The politics of The Dark Knight Rises, or How Liberals Rule Hollywood

Prolific writer-philosopher Slavoj Žižek pontificates on what The Dark Knight Rises means to say about “radical” movements such as Occupy Wall Street:

…It is all too simple to claim that there is no violent potential in [Occupy Wall Street] and similar movements – there IS a violence at work in every authentic emancipatory process: the problem with the film is that it wrongly translated this violence into murderous terror…

Is, then, this all? Should the film just be flatly rejected by those who are engaged in radical emancipatory struggles? Things are more ambiguous, and one has to read the film in the way one has to interpret a Chinese political poem: absences and surprising presences count.  Recall the old French story about a wife who complains that her husband’s best friend is making illicit sexual advances towards her: it takes some time till the surprised friend gets the point – in this twisted way, she is inviting him to seduce her… It is like the Freudian unconscious which knows no negation: what matters is not a negative judgment on something, but the mere fact that this something is mentioned – in The Dark Knight Rises,people’s power IS HERE, staged as an Event, in a key step forward from the usual Batman opponents (criminal mega-capitalists, gangsters and terrorists).

Here we get the first clue – the prospect of the OWS movement taking power and establishing people’s democracy on Manhattan is so patently absurd, so utterly non-realist, that one cannot but raise the question: WHY DOES THEN A MAJOR HOLLYWOOD BLOCKBUSTER DREAM ABOUT IT, WHY DOES IT EVOKE THIS SPECTER? Why even dream about OWS exploding into a violent takeover? The obvious answer (to smudge OWS with accusations that it harbors a terrorist-totalitarian potential) is not enough to account for the strange attraction exerted by prospect of “people’s power.” No wonder the proper functioning of this power remains blank, absent: no details are given about how this people’s power functions, what the mobilized people are doing (remember that Bane tells the people they can do what they want – he is not imposing on them his own order).

This is why external critique of the film (“its depiction of the OWS reign is a ridiculous caricature”) is not enough – the critique has to be immanent, it has to locate within the film itself a multitude signs which point towards the authentic Event. (Recall, for example, that Bane is not just a brutal terrorist, but a person of deep love and sacrifice.) In short, pure ideology isn’t possible, Bane’s authenticity HAS to leave trace in the film’s texture. This is why the film deserves a close reading: the Event – the “people’s republic of Gotham City”, dictatorship of the proletariat on Manhattan – is immanent to the film, it is its absent center.

Meanwhile, over at New York Magazine, Jonathan Chait zooms out on how the film industry’s leftist politics translates itself into cultural clout as well:

By now, conservatives have almost completely stopped complaining about Hollywood, even as the provocations have intensified. What passes for a right-wing movie these days is The Dark Knight Rises, which submits the rather modest premise that, irritating though the rich may be, actually killing them and taking all their stuff might be excessive. In the course of a generation we have come from a world in which the gentle liberalism of Murphy Brown incited furious right-wing denunciations to one in which the only visible political controversy surrounding Girls—a show that’s basically a 30-minute-long Dan Quayle aneurysm—was its lack of racial diversity…

This capacity to mold the moral premises of large segments of the public, and especially the youngest and most impressionable elements, may or may not be unfair. What it is undoubtedly is a source of cultural (and hence political) power. Liberals like to believe that our strength derives solely from the natural concordance of the people, that we represent what most Americans believe, or would believe if not for the distorting rightward pull of Fox News and the Koch brothers and the rest. Conservatives surely do benefit from these outposts of power, and most would rather indulge their own populist fantasies than admit it. But they do have a point about one thing: We liberals owe not a small measure of our success to the propaganda campaign of a tiny, disproportionately influential cultural elite.

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Coming home, and a shout-out to a friend

It’s been about two weeks since my last post. In that time I’ve flown from Beirut to Anchorage, Alaska, then to Wichita, Kansas, and — just tonight — back home to New York, where I have finally and mercifully landed at last. (I will spend a few brief days in Boston starting tomorrow, but will return shortly thereafter to recommence my life as a relatively stationary man. And for that I am, at least for this moment, enormously happy.)

Onward, then. One of my very best friends, Sam Diaz-Littauer, recently produced a video commemorating the recent Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. Sam flew from Geneva, where he’s currently based, to Rio de Janeiro to take part in activism on behalf of the “Major Group for Children and Youth.” After leaving the conference with a palpable sense of disappointment in the lack of progress achieved, Sam created the aforementioned 5-minute video, titled “Something To Believe In,” which was released on August 12th (International Youth Day).

He asked me to pass along this statement for more context:

Something to Believe In: MGCY Rio+20 Declaration Video
Celebrating International Youth Day, 12 August 2012

Today we celebrate International Youth Day. Today we celebrate our generation. Today we celebrate you and me.

