I don't think I've ever considered high-action Hollywood blockbuster movies a reliable source of political wisdom, but after renting and watching the Batman saga The Dark Knight, I just may have to re-evaluate my position.
But before I get into that let's rewind a bit to last Tuesday, Inauguration Day, and see if we can't set a context for our movie-going exegesis.
I've a tendency towards binary thinking, which is an ugly trait for a liberal. It makes one overly rigid and highly moralistic, which, again, are okay if you're a Republican but kind of the wrong point if you're a putative relativist like me.
There's a good reason why the phrase "law and order liberal" doesn't have much traction.
"Obama was, and is, a Pragmatist. He told us he was, but we true believers just didn't believe him."
Anyway, that binary thinking manifests itself as a desire to put every political story into just one of two boxes. In one box, the box of true believers, are those who value the destination intrinsically, even if no one could imagine any way to get there.
You know the type: fists in the air marching forward while occasionally turning backwards only to burn a bridge back to the village destroyed in order to save it. Or so says the True Believer.
It's the box I put myself into, by the way.
And then there's the other box, a box reserved for the Pragmatists (that's a capital P, and it's on purpose) for whom the test of a journey's worth is not so much what's at the end of the road, but the road itself.
Where the True Believer's utopian Perfect Outcome is the enemy of the Pragmatists' Mission, Accomplished.
In other words, 'tis better to get good things actually done, than impotently reach for the perfect that's also politically impossible. Or so says the Pragmatist.
And so it goes with our new President Barak Obama. We True Believers thought we heard him say what he never, actually, did. We heard him say what we wanted him to say. We wanted him to say that he would continue to fight the culture war except, this time, we'd get to win.
"There's a good reason why the phrase "law and order liberal" doesn't have much traction."
We'd get universal health care by shoving it down the Republican's throats, just as they had shoved corporate tax reform down ours. We'd get same-gender marriage by shoving it down the Republican's throats, just as they had shoved faith-based initiatives down ours. We'd get funding for science and the arts by shoving it down the Republican's throats, just as they'd shoved a trillion dollar war and no-bid contracts down ours.
We'd save our village, by burning it to the ground. That's what we hoped Obama represented.
But, although we thought we heard him say those things, he didn't. And so it wasn't inconsistent, nor a sellout, on his part when he voted to retain FISA provisions allowing warrantless wiretapping of our phone conversations (in the name of "safety"). And it wasn't inconsistent, nor a sellout, when he asked Pastor Rick Warren, despite the good man's little problem of homophobia, to conduct his invocation at the new President's inauguration.
Because Obama was, and is, a Pragmatist. He told us he was, but we true believers just didn't believe him.
Frankly, the results of Obama's Pragmatism have been impressive. Rick Warren's fundamentalism hasn't oozed into the administration, as we feared. Instead, as anyone who watched the pastor's invocation saw, the fundamentalists have been owned. They became a part of, an extension of, what Obama represents. They didn't dilute it.
And G. Gordon Libby is no closer to listening in on my dear old mother's phone calls today than he was before the FISA revisions. But those who insist that the only way to preserve freedom is to restrict liberty are also now silent; not listening in but representing out.
What does this say about the political process? What does it say about the roles of leaders? Is embrace and extend always to be preferred over burn and rebuild?
"In other words, 'tis better to get good things actually done, than impotently reach for the perfect that's also politically impossible. Or so says the Pragmatist."
I think not. As Nobel-prize winning Paul Krugman chronicled a bit ago, Obama's successes, though impressive, in another time or another place could easily be disasters. Ghandi's tactic of non-violent resistance worked to unseat the British Viceroy from India.
It would not work to unseat the warlords of Somalia.
Nobody, and everybody
There is no right or wrong in these matters, which is the lesson I took away from The Dark Knight. Because right cannot exist without wrong, nor vice versa. "Why don't I want to kill you?" mused The Joker to Batman. "Because you complete me," he answered himself.
That's it. There will be no apocalyptic resolution. Good will not eventually triumph over evil, nor evil over good. The True Believer's way will not bring us everlasting utopia, if only we let them burn enough villages, nor will the Pragmatists bring a thousand years of stability and beneficial governance if given half a chance at universal inclusiveness.
Nor will the solution be found in chance, in simply flipping a coin. This was the solution espoused by Two-Face, The Dark Knight's pious District Attorney driven mad through injustices suffered. But outsourcing our moral authority to a chance machine renders nothing but a machine. Free of moral contamination to be sure, but an uncontaminated host soon dies.
Just ask the bacteria living in your intestines.
They'll tell you: Shit happens.
Gregory Travis can reached at email@example.com.