Anarchy, State, and Batman

The discussion between Taylor Marvin, Erik Kain, and Jamelle Bouie about Nolan’s Batman films is already superb.  I’m not sure how much I can add to the conversation, but as a long time Batman fan I can’t resist.  But first, a recap.

At issue is how exactly Nolan positions Batman within the context of Gotham and its ongoing urban decay.   Is Batman working outside of civil society?  Is he subverting it?  Or simply responding to a system that is already in turmoil? 

Marvin takes the following line,

“A vigilante, Nolan’s Batman is emblematic of a failed state: if Gotham’s legitimate institutions could guarantee stability, Batman would have no reason to exist. Similarly, unlike previous visions of Batman Nolan’s Bruce Wayne doesn’t fight crime out of civic duty; he does because he a deeply damaged individual incapable of dealing with loss and forming real relationships.”

Batman arises from the failure of civil society to make good on its promise of security, and once formed, is compelled to respond to violence with more violence.  As Marvin explains, this kind of vigilantism is both a response to the state’s failure, as well as force that in working outside of that structure only serves to further destabilize it,

“Nolan’s Batman is one of the ‘good guys’ but he’s not “part of the plan”: his existence violates social norms and is destabilizing. It’s this theme of escalation — Batman’s violation of social norms draws the Joker’s more violent deviation — that dominates The Dark Knight. Bruce Wayne’s motivations are noble, but violence outside of the state monopoly on force is always destabilizing. Nolan’s Batman isn’t a civic-minded champion: he’s a tragic hero.”

Kain points out that Batman’s actions are not always destabilizing, but largely agrees with the rest of Marvin’s argument,

“The arms race quality of both films is fascinating and important and yes, explicit. Gordon worries over it and Batman dismisses his worry in the first film. Then along comes the Joker. Harvey Dent is transformed into Two-Face. In the next film we’ll get Bane and Gotham truly will go to war. The violence only escalates.

Nolan leaves us with few other alternatives. Good people who stand up are killed. Without the Batman, Gordon is alone. Without something outside the social order – even something violent that breaks the government’s monopoly on violence – the state itself would be little more than a legal crime ring.”

Finally, Bouie weighs in, rebutting Marvin’s earlier point that Batman resides entirely outside of civil society,

“Thomas Wayne was a philanthropist who sought to improve Gotham and the lives of its most vulnerable citizens. This, more than anything else, is why Bruce Wayne donned the mantle of Batman. It’s not that he’s “incapable of dealing with loss and forming real relationships,” it’s that he wants to build a Gotham where his childhood loss is never felt by anyone, ever again.

Put another way—as we see with Ducard in the first film—vengence will only take you so far. You need a positive goal to keep striving. Bruce wants a better Gotham, which is why he’s willing to endure the hatred of his home if that’s what it takes to build the city into something durable.”

And this is crucial.  Because for several reasons I think there’s a compelling case to be made for situating Batman not only within civil society, but as the fullest expression of it.  The principle of handing over one’s individual claim to violence to the state, when taken to its logical conclusion, results in a police state.  And that is in many ways what Batman symbolizes: a regime in which decisions are made unilaterally and enforced to their fullest extent.

We know from Batman Begins that Gotham is not a failed state yet, but certainly descending to that point with every passing day.  After all, Rachel and the rule of law she symbolizes is still fighting the good fight.  There is corruption, but also those who resist it.  The body politic  is fighting off external pathogens as well as combating those parts of itself which have already been infected.

At least in Nolan’s Gotham, Batman is not a direct result of his parents’ murder, but instead manifests only after Bruce’s failed attempt at personal revenge.  And it is in part Rachel, an officer of the court, who helps turn him toward becoming Batman: Gotham’s night watchmen. 

Batman is the logical result of a state whose legitimate coercive powers are no match for the chaotic and violent forces working against it.  As Gordon notes at the end of the first film, “We start carrying semi-automatics, they buy automatics. We start wearing Kevlar they buy armor-piercing rounds.”

Except that Batman is not just another escalation in the war between the state and those who resist it, he is THE escalation.  In this arms race Batman is the omega, the end point.  Like a country given over to martial law, Batman has no constraints save one:  he can’t kill.  Because that “one rule,” is all that separates civil society and he as its champion from the gangs, evil, and general chaos on the other side.  This is why Gordon unleashes Batman on the Joker when Harvey goes missing.  In “wartime” the gloves come off, and Batman, as the dirty hands of the state, can torture, brutalize, and commit intrusive acts of surveillance at will.  The situation demands it.

