Towards a Useful Taxonomy of American Politics

A brief guide to having more useful observations of, and conversations about, politics.

Hey it was the best I could find, okay?
Hey it was the best I could find, okay?

Normally, when I write about politics, I choose to translate my views into the language that most folks use. I do this because I figure it makes my writing more accessible and because I haven’t bothered to sit down and write out an alternative guide to understanding and describing the myriad ways that the intersection of politics and psychology creates each person’s political views. With the recent, shocking resolution of the 2016 election, I think that the time is right to go ahead and write this out. With any luck a few folks may be persuaded to describe politics – their own and others’ – in terms that have more to do with reality and less to do with an utterly contrived duality that does no good for nobody no how.

The terms ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ have become useless

One of my many informal life teachers once said “I don’t know if I believe anything is literally true anymore, but I know there are more and less useful ways of thinking about things.” In my own little social bubble, I know at least two people who proudly identify as ‘conservative’ and agree on almost nothing. Certainly I know dozens of folks who would identify as ‘liberal’ – or be identified by others as ‘liberal’ – and spent most of the last election cycle arguing vigorously with each other. So why does anybody use these terms?

The human psyche always offers the temptation to think of some folks as The Other, dehumanize them with a simple label, and then blame and demonize them for whatever we don’t like. Humans also seem to be especially susceptible to contrived dualities – Thing A versus Thing B – even if the duality doesn’t really exist. This is especially tempting to do in American politics because of our two-party dominated system. While parliamentary democracies offer voters many different parties to vote for – and thus many different labels to choose from – the American system really just gives you two choices. Even if you support a third party, most folks look at that as “would-be Democrat votes Green” or “would-be Republican votes Libertarian” with the former still being considered liberal and the latter still being considered conservative. Even if you try to escape the two-party system with your vote, your viewpoint is still subsumed by the liberal/conservative duality. Bummer.

It is this false duality, more so than the two-party system, that causes a lot of the frustration that voters feel when they try to grapple with American politics. Politicians who call themselves ‘conservative’ currently tend to have a radical approach to both policy and conduct in office, e.g. the Senate GOP blatantly violating the constitution (Article II, section 2, paragraph 2) by failing to advise and consent on a Supreme Court nominee. Whereas liberals get into office and tend to be cautious about the pace of change, e.g. Obamacare being constructed in a way that balanced getting people new health insurance against not messing with the health insurance most folks already have. Plenty of GOP voters were appalled at the party’s obstruction in the Senate, but more GOP voters seem to have liked it (certainly the donors did). Many Democrat voters were glad to have healthcare reform pass in 2009, but many felt that Obamacare went neither far enough nor fast enough (some of us felt both).

The terms ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ then don’t really seem to consistently describe anyone or anything in American politics. Instead they lead to thinking in false dualities, encourage tribalism, and produce a lot of disappointment. Worse still, these labels have become an obstacle to American citizens understanding each other and working towards common purpose because folks are voting based on these labels and not based on public policy. So let’s find something better.

How TLP think about politics in America (and other places)

Remembering that we are not trying to achieve a political taxonomy that is literally true, but instead we are trying to find one that is very useful, we can get there by asking two questions, each of which has three possible answers:

What is this person’s general attitude toward the future? (reactionary, liberal, progressive)

At what pace does this person want that attitude to be implemented as policy? (conservative, moderate, radical)

You can also just think of this as a matter of course and speed, but I think the bit about the future is important. Being alive and participating in civilization is terrifying. As much as we love to argue about the past and future, the present is an uncomfortable and unknowable thing in which we all watch what we’re doing become both immediate past and future. We don’t know how things are going to work out, but we have to make decisions, and those decisions are largely shaped by forces beyond our control. America’s past has always been a violent white supremacist patriarchy, and America’s future has always been a peaceful, liberated, pluralistic society.

It’s not entirely that simple, but for now let’s say it is, and move on to answering the first question: What is this person’s general attitude toward the future?

If the person in question has an attitude of “I want the past back” or even just “fuck that future I don’t like it,” then they are a reactionary. If their attitude is more along the lines of “well the future is coming along on its own, let’s just try to get along with each other while it gets here,” then they are liberal. If their attitude is something like “we see the future and we want to make it happen,” then they are progressive.

Either before or after we assess their attitude, we can also ask about speed: At what pace does this person want their attitude implemented as policy?

If you’re listening to someone talk policy and you notice they tend to see social change as needing to happen slowly, then they are conservative. If they believe in making change through policy at a steady speed, stopping just short of triggering a backlash, then they are moderate. If they believe in making change as fast as the law allows, regardless of the ability of individuals, groups, and institutions to adapt, then they are radical. (Remember that ‘change’ here is a relative term, it could mean changing society to be more liberated or changing society to be less liberated.)

Let’s apply these questions to some examples:

Mike Pence believes in electrocuting gay youths if it will make them not gay (it won’t), criminalizing reproductive health decisions made by women, and only giving police officers body cameras on the condition that nobody ever be able to see the video. Mike Pence wants to see all these things accomplished ASAP via signing laws like RFRA in Indiana and appointing activist judges to the courts. Mike Pence is a radical reactionary – he is decidedly against the future and is utterly unconcerned with the consequences of using institutions to force his views on people immediately.

President Barack Obama believes that cops should be held accountable with body cameras that the public can see footage from, that everybody should have access to affordable healthcare, and that we need to change our personal and professional lifestyles in a way that will help us keep the planet habitable for human life in the long-term. President Obama wants to see these things happen in accordance with social norms and institutional prerogatives, for example he let Congress write the Affordable Care Act with input from a wide array of think tanks and past policy proposals from both Democrats and Republicans, and made not disrupting folks’ current healthcare a priority in those efforts. President Obama is a conservative progressive.

Hillary Clinton believes most of the same things as President Obama, but had a more aggressive plan for pushing all kinds of policies through Congress and/or using Executive powers to implement those policies in a way that would bend, but not break, some political norms. Hillary Clinton is a moderate progressive.

Many Democrats in the Senate from purple or red states – e.g. Joe Donnelly – only support policies that move us towards a more liberated society if they are among those that already have broad public support and little risk of producing a cultural or political backlash. Senator Donnelly et al. are liberals, either conservative or moderate depending on just how cautious they tend to be.

Many Republicans in the House of Representatives want to move America backwards on social justice and economic mobility, but they don’t want to get into any trouble with swing voters while they do it. They try to frame things as being about “tradition” or “values” or “freedom” in order to avoid talking about the actual impacts their policies will have on actual people. These folks are reactionaries, either conservative or moderate depending on the speed at which they try to get policy implemented.

The folks in my Facebook feed who vote for the same liberal/progressive politicians that I do, but then after a loss are all saying “hey we gotta be able to get along with people we disagree with” are liberals (and also, almost certainly, white).

Folks who are Libertarians because they want everybody to be left alone are radical liberals, whereas the folks who are Libertarians because they recognize that if the government stops redistributing resources while folks like them have the most resources, then they win, are radical reactionaries.

Some of the folks who vote for the Green party, based on social and economic justice issues, are radical progressives, but folks who vote Green (or Trump) because they are opposed to free trade and want an immediate return to economic nationalism are radical reactionaries. Yes, that’s right – there are radical reactionaries on the left-wing of American politics. Pretty much anybody who looks at the world through an ideology is stuck being a reactionary as a result; a sorry fate, but not an untreatable one. But I digress.

To put it all another way: Reactionaries want to drive to the past whether you like it or not, liberals want to drive to the future as long as everybody likes it, and progressives want to drive to the future whether you like it or not. Conservatives drive by using the brake peddle or idling, moderates alternate between using the brakes and the accelerator, and radicals are pushing the gas pedal into the floorboard.

If you’ve got an example to share, or want to ask me to apply this model to classify an example you have in mind, please send an email. I will either respond directly or update this post accordingly. This system does work in other countries – in the UK, Tories tend to be conservative or moderate reactionaries, Old Labour were moderate or radical progressives (or radical reactionaries) while New Labour tended to be conservative or moderate progressives, UKIP are radical reactionaries, and the Lib Dems seem to me to be conservative and moderate liberals. This model may have even more flaws when applied to international politics than when applied to American politics. Which brings us to…

This model is useful, not flawless

Some folks, like myself, are radical progressives about any life and death political issue, but are moderate or even conservative about progress in other contexts. It seems that many Americans who voted for a conservative progressive in 2012 were nonetheless persuaded by a radical reactionary in 2016, but that is a topic to chew on in another post. Political militants – those who are willing to sidestep public policy and take up arms to force implementation of their views (e.g. the Bundy family) – aren’t really covered here, but I suppose we could just add an additional militant reactionary category and it would cover all of them, regardless of specific political views.

There are also complications on foreign policy. Non-interventionists might be progressives, or they might be reactionary isolationists, but you won’t be able to tell them apart based on their “don’t bomb people” policy alone. And then you have folks – Hillary Clinton let’s say – who are progressive on domestic issues, but seem pretty reactionary on foreign policy (alas, we’ll never really know).

This model could also be criticized for not being compatible with a number of terms already in wide use – neoliberal, neoconservative, paleoconservative, (lower-case-l) libertarian – but I consider that a feature, not a bug. Most of those terms are coined by someone not in the group, even if they are later adopted by the group, and as a result these terms tend to represent the folks they’re applied to less than they represent the view of those folks held by whoever coined the term. My favorite feature-not-a-bug of this model is that it erases so-called ‘centrists’ entirely, because those folks have no principles and just end up being handmaidens to the extremists they inevitably normalize. But I digress.

Bonus round

There is a third question that can be difficult to ask of public figures, but that is very important for successfully communicating with, or even persuading, someone you know. Call it evolution, or direction, but the question is: Where is this person’s attitude moving?

During the Democrats’ primary, the general election, and now in the aftermath of Trump’s hybrid political victory and cultural defeat, I am watching a number of folks move from moderate liberal to conservative/moderate progressive. Certainly over the last 15 years I have watched a number of Republican folks who were conservative liberals become moderate reactionaries in a somewhat subdued mirroring of the more more dramatic change to the GOP itself. You can look at Marco Rubio’s career and see he is careening to an ever more radical and ever more reactionary politics. You can look at the career of Tim Ryan, who is challenging Nancy Pelosi for leadership of the House Democrats, and see someone who is an odd mix of reactionary, liberal, and progressive and becoming ever more liberal over time.

The point of this third question is less about predicting what a politician will do and more about figuring out how to communicate with folks with whom we disagree. If I can discern one issue where a reactionary friend has a progressive inclination – police brutality/accountability for instance –  I can focus our conversations on that topic and nurture that inclination. I can learn what particular facts and presentations of those facts have persuaded this person to acknowledge that police brutality is a problem and that the lack of consequences for brutal cops is unacceptable. Then I can look for similarly presented facts about, say, healthcare or climate change or reproductive justice, to use in a future conversation with that person on those topics. Alternatively, of course, if I am watching someone become ever more reactionary over time and refuse to acknowledge or accept difficult facts from any source, I can conclude there is no chance of persuasion and not waste my time.

