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Florida man’s latest worry: Killer herpes from wild monkeys


Enlarge / Rhesus Macaques in a tree (credit: Getty | IndiaPictures )

In the 1930s and ‘40s, the captain of a glass-bottom boat released a dozen or so rhesus macaques on an island in Florida’s Silver River, which snakes through Marion county in the center of the state. The idea was that the monkeys, native to Asia, would be a laugh for tourists passing by. But it seems the monkeys may be the ones to get the last laugh.

For one thing, macaques are excellent swimmers and promptly got themselves off the island. In the decades since, their population has exploded to upward of 800 in the surrounding Silver Spring State Park and nearby Ocala National Forest. A new study, out in the February issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases, reveals that the population is also spreading a dangerous type of herpes. The virus—macacine herpesvirus 1 (McHV-1), aka herpes B or monkey B virus—is common and causes mild infections in macaques. But in humans, it can lead to severe, often lethal, illnesses.

The study authors, led by Samantha Wisely of the University of Florida, Gainesville, concluded that the monkeys must be considered a public health concern and "adequate public health measures should be taken."

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Comcast's Sneaky Cable Fees Have Jumped 241% in the Last Three Years

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On the heels of its shiny new tax break and successful attack on net neutrality, Comcast recently imposed a flurry of new price increases on its customers. Everything from the company’s TV service to the cost of modem rental (now $11 per month) saw increases with the arrival of the new year, a proud annual tradition for one of the least liked companies in America.

Buried in those increases however was an obnoxious and growing trend: the use of below the line fees to covertly jack up the advertised rate of Comcast TV service.

For several years now, Comcast has imposed a bevy of such fees, inspired by the airline and banking industries. The company’s “Regional Sports Fee,” for example, was added to customer bills back in January of 2015. That fee, the company insists, helps it “recover a portion of the costs to transmit certain regional sports networks.”

Back in 2015, this fee was just $1 per month. With Comcast’s latest price increases, the fee is now $6.75 a month—a 575 percent increase in just a few years. Unmentioned by the company is the fact that Comcast owns the regional sports networks in many of its markets, meaning that this money often goes directly back into Comcast’s pocket.

Even more contentious is the company’s “Broadcast TV” fee. That fee was also added to Comcast customer bills at a cost of $1.50 per month back in 2015. With Comcast’s latest increases that fee is now $7.75 a month, an increase of 138 percent.

Comcast’s website claims that the Broadcast TV fee is “based upon the fees that local broadcasters charge us to carry their networks.”

In reality, these programming costs are just part of Comcast’s cost of doing business as a cable TV provider. The company’s taking part of the cost of doing business (programming) and burying it below the line. This practice lets Comcast advertise one rate, then charge something else entirely. It can then claim it’s raising rates at a slower pace than it actually is.

When the fee was first introduced back in late 2014, Comcast insisted the fee was just the company’s way of “being transparent” with its customers.

"Beginning in 2014, we will itemize a portion of broadcast retransmission costs as a separate line item to be more transparent with our customers about the factors that drive price changes,” Comcast argued.

"Combined, Comcast subscribers in most markets pay $14.50 a month for the two fees ... no one is claiming they have risen 241 percent in three years, or anywhere close to that amount"

Yes, nothing quite says “transparency” like not knowing how much you’ll pay for cable TV service until after you get your bill.

Comcast has taken ample heat for the practice from everyone but government regulators, who have traditionally ignored such “creative” billing. The company is facing an ongoing lawsuit for the fees, but has claimed the sneaky fees are clearly outlined in the company’s contract fine print.

Whether that holds up in court is unclear, but the fees continue to annoy paying subscribers, who can be found routinely complaining about the practice over in the official Comcast support forums. The practice also continues to get attention from analysts, who note that Comcast’s hidden fees are soaring at a rate unmatched by other pay TV providers, despite the fact that Comcast owns its own broadcaster in NBC Universal.

Industry analysts Phillip Swann, for example, recently noted that Comcast’s Broadcast TV and Regional Sports fees alone have increased 241 percent in just the last three years.

“Combined, Comcast subscribers in most markets pay $14.50 a month for the two fees which the cable operator, and other pay TV services, say are designed to offset the rising costs of licensing the rights to carry local channels and regional sports networks,” Swann notes. “While those costs have risen, no one is claiming they have risen 241 percent in three years, or anywhere close to that amount.”

