Natural Born Killers
It didn't take long for the press to connect 21-year-old white-supremacist multikiller Benjamin Smith with the all-purpose explanation du jour: violent entertainment, in this case the computer game Dungeons & Dragons. This replaces the explanation, given by his mentor, Matt Hale, leader of the World Church of the Creator, that Smith was driven to shoot minorities in the Midwest over the July 4 weekend--six Orthodox Jews, at least three blacks, two Asians--because political correctness prevented him from expressing his racial theories verbally. It turns out Smith expressed himself verbally quite a bit: His views were widely known to his fellow students at Indiana University. And physically, too: He had been forced to withdraw from the University of Illinois after beating up a girlfriend in the dorm. As with the Littleton killers, there were plenty of warning signs. One neighbor from Wilmette, Illinois, where the Smith family lived during Benjamin's teen years, said she was afraid of him and was relieved when he moved away.
Of course, even if Dungeons & Dragons had totally warped Smith's mind, which I doubt, you can't kill many people driving around with a virtual sword. For that you need guns. In the wake of Littleton, it looked for a moment there as if Congress would be shamed into at least token gun-control legislation, but in the end John Dingell--a Democrat, for those of you who still like to blame the Republicans for all our woes--saved the nation from the dreadful prospect of having to wait for a background check before buying a personal arsenal from an unlicensed dealer at a gun show. The kind of serious, comprehensive legislation it would take to make a significant dent in the easy availability of firearms--a feature unique to the United States among Western industrialized nations--is decades, maybe lifetimes away.
So forget gun control. Media violence is the trendy cause now. In the Washington Post, Michael Massing declares it's beyond question that the media are connected to real-world violence, although I find it hard to believe that the movies he singles out--LA Confidential and Pulp Fiction--had anything to do with the inner-city violence that he says shaped his views: crackheads throwing children off rooftops, teens killed in penny ante drug deals (besides, isn't rap music the usual suspect here?). Still, you won't find me defending art films loaded with stylized killing, hyperviolent action films, super-gory horror flicks, misogynous heavy metal and rap, violent computer games, slap-happy cartoons, sadomasochistic fashion spreads or sexist music videos. Whether or not you can connect this cultural effluvia to specific acts of violence in a one-to-one causal way, thousands of hours of it can't be good for the soul.
But realistically, what does one do with that insight beyond curling up with a good book? The government is not about to censor pop culture, a huge commercial enterprise, any more than it's about to enact real checks on guns, another huge commercial enterprise. And there's another problem with fighting media violence. You wouldn't know this from the way the issue is presented by proponents of media uplift, but most Americans don't disapprove of the current media fare--they love it! The anti-slash-and-sleaze constituency is small and getting smaller. According to a recent Associated Press poll taken during the post-Littleton debate over media violence, only one-third of Americans said violence is the biggest problem with current movies. (The same number cited ticket prices.) And the 40 percent who said violence would make them less likely to see a film is down from the 60 percent who gave that answer a decade ago. Moreover, most of those in that 40 percent are women, old people and people who hardly ever go to the movies.
It skews the issue to present the problem as one of "youth culture"--worried, disapproving parents falling asleep over Preston Sturges reruns while their crazy kids watch Natural Born Killers with one eye and update their racist Web site with the other. Much of America is deeply fascinated by violent entertainment. The whole family watches COPS and NYPD Blue and Homicide, and idolizes athletes, musicians and actors with records of brutality against women. Massing mentions Home Alone, which struck me too as containing rather a lot of supposedly humorous physical cruelty for a movie aimed at small children. But so what? Home Alone was the eleventh biggest-grossing movie ever.
Or take wrestling. It's violent, racist, sexist and witless--Americans can't get enough of it, and now their kids can't either. Recently, a 7-year-old in Dallas killed his 3-year-old brother when he demonstrated a wrestling move he'd seen on TV--a pretty clear demonstration of a connection between media violence and the real thing--but how far do you think a campaign to confine televised wrestling to the post-bedtime hours would get? The idea that Americans have been imposed upon by entertainment moguls who have seized control of culture is much too simple. That's why Massing's proposal that "we" shame Hollywood into cleaning up its act won't work. First, Americans would have to stop watching. Look at the Southern Baptists. This rich, politically powerful organization of millions hasn't been able to bring off its boycott of Disney. The urge to ride Space Mountain is even more powerful than homophobia.
Violent and stupid entertainment is popular because it corresponds to reality, which is often violent and stupid. Take a society in which half the population is armed; with astronomical rates of rape, domestic violence, child abuse and murder; which fights one war after another and glories in it, has a bad case of jock worship, and Lord knows how many white people marinating in racial resentment like Benjamin Smith; in which the vast majority of parents hit their kids and think that's fine. Take a society in which people are told they should be able to have whatever they want, but only if they can pay for it and if they can't they're losers. Why wouldn't the inhabitants of such a society thrill to watch their psychosocial dramas enacted on screen?
It's always the same story: We meet the enemy and he is us.