Thu
Mar 5 2009 6:36pm
Rorschach Test

Watchmen is not a particularly political story.

While its central question of unchecked authority does concern the role of politicians and governments, it is really about all authority figures, from abusive or absent parents to a cold and distant God. To focus on the political angle misses most of the story.

Which is why I’m going to be disappointed (but not surprised) when I read the following headline some time next week:

REPUBLICANS CLAIM WATCHMEN A CALL FOR CONSERVATIVE HEROES IN AGE OF OBAMA.

I mean, I can make their argument for them: after a long period of conservative rule, a time fraught with international tension and economic depression, the beautiful, brilliant, and beloved Ozymandias quietly takes control of the world to bring about peace. Only Rorschach, the brave uncompromising hero, knows that the new peace is the result of deception and mass murder, and sets out to tell the world, even if it gets him killed. (Which it does.)

Now, replace Ozymandias with Obama and Rorschach with, I don’t know, Rush Limbaugh, and you have a fairly good picture of how conservatives see the world. Not that anyone is accusing Obama of killing three million people, but conservatives do argue that Obama basically tricked his way into the presidency with a meaningless slogan and public unrest in the wake of Katrina and the Iraq War, and that his hidden agenda will actually hurt America and world. And they argue that vigilant patriots have to expose Obama’s lies and oppose Obama at every turn. “No compromise,” as Rorschach says, “even in the face of Armageddon.”

But Watchmen never suggests this is actually the correct response. Yes, Ozymandias is a “liberal” Machiavelli, a vegetarian, Hunger-in-Africa fighting do-gooder who markets his public image while secretly killing innocent people left and right to get his way. But his “conservative” opponent, Rorschach, is also a murderer and no role model at all.

Rorschach is a paranoid homeless man, living off uncooked beans and sugar cubes. His brutally violent vigilantism isn’t about keeping people safe. It’s about acting out the revenge fantasies from his abusive childhood, hurting people to give himself some sense of justice. But it’s not enough, and the more he fights crime, the more he sees just how depraved humanity can be, and the more violent he gets. He has no solution on how to save the world; he knows only that Ozymandias’ method is not worth the cost.

And as bad as Rorschach is, the Comedian is worse. At least Rorschach has a philosophical belief system (a hardcore Objectivism that’s an homage/satire of Steve Ditko). The Comedian is an utter nihilist who rapes and murders his way through life because he’s certain nuclear annihilation is around the corner and nothing matters. And it is only the Comedian who is  identified as a Republican, as Nixon’s right hand man in everything from combat in Vietnam to killing Woodward and Bernstein to cover up Watergate.

Which is not to say that Watchmen is liberal either. If anything, Watchmen is critical of everyone who claims to protect people by making decisions for them. Whether it’s Nite Owl, who fights crime to make himself feel powerful, or Silk Spectre, who wears a costume to rebel against and celebrate her mother, or Dr. Manhattan, who is so powerful he doesn’t even remember what it’s like to be human, there is no “hero” there who truly wants to make the world a better place.

Watchmen is not “liberal” or “conservative” so much as it is nihilistic. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons asked “Who watches the watchmen?” and answered “No one.”

16 comments
Geoffrey Allan Plauche
1. Geoffrey Allan Plauche
"Rorschach is a paranoid homeless man," During the course of the graphic novel, Rorschach has an apartment, albeit a disgusting one.
Geoffrey Allan Plauche
2. Capper
Suggesting that what you have written is "a fairly good picture of how conservatives see the world" is not only hopelessly wrong but also deeply offensive to me, as a conservative. Your imagined conjecture of what Republicans or conservatives (the two are not the same) might believe or say strongly suggests that you are neither, so perhaps it would better if you did not try to speak for someone else. While people of any political persuasion will look for elements supporting their beliefs in any mass media offering, no Republican or conservative will be triumphing a movie like Watchmen, which contains substantial amounts of graphic violence and graphic sex. There may be positive reviews, but no one will be making any broad, sweeping claims like the ones you are imagining.
Geoffrey Allan Plauche
3. UlandK
Well, I'm a Conservative too, but I don't think any/all depictions of sex or violence are essentially wrong. That said, I largely agree that Mr. Padnicks' approximation of how those silly Republicans think is off base.
Also, if I remember correctly, Rorschach is shown buying the far-right newspaper, and, clearly he's an Objectivist ( i.e Republican). It's Moore's association of Objectivism with some kind near-insanity that really irks me. I'm not able to take him seriously if he's going to stack the deck in such a way.
Padnick is right that Watchmen is not some sort of dierctly ideological work, and more of an exploration, but I feel he needs to back up his nihilist claim a bit.
Bridget McGovern
4. BMcGovern
Interesting...I don't necessarily agree that Watchmen is nihilistic (although I can how the argument works), but I agree with the basic argument here. One of the more brilliant aspects of the comic is that it presents a spectrum of political, ethical, and philosophical beliefs and sides with none of them. It presents an endgame with no satisfying solution--or, rather, a horrific, morally repellent solution--which I've always read in light of Alan Moore's well-documented anarchist sensibilities.

