Corrections & clarifications: This column has been updated to correct the wording of the new Superman motto.
The Superman family is making a lot of news lately. Not only will current official Superman Jon Kent come out as bisexual next month, his father – the original "Man of Steel" Superman – is ditching his commitment to “the American way.”
Both moves are purportedly to broaden “representation” in the DC Comics classic and, of course, to increase its fan base. And both may achieve those goals. But while Jon Kent's new bisexual identity is welcome, dad Clark’s retooled motto is no cause for celebration.
At this juncture in history, the change feels more like a blow – a rebuke to America and our “way.” It hurts even more because we deserve it.
American brand is tarnished
“Truth, Justice and the American Way” has now become “Truth, Justice and A Better Tomorrow.” The new mission statement is meant to “better reflect the global storylines that we are telling across DC and to honor the character’s incredible legacy of over 80 years of building a better world," and to inspire “people around the world,” DC chief creative director and publisher Jim Lee said Saturday.
Not to read too much into the company’s decision, but “the American way” is a tarnished brand these days. From our tragic 20-year war in Afghanistan, to the deadly Capitol attack that disrupted centuries of peaceful post-election transfers of power, to a lying, corrupt, twice-impeached ex-president who still dominates the Republican Party, we are not living our best national life.
If you were a country aspiring to democracy, which is – as Winston Churchill noted – the worst form of government except for all the others, would you set up an Electoral College that lets losers win or a Senate hobbled by minority rule and single senators with axes to grind?
A country with laws, customs, a Constitution and extreme tribalism that make it impossible to remove a dangerously unstable commander in chief? That, unlike other democracies, deprives its entire capital city of federal representation? (Full disclosure: I’ve lived in Washington, D.C., for nearly 40 years and never once had the chance to vote for a senator or full-fledged House member.)
If you were a wealthy country with dramatic income inequality, would you be as stingy and judgmental as America when it comes to wages, vacation time, paid leave, child care, safety-net programs and education opportunities?
If you were a country that wanted its people to survive and thrive, would you indulge COVID-19 deniers, anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers and politicians who grandstand against public health mandates, all in the name of individual freedom to get sick, infect others, die of COVID, cause others to die of COVID, and overrun hospitals to the point that people with unrelated problems die for lack of access to treatment?
If you were a country that wanted a high-tech, highly efficient government, would you look to America (where the Internal Revenue Service – the world's top tax collector, operates with “severely outdated” information technology and computer languages “that belong in a museum”) – or to Estonia, “the world’s most digitally advanced society,” according to Wired, where 98% of government interactions are digital and 30% of citizens vote online?
We need moral greatness
America clearly has many, many strengths. At the top, I'd put our huge and hugely resilient economy and a well of diversity that endures, even as it is out of fashion among some to welcome the immigrants and strivers who disproportionately fuel that economy. Their contributions range from COVID-19 vaccines developed by two U.S. companies founded by immigrants, to the amazing array of ethnic food in every cranny of America.
We have our vast size, gifting us with natural resources, stunning landscapes and urban wellsprings of arts, culture and commerce. And we have solid core values that will, one hopes, ultimately keep us on a path of greatness that is moral as well as material.
Both types of greatness – in the form of inclusive marketing and inclusive values – are on display in the latest Superman plot twist, which follows Batman's Robin coming out as bisexual in August. Bisexual people, who account for more than half of LGBTQ adults in a Gallup poll, are becoming a fact of life in comics.
They're already a fact of life in politics. What is Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema known for at this point? Blocking passage of her party's ambitious social safety-net package. NBC's "Saturday Night Live" parodied her recently with this line: "As a wine-drinking, bisexual triathlete, I know what the average American wants." Until then, did anyone even remember she is bisexual?
Then there's Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, skewered by Fox News' Tucker Carlson for being "confusing" because, he said, she married a man after claiming to have had a girlfriend in college. "That's what bisexual means," Brown told him on Twitter. "Don't let the bullies stop you from being true to yourself," she added in a message to struggling bisexual people. "You might even be a governor someday."
I have nothing against outraged fulmination. (I am a columnist, after all.) Still, I wish they'd direct theirs at the real problem: The decline of the American way once admired by the world.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Superman scraps 'the American way': Why the U.S. isn't worth emulating