OPINION:What Green Lantern Taught Me About American Exceptionalism

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON 8/14/09

While watching Green Lantern:First Flight the other day, with intent to review (That sounds almost like a crime: "Watching with intent to review")(in some cases, it may actually BE a crime), something kept distracting me. Not that it's a bad movie- that's not it at all- it was a very good movie that has something to say about the American condition.

You see, in the movie (and largely in the comic books), it's flat out stated that nobody in the Galaxy really likes humans. They're rash, impertinent, have committed a list of atrocities as long as your arm and they smell bad, to boot. If the Guardians (the Green Lanterns' bosses) had their way, the very human Hal Jordan would never have been chosen to be a Green Lantern.

Green Lanterns are basically the beat cops of the galaxy. They all wear a ring that allows them to fly, generate forcefields and create energy constructs of whatever they can imagine and will into existence... anything from giant golf clubs to handcuffs, depending on what they need at the time(yes, sometimes you do need a fifty foot Ping wood).

Hal, however, when he received the Green Lantern ring from a dying alien, did not wait around for the Guardians to send for him. He learned to use the ring by himself and pulled himself up by the bootstraps. When the Guardians finally did send for him, Jordan was ready.

It became apparent very quickly that Jordan was different. It took just a little while longer to see that he was exceptional. The other Lanterns resented Jordan because he replaced a beloved colleague... but there was also an undercurrent of "What makes him so special?"

In subsequent fight and flight scenes, we see what makes him so special. He thinks differently than the others. He flies differently- he shows imagination, compassion and spirit in the use of his powers and abilities, and proves that initial equality does not dictate uniform outcome.

As I watched this movie, I thought about America.
The Green Lantern ring is a symbol of freedom. A Green Lantern has the power to do anything his(her/its?) imagination will allow him to do. Humans have always had this nascent power- but it took the 'perfect storm' of the religious and philosophical thought of the 18th century, a continent that was nearly impossible to govern by the methods of the day, a populace on that continent not that far removed from the ideologues and other individualists who initially colonized the land and an absentee landlord who attempted to tax the people without respect for...well, those Enlightenment ideals that are up at the top of this list.

This combination produced America- and through the concept of individual liberty, individualism and the freedom to pursue happiness yielded an exceptional country. The concept of equality at birth destroyed caste and class systems, making every individual capable of greatness and responsible for his own lot in life. The ability to make decisions and bear the consequences, good or bad, seems like a simple idea. Yet never before in human history had the person been empowered like this as a fundamental building block of society.

From freedom springs imagination and from imagination, wealth. Hal Jordan, through the freedom granted him by the ring, and his imagination, gained stature in the Green Lantern Corps. (Contrary to popular belief- weath isn't about money, it's about VALUE.) Americans have always added value to their environs through work and imagination and a culture that encouraged it.

And yeah, other countries hate us for this; and honestly, there's nothing that can be done about it if we are to continue adding wealth to the world. Europe may hold us in disdain because we smell bad- but that's the stink of sweat, of productivity, of energy and passion, not the stench of a living death in a grey existence devoid of passionate pursuits. Some may call this extreme- but I agree with Heinlein- "“Everything in excess! To enjoy the flavor of life, take big bites. Moderation is for monks.”

America is exceptional. There is no 'myth of American Exceptionalism'- we ARE exceptional, because no other country has nurtured HUMAN exceptionalism the way America has. Are Americans better than the world community? No. We are as flawed as they. But our system has traditionally been constructed to allow us to mend our flaws, make our own decisions and advance ourselves; to allow us to fall down and pick ourselves up; to get out of our way and let us be free to practice compassion as we see fit, to love mercy and second chances and to walk with God as we know Him.

Pretty weighty stuff to be inspired by a cartoon, huh? But I see Hal Jordan, Green Lantern, as a symbol of what we, as Americans, have been and can be. America has always been a shining light through blackest night, illuminating what humanity can accomplish. We need to resist and fight anything that could dim that light, or all mankind will suffer darkness again.

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