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Roberto Rivera on American Pop Culture
More than a year ago, a pair of suburban teenagers named Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold turned the word “Columbine” into a synonym for “massacre.” In the year since the shootings, there has been no shortage of explanations for why two middle-class suburban kids would set out to annihilate their schoolmates.
These explanations have focused on, to borrow terms from criminal law, means and motive. By means, I’m referring to the role that our nation’s gun laws may have played in the massacre. The past months have seen repeated efforts, at both the state and federal levels, to close what gun-control advocates maintain was a loophole that enabled the pair to arm themselves.
By motive, I’m referring to things such as uncontrolled anger, bad parents, and bigotry. In other words, psychological factors.
The Other Factor
What’s noteworthy is the lack of attention given to the factor for which we arguably have the most evidence: the role popular culture, and the nihilism it breeds, played in turning suburban kids into monsters. If you’re looking for evidence for this contribution, you need look no further than what a December issue of Time magazine dubbed a “Special Report.”
The report, which generated a lot of criticism from both the victims’ families and segments of the media, was based on a set of videos shot by Harris and Klebold just before the shootings. In these tapes, the duo swigged Jack Daniels, brandished their weapons, and tried to explain why they were about to do what they did. While the tapes had nothing to say about the role of guns—an issue I suspect we’ll never settle—they did a good job of undermining the psychological explanations proffered by the punditocracy.
While Harris and Klebold were angry at the way they had been treated, you can’t label their anger as uncontrollable. On the contrary, it’s clear from watching the tapes that they had bided their time, waiting for the ideal moment to act.
And while the pair’s performance on the tapes was filled with racial hatred and invective, it’s also clear that they were equal-opportunity haters. They hated everybody: athletes, minorities, Jews, and other whites.
Well, how about their clueless parents? You know, the ones who were unaware of the bomb factory in the house? The pair absolves their parents. Klebold tells the camera, “There’s nothing you guys could’ve done to prevent this. . . .” He tells his mom and dad that they are “great parents,” and that he appreciates what they’ve done for him. As consolation, Harris offers a quote from Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “Good wombs hath borne bad sons.” They then say goodbye to their parents by saying, “It’s what we had to do. . . .”
What the tapes do tell us about is the role that American popular culture played in shaping Harris’s and Klebold’s worldviews. I’m not talking about the attempt to place blame on movies such as The Matrix or The Basketball Diaries. The role played by popular culture was both subtler and more invidious.
Take the name that Harris chose for his shotgun: Arlene. He named it after a character in Doom, his favorite video game. Doom is a violent and gory game where the strategy is simple: if it moves, shoot it. And in case anyone missed the reference, Harris told the camera that the “shooting [is] going to be like . . . Doom.”
Can anyone seriously doubt the extent to which the hyper-violent world of video games had shaped the pair’s worldview?
Not Merely Imitating
An even more important indication as to how American popular culture shaped the pair’s understanding of the world can be found in their stated reasons for doing what they did. Harris and Klebold wanted the world to be clear on one point: They were not merely imitating other school shootings.
Harris says that we should “not think we’re trying to copy anyone.” He and Klebold had thought of killing their classmates “before the [other school shootings] ever happened.” What’s more, their motivations were entirely different from the likes of Kip Kinkel in Oregon, or the shooters in Paducah, Kentucky, who, according to Harris, “were only trying to be accepted by others.”
No, Harris and Klebold weren’t looking for acceptance. They were originals. They couldn’t be concerned with such trivial matters as whether people liked them or not, or even considerations of right and wrong. They were after much bigger game. They wanted to be remembered as “revolutionary” figures, people who did something that changed the world.
And, finally there’s the tone of the tapes. The word that comes to mind is banal. Yes, Harris and Klebold are angry, but they also approach their intentions with a matter-of-fact attitude. They were clearly tired of life, and convinced that there was nothing worth living for. So, they reasoned, “why not stage our own Götterdämmerung [Twilight of the Gods]? At least we will be remembered for the audacity and originality of our final actions.”
If there is a word to describe the pair’s “performance,” it’s Nietzschean. For instance, the pair didn’t deny that what they were about to do was wrong. They understood that their actions would bring grief, not only to the victims and their families, but to their own families as well. But that knowledge of right and wrong didn’t dissuade them, because they considered themselves as transcending such considerations.
As Nietzsche might have put it, they considered themselves beyond good and evil. Likewise, their desire to be seen as doing something original brings to mind Nietzsche’s idea of the artist as a self-creator who is unconstrained by antiquated moral norms.
The question is: How did Klebold and Harris come to fulfill the predictions of a philosopher who died a century ago? They may have read his work, but the most likely answer is that they absorbed Nietzsche—whom Harvard’s Harvey C. Mansfield calls “the philosopher of our times”—secondhand through our popular culture.
Shows About Nothing
And the best way to understand the influence of Nietzsche on popular culture is to read a new book by Thomas Hibbs, a professor of philosophy at Boston College. Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from The Exorcist to Seinfeld (Spence Publishing, 1999) chronicles the trajectory of popular culture, in particular movies and television, over the past 25 years.
According to Hibbs, the worldview that best characterizes contemporary movies and television is nihilism, which Hibbs defines as a “state of spiritual impoverishment and shrunken aspirations.” This nihilism grows out of the belief, unstated in the case of American culture, that God is dead. Not in the literal sense, but in what Hibbs describes as “the growing sense that no religious or moral code is credible.”