Harvey argues this during a dinner conversation with Rachel and Bruce:

Natascha: But this is a democracy, Harvey…
Harvey Dent: When their enemies were at the gates, the Romans would suspend democracy and appoint one man to protect the city. It wasn’t considered an honor, it was considered a public service.
Rachel Dawes: Harvey, the last man who they appointed the Republic was named Caesar and he never gave up his power.
Harvey Dent: Okay, fine. you either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.

Batman is Caesar, and despite democratic dissent to the contrary, as when the masses call for Batman’s head, he won’t abdicate his title until the state’s enemies have been subdued.  And in many ways, The Dark Knight serves as a fictional demonstration in favor of wartime powers and the suspension of liberal democratic norms when their very basis is being threatened. 

Just as some have argued that Obama, if given a second term, would have enough time as well as the wisdom and prudence to roll back executive excess and de-escalate the War on Terror, Batman is the savior who not only takes on excessive power during wartime, but also demonstrates that he can relinquish it when the fight is over.  When he has Fox destroy the Big Brother mobile sonar device used to locate and take down the Joker, Batman legitimate powers decline in proportion to the relative threat at Gotham’s gates. 

This once again distinguishes the state and its arbiters from those they fight.  Early on in the first movie, Bruce says, “The first time I stole so that I wouldn’t starve, yes. I lost many assumptions about the simple nature of right and wrong. And when I traveled… I learned the fear before a crime… And the thrill of success. But I never became one of them.”

Batman is the ultimate boogeyman, serving as the human embodiment of the promise to punish those who would commit transgressions.  He is only one man, but as a symbol is able to serve as a mechanism for deterrence in the same way the threat of police force does.  Between that and his close ties to both Gordon and Rachel, who either explicitly or tacitly endorse his actions, I have a hard time viewing Batman as a force residing outside of, or even contrary to, civil society.  Indeed, the two great pillars of modern civil society and its renewal, public projects and corporate enterprise, are both inextricably linked to Bruce Wayne.  The Wayne family is responsible for many of Gotham’s public spaces, and the corporation for much of the city’s industrial employment and economic growth. 

Perhaps then it’s no coincidence that Nolan filmed the final movie partly in Pittsburgh, the epicenter for this cross between entrepreneurial industry and public philanthropy.  Andrew Carnegie not only built a steel industry that would be the foundation of Pittsburgh’s economy for nearly a century, but was also responsible for CIT (now part of Carnegie Mellon), a massive library system, and several museums as well as investments in civic projects in other cities.

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131 thoughts on “Anarchy, State, and Batman

  1. Ethan, I’d fix it for you, but you have it open (and I don’t want to mess you up). Replace the width=”691″ height=”432″ of your picture with width=”496″ height=”310″ to get rid of the bleedover.

    (Feel free to delete this message when you have done so.)

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  2. This is really a great article. I’d observe on one hand, though, that it’s not gonna help our reputation of being a league of dorky gentlemen. On the other hand Batman has been very good to us.

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  3. It seems strange to argue that Nolan’s batman doesn’t fight crime out of civic duty when a major plot line in the second movie was his seeing Dent as a replacement, and being so ready to get out of the game and let Dent do his work that he was willing to reveal his identity and go to jail. Granted, he was hoping a woman would be waiting for him when he got out, but still, civic duty was clearly a part of it. He wouldn’t give it up, even for the woman, unless he wasn’t needed because Gotham’s “White Knight” had arrived.

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    • This, 1000x this. The whole “he’s too damaged to live a normal life, he has to fight crime because he can’t form normal relationship with people” stuff is pop-psychology mumbo-jumbo to me. Maybe those stuff is in the comics, but that’s not the main driving force of Nolan’s Batman. But who knows, maybe “civic duty” is too dirty a word nowadays. It can’t be civic duty! He must have some ulterior motives, or doing it for his own gratification, or to work out his own psychological issues and trauma!

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  4. One of the first Batman stories that I truly *GOT* was Arkham Asylum.

