A (fixable, yet annoying) bank snafu has just occurred in my life. None of you want to hear about my bank, so I am going to rave about an internet thing which is simultaneously unimportant to the fate of the cosmos, and absolutely vital to many people. It will be long and contain many digressions and footnotes and spoilers for comics you may not have read and potentially movies that are not out yet. You have been warned.

I've been going through a lot of Captain America fanfic lately.

 
Moggie has life-threatening levels of feels over Steve and Bucky just now, which got even feelsier when I filled her in on the plot to the Civil War thing they seem to be heading for in the movies. ("The government wanted to start registering mutants and superheroes. Cap told them in polite Cap-speak that they could go eat a bag of dicks, then quit on the grounds that any plan that was first conceived of by the Nazis was a terrible one. Bucky stole his shield back, because Tony's an asshole, and that belongs to Steve.") If you're wondering why people keep asking Sebastian Stan if he'd be willing to take up the Captain America shield, it's because in the comics, the Winter Soldier* did -- although Bucky accessorizes the patriotic shield with both a patriotic gun and a patriotic goddamn combat knife, because he is really not Steve, and he has a lot less patience with people who make him angry.

Moggie and I like to sit there and discuss characterization in these things. We consider it to be a friendly sport, in much the same way that rugby is a lighthearted chance to toss a ball politely around your circle of friends. One thing I keep running into that I find by turns naïve and annoying is the idea that Steve, having come from the good ol' days of the 1940s, is going to be sort of innocently conservative when he wakes up in the 21st century.

Part of the problem is that the terms 'liberal' and 'conservative' have drifted badly over the decades. In theory, at least, they define someone's political leanings with respect to the way the world is this very moment, and that can change a great deal in a very short time. Abraham Lincoln, the man who signed the Emancipation Proclamation.*** was nominated, and won the Presidency, as a Republican. You're used to your grandparents being insufferably stuffy old windbags because you've heard their life philosophy after it's been filtered through the Second World War, college, marriage, Korea, kids, Woodstock, the economy being turned upside-down more than once, Vietnam, the Cold War, atomic bomb drills where everybody practiced scrambling under their desks when the sirens went off because that will totally protect you from superheated air blasts and massive amounts of gamma radiation, age, illness, personal computers, both the racial and the LGBT civil rights movements, the dissolution of Ma Bell, the internet, the Black Panthers, the Taliban, the Concorde beginning and ending service, space shuttles, cell phones, desegregation, the polio vaccine, PanAm flight 103, TV, TV dinners, Silly Putty, Tang, and Starbucks.

In short, they're old, they're tired, and they don't see the world the same way they used to when they were kids and ready to fight for things. They just want to dig in their heels and force the world to be the way they think they should have wanted it when they were younger. This often does not have anything to do with what they actually did when they were younger, and most of them know that, which is why you never get any of the really good stories out of Grandma before her third gin fizz.

I don't know any of Steve's political leanings, other than stop fuckin' getting all your ideas from Himmler, but socially today he'd be considered somewhere between moderately and very liberal.

When old people tell you the world was more innocent in those days, they are lying. They only think so because when they were in it, they were small children. There were queer people and non-white people and sex and swearing and drugs and bare titties in the 1930s, I promise you. A lot of the things we associate with decrepit fussbudgets who yell at kids to get a haircut and a job and get off their lawns are actually from the 1950s, when suddenly a lot of young men came back from the war, and society was forcibly reshaped to put them back into their "rightful places" as career wage earners, even though there were a whole bunch of people who were not young white men in those jobs during the war, and everything ran just fine. That's not to say that women weren't de facto relegated to the cooking and cleaning before that, but the command "get back in the kitchen where you belong" is a part of the social restructuring of the Cold War.

As far as Steve's mental timeline is concerned, it was WWII just the other day, and his childhood was the Great Depression. He would have known people who were literally starving to death, and he would have known people who escaped starvation when they found employment in one of the great public works projects at the time. A great deal of national infrastructure got built in the 1930s as part of FDR's New Deal programs. Hoover Dam exists because a lot of people desperately needed jobs, and the government went, "well, shit, I guess we could use a basin here?" They excavated the Lincoln Tunnel in NYC, built hospitals and schools and airports all over the country, and paved the beginnings of what is now a transcontinental highway system. Listening to folks from his generation snort and blame poor people for being poor and suggest taking away their safety net so they can be even poorer is likely to strike Steve as one of those things that is so insane it isn't even properly wrong anymore.

