Looking for Superman

In the stack of newspapers this morning, the section containing the comics was on top. In Bizarro, a now old and pudgy Clark Kent ponders donating his old Superman costume to the Salvation Army. He doesn’t use it any more, doesn’t jump over tall buildings or fly faster than a speeding bullet to the rescue of some helpless (always white, usually female or below voting age) person or people.

Superman is one representative of a paradigm well known to media scholars. It divides the world into a false dichotomy of good and evil. If not in retirement, Superman would surely have stopped the 9/11 attacks, stopped that bridge from collapsing in Minneapolis, flown into Afghanistan’s mountains and extracted Osama bin Laden. He’d do something about Iran’s nuclear program and be pulling double duty stopping those bad missiles launched into Israel from the Gaza Strip. Superheroes were heirs to Cowboys in the old Cowboy and Indian movies–where Cowboys were good and Indians were evil (except of course for the Lone Ranger’s subservient sidekick, Tonto). It is an appeal to a simpler life, without the complexity of shades of grey, or any need to understand one’s counterparts. And above all, we are safe, because someone will come to our rescue.

The United States is in transition from being the world’s sole remaining superpower to simply having the most outrageously expensive military on the planet. It will surely maintain that military and, at least if conventional wisdom holds, continue to pursue an impossible war in Afghanistan, while the rest of the country simply crumbles. The war on Afghanistan and the war on Iraq are two examples of at best dubious military adventures, intended in part to spread so-called democratic capitalism–the U.S. notion of progress–around the world. Neither of them have been successful. But even when the world’s most powerful military is so astonishingly ineffective, we do not question the money we spend on it and we are in denial that it is broken. And Osama bin Laden, alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, remains at large.

It is a disillusioning time. While most commentators I see agree on the need for the financial system bailout that has in fact done no good, they seem to agree it was mishandled and a cause for resentment that our government sees rescuing banks as more urgent than keeping ordinary people employed so they can feed, clothe, and shelter their families. In power, the Democrats have proven everything bad that Conservatives have ever said about government.

In short, the world isn’t what we’ve been told it is. The country isn’t what we’ve been told it is. The only part of the pattern we’re accustomed to that has held is that the rich have come out of this richer than ever before. And the rest of us have gotten poorer. We’re being thrown out of our homes and out of the “American Dream.” The forces that beset us are beyond our control, we need help, and there’s none in sight.

It is a time for Superman. And that’s a very scary thing. Because even if Superman were real, he couldn’t make the world into that simplistic contest between good and evil. Reality is a little harder to deal with than that. But we’ve been trained for decades to believe in the illusion. We may well grasp for that illusion and find ourselves with a Hitler.

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