I continue my CCLaP essay series “On Being Human”, this week exploring the dark world of Warhammer 40K and the Space Marines.
Yep, that about sums it up.
Reflections: Double standards, anyone? Let’s break it down with some bullet points.
- Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden: When our Objectivist Heroes cheat on their spouses, it is a guilt-free, life-affirming act of awesomeness.
- James Taggart and Lillian Rearden: When looters commit adultery against their respective spouses, it is a hideous act of obscene nihilism.
- Hank Rearden: Threatening to beat down his wife, Lillian Rearden, like a hoodlum for insulting the moral character of his mistress, Dagny Taggart, is not only justified, but morally correct within the Objectivist philosophy.
- James Taggart: Actually smacking his wife Cherryl in the face is a horrible, horrible thing that drives Cherryl to suicide.
- Looters stuck in a tunnel: Asphyxiated due to the inadequacies of their relativist nihilist egalitarian philosophies. The novel tacitly approves of their deaths when one examines the hateful terms given to the men, women, and children in the train stuck in the Winston Tunnel. Because they espoused the wrong philosophies, they deserved to die.
- Cherryl committing suicide: Because Cherryl had the innate yearnings to be like Dagny and achieve the status of an Objectivist Hero, her death was tragic and horrible.
It becomes apparent that the act itself is not what counts, but the intention. Could this be extrapolated to political assassination? According to Objectivism, murder is bad for all sorts of reasons. But … but, if the target was a vocal opponent of a dishwater weak health care reform bill that allegedly takes away their economic freedom, then would a political assassination be justified? The fact that Ayn Rand praised murderers, sociopaths, and the genocide against the Native Americans does not help those who seek to distance themselves from the latest acts of political violence.
Here is a passage from Rand’s journals gushing over murderer William Edward Hickman:
[Hickman] is born with a wonderful, free, light consciousness — [resulting from] the absolute lack of social instinct or herd feeling. He does not understand, because he has no organ for understanding, the necessity, meaning, or importance of other people … Other people do not exist for him and he does not understand why they should.
It does seem strange, in light of recent events, that the same group that supports Rand’s deregulatory dogmas is the same group of people that claim to be Christians. Again, does this sound familiar? The political violence, the murderous rhetoric, the conservative religiosity. Add beards and add jumbo jets aimed for major New York City landmarks. Am I making too broad an inference or is this simply a case of pointing out that the Objectivist Emperor does indeed have no clothes?
Update #1: The Arizona assassin’s favorite books included those of Ayn Rand. Now before you get on your “hip hop music causes violence” high horse, let’s make one thing clear: Banning books / music / video games, etc. because of an alleged link between their content and real violence will do nothing. I take the opposite approach. I would encourage everyone to read Ayn Rand, especially to understand how Objectivism cultivates a sociopathic mindset. (Generalizations are a bad thing … usually … most of the time. I’m not implying all Objectivists are cold-blooded snipers … in the same way Objectivists don’t generalize that those for moderate health care reform are dedicated Communist cadres.)
A happy Cinco de Mayo from Coffee is for Closers.
Here is the trailer for Machete, starring Danny Trejo, Michelle Rodriguez, Jessica Alba, Steven Seagal, Lindsay Lohan, and Robert DeNiro. With the passage of SB1070, the United States once has again to deal with Arizona acting all uppity. Machete plays like a cinematic version of Public Enemy’s “By the Time I Get to Arizona.” The inspiration for the Public Enemy song was Arizona’s non-recognition of the Martin Luther King, Jr. federal holiday.
Machete is that pure amalgamation of pop culture and politics we love so dearly here. Since this blog is an educational tool, it is worth explaining the tag line. “We didn’t cross the border. The border crossed us!” It is a not-so-veiled reference to the Mexican-American War, the prequel to the American Civil War. Not all wars are good-vs-evil propositions. The Mexican-American War was a naked land grab. The War did not receive unanimous support by the populace. It also opened up the Pandora’s Box known as the slave state-free state issue. And a year after the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, gold was discovered in California.
The political fallout was just as fraught with bad feelings. Turns out the “Guy sitting on the throne of skulls” motif can be traced back to Zachary Taylor’s 1848 presidential campaign on the Whig ticket. Taylor, then known as General Taylor, headed United States forces in the War.
One should not forget the ill-fated 2008 Absolut Vodka ad campaign. The ad depicted Mexico with its pre-Mexican War borders. The usual uproar and outrage followed the ad campaign.
