't you think your comments about the 'islamic way' are quite racist? have you seen the secular 'islamic way' in Turkey? close minded remarks such as 'jihad jihad jihad' show quite a bit of ignorance and lack of understanding of the Islamic faith.

Montie said...

Another good piece. Thanks for the thorough defense of the "American Way"! Why do you think it is necessary to mess with the icons? I would suppose that those who cannot make their own points independently need to denegrate the icons of the ideas they disagree with...Don't believe in Christ then drop a crucifix in urine...if you have a better idea...state it and defend it...if you don't then be nasty and mean and make fun of what you can't begin to understand! If you don't like what Superman represents then make a different movie with a different international anti-American one! Oh, but that might not make so much money???? Well, then just tweek it a bit and go for it!!!!
When you have no real argument then go for the cheap shot!!!

Thanks, Jeremy, for taking the time to defend your views in a reasoned and passionate way...backing up your conclusions with historical and current sources...a little more work than the emotional knee-jerk response of anonymous...but valid and honorable.

David said...

I echo Montie. Ditto, ditto. By the way, I like your reading between the lines!