- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 1, 2009

DEARBORN, Mich.

“The better the villain,” Alfred Hitchcock said, “the better the movie.” And in the epic production that is the United States of America, we have followed that advice since the earliest settlers landed. For every hero the American story factory produces, a vivid new villain comes off the assembly line in short order.

We love bad guys in America - even when they’re not really bad. Demonizing helps define the best in us. Here’s an incomplete list from the history books: Indians, Quakers, witches, Englishmen, the federal government, Southerners and Northerners, Chinese “Celestials,” Tammany Hall Democrats, Germans, Jews, Japanese, North Koreans, communists, socialists, Vietnamese, liberals, conservatives, gays, lesbians and Muslims. The Evil Empire and the Axis of Evil.

Now, a fresh group has been dropped into the cultural dunk tank. Osama bin Laden? Back-burnered, at least for now. Saddam Hussein? Gone and forgotten. Instead, in these jumbled days of economic uncertainty, fairly or unfairly, America’s newest Snidely Whiplashes bear faces such as those of Bernie Madoff, AIG executives and the private jet-flying heads of the Big Three automakers.

Just look at the March 2 cover of New York magazine, which doctored a picture of Madoff into the grinning, bloodshot-eyed Joker, the diabolical supervillain who delights in terrorizing Batman’s Gotham City. “Bernie Madoff, Monster,” it says.

And in October, when the former chief executive officer of the freshly bankrupted Lehman Bros., Richard Fuld, sat down before Congress, he was promptly informed by Rep. John L. Mica, Florida Republican: “If you haven’t discovered your role, you’re the villain today.”

“Someone always needs to get dragged into the hot seat. It’s part of the American process,” says Imad Hamad, who would know. He is regional director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and is based in Dearborn, Mich., a town just outside Detroit where Arabic script is ubiquitous and more than 30 percent of the population is of Arab descent.

In the eyes of some Americans, Muslims and Middle Easterners became the cultural bogeymen after Sept. 11, and Mr. Hamad’s organization and community are still dealing with the fallout. Even with a new president whose grandfather was a practicing Muslim, he says, suspicion continues to make life difficult for people stereotyped by anti-Muslim sentiment.

“In the Middle East, they cut you one time,” Mr. Hamad says. “In America, they put you in the death machine over and over.”

Most denizens of American history’s rogues’ gallery were cast as evil “others” who represented threats to the American way of life. Now, though, it is more complicated. These finance folks represent long-standing American ideals - getting rich, succeeding, living large, the pursuit of happiness.

“It’s a little tougher when it comes closer to home,” says J. Dennis Murray, a community psychologist at Mansfield University in Pennsylvania. “It’s harder to define the ‘other.’ But we do. We say they’re rich Wall Street fat cats or Detroit moguls who don’t think like us.”

Dan DiDio, who knows villainy, recognizes this shift. As the executive editor of DC Comics, Mr. DiDio oversees a stable of heroes and villains who distill American culture’s best and worst traits into a mythology that plays out on comic-book pages and licensed character products across the land.

The DC line’s most prominent supervillain - Superman’s archenemy, Lex Luthor - spent five decades as a power-hungry mad scientist before being recast in recent years as an amoral industrialist and businessman who dabbles in politics. Sometimes, after all, the wolf comes to us in sheep’s clothing.

“We can dress folks up in crazy costumes and give them crazy powers,” Mr. DiDio says, “But when you see someone who has the ability to work above the law, above the government, and create their own set of rules, that resonates. Because people have a level of frustration with that.”

The obstacle that DC’s artists and writers often face in their very visual medium plays out the same way in America’s very visual culture. Usually, Mr. DiDio says, “A character in a suit and tie doesn’t make a great villain in a comic book.” But the economy is so battered today, and so many people are hurting and suspicious of power brokers, that the diffuse ache of bad numbers and bad banks becomes easier to personify.

All the repeatedly aired footage of congressional testimony and folks like Madoff being led off to jail in flak jackets pushes the demonization process along, too, eliciting comments like this one from Chris Forbes of Edgewood, Pa., in a letter to the editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about AIG’s leadership: “This has to be the equivalent of terroristic treason. They should be given the full pre-2009 treatment in the brig at Guantanamo.”

Ultimately, the problem with our latest villains is that in some cases, they are distorted, outsized representations of the same problems we’ve faced in our own homes. We’re overextended with our credit. We’re buying into mortgages we know are expedient at best and unstable at worst. Some of us even cheat on our taxes. The difference between us and our villains, sometimes, is that they screwed up on a much larger canvas.

“You can’t fantasize about sending out Arnold Schwarzenegger to blow them into little-bitty pieces,” author Maichael Barson said. “You can’t use anti-tank guns to blow up a bunch of idiotic bankers who ruined it for everybody. But they’re the villains now. They’re who everybody is going to go to sleep hating, and they’re who everybody’s going to wake up tomorrow hating.”

Until, of course, the angry zeitgeist cranks out our next set of villains. For now, these are the demons we have recruited to help us cope with our lot. They exist somewhere between two-dimensional caricatures and the reality of the bad things they did, and we condemn them and, maybe, just maybe, learn something along the way.

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