GORDON: Look there! In the sky!
It’s a bird!
It’s a plane!
It’s your creepy neighbor stalking the streets in spandex carrying a metal baton!
EVAN: Yes, ladies and gentlemen, today Gordon and yours truly will be discussing the very-much-grounded real-life vigilantes out there, and without our dear friend Kat who has featured in our last three installments.
As her wedding nears ever closer she will be absent for the next few E>s, but never fear, she will be returning at some point.
GORDON: More powerful than ever. Or less.
I don’t know how marriage works.
But back to the topic at hand: vigilantes, good or evil?
Evan recommended we both look over the strange case of Phoenix Jones, a Seattle based self-styled superhero who has, surprisingly, actually done pretty good stuff in regards to protecting people.
EVAN: To summarize the Wikipedia article linked to above, Phoenix Jones is a dude who patrols the city trying to keep the streets safe from crime. He does all of this while wearing a surprisingly decent-looking superhero costume.
As far as what I personally think about him, I admire his stance that this is not something everyone should be doing. By his own rules, all members of the Rain City Superhero Movement have “a military or mixed martial arts background.”
GORDON: That probably speaks more about effectiveness than the actual principle of the thing. If you can’t throw a half-decent punch, stalking the streets at night in a brightly colored cape probably ain’t going to turn out so well.
Now before we DO launch into a debate about the right-and-wrong of it all, could we talk about the costumes? I mean, the dude looks cool- there’s no argument there- but is there really any point other than drawing the whole superhero parallel?
EVAN: According to Jones, real name Benjamin Fodor, the costume helps differentiate himself from the criminals he aids in apprehending. In other words, it’s not so much a symbol as it is him trying to make himself more recognizable to the police.
GORDON: I guess that’s fair enough. Let’s get into it then.
What do you call a guy who wasn’t elected to enforce, through violence if needed, a standard of behavior, and who wears a distinctive kind of clothing?
EVAN: A . . . vigilante?
GORDON: A cop.
Which is I guess what immediately strikes me as being the key issue here- but perhaps some clarification is in order.
Readers, I grew up in Syria, which for all the amazing history, unspoiled culture, and wonderful people, was a despotic, Orwellian police state. The government cracked down on anyone it viewed as a threat to it, but with the police force being one of the most corrupt on earth, enforcement of actual laws was pretty hit or miss.
Nevertheless, society was pretty dang safe.
Yes, partly because everyone was terrified of torture, but also because of the general society pressure that was around at the time. People looked after each other without a ton of police presence- all of which seems to suggest that vigilantism, of one breed or another, is what maintains order.
Heck, the Mafia were, back in Sicily in the day, just a local form of self-policing.
EVAN: So basically, people can police themselves.
GORDON: History and sociology would seem to confirm this.
EVAN: Alright, so how do you apply this to Phoenix Jones and his compatriots? A form of people taking care of themselves, or simply another form of the police force we see today?
GORDON: Ah, and there’s the rub. Justice vs. The Law.
The way I see it, we’re already living in a severely morally bankrupt society. Capitalist world that we live in, it’s legal for me to let a man starve or freeze to death on the streets, but I take a can of soup from Walmart and some nasty blanket they’ve got in overstock, and suddenly I’ve committed a felony.
I’m not really sure.
It’d really come down to whatever standards or code that particular group is promoting, you know? I’m not going to support some legalists who are so egotistical to think that they’re some kind of adjunct police force.
EVAN: Well, s’far as I can tell Jones and the rest of the Rain City Superhero Movement seem to be doing pretty decent stuff as far as keeping people safe. Not only that, but he’s actually being recognized by the police as someone who isn’t just some chump in a costume, but an individual who is legitimately aiding them in stopping crimes.
That being said, what are the repercussions of this not being handled well?
Ill-prepared copycats à la The Dark Knight is already something Jones has made efforts to suppress, as I mentioned above. I’m sure you could provide a great deal more, though-
GORDON: I think with anything in this world, you’re going to have ill-prepared copycats. Hence the stupid “do not try this at home/closed course/professional stunt-person” text at the bottom of any commercial.
As far as people just abusing power, we see plenty of that with cops, and when a normal person does it, he’s just called a “criminal.”
Seems to me that everyone’s got some basic responsibility to take an active role in both self-defense and the perpetration of whatever general understanding of justice they have, you know?
EVAN: How about things going in the other direction? Speaking of escalation in crime-fighting and crime, again à la The Dark Knight.
GORDON: Ah, yes, the old argument of “Batman creates crime, he doesn’t prevent it.”
It is now, as it has always been, some ol’ ********.
If I punched out a guy for trying to rob me, would I be at fault for criminals wearing metal masks?
No. They’re criminals. They’ve got to stop robbing people. If you want to use the escalation argument, you have to find the root cause, which is the first person to try to put himself above his fellow man. The bad guy is at fault for escalation, not the guy trying to stop him.
EVAN: Have you heard of this guy Rex Velvet? I’m gonna give you some time to look him up.
GORDON: Essentially, it’s a tool with a paper moustache styling himself as some sort of nemesis to Jones, though his greatest claim to fame yet would probably be his “okay” movie editing skills.
I mean, is this guy out robbing banks or assaulting people?
EVAN: As far as I can tell from his website, he is trying to sell vodka.
GORDON: So Jones has both started keeping the streets safer AND is responsible for a wider availability of alcoholic beverages?
I’m not seeing a downside.
EVAN: I think my main deal with this guy, Velvet, is that his site is called Social Villains Alliance and that he wants to put a stop to the “harmful” activities of the city’s vigilantes.
That being said, he doesn’t appear to be doing anything, really, besides mock, and I’m quoting him, these “masked nerds.” There’s no social change on this guy’s end in one direction or another.
GORDON: Another point in favor of vigilantism, it would seem.
EVAN: I mean, we haven’t gotten terribly far with all of this, but I think we’re at a consensus that masked vigilantism, when done right, is not a bad thing at all.
GORDON: The fact that it was once legal to own people in this nation clearly demonstrates that you really can’t let the desire to be law-abiding stand in the way of doing what’s moral- which really seems to be the key issue here. Police enforce laws, vigilantes enforce their own sense of right and wrong. Can that get messy? Sure it can, but I have not only the right but the obligation to stand up for what I believe in, don’t I?
EVAN: And I think we all realize the risk we all take in upholding that. I mean, look at Kick-Ass whether in the comics or the films- dude gets the stuffing beat out of him. He pays, bodily, for his desire to do the right thing, and that’s nothing but commendable.
In general, people who are willing to put themselves out there and do what’s right is just as heroic and symbolic as anyone coming out of either Marvel or DC.
GORDON: To sorta paraphrase Noam Chomsky, just look at history-
The greatest evils ever perpetrated have been done under obedience to the law.
The greatest acts of heroism? All acts of defiance.
EVAN: And I don’t really know how to follow that up.
I’m going to drop a poll below for all you readers, however, just so we can find out what you think about vigilantism.
Let us know what you think, and tune in next week, etcetera etcetera. Thanks as always for stopping by.
Well, I’m an absolute pacifist, so I find violence of any variety to be a tragedy–even violence done in self-defense is simply compounding the tragedy.
However, I do admire the self-imposed, unrewarded heroism of those who do not necessarily share my views on violence. It’s a lot harder to attribute any nobility to violence which is done because it is a career or job requirement rather than that which is done voluntarily out of a sense of humanity. Essentially, I think that vigilantes are at least as admirable as the average cop, and probably much more so than most.
Gordon and I should totally talk about pacifism one of these days. He’s written about violence before, but discussing the virtues of going in the opposite direction would definitely be worth it.
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