Who’s to blame for gun violence? Movie critics!
In a bizarre new essay, Thomas Frank suggests that Hollywood—and movie critics—are the NRA's "propaganda wing"
By Andrew O'Hehir
I think we all believe, on a bone-deep level, that living in the media universe of the last 50 years or so has reshaped human consciousness and affected human behavior in ways maddeningly difficult to define. Even social scientists who have devoted their entire careers to the effects of media—and of violent media in particular—have the Devil’s own time explaining how it all works, and nearly all of them shy away from simplistic theories of cause and effect. In what might be termed the mainstream psychological view, media violence is seen as a “contextual risk factor” that “increases the likelihood for aggressive behavior” to some minor but measurable extent while also, so to speak, raising the overall social temperature. There is little or no clear evidence connecting violent entertainment to actual acts of criminal violence, but some scholars suggest that violent media can serve as a “stylistic catalyst” that inspires disturbed people to act out specific fantasies.
Given that academic context, Frank’s description of certain kinds of violent Hollywood movies as “advertisements for mass murder” is deliberately provocative. This is the moment, I imagine, where Frank expects someone in my position to throw up my hands in dismay and begin declaiming against censorship. Well, let’s skip that step. In fact, I think the argument that Hollywood is, in some indirect and unintentional way, inciting or inviting massacres is worth taking seriously, for two reasons. First, it fits with the known facts, including the striking fact that even as overall crime rates have trended downward over the past 30 years in the United States, spectacular acts of mass murder along the lines of Aurora or Sandy Hook have apparently become more common.
Secondly, it fits what most people already believe, on a profound if unscientific level. (As my inbox, or the comments section of every article I’ve ever written on this subject, will testify.) As I wrote in January and as Frank says here, LaPierre may be a shameless hypocrite and an apologist for literal engines of death, but he struck a sensitive chord, especially with parents, in pointing the finger at ubiquitous media violence. Most Americans enjoy consuming violent movies, TV shows and/or video games—and most also believe or suspect they’re socially harmful. This isn’t really much of a paradox; just consider our national obesity epidemic, or the millions who struggle with addiction. No one is under the misapprehension that OxyContin or Jägermeister or double orders of garlic fries or 46-ounce tankards of Mountain Dew are good for you, but that doesn’t deter us from indulging on a mind-boggling scale.
We've seen this attitude in every war from the Indian Wars to Vietnam to Iraq to the war on drugs. We strike, invade, and kill first. Then, 10 or 20 or 50 years later, we realize we made a mistake. "Oops! Maybe we didn't need to slaughter so many people to achieve our goals."
A great example of this is Western movies and TV shows. Whether intentional or not, these shows served as anti-Indian propaganda. They conveyed America's "master narrative" about God giving the land to Euro-Christians to "civilize."
I don't know if these shows led to actual violence against Indians. But they led to racist thoughts and aggressive acts. It's probably no coincidence that Congress terminated many tribes while Westerns were demonizing Indians. Media violence made it acceptable "kill the Indian and save the man"--figuratively, if not literally.
For more on our violent culture, see Newtown Shootings Show America's Pathology and Aurora Shooting Shows America's Pathology.