Captain America: the Winter Soldier – high-quality indoctrination for sheep

Summary:  Myths reflect how a people see themselves and their aspirations. Great peoples have great myths. We, early 21st C Americans, see our myths on the big screen, the spectacles of our day. They reveal much about our nature. It’s not a pretty picture. For example, see “Captain America: the Winter Soldier”. See links to other examples at the end.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier


“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
— Joan Didion, The White Album (1979)

“People need stories, more than bread itself. They teach us how to live, and why. ”
— The master storyteller in the film “Arabian Nights” (2000)

“{M}yth supplies models for human behavior, and gives meaning and value to life.”
— Mircea Eliade in Myth and Reality (1963)

“A third function of mythology is to support the current social order, to integrate the individual organically with his group”
— Joseph Campbell in Masks of God: Occidental Mythology (1968)

“The rise and fall of civilisations in the long, broad course of history can be seen largely to be a function of the integrity and cogency of their supporting canons of myth; for not authority but aspiration is the motivator, builder, and transformer of civilisation. A mythological canon is an organisation of symbols, ineffable in import, by which the energies of aspiration are evoked and gathered toward a focus.

— Joseph Campbell in Masks of God: Creative Mythology (1968)

Spoiler below — Spoiler below — Spoiler below — Spoiler below — Spoiler below — Spoiler below


Myth Makers

Medieval peasants are the epitome of sheeple. They did what their monarchs commanded, deferring to the divine right of kings. Rebellion against the king was rebellion against God (e.g., Romans 13: 1 – 7).  Both secular and religious leaders worked to convince the peasants that obedience was their lot in life.The world becomes a better place only in the indefinite future when Jesus comes.

Eventually the peons realized that together they were powerful, and the world changed.

Now we see this process in reverse. We have power, and a political structure allowing us to exercise that power. So our elites work to convince us that organizing is bad. Even the formal groups through which we exercise power are bad: unions are bad for their members, governments are corrupt and seldom effectual.

History shows these beliefs to be obviously false, the result of amnesia about our past. Much of the improvement in workers’ wages and conditions results from generations of union activism from 1880 – 1940. As for government, that’s bizarrely false. Oppressed people, from slaves in 1865 to same-sex couples today, have had achieved rights through government action. And America was built, literally, by government projects (see the classic explanation “The Myth of Rugged American Individualism“, Charles A. Beard, Harper’s, December 1931).

But erasing our knowledge of history is only the first requirement for reversing centuries of political evolution. A powerful citizenry becomes powerless individuals only when they see collective action as futile, or even corrupting. Cue our creative classes.

In our fiction, in all media, organizations are typically described as incompetent or corrupt. Or both. Heroes exist only as rebels, operating outside the system alone or in small groups. They’re exceptional. Usually alone, without family (except their fellow heroes, who compose pseudo-families). They have incredible abilities (all heroic girls were taught firearms by Dad). They run unscathed through gunfire. They’re often exceptionally moral, even under circumstances under which normal people would bend. They suffer.

They’re our hero-Jesus. Sent to save us, since we cannot save ourselves. We’re not like them. We’re the peons running amidst the battles, in which our only role is as collateral casualties.

We see all these elements in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”.

The end is quite mad. SHIELD, the great organization defending us against evil organizations, is proven corrupt. The regular people of SHIELD are, of course, helpless against both the corruption of the their leaders (who sought to dominate the world with its INSIGHT programs computers, satellite surveillance, and super-flying battleships) — and against the infiltrators of the super-baddies of HYRDRA.

And so the heroes-Jesus destroy SHIELD. Leaving us defenseless against the resurgent HYDRA.

At the end Nick Fury, hero extraordinary (but an incompetent and authoritarian Director) — legally dead, without any support — goes off alone to fight HYDRA.

It’s entertainment for sheep. Designed to amuse us, and re-enforce our self-image as helpless sheep (relieving our guilt at our passivity). We cheer.

Hollywood knows us. It’s a requirement of their business. But we can change, should we ever wish to do so.


