April 28th, 2013


political thought of the day: taxing violent entertainment

Originally published at Faith Seeking Understanding. You can comment here or there.

My political thought of the day:

Last week, Franklin Graham suggested that we tax violent entertainment. I don’t often agree with his public statements, but this time I found myself thinking this might not be such a bad idea. Set aside for the moment that violent video games is often a misdirect from people who don’t want to discuss gun control and is often treated like an either/or thing (we can address video games or actual guns but not both).

Franklin is at least recognizing that some actions have long-term dangers and so if you’re going to engage in them, you have a duty to pay some of the cost incurred. That’s a major step in the right direction. He’s also doing it in a way that holds people responsible for their choices, rather than taking the choice away from them, which is a path I wish Mr. Bloomberg would take, too. I disagree with the rhetoric of “bring[ing] God’s law back into society” in a big way, which I find needlessly divisive and probably unconstitutional depending on how he carries it out. But the basic idea makes sense, particularly if we combine it with other approaches.

But just what should be taxed? The Passion of the Christ probably has as much violence as anything, and while I didn’t see “The Bible” miniseries, I’d be willing to wager there’s a fair bit of death and violence involved. The original story isn’t exactly PG. I highly doubt Franklin would be okay taxing adaptations of the Bible. For that matter, what about movies like Lord of the Rings, the final Harry Potter flick and most especially my latest obsession, the Hunger Games? That last one starts with the slaughter of children by children explicitly presented as entertainment (both in-world and out-of-world), and ends with scenes no less disturbing, but it presents this as a criticism of violence. If I wasn’t raised in a Christian tradition that praised radical sacrifice over violence against others, this trilogy would have pushed me a long way down that road.

And finally there’s “M*A*S*H.” There’s a lot of gore in some of those episodes, and a really unflinching portrayal of the horrors of war – but again, it’s presented in a way that drive home the point that this must always be a temporary thing if it must happen at all. Franklin singled out movies and video games, but TV is even more of a transformative influence. Lately I’ve found myself wondering what Americans my age would think of war if we’d grown up on M*A*S*H rather than 24.

That’s the problem with ideas like Rvd. Graham’s. How do you identify what kind of violence will lead to actual violence? Some of it really is a kind of pornography, and so runs the risk of desensitizing us. I hated “Argo” at an ethical level but viscerally it was really gave you a rush. But some violent entertainment is transformative. I’d put the Hunger Games (at least the books) in that category. And M*A*S*H, and to a certain extent the LOTR trilogy. It shows us the cost of violence, and the limits of its power, and challenges us to find another way. Quantitatively, I’m not sure how you can distinguish between the two; it’s all about how the violence is used. And if we go down the qualitative road, saying this art is helpful and that art just doesn’t do any serious work, that starts to sound a lot like censorship. Violence isn’t like the nicotine in cigarettes, where however you absorb it, it harms you. So it’s hard to regulate this way.

But I do want to commend Franklin for at least making an effort here. I know he’s been in areas of the world torn apart by guns and a callousness toward their potential. It’s at least a good first effort.