The death of Superman, Trump’s Apartheid America, and the trouble with paradise
It was Clark Kent, a journalist for the Daily Planet in Metropolis, who first noted that Donald Trump’s election must be an end to the United States’ age of giants.
“In an era of white supremacy and the atomisation of our liberal values into petty factionalism and bigotry, how could anyone expect our super heroes to continue to represent US interests? Better that they fade into memory. As for Superman? Our greatest immigrant, and most quintessential leader and representative of American values at home and abroad? I spoke with him the day after Trump’s electoral victory and he seemed withdrawn and shaken. I do not believe he is long for our world.”
Kent was killed while reporting on the inauguration on 20 January, falling beneath the Kryptonite-studded wheels of Trump’s gold-plated cavalcade. Superman has not been seen in over a month.
Whether they be journalists or super beings, our heroes are vanishing.
Trivialising a genocidal moron? Maybe, but consider how long American cultural exports can hold their aspirational value when led by a person whose bigotry renders that culture insular and toxic.
America has joined that rump of nations whose policies and approach stifle freedom at home and terrify those in range of their weapons, xenophobia, and oppression.
Trump is not the creator of that bigotry, merely inheriting it, and revealing the rot that has hidden beneath the surface of American history.
When the National Party won the 1948 South African elections and implemented Apartheid, they did not develop it from scratch. Their victory was built on generations of racist and discriminatory policy. Many of those policies were no different from those in the US.
When slavery was abolished in 1833, slaves became indentured labourers with no voting rights or representation. In 1892, legislation limited education and economic rights for black South Africans. Cecil John Rhodes instituted laws to limit black property ownership in 1894. The hated pass law system was imposed in 1905, limiting movement and residential rights. And so on, and so on.
By the time Hendrik Verwoerd – the grand designer of Apartheid – became Prime Minister in 1958, he was taking advantage of a system designed expressly to elect minority white supremacist governments.
Verwoerd, like Trump, was the inevitable consequence of a system predicated on gerrymandering, voter suppression, and racial bigotry.
Then he made it worse.
The difference – as far as outcomes was concerned – that ‘saved’ South Africa is that whites were and are in the minority. Eventually, white South Africans would be rescued from themselves by the sheer weight of numbers ranged against them.
And with that reckoning, finally, the truth could be set free and an accounting for historical wrongs could – at least – be documented and heard, if not yet addressed.
The United States, built on the genocide and forced removal of its indigenous population, its wealth constructed from the labour stolen from an enslaved minority forcibly removed from their homeland, has not even recognised the consequences of this past, let alone set out to accept and take responsibility for the awful truth of it.
And how, given its political construction, can that ever change?
Apartheid South Africa suffered terribly – both black and white – from its isolation. Sure, sanctions hurt, but a devastating consequence for white South Africans was the revulsion the rest of the world held for them.
White South Africans liked to believe they were cultured and educated. The response of ordinary people, through their decisions about what to buy and where to go on vacation, held up a mirror to reveal the Dorian Grey-like depravity of white society.
In 2007, following a traumatic flood in Pakistan, I wrote about ‘the trouble with paradise‘ – that the cultural capital of any nation can be traded in times of need for benevolence, sympathy, and support.
And this is the trouble with paradise: it isn’t sufficient that your land be beautiful; it isn’t sufficient that you be in need; you must, in every way, be conscious of the humanity of others.
Otherwise they are frightened of you and cannot see your humanity in your time of need.
The US has benefited greatly from the dream it has sold to the world. That anyone can move to America and, through dint of personal effort and self-improvement, become successful.
While that may be true for some, research has shown consistently that this has never been true for all.
We always knew that America of films and fables weren’t completely real. Too perfect, too aspirational, but we could live in the belief that it was at least a national aspiration. No better epitomised and represented by someone of the class of Barack Obama, or Superman.
It is a lie. America is very much class-riven and factionalised. America is at its most economically unequal and racially segregated in its modern history, and now the rest of us know it too, and we are repulsed.
Will America notice as the rest of the world stops buying its stuff? As apologists for protectionism in the US experience the inevitable result of protectionism elsewhere? As consuming citizens choose products from less morally-compromised nations, to travel to places less morally depraved?
US film exports are saving movie studios. And, at the margin, the US depends on international buyers for everything from bond sales, to produce and wine, to holding US dollars as a reserve currency which shores up US debt.
Do you think a respected America would be isolated from decision-making that has seen Uber stripped of its London operating licence, and Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple facing EU regulatory constraints?
An America with no friends abroad will find its exports receive as hostile a reception as South Africa’s Apartheid-era trade goods.
And there is something further. Apartheid policies are ruinously expensive.
First there is the inherent failure built into bigotry. A bigot, by definition, cannot know or act on the truth.
Presented with free healthcare by the best doctor in the world, who happens to be black, a liberal would automatically say yes. A bigot would say no, and they do.
Without the ability to call on independent research and scientific evidence, a bigoted society will be inefficient just in the ordinary course of activity. Unhealthy, uneducated, unimaginative, uninspired, grey and dark.
But an Apartheid state goes further. By institutionalising bigotry, giving it the weight of law, it must pay the cost of imposing that legislation.
Apartheid is expensive. Doctors’ surgeries with waiting rooms for whites, and non-whites. Segregated schools, segregated transport, segregated healthcare, segregated government, a vast militarised force to impose its derisive xenophobia on everyone … all these things add up.
When you bind that to reduced exports and a deliberate refusal to benefit from the skills of the best and brightest – even unto forcefully preventing them from participating in your society – then you begin to fall behind.
This is a period of tremendous economic flux. Previously impoverished nations around the world are rapidly modernising and investing. An America that chooses bigotry-as-policy is also choosing to give up its place in the world.
Indeed, it is telling that the three countries which culturally and imperially so dominated the twentieth century – the US, UK and France – have coped so poorly with their loss of status in the twenty-first that each has responded with an isolationist and xenophobic backlash. As if the rest of us are so dependent on your presence that we’ll beg you to stay at our party. The UK is dwindling into insignificance. The US is on its way. Only France has, so far, escaped capitulation to these forces.
Speaking entirely for myself, I look forward to an era where Senegalese, Iranian, Korean, Brazilian, Chinese, Indian and European cultural and capital exports compete on equal footing, that every culture gets space free from the overwhelming dominance of a monoculture, and the US behemoth fades into memory like the once supreme culture of the Romans.
Americans should consider that they are now a member of a small set of nations which are led and organised around genuinely repugnant and horrific policies and people. Russia, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and now the United States.
The American era is fading, and that hurts America.
I’m sorry that Superman, and the values he fought and suffered for, has died, but maybe it is time for us to find those values in ourselves and not look to heroic outsiders to represent those values on our behalf.