This Xmas I was appalled to find myself, in my traditional Portuguese family celebration, engaged in the same plight as many American families must have been over the holidays: I had to contain my fury as my brother-in-law defended the indefensible behavior of the White House and shouted the absurd arguments that the IG had proven the political involvement of the FBI and that there is ‘no quid pro quo’! What kind of world is this we live in that these kinds of arguments are even possible? What is it that makes us so angry and surprised and distant and impotent?
I have been wanting for some time to speak to you about what I think is one of the best movies of the passing year. Actually, I believe it to be one of the best movies of this century. I am referring to Todd Phillips’ JOKER with the amazing Joaquin Phoenix playing the protagonist. Phoenix’s plasticity and dedication make his performance one for the ages – he is able to physically change the character from moment to moment, as the character changes the way he sees himself – always extremely consistent with the emotional charge of the story. This is a movie about growth, sanity, freedom, and enlightenment. Arthur Fleck, the miserable clown who laughs when he is nervous, ends up enacting that Michel Foucault’s idea that the only genuine semblance of a soul breaks through when our insanity stops being seen as insanity and becomes an expression of our most transparent self. I always took odds with the idea that we cannot be truly honest and whole within a system of normality and of structured rules of behavior, and the movie seems to prove my point: there is no exit for Fleck except through violence, criminality and, eventually, being locked up. JOKER doesn’t only show us why we need Batman (he himself a vigilante, a fantasy and a criminal), but why we need to open our eyes ourselves. It is not the game-show hosts who should tell us what to laugh about, but it is not our own right to set free our potential for violence – to be Free we must first be mature whole selves.
For millennia, Humanity lived in a world of limited information: it was possible and even probable that most men would live their lives with the amount of new information that wouldn’t exceed a few newspaper pages of today. We are now faced with a world where not only we have access to information but it is thrown at us every day. And as many have told us before, it is a world of editors: those who filter and interpret the information are the ones ruling the day. More than that, perhaps: those who filter and control the interpretations of information are ruling the day.
We are caught between competing editors, competing interpretations, which throws us into a curious world where the more we know the less we seem to know, the more confused we feel. And so we act out. We are filled with a constant need to have certainties and have opinions – but more than that, to act on our opinions. To invest considerably on what irritates us and excites us. If we don’t like Government interference, we stop vaccinating our kids; if we feel offended by a piece of comedy we feel entitled to throw Molotov cocktails at the actors (as happened in Brazil), or shoot at reporters (as happened in France a few years ago). We must be for Greta Thunberg or against her, immediately believing that she is a hero or a manipulated child. And, of course, we must act on that, as if our immediate opinions, our instant interpretation of reality, defines who we are. There is no place for doubt, there is no place for uncertainty, there is no place for inaction, or tolerance, or peace. We constantly look for fleeting certainty as if the world depends on it. And curiously enough that is systematically leading us to a world of uncertainty, where we are ruled by our Punk Mentality: as if enacting our own confusion and our own irritation was the only thing that made sense in it all. As if, in fact, our own tolerance of uncertainty, our own sanity, our own sense of control and of being controlled, was the very thing that kept us from being Free. As if our need to rebel, our own Rebellion, was the foundation of our Liberty and our Meaning of Life. And through that Punk Mentality, we are bound to a sterile path before us: the only way for The Joker to feel whole was, in fact, to descend into criminality, to rip apart and destroy – and eventually to be locked away and spare society at large of his impending violence and degradation. Everything that irritated him was in danger. Nothing was able to separate him and his enactment of Freedom and Wholeness, his enactment of Chaos, from Society at large – except, maybe, the prison bars.
Worse than that, The Joker’s Punk Mentality becomes actually an inspiration to many. Instead of being repelled by his abhorrent behavior, many seemed fascinated by it, inspired by it, descending into a seemingly Liberating Chaos on the streets. What we fail to notice, even in our own lives, is that this Liberating Chaos is just a passing fantasy. Chaos brings much worse things than Liberty. And in the end, Chaos won’t even give us that. Liberty will not come from Chaos – Chaos has the ability to release our worst nightmares, and empowers the Manipulators, the Populists, the Masters of Interpretation. The Tyrant Editors. The Beasts. We are constantly being told that what we see with our own eyes, and what we hear with our own ears, is not the Truth. It’s all a conspiracy unless we believe in their conspired Truth. In our need to have opinions, to feel empowered ourselves, we are deceived by illusionists to believe what they want us to believe.
For many decades, we have been told by philosophers and fiction writers that the System is our enemy. If anything, what the Trump Impeachment hearings and the testimonies before US Congress has shown us is that there are good people in the world. Within the system we are so fond of hating, there are people who maintain our way of life, our Freedom to have opinions, our Justice, our Integrity. There are people who out of duty and belief in our deeper values work every day to spare us from Chaos. Because punks have it right: the opposite of the System is Chaos. The illusion is that the System is our enemy. That illusion is wrong and self-defeating. We built the System ourselves. We built our Democracies, our Rules of Law, our Bills of Rights, our Institutions, to save us from Chaos. Other countries, like Somalia or Liberia, have shed these principles, these Systems, and we wouldn’t want to live there, would we? They are the realms of Fear. The System is not perfect – it makes mistakes every day, in many instances tragic ones, and it is flawed in many ways, but it is not our Enemy. The Police is not our enemy, the Law is not our enemy, the State is not our enemy and Politicians are not our enemy. Our first enemy is Confusion. Our real enemy is Chaos itself.
Shallow Rebellion, the Punk Mentality, is just another chain, another shackle, another way to rein us in. Only when we choose the Middle Ground, where we can choose with good judgment, proper detachment, and justice, do we see the path between System and Chaos. And only then can we really be Free. (I spoke a little bit about this here, relating to the MATRIX – feel free to explore all 4 posts on the subject.) That’s why there are rules as the Whistleblower Act – protecting those who want to denounce wrong-doing of the State without wronging the State, without wronging the People. That’s why we have Democratic Constitutions that rule the ways to ensure Freedom. That’s why we have Ethics and Education and History Books. And why we should take care of them.
Keep up the fight, fellow knights. The old year is behind us, a new year is beginning. The war is still uncertain. Only our future actions will really count. Happy New Year everyone. See you around the next campfire.