Conservatism’s League of Stupidity
The egalitarian Left isn’t just evil — it’s boring. Unfortunately, the conservative “Right” doesn’t have anything better to offer. It’s not just true of politics — it’s even true of their movie reviews.
The endless reinforcement of egalitarianism throughout the controlled culture means that to a great extent, every “superhero” film has the same plot. An extraordinary character is introduced, a challenge emerges to the liberal assumptions of modernity, and the hero, by humbling himself and accepting his responsibility to his inferiors, saves the day and preserves the sacred illusion of equality. The unintended result of this kind of culture is that the most interesting, intelligent, and genuinely substantive characters and ideas come from a film’s supposed villains. Leftist commentators often recognize this and have genuinely insightful (or at least accurate) observations to make about a film’s ideological content.
Perhaps the most subversive and overtly right wing movie to be made in many years was The Dark Knight Rises, the triumphant finale to director Christopher Nolan’s epic Batman trilogy. The Left most recognized it for what it was. Noted Lefty policy wonk Matt Yglesias tweeted: “Had a lot of problems with Dark Knight Rises but it was sort of refreshing to see a balls-out insanely rightwing movie.” Andrew O’Hehir at Salon noted:
It’s no exaggeration to say that the “Dark Knight” universe is fascistic (and I’m not name-calling or claiming that Nolan has Nazi sympathies). It’s simply a fact. Nolan’s screenplay (co-written with his brother, Jonathan Nolan, and based on a story developed with David S. Goyer) simply pushes the Batman legend to its logical extreme, as a vision of human history understood as a struggle between superior individual wills, a tale of symbolic heroism and sacrifice set against the hopeless corruption of society. Maybe it’s an oversimplification to say that that’s the purest form of the ideology that was bequeathed from Richard Wagner to Nietzsche to Adolf Hitler, but not by much.
They may not necessarily like fascism, or for that matter, anything that alludes to heroism or greatness, but at least we are talking about the same thing.
Of course, many “movement conservatives” miss the point of the movie entirely, seeing each new cultural phenomenon as another opportunity to bash the “Democrat Party” or give a eulogy about the glories of various purveyors of high fructose corn syrup and why they pay too much in taxes.
Thus, if we didn’t have John Nolte and Ben Shapiro we’d have to make them up. The two writers at the late Andrew Breitbart’s Big Hollywood somehow managed to view Nolan’s climactic film as some sort of love letter to Goldman Sachs. Batman is pictured a capitalist hero presumably sent by the Cato Institute to protect the prosperous citizens of Gotham from the moral relativists of Occupy Wall Street. Comrade Bane is seen as the leader of evil Leftists, who probably also support Islamism, and is nothing but a jealous nihilist who wants to bring about equality.
Shapiro gushes, “The entire film is an ode to traditional capitalism.” He condemns Bane’s “communist-fascist” (?) regime and worries that Bane’s evil “Leftist populism” sounds like Barack Obama. While this is idiotic, it’s about par for the movement, and is still a trite more intelligent than Rush Limbaugh’s charge that Bane was deliberately named to create sinister associations with Mitt Romney’s “Bain Capital.” Just as Barack Obama can simultaneously be a Communist and a Nazi, Bane can be a liberal attack on Republicans and an obvious stand in for President Obama.
Where Ben Shapiro actually achieves a kind of conservative movement perfection is in celebrating that The Dark Knight Rises supposedly condemns green energy for being unprofitable, rips public-private partnerships for furthering Bane’s plan, and is somehow pro-gun. (In a sentence, the “green energy” program works but Bruce Wayne doesn’t want it weaponized and so halts it, the villain achieves his ends through totally private stock market manipulation, and Batman doesn’t let Selina Kyle use guns.) It’s so precisely wrong, reaching Bill Kristol and Dick Morris levels of factual absurdity, that it’s beautiful. It’s this kind of logic that gives us intellectuals who build entire careers explaining how Barack Obama’s Democratic Party is racist against blacks and too pro-white, that Detroit, Camden, East Saint Louis, and Rochester were destroyed by white liberals, and that the problem with academia and the media is that they’re anti-Semitic. You almost have to admire it.
Nolte meanwhile is so far off the mark with his review and his responses that it’s difficult to believe he saw the movie. He charges that Bane is simply motivated by jealous nihilism simply because he’s miserable. Also, all of his followers are losers — just like Occupy Wall Street, LOL!
