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Judge a society by its amusements


WASHINGTON -- Here are some sounds of entertainment in a nation entertaining itself into barbarism:

"I was hitting him to the brain stem, which is a killing blow, and when he covered up I'd swing back with upswings to the eye sockets with two knuckles and a thumb. There was no other place on his body you could hurt him."

"There's the toe stomp!" "There's an open thigh there -- he should do some punching." "His tooth went flying out of the ring!" "He's going to snap his arm -- he did, too!"

No eye-gouging

Those are words from a participant and some announcers involved in "ultimate fighting" or "extreme fighting," which involves two combatants in an octagonal pen, governed by minimal rules: no biting or eye-gouging.

There are no rounds, no judges, no weight classifications. (The man pounding the brain stem and eye sockets was fighting a 650-pound wrestler.) The combatants fight until one is unconscious, disabled or "taps out" -- taps the canvas, signaling surrender.

The referee's job is to watch for the tapping, occasionally summon a doctor to see if a participant can continue, and exhort the combatants to pour it on.

Six states have permitted such a spectacle. One permissive state is enough to make this a flourishing amusement on pay-per-view television. Three months ago about 300,000 subscribers paid $20 each to see the seventh Ultimate Fighting Championship.

More are coming, but if you can't wait, your neighborhood Blockbuster, which will not rent sexual pornography, probably offers cassettes of some ultimate-fighting events like the one in which a man's face was pounded to a pulp while he crawled across the canvas, leaving a broad smear of blood.

Especially memorable is slow-motion footage from an overhead camera showing a man pounding the face of a pinned opponent. Aficionados savor full-force kicks to faces and elbows smashed into temples.

Participants in these events are frightening, but less so than the paying customers. They include slack-jawed children whose parents must be cretins, and raving adults whose ferocity away from the arena probably does not rise above muttering epithets at meter maids.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a former Naval aviator who was a boxer at Annapolis and spent more than five years being tortured as a prisoner by the North Vietnamese, knows appropriate manliness and is exhorting governors and local officials to ban "extreme fighting" events because they pose "an unacceptable risk to the lives and health of the contestants."

To the objection that the contestants are consenting adults, Senator McCain, arguing within the severe limits imposed by our society's respect for choice, contends that the consent may be somehow illusory. He says perhaps a contestant is "driven by profits or the enticements of publicity associated with it and unknowingly is placing his or her life at risk."

'Glorification of cruelty'

To which libertarians respond: If you ban being driven by profits and enticed by publicity, what remains of modern life? Besides, no one has yet been killed in "extreme fighting," which is more than can be said for boxing.

Although in one letter to a governor Senator McCain says he is "solely" concerned with damage done to combatants, he also worries about the "glorification of cruelty," which raises the problem of virtue: What do we want government to do in the name of that?

The historian Macaulay, disdaining the Puritans, said they banned bear-baiting not because it gave pain to bears but because it gave pleasure to spectators. The Puritans were, of course, tiresome, but were they wrong? Surely there are ignoble, unwholesome pleasures.

The federal government is moving against what it considers one such: Never mind the lawyers' palaver about job discrimination, it is the problem of incorrect pleasure that has Washington scowling at Hooters restaurants.

Morals of the marketplace

Washington manages to make even a concern about virtue seem ludicrous, but "extreme fighting" forces a commercial society to decide when the morals of the marketplace are insufficient. Do we really ban cockfighting only because the birds cannot consent? Suppose (one hates to give entertainment entrepreneurs any of the few odious ideas they have not yet had) someone offers a $10 million prize for a Russian roulette competition -- winner take all, necessarily. Imagine the pay-per-view potential.

Would -- should -- we so respect "consumer sovereignty" that we would allow that? The question is hypothetical, but perhaps not for long. In entertainment, competition does not elevate. Competition for audiences in an increasingly jaded, coarsened and desensitized society causes competitors to devise ever-more lurid vulgarities to titillate the sated. If you think "extreme fighting" is as extreme as things can get, just wait.


George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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