Pass the Popcorn: City of the Dark Knight (Issue #4)

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

After my two initial Pass the Popcorn entries on The Dark Knight, outlining what I thought was the main theme of the movie, I decided to let that go for a while rather than harp on it after I had already said my piece. But I always knew that after I had spent a while meandering around other topics, I would circle back around to the heart of the movie – the moral hypocrisy of all human beings and all civilization.

In the interim, the death of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has provided a reminder of just how perennially true and relevant the movie’s observations are. If any man of our time was ever entitled to treat his enemies as simply evil and his own side as simply good, surely that man was Solzhenitsyn. But, to the contrary, he made a point of not losing sight of the real basis of evil in the moral corruption that is endemic to our species, and that is one of the reasons his intellectual legacy will live on well beyond the context of the particular historical conflict in which he participated. To say it again, if any man was entitled to treat some people as “basically good” and other people as “basically bad,” he was – but the whole point is that no man is in fact entitled to do so.

Solzhenitsyn expressed the key insight succinctly yet beautifully:

“The line between good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart.”


I anticipate (without ruling anything out) that this will be my last PTP entry on The Dark Knight, at least for a good while. I’d like to end where the movie ended.

To recap the central point of my first post quickly: All human beings are both good and evil, but it isn’t in their nature to admit this about themselves; hence the ubiquitous fiction that “people are basically good.” People tell themselves this ultimately because it allows them to avert their gaze from their own corruption. The outcome of this is the outrageous extreme of moral hypocrisy that is easily observable (provided we’re willing to look without flinching) both in every individual person (no exceptions) and in society as a whole. In this movie, we see it play out on the individual level with the Joker’s desire to induce Batman to kill him, and at the social level with the fact that the whole restoration of Gotham City rests on the reputation of Harvey Dent – because people need heroes. Why do people need heroes? Because they’re not “basically good.” If people were basically good they wouldn’t make their support for civic justice conditional on the moral purity of some fallen human being. The very fact that people need to be rallied to support justice shows how far from real righteousness they are.

The Joker has our number:

“When the chips are down, these . . . these ‘civilized people’ . . . they’ll eat each other.”

So did Harvey Dent, in his way:

“You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

One thing I didn’t comment on earlier is what Gordon says at Dent’s funeral. I noticed it especially the second time I saw the movie. If memory serves, Gordon says of Dent that “he was the hero we deserved – no more.” No more? Shouldn’t that be no less? Or is Gordon slyly reaching out to the few people in Gotham who know the truth, reassuring them that at least somebody realizes what’s really going on – that Dent was the hero Gotham deserved in the sense that Gotham deserved a man who really, really wanted to be good but ultimately failed to live up to his own standards, because that’s exactly how Gotham itself behaved?

As I wrote before, one of this movie’s biggest strengths is that it doesn’t attempt to convince us that it’s a good thing that people need hypocrisy. It’s a bad thing – it’s a sign of how evil we are – that people need hypocrisy.

But since people do in fact need it, it may not be wrong to supply it.

That last assertion is the thought the movie ends on, and it’s where I stopped my first post, saying “hold that thought.” Well, I’ve been holding that thought for a month and a half now. It’s time to unpack it.

Is it wrong to supply hypocrisy? We might answer by saying that if it is, we’re all totally screwed. On the evidence, it appears that no civil order of any kind can long survive without falling back on collossal heaps of hypocrisy.

I’m not even talking about the kind of rank everyday hypocrisy that hits you in the face every time you pick up a newspaper. Although there’s always plenty of that – obviously. Take the frenzy over the past month against “speculators” who have, according to both presidential candidates and most of our other leaders, driven up the price of gas. It’s an old social science maxim that you should never posit malice if ignorance covers the facts, but can John McCain and Barack Obama and all the rest of them really be as ignorant as all that? As Chrales Krauthammer wrote recently: “Congressional Democrats demand . . . a clampdown on ‘speculators.’ The Democrats proposed this a month ago. In the meantime, ‘speculators’ have driven the price down by $25 a barrel. Still want to stop them? In what universe do traders only bet on the price going up?”

