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Jim Sleeper Headshot

What We Should Tell the Gun Lobby and Producers/Editors

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"All civil charms and priestly spells...., these like a dream dissolve, and man rebounds whole aeons back in nature." -- Herman Melville, 1863

When a credibly hot-under-the-collar Piers Morgan told Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, on his CNN show, "You're an unbelievably stupid man, aren't you?", my first impulse was to gloat that, at last, the gun-lobby had gotten the big smack-down that it and its millions of credulous adherents deserve.

Pratt had been skirting around the fact that countries that restrict gun ownership more tightly than we do are dramatically freer of gun violence.But Morgan's rebuke to him brought a sinuous comeback: "It seems to me you are morally obtuse," Pratt replied. "You seem to prefer being a victim to being able to prevail over the criminal element. I don't know why you want to be the criminal's friend."

"You have absolutely no coherent argument," Morgan sputtered. Realizing that wasn't enough, he convened a more thoughtful discussion the next evening. But the gun lobby's "Arm the teachers, 'cause it's a dangerous world out there" argument -- echoed today by Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association -- has the seemingly coherent, self-enclosing logic of a prison system, which tries to end violence by caging freedom. And the bigger danger it reflects -- and then reinforces -- is the growing, almost gladatorial violence in our public entertainments.

It's a big part of the reason why, even with violent crime actually declining, the gun-lobby has made its dark vision of looming, omnipresent violence so pervasive throughout civil society. The lobby is tapping into swift undercurrents of fear and resentment that entertainment producers are hyping. Both gun profiteers and media moguls should stand accused of generating even more violence and the growing prison response.

Such currents have run through every society in history, of course. But to understand what's accelerating them so menacingly now, we really do need to look beyond the Pratt's Gun Owners of America, the National Rifle Association, and the weapons manufacturers who fund those organizations coolly as part of their investment. The currents of death run under the cover not only of the Second Amendment but also the First.

The irony is that what the First Amendment's framers considered "freedom of speech" has nothing to do with it. The big untapped debate about the gun crisis involves the growing violence -- gladatorial, sadistic, pointless -- in so much big-studio entertainment, not to mention internet games.

The problem isn't about editors' and producers' freedom of speech but about their honor and judgment in the face of corporate bottom-lining -- that is, about their being willing to stop bypassing our brains and hearts on their way to our lower viscera and our wallets on any pretext whatever, no matter how depraved, to glue eyeballs and keep us from clicking the remote.

I first understood this one night in 1994, when I turned on my TV to a local CBS affiliate and saw the actor Richard Thomas stalking a corporate office building, an arsenal of assault weapons on his back, in the made-for TV movie "I Can Make You Love Me: The Stalking of Laura Black".

I watched for at least 15 minutes with clammy revulsion as Thomas coolly blew away a dozen people who looked like those I worked with every day - people at the water cooler, on the phone. He slew them across what, for TV, is a long time, at least five minutes. Bloody, writhing bodies everywhere.

No effort had been spared by co-producers Bernadette Caulfield and Ardythe Georgens: Brooke Shields (Laura) begs Thomas not to shoot; flies across the room, spurting blood, as he does; and crawls, weeping, to colleagues after Thomas has sauntered off to kill others. Later, seeing that she has gotten away, he stalks some more. "Laura, where are you?' he calls.

Like most other Americans, I'm not unduly squeamish about screen violence. I watch it willingly enough in documentaries or newscasts and in Shakespeare and dramas that draw us into unflinching encounters with our human condition. But those 15 minutes with "I Can Make You Love Me" reinforced my inclination to click the remote whenever music and body language tell me I'm about to see bloodshed for Nielsons.

Variety wrote that the film - based on a true story, of course - combines "woman-in-jeopardy and mass-killer genres into a predictable and often gruesome concoction that has little to offer other than gratuitous violence."

Georgens went on to make the TV movie "Detention: The Siege at Johnson High," in 1997, in which a 24-year-old dropout who blames a history teacher for his failures enters the school with a 12-gauge shotgun, a revolver, and a massive supply of ammunition. After shooting the teacher, he kills four others and makes the whole school his hostage.

