Superman, Coups, and the Meaning of Democracy

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February 4, 2021 by libroshombre

            It might be the wacky, frightening times we’re living in, but sometimes a confluence of different idea seems to course down the same general stream.  The Guys Read Gals Read program is currently previewing books to feature next fall, and one graphic novel in particular, “Superman Smashes the Klan,” greatly impressed me for several reasons.  First, Superman, an American icon, reveals the ugly, racist truth behind white supremacists’ avowed nationalism.  The story’s about a Chinese-American family moving to a white neighborhood in 1946, and having crosses burned on their lawn and attempts to burn their home.

It’s by Gene Yang, America’s greatest Chinese American graphic novelist, who drew the book’s plot from a 1946 script, “Clan of the Fiery Cross,” from the popular Superman radio show that aired three afternoons a week from 1940-51.  Wikipedia says those episodes “delivered a powerful blow against the Ku Klux Klan’s prospects in the northern US. The Anti-Defamation League infiltrated the KKK and other racist/terrorist groups. Concerned that the organization had links to the government and police forces, the ADL decided to use their findings to strike at the Klan in a different way. They contacted the Superman producers and proposed a story where the superhero battles the Klan. Looking for new villains, the producers eagerly agreed. To that end, they provided information—including details of Klan rituals and the like to the writers. The result was a series of episodes, “Clan of the Fiery Cross”, in which Superman took on the Klan. The ADL tried to strip away the Klan’s mystique. The trivialization of the Klan’s rituals and natures had a negative impact on Klan recruiting and membership numbers.”

Yang and DC Comics are openly looking to influence young readers with the same clear facts the ADL utilized long ago, but they go further.  At the book’s conclusion, Yang added an eleven-page history of racism in America since 1865, interwoven with the racism he grew up with on the West Coast.  Though it’s too serious for Guys Read Gals Read, where fun books prevail over proselytizing, the message is so timely I strongly recommend it to all ages.  After all, our nation’s Capitol and Congress were very recently assaulted by a mob, many of whom were avowed and militant white supremacists.

Coincidentally, today’s email brought “It Was an Attempted Coup: The Cline Center’s Coup D’état Project Categorizes the January 6, 2021 Assault on the US Capitol.”  The Cline Center for Advanced Social Research, part of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, concentrates on “Conflict Processes, Democracy and Development, Ethnic and Religious Identity, Natural Disaster and Climate Change, and News Analytics.”  They wrote, “Using the Cline Center’s Coup D’état Project definitions, the storming of the US Capitol Building on January 6, 2021 was an attempted coup d’état: an organized, illegal attempt to intervene in the presidential transition by displacing the power of the Congress to certify the election. Specifically, at the time of this writing, we classify it as an attempted dissident coup … Labels matter when it comes to political violence, because each type has distinctive consequences and implications for societal stability. Coups and attempted coups are among the most politically consequential forms of destabilizing events tracked by the Cline Center.”

“The Cline Center’s Coup D’état Project is the world’s largest global registry of failed and successful coups.  The Cline Center defines a coup as an ‘organized effort to effect sudden and irregular (e.g., illegal or extra-legal) removal of the incumbent executive authority of a national government, or to displace the authority of the highest levels of one or more branches of government.” To be categorized as a coup, an event must meet the following criteria: There must be some person or persons who initiated the coup; The target of the coup must have meaningful control over national policy; There must be a credible threat to the leaders’ hold on power: Illegal or irregular means must be used to seize, remove, or render powerless the target of the coup;  It must be an organized effort.”

To top it off, the new Lapham’s Quarterly, my favorite magazine, arrived through the mail, and this issue focuses on “Democracy.”  How’s that for timeliness?  Barnes and Noble sells Lapham’s, and it’s another recommended read.  Among the scores of important writers included is E.B. White, longtime New Yorker editor and author of beloved children’s books, like “Charlotte’s Web, and “Stuart Little.”  On July 3, 1943 White wrote in the New Yorker, “We received a letter from the Writers’ War Board the other day asking for a statement on ‘The Meaning of Democracy.’ It presumably is our duty to comply with such a request, and it is certainly our pleasure.  Surely the Board knows what democracy is. It is the line that forms on the right. It is the don’t in don’t shove. It is the hole in the stuffed shirt through which the sawdust slowly trickles; it is the dent in the high hat. Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time. It is the feeling of privacy in the voting booths, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere. Democracy is a letter to the editor. Democracy is the score at the beginning of the ninth. It is an idea which hasn’t been disproved yet, a song the words of which have not gone bad. It’s the mustard on the hot dog and the cream in the rationed coffee. Democracy is a request from a War Board, in the middle of a morning in the middle of a war, wanting to know what democracy is.”

The Writer’s War Board was headed by Rex Stout America’s leading 20th century mystery writer and outspoken foe of bullies, including Hitler and Stalin.  He even called out J. Edgar Hoover in a major Life Magazine spread in the mid-1960s.   I intended to write this week on lighter, distracting topic,s but opted instead for hard reality and uplifting ideals.  It’s a scary world right now, and we need to cling to ideals like White’s and Stout’s.

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