I just returned from visiting Nydia, my amazing inamorata, in Brazil for a couple of months where, among other more psychologically healthy activities, we spent a great deal of time tracking the American election. Last week, as we sat eating airport food, drearily counting the minutes before I had to depart, I noticed the latest of many Captain America t-shirts I’d seen worn by Brazilians during the visit.
I told Nyd I was heartened to see the shirts, and the popularity of the character, who I see as a true symbol of the American ideal, not the jingoistic symbol of American imperialism seen by some. And I credited that popularity to the Marvel films, and Chris Evans’s very human, very decent, very noble portrayal of Steve Rogers. Captain America isn’t propagandistic, he’s aspirational.
“Captain America is Bernie Sanders,” I told her. “They’re both old guys from Brooklyn with superhuman stamina, dedicated to New Deal policies, still fighting to protect the weak from the powerful, unflinching in their belief in the American dream.”
Later, back home in the states, I saw author Catherynne Valente tweet, “Clinton is Black Widow (troubled past, does the right thing eventually) Sanders is Hulk, always angry, no one is Cap.” I have a lot of respect for Ms. Valente, but I disagree.
First off, Clinton ain’t much like the Black Widow. She lacks the Widow’s metaphorical agility as a campaigner, and when she takes aim at her opponent, her shots almost always miss or ricochet back and hit her. I’ll grant she has a “troubled past,” if you really want to undersell the problems with Clinton’s record, but that very record shows she actually doesn’t really do the right thing eventually unless it’s politically expedient or she has to because she’s forced to “walk back” a stance or action because of political damage. She does have a great deal of “red in her ledger,” blood on her hands, in places like Haiti and Iraq and Libya and Honduras, places that have suffered terribly because of Hillary (and Bill) Clinton’s ruthless political calculus. But the Widow owns up to her acts, and, in The Winter Soldier, even released the
transcripts records to the internet, taking full responsibility for her misdeeds and working to redeem herself for them.
Hillary won’t even share the content of a few speeches she made to Wall Street, much less acknowledge the terrible human impact of her decisions over the years.
And Bernie as the Hulk? No. The Hulk’s anger is unreasoning, destructive rage. Bernie is angry, yes, as he should be, but he is not destructive. He is protective, nurturing, and constructive. And he is anything but unreasoning; just watch the video of him speaking to the students at evangelical Liberty University, where he engages them with respect and gets respect in return though their philosophies are radically opposed.
I’d say Donald Trump is the Hulk, but he lacks the Hulk’s dignity and compassion. Hell, he lacks the Hulk’s intellect.
But no, Bernie is definitely Captain America.
One of the best pieces I’ve ever read on Captain America is by Steven Attewell, and in it he addresses Steve Rogers’s political identity:
“Steve Rogers isn’t a jingoistic conservative asshole…Unlike many other patriotic characters who derive their virtues from the American heartlands, Steve Rogers grew up in the cosmopolitan multi-cultural world of New York City. He came of age in New York City at a time when the New Deal was in full swing, Fiorello LaGuardia was mayor, the American Labor Party was a major force in city politics, labor unions were on the move, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade was organizing to fight fascism in Spain in the name of the Popular Front, and a militant anti-racist movement was growing that equated segregation at home with Nazism abroad that will eventually feed into the ‘Double V’ campaign.
“Then he became a fine arts student. To be an artist in New York City in the 1930s was to be surrounded by the ‘Cultural Front.’ We’re talking the WPA Arts and Theater Projects, Diego Rivera painting socialist murals in Rockefeller Center, Orson Welles turning Julius Caesar into an anti-fascist play and running an all-black Macbeth and ‘The Cradle Will Rock,’ Paul Robeson was a major star, and so on. 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.
“Captain America didn’t ‘share 40’s values’ – a reductive label assuming that everyone alive in 1940 was either a racial bigot, a misogynist, a homophobe, and an unthinking militarist, and handily ignores the people of color, women, gays, and left-wing activists who were hard at work to change American society for the better – he exemplified from the beginning the ideal that America could be. Thus Steve Rogers led the Invaders (a multispecies and multinational Allied superhero force) into Europe to fight fascism, he fought with Nick Fury’s Howling Commandos, a racially integrated fighting force from the beginning, and fought with the French Resistance rather than snidely repeating anachronistic cheese-eating surrender monkey jokes.
“Thus when Captain America is unfrozen in the 1960s, he’s not freaked out by the changes in racial progress – instead, he forms an instant partnership with one of the first black superheroes, the Falcon, who movie audiences just met for the first time, and the two of them go toe to toe against an insane imposter Captain America who’s obsessed about communists under the bed. The analogy cannot be more pointed: the real Captain America stands for racial equality and civil liberties, the Captain America who believes that the government needs to ‘smash’ reds by any means necessary is a fraud. In the 1980s, Steve Rogers runs into a childhood friend, Arnold Roth, who happens to be gay – and Steve Rogers defends his friend from bigoted violence, because Steve Rogers is a good man.
“In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, when Steve Rogers is unfrozen in the ice in 2011, he’s not here to be startled by our progressive values. He’s here to judge us for falling short of his – and that’s the entire crux of the plot of Winter Soldier. When Steve Rogers wakes up in post ‘New York’ America and sees SHIELD preparing a giant fleet of sniper drones that’s going to be used to cull the human race based on meta-data that supposedly predicts the bad things people might do in the future, he immediately calls this out as inherently incompatible with the Constitution and the ideals that Steve Rogers fought and essentially died for. He puts his faith on ordinary soldiers and rank-and-file officers to do what’s right, not the corrupt or blinded authorities personified respectively by Robert Redford and Samuel L. Jackson. And his solution to SHIELD/HYDRA’s plan for world domination through mass murder is not only to sacrifice himself to save the world (again), but also to release all of SHIELD’s secrets to the world.”
Did I say that Bernie Sanders is Captain America? Bernie Sanders is Captain America.
A few years ago, writer J. Michael Straczynski put these words in Steve Rogers’s dialogue balloon:
“Doesn’t matter what the press says. Doesn’t matter what the politicians or the mobs say. Doesn’t matter if the whole country decides that something wrong is something right. This nation was founded on one principle above all else: the requirement that we stand up for what we believe, no matter the odds or the consequences. When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole world: No, YOU move.”
That is exactly what Bernie Sanders is doing. He’s telling the Democratic establishment and the GOP and the media and the big money special interests, No, YOU move.
And the people of America are hearing him. And they’re starting to plant their feet as well.
(NOTE: A while back, I had a really interesting discussion about Captain America and his place in America’s political psyche. I posted it here.)
Art by Danny Kelly