It beggars belief that our leaders don’t know exactly what they’re shoveling here. And this is just one issue out of hundreds where the same dynamic occurs. Is there a single political issue where the public discourse isn’t dominated by claims that can’t possibly be believed by those who make them? Not for nothing did Michael Kinsley define a “gaffe” as when a politician accidentally tells the truth. But Mickey Kaus strikes nearer to the mark when he says that Kinsley’s definition ought to be expanded to include all cases where a politician accidentally says what he really thinks, whether true or not.

But that kind of hypocrisy doesn’t go to the roots of social order. Although its omnipresence would be sufficient to prove the universality of some type of corruption in human nature, from a standpoint of the political system it’s an epiphenomenon.

The real hypocrisy runs deeper. It was well captured a while back by an old college acquaintence of mine who subsequently served for a while as a small-town prosecutor. Please read this brutally honest essay in which he reflects, after having left the job, on the nature of his service representing the people in our courts:

We who deal in the laws of a free people are puppeteers. We must be so . . . because our system works better than any other, and because we have no choice but to make it work. We have to give the appearance that we possess the wisdom and authority needed to make our society function. We have to make believe that our culture possesses an exclamation point as strong and as firm as the question mark of [classical] liberalism. So on with the courtroom pomp and ceremony, on with the bluster and posturing! . . .

Men who doubt themselves need puppet shows. They need little passion plays to affirm the dignity of a frequently silly and corrupt form of governance, lest something more dignified but less humane rise to power. Ours is a system of laws administered by flawed and small-souled lawyers to foolish and wicked men; such a system cannot survive without the pantomimes of solemnity.

And note that he has (as far as I can tell) no regrets about having chosen to serve in this capacity. As he says, our system is better than the alternatives (i.e. “something more dignified but less humane”) and given the realities of fallen human psychology this is what it takes to sustain it.

It was with this in mind that I chose the title “City of the Dark Knight” for my mini-series on this movie. The title is meant as a tribute (an obscure one, no doubt) to Augustine, whose political theory I was reminded of by The Dark Knight’s unflinching meditation on society’s hypocrisy. Augustine works so hard to puncture the Romans’ ridiculous charade of virtue and honor not because he hates them – he loves Rome dearly – but because penetrating the mask of society’s pretense of righteousness is for him (as it was for Plato) the first step to any serious wisdom about justice. The fundamental political reality is that people are neither “basically good” or “basically bad.” We tend to associate the observation that if people were “basically good” there would be no government with Madison’s Federalist #10, but I think (though I’m open to argument) that Augustine is the real source of the insight. And there would equally be no government if people were “basically bad,” since people with no natural idea of justice would never develop a system for enforcing justice (however intellectually impressive Hobbes’s attempt to argue the contrary may be). Though Augustine doesn’t put it in exactly these words (or not that I recall), I think we can say that for him politics is a manifestation of the ongoing tension between the image of God that was planted in all men at creation and the moral corruption that was planted in all men at the fall.

And this, if I may be autobiographical for a moment, is why I fled screaming from Washington after spending a year between college and grad school working there. When people with little experience of academia hear that I have a Ph.D. in political science, about 50% of the time they immediately ask me “so are you going to run for president?” Set aside for a moment the charming naivete that associates the pursuit of a Ph.D. in political science with ambition to public service. More to the point is the fact that I could never serve in public office because I couldn’t practice the hypocrisy that all public servants, seemingly without exception, must practice on a regular basis to do their jobs.

Yet though I am not the man to do it, I can see clearly the necessity of maintaining the hypocrisy. Classically, “prudence” was identified as one of the four cardinal virtues. We have a moral responsibility to consider the outcomes of our choices and act so that we aim for those outcomes to conform to the proper ordering of ends (i.e. goals or purposes). Can it really be our responsibility to rank candor above the preservation of humanity? For a long time I was spellbound by Kant’s iron declaration “let justice be done though the heavens fall.” It would be a worthy resolution if “justice” meant simply “goodness” or “righteousness,” that is, virtue as such – including prudence. But “justice” is not virtue as such, it is only one of the virtues. And as Aristotle observed, only virtue as such can be pursued without limit. You can’t go “too far” in the right direction. But any partial good, as opposed to good as such, can be pursued too far – that is, to the exclusion of other partial goods that ought not to be excluded. Hence Kant was actually driven to the insane extreme of preferring the destruction of the universe to the utterance of a single false statement.

