Early last month, in one of the more economically-depressed cities in my home state, a 19-year-old man confronted a teenager about a $20 debt supposedly owed by the younger teen’s father. The 19-year-old forced the teen to strip naked and then whipped him with a belt. We know this because one of the 19-year-old’s accomplices recorded the assault on a two-and-a-half minute video which ultimately wound up on YouTube where it garnered over 40,000 views.
How the video wound up on YouTube, no one knows, but according to The Star-Ledger, “dozens of Twitter users placed the blame on a young Newark hip-hop artist who posted the video on his personal page…”
According to the artist, who would only identify himself in the story by his stage name of Riq Bubz, “We had nothing to do with the video, had no intentions of making it say like we were promoting bullying. We were just putting a light on the crazy stuff.”
I don’t know what part of this story is the most outrageous: beating this poor kid over a lousy $20; that one of the assailant’s sociopathic buddies recorded the act presumably so they could re-enjoy the attack later; or that some other knothead thought it was a good idea to post it on the Internet in the interest of “…putting a light on the crazy stuff.”
But here’s the part of the story that really gnawed at me:
The Star-Ledger quoted Newark councilman Ronald Rice Jr. reacting thusly to the video:
“It’s the game. It’s thug life. This is now the culture.”
This is now the culture.
As it happens, this story broke soon after two After Newtown-type pieces appeared in national magazines. There was a scathing expose of the NRA by Tim Dickinson in the 2/14 issue of Rolling Stone, and a special report on “Guns and Hollywood” – “Under the Gun” – in the 2/15 issue of Entertainment Weekly.
Both pieces refer to NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre’s response to the Newtown massacre which seemed to blame violence in today’s society on everything but guns:
“Through vicious, violent video games with names like Bulletstorm, Grand Theft Auto, Mortal Kombat and Splatterhouse (sic). And here’s one: it’s called Kindergarten Killers. It’s been online for 10 years…Then there’s the blood-soaked slasher films like American Psycho and Natural Born Killers that are aired like propaganda loops on ‘Splatterdays’ and every day, and a thousand music videos that portray life as a joke and murder as a way of life. And then they have the nerve to call it ‘entertainment.’”
I’ve been through this debate before, a couple of times. I’ve been hearing a lot of the same stuff from all sides going back over 50 years. For all the finger-pointing – and there seems to be a lot of fingers pointing every which way – there’s one side to this debate that never gets a finger pointed in its direction, which is peculiar because this party is really the key to the whole deal, no matter what side of it you’re on.
Who am I talking about?
Well, let me put it to you this way. Pardon the possibly tasteless imagery, but nobody holds a gun to anybody’s head to make them watch Saw 3D (2010) or shoot their way through the latest version of Grand Theft Auto or blow away zombies on Walking Dead or listen to gangsta-types rap their way through a demimonde of whores, bling, and violence.
Over 40 years ago, the great cartoonist Walt Kelly coined an oft-repeated indictment in his comic strip “Pogo” about the villain behind the human condition, and it’s just as apropos now as it was then:
“We have met the enemy…and he is us!”
TV and the fear it might be pouring something intellectually toxic into our living rooms was a concern, well, almost as soon as there was TV. Three months before I turned six, FCC Chairman Newton Minow stood in front of the National Association of Broadcasters, and in a speech cited just about as often as Pogo’s, said of television:
“…you will observe…a vast wasteland. You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons…”
One of the touchstone shows for a lot of parental screaming about violence on TV at the time was the 1959-63 series The Untouchables, Desilu’s outrageously fabricated portrayal of the real-life Chicago anti-crime unit of the 1930s. Still considered one of the most violent shows to ever hit the airwaves, many – if not most – episodes usually ended with Robert Stack’s Elliot Ness and his band of Good Guys storming the Bad Guys’ lair at which point a Bad Guy would say something to the effect of, “It’s Ness!” and that would kick off the fireworks. Bad Guys didn’t get arrested or indicted; they got shot.
The concern over violence in the media only grew worse as the decade wore on. Not only was TV filled with shooting cops, shooting private eyes, and shooting cowboys, but movies were getting bloodier (and sexier) as well. A loosening of Hollywood’s self-imposed constraints produced brutal pics like Point Blank (1967), The Dirty Dozen (1967), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Wild Bunch (1969), to name just a very few. Out beyond the mainstream, the mayhem was growing even more graphic with flicks like The Night of the Living Dead (1968).
It wasn’t like people didn’t have a reason to be worried all this celluloid carnage might be having some kind of effect. Against the backbeat of the war in Vietnam growing from brushfire to bonfire, the decade saw race riots in major cities, rising crime rates, violent anti-war demonstrations on college campuses, the hard hats and the long-hairs fighting it out in the streets, the cops going bananas on protestors at the 1968 Democratic convention in what would later be described as a “police riot.”
