What "Culture of Carnage?"


In the wake of the Federal Trade Commission's new report on "marketing violent entertainment to children" and high-profile Senate hearings on the same matter, viewers -- I mean -- voters can get set for a political passion play full of long monologues about how the TV shows, movies, CDs and video games we consume in mass quantities are actually a bloody curse upon the land that nobody really likes.

But at least since Oedipus Rex -- a classic play that's definitely adults-only fare -- the most satisfying dramas have always involved plot twists and surprise revelations. So I'd like to inject some information that the politicians and pop culture critics are unlikely to acknowledge, much less appreciate, as they castigate everything from the sitcom Friends (too sexy for its time slot, say detractors) to the video game Doom (often cited as a cause of the Columbine school shooting).

At the heart of the matter is whether depictions of violence or sex in
popular culture create the same conditions in the real world. Contrary to confident statements that liken popular culture to cancer-causing products like cigarettes --- as the wife of Republican vice presidential candidate and former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities Lynne Cheney did at Wednesday's Senate hearings, it's far from clear what the actual effects are on society as a whole or on kids in particular.

As Cheney herself noted, crimes rates in the U.S. "only began to explode in the sixties" -- a decade when TV was dominated by such nefarious, anti-social programming as The Beverly Hillbillies, The Andy Griffith Show, and The Dick Van Dyke Show. It's true that Bonanza had a great run back then, too, and the fictional Cartwright Clan always hit first and asked questions later. But I doubt that anyone wants to haul TV patriarch Ben Cartwright or any of his fictional boys off to the hoosegow for corrupting the morals of a minor.

While there's no question that popular culture has been getting increasingly violent and lurid with every passing year, consider this: According to the most recent National Crime Victimization Survey, violent crime -- including violent crime committed by juveniles -- is now at its lowest point since the federal government started tracking such trends in 1973.

When it comes to children, it's especially worth underscoring the good news: The data show sharp and steady declines in serious violent crime committed by or against kids since 1993; crime at schools has dropped by more than 1/3 over the same time. And guess what else: Despite all manner of raunchy jiggling on MTV, sexual activity among kids is down, as are birthrates among unmarried teens.

This just shouldn't be happening if reviled rapper Eminem and his ilk are really Public Enemy Number One and are really creating what politicians likes to call a "culture of carnage."