September 17, 2003

Bowling for Columbine

columbine.jpgI sympathize with anyone who can't take Michael Moore seriously. His work in Roger and Me had the feeling of a personal vendetta against General Motors, and that lack of objectivity permeated the film.

In Bowling for Columbine (a title I still don't really get), though, he does a much better job of making a documentary. He still does the in-their-face confrontation thing where he confronts people with issues they don't want to face and then acts surprised when they ask him to go away. But I had a hard time feeling much sympathy for any of the people thus confronted in this movie. I felt some sympathetic discomfort as I wouldn't want to be on the receiving end of one of Moore's interviews, but everyone he confronted was a public personality who has to expect to encounter some opposition.

The movie is surprisingly even-handed about the issue of firearms. Moore doesn't take a stand on whether guns in and of themselves are a cause of the high homicide rates in the US. In fact, he points to strong evidence that the presence of guns doesn't have anything to do with it (Canada has 7 million guns for 10 million households, and a tiny fraction of our gun-related homicide numbers).

So what is the reason that Americans shoot each other so much more frequently than residents of other first world nations? There's no one answer. But two of the biggest factors, according to Moore, are our economy, and our fear.

Mainstream media reports violent crime first and foremost. This leads us to feel that we could be attacked at any moment. We buy alarms for our houses and our cars. We buy tazers and mace. We buy guns. We move to suburbs where we think we'll be safe. We avoid parts of town that we think are dangerous. We avoid certain people who we think are dangerous. This isolation leads to more ignorance of who our neighbors are, which leads to more fear. Fear translates to anger when we're confronted, and neither fear nor anger are conducive to rational thought. Shit happens.

I was talking to a friend about the movie today. He hadn't seen it, which didn't surprise me since he's a politically conservative guy and a gun enthusiast. I asked him the central question of why so many more gun deaths in the US than Canada. He opined that the high numbers were caused by ethnic minorities killing each other just like they do in the old country. I didn't follow up on that partly because I didn't feel like I had the facts I needed at hand, and partly because I'm not comfortable with Moore-like confrontation. But I've been thinking about it. The Canada counter-example works again for his argument. Canada has similar racial diversity to the US.

But the racial argument points to the other half of Moore's theory, the economic. Ethnic minorities are typically in the lower economic classes. They work for long hours at low-paying jobs that can't cover reasonable living expenses. They don't have health insurance. They can't afford daycare for their kids. In the movie, Moore gives an example of a situation where this recipe led to an unsupervised child discovering a gun which he took to school and killed a classmate. Both children were first graders. (One of my beefs with the movie is that Moore never chased the question of what the hell the child's uncle was doing with a gun lying around where a first grader could find it.) That's one way that poverty can lead to gun violence, but the other is the more direct route of hopelessness. When you work two full-time jobs and can't make enough money to provide for your child, how much does it take to drive you to violent means of attaining security?

Then there's that special case of gun violence: war. Is the argument that we should take military action against countries that we don't agree with a cause of Americans' tendency to violence or an effect?

Now, it's hard to make conclusions from the data that Moore presents, mostly because he doesn't present data, he presents blanket statements. There were several times in the film where he would present one side of the argument, then present facts that didn't quite refute them, but seemed to paint a picture with a different overall hue. It's hard to draw any strong conclusions based on this. What the movie is good for is providing a jumping-off point for discussion of the issues and suggestion of some theories about causes. The hard work of figuring out how the numbers shake out is left to the viewer.

Posted by jeffy at September 17, 2003 04:31 PM

Caroline, a young Canadian vegetarian, told me I
should see _Bowling for Columbine_. I told her
that I would after she came down to the pistol
range with me, and shot a few guns (you can RENT
guns at the range. It's great!).

She completely refuses. She won't touch a gun,
and while she would be okay with a private citizen
using a gun on her behalf, she would not use one

I don't know why the US is more violent with guns
than other countries. I don't even know IF the US
is more violent than other countries (they kill
each other with spud guns in Germany). I think the
first place I would start looking was television,
which seems to do most of the childrearing in the
US. Check out this article about Bhutan and

Posted by: Dan L at September 18, 2003 01:43 PM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?