Shocked and Appalled

In 1944 George Orwell penned an essay entitled Raffles and Miss Blandish. In it he contrasted the Raffles crime novels of E. W. Hornung with a more contemporary thriller, No Orchids for Miss Blandish. Both were examples of popular fiction, and as such they provided Orwell with insight into the public’s taste. He noted that for all their criminality, the Raffles novels never undermined the Edwardian-era values of King and country or the code of polite behavior.

He found the Miss Blandish book, however, pruriently laced with murders, animal mutilation, rape, torture, suicide, and—more remarkable to Orwell—an equivocal, almost accepting attitude toward crime and violence. Only two decades earlier, Raffles had atoned for his gentleman safecracking by dying for empire on the South African veldt, but, Orwell noted, the popular imagination no longer needed the fa├žade of redemption or any fey nostrums that crime did not pay. He wrote,

Today no one would think of looking for heroes and villains in a serious novel, but in lowbrow fiction one still expects to find a sharp distinction between right and wrong, and between legality and illegality. The common people, on the whole, are still living in the world of absolute good and evil from which the intellectuals have long since escaped.
What he described in 1944 can only be amplified sixty-five years later. Crime dramas on TV routinely depict the most bestial behavior. Serial killers are a particular favorite, especially if they are motivated by sexual perversions or twisted interpretations of religion. I sat up watching one of those police procedurals on TV the other night. Wow, it's been a while since I've checked in on network programming and what passes for entertainment.
One wonders how a steady stream of this stuff affects a person’s view of the world. Is it really so surprising that we are the most well armed, paranoid, anxiety-ridden people on the planet? At a certain saturation level, the mind must stop distinguishing between artifice and reality: both become parts of the mental scaffolding. Orwell was surprised that common people no longer expected sharp distinctions between right and wrong. Today, it’s a surprise that anyone would expect them to.


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