“Rises” is a love letter to an imperfect America that in the end always does the right thing. . . . Nolan loves the American people — the wealthy producers who more often than not trickle down their hard-earned winnings, the workaday folks who keep our world turning, a financial system worth saving because it benefits us all, and those everyday warriors who offer their lives for a greater good with every punch of the clock.
And of course, the whole movie was just an excuse by Christopher Nolan to “slap Obama.” Press releases from the Southern Poverty Law Center contain more intellectual subtlety and analytical depth.
Nolte’s review is exhibit A for the case that the Republican id is driven by the feeling of being right, rich, successful, and in charge regardless of what is actually happening. As Bane said before snapping a capitalist pencil neck, “Do you feel in charge?” Nolte and Shapiro, clueless, would say yes.
New York Times token faux-conservative Ross Douthat objected to this reading in a fairly accurate but incomplete analysis. Douthat noted there might be a bit more subtlety to the question of Gotham’s underclass than they are just jerks, but Nolte fired back, doubling down on his, uh, thesis. The bad guys are just “insecure thumbsuckers raging with a sense of entitlement, desperate to justify their own laziness and failure and to flaunt a false sense of superiority through oppression.”
“Tell me about Bane! Why does he wear the mask?”
Where to begin? Perhaps it is best to find some common ground with our misguided and lovably dopey kosher conservative friends. Let’s advance the theory that if we both accept the idea of liberal media bias, it is mildly suspicious that biggest blockbuster of the year would be an “ode to traditional capitalism” and a partisan attack on Barack Obama. While contemporary American conservatism’s conception of the “Right” has devolved into support of charter schools for blacks and opposing evolution because it’s racist, in theory, the Right by definition involves the principled defense of hierarchy. Movie villains that attack egalitarianism, attempt to set themselves up as an authority, or generally have some higher aim besides “chaos” are on the Right, like most of James Bond’s super-villains, Loki from The Avengers, or the Empire in Star Wars.
Therefore, rather than just quoting Republican talking points, it’s useful to look at the character of Bane and see how Big Hollywood’s charges hold up.
Bane the Nihilist
First is the idea that Bane is some sort of nihilist. A nihilist is an individual who doesn’t think human existence has objective value or meaning. While Bane could certainly be described as a rather brutal anarcho-primitivist, he certainly does have a belief in actual life versus mere existence. Bane strives for an order worth living in, and ultimately wants justice for all those responsible for the state of society as represented by Gotham.
Bane is motivated to restore the natural balance to the world by putting an end to a decadent society which will inevitably fall. In a sentence: that which is falling must also be pushed. He views Batman as someone who makes things worse by drawing out Gotham’s decline and suffering, which is why he must be eliminated. Many of Bane’s minions lay down their lives on command to accomplish this ideal, indicative that they believe in something beyond their own personal interests. Their lives are forfeited towards a higher goal, not in a wanton manner à la the Joker.
The dialogue spells it out fairly clearly. Bane addresses a henchman as “brother” when he asks him to lay down his life for the mission. “Have we started the fire?” the initiate asks. “Yes,” replies Bane. “The fire rises.” Unlike the capitalists that Bane exploits to acquire the weapons and equipment he needs to take over the city, Bane is not in it for the money. Staring down at a gaping John Dagget, his former accomplice, Bane pronounces, “I’m Gotham’s reckoning, here to end the borrowed time you’ve all been living on. . . . I’m necessary evil.”
Does Bane have a vision of the good beyond just tearing down corruption? Actually he does. Bane possesses a certain reverence for the concept of innocence. In the course of the film it is revealed that Bane was willing to lay down his life to protect the defenseless child Talia. His actions ultimately lead to his own excommunication from the League of Shadows, and a permanent physical impairment. The mask feeds him a painkilling gas that keeps the injuries he sustained at bay. Some of the film’s deleted material shows a more primitive version of Bane’s apparatus and his training in the League of Shadows under Ra’s al Ghul, before he was expelled because Ra’s wanted him away from his daughter. Talia could not forgive her father, until Bruce Wayne murdered him. Only then could Talia and Bane join forces to complete his mission.
This is the heart of Bane’s identity, the transformation from a pain-wracked prisoner into an avatar of Justice. As he defeats Batman in single combat, Bane pronounces, “I am the League of Shadows. I am here to fulfill Ra’s al Ghul’s destiny!” Michael Caine’s Alfred intones, “His speed, his ferocity, his training! I see the power of belief. I see the League of Shadows resurgent.” Say what you will about the tenets of the League of Shadows, Nolte, but at least it’s an ethos.
