Pop culture in bull's eye

May 07, 1999|By Tom Teepen

THERE is much not to like in American popular culture: rock groups that celebrate the morbid and gruesome, the virtual gore of video games, vicious and misogynist rap, Internet sites that incite hate in the name of everything from abortion opposition to White Revolution. And more, probably worse.

In the understandable urge to discover what probably will elude us, we search in the media mishmash for incitements that will explain why two youths armed like guerrillas came to murder 13 in their Colorado school and kill themselves as if that were just about the neatest way you could end such a swell party.

Cause and effect

But cause and effect are tricky critters. If the two boys dwelt in some of the creepier precincts of our cultural space, did what they find there dispose them to massacre? Or was it the other way around, that their predisposition led them to those catacombs?

Millions of young Americans live in the same culture and never go off. European and Japanese youths have much the same fads, icons and entertainments as American youth do.

One of the rock bands the Columbine shooters followed was German, as of course was the old Nazism one of the boys toyed with. Is the source of American youth violence German culture? Just to ask the question is to see it as silly.

We do have some soul-searching to do, but scapegoats are no substitute for understanding.

The Puritans thought witchcraft threatened Salem's youth -- and fixed it! The Senate held hearings in 1954 on the ruin comic books were making of America's young, today's fretful elders.

There are questions to ask -- about, for instance, high schools of two and three thousand students, where an adolescent life is created beyond the sight and reach of the schools' overwhelmed adults.

For all the evil influence popular culture is supposed to be having on the young -- and the odd schoolyard slayings of the past 18 months aside -- youth violence overall has been declining through the '90s, as have teen pregnancy, birth, abortion. Grades are up.

That's no reason to be blithe about what in pop culture, on its very face, is amiss. Free speech works best when its issues are joined, so the good, on its merits, can drive off the bad.

The First Amendment requires no default to the pernicious; indeed, it obliges us to open opposition.

Tom Teepen is national correspondent for Cox Newspapers.

Pub Date: 5/07/99

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