Tuesday, August 21, 2012
Saturday, August 11, 2012
Today we often use the term ideology synonymously with philosophy or worldview. In this fascinating Firing Line episode, William F. Buckley, Jr. and Joseph Sobran question Kenneth Minogue, professor of political science at the London School of Economics, on the older sense of what an ideology means on April 11, 1985. Minogue had just published his book, Alien Powers: The Pure Theory of Ideology, that same year.
This was back when public discourse used to have some level of substantive content.
This was back when public discourse used to have some level of substantive content.
Tuesday, August 7, 2012
Monday, August 6, 2012
“It is said, that twenty-four millions ought to prevail over two hundred thousand. True; if the constitution of a kingdom be a problem in arithmetic. This sort of discourse does well enough with the lamp-post for its second; to men who may reason calmly, it is ridiculous. The will of the many, and their interest, must differ; and great will be the difference when they make an evil choice."
- Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France
“Much read in history and much practiced in the conduct of political affairs, Burke knew that men are not naturally good, but are beings of mingled good and evil, kept in obedience to a moral law chiefly by the force of custom and habit, which the revolutionaries would discard as so much antiquated rubbish. He knew that all the advantages of society are the product of intricate human experience over many centuries, not to be amended overnight by some coffee-house philosopher. He knew religion to be man's greatest good, and established order to be the principal necessity of civilization, and hereditary possessions to be the prop of liberty and justice, and the mass of beliefs we often call 'prejudices' to be the moral sense of humanity. He set his face against the revolutionaries like a man who finds himself suddenly beset by robbers ... Unlike the 'Glorious Revolution' of 1688, the French Revolution was intended to uproot the delicate growth that is human society; if not impeded, this revolutionary passion would end by subjecting all men first to anarchy and then to a ruthless master."
- Russell Kirk, Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered
The most famous group of real life American vigilantes (with ghostly masks) are known as ... well, the Ku Klux Klan. The most popular fictional vigilante in modern day pop culture is a bloody razor and scalpel wielding lunatic (with his own Showtime TV Show) by the name of Dexter.
The vigilante is a symbol of the failure of the law.
But director Christopher Nolan wasn't just interested in making a film about a vigilante. In Nolan's Gotham universe, “the League of Shadows" are the vigilantes in the story and Bruce Wayne calls them out for what they are early in Batman Begins. Alfred, ever the conscience of Batman, cautions Bruce that “what you're doing has to be beyond that. It can't be personal, or you're just a vigilante." “A vigilante is just a man lost in the scramble for his own gratification," ironically says Henri Ducard. And Bruce Wayne, with everything he has, fights the vigilantes just as much as he fights the criminals. If Batman can be said to be a vigilante, then he is a strange one. Instead of suppressing crimes he doesn't believe the government can suppress, he purposefully exercises restraint and delivers criminals to the doorsteps of the police station. Instead of acting as if he could decide society's own laws, he acts for the existing laws of his city. Instead of acting the rogue who believes his government has failed, he acts the guardian who fights to preserve the tenuous grip that his city's government has left in preserving the established order.
he helped write the script of The Dark Knight Rises intentionally informed by A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. Political thinkers like Edmund Burke and Alexander Hamilton distinguished the American Revolution from the French Revolution based upon philosophical differences on the nature of man. If you believe that human nature is fallen and corrupt, then you are going to make specific conclusions. I have repeatedly heard Nolan's films criticized for their bleak and dismal view of human nature. But, I have heard less reflection on whether Nolan's view of human nature is, in fact, actually correct.
