The philosophy behind the legend of Batman

Summary: Like all myths, the Batman saga about the dystopia of Gotham City has a philosophy. Of course, it’s quite dark. The popularity of these stories proves that they’re a dark mirror showing that we sense the decay of our society as it drifts away from its roots. Here we turn for analysis of these things to the late Allan Bloom.  This post was revised in June 2015.

Batman logo

Contents

  1. A new era of chaos.
  2. The Joker, the ambassador of Chaos.
  3. Bruce Wayne decides to be Batman.
  4. What is Bruce Wayne fighting for?
  5. For More Information.

(1)  A new era of chaos

We live in a time when the forces of chaos again threaten to break loose.  Madmen like those of the past — Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot — again gain control of nations and kill in pursuit of irrational ends. Violence breaks out in the name of the Hindu and Muslim gods.  Our once poor but culturally rich inner cities — such as New York and New Orleans — have rotted into ghettos, almost ungoverned zones with cultures alien to the rest of America.

Under stress people turn to fantasy not just for encouragement but also to help process these trends. Most such stories tell of transcendental saviors (an alien Jesus) and regular people given magic powers to right wrong. The Batman saga is different. Bruce Wayne has everything — intelligence, looks, wealth — but gives up a life of ease, instead honing his physical and mental skills in order to personally — and painfully — wage war on the forces of disorder that have engulfed his city.

Why does this story have such appeal during the past 70 years both to adults and children?  I believe it evokes our fears about the weak foundations of our society, as it totters against threats both foreign and domestic. Allan Bloom helps us to better understand this in his Closing of the American Mind, as shown in these excerpts — which have been paraphrased and re-combined.

(2)  From where comes the Joker, an ambassador of Chaos?

Rousseau and Nietzsche destroyed the intellectual basis of the Enlightenment, and the West’s self-confidence in itself.  Replacing that in the minds of the intelligentsia is contempt for the bourgeoisie — that is, the self-satisfied, morally blind, materialist middle class — and beneath that fears that our values (their Christian roots discredited) have no foundation. It leaves few grounds for hope.

So a darkness on top of a void is the condition of life, no longer illuminated by rational analysis.  The rise of the bourgeoisie results in a spiritual entropy or an evaporation of the soul, which weakens us in face of the unlimited choices made possible by the death of God in our souls — and the disappearance of His rules.

The Joker

That is the basis of Max Weber‘s science, which was at best a doubtful dare against the chaos of things, with values certainly beyond its limits. That is what the precarious, not to say imaginary, distinction between facts and values means.  Reason in politics leads to the inhumanity of bureaucracy.  Weber found it impossible to prefer rational politics to the politics of irrational commitment; he believed that reason and science themselves were value commitments like any other, incapable of asserting their own goodness.

He believed that politics required a dangerous and inherently uncontrollable semi-religious value positing, and Weber was witnessing a struggle for possession of man and society, the results of which were unpredictable. Everything is up in the air, and we have no theodicy to sustain us. Weber, along with many others in Germany under Nietzsche’s influence, saw that his insights threatened all that we care for, and we lacked the intellectual and moral resources to govern the outcome.

We require values, which in turn require a creativity that is drying up and in any event has no cosmic support.  Scientific analysis reveals reason to be powerless, and dissolves the protective horizon within which men can value.

This astonishing Americanization of the German pathos can be seen in the smiling face of Louis Armstong as he belts out the words of his great hit “Mack the Knife”, a translation of the “Mackie Messer” from The Threepenny Opera, a monument of Wiemer Republic culture. Less known is its origin in an aphorism in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra entitled “On the Pale Criminal”, which tells of story of an insane murderer, eerily resembling Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, who does not know, cannot know, that he committed murder out of a motive as legitimate as any other: he lusted after “the joy of the knife.”

Our stars are singing a song they do not understand, bringing America into a world where anything is possible for people who sing about the joy of the knife in cabarets.

Batsignal over Gotham

(3)   What is the significance to us of Bruce Wayne’s decision to become Batman?

Since values are not rational and not grounded in our natures, they must be imposed.  They must defeat opposing values.  Rational persuasion cannot make them believed, so struggle is necessary.  Producing values and believing in them are acts of the will.  Lack of will, not lack of understanding, becomes the crucial defect.

