Death to Political Agendas Invading Higher Culture

The moment where I was the most caught off guard this summer was when the first comments a friend of mine had after we saw The Dark Knight together were: “Its too bad the whole thing is an advertisement for the Patriot Act.”

I spent the past summer working at an academic summer camp, which is why I haven’t been around. The staff was a group of very nice people, and I liked them very much. However, they are also perfect examples of why I view a politically engaged life as a good life spoiled (much like golf and good walks). These perfectly nice people would rant about how CNN is horrifyingly racist and conservative. They would then watch FOX News and hunt for things to be pissed off about. I did not then and do not now understand why they spent so much of their free time seeking out things to complain about. They’re feeling guilty about having nice lifestyles based off of imperialism, or some bullshit like that. I myself try to focus on things that I like, and spend as much time as I can talking about them. Which is how I found myself, to my amazement, spending my summer defending The Dark Knight movie.

While not a perfect film (Two-Face going after Gordon’s family was very predictable, and the whole scene with the bombs on the boats was a lazy and tired cliche) I think it is a notable achievement in a lot of ways. It provides some very interesting complications to the “Batman as inspirational symbol” motif of the previous movie. In particular this occurs in moments in the story that trouble the social role of Batman as that of a “hero” by contrasting him with the civil authorities, which are themselves the the social slot which we as a civilization invest with the authority to seek and defend “justice,” that is, invest with the role of the hero. This is a story about the relationship of the lawful hero to the unlawful hero, and in particular of the grave moral issues that arise when the “antihero” finds itself transformed into the show-room floor model of the ideal 21st century hero. It is a story about how the most crucial struggle that faces human society today is the preservation of our grace: the quality that allows the human being to change, to transcend all the numbers and biology and economics and history and to become more than what the sum of our parts say we should be. It is a story about the crisis of idealism in a cultural postmodern moment where the fundamental shallowness that characterizes the relationship of the individual to culture reduces ideals to slogans and campaign posters and advertisements that are so startlingly fragile because ideals cannot be perfect, but are only presented as perfect so that the public will consume them more earnestly. It is a story about how civil rights are not “rights” at all, but are privileges bestowed by the communal choice that their enforcement and protection are important, and how society at times needs to be reminded of its power to choose by being presented with figures who choose not to respect those rights (of which Joker, Batman, and Two-Face are all equally guilty). It is a story about psychological trauma, about the lie that is the dichotomy of good and evil, about the choice that is order, and the fact that disorder is a choice made by someone we do not know.

It is not simply a subconscious advertisement for a policy of a political administration. It can be that, if one wants to simply accept Batman as the model of a hero because he is alive at the end, his name is on the movie, and he seems to have genuinely nice motives, but it can also be exactly the opposite if one reads the character as an unlawful force that usurps civil authority for the moral solipsism of might-makes-right and inspires others to follow his example. It can be any number of things. This is the trouble when marxism or postcolonialism or liberalism or conservatism or any other type of politics becomes more than a footnote beneath an examination of what the text might be telling us about the human soul. A text can be no more limited by what one moment suggests it might be than can the course of a man’s life be predetermined by the presence of a genetic predisposition to alcoholism. What makes these texts relevant aspects of human culture, and not more mere symptoms of physical life, is that they can remind us that we have the grace to be more than we are, not less. To define it as any one thing is a wilful ignorance on the part of the one offering the definition, or worse, to be succored into a joke by getting all worked up over the trivial. After all: “Why so serious?”