As I noted yesterday, I watched Death Wish a couple of days ago. In addition, I watched Batman Begins with Pat over the weekend. I’m actually surprised that Pat has watched Batman Begins and that he would have borrowed it from the library, given his taste in movies, but because I had not seen it before, I was glad that he did.
After letting these movies sit in my mind for a couple of days, I hit upon a realization: Death Wish is a consummate neoconservative movie, whereas Batman Begins is strikingly conservative. I probably should note here that I believe that the directors, writers, and actors were emphatically not desiring to move in those directions; rather, it wouldn’t shock me if pretty much the whole bunch of them were left-liberals. After all, in Batman Begins, the problem in Gotham was linked to a depression which turned the poor to crime*, whereas any actual conservative in Death Wish is almost-entirely unlikeable, including Paul Kersey’s partner at the firm (who makes a comment about wanting to round up all of the criminals into concentration camps). But the underlying themes are both strongly conservative.
First, I’ll take a quick look at Batman Begins. Without spoiling too much, a young Bruce Wayne slums around until he meets the League of Shadows, an organization dedicated to destroying the corrupt. When a city or civilization moves too far toward decadence, the League of Shadows destroys it, forcing people to start anew, hopefully this time without the problems that caused the previous decay. Wayne, disgusted at this prospect, strikes out on his own and makes his way back to a corrupt Gotham to clean it up. He finds his childhood friend Rachel Dawes working for the DA’s office as a prosecuting attorney and Jim Gordon is one of the few clean cops left in town. With their assistance and his financial assets, Wayne—as Batman—starts cleaning up the town and eventually must fight the League of Shadows.
There are a few ways in which Bruce Wayne’s actions and beliefs are markedly conservative. First of all, when Wayne and Dawes are arguing in her car after she finds out that Wayne was going to kill the murderer of his parents, Wayne says that justice is not being served in the city (in the context of Mr. Chill getting off so light), while Dawes argues that becoming a vigilante isn’t justice either. Wayne has to accept this, as being a vigilante is about vengeance—something he can never have—so he must go for justice.
Then, contrast Wayne’s philosophy with the League of Shadows. The League of Shadows strives for justice, but they are actively anti-conservative. When something fails, they tear down the edifice, destroy the foundation, and begin anew. When the people are not decadent, the civilization will not fall, but because people become decadent, they are no longer worth salvation and must be destroyed, to allow a new set of people a new opportunity to fulfill destiny. This is a fundamentally radical proposition, whereas Batman’s operating philosophy is entirely different. His motif is to find good people, punish criminals, and scare some of the marginal people (like Gordon’s crooked partner) straight. Batman is aware that most of the important people in Gotham are on the take and he is not above using uncouth tactics (blackmailing a crooked judge or threatening Gordon’s partner with death), but he still operates within a certain set of rules and wants to preserve civilization by improving social relations and societal ties as Bruce Wayne (just like his father did) and removing scum from the streets and important institutions as Batman.
Finally, Batman does not try to destroy the protective state; rather, he is trying to reform it and allow it to do its job. He works with the police to catch criminals and bring them to justice. It is not his job to try them or to determine what the laws are; rather, he makes up for a deficient police force and allows officers like Jim Gordon to reform it from the inside.
In contrast to Bruce Wayne/Batman, Paul Kersey seems distinctly neoconservative. To use Irving Kristol’s formulation of the term, a neoconservative is “a liberal who has been mugged by reality.” In this case, the description is particularly apt, as muggers murder and rape Kersey’s wife and daughter, respectively. Kersey, beforehand, is a self-described “bleeding-heart liberal” (and conscientious objector during the Korean War) who brushes off his architectural design partner’s brusque comments regarding lawlessness and the crime problems of New York City. After this horrible turn of affairs, he goes off to Tuscon and, while working with a property builder and stereotypical cowboy named Ames Jainchill, shows his prowess with pistols. As a gift for all of his fine work, Jainchill gives Kersey a .32 pistol, which Kersey then uses to exact vengeance in New York.
Kersey’s actions have him acting as a mugger honeypot. He wears (relatively) fancy clothing, brandishes large amounts of money, walks around alone in the park late at night, and tries his best to get people to mug him. When they try to do so, he shoots them dead. He does this because, as a detective explained to him, the police are almost entirely useless, and as Kersey later explains to his son, when the police fail, all that’s left is self-defense.
