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WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE MAN OF TODAY?
SUPERMAN, CITIZENSHIP, AND THE AMERICAN WAY

Author: Mark Hughes
May 15, 2011
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Superman renounced his U.S. citizenship.

Then a bunch of U.S. citizens complained about it.

So Superman actually turns out not to have renounced his citizenship at all, and in fact praises the U.S. and the reasons he represents its values.

That, in a nutshell, is what happened recently after the announcement that issue #900 of ACTION COMICS would include a story featuring the following declaration by The Man of Steel…

"I'm tired of having my actions construed as instruments of U.S. policy."

Superman subsequently tells the U.N. he's renouncing his U.S. citizenship. And the media went into histrionics, some calling him a "traitor" and everyone generally getting into a big debate about how patriotic or unpatriotic, how right or wrong, Superman's actions were. Denouncements came fast, and right on their heels was the retraction.

DC Comics stated that the story in issue #900 was not "canon" and therefore didn't apply to Superman's real world. That real world would be depicted in an issue of Superman demonstrating loud and clear how much Superman loves the USA and how much he views ‘The American Way” as something "for everyone." He declares this patriotic love while staring up and smiling at a giant U.S. flag.

The arguments in favor of Superman renouncing his U.S. citizenship are primarily that he is Earth's champion and fights for all of humanity, not merely the U.S., and so it makes more sense for him as a costumed champion to announce he considers himself only a "citizen of the world." Further, in light of being an alien born on another planet and son of aliens from another planet, Superman isn't a "natural born citizen" and had to be granted citizenship by our government long after the fact anyway -- meaning he lived and acted for a long time as an "undocumented immigrant," including attending schools and enjoying other advantages of citizenship like voting, all of which were fraudulent under the law. The point being, a lot of the folks angry about Superman's seeming lack of patriotism include some news outlets, bloggers, and others who tend to be highly critical of undocumented immigrants or of providing services to children whom they feel are not "legitimately" citizens, so it seems perhaps there's a disconnect between their sentiments in some instances and their righteous anger over Superman saying he's going to give up his citizenship.

Conversely, those who feel it was wrong for Superman to renounce his citizenship say that the move seems crass and overtly anti-U.S., and an attempt to pander to liberal "blame America first" mentality while equally pandering to global animosity toward the USA that is largely based on jealousy. Moreover, these critics feel Superman has always been openly patriotic and stood for U.S. ideals, values, and in fact outright U.S. exceptionalism. As a champion of truth and justice, as a fighter for freedom, and as an enemy of tyranny and ally of liberty, is thus championing and fighting and allying himself with U.S. ideals and goals. This thinking says that if Superman wants to be the world's champion and represent what's best and right for all people of the Earth, then he absolutely should align himself with the USA and what it stands for. They feel that renouncing citizenship as Superman while of course still secretly enjoying the benefits of citizenship as Clark Kent is morally dubious and hypocritical, and that if Superman is going to openly declare to the world that he no longer wants to be a U.S. citizen, then his supposed belief in truth and justice and respect for law and order means he needs to keep out of the U.S. and out of U.S. airspace from now on, unless he applies for a visa to be here when he comes to do his super-business.

Both sides make some honestly good points when they are presented objectively instead of with heated emotions that tend to make us all frame our own view in a glowing, righteous light while describing the opposing view in a more condescending and often strawman-like manner. It's true that the initial negative reaction has been hysterical and too often laced with nationalistic hyperbole from some extreme quarters. But it's also true that plenty of people who were unhappy about the news were not overzealous fanatics or “fair-weather patriots” -- they were often people who simply felt that a longstanding element of the character's history and personality was being undone, and that the context of today's "moment" in which this was happening might make it appear too opportunistic and shortsighted, and that in the end it took something away from the character that will be sorely missed.

At the same time, those who support the move are not just doing so for craven political ulterior motives and are not inherently "unpatriotic," and have many good points about the need for Superman to stop being treated as basically an invincible U.S. citizen who goes around ignoring international borders and laws and exacting justice and forcing outcomes that quite often tend to align solely with U.S. views and culture and preferences and policies. Superman, they say, is supposed to represent an immigrant to our entire world, and has been embraced by a global fanbase that deserves some respect and recognition, and as such Superman's actions worldwide make him a global citizen, not a U.S. citizen, and he needs to stand up publicly and say so, even if it might upset U.S. citizens who want to try and declare ownership of him.

