Maybe I can at least (Lock-Up)

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It’s November 19, 1992. The top song is Boyz II Men’s “I’ll Make Love to You”; Ini Kamoze, Sheryl Crow, The Real McCoy, and Bon Jovi also chart. The top movie is the mediocre first cinematic outing of the Star Trek: The Next Generation crew, Star Trek: Generations, which bumps last week’s number one, Interview with the Vampire, to second. Meanwhile, The Lion King debuts in fourth place.

In the news, Angola and the UNITA rebels will attempt to bring the Angolan civil war to a conclusion tomorrow by signing the Lusaka Protocols, which will more or less maintain an uneasy and occasionally broken peace until they  fall apart in four years. Three days ago, a temporary restraining order barred California from implementing the controversial Proposition 187, which banned undocumented immigrants from accessing state services. This law would eventually be found unconstitutional and be stricken from the books, but as we’ll see it’s an appropriate thing to be talking about near this episode.

Because this is the episode where a vicious bully who, despite a record of failure, thinks he knows how to run things; vows to Make Gotham Safe Again; rants against the “liberal media”; and thinks Batman is soft on criminals because he only savagely beats, rather than murdering, them. All he needs is some orange body paint and a couple of openly white nationalist rants against immigrants and religious minorities, and he can run for President.

Back when we discussed “Baby-Doll,” I suggested that Batman’s villains–and possibly supervillains in general, as Batman is the ur-hero of the DCAU and hence his Rogues Gallery is the ur-Rogues Gallery–can be divided into (or, more accurately, placed on a spectrum between) dominators and destroyers. Lyle “Lock-Up” Bolton, this episode’s titular villain, is about as clear an example of the former as there can be. He is pure authoritarian, utterly certain that society’s rules are absolutely correct, and that anyone who violates them should be punished with maximum severity, regardless of what society’s rules might say. The inherent contradiction to this position does not seem to trouble him, but then, there’s no particular reason why it should; as psychologist Bob Altemayer points out, authoritarians typically have heavily compartmentalized thought processes that allow contradictory thoughts to coexist and encourage double standards, as well as poor reasoning skills in general and a tendency to accept any argument, however specious, which leads to a desired conclusion. (See here for a very brief summary of common authoritarian traits, and here for his book for laymen on the topic.)

Bolton’s desired conclusion is “I get to lock anyone I deem a criminal away for as long as I want, under any conditions I want,” which makes it very interesting that this episode comes immediately after three consecutive episodes about how Batman villains can never stop being villains. Consider Harley Quinn’s complaint during the inquest into how Bolton has been treating the inhabitants of Arkham Asylum: “He takes away privileges even when we’ve been good.” Rewarding good behavior is an important part of teaching that behavior, which presumes that teaching criminals to behave differently is at least a goal of the criminal justice system. Lock-Up, as is often the case with authoritarians, sees this as being “weak on crime”–that anything less than brutality is an insufficient deterrent to crime, and hence banning brutality is in essence encouraging crime. To an extent, this is a logical conclusion to the reasoning laid out in the last few episodes: if criminals cannot ever reform, if they will inevitably return to a life of crime, then “criminal” ceases to be a description of behavior and instead becomes a name for a class. All criminals, this line of thought goes, are innately criminal by nature, fundamentally different from the rest of us, and we’ve already decided that criminals deserve punishment; hence, there is no reason to ever stop punishing criminals.

This is the in-group/out-group thinking of authoritarians applied to crime instead of its usual targets of nationality, religion, and political affiliation. To quote Altemeyer, authoritarians are “highly inclined to see the world as their in-group versus everyone else. Because they are so committed to their in-group, they are very zealous in its cause.” Combine that with the authoritarian tendency to see the world as fraught with danger, and you get both a willingness to go to extreme measures to defend against the out-group (“we have to protect ourselves from the bad guys by any means necessary”) and a tendency to dismiss harm done to the out-group (“it’s a tough world, get used to it.”)

We’ve discussed this before: a terrified hatred of crime and criminals, a zealous desire to punish them, a willingness to use violence to achieve dominance over the nebulous, inhuman entity Crime. Lock-Up is not at all wrong that he and Batman are a lot alike: Lock-Up is the Bat.

But not the Batman. There is a restraint to Batman, a deliberate holding back. He follows rules beyond which he will not go, holding himself accountable in a world where no one else is able to hold him accountable. Interestingly, it is Bruce Wayne that suggested Bolton be hired as Arkham’s director of security, and Batman who ultimately puts down Lock-Up. (As Robin notes in the episode, parodying the then-current catchphrase of the PBS network, “Another fine villain made possible by a grant from the Wayne Foundation.”) It is Bruce Wayne whose parents were murdered by Crime, Bruce Wayne who traveled the world to acquire the skills to pursue bloody vengeance against Crime.

The Bat is Bruce Wayne’s fantasy of revenge, of dominance, his rage personified–a power fantasy, in other words. Which is to say, as we’ve been exploring in these essays, the Bat is a villain. Batman, by contrast, is a protector fantasy. He is not vengeance, despite his famous declaration that he is; he is restraint. As he tells Lock-Up, “I was born to fight your brand of order!”

The protector fantasy is not just about protecting us from them; that’s just part of it, and indistinguishable from a power fantasy of us dominating them. The protector fantasy is also about protecting them from us, and us from ourselves.

Bit by bit, we inch toward the possibility that the superhero can be extracted from the authoritarian.


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2 thoughts on “Maybe I can at least (Lock-Up)

  1. It’s not just the line about “the permissive liberal media” that makes it clear what side Bolton is on, and what side the writers are tacitly putting themselves on. Consider the rant he goes off on when Bartholomew fires him:

    “Before I came here, Arkham was a revolving door for every maniac in Gotham. I kept them in. Me! Now I realize I was wrong to punish those pathetic miscreants! They’re only SYMPTOMS! You’re the cause: The gutless police, mindless bureaucrats, and coddling doctors!”

    The “revolving door” line, of course, recalls an infamous anti-Dukakis ad from the 1988 presidential campaign, which would have been still fresh in the memories of the viewers. (On the other side, I just realized that his distinction between symptoms and causes puts him and Adrian Veidt uncomfortably close to each other.)

    Consider, too, the other inmates alongside Harley at Bolton’s performance review: the Scarecrow, who wasn’t even planning a crime spree, just needing to get away from a man who terrifies the self-styled Master of Fear (“All I knew were the suburbs of fear… and now, here I am in the big city”); and the Ventriloquist, first to crack, even before Harley, when Bruce suggests extending Bolton’s contract, despite Scarface’s efforts to shout him(self) down. Ever since I heard it, Scarface’s cry “He held me over a can filled with termites, ya hear me?” has exemplied Charles Ludlam’s exposition on pathos and bathos by how perfectly it straddles that line.*

    (* “5. Bathos is that which is intended to be sorrowful but because of the extremity of its expression becomes comic. Pathos is that which is meant to be comic but because of the extremity of its expression becomes sorrowful. Some things which seem to be opposites are actually different degrees of the same thing.”
    Manifesto: Ridiculous Theater, Scourge of Human Folly, I couldn’t find a date)

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