O Captain, My Captain (Part 3)

“There’s no patriotism like American patriotism, and there’s no patriotic superhero like Captain America.” So proclaims Bosch Fawstin in his recent post on the conservative blog site FrontPageMagazine.com. My only problem with Fawstin’s statement is that he justifies it by quoting  Objectivist Ayn Rand, who described America as “…the greatest, the noblest and, in it’s founding principles, the only moral country in the history of the world.”

The United States is neither the first nor the only country founded on moral principles. According to the United Nations, which ranked the U.S. 12th in its 2010 inequality-adjusted Human Development Index, we aren’t even the greatest at living up to them. And there’s nothing noble about disparaging the shortcomings of other democratic nations when our own government is still struggling to keep its promise of equal justice for all. Rand’s arrogant, xenophobic, uninformed declaration reveals that patriotism is often just a word some people use to make their own nationalism seem acceptable—just as they use the word nationalism to discredit other people’s patriotism.

In his post, Fawstin says, “Whatever problems we may have as a country can usually be traced back to our not living up to our founding principles.” Considering primarily the Declaration of Independence, and putting aside for the moment that the original U.S. Constitution enshrined slavery as the law of the land, I would largely agree with this statement. But that rather glaring “problem” with the Constitution was only one of many substantial injustices perpetrated by our government over its history. A brief list would also include the disenfranchisement of women, the genocide of Native Americans, child laborJim Crow laws, the Defense of Marriage Act and Don’t ask, don’t tell. Any U.S. citizen should be outraged by such shocking violations of our nation’s “founding principles,” including, and perhaps especially, someone like Captain America who stands as a living symbol of those principles.

If there is a difference between nationalists and patriots I think it’s in their perceived relationship toward their country. Nationalists act like obedient children who idolize their motherland or fatherland and believe it can do no wrong. Patriots behave more as parents—like our nation’s Founding Fathers—willing to use tough love when necessary to guide their country toward reaching its fullest potential. Sometimes, as Captain America has demonstrated on two occasions, this means being willing to walk away when your country goes astray despite every effort to keep it on the proper path.

Love it or leave it
Captain America #176During the months leading up to President Richard Nixon’s resignation over the Watergate scandal on August 9, 1974, Marvel’s Captain America ran a story line about a secret organization plotting the overthrow of the U.S. government. In issue #175, which went on sale exactly four months before Nixon resigned, the leader of the Secret Empire is unmasked by Captain America in the Oval Office, with the implication being that he is none other than the President of the United States. Rather than go through the public humiliation of a trial, the leader (whose face is never shown) immediately takes his own life right before Captain America’s shocked eyes. Writer Steve Englehart had originally intended to reveal the leader to be Nixon, but censored himself, thinking that Marvel would not have Captain America #180allowed it (actually, the industry’s self-censoring agency, the Comics Code Authority, prohibited specific government officials from being cast in a negative light). In issue #176 (cover art by John Romita), disheartened by his discovery, with his faith in the American system shaken, Captain America abandons his patriotic name and costume. Several months later, in issue #180 (cover art by Gil Kane), Steve Rogers adopts a new superhero identity: Nomad, the Man Without a Country. But after just four issues, Rogers reclaims his original costume and name when he realizes his duty to keep fighting for the American Dream is more important than his personal disillusionment with the nation’s often disappointing political reality.

Captain America #332History repeated itself in 1987 when an ultimatum given to him by the U.S. government forces Steve Rogers to once again renounce his title and costume. In Captain America #332 (cover by Mike Zeck), he is informed that these, along with his indestructible shield, are government property, and that in order to keep them he will have to submit himself to military authority, becoming an official instrument of Defense Department policy. (The serum coursing through his veins that transformed frail Steve Rogers into a Super-Soldier is also U.S. property, but there’s no way of taking that back from him without violating his constitutional rights.) After much reflection, during which I could imagine recent government actions including the covert arming of the Nicaraguan Contras and support of paramilitary death squads around Captain America #337the world weighing heavily on his mind, he decides he’s unwilling to follow orders that might violate his own conscience and resigns as Captain America. But once again, unable to suppress his superheroic impulses, in issue #337 (cover also by Zeck) he reemerges wearing a modified costume of nation-neutral red, white and black calling himself simply, The Captain. This time he maintained his new identity for a full year before reclaiming the mantle of Captain America from the person the government had chosen to replace him—and whose intolerance and brutality had largely discredited him in the eyes of the public. (To learn about Captain America’s earlier run-in with another unstable impostor, see part two of my post on comic book depictions of the 1950s-60s.)

Sentinels of Liberty ad

A 1940s comic book ad for Captain America’s Sentinels of Liberty fan club.

Since his first appearance in 1941, Captain America has been known throughout the Marvel Comics version of our world as the “Sentinel of Liberty.” This means he has a duty to remain eternally vigilant against any enemies—whether foreign or domestic—who want to chip away at the hard-won freedoms that are the right of every U.S. citizen, or prevent the expansion of those rights to the still disenfranchised. But just as important, he must also be ready to sound the alarm whenever such threats arise, whether from hostile nations, fanatic terrorists, or hate mongering demagogues and corrupt politicians who try to disguise their self-serving agendas by wrapping them in the flag. And in our world—where he exists only in comic books, television cartoons and soon, the big screen—Captain America’s role is to inspire each one of us to do the same*.