Commitment becomes the moral virtue because it proves the seriousness of the agent.  Commitment becomes the equivalent of faith when God has been supplanted by self-provided values.

Nietzsche was a cultural relativist, but he saw what that means — war, great cruelty not great compassion.  War is the fundamental phenomenon. Peace can sometimes produced by force, but always precariously.  Cultures war with one another.  They must do so because values can only be asserted or posited by overcoming others, not by reasoning with them.

Cultures have different perceptions, which determine the nature of the world for peoples.  Cultures cannot come to terms with each other because there is no communication about the highest things.  Communication is the substitute for understanding when there is no common world men share.

Seeing a world in terms of cultures means wars against chaos and a war against other cultures.  To live, to have any inner substance, a man must have values, must be committed or engaged.  Therefore a cultural relativist must care for culture more than truth, and fight for culture while knowing it is not true.

———————- End paraphrases from Closing of the American Mind———————-

World Order under attack

(4)  What is Bruce Wayne fighting for?

Each reader gives his own answers to such questions.  I believe Wayne does not fight for any higher values, or any abstractions.  He fights to buy time for the people of Gotham to reorganize, and then reclaim their city from the forces of chaos.

We live in a time when the police spend a disproportionate fraction of their time writing tickets for traffic violations and arresting people for minor drug use (and children for running lemonade stands). Our elites devote themselves to conspicuous spending and collecting art. Our government devotes itself to gathering power over all things great and small, foreign and domestic. Disillusionment (literally) is a logical reaction.

The story of a man voluntarily devoting his life to healing our broken society — even by the most arduous and dangerous public service — has great appeal. It’s consistent with the admiration of Americans for the US military, despite their many failings the most trusted of our institutions.

Unfortunately, as Bloom explains, our problems have deep conceptual roots not fixable by heroic acts. We see this when we look behind the black hat – white hat comic book myths of the Batman story. Gotham City appears as one future for the post-modern America we are building, a rich high-tech society that has lost much of its social cohesion because it abandoned its roots in Western philosophy. All that remains are greed and power. The rich read Ayn Rand and feel superior, while inequality reaches Latin American levels that destroy the government’s legitimacy — so that crime skyrockets. The shrinking middle class suffers impotently between the upper- and under-classes.

This is a compelling analysis of our problems. Our heroes provide entertaining stories but point to a dead-end road for America (more about this in the posts listed below). To successfully go forward we must find a foundation for our values (since recovering the religious basis seems unlikely). Perhaps we should look to priests and philosophers for leaders, or even heroes

(5)  For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about Art, Myth and Literature, about heroes, and especially these about our heroes…

  1. The problem with America lies in our choice of heroes,
  2. Our choice of heroes reveals much about America,
  3. Are our film heroes leading us to the future, or signaling despair?
  4. Why don’t our dreams of a better world inspire us to act?
  5. Captain America: the Winter Soldier – high-quality indoctrination for sheep.

 

 

30 thoughts on “The philosophy behind the legend of Batman

  1. “While most comic books tell traditional stories of transcendental saviors and folks given magic powers, the Batman saga is different.”

    If we don’t count the Green Arrow – who is an intentional rip-off of Batman – I agree with you here. I give an honorable mention to Captain America – but since he was administered drugs by the United States government to bulk himself up he really doesn’t count either. If sports figures are disqualified for drug use comic book heroes should be also.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Legends and religious often appear in many variants at the same time, until one mixes the various factors correctly and achieves widespread success. Americans may be the monopolist of modern myths, as the Arab peoples are of revealed religions. From TE Lawrence’s “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”:

    “They invented no systems of philosophy, no complex mythologies. … Their largest manufacture was of creeds: almost they were monopolists of revealed religions. … These (Islam, Christianity, Judaism) were Semitic successes. Their failures they kept to themselves. The fringes of their deserts were strewn with broken faiths. It was significant that this wrack of fallen religions lay about the meeting of the desert and the sown.”

