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Maybe We're Not as Violent as We Think We Are

01.17.2006 08:05 | DISPATCHES

First, just how war-like are Americans? Listen to Howard Zinn in his recent article, "After the War," in The Progressive:

"There is a persistent argument. . . We will never do away with war because it comes out of human nature. The most compelling counter to that claim is in history: We don't find people spontaneously rushing to make war on others. [Instead] governments must make the most strenuous efforts to mobilize populations for war. They must entice soldiers with promises of money, education [and] if those enticements don't work. . . conscript young people. . .

"When you look at the endless series of wars of this century you do not find a public demanding war, but rather resisting it, until citizens are bombarded with exhortations that appeal, not to a killer instinct, but to a desire to do good, to spread democracy or liberty or overthrow a tyrant."

Second, just how hooked are we on violent entertainment? On December 31, George Gerbner, best known for tallying that the average American child watches 8,000 murders on TV by the age of twelve, died. The founder of the Cultural Indicators project, he believed, according to Scott Stossel in his enlightening May 1997 Atlantic article, "The Man Who Counts the Killings," that, "The violence on television serves as a lesson of power that puts people in their place."

In other words, it's the "cultural arm of the state that established religion once was." Stossel continues:

"Look at lists of the ten top-rated shows each year, [Gerbner] urges. Most of them are not violent; they're more likely to be comedies or nonviolent dramas [or used to be--this article was written before the unchecked proliferation of CSIs.] Yet producers still make scores of bloody shows. If network executives are merely obeying free-market forces, how can it be that they're making lots of shows that aren't in the highest demand?

"The high cost of production [of a TV show] means that producers must sell their shows into syndication or abroad. . . if they wish to make a profit. Selling shows abroad requires a proven story formula that, in distributor lingo, "travels well." The most common [cross-cultural] formulas are obvious: sex and violence."

One could argue that the federal government and the free market system keep us in fighting trim. After all, as Thomas Jefferson said, "The tree of liberty grows only when watered by the blood of tyrants." But his chestnut, conveyed by oral transmission in boardrooms over the years, must have transmutated, Rashomon-style, into, "The tree of the free market system grows only when watered by the blood of the people."


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