Batman, America and the politics of fear

The morality tales of Hollywood present a vision of widespread societal collapse, as embodied in the Batman trilogy

The Dark Knight Rises (2012), the third in Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, epitomizes the post-9/11 fear and anxiety in American society (Warner Bros./Everett)
(c) 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures Funding LLC

At the end of last summer's The Dark Knight Rises, Batman has once again saved Gotham City from ruin, but at the — ostensible — cost of his own life. “I see a beautiful city,” police commissioner Jim Gordon says at the funeral of Bruce Wayne, the superhero’s alter ego. “A brilliant people… rising from this abyss. I see the lives for which I lay down my life… It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

The eloquence is not Gordon’s own of course, but rather that of Charles Dickens. In A Tale of Two Cities, the lines are spoken by the character Sydney Carton — like Wayne, an orphan intent on saving his city from destruction — on the eve of his own execution. Though a hopeful denouement, Gordon’s eulogy is tinged with weariness toward the violence in Gotham and the heavy price the city has levied to stave off its own destruction. 

It is a sentiment that has found widespread currency in post-9/11 America, where morality tales born of widespread social collapse can be found aplenty in the last year alone with cinematic offerings such as The Walking Dead, World War Z, Revolution and more.

What these films in general and The Dark Knight Rises in particular present is a parable of fear and anxiety in America and the fundamental socio-political questions confronting Americans today. Fear is one of our most pervasive cultural touchstones after September 11: the widely-held fear of America’s decline, reinforced by the spectacle of mass violence. It is a social anxiety that has found most of its oxygen from tragedies (or almost-tragedies) that are related to terrorism, from the World Trade Center attacks themselves to the recent violence at Sandy Hook Elementary and the Boston Marathon.

But perhaps the fear is directed at the wrong target.

In a recent New York Review of Books essay, law professor and author David Cole wrote, “The public is horrified, at least briefly, by catastrophes like the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Because such a shooting could happen anywhere, everyone can imagine it in his own backyard. But in truth, mass shootings are an infinitesimal part of the problem. Gun violence is concentrated in economically devastated neighborhoods in cities like Chicago, Baltimore, and Los Angeles. And precisely because the problem is focused in these locales, the majority can and does ignore it.”

Therein lies the contrast that the popular art of the past decade hints at: Behind the sensational spectacles lie a more banal reality of daily violence for many Americans. Few may directly experience a terrorist act, but millions are exposed to the mundane violence unleashed by social inequality, urban decay, communal clashes and a sluggish economic recovery.

Terror and the law

The Dark Knight Also Rises exemplifies how societies animated by the fear of catastrophic decline justify law and order decisions. For instance, in the fictional world of Gotham, terrorism is vanquished through legislation that grants the government extraordinary powers to sweep criminals off the streets en masse. When officials are pressed in the course of the movie to address the compromise between liberty and security in a free society, the man behind the legislation makes this speech:

There’s a point, far out there when the structures fail you, and the rules aren’t weapons anymore, they’re... shackles letting the bad guy get ahead. One day... you may face such a moment of crisis. And in that moment, I hope you have a friend like I did, to plunge their hands into the filth so that you can keep yours clean!

This echoes a scene from The Dark Knight, the second film in the trilogy which was released in 2008, when Batman is momentarily empowered with the technological know-how to essentially spy on all Gothamites at all times through their personal data (something to which his adviser, enabler and conscience, Lucius Fox, strongly objects).

Of course, these scenes are derived from observations of the real world.

The U.S. attempt over the last decade to overcome its “shackles” in dealing effectively with social threats in the guise of fighting terrorism has given the federal government unprecedented powers and secrecy.

Moreover, the June leaks from former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden reveal not only the scope of the NSA program to collect the “meta-data” of U.S. citizens, but also the relative continuity of the program from the Bush to Obama administrations. Partisan politics aside, both parties have a remarkably similar national security decision-making process vested in the executive branch that is unlikely to revert to pre-9/11 levels of transparency and civil rights protection.

The Snowden revelations of the U.S. government’s data-mining activities fundamentally alter the balance between the government and its citizens. As The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer reported in the aftermath of the leaks: “[D]ata mining is an automated process, which means that the entire country can be watched.” The only difference is that in dysfunctional Gotham, it’s not the government doing the watching — it’s Batman.

'The unwinding'

According to an apocryphal anecdote, when he was asked about the state of the young American democracy, Benjamin Franklin famously said that it was “a republic — if you can keep it.” That concept is narrowed to a society — if Gotham, or Batman, can keep it — and is the animating motivation for Batman’s social crusade and his raison d’être for putting on the mask.

Yet, as in the film, there appears to be a growing chasm in the United States between what its people profess to want — a republic — and what the government allows them.

The true priorities of governments are revealed in their allocation of resources, no matter the lip service they pay to popular causes — and what the U.S. 2013 fiscal year budget reveals is that 57 percent of federal discretionary spending is slated to go toward military and defense, as compared with 6 percent for education and 5 percent for housing and community.

Yet according to polling from Gallup and others, national security or issues related to war consistently hover in the single percentage points, and are dwarfed by concerns such as the health of the economy and healthcare. And even when the political system is in a position to effect change, it often still fails. In the aftermath of the Newtown tragedy, for instance, there was strong public support to reform the nation’s gun laws, and indeed, many politicians made a concerted effort to do so. But when the resulting legislation came to the Senate floor for a vote in April, three months after Sandy Hook, it was promptly defeated and taken off the docket for the foreseeable future.

The idea of a Batman-like hero who brings order to a nation in social ruin therefore resonates for the multitudes of Americans who see “the unwinding” of their country’s institutions in what George Packer in his new book, The Unwindingexplains is “killing many Americans’ belief in the democratic promise — their faith that the game is fair, that everyone has a chance.”

So if America’s social ruin is exposed in the government’s collection of its citizens’ personal data, some Batman-like figure, working outside the system, might be able restore order. (Though, ironically, in the film it is Bruce Wayne who is both the violator of the privacy of his fellow Gotham residents and their savior.) In the real world, the external force that overturns the balance of power between an overweening government and the hapless citizens has been the leaking of state secrets and proprietary data. Pioneered most obviously by Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, and recently embraced by Edward Snowden, this whistleblowing model attempts to force government transparency by disregarding traditional deference to state secrets.

It is far too early to tell how revelations like Snowden’s and presumed future data dumps by organizations like WikiLeaks will change the equation between the government and its citizens. Likely, there will continue to be some kind of messy balance as described by Benjamin Wittes and Robert McChesney when they wrote in The New Republic:

Some secret activities may be especially unwise or even illegal, so the proper amount of leaking in a healthy democracy is surely not zero. But it is equally true that, in some cases, exposure of classified information achieves little, while risking much.

The American theologian and political thinker Reinhold Niebuhr once noted that the great confounding reality of humanity’s social condition is that it can “conceive self-perfection but it cannot attain it.” What the “decline of society” aesthetic of the latest Batman movie and similar vehicles hammer home is the difficulty faced by those trying to invigorate the social compact, who are faced with institutional roadblocks, perverse incentives and decreasing channels of social and political movement.

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