I'd Rather Be Aquaman
There’s a kerfuffle going on in Texas (again) and Colorado (huh?) regarding the level of flag-waving patriotism in history textbooks and curriculums, including APUSH. The short version is this:
The Patriotic Upstanding Americans are upset that these damned liberal touchy-feely freedom-haters twist everything to make it look like all the U.S. has ever done is exploit and enslave everyone. Every new textbook will be titled “Why the Terrorists are Right” or “Let’s Get High and Have Lots of Gay Sex.” The Patriots would like more emphasis on the undeniable accomplishments of U.S. History. American schools should be shaping good American citizens, not future leaders of North Korea.
And in their defense, it does sometimes seem like political correctness requires back-writing a level of cultural and philosophical pluralism that just wasn’t always there. However multicultural we’d like to be, it’s hard to give equal time to the contributions of Islamic Puerto Rican Handicapable Vegans to the Second Industrial Revolution. Early American History requires some understanding of Protestantism, and Capitalism - both of which were woven into lots of important lives and ideas. Let’s not run from that.
The Modern Liberal Academics are upset that these flag-waving right-wing extremists want to whitewash American history to feed their predetermined paradigm of American Exceptionalism. There’s something Orwellian (or at least Valdimir Putinian) about euphemizing (or simply ignoring) travesties like slavery, genocide, and Woodrow Wilson. The Academics would like more emphasis on effective questioning and understanding multiple points of view. American schools should be shaping good world citizens ready to confront things of which we cannot yet conceive, not drones painted red, white, and blue.
And in their defense, they’re right.
Every curriculum, every textbook, every teacher in every class makes judgments (consciously or not) about what’s important and what it means. We can try to reduce that bias, but if I assign Shakespeare instead of Marlowe, I’m making a judgment. If I choose eight Supreme Court cases through which to explore the judicial process, I’m suggesting some big issues are more important than others. It’s just how it is.
We can’t teach everything. Heck, many days we’re not sure we can teach the basics. Decisions have to be made, and some conflict is appropriate.
But this goes beyond that.
This is about choosing narratives. Choosing the guiding stories for what we teach and how we teach it. That’s a debate worth having. There are infinite possible ways to frame our history, most well beyond my pay grade or blogging ability.
So I’ll talk about Superman.
The Man of Steel was for generations the prototypical American icon. He had pretty much all powers – strength, speed, flying, moral fiber, good hair… he even managed to go back in time once or twice. Yeah, there was kryptonite, but that’s not even a flaw – it’s a weakness to something so rare as to be almost impossible to wield.
Superman was perfect.
The version I grew up with was part of the Superfriends on Saturday morning cartoons. He worked with Batman and Wonder Woman and some zany space teens with a monkey. I watched the show, but I never ‘got’ Superman. I was never a big fan of Batman, either. I mean, sure, he’s dark and tormented, but he’s also bursting with wealth, intelligence, training, intimidation, and bringing on the suave. I’ve only got, like THREE of those things – so kinda hard to relate, you know?
I liked Aquaman.
Sure, they played him up like an equal on the show, but let’s face it – the man breathes underwater and coordinates fish. Years later they gave him a hook and some sharks and stuff, but that’s not the guy I connected with. The guy I connected with was almost absurd in his uselessness 99% of the time. He dressed badly and had no business hanging with that Hawk-Fellow or the Green Lantern, let alone the Last Son of Krypton.
Thing is, if you needed someone to go way, way underwater – hot OR cold – or talk to fish VERY persuasively, Arthur Curry was your man. Supes could run like Flash, fly like – well, everyone, see through things or melt them with his eyes – but he couldn’t convince fish to be useful on his BEST DAY. Neither could Batman with all his gadgets and pale young wards.
Aquaman may not have been good for much, but he filled an absolutely unique and essential role. Trying to make him more than that diminishes him in the worst well-intentioned way.
Marvel caught on long before DC that flawed heroes were essential for connecting to readers, a mindset reflected in subsequent movies. Spiderman, X-Men, even Guardians of the Galaxy - we connect with them not because they shoot ice out of their palms or use a nuclear heart to fly around in a metal suit, but because they’re people. Messy ones, even.
Some are rather loveable, some you wouldn’t let your daughter date, and some are quite loathsome much of the time. The best of them do foolish, selfish, or stupid things, and the worst win your affection sporadically until they go back to being naughty. They interact in unexpected ways, and they learn and grow and try and fail and sometimes they’re awesome. Inspirational.
We learn about them, and ourselves, and we think big interesting thoughts as a result. That’s the whole point.
Why can we not allow Thomas Jefferson the same intellectual and moral complexity we accept in Mystique? Why accommodate a Batman who does dark twisted things so soccer moms feel safe but insist on ‘hero’ or ‘villain’ labels for Andrew Jackson or Malcolm X? Can we not accept that real people - who lived monumental lives and did big stuff - might be at least as unpredictable as Magneto or Malcolm Reynolds?
My students can be a bit dense, but they’re not stupid. They’ll willingly regurgitate whatever they’ve been told regarding George Washington or Martin Luther King, Jr., but they don’t really believe in the Superman version of either of them. Trying to deify any of our American pantheon just breeds even further contempt for whatever lessons we attach or slogans we recite.
You can’t narrow the gap between young people and American ideals by doing a better job bullsh*tting them.
In the same way that the people around you are so much more meaningful, useful, interesting, when they allow you to see something beyond the façade… in the same way heroes are far more heroic when you know what a mess they are, but they keep trying to do the right thing anyway… our history, our icons, our story resonates far more – not less – when we do our best to lay it all out there as whatever it is.
We’ve done some great things which should not be downplayed or ignored based on the bad parts. We’ve committed atrocities which should not be marginalized based on the lofty rhetoric employed while committing them. America is supposedly of-the-by-the-for-the people – and people are messy.
Teach it like it happened, as best we can. Our kids will get it. If we do it right, those ideals will resonate with them far more powerfully as a result.
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