The fact that America’s body politic has a cold violent edge should come to no one’s surprise given the nearly daily reminders through the news, television and film. America is rather notorious for the regularity of its violence, its strange preoccupation with violence, how the violent act constitutes an important cultural form, an act integral to America’s sense of being. As a nation, America has an ostensible democracy, which would imply the action of collective movement. But the American national character is also influenced by a second, and I would argue, stronger ethic inscribed by the logic of power. It’s not an ethic inscribed in its Constitution, but rather found in the habitual traits of its culture exemplified in its history and folk literature. It is a tragic contradiction in the American soul to hold up the ideal of democratic self-governance on the one hand and yet at the same time herald an ownership society bent on private gain and technological progress. In this contradiction is the passion of the American imagination, which, I argued in part one, is in the main, a conservative quest.
This ethic relies on the invention of private property and the entitlement which is implied by ownership. This entitlement is lauded by the political right as a sacred, and is backed up by the threat,or the implementation, of brute force which is integral to its cultural logic.
It’s this exercise, the employment of violence by the vigilante class that I will look at here. It’s a vital story in the American imagination, exemplified by American folklore and culture through numerous films replaying these mythic themes, is dominated by a celebration of the violent act guided by a hero in command of the arts of violence. It is, in essence, best exemplified by a national myth-ideology of the American hero which fills American folklore and literature, which historically takes form in a righteous vigilante character form which is key to our notions of American selfhood in all of its flag-waving bluster and rugged individualism. It’s expressed today as the cause celebre of American conservatism at home and to a degree characterizes America’s self-appointed role as the global constable bringing order a chaotic world. At the core of this character is the belief that violence is necessary to keep the peace, and assert the exceptionalism of the victorious conservative culture.
This is the second essay in a trilogy on the vigilante character of American conservativism. Part one explored the rhetorical significance of political violence employed by the American right. The following explores further the character of the conservative American hero from dime novel westerns and detective stories to film noir to the ever popular super hero genre. There emerges the quintessential American hero drawing from all of these action genres the singular influence of Batman.
The Vigilante Culture
If we could do a symbolic philology of the essential American heroic type, extracting a core sample of the heroic forms, we would start with our modern urban superhero like Batman, and then dig a little further back to Dick Tracy and the Shadow, back to Mike Hammer and Phillip Marlowe. Back when most of the country was rural, the mean streets were in the mean frontier with horseback heroes like Wyatt Earp and Buffalo Bill and then going back to General Custer and Davy Crocket, Daniel Boone and Hawkeye, individual heroes forging American strength out of the chaos of the frontier. It’s a story told again and again, like an incantation of the heroic American being.
In the calculus of this licensing of extrajudicial violence, there is a culture where the vigilante hero is championed in American culture. Though, this hero has in his own story, a duel identity which demonstrates that not only is the vigilante hero an expert at violence, but that the execution of violence is best when kept under wraps. The enforcement of property laws and class division, when executed by a masked vigilante dramatizes a scene of a society that implicitly understands that the culture is based on, and maintained by, violence, yet has to maintain the parallel knowledge that there exists an open democratic society that is there to privately sanction and disavow this mission if necessary.
D.H. Lawrence may had this heroic ideal in mind when he described in Studies in Classical American Literature, “But have there the myth of the essential white America. All the other stuff, the love, the democracy, the flourishing into lust, is sort of a by-play. The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted”
It’s a description that befits Batman, the most popular expression of the masked vigilante since the Great Depression. Batman is, of course needs no elaborate introduction, Bruce Wayne, a billionaire mogul of immense inherited wealth who maintains this dual identity as a means to enforce class hierarchy, but does so with a “dark knight” persona in which he can bend and break the law, that has license to fight dirty with those who fight dirty, who fight savage. A man who lurks in the dark with criminal, but is not one. He is a vigilante, unbound by the rules and bureaucracy of jurisprudence which hampers the swift arm of justice. In the Batman lore, the police in large part have learned to look the other way. The police in fact, help sanction Batman by surrendering to circumstances where they are against the boundaries of their jurisdiction or ability and call for the expert power of extrajudicial violence.
