1. GOD, COMMUNISM, AND THE WB
Smallville, a show on the WB network seducing America’s adolescents with visions of an acne- and largely parent-free world, relates the coming-of-age story of two young men: Superman, prior to his days of telephone booths and capes, and his future arch-enemy and global menace, Lex Luthor. Eventually, as we all know, these two will move to Metropolis and become the very yin and yang of apocalypse and salvation. In the tiny Kansan burg of Smallville, however, these future foes are, as yet, shoulder-slapping buddies. By providing American teens with Clark’s and Lex’s saga, the show tries to evoke the antediluvian world of superhero-dom, the world predating the complete separation of God and Satan, before the latter was cast out by God into the dark underworld.
Let’s not pull any punches here: the show, quite simply, is suffused with Christian propaganda. Clark appears on a crucifix in the very first episode, after being abducted by a gang of football players on an annual hazing mission. In another episode he is bathed in a halo of light as he rescues a boy from the jaws of a trash compactor. Once, in a graveyard, the camera frames Clark with the wings of an angel who presides over a Smallville resident’s crypt.1 Every time Clark’s spaceship is unearthed for inspection or theft, it appears to have a cross imprinted on its battered exterior. Almost every episode has some vaguely apt Biblical citation, such as a throwaway reference to the Holy Grail, three wise men, or Roman barbarism. In the opening credits, the pop band Remy Zero croons the lyrics: “Somebody save me / Don’t care how you do it / I’ve been waiting for you / I’ll make this whole world shine for you.”2
But beneath the more apparent Christian overtones runs a covert propaganda stream of a far more startling and inexplicable sort: dyed-in-the-wool communist rhetoric. If Smallville had aired during another era, the scriptwriters would have been blacklisted and tried by the House Un-American Activities Committee, alongside Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman. It is true, in the first few episodes, all evil hails from the meteor rocks that accompanied Clark on his voyage to earth. But in short order, the plot turns its attentions to the dangers emanating from the booming metropolis of Metropolis, whence the devilish effects and demands of capitalism always originate. The nearby burg is constantly threatening Smallville’s tranquil idyll with the crude venality of its urban ethos.3 In its persistent indictment of all that is urban, Smallville teaches that capitalism should be feared and distrusted. Its residents persistently battle the possibility that all of their cherished human qualities—their desire to work hard, love deeply, be true—can be sold for money. This is the oldest communist fear in the book, arguably the inner drive behind most communist and socialist movements in history.
Perplexingly, these mutually hostile ideological positions—the Christian right (advocates of “family values” over all others) and the radical, capitalist-hating left—have seamlessly joined forces in common cause in Smallville. Here in Kansas, Bill Bennett and Ralph Nader represent the same constituents—an odd dovetailing of ideologies that seems, to our eyes, thoroughly impossible, a full-fledged category error. America’s most vociferous Christians are often ardent lovers of commerce and capitalism; there are even self-help manuals written by CEOs and motivational speakers that espouse the Scriptures as essential guidelines for business success. Contrariwise, communism is known in the twentieth century for its rank intolerance toward all forms of religion.4 But, in Smallville, Christianity and communism form a single, cozy alliance.
By presenting this odd fusion of beliefs, Smallville recalls a time inverted from our own, when the political left had not yet retreated to its cosmopolitan enclave, and the political right had yet to entrench itself in the countryside. In an earlier day, Christian cults and Commie revolutionaries were both looking for ways to fight the “godless capitalism” that was gaining power by the day. These forces pursued a romantic myth that the village world was both Christian and separated from the vileness of commerce; today, this myth lies secretly hidden in the heart of America’s folklore and philosophy. Smallville, in giving new life to the age-old American stance of anti-commericialism, is reminding us of our revolutionary heritage.
2. LOVING THE COUNTRY
On the threshold of America’s industrial epoch, in the days (and even the social circles) of Ralph Waldo Emerson, a host of utopian communities propagated the belief that man’s salvation lay in leaving commerce behind and settling the same Midwestern plains that Clark Kent’s parents till on the outskirts of Smallville. These are the communities that, aside from constituting an oft-neglected part of America’s history of western settlement, stand as the last wave of people who managed to fuse a leftist critique of capitalism with a rightist embrace of Christianity. These groups were proto-communists at the same time that they were proto-members of Pat Robertson’s televangelist network.
