This week saw an American citizen of great power and influence face questions over his citizenship, with a whole bunch of attendant controversy.
Haha! You thought I was talking about President Obama releasing his birth certificate in a probably fruitless attempt to placate the Birther movement, when in fact I was referring to Superman renouncing his American citizenship in Action Comics #900! Fooled you!
(The main writer on Action, Paul Cornell, tweeted that he wished people would discuss the work and not the controversy, so I’ll do a review of the book itself later, but…)
I probably shouldn’t be writing about all this, cos I’m British and we don’t do the whole patriotic thing, other than two World Wars, one World Cup and the occasional royal wedding. We look at the American approach to patriotism and think it’s all a bit of a fuss – too much like hard work really. I love the US and the three weeks I’ve spent there over the years, but at the same time, the US is crazy.
No, wait, come back; often it’s good crazy (I mean, look at Mount Rushmore). That said, as an outsider, it’s hard not to hear some of the voices coming from the American political sphere and wonder whether they’re actually on the same planet as everyone else. Especially the ‘Birther’ movement and its associates, but more on that in a minute.
In Action #900, Superman renounces his American citizenship because of how his actions as an individual ended up being seen as an extension of US foreign policy – as a symbol, the story seems to argue, he’s almost too American to be universal, and in a globalised age there’s something to be said for a symbol we can all get behind. I’m not entirely sold on this view, as I think Superman’s Americaness is essential, just as the title character’s Britishness is a fundamental part of Doctor Who. There’s no need to be scared of this aspect of Superman – he’s the positive side of the American Dream, with Lex Luthor there to represent its darker side.
For me, this dsrk side has been manifesting itself again with attitudes towards Obama. By all means disagree with him politically, that’s what democracy is for, but the Birther movement, which claims the President was born outside the US, and is therefore ineligible for office, goes beyond that. It’s no coincidence that this is happening to the first black POTUS, the first one with a middle name like Hussain. There are elements that automatically see him as an outsider, a secret Muslim, a foreign threat. That’s not just perceived as an attack on Obama – comedian Baratunde Thurston had this to say after Donald Trump took credit for getting Obama to release his birth certificate, proving he was born in Hawaii:
“I thought of my ancestors, both direct and collective, who had fought and died that I might be treated as an American… It does not matter how long we’ve been in these United States. We will never be American.”
And if it’s about who gets to be a citizen of a country, all my earlier comments about British patriotism could just be so much cobblers, because I’m a White Anglo-Saxon Methodist and I might be singing a different song if I was, say, a Muslim in a BNP-supporting street, or an Eastern European migrant worker from the allegedly borderless Europe. America’s perhaps different because the US is built upon a creation myth based around immigration – “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”. Superman’s a metaphor for that, a child from far away who becomes America’s greatest hero; Moses by way of Staten Island. But that foundation myth inevitably becomes politicised, because not everyone went there willingly and, I guess, when you think of it in those terms, the phrase ‘Native American’ becomes even more loaded.
And so it comes down to identity, that which we give ourselves and that which is given to or taken from us by others. I’m British, a Christian, a geek. Superman’s now a citizen of the universe, Obama remains an American. Questions of identity are complex and knotty, but really become disturbing when people seek to define the terms of those questions for their own ends, defining who gets to be ‘in’ and who gets to ride at the back of the bus. That’s what seems to be happening when Obama’s birth certificate is allowed to dominate political discourse. Superman’s decided he doesn’t want to be American; some believe Obama shouldn’t be either. And it all seems to point to America’s crisis of faith in itself. What identity does it want to create for itself in a world that’s grown out of the debris of Ground Zero?
I don’t know; ir’s not really my job to answer that. But it needs all Americans to participate, lest the crazier extremist voices continue to dominate. Write a new story; bring everyone together; rediscover a dream.