For More Information

(a)  Posts about heroes:

  1. A philosophical basis for the Batman saga, 23 July 2008
  2. The problem with America lies in our choice of heroes, 12 November 2010
  3. Robocop is not a good role model for the youth of Detroit, 12 March 2011
  4. We want heroes, not leaders. When that changes it will become possible to reform America., 11 January 2013
  5. Our choice of heroes reveals much about America, 2 June 2013
  6. The Lone Ranger tells us about America, 6 July 2013
  7. Are our film heroes leading us to the future, or signaling despair?, 28 October 2013

(b)  Posts about myths and movies:

  1. Symptoms of a fever afflicting America’s culture, 5 November 2008 — Hollywood’s hero deficit
  2. Sources of inspiration for America’s renewal, 23 April 2009 — The Law of Equivalent Exchange
  3. Their Martyrs and Our Heroes, an essay by John Feffer, 8 August 2009
  4. Hollywood’s dream machine gives us the Leader we yearn for, 30 June 2013
  5. Loki helps us to see our true selves, 15 May 2013



21 thoughts on “Captain America: the Winter Soldier – high-quality indoctrination for sheep”

  1. I have a slightly different take on this than you, FM.
    It seems pretty clear that for the past 20 years or so, the U.S. military-industrial complex has been heavily influencing Hollywood to churn out pro-imperial propaganda. This probably reached a high point sometime around 1996 with films like Independence Day. The subtext of these orgies of CGI violence and Leni-Riefenstahl-style mock heroics is: America finds itself menaced by sinister baddies. The American military is the only thing standing between us and destruction. A lone man on a white horse (new Fuhrer) is needed to save us — Iron Man, Superman, Thor, whomever.

    So the propaganda sets us up to cheer for a militarized garrison state under de facto martial law, where mirror-sunglassed El Supremos are our new leaders.

    This worked well until nasty revelations came squirming out from under the NSA and CIA rocks. CIA torture, NSA surveillence, 99% of all sneak-and-peek anti-terror warrants actually used on minor drug criminals, the DHS selling the Chicago police military weaponry like LRAD sound cannons to use against the G20 demonstrators, and so on.

    This prove embarrassing. Can’t sell this sort of thing to the rubes. So the Hollywood folks try to have it both ways. They need to kiss ass with America military-police-prison-surveillance-torture complex because, after all, California is the world’s largest open-air gulag, a state run by the prison guard’s union, and the Hollywood studio execs know where the power lies. On the other hand, the studio execs need to sell tickets.

    So they compromise by telling us stories where the man on a while horse (der fuhrer) winds up battling not only the sinister baddies threatening America (Occupy protesters — excuse me, HYDRA) but also the system itself which gets revealed as corrupt and decadent.

    A plot that doesn’t make much sense, but offers the virtue of pleasing both our military-police-prison-surveillance-torture overlords and the general public.

    The mythmakers of Hollywoods find themselves in a tough spot. They savor over the billions to be earned by serving as 21st century Leni Riefenstahls in sad degenerating Weimer America. Yet they also can’t afford to alienate the increasingly restive Great Unwashed, who are starting to get disturbed by all those no-knock police raids killing innocent people in their beds and all that out-of-control spying by the NSA.

  2. “This probably reached a high point sometime around 1996 with films like Independence Day. The subtext of these orgies of CGI violence and Leni-Riefenstahl-style mock heroics is: America finds itself menaced by sinister baddies. The American military is the only thing standing between us and destruction.”

    Ever seen the orgy of movies from the 1940s-1950s-1960s about the heroic US military saving the homeland against [giant spiders/ants/octopi]/[devious aliens/mutants/monsters]/[rampaging microbes/plants/parasits]? There is always a [dashing young/steadfast mature] [marine/aviation/submarine/army officer/commander] saving the day against all odds (throw in a scientist with unrealistic attitudes towards alien forms of life, sluggish bureaucrats unresponsive towards a looming menace, and the obligatory female character in high heels).

    Actually, when you start thinking about it, the level of “militarization” in US movies has been quite amazing since WWII. What is perhaps new is the recent prevalence of so many “heroes” (Batman, Spiderman, Cpt America, Iron-Man, X-Men, etc).