We need to ditch the fake duality of ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’

Whether anybody adopts the model I have described here or not, it remains the case that the current conversation about politics in this country is not only useless, but harmful. The word ‘conservative’ provides a kind of veneer of prudence to whoever and whatever it is applied to, which is a big problem in a country where that word is being applied to the most radicalized and most reactionary political movement that we have seen since the backlash to Reconstruction. People seem to understand that there is nothing ‘conservative’ about Donald Trump, but he is actually considerably closer to being an actual conservative than are Mike Pence, Paul Ryan, or Mitch McConnell. With any luck, a Trump administration will give politicians and journalists a good reason to start differentiating between reactionary and conservative. Meanwhile, to their credit, folks on the left are already reckoning hard with what ‘liberal’ does and doesn’t mean and beginning to use the term ‘progressive’ accurately and often. So that’s a good start.

Certainly the policies that impact folks’ lives should be the number one focus of political conversation. That said, it is possible that changing how we talk about politics and policy will help us better persuade folks to come around on those policies. That makes how we talk about this stuff at least as important as what we’re talking about.

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Shocked, But Not Surprised

TLP’s Mourning in America, Part 1

F*CK! (Image: Google)
F*CK! (Image: Google)

This is the first in a series of short posts attempting to grapple with and analyze the election results and, hopefully, add some value to the newly invigorated conversation about white liberalism and white supremacy in the United States of America.

There are two different kinds of white liberal reactions to Trump’s win

No doubt at this point you have seen at least one, if not a few, written or spoken takes on the phenomenon of “white liberals” being shocked and surprised by Donald Trump’s electoral college victory in the 2016 election and the accompanying victory of the GOP for control of the Senate. (And let’s be clear: Donald Trump carried the GOP to the Senate, not the other way around, but that’s for another post.) Here is an example of some white liberal dismay from Paul Krugman at the NYTimes:

We thought that the nation, while far from having transcended racial prejudice and misogyny, had become vastly more open and tolerant over time.

We thought that the great majority of Americans valued democratic norms and the rule of law.

It turns out that we were wrong. There turn out to be a huge number of people — white people, living mainly in rural areas — who don’t share at all our idea of what America is about. For them, it is about blood and soil, about traditional patriarchy and racial hierarchy. And there were many other people who might not share those anti-democratic values, but who nonetheless were willing to vote for anyone bearing the Republican label.

And then there are the criticisms of those reactions. Courtney Parker West wrote a popular piece about the privilege and problems of this white liberal shock at Trump’s win:

Dear liberal white people whom I often love: advertising your shock and surprise that racism, sexism, xenophobia, and bigotry are pervasive enough to hand that man the Presidency is a microaggression. Please stop.

Folks are encouraged to read both pieces as examples of their genres and know that there are many, many more of both along with countless tweets and status updates of the same. If you don’t like reading, then just take a few minutes to watch SNL parody the entire thing:

This is where I want to make the distinction between white liberal surprise and white liberal shock at Trump’s election. Folks like Krugman and the white characters in the SNL sketch are surprised that there is enough racism/sexism in America to elect Donald Trump, which is a sentiment that deserves to be pilloried.

That isn’t the only thing white folks might mean when we say we are shocked by Trump’s win. Plenty of white folks – myself included – are shocked by Trump’s win because an overwhelming amount of data over a period of many months said he could not win. Trump never came close to being ahead in polling in Michigan or Pennsylvania. Trump rarely had a lead in Florida and looked increasingly likely to lose North Carolina. Were there counter indicators? Sure, but only enough to justify Nate Silver’s reticence, and even his model gave Clinton better than 2:1 odds to win.

There is a difference between saying “I can’t believe there are so many racists/sexists in America” and saying “I am shocked to discover that the white supremacist vote managed to mobilize and distribute itself in a way that delivered Donald Trump 270+ electoral college votes.” There is a difference between ignorant white folks who are surprised that this could happen in America and historically aware white folks who are shocked that it just did happen and how vast are the consequences. Commentators assuming that any expression of shock is just a demonstration of willful ignorance about racism/sexism are minimizing entirely legitimate feelings of dismay felt by those of us who recognize that while the American cultural landscape was the same Wednesday November 10th as it was Monday November 8th, the political landscape has changed very dramatically and for the worse. So, yeah: please stop.

How the shock might improve so-called white liberalism

As an aside, I don’t like using the term “white liberalism” to describe all white folks who didn’t vote for Trump or are otherwise considered on the Left of American politics, but I’m going with it for now because one thing at a time.

Let’s be clear that while some white liberals are shocked, but not surprised, the folks who are surprised are almost certainly also shocked. Based on my personal experience, there is a real opportunity to use the shock that white liberals are feeling to vastly increase the personal and political empathy that we are able to generate for people of color and/or LGBTQ+ folks.

Using myself as an example: I have much greater fears for my child’s safety than I did before last Tuesday. I wonder if he is ever more likely to be shot in a random and/or mass casualty shooting because the NRA is now controlling all three branches of government. I wonder if I will live to watch him – and maybe some future grandkids – starve, or drown, or suffocate on a planet that is no longer able to support human life because congressional Republicans and President-elect Trump just can’t be bothered to science. I wonder if I will get to watch him grow up, because I have some health issues that are not-bad-unless-they-get-bad and I’m very likely about to lose the health coverage that lets me stay on top of all that.

I have the same intellectual understanding of white supremacy, patriarchy, imperialism and all that as I did before the election. My emotional awareness of what it is to live with a constant feeling of fear for my health and my child’s safety has been greatly increased by the election, though. But it won’t last. My son and I are both very privileged and could only be more so if we were wealthy and Christian, so the part of my mind that is determined to soothe me will find a way. A lot of white liberal folks might not be interested in admitting this, but it’s true: we have the option of gradually going back to not being completely freaked out and are likely to take it.

The fleeting nature of this mass white liberal shock is exactly why I think it is important not to minimize it, but rather exploit the hell out of it. There is an opportunity here for white liberals who are shocked, but not surprised, to collect ourselves a bit and help our #NotMyAmerica white liberal friends understand that #UmmYeahThisIsTotallyOurAmerica and to anchor this week or two of terror and grief as our best chance to glimpse the emotional reality that marginalized people in America have been living with every day for a long time. Intellectual understanding of the issues gets votes, but emotional resonance can actually generate activity. And activism is what is needed of us.

 

 

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Morning Memo for Thursday, September 1st, 2016

TLP’s Morning Memo is brought to you by all the circumstances that leave me with not enough time to write full length essays about these topics. Enjoy.

marked20160901_ChineseFish_Zhuangzi
MOTD

Morning Memo for Thursday, September 1st, 2016

All (okay, some of) the things in my mind I wish I had time to blog about today. Some of these things may get a full post later, but most will not. As always, many more links can be had by visiting TLP’s Facebook page.

Philosophy, Re: the Power and Impotence of Words

 

My approach to philosophy, by which I mean the ongoing pursuit and love of wisdom, has always been one of joyful or even ecstatic curiosity and enjoyment. My approach to Philosophy, by which I mean the long history of pre-existing philosophical work that one is made to study when one asks to formally study philosophy, is uhhh… …adversarial. There are good things (e.g. taoism) one can find that will hold up pretty well today, including some bits from the Western tradition like Aristotle or the Cynics. Mostly though it is men (and in Western philosophy, white men) writing from a place of privilege in a racially and culturally homogenous society that is not technologically advanced. I am increasingly interested in the problems that result.

For example, let’s talk about the MOTD quote in the image above. It is similar to the first line of the tao te ching (incidentally it is the only line that really matters) in pointing out the fundamental flaw of words, which is that they do not actually convey experience:

the tao that can be spoken of is not the true tao

That’s it. You can’t get there from here. That’s the first line! Everything that follows is an at least slightly untrue representation of tao, because tao cannot be represented. As mind fucks go, it is a good one, because interpersonally and politically, once someone realizes that what other people are saying is an imperfect attempt to describe their own experience, it gets easier to empathize, be curious, and find common ground. There is certainly still a great deal of value in the idea that words are, if not meaningless, then at least a mere stepping stone to meaning. But there is also a problem with this.

Both Laotzi and Zhuangzi wrote as Chinese men in China’s ethnically monotonous, male-dominated society of the time. Put them in a modern society with a multi-ethnic population, advanced technology, and ubiquitous information and what happens? We don’t know. They might be Trump supporters! Make the Wall Great Again! Deport the Mongols! We just don’t know.

We do know (thanks, psychology!) that words have power. Not just in the accurate-but-nonetheless-coopted-by-woo-woo-new-age-people “words shape perception and perception creates reality” kind of way, but in the oppression and social justice kind of way. For instance, here is a definition of stereotype threat:

Stereotype threat is a situational predicament in which people are or feel themselves to be at risk of conforming to stereotypes about their social group.

Stereotypes are spoken (words) both among persons and also in ways that are published and/or broadcast for mass consumption. The current body of evidence tells us that there is a real impact in marginalized folks’ lives, starting at a very early age, as a result of being exposed to stereotypes.

Another example of the power of words is #BlackLivesMatter. Just say it sometime, somewhere, and watch how fast you can find out a lot about the political and cultural inclinations of the people around you (or the people on your Facebook feed, or Snapchat, whatever). Three words that are, in the United States, radical and revolutionary and have had a dramatic impact on personal perceptions, interpersonal relationships, and increasingly on political institutions and our whole culture. And those three words are particularly powerful. They make a simple proposition, an obvious one, that should not warrant any argument – but holy shit do a lot of people argue with it anyway – and they apply to any and every situation – police brutality, criminal justice, education policy, housing policies, etc – where our society is built around the devaluing of, and violence against, black lives.

Now I will masterfully resolve this paradox between how important words can be to shaping cultural norms and personal experiences, but also their unimportance and basic meaninglessness in the face of nature and personal experiences… …just kidding! But it’s good to be thinking about.

Politics, Re: The Trump Cycle

I am pretty done with the Donald Trump Show and am spending less and less time reading, or even clicking, links related to either Donnie or his Trumpsters. I know other folks who tend to follow things pretty closely and get scared every five weeks or so when the polls appear to narrow. So I wanted to lay out the Trump Cycle, as I have seen it, to explain why I’m always saying/writing “just chill out” about Donald Trump.

Part 1 – The Escalator Pitch: Donald Trump rode down an escalator in 2015 and said Mexican immigrants are… …well he said terrible things that I don’t need to repeat. The Escalator Pitch is when Donnie is at his worst, but trying to present his best. It’s the point where polls turn against him. (This is where we are at in the cycle right now, after last night’s lawn-cross-burning-of-a-speech in Arizona.)

Part 2 – The Spiral: This is when Donnie is at his worst and not even trying to look his best. Retweeting white supremacists, saying whacko crazy shit that his spokespeople trip over themselves to defend for the 24 hours before Donnie contradicts himself again, rinse and repeat. He is just a landed, famous, flailing racist for a few days or weeks, and his poll results get even worse. (This is where we will be this weekend while his newest campaign makeover artist goes on “news” shows to soften up Wednesday’s remarks, while Donnie tweets even more extreme comments on the same and other topics.)

Part 3 – Rock Bottom: This is when Donnie is (relatively) quiet, is facing a huge landslide defeat according to polls, and sometimes is looking to fire one of his top campaign staff. First it was Lewandowski, then Manafort, and my money is on voter fraud expert – and by that I mean he is good at committing voter fraud – Steve Bannon being next. Donald’s decline in the polls slows during this time. (We should be one to three weeks away from this happening.)