One of my favorite film critics, Steven D. Greydanus finds Nolan's films unsatisfactory for leaving unanswered the question of whether, due to the corruptness of the people of Gotham, they are worth saving:
“... Yet something crucial is missing — a major omission that lingers over the whole trilogy, a question raised ever more insistently in all three films, and at best left unanswered, if not answered negatively. That question is: Is Gotham City worth saving? Are its citizens fundamentally selfish and ruthless, or is there good in them? Offered a choice between darkness and light, which will they choose?"
that of Lauren Wilford's, in her impressive essay on Christopher Nolan's films:
“... There are two types of evil people in Batman Begins: corrupt crooks (like drug lord Falcone) and merciless justice hounds (like Ra’s al Ghul). Their common weakness is a reductive view of human nature. Falcone sees people as pathetic and exploitable. Ra’s al Ghul sees them as depraved and irredeemable. Both characters see themselves as part of an elite that knows better. Batman’s mission is, then, populist: he fights for the sake of humanity at large, fallen Gotham a stand-in for a fallen world.
The question stands, then: Is Gotham worth saving? And if so, for whose sake? ... It’s implied that the people of Gotham, in their weakness, have let their city become corrupt; they have allowed evil into their world, a kind of original sin. But Nolan never ascribes malevolence to the whole. Gotham is fallen in a more Dostoevskian sense: people are, in general, weak, and desperation can push them into evil.
That Ra’s al Ghul's brand of justice was without mercy was demonstrated in what finally broke his alliance with Bruce Wayne. “Your compassion is a weakness your enemies will not share," Ducard tells Wayne after he refuses the role of executioner. Wayne's response? “That's why it's so important. It separates us from them." Bruce Wayne insists on upholding a difference between himself and the criminal and between himself and the vigilante. “Justice. Crime cannot be tolerated," declares al Ghul, “Criminals thrive on the indulgence of society’s understanding." But understanding the criminal is one of the most important things about Batman. It is by understanding them that he can learn how best to stop them. But Ra's al Ghul and the “League of Shadows" are willing to destroy civilization itself in order to stop crime, and as such, they are the perfect personification of the vigilante.
This is why Batman distinguishes himself from the vigilante by making himself an ally to law enforcement. He works outside the positive law by aiding those in government who are fighting for what's right all in order to enforce a higher law. It is this higher law that the Joker denies. “You have these rules. And you think they’ll save you ... The only sensible way to live in this world is without rules.” The Joker considers Batman weak because of the rules he lives by. The Joker is the worst sort of criminal (and threat to civilization) because he doesn't act for reasons of self-gratification, instead he just wants to see civilization fall. “Introduce a little anarchy, you upset the established order and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos. And you know the thing about chaos, Harvey? ... It’s fair.”
As a result of all this, the next interesting question that Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises gives us is - whether the film's new villain, Bane, is the logical conclusion or consequence of both Ra’s al Ghul and the Joker?
In The Dark Knight Rises, Bane's rhetoric to the people of Gotham city is, shall we say, somewhat disingenuous. “Take control. Take control. Take control of your city," he demands of the people. “We come as liberators to return control of the government to the people ... Tomorrow you claim what is rightfully yours," he insists. He smacks of Maximilien Robespierre or, even, Napoleon. He alludes to the brokers at the Gotham stock-market as thieves. He encourages the masses to revolt against the upper class. If you read Robespierre, he took his rhetoric straight from Rousseau, but used it for purposes that Rousseau himself never intended.
The fact remains, however, that Rousseau did write that the “first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying ‘This is mine,’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society.” Civilization “bound new fetters on the poor and gave new powers to the rich; irretrievably destroyed natural liberty, fixed eternally the law of property and inequality, converted clever usurpation into unalterable right, and, for the advantage of a few ambitious individuals, subjected all mankind to perpetual labour, slavery and wretchedness.” (He could be describing the state of Gotham city.) According to Rousseau, “Usurpations by the rich, robbery by the poor, and the unbridled passions of both ... filled men with avarice, ambition and vice ... The new-born state of society thus gave rise to a horrible state of war.” (from Frederick Copleston’s A History of Philosophy, Volume VI.)
So, thanks to Nolan, we now have a story where Batman, the superhero who everyone views as a vigilante devoted to working outside the constraints of the law, finds himself allied with law and order in defense of civilization. It is this paradox that makes The Dark Knight Rises so interesting.
