Politics & Policy

Truth, Justice, & Arrogant Unilateralism

Hamdan and Superman

In the new film Superman Returns, the Man of Steel no longer stands for “truth, justice, and the American way.” Now he’s dedicated to, according to the movie’s promotional materials, “truth, justice, and all that is good.” Though, in the movie, the phrase gets edited down by Daily Planet editor Perry White to “truth, justice, and all that stuff.” Typical editorial arrogance, if you ask me.

Although conservative talk radio has surely gone overboard in bashing the film, the movie does represent something of a retreat from Superman’s traditional patriotism. “The world has changed. The world is a different place,” the movie’s co-writer, Dan Harris, told the Hollywood Reporter. “The truth is he’s an alien. He was sent from another planet . . .  and he is here for everybody. He’s an international superhero.” And in the movie, Superman’s traditional backdrop of the American flag is replaced by the whole world.

Of course, it’s good business to make Superman much less American because moviegoers are so much less American too. A pushy, all-powerful, self-proclaimed superhero who stands for the “American” way might turn off, say, Pakistani audiences.

Still, we live in a cosmopolitan time. The word “cosmopolitan”–coined by the Greek philosopher Diogenes, who explained that he wasn’t a citizen of any nation or city but a citizen of the world–means more than the ability to name various foreign cheeses. It is an outlook that sees national boundaries and geographic loyalties as quaint and even backward.

Although conservatives (rightly) celebrate economic one-worldism, when it comes to trade and the like, liberals have fetishized cultural and political cosmopolitanism. The impulse to create a “parliament of Man, the Federation of the world,” in Alfred Tennyson’s words, informs every debate about the United Nations, global warming, or human rights. For many liberals, globalization means empowering the transnational elites who get together at Davos or the Clinton Global Initiative to eat fusion cuisine while discussing the political fusion of the planet. Sen. John Kerry is a poster-boy for this crowd. He actually thought telling U.S. voters that “foreign leaders” really wanted him to beat President Bush would be a draw.

Few institutions are more cosmopolitan than the American media. Top journalists are on the best panels at Davos, and see themselves as servants to the world. After 9/11, members of the media had a huge internal debate about whether it was an ethical breach to pin a tiny American flag to their lapels. American journalists once proudly wore U.S. military uniforms, but, in 2001, many concluded that, yes, wearing an American flag was simply too jingoistic. For the media, this is an issue in which economic interests and values coincide.

Many news outlets use the same excuse as the makers of Superman Returns: We are competing in a global marketplace, and so we can’t seem too “American.” Hence, CNN bans the word “foreigners,” and Reuters refuses to use the word “terrorist” and gives al Qaeda and other such groups so many benefits of the doubt–so as not to offend Middle Eastern readers and Harvard faculty–that critics have dubbed it “Al Reuters.”

One institution that has hopped aboard the cosmopolitan bandwagon is the Supreme Court, particularly the more liberal slice of it. Long before the Hamdan decision came down, the court was embroiled in various controversies about its increasingly cosmopolitan jurisprudence. When she was still on the bench, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor predicted that justices “will find ourselves looking more frequently to the decisions of other constitutional courts” because globalization is creating “one world.” Justice Stephen Breyer has defended his reading of Zimbabwean law to better understand the U.S. Constitution. Justices David Souter, John Paul Stevens, and Anthony Kennedy concur that international opinion in general, and the decisions of foreign judges in particular, may influence how the court should view our laws and Constitution. To do otherwise, warns Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, would be to follow a “Lone Ranger” approach.

There are plenty of good-faith arguments on both sides of the Hamdan decision, which invalidated the Bush administration’s policy at Guantanamo Bay. But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the ruling holding that the U.S. must be bound by Article 3 of the Geneva Convention–even when dealing with terrorists who are not signatories to the convention–stems from a certain cosmopolitan embarrassment over U.S. unilateralism. Working outside the Geneva Convention–even when legal–is apparently wrong because that’s the “Lone Ranger” approach.

Of course, Superman has always changed with the times. During the New Deal era, he was a “champion of the oppressed.” What is disturbing is that “the American way” now seems to have become code for arrogant unilateralism that falls somewhere outside truth, justice, and all that is good.

(c) 2006 Tribune Media Services.


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