Thursday, 23 September 2010

From the Mouths of Villains

I recently learned of an interesting theory from Leo Straus, a man often noted as the Father of Neo-Conservativism.  The theory goes that some philosophers who put their beliefs into a fictional form realised that the general public would not approve of the deviation from accepted beliefs, so they put their views into the mouths of the villains and let the hero speak for popular opinion.  The public would naturally accept that the hero speaks for the author and thus the philosopher can avoid a scandal.

This is a fascinating approach to criticism which may only be valid with a handful of created works.  Who knows?  There may be more.  One thing that is certain.  Often the villains resonate with people more than the hero.  Who wants to be Jonathan Harker? Or Raoul?  Its Dracula and the Phantom who capture the imagination.

When I first heard this theory my mind went immediately to my hero villain, Ra’s al Ghul from Batman Begins.  He is actually an anti-villain.  Like the hero, he is motivated by a higher cause or purpose rather than for his own ends.  What makes the anti-villain a villain is the means to his end.  He will willingly oversee the deaths of ten, scores, hundreds, thousands, or millions of people as a reasonable price to pay to achieve his higher purpose for a better world.  A more popular anti-villain by way of an example is Magneto from the X-Men comics.

Here are some key scenes that give us an idea of the philosophy of Ra’s al Ghul aka Henri Ducard:

Gotham's time has come. Like Constantinople or Rome before it the city has become a breeding ground for suffering and injustice. It is beyond saving and must be allowed to die. This is the most important function of the League of Shadows. It is one we've performed for centuries. Gotham... must be destroyed.

Justice is balance.

Tomorrow the world will watch in horror as its greatest city destroys itself. The movement back to harmony will be unstoppable this time....Over the ages, our weapons have grown more sophisticated. With Gotham, we tried a new one: Economics. But we underestimated certain of Gotham's citizens... such as your parents. Gunned down by one of the very people they were trying to help. Create enough hunger and everyone becomes a criminal. Their deaths galvanized the city into saving itself... and Gotham has limped on ever since. We are back to finish the job. And this time no misguided idealists will get in the way. Like your father, you lack the courage to do all that is necessary. If someone stands in the way of true justice... you simply walk up behind them and stab them in the heart.

When a forest grows too wild, a purging fire is inevitable and natural.
 Criminals thrive on the indulgence of society's understanding.
Only a cynical man would call what these people have "lives," Wayne. Crime, despair... this is not how man was supposed to live. The League of Shadows has been a check against human corruption for thousands of years. We sacked Rome, loaded trade ships with plague rats, burned London to the ground. Every time a civilization reaches the pinnacle of its decadence, we return to restore the balance.

A vigilante is just a man lost in the scramble for his own gratification. He can be destroyed, or locked up. But if you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, and if they can't stop you, then you become something else entirely.... A legend.

But a criminal is not complicated. What you really fear is inside yourself. You fear your own power. You fear your anger, the drive to do great or terrible things.

Theatricality and deception are powerful agents.

Henri Ducard: Your parents' death was not your fault.
[Bruce attacks Ducard with his sword]
Henri Ducard: It was your father's.
[Bruce furiously attacks Ducard, but is easily defeated]
Henri Ducard: Anger does not change the fact that your father failed to act.
Bruce Wayne: The man had a gun!
Henri Ducard: Would that stop you?
Bruce Wayne: I've had training!
Henri Ducard: The training is nothing! The will is everything!
[Ducard bests Bruce once again]
Henri Ducard: The will to act.

So what is the philosophy of Ra’s al Ghul? Quite simply that there is good and there is evil and this evil will thrive as long as good men do nothing.  They may do nothing because they indulge evil out of a misguided sense of morality or they may do nothing because they lack the courage, skill, or will to act, particularly will.  Over time, this unchecked evil will thrive until, like ivy, it penetrates every strata of society.  When that occurs the building must be destroyed and rebuilt.  Therefore, the individual must prepare himself to be constantly vigilant against evil and devote his life to cultivating the courage, skill, and will to fight evil.

But what constitutes evil for Ra’s al Ghul?  He seems to take an Objectivist view that evil is parasitic by nature and feeds off the production of others.  Murder may be a means to that end, but Ra’s al Ghul is not above murder himself.  Death is the penalty for the criminal and also for the “misguided idealists” who stand in the way of true justice.

This idea of “true justice” is another interesting notion.  Ra’s al Ghul says that justice is about balance.  This can be seen as an “eye for an eye” approach.  However we may look at it like this.  A thief takes the property of another through the use of force, the threat of force, fraud, or stealth.  Property is the result of an individual’s time, energy, and skill.  On top of that there is the emotional investment we place in our property – so called sentimental value.  It seems reasonable for the thief to be forced to compensate the victim if he is caught.

However, compensation is not enough.  There is no penalty for the thief if he simply restores what he has taken unless he is unable to do so and must compensate from his own pocket.  So there must be an extra price to be paid before balance can be restored.

