Steve Sachs Duke


Wednesday, December 04, 2002


A few nights ago, I watched Bowling For Columbine, the new gun-culture documentary by Michael Moore. It's a thought-provoking film, if nothing else, and brings much-needed attention to an underpublicized issue. Gun violence has been purposefully ignored in the proposals to make America's homeland more secure. After September 11, John Ashcroft didn't even want to know whether terrorists were buying guns, for fear of--well, of effective law enforcement, I guess. And when two domestic terrorists with sniper rifles managed to shut down Washington, D.C., Ari Fleischer famously declared that "values," not the availability of high-precision sniper rifles, were the issue.

As a result, I went to Moore's movie with the hope that it would help move the gun issue back into public debate. But most of the film wasn't trying to engage in public debate at all--at least where that term is understood as analyzing a problem in order to discover a solution. Moore's approach is rather that of cultural critique, focusing his mocking eye on a twisted middle-American world where banks hand out guns and barbershops sell ammunition. And like all too many of his culture-war counterparts on the right, Moore seems content to heap scorn on those with whom he disagrees, rather than presenting effective arguments for his positions or meaningful suggestions for reform.

In any full-length documentary, of course, there are bound to be at least some good ideas. In this case, the best was Chris Rock's proposal for making bullets cost $5,000 apiece. (Former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), by the way, has had similar thoughts.) You'd think twice about shooting somebody if a bullet cost $5,000, Rock reasons, and there would be no more innocent bystanders. "He must've done something--they put fifty thousand dollars' worth of bullets in his ass!"

But good ideas tend to get lost in the quicksand of Bowling For Columbine. The format of Moore's documentary lends itself to impression rather than argument--as in the hilarious, racist cartoon sequence that tells the history of the United States as a story of trembling, paranoiac white people. Among its claims is that the same year Congress disbanded the original Ku Klux Klan, the NRA was founded to take its place. Moore obviously doesn't place weight on this cute coincidence; 1871 also saw the foundation of the German Empire and of Smith College, a successor to the KKK if I've ever seen one. But he greatly enjoys hinting at positions through image and innuendo that he couldn't reach through evidence and reasoning.

The thesis of the film, to the extent that one exists, is that the high rates of gun violence in America are caused by a media-generated and unjustified fear of crime, especially fear by whites of crime by blacks. Between local news, C.O.P.S., and the Summer of the Shark, Americans are whipped into a state of perpetual frenzy, shaking in fear when they're not drowning their sorrows in consumer goods. Thus, we buy lots of guns to "protect" our families, which in fact make us even less safe.

To establish his case, Moore relies on a rather tenuous argument by elimination. The problem can't be our easy access to guns, because in Canada--Moore's version of Eden--guns are found in an even higher percentage of households. It can't be our violent culture, because other countries share (if not produce) our movies and video games. It can't be widespread poverty, because Canada's unemployment rate is twice that of the U.S. It can't even be our history of violence, because so many peaceful countries (like Japan and Germany) have oceans of blood on their hands. The only distinguishing characteristic that Moore can find is that America has a culture of fear. In the case of gun violence, at least, we have nothing to fear but fear itself.

But the argument from elimination doesn't quite work. In as generous a welfare state as Canada, high unemployment may not mean quite so much deprivation as it would in the U.S., as Ben Fritz points out in his comprehensive critique of the film. Similarly, the guns purchased in Canada may be less deadly or more highly regulated, and the history of the violence in the U.S. has been far more individualized as opposed to the state-sponsored violence of Germany or Japan. The members of the Michigan Militia, a group whose truly marginal influence doesn't disqualify it from getting plenty of screen time from Moore, are clearly drawing on this frontier tradition of individual self-defense; their fears stem from anti-government fantasies that receive no confirmation whatsoever on the local news.