Henry Gibson played a Neo-Nazi in the 1980 film The Blues Brothers. Standing in front of his brownshirted buffoons, he uttered the following speech:
“White men! White women! The flag is calling you. The sacred and ancient symbol of your race, since the beginning of time. The Jew is using The Black as muscle against you. And you are left there helpless. Well, what are you going to do about it, Whitey? Just sit there? Of course not! You are going to join with us. The members of the American, National Socialist, White Peoples’ Party. An organization of decent, law-abiding white folk. Just like you!”
Unfortunately, the Turner Diaries has much the same content. Make no mistake; the book is not a comedy, at least not intentionally. The rigid seriousness of the narrator, one Earl Turner, and the pedestrian writing style left this reader rolling his eyes and saying to himself, “Oh come on! Seriously?” Before ridiculing the author, one has to realize that this scary little book is a product of its times. What was he thinking? Why did he think that? Why is he constantly blaming the Jews and the Blacks for all his troubles?
In the Seventies, the United States faced a combination of crises in the economy, in foreign policy, and in politics. The US support for Israel in the Yom Kippur War resulted in the OPEC-sponsored economic warfare commonly known as the oil embargo. Decades of fighting a foreign war in Vietnam resulted in a crumbling infrastructure, a divisive chasm unleashed by domestic protests, the Civil Rights movement, and the heavy-handed tactics used to quash domestic dissent. The Watergate scandal led to President Nixon to resign in disgrace and a foreign policy that shrank away from the challenges of foreign engagements. Runaway inflation, gas rationing, and losing a decade-long war fueled paranoia and resentment. In these dark times, Andrew Macdonald (the nom de plume of William Luther Pierce) wrote The Turner Diaries.
Pierce founded the white supremacist organization the National Alliance in 1970 with a Neo-Nazi ideology that is “explicitly genocidal” (according to the group profile on the Southern Poverty Law Center website). Writing under another name, Pierce wrote a fictional account of a revolution that violently overthrew the government of the United States. In the novel, we follow the clandestine exploits of one Earl Turner: gun owner, racist Christian, and Anti-Semite.
Pierce relishes in the violence and mass murder with a sociopathic glee. The ruthlessness of the main characters pales the misdeeds and atrocities of the Marquis de Sade’s characters. The Turner Diaries is also, in its own perverse way, family-friendly. The novel has very little sex and not that much vulgarity (Cf. Sade’s novels).
What makes this book far worse than the usual saber-rattling thriller or ideological screed masquerading as fiction? The “good guys” do some pretty disgusting things. Murder, assassination, bombing government buildings, and hanging “race-defilers” are only a few things Earl Turner does in the name of White empowerment. In the novel, Turner belongs to the Organization and wages a campaign of domestic terrorism against The System. The System is Big Government personified to the brink of self-parody. The novel opens with Turner and pals hiding their weapons due to the passage of the Cohen Act. The repressive government has sent machete-wielding Negroes to seize their weapons. (Come on! Seriously?)
Make no mistake, Pierce casts aspersions at the usual suspects (liberals, Jews, Blacks, Communists, Israel, homosexuals, feminists, etc.), but this is also a novel that espouses Neo-Nazi revolutionary rhetoric. Turner unleashes bile against conservatives, since they do not want to overthrow the System.
Unlike other works by fascist authors, Pierce is not a good writer. Lyle Stuart writes in the Introduction that the book was a favorite on the gun show circuit. One could facetiously classify the Turner Diaries as “gun nut fanfiction.” Gun shows appeal to a certain fandom and Pierce writes for them. One does not look for the technical precision of someone like Vladimir Nabokov or Samuel Beckett. For gun owners with a serious beef against the Federal Government, this book was probably a gripping read. To this reviewer, the novel offered an implausible plot slathered in sub-standard prose. Louis-Ferdinand Céline for all his vile Anti-Semitism and misanthropy could at least craft a decent sentence. Ezra Pound, even while recording radio broadcasts as Benito Mussolini’s cheerleader, had the capacity to write some of the finest poetry in the English language. Ironically, it is the vilest sections, the parts dedicated to the most heinous racist ideology that the prose reveals a talented writer. The novel itself has cardboard cutouts (the “heroes”) fighting racist caricatures. It is like Blazing Saddles minus the jokes.
“I have great respect for human life. My decision to take human life at the Murrah Building – I did not do it for personal gain. I ease my mind in that…I did it for the larger good.” — Timothy McVeigh
by Karl Wolff
I. Introductory Quotations
“Money declares war on the whole of humanity.”