The healthy conscience recoils from Kant’s famous statement that if a man intending to murder your friend asks whether your friend is home, and he is, you should tell the truth. (For a while I wondered whether this claim was misunderstood – in the 18th century, gentlemen were usually armed, so when Kant said that you shouldn’t compromise your honor by lying, was he assuming that you would just shoot the guy instead? But when I shared this speculation with a friend, he pointed out that while gentlemen in 18th century England were usually armed, that wouldn’t have been the case in 18th century Prussia.)

And Kant’s dilemma of whether to lie to the murderer is, ultimately, the choice Batman and Gordon must make at the end of the movie. The “murderer” in this scenario is Gotham City itself – which threatens to give up on its own salvation unless it is told the lie that Batman and Gordon choose to tell it.

With that, I’ve said my piece. (Again.) Next week, on to other movies.

UPDATE: Well, I hadn’t quite said my whole piece. See here for the next chapter.

11 Responses to Pass the Popcorn: City of the Dark Knight (Issue #4)

  1. Ryan Marsh says:

    Your discussion of justice being a virtue and not all virtue reminds me of a passage in my favorite book, Orthodoxy, by G.K. Chesterton. While jabbing at Protestants (Chesterton, soon after writing this book, became Roman Catholic), he discussed some of what he saw as side effects of the Reformation:

    “The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful.”

    This really seems appropriate in regards to the Kant quote, and therefore the movie parallel, as the quote seems one of the virtues (justice) has run wild and could lead to harm entirely because it is taken in a vacuum, independent of the rest of virtue.

  2. Stuart Buck says:

    What about the fact that the butler burns the note without giving it to Batman? Even Batman needs to be protected from the truth.

  3. Brian Kisida says:

    This is a very interesting essay Greg. What strikes me about your depiction of the joker’s message–and your take on the movie’s message by extension–is that somehow this hypcocrisy is hidden to most people most of the time. Without the joker to show us, or an ex-small town prosecutor to give us a peek behind the curtain–the charade continues without encountering many bumps. I am not so sure.

    I suppose it is a hypocrisy either way, but it seems there are two ways this hypocrisy can play out. In one case, people are hapless sheep believing in a false world view. When the joker comes along to yank off the emperor’s clothes, all hell breaks loose.

    In the other case, the hypocrisy is willful and internally acknowledged–the way your lawyer friend, or Gotham’s politicians view the world. Sure, its a sham, but it makes the trains run. But to me, this isn’t really a hypocrisy. It’s willful and acknowledged. It’s a strategy.

    I think most people might fall into that second category. Of course I could be falsely projecting my own view, and the views of most of the people I encounter, onto society at large. But honestly, I think people might deserve a little more credit than the joker–or Batman, or Dent, give them. A good parody of the movie could have the joker’s reveal of human nature met with yawns and ‘duhs’ while eliciting a few laughs in the process.

    Or maybe not. But then what? Are most people duped most of the time? What is the breakdown of those that live with the acknowledgement of the hypocrisy and those that are ignorant of it?

  4. Greg Forster says:

    Ryan: Yes, Chesterton clearly has the same issue in view – the integration of virtues. I don’t tend to share the negative appraisal of modernity in general, though, much less of the Reformation.

    Brian: There are two phenomena here that we can keep distinct, which my way of expressing things has not kept distinct. One is the hypocrisy (conscious and unconscious) that we all use to paint ourselves as better than we are. The other is the strategic use of untruths by some (my college friend, Batman) to avoid causing a social cataclysm by disturbing that “original” hypocrisy on the social level. What I’m suggesting is that type one is bad, but type two need not be (provided it’s done in the right way for the right reason).

