Cultural artifacts from the age of fear

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Will

Will writes from Washington, D.C. (well, Arlington, Virginia). You can reach him at willblogcorrespondence at gmail dot com.

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79 Responses

  1. Avatar Jason Kuznicki
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    says:

    Some make the argument that crime is low today simply because we’ve locked up those who would be predisposed to committing it. And thank goodness we did!

    What do you say to that one? I’m curious.Report

  2. Avatar Kolohe
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    As a nitpick, Escape from LA was made strictly for the dollar dollar bills; made in ’96, when we were already well on the downslope from the crime peak, and even the memories of the Rodney King riots had started to fade (that is from broader Americana – I’m sure they were still in the zeitgeist of most Angelenos).Report

    • Avatar Will in reply to Kolohe
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      Interestingly enough, that book about “super-predators” I link to was also published in ’96. I guess they were both lagging indicators.Report

      • Avatar Jesse Ewiak in reply to Will
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        ’96 was still close enough that the dropping violent crime rates could be waved away as an aberration. Twenty years later after the peak of the “War on Crime”, that argument is much, much tougher to make.Report

  3. Avatar BlaiseP
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    says:

    Prisons have become a private industry now. The phenomenon has created its own forms of corruption.

    An interesting side effect of our crackdown on illegal immigrants has been the rise of prison labor to replace some of it.Report

  4. Avatar Patrick
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    says:

    These movies are all great examples, but if you really want a cultural artifact that gives a window back into that period, my first recommendation is the superb ‘The Warriors.’Report

  5. Avatar BlaiseP
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    says:

    I hated all those flicks. Brazil was a sorta interesting take on Gummint Gone Rong. THX1138 was, too.Report

    • Avatar Robert Cheeks in reply to BlaiseP
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      Damn, THX1138 is a great flick. So good I bought a copy and play it every year or so to remind me why I’m a Paleo.
      “Stay calm, everything will be alright!”Report

  6. Avatar BlaiseP
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    says:

    And what about Minority Report?Report

    • Avatar Robert Cheeks in reply to BlaiseP
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      What about “Enemy of the State?”Report

      • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to Robert Cheeks
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        Minority Report and Enemy of the State are part of the new paradigm.

        They’re not about the fear of crime. They’re about the fear of where the fear of crime has led.Report

        • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Pat Cahalan
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          says:

          It has been my observation only the petty and feeble minded rascal goes into a Life o’ Crime. Your entrepreneur class of criminal goes into politics, where the real power resides.Report

          • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to BlaiseP
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            says:

            Entrepreneur class criminals are smart enough to go after the aggregated power.Report

            • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Pat Cahalan
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              says:

              After first arriving in Louisiana, I became fascinated with the character of Huey Long. The Kingfish’s histories have been written by his enemies, as were several of the Caesars, but thanks to the Code Napoleon, the Governor of Louisiana had perfectly legal patronage powers that any dictator would envy. A proper study of Huey Long is a whole education in itself and he is the most quotable American politician since Jefferson.

              “They say they don’t like my methods. Well, I don’t like them either. I really don’t like to have to do things the way I do. I’d much rather get up before the legislature and say, ‘Now this is a good law and it’s for the benefit of the people, and I’d like you to vote for it in the interest of the public welfare.’ Only I know that laws ain’t made that way. You’ve got to fight fire with fire.” Report

        • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Pat Cahalan
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          says:

          They’re not about the fear of crime. They’re about the fear of where the fear of crime has led.

          I’d argue that this was what both Robocop and Demolition Man were about as well. (and in a different way Escape from New York)

          Although it’s a fairly standard dystopic speculative fiction trope to have an ‘insider vs outsider’ dynamic characterized by:
          a) the insiders lead life of relative affluence and order,
          b) the outsiders lead of life of relative poverty and anarchy.
          c) something specific or systemic or both is creating this divide
          d) this forms the fundamental tension of the plot
          (who’s ‘happier’ is determined by the point the author is trying to make)

          It’s been used in everything from HG Well’s Time Machine to Wheadon’s Firefly.Report

          • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Kolohe
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            says:

            Also we can include every Schwarzenegger sci-fi films in this, with ‘Running Man’ being more ‘fear of crime’ based, whereas Total Recall was more about straight up corporate dickatude.Report

            • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Kolohe
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              says:

              During one gaming night, whilst raiding the fridge, I walked through the room where my friend’s wife was watching The Running Man. She had never seen it before (!). It happened to be the Buzzsaw scene.

              I snarled “I LOVE THIS SAW. THIS SAW IS A PART OF ME. I’M GONNA MAKE IT PART OF YOU!”

              Then, seconds later, Buzzsaw said something similar.

              I digress. It was about corporations? Or something? Huh.Report

  7. Avatar Ben JB
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    Something extra to chew on: RoboCop isn’t just about government break-down that leads to privatisation in the field of law enforcement–it’s about the danger of corporate crime. At the end of the day, the really dangerous criminals are the coke-snorting CEOs with their private exemptions from the law. Street crime is piddling in comparison to office-building crime (and, in fact, street crime is inextricably linked to office-building crime).Report

  8. Avatar Tony Comstock
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    says:

    Also.

    Yeah, crime. It sucked.

