Reflections on The Dark Knight Rises

I thoroughly enjoyed The Dark Knight Rises for many reasons, not the least of which is Hans Zimmer’s ominous and expectant musical score.  Like the preceding entries of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, the film is rich with the timeless tensions we face both as individuals and as a society. And though some have denied it, it can be read as a social commentary relevant to the divisions that rend our world today. Here are some observations on my part.

Rebuking Revolution

One strand of Rises’ plot sees Gotham City, a self-contained symbol for society, undergo the trial of revolution. There is a scene clearly meant to evoke, in a twisted way, the storming of the Bastille at the onset of the French Revolution. We also witness the workings of a kangaroo court, another French legacy replicated by Marxists and other would-be world changers.

On facebook I’ve seen at least one anarchist express a sense of betrayal and disappointment with Christopher Nolan for what he saw as a manifestly reactionary tone. Yet, the varied dispositions of Gotham’s denizens, from apathetic to licentious, continually tease the viewer with the idea that Gotham might not be worth saving.  This tension, as with the previous films, is at the crux of the narrative itself. Rises certainly airs out the ugliness and excess of revolution, but it is not authoritarian agitprop.

The Thin Blue Line – Campus Observations

For any Hollywood production, it’s refreshing when the police are not the all-out bad guys.  Of course this makes for an awkward tension with cinema’s core consumer, the disaffected adolescent male. But just as Batman puts himself on the line to do what is necessary and right, so it is good that self-indulgent audiences get a dose of reality as to who and what holds civilization together.

One way I survive working on a liberal university campus is listening to podcasts. The other day I had to get new ear buds for my personal player, so I traversed the student union to reach the campus bookstore.  Signs every few feet admonished passersby to not block physical access to the unions’ various businesses.  Last winter, Occupy had done just this to force a closure of U.S. Bank’s campus branch.  Where services were once transacted, only a dim, empty room remained, pocked by outlets sprouting unused cables.  “Direct action” is good at tearing down, not building up.

The posted signs attest to our litigious society, where personal responsibility has been completely outsourced to superfluous fine print warnings. The larger civilizational failing is that the campus administration, out of fear of seeming heavy-handed, allowed a group of kids to shutter commerce and diminish the vitality of the campus.  And then there is the needless lawsuit that followed.

As if these signals of decline weren’t enough, the very headphones which I purchased were branded “Riot,” with a cartoon depicting dozens brawling in mayhem, not unlike the criminal vs. cop melee at the climax of Rises. Also included in the packaging were stickers and a spraypaint stencil with which to vandalize one’s environs and allay whatever sense of self-righteousness and alienation one’s music might produce.

Despite these dire signs, there is still hope.  On the same campus can be found a quiet, green spot where parents walk their small children.  Once, I spied a bicycle cop stopping by one mother and son.  The boy instinctively hid behind his mother’s skirt.  The policewoman produced a small candy for him, and some words were exchanged.  This kind of scene is the hallmark of civilization: parents passing healthy attitudes onto the next generation.  In case you missed it, cops are there to serve and protect us.

Who is the real hero?

As with the previous two films, Rises tracks two parallel crises: that of Bruce Wayne, and that of Gotham as a whole.  Bruce must confront his own doubts and limitations to prevail, but each of the city’s citizens must also.  At one point, when hope of outside deliverance appears lost, Jim Gordon proclaims the city must be saved from within.  Powerfully revealed in the course of the film is the idea that even small virtuous acts by ordinary citizens can have outsized consequences.  As dark, tortured, and brutal as the film is, the viewer cannot escape the boy scout ethic–a confident, selfless, and felt moral responsibility–at the drama’s core.

Much in this lavish, blockbuster epic points to the ineffable nature of morality, the “oughtness” we feel and the volitional nature of doing good.  Ultimately, nothing is determined but what we will.  It’s rare and good when we can get a hint of this in a summer action hit, as we did with The Avengers.  To be sure, we get this in spades in The Dark Knight Rises.

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The immorality of sit-ins, hunger strikes, and other protests

This latest comic is inspired by two anti-business movements in the Sacramento area.  In April, activists petitioned Sacramento’s city council to block a McDonald’s from opening in the midst of what some would term a “food desert.”  This followed on the heels of a January through March sit-in strike that successfully closed the U.C. Davis branch of U.S. Bank.  Both campaigns were driven by a misguided desire to narrow free market choices available to the community.

