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After the Golden Age by Alvin Schwartz
Giving a glimpse into the formative years of comics and beyond.

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AFTER THE GOLDEN AGE for 05/12/2003
Volume 2, #76

The American Empire

I saw it with my own eyes--Bush the Superhero! The Imperial President of the new American Empire as he descended onto the flight deck and gave his speech. And I knew we were in trouble.

But I wanted to make absolutely sure. There was one man who could tell me what the toughest guy in the world as head of the world's toughest country might bring on us. In fact, he'd know more about it than anybody because he'd been there already and done it all--and somehow managed to work it out. Or so I thought. So I jumped back into my little Nissan Sentra for the long ride back to the mid nineteen forties. I knew Clark Kent would be there and I knew he could tell me everything I needed to know.

It was a crazy ride. The way I told it last time, I'm afraid I gave you the impression that I just stepped on the gas and passed a row of trucks on Highway 31 leading into Ottawa and next thing I knew I was in the Sixth Avenue Cafeteria in 1945 and having a gabfest with Clark Kent. But I was in a hurry. It wasn't quite like that. A lot of stuff happened in-between, things like ideas and memories that came rushing back while I was on my way to the fateful forties. Because I didn't simply forget all the important relevant stuff that happened after the bomb and the Japanese surrender and the terrible ruin visited on German cities like Dresden as the Allies took their revenge for Hitler's horrors and the bombing of London. I also remembered how, when it was all over, the United States of America was sitting at the top of the heap and despite the damage of Pearl Harbor, the US now had all the money, all the operating factories, all the commerce and industry that mattered in the world. We were standing like Gulliver over a Lilliputian world, and nobody seemed to mind. In fact, compared to the way Dubya the Conqueror is disliked and despised around the world and among our buddies at the UN, like France and Germany, and a lot of others too scared to express their resentment, it seems so different this time with no one else turning handsprings at our great Victory in Iraq along with all those weapons of mass destruction we'd turned up, thus protecting the US and everyone else from an immediate and real danger. Well, didn't we?

At least we thought so. So how come we were so popular after World War II and so disliked after the Iraq adventure. What's the difference? Wasn't there an American Empire in the offing after World War II as there seems to be now that we've flattened Iraq and shown those Europeans what a lead-pipe cinch it was in the face of our enormous military power and the enormous profits that will accrue to American companies like Bechtel and Halliburton to repair the mess. Of course, having been there in the forties, I already knew the difference.

I considered all this, and then I considered a few other things. After World War II, the US simply didn't lord it over a prostrate Europe and strut across the world stage. On the contrary--it rushed into the Marshall Plan. It took a military man, President Eisenhower to enlist the aid of another military general, George C. Marshall. And, in fact, the Marshall Plan invested billions of dollars and inestimable amounts of brilliant planning to restore a shattered Europe to a new prosperity. In fact, the Pentagon should never simply be thought of as a war machine as much as a brilliant planning mechanism. When it's in the right hands, that is.

Consider the difference today. The war in Iraq was preceded by a series of diplomatic moves that stunned and alienated Europe to begin with. Spurning the UN with its failure to find weapons of mass destruction, the US showed them all how to fail to find weapons of mass destruction in style!

It began by abrogating the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and spurning the European Court of Justice. Let there be rule of law, but our law, not yours, was the American message of his Imperial Highness, Dubya the First. Oh yes--and there'll be payoff for those who didn't come right along with us, the new Emperor adds. After all, how else should an emperor act but to treat all the other nations as nothing more than his vassals. That's what an emperor does, doesn't he?

These were some of my thoughts as I finally pulled my Nissan into a parking space outside the Sixth Avenue Cafeteria. I went first to the counter for a coffee, and then scoured the tables. In a moment, exactly where I'd left him last time, I saw Clark Kent, still sitting there and nursing his own coffee while various people passed by offering an occasional wave of greeting. But he was mostly alone.

It was my opportunity. I headed for his table and settled into a chair facing him.

