Just the way it was, brick for brick

On my good days, when I contemplate the prospects for American democracy, I think of the movie Batman Begins. (No, I don’t think Batman is going to swoop out of the sky to rescue us, though how cool would that be? Just bear with me.)

In the flashback scenes of that film, the eight-year-old Bruce Wayne lives in a Gotham City full of hope and promise — hope and promise provided in very large part by his father, entrepreneur and philanthropist Dr. Thomas Wayne. Thomas Wayne runs Wayne Enterprises, a major contributor to the civic health of Gotham. Thomas Wayne built Gotham’s egalitarian transit system. And in their mansion on the edge of town, Thomas is a model father to his son Bruce, teaching him about humility, compassion, and justice; letting Bruce play with his stethoscope.

By the climax of the film, none of it remains. Wayne Enterprises is greedy and corrupt and complicit in the very scheme that seeks to destroy Gotham City. Bruce (as Batman) is obliged to demolish the elevated trains himself. Wayne Manor is a smoking pile of rubble, the stethoscope lying in the middle of it, blackened and melted. And Thomas Wayne himself is of course long gone, a victim of the very underclass he sought to embrace.

So too with America. As Elliot Cohen, author of The Last Days of Democracy, explains in a recent interview:

[We] have the operations and secret prison camps in Europe, we torture prisoners in Abu Ghraib and Gitmo […] the NSA spying programs warrantlessly. Bush is issuing signing statements, which is tantamount to nullifying congressional lawmaking powers. Cancellation of habeas corpus, [defining] individuals as enemy combatants just by virtue of whether the President deems [them] hostile to U.S. interests. I mean this goes on and on for individual facts as to why one might say that America is becoming a dictatorship.

(And he does in fact go on and on in that interview, and presumably much more so in his book.)

What remains of American prosperity and might and justice? The Treasury — empty. The military — exhausted. Elections — rigged. The Constitution — toothless. Our beautiful nation, the gift of our fathers to us, gone, a victim of the greedy and the ignorant we had gregariously supposed to embrace in our political discourse.

Now, some might say that Batman, unique among superheroes, has no superpowers, but they’d be wrong: he has bottomless wealth and a will of iron. What does America have? Well, bottomless wealth for one thing. Yes, we’re in terrible fiscal shape, but we’re still brimming with the real sources of wealth: land, labor, ingenuity. We also have a will of iron. Yes, apathy and despair have gotten us to where we are today, but we had apathy and despair in the 1930’s and we still rose to the challenge of a global war.

Bruce loses everything —
except what can’t be destroyed

While formulating his thoughts about retaking Gotham City from the criminal class that controls it, Bruce Wayne explains to Alfred, “As a man I’m flesh and blood. I can be ignored. I can be destroyed. But as a symbol — as a symbol I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting.” Everything that was built by Thomas Wayne is destroyed — everything tangible. But not his everlasting ideals, embodied by the son he taught them to.

We have Batman’s powers. We have our ideals. We can be Batman to our ravaged Gotham.

As Bruce surveys the ruin of Wayne Manor he declares to Alfred his intention to rebuild it, “just the way it was, brick for brick.” So too his intention to employ his wealth and his iron will to restore hope and promise to Gotham City.

So too with America.

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