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Real Blood Isn't Shed in the Movies

Kids learn violence as the victims of battering by grown-ups, not from Hollywood.

May 19, 1996|ALEXANDER COCKBURN | Alexander Cockburn is the coauthor, with Ken Silverstein, of "Washington Babylon," new from Verso

Latest to mount the pulpit on the topic of violence in film is Dustin Hoffman, who once starred in the aberrantly bloodstained film "Straw Dogs."

Hoffman has had second thoughts and announced at the Cannes Film Festival that he is now rejecting roles in films filled with gratuitous violence. Referring to recent mass murders in Dunblane, Scotland, and in Tasmania, Hoffman asked, "Are you saying film violence doesn't have anything to do with it?"

But violence is mostly engendered by real violence, not the renditions of it in movies or in the iconography of heavy metal. As Mike Males, a sociologist based at UC Irvine, puts it in his excellent new book, "The Scapegoat Generation": "Most of the media-blamers seem to be liberals and moderates seeking to recapture some of the coveted 'values' field from conservatives. They have devoted far more attention to the oft-repeated assertion that 'the average American child sees 8,000 murders and 10,000 acts of violence on television before he or she is out of grammar school' than to the rarely examined fact that millions of American children experience 'real' rapes and beatings before they are old enough to get out of grammar school."

Murderers and other violent criminals are almost invariably abused as children. Violence is handed down in the form of blows, sexual predation and punishment inflicted by adults on the young. The U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect reported in April 1995 that violence, mostly by parents and caretakers, kills 2,000 children a year and seriously injures 140,000 more. Most murders of children are called "accidents," according to Nancy Hutchings' "The Violent Family," which reckoned that as many as 5,000 children a year die at the hands of their parents.

Parents are four times as likely to commit simple assault and twice as likely to commit severe or aggravated assault on their children as the other way around. A survey reported in Science magazine in 1990 concluded that 18% of children experienced at some time a "severe violent act"--punched, scalded, burned, threatened with the knife or gun--at the hands of their parents. Males calculated that about 7 million children a year are subjected to at least one "severe violent act" of these types by their parents. The statisticians did not include spanking and whipping, which the Supreme Court has ruled to be "cruel and unusual punishment" if inflicted on adults.

Males' central point is that "there is no such thing as 'youth violence,' except in the sense that there is 'Sagittarian violence' (One in 12 killers! Tripled since 1960!) or 'Smith violence' (The leading name of U.S. murderers!) or 'brown-eyed violence' (Don't even calculate.)." Yes, homicide rates have doubled, and violent crime arrests have gone up 70% among 13- to 19-year-olds in the past decade. Yes, there are 135,000 schoolchildren toting guns. "Yet all of these are predictable results of the doubling in youth poverty over the past 20 years. . . . Adults subjected to similar levels of poverty are similarly violent."

Poverty and violence were similarly tied in the Great Depression in the 1930s. George Leighton and Richard Hellman wrote in Harper's in 1935: "A migratory worker who has traveled back and forth across the country for 20 years has described the comparatively recent appearance of firearms among the young bums. 'In my day,' said he, 'gats were almost unheard of. . . . It's different now. . . you find high school kids armed."

Murder peaked during the Depression in 1933 at 9.7 homicides per 100,000. (State executions peaked two years later.) After steadily falling, that figure was unsurpassed until the Great Youth Depression of the 1990s, when the murder rate reached 10 per 100,000.

So, what is the role of TV and film violence, not omitting the appalling local "news" shows presenting everyday life as a state of siege? Thirty-one suburban and rural California counties, with a population of 2.5 million, including 250,000 teenagers, reported no teenage murders in 1993. Yet in a state with 4,000 murders that year, these kids saw the same movies, heard the same music, probably had access to as many guns as recorded in those central Los Angeles census tracts with the same youth population but more than 200 youth murders. One difference: The youth poverty level of those suburban and rural counties is tiny in comparison with Los Angeles'.

How much easier to beat up on movies and the Teen Beast than to talk about violence's true promoters: poverty and war. Only a few days ago, Bill Clinton was striking verbal postures about the L.A. gangs again. Maybe soon, like Nancy Reagan in the old days, he will be accompanying the police on raids. He has his risk-free election strategy, "Declare War on Kids."

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