Saturday, July 14, 2007

Crime Fiction & Politics

In a recent post at The Rap Sheet, J. Kingston Pierce wades in with opinion on legislation being pushed by a Republican that would ban violent TV shows from being aired before 10 pm. And for his efforts, he drew a wee, little bit of criticism.

I wouldn’t have been surprised if someone had dissected the post in contrast to this more recent offering, that cites the pet peeve of substituting opinions for facts. This is not what Mr. Kingston Pierce did (in my opinion) but if someone had disapproved of his perspective I could have seen them making an attempt to discount the earlier opinion piece.

However, the complaint isn’t about the nature of opinions expressed. The complaint in the comments is that a crime fiction blog engaged in a ”political diatribe”

I understand that some people have no interest in politics. I can even respect their right to not want to hear any political opinions expressed…anywhere. (And I admit I say that a bit grudgingly, but we’ll get to why in a minute.) But what I have a hard time comprehending is that people don’t see that crime fiction has an intricate connection to politics, and the particular issue being addressed by J. Kingston Pierce is one that has significance to all those interested in crime fiction.

‘Broadcasters should not be allowed to use the public airwaves to disseminate violent or obscene material,’ Brownback said in a statement. ‘The abundance of indecent material on television is one indication of the coarsening of our culture.’” (Brownback is the Senator pushing this bill, and the quote comes via The Rap Sheet article.)

The second part of his own statement is the proof of why restricting the content of television programs will not solve the problems with US society - or any society. (My apologies, in that I don’t feel I want to thumb my nose at my friends to the south. This is your political issue, in a sense, but we watch the same shows and have many of the same problems here.) The statement, however, indicates clearly what I believe about TV and books: They reflect society and its problems.

I do not believe books and TV (or music, or video games) create the problems.

I said above that I grudgingly respected a person’s right to take no interest in politics. This ties directly to my feelings on this issue. My teen years were spent in an exclusive Brethren Assembly. Women were not allowed to speak and wore head coverings. You had to be in fellowship to break bread. When I traveled I had to carry a letter recognizing me as part of the fellowship in order to participate at other meetings. The mindset was such that even many of the elders in my church disapproved of me going to Bible school. I was discouraged (by some, not all) from listening to secular music (and for many years I subscribed to that philosophy). I had a harder time with the belief of some that I shouldn’t read secular books.

What I ultimately couldn’t accept within the church was the tendency to close your mind. For a few years, I guess I lived in something of a vacuum. And I can see how some people find shutting themselves off from society to be an escape. I’ve never been good at being blind… and everyone reading this no doubt knows I call things as I see them. In part, maybe I spent too much time biting my tongue, first in the Brethren Assembly, later as a missionary. When I left the Brethren I did it in what no doubt some of you would consider ‘true Sandra form’: stood up and said my peace to everyone (without a headcovering). Reading Lake Wobegon Days still cracks me up. Of course, there’s a hint of sadness there, because that day was the day that our church split in two, with many things leading to a rift that blew wide open when one of the brothers served communion to a friend of mine who smiled. The complaint was, “She doesn’t even look like a Christian.”

The point is, I know the rhetoric used by many of the most extreme fundamentalist Christians intimately. Put me in a debate on the evils of secular music and I can talk you out of ever turning on your radio. It may not be what I believe now, but I can still slip those shoes on for show.

What my misguided friends quibbling over TV programming fail to grasp is that reducing the amount of violent content shown before 10 pm on TV will not make the streets safer. In fact, I would argue it might make them more dangerous. If there’s nothing good on TV, more people will be out. And if more people are out that increases the number of targets for theft, assault, rape. The week of The Calgary Stampede has been the same week Calgary has suffered a rash of random stabbings, including one murder. More people on the streets, the greater the chance of violence. That is, after all, why the police go out in full force when there are playoffs happening for the NHL.

That’s a very weak point, in reality. An incidental. The real truth is that if we turn on our TV at 8 pm and flick from channel to channel and see nothing but loving families with bright smiles and sunshiny lives, we can delude ourselves into believing that our world is a happy place. Some might even convince themselves that this is true of everyone everywhere. However, it does nothing to address poverty, crime, divorce, abuse, alcoholism, drug addiction, terrorism or anything else that plagues our society. It is ‘out of sight, out of mind’ thinking. If I don’t see it, it isn’t real.

And isn’t it nice that you didn’t have to feel uncomfortable watching a show where a woman is beaten to the point she feels so desperate she shoots and kills her abusive partner, or that she’s willing to abandon her baby on a doorstep to spare the child from growing up with that violence? How wonderfully convenient for you that you didn’t have to acknowledge that the world is not a perfect place.

For those that do pull their head up from the sand long enough to take a look at the news, they will quickly see that changing TV programming regulations hasn’t solved a damn thing. And then they will focus their energy elsewhere. What’s next? Music? Radio? Video games? Books?

They’re putting the cart before the horse. It’s like giving sunscreen to someone dying of skin cancer - it might spare them the discomfort of one sunburn, but it isn’t going to do a damn thing to save their life.

In my opinion politics and crime fiction are intricately connected. Well, perhaps not all crime fiction. I can’t speak to the whole spectrum. But the part of the genre that I spend most of my time focused on is where the books are a reflection of society, where commentary is being made in a low-key fashion, through compelling stories. More than just entertaining reads, these books have weight because they’re actually about something important. They act as a window to the world at a point in time. Twenty years from now people will be able to read The Naming of the Dead and recall a chapter in history. G8 and the London bombings. The timing of the book coincides with my first visit to Scotland, so it will always convey a sense of the political climate of the time.