    When the Joker explained to Batman that the Batman also belonged there… something clicked in my head. Of course Batman belongs in Arkham. He is a grown man who dresses like a bat in order to fight crime/personal demons.

    The problem is that he is very useful to society (and, if you consider stuff like the Justice League, the world/universe’s continued existence).

    The story of Batman is the story of society’s excuses for not seeing him as equally suited for Arkham.

     

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  5. I just Love this Catwoman quote from the trailer.

    “There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne… when it hits, you’re all going to wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.”

     – Anne Hathaway (Catwoman)

    I wonder if there will ever be a time when a Koch will hear those words whispered in their ears.

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    • Yeah, Wayne Enterprises provides:

      • Wayne Biotech
      • Wayne Foods
      • Wayne Steel
      • Wayne Aerospace
      • Wayne Chemicals
      • Wayne Medical
      • Wayne Electronics
      • The Thomas Wayne Foundation
      • The Martha Wayne Foundation

      *AND IT IS STILL NOT ENOUGH*

      People won’t be happy until they see Waynetech destroyed and giving nothing more… but, at least, Bruce Wayne won’t have so much!

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        • North,

          You always seem to be peddling the myth that you’re a centrist and a moderate not like those radical (scare quotes) “Liberals”, yet I’ve yet to see you actually write anything moderate. Your words may not have the strident tone of a TVD or the other avowed conservatives who write here but they are no less immoderate or un-centerist that those avowed conservatives.

          Continue upon your ways and centrist/moderate label will also get the scare quote treatment.

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          • He’s a neo-lib, Lov. Charitably, this means that he sees economics as the best tool to achieve a truly egalitarian and liberal society.

            Uncharitably, this means that he is more interested in helping people than in communicating how much he cares about helping people.

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            • Uncharitably, this means that he is more interested in helping people than in communicating how much he cares about helping people.

               

              I disagree.

              North is one of those a$$holes centrist more interested in being perceived as moderate and getting conservatives to like them than in trying to actually accomplish something. They indulge in gratuitous hippie punching at every turn and play the stupid game of – see both sides do it arguing – all in trying portray a moderate persona.

              Unfortunately for them the conservatives will never see them as worthy of respect, to conservatives they’ll never be more than useful idiots. And Liberals have begun to to distrust them for their unwillingness to call a spade a spade – the conservatives want Obama to fail even if it causes the failure of America.

              Thats not being helpful its just being a tool.

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              • It’s not enough for people to merely disagree with you, is it?

                They have to have a moral flaw that causes them to have a different viewpoint.

                If only we had your clarity of vision, Doctor Dobson… imagine the works we could create.

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                • Its not clarity of vision its disgust and hate.

                  I used to be considered a moderate Democrat. I believed and trusted Republicans, I knew that working with them was the best path to accomplishing what was best for the United States. I’m sorry thats no longer true, as a veteran whose served in a war zone, one whose seen the costs that war puts on 18, 19, 20 year old boys, I was disheartened and disgusted by the way the Republican party acted in its drive to war. If they can act like that   – no concern for human life, no concern for the truth – in the most momentous decision a country can make, whether or not to go to war, why should I have any faith in them when it comes to something an innocuousness as the tax rate.

                  Until they come to terms with what they have done to the 10s of thousands of Americans and the millions of Iraqis they have harmed, they are not an opponent who can be negotiated with, they are an enemy who must be defeated. They are bad for America in their current iteration and anyone who provides cover for them or trys to equivocate for them with the – oh well both side do it argument deserves to lumped in with them.

                   

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                    • No need, sometime soon some idiots from Republican party will attempt the next great overthrow of the US government and as always they will be stamped upon hard. Most amusingly using the tools they pushed so hard to put in place.

                      Wait its coming, probably within the next 5 years (no more than 10).

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                    • No, it will be violent.

                      Most likely sometime in Obama’s second term, but for sure if a Democrat is elected president in 2016

                      What do I think will bring on the violence:

                      – Democratic president in 2016

                      – Democratic house thru 2016

                      – Democratic Senate thru 2016.

                      – rule changes that make the Senate more democratic

                      – demographic changes that show the Republican that they have unequivocally lost power and have no chance in their current iteration of peacefully regaining power.

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                    • I am recalling when there was a bust presented to President Bush that was engraved “President Bush, 2001-     “.

