Wednesday, February 9

REreread: Silent America, or My Itty Bitty Little Whittle Quibble

The World's Superman
Mike Marchand
REreread: Silent America, Bill Whittle
February 8, 2005

I loved Silent America. Throughout its pages, Bill Whittle harmonizes America's centuries-old beliefs with the events that shape our world today.

But when he briefly tried his hand at a pop music critique, it hit a sour note.

In the essay titled STRENGTH, he printed, in its entirety, the famous 1861 love letter by Major Sullivan Ballou, then admirably noted that while it was a love letter, Major Ballou loved his country as well and had to sacrifice himself for it even though he loved his wife and children so much. He attempted to juxtapose Ballou's time with the present day by saying this:
In 1861, this love for and obligation to the ideals of America was common. The selflessness, the recognition of things greater than one’s self – earthbound, temporal realities like the ability to say what one wants, go where one wants, to live a life free from the dictates of the powerful, and the freedom to defend one’s self and family from the depredations of the cruel and the ruthless – these qualities were common, if not ubiquitous, of the America of 143 years ago.

Let’s look at another snapshot, shall we? Here’s one that’s a little more recent – October 2nd, 2001:

Here is a song from the point of view of someone free and powerful, admired and loved; a person possessing the most fabulous gifts imaginable, a voice that has known no hardship, no fear, no illness and no enemies capable of even giving challenge, let alone loss and defeat:

By Five for Fighting
And my heart just sank.

Please, Mr. Whittle, please tell me you're not going to quote the lyrics to this great song and then trash it. Oh, but he did, and he did hard:
It’s not easy to be me. Dear God, no – the horror of it all. Immortal, impervious...faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. How gauche. How tacky. How totally uncool.

This modern Superman -- this symbol, this
America -- hates who he is and what he has become: imprisoned in his ridiculous red and blue sheet, desperate to go up, up and away, as far away from himself as possible. There he stands, in a filthy city doorway: stooped, cynical, a broken man, digging for Kryptonite – digging for death -- on this one-way street -- to Hell. Suicide. Ah, there you go. He’ll be dead and then we’ll all be sorry.

So this is Superman for the new millennium: a charcoal-gray, lower-case ‘s’ on a black T-shirt, curled on a filthy mattress in the basement, hands pressed to his ears to tune out the screams for help from Lois Lane whose ankles he can see as she is murdered up in the alley.
Superman: cowering, whimpering, the ultimate victim, who dies from stomach cancer at age 24 from endlessly using his X-ray vision to stare at his own navel.

Gone is the icon of great strength in the service of great good. Gone too is a Superman raised by a simple, honest man and woman on a farm in Kansas, who taught him that there is a difference between good and evil, right and wrong, and how to recognize it, and what to do about it. In his place sits a brooding, whining victim, an emotionally abandoned child raised by a Belgian nanny in a mansion in Bel Aire, hating his father for not producing his student-film screenplay. If our original Superman had nightmares, they were no doubt about the times he had
failed to act, failed to save, failed to rescue. This Superman fears nothing more than being caught doing a good deed -- like there’s any difference between “good” and “evil.” They’re just words, cultural relics from a bloody past leading us ever deeper into the darkness of a pointless and meaningless future. It doesn’t matter anyway. Nothing matters. Not even me. Especially me.
I don't know John Ondrasik, the singer/songwriter who's essentially Five For Fighting's one-man band. I haven't laboriously searched transcripts of interviews, so maybe Whittle is right when he deconstructs this song (20-some pages after he viciously blasts the entire idea of deconstructionism) and reconstitutes it as a five-syllable-per-line ode to self-destructive nihilism.

But I doubt it.

This song arose from the pain and heartache of Ground Zero to become a post-9/11 anthem for the same reason people found and printed out images of a crying eagle: because it evoked the idea of the powerful also being vulnerable.

Superman would be a really dull comic book if he didn't have some weaknesses, some frailties. (I don't read a lot of comic books myself, since it's just about the only way in which I'm not dorky and I would like to have a girlfriend someday.) (Er, I mean another girlfriend. Yeah.) For all his immense power and speed and agility, he's alone on an alien world and without any friends who understand his true essence.