Anarchism and nihilism are not necessarily equatable. The comic encompasses a nihilistic perspective, certainly, but that doesn't mean that Moore and Gibbons subscribe to it, anymore than they do Rorschach's paranoid, conservative worldview or Veidt's classically-infused, Machiavellian liberalism. I think that part of the reason that this movie, and Moore's work in general, can be easily misconstrued by politically-minded interpreters is that his Anarchist stance is either ignored, or not taken seriously. Going back to the source, though, the question of "Who watches the watchmen?" is meant as a call to action, addressed directly to an individual sense of personal responsibility. To reduce it to merely political statement, as this post points out, misses the point entirely.
Geoffrey Allan Plauche
5. Nick Mamatas
Rorschach isn't a paranoid. He trusts Nite Owl, for example, though there is some friction in the relationship. Paranoia isn't compartmentalized.

Further, Rorschach is correct in his deductions across most of the book, to the extent that he can be based on the information he has at hand...and the superwackiness of a teleporting psychic fake-space squid...who could predict that, after all?

He's not clean like Ozzy or friendly like Nite Owl or able to demonstrate emotions like the underdeveloped Silk Spectre, but that doesn't mean he's not right.

He's an obsessive, not a paranoid.
Julian Hall
6. Jules
Your imagined conjecture of what Republicans or conservatives (the two are not the same) might believe or say strongly suggests that you are neither, so perhaps it would better if you did not try to speak for someone else


Not speaking for Steven here, but what I think he meant you to read by what he said is something more along the lines of: "there exists a certain segment of conservative Republicans who I anticipate will say something like this...". And I'm pretty sure he's right. There are plenty of Republicans who think like this, and I think enough of them have no objection to graphic violence and/or sexual scenes that they will have no trouble identifying with the film. Conservatism isn't a homogenous movement of people who all think in exactly the same way, and just because you wouldn't think like this doesn't mean nobody would.

Rorschach is shown buying the far-right newspaper, and, clearly he's an Objectivist ( i.e Republican). It's Moore's association of Objectivism with some kind near-insanity that really irks me.


Not sure I follow that. There's plenty of difference between the philosophy of Objectivism and the political reality of being a Republican. And, while I don't wish to cast aspersions on Objectivists in general, I can see how the philosophy would appeal to those suffering certain mental illnesses. (N.b., I'm not implying at all that all or even most Objectivists suffer from such illnesses: think, instead, of how sufferers of autism spectrum disorders are often drawn to computer programming as a profession; it says nothing about other computer programmers).
Geoffrey Allan Plauche
7. Paul C Glenn
Out of courtesy to those who haven't seen the film or read the book, you might post a spoiler warning at the top of your piece. You not only give away the central mystery in your opening paragraphs, you also spoil one of the most shocking and powerful moments of the climax. Not cool.
Torie Atkinson
8. Torie
@ 7 Paul

If you got here from the front page, you had to click on "Huge spoilers below the fold" to see the full article.
Steven Padnick
9. padnick
Nick, Rorschach is in fact paranoid: he "distrusts others, sometimes to delusional proportions, and believes that certain individuals, or people in general, are "out to get him.""

Also he's wrong, for most of the book, in a particularly paranoid fashion. He believes the Comedian was killed by a "mask killer," someone targeting superheroes, assuming one crime means a threat against himself. Rorschach sticks to this theory through issue 10, despite being given a huge clue in issue 2, that the Comedian saw something on an island that shook him to the core. Rorschach never follows up on that. Ozymandias even exploits Rorschach's paranoid theory by staging his own assassination attempt, giving himself an alibi.

Yes, Rorschach apologizes to Nite Owl, but that's a huge moment for him, stepping away from his paranoid life and trying to be human. But before that, Rorschach knew Nite Owl for twenty years and never told him his real name, or showed him his real face; all while breaking into his home and eating his sugar. That's not trust.
Geoffrey Allan Plauche
10. Paul C. Glenn
@ 8 Torie

