Tuesday, November 29, 2005


I finally got around to watching Michael Moore's 'Bowling for Columbine'. I thought it was a very good documentary, although in the end, Moore raises more questions that what he answers. But he make an excellent attempt to delineate the problem and its possible causes. Moore has been criticized of being 'unrealistic' in his portrayals, but I thought much of what he showed was as 'realistic' as things can get, and made a lot of sense. In general, I like Moore's documentaries because of their simplicity; he asks people extremely simple questions which nonetheless frequently strike at the heart of the matter (sometimes through the people's inability to answer them)

The big question of course is "Why is there so much violence in the US, especially gun violence?". The backdrop is the tragic Columbine high-school massacre of 1999, in which two teenagers walked into the school loaded with ammunition and guns, and went on a shooting spree killing 12 people, before turning the weapons on themselves. Moore can empathize; he hails from Flint, Michigan, where in a similar unbelievable incident, a six year old shot and killed his classmate, a little six year old girl. Are these just freak incidents, or is there an underlying thread? Moore compares anuual numbers of gun deaths in many developed countries. Most are a far cry from the US: 11, 000 compared to a couple of hundred deaths in Germany, the UK, France, and Japan. Then he tries to analyse various factors which people and politicians have quoted to explain this disturbing trend. Among these are (not surprisingly); violence at home including poor family structure, the influence of violent TV, video games, and movies, a generally poor and indifferent social makeup...and Marilyn Manson, the transvestite like looking psychedelic heavy metal performer.

Moore dissects each one of these factors and tells us that none of these factors is really unique to the US. In Japan, for example, video games are extremely gory, but violent crime is apparently much less. In one of the more amusing parts of the film, he interviews Marilyn Manson, the freakish looking performer. Surprisingly, Manson sounds not just extremely sane and reasonable, but also educated and well-read. In a telling instance, he says that at the same time that the masscare took place, the US was bombing Kosovo and killing hundreds of innocent civilians. So who is to blame? The president who pursues a belligerent and violent foreign policy, or Marilyn Manson??

Since none of these factors can really account for the glaring differences in violent crime, Moore finally turns to some of the more central factors, including the ready availability of guns in the US. But here too, there is confusion, because it turns out that in Canada, guns are as easily available, and yet many parts of the country are so safe that citizens don't even lock their doors. So no, that's also not an unambiguous cause. So what is it?
At this point, Moore launches into a recounting of the 'culture of fear' that exists in the US, a fact that has been increasingly brought into the forefront by leading intellectuals. And to a large extent, I agree with his assesment. Americans seem to be unusually afraid people (given their secure existence and high standard of living), and the media and the government are largely responsible for inducing that fear. All the time, the media is bombarding the US with news of some form of impending doom; serial killers in your neighbourhood, killer bees from Africa, mutagens in your food, and bomb making terrorists in your backyard. Unfortunately, as is the case with a lot of propaganda, no matter how vulgar, there is a shred of truth in all of these scares. But what the government does is to use and exaggerate these to play on people's emotions and keep them afraid. Because afraid means subdued and ready to listen to what the government is saying.

Why are Americans so afraid? Even Noam Chomsky cannot provide a conclusive answer, but rightly says that the reason is deeply rooted in American history. To try to answer this question, Moore shows us a revealing cartoon film for a few minutes, which explores Americans since Columbus. The main reason why many Americans came to America was religious persecution in Europe. Then there was fear of the Indians in America, then the British, then the slaves (which continues to an irrational extent in the form of fear of African Americans to this day). So Moore seems to say that since time immemorial, Americans have always been afraid of someone or something (he is primarily refering to white Americans), and this fear never went away inspite of massive improvment in standards of living and 'equality' among the populace. That is why, Moore says, Americans have come to rely on guns as a means of keeping them safe. Ironically, they have made them more unsafe than ever. In fact, there are many Americans who have loaded guns in their house, just to 'feel safe' even if they live in a safe neighbourhood and have never had any safety issues.

One of the people whom Moore interviews is 'Moses'- Charlton Heston, who is President of the National Rifle Association (NRA). I have to say that after watching Heston speak, I have lost a lot of respect for him. The man is not only indifferent, but not even articulate. He is as hazy about answering Moore's questions as anyone could be. After the Columbine incident, he had the cheek to hold an NRA convention in Colorado. There, he flashed a letter from the Mayor of Denver in front of the audience, in which the Mayor had requested him to cancel the convention in light of the tragedy. I expected Heston to at least make an arrogant excuse for the event. All the inane man could say was "This is a free country...we can travel wherever we want and hold a convention there". Appalling! He was completely stupid, and totally missed the point. Later, Moore interviewed Heston at his palatial mansion, and there too, the man was clueless and completely indifferent. He would not even acccept the little girl's picture. After a few minutes, he simply walked away. No wonder Heston became the President of the NRA; toting a gun does not need a shred of intelligence after all.
More inspiring was when Moore took two survivors of Columbine to K-mart, where the killers had bought their ammunition. Surprisingly, after appeals from Moore and the survivors, that branch of K-Mart promised not to stock any more ammunition for guns in their store.

