Villains will make a joke of your values
Heroes are defined by the villains. Wise up to the bad guy's motivations.
You have nothing. Nothing to threaten me with. Nothing to do…with all your strength…..
These are words of the most perfectly performed on-screen villain of the century thus far. Yeah. Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight (2008).
I love heroes. This Substack is dedicated to them and how you can be more like the greats. But I happen to love villains more, because without them…well then what’s the point?
On February 24th, 2022…Vladimir Putin of the Russian Federation, ordered the full-scale invasion of their neighbor, Ukraine. After teasing limited incursion and enacting perhaps just the half measure of military intimidation, Russia simply stormed in. Within days, maybe weeks, the capital of Kiev will fall and Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, will be dead or imprisoned.
The invasion represents the first full-scale, significant challenge to the post-World War II order where major nation states “do business” politely and only meddle militarily in each others affairs through proxies, rather than deploy paratroopers and sending in tanks.
The United States and its allies responded on Thursday with President Biden taking the national stage to lay out what America would do. SANCTIONS! MORE SANCTIONS! AND SOME MORE ECONOMIC SANCTIONS AND BANKING PENALTIES! Take that, evildoer!
All you care about is money
Why do do I bring this up? What’s the utility of invoking the Joker in relation to Putin. Well, it’s not because the two are alike. They aren’t, really. But what Bruce Wayne (Batman) had to learn in The Dark Knight was how to stop a villain not motivated by his own norms of what constituted self-interest. Wayne is a billionaire. He stops criminals and goes back to is mansion. It tends to be the case that criminals are greedy and just want money. Don’t you think his own materialism and wealth might taint his view of what sane people want from life? They (criminals) must all want what he has, he thinks.
Then his butler, Alfred, tells him a story.
Alfred: With respect Master Wayne, perhaps this is a man (Joker) that you don't fully understand, either. A long time ago, I was in Burma. My friends and I were working for the local government. They were trying to buy the loyalty of tribal leaders by bribing them with precious stones. But their caravans were being raided in a forest north of Rangoon by a bandit. So, we went looking for the stones. But in six months, we never met anybody who traded with him. One day, I saw a child playing with a ruby the size of a tangerine. The bandit had been throwing them away.
Bruce Wayne: So why steal them?
Alfred: Well, because he thought it was good sport. Because some men aren't looking for anything logical, like money. They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.
You might recall the scene toward the films conclusion, where the Joker has successfully extracted a mountain of money from Gotham and his enemies. It is all piled up. Then the Joker douses it in gasoline and burns his share of the cash. His criminal partners are horrified. WHY WOULD THE JOKER LEVY ECONOMIC SANCTIONS ON HIMSELF?! The Joker responds to their shock, “All you care about is money. This town deserves a better class of criminal.”
His criminal plot was an ideological one. A point he wanted to make. Worldly matters such as wealth were totally irrelevant to him. Putin is not the Joker. But the United States and our allies are very much the Joker’s criminal colleagues. Befuddled. Confused. But what about free trade and keeping gas prices low?! Are you crazy?! Putin is not crazy. He’s deadly serious. Turns out, we are not.
Putin has never hid the ball on what he wants. He yearns for revived Russian glory and respect on the world stage. Something lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union. He wants respect on Russia’s terms….not the terms of the materialistic, capitalist West…who seems measure respectability by your reverence for the international banking system and free trade for cheap consumer goods. Economic sanctions are something the fat, happy and ambitionless bourgeois of the West are frightened of. But for better or for worse (definitely worse, for us) Putin has a higher calling.
We want more than Netflix and Amazon deliveries
In 1940, the famed author George Orwell (1984, Animal Farm) reviewed a book. You may have heard of it. Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Orwell does something highly important for a man living in his time…which is he took Hitler and his ramblings seriously. He knew the worst was yet to come in regards to Nazi Germany.
Read the whole thing sometime, but for now, read this excerpt.
(Hitler) has grasped the falsity of the hedonistic (materialistic, pleasure focused) attitude to life. Nearly all Western thought since the last war (WWI), certainly all ‘progressive’ thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security and avoidance of pain. In such a view of life there is no room, for instance, for patriotism and the military virtues. The Socialist who finds his children playing with soldiers is usually upset, but he is never able to think of a substitute for the tin soldiers; tin pacifists somehow won’t do. Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades. However they may be as economic theories, Fascism and Nazism are psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life. The same is probably true of Stalin’s militarized version of Socialism. All three of the great dictators have enhanced their power by imposing intolerable burdens on their peoples. Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them ‘I offer you struggle, danger and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet. Perhaps later on they will get sick of it and change their minds, as at the end of the last war. After a few years of slaughter and starvation ‘Greatest happiness of the greatest number’ is a good slogan, but at this moment ‘Better an end with horror than a horror without end’ is a winner. Now that we are fighting against the man who coined it, we ought not to underrate its emotional appeal.”
Do you get it? I’m a capitalist in my bones. But it is pure neoliberal fantasy that material comfort, cheap goods off Amazon and cheap flights to Paris are the highest callings of the human soul. We burn for other things. Some of us anyways. That’s why collectivist ideologies like fascism and its brother, communism, will always find a place in the hearts of men. Because these ideologies are dark, twisted calls to adventure and greatness. Don’t mistake me. Dark and twisted. But they are designed to make every citizen the hero of a story and call them to a mission. We love being on a mission. Sure beats binging Riverdale on Netflix and waiting on government checks to subsist on.
This is not a foreign policy newsletter. I do not have a message for you on how to curtail Russian aggression or tame China before they inevitably invade Taiwan. I do not know what should be done. What I do know, however, is that the Western world has become self-obsessed and detached from the reality of human existence which is the perverse relationship we have with struggle.
Monsters cannot be slain unless you know their weaknesses. Despots cannot be brought to heel unless you know what motivates them and accept that for some, evil acts may be perfectly rational (and not crazy).
I started playing Dungeons & Dragons (DnD) a few years ago with friends in D.C. I’d never done it before. In the years since, I have learned a few things from our hugely fun quests and roleplaying adventures. Last year, the group did a quest where we had to face a dragon (I can’t recall which subclass of dragon). This dragon was likely too powerful and was going to kill us all. But I had done my research the day before, on beasts of DnD, and I recalled in that moment that this class of dragon was actually highly materialistic and vain. As a bard, whose capability for causing bodily harm is highly limited…. I stepped forward in the scenario and tempted the dragon with an alternative to eating us and then sleeping off the meal in his lonely treasure-filled lair.
What if, instead, the dragon flew to the coast and lived large in an amazing seaside manor that made all of his siblings jealous?
Either because it was a great idea or the games moderator was feeling generous, but it worked. The dragon shelved its aggression and pursued hedonistic pleasure instead of violence. We survived!
That was only possible because I accepted that a Dragon was distinct from an Orc or a Wizard, and motivated by different things.
To close, what is my point and why is this relevant to This Is The Way?
Because to actually be courageous, live heroically and make the world better….you’ll have to do battle with various forces of darkness. And darkness exists. No amount of post-modernist theory being taught in schools can erase the fact of darkness lingering the hearts of mankind.
A hero has to be willing to grapple with this reality and struggle with the evil, whilst not succumbing to evil themselves.
This is the way.