She’s back. Shona Holmes, the Hamilton, Ontario native who became a poster child for the American right wing in 2009 as the debate over health care reform roared to life, is starring in a new Koch Brothers-funded Super PAC ad warning voters about the pitfalls of socialized medicine – and not only that, she’s hanging around the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte all week and available for interviews. Given all the talk about the tidal influx of corporate money into the American electoral process since the Citizens United decision, if the best spokesperson the Kochs can come up with to star in their $27-million fear-mongering campaign against the ACA is an outsider whose complaints about her native land’s health care system have been thoroughly debunked, that’s some pretty weak-ass sauce – or, dare I say it as I put on sunglasses, unhealthy? YEAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH!!!! Can you imagine the reaction on the right if an Obama-supporting Super PAC ran an ad featuring Canadians demanding higher taxes on the rich? Cries from the Fox News cabal about filthy foreigners tampering with the sacred trust of American elections would be positively deafening.
The message of the ad is essentially that because the Canadian health care system allegedly failed Ms. Holmes, Americans should run as fast as they can in the opposite direction. This one Canadian (out of 34 million) claims she had a bad experience, so let’s stick with the disastrous version we have now rather than pursuing a model that is so treasured by the Canadian people because of its success that no party dares broach the subject of changing it lest they suffer massive electoral blowback. I find the right wing’s approach to attacking programs they don’t like (read: they haven’t figured out a way to make money off) amusing in that it’s always the all-or-nothing gambit. They’re always looking for the insignificant opening into which they can bludgeon the moneyed weight of their angry wedge. A single slip-up, to them, warrants the dismantling of an entire organization – just as the appearance of a couple of bad apples in a malicious, heavily edited, out-of-context amateur video was grounds for taking apart ACORN (the real reason being that ACORN was instrumental in getting a lot of Democratic voters to the polls). It’s as facetious and flimsy a position on which to build an argument as suggesting that if a single brick in the Great Pyramid of Giza cracks, the entire thing might as well be dynamited. But it’s all you have when the only reason you can offer for being against something is that you don’t happen to like it very much.
It’s telling indeed that Shona Holmes is the only Canadian the Kochs could find to speak against Obamacare, and that she would be dragged out again three years after her initial appearance on the scene. They probably couldn’t find anyone else. For Canadians, what is almost as universal as our health coverage is our pride in our system – and our gratitude that getting sick in Canada doesn’t mean a financial death sentence. Several years ago I was hospitalized for a serious lung condition, requiring X-rays, painkillers, and finally an intercostal tube drainage treatment. My total bill for my week-long stay: $12, for the optional phone at my bedside. Everything else was covered by the program I pay into with my taxes, and nothing required was withheld because it wasn’t on my plan or whatever other spurious reasons the private companies invent to deny care in the U.S. And my experience is not unique. As to the myth of Canadians dying as they wait for needed surgery, it’s just that. The Canadian system is based on triage – urgent cases go to the front of the line and everyone else is placed in priority sequence. Decisions about who goes first are made by medical personnel (with apologies to the ex-Governor of Alaska, not once has any Canadian been forced to file a request with their local Member of Parliament before calling their doctor). In the case of Shona Holmes, she was diagnosed with a benign cyst and panicked, and rather than waiting as recommended by a doctor she chose to cross the border and pay over $100,000 to the Mayo Clinic to have it removed immediately. And with respect to her complaints about being attacked for expressing her opinion, if you are going to become a shill for U.S. corporate and political interests by spreading specious half-truths to every camera in sight because you didn’t get your lollipop right when you wanted it, you can’t be that shocked if more than a handful of folks decide to disagree with you. Free speech goes both ways – that’s how the concept works. (People shouldn’t have been calling her home to yell at her of course, but that’s just more proof of how passionately Canadians support and believe in their system of health care.)