There are entire books devoted to this emergence of utopian Christian communities throughout rural America at the time of the Transcendentalists. The Zoarites of Ohio set up a communistic society while they rigorously followed the religious dictates of a stringent form of Christianity, as did the Swedes of Bishop Hill, Illinois, the Amana colony in Iowa, and the Bethel colony in Missouri. A group residing in Indiana, known as “the Rappites,” followed the communist-Christian cult-of-personality surrounding George Rapp. And then there was that surely festive bunch, the Perfectionists, who settled Oneida, New York with a peculiar blend of Christian communism.
The heartland of America, in other words, served not only as the dream projection of nineteenth century Europeans seeking the realization of the proverbial capitalist rags-to-riches fable; it was also the dream projection of Europe’s incipient communist movement. Some argued that only in this new land, separated from the filthy commerce and old traditions of Europe, could the perfect human community of sharing and brotherly love be built. Along with their contemporaries, America’s Transcendentalists, these groups promoted a belief in abandoning the city’s profane temptations and digging one’s finger’s into the more productive and holier dirt of the countryside.
Sprouting out of Europe and America’s northeast throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, these sects were propelled by the same forces that influenced the literature and philosophy of the day—the strong strains of utopianism and romanticism that, when coupled to scientific rationality, were developing a critique of nascent capitalism.5 A peasant lifestyle was endorsed by the likes of Wordsworth and Coleridge even as they feared that such a lifestyle was disappearing because of rapid industrialization and sheep enclosures. The general anxiety of the era—that industry and money were detaching people from the land—led certain extremists to adamantly return to the land, even if they knew little of how to survive there. For example, the “Icaria” settlement was mostly peopled by urban craftsmen who sought to build an agricultural utopia. Lacking vital knowledge, they struggled for many years before they managed to attain relative stability in Iowa.
In practice, each communist society was organized differently. For example, some, such as the Shakers, were completely celibate (or claimed to be), while others embraced free love. (Improbably, Sandusky, Ohio, had a “free love” society in 1857, while the Oneida colony practiced so-called “complex marriage,” for its residents held monogamy to be a most transparent example of capitalist selfishness.)6 Some lived in common quarters, some kept separate houses. But despite these surface differences, the common roots of this trend run deep. Property was held in common, and labor was dispersed equally throughout the population; money could not buy one’s way out of the common labor. Thus, class hierarchy was either absent or actively minimized. Trade in general was avoided as much as possible in favor of communal autarky. Often the sexes were announced to be completely equal, certainly a radical notion during the nineteenth century. Sometimes even religious duties were divided up, with no one person controlling the community’s access to God. Invariably, the new towns followed a rationalist architectural order, such as having a common eating and social building that was encircled by equidistant housing.7
The most colorful of these utopian plans (many weren’t so colorful, since they were intentionally creating spaces of Puritanical order), however, must be attributed to the massive influence of one Charles Fourier, a foundational author in the history of communism.8 At one point in the 1840s, more than forty “phalanxes” existed in America, communities that were inspired by Fourier’s combined hatred of commerce and the city and his almost neurotic love of scientific rationality.9 In the organized phalanx, no one performed work that he or she disliked. Everyone was expected to follow his or her “passions.” Once society was thusly organized, in so-called “Association,” massive inefficiencies would be eliminated. For example, time wasted reading the news would be minimized, for those who love to gossip would be dispatched at the communal dinner table. Young boys would clean the sewers, for they love grime: “Filth will be their path to glory,” Fourier wrote. Each phalanx should also contain a “Court of Love.” Utopian plans such as Fourier’s were promulgated throughout the land via a host of newspapers devoted to the topic. Emerson recounted the ferment of the times when he wrote: “We were all a little mad that winter . Not a man of us that did not have a plan for some new Utopia in his pocket.”10
Emerson’s words attest to the fact that Americans, not just Europeans, were seized with millennial fervor; abandoning the grubby city and repairing for the blessed countryside was also immensely popular with many of the most important intellectual forebears in our land, the people who laid the groundwork for much American philosophy. Their plans were similarly based in a distrust of commerce and a desire to escape its laws by repairing to the countryside. Even someone as conservative as Emerson, a man who viciously rebuked himself for giving money to a beggar, flirted in his earlier years with the idea that commerce was something sullying, not befitting humanity:
I content myself with the fact that the general system of our trade… is a system of selfishness; is not dictated by the high sentiments of human nature; is not measured by the exact law of reciprocity, much less by the sentiments of love and heroism, but is a system of distrust, of concealment… not of giving but of taking advantage…. That is the vice—that no one feels himself called to act for man, but only as a fraction of man…. Nay, the evil custom reaches into the whole institution of property, until our laws which establish and protect it seem not to be the issue of love and reason, but of selfishness.
