Use Your Money to Change the Culture
- Thursday, October 18, 2001
"Is this what the end of a civilization looks like?"
Former Secretary of Education and "Drug Czar" William Bennett was reflecting on his thoughts from a meeting he had with Time Warner chairman Gerald Levin in January 1993, challenging Time Warner's choice to exploit music promoting violence, murder, and rape for the sake of profit. Bennett had successfully arranged a private meeting with the chairman at Time Warner's New York headquarters.
He continued to recall the thoughts going through his head while he spoke to Levin at the meeting several years earlier: You know, this is the end. You are supposed to be leaders. This is Warner Brothers! Is this what happened to Bugs Bunny? Bugs Bunny is now a gangster rapper, talking about how he is going to hurt, mutilate, and torture women?
Bennett was not the only one outraged at Time Warner's choice to profit at the expense of our culture. Charlton Heston also chose to publicly challenge Time Warner for its decision to sell cultural pollution. In February 1999, Heston had the opportunity to speak to the Harvard Law School Forum about his disgust with corporate leaders' selling out moral values for short-term profits. In his speech, he said,
A few years back I heard about a rapper named Ice-T who was selling a CD called Cop Killer, celebrating ambushing and murdering police officers. It was being marketed by none other than Time Warner, the biggest entertainment conglomerate in the world. Police across the country were outraged. Rightfully so - at least one had been murdered. But Time Warner was stonewalling because the CD was a cash cow for them, and the media were tiptoeing around it because the rapper was black. I heard Time Warner had a stockholders meeting scheduled in Beverly Hills. I owned some shares at the time, so I decided to attend.
What I did there was against the advice of my family and colleagues. I asked for the floor. To a hushed room of a thousand average American stockholders, I simply read the full lyrics of Cop Killer - every vicious, vulgar, instructional word.
"I got my 12 gauge sawed off.
I got my headlights turned off.
I'm about to bust some shots off.
I'm about to dust some cops off. ..."
It got worse, a lot worse. I won't read the rest of it to you. But trust me, the room was a sea of shocked, frozen, blanched faces. The Time Warner executives squirmed in their chairs and stared at their shoes. They hated me for that. Then I delivered another volley of sick lyrics brimming with racist filth, where Ice-T fantasizes about sodomizing two 12-year-old nieces of Al and Tipper Gore: "She pushed her butt against my ... "
Well, I won't do to you here what I did to them. Let's just say I left the room in echoing silence. When I read the lyrics to the waiting press corps, one of them said, "We can't print that." "I know," I replied, "but Time Warner is selling it."
Two months later, Time Warner terminated Ice-T's contract. I'll never be offered another film by Warner or get a good review from Time magazine. But disobedience means you must be willing to act, not just talk.
While Time Warner has captured more famous detractors than perhaps any other company for its practice of selling violence and profanity, it certainly is not alone.
In fact, corporate America today faces a crisis of bankruptcy. Certainly not in traditional terms of net worth and profitability, but clearly corporate America collectively is facing a crisis of moral bankruptcy greater than at any time in our country's history. I believe it is no coincidence that American companies are increasingly pursuing profitable business ventures without any consideration for the cost the venture will ultimately have on our culture, our families, and our children.
THE BATTLE IS JOINED
Ask 10 evangelicals what the culture war is and you will probably get 10 different answers. William Bennett often refers to it in his national press interviews as a common degradation of traditional values pervasive throughout our public policies and educational standards. Pat Buchanan describes it as a fight for the soul of America between the righteous and the unrighteous. Charles Colson says, "The culture war is not just about abortion, homosexual rights, or the decline in public education. ... The real war is a cosmic struggle between worldviews - between the Christian worldview and the various secular and spiritual worldviews arrayed against it."
There is no doubt about it. Attempts to destroy parental authority and control in raising children, to dilute our public education system into a godless training ground for social policies while stripping teachers of their authority, to tear down traditional standards in society in the name of fairness and tolerance, and to oversimplifiy all issues involving violent behavior to a predictable debate over gun control are real encounters in the culture war battlefields every day.
