Saturday, September 22, 2012

“Some Days we’re up. Some days we’re down.”

“Everything that is wrong-headed, cynical, and vicious in me today traces back to that evil hour...when I decided to get heavily involved in the political process...”
- Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72

This past week will be remembered as the one Mitt Romney unofficially lost the 2012 Presidential election. Of course the Republican's polls have been nosedive the moment this whole sordid ship took-off into the stratosphere in the primaries. Yet again, the Republicans have only been successful at spending enormous amounts of campaign funds while totally unsuccessful at communicating any clear and/or reasonable argument for why Americans should vote the incumbent out. They have only managed to communicate a message of divisiveness and isolationism, good show. 

One of the few things Republicans have been great at is providing the daily news cycle with an array of ignorant, offensive gaffes for the late night comedians to salivate and laugh over. For this, we’ll miss them. Of course, in politics, nothing is absolute, there’s still a little over 40 days until November 6th. Accordingly, it would be arrogant and unwise to assert the election is in the bag for Obama. 

But it is hard not to celebrate; especially when the weekly polls -even in the most unpredictable of swing states- have been showing President Obama with a comfortable 10 point lead for weeks. On the New York Times Five Thirty Eight Blog, the President has a 77% chance of winning re-election. Ouch! This weekend, Mitt Romney will appear on 60 Minutes to tell the viewing audience that his campaign “Doesn’t need a turn-around.” Romney will admit that not everything he says is “elegant,” but that he “wants to make very clear [he's here] to help 100 percent of the American people.” 

Yes, Romney continues to believe. (Even when many of his Republican colleagues don't.) As I’ve said throughout this campaign, the choice to “Believe in America” as the Romney campaign slogan suggests, is most apt; after all, to believe in anything means to also willingly ignore whatever happens in reality to disprove and/or challenge one’s ideology. Speaking on the Daily Show former President Bill Clinton said something great: “The problem with ideology is that it has the answer before it has any evidence.” Indeed. And yes, the reality is, Romney’s ideology has no evidence, only belief. Accordingly, he does not speak for, represent, nor, arguably, even care about the American people.      

The stilted speeches and soaring rhetoric from the heavily fortified conventions in Tampa and then Charlotte, are now so very far away. Yet, it was only a few weeks ago that Romney and Obama accepted their nominations. At the RNC, Romney’s speech was interrupted twice by protestors. Of course, it has been a tough election from the start for the presumptive candidate. Even back in the Iowa straw poll, Romney was heckled by a man in the crowd about his remark, “Corporations are people my friend.” The only time Romney has appeared comfortable in front of an audience is in the now famous leaked tape of Romney speaking at a closed-door fundraiser, which (as we now all well know) was a speech full of damning, politically suicidal, sound bites. 

Comments like this show Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama share completely different idealogical visions for our nation (something Mitt Romney himself has been correct in admitting). This election is between two dramatically alternative outcomes. Sure, both men have entered the same vicious and vile political game; nevertheless, the way they play it is in total contrast. As sports writer Grantland Rice once wrote, “When the Great Scorer comes to write against your name -he marks- not that you won or lost -but how you played the game.” How Romney and Obama play the game is totally different. 

What would a Romney administration look like? Romney would likely do everything in his power (including choosing more Supreme Court justices) to prevent women from their right to choose (something he, of course, used to say he’d protect; however, now finds politically convenient to oppose...). Romney would seek to outsource American jobs to the lowest bidders (as he has in places like “Bain-port” . Companies that have been grasped up and consumed by private equity firms like Bain Capital. Which is -as Matt Taibbi succinctly argues here- the economic model a Romney administration would promote. 

Taibbi writes, “Making money justifies any behavior, no matter how venal. The [new] owners of American industry are polar opposites of the Milton Hersheys and Andrew Carnegies who built this country.”) Romney’s foreign policy seems to be informed by the most ardent neoconservative hacks (see Romney’s treasonous response to the attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi). On immigration, Romney would make it so difficult for undocumented immigrants in the U.S. that they would “self-deport” themselves (compare this with Obama’s “dreamers” and support for passing the “dream act”). Gay marriage? Forget about it. Romney's vision for America is contradictory to liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Pundits on all sides have been suggesting that Mitt's problem is that he has never been able to relate to "average" American voters. He’s awkward and mechanical. Romney’s forced staccato laughter further plays to the depiction of him as a disingenuous, elite, plutocrat. At times, I’ve tried to imagine what it would be like to sit and have a conversation with Mitt? After all, I never liked President Bush’s policies and decisions; but, nevertheless, I did feel like he would be the type of guy you would want to invite to a barbecue or sit beside at a baseball game. Bush had that folksy charm that is completely absent from the Romney campaign. Romney is not charismatic. The only thing Romney has going for him is an enormous amount of wealth and a large family.

