Last week Nick Spencer delivered one of Secret Empire’s most important pieces yet in Captain America #25. I knew when I read it, I’d be writing about it. But I hadn’t expected to do so this quickly. However, as I watched the news unfold on Saturday, I couldn’t get this issue out of my mind. The comic, dropping “Sam Wilson” from the title with this issue, is simply Captain America once more. The narrative juxtaposes the approach of two very different Captain Americas. The allegory is clear. Who do we choose? Who are we? It’s a question calling each reader to deep contemplation on a personal and national level, a question I ask myself daily.
It should go without saying that a comic released last week (and written well before) isn’t directly referencing what happened on Saturday as hundreds of white nationalists, Neo-Nazis, and Ku Klux Klan members gathered at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville to protest the city’s planned removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee with a “Unite the Right!” rally. However, what happened in Charlottesville didn’t grow in a vacuum and a central part of Secret Empire has been exploring the darker forces at work inside our country. So the choice Captain America #25 poses is part of the choice we must wrestle with whenever we see the vile parts of our national history and legacy assert themselves as they did on Saturday.
While the cover shows Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson staring each other down, it’s clear from the second page of the comic this isn’t going to be our traditional superhero confrontation. Captain America #25 isn’t about Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson battling it out head-to-head. In fact, the two men never even see each other in the issue. Instead, they give two very different speeches to those who stand with them. This issue places two opposing ideologies in tension, two different ways of being Captain America, two different visions of America. That’s exactly what we saw clash in Charlottesville – two different visions of America.
Part of the brilliance of Nick Spencer’s Secret Empire storyline is how it works allegorically on two different levels. At its broadest level, it is a universal story of the importance of hope in hopeless times. It’s about finding the strength to rally when there’s no believable reason to keep fighting let alone believe you can succeed. On a second, more direct level, it’s an unflinching exploration of where America has found itself. An insidious force has been growing in this country. This force that’s corrupted our country is represented with painful perfection in the corruption of Steve Rogers. It’s a darkness that’s been with us since our founding, a force considered largely defeated by many who oppose it while those who embrace it waited, biding their time. And it’s a force the Trump campaign used to help drive itself to victory. Trump didn’t create this evil. Racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia have always been with us, in one form or another with varying degrees of strength. However, in the wake of his victory the Nazis, KKK members, and white supremacists who harbor these hateful mindsets have found a sense of vindication.
It’s not hyperbolic to say that Trump’s very presence in the Oval Office is fanning these flames. At the start of the “Unite the Right” rally, as reported by The Huffington Post, David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, told the crowd, “This represents a turning point for the people of this country. We are determined to take our country back. We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we believed in, that’s why we voted for Donald Trump. Because he said he’s going to take our country back. That’s what we gotta do.” An interview from The Washington Post showed, “Michael Von Kotch, a Pennsylvania resident who called himself a Nazi, said the rally made him ‘proud to be white.’ He said that he’s long held white supremacist views and that Trump’s election has ’emboldened’ him and the members of his own Nazi group.”
We clearly see this type of mindset in the speech Steve Rogers opens Captain America #25 with. He calls Hydra to war against those who will not submit – Wakanda and New Tian – as a necessary show of “strength” and “authority” to bring peace and justice. Steve gives these two nations the chance to stand down and submit while warning them, “Because we are coming. And we will not stop until it is finished. Until what is rightfully ours is returned. Until what was taken from us is restored. Hail Hydra.”
On Saturday, as reported by The Washington Post, the protesters gathered “bearing Confederate flags and anti-Semitic epithets….By 11 a.m., several fully armed militias and hundreds of right-wing rallygoers had poured into the small downtown park that was to be the site of the rally.” They clashed with counter-protesters, brawling in the streets, and someone drove a car through the crowds of counter-protesters resulting in the death of one person and leaving nineteen injured. In addition to violence and hate, those who attended the rally were whole-heartedly embracing the ideology of Hitler and the Nazi Party. As CNN detailed, “Video shows some of the protesters shouting ‘blood and soil,’ a phrase invoking the Nazi philosophy of ‘Blut und Boden.’ The ideology stressed that ethnic identity is based on only blood descent and the territory in which an individual lives….The ‘blood and soil’ chants began Friday night when torch-bearing protesters marched at the University of Virginia and clashed with counterprotesters. More white nationalist protesters continued the cries during Saturday’s gatherings…..The phrase dates to the earliest days of Nazi propaganda.”
What do we say when Nazis are openly and proudly marching in the streets of our country? What do we do? Returning to Captain America #25, while Steve’s speech brings war, Sam Wilson’s heralded hope. As with all of Secret Empire, his words are intended as much for us as readers as they are for the heroes gathered before him. Speaking of the extreme evil they face (which echoes the extreme evil we saw in Charlottesville on Saturday), Sam asks, “Question is — what do we do? Do we give up? Turn ourselves in? Surrender? Admit they were right about us? Or do we remember who we really are?” Do we have the courage to denounce racist, xenophobic. hateful ideology for the evil it is? Will we stand against it?