In Part 4, I conclude this series with my review of Captain America: The First Avenger and my verdict as to whether the film contains anything that supports Bosch Fawstin’s concerns over its alleged un-Americanism.

*For another recent homage to Steve Rogers’ noble (and ennobling) qualities, read Andy Hunsaker’s post, “5 Reasons To Be Inspired By Captain America,” at CraveOnline.com.

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5 Responses to O Captain, My Captain (Part 3)

  1. George Chartier says:

    Admitting that you’re wrong, conceding that you don’t have all the answers, acknowledging that you have limits, and recognizing that having doubts — these are signs of wisdom and maturity. Being willing and even eager to learn from others demonstrates humility and ability to grow. Captain America exhibits all these qualities, unlike so many politicians who wrap themselves in the flag and crow at every opportunity, “America is the greatest country in the world!”

    Watch out: When people or a whole nation thinks it knows more than anyone else and is superior in every way to everyone else, it actually stops thinking, stops looking for new ideas, stops growing. This is the shameful, arrogant side of Americans that causes us to lose friends in the world when we need allies more than ever.

    And y’know what? I didn’t realize the great qualities in old Cap’ until I read this blog. I thought I knew what there is to know about Captain America, even put off reading the blog for a few days because I thought “1940s flag wavin’ comic book character; what’s new?” but Richard — you gave me lots to think about when I took time to read your blog. This is where America truly can be great (not the greatest at everything, not even soccer, but great all the same): when we embrace our ability to continually improve as we work, in fits and starts, toward achieving the “more perfect union” that our great (but imperfect) founders intended.

    Thanks for the great blog, Richard. I love it when people get me thinking.

    • Thank you, George, for your added insight into what makes Captain America such an important role model for the nation after which he’s named. Two of the traits you mentioned—being able to admit one’s mistakes and humility—are among the 5 Reasons To Be Inspired By Captain America Andy Hunsaker gives in his July 1 post at CraveOnline.com.

      One of the things I’ve gotten from doing this series on Cap is a renewed appreciation for what he’s meant to me over the years. As I mentioned in Part 1, Captain America was one of my favorite superheroes during my earliest comic book-reading days. This was largely because of writer Steve Engleheart and artist Sal Buscema, who had just begun their run as creative team on Captain America (issues 153-186) when I started reading it. (Their first story arc was Cap’s showdown with his right wing, racist, “Commie Smashing” successor of the 1950s, which I recounted in a previous post.) But as my political sensibilities matured over the years, I became uncomfortable with the baggage Captain America’s flag-inspired costume and shield brought with them, and eventually abandoned him as an obsolete character from my naive childhood.

      But now that I have a fuller understanding of and appreciation for what I consider to be true patritotism, I’ve rediscovered Captain America as one of the most meaningful and significant superhero characters in comics history. I’ve been reading his Marvel Comics series, written by Ed Brubaker, since Steve Rogers’ supposed death four years ago, and can’t wait to see him finally take up his title, costume and shield again in the rebooted Captain America #1 that hit stores last week.

  2. Eric says:

    I have enjoyed this series very much, trying to nail down what Cap stands for in the broad, actual sense, not merely saying “America.” It has been very insightful.
    But I must disagree with comparing what the government has done in the past to what the constitution actually says and what it even allows the government to do.
    Slavery was disliked by a majority of the framers of the constitution, but they had the foresight to know that it couldn’t be abolished with the stroke of a pen without paying the price freedom requires, which is blood. This is why they used language to effect change in the future, “that all men are created equal” they knew future generations would come around to that type of thinking and make the correction needed.
    George Washington said, “Always love your country but never trust your government,” is a very applicable sentence here. The government doesn’t always represent our nation’s principles, some would say rarely, and if one studies government then it is logical. When you follow our beliefs and constitution it limits and takes away normal government powers, which any government will try to regain in order to maintain power, it is the nature of the beast. Which is why George Washington called it a “Necessary evil”

    • Thanks for your comments Eric. I’m glad you enjoyed my series on Cap.

      It was actually Thomas Paine who wrote that “Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one.” (See my post on V for Vendetta for more of Paine’s quote). Of course, George Washington was making essentially the same point when he said, “Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.”

      But although Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, being meant to incite revolution, declared “all men [sic] are created equal,” the U.S. Constitution that institutionalized our nation once that revolution was over claims no moral point of view. It’s purpose was only to provide an instruction manual for governmental procedures. Fortunately, those procedures included the means for amending the Constitution, so it could continue to reflect society’s ever-expanding sense of justice once it had progressed beyond a paternalistic disenfranchisement of blacks, women and Native Americans. (It’s worth noting that whatever uncomfortable concessions to politcal reality Jefferson and Washington may have claimed they were being forced to make, neither man freed any of their own slaves during their lifetimes.)

      Tyrannical governments should, of course, be prevented from coming into power whenever possible, and forcibly opposed wherever they exist. Unfortunately, the tyranny of the majority that can result from the democratic process is sometimes equally oppressive. While I generally believe in the inherent goodness of people, I have also seen firsthand the ability of the mob (as well as the government, church and media) to convince otherwise kind and fair people to behave cruelly and unjustly. This is, for example, the reason that some U.S. citizen’s are still being denied the right to marry the person they love.

      That’s probably why superheroes like Captain America are so appealing. Because they have both a crystal-clear moral vision and an uncompromising commitment to carrying it out–a combination that almost never occurs in real life among either governments or individuals.

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