  2. A new Religion :

    ” War is our new psychotropic. War precludes our doubts. War preserves our right to pursue overabundance. War closes the circle. It creates anxiety ; it cures anxiety. It defines our alienation ; it resolves our alienation. It measures, then levels, the imbalance between us and our enemies. War preserves our way of life.”
    : Joseph Hart, source unknown, apocryphal

    Perhaps this explains the psyche of Bruce Wayne vs. the forces of chaos afflicting Gotham City.

  3. The other interesting thing is the nexus with Superman. Kal-El’s the perfect human, honourble, decent, kind, brave, with the irony that he is not actually human. The very best man that we all (claim) to aspire to … is an alien. The ‘light’ and the ‘dark’. Batman, is the ‘dark’, obsessive, nurotic, driven by forces even he barely understands.

    The other dimension to Batman is the subversiveness. In a Gotham world where all the authorities and the elite are corrupt or, at the very least uncaring, he is the champion that carries the fight directly to them (brought out superbly by the “The Dark Night Returns” and the “1st year” series) against authority and the ‘powers that be’.

    All in all a wonderfull complex character and a metaphor for current times? We all know the ‘light’ will, in the end, follow orders and not rock the boat, but the dark night …. he’ll sink it and laugh as he does it (“…..that scary laugh of your’s Bruce”, “… of course we are criminals Clark”).

  4. It is not the reasonable, but the atheists, that are incapable of asserting their own goodness.

    Instead, they assume it — “the Truth is Good” — the same assumption all religions have, even more basic then their second assumption: that this religion is true.

    Meaning and values come from choosing to be good, rather than choosing to be evil.

    Among the politically correct, as well as most of its foes, it certainly seems that commitment is the substitute for faith — altho many of the foes of PC are religious and are fighting for their faith, against (nearly-?) Godless PC materialism and relativism.

    There is only Good if there is God, otherwise good is merely a matter of opinion, which degenerates into a matter of power, and, thus, will.

  5. “We require values, which in turn require a peculiar human creativity that is drying up and in any event has no cosmic support”

    “Cultures fight wars with one another. They must do so because values can only be asserted or posited by overcoming others, not by reasoning with them.”

    Nietzsche is a dangerous place to look for inspiration. Everyone knows the influence of his ideas on Hitler. Like those of Ortega y Gasset, his criticisms of bourgeois culture and morality are charming and irresistable, but that does not mean the alternatives he poses are appropriate for today.

    Cultures don’t fight wars; economies and nation states (representing resource areas and populations) do. National leaders may rationalize their wars in the names of religion or form of government, but these are not the reasons they go to war.

    The founders were right to keep church and state separate, the former purely a matter of private taste.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: (1) Neitzsche, I believe, saw himself to a large extent as a reporter of existing trends and forecasting where they would lead. As such, I doubt that much can be attributed to his influence. In any case, his influence was almost totally through those — like Freud, Weber, and Heidegger — who popularized his work. Nietzsche and Weber would, I suspect, consider Hitler a natural outgrowth of the death of god in our hearts. Once the boundaries of god-given laws disappear, many things become possible. In the Magic School Bus we see the childish, America version of this: “Get messy, take chances, make mistakes.” Hitler shows us that a world without boundaries has some less fun possibilities.

    (2) “Cultures don’t fight wars; economies and nation states do.” This seems a bit of a mono-chromatic view of life. Cultures and economies are only abstractions, which we use to better understand how people behave. History shows that people do fight as “cultures” (or, to express it differently, for “cultural” reasons) — as well as for economic motives (resources, lebensraum). To say otherwise is to adopt a simplistic single-factor view of life — sort of a Marxist economics is all factor. That is of course an appealing view to many westerners, for whom money is everything — the only thing that “counts.”

  6. “He fights to buy time for the people of Gotham to reclaim their city and themselves against the forces of chaos.”

    Kind of like the surge buying time for Baghdad. Only after we leave, the whole thing collapses again. It seems like Batman/Bruce Wayne is in a situation similar to our experiences in Viet Nam, Afghanistan and Iraq. He can continue fighting to maintain a stalemate. Or he can quit fighting and lose. But he can never win.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: This misses the point. He is just buying time for us to win. If we do not, then that is not his fault — rather his faith in us was undeserved. The scene in the movie about the two detonators directly addresses this, as the the theme about giving the people of Gotham hope.