Thanks, Torie. I did not get here from the front page. A direct link to this article was posted in another forum, and I imagine that's how most people would refer friends to the piece. Just a heads-up.
Geoffrey Allan Plauche
11. UlandK
First,I'm not an Objectivist- and you're right, Jules, that Objectivists aren't Classical Conservatives. I've never met one who doesn't vote republican, however.
I think it's safe to say that Rorschach is a Rightist.
If anything, I think a Republican who identifies with Rorschach is appealing to that base Conservatism that values Law and Order, especially when confronted with what seems like all out moral relativism, something Objectivists and Conservatives clearly share. Vigilante type groups seem to always be Rightists, from the Minutemen to the Guardian Angels. And, certainly in popular culture, figures like Dirty Harry appeal in the same way.
I think Nick is smart to point out that while Rorschach is a very damaged guy, he's not "paranoid" , or "insane" in the sense that he's lost touch with reality. It's almost as though his Objectivism is what's stopping him from going completely insane; It's a clear system of rules that allows him to approach reality in a way he can deal with. I haven't read Watchmen for a number of years and haven't seen the film yet ( If I do see it, that is.), so I could be off base, but I do feel like applying the exaggerated or extreme psychological motives for Rorschach's world-view is a way of avoiding the issue. If it's meant as a critique of Rightist thinking, anyhow. And I think it is, to a certain extent. 'Why do they take on such a black and white view of things?'- "Their Mothers didn't love them, they have a subconscious desire to be punished, they need revenge on the world.' etc., etc.,.
-Meanwhile questions about Law and Order, Crime and Punishment have been the topic of debate amongst philosophers, political philosophers, etc., for thousands of years. Just like the sort of machiavellian approach to power has been, or the soft-shoe pragmatism of a Nite Owl, or the all-out materialism of Dr. M.
But yes, Watchmen is great because it pushes these modern world-views to their logical breaking point; None of them can sustain us in a meaningful way, I think he's saying. Anarchism? - Maybe, but these issues don't go away even if Anarchism were to take root.
Geoffrey Allan Plauche
12. Nick Mamatas
Paranoia is a mental disorder—one of the hallmarks is that it is arbitrary. When one is actually a paranoid, one sees enemies everywhere. Rorschach would not have gone to Nite Owl were he a paranoid. More likely he would have suspected Nite Owl of being the killer, precisely because they were close at one point

And indeed, there IS a mask killer: Ozymandias. He kills the Comedian, frames Rorschach, and attempts to kill Dr. Manhattan (after first attempting to neutralize him with the cancer scare). Ozy is getting rid of the people who are in his way. This is, not to put too fine a point on it, the entire motor of the plot. That Ozy didn't manage to kill anyone else has more to do with the small number of characters in the book and the fact that Rorschach catches on right away that something is up more than anything else.
Dayle McClintock
13. trinityvixen
@12: Really? You think Ozymandias intended more people to die than he allotted for? I don't see that as being part of his plan. I don't see that Rorschach stopped anything or made Ozymandias retreat an inch from his plan. His plan was constructed to keep everyone in the dark until it was too late to stop what he was doing. The only hiccup was the Comedian. The Comedian (and, as a result of looking into his death, Rorschach). Those were two extra deaths that he hadn't necessarily wanted to cause, not stumbling blocks to the carnage he still wanted to unleash.

It's a funny claim to make--Ozymandias being interrupted while trying to kill more people--because the whole point of his killing anyone in the first place is to stop killing. (Alan Moore loves hypocrites.) The idea is to get the superpowers to stop throwing lives away to pointless wars and to unite. One last purge of deaths, and the world can do that, or so goes Ozymandias' thinking. Killing more people after that would rather defeat his entire purpose. (That's why he had to kill all those who wouldn't keep quiet--to be sure he wouldn't have to worry about their knowledge spreading and leading to more people who were liabilities. If anything, Ozymandias was quite dedicated to keeping the body count limited.)
Geoffrey Allan Plauche
14. UlandK
Related article on Reason.com :

http://www.reason.com/news/show/132100.html
Kevin Maroney
16. womzilla
Sorry for the very late followup--just came across this as I was looking for Jo Walton's "Ozymandias" poem from 2002....

Nick Mamatas said,

And indeed, there IS a mask killer: Ozymandias.

But there wasn't until Rorschach said there was! Yes, Veidt killed the Comedian and drove Dr. Manhattan into exile, but there's no evidence that had any particular interest in the other "masks" until Rorschach presented the theory to him. You can see the gears turning in Veidt's head during their meeting in his office; I think his entire project to inprison Rorschach and fake his own assassination attempt sprang into being at that moment.

(If he'd wanted the masks dead, he could have killed Dan easily and probably Laurie the instant Jon took off for Mars.)
Geoffrey Allan Plauche
17. Near
It's expected but weird/stupid of republicans to see a metaphor for the President being terrible in a piece that was written decades before he was President, and probably written before he was a politician. To me, if there's any real protagonist to Watchman, in the typical sense, it's Veidt, though he's the hero in a horrible way, enacting terrible things to fulfill a very noble goal. In the movie, he seems more callous to it, but in the original comic, Adrian shows a lot more awareness that he's selling his soul and beliefs to make a real change in the world. He's a casualty of his plans as much as anyone else.

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