the Joker’s on us

Yesterday, Jonathan Lethem responded to Andrew Klavan’s bizarre likening of Batman to George Bush – a hero who has to bear the brunt of doing the right thing by means of torture, rendition, and violation of the law.

Lethem found the film’s main take-away message is a kind of “morbid incoherence,” one that marks our current civic discourse, “strained to helplessness by panic, overreaction and cultivated grievance.” And sadly, he sees a parallel with our current exhausted shrug in the face of the latest news, which is not so much “new” as more of the same.

No wonder we crave an entertainment like “The Dark Knight,” where every topic we’re unable to quit not-thinking about is whirled into a cognitively dissonant milkshake of rage, fear and, finally, absolving confusion.

It may be possible to see the nightly news in a similar light, where any risk of uncovering the vulnerable yearnings, all the tenderness aroused by, yes, the seemingly needless death of a promising young actor or of a brilliant colleague, all hope of conversation between the paranoid blues and the paranoid reds, all that might bind us together, is forever armored in a gleeful and cynical cartoon of spin and disinformation. Keywords — “change,” “victory” — are repeated until adapted out of meaning, into self-canceling glyphs. Meanwhile, pigs break into the lipstick store, and we go hollering down the street after them, relieving ourselves of another hour or day or week of clear thought.

Beneath the sniping, so many real things lie in ruins: a corporate paradigm displaying no shred of responsibility, but eager for rescue by taxpayers; a military leadership’s implicit promise to its recruits and their families; a public discourse commodified into channels that feed any given preacher’s resentments to a self-selecting chorus. In these déjà vu battles, the combatants forever escape one another’s final judgment, whirl off into the void, leaving us standing awed in the rubble, uncertain of what we’ve seen, only sure we’re primed for the sequel.

If everything is broken, perhaps it is because for the moment we like it better that way. Unlike some others, I have no theory who Batman is — but the Joker is us.

So here we are again: what does popular culture tell us about our world? In this case, nothing really. The world is broken, and so is our discourse; so are our heroes, and apparently we find some absolving relief in that. For Andrew Klavan, celebrating lawless and brutal vigilantism for the sake of fighting our enemies, burning the village to save it, is the heroic message.

But as I read Lethem’s list of real things that lie in ruins, I swear I hear an echo of Chandler.

The realist in murder writes of a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities, in which hotels and apartment houses and celebrated restaurants are owned by men who made their money out of brothels, in which a screen star can be the fingerman for a mob, and the nice man down the hall is a boss of the numbers racket; a world where a judge with a cellar full of bootleg liquor can send a man to jail for having a pint in his pocket, where the mayor of your town may have condoned murder as an instrument of moneymaking, where no man can walk down a dark street in safety because law and order are things we talk about but refrain from practising; a world where you may witness a hold-up in broad daylight and see who did it, but you will fade quickly back into the crowd rather than tell anyone, because the hold-up men may have friends with long guns, or the police may not like your testimony, and in any case the shyster for the defense will be allowed to abuse and vilify you in open court, before a jury of selected morons, without any but the most perfunctory interference from a political judge. . . . it is the world you live in.” (“The Gentle Art of Murder,” The Atlantic December 1944.)

It’s the world you live in, not a fantasy where good and evil duke it out to a draw. It’s the role of good popular culture – good crime fiction, anyway – to think about the real things that lie in ruins, and to give us a good look at them. Down these mean streets we must go; and in our exploration – even through as prosaic an art as crime fiction – there should be a quality of redemption – not just of blissfully numbing confusion, with a sequel in the works.

Such is my faith.

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