“300” and Counting

March 18, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

I sometimes ask students if Violence is an American value. Their first thought is usually: No, of course not; violence is bad. But then I point out the amount of violence in our popular culture (TV, music, movies) and in our real lives (US rates of violent crime, even after the extraordinary decline in the last 15 years, are still much higher than those of other industrialized nations).

My point in all this is to question the idea — often found in sociology textbooks — that values are primarily guides to action. That definition implies that we can discover a culture’s values by looking at what people do. Looking at Americans do, we see that they produce and
consume a lot of violence. So either Americans value violence, or there’s something wrong with this sociological idea about values.

The answer I usually give is that the guides-to-action definition is at best incomplete. Despite our actions, Americans and American culture do not value violence itself. Violence is not an ultimate good —like success or freedom —that we use to justify some action. It’s just that we don’t mind using violence to get some of the results that we do value. We don’t think violence is inherently good. We just don’t think it’s all that bad.

Brian Gellman, who blogs at Intel Dump, may get me to change my thinking. Intel Dump is a blog run by former military officers, and it has provided excellent military analysis of the current war. But this
post, inspired by the recent hit movie “300,” shaded over from purely military matters into the cultural arena.
Critics of 300 fail to understand what many critics of the current administration’s handling of the “Global War on Terror” fail to understand. American culture. . . .Americans today overwhelming see military power as a solution to any number of problems.

Critics of current US policies in the world who believe things will change when the current administration leaves office are fooling themselves . . . The reality is that until American culture changes, US policies will not change significantly.
So maybe we don’t mind violence as a means to an end; maybe it's the means we most prefer, at least in international matters. This preference goes along with another idea that forms the basis for at least three hundred American movies from “HighNoon” to “Top Gun” and “300,” an idea I’ve mentioned before — that all problems (moral, psychological, personal) will be resolved through a final, decisive contest between two adversaries. It works in the movies.

Unfortunately, in real life, where we cannot fade to black and roll the credits, the results are rarely so simple.

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