Part 4 – MSM CPR: This is when the media, which needs a horserace to get viewers and/or pageviews and needs those to sell ads and needs ads to have money and needs money to… …buy stuff? Anyway this is where the so-called mainstream media resuscitates Donald Trump’s campaign by posting hilariously anti-reality articles about how Donald Trump is about to pivot and he is going to moderate himself and blah blah blah. The media does this for days, maybe even weeks, before Trump decides to inhale what they’re pumping into him, probably because he notices that when they start doing this, his decline in the polls stops. (We won’t be due for this to happen again until near the end of the month.)

Part 5 – Okie Doke: Donnie goes ahead and runs the con being set up for him by the media and says something less-than-usually-stupid about foreign affairs, or maybe makes a less-than-usually-hateful comment about immigration, or maybe even gives a speech from a teleprompter without calling more than a few people names. Now all those pundits can write about how he might be able to win, getting their ad-revenue-inducing pageviews by playing on your fear of the end of the Republic. Donnie’s core Trumpsters are mostly fine with his seemingly moderating about a topic, whatever it is, because their support for him is not about policy it is about white identity and besides at this point they’re in on the con. Donnie’s national poll numbers tick up slightly and het gets closer to competitive in a couple states because he is reaching the voters who think and vote based on white identity politics, but they don’t want to see themselves or be seen that way. (We were just here yesterday.)

Now it is a big media ecosystem and there is lag between how each part of the cycle runs, such that you might have the Okie Doke poll bounce happening even while some media outlets are still pushing a comeback narrative and one campaign spokesperson is still on TV explaining something from The Spiral even while another campaign mouthpiece is being shown the door. But the complexity and overlap are all the more reason to step back and take the longer view of the whole thing. Avoid the coverage. He is just doing the same thing over and over again and the overall trend is towards Donnie losing the electoral college vote in a huge way. Or YUUUUUGE, as they say.

Nerd stuff, Re: New Westworld trailer is much more interesting, also NSFW

Nerd stuff is lite today, but here is a trailer for HBO’s new sci-fi show Westworld:

 

This trailer simultaneously makes me more excited to see the show and also more concerned it will, like so many other recent TV shows, just be too harsh for me.

Image of the Day

Mmm, word play, mmm.
ViolinsWillNeverSolveAnything_GemmaCorrell

(Image is also a link to the artist’s website)

Enjoy your day

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Have a question, comment, or request for one of these thoughts to become a whole blog post? Send an email, comment on Facebook, or tweet on Twitter. There is also Tumblr and the comment field below, if you’re into that kind of thing. 

Morning Memo for Wednesday, August 31st, 2016

TLP’s Morning Memo is brought to you by all the circumstances that leave me with not enough time to write full length essays about these topics. Enjoy.

LionDadCub1

Morning Memo for Wednesday, August 31st, 2016

All (okay, some of) the things in my mind I wish I had time to blog about today. Some of these things may get a full post later, but most will not. As always, many more links can be had by visiting TLP’s Facebook page.

Philosophy, Re: Eudaimonian Parenting

Aristotle’s moral philosophy is referred to as the Nichomachean Ethics, the ten scrolls on the subject Aristotle wrote and dedicated to his father and/or son, Nichomachus. (Such a better dad than Plato!) I can’t get behind everything in there – e.g. Aristotle’s disdain for, and confusion about why people like, mental/physical ecstasy – but for the most part I maintain that an Aristotelian approach to behavior and relationships is a good thing, particularly in the context of a taoist view of the universe, nature, and life itself. The central concept (and goal) of Aristotle’s ethical system is eudaimonia, which basically means “human flourishing,” and if anyone has yet come up with a better concept to put at the center and horizon of thinking about human behavior, I haven’t heard about it. (This statement is not made cavalierly, but after years of reading about and debating the various and sundry objections to a wellness-centric morality and finding all such arguments to be lacking merit, or lacking a coherent alternative organizing principle for ethics, or both.)

I tend to spend a lot of time philosophizing about what I am doing and the last few years that has involved a lot of philosophizing about parenting and/or being a father. As my son gets to an age where he is beginning to really have his own personality, his own evolving personal relationship to suffering/pleasure, and an increasingly complicated set of material, emotional, and social preferences that interact with all that, I find myself increasingly looking for how I can synthesize my longterm, or big picture, parenting choices that are focused on his excellence (diet, education, exercise/activity, sociopolitical awareness, emotional intelligence & mastery, etc) with the short term, one-day-at-a-time focus on happiness. In other words, I try to figure out how each day we are together can be both immediately enjoyable and also fulfill longterm goals, and it is an interesting back and forth. (This is probably just a fancy way of describing what most parents are doing most of the time.)

For example, breakfast: We eat the same thing for breakfast everyday, unless there is some occasion not to (have to leave the house early, decide to go out to eat, etc). Since the breakfast rarely involves sugar, but rather a mix of greens, fruit, and protein, this was not – compared to, say, donuts – “immediately enjoyable” for my son when we started. I initially had to be very affirming and even entertaining about the eating of the protein and greens, but now when I put the food in front of him he just eats it – greens and protein first, usually. He says “mmmmm” and increasingly asks for more eggs. And our days got even better as a result of this, because protein in the morning really is important both physically and mentally. He even drinks tea with me now, which is just delightful.

Eating the same, healthy breakfast every morning is one of the best things I’ve learned to do in my adult life. I decided to take a chance that the benefits – getting a full, balanced meal without having to make or debate choices first thing in the morning – would apply to by child if I took the time to get him used to it. So while initially focused on long-term excellence (healthy, growing) at the expense of some short-term suffering (the months of not wanting to eat his eggs) we have now arrived at a point where there is no debate about breakfast, it is really healthy, and we really enjoy it. Having an ongoing dialogue between happiness and excellence of my child to arrive at a state where the two are integrated; this is what I mean when I say Eudaimonian Parenting.

Politics, Re: About (the stories about) those polls…

In the last few days you may have seen poll-related headlines about “Toomey pulls ahead in PA Senate Race” or “Trump Closing in on Clinton” or whatever. All of those headlines are related to a large set of polls put out by the same polling organization at Emerson College, and they only involve landlines (so no mobile phone calls). All of which is to say: don’t freak out. These polls are outliers and their methodology contains likely explanations for their abnormal results. Donald Trump’s “pivot” on immigration is not getting him anything but scorn from his alt-right base and probably nothing has really changed. Everybody chill.

Nerd stuff, Re: New Warriors feat. Squirrel Girl coming to TV, maybe

 

All the superhero clickbait today is based on a report from TV Line that Marvel and ABC are looking for someone to broadcast and/or stream a New Warriors TV show:

Described as the junior version of The Avengers, the New Warriors are a superhero squad made up of teenagers, one of whom would include Doreen Green (aka Squirrel Girl). For the record, SG can do more than just communicate with the world’s vast squirrel population; she also possesses super-speed and strength.

Super Girl is high on the list of fan favorites to get a TV show or movie. I am still hoping for Kamala Khan or a near-immediate move to the big screen for Riri Williams, but New Warriors could be good too.

Image of the Day

Sent in by a good friend. I particularly appreciate that they got Poohcard’s jacket so right.

PoohPigletDarmok

 

Meme of the Day, aka MOTD

Quote, from Khalil Gibran:

Keep me away from the wisdom which does not cry,

the philosophy which does not laugh,

and the greatness which does not bow before children.

Image: lion dad submitting to lion cub face sniffing

marked20160831_LionDadCub-KhalilGibran

Enjoy your Wednesday

Have a question, comment, or request for one of these thoughts to become a whole blog post? Send an email, comment on Facebook, or tweet on Twitter. There is also Tumblr and the comment field below, if you’re into that kind of thing. 

Morning Memo for Saturday, July 23rd, 2016

TLP’s Morning Memo is brought to you by all the circumstances that leave me with not enough time to write full length essays about these topics. Enjoy.

I know how to sit still, but not like this guy.
I know how to sit still, but not like this guy.

Morning Memo for Saturday, July 23rd, 2016

All (okay, some of) the things in my mind I wish I had time to blog about today. Some of these things may get a full post later, but most will not. As always, many more links can be had by visiting TLP’s Facebook page.

Philosophy, Re: patiently struggling with patience

I find it very difficult to practice patience and, truthfully, am not entirely convinced of its virtue (yet). The idea of all things being used in moderation finds a lot of purchase in my mind and I apply that to everything including patience (and, for that matter, moderation). Context provides a lot of the information needed to discern which virtue(s) to apply, and how. In the tao te ching Laozi is pretty clear about a lot of things, including the importance of patience. He first speaks directly of it in Chapter 15:

Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself?

The Master doesn’t seek fulfillment.
Not seeking, not expecting,
she is present, and can welcome all things.

I am actually okay at this kind of patience, which I think of as personal or interpersonal non-action. To wit: A stressful situation develops and I don’t know how it is going to turn out, but I want it to end, my way, now. The intense desire to know and bring about the end of the stress prompts a flurry of mental action – what am I going to say? what am I going to do? who will help me? – that isn’t really based on reality (aka what is actually happening) so much as it is based on fantasy (aka what I wish would happen). Acting on fantasy in conflict with reality is a bad idea. Reality tends to (read: always, every time, without fail) win that fight.

How does on practice personal or interpersonal non-action? In my case at least, the flurry of mental action at the beginning of the process is inevitable, so I use it as step one in my non-action practice. Because as long as I don’t take behavioral action, all that mental action is really doing is bringing my options, my resources, and my allies into my awareness. These are good things to know as I allow the situation to develop without interference. So that is step one. Step two is asking myself two basic questions: What is actually happening? What do I need to do right now to prevent real harm? The first question helps separate my fear of what might happen (fantasy) from my understanding of what is actually happening (reality). If you’ve ever had a personal or professional relationship with someone who likes to make veiled threats, this is really important, because people like that rely on you to give their meager words the might of action, but really they’re just talking. The second question is a good way of figuring out if this is really a time for patience, and even if so what actions might be exempt non-action practice. For example: If water starts leaking in the kitchen, I probably shouldn’t call the landlord and yell at him about it just yet, but for sure I need to put some towels down right now, find the leak, and end the flow of water to it. Step three is the simplest and most difficult: wait for the best possible solution to emerge. I have no idea how this works for people less extroverted than myself. I hear some folks have epiphanies in the shower – that sounds great, try that. I am more likely to have my epiphany while talking to someone about showering, because nearly 100% of my “ah ha!” moments come through dialogue. So take a shower, or phone a friend, or meditate – you do you. The solution will come.

Of course life isn’t limited to the persona/interpersonal realm; there is also the cultural, political, institutional, and spiritual. This is where I have some trouble with patience, and where Laozi’s second mention of the virtue in tao chapter 67 comes to mind:

I have just three things to teach:
simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and in thoughts,
you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.

