…You can be excused just about anything if you’re a hero, because no one asks inconvenient questions. – Terry Pratchett.
There are many ways in which various incarnations of Batman have appealed to people over the years, but central is the trope of counterterror – the revenge fantasy of the impotent. You see, Batman has superhuman powers. Yes, I am aware that the authors make it very clear that he does not have superhuman powers, but then they depict him doing things which are beyond human capabilities – hence he actually has superhuman powers. Using his super powers he brings fear to those who inflict fear. He is the victim who has become the righteous assailant. But there is a little bit of a problem here – if the “hero” is a violent nutcase with an odd costume fetish, why would we trust his moral compass? Why would we rely on his literally self-righteous narrative? In the same vein, why should we take Obama’s word that he has to kill people to prevent terrorism when the alleged terrorists cause much less terror and death than Obama? It turns out that people tolerate Obama because he seems to face an evil more unspeakable, more terrible, and yet more outrageous and comical than any evil known to history. It is not al-Qaeda, nor is it Kim Jong Un. It is the same evil that Batman faces.
Nerd Rage Revenge Fantasy
There is reassurance in the idea of a powerful paternal figure that protects. But when you have been bullied; when you have been made to feel helpless, weak and scared; when your delusions of potency are shattered, maybe you want more than reassurance – maybe you want VENGEANCE. The tables must be turned. The tormentor must become the tormented. You don’t need a father figure anymore, you need a you figure. But an empowered you, a superhuman you, a terrifying you. You need the superhuman powers because you face a superhuman threat – the villains.
The villains are given superhuman power by the scary demon mask which is given to them by magic storytellers known as the corporate media. They terrorise. The mask they wear is the horror mask of primal and basic fear. Criminals and terrorists are not represented as human beings but as crime and terror made flesh. You cannot reason with them. You cannot even buy their forbearance. They will take your money and kill you anyway – because they are driven to kill. There are no ways of mediating or ameliorating the risk of becoming a victim. You hide behind locks, gates and guards, and you cheer for the preventive violence of vigilantes in or out of uniform.
If you are thinking that they take the horror villain mask from the fictional murderer of Hollywood and place it on the real murderers of the evening news, you would only be partly right. The horror mask is used, of course, but there are no “real” murderers on the evening news. Instead of a human being the news media version of a murderer is a cypher, a vehicle for the urge to kill, murder itself embodied and made flesh. They are even less real than their fictional Hollywood counterparts and it is the same when the murderers are “terrorists”. Proof of the unreality is in the irrelevance of actual guilt. The Central Park Five wore the horror mask, as did Damien Echols, and many other innocents such as those imprisoned and tortured in Guantánamo. These are all fictional unreal murderers and terrorists (despite the fact that they correspond to actual real people) who epitomise murder and terror. Their alien nature, their irrationality, their opacity all make them much greater sources of fear. But then there is the intriguing thought that one can also fight terror with terror.
Enter the Batman!
The nature of Batman is such that he takes the terror felt by the public and projects it back at the supposed source of their terror. No, he doesn’t go around scaring the crap out of studio owners and heads of news departments, that would be too sensible. He terrorises the “baddies”, and a central part of the canonical backstory is that he too is a victim, having seen his parents senselessly gunned down as a child. The fear makes everyone a victim, and he is the victim granted the power to fight back.
Out of the dark, just as the tattoed thug is in the act of terrorising (his victim usually a woman), a dark figure drops from above. The tables are turned – the terroriser is now the terrorised – a highly gendered process in which the “bad guy” suddenly develops a very high pitched squeaky voice which is decidedly girly. Usually there is also some sort of phallic kerfuffle occuring – the bad guy’s pistol droops impotently, or Batman’s weapon is bigger, or disarmament is shown as symbolic castration. All good family fun.
This all occurs in exactly the same way in the world of Obama. The discourse of terrorism is one of the horror mask beneath which is the simplistic fiction of cardboard-cutout evil. Terrorists, like violent urban criminals, are animated by innate animus – a pure and unadulterated hatred. They hate our freedoms, we were told, and Obama has done almost nothing but reinforce that notion. Terrorists are killing machines. It is in their nature. You cannot negotiate with terrorists because they are all irrational fanatics. And so, like the urban criminals, the only choice is to incapacitate or eliminate them. As Prince Harry put it: “If there’s people trying to do bad stuff to our guys, then we’ll take them out of the game.” (He didn’t preface the comment with “Holy Playstation Batman!”, but he might well have, because the UK really does good line in being sidekick to a deranged vigilante).
The fear of the terrorist or criminal actually relies on the deliberate omission of any hint of rational motive or circumstantial cause. There is “no negotiating with terrorists”. The only admissable response is the response of the strongman, the Obataman who fights terror with terror. Otherwise people might think that all of this counterterror stuff (which actually creates more terrorists than it kills) is really about deliberately sowing instability and strife in order maintain a US strategic predominance which is, in fact, counter to the interests of the US people (but pretty good if you happen to be ExxonMobil).
Is the analogy with Batman a fair one? To be strictly honest, while Dick Cheney rather overtly embraced what he himself described as “the dark side”, Obama is in a sense more discreet than Cheney or Batman. Part of the appeal of the use of drones is that it seems clinical and detached. Obama specifically claimed “very few” civilian casualties from “very precise, precision strikes against Al Qaeda and their affiliates” in a programme that is “kept on a very tight leash.” So it seems like a programme that just gets “the worst of the worst”. Just like Guantánamo. The frequency of the drone strikes just goes to show how serious the threats to the US are. It also reveals the vigilance of the intelligence forces who strike at every credible threat as soon as it is detected. It is a bit like a whack-a-mole game. The public can be very reassured by the frequency of lethal action without having to ask themselves irrelevant questions such as: who?; where?; how old?; or, how can some impoverished person from one of the most undeveloped regions of the planet pose a credible threat against a country that spends such obscene amounts on “defense” and “homeland security”?