Between the broadband and television fees, Comcast imposes an entire universe of higher rates on top of the company’s obvious, above board increases.

Of course these two fees are just on the television side of the equation.

Thanks to limited competition, Comcast has also slowly but surely imposed arbitrary and unnecessary usage caps and overage fees on its broadband subscribers as well. Such restrictions not only make broadband more expensive overall, but Comcast tends to exempt its own streaming services from the limits, making it a wonderful way to hamstring competing services that still count against the cap (aka zero rating).

Between the broadband and television fees, Comcast imposes an entire universe of higher rates on top of the company’s obvious, above board increases.

"We continue to make investments in our network and technology to give customers more for their money—like faster internet service and more Wi-Fi hotspots, more video across viewing screens, better technology like X1 and a better customer experience,” a Comcast spokesperson says of the latest increase.

But those increases should be reflected in the overall, advertised cost of service. Customers shouldn’t have to wait until after they get their bill to understand how much they’ll pay, and the practice only acts to drive more customers away from the traditional pay TV ecosystem, and into the arms of streaming video competitors.

Despite the disgust at this practice, you’d be hard pressed to find regulators from either party interested in doing anything to seriously restrict it. Former FCC boss Tom Wheeler had proposed “nutrition labels for broadband” that would clearly document these fees, but cooperation with the program was voluntary—resulting in most ISPs ignoring the proposal.

The program also leaned heavily on the transparency requirements that were included in the FCC’s net neutrality order, currently being dismantled by industry lobbyists. With the government currently busy gutting nearly all remaining oversight of companies like Comcast, this is a practice that’s going to be getting notably worse before it gets better.

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Incentive Pay Does Not Work


In The Case Against Pay for Performance, I argued against increasing pay based on performance reviews. Checkmate. Case closed. Or so I thought. Like many bloggers, I suffer from delusions of grandeur that millions ponder every word I write, are enlightened by insight, and then compelled to action.

Alas, it’s not to be. Instead, I find that belief in the power of rewards to spur higher performance persists despite the ample evidence to the contrary.

I suspect that one reason people continue to believe that pay for performance works is rooted in Theory X thinking.

[it] reflects an underlying belief that management must counteract an inherent human tendency to avoid work”

Offers of bonuses and raises are one lever to do that.

Another reason is that they seem to be effective, temporarily. As Alfie Kohn notes in Why Incentive Plans Cannot Work

Rewards buy temporary compliance, so it looks like the problems are solved. It’s harder to spot the harm they cause over the long term.

And yet another potential reason they persist is perhaps they are propagated (unconsciously or overtly) by those who benefit most from them. We know that racial and gender wage gaps persist in the U.S.. We also know that performance appraisals suffer from bias. This leads to a set of conditions where at least certain groups benefit from the status quo at the expense of others.

Many folks counter that they don’t work because they’re simply implemented improperly. I contend that they cannot work. Alfie Kohn backs me up (emphasis mine)…

According to numerous studies in laboratories, workplaces, classrooms, and other settings, rewards typically undermine the very processes they are intended to enhance. The findings suggest that the failure of any given incentive program is due less to a glitch in that program than to the inadequacy of the psychological assumptions that ground all such plans.

Why it doesn’t work

First, we need to differentiate “works” with “has an effect.” Certainly rewards have an effect.

As the Kohn article notes,

Do rewards work? The answer depends on what we mean by “work.” Research suggests that, by and large, rewards succeed at securing one thing only: temporary compliance. When it comes to producing lasting change in attitudes and behavior, however, rewards, like punishment, are strikingly ineffective.

Not only that, rewards often have an outcome that seems positive but is overall a negative. An analogy from the world of sports might make this point clear.

Image of Leo Messi by Luis Salas via Wikimedia Commons cc-by-2.0

Lionel Messi is the best soccer player in the world today, if not all time (I know I’m inviting argument here, feel free to write your rebuttal on your own blog, but for now, bear with me). He is the leading scorer in La Liga (the top Spanish soccer league where he plays for FC Barcelona) with 17 goals this season so far. In fact, because I’ve sat upon this draft, I’ve had to change this figure already. The player in second place is far behind with 13 and happens to be his teammate.

Suppose Barcelona offers him $10 Million for every goal he scores. That would certainly have an effect. He would score more goals. Success! Right?

