On long train rides, I consider the helplessness of Superman.
The public has, perhaps unfairly, concluded that Superman’s powers are limitless. Therefore, when a problem – any problem – goes unsolved, the point of failure is obvious: Hostage situation? Capsized pleasure cruise? Unexpected volcanic eruption? Superman problems.
Systemic racial bias in policing? Hidden debt in derivatives markets? Mounting threat of mass extinction due to global climate change?
Alas, Superman’s abilities end at the boundary between short disasters and long disasters.
Short disasters are events that erupt in moments. They tend to be single-factor, physical, objective, observable incidents. Falling planes. Speeding cars. Aggressive drunks. Catastrophes that can be averted by lifting, swooping, blocking, catching, and most thrilling of all, punching.
Long disasters brew and unfold for decades or centuries. They are often complex, contextual, informational, nonlinear systems. Regional political disputes. Behavioral norms and biases. Environmental and economic degradation.
In the age of Buzzfeed, I imagine strongly worded Open Letters to Superman, penned daily by representatives of communities obvious and obscure, decrying his inaction on the amount of GMO grain in chicken feed, and the shrinking of Australia’s coral reefs, and the development of commercial properties on tribal lands, and, and, and.
Not Superman problems.
Clark Kent problems. Clark Kent, the journalist.
The power of the written word: to snake through the boundary between short and long disasters, to lift hearts and minds instead of overturned school busses. To inspire mass action, to salve (if not solve) a generation of sectarian divide, to plant vision and ethics and seeds that grow for centuries, long after Superman returns to that great Fortress of Solitude in the sky.
Imagine if Krypton didn’t imbue Clark Kent with superhuman strength, but superhuman wit and empathy. Able to bridge bitter conflicts in a single aphorism. More inspirational than a parent’s sacrifice, a preacher’s pulpit, or a clear view of the Milky Way in the night sky.