    Let me hasten to add (since this question has only just now occurred to me) that I don’t think this view is the same thing as Straussianism, since the Straussians would grant to themselves, a special elite class, permission to lie to outsiders in order to gain special protection for themselves and their own cherished activity; my point is that all people, simply as people, ought to rank the preservation of humanity higher than candor when the two purposes conflict.

  5. Alsadius says:

    I just rewatched the movie, in large part because of these articles. One thing I noticed – you misheard “No more”. The line was “He was the hero Gotham deserved. No less than a knight” – while your interpretation is incredibly interesting, it uses the wrong version of the quote.

    Also, I just wanted to say that the whole ferry scene still seems wrong to me. It’s completely inconceivable, especially in the context of this movie, that 600 ordinary citizens and 600 crooks, combined, couldn’t turn a key to save themselves. Why they chose to stick a happy ending on that one, when the entire rest of the movie mocks the concept, I have no idea.

  6. I agree with Alsadius that the ferry boat outcome was a little hard to believe given the human depravity shown throughout the movie. The Joker told us that these civilized people would eat each other. Up until the ferry boat he seemed right. Why did it suddenly become wrong?

    Also, Greg, I am no expert on Straussians, but I’m not sure I clearly see the difference (and I’m not sure that’s a bad thing). You are saying that leaders can hide the truth from people as long as it is to promote good. I’m sure the Straussians would think the same of the deceptions they would endorse.

    Of course, this is the problem with saying that low level hypocrisy is deplorable while hypocrisy by leaders may be necessary. The human failings that create the former make the selective use of the latter unreliable. Leaders are also human and are liable to fool themselves ino thinking that their high level hypocrisy is for the greater good even when it isn’t.

  7. Brian Kisida says:

    That last paragraph is very familiar…

    “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

    I’ll try to return to my original point now, because it seems like we have developed the notion of these two distinct types of hypocrisy. What I was trying to suggest when I brought this up is that I do not think this hypocrisy is so hidden. Animal Farm comes to mind. There are the pigs, and their hypocrisy is that they say that four legs are good and two are bad, while they secretly walk on two legs. And then we have the sheep, who, to make this analogy work, truly believe that two legs are bad but (and this is my addition) might actually resort to walkiing on two legs if a dire enough situation arose–thus their hypocrisy is in not living up to the principles they claim. I am arguing that in truth, the sheep are like the pigs. They know on some level that societal civility and order relies on a certain amount of mutual assurance and deception. Sure the sheep say “four legs good, two legs baaaad,” but do they really mean it? Or is it a touch of willful doublethink for the greater good? In the end, maybe the sheep aren’t different from the pigs because they truly believe in the four-leg principle, but because the sheep have a little more tolerance for walking on four legs. But they will join the pigs if and when it becomes necessary…and they know it.

  8. Greg Forster says:

    Alsadius: Thanks for the correction. Glad I hedged that with an “if memory serves”!

    Jay: You’re right that both I and the Straussians would say that it’s sometimes OK to hide the truth for the greater good. The difference is in what we concieve to be the greater good! As William F. Buckley once remarked, it’s wrong to draw an equivalence between a man who shoves a little old lady out of the path of a runaway bus and a man who shoves a little old lady into the path of a runaway bus, on grounds that both of them like to push little old ladies around.

    And of course you’re right that employing hypocrisy when necessary to preserve the community is dangerous. That’s just another way of saying that power corrupts. But when Lord Acton noted that power corrupts, he was not thereby endorsing anarchy. Power corrupts, but we need it. Thankfully, Madison devised a system that tends to limit the corrosive effects of hypocrisy the same way it limits all the other corrosive effects of political power.

    Oh, and for the record, my distinction is not between hypocrisy by “leaders” versus “low level” hypocrisy (presumably meaning hypocrisy by the common man). That is precisely the aspect of Straussianism I reject. My distinction is between hypocrisy that serves the subordination of candor to the preservation of the species, as opposed to hypocrisy that subordinates both those and all other good ends to some private end (such as my desire to feel, and to appear, morally good when I am not in fact morally good).