This sense, which Nietzsche calls “pessimism,” is a “preliminary form of Nihilism.” Nihilism leads to the belief that all definitions of good and evil are “arbitrary,” which in turn “deprives us of any common vision.”
As Hibbs tells us, Nietzsche foresaw two possible responses to the knowledge that God is dead. The first is a “despair” which leads to a “stagnation of the creative will.” The second is an embrace of “creative boldness” that declares its independence from outmoded notions of right and wrong. According to Hibbs, both responses are present in much of today’s television and movies.
In the case of “creative boldness,” the past 25 years have witnessed the emergence of an unprecedented character whom Hibbs calls the “demonic anti-hero.” Examples of this type are Cady, the character played by Robert DeNiro in Cape Fear, and Hannibal Lecter, the role in Silence of the Lambs that won Anthony Hopkins his Oscar.
Unlike the classic hero, or even the flawed hero of film noir, the demonic anti-hero revels in his freedom from moral restraints and invites the audience to celebrate his liberation. Recall Lecter’s last line in Silence of the Lambs. Looking at his old nemesis, he tells Clarice that “I’m having an old friend for dinner”—in other words, “I’m gonna kill him and eat him.” I bet you laughed. I did.
The demonic anti-hero is the emblem of a worldview increasingly portrayed in movies where, as Hibbs writes, “ultimate justice is elusive, where we are tempted to see the underlying force as malevolent and punitive. . . . [This world sees] violence and ineradicable guilt as the underlying truth about the human condition.” In other words, no one cares, no one is in control, no one is innocent, and even if someone is, there’s no one around to vindicate his rights. This is the worldview not only of the two films I’ve already mentioned, but also of virtually every horror film, and of shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The X-Files.
Spiritually Impoverished Seinfeld
The other response, that of “despair,” is subtler, but no less corrosive. As Hibbs’s subtitle tells us, this response is best embodied in the definitive comedy of the nineties: Seinfeld. Have there ever been four more spiritually impoverished people than Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer? Did you ever see four people who aspired to less?
From the start, the writers of Seinfeld followed two important rules: no hugs and no learning. The result was a world without any pretense to virtue, or even sentiment. A world where earnestness was nowhere to be found and where the surface was all there was. In such a world the only posture that makes sense is detached irony, that is, to be like Jerry. (And like all successful shows, Seinfeld spawned its imitators. Shows like Friends are basically “Seinfeld lite.” They are trivial and superficial, but they lack the guts to go all the way and embrace the “no hugs and no learning” rule.) Which is exactly the kind of world you’d expect to find if God were dead and people didn’t have the ambition to be Hannibal Lecter.
Since the shootings at Columbine, this trend has accelerated. If anything, the aspirations displayed in movies and television, especially those aimed at teenagers, have gotten even smaller. Shows like Dawson’s Creek and Popular depict a world where teenage preoccupations with sex and popularity assume mythic proportions. You can expect an endless run of movies aimed at teens where the raison d’être is getting laid in time for the prom.
Meanwhile, the creatively bold crowd has come out with what may be the ultimate in demonic anti-heroes: Patrick Bateman, the protagonist of American Psycho, a film about a yuppie stock trader whose real passion is serial murder. The film, based on the controversial Bret Easton Ellis novel, purports to hold out Bateman as an object of loathing and disgust, but by making him rich, good-looking, and oddly charismatic, the odds are that audiences, especially kids, will respond to him just as they did to Hannibal Lecter.
And even shows without any “objectionable” content—in fact, no discernable content whatsoever—such as Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and its imitators, reinforce the nihilistic streak in popular culture. The audience is expected to passively watch a total stranger answer a series of questions, nothing else. In its own way, Millionaire, which abandons the pretense of plot and narrative altogether, is just as morally empty as Seinfeld.
The nihilism of popular culture matters because, in a world where the influence of institutions such as the family and the church has diminished, popular culture has become an important source of values for many kids.
Which brings me back to Harris and Klebold. If what you watch and what you listen to leads you to believe that life is meaningless, then, as Nietzsche might have told you, you’ve got two choices: You can be Jerry Seinfeld or Hannibal Lecter. Which would you choose?
Any discussion of the role of popular culture always produces the rejoinder: “I watched Seinfeld. I saw Silence of the Lambs. I’ve never even thought of harming my classmates.” That’s usually true, but it’s important to understand that the Nihilism in pop culture affects different people in different ways.
Many people are temperamentally incapable of perpetrating violence. Instead, they manifest the effects by becoming depressed and indifferent. Or they adopt a posture of irony—what Hibbs might call “the Seinfeld syndrome”—where they embody the superficial and passive creatures, always seeking to be amused, whom Nietzsche called “the last man.”
The antidote to nihilism is, of course, faith. And, in an ironic way, Harris and Klebold themselves proved how powerful an antidote this kind of belief is. When they stopped to ask prospective victims, “Do you believe in God?” it was as if they were saying, “If we did, we wouldn’t be here.” Even having embraced darkness, they recognized light when they saw it.
And it’s this light that’s our best bet against what happened in Littleton, Colorado. In the end, believing in something—in particular, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ—is the best way to not succumb to the nihilism taught by shows about nothing.
A shorter version of this article appeared in the web magazine Boundless.
Roberto Rivera is a Fellow at the Wilberforce Forum at Prison Fellowship. His work has appeared in Books & Culture, and he is also a regular contributor to the web magazine Boundless. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.