Cinema, Must Reads, Recommended

Fear of a White Joker: When Did the Left Stop Caring About Crime’s Root Causes?

Todd Phillips’s Joker is one of the most culturally significant films in recent memory. It has been praised and attacked with a fervency that is rarely inspired by the mainstream fruits of Hollywood. Indeed, it is difficult to think of a modern blockbuster that has generated such attention and concern. Virtually every major media outlet has published some extended commentary on the work, whether it be a film review of the standard format (which are now rare) or an impassioned op-ed delineating how the film is either the cause or consequence of some terrible social phenomenon. Inevitably, the word “Trump” appears early and often.

The film tells the origin story of the Joker, a prominent supervillain in the Batman fictional universe. It traces the tale of a failed comedian named Arthur Fleck who, afflicted by bullying and mental instability, turns to a life of crime and sadism. To progressive members of the literati, the phenomenon of interest is the omnipresent sociopathy of the white male, in all its sexual repression, social ostracization and malignant cruelty. Though nearly identical attitudes are easily found at Vice, CNN and numerous other outlets, Richard Lawson’s take in Vanity Fair exemplifies the perspective most forcefully:

For so many tragic reasons, the American imagination has of late been preoccupied with the motivations of disaffected white men who’ve turned violent—a nation (or part of one) trying to diagnose and explain them, one mass killing after another. Whether that violence is born of mental illness, isolation, the culminated rage of masculine identity, or all those bound together in some hideous knot, we seem certain that there is some salvable cause. That’s a complexity of causality that many Americans don’t extend to non-white men who commit heinous crimes; there, the thinking seems to be, the evil is far more easily identifiable.

At the risk of sounding like the sort of critical theorist who would spout such sentiments, “there’s a lot to unpack here.” Most importantly, it is unclear why any of us should not endeavour to understand the motivations of disaffected white men (or any kind of men—for it’s not clear why Fleck’s character could not, with some small plot changes, be of any ethnic background imaginable) who end up committing acts of violence. The key to reducing violence amongst any demographic is in ascertaining the specific attributes of violent individuals. Skin colour is a crude and categorically ineffective indicator in this respect. Indeed, generations of progressives have properly argued this truth, typically in the face of racists who have alleged some particularly malign criminogenic trait at play in the minds of blacks, Hispanics, Asians, “Orientals,” Muslims or Jews.

The use of a phrase such as “hideous knot” suggests that Lawson has no interest in understanding mental illness, isolation or “the culminated rage of masculine identity” (whatever that is), and that he would prefer to imagine all of these as simply being ingredients in some disgusting stew of human malignancy that is more properly called “evil.” His real complaint about the film is that, by prompting curiosity in regard to why people do bad things, it might distract audience members from the simple, morally urgent task of denouncing men such as Arthur Fleck in a purely normative manner, as a priest denounces sin.

Lawson goes on:

But those angry loners—the ones who shoot up schools and concerts and churches, who gun down the women and men they covet and envy, who let loose some spirit of anarchic animus upon the world—there’s almost a woebegone mythos placed on them in the search for answers.

Of course, some of the people interested in this sort of “woebegone mythos” include lifelong students of psychology, neuroscience and criminology—subjects that (don’t tell Lawson!) they still teach in schools. Yet even so, Lawson is a gifted writer. And it is worth understanding why Joker makes him feel uncomfortable. The spectacle of so many prominent writers demanding that we suppress our understanding of criminal violence, rather than nourish it, represents, at the very least, a terrible waste of journalistic talent.

Imagine if a different attitude were taken. Joker forces the viewer to undergo a rare inversion of perspective—an uneasy blurring of lines between hero and villain that seriously threatens to subvert popular notions of responsibility. Fleck (played by Joaquin Phoenix) demands sympathy. (This is the fact that upsets Lawson.) As his backstory is developed, and as he is revealed to be the unlucky inheritor of an absolutely terrible deck of cards—genetically, environmentally and socioeconomically—Fleck’s descent into erratic, violent behaviour becomes easier to understand and accept. He is somebody who, through no real fault of his own, is pushed to the breaking point. This is the sort of instructive lesson in “root causes” that progressive advocates of criminal-justice reform have properly emphasized for generations.

To view the Joker’s behaviour as evil, full stop, is natural: From early in life, fairy tales teach us to divide the world into good and bad. But Lawson is not a child, and Vanity Fair isn’t a book of fairy tales. A grown adult should be able to denounce criminal violence while recognizing that the personal characteristics that cause antisocial behaviour are not elected at birth, nor (typically) elected at any point thereafter. In a tale for children, such as the Harry Potter stories, we instinctively view the perpetrator of evil (Voldemort) as depraved rather than despairing. But again, Joker is a movie for adults. And so it is incumbent on adult viewers—especially those who present as professional critics—to push their reflex beyond the level of pointing at the screen and saying “bad man.”

