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Jewish World ReviewMay 3, 1999 /17 Iyar, 5759

Paul Greenberg

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It's the culture, stupid

(JWR) ---- (
IN THE WAKE OF the latest and bloodiest school massacre, the usual suspects were quickly rounded up. The National Rifle Association heads the list; it's just been declared persona non grata in Denver and told to take its convention elsewhere. Guns are being held responsible for the mayhem at Littleton -- as if they had fired themselves.

The same popular fury has not yet been directed at the bombs found at the scene of the crime, since they serve no useful purpose for the anti-gun lobby, with its single-cause theory for the violence rampant in American culture.

An older generation may find this obsession with guns as the root of all evil strange. Is it just our imagination, or were firearms much more common years ago and school violence much less so?

Remember back to those days of yore -- "Happy Days,'' they would be called later in a nostalgic sitcom set in the 1950s. Those were the days when every high school offered ROTC and half the boys wore uniforms, drilled and carried a rifle on parade. No one thought it unusual. Or especially dangerous.

True, not everybody tried out for the high school rifle team, but quite a few did. The yearbook always carried their picture, complete with weapons, trophies and smiles. It may have taken the poorer shots several tries, but even they eventually managed to get one of those little dull-gray marksman's crosses to wear on their starched khakis.

And lots of kids used to get .22s for coming-of-age birthdays in this hunting-and-fishing culture -- surely they still do -- and no one thought it amiss. Yet I can't remember anything like Littleton back then.

Yes, accidents happened -- dreadful accidents. Nor were the Fifties the kind of happy oasis in history they have come to seem in memory. The shadow of nuclear war routinely loomed, and society was rampant with social ills -- and with the struggles against them. Nobody should have to tell those of us in Arkansas about that, not after the Crisis at Central High in 1957. Lots was going on in the Eisenhower Era as racial segregation crumbled and the post-war economy expanded in fits and starts.

Back then, when folks shook their heads over the sad demise of American culture, they might be referring to Elvis Presley's hips -- not a massacre in a school library. Rock 'n' roll now seems decidedly old-fashioned, even wholesome. In this decade, we look back to the Fifties with bemusement, the way the Fifties looked back at the Twenties with its flappers and bathtub gin. We forget that those times weren't quite so simple to the Americans living through them.

But the adolescent rebellions of earlier decades seem comical compared to what happened at Littleton, Col. Particularly because no one can be sure that what happened there was an aberration, a one-of-a-kind horror -- not after Jonesboro, Ark.

It's all part of a new, frightening pattern. And that pattern is not easily explained -- despite all the snap explanations going around, and the convenient scapegoats being offered up. Like the NRA.

Something's happened, something's changed. Surely even the dimmest observers of American life must recognize how deeply, how widely, how routinely a new level of techno-violence has taken root in pop culture. The movies that once romanticized gangsters have crossed many a frontier of taste since. Violence now dominates the big and little screens -- the movies and computer games that shape the emerging American consciousness. Or rather misshape it.

Strange thing about this medium, this mental massage, called television: It seems to have no room for repentance, but from morning till night and back again, it is crammed to overflowing with every conceivable variety of victimization. Maybe it has something to do with the constant worship of the one undeniable, ever-demanding Diety of our time, the great god Self -- our Baal and Ashteroth combined.

Pop culture has always been vulgar. That's what vulgar means: popular, common. But pop culture has seldom seemed so pervasive -- and so well armed. Meanwhile, the institutions dedicated to teaching the young and civilizing all of us appear to have grown weaker: the family, the church, the school. And a violence of the mind and spirit fills the vacuum.

It isn't simple or easy to explain the erosion of traditional institutions in American society. Even more disturbing, some of those institutions come echo the soullessness of their times. The old verities are replaced with new platitudes. And from self-esteem to eco-feminism, our new gods disappoint.

Society grows atomized, like all those individual PCs exchanging faceless messages across a continental void -- instead of people congregating in church, or families gathering around the supper table. Our impression of the old days, like a Norman Rockwell magazine cover, may be largely a product of nostalgia -- much like the view of the Fifties as trouble-free "Happy Days.'' But the kinds of mass crimes now committed by the young and alienated, and their scope and frequency, have to represent something other than an advance in technology. They bespeak a change in the spirit, the culture of the society.

As usual, the greater the problem, the greater the effort it will require to address it. Gun laws, metal detectors, turning schools into fortresses ... those instant solutions may prove as ineffectual as they are simple-minded. Because they don't go to the root of the problem: the culture.

Mechanical devices and new legislation, trigger locks and laws requiring owners to secure their weapons, may be good ideas, but they're limited ideas. Such laws may only avenge crimes, not prevent them. As they say, locks are made for honest people -- not the out-and-out homicidal like two, deluded boys at Littleton. Or Jonesboro.

