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Between the Lines: Let's Get Real, People
(September 2002)
By David Pitt

From time to time, a handful of books on the same general theme appear on the shelves at the same time. Let's begin with Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make Believe Violence (Basic Books), by Gerard Jones. This rather daring exploration of the relationship between kids and their heroes challenges us to look at an old subject in a new way.

Jones's argument is fairly straightforward: although adults sometimes frown upon it, children need the mayhem and violence of fantasy -- computer games, comic-book heroes, rappers, and whatnot. They need it because it teaches them to distinguish fantasy from reality, teaches them how to cope with shock and loss and all the things in the world that aren't cute and furry and cuddly. Much as we wish it weren't so, the world can be a violent, distressing place, and kids need to learn how to deal with it before they're thrust, as young adults, into it.

Jones, who came out of the comic-book world (he wrote for Spider-Man and Batman, among others), tells us what we should already know: banning these violent influences isn't the answer. Blaming the media companies who produce the stuff isn't the answer. Understanding the stuff's influence on children , understanding why children so strongly relate to it -- that's the answer. A sharply reasoned, well presented book.

On the other hand, here's The Other Parent: The Inside Story of the Media s Effect on Our Children, by children's advocate James P. Steyer. He takes a more familiar approach: media companies, in the quest for the almighty dollar, are ignoring their responsibilities to parents and to society -- pumping out as much trash as they can, encouraging kids (and adults) to act irresponsibly and violently. It's the usual argument -- people do bad things, people are exposed to violence in the media, so let's blame the media for the bad things people do -- and it is argued in the usual manner, with plenty of emotional cues and a general lack of clear thinking.

If you go in for the let's-blame-the-media argument, this book will play to every one of your prejudices. If you prefer a clear and rigid examination of the whole subject, and a careful assessment of the relative roles of media and parents in the shaping of children, look elsewhere.

Here's a scary thought: in the U.S., opinion polls regularly indicate that a majority of respondents believe in the existence of extraterrestrials, angels, life after death, and psychic powers. How is this possible? How can people living at the beginning of the twenty-first century, with all the resources of science and education available at their fingertips, possibly believe that there aliens walking among us, or that some people can actually read other people's minds? Since there is no evidence to support the existence of any of this stuff, why do so many of us persist in believing in it?

The answer, Malcolm McGrath says in Demons of the Modern World (Prometheus Books), is simple: because we spend so much of our young lives immersed in fantasy, many of us grow into adults who take it for granted, almost, that there are all manner of supernatural forces lurking just beneath the surface of our seemingly hum-drum world. It is our own fascination with fantasy -- movies, books, computer games -- that allows us to believe in the patently unbelievable, to push aside our common sense and reason and embrace the things that have been familiar to us since we were youngsters.

Is McGrath saying fantasy is bad, and we should keep our kids away from it? No -- certainly not. He seems closer to Jones than Steyer: we need fantasy, because it helps us build the tools we need to live in the world. He's simply pointing out the obvious: many of us, as adults, spend perhaps too little time exercising our brains. Fantasy is fine, as long as we don't start confusing it with reality.
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