But I think there's an important context missing from this entire debate -- and it's one that ultimately does inform the nature of Superman and his actions worldwide, and it answers most of the complaints and questions on both sides. And that missing context makes it possible to respect and understand the viewpoints each side represents and expresses, and to find a solution that would in fact meet the demands, hopes, and outlook of both sides of this debate.

It's true that Superman has for many decades openly waved the flag and stood for "Truth, Justice, and the American way." But people seem to be forgetting that those elements arose out of an initial very different set of traits.

Superman was created as representing the very left-leaning views of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, sons of Jewish immigrants to the U.S. and Canada, respectively. In his earliest stories, Superman was so anti-war that he terrorized the head of a bomb-making corporation and finally forced the man to go to the front lines in war until the man was so scared he swore to stop manufacturing weapons. Then, Superman kidnapped the generals leading both sides of the war, and told them to fight one another to the death or HE (Superman) would murder them both. And when Superman came across a military man torturing a POW (by tying the man to a tree and beating him to get information), Superman lifted the torturer and hurled him through the sky to the horizon, killing him. Superman, in other words, went around murdering or threatening the lives of people he considered evil for a number of reasons related to waging warfare or violating human rights.

Remember that this was during the year leading up to the formal start of World War II -- "formal start" meaning the point at which the nations being attacked by Hitler were finally some allied directly with the U.S. and declaring war against Hitler. But of course, Germany, Italy, and Japan had been invading and attacking other countries for several years prior to the moment when Britain and France decided to say "a war's on." The conflict had become global in nature -- with invasions and warfare in Europe, Asia, Africa, and plenty of nations -- years before the invasion of Poland. So really, World War II got started a while before white westerners decided to stop enabling it and to instead finally admit war had begun and get involved in the fighting.

The point is that the conflicts in which Superman injected himself were obviously meant to be part of -- and to represent -- the ongoing hostilities at the start of World War II. And the armaments manufacturer Superman scares and accosts and forces onto the front lines was a U.S. citizen with a U.S. corporation. Superman's attacks against that manufacturer, and his threats and explanations to the generals, are all summed up in his statement that the ongoing warfare is all simply to increase the ability of armament manufacturers to benefit and make profits from continuing warfare. In other words, Superman literally parroted the leftwing denouncements of war at the time as merely a tool of capitalism to sell bombs and profit from the destruction.

Later, when a scientist is kidnapped by Luthor, in order to steal the scientist's newly created military weapon, the scientist eventually commits suicide to "repent" (as the story puts it) for having created such a "terrible weapon." Once again, the idea of having created weapons -- even for the U.S. military -- is portrayed as a bad thing and a threat to humanity. It was really only after the U.S. began to openly take sides and actually even join the war effort, that Superman started to more directly represent pro-U.S. viewpoints and stand up for "American" democratic values and more nationalistic sentiments.

Superman was designed in those days to stand as a champion of the downtrodden and representative of righteousness in social issues of the day. He hated bullies and abusers of people who were under attack simply because they appeared weaker. He was against victimization of those who could not always speak for themselves. He attacks a wife-beater and hurls the man into a wall. He stops a lynch mob and tells them their victim's fate will be decided in a court of law -- but when he learns an innocent person was convicted and sentenced to die in a court of law, he doesn't accept the outcome and instead threatens the real murdered to confess, and then he breaks into the governor's home and tears down the bedroom door in order to get the governor to stop the execution of the wrong person.

Those early stories had Superman traveling around the world a lot, to intervene in warfare and threats of warfare, as a defender of peace and liberty all over the world. He also of course worked within the U.S. and saved people, but even then it was typically in advancement of views that supported social justice and civil liberties within our governing and social systems, but he was very willing to use his powers to enforce his own views of social justice outside our governing systems when he thought social justice was better served by him than our courts or laws.

This relates very directly to the debate over his citizenship -- because Superman was conceived early on as a champion who violated laws and government and policy everywhere he went, when his own views were at odds with those laws and policies, and that included the U.S. as much as any other nation. He represented the values of social justice and fought tyranny even when it was "legal" -- such as the armament merchants -- and did so overseas and right here in the USA. He didn't care about borders and his commitment to U.S. laws was only when those laws worked properly and defended people's civil rights.