  9. Marcus Winters says:

    Jay and Alsasius — I don’t agree with your interpretation of the ferry. Both boats clearly wanted to turn the key. In fact, the boat full of citizens voted to do so in a landslide. The day was saved by a single person’s act of courage (prisoner boat) and a collective act of weakness (citizen boat). It only appears to the onlooker not in the boat (Batman and the Joker) that the goodness of people shone through, when in fact it did not at all.

    Also, Greg, I can’t help reading your commentary and the discussion with Brian and thinking about the current election. I am with Brian that it does at least appear that there is an important mass of people who completley understand the hypocracy needed to govern for exactly what it is. Modern television shows like the Daily Show and Colbert are the direct result of this knowledge — behind their sarcasm is the implicit statement, “man, no one really BELIEVES this junk, do they?”

    This is also showing in the presidential election. There was a piece during the primary season in the Atlantic or somewhere (I don’t remember for certain) arguing that a McCain vs Obama election would be the first post-modern election in history because both candidates get the fact that they are being hypocrits when necessary and don’t mind letting you know that they get it. This is actually one of the reasons that the modern press liked McCain so much during his primary bids (though their love has dissapated now now for obvious reasons) — they loved the fact that he would joke with them about how ridiculous the process was and how he didn’t believe half of what he had to say. Obama’s selection of Biden and the reaction of some in the press seems to underline this as well. Only a couple months ago Biden stood right next to Obama on a stage and said that he was just not yet ready to be Commander in Chief, and now he is going to run around making the exact opposite case. From watching cable news over the weekend, it appears that the explicit case that the Dems are making about this is “well, everyone knows that you say certain things in primaries”, and this has become the line in the media. That is, we were supposed to know at the time not to believe what anyone actually says in the primaries. Clearly, this has always been true — but it isn’t so clear to me that it was always not only directly acknowledged that it took place but that it was something that everyone knew about.

  10. Brian Kisida says:

    I almost went there too, Marcus. When you bring in current politics and popular culture it is very hard to compare our own post-modern age of cynicism with the pollyannas inhabiting Gotham. In politics, I have been fascinated, at least since the 2000 election, when the news networks visit the “spin zone” or take a trip down to “spin alley.” Spin has become more of a spectator sport than an actual tool that could move public opinion. How can a message get through when the text on screen so much as advertises “Breaking News: Political Hacks are Lying Now.”

    And it seems pervasive in other forms of media as well. Movies today are full of unhappy endings–good people die, nice couples get divorced, and so on. And when good people don’t die we go along with it, but we consider it a “hollywood ending,” something that is completely removed from reality.

    Of course, we did just get through the olympics, and watching the spectacle by the Chinese does make one consider to what extent our incessant slaughter of fairy tales is related to our freedom and our history of cultivating this view. I wonder what the Chinese thought when they found out the little girl was lip-syncing? Were they more shocked than we were? (Cause we weren’t). I know, I know, they probably didn’t find out.

    But we did, and it reminds me of another quote by the Joker–the other Joker–in a different movie, when he uttered those now classic lines “You can’t handle the truth!” Lines that are now commonly quoted in jest–because it turns out we can handle the truth just fine.

    P.S. –How cool was it when Jimmy Page entered the bird’s nest and they belted out Whole Lotta Love to signal the transition of olympic attention from Beijing to London? I’ll take that over 8000 years of culture anyday.

  11. […] Peter insists that in spite of jocularity he has a serious point, so I will insist on taking it seriously. One of the major problems with Roman ecclesiology – and with the ecclesiologies of many Protestants and Orthodox as well! – is that it requires the institutional church to be two things at the same time that no institution can be at the same time: the conscience of Christendom and a political authority. The reason no institution can be both at the same time is because all political authorities are constantly involved, for reasons of state, in a variety of hypocrisies and shenanigans. (For a scholarly analysis of the reasons why political authority necessarily involves this kind of thing, see Batman.) […]

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