With both friends and enemies? Not so much. At the rate at which black women and men are being extra-judicially executed by police, children are falling into severe poverty, transgender folks are being murdered, and our drones are dropping bombs on foreign civilians – among other concerns – patience as an American has a body count that I find unacceptable. Even compassion gets difficult, here, especially when so many folks I know are already patient and compassionate with the warmongers and white supremacists in our midst. It seems to me that the “let’s walk to the future together, hand in hand, at whatever pace suits you” position has been overfilled, whereas the “hey fuck you, the future is here, stop crying about it and deal with it” position needs a great many more applicants. Even the kind of patience to look at the bigger picture and think “hey I may be yelling at this Trumpster right now, but in the grand scheme of things he will lose and we will win,” is only really available to me because I am an intelligent, able-bodied straight white cis man. My compassion for the struggle and oppression of folks who are not like me seems to conflict with the only kind of patience that I can find for corrupt institutions and a culture of domination.

This is where a good blogger would tie it all together and put a bow on it. Sorry! Not going to happen. I don’t know the answer. Human civilization is better than ever – global poverty and conflict are on the decline – but it isn’t getting better fast enough. And my country, where poverty in particular is concerned, is actually going backwards and I see way to many people boisteroulsy proclaiming their support for the policies, parties, and politicians who will make things even worse. I fail to see any way to apply the virtue of patience to all that. Surely patience in response to oppression, injustice, and deprivation becomes a vice.

If you encounter a personal quandry or an asshole at the office, I think the process I outlined earlier is a good move. Just wait. And while you’re waiting for the best solution to those problems to emerge, maybe donate to #BlackLivesMatter or go register folks to vote. Right now.

 

Politics, Re: Ted Cruz, Donnie and the Trumpsters, Citizen Kaine? What the Hill!

IngrahamNaziTrump
This is a real image of a real thing that really happened.

Let’s see if I can catch up quickly:

On Wednesday night, Ted Cruz gave a speech where he pointedly did not endorse Donald Trump and then got epically booed by the crowd. Cruz is getting cool points from a number of folks – reactionaries and progressives alike – for “standing on principal.” Cruz later told the Texas delegation that he didn’t back Trump because of Donnie’s attacks on Teddy’s family during the primaries. What the fuck ever! The only principal Ted Cruz is standing on is that he wants to defeat President Clinton and win the White House in 2020. Everything Ted said and did – or will say and do for the next four years – is about his desire to be President. He needs Trump to lose for that to happen, so he humilitated Trump on national TV. Deft? Yes. Courageous? No.

On Thursday night, Ivanka Trump came out to introduce her dad and made a speech full of Democratic policy goals to introduce her dad, who she says will make America great again. Ms. Trump then tweeted a link for folks to buy the dress she was wearing from her fashion line at Macy’s. The dress is not manufactured in America.

Donald Trump then came out and auditioned for the role of America’s Next Top Despot. I don’t think he will get the job since it doesn’t even exist. Trump got kudos from some folks – and contemptous surprise from many others – for using the prompter and mostly staying on message, thus prompting the question: is this new, better, general election Trump? The answer – umm, no, not at all – came during a press avail the next day.

ClintonKaine
*yawn*

The next day, Friday, aka yesterday, Hillary Clinton announced Senator Tim Kaine as her running mate. Look, I get it: Kaine is a Senator from a state with a Democratic governor – unlike Senators Warren and Booker – which means he can be elevated without costing the Democrats a much needed Senate seat. Kaine is good on some issues, or so I’m told (he speaks Spanish?), but is also problematic on other issues (reproductive justice). Young/left voters are pissed because they wanted Clinton to pick somoene to persuade and even get them excited about voting for her. And while I may have wanted the same thing, I understand the realpolitik of picking Kaine.

The fact is that Kaine will help Clinton keep some voters she might otherwise lose to Trump and maybe even win over some Trump voters. Kaine is also competent to be President if something happens to Clinton, which is always the fundamental concern in picking a VP. As for the young/left voters, the harsh truth is that they don’t tend to vote in general elections – either by not voting at all, or by voting for someone who stands no real possibility of winning. The irony here is that if young/left voters really want national-ticket Dems to cater to them in the future, the best way to make that happen is to show up in droves to vote for Hillary Clinton this November. Probably not going to happen, so the cycle will continue – disregard causes disengagement causes irrelevance causes disregard.

But hey, from a Taoist perspective, Clinton is much better at the patience thing than I am. Kaine is meant to reassure as many freaked out white people as can be reassured, and that hurts Trump, and anything that hurts Trump helps all of us. Kaine is an entirely uninspiring, but not unintelligent, pick for VP.

Nerd stuff, Re: Star Trek Beyond

Hey, Star Trek Beyond came out this week. Read the TLP review here.

More nerd news another day, out of time for now.

Image of the Day

From #SDCC

HowsWaldo

Enjoy your Weekend.

Have a question, comment, or request for one of these thoughts to become a whole blog post? Send an email, comment on Facebook, or tweet on Twitter. There is also Tumblr and the comment field below, if you’re into that kind of thing. 

Morning Thoughts & Links for Wednesday, July 20th

Morning thoughts and links are brought to you by all the circumstances that leave me with not enough time to write full length blog posts. Enjoy.

Note the absences of either bottle or glass.
Note the absences of either bottle or glass.

Morning Thoughts & Links for Wednesday, July 20th, 2016

Welcome to the new feature, where I will write down the things in my mind I wish I had time to blog about today. Some of these things may get a full post later, but most will not. As always, many more links can be had by visiting TLP’s Facebook page.

Philosophy, Re: writing both creatively and well

There is a quote, often misattributed to Ernest Hemingway, imploring us to “write drunk; edit sober.” The quote is a sort of Hemingwayified paraphrase of a much longer thought that is sometimes misattributed to Dylan Thomas:

“Sometimes I write drunk and revise sober, and sometimes I write sober and revise drunk. But you have to have both elements in creation — the Apollonian and the Dionysian, or spontaneity and restraint, emotion and discipline.”

That thought did not come from Thomas himself, but rather from writer Peter DeVries, whose 1964 novel “Reuben, Reuben” featured a protagonist based on Dylan Thomas. Hemingway would not actually say any of this as he was supposedly strict about writing in the morning before he started drinking, saying instead:

“My training was never to drink after dinner nor before I wrote nor while I was writing.”

And again, Hemingway:

I have spent all my life drinking, but since writing is my true love I never get the two things mixed up.

Of course Hemingway didn’t have a blog, but his wisdom applies. I generally don’t try to use my faculties if I have done anything to impede them – it just seems like a lose/lose proposition – but have found there are a couple times when blog posts are not too ill-affected by a drink or two. Specifically tv show/movie reviews and contemporary Republican/right-wing politics. Even then, while the former can be helped by an uninhibited “fuck it, just publish the thing,” the latter is more likely to lead to a “fuck it, why am I even writing about this” well before anything is ready to publish. I can’t imagine how someone like Christopher Hitchens – who famously drank every day and evening while nonetheless producing copious copy – was able to pull it off. I suspect that a fair number of aspiring writers have fantasies about being drunken prophets, which dreams are presumably only half realized, but I prefer my personal excuse of being too busy to write. It feels virtuous and is much less fattening. But I digress.

The intention of the original misquote, fleshed out by the actual original passage by DeVries, is to draw attention to the need to be both disciplined and uninhibited while writing; both focused and careening. Altered states – be it from drink or ADD meds – tend to provide one at the expense of the other, so that’s a bad move. In my limited experience as a writer, and much more extensive experience as a conversationalist, the best way to get Apollo and Dionysus playing nice together is to  have as little self-image involved as possible. I set intentions for the pieces I write – a Game of Thrones recap needs to be funny, movie reviews should have a dash of serious but never ever be severe, a critical response to another writer should be vulnerable and even self-effacing – while making my best effort to have no intentions for myself as a writer. Having some sort of writing-ego-based rules that always apply would be (and used to be) stifling. Sticking with the Greek mythology archetypal metaphor, my inner Apollo brings its own rules and my Dionysus won’t suffer any, so there is nothing to be gained by me setting them. The big bonus here, too, is the vulnerability; if I’m never sure who I am as a writer, then I get to be surprised each time I write something, and that keeps it fun.

So there is my take: have fun writing; have fun editing. Or if you like it in a more judgmental tone: If writing doesn’t feel like play time, then you aren’t doing the work. I look forward to being flattered by seeing to whom those quotes get misattributed.

Politics, Re: GOP Convention Day 2  (a mini Voyeur Recap)

Well the political story at the moment is still the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio. Day two sounds – or at least reads – like it was as bad as day one.

There was another kind of plagiarism seeming moment in Donnie Junior’s remarks, but it turns out it was just his speechwriter recycling his own previous work. Maybe today we can be more focused on all the white nationalism happening at that convention instead of the plagiarism stuff.

A speaker from the NRA unwittingly made the case for much stricter gun laws.

Dr. Ben Carson ditched his prepared remarks that figuratively demonized Hillary Clinton in order to, well, literally demonize Hillary Clinton. Seriously, he spent time talking about how Hillary is in league with Satan.

Plenty of other crazy shit went down, including Chris Christie leading a mock trial of Clinton so the folks on the floor could spend another night shouting “lock her up.”

Not entirely related to the convention, but the NYTimes has a lot of background on how Trump’s VP selection process went.

Nerd stuff, Re: making Batman V Superman funny and Star Trek stuff

My thoughts and feelings on Batman V Superman are on the record, as well as my views about how Batman should be portrayed on screen V how Batman has been portrayed on screen. And while I do not hold out much hope that Warner Bros DC Cinematic Murderverse will be getting better anytime soon, I did at least find great joy this morning in watching the Honest Trailers take on Dawn of Justice. It’s over seven minutes long, but wow, what a cathartic seven minutes:

In other nerd news, ScreenRant is all over Star Trek news right now with scoops about Star Trek 4 is already a go, the series (thank goodness) will not be recasting Chekov after actor Anton Yelchin’s death, and JJ Abrams continues to be one of the few directors of nerd fare who can reflect on his missteps, in this case regarding Into Darkness, after fandom has helped point them out.

Image of the Day

This has to be the best image I found on the interwebs yesterday:

GnomeAnn

Enjoy your Wednesday.

Have a question, comment, or request for one of these thoughts to become a whole blog post? Send an email, comment on Facebook, or tweet on Twitter. There is also Tumblr and the comment field below, if you’re into that kind of thing. 

Morning Thoughts & Links for Tuesday, July 19th

Morning thoughts and links are brought to you by all the circumstances that leave me with not enough time to write full length blog posts. Enjoy.

BernieHillaryTogetherNH
One of his campaign promises was to not be a Nader, and he kept it. Nice work Senator.

Morning Thoughts & Links for Tuesday, July 19th, 2016

Welcome to the new feature, where I will write down the things in my mind I wish I had time to blog about today. Some of these things may get a full post later, but most will not. As always, many more links can be had by visiting TLP’s Facebook page.

When is Hillary going to run a pro-Hillary campaign?

So far, it seems like the Hillary Clinton general election campaign has been almost entirely anti-Trump, with very little pro-Hillary. Take a look at this ad:

Of course it is excellently done, completely devastating to watch, and probably more than a little bit effective in making folks think twice about the normalizing of Donald Trump as a presidential candidate. That said, it is indicative to me of what I have read about rallies Clinton has held, particularly with Senators Warren and then Sanders, where she gets an endorsement (yay) even though most of the time is spent dogging on Donnie.

