Losing Superman

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Can it be a mere coincidence that the world heard that Superman would renounce his U.S. citizenship just days before Al Qaeda’s sinister and lugubrious leader was killed in his Pakistani compound? Or are the two events secretly related?

The news of U.S. commandos killing Osama bin Laden came just five days after word arrived that the Man of Steel, in Action Comics #900, was flying to the United Nations to declare his independence from America.

Such a drastic decision came in response to the U.S. national security advisor reproaching him for going to Tehran to show solidarity with Iran’s Green Revolution and its protest against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his cronies. Although the superhero had done nothing more than silently, and non-violently, support the rebels, the Iranian government took Superman’s presence as an act of war instigated by the United States, the Great Satan.


In spite of having utter distaste for the autocratic mullahs, I’ll admit that their identification of Superman and America is not illogical. I doubt that they spend much time reading foreign comics, but even they must know that this superhero stands for “truth, justice and the American way.”

Superman decided that in an increasingly global world, it was counterproductive for him to be branded as an instrument of U.S. policy. He came from another planet, after all, which gave him a “larger picture.”

It is difficult to exaggerate the indignation that this risky act of renunciation of citizenship caused among the U.S. public, which saw it as a slap in the face. I have read bloggers (I’m not making this up!) who propose deporting Superman to the planet Krypton, from whence he came (echoes of “America — love it or leave it”), as if he were an illegal alien. Well, he is indeed an illegal alien. (Did he go through customs to enter Kansas? Did he fill out papers for citizenship?)

Petitions have started to circulate threatening a boycott of Time Warner (the parent company of DC Comics) if there is no retraction of such a dire resolution — and indeed there are reports that DC Comics may be rethinking the story line. And a number of conservative pundits claim that this insult attested to America’s decline. The icon of Americanism, the ideal self-made man, the son of faraway strangers with unpronounceable names, who assimilates and blends in (goodbye Kal-El, hello Clark Kent), the most representative figure of U.S. goodness and might was turning his back on the land of the free and the home of the brave.

President Obama may not follow the adventures of Superman assiduously, but someone in his entourage must have alerted him to the significance of such an iconic figure dissing the United States and going cosmopolitan.

What would happen, for instance, if the Man of Steel, champion of the dispossessed, were to decide that it was his task to close Guantanamo or to use his X-ray vision to expose secret documents that not even WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange has been able to uncover? What if the erstwhile American demigod were to offer his services to China? (Though, thinking it over, he would probably never do anything of the sort, given his enthusiasm for truth and justice).


At any rate, Obama’s counselors must have explained that Superman’s desertion should be treated as an immense cultural and ideological crisis that could conceivably cost the president his reelection, given that Republicans were presumably spreading rumors about how Obama “lost” Superman (like Vietnam or Cuba were “lost”).

Obama’s response was a sheer act of political genius. By killing Osama bin Laden, he proved that the United States did not need a muscular man who can fly and destroy walls with the flick of a wrist. For that, the U.S. has helicopters and Navy SEALs and intelligence on the ground and in the air and weapons made of — yes — steel. A dashing way of restoring national confidence when it was wilting.

Of course, before Obama could order that clandestine operation in Pakistan, he had to take care of a matter that had been haunting him for the last few years. How could he reveal that Bin Laden had been slain in the name of the United States if an incredibly large percentage of Americans believed that this president is not, in fact, American at all? How to create a contrast with that renegade Superman, if Obama himself is accused of having been born abroad, in Kenya — which, as every American knows, is much farther away from Kansas than Krypton, even if all three places share the Kafkaesque letter K?

And that’s why Obama finally produced his long-form birth certificate, just two days before he ordered Bin Laden hunted down, as a way of silencing the “birthers” who deny him legitimacy, who see him as “other” and alien and far more extraterrestrial than Kal-El. Naturally, there appears to be a portion of the citizenry that still doesn’t believe he was born in Hawaii. But the vast majority of Americans now do.

So what comes next?

Now is when a really heroic task can be accomplished. President George W. Bush originally invaded Afghanistan because the Taliban refused to give up Bin Laden. So has the moment not come to withdraw all American forces from that country?

I am sure that Superman, along with the United Nations, would be delighted to proffer help in bringing the troops home. It would be wonderful to read of these exploits in the next issues dedicated to the Man of Steel, a story of how Obama and Superman — both with remote origins in Kansas, both despised as the “other” and alien — collaborated to create at least one small oasis of peace in a world that, alas, seems to be lacking truth and justice.


That would be a real homage to the many victims of the murderous Bin Laden.

Ariel Dorfman, a Chilean American writer, is a professor at Duke University. He is the author of “Death and the Maiden” and the forthcoming memoir “Feeding on Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile.”