The American Way

What does it mean to be a U.S. citizen? Understanding the American psyche.

Can Captain America Show Us How to Be More Cosmopolitan?

As Cap says, "To truly honor the country... you must honor the world."

Captain America—the superhero introduced in the 1940s, revived in the 1960s, and still prominent in comics, movies, and animation fifty years later—is often dismissed as an anachronistic relic, more relevant to the days of World War II than to today. He’s also caricatured as a jingoistic flag-waver and an apologist for US policy, especially abroad. I addressed the first point in a previous PT post and the second in a Washington Times op-ed  published when the first Captain America movie was released. Here, I want to discuss an often unappreciated aspect of Cap’s brand of patriotism: his cosmopolitanism, the extent to which he cares about people outside the United States, and how this reflects a more inclusive view of American values, ideals, and principles.

Let’s look at one of the many statements in the comics about what Captain America stands for, this one from the man himself (by way of writer Mark Gruenwald):

I’m not a knee-jerk patriot. I don’t believe in this country right or wrong. I support America in its concept, its essence, its ideal. Its political system, its foreign and domestic policies, its vast book of laws—I am not America’s official advocate of any of that. What I represent are the principles that America’s politics, laws, and policies are based upon… freedom, justice, equality, opportunity. (Captain America, vol. 1, #322, October 1986)

This is just one of many examples drawn from the comics that emphasize that Cap is devoted to American principles, not its politics or government—and not its interests, if promoting those interests involving sacrificing its principles. In one adventure, he criticized John Walker, former stand-in for Captain America who later served under the name USAgent, after he started wearing the uniform again and then killing on his missions: as Cap said, “Walker puts American interests above human rights and innocent lives” (Avengers, vol. 3, #84, August 2004). Cap is loathe to sacrifice his principles to achieve a goal, especially when they are principles like protecting innocent life, and even when the goal is an official mission of his government—and he won't let anyone else do it either, especially not while wearing his costume and using his name.

Furthermore, Cap’s devotion to the principles on which America was founded transcend national borders. In a story from 1982, a renegade American intelligence organization was plotting an attack on the Soviet Union in order to make the United States the last remaining superpower. After discovering this, Cap fought back, saying, “I represent the American dream! A dream that has precious little to do with borders, boundaries, and the kind of blind hatred your ilk espouses!” (Captain America, vol. 1, #268, April 1982). He expects the same attitude from his allies as well. In another adventure, when Namor the Sub-Mariner—Prince of Atlantis and a fellow hero from World War II—refused to help fight back against the Red Skull’s latest plans to destroy America, Cap replied, “I have never understood how you can be so selective in your self-righteousness! Some see injustice—and stop it wherever it is found!” (Captain America, vol. 3, #47, November 2001).

Others have questioned Captain America’s loyalties to the United States, given this attitude. Inali Redpath, a friend of Cap’s who served on a mission in the Balkans with him, argued with Cap over the means they would take in complete their mission after Redpath brandished his weapon. “So, who’s the better American, Steve?” Redpath asked. “The man who does what his government wants, no matter what? Or the man who runs around dressed in a flag and lives a higher ideal than the country whose name he shares?” Cap answered, “the better American is the man who does what his heart tells him is right—for the betterment of all mankind—not just for other Americans.” (Captain America, vol. 4, #8, March 2003). And in the storyline mentioned above, Walker told Cap that he “never understood duty to country… whatever it takes to keep our shores safe, you do it!” Cap replied, simply, “Captain America represents the ideal, Walker! An ideal for all people! All countries!” After he defeated Walker for good, he said, “To truly honor the country, Walker—you must honor the world” (Avengers, vol. 3, #84).

Captain America reminds us that love of country doesn’t mean neglect of people in other countries around the world, especially when that patriotic love is based on a devotion to founding ideals and principles, however imperfectly they may have been applied in the past as well as today. It means applying those basic ideals and principles for which America stands to all people everywhere, in terms of both compassion and respect, staying true to his own moral character as well as that of his country.

We can look at Cap’s attitude in comparison to Superman’s famous renunciation of his US citizenship (as I discussed in an earlier post). In that story, Superman chose to break official ties with the United States, not out of rejection of its core principles, but so he would not appear biased toward one country over others. Given his name and costume, Captain America really can’t avoid appearing biased, even though he has adopted the same global responsibility as Superman. Cap, however, chooses to honor the most prominent source of those principles, and instead makes clear by what he says and what he does that he doesn’t favor Americans over anyone else when people are danger.

Of course, Captain America stands ready to protect the United States against any and all threats, but only in defense, not to spread its power and influence, which would deny other peoples and nations their right to autonomy and self-government. If he does want to “spread” anything, it’s the basic ideals of freedom, equality, and justice, under whatever name or nationality they may fall—but he chooses to promote those ideals not by force but through words and action, providing an example many of us could stand to learn from.

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If you liked this post, you may enjoy reading "My Thoughts on Man of Steel" (the new Superman movie) at my blog The Comics Professor.

For a select list of my previous Psychology Today posts on self-loathing, relationships, and other topics, see here.

I invite you to follow me on Twitter and visit me at my website and the following blogs: Economics and Ethics and The Comics Professor.

The American Way