    1. Guest,

      You raise an interesting point. The military stars in the long series of invasion films since WW2.

      But those are a small genre. A larger number are about evil infiltrating our society, crime, corruption, oppressive ideologies, etc — in the form of organizations. These are the stories I discuss in this post.

  3. The idea of systemic evil, evil that is structurally ingrained in institutions, is in vogue again in many theological circles (mostly among Mainline Protestants and some Catholics). The champion of this ‘powers and principalities’ theology is the somewhat obscure William Stringfellow (1928-1985), who has produced some very valid critiques of America, yet he works from some flawed premises. Namely he states that all institutions are demonic and essentially reaches a conclusion that institutions really cannot be significantly rehabilitated. The result of this view is what is called Christian Anarchism, which is now popular among some young radicals. It was Christian thinker Walter Wink (1935-2012) who corrected the Stringfellow approach by acknowledging how sinister systemic evil while also affirming that institutions do not have to be evil – that institutions, when properly reformed and maintained, could serve to better humanity.

    That being said, the radical anarchist impulse among folks plays right into the work of discrediting institutions. Institutions are discredited for theological reasons or political/social/economic reasons but the result is the same: every institution is tainted with greed (or evil, or corruption, etc.) and therefore we are better off working towards some sort of anarchism. I feel that this approach plays into the same hands as the Winter Soldier crowd. Real change for the better will come when we realize the hard work needed to rehabilitate and maintain vital organizations that benefit humanity. Bureaucracy, in and of itself is amoral, we cannot assume that it is always sinister or wasteful or inefficient. Like any tool that can be used either for harm or for good, structured organizations can be set up in ways to greatly benefit many people.

  4. As soon as you hear the word “sheeple”, the tin foil is not far behind. The film is about a corrupt One World Government with multiple, warring secret spy organizations (one controlled by an A.I.), with designs on as mass slaughter of any who would oppose them…and that was not conspiratorial enough?!! The heroes are the ones who believe in the conspiracy for Christ’s sake! They even dump the whole thing on the internet! And you wonder why no one believes you. Better ‘sheeple’ than ‘creeple’.

    You may now commence scoffing, nerdly continually using the phrase ‘sheeple’, telling me how naive I am and questioning my parentage.

    1. “The film is about a corrupt One World Government with multiple, warring secret spy organizations”

      The film I saw was quite different, with two contending organizations — the exact opposite of a “one world government”.

      ” (one controlled by an A.I.)”

      Evidence? I didn’t get that.

      “with designs on as mass slaughter of any who would oppose them…and that was not conspiratorial enough?!!”

      I do not understand your point. How does that disprove this post?

      “The heroes are the ones who believe in the conspiracy”

      Same comment as above.

      “You may now commence scoffing, nerdly continually using the phrase ‘sheeple’, telling me how naive I am and questioning my parentage.”

      Your tin foil hat is too tight. I don’t do any of these things, to you or anyone. Such a false prediction should make you question the accuracy of your analysis.

  5. Stranger in a Strange Land

    I would like to make one observation, a correction really, that doesn’t really have to do so much with the thesis of your post but may change its perspective somewhat.

    You stated that “Eventually the peons realized that together they were powerful, and the world changed.”

    It was actually the nobles (i.e., barons to whom the peons were directly beholden) who first challenged the authority of the kings (see Magna Carta signed in 1215 AD). While the process had actually begun as early as 1100 AD, the peons were still beholden to their nobles for a long time after the Magna Carta was signed (that is to say, they remained peons).

    The Black Death of 1347 AD (and onwards) which killed about 1/3 of the population of Europe also had a profound effect on its social structure. So many people died during that and subsequent outbreaks of the bubonic plague that the underclasses (laborers, merchants, etc.) gained in their importance and power throughout most of Europe.

    So the “peons” never really came into any kind of higher consciousness (i.e., “…realized that together they were powerful…”) entirely of their own accord and it is highly doubtful that they would ever have done so without the guidance and/or interplay of these external forces.

    Therefore, if one equates the American public with peons, then one could make the argument that absent such external forces it is highly doubtful that they will ever come to the realization that together they are “powerful” and will (or can) change the the world.

