Tuesday, July 04, 2006

American Superheroes - Happy Birthday to the USA

Over at Aint It Cool News the crew have each listed the ten movies that best represent America to them. The Superman movies, of course, made the list for many of them. In spite of the intentions of the makers of the current movie, Superman remains an American hero: an immigrant who has embraced the ideals, rituals, and mythology of his adopted home, while bringing the best of his original home with him. It has often been said the USA is a nation not of tribe, but of ideas. The only thing necessary to truly be an American is to adopt and hold dear the ideas upon which our country is founded, described best in the preamble to our Declaration of Independence. Actual citizenship is a legal technicality. I suspect there are undocumented Americans scattered across the globe.

I am shocked, shocked, that “Casablanca” wasn’t listed by any of them. Is there a more apt idealization of America? A little rough around the edges, not quite respectable, with a tortured past best not talked about. Looking for the good life, and doing what it takes to build a seedy little paradise of excess and good times upon a foundation of tight-fisted finances and an almost puritan work ethic. Being dragged into the messes of the wider world, knowing it’s the right thing to do, knowing old friendships require it and the future demands it, but dammit, just wanting to be left alone to pursue the dreams kept for decades, now a little worn around the edges and tarnished, but still there, beneath the pillow, kissed every night before settling in to sleep.

But that was then, and today, few Americans hold so fast to the ideals of seclusion and ignorance that seemed so seductive in the nineteen-thirties. Today, if you asked me to point to one movie that looked like America to me, I’d go back to the superheroes, and choose the second of the Spider-Man movies. Doing the right thing is a bitch, and Peter Parker’s tired of it. It’s making him ill, and even those amazing powers that at first imposed extra responsibility on him seem to have deserted him. Wouldn’t it be better to just leave it all behind and nurture those smaller, more pleasant dreams, and pretend that the waking nightmares of the world aren’t our problem?

But of course, that’s never really an option. With great power does come great responsibility. Spider-Man is motivated, like America, by a complex mingling of compassion, righteous indignation, hope, and self interest. He can’t save the world, and even when choosing the right thing, he sometimes has to do an evil thing, like kill his best friend’s father. And he knows he’ll have to pay for that, some day. Doing the right thing is never easy. But the world needs heroes.

And those heroes must live by a code. Both Spider-Man and Superman are bedeviled by foes who seek to use their compassion against them. Rescuing innocent bystanders strains Spider-Man to his limits. But that is no weakness. It is a strength. Today, we hear how our infatuation with rights leaves us weak and divided before our enemies. Well, back during the Cold War, we were told that our infatuation with freedom left us disorganized and weak-willed in the face of communism’s disciplined and efficient central planning. We all know how that turned out. The frothy chaos of free enterprise gave birth to the computer revolution, the internet, biochemistry, and other wonders that didn’t even exist twenty years ago, while in the Soviet Union, the people pretended to work and the government pretended to pay them. Central planning ground its victims into dust, and then choked in that stale, grey cloud.

So yeah, we’ll argue vigorously, even viciously, about what to do and how to do it. Which means we won’t move without forethought, and we won’t rest in our ruts. We will always be questioning, weighing, planning, thinking, and dreaming of new and better ways to achieve our goals. We’ll build smarter weapons, train smarter soldiers, worry about getting it wrong, and we will get it wrong. Many times. But we’ll try not to make the same mistakes again. Our enemies won’t care, and so they won’t improve. Conserving effort is only half the equation in efficiency. The other half is increasing effectiveness.

So we’ll muddle through the problems of having a free press and not wanting to harm the innocent. Like Spider-Man’s effort to save the train, it’s gonna hurt, and it won’t be easy. But we’ll be better for it, in the end. Freedom and compassion are not weaknesses. The fact that our enemies think they are is the primary reason they must be fought.

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