Not so fast Usain Bolt. In order for Lionel to score more goals, he’d need to take more chances. And this means taking more ill advised shots when he should have passed to a teammate. The incentive would lead to more goals but less assists. And Messi is currently in second place in La Liga in assists (he trails the leader by one). That’s how good he is. In this example, a reward for goals would have a negative overall effect on his team’s outcomes.

This is a classic case of an unintended consequence (aka be careful what you wish for).

Perhaps we can fix the rewards program. Imagine if his team changes the incentive to $10 Million per game his team wins. Would his team’s performance increase? Likely not! After all, he and his team are already doing everything in their power to win every game. Offering more pay won’t somehow magically make the team better.

Freakonomics seems to bear this out in a study on another professional sport, American Football…

That’s what Brian Burke of Advanced NFL Stats did for us, analyzing all multi-million-dollar contracts for NFL running backs since the 2000 season, a sample of 28 contracts. He found that in the year after signing their big deals, these running backs averaged .3 yards less per carry. That’s a pretty startling drop.

Chances are, these players already give their best effort. They play as well as possible. There’s no way to eke out more performance by showering them with more money.

The Kohn article lists other unexpected outcomes of rewards (really, just read the whole thing)…

  1. “Pay is not a motivator.”
  2. Rewards punish.
  3. Rewards rupture relationships.
  4. Rewards ignore reasons.
  5. Rewards discourage risk-taking.
  6. Rewards undermine interest.

Bringing it back to the tech industry

Ok, this won’t be a surprise, but most programmers are not elite athletes. What’s this got to do with us?

In practice, we’re not all that different. We have a unique skill that is very valuable. We try and make the most of our skill day in and day out at work. When we solve a problem, we think our hardest. It’s really hard to half-ass problem solving. For the most part, we’re motivated by intrinsic incentives such as purpose, mastery, and autonomy.

Waving more money in front of me won’t help me solve a problem or code up a solution any better. It won’t increase my performance.

At best, more money might coerce more hours out of a person. There might be a temporary increase in output. But that’s not a sustainable approach. The research is clear that long hours backfire for people and companies. This is such a Theory X manager move.

Instead, when you consider employees as intrinsically motivated to do their best work, you realize the way to improve their performance is through feedback and providing opportunities to learn and grow. In other words, help them work smarter, not harder.

Paying The Best

I anticipate some will point out that Messi is one of the highest paid players in La Liga. So isn’t that a form of incentive pay? Doesn’t it show that incentive pay does work?

Consider this, the incentives Messi earns today are available to all other players in the league. All they have to do is perform at the level he does day in and day out. Then, they’d receive a lot more pay. So why don’t they do so? Are they not as motivated as much as he is?

His team, Barcelona, is not paying him for performance. They’re paying him for his value. This is an important distinction. Because he performs as well as he does, he brings in a lot of value to Barcelona.

Not only that, many other teams are willing to pay a lot of money to have him join their team instead. So Barcelona has to pay him something close to his market value. This high pay isn’t to incentivize him to perform well, but to incentivize him to stay at Barcelona. The same is true for any creative employee. Any system of bonuses and merit increases are doomed to fail if they fall too far behind the pay the employee could get elsewhere, all other factors being equal.

And yet, despite all that, Messi still could make significantly more at another team. This makes it clear that pay isn’t the only motivation for him to continue to play at Barcelona.


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Paul Ryan’s dumb tax postcard idea just got dumber

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Watch the magical line eight. Also, where do you sign it?

For a long time, a key marketing element of House Republicans’ tax reform push was the notion that they would write a tax code so simple you could fill out your taxes on a postcard. This was always pretty silly on a number of levels, but it at least offered a kind of plausible story that leadership could tell its members about why they were being asked to vote for legislation, as they did last year, that raised taxes on teachers who bought school supplies for their classrooms, parents who adopt kids, graduate student teaching assistants, and a range of other sympathetic figures.

Senate Republicans, being a more pragmatic lot, ultimately removed many of these kinds of politically toxic provisions from the bill that Donald Trump signed into law in December. The final law has the downside of invalidating the postcard promise. Interestingly, that has not caused the House GOP to drop the claim — they’ve simply rolled out a new and much dumber postcard.

Here’s the new postcard they tweeted out over the weekend:

This is a simple 17-line form.

