It ain’t easy being Superman

Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s Superman!

Yep, the superhero, the granddaddy of them all. Flying to the rescue whatever the crisis—derailed trains, hijacked zeppelins, burning schools. Don’t forget the relationship with Lois Lane, that spunky reporter with a knack for getting herself into more trouble than an Illinois governor, somehow managing to be rescued just in the nick of time.

Launched in 1938, Superman is not only the archetypal hero for generations of comic-fondling youngsters, he also stands as a metaphor for America’s relationship with the rest of the world.

We like to think of ourselves as the superhero swooping into the midst of disaster, plucking hapless damsels from the wreckage of falling buildings or the ravages of famine. Witness our dramatic response to the mind-numbingly horrific earthquake in Haiti—millions of dollars raised and donated, Clinton and W together appealing for help, archaic immigration laws suspended to facilitate adoption of orphans—all of this is good.

But even as I write, Haiti is starting to suffer the fate of almost every news story—the two-week news cycle and American’s waning attention span. And yet, the misery and suffering there will continue for years, if not decades.

Superman may have won the affections of Lois Lane over his alter ego Clark Kent, but he was really terrible at the long-term relationship stuff. Unlike Kent, Superman really wasn’t much of a listener, could hardly be expected to take on his share of the housework—and we won’t even mention kids. Swooping was far more his strong point than meaningful communication. For her part, Lois got addicted to the short-term thrill of the dramatic rescue, ignoring the potentially devoted partner at her side.

Likewise, as a country, we are not so good at the long-term relationship with countries like Haiti. Historically, we’ve lagged far behind Canada and European nations in donor support. Our diplomatic policies have blocked or made exceptionally difficult both Haitian immigration and corporate investment in that country. The grinding poverty of Haiti is at least partially a result of our disengagement there. Of course, the earthquake would have been devastating with or without our engaged support, but perhaps it could have been slightly less devastating without the poverty and already-crumbling infrastructure.

Reconfiguring our foreign aid policy to build resilience and self-reliance rather than dependence on American corporations would be one step to help mediate the impact of such disasters. Once upon a time, this was exactly the idea behind American foreign aid. The post-WWII Marshall Plan devoted broad-based infrastructure development support to foster economically independent allies in our erstwhile enemies, Japan and Germany, and was wildly successful. But in the past two decades, neocons like Paul Wolfowitz have distorted the policies of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to push poor countries into deeper dependency on the West—forcing them away from self-sustaining agriculture and toward growing commodities like coffee, requiring the use of American-made pesticides and fertilizers, Monsanto-patented seeds.

It’s not too late to rethink this. Maybe we can learn something from Haiti, to tap into our country’s instinct to help a neighbor in need, and think more broadly about our long-term relationship with countries that could really stand some bootstrapping assistance. If Superman, Lois, and Clark were real people, their story would have ended up in tragedy without some change in trajectory. We have the opportunity to make that change in our own world, if we would choose it.