The Major Group for Children and Youth (MGCY) is the voice of young people in the UN sustainability negotiations, active participants in the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development. Through negotiating, demonstrating, and participating in local initiatives, we shared our vision of the future and the actions needed to achieve this.

Despite our disappointment in the outcome of Rio+20, we remain committed to the process of achieving a sustainable future, for our generation and for those to come. We need you to help make this a reality.

This is our declaration.

We believe that youth can move the world. Our time is now. Today let us inspire our generation. Share this message and celebrate with us as we create the world.

If you would like to read more about the MGCY’s involvement in Rio+20, visit our website at http://www.uncsdchildrenyouth.org or download our Youth Blast Report. Our MGCY Rio+20 Report is coming soon!

Sam is an extremely gifted filmmaker, and one whose talent behind the camera I only fully understood after an absolutely catastrophic attempt of my own, during my university years, at donning the director’s hat for a year-long project. (The bloody remains of my cinematic career are still spattered all over the proverbial cutting-room floor, where the contents of my finished product should have remained as well. Alas, they escaped to the campus “big screen,” to the bemusement of somewhere between 1,000-2,000 very confused moviegoers and undergraduate peers. I distinctly recall slinking down the back alleyways of campus with my brother after the premiere, avoiding all interaction with familiar faces. But I digress.)

While I cannot, without doing significant further research, personally endorse the platform of the MGCY or any of the other organizations referenced above (and this, equally definitively, should not be taken to mean I reject them either), I can emphatically recommend keeping a close eye on this, and whatever else Sam continues to produce, film, edit, or otherwise tinker with over the course of what I know will be a long and always-fascinating career devoted to bending the lines separating the arts, philosophy, and theology towards some sort of intellectual and emotional synthesis.

Sam’s idealism and unvarnished passion have always been, and continue to be, the yin to my yang of detached cynicism. It is this very juxtaposition — a word that has more meaning for him than for most, if I may be so cryptic — that has caused perhaps more heated arguments between us than anything else. And yet it is these very same qualities that I most admire in him: it is, indeed, quite probable that my impassioned entreaties to “be realistic,” to “stop living in the clouds,” if he were ever to heed them in their entirety, would represent to me a tragedy far surpassing the ruins of my teenage cinematic ambitions.

That Sam may in fact possess certain compromising videotapes of me acting badly in horrendous films he never completed has, I assure you, no relevance to this post.

Anyway, without further ado:

[vimeo http://vimeo.com/47381594]

Oh, and speaking of sports…

…I have to gloat about the only thing going right for my first love, the Boston Red Sox, this year:

Ten years ago, when the Boston Red Sox were sold to a trio of out-of-staters, the new owners signed a contract with state Attorney General Tom Reilly, promising to raise $20 million for area charities over 10 years. Soon after acquiring the team in February 2002, they established the Red Sox Foundation to fulfill that duty.

A report released Monday by the foundation reveals that it has donated more than twice that amount — a total of $52 million to charitable programs in the past decade — making the Red Sox by far the most charitable team in Major League Baseball.

The report offers a rare bit of good news for a team that has struggled all season, hovering at or near last place in the AL East standings.

Very rare indeed.

On sportswriting and sportswriters

Nicholas Dawidoff admires how the very best sportswriters manage to wring meaning out of what is, ultimately, a triviality:

When writing about sports, you have to learn to navigate an odd literary predicament: Your audience often already knows the outcome before it starts reading. An editor at Sports Illustrated once advised me that the art of the work rested in telling people who already know what happened a story so compelling that they forget everything and, at the end, wish they’d been there. Not every writer can chance upon a famous athlete’s last game, as John Updike did for his peerless profile of Ted Williams. We won’t all encounter a young basketball player so committed to developing a sense of where he is on the court that he practices dribbling around lines of chairs with makeshift blinders in eyeglass frames (see John McPhee on Bill Bradley). But this editor helped me to regard sports as a parallel world full of little climaxes and telling details, just waiting for you to make the most of them…

Athletes, after all, are characters to a sportswriter, just as family members must be to a memoirist. You are responsible for them in full, and it’s particularly important to remember what brought you to them in the first place. What writers like Mr. Angell, A. J. Liebling, John McPhee, George Plimpton and the great Red Smith, as well as Sports Illustrated writers like Roy Blount, Robert Creamer, Frank Deford, Dan Jenkins, Ron Fimrite, Steve Wulf and — too many to mention! — share is the essence of good sportswriting: empathy. The appreciation of others is, for most, the reason to watch games, and it happens to be a noble human quality. Where too much recent American literature is less concerned with any search for meaning than the preening desire to be admired, really good sportswriting is grounded in curiosity and revelation, an enthusiast’s notes. And while few authors can compete with the reality, a writer can deepen it, preserve what happened and then mine it for the deeper human qualities at play that are the essence of lasting writing.

