Calling Batman

NOTE: This post is not meant to be political or partisan. It’s intended to be patriotic and prophetic.

I try with varying degrees of failure to limit my intake of news. I subscribe to the New Yorker and to Time magazine (old habits die hard, I grew up with Time). I subscribe to the New York Times and the Washington Post on line. I try to listen impartially and open-mindedly, but not always successfully, to William Kristol and Rich Lowry of National Review. I watch Rachel Maddow and, from time to time, Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC, and on Sunday mornings I watch Face the Nation on CBS and Meet the Press on NBC, and on occasion, George Stephanopoulos on This Week on ABC.

I think of my spiritual hero, Thomas Merton, and what he would have made of 24/7 news coverage—biased news coverage.

As a citizen, I think it’s my duty to be informed. As a human being I sometimes feel like a goose being force-fed by tubes in order to produce pate. At some point the news makes me nauseous. I know I’m not alone in this. Yet, as an, I hope responsible, citizen I can’t ignore the news entirely.

I didn’t post a blog last week because I overdosed on news and it left me with a rotten hangover.

I wonder if there is any correlation between the onslaught of 24 hour cable news and the opioid crisis. Do the farmers raising the geese ease their agony with painkillers?

Last week’s news-cycle was dominated by a Gold Star widow’s description of a condolence call from the Commander in Chief which the widow found disrespectful that escalated into a Twitter war and was capped by the White House Chief of Staff, by all accounts a man of great character and probity, damaging, at least temporarily, his credibility in his attempt to defend the behavior of said Commander in Chief.

This week is no better. The news was dominated by a twitter war between the Commander in Chief and Senator Bob Corker (R. Tennessee), the highly respected ranking member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. On Twitter Senator Corker referred to Donald Trump as the “utterly untruthful president.” Later in the morning, in the presence of a gaggle of reporters, Senator Corker went further and said “I think the debasement of our nation is what he (Trump) will be remembered most for.”

A few days later, Senator Jeff Flake (R. Arizona) announced from the floor of the senate that he was not running for reelection and used the occasion to issue a condemnation of the president and a warning to his colleagues. In case you missed it, here is an excerpt from Senator Flake’s speech:

It is time for our complicity and our accommodation of the unacceptable to end. In this century, a new phrase has entered the language to describe the accommodation of a new and undesirable order, that phrase being the new normal.

But we must never adjust to the present coarseness of our national dialogue with the tone set up at the top. We must never regard as normal the regular and casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals. We must never meekly accept the daily sundering of our country. The personal attacks, the threats against principles, freedoms and institution, the flagrant disregard for truth and decency.

The reckless provocations, most often for the pettiest and most personal reasons, reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with the fortunes of the people that we have been elected to serve. None of these appalling features of our current politics should ever be regarded as normal. We must never allow ourselves to lapse into thinking that that is just the way things are now.

If we simply become inured to this condition, thinking that it is just politics as usual, then heaven help us. Without fear of the consequences and without consideration of the rules of what is politically safe or palatable, we must stop pretending that the degradation of our politics and the conduct of some in our executive branch are normal. They are not normal. Reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior has become excused and countenanced as telling it like it is when it is actually just reckless, outrageous and undignified.

And when such behavior emanates from the top of our government, it is something else. It is dangerous to a democracy. Such behavior does not project strength because our strength comes from our values. It instead projects a corruption of the spirit and weakness. It is often said that children are watching. Well, they are. And what are we going to do about that? When the next generation asks us, ‘Why didn’t you do something? Why didn’t you speak up?’ What are we going to say?

Mr. President, I rise today to say: enough. We must dedicate ourselves to making sure that the anomalous never becomes the normal.

I don’t know that I would ever have voted for either Senators Corker or Flake—their views on too many issues are the polar opposite of mine—but I have no doubt that they are patriots and persons of conscience. Their public statements this week brought to mind a line of dialogue from Robert Bolt’s Academy Award winning screenplay for the 1966 film, A Man for All Seasons. The film’s hero, Sir Thomas More reaches a point where he can no longer compromise his principles in service to his king, Henry VIII.

More says,

“I think that when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of public duties, they lead their country by a short route to chaos.”

Feel free to draw comparisons between More’s king and our president.

This morning I awoke to the news that two major players in the Trump campaign have been indicted by a Federal Grand Jury and a third has already entered a guilty plea.

I am reminded of a comment that my friend and colleague, Caroline Myss made while teaching a course based on her book: Entering the Castle. I came across Caroline’s comment in the notes I made in preparation for teaching Christopher Nolan’s film The Dark Knight, the second and best film in his Batman trilogy at the Entering the Castle seminar.

 “Evil is voted into power by psychic free radicals; if it wasn’t for our shadow, they wouldn’t be in office.” -Caroline Myss

Caroline made this comment well before the 2016 elections.

I began this series of blogs last November in response to the presidential election. On December 5, 2016, I wrote:

“In the days that followed (the election), I found that I was not alone in my feelings of shock and disorientation. . . . I received e-mails and Facebook posts from all over the country and around the world asking for help in “archetypally interpreting” the election. In other words, “Can you make any sense of this?” Answer: “No; I have a knack for re-framing things, but this will take time.” The last thing I want to do is speculate.

I’ve continued, without success, to come up with an archetypal interpretation of the past years events. Instead, I’ve come upon a mythic one.