Where Ra’s al Ghul and Bruce Wayne differ is that Wayne believes that it is not for the individual to dispense justice.  The hero may thwart the villain and bring him to justice, but not to administer justice himself.  On the surface, most people would agree with Wayne, but if pressed, many would advocate Ra’s al Ghul’s position, particular when they feel crime and corruption runs unchecked.

Ultimately, the argument here is Law versus Order.  When the Law is corrupted, does the individual have the responsibility to restore Order by any means necessary?  The Romantic would answer yes.

Law is a luxury of society.  Among the Natural Rights of Life, Liberty, and Property is the implied right to defend those rights.  In civilized societies, people look to governments to perform that function.  In tribal cultures, the clan, family or tribe did so.  Both government and clan are merely extensions of the individual’s responsibility of self-defense.

In the television series, Deadwood, Alma Garret’s husband is murdered by order of Al Swerengen, the tough guy who dominates Deadwood.  As a woman, she is incapable of administering justice in a town without law, so she seeks the aid of Wild Bill Hickock, a Western hero who had come to town.  He therefore becomes an extension of her will so that she may have justice.

We also see this in the historical events surrounding the gunfight at the OK Corral.  The criminals spent good money in the town of Tombstone and were friendly to many of the inhabitants there.  Should they come to court for their crimes, their fellow criminals and allies would provide alibis in court for them.   Finally Judge Spicer called Wyatt Earp to the bench after dismissing a case and implied the only way to stop these men was to just kill them. 

The debate is one of Law versus Order.  Should the good go outside the law to preserve order?   If we view Law as a luxury, then we can more readily put that luxury aside to preserve the very purpose of the law – to maintain order and balance by protecting, defending, and if need be restoring or avenging, individual Life, Liberty, and Property.

According to Ra’s al Ghul, the League of Shadows acts when a society has become too corrupt.  This implies a line that is crossed, a point of no return, as had happened in Tombstone.  Ra’s al Ghul sees Gotham at that crisis point, thus must order be restored by any means necessary, including the sacrifice of the innocent.

This is justified by demeaning their lives.  Again, another Romantic idea.  When I am asked whether people are basically good or evil, I will say that they are a disappointment.  As Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation”.  Those men who lack the courage and will to lead full lives are hardly worthy of the prestigious title “Human”.  Or in the words of Rob Zombie, being “More Human than Human”.  The purpose of life is to live, not to merely survive and endure.  For Ra’s al Ghul, the people of Gotham are not truly living so what matter if they die?

Of course Bruce Wayne does not share this belief.  As with the Law vs. Order debate, again we see Wayne giving the surface belief professed by mainstream morality, but if pressed most people would express the sort of elitism seen in Ra’s al Ghul.  Even the most outspoken advocate of egalitarianism demonstrates in action that some animals are more equal than others.

What makes Ra’s al Ghul a villain, or more precisely an anti-villain, is not his ends but his means.  He is willing to light the purging fire to allow new growth and restore order, even if it sacrifices the weak and the wicked, which could be argued as one in the same, but that is another article.

For me, Ra’s al Ghul’s philosophy is a sort of guilty pleasure.  Of course I do not advocate the destruction of innocents, however there are times when I see the world as a big ball of evil beyond redemption and I think that balance must be restored by any means necessary.  I see misguided idealist making matters worse, and I think they have to be destroyed with the chaff.  I do not think that I am the only one who has these moments.

If Ra’s al Ghul is about Order, then the opposite is Chaos represented by the Joker in The Dark Knight.  The most telling scene is this one...

The Joker: Do I really look like a guy with a plan? You know what I am? I'm a dog chasing cars. I wouldn't know what to do with one if I caught it. You know, I just... do things. The mob has plans, the cops have plans, Gordon's got plans. You know, they're schemers. Schemers trying to control their little worlds. I'm not a schemer. I try to show the schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are. So, when I say... Ah, come here.
[takes Dent's hand into his own]

When I say that you and your girlfriend was nothing personal, you know that I'm telling the truth. It's the schemers that put you where you are. You were a schemer, you had plans, and look where that got you.

[Dent tries to grab the Joker]

I just did what I do best. I took your little plan and I turned it on itself. Look what I did to this city with a few drums of gas and a couple of bullets. Hmmm? You know... You know what I've noticed? Nobody panics when things go "according to plan." Even if the plan is horrifying! If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it's all "part of the plan." But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds!

[Joker hands Two-Face a gun and points it at himself]

Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I'm an agent of chaos. Oh, and you know the thing about chaos? It's fair!

Perhaps I am reading too much into this scene, but from a political point of view we see the people in power as the social planners who decide how best to manage society, but usually falling victim to the law of unintended consequences.

The message from the Joker is that reality cannot be controlled and that is the joke.  One type of joke is where you expect things to play out one way, but there is an unexpected twist at the end.  Like Rorschach’s joke in The Watchmen.

