Making America Super Again
Our civic imagination fellow Andrew Slack reflects on what it really means to do cultural acupuncture, and what to do when a campaign doesn't take.
The angry, fetid tenements of the Lower East Side were worse than anything Tateh and his wife suffered in Latvia. The Little Girl was often sick now. Tateh wrapped her in his prayer shawl. What rabbi would disapprove?!
As a Jew myself, these words from the musical Ragtime really strike a chord. My ancestors were also given a cold welcome to America. Like many other Jews, they fled pogroms from eastern Europe. One such immigrant from Kiev was Ida Katharske, the mother of Joseph Shuster. Shuster and Jerry Siegel—whose parents also came to the U.S. from Russia—became best friends growing up in Cleveland: fooling around, writing science fiction stories together.
With parents persecuted as strangers in a strange land, Shuster and Siegel were shaped by their experience as the children of immigrants.
Obviously, it wasn’t only Jewish immigrants who endured such hardship. It was all immigrants from every corner of the world. But Shuster and Siegel tapped into their personal experience to create a story about an immigrant who would literally rise above all of this persecution. They gave him a Hebrew-ish name “Kal-El” (which could be translated as “voice of God”) and an English name that is still more famous than Harry Potter, James Bond, or Dorothy: Superman.
The introduction of Superman in 1938 turned the burgeoning comic book industry upside down. As Grant Morrison wrote in his bestselling book Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human, every comic book company soon tried to imitate their formula.
Morrison is one of many scholars who argue that all modern superhero stories originate from these two Jewish immigrant kids and their invention of Superman. These young men had tapped into something very deep; and it was contagious because it came out of the imagination of all of us who have been poor, tired, and yearning to breathe free.
Perhaps Superman’s most interesting role in our culture these days is that he is considered as American as apple pie, as he fights for “truth, justice, and the American Way.”
A Filipino Clark Kent puts on a new uniform
In 2011, my friend Jose Antonio Vargas decided to end his silence about his own undocumented status. A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist at the Washington Post, not terribly different than the reputable journalist Clark Kent at the Daily Planet, Jose left his Fortress of Solitude and came out to the world as undocumented. He has since said that when he came out as an undocumented American, he wasn’t actually coming out, but letting everyone else in.
Inspired by Jose, a young DREAM activist named Julian Gomez came out (or “let others in”) on the Harry Potter Alliance’s (HPA’s) YouTube channel as “a Muggleborn American.” The HPA, where I was then executive director, was inspired to start a campaign around Julian’s actions. And that’s when I thought of Superman.
Another volunteer reminded me that the film Man of Steel was soon coming out, and DREAM activists had for some time already been drawing a parallel between Superman and themselves. So the HPA partnered with Define American, an organization that Jose co-founded with his best friend, a dear friend of mine, and so many at Civic Hall: the late Jake Brewer.
Superman Is An Immigrant received some wonderful earned media that helped tell an empowered narrative around immigration while anti-immigration activists talked about our campaign like we had trapped them into a corner. Eventually, I worked with an education specialist who created a series of amazing lesson plans for teachers around Superman as an Immigrant.
Timing Is everything
With the film “Batman vs. Superman” scheduled to premier this year, I worked with Define American’s executive director Ryan Eller and Julian (who now works full time at Define American) to revive the Superman Is An Immigrant campaign in advance of the film’s release. But the movie flopped big time—an ever-present risk of cultural activism.
Cultural activism is like comedy: timing is everything.
Had people been excited, had the film been awesome, we would have had a better shot at promoting our ongoing effort: Superman Is An Immigrant.
Last year, I defined cultural activism as cultural acupuncture:
We dream at night, but our culture dreams through books and movies and stories. Working with those stories is cultural dream work. Working with stories that we put energy into is cultural acupuncture. And that is where I hope to focus my work as Civic Hall’s first Civic Imagination Fellow.
In cultural acupuncture, we find where the psychological energy is in the culture, and move that energy towards creating a healthier body for our world. In cultural acupuncture, stories are the proverbial needles; stories are what resonate. Stories are what can expand our civic imagination and allow us a transformed sense of agency.