Pierre le Pesant, sieur de Boisguilbert
Vicki Vale: What do you want?
The Joker: My face on the one dollar bill.
Vicki Vale: You must be joking.
The Joker: Do I look like I’m joking?
Meadow Soprano: Our dads are in the garbage business, and it’s always good for a laugh. And, yeah, they brush up against organized crime. But, do you think they control every slime ball and illegal gun in like a hundred communities? The fact that you could even say this in front of an outsider is amazing to me!
The Sopranos, Episode 3.13, “Army of One”, 2001
II. Batman, Wayne Enterprises, and limitless capital
Thomas Wayne: Gotham’s been good to our family. But the city’s been suffering. People less fortunate than us have been enduring very hard times. So we built a new, cheap, public transportation system to unite the city. And at the center … Wayne Tower.
Batman Begins (2005)
In the opening sequence of the Dark Knight (2008, Christopher Nolan), a bank robbery occurs. The bank robbers rob a mob bank, a new twist on an old action movie trope. The opening sequence also introduces a theme that will continue throughout the entire film: money. The corrupt world of Gotham City commodifies everything. People and institutions, faced with fear and desperation, have no means to escape the pressures forced upon them.
Enter the Hero. Batman embodies the comic book trope of the Heroic Billionaire. This essay seeks to explore the subterranean connections created by money. Money, as a means of exchange, becomes both the corruptor and the liberator in Gotham City. On an abstract level, it is the eternal conflict of Good and Evil. On a practical level, it is the millionaire mobsters against the billionaire Wayne.
In the Dark Knight and the previous film, Batman Begins, the viewer recognized the limitless wealth of Wayne Enterprises. Wayne Enterprises built the mass transit system and has control of the utilities. While Bruce Wayne and his family receive the usual hagiographic characterizations, certain board members are seen as nefarious but the near-monopolistic control of the city by Wayne Enterprises is never addressed, at least not in explicitly.
Given the control and capital of Wayne Enterprises, how culpable is it for the depression in Batman Begins? When power becomes concentrated in a single organization, it is susceptible to collapse.
While Bruce Wayne combats organized crime in heroic fashion with cool, expensive equipment, how does he characterize the attack on Gotham City? Is Bruce Wayne the good king defending the city gates against the barbarians? Does he consider it an attack on private property? When not fighting crime, Wayne is purchasing hotels and chic restaurants. When economic control becomes nearly monopolistic, how can one compete? How can one make a living?
When Batman apprehends Lau (Chin Han), the Chinese businessman and “glorified accountant,” the limitless capital gets applied to extrajudicial crime fighting. Although Lau does not know it, he shares the same socioeconomic class as Bruce Wayne, albeit within the New Money nomenklatura that comprise the New China. Using his money and his connections, Batman goes where the working class police can not. Lau thought his wealth and power could insure the criminal element of Gotham City have their ill-gotten earnings secured. Batman, in an uncanny reflection of modern times, performs an extraordinary rendition of Lau.
The crossing of national borders is also reminiscent of pre-9/11 film Clear and Present Danger and post-9/11 film Syriana. Since Batman operates as an individual meting out vigilante justice, he stands beyond the strictures and budgetary confines of law enforcement and covert operations. In that way, he is the perfect weapon of the Gotham City Police Department.
Batman’s vast capital finances his armor and weaponry, but his use of non-fatal weaponry and his commitment not to kill remain both his heroic virtue and his Achilles Heel.
III. Old Money and Ethnic Entrepreneurship
Alfred Pennyworth: [walking through the Batcave] In the Civil War, your great-great grandfather was involved in the underground railroad, secretly transporting free slaves to the North. And I suspect these caverns came in handy.
Batman Begins (2005)
Bruce Wayne is Old Money. The gangsters represent New Money. The gangsters also represent ethnic entrepreneurship, since the membership includes criminals from Italian-American, African American, and Eastern European communities. When they recruit the services of Chinese accountant Lau, they up the ante by using the powers of Chinese authoritarian capitalism against Wayne’s monopolistic business empire.
The Dark Knight unintentionally reinforces the stereotype that WASP capital (Wayne) is good while ethnic capital (Sal Maroni, the Chechen, Gambol, etc.) are evil. The stereotype has historical precedent, since every ethnic cohort that enters the United States has to start from zero. As the quote above indicates, the Wayne family had an immense fortune even in the days of the Civil War. The Old Money family is analogous to real-world examples like the Roosevelts, Rockefellers, and Bushes.