When Bruce Wayne takes on the persona of Batman, he becomes a killer elite working in the shadows, the urban jungle replacing the wild, wild west of American folklore. According to cultural historian Richard Slotkin, in the lore of the Western, there is the tradition of the “man who knows Indians,” who is a kind of elite gunslinger and hunter/hero figure who acts as a kind of commando for the community. “The man who knows Indians” is the rugged individualist and frontiersman who has either spent time with Indians, has learned the Apache language, studied hunting, tracking, the terrain, and can be an advisor to other figures. This is a key character form in the American imagination, a character who straddles two worlds – European culture with all its reason, modernity, technology, and the savage frontier with its passion, folkways, tribalism. The American is a hybrid of these character types, not completely one or the other but something new. The origins of this character are Daniel Boone, settler of wild Kentucky in the early 1800s, which influenced the James Fennimore Cooper’s Hawkeye Stories (The Last of the Mohicans being the most famous). Real life drifted into fiction which drifted into the legends of cultural consciousness, as this character type endured. Later figures of this hero type are Davy Crocket, General Custer, Wild Bill Cody, Kit Carson, and later a collection of John Wayne-type characters in films like Stagecoach, Rio Bravo, Fort Apache and The Searchers.
“The man who knows Indians” is a character who understands the “savagery” of the primitives and in commando-like fashion, gives civilization license to fight as savagely as their imagination of the other allows them to. It’s the cultural logic behind phenomena like The Dirty Dozen, or in comics, The Suicide Squad: it takes a bad guy to understand the bad guys, to fight like a savage. This license to “fight dirty” gives the hero to fight a guerilla war far different than the big machine style of formal combat observed in European warring in the 18th and 19th centuries.
This ideology in part lead to the brutal use of force in Vietnam like that most famously documented in the My Lai Massacre. Nick Turse’s recent book Kill Everything that Moves assiduously documents that these savage and indiscriminate war crimes were much more common than anyone previously knew or admitted – a history too long to recall at length here. And that is part of the doubling function of American hidden, savage violence – it’s compartmentalized from ordinary daily consciousness, left to the shadows of the mind beyond the savage curtain. It becomes the stuff of nightmares, popping up in a character like Rambo, who is psychically tortured by violence and is repeatedly thrust back into battle as a one man wrecking crew, a savage commando, a “man who knows Indians” type of rugged American hero sent back to rescue the forgotten, restore honor through violence.
American cinema continues to manufacture this cultural trope long after the popularity of the Western has waned. The savage frontier of Indians in the collective imagination has transferred itself to an urban landscape where the inner streets are considered places of tribal barbarism, drugs and thugs. From open ranges to mean streets. It’s this environment where the urban gunslinger, the hard-boiled detective finds his wild west. From Raymond Chandler stories to the exploits of Elliot Ness and Dick Tracy employ not just detective skills, but swift vengeance. In the case of comic-writer-turned-novelist Mickey Spillane’s hero Mike Hammer, he concocted a tough detective hero who was explicitly anti-communist, finding in pinkos an enemy whom he took gleeful sadistic pleasure in killing. Hammer was much more brutally violent character than the heroes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. This goes hand in glove with some of the propaganda comics at the time. However most of these stories like those of Dick Tracy, which has similar origins to Batman, where the enemy gangsters of the inner city are depicted as physically decrepit and morally repugnant creatures.
Cinema of the 1970s took the hard inner city crime fighting hero with films like Dirty Harry, Death Wish, Assault on Precinct 13, The Warriors, The French Connection, and Taxi Driver. The transfer of the frontier setting couldn’t have been made clearer than in Paul Newman’s Fort Apache: The Bronx. It’s here where Batman finds his home as well – a civilized man by day, and a man who understands the streets at night, ready in nightshade identity, to tame the town from a tireless onslaught of savagery.