It took an incredible effort on the part of President Obama, the Democratic Party and its supporters to overcome the blockades thrown up by Republican obstructionists, corporate lobbyists, lawsuit-happy state attorneys general and Tea Party zealots to get the ACA passed, half-baked half-measure as it may seem to many liberals and progressives who were longing for something more transformative. Building on this act to craft a truly fair health care system where no one ever needs to fear getting sick in America ever again is going to take even more, and unfortunately the political damage borne by the Democrats for taking it on has made the issue something of a third rail. But it should provide some comfort to those Americans dreaming of a single-payer program like Canada’s to know that the side fighting to keep the status quo has no real argument to make. They may have more financial resources, more members of Congress in their pocket, but at the end of the day, it’s all smoke and mirrors – their hand is empty. They just don’t like health care, and if you’re looking to win the conversation with the people, truth and facts are a much better starting point.
The undisputed kings of the 2012 summer box office have both been comic book movies: The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises. While The Avengers is essentially a crowd-pleasing greatest hits package that you either dig or don’t (I dig, for the record), the final entry in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is a more complex tale probing the human condition behind the capes and cowls of its characters, and as such, opens itself to a wider degree of interpretation. One of the most interesting of the responses to the film is in how certain critics have seen it as condemning the Occupy Wall Street movement and praising the nobility of the 1%. For his part, Nolan has denied that the film has a political slant. I’ve seen the movie twice now, and while the tropes associated with Occupy are certainly present, I can’t get behind the notion that the movie is Ayn Rand redux. Great art reflects our times, and it’s natural for current history to bleed through the edges of the screen. But reducing the themes of The Dark Knight Rises to a simple political didactic for easy cable news consumption is to perform a disservice to the deeper moral questions at play here. Nolan’s Batman movies have always operated on a more primal level, exploring the nature of fear, chaos, and the case of the final chapter, consequences, and our ability – or our duty – to accept our responsibility for them, regardless of our means.
(Author’s note: MAJOR SPOILERS ahead. Please don’t read this unless you’ve seen the movie; I’ll hold nothing back.)
Eight years have passed since the Joker’s reign of anarchy led to the death of Harvey Dent, Batman taking the fall for Dent’s crimes and the caped crusader’s disappearance from Gotham City. In the aftermath, a draconian “Dent Act” has allowed police to rid the streets of organized crime once and for all. But the illusion of peace is built on a lie, and the two heroes who have allowed it to fester are being torn apart by their demons. One, Commissioner Jim Gordon, hides in plain sight, while the other, Bruce Wayne, has become a crippled recluse. Both know, instinctively, that the center cannot hold; Gordon prepares to read a speech denouncing Dent and admitting his role in the cover-up but chooses at the last second to hold back, while Wayne is restless in his isolation, like Sherlock Holmes without purpose in the absence of a case. And then, from beneath the veneer of deception and fabricated security, and literally beneath the earth, evil begins to rise, as unstoppable mercenary Bane sets his dark plan for Gotham City into motion. Gordon is wounded and Bruce Wayne is compelled to suit up. But they’ve waited too long, allowed their deception to endure long past its limit. They have forgotten that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. Bane uses the time to outmanoeuvre the two, seizing control of Wayne’s secret armory, trapping Gotham’s entire police force underground and finally, breaking the ill-prepared and overconfident Batman.
