I’ve showed before that movies have been a surprisingly good medium for showing (good movies never argue or explain) the case for monarchy. Let us consider whether they also can be used to show what’s wrong with democracy. On the one hand, there are plenty of movies about the corruptness of the political establishment (e.g. Mr. Smith goes to Washington), but such movies don’t argue that democracy is inherently bad–just that we need more men like Mr. Smith who can resist the corruption that mysteriously comes over every other mortal who goes to Washington. (Compare, some of the best pro-monarchy movies are about bad kings and good subjects, as I argue in the link above. Democracy claims to remove the ruler/subject distinction and to dispose with personal loyalty, so it can’t make this same dramatic move, but democracy is very good at positing shadowy “special interests” to blame for its inevitable failings.) One can also point to movies where a courageous individual defies the majority. While these movies show that the voice of the people is certainly not the voice of God, they don’t prove democracy to be worse than any other form of government. Courageous men should defy evil orders from either mobs or kings.
A moral argument against impersonal government like democracy is that no one is ultimately responsible for the actions of the polis. Representatives are accountable to the people, not God, and the people are accountable to no one. One sees this critique in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.
The message is hidden by an apparent disavowal–namely by putting it first into the mouth of Harvey Dent, who everyone knows is going to become a villain. Dent can see that Gotham City is sliding into a lawlessness that the elected government lacks the willpower to combat, and he alludes to the Roman practice of appointing a dictator in times of crisis. His girlfriend retorts that this eventually brought down the Republic (which in turn, as minimally educated viewers will know, inaugurated centuries of prosperity). At this point, viewers are probably reminded of Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith. (“But Anakin, what about democracy!?” Oh, yeah–feel the stupid.) What’s more, Dent calls the Joker a “terrorist”, linking him in the audience’s mind with George W. Bush, who everyone knew was the second coming of Hitler.
This exoteric message doesn’t work though. Dent’s fall is a result of personal misfortune and has nothing to do with the corruptions of power. More importantly, the movie ends with Commissioner Gordon essentially repeating Dent’s insight that Gotham can only be saved if a single person takes responsibility for it, only he identifies Batman as the person on whom this responsibility has fallen. Batman is a scapegoat, in that he is only able to take responsibility for the city (in the sense of doing the unpleasant and dangerous things needed to maintain a livable social order) because Gotham has relieved itself of taking responsibility for him. This forcefully illustrates the corruption of the populace in its general retreat into blind procedure, individualism, and fantasy, so typical of democracies.
The really shocking thing is that Nolan chooses as the climax of the whole movie a thought experiment on the moral inferiority of democracy. The Joker has placed explosives on two large ferries, both stuck in the water: one filled with ordinary people, the other with convicted criminals and a handful of guards. Each learns that it has been given a detonator to the other boat; each thus has the power to save themselves by killing everyone on the other boat before those on the other boat do the same to them. If neither side detonates the other in a fixed time, the Joker promises to destroy them both.
On the “innocent” boat, one man is clamoring to use the detonator and save themselves at the expense of mere criminals. The boat’s officers conduct a vote among the passengers to decide what to do. This is the proper democratic thing to do, and, as always, “the people” feel justified in being collectively selfish, voting to save their skins. The interesting thing, though, is that no individual is willing to carry out the vote. The ship’s officers refuse to do such a thing. Even the very man most insistent on using the detonator finds himself unable to do it when given the chance. It was one thing to be a member of the mass, even a member loudly advising it. When the decision actually falls on one’s individual head, things appear in a different light. One then feels oneself as an individual soul standing before the judgment of God. One’s sense of personal honor rises to the front. In fact, we see on the convicts’ ship that even the most hardened criminal may scorn trying to save his life in this way. Nolan is arguably being romantic in this scene–although I loved it–yet the point stands that a man assumes his full moral stature only by standing apart from a democratic mass. Here the recurring message of the film shows forth most clearly. A system must either force someone to take personal responsibility or it will involve everyone in moral corruption.
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