Thursday, October 02, 2008

Just when I think Glenn Beck is wrong, he's wronger

I finally got around to seeing The Dark Knight and it turns out that Glenn Beck is even wronger about the film than I already knew he was.

In case you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want hear about it in advance, I’m going to white out that portion of the text – if you want to see it you can scroll and highlight it. But before I get to that part we can discuss a point that I should have made in the previous post that doesn’t require one to have seen the film.

For those making the case that Batman somehow makes the case that we should be engaging in illegal warrantless surveillance to catch terrorists, I’m wondering why they didn’t draw the parallel conclusion that if we want to fight crime we should have or hope that some wealthy businessman will develop an alter-ego and start fighting crime dressed up like a bat? Do you see the point? It’s like saying that Return of the King shows that if we want to defeat Evil (which, judging by the response McCain got from that answer at Saddleback, is the stated goal of movement conservatives) we need to create a hereditary monarchy.

The point is that we accept a vigilante or a hereditary monarchy in these stories because they are fantasies. These characters are good by definition; we trust them with extralegal and undemocratic authority because it is a convention of the story that they will not abuse such powers. The conditions that allow such things to work in fiction do not exist in reality: one would hope that adults employed by news networks would be able to recognize this.

Sadly, that is not the case. Beck actually states that the film sends the "conservative" message that you can trust people with extra-legal authority to fend off an existential threat, and believes that Batman's behavior in the film parallels the actions of George W. Bush in the "war on terror." Given that Beck apparently views the world as a comic book, could my previous description of him as a cartoon conservative be any more appropriate?

Scroll and highlight to read the rest below:

In the film, the Joker is described as a terrorist, yet he is not a terrorist. He does not commit acts of violence for political reasons, nor does he do so to spread terror. He’s not even really a criminal, so much as this film’s incarnation of the Joker comes across as an preternatural avatar of Chaos. The audience is given no true origin or explanation for the Joker, which creates the impression that he is some sort of cosmically born Yang for Batman’s Ying.

Although human and supposedly having no superpowers, the Joker is able – almost single-handedly – to defeat and dismantle both the Gotham police and mafia with an uncanny ability for physical and intellectuallly ochestrated violence. He’s like some sort of Greek god of malice and mischief on steroids. And for the record, Heath Ledger’s performance is fantastic, making Jack Nicholson’s memorable performance seem amateurish in comparison.

Ok, let’s get to the meat of Beck’s statement about the surveillance:

Batman doesn’t wiretap everyone in the city. What he does is use some kind of James Bond like technology that allows cell phones to create a sonic X-ray looking image of its surroundings to create an X-ray image of all of Gotham by somehow linking the invention to all cellphones in the city. OF course, this is obviously a far more invasive and totalistic form of surveillance, but it isn't wiretapping.

Does Beck think that this feasible in reality? That we can create some sort of surveillance system that provides a 3-D image of every spot on the planet? Secondly, he thinks we can trust someone to employ a device that makes the surveillance of 1984 seem tame in comparison.

But Batman doesn’t even use some kind of sweeping invasive surveillance to find the Joker. He uses it to locate him in a building where the Joker is already believed to be. And then he has the program destroyed. Which gets us back to the whole point about this working in fantasy but not reality. Batman can be trusted to use this just because, well, he can. And Batman's use of the 3-D imaging is necessary, because, well it's the only way that the Joker can be stopped from destroying civil society.

Reality doesn't work that way, "terror" is not an existential threat to America. Bin Laden is not the Joker, and there are no Batmans that can simply be trusted to act outside the law to use methods that can only be guaranteed success in a fictional world where the writers write it that way. In the real world the methods we use to fight crime or terror can not be guaranteed to be used against only the guilty. As Dr. Steven Taylor put it

[T]he paradigm in fighting terroristic organizations is hardly that of the fight against the supervillain (regardless of how it is often presented as such to the public). As I noted yesterday, the destruction of Saddam (the supervillain in Iraq) did not solve the problem and while getting Osama bin Laden would be great, that won’t solve the problem of Islamic extremism. In the movies catching the Joker ends that problem, in real life getting the iconic leader may solve nothing.

Beyond that, like in the interrogation and surveillance examples above, the issues in the movie/comic is straightforward: focusing such tools only on the known supervillain. Yet in real life those tools end up being used on persons other than the villain because we are not always sure who the villain is. In the real world, people who don’t deserve to be sent to Guantanamo and hardly interrogated are and in the real world the innocent get caught up in the surveillance dragnet.
Another point Beck made was that the film endorses rendition. Except Batman renditions someone running from the law to the United States to face criminal charges in court. The Bush administration has renditioned people away from the law in order to be illegally tortured.

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