                      This was proof that Bush planned to not turn over control of the country at the end of his second term and would declare martial law or something.

                      I remember similar things about Clinton.

                      Despots, all.

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                    • May I suggest detaining Republicans without trial if not having them killed as enemy combatants without so much as a hearing?

                      This is an extreme position, one with which I must disagree, politely of course.

                      I boldly assert that there are at least a few Republicans who are not deserving of such a fate. The vast majority, well of course, that goes without saying. But all?

                      I think a more nuanced approach is in order!

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                    • I know it seems cool (kewl) to you guys to try and equate on side with the other, but I for one was taught there is a huge difference between advocate for something and not going along with something.

                      Outside of a select few the Democrats didn’t put up a huge fight against the war, in fact some were stridently in favor of it (Liberman). However, they also didn’t lie, manipulate evidence and demagogue their opponents to achieve their goal.

                      The Democrats were wimps and they certainly fell down on the job, but that in no way equates to what the Republicans did to stampede us into war.

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        • What, they dole out these things in noblesse oblige?

          That’s probably an accurate description of the work done by The Thomas Wayne Foundation and The Martha Wayne Foundation.

          Don’t a whole lotta people work very very hard to create these things?

          And aren’t an even larger number of people helped very very much by the things produced?

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            • I don’t think that’s true. At most, it’s like saying the conductor is providing a symphony. Granted, that isn’t accurate, either.

              At the same time, if I were to say that my father provided me with a car when I went to college, I don’t think it is a particular worthwhile response to say that the car was built by Ford.

              At least a form of provision is funding. Without the funding, it is not provided for.

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  6. P.J. O’Rourke was talking about the Guardian Angels, in an essay republished in “Parliament of Whores”, and he said that (quoting from memory)

    The Guardian Angels, like Batman, Miss Marple, and the Baker Street Irregulars, are a group of unarmed amateur crimefighters. This would be useless in a lawful society and suicidal in a lawless one; but in America the combination of vandalized wealth and spoiled want, police legalism and ACLU firepower, have combined to make something like the Guardian Angels not only possible but a godsend.

    Which is pretty much where I think this whole discussion about Batman is going; that there needs to be a very specific kind of society in order for him to exist.

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  7. Batman is not Caesar.  He’s just a perverse hero figure extracted from a facile reading of Nietzsche, a law unto himself.

     

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  8. So not to nerd this up even more, but I was thinking about how the Nolan Batman compares to the new BBC interpretation of Sherlock Holmes (a far, far superior product by the way, to the Robert Downey Jr. garbage) and how there too we see the state use a non-state actor to help shore up society. The tacit approval of representatives of the state (Gordon and Daws for Batman and Lestrade and Mycroft for Sherlock) I think might also be seen as how society views the optimum solution for taking care of problems vis-a-vis the state. The role of Moriarty and Joker also seem to give you a sense of the relationship of power vs. the state in an anarchic world.

    I would be willing to expound further, but I’m a bit afraid of spoilers. Maybe we can have a spoiler thread for this discussion somewhere?

    (P.S. if you haven’t seen Sherlock, well SHAME ON YOU!)

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  9. Pingback: Batman, Vigilantism, and the State | Law and the Multiverse

  10. The principle of handing over one’s individual claim to violence to the state, when taken to its logical conclusion, results in a police state.  And that is in many ways what Batman symbolizes: a regime in which decisions are made unilaterally and enforced to their fullest extent.

    Although I find these arguments fascinating, I have to disagree; by his very nature, Batman is the anti-state, the unstate. He is, in a way, the ultimate libertarian in that he has, on principle, reclaimed the Right to Violence from the state. This has always made him more unrealistic, for me, than superheroes like Superman; any man trying to fill Batman’s role in “real life” would be pursued relentlessly by every organ of the law until captured or driven out of operation. Neither liberal society nor popular government can survive the allowed existence of a Batman.

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    • I think this is why Frank Miller’s Year One involves a heavily corrupt government over a society that triple locks its doors.

      There’s also the issue of whether The Bat is seen as an urban legend or not (that’s one of those things that depend on the writer, of course) but if the government can plausibly say “there is no Batman” and the only people who claim to have seen him are thugs and hobos, the government can get away with that.