On the other hand, to give Batman his due, despite his broody wierdness and silly voice, he usually resists the temptation to actually murder people, and he doesn’t kill children at all. Obama, by contrast, murders children on a very regular basis, which is not a normal part of the “hero” job description.
The Credibility Problem
Batman and Obama do share a certain fundamental problem, and their propagandists resolve this problem in the same manner. In the final analysis, Batman is an extremely emotionally disturbed vigilante who dresses up as a bat. Yes, this is obvious, and he is a superhero (sort of) but he dresses up as a bat to fight crime. That’s pretty loopy. Likewise, Obama is a serial murderer and war criminal. It might be difficult for people to grasp this at first, but many political leaders in the world are not murderers or war criminals. I know that seems completely mad, but it is true. Heaps and heaps of world leaders don’t even have assasination programmes!
Obama and Batman each have a kind of lame excuse. In the case of Batman it is that while he is actually a bit mad, he almost always has certain internal constraints on his behaviour. It isn’t that comforting really. It is a little like claiming that a sexually motivated burglar who likes to sniff underwear and watch people sleeping is actually alright because, out of hundreds of break-ins, the perpetrator has only sexually assaulted a sleeping victim on a couple of occasions. Similarly, Obama assures us that the people he murders aren’t really murdered, because he has some lawyers who have written down some very important legal words which explain exactly why it is not actually murder but perfectly legal killing and we would be able to see these very important words but they have to be secret because of security. This is nothing more than a sophisticated Third Millenium version of the Nixon defence (if the President does it, it must be legal). These first-line excuses would not protect Obama and Batman from the derision, condemnation and legal proceedings they so richly deserve, but they are supplemented by something far more powerful – flattering contrasts.
How do you make a violent mentally disturbed vigilante in an outrageous costume seem morally acceptable? By pitting him against villains who are even more violent, more mentally disturbed, and more outrageously costumed. Yes, I’m talking about people like Michelle Bachmann and Glenn Beck. You might ask, what about Osama Bin Laden, Muammar Gaddafi and the new kid on the block, Mokhtar Belmokhtar? They are all very well, but for all of their rather suspiciously excessive and picturesque fiendishness, eventually people start to notice that they kill a lot less people than the “good guys”. That is one of the reasons why Bush kept sliding in the polls, eventually even the most brainwashed had to notice that he had lost the moral high ground (and the only excuse that he ever had for pursuing a very criminal foreign policy was to cite moral righteousness). So they had to change from a John Wayne president to a Bruce Wayne president. And you have to admit that Obama seems inherently sane and reasonable when juxtaposed with supervillains like The Newt, Bibi Yahoo, The Enarray, Doctor Romnesia and “Whitey” O’Reilly.
I could probably just start listing completely freakish and weird individuals and groups who position themselves to the right of Obama and it would be a very long list indeed. But you can probably think of a few without my assistance. Obama has managed to seem extremely rational, humane, caring and progressive merely by rejecting some extremely deranged stances taken by his domestic political opponents. Take the Republican primary circus, for example. That was one hell of a freak show and the national convention was a suitably bizzarre coda. And the Republican candidate? A completely unelectable billionaire who refuses to release his tax returns, probably because it would show people how he managed to score millions in taxpayer bailout money by holding the government to ransom in 2008 (the deal was legal, just very very immoral, and concealing it may yet land Romney in prison). And yet they managed to make the election into a credible two-horse race, though only with the mainstream media bending over backwards to keep pretending that Romney’s assertions were worthy of report despite 533 documented lies over the space of 30 weeks of campaigning.
The fact is that Obama only has to say the sort of things that a ten-year old kid would say about the day’s issues, and it seems as if he were the only help of salvation in the face of the sort of reactions his opponents evince. Take the issue of mentally ill people massacring children with weapons which are purpose-built for killing people. Obama said: “We’re going to need on making access to mental health at least as easy as access to a gun. We’re going to need to look more closely at a culture that, all too often, glorifies guns and violence.” Those words almost made him sound like a radical, because very powerful voices were saying that the answer to mass shootings was more guns.
Other issues where Obama’s opponents manage to make him look reasonable even when he is being inhumane or criminal include foreign policy and immigration. Obama has deported record numbers of people (400,000 last year) at enormous expense (ICE and Customs and Border enforcement cost at least $19 billion in 2012). Yet, because he says much less callous things than Republicans, he gets a free ride on the issue. Obama presided over 20,000 air strikes in his first term, nearly equal to the number in both Bush Jr. terms. But Romney’s neocon studded team and the Iran War enthusiasts make Obama seem restrained if not dovish. Obama has been steadfast and seemingly obsequious in support of Israel, but the inevitable opposition to illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Netanyahu’s silly charade of insulted objection, make Obama seem like an “honest broker” (the US has to oppose the illegal settlements, otherwise they could not pretend to support the “peace process” to find a “two-state” solution).
How Many Jokers?
So there we have it. Batman needs The Joker, otherwise he looks too much like a dangerous lunatic himself. For Obama, one joker is not enough. It takes a whole slew of maniac clowns to make Obama seem alright, and for good reason. Here is a test. Read the list of children killed by drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen compiled by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Think about the dead children. (It is an incomplete list. Many victims will never be known.) Then some day when you are in a crowd, picture Obama and think “This guy kills kids. He actually kills children.” Then look at all of the people around you. Do any of them kill children? Not very likely, is it? Normal people don’t kill children. If you found out that one of the people around you had murdered numerous children, how would you react? Now ask yourself, why don’t you react that way to Obama? Isn’t it time to forget about the freakish clowns and see him for what he really is?