Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Batman Massacre - Life Imitating Art in the Worst Way ?

I recently wrote a blog for the Huffington Post that chronicled the events of what some commonly call "life imitating art". In it, I told the true story of my first literary agent, after reading my novel about an artist who fakes his own death to drive up the value of his paintings, theoretically imitates my story, faking her own death and bilking hundreds of people in a literary conference scam.

James Holmes, the young man accused of pretending to be The Joker and shooting up a theater in Aurora, CO, has been said to have spent many hours alone at his computer engaged in violent role-playing games. Thus, it might appear that we have another case of life imitating art on our hands. (I would argue that DOOM and it's video game offshoots are "art" as they are created by artists. The subject just happens to be violence.)

The Melanie Mills story is entertaining and it's interesting to hypothesize about the possibility that my novel inspired her to do what she did. In the case of Jame Holmes, the argument over who is imitating what is akin to fiddling while Rome burns: it looks at symptoms and ignores the disease.  

Yet here we are, numb and reeling after yet another crazy motherfucker goes postal and wastes as many people as he possibly can in an act of war on humanity, and we watch the debate rage over gun control. Again, and again. Obviously.

Whether you are a proponent of guns for everybody all the time or no guns for anybody ever, James Holme's access to weapons of mass destruction is indefensible. There is no reason an AR-15 assault rifle should be available to anybody who is not a soldier fighting a war. What civil use does such a weapon have? If we can buy those, why not rocket launchers, grenade launchers, helicopter gunships? Technically if we're going to play the "my gun is bigger than yours" game we should legalize all forms of weaponry, in which case someone in the theater that night might have had a few grenades in their pocket, just for such a situation, and would have been able to toss one at Mr. Holmes and blow him and the first three rows to smithereens.

By the same token, we could say that morphine should not be available to anyone that isn't under a physician's care. But it is. And so would AR-15 assault rifles. When has legality mattered? Don't we live by the law of supply and demand?

But I'm not interested in debating gun control. I think everybody can agree that guns are a symptom of much more serious disease  - hatred for humanity in whatever form it takes: old, young, white, of-color, fat, skinny, grandmothers and their grandbabies - everybody qualifies. This is hatred inclusive perhaps of all living things and may be hatred of life itself. Some would call it pure evil. Others might call it The Devil.

My thoughts about the nature of this epidemic of hatred, this evil, and what to do about it,  are as uninformed as they are unformed. I have not read treatises, essays, blog posts or otherwise on the topic, though I know they exist. I'm not a psychologist, psychiatrist, sociologist or even an in-depth follower of American culture or lack thereof. I am a writer that has made a living in advertising/marketing, a professional musician, a family man, and I daresay a humorist, as I have been accused of never taking anything seriously (so not true!), but more importantly agree with many that laughter is always good for what ails you and attempting to stimulate the funny bone is my expression of compassion for my fellow humans.

Which is all to say I am hardly qualified to intelligently address the topic on the table. But dark forces are afoot, if I may echo a popular theme. Dark forces in the form of a culture that has decided that it's okay - even laudable - to profit from the portrayal of violence. But it goes way beyond portrayal: the real profit lies in facilitating the virtual participation in violence in the form of video games. And what controls has our society deemed proper? A warning on the package.

If you give someone whose grip on what's real vs. what's fantasy the ability to virtually experience those fantasies, you have given the genetic junkie a lifetime supply of smack. You have given someone who is already predisposed to hate and killing the opportunity to see what it feels like. To James Holmes and many who are unable to distinguish between right and wrong, it feels good. Really good.

We live in a society that allows the perpetuation of evil by making it a source of profit.  Don't those who profit from the glorification of violence, crime, gang culture, drug abuse and porn know that even though they claim to be giving the audience what it wants, they are ultimately addicting the audience to not-so-cheap thrills? Don't they know that the addiction could compel those with the inability to distinguish between the role-playing game on the computer screen and their own real lives to pull a James Holmes?