The good Reverend Emerson, in this quote, sounds like nothing so much as a tried and true Marxist.11 But his elevation of the individual (and his repeated refusal to join the utopian communes of his friends) bespeaks a strong aversion to communism per se. This, clearly, is the era when elements of the right and the left had yet to bifurcate into the opposing polarity that we know today.
Or turn to the even more widely venerated rhetoric of Henry David Thoreau, also versed in the school of America’s “Great Awakening.” A few representative quotes from his essay “Life Without Principle”:
I think that there is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay, to life itself, than this incessant business…. The ways by which you may get money almost without exception lead downward…. You are paid for being something less than a man…. There is no more fatal blunderer than he who consumes the greater part of his life getting his living…. [Instead] You must get your living by loving…. It is not enough to tell me that you worked hard to get your gold. So does the Devil work hard…. A man had better starve at once than lose his innocence in the process of getting his bread.
Today, individualism is universally defended as part and parcel of a capitalist ethos (think, for example, of Ayn Rand); further, we currently believe that communist principles perforce threaten individuality. The writings of Thoreau suggest that in another era, neither of these presuppositions held true. Thoreau, in essence, wants to conquer the power of money with love and human dignity. Only then can we be truly human, just like the communists said.
In the nineteenth century, America was awash with this sort of dovetailing deluge of Christianity and communism. Or more precisely, this era’s history clarifies that twentieth-century communism has its roots in Christian utopianism. Striking out from the cities and factories of the industrializing world, these groups were in search of a Christian heaven on this earth, during this life. Such are the neglected origins of communism in America, our long forgotten leftist leanings.
3. BATTLING THE CITY
And so America returns to this heritage today, in Smallville’s similar Christian distrust and fear of all that is urbane. To fully grasp the nature of this moment, the show should be compared to the films and comics from which it was born. In the Superman ur-text, Lex Luthor was painted as merely a madman whose methods evolved out of a megalomaniacal yearning for wealth and power accumulation. In Superman the movie, for example, Lex schemes to eliminate the California coast with nuclear weapons because he has bought all the real estate in western Nevada and would make a killing on the newly created beachfront property. In Smallville, Lex’s father (and the show’s recurrent villain), Lionel Luthor, is nothing more than a pedestrian businessman. While a bit callous, he is only so because of his straightforward and purely rational desire to increase the value of his company’s stock. In the traditional Superman comics and movies, Lex is portrayed as sick, he is the neurotic extreme of capitalism; in Smallville, evil resides much more mundanely in the everyday capitalist, one whose goals and ambitions would be held in the highest esteem by Dick Cheney or your local Rotary Club.
But no one person, not Lionel, not even Lex (who will grow up to threaten the good and natural capitalist order prevailing in Metropolis), is the whole problem in Smallville. Rather, Metropolis itself and its governing ethos are the problem; Metropolis is portrayed as an evil gestating ground for virulent plans and actions meant to infect and destroy bucolic Smallville and its communal values. Superman, who worked so hard to save capitalist Metropolis on so many occasions in the comics is, in his Smallville incarnation, constantly doing battle with its dark forces.