"You look rattled," he greeted me. "Well--" he gave his cup a half twirl, stared at it contemplatively for a moment before remarking: "So you're not so thrilled with the new American empire."

"You already know about it?"

"Of course. I'm not time bound, as you should realize by now."

But suddenly, from across the cafeteria, deHirsh Margolies was on his feet denouncing somebody again. "It's rotten. It's unfair! They're giving everything away to a gang that doesn't deserve it. So they can all rise up again."

"Is he still complaining about Lend Lease?" I asked Clark.

"No--no--it's the Marshall Plan. Don't you realize what date it is?"

"Isn't it 1945?" I asked

Clark grinned. "You've got to watch it with that car. Never know where it'll take you. No--deHirsh is complaining about the Marshall Plan. He doesn't think Europe deserves it. It's long after 45. The bomb's been dropped. VE Day and VJ Day have come and gone. The war's well over."

"O boy" I exclaimed, realizing my mistake. "Maybe deHirsh doesn't know it yet, but our European friends loved us for that one. It saved Europe. It was a great piece of statesmanship. I mean - the Marshall Plan."

Clark nodded. "Especially great in the light of the narrow, stingy short-sighted politics we'll be getting from the US later on in 2003."

"I agree. But--you seem pretty mad about it."

"With good reason. Specially good reason. Because if anyone should understand it--I'm the one."

"How so?"

"Tell me--am I or am I not the toughest, smartest, most powerful, unconquerable guy on the block?"

"Is anybody questioning that?"

"No--no--not at all." He shrugged and offered a quick reminiscent smile. "Except for some wiseass editor who thought he could make a big new a splash in the industry by setting me up for death--a rather short death, if you remember."

"I remember," I admitted. "A PR stunt that turned sour pretty fast. But--apart from that--is there anyone new who disputes your being king of the hill?"

"Actually, no. But nobody ever really thinks how that's a problem for the king of the hill himself."

"What do you mean?"

"When most people see a top gun--what do they think about? It's not only with editors--it's all sorts of ambitious characters. Know how they really think?"

"Why--" I said, wondering why he asked. "--that it must be wonderful. Gosh! Isn't that great.! Stuff like that."

Clark shook his head. "You're way off, Al. Dead wrong. First thing most think about is--hey--what could I do to knock this guy off his perch. That's what people think. At least a whole lot of them. Taking me down is a project that occupies a lot of nasty minds--almost all the time. Now, I'm not complaining, but think what it means in international politics. The US was never so well loved as when it used its strength to restore Europe through the Marshall Plan, or when MacArthur used his head and instead of mucking around with academic notions of democracy, brought a despotic Japan around to democratic ideas by slow and carefully planned steps that didn't threaten their culture. Or when Eisenhower stepped in and stopped the invasion of the Suez Canal. The US had a great reputation in the world in those days. Without it, they couldn't have had the kind of support that helped break the back of the Soviet Union without a deadly war. But come 2003, we've got something new and--well--I say scary. A new American Empire. An emperor poked into power by a sleazy supreme court instead of elected, an emperor who's managed to insult and challenge every other power in the world, who's stepped on everyone's toes--this go-it-alone-kid--how do you think that's going to play out? Oh--while they have to, they'll play up to him. But they're watching every move, waiting for the least misstep, just waiting for any opportunity--well--you understand that I feel so strongly about it because I know it from experience. If you're at the top, it's more important that you worry about everybody else's feelings than ever. Just because you're the strongest, you're really in the weakest, most exposed position."

"Like Superman," I said, eyeing him in a new way.

"I think you've got it," he said. "Now you know how bad the problem is. I only hope the opposition--the democrats, who've been so rattlebrained up until now, will realize what's happening and take appropriate steps to tone this emperor down--way down."

"And I don't suppose you intend to do anything about it?"

"Me? No--this has to happen from within the US itself. My interfering won't help. It's the national ethos that needs reshaping. The only ones who can do that are--the democrats. And frankly, right now, they don't look too promising."

