Bat Sense


“The nexus of ignorance and insanity is ideology.”

You like that? It’s a phrase I coined a few weeks ago while walking the dog, and I’ve since been able to share it only with my wife. So enjoy.

But that’s what this posting is all about, through the prism of the Dark Knight, the character and the movie. Upfront, my general view, as a kid growing up on comic books, is that Batman has always been the ideal comic book character, that the TV show was dreck and the Tim Burton spawned movies not much better, and that Christopher Nolan’s work has not been re-imagining the character but excavating his core, which has been buried under years of pop culture neglect and, yes, ideology. Because they are coming at us in waves nowadays, there’s an understandable tendency to see Batman Begins and The Dark Night as genre movies – the superhero genre – which they are not. They are movies about a singular character, generally akin to the James Bond movies. They are about a pop culture figure who superficially resembles a superhero but is actually nothing of the sort.

I like these movies – I think the first is excellent and the second, while not as tight, has admirable ambition and is full of satisfying tension. The first movie was modestly successful and so didn’t engender much nonsensical bloviating in major media outlets. The second has blockbuster status, so every asshole has an opinion. And I do mean asshole:

A cry for help goes out from a city beleaguered by violence and fear: A beam of light flashed into the night sky, the dark symbol of a bat projected onto the surface of the racing clouds . . .

Oh, wait a minute. That’s not a bat, actually. In fact, when you trace the outline with your finger, it looks kind of like . . . a “W.”

There seems to me no question that the Batman film “The Dark Knight,” currently breaking every box office record in history, is at some level a paean of praise to the fortitude and moral courage that has been shown by George W. Bush in this time of terror and war. Like W, Batman is vilified and despised for confronting terrorists in the only terms they understand. Like W, Batman sometimes has to push the boundaries of civil rights to deal with an emergency, certain that he will re-establish those boundaries when the emergency is past.

And like W, Batman understands that there is no moral equivalence between a free society — in which people sometimes make the wrong choices — and a criminal sect bent on destruction. The former must be cherished even in its moments of folly; the latter must be hounded to the gates of Hell.

“The Dark Knight,” then, is a conservative movie about the war on terror. And like another such film, last year’s “300,” “The Dark Knight” is making a fortune depicting the values and necessities that the Bush administration cannot seem to articulate for beans.

Now, I will only briefly mock this, since that’s been done well by others. First of all, I hope his books aren’t written like that because I feel embarrassed reading such awful prose – embarrassed for him. Second, anyone seeing the film without preconceived notions, a desperate need for self-validation and any critical faculties whatsoever will have no problem understanding that it’s political and moral universe is confused as some would say, or ambivalent and unsettled as I see it. Third, Klavan once again confirms the obvious about the current state of self-proclaimed American conservatives, they are both deeply stupid and deeply assured of their own brilliance. In other words, completely incompetent as human beings. This is not news, as any glance at what passes for conservative thought or accomplishment these days will confirm (note that if you try and click through to the PNAC site, you’ll see it’s been suspended – probably didn’t pay their hosting bills).

It’s also not news that tendentious idiots would try and co-opt pop culture hits of any kind to prove the supposed popularity of their own ideas. Conservatives, much as they would like, cannot produce their own successful pop culture, because conservatives actually have no ideas or tastes whatsoever. All they do is oppose anything that does not match their narrow, shallow, constipated worldview. They hate pop culture, actually, since they hate that anyone could enjoy pleasure in something they themselves did not order, as the essence of American conservatism is authoritarianism, nothing but and nothing else.

So all that makes this more than trivial – in the context, it’s cogent. There are two essential features that make Batman an interesting and out-of-the-ordinary comic book character, and fecund for artistic exploration; he is a man with no super-powers and, even though he is a vigilante, he does not kill. An enormous failure of Tim Burton’s conception is that he has Batman kill The Joker, and not only kill him but strafe him in the street from his plane. Klavan should be wetting his pants over that, because it places Batman in a military context, and conservatives worship Ares. The real Batman does not kill – although he won’t necessarily make an effort to save every villain’s life – and would gladly never appear in the night again if the state could take up it’s proper, effective role in protecting the law. He believes in civil society and has both a moral and a civic code. I think the appropriate philosophical viewpoint is that of virtue ethics – Batman may find what he is doing distasteful, and may have ambivalent views of his own actions, but he has an absolute need to not turn into what he is pursuing. He is maddened by The Joker but will not become his adversary in order to stop him. He seeks to preserve and build up the structures of civil society. In this way he is a Classic conservative, but that has nothing to do with Klavan and the man he worships, George W. Bush.

Bush is the figurehead – and just that, he’s far too shallow to have any ideas of his own – of an actually nihilistic viewpoint. American conservatives clearly only believe in power. Their claims to an ideology of morality and social responsibility, freedom and small government have been trampled by their lust for decadent, selfish pleasures, no accountability, authoritarianism and the development of government as a jobs program for their fellow travelers. They are base and puerile. And they love torture because it’s a pure exercise of their power and has no other purpose than to show who’s boss. It doesn’t fight terrorism – this administration is actually doing very little to fight terrorism, so there’s certainly no set of armored tights in Bush’s closet. Conservatives celebrate that Bush has no doubts about anything, while Batman is full of doubts. Conservatives think that they are made men by removing all legal limits on what the government can do, while Batman has his limits. It’s a measure of ignorance about the world and the strategic situation to think The Joker is bin-Laden. One thing bin-Laden is absolutely not is a nihilist, like it or not, he believes in things. He certainly doesn’t believe in chaos as anything other than a tactic, he seeks the restoration of a geo-political power. That may be crazy, but it’s not nihilistic. In contrast, who are the celebrators of pure force and destruction?

Still, Klavan does point out the self-enrapture that is his drug of choice, his belief that since he’s on the side of the might, he’s on the side of the right. There is a Bush figure in The Dark Knight, one who thinks he’s absolutely dedicated to right, has no self-doubts whatsoever and is completely assured he’s doing the right thing, even though all he’s doing is seeking vengeance and destroying everything in his path to achieve it, regardless of guilt or consequences. He abdicates all responsibility from decision making by having a crutch that makes choices for him. That’s Harvey Dent, of course, otherwise known as Two-Face. Batman always had the best villains.


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.