On the one hand, I have some serious and severe policy and perspective disagreements with Hillary Clinton. On the other hand, I have learned enough about her as a person and policy maker to be excited about voting for her in November. So when the hell is her campaign going to try to get other people excited? Surely accentuating Donald Trump’s negatives is an integral part of a general election strategy, but just as surely that strategy should also include a concerted effort to redefine Clinton in the minds of as many voters as will listen. Maybe this effort will start at the Democratic National Convention and they just wanted to multimedia carpet-bomb Trump for a few weeks first, and I hope so. It would be a shame if the campaign wasted an opportunity to repair Hillary’s favorability ratings and in the process spent a bunch of prime time talking about Donald fucking Trump.

#RNCinCLE Night 1, Highlights and Low Points

Steve King went explicitly and literally white supremacist during an interview last night.

Melania Trump plagiarized passages from Michelle Obama’s 2008 convention speech – remarks about honesty and hard work, no less!

Other people were there and talking and being horrible, which you can read about via Andrew Sullivan’s liveblogging of the evening. Reading that liveblog (I don’t watch this shit) lead to another kind of low point last night…

Speaking of people making problematically white supremacists remarks…

During his live blogging, Andrew Sullivan made some comments that, for the first time in the 18ish months since his blog went offline, made me think the internet might be better off without him commenting about things so much. Sully equated #BlackLivesMatter with white folks who are irrationally scared of crime despite historically low crime rates. He made this comparison because he is apparently living in an information bubble with only a recent paper, which Sully said he finds “conclusive,” that is incomplete and just, ugh, I can’t even. Here is Kim LaCapria from Snopes.com’s excellent debunking of claims like Sully’s:

Fryer’s findings weren’t necessarily misleading, incorrect, or wrong, but there were numerous obvious problems with the bombastic manner in which the New York Times framed his paper (for starters). Fryer’s paper was neither published nor peer-reviewed, and it was certainly not a “Harvard study.” (A similar controversy erupted over a “Harvard study” on of gun rights was found to be a paper penned by supporters of that issue.)

Critics noted that Fryer’s sample size was exceedingly small (possibly skewing the results) and relied on the narratives of policemen and women party to officer-involved shootings. Moreover, Fryer’s background in economics was certainly useful for crunching data, but it lacked the scope and working knowledge present in criminologists and researchers in related fields. The paper is still a work in progress and hasn’t been fully vetted, but even in its “working” state it has been the target of multiple assessments indicating that its findings are far from complete.

If I have time to write a full post today, it will be about this. Sullivan was minimally informed and maximally condescending in his remarks, coming from a place of bias-fueled ignorance as he condescendingly accused BLM supporters of being ignorant and fueled by bias. I don’t say this often, but is was shameful. I emailed him the snopes article at the address supplied during the liveblog. He clearly got a lot of feedback about his comments, some of which he posted, but then he kept digging his hole deeper with his responses, until suddenly he just didn’t mention it again for the rest of the night. I have my fingers crossed that he will be correcting himself, maybe even apologizing, this evening.

Coming soon to a Bye, Felicia! near you…

Roger Ailes, the mastermind behind Fox News since 1996, is either going to be fired or forced to resign sometime real soon, it seems. (Click the link for more info.)

Ailes’ downfall coinciding with the Trump-fueled implosion of the GOP provides a lot of room for interpretation and commentary, like this piece by Rebecca Traister, and I am sure many more to come.

***

That’s it for now, I hear small people waking up downstairs. More links and images will be posted on the Facebook page today. Here is my favorite found image from yesterday:

Take that, Sully.
Take that, Sully.

Enjoy your Tuesday.

Have a question, comment, or request for one of these thoughts to become a whole blog post? Send an email, comment on Facebook, or tweet on Twitter. There is also Tumblr and the comment field below, if you’re into that kind of thing. 

The Once and Future Batman, Part 3

The only way to get Batman right in a movie is to respect the character as a cultural myth, of which Batman: The Animated Series is the best on-screen representation.

BatmanAnimated2
Best. Batman. Ever. (On-screen, at least.)

Recap

In part 1 of this series, I briefly described the importance of Batman as a modern myth and gave a (relatively) concise overview of all the cinematic depictions of the caped crusader that have thus far been made. In part 2, I demolished the argument (made in this case by Zack Snyder himself) that previous Batman movies are worthy source material for future Batman movies. Here in part 3 I will provide some history of Batman the comic book character, an argument that that character has evolved into a myth, and that Batman: The Animated Series (TAS) is the best representation of that myth ever on a screen. As such, I think TAS is the most worthy source material for future Batman movies. At the very least, it is the standard by which other on-screen depictions of Batman should be judged.

The Dawn of the Knight

In early 1939, after the successful debut of Superman the year before, National Publications (now DC Comics) wanted more superheroes in their lineup. A man named Bob Kane first had the idea for a character named “the Bat-Man,” which Bill Finger helped him develop into the earliest version of the character we know today. If Kane is the originator of the character who wears a bat suit, Finger is the originator of the myth; it was Finger who wrote the origin story of young Bruce Wayne vowing to fight criminals to avenge his parents. (Finger also came up with the idea of Robin as a sidekick.) As early as 1940, right after the publication of Batman #1, then-editor Whitney Ellsworth made the rule that Batman would not kill or use a gun.

Batman as a comic book character changed a lot in the first 25 years. While the earliest Batman stories were gritty and violent – even after the caped crusader ceased killing or use of guns – the stories started lightening up fairly quickly in the early 1940s. In the 1950s, after reactionaries began criticizing comic books in general, and specifically the homosexual undertones of Batman’s relationship with Robin, a beard was drawn in the form of Batwoman. There was a Bathound, named Ace. And let’s not forget Bat-Mite, a magical imp from the fifth dimension who wears a Batman costume. Sigh. Some science fiction elements were introduced during this time as well (e.g. Mr Freeze). Then Batman went camp in the 1960s, particularly after the initial success of the TV series starring Adam West (1966 until 1969).

I think of this first 30 years as being the years of Batman as a comic book character only, as opposed to his current status as both a character and a myth. Most of these Batman stories, and the characters in them, were created by the same people who created Batman in 1939. Most – though not all – of the modifications to Batman in these years were in an attempt to suit the tastes of post-war popular culture and sell more comic books. While the need to sell more comic books would remain important – indeed remains important – to the writers and artists telling Batman stories, something very important happens when a character makes the leap from transpersonal to transgenerational: it becomes a myth.

The Character Becomes the Myth

Archetypal themes showed up in Batman comics from the beginning. The villains Joker (1940) and Scarecrow (1941), introduced by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, might as well be credited to somebody’s Jungian analyst (or at least a psych textbook). The Joker is a personification of society against its own absurdity, while the Scarecrow represents the personal conflict of the persona against the true self and/or shadow (a conflict built on fear, which the villain weaponizes). Archetypal themes are inevitable in storytelling, but becoming a myth is not. To become a myth a story must: be told across generations; be both archetypal and transpersonal in content; give some inspiration and guidance. In this way myths provide us with personal value in understanding ourselves, interpersonal value in being a point of comparison and dialogue, and cultural value in being a shared experience and a framework for the telling and understanding of stories. How we experience myths personally impacts how we share them interpersonally and then what we want from them culturally, which then impacts how we experience them personally, and so on. It’s a virtuous cycle of storytelling – at least as long as nobody decides to try to hijack it into some kind of personal political catharsis (I won’t name names, but his initials are Frank Miller).

Starting in 1969, a new generation of writers and artists (O’Neil, Adams, Giordano, Schwartz, etc.) began to reconnect Batman with his origins as the Dark Knight of Gotham. Moving away from the lighthearted fun of the 50s and the camp of the 60s, this new iteration of Batman retained his identity as the avenging detective of the night who does not use guns or kill people in his quest to protect the people of Gotham from the same evil that claimed the lives of his parents. In 1977 writer Steve Englehart worked on a run of Detective Comics that saw the Joker return to his original, maniacal and homicidal self and cemented Batman’s return to form as the Dark Knight.

Then things got a lot better and also really fucked up.

On the one hand, in 1986 Dennis O’Neil became editor of the various Batman comics and, intentionally or unintentionally, did a lot to help Batman go from being just a character in DC Comics to being a mythical figure in our culture. Through stories like Frank Miller’s Year One (1987), Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke (1988), and Jim Starlin’s A Death in the Family (1988/89), the story of Bruce Wayne/Batman achieves a fullness that was not there before. It is through these stories that we “learn” that Bruce Wayne traveled the world and trained in martial arts and criminology before returning to Gotham, we see an origin story for the Joker that puts both him, Batman, and their symbiotic rivalry in clearer perspective, and we see the limits of the Dark Knight as that rivalry leads to the death of one of Bruce’s wards and Batman’s sidekick, Robin (this is the second Robin, Jason Todd, not the more famous first Robin, Dick Grayson). Now Batman has not just an origin, but a history as well as a nemesis and a tragedy. This is in addition to all of the caped crusader’s other defining characteristics that had now been maintained through three generations of storytellers. Combine all that with the success of Tim Burton’s 1989 movie and the myth of the billionaire crime fighter who stalks the wicked at night became a seemingly permanent cultural fixture and household name. Since 1989, if you make a Batman reference, everyone will at least know who you’re talking about.

On the other hand, 1986 also saw the publication of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, a story about a 55-year-old Bruce Wayne who has been in retirement since Robin’s death, but decides to become Batman again as part of a mental breakdown, or something (yes I have read it, twice). In this story: Batman comes through a wall to take a machine gun from one gang member and then use it to blow the brains out of another gang member in a situation where a batarang had always previously sufficed; eschewing the harder work of being a detective, he drives into a meeting of the Mutants gang in a tank and kills them and/or helps them kill themselves; he breaks the Joker’s neck and somehow convinces himself that the Joker did it. If you think that sounds awful, it gets worse: tDKR is one of the most successful Batman stories of all time; it ranked first among IGN’s list of best Batman graphic novels; even Time magazine put it among the top ten graphic novels in English. Not everybody is or was impressed, though. Comics Bulletin once ranked tDKR #2 on a Top 10 Overrated Comic Books (Watchmen took #1) and Mordecai Richler concluded his NYTimes review of Miller’s brutal opus with an astute observation, writing:

If this book is meant for kids, I doubt that they will be pleased. If it is aimed at adults, they are not the sort I want to drink with.

Batman v Dark Knight

Frank Miller wrote two sequels to The Dark Knight Returns, and in fact is making more still. He also did the writing for All-Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder, which is a sort of “midquel” between Year One and tDKR. While the canonical Batman and Miller’s Dark Knight share the events of Year One, the rest of Miller’s work is considered non-canonical. Nonetheless, Miller’s work is also very popular, and perhaps there is no greater example of his influence than Zack Snyder’s intimations that he and his bros on the set of BvS were going off of only tDKR and previous Batman movies. Since there are not Batman facts to make such a determination, we are left with the decidedly philosophical question of truth: which Batman is true to the myth, and which is not?

