The Lessons Of Superman (and Supergirl, Superboy, and Superwoman) — Truth, Justice, and the American Way

This is not about our current White House occupant. Rather, it’s an attempt to trace the differences between the ideals on which generations of Americans were raised and the behavior of those in whom we have entrusted the rights, responsibilities, and privileges of leadership and governance.

When Superman was first introduced to the general public (Action Comics — 1938), he was not yet the refined “Boy Scout In Blue” we later saw. However, by the time he became not just a print favorite, but a radio and TV figure for the WWII and baby boomer generations, he was widely associated with his catchphrase “Truth, Justice, and the American Way”. His popularity brought about something his creators could not have anticipated. He (they) influenced the way Americans viewed, and indeed defined, themselves and their position in the world. It became so strongly identified with this character that it was also implicitly used to define the code which governed the Superwoman, Supergirl, and Superboy characters which expanded the franchise, and was recently the title of an episode of the TV series “Supergirl”.

Like many (most?) of the two generations who came of age post-WWII, I grew up hearing and internalizing perhaps the closest expression to a cultural mantra available for most Americans of the past seventy years: “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” was not just Superman’s motto — it was how we were to live, and arguably came closer to a universal guidepost than any other succinct rule for living.

I suspect, but cannot prove, that more American boys, girls, and adults could correctly state that simple expression than the Boy Scout or Girl Scout pledge, the Ten Commandments, or even the Pledge of Allegiance (in either its original or subsequent expanded forms). That cultural prevalence was far from a bad thing, because those six words largely encapsulated the the gist of each of the other; anyone who hewed to “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” was unlikely to stray far from the precepts of the Ten Commandments or the Boy and Girl Scout ideals, let alone the Pledge of Allegiance.

In recent years, each of the three foundational tenets of Superman’s mantra seem to have come under attack, and sometimes in surprising ways. Truth, either in the telling or in the corresponding actions, is often treated as either “out of fashion” or evidence of weakness, and often actively avoided in the furtherance of a desired position or result. Justice, arguably the most aspirational of the three as evidenced by the gradual changes and extensions in the identification of those deemed worthy of Constitutional protection, has been routinely subverted via not only the avoidance of Truth but by the preferential treatment accorded those of means. The American Way, certainly the most difficult to define, has often been co-opted by those defining their actions or beliefs as the “true” or “real” American Way, generally to the exclusion of dissimilar behaviors, genetic makeups, or political or social beliefs.

It’s often said that America is as much an idea as a place, because it was built on the dreams of founders who attempted to create a country, and system of government, which did not yet exist anywhere else. Accepting that as accurate, when we, collectively, fail to live up to that idea, we run the risk of losing America. I personally think we’re at greater risk of losing America than at perhaps any time since the Civil War.

I can’t yet predict where this is going, but I intend to use this space to explore both the fundamentals of our Superman mantra (i.e., what is “Truth?” what is “Justice”? and what is “the American Way”? — in each case, without going down too many academic ratholes) as well as point out some current actions and behaviors which seem counter to those tenets, and which increase the threats to America. I hope you’ll join in the journey.

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