Meanwhile, Sebastian Stockman — who whiles away considerable column space on a very strange and only marginally germane tangent regarding the prevalence of Nazi references in sportswriting — bemoans the trade’s overarching lack of a wider societal perspective:

But no, Murray and Deford possess a self-awareness about their professions that Feinstein does not. That is, that the most interesting stuff in the sports world has to do with its stories, not its scores.

I would like to say that all sports fans know that, but we do not. For evidence, I turn to the letters page of the July 30 Sports Illustrated. One C. Fred Bergsten from Annandale, Va. has written in to respond to a book excerpt the magazine ran on that 1992 Dream Team. Here’s the letter:

With all the hype of the 20th anniversary of the Dream Team… most fans are forgetting that there were two squads, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, that could have given the Dream Team a run for its money had their countries not dissolved just before the Barcelona Games. The Soviets were the defending gold medalist from the 1988 Games, and Yugoslavia was the ’90 FIBA world champion. It is a tragedy that colossal matchups among the three basketball superpowers never occurred in ’92.

Yes, the tragedy of the Yugoslavian civil war was not Srebrenica, it was that the reigning FIBA champs didn’t get a shot at the Dream Team.

Personally, I harbor a fairly schizophrenic view of sportswriting. On the one hand, much of it — the stuff I tend to read, anyway — represents the worst kind of writing. In fact, one can say there is an almost inverse relationship between what people broadly consider good sportswriting and what they consider good journalism. In good sportswriting, heroes are continually made of men and women who pursue an irrefutably trivial career. In good journalism, even the best characters invariably have their flaws, or else all credibility of the writer is lost. In good sportswriting, the sporting events themselves are made into epic, and epoch-defining, moments in history. In good journalism, even the most classic drama is eventually dissected into digestible, often technical and highly detailed, pieces.

In short, there is a patent ridiculousness to sportswriting, and it is this quality that both draws me in and repulses me simultaneously. A sportswriter is, to me, someone who interprets the adage “the pen is mightier than the sword” as an unqualified exhortation to somehow combine the two. I inwardly mock these journalists’ labored metaphors but, in moments of glory for a team I happen to follow, feel inspired to ascend those very same mountains of linguistic bling bling myself. And in the meantime, I won’t feel guilty about reading them either.

The death of literary criticism?

Slate‘s Jacob Silverman is worried about the Internet literary community’s impact on critics’ ability to be honest:

Reviewers shouldn’t be recommendation machines, yet we have settled for that role, in part because the solicitous communalism of Twitter encourages it. Our virtue over the algorithms of Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and the amateurism (some of it quite good and useful) of sites like GoodReads, is that we are professionals with shaded, informed opinions. We are paid to be skeptical, even pugilistic, so that our enthusiasms count for more when they’re well earned. Today’s reviewers tend to lionize the old talk-show dustups between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal or Noam Chomsky (the videos are on YouTube), but they’re unwilling to engage in that kind of intellectual combat themselves. They praise the bellicosity of Norman Mailer and Pauline Kael, but mostly from afar. Mailer and Kael are your rebellious high school friends: objects of worship, perhaps, but not emulation. After all, it’s all so messy, and someone might get hurt.

Instead, cloying niceness and blind enthusiasm are the dominant sentiments. As if mirroring the surrounding culture, biting criticism has become synonymous with offense; everything is personal—one’s affection for a book is interchangeable with one’s feelings about its author as a person. Critics gush in anticipation for books they haven’t yet read; they ❤ so-and-so writer, tagging the author’s Twitter handle so that he or she knows it, too; they exhaust themselves with outbursts of all-caps praise, because that’s how you boost your follower count and affirm your place in the back-slapping community that is the literary web. And, of course, critics, most of them freelance and hungry for work, want to appeal to fans and readers as well; so to connect with them, they must become them.

Not that there aren’t exceptions.

A quote and a photo to hail the start of the weekend

From yesterday’s Le Monde:

Je viens d’acheter du poulet et ma voiture sent l’odeur de la liberté.

This was spoken by “Steve” during an interview with Mike Huckabee, just after eating at Chick-Fil-A to protest the backlash against the food chain for its president’s stance against same-sex marriage.

And on a completely unrelated note, here is your weekend picture, taken today at Zaitunay Bay in Beirut.

Journalism and the National Narrative

The New Republic‘s Amy Sullivan is upset over Joan Juliet Buck’s new essay for Newsweek, titled “Mrs. Assad Duped Me,” which details the circumstances surrounding Buck’s glowing and ill-timed interview of Bashar al-Assad’s glamorous British-born and -educated wife, Asma, for Vogue in December 2010.

