Culture of Fear
I walked out of the local theater tonight and asked my 12-year-old daughter what she thought of the film. "It was too long and he was too mean to people" was her succinct reply. The "he" she was referring to was Michael Moore. The film was Bowling for Columbine. I was surprised by her response. Her assessment was true on both counts, but I was puzzled as to why she was more struck with the film's shortcomings than with its strengths. She is not a right-winger, a member of the NRA, a media whore, or a corporate lackey. She is just a kid answering a simple question with a simple answer. It suddenly occurred to me that to a kid, mean people suck, whether they are being mean to an innocent kid or gun supporter like Charlton Heston. By pointing out Moore's shortcomings, my daughter opened my eyes to my own.
Columbine is the high school in Littleton, Colorado, where two students massacred a number of their fellow students in 1999. Moore used that tragedy as a reference point for an examination of American culture. Personally, I enjoyed the film on a number of levels. I found it to be both humorous and touching. At times I laughed out loud, and at other times I fought back tears. I was pleasantly surprised that the film was ambitious enough to go beyond attacking the NRA and Republicans. Moore asks his audience to think. The question posed and answered by the documentary is why the gun-murder rate is so much higher in the United States than in other countries. The answer for Moore is not guns, but a culture of fear.
Moore does a wonderful job of juxtaposing the culture in the United States with the one across the border in Canada. Despite the presence of guns in 7 out of 10 Canadian homes, there is less than one gun-murder in Canada for every 100 gun-murders in the United States. Moore finds a culture in Canada that not only supports national social programs, but one where individual Canadians do not live in fear of strangers. In one of the more humorous parts of the film, Moore walks into stranger's homes uninvited to demonstrate that Canadians do not lock their front doors. On the other hand, we see Americans with loaded guns under their pillows. Moore speaks with Canadians who have had their homes invaded while they slept, but continue to leave the door open; and with Americans who have never experienced any such trespass, but have their guns loaded, just in case.
Moore turns much of conventional wisdom on its ear in his investigation into American culture. Moore interviews Marilyn Manson, whom many politicians blamed after the massacre at Columbine because the killers listened to his music. Manson comes across as both thoughtful and articulate. Moore places the blame instead on a culture of fear fueled by politicians and the media. He tracks down the creator of the television show Cops and presses him on the role his show plays in indoctrinating white suburban Americans to fear young black men. The man professes to be a "liberal" and assures Moore that he would film "Corporate Cops" if only the police chased down white collar criminals in the same exciting manner that they chase down poor black suspects. The problem, according to liberal Hollywood, is that the cops treat people who steal millions with respect.
Moore does let the film slip into a polemic at times by tying in Michigan's welfare-to-work program, Lockheed's missile program, bombings in Kosovo and United States imperialism to gun violence in the American culture. He is more right than wrong in his association, but I fear such tactics leave the audience in sensory overload. In film, as in life, sometimes less is more.
Moore's tactics also seem heavy-handed at times. It is a lose-lose proposition for the celebrities Moore puts in the crosshairs of his camera. If you run away, like Dick Clark, you look insensitive and cowardly. If you invite Moore into your home, like Charlton Heston, you are pursued with pictures of children killed by guns. Despite Heston's politics and the insensitivity of his going into communities like Columbine and Flint shortly after the killings of innocent children to rally gun nuts, Moore's "meanness" turned off my daughter and, I am sure, others. For me, Heston's inability to articulate a reason for America's disproportionate gun-murder rate was telling. He blamed it on "mixed ethnicity." The film needed a good editor to retain these gems without driving them home with the force of a jackhammer.
I get the sense from watching Moore's work that he is trying to make up in the short time he has for the total lack of responsibility the major media has exhibited. His thesis is that the mass media does more than just not cover the truth: they exacerbate the problem by making us fear even more. Roger & Me, TV Nation, The Awful Truth and now Bowling for Columbine may all be over the top, but these films and shows are a needle in the media haystack. Lest we forget, Moore is an activist and not a dispassionate film producer. Moore flew two teenage boys who still have K-Mart bullets in their bodies after the Columbine attack to that company's corporate office. It was encouraging to see K-Mart agree to stop selling bullets after Moore put the company in an ethical box. In a country where politicians grovel at the feet of the NRA, this was no small feat. Don't hold your breath waiting for 60 Minutes to effect the real change Moore does.
So what was the lesson I learned from my daughter? In film, as in life, how we make our point is as important as the point we make. Many of us on the Left spend too much time talking to ourselves and reinforcing our own view of the world. We need to talk to the rest of the world in a thoughtful and direct manner. I came out of Bowling for Columbine thinking it should be shown in every school and on network television. It won't. It comes with an R rating for reasons unknown to me, but Moore should have protected the film against a rating that will hurt its distribution. Politicians like George W. Bush are adept at exploiting the culture of fear in America. In response, our message should be simple. We can tell the truth and shame the devil without alienating our fellow Americans. Instead of telling Americans what they want, we should begin by asking them what they do want.
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