And as someone who doesn't read comic books, I have to wonder: why would any two-bit hoodlum or egotistical supervillain want to take a crack at breaking the law in Metropolis? The crime rate should be zero, or less.

But yet, day after day, Superman has to do the tiresome work of cleaning up the city. He doesn't do it for the money, he doesn't do it for the women, he doesn't do it for the glory, and if he had his way he probably wouldn't do it at all: he'd rather just be Clark Kent, Ordinaryman. But somebody has to. He's "digging for kryptonite on this one-way street" because he'd rather be human, but he realizes he can't go back and make it that way.

In his screed, Whittle does compare Superman with America. It's a meme that's certainly reliable, right up there with America as "the world's policeman."

And, at least vis-à-vis this song, it's an apt metaphor. We are the world's Superman: alone as a superpower, with very few people who understand us (though many think they do). And why would anyone try to fight us, after demonstrating in World War II that we have both the power and the will to destroy anyone? And yet there we are, cleaning up the world's messes when we'd much rather sit on the beach. Because somebody has to, and we're the only ones who can.

Two lines in the bridge of "Superman" ruin Whittle's entire theory: "You can all sleep sound tonight / I'm not crazy or anything." If Ondrasik's Superman is flirting with the idea of packing it all in because he just can't stand it anymore, then it's only briefly, like the homicide detectives who are haunted by what they see every day but still toe their beat.

This really isn't that big an argument, as there are plenty of insipid pop-culture paeans to suicidal nihilism. In the wake of 9/11 many people dusted off John Lennon's "Imagine", a beautiful melody but with inane driveling lyrics. For the "America: A Tribute To Heroes" telethon, "Imagine" was performed by Neil Young, perhaps the closest thing pop music has ever had to an anti-Lennon. Young certainly didn't let "Imagine" stand as his statement on 9/11: he eventually recorded "Let's Roll," a tribute sung from the perspective of the citizen-heroes on Flight 93.

And on the afternoon of September 11, when I attended a hastily-arranged memorial service under the American flag in the middle of Notre Dame's campus, someone had draped from the window of their dorm room a large banner with the lyrics of U2's "Sunday Bloody Sunday" on it.

But the reason those songs didn't take and "Superman" and U2's more recent "Walk On" did was precisely because we rejected the notions inherent in the other songs. Lennon's dream of no countries and no religions didn't square with a nation whose beliefs in America and God were both reawakened (or, for some people, awakened). Bono's advocacy of nonviolence in the face of brutal attack certainly didn't comfort a people suddenly filled with righteous anger. The eagle cried in one often-seen Internet image; in another it's sharpening its talons.

Whittle could have chosen any of those vapid songs and made virtually the same point: that those values which were omnipresent during Sullivan Ballou's time are much less so now and that we have to fight for them. "Superman" was a poor choice, first for the above and second because the album it appears on was released nearly a year before 9/11.

But other than that . . . Silent America is perfect.

Well, except for some proofing errors, but I meant more in a general sense.


Location: Mishawaka, Indiana, United States

I graduated with an English degree from the University Of Notre Dame in 2001, and in 2008 I have a day job that has nothing to do with my degree but gets the bills paid in a semi-regular fashion. (I have running water five days a week!) The idea is that once I get turned around on my bills, I go to grad school. I also have an idea for cold fusion. Anyone's guess which will be feasible first. In non-work mode, I'm usually reading columns by famous and well-read thinkers, blogs by critically praised writers, or sometimes blogs by overzealous cranks who make me laugh. I yearn to be all three at once; until then I'll settle for being the third. I also have an undying love for the Chicago Cubs and Notre Dame football. Praise them and I'll buy you a beer; curse them and I'll dump it over your head. If that's not enough, I'm becoming quite the fan of no-limit Texas Hold'em. My games have one of two results: I either win all the money or whine because I didn't win all the money.

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What's Your Line?


I absolutely love the name of your site.

Scott "Big Trunk" Johnson, Power Line
Just the name? Not the content? . . . I'll take it.

You have something in common with Dave Barry, Hemingway, and Mark Steyn: I'm not linking to them, either.


That's good stuff there Mark.

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Psst, it's "Mike."

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