More Downton Abbey, Less Grand Theft Auto? Not Gonna Happen.

Last week, my sort-of opposite number at—culture blogger Alyssa Rosenberg, who also writes for The Atlantic and Slate—posted the kind of prescriptive think piece about Our Violent Culture that makes old geezers like me heave a hefty sigh as we finger our own dog-eared membership cards in the vast left-wing conspiracy. Just for the record, I should say that a) Rosenberg and I don't know each other at all, and b) she's someone whose work I enjoy and often glean dandy insights from, not least because our sensibilities and guiding premises are so different. If she's not at her best writing prescriptions, so what? That isn't really a critic's job in the first place.

Even so, the assumptions in play in “How To Change Our Culture's Reliance on Violence” struck me as wrongheaded enough to deserve a hoot or two. To begin where Rosenberg ends, here's the clunker of a line I groaned at most: "It's time to retrain viewers in how to interpret violence.. . " She goes on to provide specifics—distinguishing between brutality for brutality's sake and the psychologically revealing kind, mainly—but you've got the gist.

How to break this down? Let's start with that meaningless construction so beloved of bloviating politicians: "It's time." As any writer as alert to such ploys as Rosenberg is in other contexts should know, that's a claim that melts faster than ice cream in August on close inspection. (What the heck was so premature about last Tuesday? On the other hand, would it kill us to procrastinate until Punxsutawney Phil has had a chance to weigh in? Etc.) Then comes the verb "retrain," with its unconscious—well, I sure hope so —echo of good old "re-education" programs.  Note as well the implication that, if viewers are in need of retraining, they must have been trained to begin with.  Who did it the first time, and who gets the job now? Rosenberg doesn't say.

Another off-putting given here—and I don't think I'm wrong to say it informs her whole post—is the notion that "viewers" are a monolithic entity (never including the writer, of course) who can be herded this way or that in unison without individual choices coming into the mix.  Even if that were true, which it obviously isn't, why on earth would it be desirable?  To paraphrase the great Nelson Algren, it's downright strange how often integrity in art depends on who's swinging the mackerel.

Anyway, "retraining" is only Point Three—boldfaced in the original as "3. Teach Audiences to Read Violence Differently"—of Rosenberg's three-part program to wean her compatriots of gorging on mindless bang-bang. The first is, at least, polemically ingenious:   "1. Increase Funding for Public Broadcasting." As she sees it, anyone in favor of less violent TV programming—a camp now apparently including Wayne LaPierre, something Rosenberg has some fun with—ought to boost the alternative, giving PBS more of a competitive edge.  She compares it to backing solar energy, creating a pleasant image of the PBS logo's three little heads sprouting Peter Max flowers as their necks turn into mighty stalks.

Let's try to break that one down, too.  Is a vow of non-violent programming part of PBS's brief? No. Should it be? No again. And to go the reductio ad absurdum route, should increased funding come on the condition that PBS abstains from airing or re-airing so much as an "American Masters" on Sam Peckinpah, Samuel Fuller, or Quentin Tarantino, any of whom might give the kids wrong ideas? Obviously not. In a perfect world, PBS would long ago have become our fearless go-to channel for the complete The Wild Bunch, Fuller's long-suppressed White Dog, and so on.  Rosenberg is confusing PBS's original mandate, which was to be educational—a task whose nature and goals our government, to its credit, has never defined—with PBS's default version of same, which is to be genteel.  

Nothing proves it like her idea that more bucks would let PBS buy "more British shows like Downton Abbey," as if one wasn't enough and three or four dozen of them over the decades haven't been too many. While I dig the Crawley clan myself, PBS's ridiculous Anglomania ought to be a stench in the nostrils of every self-respecting American: "Hey, please use our tax dollars to show us more of that crap we fought a revolution to get rid of, willya?" Anyhow, the notion that more Downton Abbeys would cure hoi polloi of getting off on, oh, The Expendables is nanny-statism at its most schoolmarmish.  Rosenberg may not like the great American public's priorities, but they aren't based on ignorance. They're based on preference.

To be fair, wrestling with the question of how to alter our culture's tone "without regulation or abridgment of freedom of speech" would have strained my inventiveness too. That's for the simple reason that it's either a pointless plea for our better angels to get cracking uncoerced or a contradiction in terms. I don't doubt Rosenberg respects free speech, and I also don't have a clue whether this piece was her idea or something her editors hatched and she did her weary best to deliver. But you obviously can't write prescriptions without indicating a preferred outcome—not to mention either addressing or, as she mostly does, evading the nagging question of agency.

She navigates that dilemma best in her second proposal, "Change The Incentives in Narrative Storytelling."  The main focus here is video games, and she's merely rooting for "the entertainment industry" to have "an internal conversation with itself"—which will happen when pigs fly, something she no doubt knows. But at least it doesn't involve murky directives from on high (well, except from the likes of, not an entity to make video-game manufacturers quake in their boots).  As it happens, this is also the only time Rosenberg links to outside sources that back up the plausibility of her suggested remedies—e.g., her claim that "viewers get genuinely excited about games that offer up complicated moral choices," even if the link does send you to a puff piece on a single game that lets people play a professional killer with the option of not shedding blood.  Nonetheless, having succumbed to various temptations to violate the Geneva Convention myself on Playstation 3—  and then regretted it, which was interesting—I can affirm she's right about this.

Though it's been in abeyance in recent years, one reason to bring my cheerful devotion to Call of Duty into things is that it's bound to irritate people with loftier leisure pursuits than mine, which is always fun. But it's also a gentle reminder that I didn't react to Rosenberg's piece only as a fellow critic—I reacted as a consumer, and we consumers aren't crazy about being nudged to improve ourselves by either end of the political spectrum.  A smart writer herself, she probably knows the old saying about what the road to hell is paved with.


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