9/11 and security in pop culture

by Sonny Bunch on November 26, 2012

I’ve got a review of The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture: Liberty vs. Authority in American Film and TV in the Wall Street Journal. Paul Cantor’s new book is aimed squarely at people who not only take popular culture seriously but also have more than a passing interest in political philosophy. I gave it a pretty glowing review and assume you, my loyal tens of readers, will really love it.

There was one thing I wanted to tackle but didn’t have room for, however, so I figured I’d bring it up here. Pop culture in the post-9/11 era has been marked not so much by skepticism of government as skepticism of the government’s ability to keep us safe. From the first draft of my review:

Not since the urban crime waves of the 1960s and 1970s spawned “Dirty Harry” and “Death Wish” have we seen such an influx of borderline fascist, one-man-wrecking-crews bending the rules to keep society safe. The popularity of Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knights,” Liam Neeson’s “Taken” series, and “24’s” Jack Bauer suggest a willingness on the part of the public to tolerate a modicum of extra-governmental* authority in the name of defending the weak and upholding the liberal order.

Cantor briefly acknowledges this, though his spin on it is a little odd:

After [Harvey] Dent dies, the only way justice can prevail in the world of the film is for the authorities to cover up his crimes to preserve the myth of his being a decent and just civic official. The Dark Knight may end up endorsing the need to violate civil liberties in order to combat terrorism, but its portrait of government officials comes very close to what The X-Files typically shows. …

Both The X-Files and 24 suggest that the government is completely dependent on mavericks among its agents in order to protect America against its enemies. Following its own rules and procedures, the government would succumb to bureaucratic gridlock. Only the determination, initiative, and resourcefulness of independent-minded agents can save the day. Even within government, a sort of free enterprise principle is necessary to accomplish anything.

His argument that the government conspiracies of The X-Files and the government conspiracy that closes The Dark Knight are thematically similar strikes me as a pretty deep misreading. One conspiracy was undertaken to harm the public, keep that harm secret, and prep the planet for an alien invasion (if I’m remembering my X-Files mythology right; things got pretty murky at the end); the other was a noble lie undertaken to inspire people and protect them from harm. The idea that entrepreneurial violations of the law to protect people is intriguing, but needed to be more fully fleshed out.

In these examples (and plenty of others—The Shield‘s Vic Mackey springs to mind) you see not only a tolerance for, but a celebration of, authority figures breaking the law to uphold the law, to keep average citizens safe. What does it say about our society that we are willing to trade civil liberties (or, at least, the civil liberties of those we deem “bad”) in order to uphold the foundation of civil society?

JVL has written about this a fair bit in regard to Christopher Nolan’s Batman films:

Batman is about the liberal order itself—specifically about the durability of classical liberalism in the face of modernity. …

At a superficial political level, The Dark Knight is a deeply conservative movie. It sides with the Bush administration on questions of torture, as Batman is forced to beat information out of several villains in order to prevent further attacks. It even gives an alibi to the administration on warrantless wiretapping: Batman designs a secret method of eavesdropping on the city’s cell phone network, and the device is a crucial tool in Gotham’s salvation. …

But at a deeper level, the movie was even more conservative. The question The Dark Knight asks is, Can liberalism defend itself from illiberal threats? And the verdict it renders is, No. Throughout The Dark Knight, Gotham City’s institutions—the police, the courts, the mayoralty, the citizenry—prove incapable of answering the Joker’s assaults.

Given that the subtitle of Cantor’s book is “Liberty vs. Authority in American Film and TV,” I could’ve used a bit more on this topic. There’s a fair amount to mine here. I’m pretty firmly on the side of authority, or at least the occasional need to use/abuse authority in defense of liberty (“The Constitution is not a suicide pact,” etc.), but I’m always curious to read well-reasoned objections (as well as well-reasoned concurrences!). Perhaps in a future book.

This is but a quibble, however, and should not dissuade you from checking Cantor’s latest out. It’ll make the perfect stocking stuffer!

*I suppose we could argue whether or not Batman and Liam Neeson’s character in Taken are arms of the government. The Batman is certainly tolerated by, and works with, Gotham authorities even if he is not officially sanctioned; Liam Neeson was once a government agent (though he is retired by the time Taken takes place).

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Judith November 26, 2012 at 12:37 pm

I was waiting for a Taken 2 review on this site…you seemed to be anticipating it.


Sonny Bunch November 26, 2012 at 12:50 pm

I still haven’t seen it; got kind of lost in the shuffle with everything going on. I’ll have to wait for the DVD to come out to review it…


Joe November 26, 2012 at 1:24 pm

It seems to me that part of the “maverick employee” device’s appeal is mechanical. Real law enforcement successes are usually the result of huge amounts of work, much of it seemingly unimportant, aggregated by someone in an office, analyzed by people in other offices, resulting in decisions made in yet other offices, finally culminating in “action” sequences undertaken by different people. In other words, not only incredibly dull, but requiring at least twenty different characters. Holy crap, boring. I’m not sure there’s a good example other than Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct books for this kind of agency-sized procedural effort done right, and that was over the span of a bunch of books.

The hero who does it all single-handedly not only appeals to our own contempt for TPS report cover sheets, but also results in a watchable two hours of movie.


Mark November 27, 2012 at 10:12 am

I’ve always seen The Dark Knight as a movie that acknowledges that Vigilantes are ultimately not the answer. Gotham needs its “White Knight” but instead, they have to settle for a “Dark Knight”. This is explicitly laid out earlier in the movie. Wayne wants to retire and live the good life with his lady friend, leaving criminals to the authorities, who have stepped up their game. Things don’t really work out that way, but the end of the film is basically Wayne acknowledging that Batman is not the solution. Batman shouldn’t have a friendly relationship with the police. And so on.

Vigilante stories are essentially fantasies of justice. We all crave justice, and so we enjoy seeing it meted out. But the best vigilante stories also acknowledge, some more than others, that vigilante justice isn’t perfect either.


Nedward December 2, 2012 at 8:54 pm

Have no opinion on Straussian explications of Nolan Batman but only learned from seeing this that Cantor had a new one out; thanks


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