In Batman’s struggle, he isn’t fighting explicitly against an underclass, but against the marginalized grotesqueries of a class of misanthropic madmen. Batman comics are conspicuous in their absence of class consciousness, preferring instead for a red in blood and sharp in tooth conservative fantasy of law and order. Criminals in Batman’s world are psychos of one kind or another, their motives apparently generated from pure chaos, or what bourgeois sentiments call “mere anarchy.” It views organized crime as not the acts of an underclass benefiting from black markets, nor connected to larger economic or sociocultural factors, but the lunatic acts of heavily pathologized individuals in the Penguin, Joker, Riddler, Bane and so forth. Batman’s villains are destined for the asylum, not just prison. This is what bourgeois crime literature has done – erased class consciousness entirely and replaced it with formal abstractions of villainy. As Slotkin writes, these crimefighting narratives in American dime novels is
… projected into a mythic space disconnected from the political culture of specific, embattled communities, in which the moral and political referents points are always generic and national rather than specific or local. Because it exists only to conceive and purvey public fantasies, the same producing community that indulges the outlaw’s dream of resistance entertains the detective’s dream of ordered progress.” And again, just as the hunter hero/commando understands the savage Indian, the urban crimefighting detective defends the social order “in the style of the outlaw.” (Gunfighter Nation, 154)
This is particularly true of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight and Batman: Year One, which present Bruce Wayne as a borderline madman so bloodthirsty for revenge that one wonders if he’s the real villain and perhaps the Joker is the hero. Miller’s Batman is the stuff of noir and pulp detective novels, casting the caped crusader in stark conservative contrast against a mad, paranoiac world, a kind of Hobbesian vision where the uncultured, impulsive masses are prone to violent acting out and must be brought to heel by an equally mad vigilante. The message being that without law and order, people cannot regulate themselves and will get at each other’s throats – an age-old conservative fear demonstrated recently in a series of The Purge movies. Or in how Fox News gins up nightmares about “looters” who “destroy their own community.” The message – without a masculine, white, capitalist order, the sort of Hobbesian divine right of the bourgeois class, society is inherently a Lord of the Flies scenario.
Batman’s power here is his expertise at committing violence. He spends his money not just to maintain his security, but to manufacture gadgets so he can perform his expert violence and suppress the psychos threatening the social order. He does not spend his billions to change society but to suppress psychos. Aside from the Fresh Prince’s Uncle Phil, I can’t think of another fictional American character who has an English butler, which reinforces all the more the insistence on maintaining bourgeois class relations.
Batman, like most superheroes, is purely reactionary, and thus demonstrates the basic conservativism of superhero narratives. As David Graeber writes in A Utopia of Rules,
“The basic plot takes the following form: a bad guy – maybe a crime boss, more often a powerful supervillain – embarks on a project of world conquest, destruction, theft, extortion, or revenge. The hero is alerted to the danger and figures out what’s happening. After trials and dilemmas, at the last possible minute, the hero foils the villain’s plans. The world is returned to normal until the next episode when the exact same thing happens once again.”
What is striking to me is that fans of Batman have nothing in common with that hero – not his billions, and not his gadgets. But find themselves nevertheless supporting the tactics of Batman. Bruce Wayne is no outlaw hero, or populist hero of the Robin Hood, Jesse James, Pancho Villa, Zorro type. He represents the elite instrumentality of bourgeois violence. But, then again, so do most superheroes, who are purely reactionary.
In Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, we get a pretty clear example of the conservative narrative of society. Here, remarkably presaging the whole Edward Snowden whistleblowing the NSA surveillance dragnet affair, Batman choses to create a massive surveillance system to spy on Gotham so he can locate the Joker’s terrorists. This is highly illegal and Wayne’s obsession is questioned. But what is implied in the theme of the movie is that society has to be protected by clandestine extralegal forces, and that a bargain with this surplus of violence is necessary for society, and that people don’t really want to know everything that’s going on behind the scenes and sort of conspire themselves to look away. That Batman, as a reactive vigilante with a dark twisted Hobbesian view of society, a sub-personality of a billionaire, is so popular among the masses demonstrates how plugged into the conservative vigilante ideology America remains.
As if this analogy were not enough, The Dark Knight Rises is a further demonstration of Batman’s conservativism as Gotham is taken over again by agents of chaos, this time from terrorist Bane. Bane traps the whole police force underground while holding Gotham hostage with a nuclear bomb, freeing all the prisoners. Graber believes the plot is an artistic response to the efforts of Occupy Wall Street, which was occurring around the time of filming. Protestors were dispersed from public spaces while at the same time other public spaces were cleared of traffic for the sake of film production. It’s fitting that the climactic battle between Batman and Bane occurs on the steps of the New York Stock Exchange – the Caped Crusader flying in at the last second to preserve the hub of capitalism.
