American “Exceptionalism” and the American Nation
Truth, Justice, and the American Way isn’t enough for Superman anymore, as the Man of Steel has officially renounced his American identity to become a “citizen of the universe.” Rather than rage, the reaction among the American public and the right-wing blogosphere can best be described as resignation. Michelle Malkin mocked that even Superman was abandoning “Hope” as our bumbling quasi-American President careens from one disaster to another, and Lew Rockwell, always ready to miss the point (willfully?), thought that this was a victory for his version of anti-American anti-statism rather than just another step in the march towards post-national progressivism. It’s hard to feel shock; instead, one wonders what took them so long.
Superman had already essentially been retconned as a post-American in the latest revamp of the movie series, where Truth, Justice and the American Way was rephrased as “Truth, Justice, and… all that other stuff.” Of course, Superman already having been killed, cloned, brought back to life, and re-imagined as a Communist ally of Stalin, most Americans under 20 don’t know what an all-American looks like anymore—much as they don’t know what America used to look like when it was still America. Superman is simply following the historical trend of traditional and even iconic American symbols renouncing any particular attachment to the United States.
Partially, this is because there is no longer a traditional America left for Superman to defend. While the Man of Steel was once mocked as the “big blue Boy Scout” because of his corny Americana, in the post-America of today the Boy Scouts are a homophobic hate group unworthy of public accommodation. The whole point of Superman was that he was an alien who had so totally assimilated into Middle American norms and values that he had become anonymous with the country itself. However, as Middle America is condemned as racist, sexist, fascist, and proto-Nazi, Superman cannot be seen as associated with reactionary values.
Partially, this is due to the rise of global capitalism. In 2009, the movie GI Joe stripped out the American identity of the formerly “All-American heroes” due to concerns about how it would play in the global marketplace. McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, or Nike are not “American” in any significant sense—their loyalty is to profits, with national identities and cultures annoying obstacles that are to be overcome and countries useful suckers that can be used as sources of subsidies for cheap labor. Culture itself is now a mass produced product as surely as a Big Mac, and just as artificial. Superman notes that the world is now “too small” because we are all connected. Of course, as culture becomes universal in a global, MTV world, its ceases to have any meaning or significance at all beyond prole-feed for the post-American masses.
The late Sam Francis wrote,
There used to be a real popular culture in America, not only in Maine and Montana but even in metropolitan areas like New York and Boston. In that veiled and lost epoch, many Americans played musical instruments they were raised to play instead of buying recordings produced by European musicians and Japanese corporations, wrote poetry for themselves instead of puzzling over thin volumes and crippled and bitter verse cranked out by whatever lesbian poetess-in-residence New York publishing houses have decided to make a celebrity for a week, and acted in and sometimes even wrote plays that they produced themselves in local theaters instead of packing the house to gibber over Madonna, Michael Jackson, Wayne’s World, and Nightmare on Elm Street, Part 70. Today, in most American cities and towns, locally owned bookstores that sell anything but second-hand books are almost extinct, and the Crown’s, Walden’s, and B. Dalton’s that dominate professional bookselling offer exactly the same stock in every city in the country, almost none of which would have complied with the conventional and moderate obscenity laws of the 1950′s.
In the same way, Superman, Batman, and other iconic American characters once reflected certain aspects of the American experience but have since become brands. Killing off characters only to bring them back and creating drastic character changes straight out of pro wrestling only create short-term profit spikes and news-cycle mentions. The larger significance and importance of characters that were once national icons are slowly drained away.
Of course, in some ways, Superman is not really abandoning America, but fulfilling it. American conservatives, the self-defined champions of the Constitution, the Flag, and the Troops, have set themselves up for this by creating an American patriotism divorced from any particular attachment to an American nation. To the American conservative movement, America is to be a universal nation, where anyone from any background can come to a land of freedom and fulfill their dreams. When Barack Obama noted that presumably people in every country have a national dream, conservatives pounced, claiming that ours is superior precisely because America is the purest exemplar of universal values of freedom, equality of opportunity, and prosperity.
As G.K. Chesterton noted, those who must see their nation as the most powerful actually hate their country, because they love power and status more than the nation itself. Of course, such a stance is also self-defeating because in the real world, no actually existing community can actually live up to abstractions. So when a San Francisco Supervisor states that she will not say the Pledge of Allegiance because there is no “liberty and justice for all,” she’s not being extreme, she’s being logical. There are no unicorns or wood elves either, but as a nation, we seem to have decided the even more unrealistic prospect of “equality” as the ideal that our country must strive for if it is to be true to itself. The result is that an American who truly believes in the American Creed can never fully love his country. Even if one conceded that the United States came closest to fulfilling the dream, it would be irrelevant—the beatific vision of absolute equality will defeat reality every time.