It is true, Metropolis in the Superman movies represents a sort of urban chaos (there is a mugging; Lois is working on a “sex maniac” story for the Daily Planet), but it is an urban chaos that is embraced, loved, and worth fighting for. City scenes don’t even try to hide the fact that Metropolis is actually New York City. Superman and Lois fly by the World Trade Center and the Statue of Liberty; in the train station, the PA system calls out destinations such as New Rochelle and Poughkeepsie; the cabbies cant in a steady Bronx accent. In the original series, Superman openly equates his proclaimed agenda, “to fight for truth, justice, and the American way,” with fighting for Metropolis and the capitalism that it embodied. But he also needs to save small towns and the California coast. In other words, America was united; no one was worried that these two demographic extremes were undermining each other. America’s scattered cities and villages were still working in tandem.
Not so in Smallville. The various vixens who threaten the town’s upstanding men always hail from Metropolis. One, tellingly named “Desirée,” has come to seduce and marry Lex for his fortune; another arrives to get an angle on Lex for a newspaper story and thereby catapult herself to fame. Both employ their brute sexualities to get at their men. To boot, their debased commitments to one of the seven deadly sins serve as the emotional wellsprings of their plans. Meanwhile, the lovable women of Smallville always wear the most respectable clothes, neither revealing too much cleavage nor baring a millimeter of thigh. The two women who vie for Clark’s attention are admired either for their brain (Chloe) or their purity (Lana). While both are attractive, each is eminently wholesome and chaste; though they easily could, they never rely on simple carnal power to achieve their goals in life.
But the real culprit in this battle between the countryside and the city is much simpler: money. In this field, Lionel Luthor reigns supreme. He is a ruthless urbanite, gracing Smallville for short visits in helicopters, firing local workers, hiding behind a team of lawyers. He even cites Roman history as a trove of business knowledge (i.e., the same guys who killed Jesus are the fonts of wisdom needed in order to conquer the world of trade), thus demonstrating his cosmopolitan erudition.
People in Smallville stand opposed to all that Lionel represents, as Lana Lane describes in her contribution to the Smallville Torch, the high school newspaper. In an editorial where she discusses her decision to live in Smallville over Metropolis, she writes: “Living in Smallville teaches you that you are part of this close-knit community, and that your actions affect people other than yourself…. We’ve learned to help one another, and our neighbors’ happiness and safety are just as important to us as our own.” For the record, this is the identical goal of the educational theories of Robert Owen, a utopian reformer who moved his planned community to Indiana in the early 1800s. It also sounds a great deal like one of the Ten Commandments.
Tragically, this Christian utopian ideal will never be fully realized, for Lionel Luthor and his company are constantly fraying the social and material fabric of Smallville. For example, a young boy who turns into a werewolf every time he sees the light of day has only developed this affliction because of LuthorCorp’s pharmaceutical research. Similarly, a worker in the LuthorCorp fertilizer plant becomes the victim of violent and dangerous seizures. He continually asserts that the disease results from his nightly custodial work on the mysterious “Level Three” of the plant. Though most of the town believes him to be raving mad, Clark trusts him, and during a class trip to the plant, he uncovers the precise Level Three whose existence LuthorCorp had been so strongly denying. Or if you’ve tired of LuthorCorp’s research wings, what of its plans for strip malls and corporate office parks? Smallville’s writers fail to disappoint. Lionel is building a suburban behemoth on Native American holy ground, causing the appearance of a ferocious shape-shifting beauty who munches anyone affiliated with the project.
The many-armed LuthorCorp creates victims everywhere it turns. In many a plot, these victims are initially supposed by the show’s protagonists to be the cause of the town’s perils. Yet the show teaches that the werewolfs and shapeshifters are mere effects of the capitalist system, and it’s not even Lionel’s fault. Sure, he’s heartless, but he’s never intentionally evil. He’s just a Metropolitan, doing what Metropolitans do best.12 Thankfully, our favorite Smallvillian, Clark Kent, always manages to save his compatriots from all the evils levelled upon the town by the ravages of capitalism.