It all had to be somebody’s fault.
In response to the heat about movie violence and to head off any consideration of governmental censorship, the Motion Picture Association of America created its rating system in 1968 (then: G, M, R, X) as a way or providing supposedly helpful guidance to parents and to keep youngsters away from the most egregious content.
TV started cleaning up its act, too. The Western guys on series like Bonanza and Gunsmoke started talking more and shooting and punching less, and so did cops and private eyes. Gunsmoke even did away with its iconic intro piece featuring James Arness’ Marshal Matt Dillon outdrawing some Bad Guy in Dodge City’s dusty main street. There was even a story floating around that if the short-lived Western 1967-69 series The Guns of Will Sonnett had been renewed for a third season, the producers were going to take the word “Guns” out of the title.
But if any of this had mollified parents, teachers, religious leaders, and other guardians of public morality, that progress was steamrollered in rather sanguinary fashion by the changing tastes of the movie-going public compounded by a new-fangled gimmick called cable TV.
In 1975, Home Box Office was the first pay-TV service to go national. It seemed a hell of a great idea to millions: a movie theater in one’s living room! It was such a great idea that people literally chased cable trucks down the block for a hook-up.
But once HBO (and later Showtime and The Movie Channel) turned the family living room into an in-house multiplex, there were those who started having second thoughts. Older viewers who only went to the movies a few times a year, and exercised the selectivity one might expect from people who only went to the movies a few times a year, soon discovered they were getting more Jasons and Leatherfaces and Michael Myerses and Freddy Krugers hunting down younger cast members for the purposes of creative dismemberment and sundry impaling then they were getting On Golden Ponds and Beaches’. In its response to such complaints, HBO estimated that about one-third of all domestic releases in the early 1980s were some kind of sci fi, slasher, horror, chiller et al blood-letter.
Every month each of the pay-TV services received complaints from dissatisfied customers who’d sat back in the ol’ Barca Lounger, flipped to the channel sucking money out of their pockets every month only to be treated to one kind of gorefest shocker or another. Still more p.o.’d were parents with their stories of walking into their living rooms to find their kids lapping up the same kind of blood-spattered fare (and for the purpose of simplification, let’s not even get into the sexual content issue), and right there in prime time, too.
Basic cable offered no respite from the carnage. These were the days before the original programming boom in cable TV; when the bread and butter for most basic cable channels were recycled old TV shows and movies, and the movies that persistently drew were action movies i.e. movies where people were shooting and getting shot (or beaten, stabbed, et al).
The body count of the old pre-cable network TV paled next to the carnage of the cable era. Not to be outdone – and watching its audience slowly be eaten away by cable programming (by the end of the 1980s, the broadcast networks’ share of TV viewers had dropped from over 90% to something close to 50%) – broadcast TV began to loosen its own reins. Think NYPD Blue and the grotesqueries of The X-Files. Jeez, there were things on X-Files that would’ve gotten you an R-rating in the movies 20 years earlier.
And as if TV and the movies weren’t giving parents enough to worry about, the growing popularity of rap music in the 1980s – particularly those veins celebrating the glories of gangsta life – were giving the bunny-white Saturday-afternoon-barbecues-in-the-backyard suburban crowd conniptions. Little Johnny had spiked his hair, turned his Yankee cap backwards and started wearing his jeans halfway down his ass; who knew what other horrible things rap would make him do?
Anti-violence activists screamed, got enough of the public agitated to draw the attention of politicians who – seeing an easily exploitable issue – started bad-mouthing TV and movies and rap music. There was a lot of posturing, hearings, the creative community started yelling about First Amendment and artistic freedom, the politicians made frowny faces and talked about pandering, and in the end, everybody arrived at the kind of compromise that allowed them all to turn to their various constituencies and declare victory, but which, in effect, did abso-freaking-lutely nothing.
By the mid-1980s, there were warning labels on music containing “Explicit Lyrics.” By the mid-1990s, the TV industry had adapted its own rating system (TV-Y, TV-Y7, TV-G, TV-PG, TV-14, TV-MA) and code of content advisories. Networks agreed to push their more adult-themed programming to the later prime time hours. By January 2000, all new TV sets sold in the U.S. had to contain a V-chip – a programmable device allowing parents to block programs based on their rating.
Not that any of this had much effect on who saw what and how much, but on the off chance anybody considered this some kind of progress, it was outweighed by yet another tectonic change in the media terrain.
The cable spectrum had not only continued to grow, but more and more channels were investing in original programming, and some of the most popular shows were either sleazy (like Jersey Shore) or bloody. The 20th Century ended with HBO’s brutal The Sopranos at the top of the cable heap, and the first decade of the new century ended with Walking Dead – whose body count makes The Sopranos look like a love-fest — as one of the all-time basic cable programming powerhouses.