I'd expect him to be hopping mad at the state of the Veterans' Administration. The arguments over Agent Orange and Gulf War Syndrome would likely have him seeing red and sputtering about hypocrites, especially since the VA treats him very differently when he's wearing star-spangled tights.*4 The deal was that if you risked your life for your country now, they'd take care of you later -- whether or not the illnesses are the government's fault should have no bearing on whether they pay your damn medical bills. You need the doctor either way. He's got personal experience in how shit the PTSD help is, especially if they think they still want you in active service. I don't think he'd be all that impressed with what's happened to the Ground Zero first responders, either.

Steve is not going to be innocent, or even necessarily prudish, about sex. He knows damn well that Bucky was not picking up girls at the dance hall for a rousing game of checkers. The neighborhood the official supplements give as the location of the apartment he and Bucky shared was very poor, very rough in places, and very Bohemian. Gypsy Rose Lee lived a few blocks away. It was near the docks and there were a lot of bars and clubs that would have catered to the kind of clientele that had just rolled in from a few months at sea and were interested in finding a moderately attractive human to have sex with before they rolled out again in the morning, and to hell with the local laws. Boho + queer = drag performances, peep shows, ladyboys, casual prostitutes of whatever gender, and girls who would charge you a nickel for a dance and possibly a glance at the rest of her price list.

He went to art school before he managed to weasel his way into the Army. It would have been Gauloises and Guernica instead of cloves and Quentin Tarantino back then, but other than that, art school has been pretty much the same for, I don't know, a thousand years? A few hundred, at least. There would have been a relatively high proportion of unwed mothers and couples shacking up without the benefit of matrimony in their neighborhood. It turns out that a lot of the benefits conferred by marriage are administrative things involving money and property, and when you don't have either one of those, the piece of paper starts to seem a lot less important. Steve may not have been getting any at the time -- it's generally agreed that he was invisible to girls and Bucky was his only real friend, so the boys probably weren't making passes at him either -- but people around him would have been, and he's neither stupid nor blind.

There would also have been drugs. Pretty much everyone smoked, and he was 15 when Prohibition was repealed, so they'd be getting legally drunk, too. "Marihuana", as it was spelled at the time, was popular among art students and jazz musicians. and wasn't even particularly illegal, at least at the federal level, until 1937.*5 Heroin and cocaine were illegal, but during the war the Army, particularly the Army Air Corps, made heavy use of "go" and "no-go" pills to keep pilots flying, and then get them to sleep when they landed. (The go pills were -- and are -- amphetamines, which in the 1940s could be bought over the counter at your local pharmacy; I don't know what the no-go pills were back then, but likely they were barbiturates. The modern no-go pills are, so far as I know, zolpidem and its relatives.) Hallucinogens weren't really a thing then, but if you think nobody in the arts could get their hands on stuff like opium, then I have a bridge to sell you.

Homosexuality, though not well accepted as a cultural identity, was, in a lot of circumstances, a thing you basically ignored. Technically, it would net you a dishonorable discharge from the military -- if not worse -- but that's only if you were caught putting it into practice, as it were. Being gay wasn't a horrible thing you were, so much as having homosexual sex was an embarrassing thing you did. Inasmuch as there was a war on at the time, there were quite a lot of instances in which the more practical response was 'oh god, I didn't see anything, put your trousers back on and we shall never speak of this again'. It would have also been considered a wee bit, I don't know, rude to agree with the Nazis on anything, and they were slapping pink triangles on gay men and chucking them into camps with the Jews and the Roma and dangerous intellectuals.*6

It took us until about 1940 to get to the point where a young adult had a 50/50 chance of possessing a high school diploma. Steve was highly educated for the time -- art school is still school; about 5% of adults in his cohort earned a bachelor's or equivalent -- and he was 4F, ruled unsuitable for physical labor. He couldn't wrestle engine cowlings around, so assuming he found work, it was likely to be clerical, and in an office full of women. Given some of the stuff he says to Peggy in the car, he probably had some ideas about wanting the world to be better so that women didn't have to work, but he would have known perfectly well that "female" isn't the same as "incompetent". The Howling Commandos, going after HYDRA, would have had access to a lot of top-secret intelligence; surprisingly enough, this would also have put him in offices full of women. Intelligence work, being located away from combat zones, skewed heavily female. The Women's Royal Navy Service of England, popularly known as the Wrens, worked en masse on the Colossus computer project. Most were low-level document workers, but the English especially were known to recruit qualified women for technical positions.*7 If they're following the comics on this, his mother was a nurse, and worked through his childhood.