    1. Stranger,

      You raise one of the great questions of history, like most being unresolvable. First, a few questions.

      After the Black Death, did the masses have more political power? I think not.

      Was Magna Carta anything more than a cycle in the ancient swing of power between nobles and crown? I think not. It was largely forgotten, except as the occasional slogan, for 4 centuries — until used to give an ancient gloss to modern political ideas.

      My guess — guess! — is that empowering the masses came about due to political and economic trends centered on the 18thcentury, and gaining strength thereafter. Perhaps the most important factor was, IMO, the development of mass armies. France forced the rest of Europe to develop modern nation-states.

      The French Revolution was the discovery of the people that they were strong.

    2. Bonesetter Brown

      The Reformation is a good example of elites and peasants aligning in common cause, if only for a while. In the end, peasants found themselves in the familiar role of getting the raw end of the deal.

    3. Bonesetter Brown

      I’ve thought for a while that the Social Democracies of U.S. and Europe are approaching a Reformation-style turning point. And yes, the internet is the latter day printing press :)

    4. Bonesetter Brown


      Have thought for a while that the Social Democracies of the U.S. and Europe are headed towards a Reformation-style turning point. With the internet as the latter day printing press :)

      1. Bonesetter,

        Sounds interesting, but I don’t understand the metaphor of a “reformation”. How does that apply to us?

        One side note: I am a skeptic that new communication technology “makes men free”. It helps people who wish to be free, but equally well works as collars for sheep, IMO.

  6. Stranger in a Strange Land

    The Medieval period in Europe is considered to have taken place between the 5th and 15th centuries (i.e., it ended in the late 1400s).

    The Reformation started in the year 1517 (i.e., early 16th century) which was when Luther posted his 95 theses challenging the Catholic church’s authority and theocratic domination of Europe .

    You referenced “Medieval peasants” in your post. I was discussing what happened during the Medieval years in terms of some type of awakening of the consciousness of what you later referred to as “peons”. (By the way, “peasants” and “peons” are not necessarily synonymous terms.)

    Therefore, any discussion of what happened in the Reformation is not germane to my argument, especially in consideration of the fact that the Black Death began in 1347 (i.e., Medieval times) and resulted in a total transformation of European society. For some scholars (myself included) it was as responsible as any other factor for paving the way for more advanced thinking later on.

    While after the Black Death hit Europe(and European society had sufficiently recovered), the masses may not have immediately gained more “political power”, they sure as hell had more economic power, as there was now more land available and labor was at a premium. And as you yourself must admit, increased economic power generally (but not always) results in increased “political power”.

    You should also know that there is a quite substantial body of historical research and scholarship into the question of what happened during this era that resulted in such substantial socio-economic changes taking place in Western society? And this body of research and scholarship backs up my thesis regarding why “peons” gained increased political power in Europe, starting in the late Medieval period and continuing on into and throughout the Enlightenment (which is generally considered to have begun in the late 17th century, i.e., late 1600s).

    But my real question to you is, why are you so obtuse when you are confronted with facts and/or observations that don’t seem to fit in with your apparently preconceived notions of reality?

    For your and your readers edification re this issue, I have included the following excerpt from Wikipedia:

    Medieval European peasants

    The open field system of agriculture dominated most of northern Europe during medieval times and endured until the nineteenth century in many areas. Under this system, peasants lived on a manor presided over by a lord or a bishop of the church. Peasants paid rent or labor services to the lord in exchange for their right to cultivate the land. Fallowed land, pastures, forests, and wasteland were held in common. The open field system required cooperation among the peasants of the manor. It was gradually replaced by individual ownership and management of land.

    The relative position of peasants in Western Europe improved greatly when the Black Death reduced the population of medieval Europe in the mid-14th century, resulting in more land for the survivors and making labor more scarce. In the wake of this disruption to the established order, later centuries saw the invention of the printing press, the development of widespread literacy and the enormous social and intellectual changes of the Enlightenment.

