Friday, June 06, 2008

Anti-Authoritarianism in *Watchmen*

These are some notes for my Watchmen paper. This stuff will go in section IV of the outline I sketched here.

For all the nifty things that Watchmen has to say about consequentialism and deontology, these topics are clearly not what is dearest to Alan Moore's heart. Moore's deepest concern is obviously expressed in the aphorism "Who watches the watchmen?" which gives the comic its name and appears in fragmentary form throughout the book. There is a lot of heavy philosophy and important politics packed into this aphorism, though, so we need to look at it closely.

The full quotation does not appear until the very end of the book, and it does so in a weird way. Moore gives the original source for the line, Juvenal's Satires, but then mentions that it is quoted as the epigraph of the Tower Commission Report. This is a detail many would pass over, if only because the work of the Tower Commission and the scandal it investigated occurred before many readers of Watchmen were even born. You might think the this obscure bit of 80s history only appears because Moore was reading the newspapers, rather than Latin poetry. You would be wrong.

The Tower Commission was established by President Reagan to investigate the Iran-Contra affair. The affair was a strange scheme in which members of the Reagan administration secretly and illegally provided arms and funding to two military groups with totalitarian impulses and appalling human rights records: the theocratic government of Iran and a guerrilla army known as the Contras which sought to overthrow the Nicaraguan Sandinista socialist government. The scheme was complicated, and the motivations of the players was sometimes unclear, given that the groups the administration was arming were doing things that were actively opposed to US interests, such as dealing drugs and taking Americans hostage. The bottom line, though, was that administration officials were trying to circumvent our democracy by running a secret government apparatus that worked against the stated policies of the United States.

The Iran-Contra affair does not occur in the world of Watchmen. It was also an echo of another affair that does not occur in Watchmen, Watergate. Watergate, like Iran-Contra, was an elaborate scheme to circumvent democracy and centralize power in the president's office. Indeed, the two scandals, along with the current scandal about faked intelligence leading up to the Iraq war, involve overlapping sets of players. These scandals do not happen in the world of Watchmen because Nixon gets away with it. The book implies that The Comedian assassinated Woodward and Bernstein, the journalists who uncovered the Watergate scandal. It also hints that the Comedian, perhaps working with Nixon, assassinated Kennedy in this version of history. Secret dealings like these, combined with the superhero-aided victory in Viet Nam, allows Nixon to consolidate extraordinary power, changing the constitution to allow him to serve five terms.

Moore's alternate history is a warning about how a democracy can collapse into authoritarianism. When he wrote Watchmen he had already offered one such warning in V for Vendetta. In that comic, he imaged England sliding into fascism after limited nuclear exchanges in Africa and the European continent followed by environmental and economic collapse. In the introduction to the first DC Comics release of V, Moore laments some of the simplistic mistakes he made in that book
Naiveté can also be detected in my supposition that it would take something as melodramatic as a near-miss nuclear conflict to nudge England toward Fascism...It is 1988 now. Margaret Thatcher is entering her third term of office and talking confidently about unbroken conservative leadership well into the next century...the tabloid press are circulating the idea of concentration camps for persons with AIDS. The new riot police wear black visors, as do their horses.
Moore was not satisfied with the picture of a decline of a democracy into authoritarianism in V, and Watchmen is in part a correction of this. The reference to the Tower Commission is not accidental, nor is the depiction of the Nixon administration that emphasizes shady characters like G. Gordon Liddy and Al Haig. It is all part of his picture of an authoritarian take over.

The pairing of Ozymandias and Rorschach--the liberal and the conservative, the consequentialist and the deontologist--is a crucial part of this picture, and one that keeps it from being a petty rant against some contemporary political figures. We see in these characters that anyone can be corrupted. Given Moore's politics, the corruption is most obvious with the right-wing Rorschach. As we have seen, despite his "never compromise" mantra, he easily makes exceptions for the powerful people he admires: The Comedian, Truman, Nixon. Although Ozymandias is opposed to the political movement Rorschach represents, he is just as much an authoritarian as they are. Ozymandias can say to himself that he is working to "usher in an age of illumination so dazzling that humanity will reject the darkness in its heart" (Chapter XII, page 17). But we know the first thing he thinks about when he sees his crazy scheme succeeded was his own glory:

(XII, 20)

And he immediately plans his new role in guiding the world to utopia, now that "all the countries are united and pacified," thus claiming for himself as much power as Nixon, whom he despised.

Ok, I'm going to break this off here and start writing from the beginning.


Anonymous said...

I'm currently writing a 20 page long paper on the historical context of Watchmen, and i can inform you that the Watergate scandal is infact represented in the universe of Watchmen. Woodward and Bernstein are both found murdered whilst investigating Watergate.

Anonymous said...

I'm currently writing a 20 page long paper on the historical context of Watchmen, and i can inform you that the Watergate scandal is infact represented in the universe of Watchmen. Woodward and Bernstein are both found murdered whilst investigating Watergate.
The Comedian talks about this during a banquet of some sort.