By WILLIAM TRIPLETT in Washington
An op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal is either brilliant satire (New Yorker cover artists, take note) or the most breathtakingly silly form of wish-fulfillment one is ever likely to find in those otherwise august pages.
The author – Andrew Klavan, an award-winning mystery writer, according to his bio – asserts that the latest Batman installment, “The Dark Knight,” 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 Dark Knight,’ then, is a conservative movie about the war on terror.”
Well, that’s one way to look at what is just another incarnation of an established – some might say “clichéd” – genre of filmmaking known as revenge fantasy. Think of the 1970s “Dirty Harry” flicks, which were hardly original on the only-the-alientated-antihero-taking-law-into-his-own-hands-can-save-us theme, if you want an idea of how old this kind of thing is.
Revenge fantasy has always had a lurid appeal for the right wing: Call it personal responsibility in extremis. Which, by itself, isn’t a bad thing. The problem has to do with the fantasy part: Real-life vigilantes aren’t ever so successful in limiting their violence only to the deserving, and rarely is the problem ever truly resolved except in their own minds.
The reality is that real life is never so simple as revenge fantasies would like it to be. Klavan disagrees, of course, alleging that “Leftists frequently complain that right-wing morality is simplistic. Morality is relative, they say; nuanced, complex. They're wrong, of course, even on their own terms.”
The Left has its problems – like often refusing to acknowledge when the right is right – but Klavan is putting up what lawyers and debaters call a “straw man” argument. What leftist with any brains has ever said morality is relative? Unsentimental leftists will only argue that morality isn’t as neat, tidy or, yes, simple as the far right thinks it is.
True enough, as Klavan says, “All Americans know that freedom is better than slavery, that love is better than hate, kindness better than cruelty, tolerance better than bigotry.” But not all Americans – conservatives among them – agree that stretching laws and selectively using facts to justify a war (um, the one in Iraq) that could not be justified on its original terms are even effective ways, much less morally acceptable ones, to defend those values. And believing there are better ways hardly makes them moral relativists.
Like Batman, W has had to do morally questionable things to defend our values, and, because of that, the country is angry at him, Klavan lectures and concludes. Presumably also like W, Batman took an unconscionable amount of time to respond to a natural disaster of immediately epic proportions, stood by as Gotham’s economy went down the toilet, disdained any attempt to question his judgment and kept telling the citizenry that his war was succeeding when it wasn’t.
“That’s real moral complexity,” Klavan writes without the slightest trace of irony, which is usually in short supply in revenge fantasies. The real irony? “The Dark Knight” does indeed traffic in moral ambivalence, but George Bush has never even acknowledged that such a thing exists.
Like most art, movies are Rorschachs – your response to it can say more about you than anything else. Klavan’s response, if it is to be believed, seems a desperate attempt to fit his idea of the Iraq war into a narrative that validates his wish for what he wants or needs that conflict and its prosecutors to represent.
George Bush, the Misunderstood Dark Knight. As satire, you can’t beat it.