    The evolution of ideas in an environment of relatively widespread literacy laid the groundwork for the Industrial Revolution, which enabled mechanically- and chemically-augmented agricultural production while simultaneously increasing the demand for factory workers in cities. The trend toward individual ownership of land, typified in England by Enclosure, displaced many peasants from the land and compelled them, often unwillingly, to become urban factory-workers, who came to occupy the socio-economic stratum formerly the preserve of the medieval peasants.

    This process happened in an especially pronounced and truncated way in Eastern Europe. Lacking any catalysts for change in the 14th century, Eastern European peasants largely continued upon the original medieval path until the 18th and 19th centuries. Serfdom was abolished in Russia in 1861, and while many peasants would remain in areas where their family had farmed for generations, the changes did allow for the buying and selling of lands traditionally held by peasants, and for landless ex-peasants to move to the cities. Even before emancipation in 1861, serfdom was on the wane in Russia. The proportion of serfs within the empire had gradually decreased “from 45-50 percent at the end of the eighteenth century, to 37.7 percent in 1858.

    Note that while you may pooh-pooh the use of Wikipedia, the page cited has links to many, many reputable and scholarly sources of information regarding this topic (should you wish to expand your knowledge and awareness of the subject in question).

    1. Stranger,

      (1) “Note that while you may pooh-pooh the use of Wikipedia,”
      No, I don’t. I often reference Wikipedia. Nice guess, however.

      (2) “By the way, “peasants” and “peons” are not necessarily synonymous terms”

      Also, neither are technically accurate as descriptions of Americans today. I think we all know this, but understand the intended meaning. Even for a pedant like me that’s a bit trivial.

      (3) “I was discussing what happened during the Medieval years in terms of some type of awakening of the consciousness of what you later referred to as “peons”.”

      I don’t see that you did so in your original comment, or in this. The last paragraph of Wikipedia exactly states my point.

      (4) “consideration of the fact that the Black Death began in 1347 (i.e., Medieval times) and resulted in a total transformation of European society.”

      That seems like quite an exaggeration, unless you consider all that follows as resulting from the 1347 plague. I’d like to see some citations from historians before believing that.

      (5) “the masses may not have immediately gained more “political power”, they sure as hell had more economic power”

      Yes, that was my point. Nicely stated. Your long cite from Wikipedia says essentially the same thing. I don’t see why you consider it a rebuttal to me.

      (6) “You should also know that there is a quite substantial body of historical research and scholarship into the question of what happened during this era that resulted in such substantial socio-economic changes taking place in Western society?”

      As I said, “You raise one of the great questions of history, like most being unresolvable.” You should know that this vast literature does not come to firm conclusions about this question. Which was the major point of my comment.

      (7) “why are you so obtuse when you are confronted with facts and/or observations that don’t seem to fit in with your apparently preconceived notions of reality?”

      Let’s replay the tape:

      1. I said that you raised one of the great questions of history, like most such not resolvable.
      2. I asked two questions.
      3. I said: “My guess — guess! — is that…”

      I think you have committed quite a large reading FAIL in your characterization of my comment.

  7. Stranger in a Strange Land

    Why did I focus on Medieval peasants? Oh I don’t know, perhaps it was because your post began with the words “Medieval peasants are the epitome of sheeple”.

    Then you fast forward to discuss oppressed people in the 19th century, cutting out only about 400-600 years of Western historical development in the process. Ordinarily not a problem, but when you then come back to attack someone (and in a rather sanctimonious fashion, I might add) who is merely trying to shed some additional light on the matter, well obviously you want to make it plain that you know everything there is to know (so why should anyone even bother posting comments on your website unless it is to agree with you, that is)?

    My commentary involving the role that the nobles (using the Magna Carta as an example), the Black Death, etc., played was merely to point out that there were important external factors to the awakening of the political consciousness of the peasants. That there were many complex and intertwining factors involved (e.g., religion), and that these factors played out over the course of centuries is beyond dispute. That the Black death was a seminal event in starting the whole process in motion is also beyond dispute (well among most serious students and scholars of this period of history, anyways).

    But let me ask you, if in the space of 2-3 years some 40-60 percent of the American population were to die a rather sudden, gruesome, and horrifying death from an unknown disease, don’t you think that might not have some serious ramifications and change the structure and direction of society? So why is it so hard for you to accept the fact that the Black Death in Europe did exactly that to Medieval society.

