In politics, we often use abstract language as an intentional strategy to exclude our opponents and include our supporters. In this manner, language hides as much as it reveals. The more abstract the language, the more we can read into it and the less we have to explain. When we use concrete language that people can understand and experience, the issue becomes clear and people have to take responsibility for what the words mean. We see this in the euphemisms that dominate our language. We hear the term downsizing or restructuring. What these terms mean is that people will lose their jobs. In some cases, we need abstract language to describe abstract concepts. However, our political language, what we use every day, rarely requires abstract language.
What I have noticed recently is the increased use of abstract language reflects sloppy thinking. Instead of trying to put ideas or issues into concrete language, we turn to abstract language. In particular, our political language, the language we all use in our political (public) lives, is captured by abstract language and euphemisms. One example that caught my attention was a recent review of the Dark Knight Returns in the Guardian Comment is Free section.
The reviewer invites us to understand the film as a commentary or illustrative story on capitalism. In the article, they use terms, like capitalism and anti-capitalism and collective action without explaining them. We are invited us into their camp by using abstract language or buzzwords that signal their political stance. We are told specific commentators are “right-wing”. However, what does that mean? In the United States, right wing assumes an understanding that the person is on the right politically. Yet, we have to assume that we know what the “right” is or what the author means by using it. We are also invited to understand the term means a monolithic group. As if the Right (or the Left) or humanity is monolithic and of one mind or view on any particular issue.
In reading the review, I am left wondering why there are no “left-wing” reviews of the film or a way to view the film as the failed revolution. Would this suggest is that to support Bane is to support a leftist movement embodied in a morally bankrupt criminal gang? No. Why do we have to start with the premise that the hero and his activity is already right wing by default? Most wealthy people vote, unsurprisingly, for the party or candidates that will further their interests. One only need to note that FDR was a very wealthy man who instituted more revolutionary social programmes and government growth. One could suggest that FDR was a model for Batman and his activity. However, I digress from the use of language.
We are also left uncertain whether the review understands Batman’s origins or the reason for his revival in Frank Miller’s excellent series Batman: the Dark Knight Returns. The movie series was based on the graphic novel’s popularity as well as Marvel’s success on bringing a number of comic books to successful movies. The series focuses on a dystopian Gotham. The movies are based loosely on the graphic novels because a faithful adaptation would not have been possible. The author tells us that it is a reactionary appeal. Again, we see an abstract term, a buzzword that we are all supposed to understand and accept. What is a reactionary? What does it mean to be reactionary? By its use, we are to accept that it must have a negative meaning. Yet, in this context, a city under siege, one would expect decent people to be reactionary. They should react to the injustice and the criminality. Instead, we are invited to accept that a reactionary is opposed to political or social change no matter its content or intent. We are unable to judge the claims because we do not understand what justice means. What are our criteria for judging the issue?
If Batman is providing reactionary appeal, what is it that he opposes? Is he opposing criminal gangs attacking people? Is he is opposing any political reform? Is the political reform to be understood as criminal gangs attacking people? One could understand history being invoked. For example, the Brownshirts were a criminal gang used by the Nazis for political purposes. Most extreme political parties (legal or illegal) have paramilitary groups. However, we are not treated to such a concrete understanding of the issues. Instead, we are given abstract shorthand that the movie is a “reactionary vision” , we return to the question. What is it that the vision is reacting against? Is the Dark Knight reacting against the decline of Gotham? Alternatively, he is reacting against those who want to reform Gotham. Is it that Bane’s reform is what Batman resists?
As soon as we begin to look at the film or the review at this level, it starts to unravel. We see that the abstract language is inviting us to put forward our political prejudices and not understand the terms or the movie as it they understand themselves.
We are invited to accept that the film celebrates conservative values. Yet, what are these values? Does the author mean that fighting crime and protecting people are conservative values? Do non-conservatives oppose such acts? Why are we to accept or assume that conservative is immediately to be understood as a “right-wing” term? Is conservative simply one who does not want change? Alternatively, is it that they accept some measure of change but they do not want radical change? Again, we are left with abstract language that tells us nothing about the issue except that we can fill it with our political prejudices.
We are also encouraged to believe that if someone is wealthy it is because their wealth is created by making others poor. We are to accept that the idea that wealth is created by exploiting others. Yet, why do we have to accept that understanding of wealth? The characters mouth these words, yet where is the critical thought or argument to support this claim?
What is particularly troubling or confusing is how the author uses the term capitalism. We are invited to accept the terms as capitalism and anti-capitalism without understanding them. Different people can understand these terms in different ways. Yet, we are not offered an understanding of what the terms means. We have to accept that capitalism is bad (although some variant might be good) and anti-capitalism is good. We are unable to grapple with the terms and what they may mean in political terms. We have to accept that Wall-E is an anti-capitalist film as much as it is a film about environmentalism. Is Avatar a film about capitalism as it is about nature and the need to live in harmony with it to find one’s identity? We are not encouraged or invited to ask these questions. Instead, we are given the pre-digested meaning without a chance to engage or accept that the terms have secondary and tertiary meanings.