The conservatism in Death Wish is also quite blatant. People are fallen and there are bad people in the world. These bad people need to be stopped somehow, and when the “civilized” methods for preventing crime (i.e., the police and judicial system) are ineffective, it is up to the individual to act in self-defense for the preservation of his self and society. Throughout the entire movie, Kersey acts only in self-defense. Sure, he’s trying to bait criminals, but he waits until they brandish weapons and threaten him before he shoots them. Unfortunately, as a vigilante, he has to kill his attackers to prevent the police from stopping him, but his actions are wildly successful: muggings were cut in half, murder was down, and people did not fear criminals like they did before, so little old ladies were able to fight off muggers and construction workers broke up robbery attempts (as well as a few of the robber’s bones). Meanwhile, what did the police do? Create an entire task force dedicated to finding the guy who’s doing their job better than they could!
In this situation, the hero, seeing corrupt institutions, digs deeper into American history and comes up with another set of institutions—frontier justice (which was itself rather mythical, but that’s a little beyond the point). Kersey sees himself in the Wild West, fighting against bandits and the uncivilized. Without the assistance of law enforcement (which may as well not exist, as far as Kersey is concerned), it is up to good men like him to preserve civilization. Kersey does not create new rules, but instead usurps the authority of institutions which have lost their value. When prison is a revolving door and the police shrug their shoulders rather than fight crime, we can no longer rely on the protective state to do its job and must pick up the slack ourselves. This ideally results in a crime-fighting spontaneous order in which individuals, in self-defense, do whatever is necessary to stop crime. Many criminals, especially dangerous ones, cannot be rehabilitated, so putting them back out on the streets results in more crime and a failure on the part of the justice system.
We can draw a final parallel between the New York City of Paul Kersey and the New York City (err, Gotham City) of Batman. Batman’s town is corrupt from head to toe, but the machinery is still functional. The problem here is that enough people in charge are on the take that those who are still clean cannot operate that machinery effectively. Thus enters a new, uncorrupted institution who gives the good guys an opportunity to take back the reins of the machinery of justice. In Kersey’s town, however, the problem is not so much corruption but an unwillingness to do what needs to be done. Judges let criminals out early (like Kersey’s first mark, a man with a long rap sheet who was out on parole yet again), powerful defense lawyers keep criminals out of jail, and the police are handcuffed in their ability to do anything. The failings of the institutions come not from corruption, but rather the weakness of the ideas of those in charge. Batman wouldn’t be as successful in this town, since as soon as he’d stop Falcone or the Scarecrow or some thugs, they would be right back out on the street again thanks to mush-headed judges and politicians. Kersey also acts as an institution, but one antagonistic to the desires of the bureaucracy. He knows that the only way for justice to be served is if he does it himself. This does not mean that he _is_ the law (as opposed to Judge Dredd), but rather that he is an effective instrument of the law. Kersey is a(n ex-)liberal, but he is no radical. His conception of the law and justice fit in with his society’s and he is not trying fundamentally to alter the structure of the world he is in. Rather, he is trying to reform failed institutions in his own way.
* – Right now, I want to make a point about Gary Becker’s analysis that poverty leads to crime. Becker’s argument was that the poor have relatively few opportunities outside of crime, so when crime pays better than the alternative, they will do that. Okay, I’ll buy this argument to an extent. However, poverty is neither necessary nor sufficient for crime—wealthy individuals are also quite capable of committing crime, just as a good-sized number of the poor are honest dealers who don’t commit crimes. I believe that Becker’s analysis is a bit misguided because he does not take into account what Edward Banfield, in The Unheavenly City (and The Unheavenly City Revisited, which you can download for free in a PDF format), calls the Lower Class. According to Banfield, a small but significant percentage of individuals will have the mores of the Lower Class, leaving them with an extremely short time preference schedule (so they will not think ahead to the long-term consequences of actions), little self-control, a risk-loving nature, and near-sociopathic tendencies. This is totally different than the Banfieldian Working Class (which is hard-working, blunt, religious, and not as stuck up as Middle Class prigs), but the Working Class people tend to live interspersed with the Lower Class, making it seem that “poor people” are likely to commit crimes, when it’s really the Lower Class who are more criminal than average, and both their poverty and criminality derive primarily from their makeup. The other three classes—Working, Middle, and Upper—would be more likely to fit into Becker’s analysis, but give the Lower Class a lot of money and they’ll still go out and commit crimes because they don’t think ahead to the consequences of their actions or are out looking for some fun.