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What Do We Tell Our Children: Harold Schechter vs. Hillary Clinton
With all the bona fide murder, bombings, suicide attacks, decapitations, and point blank head-shots reported in the media on a daily basis, Senator Hillary Clinton's campaign against the perils of make-believe video violence is a curiously out-of-sync endeavor.

"There is no doubting the fact that the widespread availability of sexually explicit and graphically violent video games makes the challenge of parenting much harder," Clinton said in a letter to Federal Trade Commission Chair Deborah Platt Majoras.

No doubting? I guess that settles it.

In order to soften the challenges of parenting, Clinton wants the federal government to step in and save us all from vicious and salacious pixilation. She’s even given a Bill Frist-style diagnosis of violent video games. According to Clinton, they’re "a silent epidemic" among children — the type of epidemic that warrants $90 million worth of federal research into how exposure to simulated flesh, torn or caressed, affects young minds.

It’s remarkable to see how Clinton's new found concern about her popularity with the Moral Values demographic dovetails neatly into the challenge of parenting and simulated violence. It's downright chilling when you consider her post-Fallujah announcement that she was "not sorry" she voted for President Bush's resolution authorizing violent military action in Iraq — even, as transport tubes filled with bodies of America’s parenting products, young sons and daughters, were being shipped home.

Political opportunism aside, the junior senator from New York might better serve parents by asking if the censorship of make-believe violence leads to a less violent society. In that regard, she should talk to Harold Schechter — a man who’s spent his life detailing the nuances of ultra-violence as entertainment.

“I’m absolutely convinced that in 20 years, when virtual video games have been invented and children actually feel the blood from a zombie's brain splatter on them, people will be looking back to nowadays as a golden age of innocence,” says Schechter, a true crime author and professor of American Literature and Culture at New York’s Queens College.

In his latest book, Savage Pastimes: A Cultural History of Violent Entertainment, Schechter asks the question on the lips of every member of Accuracy in Media: "Does violence in movies, on television and in comic strips and cartoons rot our children's brains and make zombies — or worse, criminals — of adults at the fringes?"

His answer? No.

Schechter believes that a basic human need is given an outlet through violent images in popular media. I spoke with him on Weekly Signals, a KUCI radio show I co-host with Mike Kaspar.

“The fact that there is all this violence in the media is paradoxically a very encouraging and heartening fact," Schechter says. "It’s a sign of how increasingly civilized we’ve become.”

“Pop entertainment — going at least as far back as the middle ages, probably before that — has always been full of incredible amounts of violence,” Schechter says. “When you look at the pop culture of the past, in many ways it was more violent than contemporary popular culture. The kind of moral outrage that we nowadays direct against video games has been going on ever since there was such a thing as popular entertainment. In fact, there is no correlation between crime in society and the amount of violence in pop entertainment.”

I ask Schechter how he came to write Savage Pastimes.

“A number of years ago there was a movie that you may or may not remember called Money Train,” he says. “The villain set a New York subway token clerk on fire. He pours gasoline into the booth and ignites it. Not too long after that, there was a similar actual crime that happened. Of course, everybody in New York City pointed fingers at the movie as being the inciting cause. As it turned out, the kids who committed that crime hadn’t seen the movie.

“I ended up writing an op-ed piece for the New York Times in which I pointed out that this kind of accusation had been has been made by moral critics for centuries.

“At the time I was working on a book about a 13-year old serial killer called Jesse Pomeroy, who was known as the “Boston Boy Fiend.’ When he was arrested all of the grownups immediately claimed that he had been influenced by reading too many violent dime novels.This was in 1872."

As a result of that op-ed piece, Schechter was invited to take part in a panel discussion with Senator Joe Lieberman, now a co-sponsor of Hillary Clinton’s anti-video violence legislation. As an example of violent entertainment, Lieberman brought in some clips from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

“I responded by bringing in some stuff from an 1846 Davey Crockett almanac,” Schechter said, “which was not only insanely racist, but very graphically violent. It describes how Davey, while wrestling with an adversary, gouges out the guy’s eyes. It describes how he could feel his thumbnail scraping on the eye socket. This is stuff marketed to children in 1846.”

With the popularity of Walt Disney’s Crockett in the 1950s, it makes you wonder if Ms. Clinton ever wore a coonskin cap or if she’s prepared to state that Davey Crockett stole the innocence of our children. As it is, her proposed legislation would make it a federal offense with a $5000 fine for selling a video game that includes violent or sexual themes to a minor. What standard would she use to determine the threshold? The video game industry's own voluntary ratings system.