Moore can certainly make the claim that we have more crime on our local news than we should, and that Americans therefore live with an unjustified level of fear. According to Moore, gun violence has been dropping dramatically in recent years, while media mentions of gun violence over the same period have been increasing even more dramatically. Thus, the fear created by these media representations is entirely out of proportion to the facts.

Yet there are three reasons why this claim is inadequate as an explanation for gun violence. First, Moore's conclusion depends on the assumption that the media's emphasis on crime used to be commensurate with the levels of gun violence in America, but has since grown to disproportionate levels. Otherwise, we don't know that violence hasn't been under-reported in the past, and that the media aren't just now devoting an appropriate amount of time to what is admitted by all to be a terrible scourge. We also, at least with only Moore's film as evidence, can't test the possibility that the epidemic of gun violence started before the local news turned into All Fear, All the Time™, in which case an alternative explanation is necessary. Moreover, if Moore wants to claim fear as what distinguishes America from other countries, the better comparison would be between local news in America and local news elsewhere, and Moore never gives us any evidence on that score.

Second, Moore's argument is undermined by his own statistics. If these increasing media representations of crime result in additional fear, and if this additional fear results in additional gun violence, then why on earth has gun violence been going down? And if gun violence is highly sensitive to influences other than media representations (which it must be if the two statistics can experience dramatic shifts in opposite directions), then there's little evidence to support the claim that the sensationalism of local news is the root cause of the problem--and by implication the only potential grounds for a solution. Why not focus on limiting gun access, or reducing poverty, or improving police work, or any of a thousand things that might have brought us such dramatic declines in gun violence over the past few years? This discrepancy doesn't by itself prove Moore wrong; maybe there's some 'threshold' level of media frenzy that has effects on violence, and above that threshold extra fear doesn't matter. But if that's Moore's argument, it goes entirely unsupported in the film.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, Moore's emphasis on fear doesn't really fulfill his apparent goal of explaining what happened at Columbine. None of the school shootings he describes in such great detail were the result of the killers' media-heightened fear of their fellow students. For Moore's thesis to make sense, most gun violence in America must be committed by people like Bernhard Goetz, who shot four black teenagers thinking that they were muggers. At most, this kind of fear is responsible for a large number of additional guns in homes, and thus for the high level of access to guns that enables a substantial portion of crimes as well as accidental gun deaths. But fear isn't what causes people to pull the trigger; it's just the proximate cause that explains why there are so many guns in our homes, and the real problem is access to guns. And if Canada indeed has so many more households that own easily accessible guns, then by Moore's logic it should have similar or higher rates of juvenile gun violence. But it doesn't, and so Moore's argument fails.

Moore faces a similar problem with his interlude on the youngest school shooting in America, a 6-year-old who turned a gun on a fellow first-grader. He had taken the gun from his uncle's house, where he was staying after his mother had been forced off the welfare rolls. Moore lingers on the injustices of welfare reform, but it's ambiguous what role poverty plays in his account of gun violence. As a cause of unsupervised children, perhaps? But if unsupervised children are the problem, the religious right couldn't agree more--just shows how selfish today's women are, going out and getting jobs of their own. And in Moore's portrayal, unsupervised children are only a problem because they can steal guns from their uncles, not because of any potential flaws in their upbringing.

In placing so much emphasis on the culture of fear, Moore seems to be skating around some obvious issues. Why, for instance, does the U.S. have such a high rate of crime? And why does so much of that crime involve the use of guns? The UK has higher rates of assaults and robberies than the U.S., but it also has many fewer cases in which firearms are used to commit those crimes. Can this discrepancy really be explained only by different levels of fear-mongering on the local news?

But Moore never deigns to consider such objections. Instead, he prefers to use the film as a platform for his political agenda, much of which is entirely unrelated to gun violence. Moore, along with Marilyn Manson, holds that at least part of the root cause of Columbine and similar violence may be the propensity of the U.S. to use force abroad. In particular, Moore and Manson make a great deal of hay out of the fact that on the same day as the Columbine shootings, the U.S. undertook its heaviest day of bombing in the Kosovo campaign.