For myself, I believe that no matter how hard you squeeze your eyes shut and try to tune out the world, you are still affected by crime. You pay higher insurance premiums because of theft. You pay taxes that are used to hire police, fund the courts and house criminals in prisons. Whether you want to acknowledge it or not, you pay the price for crime.

And that’s where the politics comes in. It doesn’t matter if you don’t vote, know what parties are running or listen to the speeches or think about the issues. Someone gets elected, and they make decisions. They make decisions about whether or not to put half-way houses in your neighbourhood. They might be able to influence what shows you can and can’t watch at 8 pm… and they might also have some say in what kind of sentences criminals face. (Death penalty debates, for example. Here, we could argue consecutive sentencing. Do not get me started on that – we’ll be here for the rest of the month!) The decisions politicians make about funding for police departments and prisons can affect early release from jail for dangerous criminals, can affect whether or not there’s someone there to respond to calls when it’s you or a loved one who’s the victim. My husband’s on a fire department. Don’t think for a second that absolute responsibility for what happens within the department begins and ends with the department itself. There are always people in political positions who pull the strings.

So, for me, you can’t separate crime fiction from politics. That doesn’t mean the books I read are heavy-hitting propaganda. However, they do portray society, warts and all, and try to give a sense of how it all interconnects. There is probably no greater example of this than The Wire. If you aren’t familiar with this show (my God, where have you been? Picketing with the Senator, I suppose…) go look at that link. Just scroll down. Four venues of importance to tell the story: The Law, The Street, The Hall and The School. Because The Wire actually requires an attention span and some capacity to face things that might be uncomfortable (such as the violent deaths of some characters) what it does is demonstrate the intricate connection of all aspects of society. Each season has it’s arc, with a major investigation unfolding. Things are not wrapped up in an hour, they’re wrapped up in 12 or 13 hours. But beyond the framework of each season there is the bigger picture. Each season is like one panel of a quilt. It tells its own story, but is integral to the quilt as a whole, joining with the other panels to tell a larger story. What has been clear, from the beginning, has been the negative impact of the political power struggles within the police department, and how that actually aides crime by hindering police officers. In four seasons we begin to see it coming together, showing how in order to really change society we don’t need to ban violent TV programs or raise arrest quotas. What we need to do is simultaneously revamp our political, educational and legal systems to actually address the issues, rather than just keep slapping band-aids on bullet wounds.

As a former educator and huge fan of crime fiction I just love the show, and the insights. I wouldn’t be surprised if Tony Gray voiced David Simon’s own beliefs when he said that before you could even address crime you needed to get to the root and address problems with the education system and get to the kids before they started slinging on street corners.

Here I am, using a TV program to defend violence on TV. Some might discount that argument, but what I would say to Christians supporting this bill is that some of the most disturbing acts of violence I have ever read are contained in the Bible, and I don’t see anyone moving to ban that. We had David cutting the foreskins off men he slaughtered as the price for a bride. Brother raping sister. If we’re going to stick with the discussion from the perspective of religion, it’s called sin folks. “To miss the mark.” Darkness, the ability to commit violent or immoral acts, has been in the heart of each and every one of us since the dawn of time. The first child born to Adam and Eve was a murderer. And I hate to tell you this, but he didn’t kill his brother because he got the idea watching an episode of CSI.

Throughout history we have records of inquisitions, crusades, wars, genocide. Hitler wasn’t influenced by a bad episode of NYPD Blue and neither was Nero.

If people really want to “fix” what’s wrong with our society, they need to stop casting judgment on people and start meeting the needs that aren’t being met. For crying out loud, they have time to pursue a bill that will affect TV programming for two hours - when it would have no impact on curbing violent content on cable channels, and when so many of us have satellite that we can watch what’s on at 10 pm elsewhere when it’s only 8 pm at our home.

And we haven’t even touched on access to material via the internet. Who’s going to keep the impressionable and easily offended from viewing violent content on YouTube if they can’t even take responsibility to turn the damn TV off if they don’t like what’s on?

This isn’t exactly new opinion from me. I know I’ve touched on this before, but in light of the comment on The Rap Sheet I’m left scratching my head. If you don’t like what’s on TV, don’t watch it. (I seldom do.) And if you don’t like what’s on a blog, don’t read it.

Free choice. It’s a beautiful thing.


Randy Johnson said...

I'm not sure a lot of what politicians do bears any relationship to the real world. Mostly it seems a way to whip up segments of their constituency in an attempt to curry favor around an election time. They say what you want to hear but never seem to say or do anything that really matters in this increasingly fractious society. Everybody wants something, so nothing important ever seems to get done. Violence on television has always been a hot button issue. I remember thinking as a young person that I heard more profanity every day at school than on a week of television(I'm an old guy. Profanity was the big deal when I was a kid).

Randy Johnson said...

Oh,by the way, The family church is Church of The Brethren. I'm not sure they're related to yours.

Sandra Ruttan said...

There are actually so many different Brethren churches it would be almost impossible to say. I couldn't keep them all straight.

I'd say, in general, you're right about a lot of politicians. But ultimately someone does pull those strings, and it is how politics intersects with everything else (for us anyway) from social assistance to retraining for those who've lost jobs to affordable housing to immigration policies, to educational funding etc. etc. that have a direct impact on crime. You don't arrest one drug dealer and solve the problem - another steps in to take their place. It's systemic. And the way to stop it is to start looking at the big picture of what puts people there to begin with.

In all honestly, I suppose I'm with you. I'm sure I heard worse language at school than on TV.