The question is simple: is Superman a personification of Libertarian or Progressive values? We all know that Superman is so powerful he can’t be threatened by anyone…that includes the government. Therefore Superman must govern himself and his superpowers. It was with those Libertarian ideas that I had always thought of Superman. After a bit of research I discovered that a Libertarian perception of Superman was just that, perception and his creation was anything but Libertarian.
Created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster in 1933, Superman was the solution to all ‘social injustice’. Born out of the Progressive tradition Superman was a ‘Champion of the oppressed’. The oppressed, of course, were all those under the thumb of rich private individuals who were responsible for crashing the economy.
In his first couple comic book appearances Superman fixed the following ‘injustices’: Stopping a private arms dealer from inciting a war, showing a rich mine owner how horrible his safety standards were, and destroying slums so government could come in and rebuild better housing for the poor.
Not the most Libertarian of origin stories…
Of course hindsight is 20/20 and I guess the egg is on my face if I seriously thought that a Libertarian superhero would become popular in 1933. Right when individualism and the private sectors were the demonized the most.
Of course it’s also ironic that the Progressive era ideas of collectivism and common good created an individual who exercised self governance. But as we know this irony has long pervaded Progressivism and indeed all ‘voting blocks’. Woodrow Wilson and both Roosevelts were the Progressive Supermen of their time, unilaterally righting the private sector’s wrongs. The fault in the Progressive movements logic is that they think these men always had the common good as their goal, never their own interests or personal self aggrandizement. This is a common conflation that continues to have the Progressives criticizing gridlock in Congress and glorifying political figures.
In any case…Over the years Superman morphed from ‘Champion of the oppressed’ to how we commonly know him, ‘Fighter in the never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way!’ This transformation was guided in no small part due to Congress’ meddling.
In 1954 a well known psychiatrist, Fredric Wertham published his book, Seduction of the Innocent. In it Wertham blamed the violent subject matter of comic books for the problems with youths. The book stirred up enough ‘public concern’ for Congress to launch an inquiry. The threat of Federal regulation pushed the comic book industry to preemptively self-regulate. The Comics Code Authority was born, their mission was to prohibit certain subject matters from reaching the public. All overt violence was banned, ‘In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds.’ and ‘Policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.’ This caused Superman to support the status quo and abandon all of his social justice crusades.
It wasn’t until 1985 that there was another foundational mythos change. DC Comics decided to rebuild the Superman universe from the ground up. Even in his Reagan Era rebirth Superman did not emerge as any sort of Libertarian hero. Again embodying the Progressive ethos, Superman was pitted against a re-imagined Lex Luthor. Luthor, originally written as a mad scientist was changed into a caricature of the 1980’s CEO. As an ultra rich business man, Luther used his considerable financial means to fight Superman.
This was the Superman I grew up with, the fighter for the common good vs the filthy rich business man. It wasn’t until about five years ago that I became a Libertarian and acknowledged the deep philosophical problems that Superman perpetuated.
Considering the history of Superman, the Man of Steel movie that came out last Friday could have been much more anti-liberty. Instead, like Christopher Nolan’s work in the Batman series there are some more or less Libertarian moments and some Progressive moments.
Take one of the central fight scenes (don’t worry I won’t ruin anything) in it the US military sends heavily armed jets, tanks and soldiers into a small town to stop Superman and the movie’s villain. Since both are invulnerable the US Military’s bombs and bullets only succeed in hurting civilians and destroying the town. Furthermore, since the ground troops had been told to kill Superman they like drones just keep shooting and shooting even when it clearly has no effect. In fact Superman saves a couple soldiers from death…but they still keep trying to kill him. It isn’t until they get direct orders from the General do they quit fighting Superman.
There were plenty of Progressive moments too. The first thing I saw when entering the theater was a huge ad saying that the US National Guard were real life Supermen and how everyone should enlist. This was followed by an action packed preview that said the same thing. I initially thought this was strange considering they make the US armed forces look like buffoons but It ended up making sense because Superman teams up with the US military to stop the bad guy. So the US military ends up being just as much of a hero as Superman.
I guess at the end of the day I should be relieved. If they wanted to be true to Superman’s roots, the Man of Steel movie would have had Superman leaping over Congress to create a single payer option in a single bound!
So is Superman a Libertarian hero or villain? Well, sadly he is much more the latter. He was created as a Progressive hero and sadly he continues to be one to this day.
But lets take a step back from all this for a moment because we are again in almost the same economic situation that inspired Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster to create Superman in the first place. Just like 1933, the markets crashed a couple of years ago and again we are being subjected to government ‘solutions’. Maybe this time we can right the wrongs Siegel and Shuster saw. Not with Progressivism, or fictional characters but with liberty and the the Supermen of the Libertarian philosophy. People like Mises, Rothbard, Block, Hoppe, Rockwell and Paul, men who were courageous and principled enough to stand up for their beliefs even when they were almost completely intellectually alone. These are the men that should be as widely known as Superman and as we continue to spread the ideas of freedom and liberty they will…and they deserve it.