So the claims that Superman has "always" represented the so-called "American way" are simply false.

That representation was a direct outgrowth of World War II and a desire to turn him into a nationalist patriotic hero, and propaganda is not a valid assertion of true identity or purpose in the character. He in fact sometimes worked directly at odds with U.S. laws and policy, when his sense of justice didn't conform to the U.S. policy or legal preferences. And what must be carefully understood is that this dynamic in fact existed most of the time even during his characterization as a flag-waving patriotic symbol. Superman was not elected, and his actions were not deputized to the extent of representing formal government policy -- because aside from stopping criminals committing limited problems within U.S. borders, Superman pretty regularly carried out actions and policies around the world, in space, and against nationals of other countries or of other worlds, all without any sort of authority. Because the U.S. government doesn't have the authority to give Superman that kind of global authority, and if Superman's actions were in fact sanctioned as part of formal U.S. policy, it would be a constant -- almost daily -- violation of international law, the U.N. Charter, and sovereignty of other countries and the rights of their citizens.

Superman necessarily acts without authority, as an agent in regular violation of borders and laws and treaties and immunities of other nations and citizens around the world. It would be dangerous for his actions to be construed as actually representing U.S. policy. And as a U.S. citizen, his behavior becomes legally and internationally problematic in the extreme, especially lacking any intervention by the U.S. itself to demand he halt or alter his behavior. Denial of those facts, and insistence on Superman as a purely U.S. citizen operating as acknowledged and approved by the U.S. government, requires ignoring realities and important elements of his character, while also admitting openly to preference for U.S. actions and policy that overtly ignore international laws, U.N. Charter, and domestic and foreign policy dictated by our laws -- it's an outlaw perspective, as part of stated U.S. policy, and is outlaw in both the domestic and international sense. If that's someone's personal view on the right of the U.S. to do as it wishes and to inherently declare international and federal laws invalid and unimportant, fine, but it's a poor foundation for a legitimate and serious argument about Superman's actions and citizenship, as it's largely indefensible as a valid way to carry out policies. Once you state that you don't care about international laws or treaties or human rights, it's hard to claim any moral or logical arguments in your own favor.

But on the other hand, Superman does live here. He is in fact secretly a U.S. citizen, because as Clark Kent, he enjoys all privileges of citizenship and exerts them daily. As Superman, he expects to be able to act as an agent in favor of our local and domestic laws and welfare. He makes this his home base of operation. And like it or not, he is undeniably seen as being "from the U.S." no matter how much he also flies around the world. It's disingenuous to pretend there's no real direct connection to the U.S. despite the fact he's a man living here and voting and engaging in all manner of overtly, undeniably U.S. behavior in the U.S. and so openly associated with the U.S. due to it being where he lives and what he most seems to represent.

When Superman flies in to France, or to Russia, or to Brazil, or to Kenya, or to India, or to China, nobody is thinking "There's Superman, that guy from everywhere because he's a global citizen!" They think, "Superman came all the way here to help us!" because "all the way here" means "from the U.S." since everybody knows that's where he spends most of his time. English is his first and primary language, he's a white guy with Midwestern America value systems and preferences, and nobody fails to understand that, really.

If he lacks U.S. citizenship, his "right" to be here is as dubious as his "right" to be anywhere else in the world that he constantly shows up to do his super-job. And where else does he have citizenship besides the U.S.? Because lacking U.S. citizenship kind of means he has NO citizenship, and as an alien not of this planet who lacks any citizenship, doesn't that cause an intellectual and literal conflict with any claim of being a "global citizen" who is Earth's champion? Who would have the authority to grant him some kind of "world citizenship" status that also confers upon him a right to be wherever he wants to be and to do whatever he thinks is best? And isn't "what he thinks is best" governed by a very West-centric view of everything, largely a cultural perspective shaped undeniably by U.S. ideas and values and beliefs? His entire "right" to act as Superman around the world stem solely from one thing and one thing only -- power. He has the power to do what he wants, and we can't stop him. So citizenship or not, he'll go everywhere he wants and do anything he wants -- which he's always done, in fact, and the only difference now, and the only thing being questioned now, is why and how he can do it in the U.S. if he's not a citizen. We didn't spend the last 70+ years debating his lack of British or French or German or Nigerian or Japanese etc citizenship, did we?

Nope.

