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

During 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 allowed 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.

History 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 constitutional way of taking that back.) 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 the 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.)

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 for any attempt, by enemies foreign or domestic, to chip away at the hard-won freedoms that are the right of every U.S. citizen, or to 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*.

This article was originally published on Richard De Angelis’s blog Comic Book Justice.

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Richard runs a blog called Comic Book Justice, where he shares his thoughts on social justice issues as they are presented in comic books. From January 1999 to September 2006 he served as Director of the non-profit Comics for Compassion program, which sought to produce and distribute comic books that promoted humane values to children. His writings on comics have been published in the International Journal of Comic Art and Satya magazine.

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