It’s worth briefly turning to the only other parents who are shown with any consistency on the show: Clark’s terrestrial parents, Joseph and Mary, I mean Jonathan and Martha Kent. Mr. Kent is the classic incarnation of a money-hater, a reliable character from the history of many cultures and bygone eras. Not only do we learn that when he proposed to Martha (originally a Metropolitan), he specifically told her that he couldn’t promise her much money, but he could promise her enduring love to the end of her days; we also hear incessantly of the economic travails on Kent Farm, which is always teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. Every time Lex tries to help him out with a monetary infusion, Jonathan’s pride tells him to say no, though his material circumstances would tell him to say yes. Even when LuthorCorp causes the destruction of much acreage and cattle on Kent Farm, Mr. Kent still refuses compensation.
But Jonathan Kent doesn’t only hate the Luthors’ money, he hates all money. In another episode, Clark attempts to effect a reunion between Mr. Kent and his father-in-law. It turns out that their entire relationship disintegrated over the question of Mr. Kent’s lack of interest in making money (Martha’s dad is a suit-wearing corporate lawyer, innately uncomfortable on the rough-hewn farmstead). When Martha’s dad tries to help them out financially, Mr. Kent becomes enraged and hands him back his check. Here is a man who finds the facility with which money solves problems odious. He’s all about that old American love of sweat and sinew. Money is evil because it replaces real physical labor; a true Emersonian American would insist on being self-reliant. Mr. Kent will have nothing to do with it and those who trade in it, and Martha even tells us in one episode that Jonathan refers to Lionel as “the devil.”
While he is thus engaged in his heroic labors to save the family farm, Mr. Kent always serves as the dispenser of human wisdom to Clark as he grows up and comes to terms with his increasing powers. There are a variety of rules concerning deep humility (imagine the humility necessary if you’re the all-powerful son of God), personal control, how to treat friends, the value of work, and dignity. He never stoops to give Clark business advice, which is Lionel’s only task with his son, Lex.
Together, Mr. Kent and Lionel set up the simple dichotomy between spiritual values and material ones, between community and business. But people other than just Lionel are seeking out the cosmopolitan heights, a cosmopolitanism that is marked as pathologically individualistic and against the community. In one particularly revealing episode, entitled “Dichotic,” we meet an ambitious young kid who wants to leave Smallville for Harvard and a future career of wild material successes. It turns out that his ability to have a straight-A report card, to be involved in a stunning array of extracurriculars, and to date more than one girl at a time has nothing to do with his own mental individuality, but rather with his own physical idiosyncrasy. This boy can magically produce a double of himself, so that he can produce twice as much work as anyone else. All his evil ambition is pointed toward success in the city, in the world outside Smallville. His entire scheme starts to unravel because of his one and only poor grade, in shop class, which causes him to murder his teacher in a last-ditch effort to get a changed grade. His encounters with the shop teacher—a simple craftsman who does good ol’ work with his calloused hands—are riddled with disdain for craftsmen’s labor. This youth wants to decamp for the city so that he can pursue success via elite connections and the pushing of paper; these desires are presented as sinister and warped, while the shop teacher is upheld as the admirable victim of this ambition.
Slightly more humorous, but equally telling, is the long-running critique of football in the Superman oeuvre. In the original movie, Clark’s Earth father tells him that “I’m not sure why you’ve been put here, but I do know that it wasn’t to score touchdowns,” a sentiment repeated almost verbatim in an early Smallville episode. Clark’s football coach possesses accidentally demonic powers, which enable him to cast actual fire onto anyone who dares to threaten his ability to win games (the unintentional use of meteor rocks in his sauna grants him this capacity). Clark’s premier foe for Lana’s affections is the high-school quarterback, who everyone in town, shallowly, “treats like a god.” As mentioned above, the football players play Pontius to Clark’s Jesus when they crucify him in the first episode. In a later episode of the first season, the same high school quarterback begins to have doubts about the value of football. He wonders if this is all he wants to do with his life, just as earlier in the season his girlfriend Lana decides that cheerleading for his squad of dishonest beefcakes (they cheated on a test) is a silly waste of time.
All these critiques of football perfectly resonate with a long-standing strain of American Puritanism, a strain that indicts anything that is merely playful as vain and meaningless. If sweat is to be produced, it must serve the common good, not elevate mere showiness for the sake of showiness itself. The Puritans themselves forbade all sorts of “games,” wasteful spectacles that failed to direct human labor toward something productive. Just like the city, games should be avoided because they value decadence and superficiality over moderation and spirituality.
