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From the Red Scare hearings of the 1940s to the Clinton administration’s post-Littleton probe into the entertainment industry announced this Tuesday, government intrusion in the entertainment industry is an ill wind that has never blown anyone any good—in this country or anywhere else.

Following a recommendation in last month’s Senate crime bill, the president has ordered the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department to investigate the marketing practices of the film, recording and videogame industries.

This probe is not due to release its findings until December 2000. But while it may give Al Gore ammunition to counter GOP charges that the Clinton administration is too close to Hollywood, it will only serve as a distraction from real efforts to explain the societal sickness—or plain evil—behind the Littleton massacre.

And if anything practical should come out of the probe, it is as likely to damage the American entertainment industry and imperil liberty as all previous efforts by government bodies to influence media content have.

It’s not just a matter of over-regulation of private enterprise, or the danger that our society will slide down the slope of state censorship of the arts.

This kind of interference also tends to corrupt the politicians who are tempted by an all-too-easy target—and the glamour it affords (in a subliminal way) even to its critics. In a society obsessed with celebrity, what legislator, governor or president can resist a trip to the coast to pose with sympathetic stars while sternly lecturing the industry on its moral failings?

While there are studies that suggest links between viewing images of simulated violence and the commission of violent acts, common sense and historical experience would suggest that those links are pretty weak. As Professor Fredric Smoler of Sarah Lawrence College points out, ‘Strong historical evidence suggests that there is an inverse correlation between the proliferation of violent images and a society’s readiness to employ real violence.”

In other words, societies that have severely limited the depiction of violence have been at least as violent and cruel as our own, if not more so. Both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union placed severe restrictions on violent or sexual imagery in film. In apartheid South Africa, the Afrikaner regime banned dozens of ‘unwholesome” movies without the slightest effect on the nightmarish atrocities in the townships.

Even in ancient Athens, a society that forbade the on-stage depiction of violence in its tragedies, slaves were treated with a savagery that would sicken all but the most psychopathically brutal American.

To the extent that the administration really hopes to ‘do something” about schoolyard massacres by heavily armed teens, there is a kind of magical thinking at work in the Clinton initiative: namely, the idea that you can control violence by controlling its representation.

There are serious problems with the way the entertainment industry regulates itself. The Motion Picture Association of America’s rating system is far too concerned with whether a buttock can be seen on screen and insufficiently worried about the promotion of a antisocial messages, like the glorification of sadism and cruelty that has become a staple of so many black comedies aimed at teen-agers.

In some other countries, the state does play a much greater role in deciding what the public may watch or listen to.

In France, for example, legislators have successfully fought to limit the exhibition of American movies on the grounds that French culture is vulnerable to pollution by the crass sensationalism of Hollywood. This oblique censorship has combined with government subsidy of elitist cinema to cripple a once-great indigenous industry. A similar process achieved the same end in Mexico and Brazil, countries that once had flourishing movie industries of their own.

Not a good model to follow at all.

 

 

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