I'll spare you the rest except to mention that the acting is actually pretty good and the film well made. But such movies aren't good drama. They're the gladiator pits of a falling Rome. Since we can't seem to turn them off, we have to wonder whether, as Livy said of the ancient Romans, we've become too ill to bear our sicknesses or their cures.

Censorship won't do it. We need to undertake collective withdrawal from a national addiction to this vicious entertainment and gun violence like the withdrawal we've undertaken from cigarettes.

Like tobacco companies that made enormous profits while obfuscating the truth about cigarettes, the gun lobby and the studios and television networks that are making enormous profits from pumping gratuitous violence into our national bloodstream try to obfuscate its effects on the behavior of impressionable and vulnerable young people.

Entertainment-makers piously tell congressional committees and busybody moralists like me that the many violent acts per prime-time hour on each network have no discernible influence on behavior. (I won't even count here the deluge in cable and internet games.) Out of the other side of their mouths, they tell advertisers that the more often they repeat a message, the more it will influence behavior.

They add that they're only providing consumers with what they want. But surely consumers want them to stand outside Rockefeller Center and Black Rock distributing hundred-dollar bills. What the entertainment-makers and their advertisers want is whatever will glue the most eyeballs to the screen. And, "human nature" being what it is - or what they've decided that it is -- that means whatever will bypass our brains and hearts on its way to our lower viscera and our wallets.

Why not blame the public and human nature, then? That's basically Pratt's, gun makers', and studios' answer to Morgan. It rests on an age-old half-truth, the kind the clever strongman Cleon told to the Athenian assembly as he proposed mass slaughter of the traitorous Mytilenes in Thucydides' account of the Peloponnesian War.

The novelist D.H. Lawrence, too, acknowledged the eternal tension between impulsive, selfish desires and deeper strivings toward a common good that, he insisted, could be nourished by sound public narratives.

Lawrence's response to that tension resembled the Athenian Diodotus' to Cleon, and it might have been Piers Morgan's response to Pratt, as well: "It is the business of our Chief Thinkers to tell us of our own deeper desires, not to keep shrilling our little desires in our ears," Lawrence wrote.

But instead of addressing a democratic public in ways that strengthen it, the "chief thinkers" in our studios and glossy magazine caves deliver focus-grouped, digitalized titillations and intimidations that carry not artists' art, political activists' appeals, or scientists' and reporters' hard-won truths, but a mindless probing and goosing that turns the public into a fungible series of audiences assembled and re-assembled on whatever pretext will produce the most profit.

When leaders do that, the rest of us need to curb them by using our own First Amendment rights to shame them. We also need to educate the young to be skeptical and critical of what news and entertainment media are giving them.

A few months before I caught that rerun of "I Can Make You Love Me," Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey, made these same arguments in a speech about civil society at the National Press Club, assailing the entertainment industry for abusing "the all-important role of storytelling which is essential to the formation of moral education that sustains a civil society" by feeding the young "a menu of violence without context and sex without attachment."

Bradley even urged open civic rebellion: "If you see something that offends you," he told Americans at the time, "find out who the sponsor is, . . . who's on the board of directors, . . . where they live . . . Send a letter to the members of the board at their homes and ask whether they realize they are making huge profits from the brutal degradation of other human beings. Then send a copy of that letter to all their neighbors and friends." Another way of putting it might be: "Use your First Amendment rights to counter theirs."

No civic rebellions have accomplished much on this front, and it's hard to imagine them doing so unless they come from a kind of politics - like that of Gandhi and his followers, American civil-rights activists, and the peoples of Soviet Europe in the late 1980s and early '90s - that rejoins honest words to deliberate actions, thereby reinvigorating civil society and thwarting its predators. Gun violence short-circuits such renewals because it sunders words from deeds, leaving words empty and deeds brutal.

Absent a better politics, it's hard to imagine what might change the climate at a lot of local TV news shows that play up every nasty crime, or among the producers of internet games. We have to make them realize that they're doing something to kids and to our society that, as parents, and citizens, they're already living to regret.