Many books and movies with action themes provide at least some glancing reference to the villain’s back story. But Joker goes much further: It portrays Fleck’s background in painstaking detail. The film chronicles the life of a man pushed by the cold, heartless universe to do things that any normal person would see as unequivocally evil. When the totality of his experiences is presented, it becomes more difficult to authoritatively condemn him. At root, our conflicted response gets to the heart of the age-old philosophical question of whether free will, good and evil can even exist in a deterministic universe. None of this has anything to do with race, except in the mind of a person who walks into a movie theater already obsessed with the question of skin colour.

None of this is entirely new. Fyodor Dostoyevsky challenged Christian morality with his nuanced presentation of such themes in Crime and Punishment over 150 years ago. But film, especially good film, is a more accessible, intense and haunting medium, and therefore its impact on the world is much more decisive. Moreover, the Lawsons of the world know it to be more accessible, intense and haunting, and so tend to become fearful and agitated at the thought that a popular movie might further the spread of heterodox thinking. It is the same sort of moral panic that inflamed Christian culture critics who found themselves horrified by the contents of heavy-metal music lyrics.

Fifty years ago, the place of Lawson would have been taken up by a conservative who worried that a sympathetic portrayal of a black man who lapsed into criminality might subvert the public appetite for law-and-order policies. Both types of moralists—progressive and conservative alike—hinder our pursuit of policies that are utilitarian, and which encourage us to supplant our instinct for retribution and cosmic justice with a concern for public safety and a commitment to address the roots of criminality (including poverty, trauma, addiction and mental health). This is the path toward a more humane and safe society. And writers such as Lawson would realize that if their moral understanding of the world ever escapes the Manichean universe of black and white.


Samuel Forster is a Canadian essayist, and the Editor-In-Chief of Banter Magazine. He has degrees in criminology and psychology from the University of Alberta and the University of Toronto. He is an incoming PhD student and Wakefield Scholar at the University of Cambridge, where his subject of study is neuroexistential penology.


  1. What is it with American commentators who want to find the deepest profundity in the simplest lower-middlebrow cultural artifacts? Is there some course in American colleges where you are tagut to try and make meaning out the most banal or starightforward texts, films, etc?
    I suspect the pontificators who use the tools of literary criticism to find meaning in popular culture must feel it’s worth doing it. But really, when all it ever amounts to is ‘‘Orange man bad’’ and/or ‘‘conservatism evil’’, I don’t see how we can believe that these critics are indulging in criticism so much as poncy political commentary.
    It must be hard when so little new high culture is produced any more for people to use all those tools they acquired. Nevertheless, I think little purpose is served tryin to ‘‘big-up’’ minor works of pop culture into something else in the name of politics. It’s like using the finest artist’s oil paints to paint a sign saying ‘‘Men’’ to be hung outside a public lavatory.

  2. @PeterfromOZ
    “ Maybe they need to consider that it’s time to start taking things with a bit of more old-fashioned British-style irony:“
    Actually I believe it is more a matter of misconception. Around the world the U.S. is primarily represented by the east and west coasts. Yet there is a great wide middle, considered fly over country by the elites. People in middle America tend to be more grounded and can separate the wheat from the chaff. Actually that’s a generality too. There are well grounded people in NY and California too, only they are more drowned out by the glitterati and the pretentious elitist snobs than their middle American brethren.

  3. You’re being too harsh on the artistic capacity of modern films @PeterfromOZ and @Farris. (Although, full disclosure, I did take I think two college courses in interpreting modern film and television, and got a good amount of that in high school as well, so perhaps you could say I’m infected by a failing in the educational system.)

    Why should a Shakespearean play or a novel be capable of carrying a valuable message, but not a television show or a movie? Each piece should be judged on its merits. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but in film, where you have 1.5 hours to deliver a message, filmmakers who want to do so have to be very deliberate with it, and make use of every frame. Some movies might be more focused on getting a laugh or showing off special effects, but there are those that seek to address deeper themes, and there is no basis for dismissing them simply on the basis of their medium.

  4. It was a very good movie, and ultimately a believable one. It deals with major themes as well as any good novel or play. It’s clear that the regressive left hate the movie because it puts the lie to all their cherished dogmas, especially white privilege. They have built an industry on hating white people, and the fact they feel threatened by a movie exposes them further.