But virtually every line requires you to consult some other calculation — often with no clear instructions. On line two, for example, they don’t specify which savings plans are the “specified savings plans” that you are allowed to subtract or give you any indications of where you find the answer. On line six, they tell you that you can deduct your state and local taxes, but they forgot to mention that the amount you can write down here is now capped at $10,000 (previously it was unlimited, though for some taxpayers the existence of the alternative minimum tax served as a de facto limit). A resident of a high-tax state unfortunate enough to actually rely on this postcard might accidentally underpay taxes and end up owing penalty fees to the IRS.

Line eight, however, is the one that really gives the game away. Because they elected to actually not eliminate tons of small-time deductions that all have their own little constituencies, there’s no way you could come close to actually listing every conceivable deduction on a postcard. Realistically, people who want to itemize deductions are going to need to use tax prep software or consult a professional — just like they do now. They sweep all of the complexity under the rug with a vague “subtract other deductions,” but of course you can do anything on a postcard if you wave away all the details.

After that, they’re barely even trying. You need to use a tax table (they don’t tell you where to find it) to actually calculate your preliminary tax. There’s no explanation at all of how the investment income provisions of the tax code work. Three tax credits are detailed, but their postcard doesn’t say anything about what the credits are worth, who can claim them, or under what circumstances. And for whatever reason, they just left the entire question of the tax treatment of pass-through business entities off the postcard even though it’s a centerpiece of the legislation.

Or, rather, they left it off because the whole postcard idea is dumb and they didn’t bother to put much effort into it.

The whole postcard idea is dumb

For starters, an obvious problem with doing your taxes on a postcard is that you’d be putting a lot of private financial information down on a card that anyone could read, photograph, pass around, etc.

Whatever you do with your taxes, you’re going to want to put the paper in an envelope. An envelope would also let you include a check (if necessary) so that you could actually pay your taxes, which is an important part of the process.

This is presumably why the House GOP plan puts “postcard” in scare quotes. But when you look at the “postcard,” you’ll see that it doesn’t have a place for you to enter basic stuff like your name, address, Social Security number, or spouse’s name (if applicable). There’s also no signature line. Once you add all that stuff in, you see that you’re going to need a full sheet of paper — just like IRS Form 1040EZ, which already exists and offers most taxpayers a relatively simple way to file.

More broadly, however, the way tax enforcement works is that your employer(s), bank(s), and brokerage(s) file their own paperwork with the IRS, which tells them how much money you’ve been paid, how much mortgage interest you owe, etc. That lets the IRS get a decent look at whether you’re cheating on your taxes. It also would let the IRS do what many other countries do and simply tabulate what you owe and tell you. It would, of course, be reasonable to let any citizen who wants to challenge the IRS’s calculations do so and prepare their own alternate tax return. But most of us could probably just check a box and be done with it.

The reason that doesn’t happen is the tax preparation industry doesn’t want to lose clients — and they usually get an assist from Grover Norquist and other anti-tax activists who want to make the taxation process as annoying as possible. But that, rather than anything about the code itself, is what is stopping Congress from making the actual filing process easier.

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Heroism and Realism in Christopher Nolan’s Batman

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“I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss. I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy. I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence. It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

This article appears in the January/February 2018 issue of TAC.

—Obituary for Bruce Wayne, taken from Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities

In 2005, Time Warner released Batman Begins, the first high-budget film by Anglo-

American filmmaker Christopher Nolan (who later did Dunkirk, Inception, Interstellar), known at the time only to a few cinema nuts for his low-budget but intensely artful and intellectual films (Memento). The Batman franchise—from novels to comic books to movies to toys—had been a hugely profitable property for Time Warner for years. Still, most Americans viewed Batman as a really neat comic book figure. “Be yourself. Unless you can be Batman. Then, be Batman.” When the character had appeared on screens, it was as a countercultural buffoon on television in the 1960s, then two decades later as a big-screen gothic and carnival-esque weirdo in the hands of Tim Burton and his followers. Only Bruce Timm’s excellent animated Batman, which aired afternoons during the early 1990s, did the character justice, but this version, given the medium, reached only a handful of diehard Batman fans.

And so with Nolan the question emerged: could this newcomer to big film projects transfer his cinematic intensity and intellectualism to Batman, thus transforming him from pop sensation to a cultural mainstay, giving the property gravitas and the studio profit?