I heard a joke once: Man goes to doctor. Says he's depressed. Says life is harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world. Doctor says, "Treatment is simple. The great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go see him. That should pick you up." Man bursts into tears. Says, "But doctor... I am Pagliacci." Good joke. Everybody laugh. Roll on snare drum. Curtains.

The planners and schemers expect events to go one way, but in the end there is a twist.  Sometimes it is a very dark twist.

The planners fall into two categories, those misguided idealists afore mentioned are the most visible and vocal.  I honestly believe that they want to do good and that they are daily working hard and sacrificing to bring about a better world.  The problem is that they do not have a vested substantial interest in the outcome.  All they have is positive emotions.

Here is an example from the 1880’s in the American railroad industry.  There were 125,000 miles of track and competition was fierce.  As a consequence, fares for long-haul travel between populous destinations were low.  However, the short-haul travel had less competition so fares were sometimes higher than long-haul fares. 

Consumers complained about the high cost of short-haul fares and eventual popular opinion turned against the “greedy” railroad men.  The misguided idealist decided to stand against the railroads and got the US government involved.  The result was the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1887.

Victory achieved, the idealists moved on to a new cause.  But who was going to run this Interstate Commerce Commission?  Well, the only people who cared were those with a vested interest – the railroad men themselves.  The first ICC commissioner was Thomas Cooley, a lawyer who had worked for the railroads.  For decades, the bureaucrats in the ICC were the very railroad men that they were suppose to regulate.

Here’s the punch line.  The ICC solved the price discrepancy between the long and short haul fares by raising the minimum fares a company could charge, thus making long-haul travel more expensive for the consumer and increasing the profits of the railroads by government mandate.

The second kind of planner is the one behind the scenes who has vested monetary or political interest in the cause.  They play along with the idealists like the railroad men in the example but turn the tables in the end when the idealists inevitable move on to the next crusade.  For the businessmen it is about profit and for the political type it is simply about control.

There is more to this joke.  The artificially high cost of the railroad led to the emergence of trucking in the 1920’s as a cheap alternative and the eventual death of the railroad industry.

This pattern is played out over and over and over.  Look at the role Goldman Sacks is playing today in regulating the financial services industry.  The misguided idealists demand banking reform and regulation, government commits to it in the form of some agency, the idealists claim victory and leave, and then the foxes are put in charge of the henhouse.  Good joke.

Here’s another one.  Jamie Oliver, misguided idealist, decided school lunches were unhealthy and worked with the British government to change the menu.  So the kids stopped eating school provided lunches and bought from the burger van outside the school.  Not quite according to plan, eh Jamie?

Like the Joker, Reality has a way of turning the plan in on itself.  As a libertarian, I am not an anarchist, as the Joker claims to be, but rather a minarchists, or minimal anarchist.  This allows freedom and with freedom comes chaos for the planners and schemers who want control over the lives of others.

So although I am not in the Jokers camp to the same extent as I am with Ra’s al Ghul, I appreciate the sentiment.  I love it when the planners fall on their faces and hopefully see the futility of trying to control Reality.  Of course this does not always happen.  That dark side of me looks for a Joker to help things along.

The planners and schemers, be they the misguided idealists or the guided interests, seek to impose their idea of order on the chaos.  But Reality is not chaos.  It is a very complex and varied order that cannot be controlled, therefore their attempts at order produces naught but more chaos, thanks to the law of unintended consequences.

In writing this I discovered many potential tangents that I chose not to follow.  For example, both Ra’s al Ghul and the Joker created a situation where society would destroy itself from fear, either from a toxin or a life or death scenario.  This makes me wonder if Christopher Nolan sees fear as the root of all evil.

Another tangent was the role played by the minor villains: Falconi, the Scarecrow, and Two-Face.  If Ra’s al Ghul is Order and the Joker Chaos, then we might argue the other characters might represent other concepts, such as Power for Falconi, Fear for the Scarecrow, and Justice for Two-Face.

So where does that leave The Batman?  He is no villain, but the Dark Knight sets him up as a dark knight.  In religious texts, this is the “left-hand of God”.   Superman is the right hand, moral, good, and light.  Batman is the left, or sinister, side performing the dark deeds that must be done for a higher good, even if it means breaking the law.

In Christian mythology, this is Azrael, the Angel of Death.  Though he began as an angel, over time he became portrayed as a demon.  Oddly, when Batman in the comics suffered a broken back, the mantle was handed to a character called Azrael who was “Batman” from 1993-1994.

The Joker is often portrayed as the opposing force to Batman.  I would argue that many of the key archetypal villains in the Batman mythology are aspects of Batman taken to extremes with Batman as the centre that they all orbit, balanced in the shadowlands of the human psyche.  Perhaps that is another article.

For now, suffice to say that we might find wisdom in the mouths of villains, provided we are prepared to face the truth in the darkness.  The villains say what we are afraid to say.  They pose the questions that we dare not ask.  They slap the fools we dare not slap.  We watch Ra's al Ghul or the Joker and we  secretly delight vicariously in them, but we dare not claim them.