Savage Pastimes: A Cultural History of Violent Entertainment, by Harold Schechter, New York: St. Martin's Press, 208 pages, $24.95
In July, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed into law a bill that prohibited the sale or rental of violent video games to minors. Parents' groups and assorted cultural commissars applauded as the Democratic governor, citing research that purportedly showed links between real-life violence and its pixelated counterparts, promised to make Illinois a safe haven for children. "These are the games that undermine the values that we as parents want to teach our children, the values that we find in the Bible," said Blagojevich. "This law is all about empowering parents and giving them the tools they need to protect their kids."
Panics about violence and misanthropy in popular entertainment are a regularly repeating part of our modern media life. These cries often ring hollow, partially from a sense that those condemning the violence haven't themselves played the games or seen the movies, partially from a suspicion that the links they posit don't exist. I have spent hundreds of hours playing various editions of Grand Theft Auto--those roundly condemned video games that simulate a day in the life of a gun-running, pedestrian-violating, traffic-signal-disobeying car thief--and I have yet to exhibit such antisocial behavior on America's real-life roadways. Perhaps I am the exception; perhaps all others who partake of these games are bloody, slavering things who, after an hour of joystick stimulus, go and skulk about in dark alleys, waiting to cudgel unsuspecting passers-by.
"The problem with moral crusaders," writes Harold Schechter, "is an almost willful blindness to the fundamental realities of human behavior, accompanied by a sweeping ignorance of cultural history that prevents them from seeing supposedly unique manifestations of modern depravity for what they really are--i.e., simply the latest versions of perennial phenomena." This is the thesis of Schechter's provocative Savage Pastimes: A Cultural History of Violent Entertainment. Schechter, who in addition to teaching 19th-century American literature at Queens College is the author of several mass-market true crime books, takes a new angle on the cultural violence issue. Rather than claiming that media violence has no impact on consumers, Schechter argues that violent entertainment is good, indeed necessary--a way to sublimate the vestigial primal urges left over from our hunter-gatherer days.
Today's purportedly super-violent games? Merely the latest iteration of an age-old tradition. "The current uproar over media sensationalism," Schechter writes, "rests on two premises: that popular culture is significantly more vicious and depraved than it used to be, and that we live in uniquely violent times. Everyone seems to accept these propositions as the obvious, irrefutable truth. But what if everyone is wrong?"
In the 1999 book Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill, West Point psychologist Dave Grossman and educator Gloria DeGaetano refer to "the fact that all forms of media violence, whether on TV or in film and video games, have become more and more graphically brutal and sensational." In late 2004 Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), who has made a career out of scolding the media, declared that violence in video games was worse than ever. The Parents Television Council offers ready-to-send form e-mails that complain, "Never before has protecting my child's innocence from indecent material been so difficult." All this hand wringing hinges on a glorification of the virtues of the past--the perception that, as Grossman and DeGaetano write, "Hyperviolent movies like Natural Born Killers, Pulp Fiction, or The Matrix would not have been tolerated, let alone achieved commercial success, in 1939--the year that Wuthering Heights, The Wizard of Oz, and Gone With The Wind were released."
Such a simplistic worldview conveniently forgets that 1939 also brought such films as Death Rides the Range, Six-Gun Rhythm, and The Man They Could Not Hang, advertised with the tagline, "Boris Karloff dares you to see this holocaust of horror!" To be sure, modern films can be decidedly more graphic and overt in their depictions of violence, and Schechter doesn't dispute that. He just doesn't think it matters. "In terms of frenetic pacing, pyrotechnical destruction, and sheer body count, there is in fact no comparision between, say, a Die Hard movie and John Ford's Stagecoach," he writes. "The effect of the two films on their respective audiences, however, was much the same….If anything, the impact of Stagecoach may have been even greater, since its original audience had never seen anything so exciting." In other words, the most important comparison is not between today's entertainments and yesteryear's; it's between how people react to whatever is considered cutting-edge at the time.
