The Art of Darkness
by Jonathan Lethem
If, like me, you’d hoped, distantly, vaguely, probably idiotically, that the 2008 presidential contest might be a referendum on truths documented since the previous presidential election, guess again. That our Iraqi invasion was founded on opportunistic lies, that it was hungered for by its planners in advance of the enabling excuse of 9/11, is a well-delineated blot on American history. But for those of us interested in a conversation about accountability it was always declared to be too soon — we remained unsure of the evidence, or too traumatized to risk fraying the national morale — until the moment when it was abruptly too late, when it became old news.
Yet I suspect it is still the news. While both candidates run on the premise that Washington Is Broken, I’m disinclined to disagree, only to add: our good faith with ourselves is broken, too, a cost of silencing or at best mumbling the most crucial truths. Among these, pre-eminently, is the fact that torture evaporates our every rational claim to justice, and will likely be the signature national crime of our generation — a matter in which we are, by the very definition of democracy, complicit. (Perhaps some unconsciously hope that electing a man who was himself tortured will provide moral cover, just as Batman’s losing his parents to violent crime forever renews his revenger’s passport.)
No wonder we crave an entertainment like “The Dark Knight,” where every topic we’re unable to quit not-thinking about is whirled into a cognitively dissonant milkshake of rage, fear and, finally, absolving confusion.
It may be possible to see the nightly news in a similar light, where any risk of uncovering the vulnerable yearnings, all the tenderness aroused by, yes, the seemingly needless death of a promising young actor or of a brilliant colleague, all hope of conversation between the paranoid blues and the paranoid reds, all that might bind us together, is forever armored in a gleeful and cynical cartoon of spin and disinformation. Keywords — “change,” “victory” — are repeated until adapted out of meaning, into self-canceling glyphs. Meanwhile, pigs break into the lipstick store, and we go hollering down the street after them, relieving ourselves of another hour or day or week of clear thought.
Beneath the sniping, so many real things lie in ruins: a corporate paradigm displaying no shred of responsibility, but eager for rescue by taxpayers; a military leadership’s implicit promise to its recruits and their families; a public discourse commodified into channels that feed any given preacher’s resentments to a self-selecting chorus. In these déjà vu battles, the combatants forever escape one another’s final judgment, whirl off into the void, leaving us standing awed in the rubble, uncertain of what we’ve seen, only sure we’re primed for the sequel.
If everything is broken, perhaps it is because for the moment we like it better that way. Unlike some others, I have no theory who Batman is — but the Joker is us.
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