Romney will lose. But no one should feel bad when he does; after all, Mitt will still be unconscionably wealthy and totally comfortable in any of his luxurious homes. But make no mistake, he will never be President of these United States. And with any hope, there will be some moment when Romney (and Super PACers, Karl Rove and Sheldon Adelson) will need to face the cold hard truth - you're not entitled to the office of the President. Money cannot buy votes.  

Politics is a stupid and tawdry game, but it is also, as Hunter S. Thompson once said, “The art of controlling your environment.” A vibrant democracy is based on discussion, debate, and decisions. American voters have a choice this November and despite how cynical and critical we can get, it is important to remember that despite the limitations of our current political system, freedom is a struggle that never ends.

“If you turn away now - if you buy into the cynicism that the change we fought for isn’t possible - well, then change won’t happen.” - President Obama

Get out the vote!

Monday, September 03, 2012


It's not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.” - Batman 

You have been supplied with a false idol to stop you from tearing down this corrupt city.” 
- Bane

I’m relieved I saw The Dark Knight Rises before news broke about the Aurora, Colorado massacre. No wacko with guns was gonna waste money I spent on a good time at the movies! Besides, gun violence in America, what’s new? So jaded. Of course, I wasn’t alone, there were thousands coast-to-coast, and around the world, also eagerly awaiting Nolan’s final installment of his epic Dark Knight trilogy. As I walked into the giant multiplex on Broadway at 1a.m. (the same theatre that hosted the world-premier a week before), I heard hoots, howls, and shouts from other over-excited bat-fans high above the 8 story lobby - “bats in the belfry.” Meanwhile, a time zone away, James Eagon Holmes would carryout a senseless rampage, that left 12 dead, 58 injured, and a morbid cloud hovering over an otherwise profitable opening weekend.

As my friend Aman and I settled into our seats, a fan dressed in a Bane costume stood-up and pumped his fists into the air, others flashed mini “bat-signals” onto the giant IMAX screen. The mood, positive, playful, happy - nothing could spoil this moment. The theatre darkened and the movie began, applause and cheers rolled through the crowd. Yes!

Unfortunately, in a Colorado theatre, miles away from New York, some fans wouldn’t make it through the end of this great film and that is heartbreaking. Christopher Nolan’s comments about the tragedy were apt, “I believe movies are one of the great American art forms and the shared experience of watching a story unfold on screen is an important and joyful pastime. The movie theatre is my home, and the idea that someone would violate that innocent and hopeful place in such an unbearably savage way is devastating to me.”

                                            *     *     *

The first line of The Dark Knight Rises is from Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) - “I believe in Harvey Dent.” Of course, Gordon “believes” in what we know is a lie he and Batman agreed to tell about former activist district attorney, Harvey Dent. Who, as Bat-fans well know, was turned into the deranged killer, Two Face, by another sociopath, the Joker, in Nolan’s The Dark Knight. This last installment concluded with Two Face trying to kill Gordon’s son. Predictably, Batman saves the day and agrees to take the fall for his friend Harvey Dent. 

Better Gotham believe in the lie Batman (a vigilante) tried to kill Gordon’s son instead of the truth; accordingly, the legacy of Harvey Dent is protected and mythologized as the hero Gotham deserves. Ultimately, this lie further reaffirms the larger message: vigilantes are bad, law is good. Justice is only achieved through due process, never senseless violence. It is best to work within the system, not outside of it.

Several years into this lie, Bruce Wayne has retired the Batman. But instead of living-it-up in the lavish high society that surrounds him (“phonies are still drinking all [his]free booze”), Wayne is a recluse who watches the city from a distance. All the while, the myth that he and Gordon share works, they’ve managed to somehow keep Gotham’s streets safe. Sure, there’s still petty crime, such as from sleek and sultry cat burglar, Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), but any real danger, like the total annihilation of the city by a maniacal super villain (a popular plot through previous bat-films), appears -at least on the surface- curbed.  

Of course, this is Gotham City and once we start to peal back the layers and look beneath, we see dualism and brooding characters weighted with heavy contradictions. For instance, Batman/Bruce Wayne isn’t that much of a hero at all. As Batman he has allowed his absolute goal of bringing justice to Gotham to be reduced to a lie. (Ra’s al Ghul reminds Wayne of this in the film’s bleakest moment, “You used all the tools I taught you... for a city that was corrupt, and a victory based on a lie. Now your failure will be seen...”) 