Underneath the perpetuation of evil lies what many would characterize as The American Way, which is built on the notion that competition is healthy. Competition brings out the best, it drives progress, it rewards hard work! A competitive society breeds winners! And...losers. Would the vanquished in real life perhaps find some solace in virtually blasting the imagined victorious into dust?  Or is the virtual violence intended to be some sort of safety valve for those that might be inclined to go postal?  

James Holmes is a sick guy that nobody - even a policeman in full riot gear with all his firepower - would have been prepared to deal with. James Holmes is the intelligent, calculating evil, inspired by the likes of The Joker, that is evidently unable to distinguish between the character on the screen (the late Heath Ledger in this case), and what we call "real" life. The game industry has made the violence so real, so believable, and ultimately so easy to copy that those that for whatever reason are suffering from the Hatred of Humanity disease can easily execute their fantasy. And ultimately their power, for the ability to kill is perhaps the ultimate power, or the ultimate victory, one human can have.

I don't have the answers, though I think there's a possibility that virtual violence creates the opportunity for life to imitate art in the worst possible way. But it may be that outlawing the games that allow players to virtually kill would only mean that outlaws have those games. And the AR-15 assault rifles. And they can practice to their heart's content until they're ready for the show.

In my mind, being a responsible citizen means that, even though you may not have the answers, it's a responsibility to ask the questions. I've asked. What are your thoughts?

Now I'm gonna take the rest of the day off and read Richard Ford's latest novel by the pool.


  1. Thank you for writing this. Your opinion is going to be unpopular (especially the suggestion we should try to curb people's access to violence as entertainment), but it needs to be said, because really... there is a pattern & it needs to be addressed, cause otherwise what kind of feedback loop are we stuck in?

    Beyond that, if you're interested in this topic i would highly recommend reading Mark Seltzer's book on American "Wound Culture", which charts out some of the ways these kinds of events are so American & bound to keep on occurring...

  2. Hi Anon - If you got the impression that I was suggesting that we curb people's access to violent entertainment, I apologize I must have been unclear. I've purposefully avoided making recommendations in this debate in the interest of simply raising the questions, which it sounds like I've done in such a way as to imply that I'm making a recommendation. Ooops. Having said that, I don't think it's about curbing access to violent entertainment, as much as it is instilling some basic values in our society such that the craving for the thrills provided by virtual violence, drugs etc. is diminished. It's not something we can legislate. What I'm talking about is a fundamental social change of heart, where the demand for the cheap thrills becomes uncool and the companies that profit from them go out of business. Yes it's an altruistic, naive, and impractical vision, but if it weren't for our imaginations nothing would ever change.

  3. I guess the next question i would ask then is what would be necessary to bring about that change of heart? Violence sells, and is also sold with the intention of shaping our understanding of the world: & ...i'm just wondering if these kinds of fundamental social change -can- come about when those who have a monopoly on media are also those who shape how we understand ourselves in relation to one another?

    Maybe my approach is just as hopefully naive, but i would love to see corporations that uses "happy violence" (ie: representations of violence that are for entertainment/pleasure which diminish their real-life repercussions) taxed (with the purpose of funding social programs that improve the quality of people's lives, connect them to their immediate community). I feel as though the burden of change shouldn't be placed squarely on the shoulders of the consumer, and needs to directed at where it really belongs: on those who profit from this kind of content - media-conglomerates. Violence sells & they know this (, and i would love for there to be a collective change of heart as well, but i've noticed often it is those at the lower end of the social strata who enjoy these cinematic "escapes" the most... so why not tax the people who profit from these power fantasies, as a way to discourage the production of this kind of content, and at worst - use the money to benefit the people who -do- consume violent media & use it as an escape?

  4. Very interesting idea, Anon. (Mind if I call you Annan? Or just Kofi?) Seriously, the idea of taxing the profits out from under the suppliers could dry up what appears to be a bottomless font of increasingly extreme and graphic violence with each release. Does the trade then go underground? Do the suppliers and users then become criminals? I guess there's always that danger when it becomes impossible to legally profit - the black market flourishes. It's these periods between massacres (which seem to be growing more frequent) when the complacency returns that I get frustrated - I don't know what to do or where to go to work on stopping this scourge.


Let's get the conversation started, people!