Tuesday, April 17, 2007

We've Seen Better Days


America is sick.

Wait, let me take that back. Sick may not be the right
word.

Ailed.

Thirty-two dead on Virginia Tech's campus. Over three thousand soldiers killed in Iraq. A culture that perpetuates, facilitates and glorifies violence.

And we wonder why?

I know—I should probably slow down. After all, you can't blame all American culture for one 23-year-old's psychopathy. And, at first glance, the massacring of VT students seems unrelated to our government's hasty call for war, which has led to a staggering number of GI deaths. But both instances have an important point in common: the ideas for both were hatched on our turf.

And while in the end, violence of course knows no borders, what time would be better than now to ask, is the US serving as a more efficient incubator for violence?

Let’s skip to the part where I answer that: Yes.

Look at our movies, our music, our video games, even our sports. Violence is manifest in each of these categories. Granted, most of us can tell the difference between fictional violence and real-life consequences, and would therefore never let entertainment drive us to such madness. But even the most impervious among us surely have, at some point, been critically influenced by entertainment and fantasy. So what effect is suggestive entertainment having on people with serious mental conditions? Is it not spurring them on?

It must be. If life seems disposable in the entertainment world, some may think it truly is. And while the VT killer was exceptionally psychopathic, he lived in a society that accepts violence as an answer to many questions; he lived in a country in which guns are readily available, and in a state, pronouncedly so, that considers those guns a birth right. He lived in a culture in which characters like Tony Soprano are looked up to and preened on magazine covers; in which many teenagers pass their time playing games like “Grand Theft Auto.” He lived in a country that considers two men pummeling each other’s faces sport.

How could living in such a society not have influenced him? And, if these aspects did, why are we debating campus safety? Shouldn’t we instead be reevaluating the more troubling aspects of American culture?

Now I know I’m not the first to bring up these issues. Turn on any news talk show in the mid/late ’90s—the Columbine era, if you will—and the talking heads would be debating similar, if not identical, issues. At the heart of those many debates, as I’m sure you know, was that famous question: Should we, whenever the opportunity arises, excise—or at least highly limit—violence’s manifestations in our art and culture?

My answer to that? No.

Doing so curtails freedom of speech. And censorship (as history can attest) only leads to other forms of problems, not to mention twisted psyches. Better in this case is to ask, why this fascination with violence? After all, no one is forced to view an inanely violent film or bop his head to hateful lyrics. We chose these pursuits. Asking "why," and exploring what's behind these issues may be tantamount to taking the first steps toward remedy. Here are three brief possibilities.

•Violent entertainment and the culture of it serve as a foil to our tirelessly-pursued “ideal” American lives. Perhaps America is so obsessed with and elated by money, leisure activities, gourmet food, vacation homes, fast cars, etc. that we yearn for something more sinister to balance out "the good life." If we didn’t maniacally insulate ourselves against many of the world’s woes, moreover, we’d better see what life was really like, how grim much of it is. In turn, the darker aspects of existence would fascinate us less.

•Interestingly—and ironically enough—Americans may be more prone to violence because we may be obsessed with protecting this aforementioned way of life. We love our possessions; ditto for our social mobility. But do we love our roaring-on-all-engines type capitalism with equal intensity? If so, are we willing to die for it and the luxuries it affords? Further still, do we believe that the path to righteousness for every country is only attained by mirroring us, as in U.S.?

•Like it or not, the bible and its principles heavily inform and shape American culture. One well-known principle regarding revenge/justice, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” may lie at the heart of many of our violence-issues. Simply put, this saw, which of course originated in the bible, is something that we collectively believe in. Remember when Bush repeatedly said after 9/11 that the US would "hunt down and kill the terrorists"? Remember how much of America agreed? Agreed to "hunt" and "kill"? Were the bible not to influence our country so, perhaps violence—pertaining to retribution or not—would be less acceptable.