What's my take on this? I don't doubt that Americans live in a culture of fear. The reasonable and sane Americans among them apparently don't seem to make a big difference in attitudes. Apart from the aforementioned reasons which I agree with, I think there are a few other things. Americans, especially in the last two generations, have enjoyed an immensely high standard of living, and also immense security as such. Because of this completely secure existence, I think that many of them cannot distinguish between real and perceived threats. For them, every threat is a real threat; a belief which makes a field day for the government and media to exploit. After all, what better way to deflect people's attention from the issues that really matter, than by keeping them always under fear and preoccupied with things that are never or rarely going to happen? It's a classic model of thought control and propaganda. People who have actually faced problems of safety learn to recognise really dangerous situations. Secondly, Americans, at least until now, have been able to isolate themselves from knowing about world affairs, again because of the high living standards and internal security which could afford to keep them preoccupied. This makes them ignorant about what is really happening around them, leading to further confusion that can be exploited in the form of fear.
The social structure is definitely to blame. The mother of the six year old worked a seventy hour week making fudge and milkshakes, in a restaurant owned by the 'the oldest American teenager', Dick Clark. Because of this desperate run to make ends meet, she could hardly meet her son. It would be premature to draw a direct connection between this fact and the son's violent act, but I strongly believe that a supportive and loving family can make a world of difference for troubled individuals, especially children. Dick Clark, as expected, refused to comment.

It is definitely true that guns are very easily available in the US; the more important fact is that many of those guns which are easily available, are far from being hunting weapons. They are quite distinctively weapons that would be used for killing people. It's extremely important to keep these out of the hands of everybody and anybody. Why on earth are you compelled to own an M-16 assault weapon to hunt deer? Simply invoking the second amendment (right to arms) as an excuse to buy such a gun is nonsense. There should be a demonstrated need to purchase such a weapon. Bur for that, Americans, including Heston, should first curb the paranoia to keep loaded guns under their pillow, and also should curb the hubris that makes them quote and abuse terms like 'amendment' and 'freedom'. This is really a sad existence they are living, especially if there is no threat. Heston, ostensibly the President of the NRA, could cite absolutely no reason why he kept so many loaded weapons in his house (except the marvelously stupid reason, "I do, because I can. I have the 'right' "). I was also shocked when James Nichols, the brother of Terry Nichols, one of the Oklahoma bombers, quipped that citizens should posses guns to 'overthrow brutal governments'. When Moore asked him why it cannot be done in Gandhi's way, the ignorant man said, "I am not familiar with that" after a long pause. We rest our case.

On a different note, these days, many authors and bloggers are quoting ad hominem attacks on people like Moore and Chomsky. The fact that Chomsky has a private trust fund, or that Moore actually purchased Halliburton shares, are made a big deal of. However, that does not suddenly preempt the work they have done, their personal flaws notwithstanding. Gun violence is a very serious matter, and an amalgamation of all the factors listed is responsible for causing it. The least we can do is take cognizance of them and think about them.


Blogger Sumedha said...

Hey Ashutosh,
I liked Bowling for Columbine and thought it was quite perceptive.

But Heston's 'interview' jarred on me because I thought Moore had got hold of the wrong end of the stick. Heston is an old man (82) and it seems that in 2002 (when the movie was made) he had just begun to feel the effcts of a neurological disorder that is similar to Alzheimer's disease.

I agree that Heston said and did all the wrong things, but rather than attacking him, I would have liked to see Moore pursue somebody from one of the big gun corporations. I felt that Heston was not in a condition to take responsibility for his statements.

I felt that Moore should have shown compassion; Heston was (and is) obviously a mental wreck, if not a physical one...

1:40 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

You think so? Interesting...I did not see it that way. If that's true, then I agree that Heston is the wrong man to catch hold of. One facet which Moore did not pay much attention to, is to directly interview the CEOs of the gun manufacturing companies.

By the way, 'The Runaway Jury' about the same debate, based on Grisham's book, is a movie that I really liked.

1:47 PM  
Blogger Vivek Gupta said...

