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Cruel, Not Unusual


My edition of the collected works of William Shakespeare sheds some light, not new but quite old, on Michael Vick's alleged participation in dog-fighting.

The inside cover features a drawing of London at the start of the 17th century, with the south bank of the Thames and the Globe Theater in the foreground. Near the theater there's another building labeled "bear baiting." In this spectacle, hunting dogs attacked a chained bear until they killed it. Fresh dogs were added to the fight as others got mauled. And the crowd roared, at least until the 19th century, when the "sport" was banned.

We have a long history of organized cruelty, it seems. Merida, Spain, was once the capital city of the province of Lusitania, so it became the home to one of the world's most impressive Roman theaters, the site of thousands of performances of tragedy and comedy. Much of this theater still stands, as does its neighbor, a far larger gladiatorial arena. Men and animals died there, bleeding into Extremadura's arid soil. Today, helpful little signs at the site explain that the gladiators drew a much bigger crowd, but imperial governors wanted to show they were cultured, so they built their theater in the same neighborhood. The most powerful societies of every age, ones capable of art that outlasts the centuries, try to balance these forces of high culture and blood sport. Yet when we look deeply enough, we find support for Nietzsche's claim "without cruelty there is no festival."

Beyond the headlines and outrage about dogs used in the Surry County fights, we might think ourselves somehow above Michael Vick and his preferred festival. Yet Vick merely holds up a mirror to a popular culture gorged on cruelty.

I gaze in that mirror when I read about films like "Saw" or when, in our video store, I spot the poster for "The Hills Have Eyes II," with its torture-bound victim tied in a sack and dragged across a wasteland by a psychopath. A recent piece in The New York Times referred to such films as "gorenography." The point is to titillate with carnage, often graphic violence paired with sex. Quentin Tarantino understands this well, making films that, while put together by a master filmmaker's hand, also can be read--as Roger Shattuck did in a neglected but powerful essay in 1999—as making evil seem cool.

Poke out an eye. Pass the popcorn.

No dogs or other animals are harmed in films, little reminders assure us when the credits roll. No, but simulated acts of dismemberment, mutilation and torture not only occur but are the focal point of much "entertainment." Even with the technical skills Tarantino brings to his movies, what does he want audiences to recall from his growing body of work: edge-of-the-seat crime stories or the homosexual rape of Ving Rhames' character in "Pulp Fiction"?

Ah, but it's simulated depravity that large audiences enjoy, not the real thing. Sorry, film-goers; what is the difference between spectators' enjoyment before a screen or during dog-fights, except that the actors in current horror films are given a choice before wallowing in gore? Before some letter-writer reminds me of the atrocities in Shakespeare's plays, consider the differences in technique and purpose. For all its on-stage carnage and severed heads, the stage lacks realistic special effects and the camera's eye. In "King Lear" we don't get to see Gloucester's eyes ripped out in a close-up and a spray of blood. The point of the scene was not only to entertain the dolts in the cheap seats; "Lear" is partly about the cruelty that can erupt, even in a family, when foolish decisions are made. Again and again, Shakespeare reminds us that among other urges, depravity always lies just beneath the surface of civilization.

My disgust with some forms of popular culture wins me some odd allies. It's rare for me to side with PETA, since I consider many of their positions naïve and extremist. But I am glad that they put pressure on the Atlanta Falcons. The dogs allegedly kept in Vick's house were, in the words of an older time, "dumb brutes" who had no say in their fates. The abuse of dogs needs to be eliminated from the face of the earth, as does the bull-fighting I once witnessed in Spain or "hunts" where the pampered rumps of the wealthy bounce in their saddles behind a pack that rips apart a fox. Here PETA will get mad at me: If foxes cause farmers trouble, shoot them. Just don't make a festival out of a necessity.

Those making dogs fight need prison time, and lots of it, but the Vick case is important in another sense. I'm sorry to see Newport News' local hero in trouble, but the Falcons are sending the right message: Dog-fighting should be seen as a relic of a more barbaric time. Otherwise, football—no gentle sport itself—is stained with the same blood spilled in Surry County. That cruelty can also remind us that while we should strongly prosecute all blood-sport with animals, at both the state and federal levels, there's another step to take.

If we all turned our backs in disgust on the bear-baiting pits, in whatever forms they appear, and said "no" firmly to our children when they wanted to gape at the blood-letting, the pits would soon go out of business. S

Joe Essid teaches English at the University of Richmond.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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