February 26, 2003

Swords Don't Kill People! Novels Kill People! Department

Mark Kleiman, a professor supported in high style by the hard-working taxpayers of Orange County, has been reading the kind of violent-youth-subculture glorifying novel that right-thinking people like William Bennett and Lynne Cheney see as a large part of the permissive-decadent destructive culture imposed on us by a liberal elite that is responsible for so many of the ills of America today. Shame on him! Shame! Shame!


Mark A. R. Kleiman: Just finished reading (re-reading, actually) a book about a young man who starts out in life with almost no money, no job or job-relevant education, a deadly weapon, and a determination that anyone who fails to treat him with what he considers proper respect will pay for it in blood. Eager to achieve membership in one of the two gangs of armed thugs who between them terrorize the peaceful citizens of a great city, he challenges three of its respected members to fight to the death. When their affray is interrupted by members of the rival gang, he joins with the three he was about to fight, and together they kill one of their assailants and leave three others seriously wounded. That makes the four of them inseparable friends from then on.

The rest of the book is largely a description of their cheerful conversation and their murderous and erotic exploits. Eschewing any actual work as socially degrading, the protagonist and his three friends live mainly off the money they get from various lady-loves. The story ends with the ritualized killing of the former wife of one of the four (who, in the narrative past of the book, had already strangled her and left her for dead but apparently had failed to complete the job) in revenge for her having poisoned the young protagonist¬?s favorite among his girlfriends (who is also the wife of his landlord).

As a measure of how far moral degradation can go, the author presents the four central characters as charming, brave, and admired, encouraging the reader to identify with them without at all concealing the reality of their mercenary promiscuity and their commitment to violence as a way of life. I expect William Bennett to have a word or two to say to the author, whose delicate ear for dialogue and superb narrative gifts cannot conceal the ethical rottenness that lies at the heart of The Three Musketeers. I suppose we should have expected nothing better from the ancestor of cheese-eating surrender monkeys, but M. Dumas should be ashamed of himself.

Yes, that was supposed to be a joke; I actually admire The Three Musketeers extravagantly as political fiction, and Dumas's trick of making the Cardinal the actual hero of the book (check out his last scene with D'Artagnan) while convincing juvenile readers of all ages that he's the bad guy is really pretty impressive. (Shakespeare does the opposite trick -- much better, of course -- in Henry V, but I always admire that particular form of irony when someone brings it off.) But it is astonishing to recall an age when it was rich -- or at least nobly-born -- adolescents and young adults who made a lifestyle out of killing one another over minor affronts. Any theory that derives violence directly from deprivation needs to take that phenomenon into account.

Posted by DeLong at February 26, 2003 07:53 PM | TrackBack

Comments

I know I am always in the wrong place but look at this.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senior Bush administration adviser Glenn Hubbard abruptly resigned on Wednesday as chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, rounding out a shake-up of President Bush's economic team.

Posted by: Bruce Ferguson on February 26, 2003 08:04 PM

Dear Mr. President,

Please consider Marty Feldstein for the position, as I can no longer withstand the boredom of his wanna-be funny Ec10 lectures.

Love always,
Anandla

Posted by: anandla on February 26, 2003 08:25 PM

Gee, I feel hopelessly off-topic mentioning that Charlton Heston was fab as Cardinal Richilieu in the York/Welch/Reed/Chamberlain/Dunaway version.

"One must be careful what one writes... and to whom one gives it."

Posted by: Tom Maguire on February 26, 2003 09:42 PM

He was indeed...

Posted by: Brad DeLong on February 26, 2003 09:56 PM

Sorry to comment on the post at this point, but it's a mistake to confuse The Three Musketeers with social realism. It may make for a better story to have the rich boys killing each other, but any run through the crime records of the time reveals a whole lot of violence from and on the deprived too.

Posted by: david on February 27, 2003 07:02 AM

Sorry to comment on the post at this point, but it's a mistake to confuse The Three Musketeers with social realism. It may make for a better story to have the rich boys killing each other, but any run through the crime records of the time reveals a whole lot of violence from and on the deprived too.

Posted by: david on February 27, 2003 07:02 AM

dumas is great at romanticizing violence while bemoaning it. He does so with spectacular effect in The Count of Monte Cristo. His narrative (translated, of course) during the execution La Mazzolato at the Carnival in Rome is quite riveting.

Posted by: Suresh Krishnamoorthy on February 27, 2003 07:13 AM

Secular Western European literature up until at least 1600 or so is mostly violent, or at least written by military men. Even humane writers like Cervantes, Montaigne, Ben Jonson, Edmund Spenser and many more were soldiers during part of their lives. The dispute between "Armes and Letters" as to which has priority is a cliche of the Rennaissance and early modern age.

The romance literature in Old French and other languages is particularly violent and garish and has an unmistakable pulp-fiction flavor. (Sex, monsters, gore).

The "meaningless" gang killings are actually bids for status in a world where law doesn't reach and personal violence is your only recourse. Analogies with duels between Rennaissance gentlemen over tiny insults are very close. The same thing appears anywhere where the state monopoly of violence is not total, which is most of human history.

In the drug trade both courage and willingness to kill are necessary qualities; street gangs are like the minor leagues of that business.

Posted by: zizka on February 27, 2003 08:54 AM

Sorry Sorry Sorry Sorry

Imagine my surprise -

Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan said on Thursday an aging U.S. population presents "daunting challenges" for the future that potentially imperil the country's Social Security safety net.

- Reuters

Posted by: anne on February 27, 2003 11:18 AM

"The "meaningless" gang killings are actually bids for status in a world where law doesn't reach and personal violence is your only recourse. Analogies with duels between Rennaissance gentlemen over tiny insults are very close. The same thing appears anywhere where the state monopoly of violence is not total, which is most of human history." (Zizka)

An alternative (or complementary) theory is that the same thing happens whenever large numbers of adolescent males are left to their own devices instead of having their time and energies strictly channeled into socially-approved activities (whether hunting, military training or schooling).

Posted by: Jeffrey Kramer on February 27, 2003 11:23 PM

Jeffrey K. -- it might even be possible to support the two causes out. Idle, hooliganish sons of more-or-less-sucessful parents tend to get shunted off eventually into school, business, or work. In poor neighborhoods not only does this not happen, since opportunities are less, but some of the few opportunities there are are for the drug trade, pimping, etc. (and related areas such as bars, music, restaurants). And if the most successful people coming out of a neighborhood are gangsters, there will be lots of juvenile mimicry, just as in neighborhoods dominated by business people kids will tend to pick up the ways of business.

Organized crime is a normal, ongoing sector of society which is outside the "state monopoly of violence" and thus is a sort of mini state of nature. It's a high-risk business, so it's not the first choice for anyone with other options.

This makes me a bleeding-heart idiotarian, but it's pretty clear to me that in the US you're much better off being rich and evil than poor and honest. Those aren't the only two choices, of course.

Posted by: zizka on February 28, 2003 12:15 PM

"Idle, hooliganish sons of more-or-less-sucessful parents tend to get shunted off eventually into school, business, or work." (zizka)

That is true. And back in the Three Musketeers era and earlier, the occasional manslaughter wasn't necessarily a bar to eventual social integration, if the hooligan's blood was blue enough.

Posted by: Jeffrey Kramer on March 1, 2003 04:50 AM
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