article: The Joker Syndrome

[ October 9, 2012 ]

A unique experiment in the history of mankind, the United States has been responsible for many admirable initiatives, accomplishments, and achievements. There are however certain dangers inherent in the American psyche and ethos connected with this very impressive track record that I would like to call attention to and discuss below.

James Holmes reportedly cried “I am the Joker” before opening fire. (Note that he dyed his hair red and was obsessed by the red locks of the hooker he saw before his crime.) It is also well established that he was a big fan of “superheroes,” including Batman.  To his mind—and he was unquestionably an intelligent man—being the Joker and an admirer of Batman did not present a contradiction. Rather, each implied the other, while separately their existence lacked ontological fullness, so to speak. The Joker was missing from The Dark Night Rises movie, and Holmes wanted to restore the balance. To drive home his point, he killed twelve and injured fifty-eight.

Sometimes viewers protest with indignation when the writer of a TV series kills off a beloved character. Although they are not necessarily mistaking fiction for reality in the literal sense, some of them would seem to come fairly close. This phenomenon is typical of the United States; it has to do with the media’s representation of fiction as reality: prearranged “reality shows”, falsified documentaries, manipulated news programs. And the public is liable to take the media’s picture of life to be more authentic than the evidence of their own eyes. Deep-seated in the American mentality is the dictum “perception is reality.” The Hollywood approach can make a game of pretense and make-believe , a series of tricks out of life, sometimes the tricks of a malicious clown: the Joker.

Batman is in some ways a sort of Hollywood image of the true American spirit, which operates both domestically as an upholder of virtue and internationally as the world’s policeman watching over a mischievous universe, supervising it to make sure it behaves. He fulfills our God-given destiny and prerogative, for the universe is actually by every right this nation’s personal property. We have to protect it. It must be kept free of the machinations of villains.

I am far from suggesting that the world is fine and free from evil as it is.  It seems to me however that this country’s credentials for being preordained to extirpate global infamy are problematic, and that, furthermore, Batman and Joker in some sense and to some degree are aspects of the same entity. They rely on each other for their existence.

And so we want peace, yet we are by far the greatest exporters of arms.

We deplore pollution, but we generate a great deal of it.

We wage war on illegal drugs, but we are among their chief consumers.

Hollywood sets before the world the American dream, which would in fact be unsustainable and wreak havoc if extended to the earth’s total population.

We fight pornography and obscenity, while our movies and television wallow in them.  Though regarding some matters this society’s standards of propriety and taboos exceed Victorian times, it revels in pornography and obscenity.

We extol marital fidelity, but actually sex plays out more like a big strip tease act, a bait, and a trap in our social life.

We abominate the sexual exploitation of children, but mothers dress up five-year-olds to resemble prostitutes.

Obsessively concerned over spying, our society has a passion for snooping without equal. This goes for every level of pursuit: official, commercial, or personal, despite all the flaunting of privacy laws and rules.

So much for the mutual dependence of hero and villain as an allegory of the underlying contradictions of this culture. But specifically the choice of the villain as a joker has considerable relevance here, and may indeed account for some of the popularity of the Batman series.

The ultimate criterion of excellence members of this civilization commonly use is size, volume, amount, quantity.  Small denotes worthless. The titanic energy of our nation has traditionally astounded visitors to our shores, and so have its restlessness and agitation, which suggests some sort of underlying desperation or profound agony. We must always have the biggest whatever, and damn if we don’t. But construction tends to create corresponding destruction. With the growth of technology, the stake has become the survival of the entire human race, nay, the existence of the planet. Should the earth be destroyed, the last to be left may be—like Carroll’s  Cheshire  cat—the mischievous and tragic grin of the Joker.

Lester A. Shepard

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