And therein lies the answer to the dilemma. If Superman wants to stop appearing to just represent the U.S. and to become more of a global citizen, the answer seems simple to me -- become a citizen of the world, literally, by requesting citizenship from every nation. Then request that all of those nations vote in the U.N. to confer upon him status as a recognized super-champion who, due to his powers and new status as a true global citizen, sometimes has to act quickly to use his abilities to save people from global or international threats, and so he is granted approval to use his judgment to intervene where he needs to. He'd remain a U.S. citizen, but tell the world he wishes to become a citizen everywhere and that this is a sign of his goodwill and that he does not represent just one nation. And it is perfectly acceptable, I feel, for him to declare that he will fight on behalf of humanity, including on behalf of human rights and human dignity and liberty and justice everywhere.

Simply having U.S. citizenship doesn't deal with the fact he flies all over and does things without true global authority, and it ignores the fact that it's against the very concept of justice and law and order if Superman only needs U.S. citizenship to violate the sovereignty of other nations and peoples to enforce his view of right and wrong. What's needed is an elegant solution in which he can become a true global citizen, and which addresses the concerns of both sides of this debate to answer them and remain true to Superman's motives, his character, his history, and his core belief system and goals. This, I feel, is the way to keep him relevant, to broaden his appeal and at last deal with the problems of his appearance as a U.S. agent, to avoid the overt nationalistic and propagandistic sentiments, while also honoring the fact that he lives here and enjoys citizenship rights and is so clearly a product of our national identity, and that he does honestly need some kind of formal approval and right to be here and to be elsewhere in the world.

Finally, I think we need to consider how much Superman's current situation in this debate mirrors a fundamental element of the U.S.'s identity. When Barrack Obama came to office -- regardless of what anyone thinks of him personally -- he clearly represented to many people a sense of change and hope, and this wasn't just a sentiment among U.S. voters, it was a sentiment around the world. The U.S. is seen as a powerful, dominant entity that supposedly represents prosperity and hope and freedom, but which also is too often not living up to the best of those ideals and is frequently resented for its tendency to act as if U.S. interests are inherently the most important and are inherently best for the world. There is this tension between the opposing feelings about the U.S., then, and people both expect it to lead by example and to stand up for the cause of freedom, but also want it to act less on its own authority and more like a member of the global community that respects one another and treats one another's interests seriously.

Like it or not, for eight years under President George W. Bush, there was a lot of anti-American sentiment built up and a very real feeling that the U.S. was turning its back on the opinions of the rest of the world if those opinions didn't jibe with U.S. policy decisions. The 2008 election of President Obama was a moment in which the entire world held its breath and waited to see if maybe the U.S. was about to change course, and with the hope that this big and powerful nation -- which so many people around the world feared and resented while wanting to believe in it and love it -- would stop looking so self-consciously inward and once again become more engaging with the rest of the world in a positive partnership.

I'm not making a personal political judgment here, not to endorse of denounce either Bush or Obama, liberalism or conservatism, because I don't think these realities about global sentiments and the U.S. balancing act are dependent upon political ideology. These things are true regarding a significant aspect of the world's attitudes and view of the U.S., whether we agree or disagree with those opinions.

The point is not the views themselves, but this interesting dynamic of simultaneous contradicting feelings, hopes, and aspirations, and the way the U.S. has long struggled to find a proper balance while the world has struggled to find the best way to balance its own opposing views of the U.S. That tension and search for identity is crucial to understanding international relations, and the same sort of tension and search for identity is crucial to understanding a core element of Superman.

Superman -- SO linked to the U.S. as a symbol and agent -- is going through a phase in which his own persona is trying to change course, and the world watches to see if he will become a true member of the global community who acts like a good neighbor and good citizen, who trades singular nationalism and self-interest for a wider view that says, "I best honor my ideals of truth, justice, liberty, and freedom when I no longer consider them merely the 'American' way and view them as the 'Global' way -- a cause to champion worldwide, without borders, in a world in which I want citizenship alongside all peoples. Including the citizens of the U.S., but no longer limited to them."

That, I feel, is a fine and respectable message for Superman to send, and is the best way to represent and honor the ideals that so many people think he should continue to uphold, on both sides of the debate.



Longtime BOF'er and site contributor Mark Hughes is a screenwriter living in Maryland.
He is an avid film fan and a longtime collector and reader of comics.

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