And then there were videogames. Boy, were there videogames. The 1990s saw the first-person shooter game – with early entries like Doom, Quake, and the launch of the Medal of Honor series – become and remain one of the cornerstones of the gaming industry.
And then there’s the Internet. Unregulated, unrestrained, a cornucopia that can offer, to those so inclined, everything from homemade porn to a kid in Newark getting whipped by a belt over $20.
With delivery via cable, Internet, Wi Fi, and smart phones, it’s entirely possible for anyone with a taste for it to spend the better part of their day – every day – immersed in violent content. Death and destruction hasn’t provided so much popular entertainment since the Romans threw Christians to the lions for weekday matinees at the Coliseum.
What keeps it all from being a silly recycling display for each faction’s fans is the ever growing, frighteningly escalating roll call of mass shootings: Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tuscon, Aurora… The online version of the UK’s Daily Telegraph lists 30 U.S. mass shootings since and including Columbine and not including Newtown, most of them since 2007.
Newtown. If it is humanly possible to make such a measurement, of all these senseless tragedies, none is as senseless or tragic as Newtown with 20 of its 26 victims under the age of 10. You would think that the deaths of 20 small children would change the debate. Well, it’s gotten a bit more shrill, but that’s about it.
The NRA still holds with its unyielding guns-don’t-kill-people-people-do stance (although they’ve yet to address the paradox of people-who-kill-people-with-guns), and thinks the answer is more guns, just in the hands of the “right” people.
The creative community is out there waving around First Amendment banners and talking about artistic freedom, and while I agree with the ideal, I tend to think a lot of the people who say this kind of stuff are full of shit. When I was working on a book about Sam Peckinpah some years ago, I came across this statement from Paul Verhoeven: “I feel that I have no responsibility except to myself. It’s my moral judgment – what I can tolerate. And that is what an artist is for – the antennae of society. Art should not be something that’s nice and friendly and okay.”
Which sounds really inspiring until you watch Showgirls.
And that’s the problem with creative integrity in Hollywood: you don’t see much of it which makes you skeptical when people start talking about it. On the one hand, people yell about the dangers of censorship, then willingly sit at the table with network Standards & Practices reps to negotiate compromises because walking away on principle from a money-machine that’s a hit show is harder than swallowing creative compromises. Want to make a movie for $100 million? $150 million? Then you’re going to sign a contract in which you guarantee a director’s cut that qualifies for a PG-13 rating. You want to stand for a principle, you’re going to be standing for it on the unemployment line.
And then you have politicians jumping in front of TV cameras yelling “J’asccuse” and pointing wagging fingers in whichever direction they think it’ll get them the most votes (or the most campaign contributions which is worth a hell of a lot more than votes).
The underlying problem – and what all these parties play on — is that we, as a people, have an unfortunate penchant for liking simple solutions to complex problems, not because they work, but because they’re easier to get our collective head around. So, even this new round of the violence/anti-violence waltz is about either finding one, fat, easy-to-hit target to blame, or getting one’s own fat targeted ass out of the line of fire by pointing the blame at some other fat, easy-to-hit target. No matter how you look at it, it’s hardly been an exercise in critical thinking and problem solving.
At worst – if you buy into Rolling Stone’s view – Wayne LaPierre is a conscienceless mercenary mouthpiece for the $11.7 billion firearms industry. At the very least, he’s an insensitive, oblivious wack-job. Wack-job or not, the one thing LaPierre may have inadvertently gotten right is that complex problems don’t have simple answers.
Look at the situation in Newtown (if you can without crying). A young man with serious mental problems, a broken home, easy availability of firearms in the house, a single mother who felt she could build a bridge between her and her hurting son through her passion for shooting.
This wasn’t a situation where any one thing set off the bomb. This was a recipe – some of this, some of that, stir vigorously – for tragedy. If you had remedied any one of those conditions, maybe Newtown might not have happened. But which one?
The problem isn’t any one thing. It’s not Hollywood, it’s not the NRA, it’s not firearms laws, it’s not mental health issues, it’s not, well, you name it. The problem is it’s all of that.
Like I said at the top, I’ve been on this merry-go-round enough times to know the talking points by heart. I know all that business about how many thousands of homicides someone sees on TV by the time they’re 18, I know there’s no research showing a definitive causal relationship between media violence and someone going out on a shooting spree.
Hell, I don’t need research. I have common sense. If that were the case, the murder rate would spike after every episode of Walking Dead or The Following. One guy with a problem starts pulling a trigger during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises doesn’t mean violent movies turns people into shooters; it means there was one guy with a problem.
But, at the same time, we do have research that shows steady exposure to media violence desensitizes young viewers to real violence (that only makes sense, too; soldiers, cops, EMTs – regular exposure to real violence desensitizes them). And, there’s research that suggests a link between aggressive behavior in young boys and TV violence. I’m not talking causes; but I am talking about a possible, maybe, at-least-consider-it contributing factor.