And of course, why should many “Americans,” especially minorities and ideological feminists identify with the United States? Why should the descendents of slaves care about a conservative Constitution ratified by slaveholders? Why should Mexican immigrants assimilate to a country that defeated their homeland in war and took the Southwest for its own? Why should ideological homosexuals and various other members of the coalition of the oppressed feel any connection to the historic American nation established primarily by Anglo-Protestant men whose character and worldview represented the antitheses of contemporary values? Conservatives can perhaps make the case they shouldn’t be anti-American because the United States began the process of leading us to our present state of Enlightenment (though of course We All Have A Long Way To Go).
However, conservatives have no way to explain why they shouldn’t be loyal to a post-American vision of universal equality within a world community. Certainly, for a true believer in equality, that makes more sense than loyalty to a country built by White men. That’s also why conservatives that try to square this circle resolve the issue through ignorance, by saying obvious lies that Martin Luther King was a patriotic Republican, that the Founding Fathers (or Lincoln) believed in racial equality, or that the segregated American Army of World War II was fighting against discrimination.
Howard Zinn’s history may be biased and his values repugnant, but his narrative is far closer to reality than that of, say, Newt Gingrich.
This isn’t necessarily limited to America. Jean Raspail, the French author of Camp of the Saints, wrote in “The Fatherland Betrayed by the Republic” that the universal values of the Revolution endanger the physical existence of France itself. However, even France is in a better position than America on this front. Even the most idealistic Frenchman still has some conception of a French culture, language, and history that immigrants are supposed to assimilate into (even if they won’t.) If Muslims became 90 percent of the French population and a follower of Allah became President of the Republic itself, they would never be truly French and would always remain cognizant of that fact. France would exist as long as even one French family remained. Americans don’t have this, as their supposed defenders define American identity as making sure that George Soros pays low taxes.
Robert Kaplan, in an oft-reprinted observation, noted that America, more than any other nation, may have been born to die. It is less noted that he said this while describing the American military as “behind the curve” in understanding this realization, as they still believe they are fighting for their country. More enlightened journalists, like Kaplan, understand these rubes who continue to fight and die for the Stars and Stripes are simply engaged in tying up the loose ends before the End of History, and are making the world safe for Madonna, multiculturalism, and Monsanto, rather than Mom, God, and Apple Pie.
Pat Buchanan once asked rhetorically, “Who would die for the United Nations?” Of course, the beauty of globalism is that no one needs to die for it—nmembers of the 3rd Marine Division will die for the memory of Iwo Jima, so the daughters they leave behind can sing along to “Born This Way.” Ultimately, the remnants of identity, culture and history are just so much propaganda to string the masses along into defending values that do not belong to America and in fact may even threaten the continued existence of the country.
Superman, of course, was tired of even being tied down to American identity because it got in the way of his advocacy of these universal moral values. It should be noted that the catalyst for this change was that the American identity of Superman compromised his ability to (non-violently of course) defend Iranian protesters from Ahmadinejad’s regime. Whereas during the Cold War, a protest for human rights in a hostile country could be seen as a sign of pro-American sentiment, it is striking how irrelevant America has been during the Arab Spring, as either inspiration or antagonist. The idea of “freedom” is now post-American. Superman is simply joining John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom in asking “If there’s no Cold War, what’s the point of being an American?” Why should anyone, especially a superhero from another world, be tied to a cultural baggage of a particular nation when you can symbolize human rights for everyone?
For traditional conservatives, the answer is obvious. The “cultural baggage” is what makes a nation a nation, the political expression of a particular people and culture. The late Samuel Huntington, in his last and most important work, Who Are We?, attempted to define what American culture was and how the “American Creed” was rooted in that particular culture. He was protested by the multicultural activists of the Left and ignored by the neoconservative dreamers and corporate lobbyists of the so-called Right. If there is an American culture, it remains unchampioned and unclaimed.
And so Superman is right to abandon it. Even by the standards of the American right wing, though the Man of Steel has fought Nazis, Soviets, and supervillans in the name of the USA, ultimately, the USA was simply the placeholder for liberty, equality, and all the rest of hackneyed slogans from the Enlightenment. And if we are just a nation of immigrants united by ideals, why should we be a nation at all?
Superman is fulfilling American Exceptionalism, which is to say, there’s nothing exceptional about America at all. So Superman’s a citizen of the world, the U.S. Navy is a Global Force for Good, and Coca-Cola wants to give the world a smile. What else is on?