"What are we outraged about today?": Captain America edition

Hypocrisy lies at the center of Fox News’ outrage culture. Only through cognitive dissonance does it succeed.

I’ve written a lot about this. Whether it’s what I called “Tucker Carlson’s local news broadcast from hell,” or the “war on Christmas,” or just the general search for an obscure story to build a national narrative around, this is just… Fox News. You can have outrage without Fox News, but you can’t have Fox News without the outrage.

When I sat down to write this, I originally wanted to go deeper into that topic. But then I realized that maybe everything I had to say about it has already been said. Or not.

The hypocrisy of all of this is that so many of these outrages stem from this “kids are too sensitive”/“cancel culture”/“snowflakes” perspective that right-wing media have weaponized over time. But if, for example, someone writes a blog post about Dr. Seuss’ use of racial stereotypes in some of his work (that’s just a fact), and you respond by launching into five weeks of coverage about how “Dr. Seuss has been canceled” (something that is just bizarre to claim and categorically false), who is the one who is being overly sensitive?

Political correctness runs amok… but not in quite the way you think.

The same people yelling about “political correctness run amok” are the same ones who insist that a politically correct and sanitized version of history under the guise of “patriotic education” that promotes a “pro-America worldview.” History shouldn’t have a “pro-America” or “anti-America” worldview. That’s not how history is supposed to work. History should just be… history. That’s what we should strive for, even though it’s not necessarily possible to achieve. Instead, we learn one person or one group’s version of history. This has been an ongoing irritation of mine (here’s something I wrote 5 years ago on the topic.)

Lately, though, things seem to have gotten worse. The right-wing rage machine trying to fearmonger over “critical race theory” have overcorrected for whatever flaws they see in education and political discourse. It’s now gotten to the point where even suggesting that the U.S. hasn’t been a perfect country throughout its 245 years of existence will incur the wrath of the authoritarian right.

Trump administration Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently tweeted that “if we teach that the founding of the United States of America was somehow flawed,” “corrupt,” and “racist,” that we are somehow attacking the U.S.

If we teach that it’s somehow flawed? Of course it was flawed. Several of the people who helped found the country quite literally owned other human beings as property. To say that wasn’t a “flaw” on the basis that other countries were doing it, too, is a cop-out. It was flawed. It was more than flawed. Even by the founders’ own admission, it was flawed. The preamble to the U.S. Constitution begins, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union…”

Not “perfect.” “More perfect.” In other words: flawed. Whether or not the country was flawed at its founding is not up for debate, but you can discuss how far from perfect it was and how much progress (or regression) has been made along the way.

This is the Preamble to the US Constitution, It starts with the phrase We The People and shows only some of the writing from the upper left-hand corner of the document of the Constitution, It is written on parchment paper that is now faded, showing its age. (Photo by: Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Fox News managed to combine its addiction to pointless outrage with its desire to rewrite history so that the U.S. is and has always been the “good guys” in an example I couldn’t ignore.

Those of you who know me probably know that I really like comic books. Specifically, Marvel comics. While he’s not my favorite superhero (that title goes to Spider-Man), I’ve read hundreds of Captain America comics in my day. So when Fox News had a meltdown about Cap, I couldn’t resist writing about it.

Right-wing media freaked out because in issue #1 of The United States of Captain America, Cap questions the state of America and the American dream. Longtime Cap readers know that this isn’t actually a new plot point. Cap has regularly found himself frustrated and questioning whether or not he should keep working as the “Star-Spangled Man With a Plan.” In the 1970s, he quit being Captain America after it turned out that then-President Richard Nixon was the leader of a terrorist cell. In the 1980s, Cap fought Ronald Reagan after the president was turned into a lizard. Those are all very extremely, expressly political storylines. Yet here’s right-wing media looking for something to yell about.

“This is what happens when you allow left-wing activists to write your comic books,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) said during an episode of Fox & Friends, referring to this book’s author. (The author is not a “left-wing activist.” The closest angry right-wing trolls can come to supporting that absurd claim is… showing that the author apparently donated a few hundred dollars to Democrats during the most recent election cycle? That’s not activism.)

On Twitter, Christopher Cantwell, the author, clarified that Cap “obviously very much believes in the American Dream. He just thinks about what it actually is and means for a minute.” Once again, this is a clear, obvious Captain America storyline.

Like Pompeo’s outrage, the Captain America anger hinges on someone going so far as to dare question the “Woo! America is #1!!!” brand of patriotism. The version of Captain America they want, the version of America itself that they want, is a hyper-nationalist hellscape where we must fight to keep “others” out, the others who will make us less pure, less refined, less America. That’s been Tucker Carlson’s nightly monologue for the past year or so.

That Captain America did exist, but he was a fraud.

In Marvel’s What If? #44 (“What if Captain America Were Revived Today?”), published in 1984, an imposter takes Cap’s place, ushers in an age of American fascism, and supports a candidate from the “America First Party” (sounds… familiar). After the real Cap is thawed from a block of ice, he delivers a speech that would no doubt have Fox News personalities losing their minds.

“Listen to me — All of you out there! You were told by this man — your hero — that America is the greatest country in the world! He told you that Americans were the greatest people — that America could be refined like silver, could have the impurities hammered out of it, and shine more brightly! He went on about how precious America was — how you needed to make sure it remained great! And he told you anything was justified to preserve that great treasure, that pearl of great price that is America!

Well, I say America is nothing! Without its ideals — its commitment to the freedom of all men, America is a piece of trash! A nation is nothing! A flag is a piece of cloth!

I fought Adolf Hitler not because America was great, but because it was fragile! I knew that liberty could as easily be snuffed out here as in Nazi Germany! As a people, we were no different from them! When I returned, I saw that you nearly did turn America into nothing! And the only reason you’re not less than nothing — is that it’s still possible for you to bring freedom back to America!”

(As luck would have it, I mentioned the then-bubbling outrage on the right over the new Cap storyline when I interviewed Marvel writer Dan Slott for this newsletter’s podcast.)

Setting aside whether being patriotic is necessarily something people should strive for, I have to ask which is actually more patriotic, the person who whitewashes history, shouts down dissent, and opposes movements for justice… or the person who says that we haven’t lived up to our lofty ideals and pushes us to do better? I’d say it’s the latter, but that’s just me and my support for a “more perfect” country and world.