As we recall from the first film, the League of Shadows is a Traditionalist Order dedicated to fighting crime without restrictions from society’s “indulgence.” Batman is trained by the League, but he turns on them when he is asked to execute a murderer. Incredulous, Ra’s al Ghul asks if Bruce Wayne would prefer a trial by “corrupt bureaucrats.” Wayne has no response. When Wayne is told that the League plans to destroy the festering rot that is Gotham, Wayne kills many of the League’s members and blows up its headquarters. Compared to the League, Wayne/Batman is a liberal.
Incredibly, but perhaps not astonishingly, neither Nolte nor Shapiro mention the League of Shadows. It’s like trying to explain the transformation of Bruce Wayne into Batman without mentioning the death of his parents. Most importantly, as we find out (spoilers!) at the end of the film, Bane is not the main villain. The main villain is Talia — Miranda Tate for most of the film — the daughter of Ra’s al Ghul who seeks to complete her father’s mission. The person who rose from the prison pit was not Bane, but Talia, and it is she who is leading the mission to destroy Gotham. In both the first and third films, Batman is not fighting against chaos, or communism, or high tariff rates, or some other bugaboo of the Beltway faux-Right — he’s fighting a Traditionalist Order that wants to destroy the city he loves.
The League’s justice decrees Gotham should die — Batman’s mercy says it should live. Both are fighting for their conception of the good, and willing to die for it. This isn’t nihilism, on either side.
Bane the Economic Socialist
Bane’s attack on the city of Gotham is twofold. First, he attacks the stock market, an action which brings Batman/Bruce Wayne out of retirement. He’s confronted by a stock broker who claims, “This is a stock market — there’s no money for you to steal.” Bane replies, “Really? Then why are you people here?” Bane doesn’t take the money — he uses a program to strip Bruce Wayne from control of Wayne Enterprises so he can seize the arsenal and the energy project to build an atomic bomb.
Of course, this is just a means to an end. When John Dagget protests that his company has not been able to absorb Wayne’s and claims “I’m in charge,” Bane replies calmly, “Do you feel in charge?” Laying his hand lightly on Dagget’s shoulder, Bane shows he knows where power comes from — force. When Dagget mutters that he’s paid Bane a small fortune, Bane replies, “And this gives you power over me?” “Your money, and infrastructure, have been important, until now.” Bane is in service to a cause greater than money — it’s not surprising that American conservatives literally cannot comprehend it as coming from the Traditionalist Right.
The real boss of the League, Talia, brings the message home in lines that are delivered early in the movie, but take on a whole new meaning after her true identity is revealed. Speaking to Dagget about a clean energy program, she says, “But you understand only money, and the power you think it buys.” We think this is just a champagne socialist looking down on the rich who don’t share enough with the poor or spend enough on trendy causes. Actually, the clean energy program is a way to develop a fusion bomb to take control of Gotham, and Talia (who already has control of a vast amount of money) could not care less about Lefty trends. She is also serving the purposes of her father’s Order.
The second main attack is against the football game, with Bane blowing up the field after the National Anthem. Nolte’s take is “Nolan’s love for this country is without qualifiers and symbolized in all its unqualified sincerity in a beautiful young child sweetly singing a complete version of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ — just before ‘Occupy’ attempts to fulfill its horrific vision of what ‘equality’ really means.” Of course, knowing that Bane actually is part of the League of Shadows, we know there’s a larger agenda here.
Bane isn’t entirely immune to the idea of innocence, as we know how he saved Talia. He even comments while listening to the song, “That’s a lovely, lovely voice.” Then he says, “Let the games begin!” and pushes the button. The League regards the city of Gotham as hopelessly corrupt and evil, and it’s therefore significant that they announce their takeover at a football game — the circus part of bread and circuses. The football game isn’t some glorious manifestation of Americana — it’s a symbol of how pointless and worthless modern life has become. Bane then announces that Gotham is to rise up and “take back their city.” The next day, at Blackgate Prison, Bane destroys the myth of Harvey Dent and calls for revolution against the corrupt, who will be cast out “into the cold world that we know, and endure.” Gotham, says Bane, will be given “to you, the people.”
There’s a heavy tone of irony in that last pronouncement, which goes to the heart of Bane’s plan. Nolan said that much of the plot was based upon Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, which depicts the moral collapse of Revolutionary France. We know Bane is not a nihilist because of his own pronouncements, actions, and membership in the League. However, has he transformed the League into a vanguard fighter for a socialist commune?