While these kinds of paternalistic projects are at odds with the values of free choice and personal responsibility, at least the anti-burger campaign was conducted within the limits of the local political process.  But the anti-bank sit-in demonstrates the widespread and reckless abandon with which too many progressive protesters pursue their cause today.

It’s common and commendable to ask if the ends justify the means.  The anti-U.S. Bank campaign is a clear case where neither the ends nor the means are justified.  In blocking physical access to the bank, members of Occupy UCD actively prevented customers and employees from engaging in mutually beneficial commercial transactions.  Such stunts that diminish the legitimate choices of others are a real threat to freedom.

The university administration, perhaps still reeling from November’s pepper-spray incident, was complicit in its failure to remove the blockaders.  Now, U.S Bank is suing the campus for breach of contract because its police did not effectively enforce an ordinance barring people from blocking public spaces.  On top of $2 million+ lost in future rent and revenue sharing, U.C. Davis stands to shed additional dollars fending off the suit.

By allowing those with gut-felt convictions to run roughshod over the rule of law, the administration betrayed the civil society it claims to honor and cherish.  In an even greater let down, Seattle Mayor Mike McGuinn allowed a large, organized, and anonymous mob of masked “black bloc” protesters to smash  numerous store front windows on May 1.  Among the infamous moments captured was the hypocritical smashing of a Niketown window by a Nike shoe wearer.

The solipsistic morality that drives most protest should give us all more pause than it does.  Besides actions that violate others’ rights of movement or property, there are protests of self-inflicted harm.  Consider the multiple self-immolations that ignited the Arab Spring last year.  Or, look at the not-so-fatal hunger strike.  This act of protest is way overrated.  It’s akin to terrorism in that the protester threatens violence if the target of coercion refuses to grant the demand.  The only difference is that the protester supplies his own body for the violence rather than that of a hapless victim.  Self-sacrifice is warranted for ends like saving children in a burning building, but harming oneself to coerce another is as immoral as harming others.

When protesters stop respecting the rights of others or even the value of their own bodies, civilization takes a step backward.  Rather than romanticize protest, which devolves to a gut appeal, our culture should uphold the truly constructive engagement that arises from our more measured, non-coercive political and economic processes.

Two revolutions

Cogit Duck #4

You may have learned that “The Protester” is TIME’s 2011 person of the year.  This pronouncement strengthens a strange notion stretching as far back as the Wisconsin state capitol protests of February.  Back then, sleeping bag-toting proto-Occupiers were the first Americans to insinuate a connection between themselves and Tahrir Square.  In so doing, they cast their own struggle in the light of the French  Revolution.  But why would they trade the glorious vestige of the American Revolution for the deeply troubled tradition of the French?

The twin revolts left such disparate legacies because of the drastically different situations of their respective peoples.  We learn from an invaluable resource that the colonial Americans, under decades of relaxed British rule, enjoyed unparalleled prosperity and privilege.  On average, they were several inches taller, better fed, and enjoyed greater freedoms than their British counterparts.  Their corner of the New World was unencumbered by the class distinctions that hung over Europe.  The missteps of Crown and Parliment that soured Americans against the empire were insignificant and brief in comparison to the privations the long-suffering French endured under the direct rule of an inept and illiberal monarch.

The ball of class struggle started to roll with the heads of the French aristocrats over two centuries ago, but a different force was unleashed just a few years earlier in America.  That revolution was deeply conservative in nature.  The French in their revolt sought something new, unprecedented, and decisive, but the American rebels wanted to preserve the prosperity and privilege they had already gained.

Since those heady days of the late eighteenth century, the French model has been a catalyst for the radicalization of desperate masses.  The American project may have been the first decolonization movement, but the class dynamics we see in Old World power struggles are alien and tangential to the American experience.  No mind-numbing mantras should ever convince us that downtown Portland, Davis, or Des Moines is anything akin to the dire streets of Cairo or Damascus.

Solidarity

Remember during the height of the Iraq War, when peace activists felt they had to defend their stance by saying, “Peace is Patriotic?”  Maybe our duck would slap this bumper sticker to his car: “Austerity is Solidarity.”