Also if they're following the comics on this, his mother was Irish Catholic, as in a Catholic lady from Ireland. (No idea what his father was, or where he was from. Rogers is of English origin, but has been around Ireland since the 12th century. The alternate spelling Rodgers, from one of the movie props, is generally considered Irish.) I've no idea if he's properly Catholic anymore. Art school tends to cure you of that. Catholics were not generally burnt as baby-eaters in major metropolises by the 1930s, but a lot of people still ranked them up with the Jews on the list of neighbors who might or might not have an array of strange idols hidden away in their basement. A lot of his personal policies about not being a dickbag to people traditionally at odds with the Church suggest that he isn't particularly strict about it, although he probably appreciates that the new guy has some progressive ideas.

* - He does retain the codename Winter Soldier, and even goes back to it after successfully weaseling out of being Captain America again. Why, you ask? Because, although "Зимний Солдат" does sound like the sort of thing the Soviets would have called a cyborg ninja killing machine during the Cold War,** it is as much a red herring as the big star on his metal bicep. The Winter Soldier Investigation was a conference arranged by journalists in 1971 specifically so that a lot of veterans could bring to public attention just a few of the many, many atrocities committed by American troops, in accordance with American policy, in Vietnam. There was another one in 2008, centered on the recent military activities in Iraq and Afghanistan. The name derives from the opening lines in Thomas Paine's 1776 pamphlet "The American Crisis".

** - Black Widow's codename, if you were wondering, is "Черный вдова", "Chernyij vdova". It literally means "black widow", as in a widow of the color black. It's a calque from the common English name, on account of they don't really have those particular spiders in Russia. The term is also used nowadays for the female suicide bombers reportedly used by Islamic extremists in Chechnya, whom they like to recruit from the ranks of Chechen women whose husbands were killed by the Russian troops, but that didn't come about until decades after the introduction of the character.

*** - This is a big deal in US history. It made slavery officially illegal. In 1863, which is really embarrassingly late, frankly. We see it as the day we went from being unapologetically racist fucks who treated other humans like animals, to being somewhat apologetically-racist fucks who treated other humans like humans of considerably lower social status. Something like that. In a broad sense it led to our own real Civil War, and in a much narrower sense it led to Lincoln being shot to death while attending the theater.

*4 - The US military is generally very reluctant to change a soldier's status from "missing in action" to "killed in action" without some evidence of death, rather than just absence of evidence of survival. If you go MIA and survive to make it home, they consider you to have been on continuous active duty for however long you were lost in the jungle or held in a POW camp or whatever, and calculate your back pay and benefits accordingly. Steve was stuck in an iceberg for almost 70 years. Even if they decided this meant he didn't get the promotions that are normally awarded just for having been in the Army for X number of years, his back pay for seven decades on duty as a commissioned officer would amount to a couple million bucks, and his pension would technically be more than his actual pay (50% of final month's pay + 2.5% for each year over twenty that you remain in service). Bucky, too -- somewhat less, his insignia make him a non-com -- assuming he wasn't prosecuted for treason instead. There have been fewer than 50 officially prosecuted cases in US history, but I bet for the Winter Soldier, they'd give it the old college try.

*5 - The Act in question forbade the possession or sale of hemp without proper paperwork, basically. You could be arrested and charged with a crime if you were found to possess cannabis without being issued the important required government tax stamps that regulated its commerce. Inconveniently enough, the federal government refused to issue any. We here in America love it when we can use our tax laws to bludgeon people we dislike. Just ask Al Capone.

*6 - The main social campaign against homosexuality that has just recently been reversing was started by (sigh) the Americans during the Cold War. Alan Turing and his boyfriends were kind of an open secret while he worked at Bletchley Park; it was only post-war, when the Americans started pressuring the British government to conform to their idea of morals, that they felt obliged to do anything about it. The Americans were determined to root out all homosexuals in their ranks, on the reasoning that it might be grounds for blackmail that the enemy could use to turn someone traitor. Which it wouldn't have been, if they hadn't been conducting interrogations, destroying careers, and sending people to jail over it. Logic is not always our strong suit.

*7 - As it happened, one such woman, Joan Clark, was a mathematician working crypto at Bletchley Park. She was at one point engaged to marry Alan Turing, in fact, until he confessed to her that he was rather more interested in men. They broke it off amicably, remaining good friends, and she settled into teaching him know to knit instead.

Comments