The words spoken during the opening credits of a 1950s children’s television show:
Faster than a speeding bullet.
More powerful than a locomotive.
Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
Look up in the sky!
It’s a bird.
It’s a plane.
Yes, it’s Superman, strange visitor from another planet who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men.
Superman, who can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel in his bare hands, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American Way.
That television show was obviously Superman, starring George Reeves, and these opening words expressed the mythology and basic ideals by which this most popular of all comic-book super-heroes lived.
I grew up with those words. They had been bequeathed to me by the American generation that had fought and won World War II against the genocidal Nazis, and expressed the fundamental ideals of that generation.
Much of the meaning of these fundamental ideals is outright and clear.
Truth means you always strive to be honest, and when you make a mistake you admit to it, without flinching. Or as Superman says quite clearly in the 1978 film, “I never lie,” saying this immediately after repeating that he is here “to fight for truth, justice, and the American way.”
Justice means you strive to administer the rules fairly so that the innocent are protected and the guilty are punished properly. It also means that you treat others justly, with respect and kindness, while defiantly standing up to those who would do the weak harm.
The phrase “the American Way” however is more puzzling. As a child I accepted it, but I have spent a lifetime as a historian and reader trying to understand it on a more fundamental level. The writers in the 1950s who gave that task to Superman knew what it meant, and assumed everyone else did. By the 1950s and 1960s they however no longer did a good job of teaching its meaning to my sixties generation, and many from my time grew up not understanding it.
I think I finally hit upon its basic meaning in writing Genesis: The Story of Apollo 8. As I said in trying to explain why the astronauts on that mission choose to read the first twelve verses of the Old Testament on Christmas Eve while orbiting the Moon,
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