I had originally planned to make a purely ad hominem case against Frank Miller as a storyteller: Alan Moore (!) has criticized Miller for the homophobia and misogyny in his work since (and including) Sin City; Miller’s 300 is obviously racist and fascist (movie or graphic novel, also they’re both uninteresting); Holy Terror has been called IslamophobicAll-Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder was almost universally disliked; and of course Miller has made comments as a private citizen that are loathsome, e.g. describing Occupy Wall Street as “a pack of louts, thieves, and rapists, fed by Woodstock-era nostalgia and putrid false righteousness.” Not wanting to leave any question about whether his Islamaphobia is merely a creative choice, Miller then implored the protestors to, “wake up, pond scum. America is at war against a ruthless enemy. Maybe, between bouts of self-pity and all the other tasty tidbits of narcissism you’ve been served up in your sheltered, comfy little worlds, you’ve heard terms like al-Qaeda and Islamicism.” (No word yet on whether or not someone has explained to Frank Miller that al-Qaeda was not responsible for the economic catastrophe of 2008 that began the Great Recession.) So there is a case to be made that Frank Miller is neither morally nor politically suitable to be the steward of any shared cultural mythology, and especially not that of our beloved Batman, who has been a fan favorite since long before Miller was around and who will continue on long after Miller finishes his last violent, pathological screed.

A better approach to the question of which is the true Batman of myth came to me in a Facebook message from a dear friend (you know who you are). While this approach does not rely on Miller’s lack of grace, empathy, or any other traits one would want in a modern Homer or Ovid, it is also not entirely unrelated. We must simply ask: Which version of Batman is coherent and sufficient on its own, and which is not?

The Batman created by Kane & Finger, advanced by O’Neil & Adams et al, filled out by Miller (credit where due, yo) & Moore & Starlin, and I would say greatly enhanced by the more recent work of Grant Morrison – this Batman makes sense and stands on his own. His world shattered by experiencing his parents gunned down by a nameless, faceless thug, Bruce Wayne uses his inheritance to travel the world and become the greatest martial artist and detective he can be. He returns to Gotham city as a young man, adopts a playboy alter ego along with his industrialist day job, and proceeds to begin fighting crime as the Batman. There is no other story like this. If you took away the mask and the name, you wouldn’t be able to say “oh yeah, that’s just like Billy the Kid” or “that’s just like Lancelot” or “that’s just like Mercury.” This is a myth that makes sense on its own terms and is not easily comparable to any story that came before or since. Every hero may just be a difference face for the same archetype, but the canonical Batman of DC Comics (and Warner Brothers animation) can at least be said to be a unique face for that hero.

On the other hand, excepting his work on Year One, Frank Miller’s Dark Knight doesn’t make much sense and doesn’t stand on its own. Why would someone radicalized by murder of his parents become, himself, a murderer? It’s not so much that that could never happen, but that there is no damn point traveling the world and training if you could just take your trust fund check to Don’s Guns and get started today. Take off the mask and the utility belt and he is Dirty Harry with a grappling hook; Robocop with a cape. Ever wondered what the movie Falling Down would be like if Michael Douglass had been rich and wearing tights? Read All-Star Batman and find out. (Or just watch Batman & Robin, since both are Joel Schumacher shit shows films.) Miller’s Dark Knight is not a new face for the timeless archetypal hero as much as it is an attempt by an aggrieved white man to hijack Batman and make him the hero of aggrieved white men everywhere. (I bet Miller’s Bruce Wayne, if not Frank Miller himself, is sporting a Make Gotham Great Again hat. Sad!)

It is no coincidence that the guys who run Warner Brothers, Frank Miller, and Zack Snyder are all in the demographic most likely to taken in by the aggrieved white man agenda, both culturally and politically. I’m not saying they’re all regressive, reactionary asshats like Miller; I’m saying there is a reason why they would fail to notice that the Batman in the earlier movies, BvS, and graphic novels like The Dark Knight Returns is a false transmogrification of our true hero. But this does not mean that we are doomed to see only Angry White Batman on screen for the foreseeable future, because in fact we have already had 25 years of the best possible Batman on television and in home movies (one  went to theaters).

Batman: The Animated Series shows us how to bring the myth to the screen (and how the screen can improve the myth)

When you hear the name Mark Hamill, you’re more likely to think of Luke Skywalker than the Joker – but Mark Hamill has spent way more time playing the Joker than the Jedi. If you have noticed that in recent Batman movies there has been an attempt (not always successful) to use two voices, one for the caped crusader and one for Bruce Wayne, you can thank Kevin Conroy, the actor that has played Batman in more shows, more movies, and for more years than all other actors combined. If you like seeing police zeppelins on Fox’s Gotham tv show or are excited to see the Joker’s sidekick Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad, then you can again thank Batman: The Animated Series (TAS).

Developed by Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski – who pitched the series to Warner Bros. with a two minute pilot – TAS ran for three seasons from September, 1992 through September, 1995. The series was widely praised by comic book fans, won critical acclaim, and is still adored by an entire generation of nerds who grew up watching the show – myself very much included. Thanks to the ubiquity of options for streaming tv shows (anyone with an Amazon Prime account can view the whole series) TAS will be able to mold current and future generations of Batman fans as well – my kid very much included. From the series’ Wikipedia entry:

The series was praised for its thematic complexity, darker tone, artistic quality and modernization of its title character’s crime-fighting origins.[4]IGN listed The Animated Series as the best adaptation of Batman anywhere outside of comics, the best comic book cartoon of all time[5] and the second best animated series of all time (after The Simpsons).[6][7]Wizard magazine also ranked it #2 of the greatest animated television shows of all time (again after The Simpsons). TV Guide ranked it the seventh Greatest Cartoon of All Time.[8] The widespread acclaim led the series to win four Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Animated Program.[9][10]

The series was also the first in the continuity of the shared DC animated universe, spawning further animated TV series, comic books and video games with most of the same creative talent. Its ratings success and critical acclaim led the series to spawn two feature films: Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (released to theaters in 1993) and Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero (a direct-to-video release in 1998).

That DC animated universe (DCAU) included Batman: The Animated Series, Superman: The Animated Series, The New Batman Adventures (which was like a belated fourth season of TAS), Justice LeagueJustice League: Unlimited, and Batman Beyond (which started showing an older Bruce Wayne’s last adventure as Batman before he retired, and then the rest of the series was about a young man named Terry McGinnis later taking over the Batman mantle with the help of an even older Bruce  Wayne being a sort of uber-Alfred). There were also at least four animated movies included in the DCAU continuity.

I could probably write a four part essay just about how great TAS was (and is): the art deco Gotham and noirish animation style combine for relentlessly cool visuals; the music is of much higher quality than in any other superhero show before or since; the voice work (especially Conroy and Hamill) is, again, the best I am aware of on any comparable show; the characters, whether adapted from comics or created for the show, are compelling and several of them are developed over the course of multiple episodes. For my current purpose I will focus on how the series succeeds both at representing and shaping the myth of Batman and that is does so in a way that can and should be used to guide future live-action film adaptations.

Of course, being a children’s show, TAS could not do justice to the full Batman mythology. There is no way to adapt The Killing Joke or A Death in the Family storylines for younger viewers, so for instance with the latter Jason Todd is ignored entirely with Tim Drake taking over the Robin mantle from Dick Grayson. Barbara Gordon is never crippled and does not become Oracle. Bane appears in the series, and his appearances are not bad, but they are certainly not as compelling as the story arc from Knightfall, which I would say has earned a place in the Batman mythology. And of course TAS and that version of the DCAU was, tragically, long ended by the time Grant Morrison introduced reinterpreted the character of Damian Wayne, Bruce’s biological son with Talia al’Ghul (long story), which is probably the only development since Knightfall that seems to me to be worthy of being adopted into the broader cultural mythology of Batman. (Jim Gordon’s BatMech need not apply.) The Joker of TAS is necessarily a sort of midway between the homicidal maniac of the 1940s/1970s – present and his silly, campy version from the 1950s and 60s, which is nonetheless voice acted masterfully by Mark Hamill. Last, but by no means least among its flaws, multicultural representation is a big problem: nearly everyone in the series is white; women (including Batgirl and Catwoman) are generally portrayed as helpless and/or crazy; and there is no indication that there are any LGBTQ persons anywhere in the entire DCAU continuity.

Even with those limitations, most of which stem from being an animated adaptation aimed at a younger audience during television’s white supremacist 1990s, the series had a substantial impact on the comic books and shared cultural mythology of Batman. As I mentioned earlier, the fan favorite character of Harley Quinn originated on TAS, along with eight other characters later adopted by comic books. Preexisting characters were influenced by the show as well, with many of Bruce Timm’s designs from the series influencing their appearances in the comics books (e.g. Clayface) and are the basis of the look for almost all of the LEGO minifigures and the LEGO Batman video game series, which gives TAS a multi-generational influence. The current origin story for Mr. Freeze, as a tragic figure who was transmogrified by his attempts to save his nearly-dead wife, was an innovation of the cartoon show as well.

Most importantly of all Batman: The Animated Series just gets Batman right as a character, as do the other shows and movies in that DCAU continuity. It would be difficult to pull out all the best moments from 85 episodes plus other series and movies, but here are a few clips that I think help make the case that TAS is a faithful and compelling adaptation of Batman, worthy of primacy on the source list for anyone writing, directing, producing, financing, or even contemplating bringing the Dark Knight to the big screen.

First up is episode 3, Nothing to Fear. In this episode, which is a textbook hero’s journey, Bruce Wayne is in his ordinary world until he is accosted by a friend of his father’s in an elevator. The older man shames Bruce for being a playboy and disgracing his family name (of course the dude has no idea that Wayne is Batman). Moments later, Bruce is called to adventure when he sees a helicopter up to no good and changes into his batsuit to pursue it. After becoming Batman and engaging Scarecrow and his thugs in a bank vault (!), our hero’s tests begin as he is doused with Scarecrow’s fear agent, which causes him to hallucinate images of his father, disappointed, in the flames of the now burning vault. Alfred, as the ally and mentor in this story, picks up Bruce/Batman and helps him recuperate from the incident both physically and emotionally by telling him his father would have been very proud. Batman continues his pursuit of Scarecrow, despite still being confronted by voices and visions of his father shaming him, until at last he is closing in on his enemy while suffering his worst hallucination yet. Then he claims his value and identity, which is the “seizing of the sword” moment in this particular journey:

 

After handling the blimp situation, Batman discovers Scarecrows identity, hunts him down, and then they fight. At that point Crane (aka Scarecrow) manages to douse himself with the fear toxin and promptly gets scared out of his mind by Batman, as you do. Returning home with the elixirs of confidence and self-worth, Bruce places some flowers on his parents’ grave. If you’re only going to watch one episode of TAS, make it Nothing to Fear. (Aside: If you combine this episode with episode 28, Dreams in Darkness, you’ve got most of the plot to Batman Begins.)