    Without going into spoilers, I particularly appreciated how the theme touched on aspects of media control of language and humour. The director himself has said that part of the reason for going from comedies to this is that you can’t do a good comedy with today’s culture of automatic offense taking.

  5. Lol, here is your lack of understanding of social class in America, re our discussion in the other thread.

    It’s not about high or low culture.It’s about using a medium to propagandize. The superhero medium is actually a very powerful weapon as it’s extremely popular. Hence, Black Panther, which on one level was a rather by-the-numbers decent superhero movie, functioned primarily as propaganda to convey Black empowerment and anti-white-European-imperialism.

    A blockbuster movie, they have realized, functions as an excellent propaganda tool for the masses, at least they believe it does. Again, we don’t see things as ‘highbrow’ and ‘lowbrow.’ The main thing is each person gets a vote, and the lowbrows votes count just as equally as the highbrows’.

    The reason the intellectual class and the media moved almost unanimously to attack The Joker is because its ‘message’ runs counter to the ones they adhere to. Here we have a mentally ill white man who uses illegal guns to kill, and we are supposed to feel sorry for him. This runs directly counter to their narrative that a) mental illness is not the cause of violence; guns are and b) gun laws will solve the problem. It also feeds into their narrative that white men are pathologically violent and all it takes is a movie to trigger them into murderous rage.

    This is why they moved so unanimously against the movie. It has nothing to do with art. ALthough on a separate level, the movie was quite well made. I wouldn’t regard it as ‘lowbrow’ (I don’t know anyone who uses that term here btw) so much as using a popular medium to express truths about the human condition, and doing it well.

  6. Good point. It was also most definitely a high brow movie, in comparison to the rest of Hollywood productions of the last decade.

    In fact, Joker is an example of what used to be considered the most classic high brow art form, namely Greek tragedy. It fits exactly the theme of how events and forces around a character that lead them to their downfall.

  7. No way. Don’t be ridiculous. The courses start in high school, if not earlier.

  8. why is a comic automatically low-brow? the ideas might be simple or even childish at first glance. but i think that the complexity that can come with exploring these simplistic themes and how they interact with the complexities of real life can be interesting - okay, he’s a crazy clown. but how did he become that way? is it possible for anyone to slip down the icy slope of despair into a pit of hatred?

    comic books are the mythologies of our time. instead of Achilles or Hercules, we have Spiderman and Batman to inspire us to greater deeds against the evils of the Joker or Venom. remember that other post? they are “reflections of the psyche”.

  9. “Which group voted overwhelmingly for a billionaire TV star with no experience in politics, government, the military or management of large numbers of people?”

    Or said another way some voted for:

    near-record-low unemployment, a record number of Americans working, increases in workers’ wages and family incomes, low interest rates, low inflation, steady GDP growth and a strong stock market.

  10. Prigs, elitist snobs v. Deplorables, racist, homophobes, Nazis, fascists, white supremists, ect…

    I never questioned the humanity or moral compass of anyone anywhere. I believe you are preaching to the wrong person. I do not believe all good reside in red areas and all bad in blue areas. All areas have an equal share of both. However I stand by my assertion if all one knows of the U.S. is Southern California and New York City, their view is going to be skewed.

  11. Outside of the fever swamp of woke-ness at our major newspapers I don’t think anyone “fears” the white incel mass shooter because compared to the mayhem committed on our nations streets daily these killings are rare and statistically insignificant.

    We don’t like to reflect much on the root causes violent crime in America because to do so would force us to internalize some very hard truths; if we were to exclude the statistics from one significant and easily identifiable demographic the crime statistics in America would look like those of Switzerland. In a crazy sleight of hand, the U.S department of Justice lumps Hispanic and “white” perpetrators into the same ethnic group. This is how the Parkland Florida shooter can be classified as “white”. There is a Parkland like death tool in Chicago every weekend in the summer. It is not the Joker-esque crazy white boy who has made Philidelphia, Baltimore, New Orleans, Memphis, Wilmington Delaware, or Oakland California uninhabitable.

    African-Americans makes up about 13 percent of the U.S population, 6 and half percent are male, and about half of those are in the 15 to 50 year old group that are most likely to be criminals. This approximately 3 percent of the population commits 50 percent of the nation’s homicides, 60 percent of the nation’s rapes and robberies.

    The Joker movie is just a movie. The Joker was a comic book villain.