I won't suggest that Nolan's exploration of this theme is perfect or completely coherent. The difference between Bane's objectives, and those of the Joker, and those of the League of Shadows, are ill-defined. One of the most intellectual and thoughtful film reviewers that I read, Kenneth R. Morefield, has legitimately criticized the philosophical coherence of the film.
... the Joker is very postmodern in his open mockery of the belief in traditional notions of certainty and rules. Note that the Joker doesn’t assault or deny the particular rules but the notion of rules themselves. He doesn’t say that Batman has picked the wrong principles or rules and that other rules or principles would save him, he claims that the very notion of rules/concepts/or principles is suspect. This questioning of all terms and definitions continues on into Rises. When Batman opines to one character that the people of Gotham City are ‘innocent’ the response is neither an affirmation or a denial, it is ‘Innocence is a strong word to throw around Gotham…’ I don’t mean to parrot some of my more conservative colleagues’ critiques of postmodernism (though I suspect this part will make some of them very happy) but the film (rightly I must acknowledge) demonstrates that when indeterminacy is the rule, all that really remains is rhetoric, and Bane’s character shows how easily rhetoric can be coopted, used, abused ...”
First, leaving the viewer unsatisfied with a lack of answers is not necessarily always a bad thing. It can at times be a very good thing. Whatever is lacking in coherence in this film could have been aligned better by the director, but now, instead, such intellectual alignment is left to the viewer. While I may not like it, I'll admit it that might be a good exercise in which to indulge.
Second, what Christopher Nolan is doing here is, when you look at the short-lived history of film as an art-form, manifestly something new.
While movies inspired by comic book superheroes are currently all the rage, here we have a director less interested in celebrating a superhero and more interested in the ideas behind his existence. Batman Begins was something of a revelation in film-making, not because it was a good film but because it changed our idea of what you can do with such a story. Nolan takes these ideas very seriously and then plunges them into an entertainment medium in a way no one has ever quite dreamed of before. It may not be as good as it could be, but it's still an innovation that thinking people ought to support.
“All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.
On this scheme of things, a king is but a man; a queen is but a woman; a woman is but an animal; and an animal not of the highest order. All homage paid to the sex in general as such, and without distinct views, is to be regarded as romance and folly. . . . On the scheme of this barbarous philosophy, which is the offspring of cold hearts and muddy understandings, and which is as void of solid wisdom as it is destitute of all taste and elegance, laws are to be supported only by their own terrors, and by the concern which each individual may find in them from his own private speculations, or can spate to them from his own private interests. In the groves of their academy, at the end of every vista, you see nothing but the gallows ...”
- Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France
“Hang them where the world can see.”
CEO: “I’m in charge."
Bane: “Do you feel in charge?"
CEO: “I paid you a small fortune."
Bane: “Does that give you power over me?"
Nolan's film does not deny that there is ever such a thing as economic injustice. But, since it is written while thinking in terms of the French Revolution (and therefore includes Rosseau's view of private property), it is a cinematic demonstration of the consequences of certain ideas.
If the destruction of Western Civilization happened to be one of your goals, then the abnegation of private property would be (a) a necessary step towards such a goal, or (b) a natural consequence of it. In the midst of revolution, when Ms. Kyle begins to realize that something important has been lost, she looks at a shattered picture of a family. She then lingers over the idea that the mansion she’s in “used to be” theirs. Her friend’s reflexive “it’s everyone’s now” rings hollow. This is one of the paradoxes within political philosophy - attempting to take individualism and egalitarianism to their extreme leads, instead, to utilitarian collectivism. You can tell that Bane has collectivist streaks from his very first few scenes. He has inspired a fanatical devotion in his men that leads to their willing deaths at his slightest whim. He calls just about everyone “brother” in precisely the same way a KGB agent would call his prisoner, “comrade,” or a Jacobin assassin would call his victim, “citizen.” Every living person becomes simply a means to the end and the cause. “It doesn’t matter who we are. All that matters is our plan,” Bane confidently declares.
