The tradition of using The Dark Knight to explain key events in U.S. foreign policy dates back to 2008, when The Wall Street Journal argued George W. Bush only invaded Iraq because he was Batman. That editorial was roundly mocked by some, but was nonetheless an intriguing meditation on vigilance giving way to estrangement. Slavoj Žižek's new essay in the London Review of Books linking Heath Ledger's Joker to Julian Assange somehow feels less convincing. Maybe it's the fact it isn't 2008 anymore--Ledger's performance was terrific, but there's also not much left to unpack. Like Fredo Corleone and Colonel Kurtz, Ledger's Joker is one of those movie characters that doubles as a personality type.
What does Assange have to do with The Joker? Admittedly, they kind of look alike--minus the scars and terrifying clown makeup--and share a healthy disdain for those in power. More than that, writes Žižek, they're both truth-tellers, repackaged as villains by forces who equate transparency with chaos. He explains:
The Joker wants to disclose the truth beneath the mask, convinced that this will destroy the social order. What shall we call him? A terrorist? The Dark Knight is effectively a new version of those classic westerns Fort Apache and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which show that, in order to civilise the Wild West, the lie has to be elevated into truth: civilisation, in other words, must be grounded on a lie. The film has been extraordinarily popular. The question is why, at this precise moment, is there this renewed need for a lie to maintain the social system?
This is reasonable. Žižek is right when he says The Dark Knight's "take-home message is that lying is necessary to sustain public morale: only a lie can redeem us." Batman's redemption doesn't come when he defeats The Joker, but when he volunteers to take the blame for the murders committed by Harvey Dent. It's the next paragraph where things start getting weird.
Consider too the renewed popularity of Leo Strauss: the aspect of his political thought that is so relevant today is his elitist notion of democracy, the idea of the ‘necessary lie’. Elites should rule, aware of the actual state of things (the materialist logic of power), and feed the people fables to keep them happy in their blessed ignorance. For Strauss, Socrates was guilty as charged: philosophy is a threat to society. Questioning the gods and the ethos of the city undermines the citizens’ loyalty, and thus the basis of normal social life. Yet philosophy is also the highest, the worthiest, of human endeavours. The solution proposed was that philosophers keep their teachings secret, as in fact they did, passing them on by writing ‘between the lines’. The true, hidden message contained in the ‘great tradition’ of philosophy from Plato to Hobbes and Locke is that there are no gods, that morality is merely prejudice, and that society is not grounded in nature.
We're not sure The Dark Knight sold over $500 million in tickets because audiences wanted to see Heath Ledger take down the idea of the necessary lie (let's let the wacky Hobbes and Locke interpretation pass for now). The Joker was appealing because he was a charismatic, unexpected, larger-than-life villain, just like Hannibal Lecter, HAL the 2001 computer, and King Kong. Žižek says it's a sign of the times that "the only figure of truth in the film is the Joker, [the] supreme villain," but isn't that to be expected when you stab a guy with the pencil and blow up Maggie Gyllenhaal?