The answer, it turns out, was yes. Two central elements of Nolan’s filmmaking characterized his particular Batman genre. First, he brought the characters into the realm of realism. They reside in the actual world, not a fantasy world, and events and developments can all be explained rationally. Second, Nolan fashioned his central character not from the pastel pages of a comic book but rather from America’s western legend, the frontier mythos that captured the national consciousness so powerfully in multiple movies of the 1940s and TV shows of the 1950s. This western legend, or myth, was larger than any single person, event, or even culture. And there were no antiheroes in that cultural fare, focused on the daunting challenge of extending the essence of Western civilization to those forbidding and often dangerous lands of the Rocky Mountains and beyond. It took real heroes to do that.

Thus does Nolan’s Batman trilogy stand today as a remarkable cultural achievement. Indeed, his third film in the trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, was not only the best of the three but is arguably one of the finest movies ever made, a true achievement of the cinematic arts, certainly worthy of an Alfred Hitchcock or a John Ford. It also may be the single most important defense of Western civilization ever to reach a Hollywood screen. That the severe cultural liberals of the West Coast didn’t rip it to shreds indicates they probably didn’t watch it—or perhaps didn’t understand it.

In crafting his Batman movies, Nolan pulled together his longtime core development team—his wife, Emma, and his brother, Jonathan—but he also turned to his troupe of actors from previous projects, including Christian Bale and Cillian Murphy. Nolan, though a longtime Batman fan, had never been a collector or reader of comic books, and he concluded that he needed an expert in the original comic book Batman. He wisely turned to David Goyer, an Ann Arbor native, and lifelong comic book fan and writer. Goyer not only had written for DC and Marvel (the two main comic book companies and friendly rivals) but also had written some extraordinary film scripts, such as the Gothic noir dystopia, Dark City (1998), arguably one of most imaginative science-fiction films ever made.

Partly because he was untried in this kind of filmmaking and partly because of his own artistic sensibilities, Nolan developed no initial plan for any sequels. He wanted every member of his team to see this film as a one-time opportunity, holding nothing back in its making. As he put it:

People ask if we’d always planned a trilogy. This is like being asked whether you had planned on growing up, getting married, having kids. The answer is complicated. When David and I first started cracking open Bruce’s [Bruce Wayne’s] story, we flirted with what might come after, then backed away, not wanting to look too deep into the future….I told David and Jonah to put everything they knew into each film as we made it. The entire cast and crew put all they had into the first film. Nothing held back. Nothing saved for next time.

As Nolan approached the story, he decided two critical things. The first was his insistence on realism. If something happened that could not be explained rationally, he excised even the idea of it. Everything from the Batmobile to the reaction of the police had to be utterly realistic. If the Batman headgear needed two ears, there needed to be an explanation for those two ears. If Batman jumped from building to building, there needed to be a reason why and explanation as to how. The second was his embrace of the myths of the American West. Here Nolan was tapping into something already in the Batman mythos but not explicitly understood by the larger public. Like Natty Bumppo of James Fenimore Cooper’s “Leatherstocking Tales” and Mark Twain’s Huck Finn, Bruce Wayne/Batman stands as a crucial American symbol. If Bumppo and Finn personify the American frontier of the 19th century, so Wayne/Batman is the great mythological figure of 20th and 21st century urban America. Named after the Revolutionary War general, Mad Anthony Wayne, and coming from one of the wealthiest of American families (builders and defenders of Gotham City, a Platonic shadow of New York, populated by 30 million people), Bruce Wayne considers it his aristocratic duty to protect the poor and oppressed from the wealthy and corrupt. He is an Arthurian but also deeply American figure.

In the Batman stories as developed in the comics over the last three decades, it has come to light that the Waynes have been keepers of the Holy Grail in the present day, descendents of Arthur from 2000 years ago. As with Arthur, Wayne surrounds his Batman persona with a number of knights (the Gotham Knights) who serve under such codenames as Nightwing, Robin, Oracle, and others. While, to our modern eyes, they seem much like a Marine platoon, they more properly resemble the Catholic military orders of the High Middle Ages. As with Arthur, Wayne must enter the Chapel Perilous, time and again, to keep the darkness of the Waste Land at bay.

Brilliantly, Nolan wrapped the eventual Dark Knight Trilogy into the significance of myth, and the significance of myth into the story. When attempting to explain to Alfred, his father figure, butler, and accomplice, what he hoped to do when returning to Gotham City, Wayne says: “People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy and I can’t do that as Bruce Wayne. 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.” 


Several themes inform each movie. The first movie deals with justice and fear; the second with free will and anarchy; the third with hope and reformation.

In Nolan’s typical but eccentric way, the first movie jumps repeatedly in time, creating a whole out of non-linear storytelling. The essential tale is familiar, at least to Americans born after 1939, but Nolan adds his own tastes and vision.

