The Dark Night has arrived

Last week my wife Hoa and I went to see the new Batman movie, "The Dark Knight Rises," out of a strong sense of solidarity with those who died and were wounded in Aurora, Colorado, on the movie's opening night.

The movie surprised me: It's about culture and politics, not at all about gratuitous violence. From the trailers for this production and from memories of the previous one that had centered on The Joker's palpably evil mind, I had been expecting mostly another round of explosions and high-tech fight scenes.

But instead, "The Dark Knight Rises" gives us the United States of America as a dystopia. The movie is full of metaphors and symbolism about our current angst-ridden cultural and political states of mind.

The movie's Gotham -- a fictional stand in for the USA -- is no longer Puritan John Winthrop's "city upon a hill." It is a community built on fear and distemper. There are no heroes, no real leaders. The community is run by a selfish edifice of wealth and police power. Its present security has been built upon a lie -- that Harvey Dent, not the Batman, was a real hero.

"A storm is coming," Catwoman warns Bruce Wayne. Gotham's sense of security and normality -- and its ruling elites -- will be swept away. Two forces combine to bring on the storm. One is infiltration by a network of foreign subversives with their own religious loyalties -- the League of Shadows -- for which we can substitute Al Qaeda or, a la Minnesota's own Michelle Bachmann, the Muslim Brotherhood.

The second force challenging Gotham's vulnerable, top-heavy system is some vague passion for anarchy and revolution, for tribunals that will punish those in power. The movie's tribunal scenes could have come from settings in the French Jacobin, Russian, Maoist, Ho Chi Minhist or Khmer Rouge seizures of state power. People are presumed guilty and brought before the people's court to have their punishment determined.

This revolutionary alternative is confirmed at the end of the movie when excerpts of Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities" are read over Bruce Wayne's tombstone. That novel by Dickens was about the bloody excesses and injustices of the French Revolution ("It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.")

Just so today in America. We are still reasonably wealthy as a nation; we are powerful; but we are deeply unhappy because we have lost faith in our families, our institutions, our nation, and most of all, in our leaders. When there is no faith, that is the worst of times.

The Aurora shooting, with its cold deliberation and radical show of de-sensitization stands as its own metaphor for something deeply wrong somewhere.

And our collective leaderships -- political, religious, business -- cannot find within themselves the courage to call for an end to the arms trade that makes such mayhem possible.

This is only a form of personal and cultural cowardice, like the cowardice we see in "The Dark Knight Rises" when Police Commissioner Gordon cannot bring himself to publicly tell the truth about Harvey Dent and the Batman, when Bruce Wayne's rich rival sells his soul to the League of Shadows, and when Gotham's police chief will not leave his house to fight back, since the effort would be futile and without hope of victory.

The movie starts with Batman depressed and withdrawn -- his own form of giving in to fate and circumstance, his own failure of leadership. The question raised in our mind by this retreat from commitment is: Where is Batman's courage?

Some scenes evoke movies of the past: great American movies about heroism, about stepping up when the odds are against you and the risks are great. As the movie begins, Bruce Wayne is sulking just as Rick Blaine did in "Casablanca" until he was moved to stand up against Major Strasser and the Nazi darkness sweeping over Europe.

Gotham's police chief hides at home and has his wife answer the door, just as the people of Hadleyville did to Marshall Will Kane in High Noon when he was seeking help in standing against the coming darkness threatened by the gangster Frank Miller.

And I found the gathering of the noble remnant at the end of "The Dark Knight Rises" to take on the evil invaders and save the town most reminiscent of "The Magnificent Seven," who returned to save a little Mexican village that had betrayed them to the bandit Calvera.

So what are we to make of this Batman movie? What lessons can we learn to apply and so help our country recover its spirit?

The movie gives us one consistently reliable character -- the young police detective who still believes in Batman and in himself and in doing what is right. As the movie is closing, he tells us that he will resign from the police force because it is one of the "structures" that are doing us in.

His conceit: It is leaders we need, not hierarchies or organizations.

Bigness breeds weakness and conformity among individuals. It's just another version of the truth that "power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely." The more powerful the organization, the weaker the individuals in it, but the more intensely do they seek to control events around them out of short-sighted self-interest.

Put otherwise good people inside a big, powerful structure, and they lose their moral compass and fall from leading to mere following, seeking personal advancement and security by going along and getting along, waiting for those higher up to solve problems.

Consider as a current example of this process the football program at Penn State. Or reflect on Wall Street in its flush days before 2008.

The sadness is that "structures" can do much good on a large scale when driven and guided by leaders. But when "structures" are "led" only by managers, then mediocrity, banality, and even evil await.

The Old Testament in Proverbs 29:18 reminds us: "Where there is no vision, the people self-destruct."

And, the Old Testament Prophet Ezekiel reports the Lord God of Hosts saying: "Are not shepherds meant to feed a flock?"

When "structures" only feed themselves, according to the Old Testament, their flocks will perish and the judgment of the Lord will come upon the faithless shepherds managing these structures even though they may be kings of Israel.

In this election season, we should be on the lookout for good shepherds if they should happen to run for office.

Or, more importantly, each of us needs to step up and make a difference, like the four men who died in Aurora protecting their women from evil.

There is no Dark Knight out there to save us. Only ourselves.

Published: Fri, Aug 3, 2012