Sunday, 29 July 2012

The Dark Knight Rises is not a conservative film. At least not in the way that conservatives think it is. Christian Toto contends that "everyone not blinded by liberal ideology" can see that The Dark Knight Rises is critical of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and that the film is therefore "downright conserative." There are two significant problems with his claim: logically, it is not necessarily true that any cultural artifact that's critical of the Occupy movement is conservative; and visually, the optics of Bane and his followers don't correspond to those of the Occupy movement. The logical problem is easy enough to dismiss: I can criticize the rhetoric and tactics of the Occupy movement without being instantly transformed into a conservative. The visual problem isn't that much more complicated, because this is what Bane and his followers look like: I would like to ask Toto and John Nolte and every other conservative whose claim that the object of the film's critique is the Occupy movement is predicated on obviousness whether the heavily armed fatigue-garbed lot pictured above look more like this: Or this: I would like to ask them to examine these images closely and count the number of raised weapons in the first and compare that to the number being raised in the second and the third. Then they can tally up the number of bandoliers and re-purposed fatigues and wrapped heads there are in each of these images and compare those too. If they possess a shred of intellectual honesty they'll have no choice but concede that Bane and his cohorts more closely resemble Afghan mujahideen from the 1980s than Occupy protestors from last year. Toto claims that only those "blinded" by ideology could fail to recognize the similarity between the people in the first and second images. But it seems to me that only someone who is actually blind could be convinced that there's a greater correspondence between the first and second than the first and third. There's a solid reason that Bane and company more closely resemble the mujahideen than the Occupy protestors: they're from the same part of the world. Batman Begins opens with Bruce Wayne being recruited in a Bhutanese prison and then scaling the Himalayas to train with the League of Shadows. The prison pit in The Dark Knight Rises is located near the northern Indian border with Pakistan, and the majority of those imprisoned in it aren't chiroptophobic American billionaires. That Fu Manchu mustache sported by Ra's al Ghul belongs to a tradition of racist caricature of people who come from China and Japan and India. The geographic and narrative cues align with the visual to demand that the League of Shadows be seen as an old school Oriental menace whose politics amount to whatever-frightens-white-people. Only in this last sense can the projection of conservative politics onto The Dark Knight Rises be understood: the only thing the League of Shadows shares with the Occupy movement is an ideological commitment to frightening white people. That both are successful says nothing about...
Only, there's no such thing as Social Darwinism. Erik's posts (here and here) on the seemingly Darwinian politics of modern conservativism aren't wrong about the lilt of these contemporary thinkers, but they do a bit of injustice to the historical ones, because there was no such thing as "Social Darwinism" during the Gilded Age. There was such a thing as William Graham Sumner, and his collected essays bear the title Social Darwinism, but those essays were collected in and published in 1963. The editor of those essays was following the lead established by the historian Richard Hofstadter, whose Social Darwinism in American Thought (1944) identified Sumner as the brains behind the social Darwinist movement in the Progressive Era. The problem is that there wasn't a social Darwinist movement during the Progressive Era. I'm not just kicking against the pricks here—as people writing dissertations are wont to do—as will become clear if you ask yourself a simple question: When was the Modern Synthesis formulated? The Modern Synthesis, if you don't know, is the combination of Mendelian genetics with Darwinian evolutionary theory, and represents the moment when the previously theoretical Darwinian model finally found itself a mechanism of transmission. Darwin's theory of natural selection was elegant, but prior to the Modern Synthesis scientists lacked a means of proving that it could exist in nature. When was it formulated? Between 1936 and 1942. Why is that significant? Because prior to the Modern Synthesis there was little consensus as to the driving force behind the development of species. Russian scientists, for example, were working under Lamarckian assumptions about the heritability of acquired characteristics well into the 1960s. (The had an ideological commitment to keeping the Lamarckian faith after the Modern Synthesis, but eventually even they relented.) Point being, during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, Darwinian thought wasn't the dominant strain of evolutionary theory. It lacked the evidence required to back up its elegance, and so its status in the scientific community was as tenuous then as its competitors are now. Vernon Kellogg, then president of Stanford (or not?), wrote a book entitled Darwinism Today (1908) that basically argued that there really wasn't any. It devoted itself to explicating "the various new theories of species-forming with ... names, such as heterogenesis, orthogenesis, metakinesis, geographic isolation, biologic isolation, organic selection, or orthoplasty." So why do we associate Darwinism with this period? Because of the Whigs and their history. The aforementioned Hofstadter wrote Social Darwinism in American Thought in 1944 in order to create a bogeyman whose existence would justify the policies of the New Deal. From what Stephen J. Gould called the "maximal diversity" of evoultionary thought during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, Hofstadter selected those thinkers whose work contained implications dire enough that politicians in the 1940s could point to them to frighten the masses. Darwinism, as I demonstrated above, wasn't regnant during the period, much less the social application of it, but Hofstadter had handed New Deal liberals their bogeyman and they weren't about to give it up. Ironically, the...

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