Saturday, September 11, 2010

Nehamas, Alexander. "Plato's Pop Culture Problem, and Ours." NEW YORK TIMES August 29, 2010.

This fall, the U.S. Supreme Court will rule on a case that may have the unusual result of establishing a philosophical link between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Plato.

The case in question is the 2008 decision of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals striking down a California law signed by Gov. Schwarzenegger in 2005, that imposed fines on stores that sell video games featuring “sexual and heinous violence” to minors. The issue is an old one: one side argues that video games shouldn’t receive First Amendment protection since exposure to violence in the media is likely to cause increased aggression or violence in real life. The other side counters that the evidence shows nothing more than a correlation between the games and actual violence. In their book “Grand Theft Childhood,” the authors Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl K. Olson of Harvard Medical School argue that this causal claim is only the result of “bad or irrelevant research, muddleheaded thinking and unfounded, simplistic news reports.”

The issue, which at first glance seems so contemporary, actually predates the pixel by more than two millennia. In fact, an earlier version of the dispute may be found in “The Republic,” in which Plato shockingly excludes Homer and the great tragic dramatists from the ideal society he describes in that work.

Could Plato, who wrote in the 4th century B.C., possibly have anything to say about today’s electronic media? As it turns out, yes, It is characteristic of philosophy that even its most abstruse and apparently irrelevant ideas, suitably interpreted, can sometimes acquire an unexpected immediacy. And while philosophy doesn’t always provide clear answers to our questions, it often reveals what exactly it is that we are asking. . . .

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