All of these issues, however, leave out perhaps the most powerful and influential battlefield of the culture war. Corporate America as a community has more day-to-day influence on our culture than all of Congress and the executive branch. From the products we purchase to the entertainment we see (with its own brand of morality) to the internal corporate policies that govern our working lives, companies and commerce are at ground zero.
Upon further investigation, there are many good reasons why corporate America represents the most fertile ground for social and cultural change. Corporate leaders have a seemingly straightforward task in leading their respective businesses. That is to seek out a business plan that leads to success as measured in one dimension - profitability. In that traditional measurement, a number of costs are taken into consideration, such as taxes, production, marketing, and labor. Any product that generates higher revenues than costs is generally considered a success.
Yet consider the realm of public policy. When discussing programs, policies, or even products involved with government, the discussion is multidimensional. Not only are the financial costs and profits considered, but the overall value or cost to society is considered. Consider the post-World War II legislation that came to be known as the GI Bill. The result was great initial cost to the government. However, many economists suggested that in the long run these programs would actually provide net income to the government by raising the general level of personal income levels due to a higher average education. This higher income average would lead to higher annual tax collections for the government.
Even more importantly, the discussions considered more than financial costs and revenues. The GI Bill was also endorsed for the positive impact it would have on families, on communities, and on strengthening the country as a whole. Higher education levels would increase the standard of living for all and provide cultural and intellectual benefits for all members of the family.
Politicians and public servants deal every day with the issue of the greater good. They have staffs trained to deal with the public regarding such macro issues -- often by having well-trained people giving boilerplate answers to predictable questions. A public official's future often depends on how he or she deals with issues that impact the country and society as a whole.
Unfortunately, this other consideration of value - concerning families, children, and our culture as a whole - is not discussed in today's corporate boardrooms, in product development meetings, or in executive evaluations, even though the ultimate influence of corporations on our culture is arguably greater than that of public officials trying to change statutes to the liking of their constituencies. Even with highly publicized events that concern the negative social impact of corporate products, the cultural debate often focuses back on the public policy arena instead of the company or industry responsible for it.
An example: On April 20, 1999, a dramatic tragedy occurred in Littleton, Colo., that stirred fears of vulnerability among parents across the nation. A collective sense of lost innocence permeated the country after Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris mercilessly murdered 13 people at Columbine High School and then killed themselves. Parents, pastors, grandparents, children, and students all tried to understand how such an event could take place and, more importantly, how to prevent it in the future.
Only God knows the roots of the behavioral problems that led Klebold and Harris to make their deadly choices that day. Almost immediately after the rampage, the mainstream media served up one more stream of television "experts" and politicians discussing the need for gun control as the ultimate answer. Never mind that there were already many existing gun laws that the two killers broke on that day.
However, more than a day or two later it became clear that both Harris and Klebold had been obsessed with violent video games, such as Doom, and repeatedly watched Natural Born Killers and other movies criticized for glamorizing violence. Harris had also published murderous fantasies related to the video games on his own Internet site.
The connection between the ultraviolent behavior promoted in such video games and the violent behavior displayed by the killers is undeniable. In a May 1999 press conference, even President Bill Clinton said, "We cannot pretend that there is no impact on our culture and our children that is adverse if there is too much violence coming out of what they see and experience." Nearly a year later at congressional hearings, Sabrina Steger also spoke of the impact of violent video games on her life. Her teenage daughter Kayce and two others died in 1997 when 14-year-old Michael Carneal opened fire on students holding a hallway prayer meeting at their high school in Paducah, Ky.
Steger told the committee, "As a nurse, I'm in the business of recognizing signs of illness, and I see Americans addicted to violence and in denial of it." Steger and the parents of two other children killed are suing entertainment companies responsible for the violent and sexual video games that influenced Carneal. At the same hearing, Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback displayed the popular video game Duke Nukem, which not only was almost exclusively designed around graphic violence and death but also included, as Brownback described, "nude female prostitutes, some bound to posts, begging to be killed."
