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Killing a Cultural Meme

I’m not sure exactly why this letter, in today’s Wall Street Journal, draws my (f)ire, but it does:

The Aurora, Colo., movie-theater massacre is a true tragedy (“Theater Rampage Jolts Nation,” page one, July 21). But what surprises me most is that Americans are shocked that such an act could occur.

After all, in our popular culture we glorify violence, the senseless killing of people. So it begs the question: Why should we be surprised whenever anyone actually engages in violence?

We need to come to terms with these contradictions as a people and as a culture. Otherwise, we have no reason to be shocked by random violence.

Robert Azar

Cary, N.C.

While in a free country with a population of nearly 315 million one can find pockets of people reveling in almost any sort of depravity and maliciousness, where in our broad – our popular – culture do we Americans “glorify” the “senseless killing of people”?  Do we give the likes of Tucson shooter Jared Loughner ticker-tape parades and make hagiographic movies to celebrate his exploits?  No – we imprison (and often execute) his like.  In Hollywood flicks, who is the hero?  Is it the cold-blooded killer, or is it the cop or the vigilante or the dedicated scientist or the caped crusader who finally brings the killer to justice?

Hell, Michael Vick was imprisoned for organizing dog fights – imprisoned on the premise (which is undoubtedly true) that such fights are cruel to dogs.

I do not deny the existence of violent video games, cruel sports, and handfuls of creepy people who find perverse pleasure in pondering the slaughter of innocent human beings.  But tisk-tisking of the sort that Mr. Azar does in his letter – tisk-tisking so common that it goes unnoticed – tisk-tisking so apparently correct that we’re all tempted, when we hear it, to nod our heads in sad and knowing agreement – is based on myth.

If it were true that “in our popular culture we glorify violence, the senseless killing of people,” then James Holmes, Jared Loughner, Timothy McVeigh, Mark David Chapman, and their brutal and evil ilk wouldn’t be imprisoned or executed.  Instead, they’d be paid huge sums of money to be cheered by adoring audiences as they are interviewed by Piers Morgan on CNN.

For much-needed perspective on the state of modern, commercial culture, consult Tyler Cowen’s 1998 master-work, In Praise of Commercial Culture.


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