The moral critique of democracy in The Dark Knight

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.

9 Responses

  1. […] The moral critique of democracy in The Dark Knight […]

  2. Democracy and monarchy are not inherently comparable with each other, nor are they direct competitors because they are selection mechanism for different kinds of leadership jobs. Democrats want to elect a manager basically, a Richelieu. Monarchists want partially an authority figure who does not run things directly but merely ensures everybody else does their proper job, and partially an arbiter of justice.

    For the former job, election might not necessarily be the worst method. Don’t customers indirectly elect corporate CEO’s? Can a Richelieu type manager do his job without at least some popularity?

    For the later job, well,

    The core issue today is that we don’t really understand the difference between direct management vs. justice arbitration.

    Suppose I would be rich and decide to do practically zero fathering, hiring nannies and tutors to raise our kids. The nannies and teachers will know far more about the technical details of how to raise kids well than I do. Despite me holding the highest authority in the family, it would be stupid for me to meddle or override them on professional, technical grounds i.e. that they are not doing something technically right, because they know it better than I do. However I can, even without any professional knowledge in the field of education, be an arbiter of justice between the children and the nanny or tutor, and to be so would still be my job as the head of the family. Justice is not really such a complicated philosophical problem. Enforce the keeping of explicit promises clearly and the keeping of implicit promises with some tact and leeway and you are pretty much there.

    The direct manager needs to have professional knowledge and democracy seems to be a way of selecting for that, although not an ideal way. The arbiter of justice and the authority figure is not a direct manager, needs no professional / field knowledge and thus needs not be elected.

    The Botmon isn’t an expert on criminal law or police procedures. If you want one, maybe you better elect one. The Botmon just enforces justice and that requires no election.

  3. I would think that any widely successful modernist critique of democracy would be followed up with a push towards an Obama banana-republic dictatorship. Christian kings would be great but that’s not what we’d get. Things can get worse.

  4. How about a middle-brow edition of your blog, where all the really cool stuff you say is in a form that more than a couple thousand people can understand?

  5. BTW, I don’t think I would hesitate to seize the detonator and blow up the ship full of bad guys. (I did not see the movie.) I’m tired of endless moral nuances and quibbles, such as those aimed at Ann Barnhardt’s recent demolition of the N.O. I find myself admiring men of action, eg Trump, El Chapo, Putin, Hitler, ISIS, the two escaped convicts in NY, and our host, who said a while ago that there are times when the visceral understanding is nobler than the reasoned argument. I don’t believe God intended for us to lose because we couldn’t reach a consensus about what to do.
    Kill the enemy. That’s my solution.

  6. The movie Gone Baby Gone provides a sophisticated treatment of the impulse to vigilantism in the face of social decay and institutional incapacity to produce desirable outcomes.

  7. […] #NRx Best of the Week Honorable Mention☀. Two more fine pieces from him: The moral critique of democracy in The Dark Knight and Warrior babes: Must men lie even about what we find sexually attractive?. The dude is just a […]

  8. Bonald, on the topic of moral critiques in film, I recently saw a horror movie called “It Follows,” a low-budget indy film with excellent cinematography. The basic premise concerns a sexually-transmitted curse which draws the attention of a shape-shifting demon/monster/thing (invisible to the un-cursed), which will forever walk toward the cursed person at a slow pace with the intent of killing it once caught up to it. The only escape from it is to pass the curse on sexually, and even that is no guarantee: once the monster kills its current victim, it once again pursues the person previously “in line.”

    Lots of people are seeing an STD/HIV metaphor in the monster but, to my mind, it is clearly an allegory for the moral corruption and tendency toward exploitation into which the sexual revolution inaugurates children, and the consequent loss of wholesome, innocent joy and self-giving love which this entails.

    It helps that the movie is really, really scary.

  9. […] about this before regarding Disney movies (see here, here, here, and here), My Little Pony, and Batman.  The affirmation of official pieties, when present at all, seems perfunctory, while monarchist […]

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