I ask Schechter what accounts for his faith in the human race in spite of his unsettling field of study.

“Within a very short period of time, evolutionarily speaking,” Schechter tells me, “we have evolved from being a people who took pleasure in the spectacle of other human beings actually being tortured.”

Take the Braveheart parable from Schechter’s Savage Pastimes, for example:

“Before an excited crowd of a spectators — who comported themselves as if they were attending a thrilling theatrical performance — Wallace was first hanged until he began to lose consciousness, then cut down from the scaffold,” Schechter writes. “After he revived his genitals were sliced off and cast into fire. Next, his abdomen was opened and his entrails pulled out and burned before his eyes. Only then was he put to death by decapitation. Afterwards, his body was dismembered and dipped into boiling tar. The various pieces were then put on public display around the city….”

“Nearly seven centuries later — in the summer on 1995 — this scene was re-enacted in multiplex theaters around the nation at the conclusion of the hit movie Braveheart,” Schechter continues. “Only this time the execution was a highly tasteful affair. The hero (played by Mel Gibson) was briefly strung up by his wrists and ankles in a manner that showed off his muscles to handsome advantage. Then, he was quickly dispatched in a way that the viewer never so much as glimpses.”

The good news about this contrast in entertainments, Schechter tells me, is that we, as a culture, are increasingly settling for simulations of violence rather than violence itself.

“I was watching the movie the Perfect Storm,” Schechter says. “I was struck at the end. There’s a disclaimer that says ‘no fish were harmed in the making of this movie.’”

“In the 18th and 19th century, ‘bull baiting’ was a very popular entertainment in England,” Schechter continues. “They would tether a bull to the ground and then set these bulldogs on the bull. The bulldogs would try to rip off parts of the bull and the bull would try to kill the dogs. There were some villages in England where butchers were legally required to bait their bulls before butchering them, because they didn’t want to deny residents of the village that form of entertainment.

“So we’ve gone in a very short time from regarding watching an actual bull being torn to pieces as an acceptable form of entertainment to becoming a society where we don’t want to kill fish in order to make a movie.”

Nevertheless, don’t we live in extraordinarily violent times?

“No,” Schechter says. “In terms of crime and murder rates — these things have all dropped precipitately. The murder rate in Elizabethan England was five times as high as it now is in New York City.”

What does Schechter think about the new guard of moral critics who would blame PlayStation 2 Grand Theft Auto for a coming generation of droogs and miscreants?

“Every time a new form of popular entertainment comes along it inspires exactly this kind of reaction we’re now seeing in terms of video games,” Schechter says. “People get horrified. They claim ‘Oh, it’s so much more gruesome and corrupt than the innocent entertainments of their youth.’ But when you look at those innocent entertainments of their youth, they were very graphic and violent.

“On the one hand, Hillary Clinton is simply repeating what moral critics have been saying for several hundred years," Schechter continues. “To me it’s like jumping on a moralistic bandwagon.

On the other hand, I would say that I do feel that certain images are obviously totally inappropriate for minors. There’s no question about that. Whether there should be a federal law or not is a whole other matter.

“Something very similar happened in the 1950s with comic books. Incredibly violent DC horror comics, which were often full of sexual sadism, precipitated a senate crusade against the comic industry which finally had to institute a self-imposed code. There are certain occasions when a certain amount of self-monitoring is appropriate. But I am totally against governmental censorship."

Why is Ms. Clinton able to get traction with this issue?

“One of the reasons that people are so receptive to this message is that it’s much easier to blame their children’s misbehavior on a video game or a rap song than to take responsibility for it as a parent. For me that’s really the bottom line. But you can’t enforce that.”

There was a time when I admired Senator Clinton, but with her moral values crusade against gamers, she’s become a pandering opportunist and a moralizing ninny. Clinton claims she wants to help parents, but instead she’s helping to shift the responsibility of protecting children — from irresponsible parents to the general public — by tightening our entertainment parameters.

I’m not a big fan of make believe violence, but virtual horror may be just the medicine we need to purge real violence from our souls. If Ms. Clinton was truly concerned about children, she could do better than play with our joysticks.

— Nathan Callahan, July 25, 2005


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