In a recent NPR piece TV critic Eric Deggans cites shows like "Hell on Wheels," Sons of Anarchy," "Dexter," and "Breaking Bad" as evidence of a proliferations of television programs featuring "characters the audience likes and wants to see succeed, even though they act an awful lot like villains."
Walter, the hero of "Breaking Bad," is a high school chemistry teacher who has to work in a car wash to support his cashed-strapped family as they expect a second child. His daily humiliation includes kneeling at the tires of a sport car while its owner, the same high school jock who mouths off in his class, orders him to wipe off another speck.
The uninsured Walter eventually hits the wall when he is diagnosed with lung cancer. Realizing the illness will bankrupt his family while leaving him dead, he joins forces with a former student and starts to cook and sell crystal meth. By the end of the second season Walter has murdered at least three people and taken on New Mexico's biggest drug lord, and we are rooting him on.
Dexter Morgan, the hero of the Showtime hit "Dexter," is, if anything, cut of even less ambiguously evil cloth. He is, if course, a serial killer. Even though he is charming, specializes in killing other serial killers, and has a soft spot for kids, his voiceover repeatedly acknowledges that the real motivation for his killings are his "urges," which he sometimes refers to as his "dark passenger."
In the movie "Limitless," a Bradley Cooper vehicle also starring Robert De Niro, Eddie, a bright but underachieving writer, takes a pill that unlocks his brain's full potential. By the end of the film Eddie has made millions, killed an innocent woman in a drug-induced haze, slaughtered a Russian mobster and his henchman in a blood-soaked rampage, and is on the verge of winning a seat in the US Senate. The presidency is around the corner and Eddie has even managed to use his hyper-intelligence to refine away the drug's more unfortunate side-effects of addiction and death—a move redolent of the always-outlawed first wish that we all know we'd present to the Genie of the lamp, the one for unlimited wishes.
Deggans calls these characters "a statement on our times," because, "in a world filled with war, recession and cynicism, straight-up heroes feel fake as a three-dollar bill. So the confused guy who does bad things for the right reasons just might be the best reflection of where we are today."
While it's debatable the extent to which these characters are motivated by "the right reason," I agree that the shows and films are a sign of the times. Specifically, they are the manifestation of an unconscious or not so unconscious revenge fantasy, one we could call the revenge of the middle class.
To begin with, all of these characters are decidedly middle class, if not already members of the underclass. This is in marked contrast to their creators, who by virtue of being successful Hollywood writers and show runners, are (at least by now) comfortably ensconced among the one percent.
The shows also usually feature a member of the one percent or 0.1 percent as a foil, nemesis, or object of envy. In "Limitless" this character, portrayed by De Niro, is a top hedge fund manager; in "Breaking Bad" it is a sympathetic former partner who founded a successful company; and in "Dexter," normally devoid of non-middle class characters, the fifth season featured a mega-rich self-help guru as its super villain.
When we are confronted on a daily basis with real-life stories of billionaires routing the economy and getting tax-payer subsidized bonuses as their punishment, who wouldn't be tempted to identify with a fictional common man who breaks all the rules to get his own, especially if a few billionaires get their comeuppance in the process?
No doubt this much is true, and no doubt it accounts in part for the shows' and films' appeal, as well as for the audiences' willingness to root for characters who in better times would have been maligned for their poor choices and weak moral character.
But if the revenge fantasy of the middle class is an effective explanation for this trend, that fact alone provokes a second, more penetrating question of the adequacy of this fantasy and its cultural expression as a political response. How, in other words, do we evaluate such fantasy scenarios in light of the emergence of real political movements, from the tea party to the occupy movement, or as compared to other possible or real responses?
Deggans writes that these characters do "bad things for the right reasons," and that we feel justified in rooting for them because there are other characters that are just that much more repugnant. This statement suggests that the shows are presenting us with an ethical argument. As a matter of fact, the philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that an action could be considered ethical even if it produced bad results, as long as it was done for the right reason. The drug lord Gustavo in "Breaking Bad" enunciates an apparent ethical maxim along these lines when he tells Walter, "a man must provide for his family."