Clark was thoughtful for a while, then he said: "First they'll begin by attacking the American dollar. By May 2003 the Euro has already soared to a four year high against the dollar.. The Americans are going along with it because they think they might get the benefit of lower prices and get rid of their unfavorable balance of trade. But that's not going to happen because too many countries have fortunes tied up in US Dollars. It's going to be a mess. And in the meantime, the Emperor is pushing tax cuts for his friends--the ones who backed his run for Empire. So the states are starving, the schools are folding, special ed is out the window and people are really dying because they can't afford medicine. Now Oregon--where they once had a great health system--people there are desperate. You know about Oregon, of course."

I nodded. "You're still talking 2003," I said. "But you know, Bush isn't all that bad. Didn't he just offer three billion for African health aid?"

Clark laughed. "Are you kidding. That's just money already earmarked from past programs for clean needles--stuff like that. Nothing new is being added. It's a straight come-on."

"But what about his new stand on pollution. He's investing a couple of billion for non-polluting hydrogen engines in the US."

A sour laugh from Clark. "Yeah--but he's not giving it to any startup clean air car companies. It's going to all the old polluting car makers. How fast do you think they'll make any changes? Listen, my friend, even the Bank of Japan that always moves to prop up the sagging dollar, hasn't done it this time. Even though, for Japan, the political repercussion of letting the dollar fall into the 115 yen area is enormous. but the dollar correction is too powerful for the BOJ to prop up,' said Clark. I stood there and listened to Clark spout catastrophe after catastrophe. I began to wonder what was going to happen. I wondered about the Democrats.

"They haven't got it yet." Clark went on. "They're trying to fight this on 'issue' politics. But it's gone way past that. Bush tells the nation anything he likes. He's slowly packing the courts, changing the rules of democracy itself, eroding the rights of the people - and making them feel he's got a broad sweeping program. You can't attack something like that on issues. You've got to come out with a whole clear vision of what America is and stands for. They're nowhere near understanding that in the Democratic party."

"Hey--Clark. You're an American. Are you going to just sit there and let it happen? What kind of superhero are you?" I was flabbergasted at what I was hearing.

Clark started to laugh. He laughed in a strange eerie way and I heard his voice blending in with the shouts of deHirsh across the cafeteria. Then the whole thing started to fade out altogether and I was driving somewhere in the Nissan. It wasn't Route 31.

Yes--I'm not going to tell you I had been dreaming. It had something to do with that Nissan. I knew that everything I'd heard was true and accurate. It was stuff the papers were full of anyway. And I also believe Clark brought my attention to it in a way that I could present in this now--this present of May 2003.

Later, when I tried to discuss the whole thing with Kay, she said: "Don't you understand? You were drifting through two kinds of reality. You learned that was possible and you wrote about it in Unlikely Prophet. One of those realities is the fact that Clark, or Superman--well--he's real in a way, but in one reality he's a copyrighted character. You simply can't quote him like that. On the other hand, you can quote from your own Nissan that's really a dream car shaped by personal experiences. As you said once, everybody has such experiences, only they try to fit them into recognized patterns. You don't do that. That's your real secret. You never try to make things understandable according to the way they've been known to happen before."

I frowned. "What does that mean? That I see things others don't?"

"No--no--just that you don't try to fit them into familiar patterns. Like copyrights."

"Hmmm--seems like looking a gift horse in the mouth if you try to copyright your own experiences."

"Like copyrighting yourself," she said. "As if that were necessary. Anyway--you can put it all in your column."

"Oh--I intend to, you can be sure. Every word I heard--is true. Only one thing--"

"What's that?"

"Well--I was sort of wondering, about the Nissan. Maybe I should copyright that."

"Oh no," Kay said. "And get blamed for everything it puts you through? You get the column out first. Then you can worry about the Nissan."

So that's what I did. I got the column out first. And this is it. I'll tell you more about the Nissan next time.

--Alvin

<< 05/05/2003 | 05/12/2003 | 05/19/2003 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.


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