    But age of fear? Get teh fuck out. I mean seriously, have you looked around? Age of Fear? You’re living in it.Report

  9. Avatar Rufus F.
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    A sort of forgotten one from that era (because Paul Schrader is so criminally underrated) was Hardcore with George C. Scott as a Dutch Calvinist buisinessman whose daughter gets sucked into the world of porn (partly because her father and mother got divorced!) and he has to rescue her in L.A. It was made in 1979 and whenever people ask me about Reagan’s election in 1980 I tell them, “Go see Hardcore. That guy is who voted for Reagan!”Report

    • Avatar Will in reply to Rufus F.
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      Damn. I really want somebody to pay me to write an article about this stuff so I can watch all these movies guilt-free.Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Will
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        Seriously, I don’t know when the Criterion Collection is going to get it together and issue a Schrader box set. They’ve issued a few of his movies, but they *need* to get Blue Collar out on DVD. There’s something wrong in the world with that movie being so hard to find on DVD (not to mention the fact that Rolling Thunder, a fantastic movie he wrote) is still not on DVD.Report

  10. Avatar Rufus F.
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    says:

    Also, here’s the thing about New York in the 70s and early 80s- okay, it was famously dangerous to live there. Also it’s the last time that city was really culturally significant in a world historical sense. The music, the art, the movies- it was all important. Now? Who gives a damn about New York?Report

  11. Avatar Transplanted Lawyer
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    Ummm… Dirty Harry, anyone? A whole franchise, no one mentioning it. And the blaxploitation cop flicks (e.g., Shaft) tap in to the same ethic, plus add some racial stereotyping that again would have quite a lot of difficulty making it out of a studio today.

    In addition to fear of crime and quasi-sexual unease about race relations, these movies also reveal something that continues to repeat today — overt hostility to civil rights, the glamorization of the government engaging in violence to thwart the corrupt, sniveling lawyers and the pusillanimous, invertebrate judges who abet them.

    They show that the pursuit of Justice-with-a-capital-J requires a Man With A Big Gun Who Isn’t Afraid To Use It in order to be administered. The ethic here is that justice isn’t found in a court; courts are places where justice is subverted and held up for mockery and civil institutions are simply too handicapped for even well-meaning people working within the system to get anything productive accomplished. Justice is found out on the hard streets in neighborhoods tougher than a poached hockey puck, where a few good men make it by hand one case at a time, using the sometimes ugly but thrilling tools of violence, snap moral judgments, and clever quips delivered to scumbags right before they get served up what’s coming to them. Sure, they have to play by their own rules and occasionally work outside the system, but you don’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs, bruthah.

    That ethic lives today. We are supposed to cheer on Keifer Sutherland in 24 as he beats the ever-loving snot out of the Really Bad Guys he fights with because, damnit, he doesn’t have TIME to go get a search warrant and establish rapport with his just-captured informant to extract reliable information, the bomb is tick-tick-ticking away right now endangering innocent people!

    Plus les choses évoluent plus elles restent identiques.Report

  12. Avatar Pinky
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    says:

    No one’s mentioned Mad Max yet!?Report

    • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to Pinky
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      Mad Max isn’t really *about* crime, I’d say. It’s about the downfall of civilization due to nuclear war. Crime plays a big factor, but these other movies have crime skyrocketing because civilization sucks for (some reason inherent in the way we run the place). Mad Max has crime skyrocketing because civilization sucks because we nuked everything.

      That’s a whole ‘nuther thread of movies. Similar and some overlap.Report

  13. Avatar Christopher Carr
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    Bonfire of the Vanities also fits this I think.Report

  14. Avatar Pinky
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    I think the genre was influenced by the Miranda decision and other court cases that expanded or protected the rights of the accused. Society was trying to figure out what the new equilibrium should be. It’s worth noting that many of these movies were critical of law enforcement and/or mainstream society. Demolition Man, Robocop, Mad Max, and the Dirty Harry movies all involved the “powers that be” crossing the line, either by pursuing criminals illegally or by manipulating the public’s fear of crime.

    I recently watched some Miami Vice episodes. You can see the different influences: the fear of crime, the sense that insiders were manipulating the system, even the glamourization of the criminal lifestyle. One important part of the show and the genre we’re discussing, which no one’s talked about, was cocaine. At the time it seemed to be spreading like wildfire, and capable of infinite damage. The idea of a huge criminally-insane underclass wasn’t so far-fetched.Report

  15. Avatar Bob
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    Crime rates have fallen, most likely, because of Roe v. Wade. Most crimes are committed by males between the ages of 15 and 35. A great many abortions started taking place after it became legal, and those males who would have grown up fatherless or in a badly dysfunctional home never got born, thus they commit no crimes.Report

  16. Avatar TheOldCrusader
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    One thing nobody mentioned is how peaceful and low crime the 50’s were in much of the country. It wasn’t just Miranda, it was a rapid rise in crime and Miranda that made people think the country was becoming unlivable.Report

    • Avatar gregiank in reply to TheOldCrusader
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      so because police had to inform people of their rights made everybody else think crime was out of control.

      So was crime low for blacks, gays and women. True rape and DV were rarely reported, i wonder why that might have been. Does the immense power of the mob count as crime?Report

  17. Avatar Paul B
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    says:

    I did live through those times, and I don’t buy your premise. Look at modern TV shows and you will find a huge emphasis on crime. Newspapers and other media love crime because it sells. Politicians love crime (and these days, “terrsm”) because it is something to demagogue. Cops and the incarceration industry loves crime because it keeps the money rolling in. Nothing has changed. Go ahead and laugh at Predator 2. I will be laughing at “Bones”.Report

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