While Big Hollywood says yes, there’s nothing to suggest that the League of Shadows and its relatively wealthy members and backers (like Talia) are socialists, and they speak consistently of fulfilling, rather than changing, Ra’s Al Ghul’s Traditionalist mission. It’s not that Bane is a socialist — it’s that he’s a Traditionalist who despises capitalism, Revolting Against the Modern World from the Right. American conservatives simply don’t get it, trapped into a simplistic worldview where there is Communism on the Left and Capitalism on the Right.
But how do we know this? How can we be sure that we aren’t, like Big Hollywood, just reading into the movie our own ideological prejudices? Well, it’s pretty easy. Bane directly tells us.
Bane the Egalitarian Revolutionary
After “breaking” Batman, Bane takes him to the prison where he lived for years. He tells Bruce Wayne “the truth about despair.” There can be no despair without hope, and just as the prison has an opening at the top to drive prisoners mad with the lust for freedom, so Bane will use hope to create greater despair.
Batman is to be punished because he betrayed the League of Shadows and the cause of true justice. Wayne believed that his “Batman” could be a symbol that lasts beyond him, that anyone could be Batman. As we learned at the end of The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne believes that the people of Gotham are fundamentally good, and that given the choice, they will choose good. Therefore, no matter how bad things get in Gotham, no matter how decadent the elite may be, no matter how much he may personally despise them (even to the point of becoming a recluse), Wayne thinks that which is falling must be propped up. Bane considers this not just mistaken, but despicable. When Batman dismisses the League as a gang of psychopaths, Bane attacks with outraged fury.
Thus, in defeat, Bruce Wayne will be punished by watching Bane torture an entire city. Wayne, after all, lusts for death and release. Bane knows that Wayne’s punishment must be more severe, that he has to be forced to understand the depth of what he sees as Wayne’s evil. Bane will do this by “feeding them [the people of Gotham] hope to poison their souls.” Bruce Wayne will watch the people of the city climb over each other “so they can stay in the sun.” He will force Wayne to watch as the true nature of Gotham City is unleashed. And then, “when you have understood the depth of your failure, and Gotham is ashes, then you have my permission to die.”
Thus, Bane’s proto-Occupy speeches aren’t about propagating the ideology of the League — it’s spiritual poison. He even tells us it’s spiritual poison. His screed about giving Gotham back to the people is done to mock the idealism that Batman places in the populace of the city itself. Bane’s actions are an attempt to fulfill H. L. Mencken’s quip that, “The people get the government they deserve, and they deserve to get it good and hard.”
When left to their own devices, the people of Gotham fail miserably at governing themselves. Without the force of Gotham Police Department, the judicial fangs of the Dent Act, or the confining grip of Arkham Asylum, Gotham quickly falls into disarray. The people of Gotham illustrate that they are nothing more than a mob, who allow psychopaths like Dr. Crane/The Scarecrow judicial power to give people death sentences for pointless reasons. Bane is Gotham’s reckoning, not Gotham’s executioner. Only the people of Gotham can be the architects of their own destruction.
Bane has zero pretentions about the ability of the people to govern themselves. He gives them every opportunity, and they bring their fate on themselves. The ultimate collapse of Gotham is caused by giving the people the false hope that they are capable of governing themselves through his “revolution.” His previous monologue on the worst prison being one with perpetual hope is indicative of this sentiment. He also directly shows Bruce Wayne that his mission in life was a failure. Wayne himself suspects thus, in a dream sequence where the “immortal” Ra’s al Ghul tells him that after all of his sacrifices, the most he could accomplish was a lie and that even he must realize Gotham should be destroyed. Subconsciously, even the Batman knows his mission is futile.
There’s also one critically important fact that puts the beliefs of the League of Shadows and Bane beyond all doubt — this is a suicide mission. The nuclear bomb that Bane forced Dr. Pavel to build is going to go off after a certain time, regardless of what anyone else says about it. Bane will let Gotham destroy itself, force the rest of the world to see it, and then blow it all up anyway. He’ll even sacrifice his life and the life of his men in order to bring about a new beginning on a non-egalitarian foundation. Like Batman, the world will be forced to understand.
American “movement conservatism,” itself a product of the Enlightenment dogma of infinite human perfectibility, can’t cope with this kind of message. Thus, Big Hollywood has to ignore the League of Shadows, ignore Talia, ignore the previous films, and even ignore Bane’s speech telling the audience exactly what he is doing so they can keep on believing “an imperfect America that in the end always does the right thing.” At the Fox News level of cultural analysis, Bane and the League of Shadows develop an intricate, years-long strategy that ends with their own deaths for no other reason than shits and giggles.
The Hero Liberal America Deserves?