Shades of Occupy first percolate through the narrative as Bane lays siege to Gotham, speechifying about punishing the corrupt and sending his minions to drag the wealthy and powerful from their mansions and haul them in front of a kangaroo court, in the name of “the people” of Gotham. But despite the illusion of his rhetoric he is hardly a populist hero or a masked MLK. Indeed, a man with a noble message doesn’t need the threat of nuclear annihilation to ensure that it’s heard – Bane’s goal is the total destruction of Gotham City, first envisioned by Ra’s al Ghul in Batman Begins. After confining Wayne to the same prison to which he was condemned as a younger man, Bane admits that the greatest despair requires hope, and like the most accomplished sadists, he will provide the people with Gotham with hope so that they suffer more. He wants them all to hurt. He intends, like the American army marching into Baghdad, to present himself as a liberator, in fact using that exact word, while espousing himself as a sort of “Occupier,” because he knows this is a sensitive button that can be pushed. Clearly Gotham is a place of great inequality, despite the false security brought on by the Dent Act, as noted when Selina Kyle tells Bruce earlier in the film over shots of the wealthy eating lobster and drinking champagne that “there’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you’re all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.” But Bane has no allegiance to the Occupy philosophy and is most certainly not fighting for the people, he’s using them – as cynically as the billionaires, politicians and professional lobbyists who seized control of the Tea Party and convinced common people to protest and vote against their own best interest. The theatricality and deception of a “people’s revolution” in Gotham is a mere smokescreen, as Selina comes to understand when the storm she predicted destroys everything it touches – not just the rich. For its part, the Occupy movement has never claimed to want to tear the wealthy down, nor does it begrudge the acquisition of wealth; it simply believes in fairness, the enforcement of the law, and not rigging the game toward the singular interest of the haves. Give everyone an equal chance to achieve a decent life, Occupy says, don’t purposely screw over those of us who’ve had a few bumps along the way to make it easier for the ones who already have it pretty good. Bane’s attitude of killing them all and pillaging their treasures would hardly be welcome in the true Occupy movement – regardless of what the doofuses on Fox and Friends tell you.
To the second point raised by the critics, this movie purported to glorify the rich and the status quo of capitalism presents the rich largely as remorseless manipulators. Bane is funded by billionaire construction entrepreneur John Daggett, who lets a terrorist wreak a trail of murder through Gotham City so he can seize control of the struggling Wayne Enterprises. Daggett is not satisfied with his considerable wealth – like the Koch Brothers, he merely uses it to acquire more. He cannot see his own complicity in what is to come, even at the very end, accusing Bane of being “pure evil” just before he has his neck snapped, when it was he who chose to release the genie from the bottle. And the most accomplished and cruellest manipulator in the film turns out to be billionaire Miranda Tate, who wears the veil of a philanthropist trying to save the world, but is in fact Talia al Ghul, daughter of Ra’s, as committed to destroying Gotham as her late father. She convinces Bruce to install her as chair of Wayne Enterprises’ board of directors and give her access to his dormant clean energy project, with the intent of using her other pawn – Bane, himself motivated by the easiest manipulation of all, his love for her – to bring her father’s wishes to fruition. She does not care that there are innocent people in Gotham City; she scoffs at the mere mention of the word. Her desire for retribution trumps everything – ideology, loyalty, even her own life. Money for her is but a means to a horrible end.
Bruce Wayne, however, has never been one to let himself be defined by his wealth; it gives him no pleasure. His flaunting of it in previous films has been a form of misdirection, convincing people that he is the worst of the stereotypes of careless moneybags; the last person who would ever want to become Batman. However, when his wealth is taken away from him through a fraudulent stock transaction, he seems totally unconcerned about being broke. He does not miss it, and does not care about regaining it. He has long ago realized what Daggett never did – that more zeroes on the balance sheet don’t take the pain away. That pain is a point of bonding between himself and the young cop John Blake, a man who has grown up poor and in and out of foster care, but has, like Bruce, channelled his anger into a sense of justice (and unlike Bane, who grew up in the worst cesspool on earth and consequently turned against humanity). The film suggests that nobility, then, has nothing to do with wealth, and even the smallest acts of good are worth more, to invoke a cliché, than their weight in gold. Indeed, when Bruce is reduced to his lowest, broken and lying immobile at the bottom of a prison halfway across the world, he finds the strength to rebuild himself from nothing, to escape and return to fight for his city. These are qualities that cannot be bestowed; those who never confront desperation, loneliness and fear can never rise above them. Those who are insulated by fortune never achieve their greatest potential. Throughout the series, the moments that have shaped Bruce Wayne’s character for the better have come when he is separated from the life of luxury that is his birthright. As Carmine Falcone tells him in Batman Begins, “You’ve never tasted desperate.” Bruce Wayne may be a one-percenter, but he understands what it is like to have nothing – his empathy for the weak and powerless is part of what drives him to right Gotham City’s wrongs. I would find it very difficult to believe that David and Charles Koch have ever had to choose between rent and food, that they have ever sat up nights wondering how they’re going to pay their heating bill, that they would deign to come within one hundred feet of a homeless man – which is why they are relentless in their funding of politicians who share their disdain for social equality and the common good. They do not believe there are any wrongs out there, and if there are, it’s always somebody else’s fault for not trying hard enough.