I applaud Sen. Brownback's committee for holding a public discussion on the topic. But I submit that the target of this investigation should include not only public policy but also the source of the products involved. Among all the outrage over the video game Doom that the Columbine killers were obsessed with, I have not seen one article, statement, or reference made to the company that chooses to create, package, and sell the product directly to children -- a company called id Software.
The company, based near Dallas, Texas, makes other video games such as Quake and Aliens Are My Babysitter. It was started by friends John Carmack and Adrian Carmack (no relation) in 1990. John, a self-taught programmer, developed the core technology for all of the company's games. The company name was taken from the label given to the instinctual part of the human psyche first identified by Freud.
The company's Web site describes the scenes for the game Doom as follows: "You're a space marine armed with a mere pistol. Your mission is to locate more substantial firepower, blow your way through an onslaught of undead marines and mutant demons from hell, and navigate yourself off a radioactive moon base. In order to survive, not only do you have to make it through the first 27 blood-splattered levels of Doom, you also have to get through nine more incredibly tough expert levels in the all new episode 'Thy Flesh Consumed.'"
The game was first released on Dec. 10, 1993. It quickly attained phenomenal financial success and was recognized as the hottest 3-D action game of all time. Experts recognize it as the catalyst and inspiration for what is now known as 3-D action gaming. In total, an estimated 15 million copies have been downloaded around the world and passed from player to player by floppy disk or online networks. Since its initial product, id Software has also released the sequel Doom II: Hell on Earth. Doom II has now sold more than 2 million copies. Since Doom, the company has found even greater success in marketing a more graphically violent series of games under the title Quake.
An online games expert recently reviewed Quake: "And forget about leaving the meat behind: Panic Quake is nothing but bodies. Bodies splattered, pulverized and exploded. The body fragged and multiplied, becoming pure speed in a point-to-point network of ammunition flows and tactical lust. All-sucking, all-spewing, the Quakebody is projectile and target, monster and hero, author and interface, key, switch, and trap. It is the body with nothing but organs, erupting and transmitting, and always forever the barricaded global variable in an infinite cascade of light-speed calculations: surface, perspective, and line of sight - the baroque codes for subjectivity in the digital space of deathmarch culture."
Just as it has become clear to the American public that the companies that produce and market tobacco products have some responsibility for the effects of their products on the health of the public, so, too, should the American public recognize the responsibility companies like id Software have for the effects of their products on the mental health of the children to which they aggressively market. The solution is not to create books full of statutes describing the boundaries of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable - all decided by a committee. Rather, the ultimate measurement should be the financial success of the company itself. A company known to be selling poison to people directly will soon be out of business. It will not be able to find investors to back it. It will not be able to find consumers to buy the product. So it should be with a company that blatantly sells products that poison the minds of our children. Let the informed investor and consumer deliver the true accountability.
When we as a society consider the lessons learned from the Columbine High School tragedy, they should involve more than a debate about gun control. Of course the two killers should not have had access to guns. But the source of the behavioral conditioning that led to their choice to use the guns must also be taken into account. No doubt some of this must be on the shoulders of Klebold's and Harris' parents. But there is no doubt that the manufacturers of these same video games must hold accountability as well. As Sabrina Steger told Sen. Brownback's Senate committee,
Violent video games and movies desensitize users to the violence by making it sterile, acceptable, and even desirable. Defilement and carnage all too prevalent on the silver screen is easily transferred to any home by video games seen through hand-held screens, TV screens, and computer monitors.
Blood on the screen has no odor and it cannot be touched. Screams are controlled by the volume button, and slaughter by the on/off button. But the button is too often on, the volume on high, and death repeated each time the restart button is touched. Some question if video games can have 30- to 60-second advertisements influence what soft drink or car we buy and what candidate we vote for. How can we then deny that hours on end of repetitive video games violence does not have a gargantuan impact on impressionable children and adolescents?
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