Commentary Magazine


Gee Whiz, Superman!

“A Superman Approach to Foreign Policy.” That’s the title of this Ezra Klein essay over at The American Prospect, currently the feature piece on the homepage. (Comic books seem to be a popular analytical framework for the up-and-coming blogger set: Matthew Yglesias writes at length about “The Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics” in his new book).

To be fair, TAP is a magazine that that has a former editor of Lyndon LaRouche’s newspaper on its masthead and publishes the work of a denier of the genocide in Cambodia. But Superman? Really? Here’s the core of the piece:

Yet the internationalist vision was more deeply interwoven into our cultural fabric than we often realize. Superman and Captain America were superheroes of an odd sort: tremendously powerful beings whose primary struggle was often to follow the self-imposed rules and strictures that lent their power a moral legitimacy. Neither allowed themselves to kill, and both sought to work within the law. Given their strength, either could have sought world domination, and even if they didn’t, they could have been viewed with deep suspicion and even hatred by those who were convinced that they one day would seek world domination. It was only by following ostentatiously strict moral codes that they could legitimize their power and thus exist cooperatively with a world that had every right to fear them. Indeed, soon enough, both were forming communities of like-minded super beings (The Justice League for Superman, the Avengers for Captain America) and generally operating much like, well, the nation that birthed them. As Spiderman — a later hero who, like so many heroes, bought into the idea that rules and restraint separated the good guys from the bad guys — liked to say, “with great power comes great responsibility.”

That strain of foreign-policy thinking was largely abandoned in the rubble of the Twin Towers. As Yglesias puts it, “9/11 marked the beginning of an enormous psychological change on the part of the American people.” With a newfound sense of vulnerability, there was a newfound sense of fear. Restraint was a luxury, a nice ideal when we were primarily dealing with the problems of other people, but less desirable when our own lives were on the line. After 9-11, the country’s foreign-policy debate contracted, and liberal internationalists, who had always been better at pursuing their agenda than selling it politically, were largely left out. Instead, the conversation was dominated by those on the right who believed in unilateral U.S military hegemony over the world, and those on the left who believed in a superficially multilateral U.S military hegemony over the world, with the option to revert back to unilateralism if other countries proved disagreeable. It was Michael O’Hanlon versus Richard Perle, and few even seemed to find that strange.

This, too, saw its expression in a new type of hero: Jack Bauer. If Superman and Captain America were the emblems of the national mood directly after World War II, Bauer expressed the national anxieties uncovered by 9-11. Rather than an invincible superhero, Bauer was but a man, one who could perish like any other, and was aware of not only his own vulnerability, but that of his family, his government, and his country. Though there were laws he was supposed to follow, the enormity of the dangers he faced and the ruthlessness of the enemies he encountered led him to break them almost constantly, and so he tortured, killed, and generally let the ends lay claim to whatever means they could think of. Indeed, he did it so often, and with such abandon, that he’ll start Season 7 on trial for torture.

All very neat, indeed. But it has little to do with reality: America had been engaging in the kind of war-making putatively forbidden by the Superman model since well before the birth of DC and Marvel, and continued doing so in the years between Superman’s heyday and 9/11. Klein’s framework is cute–but very, very reductive.

When you attempt to force the paradigm of comic books onto something as inherently chaotic as global politics, your hopes of making sense are limited. And Klein’s essay doesn’t, in the end, cohere. But it does serve as a useful reminder of the intellectual vagaries of “the kind of whole bloggy progressive thing.” Serious people who want to engage in serious debate about foreign policy have no shortage of publications they can check out, offering any number of wildly conflicting views. Without, I might add, having recourse to infusions of inept popcult references.

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