July 27, 2008

Bad Analogy

Plenty of spoilers here, in case you've not seen The Dark Knight. But on the other hand, if you read either entertainment or political columns on blogs, you've probably seen this stuff already. Here's my take on it.

Somehow, an opinion column by Andrew Klavan in the Wall Street Journal has touched a nerve. Everyone on the Internets, it seems, wants to agree or disagree with Klavan about the liberal or conservative bias of The Dark Knight. In a nutshell, Klavan's argument that Batman is a metaphoric image for George W. Bush goes like this:
  • A noble leader must show courage and fortitude, and in particular must weather public criticism and trying circumstances, and not lay down his burden of public service until the job is done (Batman is widely criticized as a vigilante and is ultimately villianized for the public benefit);
  • Exigent times call for exigent circumstances, and that means temporarily setting aside some of the finer points of civil liberties for the purpose of realizing safety for society as a whole (Batman tortures the Joker to save important people and to stop the killing of innocents);
  • Violations of another country's political autonomy are minimal problems compared with the overarching objective of neutralizing the common enemies of civilization (Batman performs an "extraordinary rendition", which otherwise might be called a "high-tech kidnapping", in Hong Kong to get a bad guy); and
  • The use of untruth in the pursuit of justice is justifiable under appropriate circumstances (Batman takes the blame for a series of murders committed by Two-Face, so as not to tarnish the memory of Harvey Dent as Gotham City's hero);
  • No moral equivalence exists between terrorists and the protectors of the free societies terrorists prey upon, even if those free societies occasionally make mistake (Batman operates outside the rules of society but keeps a steady moral compass while he does it).
A variety of liberal rebuttals point out some of the following ideas:
  • When the government breaks its own rules, for instance by torturing captives, ignoring civil liberties, or destroying private property, its always produces more mischief than good (when Batman tortures the Joker, he gets bad information, thwarting the rescue plans and creating more evil than had existed before);
  • States cannot tolerate the use of force within their jurisdictions, regardless of the putatively moral goals of those who would operate outside the law (Gotham officials do not question the need to apprehend and pursue Batman);
  • Vigilantes are, in the end, as lawless as the criminals they pursue and therefore contribute to, and do not fight, the atmosphere of lawlessness that they claim to fight (Batman is, in many ways, responsible for the creation of super-criminals like the Joker);
  • Questionable allies in the fight against evil are not allies at all (Lieutenant Gordon's unit of the police department is filled with officers who Gordon knows are on the take, and he fights a losing battle keep their corruption under control); and
  • In the end, one cannot operate outside the boundaries of socially acceptable conduct and also earn the respect of society (Batman, in the end, must be pursued as the criminal that he ultimately is, because society cannot have it any other way).
Now, all of these statements, on both sides of the debate, are true to some degree. And like a lot of good fiction, the script touches on some contemporary issues (torture of prisoners in exigent circumstances, extraordinary renditions) and there is ample room for debate and moral ambiguity.

But at the end of the day, shoehorning The Dark Knight into a metaphor about the GWOT does not work. Batman is a vigilante. His story, in all of its many variants, is about urban crime and our government's ability (or lack thereof) to deal with it. Urban crime is different than terrorism. Sometimes it is about money (most of the "regular" criminals in the movie are in it for the cash) and sometimes it is about a criminal's violent expression of his pathologies (The Joker's twisted crimes are ultimately about his sadistic enjoyment of watching people suffer).

But urban crime is not about political change. All of the figures of interest in The Dark Knight deal with one another on the level of crime, not at the level of politics. The Joker does not want to become Mayor or otherwise take political power. Two-Face rejects the use of political and law enforcement power as ineffective to realize his goals. Batman does not seek public accolades or recognition for his "good deeds," altruistically, he wants the criminals to be punished and deterred, and personally, he wants someone like Harvey Dent to come along and clean the city up legitimately.

The relationship of a cop to a criminal, is a different one than that of a soldier to an enemy. And even more so, a criminal's relationship to the vigilante who hunts him is different than that of a political leader to the terrorist who seeks to undermine him. The tactics and tools available to each are sometimes similar, but the are different and they are employed to different ends. And society as a whole looks to these relationships differently.

One thing missing from The Dark Knight which would have rung true would have been greater public praise for Batman. It seems to me that people like vigilantes, and overlook their lawlessness. Bernard Goetz, for instance, was actually celebrated in some quarters for shooting and killing the young toughs who tried to rob him. We like that the vigilante takes criminals out of commission; we see justice in making them afraid because they have made us afraid. We share the vigilantes' frustrations with the slow and sometimes ineffective pace of legitimate law enforcement, bounded as it is by rules and the need to respect the civil liberties of even the criminals it is tasked with apprehending and convicting.

Too easily, we ignore that by inspiring fear in the criminals, the vigilante encourages the criminals to escalate the very violence that outraged the vigilante in the first place. Fearing the vigilante's actions, criminals will arm themselves more heavily and will take greater care to destroy evidence and witnesses. We overlook the creeping anarchy that a vigilante represents and the ease with which a vigilante can hurt those that he claims to protect. The public (as represented by the media in The Dark Knight) is quick to realize these things -- quicker than people in real life, in my opinion. The public is more like Gordon's young son, who admires and looks up to Batman, and wonders why he has to be chased at the end of the movie, and does not understand his father's explanation. He sees only good, and no ambiguity, in the Batman, because the Batman fights those who are unambiguously evil.

But vigilantism is morally ambiguous, which is why vigilantes make for such interesting entertainment. The Dark Knight is not a movie about terrorism or politics at all. Rather, it is an illustration of the risks, rewards, limits, and consequences inherent in giving in to the impulses of responding to violence in kind.

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