  7. But, there is the inevitable counteraction. Pure Darwinianism. The perfect crime fighter eliminates the ‘normal’ criminals. A new breed evolves. Bit like diseases or … 4GW.

    But going back to Batman, the contradiction is also interesting. As billionair Brucer Wayne, he can actually do far more good (as measured in the greatest good for the maximum people) then as Batman. Even in Gotham the number of people (say) starving to death or dying from easily treatable diseases vastly outways the numbers dying through criminal violence. So there is another fable in the complex story about the power of violence as an agent of ‘good’ vs (say) the affects of (again say) free health clinics..
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    Fabius Maximus replies: That is a very American view: money is the primary factor. In the comics and movies Bruce Wayne is a major donor to charity, as his father was before him. It is just not enough to push back the darkness. Sometimes more is required than cash.

  8. “Sometimes more is required than cash.”

    Yes, indeed. It is a far stretch to imagine Michael Bloomberg or Donald Trump putting on a Batsuit and swinging from Manhattan skyscrapers every night.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Perhaps we should lower our expectations and hope for Batgirl. Or Powergirl.

  9. “We live in a time when the forces of chaos again threaten to break loose. Madmen like Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot gain control of nations and kill millions in pursuit of irrational ends. More recently, smaller scale violence breaks out in the name of the Hindu and Muslim gods”

    I suspect you are joking here — this is pretty much the same as Bush’s view — America the virtuous bulwark of democracy surrounded by evil-doers and madmen. Meanwhile, global opinion polls call America the most dangerous nation, and Bush the most dangerous leader.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: The Batman stories describe the state of America, fighting against the choas resulting from the loss of fixed values following the collapse of enlightenment thinking before philosphical insights in the past 200 years. The foundations of our civilization, of everything we hold dear, has turned to vapor — our of which come monsters. Gangs that kill innocents for initiation rites. National leaders that kill millions for no real reason. We drug our children to zombies for our convenience. It has become a very strange world.

  10. I saw a link to a review that considers the political message of the new Batman movie in the context of the Bush administration and 9/11.

    I don’t see a similar link on this page. Original link is from John Robb’s GG.

    http://citystates.typepad.com/ius/
    http://citystates.typepad.com/ius/2008/07/batman-and-amer.html
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    Fabius Maximus replies: As I stated in the previous review, comics are myths that each of us interprets in their own way. IMO (to which I attribute no special or universal validity) the political interpretation is trivial and uninteresting. My party good, the other party bad. Applause.

  11. “we should lower our expectations and hope”

    That is what most superheroes and their publishers should do. With the exceptions of a relatively few titles – the Batman titles being among those exceptions – superhero comic books are trending downward in sales and very well may be on their way to becoming a cultural phnomenon of the past. It is interesting that Batman is one of the handful of exceptions to that trend.
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    Perhaps because they are no longer written for their natural market of children. In my opinion, they are largely written for adults — mostly by bitter disillusioned leftists projecting a bitter disillusioned view of America. Not much a market there. Hence why formerly thriving firms like Marvel have gone bankrupt. These legends were saved by Hollywood studios who stripped away the rot and returned them back to their natural state, bringing commercial success as both cartoons and movies.

  12. I’m guilty of over-posting, but this is a statement that should be challenged:

    “Fabius Maximus: The Batman stories describe the state of America, fighting against the choas resulting from the loss of fixed values following the collapse of enlightenment thinking before philosphical insights in the past 200 years. The foundations of our civilization, of everything we hold dear, has turned to vapor — our of which come monsters. . .”

    1) the “fixed values” I take it were those of the Christian church, and the era that ended sometime between 1400 and 1700. The Enlightenment is conventionally what brought that era to an end. The enlightenment was a two-pronged attack — on the logical and philosophical errors of religious thinking, and the conservative social order it supported. The social critique led on to political theories of liberty,equality and democratic government, and these, in practice, are what Nietzsche and others (Ruskin, Cardinal Newman, Matthew Arnold, among English writers) found wanting. But the negative critique, of religious thought, has never been challenged, so to call that thinking and those values something “we hold dear” is the same as asking us to return to a simpler level of awareness and shed our in-bred (and God-given) rational capacities.