As Wayne the businessman, he has also ignored his company. Wayne’s philanthropy no longer focuses on noble causes, such as the boarding school Joseph Gordon Levitt’s character, John Blake (who represents the idealism once held by both Wayne and Gordon), grew-up in. In fact, Wayne Enterprises is tottering on the edge of bankruptcy. The governing board, eventually chaired by the wealthy heiress, Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), invests all of the company’s resources into its special projects division, which has been busy building a machine that can harness fusion power to produce unlimited clean energy for the city; unfortunately, this machine has not been turned on, because it can just as equally destroy the city. The core of the machine is explosive and could be used as a nuclear bomb. Thus, that which can save the city can just as easily end it. And as if this theme wasn’t already evident enough, Bruce Wayne later expresses to Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine) in the Bat-cave that “tools can either be used for good or bad.” A point, that remains the tragic irony of our postmodern existence.  

Eventually, we see how the tools in Batman’s arsenal (presumably always used for good) can just as interchangeably be used for bad. While the weak and injured Bruce Wayne hobbles around his mansion, mourning the loss of his love, Rachel Dawes, the sinister plan of the League of Shadows festers below Gotham’s streets. Yes, Batman may have defeated Ra’s al Ghul in Batman Begins, but that plan never vanished. The plan of the League must be fulfilled. This fulfillment is the sole intent of -arguably, the trilogy’s most frightening villain - Bane. Who says himself, “It doesn’t matter who we are, what matters is that we have a plan.”

Bane’s purpose is to, literally, smash through the pillars of civil society. Whether it be the sanitation department, which he uses to spread the explosive cement under the city, or greedy business tycoons who he manipulates to gain access to the stock exchange and then bankrupt Wayne Enterprises for a literal takeover of the company. The police department is in fear. Even American football is used by Bane to fulfill the League of Shadow’s goal. The plan itself is for the total destruction of Gotham; however, Bane uses revolutionary rhetoric that sounds like Robespierre. He attempts to convince the citizen’s of Gotham that this is all for the best. That this is liberation, “do as you please!” Thus, Bane is not here to disrupt the structures of society but to “unleash the people’s true potential!” 

I recently had a discussion with my friend, Mark Grueter, in which I compared Bane’s revolution to that of Lenin’s; after all, both Lenin and Bane co-opted revolutionary rhetoric to then unleash a more aggressive form of social suppression. You’re either with Bane, or you’re dead! Bane’s Gotham is Arkham Asylum in the streets. It is a city isolated and afraid.

One of the more interesting conflicts appearing throughout The Dark Knight Rises is whether to believe in the Batman, or not. Alfred Pennyworth explains to Bruce, that the reason Batman cannot beat Bane is because Bane has youth, strength, and most importantly real belief on his side. Bane’s soldiers, as well as many of Gotham’s citizens (as conveyed in the Robin Hood-esque character of Selina Kyle), want liberation. The people of Gotham believe they can be more; however, once they are granted this liberation, it is not exactly the utopia they had in mind. Invariably, Gothamites are tired of all the wealth and privilege enjoyed by the corrupt capitalists, see 1%. The city itself suffers while the rich reap the reward. Accordingly, the city doesn’t believe in the Batman, so now this need to believe is replaced by a more aggressive and ruthless figure, Bane. "Gotham's reckoning." 

Although revolution seems to be an integral part of the story line, redemption is the outcome. I agree with Manhola Dargis’s review that “Mr Nolan doesn’t advocate burning down the world, but fixing it.” Perhaps Batman represents a return to order, which is more mutually beneficial, optimistic, and constructive than Bane’s “next chapter of Western civilization”? I suppose, in order for Gotham to “rise,” it needs a hero and for the longest time, Batman was that lone hero; however, as we see in the the climax of Nolan’s film, in which “Gotham rages and all seems lost, the action shifts from a lone figure to a group, and hope springs not from one but many.” 

Nolan has been most successful at translating the Batman mythos, because his stories are sensible. His antagonists are just as sympathetic, emotionally complex, and psychologically torn as the hero. Nolan makes the unbelievable, believable. The villains Batman is against, reveal and reflect the hypocrisy and corruption of the protagonists, himself. Nothing is ever absolute, a true superhero story for the postmodern era. The responsibility for the next director of any Batman franchise will be great. Nolan has left his story satisfyingly "closed," but not enough so that it cannot be opened again by future storytellers.

Despite the subtle nuances between the Joker and Batman as both “freaks,” and of Bane and Batman being trained by the same League of Shadows - Batman still remains different from these villains in that he remains steadfastly attached to one moral imperative, to never kill. Batman may use the same tools as the League of Shadows (and those greedy asshole capitalists that control Wayne Enterprises); however, it is how he uses these tools and for what outcomes that make him the true hero Gotham deserves.