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POP CULTURE IS UGLIER; BUT IT'S STILL JUST FANTASY

I've been thinking a lot about pop culture and violence lately. But then who hasn't? This is an especially good week for it, with Ridley Scott's adaptation of Thomas Harris' "Hannibal" about to open up Friday, the slice-and-dice throwaway "Valentine" already in theaters and saturation TV ads and Vince McMahon's ridiculous XFL - with its four-letter mutterings now brazenly miked and bruising tackles brought into your living room at locomotive-brake volume - is now three days old.

You can, if you're so inclined, wring hands about it all.

I'm not so inclined. There were extremely violent movies around when I was a kid and nobody I grew up with had any problem with violence in life, much less grew up to be a killer. Vince McMahon's idiot parody of our Sunday ritual sport was so inept and silly that it's hard to imagine it inspiring a single late-hit call in Pee Wee football.

And "Valentine," which I actually took the trouble to see on Thursday night, is not, as I feared, any more violent and gory than the deluge of teen-scream splatter numbers that followed on the heels of the enormous success of John Carpenter's 1975 "Halloween." Unlike the '90s "Scream" movies, "Valentine" was dopey and quite terrible. Any society that worries for a second about such fare probably doesn't deserve to survive, much less prevail.

There are different things about pop culture these days from when I was a kid, and it would be foolish to pretend there weren't. We had Elvis, Little Richard, Buddy Holly and, over on the lunatic far left of pop music, Screaming Jay Hawkins; we didn't have Eminem rapping about raping his mother. We didn't have video games so good at instilling dehumanized detachment and eye-hand coordination that they could be used to train military bombardiers.

And - the biggest difference of all - we didn't have an entire world of our species' worst images and fantasies wired up to a computer screen common to middle-class bedrooms everywhere.

I grew up in the era of the liberation of the printed word. When I was a kid, I talked my adoring and generous Aunt Bertha into bringing home from a vacation in Paris, a copy of the Olympia Press edition of Henry Miller's long-unavailable "Tropic of Cancer." (She would have given it to me, too, if she hadn't read it first on the return trip. So much for my premature jaunt into pubescent reader's lib.) Three years later, anyone could buy "Tropic of Cancer" from any drug store paperback rack. And a couple years after that, the complete works of the Marquis DeSade.

Even so, the Internet is a very different animal than anything we knew in my childhood, as chaotic and ungovernable as the unconscious and available to one and all.

Still, I can't seem to shake the feeling we are doing this all wrong. We have a society so mired in immaturity that we have let ourselves be controlled by our fears about children rather than our responsibilities and prerogatives as adults. We are allowing media scare tactics to take the place of honest concern.

I honestly don't understand parents who equate parenthood with policing. Obviously, all good parents have to play the cop sometimes, but I just don't understand anyone who relishes the role or looks for it. If you're going to be nothing but your kid's personal constabulary, why be a parent at all - unless your real need is for some sort of theatrical impersonation of parenthood that has nothing to do with the real thing?

Courtesy of gangsta rap crud and the Internet, the content of pop culture is a good deal uglier than it was in my childhood. But the danger, I think, isn't the content, it's the immaturity - and worse, pathology - of those who can't distinguish between the content of entertainment and the life they're actually going to be expected to live.

And that's still a parent's responsibility, the last time I checked. I never had to worry about a 14-year-old son listening to Eminem. But if I had one, I couldn't imagine forbidding him to listen.

And if he were, on the sly, finding the vilest garbage our species can imagine on the Web, I'd have to hope that we'd instilled enough solid values in him that he knew enough not to swim right into the fount of the pollution.

If our society is so puerile that people don't know how to act like loving parents for their own children, all the media hand-wringing and rabble-rousing in the world isn't going to save us. It's Eminem's world and the rest of us are just taking up space.

Let me do that rare media thing these days and understate my feelings about that possibility: uhhhhhhh, I don't think so.

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