No amount of new and probably ineffective laws against guns will work in a society that promotes mindless mayhem via every medium. More than the gun laws, it's the culture that needs changing. And the culture is a lot harder to amend than the laws. We need to recapture our sense of shock at what has become only schlock.

From birth on -- no, before birth -- ours is becoming a culture that views life as cheap, as expendable, as no big deal. A culture of death. And for such a culture to burgeon, reverence for life must die first.

Sick jokes have become an accepted part of the background noise of American life, like Howard Stern. And violence has become just another form of vulgarity. Ours is a "South Park'' society, and it badly needs resensitizing. It's the stupid culture that is the great, underlying, pervasive danger. Or to put it in the vulgar language of the times: It's the culture, stupid.


04/30/99: Bumpers' 'B.S.'
04/27/99: An American tragedy: the fall of Kenneth Starr
04/23/99: Presidents and the press
04/14/99: A revealing moment
04/14/99: War Day by day
04/12/99: Just a few questions
04/06/99: The problem with the Left
04/05/99: The problem with the Right
03/30/99: But can he convince himself?
03/26/99: Short bursts
03/24/99: Once more into the quagmire
03/17/99: Big time in Little Rock
03/15/99: Our own Roger Taney
03/09/99: A different ‘Waterfront’
03/05/99: Law and disorder
2/26/99: King Richard's revenge
2/25/99: Open season on the fetus, and a good word for the pagans
2/23/99: It never ends: Here comes the judge
2/19/99: After the storm: Going through the debris
2/17/99: Where's the closure?
2/12/99: Hussein the Hashemite: The wiliest player on the board
2/09/99: The social security game
2/04/99: Our own Inspector Clouseau
2/01/99: Night scene, night thoughts
1/28/99: The decay of the art of lying
1/26/99: Impeachment: Short subjects
1/22/99: Bounce, glitz and tedium: The State of the Disunion
1/20/99: Destructive engagement: How to encourage tyranny
1/18/99: Martin Luther King: The radical as conservative?
1/11/99: Why America is apathetic about Bill's date with destiny
1/06/99:The year of Moronica
1/04/99: Clinton’s janitorial crew of two
12/29/98:The Senate will be on trial, too
12/29/98:A look down the avenue
12/22/98: The surreal impeachment
12/17/98: Another moment of truth approaches
12/15/98: The President's defenders: witnesses for the prosecution
12/10/98:The latest miracle cure: CensurePlus
12/03/98: Sentences at an airport Sentences at an airport
12/03/98: Games lawyers play
12/01/98: Ms. Magoo strikes again, or: Janet Reno and the law
11/26/98: The most American holiday
11/23/98: Same game, another round
11/18/98: Guide to the perplexed
11/09/98: A vote for apathy
11/03/98: Global village goes Clintonesque
11/02/98: Farewell to all that
10/30/98: New budget, same swollen government
10/26/98: Of life on the old plantation -- and death in the Middle East
10/22/98: Starr Wars (CONT'D)
10/19/98:Another retreat: weakness invites aggression
10/16/98: Profile in courage
10/14/98: A new voice out of Arkansas
10/09/98: Gerald Ford, Mr. Fix-It?
10/07/98: Impeachment Journal: Dept. of Doublespeak
10/01/98: The new tradition
9/25/98: Mr. President, PLEASE don't resign
9/23/98: The demolition of meaning
9/18/98: So help us G-d; The nature of the crisis
9/17/98: First impressions: on reading the Starr Report
9/15/98: George Wallace: All the South in one man
9/10/98: Here comes the judge
9/07/98: Toward impeachment
9/03/98: The politics of impeachment
9/01/98: The eagle can still soar
8/28/98: Boris Yeltsin's mind: a riddle pickled in an enigma
8/26/98: Clinton agonistes, or: Twisting in the wind
8/25/98: The rise of the English murder
8/24/98: Confess and attack: Slick comes semi-clean
8/19/98: Little Rock perspectives
8/14/98: Department of deja vu
8/12/98: The French would understand
8/10/98: A fable: The Rat in the Corner
8/07/98: Welcome to the roaring 90s
8/06/98: No surprises dept. -- promotion denied
8/03/98: Quotes of and for the week: take your pick
7/29/98: A subpoena for the president:
so what else is new?
7/27/98: Forget about Bubba, it's time to investigate Reno
7/23/98: Ghosts on the roof, 1998
7/21/98: The new elegance
7/16/98: In defense of manners
7/13/98: Another day, another delay: what's missing from the scandal news
7/9/98:The language-wars continue
7/7/98:The new Detente
7/2/98: Bubba in Beijing: history does occur twice
6/30/98: Hurry back, Mr. President -- to freedom
6/24/98: When Clinton follows Quayle's lead
6/22/98: Independence Day, 2002
6/18/98: Adventures in poli-speke

©1999, Los Angeles Times Syndicate