I originally published this piece on February 21st. Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about it, and it’s still something I want to return to. But in my reading, I came across a famous essay by Peter Singer, written in 1971, called “Famine, Affluence, and Morality.” I’d read it before, but I can’t remember when, why, or in what context–regardless, I think it’s relevant here. Singer’s main premise is that if you can do something (and he adds “without a reduction in your own well-being”), you have a moral obligation to do it. There’s more to it than that, obviously, and you can read the whole thing here, but I think it’s apparent how it applies. Superman can do everything without a reduction in his well-being; therefore, isn’t it indefensible for him to not?
Anyway, the original piece I wrote is below.
I love Superman.
I think Superman is America’s second-greatest contribution to human culture, right after Bugs Bunny (who is a 20th-century Trickster god, and also funnier than Superman). He is a perfect reflection of the American ideal–a man (an immigrant, even!) who uses his tremendous strength to help those in need. As Glen Weldon puts it, “he puts the needs of others over those of himself. [And] he never gives up.” He is everything we can be and everything we should be.
But there’s something that’s been bothering me lately. See, we know that Superman has the power to save everyone.
But he doesn’t.
Wait…Can He Save Everyone?
Let’s be clear. Superman is reactive (like most, if not all, fictional protagonists)–he saves people from danger, but he doesn’t do much of anything at all to prevent the danger from occurring. Why is that? Superman has the power, personally, to end war, eradicate disease, and wipe out corruption. He could turn the planet into paradise. The limit is not his capacity–it’s his willingness. For Superman to truly save us from ourselves, he would have to become a tyrant. We know how that turns out.
Having an all-powerful being impose his will over the planet isn’t a happy ending, it’s a Mark Waid comic. So Superman can’t end all conflict. What if we go a level down? Surely there are ways for Superman to be more proactive that wouldn’t require him to take over the entire planet. Are you telling me that he doesn’t have the cure for cancer in the Fortress of Solitude?
Maybe he does. Probably he does! Writers have addressed this before–the usual explanation is that if Superman provided the answers to all of humanity’s problems, not only would he overwhelm human culture, but he would stunt their drive and ambition. I accept that as an explanation (I don’t think it’s great, but I accept that the people within the DC Universe accept that as an explanation, which I think is an important distinction).
The bottom line is this: Superman accepts voluntary limits on his power. He respects human laws. He respects human customs. Things like international accords, sovereign borders, and cultural traditions are entirely theoretical, yet Superman treats them as ironclad. They’re the reason he only allows himself to be reactive, instead of proactive.
So no, Superman can’t save everyone.
But he can save more.
The Curse of Awareness
Of all of Superman’s powers, I think his enhanced senses are the most interesting. He can hear everything. He can see everything. When he’s “working,” he can monitor pretty much everybody–listening for car accidents, looking for meteors heading for Earth, that sort of thing. But we know he can switch it off, for lack of a better word. After all, he doesn’t spy on us. It’s only Superman’s sense of morality and decency (see: doesn’t want to be a tyrant, above) that keeps him from being an omniscient overlord.
But that has an implication that I don’t like. If Superman has the ability to turn his senses “off,” and ignore people in bedrooms, for instance…
Then it’s something he can control. That means, late at night, when Clark is enjoying a nice evening in with Lois, maybe a glass of wine, he’s making a choice to not hear any cries for help. He’s actively ignoring people who need him. He is closing his ears to the sounds of cars crashing, and oil pipes bursting, and boats sinking. No matter where you try to put his power levels in any given issue, it’s a given that he can hear crime and pain happening somewhere, but–he doesn’t.
The alternative is that he hears and does nothing. That is far worse.
That’s what I can’t reconcile, because Superman has to know. He has to know that when he goes in for the night, people are going to get hurt, and people are going to die, and he could have done something to save them. How can he sleep at night knowing that? More importantly, does he deserve to? Does he deserve to be happy, knowing that he hasn’t done enough, and that he can never do enough? Is he a prisoner of his own power?
In case it’s not clear, I’m making a parallel. We’re Americans in the year of our Lord two-thousand and sixteen. I’m typing this on a machine that would let me see anywhere in the world. I can find someone who needs my help. If I only looked, I would see people who needed me. I know this. But I don’t look. I allow myself to not notice.
Our self-imposed blindness will not be forgiven.