Clearly, Peggy Noonan Hasn’t Seen The Wild Bunch

“Did ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ cause the Aurora shootings? No, of course not. One movie doesn’t have that kind of power…” Don’t worry, Noonan will soon drop this relative calm and start making lots of illogical assertions about how Hollywood–after all these years and its welcome tendency of recent years to take violence a lot more-seriously–is destroying America. Copyright 2012 Warner Bros. Pictures.

Peggy Noonan still blames violence in entertainment for the Violence in Our Society.  (Note: All consternation caps are ironic.)  Actually, she makes 2 arguments:
1.) Violence in entertainment encourages children to act more-aggressively, and
2.) Violence in entertainment unhinges the insane, who are more-impressionable.

I wasn’t aware that the deeply-disturbed were up-to-date in their consumption popular culture; they may well be more-impressionable, but Noonan elides impressionability in a personal context with the explicit and unreflective ingestion of popular culture images; the latter should be more-recognizable from the cases of mass murder we’ve seen if it’s the principal catalyst.  And when madmen carried out their killing sprees in that golden age of the early 1960s (news flash: it happened), who were they modeling themselves after back then, Lawrence of Arabia?  If study after study shows that children who watch violent entertainment become more-aggressive in their behavior, that’s not surprising at all; children imitate others, particularly adults, constantly.  They are trying to learn, and mostly just have what is directly in front of them to work with.  But this bad behavior is mostly a form of play–a problem, granted, and one that must be addressed with proper disciplining–but Noonan’s thesis is wrong if depictions of violence in one’s popular culture don’t correlate with higher levels of violent crime, or at least a higher concentration of sociopaths in a society.  The former is known to be incorrect; the latter argument I have not heard advanced by an academic.

Anyway, crime–including violent crime–is actually at an all-time low nationwide.  This has been linked to the increased sophistication of police protection, which suggests that crime rates are influenced more by strategic considerations than Noonan’s condescending insistence that we are all sponges that can only release what we soak up (and that we soak everything we see up).  I don’t see much evidence that the younger generation of kids are more-violent than past generations; even the plague of cyber-bullying (and I do accept that as a plague) suggests that cruel children are content to shift from aggressive to passive-aggressive forms of cruelty.  This clashes with any strong form of the “desensitization” thesis.

…Now, *this* guy *did* make us more-violent, Noonan avers, bringing all her sociological insight to bear on the problem. Copyright 2008 Warner Bros. Pictures.

Look, everyone–A Conservative is decrying the moral decadence promoted by Hollywood!  Noonan has the theory she likes and seems impervious to more easily-supported explanations of rampages: Our overall murder rate is several times as high as Britain’s (as is our rate of murder with guns, not coincidentally), but she has nothing to say about how easy it is to buy guns in this country and the 1-sided role this fact plays in extreme but cowardly acts of violence.  (States with fewer regulations on gun sales do in fact have higher rates of homicide with guns, and for the most part of homicide overall.)  She even makes the perfunctory nod to nostalgia, telling us that it was all so very different, oh, 23 years ago. Apparently Jack Nicholson’s 1989 Joker was non-threatening and unreal.  “He was meant to amuse,” she says–which either makes me wonder how recently she’s seen Tim Burton’s Batman or suggests that movies actually take violence much more-seriously now than they did then.  She notes that 2008’s The Dark Knight was a very dark film–though it involved less indiscriminate killing than Burton’s 1989 Batman and made Batman’s philosophical refusal to kill (which Burton rather crassly discarded back in those halcyon days of the late-1980s) a central theme of its narrative.  She reacts to the cerebral darkness of that movie as a sign that we have lost our way!  Staring a positive cultural development in the face, she sees only a predictable step in our now-unstoppable descent into madness.

Speaking of the descent into madness: Noonan found Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the Joker “amusing” rather than violent or morbid (as I did). If I’m following her correctly, portrayals of violence as funny and ironic are innocent; it’s the portrayals of violence as serious stuff which desensitizes us. Copyright 1989 Warner Bros. Pictures.

Most-unfortunately, Noonan has nothing to say about the media’s relentless and weirdly un-self-conscious role in glorifying the homicidally-insane.  No, it’s the movies that are doing it.

It would be nice to see us emerge from our political stupor about the pervasiveness of gun violence, which we can certainly do more to prevent than we have without violating the 2nd Amendment.  It would be nice for the media to get a clue about their role in inspiring copycat murderers.  It would be nice for people who decry the violence in our culture to actually have a grasp on the decline of crime (and, arguably, of violent sentiments in people’s minds).

Finally, it would be nice if those indulging the unrecognized weakness of inveterate contempt for the present could see that they have a problem–which, while subtle, pervades their thoughts and feelings (particularly in the case of their hazy recollections about the past).  If they recognized this conceit of judgment, maybe then they wouldn’t point to an act of violence by an insane person (those who by definition keep their own counsel) and then point to a representation of violence (which can be made edifying or exploitative), and then say (with a lack of irony that Noonan attributes to the insane without irony), “You see? People can’t tell what is real!”

Please return to your regularly-scheduled programming.


1 thought on “Clearly, Peggy Noonan Hasn’t Seen The Wild Bunch

  1. Prometheus

    Jason: Remember your Plato or, if you wish, your Nietzsche. “Poets” are always the valets of some morality. Remember what “poetry” is. Yes, indeed, there are links between a people’s entertainment and their mores. The Roman Republic did not enjoy the cruelty of the circus to nearly the degree and scope it did under the Empire.

    Leave pundits to their punditry; read and review wise men on these matters.


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