Posted on Tuesday, September 19th, 2017 by Scott Beggs
(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: how a recent Superman comic is bringing out the worst side of America…and revealing what this country is supposed to stand for.)
In Action Comics #987, Superman faces a simultaneous barrage of small and large-scale calamities that see him harried, flying faster than a speeding bullet from crisis to crisis. One of them is an AR-15-wielding white guy sporting an American flag bandanna who opens fire on a group of Spanish-speaking factory workers. At the very last microsecond, Supes flies in front of the workers, shielding them from the bullets. He then berates the gunman for attempted murder (can you imagine!) and when the would-be killer bleats out that the workers stole his job and ruined him, Superman spits back that he should take responsibility for his own life.
With an ungodly to-do list, Superman then jets off to stop a spiteful activist from burning down a mansion to give the 1% what for, leaving the gunman and the workers in the hands of the local police. Yes, Superman is both against the mass murder of innocent people and against the destruction of private property. Yet his sense of fairness doesn’t work for Fox contributor Todd Starnes, who has twisted the issue to make it seem like Superman protecting innocent people is a new, liberal conspiracy meant to give pro-immigration forces a powerful ally. In Starnes’ take, Superman should have flown all the of the Spanish-speaking workers back across the border to Mexico. Since he didn’t, Starnes’ rhetorically asks, “Remember when Superman stood for truth, justice, and the American way?”
To get the obvious out of the way, you’ll notice I haven’t called the workers “illegal immigrants” as Starnes does. That’s because the comic issue never says they’re illegal immigrants. The gunman assumes they are, and Starnes happily and unsurprisingly takes his word for it. They work in a factory, which many Americans do. They also speak Spanish, which many Americans also do. And even if they were undocumented immigrants, they wouldn’t deserve to be gunned down by a Ted Nugent wannabe.
To get the other obvious thing out of the way, Superman is an undocumented immigrant. To be even more precise, his parents sent him here when he was a baby, but this is the only home he’s ever known (and the only home that hasn’t been blown up), which makes him an ideal candidate for DACA Dreamer status – the Obama era solution to ensuring 800,000 children brought to the United States by undocumented parents could come out of the shadows to build a life for themselves by going to school or working as a clumsy cub reporter for a big city newspaper. So, even assuming that the workers in the comic are undocumented, it’s a no-brainer that Superman would save their lives from a hail of bullets.
Starnes knows this. He even writes, after asking about Superman’s status re: The American Way that, “Then again, Clark Kent is technically an illegal alien – a native of Krypton.” He stops short of adding, “…so maybe we should deport Superman?” but the sentiment is there. Starnes has no idea what to do with this little nugget of truth in his immigrant-bashing article. That’s because the only natural follow-up to recognizing Superman’s undocumented status would be, “And if Superman himself is an illegal alien, maybe we should rethink our hateful rhetoric toward them and find some compassion.”
Starnes wants Superman on his side, recognizes that he’s an “illegal alien,” but cannot vocalize that he wants an “illegal alien” on his side.
But I’m not here to call out how deeply stupid Starnes’s take on the character is. Starnes isn’t some pop culture fuddy duddy simply missing the point; his take is a purposeful, toxic misreading of Superman’s character to make it seem like saving innocent lives from being mowed down in a mass shooting is somehow new to his core philosophical structure. I say purposeful because this is Starnes’s schtick. If you haven’t heard of him (and there’s no reason you should have), his particular wheelhouse as a Fox contributor is misrepresenting and cherry-picking stories to make it seem like non-white, non-Christian people exhibit only the worst stereotypes the right wing has built their house of racial resentment upon.
The fact that a few people object to Superman saving innocent, unarmed people pretty much proves the point of the story, sad to say.
— Dan Jurgens (@thedanjurgens) September 14, 2017
His feigned bewilderment at Superman protecting innocent lives regardless of visa status is propagandizing the icon by claiming the other side is propagandizing him, which is some Lex Luthor level work. It’s also pretty much his only rhetorical option. When Superman does something you hate, you can either say Superman is wrong, or pretend that he’s been hijacked. Of course, Superman has always – even in the face of life’s ethical complications – protected the innocent from harm.
As Jacob Hall pointed out while comparing Zack Snyder’s version to the original, the Superman of the 1930s comics was a specific product of a pro-FDR, pro-New Deal and, therefore, pro-leftist era.
Created by the children of Jewish immigrants (Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster), it’s bonkers to think that Superman would ever – from 1938 to today – use his powers for “rounding up the illegals and flying them back to where they came from” as Starnes demands. As Rich Goldstein points out in his expansive look at Supes as a Jewish superhero, “Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were ten years old when Senator Ellison DuRant Smith gave his famous ‘Shut The Door’ speech on immigration in the lead up to the passage of the 1924 Immigration Act. . . That is why, for 74 years Superman’s primary nemesis has not been another alien or superhero, but megalomaniacal xenophobic billionaire Lex Luthor.”
You can see how that’s another fact Starnes has to ignore (and is happy to ignore!) in crafting his angry little epithet-laced missive to rouse the nation’s uncles to shake their fist at the artistic establishment so deeply, deeply misusing good ol’ Superman for their own nefarious means of indoctrinating children with empathy.
If you think about it for more than a second, his argument is xenophobic garbage. Which is why Starnes doesn’t want you to think about it that long. Who Superman is. Who he’s always been. How Dan Jurgens, the writer of this arc, has been a particularly conscientious steward of that persona. Starnes wants to steal Superman for a cruel political ideology and claim it as the sole version of “American.” We cannot let him.
I mean, sure, Starnes’ reading of the character is also non-sensical. Superman ends the encounter by leaving the would-be shooter and the workers in the charge of the local police. Is Starnes saying Superman should be anti-police?
Supes challenges the shooter to be responsible for his own lot in life. Is Starnes against personal responsibility?
Superman flies off to save a millionaire’s home from being burned instead of, as Starnes demands, dragging workers who very well could be American citizens off to a foreign country. Is Starnes anti-capitalism?
You see how easy twisting this stuff into braindead propaganda is?
It also makes sense why Starnes is so terrified of being on the wrong side of Superman. In another era when the KKK was resurgent (deep sigh), back when Superman was the hottest ticket in town, activist and cool name-owner Stetson Kennedy infiltrated the murdering hate group specifically to learn their secrets and deliver them to the producers of the Superman radio show for a special 16-part episode called “The Clan of the Fiery Cross.” Children listened to that 1940s series, and KKK recruitment fell off a cliff.
It’s not safe to be on the wrong side of Superman.
Thus, the thrust of Starnes’s propaganda move here is that the angry white American is righteous regardless of his actions. If that were true, Starnes’ thinking goes, Superman should be on that angry white guy’s side. Since it’s not true, Starnes is trying to hijack Superman in order to make that angry white American righteousness justified. He can’t square the circle (tough to do when your premise is month-old banana slime scotch-taped to NRA pamphlets), and his willingness to bend the truth of the character to a breaking point only reveals himself and an entire line of thinking as thoroughly anti-Superman.
The actions undertaken in Action Comics #987 that have Starnes and others on the right so riled have always been in Superman’s character, but they must pretend this is a sudden new change from progressive conspirators because the alternative is something they can’t accept. They’re on the wrong side of Superman, which means they’re on the wrong side of truth, the wrong side of justice, and the wrong side of America.
What’s profoundly appropriate about all of this is why Superman is hustling from one calamity to the next in the issue to begin with: a powerful villain is stoking anger and resentment to bring out the worst in people.
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