But Jjustifying murder and mayhem, cheating and lying, the selling dangerous and addictive substances, on the implicit claim that others are doing it and that I have a good reason for it can only signify the breakdown of ethics, not an actual ethical choice. While it is certainly good to provide for ones family, Gustavo's real motivation is for Walter to cook his heavenly meth.
Kant argued that true ethical action required the agent to evacuate all personal interest; indeed, for Kant, the only trustworthy indicator of whether an action is ethical would be if the agent were acting against his own interests. He wrote, for instance, that while many of us would bear false witness in order to save our own necks, we would all at least pause to consider what we were doing. This pause was evidence for Kant of that aspect of our being that inspired in him the greatest awe: the moral law within. His point was that self-interest is not the most fundamental motivator of human action; that etched into our deepest being is a freedom from the tyranny of both conformity and self-interest.
There is, despite implicit and at times explicit claims to the contrary, no ethical basis for the middle class revenge fantasies portrayed in these shows and films. While eminently enjoyable (I have to admit to having devoured both "Dexter" and "Breaking Bad" on Netflix) ultimately they constitutes a self-indulgent response by the gilded class to an economic reality that continues to benefit them. The fantasy is unethical because it passes the buck on personal responsibility. Its message is "you in the 99% would be doing this too, if only you could."
And to the extent that we identify with these characters, we should probably grant that, at some level, the message contains some truth. A part of our nature, and not its better angels, would like to flout law and convention in the service of our own enrichment.
So what might an ethical politics of resistance to the dominance of entrenched elites look like? The field becomes much more restricted, of course, since perfectly adequate responses could be in conformity with an ethical position while still being self-interested, and hence merely neutral in ethical terms. A Wall Street occupier who is unemployed would, from a Kantian perspective, be entirely justified in taking action without deserving the awe that accompanies a truly ethical motivation, whereas a gainfully employed member of the one percent who left his job in protest would be.
What about other cases of action in apparent violation of self-interest? What about Thomas Frank's famous argument from What's the Matter with Kansas? that the Republican party manipulates voters with wedge issues to vote against their economic self-interest? To paraphrase his memorable formulation, values voters were so enraged at seeing Madonna French-kiss Brittany Spears that they voted to give both of them a huge tax cut.
My sense is that Frank got this one right. Middle and lower class whites, in particular men, who vote overwhelmingly Republican, are not doing so because they want to bequeath the upper one percent a better life style. To establish that kind of altruism you'd have to ask those voters if it is their express intent to make wealthy people wealthier, even if their own quality of life may decrease as a result. My guess is they'd say no. What polling has shown is that 19% of Americans believe they are in the top one percent, and another 20% think they'll get there some day. In contrast, Warren Buffet went to some effort to draw attention to the tax laws that benefit him and his billionaire friends, and has been trying to get them changed to his (at least short-term) economic detriment.
None of this is to say that movements of social and economic resistance cannot or should not be self-interested. Where would the gay rights, feminist, civil, or workers movements be without the passion, eloquence, and perseverance of gays, women, African Americans, and workers who have made profound sacrifices in their own and others' interests. But for change to solidify, for a racist or homophobic society to come to a point where a majority of its citizens no longer believe that whites are superior or gays are sick, that requires at least a few turncoats, people who turn on their group or tradition in order to embrace the future, to embrace a better idea of what it means to be human.
Finding discourses that help effectuate that change is a natural goal for activists. As we have seen, slogans like "we are the 99%" can have a mobilizing impact. In a truth-neutral media landscape like ours, so can slogans like "keep your government hands off my Medicare." The entertainment industry, with its awesome reach, has the power to do real harm or good. Entertainment programming from Fox News to 24 to the majority of reality TV shows prey on ignorance, fears, and prejudices to breed more of the same. Some programming fights back in a media-critical vein, such as "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report," and others do so in more subtle ways. As an example of the latter I would cite HBO's True Blood as a metaphor for the anxiety provoked by the normalization of gay life in America, or Big Love for its at times disturbing explorations of the nexus between politics and family values. As for the new antihero programs? No question about it, they're a lot of fun. Just don't forget that fantasizing only gets you so far.