Sullivan’s takeaway:

But to read Buck’s account that way, to assume that anyone could have found themselves in her shoes, would be an insult to most journalists. Unless Buck omitted a boatload of admirable details about Mrs. Assad in this current piece or only recognized the creepiness of her visit to Syria in hindsight, she most certainly was not duped. She knowingly wrote a glowing profile—“the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies”—about the wife of a murderous tyrant…

Again, call me crazy, but Vogue had an opportunity here to run a killer story and to avoid becoming morally bankrupt. A report from inside Syria, inside the dictator’s home, on the eve of the Arab Spring? What editor wouldn’t run that blockbuster in a heartbeat over a strained puff piece about a pretty dictator’s wife? That view of power isn’t glamorous. But it’s honest.

Buck’s account, to which Sullivan is referring, is remarkably self-serving. Here’s one representative passage:

I should have said no right then.

I said yes.

It was an assignment. I was curious. That’s why I’d become a writer. Vogue wanted a description of the good-looking first lady of a questionable country; I wanted to see the cradle of civilization. Syria gave off a toxic aura. But what was the worst that could happen? I would write a piece for Vogue that missed the deeper truth about its subject. I had learned long ago that the only person I could ever be truthful about was myself.

I didn’t know I was going to meet a murderer.

But I think there are two things going on here simultaneously. One is fairly obvious, and the other less so. Firstly, Buck’s account is fairly transparently attempting to contain the (likely permanent) damage done to her journalistic reputation by her stenographic paean to the complicit wife of a brutal dictator. And no, I don’t mean “brutal dictator” in the even more obvious sense that it’s taken on since the onset of the Arab Spring, but even from long before. Describing him, rather generously, as an ophthalmologist and publishing pictures of him playing with his children doesn’t change the fact that Bashar al-Assad engaged in brutal, heavyhanded, oppressive tactics long before Mohamed Bouazizi self-immolated in Tunisia.

And Buck really does try to have it both ways. She simultaneously feigns utter naïveté — describing how Bashar al-Assad showed her his many cameras (“he didn’t strike me as much of a monster”) and later anguishing over Asma’s role in the brutal suppression of Syrian protesters (“Through 2011, I wondered about Asma al-Assad, the woman who cared so much about the youth of Syria. How could she not know what was happening?”) — even while casually analyzing the country’s political intricacies (“Damascus was home base for Hizbullah and Hamas; Syria was close to Iran. But these alliances also made Syria a viable interlocutor for the West, even a potential conduit to peace in the Middle East.”).

But the second element of this scenario, and the dynamic I find far more interesting, is Sullivan’s harsh critique of Buck’s self-described ignorance. If Buck’s self-justifying explanation represents an ill-conceived, long-shot effort to shield herself from the onslaught of public criticism, Sullivan’s comments are the mirror image: just another few extremely convenient and risk-free paragraphs to add to the mountain of condemnation for Buck.

I’m interested in the “risk-free” aspect. There is a curious dynamic at play, one that has been percolating in fits and starts ever since the Arab Spring began. Like it or not, those of us living in Western nations have had to wrestle with the uncomfortable fact that the dictators whose newly emboldened populations are now intent on eliminating their rule were, for all intents and purposes, strong allies of ours. This is true across North America and Western Europe, and the guilty parties are not few.

All it takes is a routine Google search to reveal a small library of photos of a smiling Colonel Muammar Qaddafi shaking hands, or otherwise interacting, with various European and American heads of government. The same can be said of Hosni Mubarak and others. This has made Middle Eastern leaders’ rapid transitions from ally — “I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family,” Hillary Clinton famously said in 2009 — to brutal, repressive tyrant an especially awkward journey for their Western interlocutors.

But fortunately for our heads of state, the vacuum of reliable allies left by the forced departure of Arab dictators has been ably filled by an even more pliable replacement: the American news media. Nothing comes as easily as adherence to the National Narrative.

And this is what really irks me about Amy Sullivan’s high-minded putdown of Joan Juliet Buck. It is perhaps true that the Vogue columnist should have thought twice about running such an unqualified puff piece. It is also true, however, that this bears repeating for the entirety of the American press corps, whose largely mute acquiescence to decades of American alliances with cruel and brutal dictators was bizarrely abrogated the very moment those same leaders became personae non gratae to the Obama administration.

This is not to say that these alliances have not served their purposes at times. We live in a messy world; messy alliances are practically inevitable. But Buck’s case of bad timing is still, in some ways, a more honest journalistic effort than the 180-degree turn perfectly executed by the bulk of the American press without so much as a blink of the eye.

As George Orwell famously wrote, “We are at war with Eastasia. We have always been at war with Eastasia.”