       

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      • Yeah, one of the main themes about Gotham seems to be that it’s essentially in a state of state failure. As things become more legitimate, the state seems to step in and use Batman more as a contractor than a completely lawless vigilante. The degree to which Batman cooperates with Gordon, for example.

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        • Although I find these arguments fascinating, I have to disagree; by his very nature, Batman is the anti-state, the unstate. He is, in a way, the ultimate libertarian in that he has, on principle, reclaimed the Right to Violence from the state.

          I think Paul Pope went as far down that road as possible, further even than Miller, because he didn’t reduce his characters to parodies of themselves However,

          As things become more legitimate, the state seems to step in and use Batman more as a contractor than a completely lawless vigilante. The degree to which Batman cooperates with Gordon, for example.

          This is largely correct, and it’s difficult to conceive of Batman as an anti-state figure when he not only co-operates with figures within the state, but deliberately limits his role to violent apprehension of criminals. Almost every non-Miller iteration has emphasised the necessity of the state being part of the process.

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      • Perhaps, but no functioning state–especially a corrupt one–can tolerate the existence of a Non-State Actor. The only halfway-realistic takes on Batman I’ve seen have kept him at the level of Urban Legend precisely so the police didn’t have to officially acknowledge his actions.

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        • Perhaps, but no functioning state–especially a corrupt one–can tolerate the existence of a Non-State Actor.

          Which leads to what, precisely? An official state position on vigilantes doesn’t really mean much when state authority is dispersed amongst thousands of actors, each of whom has their own agenda. And if the state is entirely riddled with corruption, I’m not sure how it can be characterized as a functioning state. In a corrupt state, there would be even more freedom for someone like Batman to co-operate with the elements within that state who aren’t corrupt.

           

           

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          • Or corrupt in the direction of “good”. I mean, we all know that the whole relationship between Lieutenant/Captain/Commissioner Gordon is one hell of a grey area, right?

            We just smile and nod because it’s corrupt in “our” favor.

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            • I’ll say to you what I say to everyone.  If everything between Gordon and Batman wasn’t on the up and up, the city would have never installed a red phone in his office for the specific use of calling him.  In addition, you will note that he never uses the phone unless in the company of and being witnessed by Chief O’Hara – a textbook anti-corruption risk management technique.

              (Mind you, this may only apply to the Adam West cannon.)

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              • According to his medical transcripts, Bruce Wayne’s birthday is February 16th, 1971.

                According to Wikipedia, the last original episode of the Adam West Batman television show, aired on March 14th, 1968.

                This means that the Batman television show cannot be canon as it happened before Bruce Wayne was even born.

                 

                Q.E.D.

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                • “This means that the Batman television show cannot be canon as it happened before Bruce Wayne was even born.”

                  You discount the Dread Pirate Roberts technique. (The real Bruce Wayne has been retired for ten years, living like a king in Patagonia!)

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                  • Wow! Between this and the Sherlock comments the dork scale just took a huge hit.

                    I say that with love, of course. I now must reevaluate my own dork-ness for enjoying this conversation so much.

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                    • You know, I have heard numerous times that there is a distinct difference between nerd and dork, but I confess I do not know the qualifications. How does one decide who is what exactly?

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                    • Thank you for the graphic Patrick. It was most helpful. Although, with this information I feel that Mr. Kelly is being presumptuous when he labels me as socially inept. Intelligent and obsessive I can live with.

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                    • Yeah, I’m with Tod here. I don’t think nerd implies social awkwardness. Dork on the other hand probably does.

                      Geek and nerd are different. Though it seems to depend on who you ask. I’ve always generally considered geeks to be folks who have a general intelligence in personal life vibe, while nerds were more intelligence in professional life kind of vibe.

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                    • The difference between a geek and a nerd is that the nerds thought the geeks were cool.

                      Now that the nerds have grown up, they’ve tried to convince themselves that they were always geeks and that there is no difference between a geek and a nerd.

                      There is a difference.  I’ve been both.  Hell, I was a dweeb for a while.

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                    • If we go by Patrick’s graph I would consider myself a geek, but that just doesn’t seem right. To me geek implies an extensive knowledge of technology (of which I do not have). If we discount the social awkwardness I will accept nerd. I did not, however, grow up aspiring to be a geek as Patrick explained above. I believe I had to grow into my nerdness. I was a carefree young lady who did not fit in with any of these labels (or so I told myself).

