Earlier today, I came across this article over at Kasama and I felt that the subject material was topical enough for me to put the difficult issue of violence in media (which I had promised to write on earlier this week) on the back burner.
Is Batman a Fascist?
It’s not the first time the question has come up regarding superheros- in fact, it’s the idea has been around for a while, but with the popularity of Nolan’s trilogy, the debate has again found itself in the mainstream- or at least, as mainstream as comics get.
Of course you could approach this whole debate with some skepticism- with every major event, there’s always some stylishly iconoclastic deviation, like the argument that the Civil War wasn’t actually about slavery, or the like. The critique of superheroes as being responsible for supervillains (see the “escalation” conversation at the end of Batman Begins) could be argued to be the latest soapbox for contrarians. That said, it can’t be denied that the arguments against Batman have some really solid points (just look at anything on him over at Cracked.com)
Let me break the argument down to it’s basic points:
- Batman is just an out-of-touch, or straight up disturbed, rich kid who uses his wealth to nurse pathological guilt over his parent’s death. Had he been poor, he probably would’ve wound up being the kind of petty criminal Batman typically takes out.
- Batman’s very existence creates a cycle of escalation- in response to his extreme vigilantism, extreme criminality is created.
- Batman acts outside the law, respecting no privacy, due process, or legal rights of any kind. He uses force to try to create a world compliant with his own personal morality.
That’s all pretty hard to argue with, but I’m going to try it anyways.
What we have to first understand about Batman is that one of the most popular and iconic versions of him was created by Frank Miller, who while an innovative and talented guy, is completely and utterly insane.
The man is pretty much Alan Moore’s evil counterpart from an alternate universe where Hitler won WWII and cats chase dogs. The guy has been accused (not without cause) of touting extreme right-wing dogma in his works, and was officially declared (off the deep end) after he penned a rant against the Occupy Movement in which he condemned the protestors of being anti-American rapists. As much as I do enjoy the man’s work, I can’t argue here- the guy is a putsch away from being a full-fledged Fascist, and it does bleed through in his comics- especially Batman.
It helps explain a lot, but ultimately the basic criticisms of the dark knight still hold strong- even if you discount Miller’s influence on the Batman canon, you can’t deny that (1) Batman is only Batman because of his wealth, (2) extreme-crime is created in response to him, and (3) he punishes others for breaking the law while ignoring it himself.
Or can we?
Despite the strong points against Batman, I’m going to try to present a more powerful counter-argument.
First, I’ll admit, the wealth thing has always bugged me. As a rabid leftist (Anarcho-Trotskyist, if you want to get specific), the issue of Bruce Wayne’s immense wealth has always irked me- I’m a Batman fan, but the sprawling manor and nearly limitless funds have been difficult to get around. Even the whole “Hey, Bruce Wayne started two charitable foundations to combat poverty!” argument hasn’t really done it for me- I’m more of a “Burn the plantations!” kinda guy.
The key point to make here is that anyone could be Batman- that it’s not contingent on being insanely wealthy. And there actually are some half-decent examples of this in the Batman saga. In Batman: Cataclysm and Batman: No Man’s Land, Gotham is hit by an earthquake of 70s-disaster-movie proportions, and the US government decides that the best solution is to simply declare the city lost and cut off all access to it. Batman, refusing to give up on the town, drops into post-apocalyptic Gotham a-la Escape from New York and help take back the city one block at a time, without his extreme wealth and gadgets to back him up. Granted, you can point out that he’s still had the training his wealth got him, but the fact that he’s more or less isolated from his endless resources does make a pretty decent case for crime-fighting being anyone’s calling. I’m aware that there’s another storyline in which Bruce Wayne loses everything (including his memories, though I might be wrong on that one) and has to become Batman from scratch. I haven’t read it though, so I can’t say for certain.
Addressing the whole “escalation” criticism is much easier than the whole wealth issue. When people argue that superheroism causes supervillainy, my only response is “so what’s the problem?”. If I were to walk up and punch you, you would probably punch me back harder, and I would try punching you even harder. Does that mean if you punched me only as hard as I punched you, the situation could be contained? Does that mean that by trying to knock me out, you’re only creating more aggression?
Of course not.
I have the right to use the means available to defend myself- the idea that my attempts to safeguard my security are responsible for me getting robbed is just as twisted and wrong as the idea that my not having bolted my doors makes me responsible for being robbed. Murder is the fault of no-one but the murderer– this isn’t a difficult concept, people.
As for the third point, this is really where you’re going to run into contention, regardless of what angle you’re coming at this from. Some people might argue that in a corrupt society, Batman is the only effective and therefore legitimate law-enforcement there is- in essence, he is the police (the whole “Might makes right” approach). This isn’t my view, but it is an position some take. Others might point out, “Hey- secuirity is all that really matters and if loosing some privacy and rights to an all-seeing, all-powerful executive force is what it takes, so be it!”. These people are called “politicians”.
You might argue (as I do) that in this world, we all have a moral obligation to behave according to do what we truly believe to be right, regardless of law or public opinion- if people are living in fear of organized crime, and the police cannot or will not do anything to fight this, is it not your duty, as a human being, to stand up to these thugs and bullies? If you know that the guy across the street has beaten his wife and kids, is beating his wife and kids, and will continue to beat his wife and kids, and no one is going to do a thing about it, isn’t it your moral obligation to go all Dirty Harry on him? That’s what Gotham is- a social contract that’s been voided. A place where the safeguards of the public exist only in name. Surely you can’t call Batman a fascist for using the resources available to him to make what change he can- if that’s the criteria, there’s human alive who isn’t guilty of the same crime.
I’m not saying Batman’s perfect- he isn’t. I’m not saying the case for him is clear-cut- it isn’t. But is he just some aristocrat with too much time on his hands and not enough access to antipsychotic medication? That he is not.