Truth, Justice, and the American Way
by Ernest Lilley
Review by Ernest Lilley
SFRevu *Editorial ISBN/ITEM#: 0907ELTJAT
Date: 01 July 2009 /
If you think "Truth, Justice and the American Way" is an outdated mantra, you'd get no argument from me. Of course, like many SF readers, my sensibilities are very retro...so that doesn't mean that I don't believe in it wholeheartedly. It's a pretty sweeping statement though, and the problem with it, is largely, that what's meant by "the American Way" means different things to different people.
When the illegal alien dressed in red, yellow, and blue first said those words back in the 1950s, the official "America" was easier to define, and Superman was its embodiment. He was white, male, heterosexual, powerful, and devoted to fairness and reason. His friends had plenty of cultural diversity and he was very into tolerance. Lois was a professional woman, and for my money a more serious journalist than many of the overly coiffed commentators seen on CNN. Olsen was a nerd, which is to say he was bright, insecure, and physically underdeveloped. Perry was a crusty old white guy who was frustrated by his inability to grasp the modern world. Throughout the various episodes, you'd see the Man-of-Steel befriend people from many different cultures, always showing deference and respect for "their way of life". Really. Sure, he saw things through his super-Americentric-vision, but there was no question that he felt everyone was OK at heart...or at the worst redeemable. He was the prototypical new world man.
Of course, it's easy to be nice to everyone when nobody can threaten you.
Invulnerability gives you the freedom to be polite, though it by no means creates a mandate that you will use your power for "good instead of evil". The critical flaw in the Superman story is that ultimately he doesn't represent the American way because while he does embody the national notion of virtue, nobody can become him, and the real opportunity to become American is at the core of our ethos.
Our nature is, as has been said by others, elitist, but not exclusivist.
Today, the superhero myth has been pretty well mined out. Superman himself has been killed off and resurrected numerous times by DC, and between Heroes with their hero/everyman motif, The Incredibles with my favorite line, "If everybody's special then no one is." and movies like The Watchmen which is a fraction of the number of movies in the genre, it's clearly gotten old. Of course, in novel form, you know the ones without pictures, it never even got started.
Though it's taken it on the chin recently, "the American" way still means what it always meant, which to me is opportunity without restriction by race, religion, or creed. Tolerance of other views. Civic responsibility. You might say that this mindset needs a new name to reflect the reality that America is often a nation divided over these values, but I'm all for keeping it as the "American way". Like man statements of virtue, it's not so much what we are as the standard we hold ourselves up to.
Sure, it makes you look smart to be cynical, but it takes courage to believe in others.
So, as the nation celebrates its birth, and we all look at flags flying and bombs burstin' in air, I suggest that we all look inward to see if there's a superhero beneath our mild mannered exteriors, and to dedicate asking not what others can do for us, but for what we can do for each other.