Now, I said at this essay’s beginning America was ailed. Although I just listed a few reasons for this sickness, my examples, for what they’re worth, don’t necessarily mean that the sickness is fatal. America, moreover, is not rotten. There are some great ideals buried beneath the bad. But America may never become—or at least may never move closer to becoming the ideal country we purport to be—if we continue to fail to see our obsession with and condoning of violence is actually harming us.


II

All said, it’s time to explore another issue, which is in the same vein. It, too, involves how entertainment shapes our consciences, similar to much of what I talked about in this essay's first half. But it involves what we don’t see. It’s subtle. And that’s what makes it scary.

So what am I talking about? Glad you asked.

OK, think entertainment.... Now think censorship. The American government allows us to watch as much violent entertainment as we please; it’s unfettered. But let that gore spill over into the real-life sector, and it's suddenly off limits. Think about it. We don’t see dead American troops on the nightly news. We don’t see dead Iraqi children, “collateral damage,” on magazine covers. Paradoxically, the things—the images and sounds—we don’t see shape our psyches and imaginations just as much as what we do.

How so? Well, here's where the negative effect of violent entertainment again rears its ugly head. When we read or hear about war, about dead American troops, about "collateral damage," our minds, in the need to process it all, revert to what they know about such situations—i.e., all that has been gleaned from images in movies and on TV. Naturally, we supplant images and ideas. Because of this supplanting, when we read or hear about true-life violence, we may be able to reconcile it better. This is why we may think death is quick; this is why we think it can be honorable.

Would it not be fair to say, then, that America imbibes in the type of violent entertainment it does because it's too scared to ask itself some real questions or see some real pictures or listen to some real sounds, namely the voice of the dying?

Is America content escpaing to fantasy land—as has often been the case—where ketchup is used as blood, instead of asking itself where it truly stands on violence? Is America content to run to the movies when it should be incessantly asking itself about how it feels having started a war in a Middle-Eastern country? About being responsible for civilian deaths in Iraq—because civilians have died by our hand, meaningfully or not.

I ask you: What if our government showed us what the true face of the Iraq war looked like? What would the national mood be then? I’m talking dead American troops; I’m talking disemboweled and beheaded Iraqi civilians. Pictures, movies, lots of them. If we saw these images on the nightly news would we still be in Iraq? Or, more pointedly, if we had always been granted full access to the images of war's effects, would we go with the frequency we do?

And what about Virginia Tech? If we actually saw what those hollow-point bullets did to a nineteen-year-old’s face. If we got actually to see the fragments of that Holocaust survivor’s brain, splattered like oatmeal on the walls, would the NRA still have the clout it does? Further, would the public still stand by the NRA as it gives the same, tired rebuttals when such tragedies occur? Would Americans still be as passionate about the right to bear arms?

Or, America—yeah you!—do we want to continue to live in a fantasy world imagining what such guns do, imagining how violence looks or feels?

I'm not a voyeur, but if we, as in Americans, are so enamored by and accepting of violence, let's stop for a moment and take a true look at it, in every manifestation.

I promise you, you'd hate what you'd see.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Imust Comment

Since everyone and their mother are weighing into the whole Imus thing, I figured, why not. Here's something I wrote on a NY Times blog.

Two things. First, it's incredibly hard, perhaps impossible, to understand how much it hurts to have an epithet hurled at you if you’re not a part of the ethnic/racial group on its receiving end. It’s not fair to say, then, that Imus’s remarks didn’t warrant his firing. Maybe they did. I’m not black; I can’t tell you how deep that well of pain goes.

Second, and somewhat separately, America has lost all control. Our troops are getting killed in Iraq every day, but that's not what's on the front page every day. We’re not obsessed with the Iraq war; we should be.

Until we figure out how to improve — nay, master — the security conditions for our troops and draw up a devastatingly accurate way forward in that country, issues such as those mentioned in my first paragraph deserve less attention. Sticks and stones first. Then names.