For ten years, I practiced cultural acupuncture within the context of the HPA. I created and led dozens of campaigns. For every campaign that was a hit, there were at least three that missed.
But the misses didn’t matter. The primary goal of the HPA had been to build an authentic community of fan activists. Every time a cultural campaign did not work, our community learned from it.
Working more on my own as part of my civic imagination fellowship has exposed a major weakness in cultural acupuncture: when you substitute community with campaigns you can still succeed, but each failure feels more significant.
As Civic Hall’s civic imagination fellow, I’ve been working on projects like the Back to the Future Campaign, the US Rebel Alliance, and Superman Is An Immigrant (there have been others but they had a more direct partnership with the HPA, such as Odds In Our Favor). Each time, I have played with the concept of cultural acupuncture on the faith that these experiments could work without a giant community supporting it. It’s been a mixed bag.
Throughout the year, I’ve wondered what I’ve been missing with these campaigns and time and again I’ve come to the same conclusion: even though the HPA’s campaigns are based on the power of story, they are also centered around a community. I’ve often pontificated about the power of story, how all of us are hungry for the magic and meaning that we receive from a good one. But what I am currently finding is that we are even more hungry for the magic and meaning of community.
So how has this changed how I work? Instead of carrying out big stunts like giving Ted Cruz a lightsaber as part of the US Rebel Alliance campaign, I have decided to start working with the Star Wars fan community, listening to those with an ear to the ground who are actually waking up thinking about Star Wars with the same authentic earnestness that I used to wake up thinking about Harry Potter.
That’s how we arrived at a new, heart-driven initiative in partnership with Star Wars fan leaders called #teachmeyoudid.
Since my 2011 TEDx talk in Rome, I have been saying the same thing over and over again: Fantasy is not an escape from our world but an invitation to go deeper into it. But fantasy alone cannot get us there. Our immigrants are not striking out on their own to create a story of success and they never have. There is no Superman outside of the super communities that imagine him.
If my ongoing experiments in increasing our civic imagination have taught me anything, it’s that the hook for parallels from a story alone does not build a better world. We need communities that believe in stories. And when the story is done badly, as it was in the recent Batman versus Superman film, there’s no there, there.
Hamilton was an immigrant and that’s a BFD
Instead of letting our pro-immigration campaign fall to the wayside, we are currently looking for other important cultural touchstones to rally around, to make the campaign bigger than Superman. These ideas are still in development, but we don’t have to look too hard: The TV shows Fresh Off the Boat and Supergirl both push a pro-immigration message, and have enthusiastic fan bases.
In the new Broadway musical about Gloria and Emilio Estefan, On Your Feet!, the audience cheers “when an angry Mr. Estefan rebuked a hostile record company executive, saying, ‘You should look very closely at my face, because whether you know it or not … this is what an American looks like.’”
But the multicultural musical juggernaut Hamilton is perhaps the most important cultural rallying point of all. “The lyric “Immigrants/We get the job done,” is such a reliable applause line that the creators have lengthened the pause that follows to allow time for the sound to die down.”
In over ten years of working with fan communities I’ve developed a sixth sense for fandom. It’s all Hamilton!
Many friends have looked at me with skepticism. How can Hamilton be the answer when a Broadway show is so limited to those who get to New York City? These friends of mine are not paying attention. When I go to a Harry Potter event, people would rather talk about Hamilton more than Harry Potter. Our most popular video for the Rebel Alliance is easily our Hamilton parody.
Making the most of the fandom around Hamilton
I think Lin-Manuel Miranda would be proud to watch fans of Hamilton use hip hop and the show’s symbolism to argue for immigration reform. Fan activists could encourage him to do a #Ham4Immigrants performance outside the Richard Rogers theater during Ham4Ham. After all, “He’s in the harbor now, see if you can spot him. Another immigrant coming up from the bottom….”
In a world where life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness feels upside down for so many people, it is the sworn duty of the cultural acupuncturist to move with the energy. And if and when we lose our sense of it, to get back on track with great agility: faster than a speeding bullet; more powerful than a locomotive; able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. We are not birds, we are not planes. Nor do we fly on our own magical energy. We are cultural acupuncturists. And when we allow our hearts to align with the energy in our culture, we can help our world soar like Superman.