Saturday, June 21, 2008

It's a bird, it's a plane.... It's Socialist Man!

Cover of Action Comics #1, valued at $2,000,000

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster saw their creation, Superman, launched in Action Comics #1 in April 1938 (cover-dated June). Siegel and Shuster had tried for years to find a publisher for their Superman character (originally conceived as a newspaper strip) without success.

This may be because Superman was originally a bald madman created by Siegel and Shuster who used his telepathic abilities to wreak havoc on mankind (see below).


Then Siegel thought, "What if this Superman was a force for good instead of evil?"

"What if" indeed.

The story of Superman is introduced in the first story in the comic book. In those 13 pages Superman breaks into the governor's mansion, fights his way through the governor's security and yanks the sleeping governor out of bed in order to stops an execution. Then he shows up at the scene of domestic violence and thumps the bejeezus out of a "wife-beater." Finally, Superman uncovers a plot between a corrupt politician and a corporate CEO to steal millions of tax dollars and brings them both to justice.

What I am fascinated by is a reocurring theme in the pop culture of the period in which the rich and powerful are always cast as villains, not to be trusted, out to screw working people, greedy characters we need to keep our eyes on (and our hands on our wallets).

1938 is also the year George Cukor directed the film Holiday with Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. It is an amazing film that, if you haven't seen, you need to track down the DVD and watch. In it, Grant plays the free-thinking Johnny Case who meets a woman on holiday, falls in love, gets engaged and then discovers she is the daughter of one of the wealthiest men in America. The scene in which he finds out when he goes to her house is wonderful; the house is the size of most art museums.

While suspicious of his motives at first, the wealthy father is won over by Grant's ability to put a deal together that will make him a small fortune in the stock market. But the father, and his older daughter to whom Grant is engaged, are horrified to learn that Grant intends to take this money and drop out of the very world into which the money has paid his entry fee. His intent is to retire to a modest life in the country, read Thoreau and "find himself."

Grant's fiancé is played by Doris Nolan and she undergoes a subtle but very noticeable transformation during the film from a young and alive, energetic and beautiful girl at the start, to a shrew-like and almost ugly woman as she is drawn to her father and a life of money and mansions. Katherine Hepburn plays the younger daughter who, of course, believes in Johnny's idealism and who ends up with him in the end.

"You've got no faith in Johnny, have you, Julia? His little dream may fall flat, you think. Well, so it may, what if it should? There'll be another. Oh, I've got all the faith in the world in Johnny. Whatever he does is all right with me. If he wants to dream for a while, he can dream for a while, and if he wants to come back and sell peanuts, oh, how I'll believe in those peanuts!"

But I digress.

It is, I believe, the Cold War, more than even the Civil War or Vietnam that did the greatest damage to America. Before WWII and the arrival of the mother-of-all-boogie-men-Communism, the popular media shows a landscape the oft deferred to Founders may well have recognized. A popular culture suspicious of the upper classes and the wealthy. A culture driven by labor, suspicious of the motives of management.

Another film that pops into my head as I struggle to articulate the cultural shifts between roughly 1940-1950 is Stanley Kramer's Judgment at Nuremberg (1961).


Judgment at Nuremberg is as stunning a critique of Cold War America as it can be read now as an equally insightful critique of the "War on Terror" (either that, or I've just come to a place where everything seems to work as a critique of the Bush administration). It seems to resonate perfectly with Mark Twain's observation that history "may not repeat itself, but it rhymes."

Socialism is an economic system in which wealth is distributed among all tiers of a society. There was a British mini-series a few years back in which a Socialist Party candidate was elected Prime Minister. Asked if he would do away with first class on the rail service he replied, "No! I intend to do away with second class."

I would vote for him on the basis of that remark alone.

In a NY Times article, Texas Governor, Rick Perry described Barack Obama as "one step away from being a socialist." The only way I've found to make sense of this is to argue that, if a socialist would be in favor of nationalizing the oil companies, then Obama, who is not in favor of nationalizing the oil companies is "one step away from being a socialist."

I wonder if they test the drinking water in Texas for thalidomide.

One conservative friend referred to Obama as a "socialist" once and I explained that it wasn't possible because I'm a socialist and I've never seen Obama at any of the meetings. To this day, and to his chagrin, "socialist" has become a generic term for anything he doesn't like. That Adam Sandler movie is socialist. So is that Coldplay song.

In my wallet I still carry, folded up in the corner, a $5 bill from 1950. At the end of my academic career I was teaching multiple sections of Public Speaking and every section had a student who would argue that prayer should be allowed in public school "because it says In God We Trust on our money."

"Really Heather? Tell you what, I'll give you a passing grade on that speech if you can find In God We Trust anywhere on this five."

If Communism is a rejection of private property, then the single greatest harm the Cold War caused was to transform the super rich into super patriots solely on the basis of their wealth.

Never again would it be natural to be suspicious of the intentions of the rich. From here on they would become our role models, who we aspired to be, who we dreamed our children might become.

Game, set and match.

1 comment:

A Concerned Communist said...

Very well said. I agree fully that the Cold War did the most damage to America, as it feared the people into believing communism and socialism to be wicked and evil things, which has to this day left an impact on Americans (CPUSA went from a huge movement force to a group smaller than a one-horse town population). What people need to realize today is the stigma associated with communism and socialism is false, and that the longterm benefits of each far surpass those of our so-called "democracy."

Unfortunately, these days, the mainstream press inflicts itself on society in such a way that it's good to be liberal, but the moment you start talking about socialism and communism, then you're a crackpot (just listen to Phil Ochs's "Love Me I'm a Liberal").