I am represented in my job by the Teamsters.  Our local is basically clerical workers, but we share representation with truck drivers.  I don’t know how much “solidarity” I can really have with them, except for that guy Omar who got blocked by Occupiers at the Port of Oakland in October.  Even stranger, United Auto Workers represents the campus grad students.  Why do such privileged people need union representation?  At least it gives them crucial, formative experiences in liberal activism.

The failed citizens

With the exploits of the pepper spray cop, UC Davis is now thrust into the media spotlight.  While everyone is angry at how the administration and its police have treated the students, no one seems to be angry at how society has failed to make them into decent citizens.

Their cause could be the most noble of causes, but the protest movement at Davis has paralleled and now in fact merged with the morally and effectually bankrupt Occupy movement.  The tents first popped up on the quad last Thursday night, and on Monday they re-emerged, scores of them.

Reporters have widely documented the headaches that come with these Occupy camps, namely sanitation, property crimes, and violence.  Recently, authorities were faced with removing 200 pounds of human waste from the Santa Cruz Occupy encampment, and other sites have spawned rats, hookworm, and scabies.  I recalled this today as I walked by a pair of port-a-potties on the edge of the UCD quad, supplied by Lord-knows-who.

I’ve also wondered, given the reported rapes at other Occupy sites, whether the campus Women’s center would ever break the sacred bond of “solidarity” to inveigh against the squatter village.  But with the pepper spray outrage so fresh, it seems to me the weight of visceral outrage is too strong a tailwind for such a reasonable course to prevail.

But more disturbing than the safety and health concerns is the occupiers’ inherent disregard for others’ property, time, and resources.  Whether they occupy the administration building, the library, or the grassy quad, they force the university to spend extra dollars paying employees to keep the lights on and otherwise look after them.  When law enforcement from adjacent jurisdictions are called in, taxpayers take an additional hit.  I wonder if the poli sci majors out there would ever suppose they are playing out the tragedy of the commons.  Everyone suffers when occupiers break the rules to abuse public spaces and public resources.  They preclude others from the use of those spaces, and at the end of it all, someone has to pick up the tab.

On top of this, protesters fail their fellow citizens with their decibels of anger.  Occupiers are well-known for saying they want to “start a dialog,” but its kind of hard to have a conversation with a human microphone.  Pithy mantras and signage abound, but the idea that a hopped up crowd is the best way to facilitate a substantive, calm, and rational discourse is a delusion.

Speaking of delusion, what good do protesters think they are doing by adopting socialist revolutionary modalities?  They hold “general assemblies” like they were on the ramparts of the Paris Commune or were maybe a more effective incarnation of the UN.  And this upcoming Monday will be a “general strike,” reminiscent again of the tools by which European citizens secure the economic mediocrity of their welfare states.  Amazingly, UCD occupiers even considered whether to “declare campus as an autonomous sanctuary space based on international historic model.”  I wonder how many students are aware of how all of twentieth century history testifies to the failure of this kind of business.

At last, its interesting to note how protesters and occupiers never admit to any wrongdoing.  While large crowds of people are generally prone to interlopers, chaos, and emotional firestorms, occupiers would have us believe they are always decent, always innocent, and always right.  Their public relations strain our credulity.

Hopefully the UC Davis campus will soon regain an administration and police force with some moral currency, so they can sweep away the encampment, this time cleanly and non-offensively.  That will surely save us from great troubles down the road.

Men of service shaping up

In case you haven’t been looking lately, our men in uniform have been shaping up.  No, I’m not talking about PX90 drills or rehearsing counterterrorism scenarios.  The martial professions that at their fashion zenith brought us the wonders of baldrics and dress blues have since democratized and reinvented themselves for the metro age.

The Wall Street Journal has spotlighted a purported eyebrow “scuplting” craze peeling through the ranks of America’s fighters in Afghanistan.

Pfc Guillemette

Pfc Guillemette. Courtesy The Wall Street Journal

Meanwhile, one plainclothes detective of NYPD’s thin blue line has traded down to a thin blue tie, earning delectable internet glory as the “hipster cop.”

Detective Rick Lee, NYPD

Detective Rick Lee. Courtesy Associated Press.

Without a doubt, these men of our uniformed services are serving us honorably, protecting us from mad mullahs and disgruntled hippies.  Now, they may be just a little more fashionable than the rest of us.

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