Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Politics of Batman: Human Morality

This is the last planned post in the Batman series. I must write it today since The Dark Knight Rises comes out tomorrow. I may write one more after having seen the new movie, but I expect many of the same themes. The current topic I have saved for last since it is the most important.

Ruminations on the origin of human morality were in my opinion the primary reason for the modern political division of right and left, which occurred in France during the period of the French Revolution starting in 1789. It is readily apparent today that the major difference between the American and French Revolutions was the role of religion. The American Revolution was mostly political. There was no anti-religious element to the revolt whatsoever. In fact many of the major participants in the revolution did so citing religious freedom. This is quite understandable since many of the original colonies were formed precisely because they were tired of the religious conflict in Europe and wanted a place where they could practice their religion without threat of persecution and political machinations. For instance, Britain had forbade the printing of English language Bibles in the colonies. The printing of the first American English language Bible did not occur until 1782 with the approval of the independent American Congress. But while the Americans did indeed intend to escape from various European religious authorities, they most certainly did not attempt to escape the authority of God. God's authority over the new nation was explicitly and proudly acknowledged even by deists such as Jefferson. The founders went even further by heavily emphasizing that no stable free society such as the one they intended could exist without a population restrained by religiously imposed morality.

“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” ~John Adams

The idea here is that without authoritarian government a populace cannot be restrained from doing so much evil so as to completely destroy itself unless religion provides that moral restraint. Yet they did not want to establish religion, despite the recognition that it was necessary for the type of society they wanted. Rather they assumed it. They knew the American people were already religious without formal religious authority, and this reality meant they could safely employ a brand new style of government not so much protecting freedom and morality but assuming it. (The Bill of Rights was initially resisted on the grounds that it implied the freedoms specified therein depended upon the document and its incorporation into the government rather than on God. Many were wary that the Bill of Rights might lead to the assumption that rights granted by the government could be taken away by the government. Quite prescient, considering many of those freedoms have since been removed by appealing to that very Bill of Rights.) Thus the freedom they enjoyed and intended for the new nation was only possible so long as the populace retained religious morality. Our freedom is quite literally in our own hands, dependent upon our relationship with God, and not in the hands of the government.

The French Revolution on the other hand was explicitly anti-religious and anti-Christian. For the French at this time the escape from religious authority was intended to be complete and replaced by the authority of Reason, or what Thomas Jefferson called the “unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion” and the “general spread of the light of science.” (These quotes are referenced in Chapter 13 of my book.) Indeed history shows that Jefferson and other less religious American founders such as Thomas Paine were highly sympathetic with the French Revolution at first. There is the famous Culte de la Raison, Cult of Reason, which chose various women to parade around Paris as the goddess Reason and worshiped her. The Cult of Reason organized the transformation of seized Catholic churches into Temples of Reason. This is the most striking evidence of the error David Bentley Hart made in the thesis of his book Atheist Delusions, though one can find evidences in his own words. I will probably write a review of this book in the future, since the correction of his error is important. When modern people reject Christianity, Reason, often identified with Science, is nearly always the cited authority and presumed to be superior.

Having rejected Christianity, the new French left had to come up with a completely new foundation for morality other than the Church or the divine. The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau who conveniently had died in 1778 and so could not comment on the resulting atrocities provided the answer. Rousseau taught two things which were in complete opposition to the American founders. The first was the denial of private property in favor of collective ownership. I may comment on this further in the future. The second is the denial of moral standards imposed from outside oneself. Instead, Rousseau taught that morality comes from within oneself, particularly from the feelings of empathy one feels when observing suffering. When one considers the modern progressive movement, it can very nearly be reduced to Rousseau. The ideological divisions of right and left appeared in this context and ever since the "right" has been defined by various factions opposed to the designs of the left. It is the left that has had the strongest vision in Western politics since then, which must be the reason for its great success despite its many persistent failures. It is the story, the philosophy and the vision of leftist politics that has driven its success. The logic has dominated Western thought so much so that whenever politicians of any faction appeal to it they encounter both political success and policy failure. The obvious failures, starting with the failure of the French Revolution, are really the only reason it is consistently opposed. The pervasiveness of Rousseau's thought extends so far into the popular consciousness that we don't even notice his assumptions are present in, for instance, the Batman movies.

There is much more to say here, but before we continue with the movie, just one more observation. If morality is not absolute and imposed from the outside but comes from within, what are we to make of conflicts between differing moralities? If two are in conflict, how is that conflict resolved without reference to the absolute? Which one is superior? The progressive answer is always the same: mine. And there can be no further comment or justification, because none is possible in their universe.

"You think the answer lies within when your heart betrays you?"
~Project 86

In The Dark Knight the Joker sees Batman as a kindred soul in his own personal battle against civilization. The Batman is fighting on the wrong side and must be converted, a feat the Joker actually accomplishes with Two-Face. This is the progressive version of the devil in the garden, tempting Eve:

"Don't talk like you're 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. 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 uh, these "civilized people", they'll eat each other."

As indeed they do, in any other context than a Hollywood movie, unless of course they consider themselves bound not simply by a code, but by a power that enforces it. The entire point of this movie is to prove the Joker wrong not through argument but through a demonstration. When the chips are down, the people choose the good for no reason. No justification, no basis for choosing the good is given, nor even any explanation of what good is or how it is to be determined. It is assumed. It is assumed by the Batman most of all in the final showdown with the Joker. The funny thing about this theme in the movie is the weakness of Batman's response. He can only keep gruffly repeating a single belief: The people of Gotham City are good people. Sure they are, Batman. Sure they are. This assertion cannot be taken on the basis of evidence. It is a belief.

Christian morality, no longer identified with Christianity, is only hanging on by a thread. Christians should be involved in weaving that thread into a rope, not cheering or merely looking on while it frays. Without its proper foundation, the Joker wins every time. And perhaps this is why the Joker makes such a great villain. He really is "ahead of the curve." He is pointing to the truth of our own future if we do not as a nation return to God as the foundation of morality. Somewhere deep down we know this, and it's why the Joker represents a real threat and a worthy villain.

The Dark Knight really is a beautiful picture of contemporary American society. We know what is good, but we don't know why. We only believe in it because we have this idea somewhere of both what it is and that it ought to be fought for. Our morals of course descend from Christianity, but we are in the process of rejecting Christianity. So we cling to the "good" like a baby to his pacifier, ignorant and uncomprehending. The last vestige of a barely remembered state of consciousness awaiting only the right historical accident to be lost for good. Dad is not around to get us a new one, or find the old one. This state of affairs cannot continue. We will go one way or the other. We will either come back to Daddy or descend into evil.

Now that's whack.