The always insightful Peggy Noonan had some interesting observations this week. If you have a WSJ subscription, read her whole column. Here are some interesting paragraphs:
Did “The Dark Knight Rises” cause the Aurora shootings? No, of course not. One movie doesn’t have that kind of power, and we don’t even know if the shooter had seen it. But a million violent movies have the cumulative power to desensitize and destabilize, to make things worse, and that’s what we’ve been seeing the past quarter century or so, the million movies. Each ups the ante in terms of carnage.
Carl Cannon, in a thoughtful, deeply researched series on RealClearPolitics, this week gave a measured, tempered look at our entertainment culture and its role in the Aurora shootings: “A hundred studies have demonstrated conclusively that viewing violence on the screen increases aggression in those who watch it, particularly children.” Ignoring the problem hasn’t made it go away. He quoted Jenny McCartney of London’s Daily Telegraph, after she had seen 2008′s “The Dark Knight”: “The greatest surprise of all—even for me, after eight years working as a film critic—has been the sustained level of intensely sadistic brutality throughout the film.”
Mr. Cannon noted the different ways Hollywood executives have attempted to rationalize and defend what they produce. At first they claimed TV and movies had no impact on the actions of viewers. Then why, they were asked, have commercials, and why have characters who don’t smoke? Next filmmakers claimed violent movies not only don’t increase violence, they probably decrease it by letting audiences vicariously blow off steam. “Legions of social scientists lined up to test” the catharsis theory, says Mr. Cannon. They discovered the opposite: “Violent programming desensitized young people to violence, made them more likely to hit other children, and often engendered copy-cat behavior.”
Some of the sadness and frustration following Aurora has to do with the fact that no one thinks anyone can, or will, do anything to make our culture better. The film industry isn’t going to change, the genie is long out of the bottle. The genie has a cabana at the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel. The movie market is increasingly international, and a major component is teenage boys and young men who want to see things explode, who want to see violence and sex. Political pressure has never worked. Politicians have been burned, and people who’ve started organizations have been spoofed and spurned as Puritans. When Tipper Gore came forward in 1985, as a responsible citizen protesting obscene rap lyrics, her senator husband felt he had to apologize to Democratic fund-raisers. If some dumb Republican congressman had a hearing to grill some filmmakers, it would look like the McCarthy hearings. There would be speeches about artistic freedom, and someone would have clever words about how Shakespeare, too, used violence. “Have you ever seen ‘Coriolanus?’”
A particularly devilish injustice is that many of the wealthy men and women of the filmmaking industry go to great lengths to protect their own children from the products they make. They’re able to have responsible nannies and tutors and private coaches and private lessons. They keep the kids busy. They don’t want them watching that garbage.
Artistic freedom is a crucially important part of any free society, so I’m not looking for any kind of clampdown by government on Hollywood. But at the same time a free society can be threatened by cultural decay. How to preserve the cultural strength that a free society needs to survive while at the same time maintaining robust freedom of expression is not an easy problem—even for libertarians.
After all, we don’t have Batman to rescue us.
I’ll have more to say later.