This hearkens to an old royalist belief in society dating back to at least Plato’s Republic. The idea being that the vulgar demos cannot understand anything complicated, are driven by fear, or lack education to know what’s really in their best interest. For Plato, this meant society should be led by the “philosopher kings,” educated elites who would act in the public’s best interest because they were too daft themselves. To appease the public meant to give to them “noble lies.” There are other versions of this basic idea. And usually it served to help maintain the hierarchies of the racial and class order. A more recent example is the political philosophy of Leo Strauss, of mid-century University of Chicago, one of the founding thinkers for the neoconservative movement. Strauss’s idea of an American philosopher king was part Perry Mason, part Marshall Dylan, meaning a man who could outwit and out-argue, perhaps with benevolent lies, and part noble town sheriff who managed the tools of violence. The noble lie then being that the public lived in a democracy, but was in fact more so controlled by the deep security state, the hush-hush realm of the killer elite.
This is how the security state views war – people are reluctant to go to war, so you have to push the a bit. This is key to the plot of John Wayne’s disastrous The Alamo. Wayne made this movie as an attempt at a history lesson for Americans to tell them what their forebears fought for. Wayne as Davy Crocket, lies to his Tennessean men, telling them that he’s leading them on a “hunting expedition” to Texas rather than into war with Mexico’s President-General Santa Anna. Halfway through the film, the ruse is exposed and the men, after discovering they were deceived by Crockett, decide he was precisely right to deceive them and that now they gleefully take up arms next to him to confirm his tricks were noble, giving popular consent to the deceit. It’s a rather paternalistic act, like a father tricking his children into eating their vegetables, and good children are thankful for it. The implicit belief is that there is someone nearby who not only knows better, but who can act quickly, effectively, and securely, like gods or parents, to protect the collective children. We are told we are to be thankful for these paternalistic guardians of the world, and to respect them when they act to protect the secure state.
The heroic elite preserving the world order work in secret. They might even live right next door. There are a surprising number of fictive imaginings in popular culture about his precise phenomenon that go something like this. There is an ordinary world where there is a relatively tranquil world of work, consumerism, and family life and so on. And then you realize that your neighbor, friend, boss or significant other is either a superhero, a super mutant, or a super spy with a super secret destiny involving the elite arts of violence. So we have True Lies, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Alias, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, The Incredibles, Bourne Identity, Heroes, Knight and Day, Taken, Wanted, Red, Green Lantern, The X-Men, The Avengers, Kingsman, Neighborhood Watch, Guardians of the Galaxy and many others. The message being, you may look like a regular Joe, but you may have hidden powers with which you too must have great social responsibility.
In addition to the myth of the secret fraternal order of the killer elite, in other cases the heroes are not patrician other-worldly elites like Aquaman, Thor, Wonder Woman and Superman, sent from another realm to preserve the world from an external threat, but represent a class of heroes who have to transcend the day to day world to join a fraternity of killer elite. To work and act in secret, employing the arts of violence to preserve society from the walls. The idea is articulated well in a conversation at a park bench were K is recruiting J in Men in Black, and has a speech about how the normal world cannot know about aliens because they would just panic, so they have to both work on and keep the knowledge of aliens a secret.
The fact that our culture keeps coming to this theme, particularly when Marvel and DC are dominating Hollywood production budgets and tent pole films, shows how strong of a cultural investment there is in the idea of the salvific power of elites. We look to political heroes with messianic longing – whether in the image of Obama or Trump – showing that we are less electing a political figure than a magical hero, a kind of celebrity culture of elected monarchs who can reshape the world by royal decree. It’s a longing that is precisely undemocratic, portrays no sense of power within communities, just power given to authorities who are either lionized or resented for their power. Our lone superhero folklore does not champion populism or community action, we’d rather a Superman.