Needless to say, Batman/Bruce Wayne does save the day. In a sequence heavy with Traditionalist overtones, Wayne climbs out of the pit, is “reborn” as Batman, and defeats the League of Shadows. However, he can’t go back. Fulfilling Alfred’s wishes for him, he avoids both defeat and death and chooses an anonymous life away from Gotham, away from the society he sacrificed so much to save.
One bit of credit is due the reviewers for comprehending the character arc of Selina Kyle/Catwoman. At the beginning of the film, she claims that she is somehow doing more for the poor than rich philanthropists. She looks forward to the day when “a storm is coming . . . because you’re all going to wonder how you thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.” When she actually sees the revolution unleashed, she’s disgusted to see how a wealthy family’s home has been transformed into squalor. Kyle understands that egalitarianism does not lead to paradise, but horror.
However, ultimately Kyle’s actions are motivated by her need to escape. Just like Bruce Wayne, she cannot bring herself to live even in a restored Gotham City. At the end of the film, she’s not some happy mama grizzly taking the kids to Mickey D’s after a hockey game — she’s chosen a wealthy exile with Bruce Wayne. Kyle too is an outsider. Unlike Talia, she chose selfish escape over sacrifice for an ideal.
This the price of heroism — the hero cannot be part of the society that he saves. That is why the idea of a superhero can be inherently “fascist” — a superhero is a being of pure will and great power who is held to a different standard so he can impose that will on the larger society. A superhero saves society from itself.
Bruce Wayne comes to this realization reluctantly. After all, the whole point of Batman was that he was supposed to temporary and that the police and government could take over and function normally once things got to a certain point. This doesn’t happen — Robin John Blake is the heir to the title of Batman, having thrown away his own policeman’s badge and faith in the sytem. Like a meat grinder, Gotham will demand more extraordinary men to sacrifice themselves in order to keep functioning. To save the kind of society where everyone is equal, the higher man must allow himself to be consumed as the price of democratic heroism. Democracy can only be saved by people who don’t really believe in democracy.
“Do you finally have the courage to do what is necessary?”
Despite the happy ending of Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle palling around in Florence, the ultimate message of the film, and the trilogy, is far too dark for ever-optimistic American conservatives to internalize. Gotham only functions when it is built on lies. Lacking both an aristocracy capable of leading, and a populace capable of being lead, Gotham reverts to brutal authoritarianism in order to bring about order. This is buttressed by noble lies that would make Leo Strauss blush, and the constant sacrifice of higher men.
The nature of the people themselves ultimately never changes. When left to their own devices, the people allow radical psychopaths to run the roost, a reflection of their own fractured existence. At the end Gotham is saved from total destruction, but once again needs the false lie of a higher man’s sacrifice in order to make sense. Bruce Wayne escapes, turns his back on the city, and moves on with his life in a foreign country. Maybe Nolte’s charge of nihilism would more accurately apply to the man in the cowl, as opposed to the one in the mask.
Much like modern America though, Gotham can only make sense for so long before the wheels come undone. What is Nolan really saying then? Is it possible he’s challenging our notions of what we actually are conserving? Gotham is reminiscent of modern America, decadent, soulless, and lacking any social capital. Is there a Gotham still worth saving? An America? That’s Nolan’s real question, and something Batman, like conservatives, omit themselves from ever having to answer.
While it is not surprising that Big Hollywood and movement conservatism don’t “get” the movie, or much of anything else, the reaction speaks volumes about how the Left understands the Right better than the Right understands itself. Conservatives misinterpret the movie because they lack the ability to comprehend anything deeper than corporate profiteering dressed up in platitudes like “free markets” or a “shining city on the hill.” Higher ideas like Traditionalism or the nature of man, society, and power might as well be a foreign language to the last men pining for the second coming of Ronald Reagan.
Christopher Nolan created a Right-wing film that conservatives are attracted to, but will never truly understand. They can’t explain why they like the movie because that requires a new vocabulary drawn from Tradition and the European New Right. Lacking that, we get paeans to the Caped Crusader’s fight against clean energy. Still, American conservatives instinctually claim anything with sublimated Right-wing tendencies as their own. All politics is downstream of culture, and unfortunately for conservatives, they lost that battle quite some time ago. However, the impulse for an authentic Right is still there, and the real culture war never truly ends.
Nolan films with a hammer. The Dark Knight Rises is a radical traditionalist puncture wound against modernity: not the film we want, but the film we need. Unfortunately, much like Gotham City, the conservative movement and its intellectuals are already too far gone to understand it.