Other episodes fill in important parts of Bruce Wayne’s pre-Batman backstory. A particularly touching episode is number 18, Beware the Gray Ghost. In this episode, Batman comes to the aid of his childhood idol from television, the Gray Ghost – voiced by none other than 1960s Batman Adam West himself:

Most of the backstory on the show has more to do with Bruce’s travels as a young man, training to one day become Batman. Here is a scene from episode 35, Night of the Ninja, where Alfred tells the story of Bruce’s samurai training to Dick Grayson:

And here in episode 54, Zatanna, we see the origin of the titular legging-averse magic wielder herself along with some of Bruce’s training in illusion and escape techniques:

A number of other great episodes from the series defy my attempts to find a quick clip. Episodes 32 & 33, Robin’s Reckoning Parts 1 & 2, show Dick Grayson/Robin’s origin story and also delve into the nature (and impotence) of revenge. Batman and Robin are both excellently developed as characters in these episodes, which won the show a primetime Emmy award. Episode 62, His Silicon Soul, shows Batman struggling to dismantle an intelligent computer named HARDAC that has created a robot Batman, which is itself struggling with its own identity. Eventually, robot Batman chooses to be a good guy and sacrifices itself to save the real Batman and Gotham city. By the way, even robot Batman manages to avoid killing and/or shooting anybody. Some episodes, like Almost Got ‘Im, are just fun; that episode shows several of Batman’s enemies playing poker and trading stories about a time when they nearly killed the Dark Knight… …before he shows up, kicks all their asses, and sends them to Arkham (which, seriously, needs a major security upgrade). Last but not least among my favorites (that can’t be clipped effectively, at least), is the two-parter The Demon’s Quest (episodes 60 & 61), which introduces Ra’s al-Ghul and his daughter Talia to TAS and is a remarkably faithful adaptation of the 1971 comic book introduction of the al-Ghuls by O’Neil and Adams.

Two more of my personal favorite moments of this version of Batman were not part of Batman: The Animated Series but are found in the Justice League and Batman Beyond series of the same DCAU continuity. The first, from Justice League episode For the Man Who Has Everything, requires a bit of explanation. Mongul is a big bad alien dude who sent Superman a “gift” – a chest-hugging alien creature that takes over the mind of whoever it attaches to and shows them the world they most long to see. Batman and Wonder Woman show up and find Kal-El standing there, completely immersed in a virtual Krypton where his world, his people, and his parents are still alive. Wonder Woman fights Mongul while Batman works to detach the alien from Superman. Batman succeeds, but the alien then attaches to him, and then this happens:

Reminder: that action-packed psychodynamic sequence takes place on a kids show and still manages to be both more compelling and less disturbing than the opening sequence of Batman v Superman. If anyone is ever thinking about putting Batman’s crime alley origin in a movie again, they should watch that clip, ask themselves honestly if they’re going to do better, and if not just forget about it. But I digress.

The last clips are from the opening moments of Batman Beyond. In what looks to me to be an explicit rebuke of Frank Miller’s Nocturnal Rambo, we see a 55-year-old Batman who has not yet retired, but increasingly relies on technology to help him get the job done, as he has what turns out to be his last fight with some Gotham city goons:

Finally we see animated Batman – who has neither killed nor shot anyone in decades of crime fighting – brought low by a beating, a heart attack, and aging in general. He is forced to save his own life and the life of an innocent woman by picking up a gun, which he only points at the one criminal still standing. This Batman doesn’t decide that now is the time to get all Deathwish on crime fighting, but rather that if he can’t be Batman without guns, then he just can’t be Batman:

 

This is the true Batman in the eyes of almost every generation of his fans; no guns, no killing. Not ever.

It is worth mentioning that there is a murderous, cruel version of Batman that has appeared in comic books in a way that enhances rather than abandons the history and myth of the caped crusader. In 2011, DC Comics had a huge crossover arc called Flashpoint. In this story (SPOILERS!), the Flash/Barry Allen realizes that he is in a weird alternate reality where his mother is alive but he has no speed force powers (also other stuff is weird – there is no Superman, Cyborg is the main hero of the USA, and most of the world is being destroyed by a war between Wonder Woman’s Amazons and Aquaman’s Atlanteans). Allen goes to Gotham and to Wayne Manor because he has seen there is a Batman. Once there, he meets Thomas Wayne, who is a corrupt and brutal Dark Knight driven by a desire to make the criminal underworld pay for the murder of his young son, Bruce, in an alley way. Get it? Barry needs Thomas’ help to regain his powers and only gets it by mentioning that in the alternate reality he wants to restore, it was Thomas and Martha who were shot and Bruce who lived (and become Batman, no less). Not only does Thomas help Allen regain his powers, but in the final battle of the entire story arc, Thomas kills the Reverse Flash, saving the Flash, even though he knows it will lead to his own non-existence. Such is the love of a father for his son. The Flash restores his reality (mostly), having to endure no small sacrifice himself in the process, and is also able to deliver a note from Thomas to Bruce that contains these words:

When Barry came to me for help, I turned him away.
I’m not the hero of this story.
I’m a man who’s been corrupted by his own unbearable pain,

I’m a man who has too much blood on his hands to be called good.
I’m a man who had nothing to live for…

Naturally, Bruce cries after reading the letter. And this is my whole point with this essay: In the age of mass shootings and smartphone videos of police officers using guns to execute innocent people for looking scary, we need our caped crusader to remain committed to fighting crime through excellent detective work and a mastery of non-lethal weapons and combat techniques. We need a Batman, the Batman, who uses his training and resources not just to fight against crime, but to fight for justice. We need a hero whose superpower is his virtue (and, okay, extreme wealth). As the antepenultimate animated clip shows, our Dark Knight’s quest is not rooted in a violent pathology so much as an altruistic desire to be the last boy whose life is defined by trauma and tragedy. It may be a fool’s errand, but it is not a monster’s, and this defining element of the character is completely lost in Miller’s hyperviolent (and sometimes hypersexual) fever dream version. Miller’s Dark Knight is not the hero of this story. The hero of this story is the Batman who was created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, then evolved by them and many others across three-going-on-four generations of story tellers like Dennis O’Neil, Neal Adams, Alan Moore, Jim Starlin, Bruce Timm, Christopher Nolan, and Grant Morrison – and who now belongs, in a very significant way, to the multiple generations of fans that have funded the development of comics, shows, video games, and movies that keep Batman alive and fresh in the cultural imagination.

Batman belongs to all of us now and Warner Bros. needs to respect that reality by making a real effort to do right by the fans in future movies. For better or worse, the cineplex is the contemporary Lascaux, and we want to see our favorite myths painted excellently – or at the very least recognizably.

In part 4 of The Once and Future Batman, I’ll provide DC and WB with some tips on how to do just that. (I’m sure the writers, producers, and director are all eagerly waiting for my input. 😹)

Batman fans sound off! Do you agree? Do you disagree? Tell TLP! Send an email, comment on Facebook, or tweeton Twitter. There is also Tumblr and the comment field below, if you’re into that kind of thing. The best responses will be added to this post or included in a follow up post.

The Once and Future Batman, Part 2

Zack Snyder’s defense of his own Batman movie is really an indictment of them all. (This is the second in a four part series on the past, present, and future of Batman at the movies.)

"Hey at least I made a steaming pile and not a diarrhetic puddle!"
“Hey at least I made a steaming pile and not a diarrhetic puddle!”

In part 1 of this series, I described the importance of Batman as a modern myth and gave a (relatively) concise overview of all the cinematic depictions of the caped crusader that have thus far been made.

Snyder’s confesses to directorial malfeasance while trying to defend BvS

In 8 movies spanning almost 30 years, Batman has yet to be rendered in a way that is faithful to either the vast majority of his comic books or the popular perception of the character as a virtuous vigilante who goes to great lengths to avoid using guns or killing anyone. And that is a key element of a character who saw his parents killed by someone using a gun.

In a recent interview, Snyder uses this poor cinematic track record – along with references to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and a Clayface-sized heap of shitty reasoning – to mount a defense of his mostly-loathed depiction of Batman as judge, jury, and executioner in Batman v Superman (aka BvS). Here is Snyder, talking with HeyUGuys, revealing just how little he knows what he is doing in the course of trying to claim that he knows exactly what he is doing:

I tried to do it in a technical way. There’s a great YouTube video that shows all the kills in the Christopher Nolan movies even though we would perceive them as movies where he doesn’t kill anyone. I think there’s 42 potential kills that Batman does! Also, it goes back and includes even the Tim Burton Batman movies where this reputation as a guy that doesn’t kill comes from.

So, I tried to do it by proxy. Shoot the car they’re in, the car blows up or the grenade would go off in the guy’s hand, or when he shoots the tank and the guy pretty much lights the tank [himself]. I perceive it as him not killing directly, but if the bad guy’s are associated with a thing that happens to blow up, he would say that that’s not really my problem.

A little more like manslaughter than murder, although I would say that in the Frank Miller comic book that I reference, he kills all the time. There’s a scene from the graphic novel where he busts through a wall, takes the guy’s machine gun…I took that little vignette from a scene in The Dark Knight Returns, and at the end of that, he shoots the guy right between the eyes with the machine gun. One shot. Of course, I went to the gas tank, and all of the guys I work with were like, ‘You’ve gotta shoot him in the head’ because they’re all comic book dorks, and I was like, ‘I’m not gonna be the guy that does that!’

I think it is worth demolishing this nonsense point by point.

First off, let’s watch and analyze the video Snyder is referring to, which is not exactly what it claims to be and certainly doesn’t show what Snyder says it does (hey for real, it is less than four minutes, watch it):

What did we just see? Let’s consider these 45 kills:

  • Kills 1-20 are from the Tim Burton movies, which make no serious attempt to be faithful to the comics or the archetypal meaning of Batman. As I said in part 1, these are Burton’s movies first and Batman movies second.
  • Kills 21-29 are from the Joel Schumacher movies, the first eight of them involve bad guys killing themselves via bad driving, and anyway again these movies aren’t even trying to depict Batman qua Batman.
  • Kills 30-39 are from Nolan’s Batman Begins and occur before Bruce Wayne has become Batman, so they are not Batman kills. We all make mistakes, people. Also, I think the thing about this scene that has always stuck out to me is that Wayne torches the place in order to avoid killing a man who… …surely must have then died in the fire! What is he thinking? “Hey, I’m going to spare your life by blowing up the building we are both in. Ready, go!” Not that Wayne doesn’t save anybody here because he goes to great lengths to save the man who asked him to kill the other guy. Got it?
  • Still with Nolan, kill 40 is just Batman not saving Ras al’Ghul, which is dicey but not the same thing as killing somebody. This is infuriating not for Mr. al’Ghul’s fate but because it comes after Wayne saved Ras from the explosions that he triggered, and that surely killed the man Ras wanted him to kill, in order to avoid killing somebody.
  • Kill 41 is from the awesome chase sequence in Nolan’s The Dark Knight, and is debateable since we don’t see the guy die, but for sure it looks hard to survive that kind of sudden compression of the driver’s seat.
  • Kill 42, from the same Nolan movie, is for real. Batman killed Dent to save Jim Gordon’s son. Still, I bet if Batman had three arms, he would’ve saved Dent too. The grappling hook and the kid have to come first, you know?
  • Kill 43, from The Dark Knight Rises, happens as a result of vehicular combat. It is definitely a kill, even if a little bit indirect (Batman is shooting the truck’s engine) and that is how Nolan seems to like it.
  • Kill 44 is another bad guy killing their own dumb self. Talia had plenty of chances to get out of that truck all ninja like, but she got in the driver’s seat and decided to ride her bomb truck off an overpass. If this kill belongs to anyone, it belongs to Isaac Newton.
  • Kill 45 is clearly an accident, the guy wasn’t even a real human, and it is from the Adam West TV show (I mean, come on).