Why do we have to accept that direct action against the rich is somehow not allowed in films? What would it mean if direct action against the rich were allowed? The film may not have needed direct action against the rich to make its point. However, the deeper question, or issue, is that the review appears to assume that political change requires direct action. In the United States, as a nation of laws, one has to change the laws to change the people. The political system becomes an arena for working out these issues. Moreover, one can rely upon the federal structure to make sure the passions that would encourage direct action a reduced. In other words, we have elections and a legislative process rather than pitched battles in the street as we saw in ancient Rome and Weimar Germany.
As the review continues, we e are left to assume that re-distribution of property will lead to a dystopian nightmare. Why do we have to accept this is the case? Why do we assume that people will resist this dystopian future? If we change the idea from wealth or income away from property, most people accept that they need to pay taxes. People accept that the common good needs to be supported and they want to do their fair share. Most people, in the United States, would accept that direct political violence to redistribute property or wealth, as in China or Russia, leads to terrible consequences. As a nation of immigrants, going back to the founders, who fled the regimes where this occurred, there is an almost in-built aversion to it. Yet, we have seen that redistribution of income occurs on a regular basis and voluntary basis. What is resisted is the forced redistribution. As such, it would present a direct challenge to political due process before the laws.
What is strange is that the author accepts that there is no organised action against capital in the film. Why do we accept that there is no resistance? Do we need to see bombs in the street and political violence to believe that there is political action? Why do we have to accept the author’s implicit argument that political action requires political violence? Is this the hidden argument within the reviewer’s review? We need political violence to show us the people are resisting. We have no certainty that Bane will return the city to the people. How will he return the city to the people? If his first political act is violence, we are unlikely to find that he will accept the rule of law.
The review ends with its most ambitious use of abstract political arguments. The reviewer argues that the film can be seen as an allegory of the good rich elite trying to rebuild their reputation. We are to believe that there are good rich and bad rich people. The good rich people are trying to save capitalism from its worst excesses. Why are we to accept that there are good and bad wealthy people. Does accumulated wealth invalidate our moral reasoning? Do we lose our moral identity in direct proportion to the wealth we earn? Why do we have to accept that implicit argument? Moreover, the attempt to preserve or reform a political system from its excesses is a goal that is as old as Plato and the Republic. Is this something that we should condemn? If so, why? Why is it implicitly a bad thing for wealthy people, or any people, to protect the common good? In many ways, the American experiment is the ability to reform and rebuild the common good for each generation by elections and legislation.
We are then led to believe that the excesses of financial capital and Romney are synonymous. Instead of being shown why or how they connected, we are told that they are linked and we must accept this link. We are left to believe that somehow Romney will fail to curb finance capital. Yet, another film would suggest otherwise. The hugely successful film The Inside Job gives us the view that Obama failed to curb finance capital when he had the chance. In other words, he promised reform and failed to deliver it. We do not understand how or why the regime, either America or Gotham, has become corrupted from its original purpose. I explore that idea more in this article.
The author then assumes that the film demonizes collective action. Again, we are left to accept his statement rather than being offered any evidence. Is Bane demonstrating collective action? Is Batman demonstrating collective action? For an individual to succeed, they need an organisation. The solitary political actor is a myth. All political actors need political organisations to succeed. To put it bluntly, even Jesus Christ had disciples and needed the Church to bring his message to the world. However, I digress as Machiavelli has already covered these points.
The problem for the reviewer and the review is that we are left to assume what is meant by collective action. The reviewer’s criticism would have us believe that collective and the group are somehow superior in their acts and their intents. Yet, we are in danger of misunderstanding what collective action means. We are being habituated to believe collective action is something that Clay Shirkey has described in his less than rigorous book Here Comes Everybody. Instead, we are better served by Mancur Olson’s rigorous analysis of collective action. To put it bluntly, posting photos to Flickr is not a sign of collective action even if Shirkey claims it is. What we need to know is what collective action means. If democracy is collective action, then how does the film portray it as bad? Are we to accept the author’s argument that collective action is what Bane and his cohort do? Is it that collective action is anything that is different from what the individual (Bane or Batman) do? Again, we seem to have to accept that the individual is without an organisation that helps them achieve their ends.
The review contains abstract language and terms that invite us to express our political prejudices. The review does not provide a reasoned or sustained argument for the terms or the conclusions. What we are left with at the end is what we started with at the beginning: abstract language that allows us to fill it with our political prejudices.
- The Dark Knight politicized (humanevents.com)
- Harvey J. Kaye: Re-Re-elect FDR! Make 2012 the New 1936! (huffingtonpost.com)