15 January 2004

Time to rethink Bowling for Columbine

By David Agren

While studying and interning in the United States this summer, many European students told me that Canadians never lock their doors. Without ever visiting Canada or meeting a Canadian, they shaped their stereotype from Bowling For Columbine, Michael Moore's Oscar-winning documentary on U.S. gun culture.

Moore scrutinizes the guns and violence in the U.S. and poses a thoughtful question no one could answer: Why do Americans shoot each other up with such disturbing frequency? Unfortunately, Moore´s analysis fires blanks as he spins a deceitful web of half-truths, misrepresentations and outright lies throughout the film described as “a successful export of anti-Americanism” by Andrew Sullivan in The Sunday Times (London).

Despite Moore’s flimsy grasp on the facts, he performs a public service by highlighting the absurd nature the media. He scorns the scare-mongering, endless stream of violent crime stories and half-baked disaster scenarios — like Africanized killer bees invading the U.S. — that dominate the evening news.

Ironically though, Moore's ilk on the progressive left consistently scare the public with bogeymen like genetically modified food, global warming, pesticides, caffeine-laden pop and conservatives in general.

The method borrows a page from John Stossel's shtick of debunking nonsense in his popular 20/20 segments and ABC News specials. Long the bane of the American left, Stossel regularly gores sacred cows and broaches taboo topics like greed, freeloading, regulation and most egregiously to his critics, dares to portray capitalism and the free market in a positive light when warranted.

When caught broadcasting an error in a segment skeptical of organic food, critics called for his head. Stossel retracted the piece and apologized on national television. When a CNN host confronted Moore over "glaring inaccuracies" published in Stupid White Men, Moore dismissively responded: "How can there be inaccuracy in comedy?" With disturbing regularity, Moore vacillates between objective critic and standup comic, choosing whichever suits his purpose and leaving the audience to ascertain the facts and context.

Moore follows the same pattern of sloppiness in Bowling for Columbine. He casually associates his pet causes like U.S. foreign policy, health care reform and welfare cuts with heinous gun crimes.

He points out that a prominent defence contractor manufactured weapons of mass destruction a short distance from Columbine High School, scene of the infamous 1998 massacre. It would be an interesting coincidence, except it’s completely false. The factory instead builds rockets to launch T.V. satellites. Lockheed Martin spokesman Evan McCollum says that Moore’s people approached the company under false pretences, saying the filmmaker was shooting a documentary on suburban life.

On a further militaristic theme, Moore notes Columbine is also located near several large military facilities. But virtually every high school in the U.S. is located near some vestige of the military-industrial complex. Generations of army brats have survived such upbringings without falling prey to homicidal tendencies.

In another example, Moore mocks U.S. foreign policy as a source of gun violence, parading a sad reel of villains associated with misguided coups and wars. He repeats the fiction that the U.S. gave Taliban rulers in Afghanistan $245 million shortly before Sept. 11, 2001. In fact, the money went to a United Nations food-relief fund for the famine-stricken nation. Conveniently, he omitted the sins of the U.S. Cold War opponents whose blood-thirsty regimes snuffed out over 80 million lives during the last century in his reel of vignettes. Murderous revolutionary Mao Zedong coined the infamous maxim: power flows from the barrel of a gun.

Unsurprisingly, Moore crosses into Canada to fawn over a country envied by American liberals. Moore's books and films sell well north of the border as they nourish the self-righteous feelings of moral superiority to the U.S. harboured by Canadian nationals. Predictably, he mentions the crumbling medical system and points the camera on a group of slack-jawed kids who state that health care is a "right.” It’s a brilliant insight into the mentality of medicine as a free good that’s sinking the system. Amusingly, Moore points his camera on gentrified slums, sedate newscasts and unlocked doors. He then finds a politician to take gratuitous digs at the U.S. – evil right-wingers of course, who “beat up” disadvantaged people.

Take, for instance, the woman in Flint, Michigan, who was kicked off of welfare and dumped her son at a crack house (a fact Moore conveniently omits) because she was forced to work. The boy discovers a gun used to pay for a drug purchase, takes it to school and fatally shoots a six-year-old classmate in Moore´s sad-sacked hometown.

The tragedy reintroduces National Rifle Association (NRA) president Charlton Heston, who Moore chastised for delivering insensitive speeches in traumatized towns during times of mourning. Moore portrayed Heston as strolling into Denver and Flint uninvited and callously asserting his right to arm himself — rubbing salt into fresh wounds. But according to David Hardy, an Arizona lawyer and NRA member, Heston actually addressed a get-out-the-vote rally in Flint eight months after the six-year-old was shot in school, not days after the tragedy as Moore infers. The supposedly inflammatory speech given in Denver that Moore selectively edited near the beginning of the film features an opening line from a different NRA rally held months before the Columbine massacre.

When Moore finally grilled Heston in person over the rash of gun violence in the U.S., the man who portrayed Moses on film fumbled for answers, hanging himself with his respose — or lack thereof. When Moore changes the topic to the tragic Michigan death, Heston feebly flees the scene. And why not? Who would co-operate with a person with little interest in facts or context, and who is deft in the art of splicing film?

Unfortunately, Bowling for Columbine shamefully follows a parade of intellectually dishonest inquiries into gun control and gun culture where the truth never obstructs preconceived biases.

A study comparing suicide rates in Vancouver and Seattle and incorrectly concluded the Seattle rate was higher because of lax gun laws.

Historian Michael Bellesiles penned a bestseller asserting gun culture was a recent phenomenon, claiming guns were absent in early American history. Scholars analyzed the scant evidence he provided for scrutiny and discovered he fabricated many of his sources.

Economist John Lott undertook a massive study of concealed weapons laws and concluded in his controversial book More Guns, Less Crime that concealed weapons laws were highly effective. Yet he sabotaged his own creditability by assuming a pseudonym to praise his own research on the Internet.

A better question for Moore: What is it about guns that spawns such dishonest inquiries?

If Moore truly wanted to dissuade fears, he might have pointed out violent crime in America declined rapidly in the 1990s. Gary Mauser, a criminologist at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., wrote in the Vancouver Sun after the release of Bowling for Columbine: “Violent crime rates are twice as high in England and Wales as in the U.S.” He added that homicide rates are falling more rapidly in the U.S. than in Canada, and over the past 20 years and police statistics show a 50 per cent surge in England.

Brian Doherty summarized Moore’s bleak, near apocalyptic vision of the U.S. in Reason magazine as: “America is a naked city full of a million stories, all of them bummers.“ Sunset industries close up shop. The union gets busted. Welfare benefits vanish. Evil multi-nationals poison the water. Free trade deals kill the town by shipping factory jobs to China. Republicans supposedly steal elections. The military-industrial complex triumphs again. It plays like a bad country song. And Moore never tires of singing it.

For the record, this reviewer locks his door.

This article originally appered in The Reflector