The counter-argument goes, “see, Bruce Wayne pulls himself up by his bootstraps and works hard to defeat the bad guys – how is that not the attitude of the one percent?” True, Bruce does have to rebuild himself from nothing, but what’s most important about his recovery is that he does not do it alone. He has significant assistance along the way, from two of his fellow inmates in the prison, to Blake, Commissioner Gordon, Selina Kyle, Lucius Fox and the entire Gotham City police force. The final act of The Dark Knight Rises is not so much the rise of a single man but of an entire city fighting for its liberation – in a sense, they are all Batman. Perhaps the final act of heroism does belong solely to the caped crusader, but he does not get to that point without the help of his allies. It is something of a paean to the nature of heroism when Bruce explains that Batman can be anyone – that we do not have to look to a single person to find the courage within ourselves as a society to make the kind of world we want. The monument of Batman that is unveiled at the film’s finale is less a tribute to an individual than it is to a spirit, reflecting a time when the people rose up to take back their city from the thugs attempting to destroy it. It is not a resumption of the status quo – it is an evolution.
Ultimately, the chief reason why The Dark Knight Rises can’t be pegged as allying itself to either the Occupy movement or the one percent is because that is too easy a question to answer – it’s easy to say that the rich are all evil and that there would be a tremendous satisfaction in watching every single one of them thrown out into street. Our world is not that simple, nor is the moral universe of the Nolan Batman trilogy. Nolan’s aim after the cartoonish wreck of the previous four Batman movies was to treat the character with a realistic approach, one that recognized the frequent real-world ambiguity of the nature of good and evil. There are villains, but they are not simply forces to be destroyed – they upset the moral platform of both the heroes and the audience, and challenge us to re-examine what we think about the state of our world. The message of The Dark Knight Rises, if there is one, is that we should not put off these questions, that we cannot sleepwalk through our lives and expect that what we sweep beneath the carpet in the interest of expediency, or a temporary peace, will not someday come back to wreak havoc upon us. But it also assures us that no matter how deep we sink, we can come back. We have it within us. We can rise.
You can’t read U.S.political news lately without seeing a story about a septuagenarian Republican one-percenter with a hate-on for the President pouring millions of his fortune into a new Super PAC. Thanks to Citizens United, right-wing sugar daddies are emptying their coffers to Karl Rove and ilk to flood the airwaves with ads blaming President Obama for everything from sunspots to the common cold. Figures like the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson, Foster Friess and most recently, Joe Ricketts, are positioning themselves as the new architects of what is left of American democracy. You’d think that achieving staggering levels of wealth would be enough, but apparently, multiple mansions and car elevators are not where it’s at anymore. These oligarchs-in-waiting are determined that the government is destined to be a rich guys-only club, and who gives a damn how many poor people get steamrolled out of existence in the process. In fact, the more poor are simply obliterated, the better.
Stories about Republican Super PAC funders seem to have one thing in common – the men in question are uniformly old, bloated and incredibly sour-faced, as if their soul has been eaten away by a lifetime of stress, drinking, smoking and rage. Paul McCartney told us that money can’t buy me love; these characters are the embodiment of that axiom. These real-life Charles Foster Kanes have conquered the business world, crushed enemies in their wake and accumulated wealth to rival that of the pharaohs. But love remains elusive for them, no matter how many zeroes in their Cayman Islands offshore holding account. Nobody loves these guys. No young boy goes to sleep at night dreaming of being a hedge fund manager and forcing people out of their homes.
