America was a simpler nation sixty years ago. Right was right, and wrong was wrong. The mythology from those decades continues to prove profitable today. Iron Man 3 tops the box office returns worldwide as film series featuring Captain America, Batman, and Superman continue to draw billions of audience dollars. These characters represent the ‘invincible’ in the human imagination. Distinctively American, the superhero offered a clear sense of moral authority (backed by an unyielding will) as the core of an orderly and just society.
Shows like Madmen reveal the flaws in both the attempt to maintain this invincible manhood and the efforts to maintain it through nostalgia. The cost of the impenetrable image is a fractured and oppressed humanity that tolerates slavery and exploitation, especially of women. White masculinity is the indelible marker of authority in this system. Whether the ruthless J.R. Ewing on Dallas, the titular cousins on Dukes of Hazzard, or the popular coronation of Elvis, white masculinity gave an unquestioned standard of accomplishment to the idea of western civilization. They were the last of the American supermen in popular culture.
These undefeated icons of leadership, honor, and creativity moved into the hidden corridors of finance and economics in the last twenty years. White masculinity no longer stood as a singular measure of excellence when Michael Jackson, Michael Jordan, and Tiger Woods opened new global markets. However, behind the glow of the cameras, the financial architecture of the emerging, information-based world system kept innovators like Warren Buffett, Steve Jobs, Jeffrey Lurie, and Bill Gates as the symbols of real achievement.
Of course, other prosperous individuals joined this club – Oprah Winfrey, Enrique Iglesias, Raquel Welch, and Bill Cosby. Still, the pinnacle of performance in the early twenty-first century remained rooted in the economic dominance of white men. This advantage was not a product of open competition in a free marketplace of exchanged ideas. Only in the last decade have the doors of opportunity been relatively open to people outside the original group of supermen. Leaders like Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Jennifer Granholm, and Barack Obama have emerged as a result of recent openings, but the conditions that allowed for this growth are now in danger.
The new assertion of white masculinity as the unique marker of success will begin with this year’s Supreme Court rulings on affirmative action in Texas and Michigan. Dismantling the ladder toward equal citizenship is the top priority of the Tea Party movement, disguised as a concern with federal regulatory overreach and reducing tax burdens on corporations. This reasoning relies on the idea that financial success is the best measure of a productive citizen. For Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Mitch McConnell, and John Boehner, teachers, police offers, firefighters, and other civil servants are lazy and unproductive. They cost more than they produce.
It is this simple equation that reaches back to the foundation of the republic. Does the United States exist to produce profit, regardless of human suffering, under the minimum government influence possible? Or is it a union of communities dedicated to upholding equality and fairness both at home and abroad? These two answers provide the essential tension as Tea Party activists argue against the coalition of women’s rights, civil rights, and labor organizations. Are there only a few capable of leading as invincible supermen, or is it time for a new benchmark for achievement?
Dr. Walter Greason is the author of Suburban Erasure: How the Suburbs Ended the Civil Rights Movement in New Jersey.