In the wake of all that happened in Charlottesville we saw a struggle to even name evil for what it was. Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency on Saturday morning and was clear at his evening news conference with the message he delivered to “‘all the white supremacists and the Nazis who came into Charlottesville today: Go home. You are not wanted in this great commonwealth.”
Sadly, if not unexpectedly, Trump didn’t do anything of the kind. It was after 1:00pm when he finally tweeted “We ALL must be united & condemn all that hate stands for. There is no place for this kind of violence in America. Lets come together as one!” and in his spoken remarks said, “The hate and the division must stop and must stop right now. We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides. On many sides.” Did you catch that? On many sides. Disturbingly when a reporter asked whether he wanted the support of white nationalists, Trump didn’t respond. As The New York Times outlined when tweeting or speaking to reporters he, “made no mention that the violence in Charlottesville was initiated by white supremacists brandishing anti-Semitic placards, Confederate battle flags, torches and a few Trump campaign signs….In Bedminister on Saturday, Mr. Trump said he and his team were ‘closely following the terrible events unfolding in Charlottesville, Va.,’ then tried to portray the violence there as a chronic, bipartisan plague. ‘It’s been going on for a long time in our country,’’ he said. ‘It’s not Donald Trump, it’s not Barack Obama.’….Mr. Trump did not single out the marchers, who included the white supremacist Richard Spencer and Mr. Duke, for their ideology. While Democrats and some Republicans faulted Mr. Trump for being too vague, Mr. Duke was among the few Trump critics who thought the president had gone too far. ‘I would recommend you take a good look in the mirror & remember it was White Americans who put you in the presidency, not radical leftists,’ he wrote on Twitter, shortly after the president spoke.”
So the KKK (and the rest of their racist, white supremacist ilk) are upset because Trump went “too far” by refusing to denounce the terrorism of white supremacists the evil that is it. And they feel validated in this point of view. We are clearly broken as a country. Here too Secret Empire offers us guidance. In Captain America #25 Sam Wilson says, “When things got rough, when we’d worn ourselves down — instead of fixing what was broken, taking responsibility — we decided it was easier to just hand it all over to him, let him do it for us. Didn’t turn out so well. So now, here we are. With him out there every day, talking to the country, reminding everyone how bad we screwed up. How we all caused this. How we spent all our time fighting each other. Chasing big ideas that blew up in our faces. Flying so high we lost touch with the ground beneath our feet.”
Many conservatives are absolutely to blame for where we are. This toxic cancer has grown inside the Republican Party, perverting what it once stood for as so many turned a blind eye because it was leading to election wins. Progressives too are to blame, with so many willing to rest on Obama’s presidential victory ready to believe we’d triumphed over the racist sins of our past. All the while Democrats talked a good game and did very little to bring those promises to life. We screwed up. We caused this. And yes, we are spending far more time fighting with each other than we are trying to fix this. We need to get our hearts and our heads right. And we need to be careful with how we address this sort of hatred.
As Keegan Hankes, a research analyst for the Southern Poverty Law Center, told Variety, “the real agenda [of Saturday’s rally]… was to garner mainstream media coverage as a recruitment tool. The violence that erupted between various factions of protesters will be selectively mined for images to portray white nationalists as under attack from violent leftists and the police, Hankes said. ‘The whole thing has been orchestrated around trying to get media attention,’ Hankes told Variety. ‘They used the controversy around the Lee statue as a peg but what you really have is all these little hate groups competing in the same space trying to make a name for themselves. They’ll use media coverage and strategically controlled images (from the gathering) to bring in new members.'” I can understand the anger and frustrations that led some counter-protesters to attack those ignorant, hateful Nazi, KKK, white supremacists. But in attacking them you validate their sense of a “persecuted white minority.” They want to fight. We can’t give them what they want. And, more importantly, violence can only ever bring more violence. The Myth of Redemptive Violence is a dangerous illusion and one we must free ourselves from if we really want to affect true change There was a reason Dr. King held such extensive training sessions in nonviolent resistance.
So, in the face of this hate and violence, who do we choose to be? What vision of America do we embrace? Secret Empire offers us an answer and that’s part of the reason I turned to this issue as I watched the coverage on Saturday. In the face of such vile hatred, Secret Empire challenges us to be heroes. Nick Spencer’s definition of a hero then, as narrated in Sam’s speech, is the perfect note to close on. What do we do in the face of all this? Well, we need the courage to be heroes. What does that look like? He writes, “It was a simple thing really. Something we’d always known how to do, but had somehow forgotten. We saw people being oppressed, hurt — and we stood with them against it. And as we did, we started to remember again — everything else we’d forgotten. What made us put out lives on the line for the good of others. What we stood for, even in the face of so much evil. What we strived, how we struggled…how to be heroes.” AMEN!