Instead, Republican billionaires squirm and twist in a constant state of paranoia, terrified that colleagues, friends, family members and even the postal carrier who slips on the ice in their two-mile long driveway in Aspen are scheming to take everything away. It’s no surprise, given the path a man has to take to claw his way into mega-millions. You simply don’t get there by being adored. How frustrating, then, that others of far more limited means can still manage to find love. Joe Ricketts’ recently announced plan to dredge up Reverend Wright again centers on trying to make voters hate the President. Not disagree with his policies; hate him. So, presumably, the President can then feel as down-trodden and hopeless about life as Joe Ricketts must. You get the feeling that we could have been spared the phenomenon of the Super PAC had their mothers just hugged these people more.
What Ricketts and the rest of these billionaires despise most about President Obama is that he is everything they are not, and will never become. Truly self-made; someone who came from nothing and got where he is by working hard and applying himself, instead of being parachuted into accidental greatness by a generous trust fund. A man with a beautiful wife he clearly adores beyond words and a happy, loving family. President Obama is a greater embodiment of the American Dream than any of these grumpy old guys. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, he has the ability to inspire people across all walks of life, and around the globe. Hope and change remains a potent campaign slogan because it appeals to our better angels.
For crusty old billionaires, this does not compute. They believe everyone is as greedy and money-grubbing as they are; that altruism is a fool’s game, that no one ever does anything out of a simple wish to be good. And it positively bakes their collective noodles that not everyone wants to be rich. The majority of us just want to earn enough to look after our families, so they don’t have to worry about getting sick or feeding themselves or having a roof over their heads. Amazingly, you can still do that without millions in a diversified asset portfolio, and working hard at that goal despite difficult odds is far more likely to earn you genuine love than the extra fifty million you’ll earn if Obamacare is tossed by the Supreme Court.
Simply put, a heart that is rotting cannot lift others. The Koch brothers may have helped the Tea Party become a ground-shifting political force, but no one would ever accuse David and Charles Koch of being inspiring men. They and those like them don’t inspire with words and ideas; they push with threats and cattle prods, because they don’t know any other way. And they come to envy and hate the ones who do. Whenever you see Karl Rove’s picture, this pudgy, balding sinister figure without a kind word to say about anything left of Genghis Khan, you can’t help thinking that he must have been the fat kid who was always picked last for the team, and is continuing to take his revenge on the popular kids forty years on to satisfy some long-simmering Freudian dysfunction. And it is all so futile. Mitt Romney could sweep all 50 states and half of Australia and these people will still be stewing in their self-loathing and cursing their inability to feel any better. No one will love them any more. They’ll feel even worse if they blow all this cash and President Obama still wins.
So here is my modest suggestion.
Take the money you had intended for your Super PAC and found a charity instead. Build a school. Refurbish a hospital. Fund cancer or AIDS research. Erect a nature preserve. Start a new business and hire some people, for god’s sake. Then go visit one of these places anonymously and look for the genuine joy in the eyes of the people you’ve been able to help. Just stand there and soak it in – the sense of gratitude, of warm feelings. Let your heart quicken. Feel the love. Then think about how you can do even more. How good it will feel when a child whose life has been saved because of an initiative you backed mentions you in their prayers before going to sleep at night? Wouldn’t that be amazing? Don’t you like the idea of being remembered, like Ebenezer Scrooge at the end of the story, as “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world”? Or would you rather spend your money on TV ads demonizing the President of the United States, ads that will be as forgotten as swiftly as you will be the day your rotten heart finally croaks its last beat?
Ball’s in your court, Super PACs. I know I’m sleeping fine tonight.