Look, it’s more than a bit disingenuous for entertainment types to say TV and movie violence doesn’t affect people, then turn around and take $60 billion in advertising money on the premise that TV ads do affect people. Somebody here is getting bullshitted, and I’ve got an uncomfortable feeling it’s not the ad people.
But here’s the thing: here’s the big enchilada. Contributing factor, causal factor, it doesn’t matter: all that murder and mayhem is there on the big and little screen (and in music and comic book pages and on the Internet) for one reason and one reason only.
It’s there because we watch it.
I like to think that as I’ve grown older and (presumably) matured, I’ve grown into becoming a man of my word. I make a promise, I keep it. But one promise I did break – and it still haunts me that I did – was one I made to myself when I was still at HBO. I swore that after years of listening to people piss and moan about what they saw on our service, on my last day on the job I’d tell ‘em, “You don’t like it? Try turning it off and reading a fucking book.”
Because that’s the bottom line here.
Politicians accuse movie producers and TV networks of pandering. Of course they pander! These are capitalists, people! They’re in show business which means you’re business depends on showing shows the mass audience will watch. I don’t want to bust anyone’s romantic notions about the mass audience, but there’s a reason PBS is not America’s Number One television network.
During Oscar week, seven of the Top 25 broadcast series were crime shows;
The top-rated cable show for the same week was Walking Dead;
The Top 10 box office earners at the movies thus far in a still young year include, in the #2 spot, horror flick Mama; zombie romance Warm Bodies at #3; Bruce Willis shooting his way to #4 in A Good Day to Die Hard; a fired up version of one of Grimm’s fairy tales at #6 with Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters; Gangster Squad tommy gunned its way to #7; and nothing puts money in the till like a roaring chainsaw comin’ right at ya in Texas Chainsaw 3D;
The current Top 20 bestselling video games include Call of Duty: Black Ops II, God of War: Ascension, and Halo 4.
There’s a mental concept I learned in college some years ago called “cognitive dissonance.” To oversimplify, it means two opposing ideas trying to fill the same space: I hate gays, but my sister is gay and I love my sister.
I think that sums up this mass audience that’s supposed to be up in arms about how TV and film and other media exploit sex and violence – and then they binge watch it on Netflix.
Ever since the MPAA initiated their first ratings system back in 1968, we’ve been seeing how the public (or at least segments of it) say one thing, and then (other segments) do another. R-rated movies were supposed to keep the kids out, but kids kept getting in (and still do) because some adult thinks it’s ok to take them. TV rating system? Does anybody really pay attention? The V-chip? According to a Kaiser Family Foundation study, only 42% of the families that understood how to use the blocking system exercised it.
I cannot tell you how many times I had conversations with HBO customers in my years there where I would patiently explain that, V-chip or no V-chip, their cable system provided them with the ability to block programming by rating, only to be told, “I don’t want to have to do that.”
Even if you did decide it was time to clean up TV, clean up what exactly? What would you prohibit? Not all violence is equal. There is – to me, anyway – a substantial difference between the violence in a John Wayne flick and the violence in Apocalypse Now, and just as much a difference between both of them and Texas Chainsaw 3D.
You want to clean up violence on TV? What about sports? Boxing, mixed martial arts – that’s two guys beating the crap out of each other for spectators’ pleasure. Football? Tactically orchestrated violence. Pro wrestling? Phony violence, but still violence. NASCAR? Institute a seven-second delay to excise crashes? (Anybody watch the Daytona 500 last week? I lost count of how many times throughout the race Fox replayed a nine-car crack-up from lap 33.)
And then there’s the news. Is there a bigger collection of war, mayhem, and disaster on TV? Provided on a daily basis yet, several times a day (all day if you’re a cable news junkie).
Look, I make no presumptions that I’m in any position to judge. I’ve written crappy screenplays with a body count, I’ve written what I thought were reflective novels that looked at the dehumanizing effects of violence. I’ve watched crappy movies with a body count as well as reflective movies – and read books – about the dehumanizing effects of violence. I watched all those “violent” Warner Bros. cartoons from the 1930s-1950s and my generation grew up to protest the Vietnam War and save the whales. The generation after mine got The Smurfs and they got into crack and invaded Grenada and Panama for God knows what reason.
I don’t know the answer. I’m not sure we’ve even formulated the right questions yet. The only thing I’m sure of is that until we decide to look at all the elements in some kind of holistic way, to make an effort – and it will be an effort – to understand how they all work together, including our own complicity in the problem, we’re probably not going to accomplish anything substantive. We’ll be like that little Dutch kid sticking his finger in one leak in the dike, thinking he’s done a good deed, and oblivious to the cascade coming over the top to drown him.
– Bill Mesce