Up in the sky, look: It's a bird. It's a plane. It's Superman!
Evil is afoot in Metropolis. Mild mannered Clark Kent, a bespectacled reporter for the Daily Planet, ducks into the telephone booth. And, faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, Superman rockets forth deploying his amazing powers in a never-ending battle for truth and justice and the American Way. Good triumphs over evil.
In the 40s, when I was a kid, we huddled around the radio in the late afternoons, lapping up Superman's adventures to be relived at recess.
If pushed in that playground world -- we weren't -- we would have described 'truth and justice' as not fibbing, following the rules, playing fair, everybody equal. (The boys thought they were better, so didn't see fair or equal our way -- lesson, even for ten year olds.) It was World War II, so of course we should win. Which, if we thought of it, was the American Way. Then.
Superman's back (with Batman and Robin). More importantly, grownup concepts of 21st century questions of Truth, Justice and the American Way are the heart of the presidential election and the wider political debate it emerges from. Or they should be.
Who are we as a people? What kind of nation are we? What role do we play in the world? How?
It seems to me we are mainly arguing around the edges of these thorny issues. Deeply polarized, we view ourselves, our country and the world, through the multiple lenses of vastly different experiences of being American. Which means there are as many different definitions of truth, justice and the American way. Too many of us are turned off, disaffected and angry -- at different things and for different reasons.
So, rather than substance, it is often easier to focus on strategy and tactics. Or to exalt one candidate or worldview and demonize the others. Which also gets better ratings.
I've been a political junkie since the 1944 Roosevelt election, when I was ten and listening to Superman. But I've never experienced a perfect political storm like this one. Ever.
Our elections, in my experience, are raucous, hard contested brawls. Often positive. But not always. Bursting with fundamental disagreement. Galvanized by occasional soaring rhetoric and proposals, solid and otherwise. But also driven by negative ads, truth-shading, dirty tricks, name-calling, power, ambition, winning. (Full disclosure: although I am not wild about either of the candidates, as a progressive Democrat, that campaign strikes me as being in such a tradition. Mostly.)
The other caterwaul -- infantile, bullying sandbox fights, locker room insults, demographic threats, sanctimonious posturing, megalomaniac boasting, hyper-xenophobic, racist, Islamophobic, bigoted, outright denial or ignorance of facts, fear mongering, violence inciting, terrible reality TV on steroids -- has never been the way we run a campaign or choose a candidate for president.
Yet, nasty though it may be, we are drawn like moths to a flame. And, simultaneously, repulsed, horrified, embarrassed, ashamed, outraged.
Elective horse races are addictive. And I am a longtime addict. I flourish on 'who's up, who's down.' Even more, this election, I am fascinated by the intensive 24/7 communications swirl.
Like my Superman-mesmerized self, I inhale news and talking heads of various stripes; watch debates and town hall meetings across the spectrum; gorge on punditry; relish thoughtful non-partisan analysis; and follow some talk radio, boycott others. And, more than is good for me (or anyone), I check out the invective-laden, repetitive Facebook universe.
Far too much of the overall tone is overcharged, smart-assed, nasty and negative. Nothing new. Just more so. For years, the political climate -- local, state, national -- has become increasingly viperous.
I am not immune. Un-Grandmotherly words like "bat-shit crazy" and scatological expletives run round my brain and out my mouth as I shout at the TV or at social media memes I disagree with or know to be false. I post my share of snark. (My always-do-the-kindest-thing-in-the-kindest-way mother is rolling in her grave.)
Partially the tone is set by politicians -- on the campaign trail, in Washington and in state houses -- driven by a 'win' rather than 'govern' mentality. But it is also manipulated by lobbyists, fueled by PACs, inflamed by court decisions and retaliative state and local legislation, tracked by polls, and chronicled by the too often single-story-at-a-time mainstream media.
Then there's Facebook, Twitter and webs of social networks. Those of us who use it are also the media. We scroll down, 'like' and 'share' posts that are bumper sticker simplistic, half-true or wild falsehoods that support our position or rub the other side in it and only sometimes thoughtful or expand the discussion. We may add a comment to recommend or to be snide. We leap into discussion threads. Sometimes we think, sometimes we just hit 'return.'
And it all reverberates. Too many of us believe what suits and discount what doesn't, trapped in our isolated echo chambers and alternative universes of multiple calls and responses.
Dinner table conversation in a family whose votes cancelled each -- which candidate, what they said, what we thought, even what "crazy uncle" alleged -- were my introduction to politics. And continues to be my preferred way, even though as a sometime-blogger I relish an expanded voice and no doubt add fuel to the fire.
The anonymity of virtual interaction, unlike face-to-face communication, frequently fosters unbridled freedom to foully condemn the person and deride the idea. I agreed with a progressive friend's post recently. Her conservative "crazy cousin" took exception, haranguing us ad nauseum.
It's not one sided. I posted a legitimate question-comment (I thought) about governance on a 'friend'-on-my side's share and got lambasted as a %@&*-troll who had not done her homework.
Inflaming is not my point. Often I scroll past stuff passed on by good friends with whom I seriously disagree.
I enjoy sharing visual jokes -- think floating hair rugs and loud voiced monkeys being otherwise small. Laughter is great medicine in tense times. Humorous derision fights back.
I rejoice in the friends I can disagree with openly and josh with on line, especially those I only know in the cyber world. Such banter is faith renewing, but few and far between.
Jazzed by and addicted to elections as I usually am, with this one, I am left hollow, sad. As the hate and violence increases -- rhetorically and consequently literally -- I am heartsick.
I believe that finding ways of communicating respectfully even as we disagree is more important than ever before. Like many, I'm struggling.
Speaking to the choir in the cyber-sphere positively reinforces our own ideas. But what is constructive outside that? Does being a "uniter not a divider" only mean agreeing to disagree without exploring or questioning facts? Is a quip softened by "lol" productive? With whom, how, can we seek a 'what do you think' conversation to learn or raise a point? Which questionable truths and urban myths, not to mention wild fabrications, to correct? Which to let go? How much does any of this depend on the other guy's willingness to engage? Is it worth it?
My concern is not about being politically correct, limiting acceptable subjects or even with agreement. Rather, it is about actually communicating. As individuals, as a nation, and in all our media we need to try to find ways of conversing that confer the dignity of being heard across generations, affiliations, experience and beliefs.
Sadly, the invective from politicians and their support groups and among the rest of us has sucked the air out of the much needed honest, discussion of what we -- a complicated, diverse, deeply polarized people -- believe about truth, justice and the American way in the real 21st century world.
Many of us are deeply disturbed about the consequences for our country. Not to mention the effect this diatribe in the guise of a political campaign has on the rest of the world and our place in it. Democracy is too important to squander.
No Superman will swoop in to save the planet or the American Way, even though that would be easier. And if there were one, he couldn't be a white man with blue eyes and a cowlick. America -- our land of immigrants built on the idea that that all of us are equal, with liberty and real justice for all -- is so much more than that. Always has been, even as we still struggle, imperfectly, to achieve that goal.
America's strength is our 'can do' attitude. So it's up to the legions of us, we 'mild mannered' Clark Kents and Lois Lanes, individually and collectively. Vote. Donate. Take stands.
Above all, let's join in insisting on respectful substantive discussion of Truth, Justice and American Way by those who would lead us, reinforced by the questions asked by those who cover them. And among ourselves. No one says it will be simple, or easy. Let such conversations begin.