The son of the wealthiest couple in the greatest city of the Western world, Gotham, Bruce Wayne, as a young boy, stands with his parents in “Crime Alley,” having left the opera. A killer shoots both parents and takes their money and jewels. Left an orphan, Bruce is raised by the family butler, Alfred Pennyworth. After dropping out of Princeton and ineffectively confronting the man he believes ordered the hit on his parents, Wayne departs Gotham City, traveling throughout the world for years, learning what it means to fight, to suffer, and to survive. The purpose, as he sees it, is to hone all his skills—physical as well as intellectual—and return to Gotham to protect the innocent.

In Batman Begins, Wayne finds himself in a high Tibetan temple belonging to an evil and inverted type of Knights Templar, the “League of Shadows,” an organization that demands the end of corruption of public officials. It calls them to account by destroying any city that has become unrepentantly corrupt. They claim responsibility for having destroyed Rome, Constantinople, and London, across the centuries. Now they say they will take out Gotham. The leader is a man named Ra’s al Ghul, an Arabic title meaning, “Head of the Demon.” The League portrays itself as superior to all political organizations in promoting what it sees as justice, a harmony derived from a very Nietzschean desire for the “will to act.” The League of Shadows, Ra’s al Ghul explains, has been a check against human corruption for thousands of years. “We sacked Rome. Loaded trade ships with plague rats. Burned London to the ground. Every time a civilization reaches the pinnacle of its decadence, we return to restore the balance.”

Though trained by the League of Shadows to be the heir to Ra’s al Ghul, Wayne rejects its brutal philosophy, destroys its temple, and returns to Gotham, presuming incorrectly that he has destroyed the League.

Back in Gotham, he assumes the primal symbol of his own fears, a Bat, hoping to employ terror against evil. As a Batman, he stands as a living gargoyle, adorning the cathedral of Western civilization while driving away rival evils. In his fight, he relies on four persons to sustain him: Alfred, to serve as Watson to his Holmes; Police Lieutenant James Gordon, the only honest cop in Gotham; Lucius Fox, a master engineer and entrepreneur; and Rachel Dawes, the one true love of his life, now an assistant district attorney. Rachel particularly complicates Wayne’s life, as she is unsure of his sanity and his intentions, especially in his assumption of the Bat persona.

The movie—operatic in a Wagnerian way from opening to final scene—concludes with Wayne barely defeating the revived Ra’s al Ghul and his League of Shadows. In the war against the League, Wayne Manor is destroyed, Rachel reveals that she cannot love a man who fights crime as a Bat, and a poison is loosed upon an area of Gotham known as “The Narrows,” a decayed part of the city that houses the poor and the insane. The consequences of this poison remain unknown as the movie ends, but Lieutenant Gordon, now fully in alliance with Batman, shows him the “calling card” of a new masked criminal, a grimy playing card of a joker.

The second movie, The Dark Knight (2008), begins with the Joker and his henchmen stealing from a mob bank. The heist, filmed as a tribute to such crime neo-noir classics as The French Connection (1971) and Heat (1995), goes off as planned, introducing the audience to the face of diabolic anarchy and insanity, the stunning Joker (played by Heath Ledger, who committed suicide shortly after filming).

Unlike the first movie, filmed almost entirely in shadow, with vertical lines and a Gothic noir aesthetic, The Dark Knight presents a much shinier and sunnier Gotham, its architectural lines straight, sleek, clean, and horizontal. This story, atypically for Nolan, is linear, driving relentlessly from the opening heist to the final tragic moments.

The story centers on the Joker’s attempt to destroy Gotham from within, through anarchy. As he puts it:

I’m a dog chasing cars … I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it. I just do things. I’m just the wrench in the gears. I hate plans. Yours, theirs, everyone’s. Maroni has plans. Gordon has plans. Schemers trying to control their little worlds. I’m not a schemer, I show the schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are. So when I say that you and your girlfriend was nothing personal, you know I’m telling the truth.

He may denigrate plans, but the Joker is a master chessman, planning and scheming, always three or four moves ahead of his opponents. According to all law enforcement databases, the Joker should not exist—no fingerprints on record, clearly trained in some form of special ops, outfitted entirely in custom clothes.