I had seen Bowling for Columbine and found it very thought provoking. It is true that US has very high homicide rates compared to other developed countries and I used to think (may be rightly to some extent) that this is because of very liberal gun laws in this country. However, the example of Canada in the movie which has very low crime rate despite liberal gun laws suggest that there may be some other factors at play as well. One factor which people may have missed is the income distribution in America. America is a country with a very skewed distribution of wealth. More than 80% of wealth is concentrated among less than 10% of the population. There are a large(relatively) number of poor people in America compared to many developed countries including Canada. Canada and other European countries have a very strong social security net, great job security because of rigid labour laws, free health care, cheap higher education,cheap public goods and high tax rates to pay for all the goodies. As a result of these and many other economic policies followed there, the distribution of income is far more uniform than in US. US is the most capitalist of all capitalist countries. There is no job security, health care is not paid for by the government and in general there is significant inequality between haves and have-mores, not to mention have-nots. American system sure has created great wealth for many but it has also created an underprivileged class which could not compete in the ultra-competitive capitalist world of america. This underclass is the one which resorts to gun-violence to express their anger or even to make ends meet generously helped by gun companies.

BTW, crime-rate in america has fallen to historic low levels in past few years. Some people argue that this is due to rising prosperity levels, however, there are other like economist Steven Levitt (of "Freakonomics" fame)who say that it was because of legalization of abortion in the 70s!! The crux of the argument is that unwanted children who are most likely to be criminals were not born because of legalization of abortion resulting in fewer supply of criminals in 90s!

8:53 PM  
Blogger Chetan said...

That is wonderful and a comprehensive review. The 'Fear Factor' is really appalling in the States. Just two weeks back PBS was showing a series Rx for survival. It is a well made and timely series but presented in such a way that you keep dreading that you will be die from West Nile virus every time a mosquito bites you or become convinced that you will be the first US victim of bird flu. It’s one thing to inform and induce action on part of the government and civil society but quite another to scare people out of their wits. (As an aside the series was not so subtly making the case for more aid to Africa by chronicling how in a globalised world the diseases there can affect Americans. What is your opinion about this Ashutosh? Do you think one has to stoop to a level of insinuation and appeal to primal fear in order to make a case for more aid? Or do the ends justify the means. I haven't made up my mind yet about this.)

This is where I will differ with you about respect for environmentalists. They indulge in such scare tactics. They insult my intelligence by exaggerating the threats and presenting selective evidence while taking a high moral ground when the other side indulges in the same. Why not trust me as an individual to be concerned about a situation by presenting facts the way they are, including rebuttals like those by Crichton? Take a look at this article about the amount of pressure that the environmentalists applied on the Cambridge University Press for them not to publish the book The Skeptical Environmentalist by Bjorn Lomborg.

"While criticism of the book was to be expected, the publishers, Cambridge University Press, were apparently surprised by the pressure brought against them not to publish The Skeptical Environmentalist. They felt it necessary to issue a formal, written statement, in order to 'explain the editorial decisions that led not just to publishing the book but also to Cambridge's resistance to concerted pressure to withdraw it from the market.'"

They claimed that despite passing through peer reviews the book should not have been published because they were afraid the book would be abused by corporate interest. Why treat a normal person on the street with such a parochial attitude. Can't you trust him to know all the sides and decide the truth for himself? Despite the shrill propaganda on part of the extreme elements on both sides a normal person does agree that global warming is a reality. Almost 77 percent if this poll is to be believed.

Coming back to the issue of violence I am not entirely convinced that the culture of fear can really induce such behaviour. It may be a part of the reason but how that translates into somebody taking a gun and shooting unknown people indiscriminately is a mystery to me.

9:15 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

I mostly agree with you that Michael Moore puts things in a simple, pithy way. The problem is that he interviews people like Marilyn Manson whose knowledge of the sociology and politics of gun culture is questionable. And the comment on Bosnia is fairly appalling, not only because it ignores the history of Yugoslavia, but also because it's a lie. It wasn't the U.S. but NATO that was bombing targets in Kosovo; and the targets were not civilians.

8:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Poignant and correct observation of American psyche. I have observed that people live in some kind of fear and know of a few who were planning to dig bunkers after 9/11.... Be it outsourcing or snow storms, the fear factor reigns.

9:16 PM  
Blogger Ajay said...

One more thing about Charlton Heston's interview. I've read elsewhere that it was edited to show Heston unfavorably. (I'm not too sure about that, just a point to ponder)

There is a case to liberal gun laws though. Crime rates have been observed to be lower in countries where citizens are freer to own guns. Criminals get their hands on weapons anyway. The possibility that their potential victims may have guns as well actually reduces the chances of crimes like robberies and theft in households.

Sorry, I cannot cite, but the second fact is from the BBC website comparing UK (where gun laws are stricter) to the US.

2:11 PM  

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