Watching this segment of the movie, one can't avoid the feeling that Moore's grasping at straws. The implication that the Columbine killers were influenced by U.S. imperialism is at least as loopy as the religious right's contention that they were brainwashed by violent video games and Rammstein. In fact, it's even loopier, since one assumes the teens spent far more time listening to heavy metal than they did watching C-SPAN and CNN. By dragging U.S. foreign policy into the debate, Moore makes the common assumption of ideologues of all stripes, namely that all the evil in the world is conveniently caused by the same things that they already dislike. (This is why, after Sept. 11, the religious right was blaming gays and abortionists and the dogmatic left was blaming U.S. hostility to the Kyoto accords.)

Moreover, Moore's presentation of U.S. foreign policy is a high-water-mark for moral equivalence. As "What a Wonderful World" plays in the background, a series of clips document America's sad record of foreign involvement in the last half-century, with no effort to distinguish what, if anything, is being fought for. Bombs falling on buildings all pretty much look the same, it seems; what could it matter who is in the buildings, or why the bombs might be falling at all? But intentions matter, and something has gone deeply wrong when a film places American support of Pinochet and Saddam Hussein in the same context as the NATO campaign in Kosovo. Is there really no difference between installing autocrats and intervening to stop them from getting away with genocide? Had NATO acted responsibly to stop the massacre at Srebrenica, presumably this too would have made Moore's catalogue of imperial aggression, and I assume that he simply couldn't find good footage of the Battle of the Bulge. (Moore even includes U.N. famine relief efforts in his chamber of horrors--witness the $245 million described as "aid" for the Taliban that in fact, as Fritz notes, went to U.N. relief programs. No wonder schoolkids are driven to murder-suicide--we gave money to feed Afghanistan!)

Constrained as it is by support for his tortured politics, Moore's filmmaking faces a persistent danger of slipping into dishonesty. As a friend of mine noted, those with whom Moore agrees are interviewed in a calm, relaxed, respectful setting, and are rarely surprised by the questions Moore asks. Those with whom Moore doesn't agree (K-Mart spokespersons, Dick Clark, Charleton Heston) have questions sprung on them out of the blue, and are predictably mocked when their on-the-spot answers are less than fully articulate--or when they choose not to continue the interview. Can we really believe, at the end of the film, that the NRA's case has been presented as fairly and accurately as Moore's own? And while the film is merciless to a local television personality who plays to the camera while reporting a school shooting, can we really believe that Moore never once does the same? After all, as he tells the audience in his most plaintive tone, he had promised those poor Columbine victims that K-Mart's policy on ammunition sales would change...

It's a testament to Moore's style of filmmaking that he would be able to alienate so thoroughly someone predisposed to agree with him. To be honest, I don't have any answers about what caused Columbine, although I think Ross Douthat's eloquent suggestion is worth considering. But regardless of the chain of cause and effect, there seems to me something inherently dangerous about America's gun culture, placing as it does so much value on what are essentially instruments of death. Maybe the gun culture actually is at fault for our high rates of violence--the culture of fear, perhaps, keeps the NRA strong, and a strong NRA keeps sensible gun laws from being passed. But arguing for this chain of causation, let alone proposing realistic solutions that could sever it, takes a lot more work than merely asserting that the chain exists. And for Moore, at least, that isn't nearly so fun as badgering PR executives with blindingly white skin and immaculate blow-dried hair.

I haven't watched many documentaries, but I think it's a good test of them to see whether the film still makes sense when you try to write down its conclusions on paper after leaving the theater. Unfortunately, when the curtain falls and our disbelief is no longer suspended, Bowling For Columbine dissolves into air. Columbine linked to Kosovo? School shootings born of the Summer of the Shark? Why should anyone believe that? I don't know, and Moore's not telling.

UPDATE: Andrew Sullivan has posted a compilation of the film's factual inaccuracies. Many of these have been reported elsewhere, but not all in one place.




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