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    • *snort* what rubbish. you make it sound like private assassins don’t exist.

      Batman may exist only to the extent at which he gains legitimacy. Then he becomes a rival power. The Mafia/Hamas must be destroyed. A single man? Nothin’ doing.

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      • Private assassins do work-for-hire. There is someone who wants Person X dead, they pay an assassin. The assassin does the hit.

        The term for an assassin who does not have someone who hires him? Who does the work for free (indeed, uses his or her own resources)?

        We’re no longer talking about an assassin.

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        • the difference between an independently wealthy agent hiring an assassin, versus the assassin working on a particular agenda, is fairly immaterial?

          Have you noticed the dropoff in spam lately? Turns out, if you’re really that disliked, you’ll eventually wind up 6 ft. under.

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          • the difference between an independently wealthy agent hiring an assassin, versus the assassin working on a particular agenda, is fairly immaterial?

            I want to say that the difference is great enough that we’re talking about something else entirely.

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          • Have you noticed the dropoff in spam lately? Turns out, if you’re really that disliked, you’ll eventually wind up 6 ft. under.

            Allow me to chime in as a systems administrator:

            There is no dropoff in spam, not ever.  Spam only increases.

            When you see less of it in your inbox, that means that we are winning.  When you see more of it in your inbox, that means that we are losing.

            There are a lot of steps between your Inbox and the outside world.

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              • 1) you can point to the dead/no-longer-on-the-net people.

                All I can say is that the volume keeps going up, so if people are (routinely) assassinating people who send spam (dubious), they are quickly and readily replaced by people who send more spam.

                2) Finding the way to stop spam is a years long running question. Quite profitable, if ever solvable.

                It’s solvable now.  Nobody likes the solution, as it requires people to authenticate and cryptographically sign their mail.  Also maintain their keys.  All of this is an enormous pain in the butt for 97% of the population, so it doesn’t happen.

                SMTP is not authenticated.  It’s impossible to make it so, really.  To make mail itself reasonably secure, you’d have to start over.  Or force people to use cryptography (very hard) properly (well nigh impossible).

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                • authenticating solves the “man in the middle” problem, but doesn’t seem to solve the harder problem of “who is it okay to communicate with”? Unless you will need to add keys outside of e-mail entirely… (I guess enough channels exist nowadays for that…).

                  A bit of a suggestion – a whitelist area where you’ve already authenticated… and a graylist area for “i didn’t say you could send that” (where spam and other unauthenticated stuff winds up).

                  Can you tell I drop e-mails to people out of the blue?

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                • All I can say is that the volume keeps going up, so if people are (routinely) assassinating people who send spam (dubious), they are quickly and readily replaced by people who send more spam.

                  To an extent. However, if you make spamming into a dangerous occupation, I think that would have some effect in the longer term.

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            • Thing is, if it were easy to find these people and make them stop, then you wouldn’t have to kill them, because you could just sue them out of existence.  The problem is finding them in the first place, not dealing with them once you’ve found them.

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    • “[B]y his very nature, Batman is the anti-state, the unstate.”

      If that’s the case then why does Batman defend social order? Why does he (usually) run from the cops instead of beating them up? Why does he turn criminals over to the police instead of running his own prison?

      When you say “anti-state”, I interpret that as being contra the very notion of organized government; the idea that there can be an objective Governing Document that determines what can and cannot be done. I think you can be critical of the extant state’s ability to function without being “anti-state”.

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      • When I say “anti-state” I am not referring to Batman’s political ideology; he’s a big believer in the law, who sees himself as being required to act where the agents of the law do not or cannot act effectively.

        I am saying that, whatever his motives and whatever limits he sets himself, Batman is a personification of anarchy; he may represent justice, but when his every action violates the laws of the land, he is not a force for law and order. In the real world a mystery-man vigilante operating the way Batman does would rightly be pursued until apprehended. That way lies vigilantes and lynch-mobs, whatever one’s political ideology.

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  11. I’m also wondering if Batman’s prohibition on killing isn’t in fact his recognition that there are certain lines that MUST be done by a duly constituted authority. That is, Batman will not cross the one line that separates the Weberian nation-state with every other actor: the monopoly on the use of LETHAL force.

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