TCS Daily

Ambassador Superman

By Joshua Elder - June 20, 2003 12:00 AM

Throughout most of the Islamic world, truth and justice are not synonymous with the American way. This should not be surprising. After all, a biased Arab press disseminates a steady stream of lies about American war atrocities. And when the typical Arab is not reading slanted editorials, he's seeing America reflected through the funhouse mirror of popular culture -- an America that seems to embrace gratuitous violence, permissive sexual mores and conspicuous material consumption. Against this backdrop, how can America expect to win the battle for "hearts and minds" of the Arab world?

This looks like a job for Superman.

The Man of Steel and his spandex-clad cohorts are known around the world thanks to their successful movies, TV shows and comic books. But unlike most other popular U.S. entertainment exports, superheroes are actually positive (not to mention wholesome) role models for children everywhere. They embody the values of an America that is rarely, if ever, seen in the Islamic world; the same America that President Bush said "will lead by defending liberty and justice because they are right and true for all people everywhere" in his 2002 State of the Union address.

Sharad Devarajan, president & CEO of Gotham Comics -- a periodical distribution company with products reaching an estimated 2.5 million readers a month in countries like India, Pakistan, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates -- echoes those sentiments: "Characters such as Superman, Batman and Spider-Man don't just represent truth, justice and the 'American way,' rather their morals and compassion define the 'human way' regardless of race, religion or culture."

America has been using popular culture to undermine tyrannical and repressive regimes for years. The Voice of America broadcast rock 'n roll into Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union for decades, feeding the people's desire for the freedoms of the West. Now the VOA is attempting to do the same thing in the Middle East. This is a tall order. To the citizens of those countries -- especially the parents -- modern American entertainment is the sick product of a diseased culture. If that's the inevitable result of embracing freedom and liberalization, then they want no part of it.

Of course American social critics have been calling pop culture vulgar and soulless for decades. To a degree, they're right. Even a relatively benign program like "Friends" does little to promote socially beneficial values. It may be an entertaining diversion, but its cast of vacuous urbanites isn't going to inspire a child to believe in a better world, nor is it going to convince her that America genuinely wants to help her build it.

But Devajaran believes that the larger-than-life morality plays found in the pages of comic books truly do inspire children, and that they can be an important component in a larger media campaign designed to educate the Arab world's youth, change negative attitudes and foster a sense of hope.

"Unlike adults, children's views and opinions are not firmly established," Devarajan argues. "They naturally question the world and are open to new ideas... such as the values portrayed by many superheroes... including bravery, courage, responsibility, helping and protecting the innocent and most of all, the belief that one man can make a difference."

Superman could rule the world if he so desired. Spider-Man could have used his powers to make himself rich. Yet both characters instead devote their lives to helping others -- often at great personal cost to themselves and their loved ones. With great power comes great responsibility.

That simple truth is taken for granted in the United States, but it's a revelation for children growing up in a culture shaped by terrorists and tyrants. And it's not a lesson they're going to learn from MTV.

For every little boy or girl whose heart has yet to surrender to despair and whose mind hasn't been poisoned by hate, the example set by Superman and his fellow heroes can give them the courage to dream of a brighter future. And that's how we'll win the battle of ideas -- one heart and one mind at a time.

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