    A peon is usually defined as a day laborer, unskilled farm worker, or someone of low rank.

    A peasant is usually defined as a poor farmer of low social status who owns or rents a small piece of land for cultivation (chiefly in historical use or with reference to subsistence farming in poorer countries).

    So the two terms are similar but not synonymous, and you made a epic FAIL in mixing up your terminology in the space of only a few sentences, as well as jumping around in and not clearly defining what time periods you were referring to in the process.

    In fact, the world still abounds with peasants, especially the Third world. But I believe any analogy made between peasants and the masses as found in American society are fairly apt and instructive. And therefore the idea that the American “peasantry” will only be aroused to action by extreme external factors and not any awakening of their internal political consciousness is, in my opinion, a very plausible and defensible position.

    However, I must say that at least you admit to your pedantry, and that is a beginning in the process of opening up your mind to consider other points of view as well as round out your rather obtuse angles!

    1. Stranger,

      I have no idea what you are attempting to say, and your comments have no obvious relationship to what I say. You attribute to me things I never said, and justify things I never questioned. I suggest replying to quotes, as I do.

      To repeat my self again: there was a wide range of substantial social change in Europe, in bursts, for many reasons,from 800 AD on. The Black Death was a major factor. But with respect to political power for the mass of the adult population — the specific subject here — little changed until the 17th century. Your own quote supports this.

  8. FM-

    I would only add one observation to your general take on the film. The film does not just suggest that organizing is bad, but that organizations created for good causes will ultimately be co-opted. Indeed, it is upon this point that the plot line of the film turns.

    As America’s recent experience with mass organization suggests (sep. the Tea Party), there are very pragmatic reasons this message might resonate with the American people. It reflects our recent history.

    1. I think that is a superficial reading of the film (yes its a comic book movie but a deeper interpretation is there). What I took from the film was that the battles fought during the second world war were not completely won and that to a certain extent, the fascistic elements and the fear based control model of the Nazis infected post-war American foreign policy. There is even a reference to operation paperclip in the movie, which if you remember was where we made use of ex-nazi scientists and others with special knowledge we wanted. Reinhard Gehlen, German spymaster during the war directly contributed to the ramping up of the cold war by feeding false intelligence to the US regarding supposed massive infiltration of soviet spies and fake plans by the soviets to mobilize.

      The point of the movie is that the outward fight against an opposing evil force (hydra) is only one part of the overall war, that one must also fight for the integrity of the institutions themselves and the values they are supposed to defend. How is that message supposed to keep us in line when following it to its logical conclusion would mean we must look at just how badly our own institutions need reform.

      Captain America is the only one who remains true to this idea and while he serves as he can, he refuses to go along with the idea that the “world has changed”. He represents what we once were and what we can be again. Like superman, batman, and nearly every superhero it is just another retelling of the classic hero myth, where the lone voice of reason and truth in the wilderness is required to stir people to action. Most people who stand up for the truth are ridiculed, ignored or brutally killed for being so brazen. Often it is only after people witness someone refusing to kneel and getting a couple good hits in, do they then decide victory is possible and begin to rally around a cause. There has never been any successful spontaneous rising of people without leaders in the history of the world. What you get when collectives act is peasant revolts that lead nowhere or make things worse as FM has often argued. We need leaders with heroic virtue to light the fire, always have, always will.

      Yet while he is out there alone for a while like all true leaders, Captain America does not save the day by himself, in the climax, he actually rallies all the good shield agents and they stand up for what is right, opposing the orders given to them by the corrupt director and the hydra infiltrators. Without them and the people that help him in the movie, he would not have accomplished anything.

      The message of superhero genre in general is that the individual can make a difference, that someone needs to take the first step and that that someone is often an ordinary person that does extraordinary things. Rogers was a small weak man with a pure heart that is given the power to be the hero he always was inside. It speaks to the transformative power of truth and the willingness to sacrifice for it, how an outsider who refuses to go along with how things are can inspire others to act. The outward expression of a super-soldier and the flashy costume is just the particular way the story is told, the core is as old as myth itself.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: