What do we make of today? With the inauguration of our 45th president we, the American people, are facing an unprecedented age. It was a difficult, divisive election to be sure. We looked deeply into our own darkness, leaving many wounds in need of healing. Hostile foreign powers played with our politics and we, by and large, let them. Republicans didn’t care because it helped them claim the power they so desperately coveted. Democrats didn’t say much either, afraid that they’d appear to be using foreign affairs to play dirty partisan politics like their rivals. Now we have a carnival huckster, a reality TV showman ascending to the highest elected office in our land – a man who seems to know little of, and care even less for, our Constitution. It all feels unreal, like a dystopian novel. What will the presidency of Donald Trump herald? I have no idea. What do we do? For that, I have a clearer picture. For that, we have Captain America to guide us.
We certainly need guidance now. Trump is taking the Oath of Office on the heels of a campaign that electrified the worst in us. His temperament , volatile. His experience, nonexistent. His regular dismissal of all he finds disagreeable further fuels the dangerously growing anti-intellectual sentiment in our country that you can will whatever you want into fact. We have a Congress that won’t do its job unless they like the president’s political party. Health care is a partisan game as opposed to a fundamental human right. Climate change is denied while Neo-Nazi rhetoric is given nonjudgmental press. Our media has all but abandoned its vocation to speak truth to power in favor of reporting what people want to hear to court ratings and readership. As a result, we’re all left struggling with how to even talk to each other let alone move forward. More than ever, we need Captain America – a character designed to illustrate the best of America and uphold the American Dream – to remind us what America is called to be.
Presently author Nick Spencer has Steve Rogers in the middle of a story arc where the Red Skull has used the Cosmic Cube to alter Steve’s reality and make him think he’s always worked for Hydra. The character who most directly represents America becoming corrupted by a Nazi-driven, white supremacist terrorist organization feels painfully appropriate today. But we need to remember a) it’s a comic book so Steve Rogers will eventually regain his true identity and b) we, as a nation can too.
I’m not speaking exclusively of Trump’s presidency here either. He is, perhaps most of all, a mercurial man – driven by whatever random impulse takes him in the moment. How dangerous will he be in office? Only time will tell. But the campaign he ran unlocked and granted faux-legitimacy to the worst ideals lurking in our country. Suddenly a segment of our population felt pride in being ignorant of history, facts, religions, and cultures. They felt pride in being hateful, racist, sexist, misogynistic, and jingoistic. Today, they feel vindication. That mindset must be placed in check. To quote my friend, mentor, and former History teacher Barry Davis, in allowing a man who ran a campaign as Trump did to win, “We the People of the United States…have proven to be careless caretakers of the idea of liberty, and justice for all.” We can be careless no longer.
It will be a long, trying road but we can come back from this. No matter what we feel in this moment – defeat, hopelessness, confusion, we can’t give up. Captain America, as a character, is defined by his refusal to quit and his tireless defense of liberty and justice for all. There is no better metaphor, no better character to illustrate our struggles and potential as a nation than Captain America. For over seventy-five years he’s been one of Marvel’s flagship characters. Guided by his unerring moral compass, Steve Rogers does what is right, no matter the cost, even when it seems impossible. We must follow that lead. By design, Cap represents the best of us. So, as we struggle now, we can and should turn to Steve Rogers for solace and guidance.
We cannot follow Captain America’s lead without being political. He has been political from his inception. His very uniform is the American flag; his actions define and defend the American Dream. In his politics Steve Rogers is, and has always been, a champion of progressive ideals. To try and divorce him from progressive politics is to rob him of his origin.
As Steven Attewell writes in his definitive essay “Steve Rogers Isn’t Just Any Hero” (which, I strongly encourage you to read in its entirety), “Steve Rogers doesn’t represent a genericized America but rather a very specific time and place – 1930’s New York City. We know he was born July 4, 1920 (not kidding about the 4th of July) to a working-class family of Irish Catholic immigrants who lived in New York’s Lower East Side. This biographical detail has political meaning: given the era he was born in and his class and religious/ethnic background, there is no way in hell Steve Rogers didn’t grow up as a Democrat, and a New Deal Democrat at that, complete with a picture of FDR on the wall….Then he became a fine arts student…You couldn’t really be an artist and have escaped left-wing politics. And if a poor kid like Steve Rogers was going to college as a fine arts student, odds are very good that he was going to the City College of New York at a time when an 80% Jewish student body is organizing student trade unions, anti-fascist rallies, and the ‘New York Intellectuals’ were busily debating Trotskyism vs. Stalinism vs. Norman Thomas Socialism vs. the New Deal in the dining halls and study carrels….And this Steve Rogers, who’s been exposed to all of what New York City has to offer, becomes an explicit anti-fascist. In the fall of 1940, over a year before Pearl Harbor, he first volunteers to join the army to fight the Nazis specifically. This isn’t an apolitical patriotism forged out of a sense that the U.S has been attacked; rather, Steve Rogers had come to believe that Nazism posed an existential threat to the America he believed in. New Deal America.”
Looking at his backstory we see something very significant about our country. As a character who is designed to embody America, Steve Rogers is the child of immigrants (with a less-than-popular religious background at the time) because America is a land of immigrants. Closing borders and registering religions we ignorantly find threatening isn’t American. By definition, that’s fascist. Cap always fights for the oppressed and marginalized because that is the American fight. Denying people health care, safety, equal rights, and a voice isn’t American – championing those causes is American. Notably he wields a shield, a defensive weapon, because America doesn’t attack but defends when needed. We shouldn’t invade those we find threatening nor should we ally with those who do. America has always stood for more than that. And we the people must make sure that doesn’t change.
Steve Rogers has defended the progressive values he grew up with at every turn. In his 1940’s comics, Captain America constantly battled Nazis and fascism as well as corporate tax evaders. In 1974, Steve Englehart did a story where Steve Rogers resigned in the wake of the government covering up corruption (mirroring Watergate), showing he was not a man for blind allegiance. In 1989, Mark Gruenwald had Cap battle Super Patriot (an aggressively jingoistic character) to undercut the idea that violence, anger, and intolerance is patriotic. In 2010, Cap and Falcon infiltrate a meeting of the Tea Party (in all but name) to illustrate their racist, white supremacist thinking will always be at odds with American values. And, of course, in Marvel’s 2008 Civil War, Cap famously stood against the Superhero Registration Act (representing the Patriot Act) and its champion Iron Man (symbolizing the military industrial complex). To quote once more from Steven Attewell, “The larger point here is that unlike other patriotic superheroes (like Superman, for example), Captain America is meant to represent the America of the Four Freedoms, the Atlantic Charter, and the Second Bill of Rights – a particular progressive ideal.”
These are only a few examples of many, yet they illustrate an important point. Since Captain America is designed to represent the best of America and what American can offer, than championing progressive causes as he does is America at its best. For seventy-five years this character has taught us, directly as well as subtly, what it means to honor the American Dream.
In 1996, Mark Waid and Ron Garney did a storyline called “Man Without A Country” where Cap was mistaken for a spy, stripped of his citizenship, and sent out of the country. As he boarded the plane to leave, Steve said, “They called me ‘Captain‘…but I’m not a soldier. Not really. I serve something bigger than any one branch of the military general…bigger than any government. At least…I did. Remember always that Captain America fought for the American Dream. A dream that promised liberty and justice for all.” Now, today and in the days, weeks, and months to follow, we all must marshal the courage to do the same. We do not know what Trump’s presidency will yield. But we know who we must be, what we must champion, and what we must oppose when we look to Captain America.
To quote Barry once more, “We have survived as a nation before…war, recession, division, and other leaders who proved inept. So, now we pause, regroup, and affirm the good that is out there…prepare to bandage the wounds that are sure to come…and become the loyal opposition…loyal to the Constitution…to the best that America, was, and can become again.” Amen Barry! After almost twenty years, he’s still teaching me.
If nothing else, I encourage everyone reading this to make a vow today to always speak out. This must be our first step. We must challenge injustice and inaccuracies whenever we see or hear them. Silence in the face of such ideas is dangerous. We mustn’t be derogatory or divisive in our comments. But we must be unrelenting. Driven by compassion and a righteous fire for justice we must rise up like the biblical prophets of old and hold those in power, as well as our fellow citizens, accountable. Some may have forgotten (or want to forget) what equality and justice for all looks like but we cannot. We must remain ever vigilant, taking the responsibility the media so regularly casts aside on our own shoulders. We must understand what’s happening in the world around us and cry out for justice for all those who find it denied them. And as Captain America instructs Spider-Man during the conflict and confusion of the Civil War, we must refuse to back down when someone tries to reject our message.
Going forward, Captain America’s words must be our mantra, his deeds our model. Please, use all the platforms available to you – blogging, vlogging, social media, and (most importantly) in-person conversations with family, friends, and strangers – to shine a light on and challenge every injustice you see. Every conversation/post in every venue needn’t be political, obviously, but we no longer have the luxury of not being aware and active. That illusion has been shattered. Our voices are our most powerful weapon. Call your representatives weekly to demand they champion the progressive values our country is supposed to represent, reminding them that they work for you. Call the White House to voice your opinion on every proposed policy and remind the President that he is a servant of the people. Be aware of and active in local elections as change grows most effectively from the ground up. Teach. Help. Heal. Model Compassion. Fight for justice. And again, as Captain America instructs us, refuse to move when our elected officials and fellow citizens try to offer indifference to our demands for justice.
Two hundred and forty one years ago Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence stating, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, ” No matter who is in office, this is who we are. This is what the United States of America represents. Now, like Captain America would do, we must rise up to defend these ideas even when – especially when – it becomes uncomfortable to do so. Turning a blind eye towards the human rights atrocities Russia fuels, building a Muslim registry, denying health care to those who need it, rewarding cronyism, abandoning reason and facts, demeaning and demonizing different cultures/faiths, and closing our borders is not what America stands for. It never has been. With Captain America as our model, let us marshal our courage. Let us be watchful. And let us defend our Constitution and what our country truly stands for with everything we have. By design, our government is powerless without our consent. It is up to us then to ensure the God-given rights it promises are honored and secured in the form of liberty and justice for all.
Please take advantage of this link to easily find the phone numbers of your representatives (national, state, and local) as well as the way to contact the White House. While emails and petitions are a start, it is proven time and again nothing is more powerful than taking the time to personally make a phone call to voice your opinion.