    2) Although democracy has had a rough career, and exists more in theory than practice, there is no doubt that the living standards of millions of people have improved under it. As a history professor onced chided me in my early naive radical days, a lot more children play and listen to Mozart now than a hundred years ago.

    3) Consumers did not dream up cell-phones and video games in order to waste their time and escape the responsibilities of citizenship. Manufacturers dreamt those up, along with SUVs, snow mobiles, HDTV, 24-hour news, and face lifts. The demon that plagues our century is not loss of religious belief, but an untrammeled economic system that sanctions profit above every other value.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: (1) No, I was discussing the Enlightenment’s values — not those of a long-ago dead Christian culture. Also, the Enlightenment did not so much as change Christianity’s values as find a new basis for them as “natural rights.” The Enlightnement’s foundation for these values was vaporized by Rousseau, than later Nietzsche. What remains as their basis, other than we like them? When challenged by others, what can we say other than “well, we like them”?

    (2) You are justifying “democracy” by its material benefits. (a) That’s a weak association. Capitalism seems to work quite well without democracy, both in european history and now Asia.

    (b) Generalizing your arguement from democracy to Enlightenment values & civilization, which has done so much its people. So the Romans might have explained to the barbarian invaders. They neither understood nor cared, and destroyed Roman civilization.

    (3) Money, money, money. Seeing that as everything gives a monochromatic view of life, very bourgeois. Rousseau said that are other dimensions to life, other motivations. Perhaps you should go to Afghanistan or Somalia and chat with some women about “untrammeled economic systems” as the major demon that plagues our century.

  13. “They neither understood nor cared, and destroyed Roman civilization.”

    Not really. At least not in the case of Spain. When the Arabs invaded Spain in 711 the people who lived there called themselves Romans, not Spaniards. And they called the language they spoke Latin, not Spanish (modern linguists call the language they spoke Spanish, but the people who actually spoke it called it Latin). Roman cultural identity did not end immediately upon the political collapse of the western empire in 476, but continued long afterward.

    As for the destruction of Roman classical civilization, the Romans did that to themselves by the adoption of Christianity as the state religion, long before the extinction of the western empire. When the German tribes moved into the empire in large numbers in the 400s, they were intruding upon Christian civilization, not classical Roman civilation. Classical Roman civilization had already been destroyed, by the Romans themselves.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I think this is too subtle. We are talking about the end of a civilization, not a comp lit program. The barbarians burned the libraries, destroyed the aquaducts and irragation systems, poked holes the in roofs to let out the smoke from their campfires. Commerce almost totally disappeared for centuries. The population crashed in both numbers and its standard of living.

  14. “The barbarians burned the libraries, destroyed the aquaducts and irragation systems, poked holes the in roofs to let out the smoke from their campfires.”

    True. But the main culprits were still not the barbarians, but the Romans themselves. The barbarians did not create the basis of the situation. The barbarians merely took advantage of opportunities created by the Romans through their short-sightedness, placing today above tomorrow by foolish squandering of resources for short-term goals and instant gratification. A lesson for us today, if we will heed it. But we probably will not.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I agree, but this is not relevant to my original point about the futility of reasoning with barbarian invaders.

  15. But in the end they’re are still great stories. Miller turned the comic world upside down with his “Dark Night Returns”. There maybe is an infinite number of interpretations, but they are still rattling good stories.

    In real life? I’d much rather see Powergirl flying overhead ;)

  16. This is definately a discussion for a small group of weirdos in a good pub with a lot of Guinness … anyone interested in joining me at my local (ok the plane flight to Oz is a sod). Stuff solving the problems of the World… we need more discussions about Batman as well as covering Powergirl’s … assets. {Hey even news/current affairs/etc junkies, like just about everyone here, need some time off to cover the important things}.

  17. “but the atheists, that are incapable of asserting their own goodness.”

    “There is only Good if there is God, otherwise good is merely a matter of opinion, which degenerates into a matter of power, and, thus, will.”

