Hollywood’s War on American Youth: “Dark Knight,” Aurora, Colorado, and America’s Culture of Violence

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Hollywood’s War on American Youth:

“Dark Knight,” Aurora, Colorado, and America’s Culture of Violence


John Reimann

[Editors’ Note: As part of the Public i‘s continuing commitment to political analysis of popular culture, we are publishing a critique of the summer’s biggest-grossing movie, The Dark Knight Rises, by John Reimann, which appeared online at the Daily Censored News Blog (Dailycensored.com) and the website Facts For Working People (weknowwhatsup.blogspot.com); and a response by Public i editorial collective member Neil Parthun.]

A film that set a record $160 million in earnings in its first week in US theaters cannot be ignored. Especially when a gunman interrupted it in Aurora, Colorado, shooting 70 people and killing twelve.

But “The Dark Knight Rises” is nothing but crude Corporate America propaganda, and its success is the result of media propaganda plus the longer term affects of Corporate America’s propaganda war on American youth.  In fact, this film exemplifies this propaganda war on several levels, one of which is absolutely blatant.

“Blood will be spilled”

Consider some of the dialogue. The “plot” of the film involves a bloody mob taking over the city of “Gotham,” which symbolizes America. The leader of this mob proclaims to one of the super-rich: “You think this can last. There is a storm coming, Mr. Wayne.  You’re going to wonder how you and your friends can live life so large and leave so little for the rest of us.”

The point is that it is the arch-villain speaking to his followers. And these followers are nothing but a mob of prison rioters and blood-thirsty dwellers of the nether, underground world.

Peaceful and prosperous” alternative to mob rule

If this were not enough, towards the end the lesson is that the hero – the multi-billionaire Batman – has “saved the people [of Gotham/America] from the abyss so that they can be useful, peaceful, prosperous and happy.” Yes, for corporate-controlled Hollywood no message is too crudely put.

Corporate America is getting worried about the resentment of tens of millions towards the super rich, and so they are putting forward the propaganda that the only alternative is “the abyss” – total chaos and violence.

This is not the first time that the capitalist class has launched such a campaign. At the time of the Russian Revolution (close to 100 years ago), a similar picture was painted. In other countries, it’s been done in different ways. For instance, in the mid-90s in Mexico, the mass inter-ethnic violence in Rwanda and Burundi that resulted in some six million being slaughtered was blasted all over the Mexican media. The message was that the only alternative to the repressive, corrupt rule of the PRI was this sort of nightmare.

We can expect more of the same message here in the US in the years to come.

Violence in American media and video games

But there is more to this film than this message, however crudely put. There is the culture of violence, along with a craving for the most simple sensory stimulation that the entire Hollywood industry helps develop.

Consider what one sees when going to watch this film:

The first half of “Dark Knight” has almost no plot whatsoever. It is hardly more than a disjointed series of violent events.

Ten years ago one study estimated that the average 18-year-old has watched 200,000 acts of violence on TV. And that probably didn’t include watching football. Added to this is the increase since then of the popularity of video games, of which over 85% are violent according to “Psychology Today” (7/17/2006). All serious studies show that watching violence, and participating in it through video games, increase a tendency towards violent actions and decrease natural human empathy.

One study, for instance (“Desensitizing Effects of Violent Media,” Bushman and Anderson) found that after watching violent episodes the viewer was less likely to help an injured person. “The findings from both studies suggest that violent media make people numb to the pain and suffering of others,” they concluded. Another study (“The Effect of Video Game Violence,” Carnagey, Anderson and Bushman) showed changed brain patterns in those who played violent video games.  As one author concluded, “[t]hese findings indicate that violent video game play has a long-term effect on brain functioning.” The part of the brain so affected “is involved in inhibition and emotional modulation.”

US Military uses

There are several different goals for US capitalism that this popularizing of violence serves. The first is directly military.

A series of studies have shown that in wars, up to 85% of troops normally are unwilling to overcome the natural resistance to killing. They intentionally fire over the heads of the “enemy” soldiers. The US military tops devised a series of different trainings, including target practice against more life-like targets to desensitize the troops to killing their fellow human beings. Follow-up shows that these training methods have been effective. When one adds to this the violence the typical US soldier has watched, and vicariously participated in through video games, you get a soldier whose natural inhibitions against killing are overruled. It seems the result is increased PTSD amongst soldiers since they are brainwashed into doing something that is so unnatural. (For this and more information, see “The Compassionate Instinct” by Keltner, Marsh and Smith.)

Additional Benefits for Capitalism

By increasing the general level of violence in society, TV shows and movies like “Dark Knight” serve to increase the distrust, the lack of a feeling of “community”. This is always a positive when Corporate America is seeking to prevent a mass movement against their domination over society.

There is another benefit: American society has had a historical tendency towards short-term thinking, towards avoiding considering ideas through to their conclusion. The reasons for this are rooted in the unique way that American capitalism developed – springing to birth on virgin soil (except for a few million “Indians” who were easily slaughtered). The entire thrust of Hollywood productions encourages this through its high-tech methods of simply providing one loud, bright stimulus after another. There is no need for longer-term attention span. In fact, these productions discourage it. But the brain needs stimulation. So in place of any serious ideas comes the thirst for one immediate stimulus after another, and the majority of these stimuli are violent (often linking sex with violence).

Not in a Vacuum

This cultural war is having a disastrous effect, especially on young people. One study showed that while about 20% of high school students have been victims of bullying, some 80% have carried out bullying acts. The same study explained that in an incident similar to the recent Aurora one – the killing in Columbine – that before they carried out this atrocity the killers had made a video similar to one they’d been playing – a video that bragged about what they were planning on doing. (http://www.yuthguy.com/Literature%20Review.htm)

Corporate America through their media, their economic policies and their politicians and increasingly through their “education” system drum into their victims the message that you are alone in the world. Your problems are yours alone. If you are hungry, that’s your problem. If you are homeless, if you need medical attention and can’t afford it, if you are victim of bullying or abuse . . . all of this is your problem to be resolved by you as an isolated individual. And if you live alone, lack friends, have no real social contact – then the escape is video games like the (presumed) shooter in Aurora played for an hour per day.

This, after all, is the real message in the opposition to socialized medicine. It is the message in the drive to cut every social program in existence while funding for wars is unlimited. It is the very heart of the message of the entire “free” market propaganda.

No Redeeming Features

In terms of its surface as well as subliminal message, in terms of its artistic value, plot and character development, “The Dark Knight Rises” has no redeeming qualities. It is no accident that its showing was interrupted as it was in Aurora, Colorado, by a youth who was saturated with the message of the corporate-dominated culture that this film represents.  As my viewing partner commented once the movie was (gratefully) over: “I was worried about surviving the movie, and it had nothing to do with any gunman.”

However, despite the devastating consequences of the Hollywood propaganda that “Dark Knight” epitomizes, despite the many billions they spend on such, they will never be able to stamp out the basic human drives of empathy and compassion that form the very basis for the evolutionary success of the human species.  This is proven by the increasing numbers of youth who choose to make a statement against killing by adopting veganism. It is proven in the daily tiny acts of kindness and friendliness. Most important, it is proven in the collective struggle that was the Occupy movement and in workers’ struggles and oppressed peoples’ struggles and that will grow despite all repression and propaganda.

Watching, and coming under the influence of propaganda like this movie may make it more difficult to believe that “a different world is possible.”  That is the intention. But everything about this movie – including the nuclear explosion near the end – is proof that it is not just possible, it is essential if the life on this planet is to survive.

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