In Keith Spencer’s Salon article “Superhero Films are Bad for Democracy,” gathered a number of comments from upset comic geeks, none of which successfully refuted the basic thesis. And there is a good reason for that, the superhero pastiche as a celebrated type of story, is inextirpable from the underlying conservativism of vigilante violence that is integral to the American social chainmail. This fascination with secret heroes in the post-9/11 era represent a culturally conservative baseline to preserve the social order. The power of these heroes is purely reactive one, knights of a secret order to maintain social status quo from forces which would see to disrupt it. It is a story repeated over and over in these narratives. Spider-man was three times rebooted to reinforce this narrative. The latest Spider-man actually featuring Tom Holland’s version of the character using his web-making trick to foil the plans of ATM thieves. Spider-man is now the privatized security force of Wells Fargo. One comment said Spencer’s claim was false, that superheros cannot be blamed on a neoliberal conspiracy because … Beowulf. This misses the mark because it’s neoliberalism that has the effect of re-creating a global aristocracy which is the real conspiracy. Our resurging fascination with elites, our worship of vigilantes, elite killers, celebrities, the super wealthy, are all parts of the defense of late capitalism against the suppressed forces of the underclass which, if activated, would seek to change.
It begs the question if you really did have Superman’s powers, and were basically invincible, what would you do? How about addressing the climate change thing? Or global poverty? Or hunger? Or disgusting wealth inequality? Or dirty fuels? Or dams? Or the giant patch of floating plastic the size of Texas sitting in the Pacific? Or nuclear weapons? But no, none of these superheroes function this way. None of them are attuned with actual problems that have any similarity to real life. Instead, mystified demons from other worlds, alien megalomaniacs, and psychos who “want to watch the world burn,” are created to generate conflict for the hero to restore the capitalist status quo from one externalized crisis or another. As literary critic Frederic Jameson famously noted, “it has become easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” Indeed, our daily dose of superhero mania compulsively fills a longing to preserve the world from “forces of darkness” somewhere … out there. None of these narratives question the injustice of the world, or the state, itself. (1)
Another one of the comments on his essay was that superhero stories are just that, about super heroes, and that a story must identify with a main protagonist. Hence, most narratives are built around the action and character growth of the individual. This is basically true of heroic literature in general. But one must keep in mind the history of heroic folklore typically revolved around the happenings and doings of nobles in either dynastic or aristocratic lineages from Odysseus to Beowolf to Hamlet and so on. One explanation for this is in these cultures, only nobles really are treated with full subjectivity and are worthy of stories. Folklore usually begins with a prince or princess, or animals who are actually cursed nobles who need to be made human again, or as in the case of Cinderella, becomes a full person when she’s mistaken for a noble. Even the first novel, Don Quixote, is about a man who longs to be a knight as in the folk literature of Arthurian legends. Nobility, in this case, is the ticket to full subjectivity, worthy of literary thought.
It wasn’t until the modern era and after the American and French revolutions that a new class created a social consciousness of another class of people, expanding notions of human subjectivity and heroism. This is the gift of the 18th and 19th centuries. Early in the 20th century, there was a full fledged attempt to create a collective sense of human subjectivity with the international labor movement, the progressive age.
In the US, labor was violently derailed, but it was successful in the Soviet revolution of 1917. It’s worthwhile to note that there were attempts at collectivist art, and Soviet art for one valorized the honest work of collective action. In the films of Sergei Eisenstein like Strike!, Oktober, and The Battleship Potemkin, it is hard to pick out who is even the lead actor. Instead, Eisenstein focuses his camera on the action of groups of people working together. Idolizing individuals would detract from the important message. A democracy should function closer to this mode, representing the work of collected individuals. It was a form of heroic aesthetic that would not find full support in the West, however, which defined heroism in direct opposition to this ethic.
This collectivist heroic ethic has yet to find full expression in literature in the modern world. I suspect that the prevailing hegemonic narrative not only resists class consciousness, but its in large measure culpable for promoting it’s individualistic heroic ethic of entrepreneurs and gunslingers preserving the hierarchical order.
In the next and final part of this trilogy on violence and the essentially conservative American spirit, I look again to the dual nature of vigilantism. About how the violence used to establish law and the state is potentially so toxic and dangerous, society must compartmentalize the culture between violence and peace, and keep its founding vigilantes on the fringes of the social order.
(1) It’s interesting to note that the comics did an interesting experiment with Superman called Red Son, which imagined the super baby landing in mid-century Soviet Union. His enemies are all American. Lex Luthor marries Lois Lane, and Superman is a public servant battling the forces of American imperialism in between saving some trains or other industrial catastrophes. The irony is that he becomes an idol of the nation which does not promote individualism but instead, at least ostensibly, collective action.