    Rubbish. I repeat rubbish.

    There is a “little thing” called ETHICS. Which, basically is a logical, step by step building of the rules of our society and how we should live our lives and relate to each other, from some simple basic principles of frankly sheer self interest.

    For example: it is incredibly simple to work out from a basic self interested point of view: “I don’t want want to die from violence” to “no death penalty”. I leave it as an exercise to the readers to work out the logical steps (hint 3 steps max, though you can do it in less).

    All the, now dying of course, ideas of freedom, the relation between the State and an individual Person. War. Health .. the list goes on. All the good things. Comes from logical, yes aethiest, structures. There is no freedom under a “god” belief.

    Let me remind you of the remarkable founding of the US Constitution .. where no “god” exists or is allowed to exist under the law as it pertains to the Govt. Personal beliefs are a right, another benefit from the ‘aethiests’. Under religious rule, there is only one belief allowed .. theirs.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: This is obvious truth, until the devastating rebuttal by Rousseau — and the coup de gras by Nietzsche.

    This fine ethical system relies on a simplification of the human soul. “Ancient statesman spoke of morals and virtue; our only of commerce and money” (Rousseau, more or less, quoted from memory).

    Allan Bloom in “The Closing of the American Mind”” “If one sees only self-protection and personal gain as men’s motives, then it is easy to explain them. One simply abstracts from what is really there. After a while one notices nothing other than the postulated motives. To the extent that men begin to believe in the thoery, they no longer believe that there are other motives in themselves.”

    The basis for the Enlightenment was confidence in truths — a naive belief in what we now consider values. It was a political experiment, constructing poltiical machinery whose existance we have forgotten — let alone how to run it. We just assume its existance and operation.

    This is clearly seen in the comments on this site about immigration. Assimilation is just assumed, where as before it was a policy. We assume the end but no longer wish to make the necessary means.

  18. To OldSkeptic : ’tis true. I’m so sick of my associates proselytisin’ ’bout any particular faith. For ’em only THEIR OWN POINT OF VIEW is the ONLY VALID one. I wouldn’t bloody want to reside in any theological state…then again, place where I’m stayin’ seems near fanaticist as well.

  19. One aspect of the Batman stories is clearly seen in the comments on this site about the powerlessness of each of us, each American citizen. We look to Batman as a model, the super-empowered individual, for the example of a powerful agent.

    This is an alien conception to the American founders, in my opinion. It comes, perhaps, from a childishly romantic version of the American West — the lone hero, the super-scientist, the entrepreneur.

    In the real world change comes from collective action, from the community working together. This was the model for the Founders, which echos down through our history.

    In bad times there were also extra-legal community actions, in the long (and checkered) tradition of American vigilantism. Most notable were the widespread “penny auctions” of farmers’ land and equipment at which his neighbors forcibly prevented competing bids. See this description, along with its famous photo. Strong communities find their own ways to cope.

  20. “Consumers did not dream up cell-phones and video games in order to waste their time and escape the responsibilities of citizenship. Manufacturers dreamt those up, along with SUVs…”

    Actually, videogames were invented by oscilloscope techs who played a primitive version of Pong. They were neither sheeple nor greedy suits — they were producers and consumers, aka “prosumers.”

    “Let me remind you of the remarkable founding of the US Constitution .. where no “god” exists or is allowed to exist under the law as it pertains to the Govt.”

    I think you’re re-imagining the Founders of America to suit your own preferences.
    The following link analyzes the absence of the word “God” in the text of the Constitution. You are free to agree, disagree, etc.

    http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1298911/posts

  21. Update: excellent analysis of “The Dark Knight”, and its larger meaning.

    The Dark Knight“, James Bowman, 15 August 2008 — Excerpt:

    “Any time the movies try to represent evil, it must be as a grotesque caricature, deliberately exaggerated in order to make what would otherwise be something scary into something funny. Or something both scary and funny. In other words, evil has become post-modernized.

    “… Today’s evil icon is not Norman Bates but Hannibal Lecter: the psycho who is not a psycho for any reason, except for the reason that he just loves being a psycho. As a result, evil becomes a sort of fashion statement. It doesn’t really count as evil if there is a motive or an explanation for it. It must be evil for evil’s sake. There is no better example of this than the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight, currently setting box office records, partly because — I believe — of just this transformation of human evil into something glamorous, something with the power to seduce even the best of us.

