Philip Kennicott’s piece in today’s Washington post offers a far-fetched explanation of why the Obama/Joker posters are racist. Other writers have simply inferred racism from the color of the makeup, as though it were not dictated by the character juxtaposed with the President’s face. Kennicott tries to extrapolate racism by equating the Joker with racist fears of the inner city, even trying to use the anonymity of its author as evidence of racism.

After parroting some boilerplate Batman interpretations and offering a preposterous and self-serving analysis of the poster on aesthetic grounds, Kennicott blunders into outright inanity:

The Joker’s makeup in “Dark Knight” — the latest film in a long franchise that dramatizes fear of the urban world — emphasized the wounded nature of the villain, the sense that he was both a product and source of violence. Although Ledger was white, and the Joker is white, this equation of the wounded and the wounding mirrors basic racial typology in America. Urban blacks — the thinking goes — don’t just live in dangerous neighborhoods, they carry that danger with them like a virus.

Actually, “Dark Knight” mocks that idea that the Joker is the “product” of anything. Heath Ledger’s Joker tells conflicting stories about what made him who he is. He says whatever plays into the fears and sympathies of his victims, thereby robbing the audience of a determinate explanation of the Joker’s condition. And that’s just the point: There is no determinate explanation for the Joker’s condition. In “Dark Knight,” the Joker eschews rules, especially those rules that would be used to appropriate him into society. If the audience knew the Joker’s background, the audience would say, “Ah ha! That’s why he became that way.” Like Ron Howard’s misunderstood and mistreated Grinch, the Joker would become subject to our rules if we could explain his origins. Therefore, “Dark Knight” does not simply give the Joker no origin, it makes it impossible to even plausibly extrapolate an origin.

In fact, Kennicott’s usage of “racial typology” and the notions of the “wounded” and “wounding” to describe the Joker end up appropriating the Joker into pop-psychology in exactly the way that the Joker of “Dark Knight” seeks to frustrate. If Kennicott had been a character in “Dark Knight,” the Joker would surely have told him a story about his childhood that played into Kennicott’s racially charged view of the world, and Kennicott would doubtless have accepted it at face value.

Kennicott should have emphasized that the Joker is always already “other” and cannot be appropriated, and then insisted that juxtaposing the Joker’s image with the President’s face emphasizes the otherness of President Obama’s African-American descent. I don’t agree with this either, but at least it’s plausible. But Kennicott doesn’t seem bright enough to make this kind of a connection. Lesson: Film critics shouldn’t do philosophy.

The real meaning of the poster is this: President Obama lies about who he is, President Obama is sinister, and President Obama’s attempts to impose socialism on the USA are criminal. The poster is wrong on all counts, but the image certainly is striking, and it’s not thoroughly objectionable in the way that (say) the Bush-Hitler posters were. The meaning strikes me as pretty obvious, but perhaps it’s more subtle than Kennicott or I give it credit for being. Or perhaps it’s meaning is obscured by the prevalent efforts to squeeze racially charged implicationts out of the poster.

And the press’s insistence that the poster is racially charged doesn’t actually have much to do with race. It’s part of an ongoing effort to insist that all of the things that liberals said about Bush are out of bounds when said of Obama. As Kennicott would have it, making Bush into the Joker was fine, but Obama as the joker is racist. Yeah, right.