In order to crawl up the greased pole of economic advancement, it is inevitable for some members of first- and second-generation immigrant communities to join gangs or to work for organized crime. The Godfather series explores the corrupting effects of capitalism on the Corleone family. The TV series the Sopranos extends the exploration begun in the Godfather. Tony Soprano has acquired the legitimacy for which Michael Corleone fought. Unlike Corleone, Tony Soprano lives in the suburbs and exists as a normal American dealing with normal American afflictions like nervous breakdowns and affluenza. The Sopranos have crossed the threshold of their working-class roots to implant themselves in the suburbs.
In their quest to rid themselves of their Batman problems, the gangsters unleash the chaotic force of the Joker. Unlike the gangsters, the Joker really does not care for money as a commodity. It’s a useful bargaining tool like human lives, but money does another thing he likes. It burns.
IV. “From one professional to another”
“This American system of ours … call it Americanism, call it capitalism, call it what you like, gives to each and every one of us a great opportunity if we only seize it with both hands and make the most of it.”
“From one professional to another …” So begins a throwaway line spoken by mob boss Sal Maroni to Batman. The scene is worth dissecting. How different are these two individuals? On a superficial level, both like the finer things in life and both can use women as ornamental accessories. Wayne has his prima ballerina and Maroni has his mistress who he prefers gorgeous and silent. Maroni has a more pronounced accent and earns his money illegally.
Both Maroni and Wayne communicate through extralegal violence. In the case of Gotham City, the Police Department use Batman as a proxy to solve their problems. The United States uses the Central Intelligence Agency in the same way. CIA covert operations sometimes depend on hiring indigenous proxies for intelligence gathering and intimidation. Since these proxies are paid, the intelligence gathered lack quality and reliability. One remembers the unreliability of Ahmad Chalabi following the US invasion of Iraq. Batman is not paid by the Gotham Police, but the Police become overly dependent on him and his extralegal methods. The situation becomes even more muddy when one discovers members of the Police were threatened and bought off by both Maroni and the Joker. In the film Traffic, local police look at the job as an entrepreneurial endeavor. A similar situation plagues the Gotham Police. In our culture, with the idols of “tax cuts” and “drowning the beast” (also known as draining the finances of government), we should learn this lesson. Unless our law enforcement officials receive adequate pay and adequate equipment, they could be bought off. The Dark Knight shows how civil society is much better under the protection of devoted civil servants than mercenaries.
When the Joker arrives on the scene, he only needs to touch a few vulnerable points. A few delicate taps and the entire system will collapse on itself. The Joker even mocks business speak when he says,
“Now, our operation is small, [grabs a pool cue] but there’s a lot of potential for … aggressive expansion! So, which of you fine gentlemen would like to join our team?”
Like some dark variation of Bill Lumbergh from Office Space (1999, Mike Judge), the Joker mocks the banalities we hear everyday in cubicles.
V. Gotham City: criminal anarchy vs. corporate oligarchy
“Let us build a structure of peace in the world in which the weak are as safe as the strong — in which each respects the right of the other to live by a different system — in which those who would influence others will do so by the strength of their ideas, and not by the force of their arms.”
Richard Nixon, Second Inaugural Address (1973)
The Dark Knight varies the theme examined in Batman Begins. In Batman Begins, Batman confronts a plethora of villainy: mob boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson); lunatic psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Crane, aka Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy); Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) and the League of Shadows; along with an amoral board of directors at Wayne Enterprises run by Earle (Rutger Hauer). While Earle and Carmine Falcone want to make a buck, legal or not, the League of Shadows represents an apocalyptic Puritanism, a psychotic cross between Cotton Mather and Travis Bickle.
Wayne Manor burning around them, Ducard gives a memorable monologue:
Bruce Wayne: You’re gonna destroy millions of lives.
Ra’s al Ghul: Only a cynical man would call what these people have “lives,” Wayne. Crime, despair… this is not how man was supposed to live. The League of Shadows has been a check against human corruption for thousands of years. We sacked Rome, loaded trade ships with plague rats, burned London to the ground. Every time a civilization reaches the pinnacle of its decadence, we return to restore the balance.
Carmine Falcone and his successor Sal Maroni, like Batman, want order. Ducard, like Batman, wants to clean up Gotham’s corruption. Ducard chooses an annihilating chemical weapon, Batman puts his faith in the justice system and Lieutenant Gordon (Gary Oldman).