But for the record, our era's diversions are positively antiseptic compared to some premodern pastimes. Turn back the calendar to before the 1900s, and it becomes clear that most old-time entertainments were as bloody as or bloodier than our own. Schechter goes giddy proving this. "Our popular culture may be saturated with synthetic gore, but at least we don't spend our leisure time watching real people have their eyes put out, their limbs pulverized, their sex organs amputated and their flesh torn to pieces with red-hot pincers," he writes shortly before describing said amputation and pincer wielding. Schechter discusses public executions and tortures in Renaissance Europe, notes the enduring popularity of bloody true crime books, and reprints numerous lurid etchings and wood carvings. (My favorite is the self-explanatory A Man Crucifying Himself.) This cavalcade of wanton dismemberment reminds you that Thomas Hobbes' description of life in a state of nature as "nasty, brutish and short" was also a pretty apt description of life in what passed for civilization--especially the "nasty and brutish" part.
Take the theater. The bloodshed found in Elizabethan miracle plays and revenge tragedies would shock modern audiences. Shakespeare's gruesome Titus Andronicus ends with two rapists being butchered, baked in a pie, and eaten by their mother. Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy features as many murders as any Wes Craven film. Starting in 1897, the torture theater of France's Grand Guignol brought simulated violence to new extremes. Parisians flocked to see thinly constructed melodramas that provided pretexts for disembowelings, eye gougings, amputations, and any number of blade-induced disfigurements. Sin City had nothing on the Grand Guignol.
Yet people persist in misinterpreting the past, thanks to an enduring, sometimes willful ignorance of history. "From the vantage point of the present," writes Schechter, "when the latest state-of-the-art entertainments seem to offer unprecedented levels of stimulation and lifelike gore--yesterday's popular culture always seems innocent and quaint." Yet for our ancestors, living in times when the plow and the printing press were the height of technological innovation, low-tech entertainments could still seem quite threatening. A tract published circa 1820 warned parents of the evils of books by noted child corruptors such as James Fenimore Cooper and Sir Walter Scott: "A bad book is poison. If you love misery, give novels to your children." (Apparently, novels caused a "bloated imagination.") Psychiatrist Fredric Wertham convinced 1950s parents that violent comic books were irreparably corrupting America's simpletons and fourth-graders. From the Middle Ages to the modern day, there has always been something sufficiently shocking to get the ninnies crying wolf.
Schechter pursues his subject with encyclopedic verve--a talent to be expected from the man behind The A-Z Encyclopedia of Serial Killers. Still, the book would have been improved if Schechter had spent more time analyzing the people who consumed these ghastly entertainments, rather than just describing the gore like a pedant at a Halloween party. He gets gleefully carried away in his presentation of evidence, and one can easily picture the apprehensive looks on the reference librarians' faces as they found him poring over yet another volume on child eating. That said, Schechter's writing is smooth and graceful, and he makes a strong case that today's culture is no more violent than the historical norm.
He does not succeed nearly as well in his attempt to prove that cultural violence is a necessary thing. While the methodology of those psychologists who hope to prove that video games are murder simulators is suspect, Schechter's contrary research is hardly more edifying. His argument is largely based on Freudian inference and anecdotal evidence rather than statistical analysis. He does not examine crime rates or correlations that would lend heft to his argument. For example, from 1993 to 1997--the breakout years for violent video games, as guns got cooler and avatars started looking like real people--juvenile violent crime arrest rates actually declined. There is material here that could help Schechter's case; he gives it one sentence in the book's final chapter.
Even more disappointingly, Schechter almost completely omits material from places other than Western Europe and the United States. This omission nearly cripples his argument. You can't contend that people everywhere harbor a residual psychological bloodlust, then fail to mention the majority of the world's population. Schechter's contention that cultural violence is necessary may well be true, but his book's methodological flaws ensure that he doesn't come close to proving it.
Still, for all its limitations as scholarship, the book succeeds as a polemic. Schechter is a witty and clever cultural critic, and the tweaking he delivers to the world's Chicken Littles --those like Gov. Blagojevich, who writes on safegamesillinois.org that "when kids play, they should play like children, not like gangland assassins"--is overdue. If violent entertainment is anything, it is a mirror held up to a violent culture. Eliminating these cultural reflections won't do anything to alter the master image.?