The Rot: Part I
This is the first in a series of posts inspired by Batman: The Dark Knight Rises.
I’ve noticed a theme in American media. We seem to have a belief that our days as a society are numbered; and that our civilization’s demise is coming soon. This theme seems present in The Dark Knight Rises. The vision of Gotham, the US’s leading city, as a dying metropolis, slowly rotting away from the inside out; and the anger of the poor against the decadence of the rich seems to fall in line with that theme. To me, it seems that the movie is meant to be a mirror held up to American society.
In the book 1984, George Orwell writes this:
“Throughout recorded time, and probably since the end of the Neolithic Age, there have been three kinds of people in the world, the High, the Middle, and the Low . . . The aims of these three groups are entirely irreconcilable. The aim of the High is to remain where they are. The aim of the Middle is to change places with the High. The aim of the Low, when they have an aim . . . is to abolish all distinctions and create a society in which all men shall be equal.”
“For long periods the High seem to be securely in power, but sooner or later there always comes a moment when they lose either their belief in themselves, or their capacity to govern efficiently, or both. They are then overthrown by the Middle, who enlist the Low on their side by pretending to them that they are fighting for liberty and justice. As soon as they have reached their objective, the Middle thrust the Low back into their old position of servitude, and themselves become the High. Presently a new Middle group splits off from one of the other groups, or from both of them, and the struggle begins over again.”
This cycle is both endless and inevitable. As a historian, I would have to agree, for the most part, with Orwell’s idea. One can see his pattern acted out over and over again throughout the history of humanity. I would, however, modify the structure a little bit.
First, I would argue that none of the three groups really want equality, liberty, or justice at all. It seems to me that all people are motivated by a basic addiction to progress and prosperity. We all want more than we currently have. It’s easy to miss this fact when comparing the poor to the wealthy. It’s easy to see that the wealthy are greedy when they have so much more than they actually need, but still scrape, kick and scream for more. After working with and befriending members of all three classes, however, I have come to see that the very same spirit is at work in the poor as well as the rich; it’s just harder to identify when wanting more is the same thing as simply wanting enough. People, however, are people; and the way a man uses ten dollars is going to be very similar to the way he uses ten-thousand. If a woman makes excuses for why she should be able to cheat the government, she will also make excuses as to why she should be able to cheat the popular masses. People are people; we all want more; and this is part of what drives the cycle of revolutions. No one wants equality, everyone wants more.
Second, I argue that although no one really wants equality, all three groups pretend to want it. This pretense is intended both for others and ourselves. We lie to ourselves so that we can clothe our selfish objectives in righteous indignation and justify atrocities both large and small in pursuit of the ever elusive “more.” So, the low take up the cause of liberty, equality, and fraternity and oust the high. Those who oppress with money are then replaced; but who are they replaced with? Simply by another group, motivated by the same spirit, to the same ends, but possibly by a different means. This is what we see in the Gotham ruled by Bane. The poor got rid of the rich and are no longer exploited by the wealthy, but now the weak and vulnerable are tortured and bullied by the physically strong and well armed. They simply switched one type of oppression for another.
So the poor criticize the wealthy; the weak criticize the strong; and the untalented criticize the gifted. It’s easy to criticize. It’s easy to talk about “them” and what a horrible job “they” are doing. Sometimes “they” are the religious, or the atheists, or the liberal media elite, or the conservative bigots, or the homosexual agenda, or the capitalists bourgeois pigs, or the welfare parasites. There is no shortage of “them” in the world. The truth is, however, no matter what group replaces “them,” there will always be a new “them.” That is because “they” don’t really exist, whoever we have labeled them as, there is only us.
Just like in Batman, a change in the ruling class will not heal society’s problems, because no matter who “they” are, “they” are still part of us; and the problem is not with “them,” it is with us. We are the problem, all of us; and the problem will always be misdiagnosed until it is no longer “their” problem, but ours. We are broken, and this brokenness, this rot at the heart of humanity will not let us go.