Gore's empty talk

April 29, 1999|By Maureen Dowd

WASHINGTON -- Right before the Littleton shootings, Vice President Al Gore was telling everyone that he and Tipper just loved "The Matrix."

It's easy to understand how the Father of the Internet could be so taken with the imaginative hit movie that is a video game writ large, a balletic and epic ode to violence about rebel hackers and society misfits who fight back when evil computers take over the world and reduce humans to AA batteries.

The Gores' taste in movies, while hip, is a telling reminder of the difficulties and contradictions that can trip up politicians when they start lecturing about changing the culture. Their appreciation of "The Matrix" directly collides with the White House effort this week to denounce the movie and video-game "culture of violence," with Hillary Clinton slapping her pals in Hollywood and Mrs. Gore resuming her role as pop cop.

"Listen and ask your child, `What movies do you like and why? If you like a very violent movie and if you've seen it repeatedly, does that mean that it's having undue influence on you?' " Mrs. Gore asked on "Meet the Press," adding, "How about with violent video games?"

D.C. Matrix

"The Matrix," which has attracted an obsessively devoted audience of young computer-savvy males, would seem to be the sort of movie Mrs. Gore was describing. As the bullets fly, the shell casings glimmer alluringly in slow motion, giving a gorgeous techno-sheen to the action. The violence has a terrible beauty and the death seems merely virtual.

There are eerie echoes to the dark underground world of the teen-age Columbine killers, who laughingly treated death as virtual entertainment: Keanu Reeves throws open his long black coat to reveal an arsenal of pistols and machine guns. In this universe, the small, secret band of black-clad computer pirates are the heroes in a world gone mad. They must destroy the world to save it.

At one late show in Washington this week, the similarities were so striking to the audience that people began yelling out "Columbine!" and cheering as Mr. Reeves walks through a metal detector, coolly pulls out his guns, and blows away a building full of cops.

The Republican leaders are off the radar, as they continue to treat the surfeit of guns as a family-values problem. The Clintons and the Gores have the gun-control message right, but they are not the most consistent messengers to preach about rooting out the toxic forces in U.S. culture. Their concern is too often tailored not to offend their donors and pollsters.

Mrs. Clinton sounded hollow recently when she said, as she introduced her husband at a gun-control rally: "Part of growing up is learning how to control one's impulses. "

This is a White House not distinguished by its mastery of impulse or its willingness to do the tough, unglamorous, politically risky work that could buck our instant-gratification culture and result in a repudiation of gun movies and guns. A week after Columbine, the preaching is easy.

After Mr. Clinton sold the Lincoln bedroom to Hollywood buddies, after Mrs. Clinton became a Miramax flak, after Mr. Gore and Jeffrey Katzenberg zestfully hugged, after Mrs. Gore soft-pedaled her crusade to raise PG kids in an X-rated society for a decade after Hollywood honchos told her husband it would hurt fund-raising, they should spare us their opportunistic outrage.

It's fine to like "The Matrix." But you should not be entertained and financed by the same culture that you demonize and trash.

Blaming Hollywood and the culture is a glib solution anyway. It's much easier than doing the hard work of financing and mounting a campaign for meaningful gun control legislation, which might take years.

Washington has ceased to be a place where big things get done, or even sensible, moderate things. Those who don't think we need that hard effort should consider the words of Mel Bernstein, the owner of Dragon Arms, a gun shop in Colorado. Eric Harris, he said, came there in March, wearing a trench coat, and tried to buy an M-60 machine gun and a pistol equipped with a silencer.

Mr. Bernstein refused, saying too many kids come in wanting too much. "This is like Toys R Us to them."

Maureen Dowd is a New York Times columnist.

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