4. JESUS WAS A COMMIE TOO
What we have to ask is why the same rhetoric and beliefs are being sappily espoused on a television network geared toward a pointedly adolescent demographic. Why do we have a new community of money- and city-haters encamped in those same pure and good Kansas plains, telling us that cosmopolitan capitalism is the source of all danger and evil? Telling us, just like the ministers of the early nineteenth century, that the city was the locus of grime and defilement, the abode of Satan? Smallville advocates the same wild-eyed communistic and Christian values of the utopian societies of America’s youth. Some of our most reliable intellectual avatars, read in classrooms throughout the country to this day, hated commerce as much as we love it. There’s the rub: that America’s intellectual roots trace the same arc as Marxism’s, but today we are the global defenders of the commerce toward which some of our most important intellectual heroes harbored so much suspicion.
Thus, we might conclude that the traditional left is alive and well in America today (despite endless claims to the contrary), in the form of a teenybopper superhero television show. Unfortunately, however, Smallville has removed its leftist concerns to the realm of myth. Unlike the communists, socialists, or Transcendentalists of another era, the residents of Smallville find that they must rely on a supernatural power in order to battle the deleterious effects of capitalism. They never manage to conquer it on their own, and Clark always comes to the rescue; in each episode our faith in humanistic values and their power over money are only restored by the deus ex machina provided by Superman’s otherworldly powers. Social change gets removed to the realm of the fantastical, only to be savored in the imagination, while the everyday world becomes resigned to as a sort of natural and unchangeable order. Oddly enough, this was precisely Marx’s complaint against the faith people placed in Jesus when he referred to religion as an “opiate of the masses.”
But maybe there is good reason to be conspiratorially suspicious, as all Smallvillians are, that the city in our times is in fact out to get the countryside. As with all American TV shows, Smallville exists, ultimately, to promote the purchasing of a variety of products; in the odd case of this particular show, the same products and commercialism that its protagonists detest. Yet even this blatant contradiction hasn’t deterred the producers of Smallville from taking crass selling to a higher level still: the show can often feel like an extended rock video (many of the musical artists, not surprisingly, are owned by the AOL Time Warner conglomerate itself). Just in case we would like to buy the song that accompanied Clark as he unleashed his goodly and godly powers upon some monstrous birth of LuthorCorp, the WB recaps this segment—this time, with the song title and the band included onscreen, so that we might readily sustain the selfsame capitalism that Clark spends his days battling. Watching Smallville, therefore, serves as a sort of weekly catechism for our consumer religion: We fantasize about the moneyless Eden, but embrace the commercial Serpent.
As such, Smallville is the latest in a long-line of perfectly hypocritical American founding myths. The writers at WB have hit upon (consciously or unconsciously is no matter) the fact that what sells best is the denouncement of selling itself; the writers in LA romanticize the moral good in the countryside in order to bring economic goods back to their bosses’ coffers in the city. According to this show at least, the paths of our countrysides and cities have diverged once again, one locale harboring and nurturing the forces of social-changing Good and the other pro-business Evil.
The absurdity, of course, is that Smallville’s writers have inverted the election results maps that we’ve grown accustomed to since at least Reagan’s 1980 landslide. They’ve peopled Smallville with all the left-leaning Democrats while tossing all the pro-business Republicans into the city. Smallville shows that America’s heartland used to be, and spiritually remains, a naturally progressive constituency. Somewhere along the way, however, Christ became a Republican, and ever since, the Democrats have failed to reclaim his followers. America’s rural population has decided to only remember half of its heritage, loving Christ but ignoring the radical teachings that spurred a wave of nineteenth-century dissent and social policy ferment. The seed of anger and action against the power of big business lies dormant in the Midwestern plains; why America’s progressive forces have chosen to forget this vital political fact works only to their detriment. In other words, those forces need to rely on someone other than Superman to reawaken America’s rural left. Meanwhile, those of us in the city would do well to convince all the Smallvillians that we’re not all in league with Satan and his business partners. We might well need to figure out what we’re supposed to be fighting, but it surely shouldn’t be each other.