  12. Well said, Ted.
    When I contemplate these people I always think of a smart-arsed child, who wants to deny reality just because he doesn’t like the fact that reality doesn’t make him the centre of attention.
    So many ‘‘progressives’’ now want to be ‘‘cool’’ and thus deny the truth that the white, bourgoise lifestyle is far better for a people and society than multi-culti bohemianism/libertinism.
    The ironies and paradoxes just keep building up with these people. They all want to be different but end up being all the same as each other. They want their faux-bomenianism to be mainstream, not realising that as soon as something becomes mainstream it ceases to be bohemian. They want to be individuals, but instead invest all their energies into seeing everything through the lens of group identity, including themselves.
    Is their anything more pathetic than someone who invests everything in their ‘‘identity’’ as a black, a poof or a tranny? Why do such people focus on the least interesting thing about themselves? I surmise that because underneath it all, these people are shallow fools of little interest.

  13. Nothing like a leftist hatefest to motivate the husband and I to part with our money. The Joker movie was fantastic! It’s interesting to wonder why leftists hated it so much. You’d think they would be sympathetic towards the downtrodden working class that suffer from ever-greater inequality and cuts to social services, and rise up to kill the rich. With the Antifa-like mobs and the smell of revolution in the air, you think they’d be thrilled.

    Some thoughts on why they hate it (spoiler alert):

    The Joker is white. For people who see everything through the lens of race, a white criminal gets slotted into the “incel” category even though that really isn’t the Joker’s problem. Reading some of what the leftists have written about the film, many simply didn’t understand it. They probably failed their film interpretation courses in college!

    The mob consists of clowns, which the left hates now thanks to the clown world meme. The same scenes except with Guy Fawkes masks might have gotten a different reaction. The “honk honk” we get in one scene was probably triggering to the Twitteratti. The Joker’s repeated statement that things are getting crazy out there, and his explanation that his life isn’t a tragedy, but rather a comedy, mirrors the clown world meme’s message that the West’s cultural norms have been so twisted that it can only be a described as a farce. The convergence in symbolism and explicit messaging between the Joker and clown world is hard to miss.

    Talking about mental illness and social ostracism as a motivator for attention-getting public killings detracts from their preferred narrative about guns. Seeing everything that went on in the Joker’s life behind the scenes paints too vivid a picture of what life is often like for the perpetrators of public mass shootings, who very often showed explicit signs that they were about to do something horrible but were not helped by the people around them. The Joker’s mental problems originating from his abusive single mother is another parallel with the vast majority of mass shooters, a fact that makes the left very uncomfortable.

    But I think the biggest reason is that the rich the Joker mob want to kill aren’t primarily greedy capitalists, but entitled elitists who look down on normal people. One eventual victim is on TV insulting the protesters, all but calling them deplorables. The other prominent victim is a late night TV host. Reading what some leftists wrote about the movie, saying it appeals to losers and incels like the Joker, it seems clear that these leftists are exactly the kind of people the mob has had enough of being humiliated by.

  14. I’m not quite sure you understand-- for the left, art is not art. By which I mean “art” as Tolstoy put it (something like), “That thing that can be expressed best by itself.” In other words if your art needs a slogan to be interpreted or is beating you over the head with a message no one disagrees with, eg “racism is bad”, then it is not art, but propaganda or an old fashioned morality play. Speaking broadly, art should be a means to express the human condition in all its glorious messy complexity by making order out of chaos.

    The leftists dont beleive this. They firmly believe art is propaganda and idiotic propaganda at that. Film schools increasingly churn out critics who are trained to view art entirely through the lens of boxes checked-- diverse? Check; strong women, check; and so on
    When it does this, no matter how awful or idiotic it is, it’s Good. If it doesnt do this or, worse, runs counter to their narrative (as here) its Bad.

    They want to indoctrinate. That is their goal. Movies and TV are a great tool as they reach a wide audience. It is entirely irrelevant how well made or well.acted a movie is or how low or highbrow it is (to use your terms). Indeed if it is popular and reaches the masses it should be more of a morality play, not less. Look at the new star wars. (By the way, i think the Joker was a very well.made movie, not throw away at all. We dont have to agree on this but I’m wondering if you believe that the topic and genre defines high or lowbrow?)

    This is why they take it seriously. Medieval Catholics took morality plays very seriously too. As far as why they write the way they do-- because they.arent clear thinkers and value obfuscation and emotion over reason and clarity. Again think propaganda.

  15. In any other circumstances I would think you would be exaggerating, but you’re right. A critic from Time has given Joker a 1 star out of 5, whereas she gave the rebooted Ghostbusters (all strong black women) a 4 out of 5. Even allowing for some wiggle room of subjective preference, she can’t end up with scores like that unless she is pushing an agenda.

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