Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates turns Peterson into Captain America’s arch-nemesis
In the 25th issue of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ run as the writer on Captain America, a side story follows the main event where the titular superhero speaks at the funeral of a Korean immigrant lawyer named Sung Jin Jeong. The story of the humble lawyer falls somewhat afoul of stereotypes, leaning rather heavily on the antiquated overqualified immigrant trope and not really using an appropriate ethnicity for that kind of story besides, given that South Korea is a developed democracy with an infamously byzantine legal code.
But for this brief story, Coates nevertheless does a good job staking out his ideal vision of what the United States is and should be. Then, a mere three issues later, we get the surreal visual of Red Skull corrupting the youth with a Jordan Peterson-style media empire.
Such is the great irony of our social media moment, when Peterson reacted with bewilderment on Twitter when a fan informed him of the comic in question. Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jordan Peterson were two of the more important political thought leaders of the teens, but no one would have expected their names to come up simultaneously in this, of all contexts. The shock would be particularly harsh for those who haven’t been paying attention to them for the last few years. Coates went from meditating on race in The Atlantic to writing superhero comic books. Peterson went from a conscientious objector on the topic of referred pronouns to a self-help guru. So why are they having a spat now?
The woke comics proxy war
The answer is more intuitive than you might expect. Both men are still hard at work in the culture war, they’re just doing so from a passive angle now. Coates works in comics because of the abiding belief in liberal circles that pop culture is a direct influence on proper culture, and that social-justice-oriented themes can trickle down to the masses. Peterson has a more direct approach. He observes that people in the United States, and young people in particular, are quite depressed. So he puts out motivational videos and encourages his fans to build up their self-esteem.
His famed 12 steps involve such harmless platitudes as trying to be articulate, making supportive friends, and telling the truth. This aspect of Peterson’s career is quite unobjectionable on its own. To liberals, the main charge that can be leveled against Peterson is that he uses his genuinely good life advice as a Trojan horse to infect the masses with objectionable right-wing beliefs.
So it’s easy to see how Coates ended up concluding that turning Red Skull into a Peterson-esque figure was socially relevant, absurd though that idea may seem out of context. But even in the context of his Captain America series, which has visited this theme previously in less bombastic ways, the delivery has fallen flat. With Red Skull previously in the background, Selena Gallio had emerged as the previous high-profile politically themed villain. A nigh-immortal psychic with vampiric abilities, her master plan involved building a cult styled on the old America and farming the gullible humans who joined up for their life energy.
The people who populate this outland village are an obvious template for economic anxiety. They bemoan their lack of opportunities and are grateful for having the chance to just do hard work in a larger community. All of the various normal people who have been turned against their own interests by the villains in Coates’ Captain America run are like this. The closest Coates gets to convincingly representing them as bad people is via obvious toxic masculinity. They resent the fact that they can’t protect their women, or that women have to do the fighting for them, and can even be seen attempting to beat women up.
Coates likely wrote this ambiguity intentionally, to try and avoid overly demonizing his subjects. The problem is, as the absurd Red Skull Peterson climax demonstrates, this has created a world where encouraging people to try and take their life in their own hands and show initiative is evil. Captain America and his superhero co-stars are both incapable of and apparently completely disinterested in trying to push a competing vision.
In all fairness, given that Captain America came out as a Nazi prior to Coates’ run, their incompetence in this regard is understandable. This too can work at cross purposes. One economically anxious character cites watching helplessly as HYDRA marched through the streets to show his frustrations with the apparent impotence of modern American culture. It’s clear that whatever supervillain people end up rallying behind, the chief motivation is less the charisma of the supervillain and more the general despair of everyday life.
Despite framing the ideas these people have for self-improvement as based on displaced nostalgia, Coates himself engages in far greater whitewashing of the past crimes of the United States than the antagonists of his own comic book. Coates introduces the Daughters of Liberty, a group of women from the eighteen century inspired by Enlightenment ideals to fight for freedom. This also includes freedom for slaves, with Harriet Tubman appearing as a member.
Coates should know better than to suggest that liberal thought of the 18th century was conducive to anti-slavery, given how the practice flourished under the watchful eyes of its biggest proponents. Harriet Tubman’s own sense of purpose widely understood to derive from her religious conviction, with the Underground Railroad relying heavily on people with more loyalty to God than the United States government.
While Coates is comfortable calling certain idealogues wrong and even expressing sympathy for them, he’s frustratingly vague as to what is right. At one moment Captain America shows sympathy with disaffected young Americans, comparing himself with a young man who was unable to join his elder brothers in the NYPD. There is obvious irony in citing the police as a bedrock for solidarity, given the scrutiny they are under both in the real world as well as in the comic universe.
The story of Sung Jin Jeong sticks out chiefly because it’s the closest Coates’ Captain America comes to endorsing a certain kind of behavior. But even then, the story is about Sung Jin Jeong rather than Captain America, with the title character coming off as a bit of an afterthought even in the main story. When Red Skull accuses Captain America of standing for an amorphous dream of nothing, the critique hits far harder than it should. Captain America is, literally and figuratively, a fetishization of patriotic World War II era propaganda. He’s just not relevant to our daily lives.
Yet rather incredibly, Peterson is. He’s the whole reason we’re talking about the Coates run on Captain America at all. Considering that Coates just got a deal to write a new Superman movie and Peterson is still recovering from severe pneumonia, maybe Coates is right to see Peterson as such an ideological threat to his vision of America. Unluckily for Coates, the real Peterson isn’t a Nazi, and can’t be discredited by just applying red makeup to make him look more evil.