October 23, 2002
"Bowling for Columbine" has some comical moments here and
there, but Michael Moore was engaging in false advertising
the other day on NPR when he called it a comedy. It's a depressing
film about a horrible situation, and it makes a very serious
and compelling argument.
The question Moore asks is why the United States has a rate
of murders by guns many times higher than that of other countries.
He eliminates the argument that it's just the guns by pointing
out other countries that have just as many guns per capita.
(He does not, however, produce statistics on how many guns
in various countries are kept loaded and available, as opposed
to unloaded and locked up.) He eliminates blaming video games
and movies and music by pointing to other countries with as
violent entertainment as ours. He eliminates blaming racial
diversity by pointing to other countries with similar diversity.
Many of these comparisons are made to Canada, though European
and Asian countries are also discussed.
Then Moore pretends to eliminate one other commonly blamed
factor, namely poverty. He suggests that "liberals" like to
blame poverty regardless of the evidence (as if he were something
other than a liberal) and repeatedly cites statistics purporting
to show that Canada has twice the unemployment of the United
Next Moore makes a case for another explanation for the high
U.S. gun-murder rate. I think he's dead right, and I'd like
to discuss his idea in a moment, but first I want to look
at poverty. When asked on NPR what people should take away
from the movie, Moore said it was that in Canada and Europe
people have a we're-all-in-this-together ethic. They believe
that if someone falls ill or loses a job, everyone else should
help out - effectively and systematically, through their government,
not just occasionally or in isolated instances to make themselves
feel better. Americans are individually generous and collectively
mean, he said.
The movie also makes this point very clearly. Moore asks
residents of Canadian cities where the poor people live, and
there aren't any. Everyone has health care. Everyone has a
safety net. Moore contrasts this picture with the poverty
of his home town of Flint, Michigan. The argument that poverty
is a major contributor to America's violence is made clearly
by the movie, and yet people are walking out of theaters this
week believing that Moore has claimed the opposite because
of that unemployment statistic.
Moore should have known better. As he is certainly aware,
unemployment in the United States is much higher than the
official figure. If you give up your job search, you're not
counted as unemployed. If you find a part-time job, but wanted
a full-time one, you're not counted. If you choose to take
care of your kids rather than spending more on child care
than you could earn at work, you're not counted. If you're
behind bars, you're not counted. If you work full-time or
more and don't earn a living wage, you're not counted. We've
got both unemployment and poverty far beyond what Canada has,
and Moore knows it and shows it.
But the bigger share of the blame for our gun-murder rate
probably lies with the cause that Moore unequivocally fingers
in "Bowling." This cause is Americans' media-induced state
of panicky fear, the locks on the doors, the loaded guns under
the pillows, the news coverage of murder and mayhem ever increasing
even while crime is actually decreasing, the endlessly agitated
apocalyptic paranoia, the racist bogeyman of the savage dark-skinned
urban dweller, and the survivalist urges to protect oneself
and one's family from a world imagined much more evil than
Here Moore has hit an important insight. Here is what is
really dangerous about the Foucauldian world of constant surveillance
that we are creating with police cameras on lamp posts. We
are instilling fear in one another. We are treating each other
as potential criminals. We are teaching each other that the
others want to kill us and that we will be best off killing
them before they can. We believe that misguided cowardice
is wise and prudent. We think the danger of a random attack
by a barbaric stranger outweighs the danger of misuse or misplacement
of the deadly weapons that will protect us from such an imagined
attack. Yet most of the 40 people killed with guns in the
United States today will be killed by people they know.
So, how exactly do poverty and fear cause gun murders?
Poverty plays a role in the story Moore tells of a child
taking a gun to school while his mother is away working long
hours, a gun he found in a relative's house after his family
was evicted from theirs. Poverty is also a chief characteristic
both of the bogeymen feared by many gun owners and of the
state many gun owners fear they might themselves end up in.
And, of course, poverty leads to frustration, arguments, anger,
desperation, and despair, which can lead to gun use.
Fear leads people to buy guns, to keep them loaded, to pull
them out, to threaten to use them, to desire to use them,
to hate, to panic, to demonize. Fearful people are selfish
people who rush to judgments and think short-term. Fear is
something people want to end quickly rather than overcome
or find the courage to face down. Fear is not just why our
current president skipped military service but also why he
wants to send others off to war.
Of course, there are other factors as well. I am not inclined
to fully exonerate the entertainment industry or any of several
other factors. After all, the murder rates in other countries
that watch our sick movies are not zero, they're just not
as bad as here. And the existence of our murder rate may be
to some degree self-perpetuating. People behave as they see
others behave. Shooting someone is common behavior here, and
it will take a powerful effort to shake the inertia that keeps
it a common behavior.
Maybe, if we're really lucky, the combination of the proposal
for the most openly imperialistic and cynical war the United
States has ever unleashed on the world and Moore's brilliant
movie will start enough people thinking to begin spinning
our cycle of violence in reverse.
Visit David Swanson's website at www.davidswanson.org