Though The Dark Knight deals with anarchy and plans, the movie also probes the notions of free will and duality. If we choose A, are we doomed to follow B? If we follow B, have we destroyed all future options? The question manifests itself most particularly in the personal story of Harvey Dent, a young and courageous district attorney, ready to become the face of decency in Gotham, a White Knight, replacing Batman’s Dark Knight.

To prove that no real goodness resides in the world, the Joker plays upon Dent’s weaknesses, killing his girlfriend (Rachel Dawes, also Wayne’s one love) and driving him to madness and evil deeds. In the final scene, with Gotham not knowing that Dent had succumbed to the Joker’s dark spirit, Dent takes Lieutenant Gordon’s family hostage. In the fight to protect Gordon’s children, Batman plunges over a building ledge in a fight with Dent. Dent is killed. Batman tells Gordon that he will take the blame, though he has done nothing wrong. The movie ends with Batman having saved hundreds of lives, defeating the Joker and Dent, but now becoming a hunted man, vilified as a murderer. “You’ll hunt me. You’ll condemn me. You’ll set the dogs on me.” But Gordon explains to his son that Batman is “a silent guardian, a watchful protector, a dark knight.”

Hoping to shed the vigilante mantle of the Batman, Wayne and Police Commissioner Gordon decide to place all of their hopes on District Attorney Harvey Dent, the “White Knight” as opposed to Wayne’s “Dark Knight.” Harvey, though, hides an unrestrained abusive side, one that revels in torture. Knowing this, the Joker manipulates events in the movie—always three or four moves ahead of the good guys as if in a masterful game of chess—to force Dent to reveal this horrific side. Rather than allow the symbol to die, Wayne and Gordon decide to hide it, allowing Dent to die a martyr as the White Knight, placing, then, the abuse and killings committed by Dent on the Batman.

After The Dark Knight, Nolan insisted he had no intention of making a third movie. The death of his friend Heath Ledger rattled him, inhibiting any return to the world of Batman. But Batman wouldn’t leave him alone, he later explained, and he had to produce the third movie to find out how the story unfolds.

Nolan’s third Batman film was inspired by Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, though much of the dialogue might have been written by the Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke, considered by many the father of modern conservatism. The movie is in essence a retelling of the events of the French Revolution in Paris. In place of Robespierre is a mercenary, chemically-enhanced villain from either Eastern Europe or the Mideast, known only as Bane. This character is the creation of noted writer Chuck Dixon, a man both admired and reviled in the comic book world for his conservatism. Bane, working with several of Wayne’s competitors in business, has spent six months rebuilding the infrastructure of Gotham City, secretly lacing all of the concrete in streets, bridges, tunnels, and sewers with explosives. He considers himself the fulfillment of the infamous League of Shadows.

Coming out of retirement at 43, Batman investigates. But, when he encounters Bane in the sewers, the evildoer breaks his back. Bane takes the injured Wayne to a prison somewhere in the Middle East (filmed in an ancient city on the Pakistan-Indian border) and leaves him there to die. Languishing in this hell hole with his broken back, Wayne is reduced to watching TV, specifically, a single Gotham City channel. Bane wants Wayne to see the fall of Gotham as it implodes and collapses in on itself from the weight of its own corruption. In lines that could have been lifted straight out of Volume I of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, Bane explains to Wayne that while he is happy to have broken Wayne’s body, the prison is meant to destroy his soul.

Returning to Gotham, Bane detonates his explosives, destroying the city’s infrastructure as well as its access to and from the main island—the equivalent of Manhattan. In taking over the city, he warns the United States not to intervene or he will unleash a nuclear weapon with a six-mile blast radius, killing all on the island. By separating Gotham from the United States, Bane has created his own city-state. In the new, conquered city of Gotham, Bane frees all prisoners of Blackgate Prison (the Bastille) and declares the city to be under control of “the people.” The people, Bane says truthfully, have been deceived by the leadership of Gotham. Harvey Dent was not a White Knight but an insane, murderous criminal. Thus all of Gotham’s successes over the previous eight years, since Dent’s death, have been lies. Bane declares:

We take Gotham from the corrupt. The rich. The oppressors of generations who’ve kept you down with the myth of opportunity. And, we give it to you, the people. Gotham is yours. None shall interfere. Do as you please. . . . For an army will be raised. The powerful will be ripped from their decadent nests, and cast into the cold world the rest of us have known and endured. Courts will be convened. The spoils will be enjoyed. Blood will be shed.