That is what this video actually shows.

Next, let’s demolish what Zack Snyder claims this video shows. Contra Snyder’s claim, the video does not show a bunch of kills from the Nolan movies – it shows all the kills and proximal bad guy deaths from all the movies, only 1/4th of them are from the Nolan trilogy, and most of those are from before Bruce Wayne was even Batman. Nolan actually got closer to getting this right than anybody else so far, but that isn’t the point. Neither the Nolan movies nor the Burton movies are “where this reputation as a guy that doesn’t kill comes from” – that reputation comes largely from the comics, but (as I will demonstrate in part three) was and continues to be cemented by Batman: The Animated Series and subsequent animated shows and movies that have built on to that version of the character for almost 25 years. Across decades of comic books and a quarter-century of cartoons, Batman has eschewed guns and killing. Maybe for Zack Snyder, learning from anything before Nolan’s trilogy is just too much work.

Nothing Snyder says next is any better. He moves on to the bizarre claim that BvS Batman is “killing by proxy” in a way that is “more like manslaughter.” Does he really think that if you use a gatling gun to blow up a car full of people that you would not be charged with murder?! I can imagine the defense now: “Your honor, my client did not kill those men. My client shot a car and the car then exploded and killed those men. It is BMW that should be on trial here today.”

Snyder finishes up by again referencing Frank Miller’s version of Batman, which has never been canonical if for no other reason than because of how Miller presents the caped crusader as a violent psycho. So maybe there is a clue. Most disturbingly, Snyder says that some folks on the BvS set that the director considers “comic book dorks” insisted that Batman shoot someone between the eyes, with a machine gun, on screen, in the PG-13 movie that we would all be watching.

Note to Mr. Snyder: Your peeps are not comic book dorks, if anything they are some kind of graphic novel bros – or maybe they are sociopathic Frank Miller literalists? – anyway you need new people on set ASAP.

This is the most regressive moment in Snyder’s “defense” because he is wanting to absolve his guilt by saying that at least he did not commit another more severe crime; “I’m not gonna be the guy who does that.” It’s the Donald Trump defense, movie director edition.

Over and over, Zack Snyder is defending his decision to get Batman really wrong by claiming he is just standing on the shoulders of other people who got Batman really wrong. In doing so, the director makes it clear that he didn’t think it through very much, didn’t make any attempt to draw from the rich comic book and/or animated history of gun-free non-lethal Batman, and really just doesn’t have any fucking clue what he is talking about. It is shocking to me that someone who displays so little understanding of the Dark Knight of Gotham was put in charge of building a cinematic shared universe for DC and Warner Brothers. It is even more shocking that he found himself on set surrounded by people that wanted Batman to use a machine gun to shoot someone between the eyes. I suppose the upside is that by bear-hugging the earlier movie versions of Batman in an attempt to defend his own malodorous steaming pile, Snyder may help convince the next director of a Batman movie to ignore the previous films altogether – including BvS.

Zack Snyder has done, and can do, good things

I want to end on a positive note, because Zack Snyder is a human being. We all make mistakes, even if we don’t all get hundreds of millions of dollars to spend on making those mistakes in a way that frustrates and disappoints millions of people. So here is the upshot: Snyder has never gotten enough credit for Man of Steel. The movie has flaws – the Battle of Metropolis goes on too long and many of the shots are too hectic. Nonetheless, Snyder managed to adapt Superman not as some Reaganized do-gooder like previous movies, but as a tragic myth with a deeply science fiction origin. Maybe he tapped into the cultural well of that myth on purpose, or maybe he just managed not to get in the way of viewers doing that themselves (and Hans Zimmer’s fantastic score surely did a lot of the emotional lifting). As I wrote in my BvS review:

Man of Steel was great (and really underrated) precisely because it recognized and depicted Superman’s origin as a tragic science fiction story. Snyder managed to tell that story like a graphic novel, going back and forth between vignettes of Kal-El’s journey to become Clark Kent and his journey to become Superman.

What this means is that even Zack Snyder was able to disregard the mistakes of previous film adaptions in order to see deeper into the story of a now-mythical superhero. This gives me hope that Snyder could make a decent Justice League movie, and surely Ben Affleck can make a badass Batman solo movie, if they can get themselves into a good perspective on the right source material.

What that source material and perspective ought to be is exactly what I’m going to describe next! So come back tomorrow (ish?) for part three of The Once and Future Batman.

Batman fans sound off! Do you agree? Do you disagree? Tell TLP! Send an email, comment on Facebook, or tweet on Twitter. There is also Tumblr and the comment field below, if you’re into that kind of thing. The best responses will be added to this post or included in a follow up post.

 

The Once and Future Batman, Part 1

How did we get here and why does it matter? (This is the first in a four part series on the past, present, and future of Batman at the movies.)

MovieBatmen1
Name/Problem, from left to right: Clooney/Nipples, Keaton/Burton, Bale/Voice, Kilmer/Kilmer, Affleck/Snyderp

Introduction

On the Friday morning after first seeing Batman v Superman I woke up still disappointed from the night before. I didn’t think any better of the movie after sleeping on it, but I tried to stay hopeful for the future: Wonder Woman is in the movie so little that she is untainted by it; like Wonder Woman, the other meta-humans that have cameos in the movie are mostly untouched by its problems; the (very underrated) version of Superman from Man of Steel is intact after BvS having mostly just been out of place in a story that doesn’t suit him or develop him much at all (lack of development is not the same as bad development). Even the new DC cinematic universe can be redeemed via other directors helming other films in the new canon. The only character that really, deeply took a disastrous hit in BvS is our dear Dark Knight, sullied as he was by repeated use of guns, flagrant killing, torture, and the insinuation that he has a drinking problem.

Why does this matter so much to me and so many other nerds? It matters because Batman is no longer a comic book character created by Bill Finger and Bob Kane. Batman is now a modern, archetypal figure of myth found in comic books, movies, television shows, Legos, action figures, and the imaginations of children and adults all over the world. Here in America, Bruce Wayne as Batman is a paradoxical combination of our dreams, fears, past and future. He combines great privilege with terrible tragedy, vast wealth with hard work, great power with great discipline, and disdain for authority with deep principles of community. In a nod to the recent past, Bruce Wayne is the ultimate Americanized ideal of noblesse oblige – doing good works by day as an industrialist and philanthropic billionaire. At night Batman is in his primal form as a modern, urban hunter – preying on the wicked and unjust in an attempt to serve and protect his village. At a personal level, I believe the Dark Knight represents for many of us the idea that the pain of our childhood – and we all had some – can be the source of our greatest works and gifts as adults. For these reasons and others, myself and a great many people have many, many, many fucks to give about how Batman is portrayed on screen.

And so I found myself that Friday morning so immersed in an effort to cope with my sadness and anger about a pretend portrayal of a fictional character that I started writing. My idea, the case I want to make, is that the early 90s Batman: The Animated Series is by far the best version of Batman ever on television and certainly better than any of the movie versions, and as such could be the basis for either an entirely new take on Batman or some kind of cinematic salvage operation on the Snyderstroyed version now inhabiting the DCEU. The resulting post got too big and unwieldy so I’ve decided to break it into four parts: part one, an introduction to the importance of Batman movies (done) and their problematic history (coming next); part two will use Zack Snyderp’s defense of his own Batman portrayal as the best possible indictment not only of BvS, but of every Batman movie before it; in part three I make the case that the only proper on screen portrayal of Batman as an American mythological figure was in The Animated Series (and some other related series and films); part four will discuss how to replace or rehabilitate the DCEU Batman in the upcoming Justice League movie and/or a solo project helmed by Ben Affleck (please Warner Bros. just greenlight the thing now, please).

Bonus: if I receive enough feedback/criticism of these posts via email and/or comments, I will compile them into a fifth post.

A pithy history of Batman movies and their problems

I present to you, on no authority whatsoever, The Latter Procedure’s concise and snarky history of Batman movies:

  • Tim Burton’s Goth Knight (1989 – 1992)
    Tim Burton made two movies (BatmanBatman Returns) with Michael Keaton starring as Bruce Wayne / Batman. Burton is an auteur so these really are Tim Burton movies first and Batman movies second. And they’re fine, I suppose. The late 80s and early 90s are the Stone Age of superhero movies so Burton and Warner Brothers (WB) deserve credit just for trying. That said, there is nothing especially compelling about these movies and they don’t particularly embrace or eschew guns and killing. Burton’s version is an agnostic Batman based more on the director’s style than on the character’s mythology.
  • Joel Schumacher’s Star-Studded Shit Show (1995 – 1997)
    Schumacher’s two entries in the cinematic history of the caped crusader (Batman Forever, Batman & Robin) are risible in their best moments and execrable in their worst moments – and the films are mostly made up of worst moments. It’s like the guy had never heard of Batman before seeing the Tim Burton movies, then decided to make two movies focused only on Batman’s toys, some bright colors, and a lot of souped-up and gentrified B-movie contrivances. Schumacher’s take on the caped crusader is iconoclastic in the worst possible way; I can’t imagine ever sitting through these films again.
  • Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy (2005 – 2012)
    While not without problems, Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises) are the first movies that really made an effort to get Batman mythologically correct while also being culturally relevant beyond mere spectacle (Schumacher) or style (Burton). Nolan’s Batman eschews killing, with few exceptions, and those exceptions are mostly failures to save bad guys from themselves. He only uses vehicle-to-vehicle guns, although Catwoman does eventually use his batbike guns to kill Bane, which is a bit sketchy, but okay. The biggest flaw of Nolan’s version is that he is very much isolated in a world without other superheroes and, you know, the voice thing. Not that Batman and Bruce Wayne having different voices is a bad idea, just that the Batman voice that Christian Bale used in the films is distractingly, laughably bad. Still, compared to the films that came before, this trilogy is an immeasurably large improvement. Nolan’s take is our first doctrinaire Batman-as-mythical-figure at the movies. Good stuff.
  • Zack Snyder’s Pretentious Hack of Frank Miller’s Vigilante Fever Dream (2016 – ?)
    On the upside, Ben Affleck does as good a job being Bruce Wayne/Batman as the material allows and he/Snyder even found a good solution to the dual voice challenge. I’ve already said my piece about the downsides in my review of Batman v Superman. Basically: Batman uses guns and kills people, flagrantly – even methodically – while also engaging in torture. This is Dick Cheney’s kind of Batman. Ripped off from inspired by Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, Snyder seems to have decided to begin building a new cinematic Batman around an interesting, but ultimately misguided, caricature of the caped crusader’s worst psychological maladies and political implications. The movie version is not as far out there as the version in the graphic novel, but it is pretty far out there. Snyder’s Batman is so wrapped up in the Dark that he has lost touch with the Knight.

So that’s what has happened so far. Come back tomorrow for part two – a deeper analysis of why the problems with these movies are problems and not just things some nerds don’t like.

Batman fans sound off! Do you agree? Do you disagree? Tell TLP! Send an email, comment on Facebook, or tweet on Twitter. There is also Tumblr and the comment field below, if you’re into that kind of thing. The best responses will be added to this post or included in a follow up post.