Colonial Burma has a strange hold on the colonial British imagination—it is a remote and exotic place where the British were not very successful in holding sway. And the place it emerges occasionally is in the inability of the west to “understand” the east. Alfred Pennyworth, Bruce Wayne’s butler in the film Batman Returns (2008) had some experience in colonial Burma which sheds some light on how the British might have thought about their imperial adventure there. Indeed, he is even able to relate it to he problem of The Joker, a maniacal character who savaged Wayne’s own Gotham City.
Bruce Wayne: “I knew the mob wouldn’t go down without a fight, but this is different. They crossed the line.”
Alfred Pennyworth: “You crossed the line first, sir. You squeezed them. You hammered them to the point of desperation. And, in their desperation, they turned to a man they didn’t fully understand.”
Bruce Wayne: “Criminals aren’t complicated, Alfred. Just have to figure out what he’s after.”
Alfred Pennyworth: “With respect, Master Wayne, perhaps this is a man that you don’t fully understand, either. A long time ago, I was in Burma. My friends and I were working for the local government. They were trying to buy the loyalty of tribal leaders by bribing them with precious stones. But their caravans were being raided in a forest north of Rangoon by a bandit. So we went looking for the stones. But, in six months, we never met anybody who traded with him. One day, I saw a child playing with a ruby the size of a tangerine. The bandit had been throwing them away.”
Bruce Wayne: “So why steal them?”
Alfred Pennyworth: “Well, because he thought it was good sport. Because some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn. …”
Bruce Wayne: “The bandit, in the forest in Burma, did you catch him?”
Alfred Pennyworth: “Yes.”
Bruce Wayne: “How?”
Alfred Pennyworth: “We burned the forest down.”
I picked this exchange out of a Thomas Friedman column, in which he advocates intervention in Arab states which are “decent,” but oddly concludes that outsiders can indeed use their military power to intervene in such circumstances. This is an odd conclusion, because what Alfred is saying, I think, is that the danger of massive over-reaction (burning the forest down), can be a disproportionate response to an evil, which only makes the evil worse.
Had Alfred been on his toes though, he might have gone on to recommend the short story of his colleague in the Burman colonial service, Eric Blair a.k.a. George Orwell, to Bruce Wayne and Friedman. “Shooting an Elephant” is part of Orwell’s memoir of colonial Burma, where he was once a colonial officer developing a skepticism about the imperial project. A domesticated elephant had come into its period of “must,” and began to wreak havoc in the town, killing a low-status man. But when Orwell arrived with his big gun, the elephant’s period of must had passed, and it was placidly browsing, as elephants will do. Orwell (or his character) must make a decision. Does he shoot the peaceful elephant as the crowd expects, or does he let it browse—since it is no longer dangerous to anyone.
As the representative of British colonial power, Orwell, is widely despised by the crowd—he recalls:
I was hated by large numbers of people – the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me. I was sub-divisional police officer of the town, and in an aimless, petty kind of way anti-European feeling was very bitter.
But the crowd wants blood revenge taken on the poor elephant. And besides if it is killed, they can take the meat.
So if Orwell shoots the elephant, he will satisfy the bloodlust of the crowd, but continue to be despised for killing the valuable property of a local mahout. If he lets the elephant go, the crowd will think him a coward, and still despise him. So the choice of the young Orwell is, do I shoot and be hated, or do I not shoot and be hated? By shooting the elephant, he is symbolically burning down the forest and therefore making a fool of himself. By not shooting the elephant, he is being a wimp, or in his word, a fool. Some choice.
So what does he do and why? No spoiler alert, you will have to read the brief original essay yourself to find out. I will note though that Orwell himself noted that there was a division of opinion about what to do among the Europeans:
Among the Europeans opinion was divided. The older men said [it was right to shoot the elephant], the younger men said it was a damn shame to shoot an elephant for killing a coolie, because an elephant was worth more than any damn Coringhee coolie.
But isn’t this the same choice that Alfred Pennypacker presented to The Dark Knight? Both burning down the forest and shooting the elephant may satisfy immediate short-term needs, but are they really in the longer-term interest of anyone?
Originally posted at Ethnogrpahy.com on February 11, 2016