    “… He {Joker} is described in the movie as one of those who “just want to watch the world burn.” Are there such men? Conceivably. But history affords no example of them, outside of comic books and the movies, attaining the sort of power it would take actually to burn the world, or even any very significant part of it. Reality seems to provide a natural check upon such people in the form of a shortage of those who both (a) share their psychosis and (b) are willing to play the part of humble assistant — rather than starring as the evil genius themselves — in accomplishing their purposes. This problem for the would-be evil geniuses — a reassurance to the rest of us — is what creates the distinctive unreality of Mr Nolan’s movie.

    “… But I think that the movie pays a terrible price for its exploitation of comic book conventions in order to give itself this peculiar, unworldly appearance. For when the movie attempts to turn serious and make the transition from fantasy-land back to reality in order to proclaim a moral, I find it impossible to take it seriously. Of course it doesn’t help that the moral is such a feeble and familiar one — in fact, a comic-book moral to go along with the rest of the comic-book trappings — namely, yet another iteration of that favorite Hollywood trope about how the hero and the villain are really just two sides of the same coin.

    “Only the fact that intelligent people still, unaccountably in my view, regard this as a profundity can account for either the critical reception or the box office success of the movie. Those wishing to read more about my critique of this notion as a moral or political judgment are welcome to consult my review of David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence

    “I have heard the convergence of Batman and the Joker compared to that between John Wayne and Lee Marvin in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. But Ford was telling us that people want to believe heroism grows out of reason and law and civilization but that it really doesn’t. Instead, it is a throwback to the most primitive honor cultures before there were any law or civilization, which are things that cannot be contracted for. The Dark Knight tells us the opposite: that both heroism and villainy grow out of reason and law and civilization and that, therefore, these things are mere shams and subterfuges masking a Hobbesian reality devoid even of honor, in which man is a wolf to man and there is nothing to believe in but the individual Nietzschean will, either to good or evil. It’s the sort of thing that you have to be an emotional adolescent, steeped in his own anti-social fantasies, in order to believe.”

  22. Re comment 13 and its reply, Marvel started to do poorly when a group of artists decided that they wanted creators rights to characters and formed Image in the early 90s. This caused a huge shift in the pie graph of industry comics sales (source: Wizard magazine). Then Image, Marvel and DC, but especially Image, began creating cover “enhancements” (gimmicks) and charging more for them, also creating multiple cover variants to the same comic issue, helping to cause a glut in the speculative comics as collectibles market – prior to this a kid (as I was at the time) could sometimes make a profitable investment on a comic. Not to mention some of the bad to the point of comical (…) stories and art of some of the Image comics like “Shadowhawk” (featuring a vigilante who broke criminals backs crippling them instead of killing them – the ethics of this being the central theme of the story, also Shadowhawk was notoriously guilty of the cover enhancements) and “Youngblood” and its spin-offs – in Spidey’s words, “Sheesh.”

    I lost interest in comics for a while after this and it wasn’t until I discovered Grant Morrison’s “The Invisibles” that I regained interest in comics as art and entertainment. Only very loosely a superhero comic, part of it’s brilliance was in reconfiguring the usual duality of order=good and chaos=bad while at the same time showing how they were reciprocals, two sides of the same coin, a theme also explored at length in Batman (Batman/Joker; Two-face). Apropos of the issue of values, one of “The Invisibles”, Edith, on her death bed, says something to the effect of ‘I’ve been thinking a long time and what I’ve come to is this: amidst all the passion plays, it’s just good ordinary kindness that stands out in the end.’ The author of the comic has “counter cultural leanings” according to wikipedia and is amongst the best selling and renowned comic writers of our times. So I don’t think that the falling sales in the superhero comics (Grant Morrison currently writes Batman, I think, and wrote the splendid “Allstar Superman”) can be attributed to “bitter disillusioned leftists”.