Bane is the end of civilization.
Bane is death to law and order, corrupt as it may be.
And then Nolan pits his hero, the Batman, against these vigilante/terrorist/Jacobin/modern/anarchist/ultimately despotic forces of destruction.
How can that not excite you, at least just a little? Bruce Wayne created Batman because of the principles that he believed in. Just like Bane represents certain ideas about us, Batman represents certain ideas about us also. Just like Bane says that “It doesn’t matter who we are. All that matters is our plan,” Bruce Wayne says that “Batman could be anybody. That was the point.” He means something by that quite different than Bane does.
So it is only a film director like Christopher Nolan who allows us to ask a question like this seriously - What ideas does Batman stand for?
In the first film of the trilogy, Batman Begins, it was established that he believed in justice AND mercy. The problem with the “League of Shadows," as he saw it, was its adamant refusal to distinguish the guilty from the innocent and its absolute refusal to allow for any possibility of redemption. Mr. Wayne found that his city was run by criminals, and by judges and policemen who worked on the payroll of criminals. But his solution was not to overthrow the city's government or destroy the city. Instead, he believed both the city and its government were worth saving from the likes of even those who understood what was wrong with it. So he worked “from within," allying himself to the remnant in the city who still believed in justice. The Batman didn't overthrow institutions like the Gotham City Police Department. Instead, he helped force the police department to do its job while putting a stop to other vigilantes who would have completely destroyed it along with everything else.
Harvey Dent: “When their enemies were at the gate, the Romans would suspend democracy and appoint one man to protect the city. It wasn’t considered an honor. It was considered a public service."
Rachel Dawes: “And the last man they asked to protect the republic was named Caesar. He never gave up that power."
Harvey Dent: “Well, I guess you either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain. Look, whoever the Batman is, he doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life doing this. How could he? Batman’s looking for someone to take up his mantle."
In the second film, it is made clear that Batman believes in rules and law (hence, no guns, no killing for him). He believes that his fight for the preservation of society can be taken up by another who always acts within the law. And, he believes in careful restraint in the exercise of power. The consideration of these ideas has been further promoted by the discussion and criticism that Bruce Wayne's methods provoke.
a review by Kevin Miller of Batman Begins. Miller identified what he believed to be a fundamental flaw with the character. He wrote:
“... [W]e need to jump ahead to one of the final scenes in the film when Lieutenant Gordon raises the question of escalation. He notes that the stronger Gotham’s forces of justice become, the more determined their enemies will become in response. ‘If we use Kevlar, they’ll use armor-piercing rounds.’ Batman isn’t too fazed by this, confident that no matter what the villains come up with, he can create something even more powerful to defeat them. This may be true, but it also points to an inevitable clash between ideology and methodology, ‘between goals and means’ a problem that plagues not just Batman but all superheroes ...
Let’s set the question of entertainment value aside for a moment though and pretend that the world of Gotham were real. If so, the evolution of supervillains would be a natural response to the presence of superheroes. For instance, in Batman Begins, it isn’t long before the criminals of Gotham realize they need to make some drastic changes to their tactics if they hope to remain in business. It’s a simple market reality: The more powerful Batman becomes, the more powerful they must become. If Batman is stealthy, they must become even stealthier. If he develops technology to help him in his crime-fighting efforts, they must develop even better technology. If he responds to their actions with violence, they must respond with even more violence. If Batman becomes, in effect, super-powered; they must also become super-powerful. Thus, the escalation Gordon predicted will come true."
“In this sense, Batman becomes his own worst enemy, because his very presence in Gotham assures that more and stronger villains will continue to arise. Rather than serve to stabilize society then, Batman actually becomes a destabilizing force instead. This is the clash between ideology and methodology I mentioned earlier: Batman thinks he can adopt the criminals’ methodology (except for murder) and yet still remain true to his ideology. But, as Gordon foresees, the best such a schema can do is forestall the inevitable mutually assured destruction of hero, villain, and society as a whole. Thus, we can finally see how the limit Wayne has placed on compassion truly does become his greatest weakness: By refusing to extend compassion to include his enemies, he doesn’t weaken them; he actually makes them stronger, thus compounding the very social problems he set out to solve.