On Friday, I received the October 30, 2017 issue of The New Yorker Magazine. Here is the cover:

In an instant it all became clear to me. Trump is the Joker character from Batman. The president’s cabinet and staff, in large part, look like the rogue’s gallery of Batman’s adversaries that inhabit Gotham City—Harvey “Two-Face,” the Penguin, the Riddler, Cat Woman, Dr. Hugo Strange, Poison Ivy, Firefly, Victor Friez (freeze), etc. Imagine how easily these characters align with Mike Pence*, Paul Manafort, Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway, Ben Carson, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Betsy DeVos and Scott Pruitt. One could almost create a quiz where you match the Batman characters in column A with Cabinet members and the White House staff (current and departed) in Column B.

“Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos.  Oh, and you know the thing about chaos? It’s fair.”

-Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008)

The Dark Knight, the second film in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy, is a masterpiece, one of the half dozen best films of the 21st century and, to my mind, the director’s best work to date. What I hadn’t realized until recently is how prophetic the film is. If you don’t believe me, watch it again.

Roughly two-thirds of the way through the film, the scene shifts to the docks where an angry and impatient crowd (what other kind is there these days), waits to board a ferry. When the ferry arrives, the crowd is pushed aside and a chain gang of orange jump-suited manacle prisoners are perp-walked onto the ferry. The crowd protests and a prison guard shouts at them. “You wanna ride across with them, be my guest.” The Captain of the ferry shouts to the guard “Tell them we’ll come back and pick them up once we dump the scumbags.”

A second ferry arrives shortly and the waiting crowd quickly goes onboard. As soon as both boats are on the water, a voice comes on over the intercom and one Captain says to the other,

“Liberty, this is Spirit. Come in.”

Immediately afterward, there is a crackling sound over the intercom, both ferries stall and the power goes out.

It’s easy to miss the single line of dialogue that comes in over the intercom.

“Liberty, this is Spirit. Come in.”

I would likely have missed it myself if I hadn’t had the closed-captioning device turned on.

Yet, thematically, “Liberty, this is Spirit. Come in,” may be the most important line of dialogue in the film. We quickly realize that the call is an SOS. It elucidates the central moral conflict of the film and becomes by extension a prophetic look at the moral situation in which our nation finds itself today.

The villain of the film, Heath Ledger’s chaos-loving Joker, has orchestrated the breakdown of both ferries, pitting liberty and spirit—two cornerstone values of our nation—against each other.

Then the Joker’s voice comes in over the loudspeakers on both ferries.

“Tonight, you’re all going to be part of a social experiment. Through the magic of diesel fuel and ammonium nitrate, I’m ready right now to blow you all sky high. If anyone attempts to get off their boat, you all die.

Each of you has a remote to blow up the other boat.

At midnight I blow you all up. However, if one of you presses the button, I’ll let that boat live. So who’s it gonna be (Gotham’s) most wanted scumbag collection or the sweet and innocent civilians? You choose.

Oh, and you might want to choose quickly, because the people on the other boat may not be quite so noble.”

Our country is almost as divided as the passengers on the two ferry boats, each objectifying and expecting the worst of the other. The current occupant of the White House, much like the Joker, manipulates this dislike and distrust, to his own purposes.

After some time passes, a passenger on the “civilians” ferry remarks

“We’re still here. It means they haven’t killed us yet either.”

On the ferry filled with the convicts, a big brooding convict walks over to the guard holding the detonator, and says,

“You don’t want to die but you don’t know how to take a life. Give it to me. These men will kill you and take it anyway. Give it to me and you can tell them I took it by force. Give it to me and I’ll do what you should have done 10 minutes ago.”

The guard surrenders the detonator; the convict looks at him in disgust and throws the detonator out of the window.

The Joker’s plot to pit the people against each other is foiled and he’s taken captive by Batman. Batman asks the Joker,

“What are you trying to prove; that everyone deep down is as ugly as you?”  “This city just told you that it’s full of people ready to believe in good.”

The Joker replies cryptically,

“Until their spirit breaks completely.”

Today, in our nation, and throughout the world, we find ourselves in the same situation symbolically as the passengers of the two ferries— our spirits on the edge of being broken—pitted against each other by agents of chaos who care little if there are any survivors. It would be wonderful if we could project the Bat Signal into the night sky and a mythic super-hero would show up to restore order. But Batman is a fantasy. The responsibility to restore order is on all of us—passengers on both ferries.


5 thoughts on “Calling Batman

  1. As I read this I was struck by an interesting “coincidence.” West Wing, one of the best political dramas about the White House ran primarily during George Bush’s presidency, and tackled with thoughtfulness and perceptiveness analogues of the dilemmas facing the US in those years. Indeed, on one memorable occasion, they tackled the current event head on (and no, at the moment, I don’t remember what the event was). Now we have Trump, and another increasingly good political drama, Madam Secretary. Both of these shows, to my eyes at least, showed both the agonizing nature and terrible toll of the decisions made in the White House and in so doing gave us hope that there could be a better way to face the world. West Wing started in the last years of the Clinton presidency and then gave way to the Obama years and political dramas became less popular. Oh, we have had lots of what amount to modern westerns, where the good guys go in with guns blazing to save the day, but not thoughtful dramas. Until now. Madam Secretary began in the fading years of the Obama presidency. While no TV drama can ever really be “true to life” perhaps we will at least find the strength for thoughtful discourse again.

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