Jim Wilson/The New York Times

February 2, 2024

Against Mark Rober Vigilantism

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An unforgettable quote from a very forgettable movie: “Batman is a fascist!” DC’s latest Blue Beetle rides the wave of tokenist superhero films meant to vacuously pander to some corporate misconception of progressivism — yes, us progressives love cookie-cutter, AI-written afterthought action flicks so long as they promote BIPOC cultures in the same way that a NatGeo documentary promotes endangered birds. It’s reminiscent of that sentiment many Asian Americans felt from Crazy Rich Asians; it is the prerogative of out-of-touch Hollywood execs who want to cash in on the fact that they know about Hawker stalls from white people who don’t. 

That deliberately outrageous quip, though, should provoke a sympathetic response from any sincere liberationist. Who does Batman think he is? Did Spider-Man just throw a manhole at a homeless shoplifter down on his luck? I’m reminded of that thing filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu said: “I see heroes every day. I see beautiful people really going through very difficult situations and doing incredible things. And that is the people that I kind of connect with. But these kinds of superpower heroes, really do we need that?” You can’t get much more of an American phenomenon than the superhero obsession. It is a jarring reflection of the sort of individualist culture that festers from centuries of capitalist hegemony. It does not allow us to imagine community-based solutions to community problems. This idea that it is up to me, as some empowered individual with civic duties, to stop local crime is a deeply deluded one. 

Mark Rober has had a curious stint in this kind of misled vigilantism. His most recent video pits his signature GlitterBomb — an elaborate device that erupts with fart spray and glitter — against car burglars in San Francisco. The premise is simple: Rober leaves a conspicuous package in the backseat of a car and lets his hidden cameras capture a would-be thief’s reaction to being caught. The Rober video comes only two weeks after Andrew Callaghan’s Channel 5 released its own perspective on the proliferation of crime in San Francisco. The three-part Callaghan documentary series casts a shaming look on the state of California politics and the inescapable conditions that motivate ‘bipping’ — what some of Channel 5’s subjects call smash-and-grab burglary. In “Jack the Bipper,” Callaghan follows a fentanyl-addicted father sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison for a bip. It is at once difficult to stomach the unserious, callous attitudes of the featured perpetrators and the condescending tone with which the Rober video treats the same people.

With a popular new-left coalition of prison abolitionists and counter-culturalists in its infancy, it is difficult to pinpoint a clear leftist plurality on crime. Slavoj Zizek ruffled feathers this summer with his piece, “The left must embrace law and order.” Zizek warns that reactionaries prey on this kind of prolific crime to justify anti-immigrationism and harsher policing. We should refrain, then, from a complete leftist apathy towards crime.

But it should be important to distinguish between apathy and a basic commitment to humanist principles. That Mark Rober can humiliate impoverished and often ill people for public attention and to an overwhelming deluge of support should concern anyone who recognizes the damage that gentrification and an inept city government have done to San Francisco’s working class. We are quick to root for Batman against the Joker and Riddler when these schizophrenic outcasts are so blatantly villainous. But what do we do when they’re not villainous? What do we do when they’re just in suffering? It is easy to shame people at their worst moments, but it must be more worthwhile to study the conditions that give rise to that desperation.

Eric Han is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].