In Soviet style, the criminal, the insane, and the poor ravage the homes, property, and persons of the wealthy, inverting the entire socio-economic structure of Gotham. The people—under the judgeship of Dr. Jonathan Crane, the “Scarecrow” and creator of the poisons in the first film—establish courts to sentence the wealthy for having preyed upon the poor. All such trials end in the execution of the guilty. This level of anti-communist passion has not been seen from Hollywood since Roland Joffé’s revealing if horrifying 1984 look into Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, The Killing Fields.

Meanwhile, in his Middle Eastern prison, Bruce Wayne heals and regains his strength, spiritually as well as physically, climbing out of the pit (Plato’s Cave), liberating himself and his fellow prisoners. The fact that only one person had ever escaped from this prison heartens Wayne, for he calculates that if one person had escaped he could too.

Returning to Gotham City, Wayne as Batman takes control of the remaining police under Gordon’s command, raising a counter-revolutionary army. Leading hundreds of police into battle, he and his greatest ally, a somewhat reformed jewel thief named Selina Kyle, battle Bane and his revolutionaries. In hand-to-hand combat outside the Gotham City stock exchange, Kyle and Batman barely defeat Bane. Still, there remains the nuclear bomb. Taking his Bat—a hover aircraft based on the Harrier and the helicopter—Batman flies the bomb out of the city, over the Atlantic, and lets it detonate safely. Everyone assumes, however, that Batman sacrificed himself in saving Gotham.


At the funeral—attended only by four loved ones—a shell-shocked Gordon, who has only now come to realize the true identity of Batman, reads from The Tale of Two Cities. Looking at the grave of Wayne, next to that of Wayne’s mother and father, Alfred breaks down, believing that his entire life has been a failure. He had wanted to serve the Wayne family but had overseen its death.

The movie ends with Wayne Manor becoming a home for orphaned boys, St. Swithin’s, led by a Catholic priest. Also Lucius Fox begins to think that Wayne might have survived the flight over the Atlantic while Gordon refurbishes the long disused Bat signal and Alfred sits in an outside French café, seeing Bruce and Selina sitting together, in love, at a neighboring table.

In Nolan’s expert hands, Batman becomes what he always meant to be, an American Odysseus, an American Aeneas, an American Arthur, an American Beowulf, and an American Thomas More. Indeed, it would be hard to find another figure in popular and literary culture that more embodies the traditional heroism of the West more than in the figure of Bruce Wayne. He most closely resembles Aeneas, carrying on the culture of charity and sacrifice into the darkest and most savage parts of his world. Like St. Michael, he guards the weak, the poor, and the innocent. Like Socrates, he will die for Athens (Gotham) as it should be rather than as it is. Like Beowulf, he asks nothing for himself, merely the opportunity to wage the never-ending war against evil.

And in the third film, Western civilization survives, but only barely and only with incredible sacrifice at every level. “I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence,” Dickens had written.

While some might still see merely a children’s comic book superhero made glittery with a Hollywood budget in the Dark Knight Trilogy, it would be impossible not to recognize Nolan’s genius in these films. Unlike, say, Peter Jackson, who dumbed down The Lord of the Rings, Christopher Nolan leavened Batman. Jackson diminished Tolkien, while Nolan enlarged Batman.

Since his creation in 1939 by two young Jewish artists in New York, Batman has served as a critical cultural marker for American and Western civilization. If we treat him like a clown, as did the 1960s TV series, we do not know who he is—or who we are. If we treat him like a Gothic carnival freak, as did Tim Burton, same thing. If we treat him as the great American hero and symbol of an urban age, as did Nolan, we have a chance at survival.  

Bradley J. Birzer is the president of the American Ideas Institute, which publishes TAC. He holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and is the author, most recently, of Russell Kirk: American Conservative.

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" his third film in the trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, was not only the best of the three but is arguably one of the finest movies ever made..."

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Marvel is finally giving Black Widow her own movie

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One of the longest-running fan complaints in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been the studio’s reluctance to give Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow her own standalone film, but now it looks like the studio is finally serious about making the project happen. Variety reports that the studio has hired screenwriter Jac Schaeffer to write a script for the as-of-yet untitled film.

The project is reportedly still in the development stages without a formal greenlight in place, but the fact that Marvel is even developing a Black Widow movie is significant. Johansson has been part of the larger franchise since 2010, when she appeared in Iron Man 2. But despite the prominence of her character in The Avengers and subsequent movies, she has...

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Orange County, California
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Good news.
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