In the Dark Knight, Batman has disrupted criminal order to such a degree that the mob bosses have to meet in daylight. The mob bosses naively hire the Joker to get rid of Batman. It is not too hard to read into this, since the United States bankrolled the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan to oust the Soviets. One should never underestimate their hired proxies.
Following the apprehension of Lau, the Gotham City Police make a major bust. Over five hundred criminals get captured. District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) explains how the top-level guys will get appeals, but the mid-level guys will not be able to. When a war is on, then no one is earning. The newfound hope in defeating organized crime is dashed when the body of a Batman copycat hits the Mayor’s window.
Joker, a self-described “agent of chaos”, wants to turn Gotham into anarchy. For a real life example of anarchy, one need look no further than Somalia or Afghanistan. Like Satan in Paradise Lost, he also gets the best lines, this time commenting on the thin veneer veiling our social order.
Batman: You’re garbage who kills for money.
The Joker: Don’t talk like one of them. You’re not! Even if you’d like to be. To them, you’re just a freak, like me! They need you right now, but when they don’t, they’ll cast you out, like a leper! You see, their morals, their code, it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show you. When the chips are down, these… these civilized people, they’ll eat each other. See, I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve.
Gazing at the world after 9/11 – the excesses of the PATRIOT ACT, the tortures of Abu Ghraib and the “justifications” for contravening the Geneva Convention via legal briefs written by Alberto Gonzalez and John Yoo, the “war of choice” in Iraq, the war profiteering, and the unscrupulous reaping the rewards of the politics of fear – one can see that the Joker, while abhorrent and evil, is not inaccurate in his assessment of humanity. Even those under the flag of a sovereign nation can act like Ducard and other exterminating angels who want to make the world “better” or at least more profitable to their campaign contributors. Unlike other apocalyptic films and their yearning for simplicity, the Dark Knight sheds a light on the moral complexities and terrible choices we have to make when confronted with desperate situations.
The Joker possesses a genius for exploiting the vulnerabilities of his antagonists. He does not care how much money the mob bosses pay him, so long as they understand they represent the subservient party in the transaction. The same goes for Batman. He says he needs Batman. “You complete me,” the Joker says in another dark parody, this time degrading their epic battle and urban conflagration to the catch phrase of a romantic comedy. He knows Batman possesses near limitless wealth and an abundance of expensive weapons, but there are some things even capital cannot protect.
Nudging the populace little by little with terror and violence, the Joker turns Gotham City into a Hobbesian nightmare, a reincarnation of Scarecrow’s psychedelic nightmares that destroyed the Narrows. A hospital destroyed, people murdered, and barges filled with criminals and civilians set to blow each other up, Batman can only do so much.
V. The limits of capital
The limits of my language mean the limits of my world. (5.6)
Ludwig Wittgenstein,Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922)
In the end, the Dark Knight offers a glimpse at a world “gilt but not golden,” to quote Algernon Charles Swinburne. It is a film about limits. Batman, an ordinary man transformed by his capital, his technology, and his sense of mission, into a superhero and hope for a city once again threatened by terror and chaos.
Nevertheless, the transformations of capital can only do so much for Gotham City. He cannot save Rachel Dawes from her fate and the “social experiment” on the ferries reveals how ordinary people can become the real heroes. The criminals and “scum” on the ferry expose the venality and banality of middle class platitudes in one of the best non-action scenes of the film. Criminals, whose only currency is cigarettes, exhibited humanity and decency, while the other ferry wanted to destroy the ferry and hopefully their middle class guilt. Since this is a piece of fiction, it is hard to tell how this “social experiment” could have ended in real life. The Dark Knight revealed a world pushed to the brink of chaos and the poisoned chalice of authoritarian salvation. Lucius Fox is dismayed at Batman’s strategy of total surveillance, a thin recreation of the short-lived Total Information Awareness program concocted after 9/11.
Our tragedy, while it did give birth to monsters, also showed the world how we could come together and act decently. The power of capital can only go so far. It is not a means of salvation any more than Marx’s mythical “classless society.” Money played a pivotal role throughout the Dark Knight, whether Bruce Wayne’s billions and Sal Maroni’s riches. The Joker traded in the currency of fear and terror. Unfortunately for him, his “social experiment” failed and his currency suddenly plummeted in value, worth no more than a US dollar against the British pound.