Mark Harris
February 02, 2001 AT 05:00 AM EST

Did ”Jackass” inspire a horrific stunt?

In a Boston hospital, a 13 year old boy lies critically injured, burns covering much of his body. He received the injuries when his friends allegedly poured gasoline on him and set him on fire, reportedly because they were imitating a stunt they had seen on the MTV series ”Jackass.”

We can have many reactions to this news, and, as brutal as it sounds, the first of them is probably something like ”How could anyone be so foolish — even a 13 year old?” It is a hard thing to say, and a hard thing to feel, but we’re all human, and when tragedy strikes, it’s almost instinctive to find some kind of line to draw between yourself and the victim.

It’s also possible to realize, in the same breath, that discussions of foolishness or personal irresponsibility should be muted in the face of one family’s shattering crisis. Of course it was foolish — but why on earth have that discussion now?

And we can also turn with fury and frustration toward MTV, a network that seems bent on catering to both the best and worst instincts of teenagers without caring which makes more of an impact — a company that has, after all, done its share to breed a new generation of gay bashers by lionizing Eminem and feels that it can wash that sin away by making a TV movie about Matthew Shepard. ”Jackass” is culturally unnecessary garbage; MTV will defend it, as it should and must, but the network has nothing to be proud of.

It’s possible, however, to have all these reactions and still not feel the need to rush toward the first available open microphone. Unless, of course, you’re a politician. Which is why, inevitably, we heard from Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut (and recent vice presidential candidate) this week, continuing his anticultural crusade and complaining that ”Jackass” aired without adequate warnings.

It’s tempting, and too easy, to dismiss this as tin plated sanctimony, a pandering attack on an easy target by a Senator looking to shore up his support in the culturally conservative bedroom communities of his home state. But Senator Lieberman — a parent, a senator who, after all, represents the state where the tragedy occurred, and a man seen as honorable on both sides of the aisle — deserves to have his words and actions taken at face value. And it’s the face value of his words that is, in fact, most troubling.

We live in a culture that is increasingly — if ineffectively — safety sealed for the protection of idiots. On TV right now, there’s a commercial in which three guys get into a fistfight with some grizzly bears over a salad. On screen throughout is the sentence ”Do Not Attempt.” Men drive brand new automobiles through rings of fire and down the sides of mountains. On screen, the inadvisability of this is explained to us with the words ”Professional Stunt Driver.”

Senator Lieberman decried the lack of ”adequate warnings” on ”Jackass.” In fact, the show airs with both a TV-MA rating and a fairly extensive on air warning. The warning does not say, ”Please don’t pour gasoline over yourself and light a match.” That’s implicit. Or should be. Or is, to 99.99 percent of the people who watch the show.

We cannot risk becoming a country that is all about the other .01 percent. We are all infantilized enough, by both pop culture and politicians, without living in a world that’s redesigned to protect its most foolhardy inhabitants from their most ill considered actions. And we cannot live in a world where politicians, even well meaning ones, are custodians of art, even crappy art. They cannot do it; they have never been able to and they never will, because they live and die by popularity and are not genetically wired to defend the unpopular, which is what needs defending the most.

Instead, we as a people need to be given credit for intelligence and maturity — including the intelligence and maturity to realize that sometimes all the warning labels and ratings systems and parental advisories and Congressional hearings in the world are not enough to prevent horrible, stupid things from happening. And when they do, sometimes the only appropriate reaction is a bowed head, reflection, and silence. Even from a politician.

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