Just think about the real world implications of this fact: Today, our primary response to something like terrorism is to hunt down and kill the terrorists. And why not? Surely a motley band of insurgents is no match for the technological and military might of the West. And yet, despite a global effort to defeat terrorism, the terrorists still manage to strike ever more frequent and devastating blows. Unthinkable. Or is it? Could it be that, like Batman in Gotham, the mere presence of such an overwhelming military superpower in our world is giving rise to the very thing that superpower was created to stand against? Like Batman, could the willingness of the West to adopt the methodologies of its enemies - war, terror, torture, etc. - actually be forcing our enemies to become more creative, more desperate, more willing to attempt bolder and more terrifying schemes because they see no other way of achieving their goals? ...”
“Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice, without constraint. Has it been found that bodies of men act with more rectitude or greater disinterestedness than individuals? The contrary of this has been inferred by all accurate observers of the conduct of mankind; and the inference is founded upon obvious reasons.”
- Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 15
The fact that the use of violence cannot solve the theological problem of evil is still not a coherent logical argument against the use of violence. This is where I part ways with Mr. Miller. There are still forms of evil that cannot be fought in our world without the use of violence. There are villains in Gotham City that will not be stopped without the force of Batman's fist or Police Commissioner Gordon's gun. There are terrorist groups that will not be stopped without the force of an accurate missile or a special forces take-down. There will be times when well-intentioned sanctions or diplomacy are going to have zero effect upon Scarecrow or the Joker or Bane. There will be times when violence is an ever temporary solution to a very specific and practical problem.
Wayne: Beautiful. Isn’t it?
Fox: Beautiful. Unethical. Dangerous. You’ve turned every phone in the city into a microphone.
Wayne: And high frequency generator/receiver.
Fox: Like the phone I gave you in Hong Kong. You took my sonar concept and applied it to everybody’s phone in the city. With half the city feeding you sonar you can image all of Gotham ... This is wrong.
Wayne: I’ve got to find this man, Lucius.
Fox: But at what cost?
Wayne: The database is null-key encrypted. It can only be accessed by one person.
Fox: No one should have that kind of power.
Wayne: That’s why I gave it to you. Only you can use it.
Fox: Spying on thirty million people wasn’t in my job description.
Wayne: When you’ve finished, type your name to switch it off.
Fox: I’ll help you this one time, but consider this my resignation. As long as this machine is at Wayne Industries, I won’t be.
Bruce Wayne is willing to wield tremendous power to fight evil. But he recognizes its danger. He insists upon rules, limitations and restraint in its use.
We've all probably heard that the reason Bruce Wayne has been called the “Dark Knight” was because, to become Batman, he takes on what is essentially a suit of armor. But it’s about far more than just the armor. If we think back to the age of knights, we naturally think of King Arthur. In T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, Arthur understood that armor was a personification and symbol of might. What Arthur decided to put a stop to was the natural state of man where might makes right.
So really, we can look at Bruce Wayne as a modern day type of Arthur. He even has his own version of Merlin (between the wisdom and advice of both Alfred and Lucius Fox). He specifically looks at the tools of terror used by criminals - fear, darkness, violence - and harnesses them in order to use them for right. This is why he is called the “Dark Knight.” Darkness and fear are both forms of power or might.
This is also why, in this third film, Bane is the next and greatest threat that may just be the end of Batman. Bane is the villain who understands exactly what Bruce Wayne has done. “You think darkness is your ally; but you have merely adopted it,” Bane tells Batman, “but I was born in it ... molded by it ... The shadows betray you because they belong to me.” Bruce Wayne has tried to harness darkness to use it for good. Bane has been created by darkness. Consequently, Bane represents pure unadulterated power without restraint. Batman is one of the very few who stands to preserve the very restraints that Bane intends to demolish.