    Particularly if we include Alan Moore and Warren Ellis, two other preeminent comics writers of our times. What is perhaps more salient is that none of them are Americans. I highly recommend Ellis’ “Transmetropolitan,” featuring the very sympathetic Spider Jerusalem, “outlaw journalist,” devotee of “The Truth no matter what,” and bitter enemy to the presidents The Beast and The Smiler to anyone who hasn’t read it.

    Comics such as “The Invisibles” and “Transmetropolitan” demonstrate that comics do not have a “natural market of children,” they can be as poignant as the other branches of art – or as awful.
    And superheroes are like the gods of our culture, as made explicit by Jack Kirby’s “The New Gods” and Grant Morrison’s autobiography “Supergods.”

  23. Predictably, this post about a comic book character (like an earlier post of yours about the Star Trek TV series) generated a deluge of comments. Perhaps if you tried a post about baby food or My Little Pony you’d get even more pageviews and comments. Meanwhile, the infantilization of the American people reveals itself ever more clearly.
    Bloom’s neoconservative values betray themselves when he asserts that morality requires a belief in god. The evidence on this is incontrovertible: religious belief is strongly associated with higher out-of-wedlock teen births, higher porn consumption, high rates of sexually transmitted diseases, more wife-beating, and higher murder and assault rates.

    “Murder rates are actually lower in more secular nations and higher in more religious nations where belief in God is widespread. (..) And within America, the states with the highest murder rates tend to be the highly religious, such as Louisiana and Alabama, but the states with the lowest murder rates tend to be the among the least religious in the country, such as Vermont and Oregon.”

    Source: “Atheism, Secularity, and Well-Being: How the Findings of Social Science Counter Negative Stereotypes and Assumptions,” Phil Zuckerman, Sociology Compass, March 2009.
    See also “Are There Religious Variations in Domestic Violence?” Ellison, C. G., Bartkowski, J. P and Anderson K., Journal of Family Issues, January 1999 vol. 20 no. 1 87-113, which shows that “men who hold much more conservative theological views than their partners are especially likely to perpetrate domestic violence.”
    Likewise, a 1999 Barna study found that aetheists have lower divorce rates that highly religious couples, and a 2002 study found that “teens who make religion-inspired “virginity pledges” are not only just as likely as their non-pledging peers to engage in premarital sex, but more likely to engage in unprotected sex.” See “Religiousness and sexual responsibility in adolescent girls,”
    Lisa Miller & Merav Gur, Adolescent Health, November 2002, Volume 31, Issue 5, Pages 401–406.
    Moreover the doom-and-gloom neocon fairy tale Bloom tells about a civilization that’s collapsing into uncontrolled violence and anarchy because of the decay of religious values, fundamentally contradicts the observed facts. The reality of America since the 1990s is that violence of kinds has plummeted. Gun violence is way down (even though gun ownership is way up!), rapes are way down, murders are way down, assaults are way down. This despite a sharp spike in respondents to a survey of religious affiliation who say “none of the above” (essentially, more and more people are opting out of religion entirely).
    Stripped of its fancy language, Bloom’s book boils down to the canard “atheists are crazed serial killing rapists.” The evidence shows that the opposite is the case. The more religion, the greater the violence in the community. We see this worldwide, with fanatically religious regions like the middle east turning into grotesque Grand Guignols of violence, while irreligious societies like Sweden have been closing their prisons because they have so little crime in their societies.
    As with all myths, the Batman mythos proves misleading. Great entertainment, but it tells us little about our society, and certainly nothing about we should organize our nation. Although the Batman and the Green Lantern comics in particular certainly do suggest a psychological basis for America’s lunatic foreign policy.

    1. Thomas,

      “Predictably, this post about a comic book character (like an earlier post of yours about the Star Trek TV series) generated a deluge of comments. ”

      My son says that I should do only the pop culture posts, and skip the serious stuff. Especially the posts about how to reform America, a tiresome subject (as the page views show).

      Politics should be written about only in cartoonish terms of good guys and bad guys. They are quite similar, so they can be reused with only a few changes.

      And more pictures of pretty girls.

  24. Batman’s Great-Grandfather Founded Skull and Bones to save us! From BATMAN S01E33 “Fine Finny Fiends” (1966)

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