Bowling for Columbine

Fear and Bowling
Also published in Democratic Underground at and in BuzzFlash at

“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 States.

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 it is.

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.

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