I have a long history of mixed feelings about vigilante superheroes. I cheer for Batman, and I loved watching Dexter, but for a long time i was troubled by the idea of someone, anyone, deciding that they knew better than everyone else what was right and true and good, and could therefore break the law in order to serve their idea of justice. It wasn’t the breaking the law part that bothered me- I think civil disobedience is one of the most important parts of democracy. My concern was with the idea that one person could decide that they knew best, and therefore had the moral right to go above and beyond the system. I believed that, flawed as it might be, a functioning democratic system of justice was always better than one individual.
Over time, that view has shifted somewhat, though not entirely. I”m still fearful of the vigilante, especially the one who claims that they don’t need to be accountable to anything but their own conscience. (One reason I am more Team Tony than Team Cap, though I think both positions are deeply flawed.) But the stories that allowed me to see this in a different light were V for Vendetta, and the Christopher Nolan Batman movies, especially The Dark Knight. In those stories, the vigilante wasn’t presented as a good thing, but a necessary evil. A check upon the system when the system had lost its way, with the eventual goal of repairing the system to the point that the vigilante was no longer needed.
V understood that he could not enter the new world he was trying to create. Batman wanted to support Gordon and Dent in rebuilding the justice system so that he would no longer be needed. But both of them knew that before that could happen, they had to go outside the law. Because the law, the system, the rules that were supposed to be keeping things fair and honest, weren’t working. And that working within that broken system couldn’t save it or rebuild it.
I’ve been thinking about this ever since Trump was elected. I’ve heard so many on the left argue for taking the ‘high road’ and continuing to work within the existing system to defeat him. And I have a lot of sympathy for that position, but at the end of the day, I have to disagree.
I think it’s time to stop being Commissioner Gordon, and start being Batman.
It’s time to stop trying to be good, and polite, and hope that acting righteous will convince others of how wrong it is to do otherwise. I think it’s time to get our hands dirty, to break the law, to refuse to cooperate, to refuse to pay taxes, to refuse to keep trying to play by ‘the rules’ when it’s clear that they no longer apply.
I should note that I’m speaking primarily of non-violent action, so the parallel to Batman is not perfect. My co-host Paul and I will be discussing the ethics of violence, specifically punching Nazis, in an upcoming podcast. But there are so many ways to step outside the system, to refuse to give our consent to be governed, to throw every bit of sand we can find into the gears of government. Civil disobedience, work stoppages, tax strikes, daily protests, boycotts of any and all businesses that support the Trump system. But it starts with the decision that we can’t play by the rules any more.
The first part of doing that is to accept that the system really is broken. For Bruce Wayne, it is not just anger at the murder of his parents that drives him, it is the recognition that the system is too broken to do anything about it. That the police are too corrupt, the justice system too ineffectual, and the good people too scared or apathetic, allowing criminals to roam free. Bruce realizes that he can’t count on the system to make things right- he has to do it himself.
Today we need that Bruce Wayne moment. To realize that we can’t keep hoping that if we point out when Trump or the Republicans break the rules, that some authority will come along and make things right again. Because it’s never, ever, going to happen.
Beyond the constitution and our laws, we’ve always been taught that there are unwritten rules that govern our politics and that make up the whole idea of ‘polite society.’ Step too far, insult the wrong people, get caught in the wrong kind of scandal, and you’ll be pulled down because you broke ‘the rules.’ Again and again Trump has broken those rules, has flouted every idea about what is acceptable in public discourse. Everytime, Twitter and the media have exploded, calling people’s attention to it in the belief that people would say he had broken ‘the rules’ and he would be properly held to account. But it never, ever happens.
While Trump is the king of breaking the rules because no one is enforcing them anymore, it did not start with him. The Republicans have spent almost a decade, if not more, doing things that the left and the media will decry. We call out “they can’t do that”, to no effect. For a year, we read about how the GOP had overstepped by refusing to even consider Obama’s Supreme Court Nominee, and how badly they would be punished at the polls. But it didn’t happen.
Think about how many things Trump did ‘wrong’, how many times something happened that we were told meant his candidacy was finished, once and for all, and how little it mattered in the end. And for anyone holding out hope that coming into office would force him to mellow out and play by the rules- it has taken only one week to prove how false that hope is
So, we find ourselves in Gotham. Penguin is Mayor, the lock on the gate of Arkham is busted, and the police are all on the take. The question is, do we keep playing by the rules, and hope the teacher will finally realize Trump has been bad and enforce the rules for us? Or is it time to put on the cape and cowl, and go rogue?