Bowling for Columbine

Monday, September 08 2003

Carrie and I watched Bowling for Columbine last night, and I think both of us had a very different reaction to the movie than we’d thought we would have.

Before watching the documentary, I had assumed that what I would see was a lot of massaged interviews where Michael Moore would manipulate the footage afterwards to better suit his view. I assumed that it would be far too liberal for my blood, and that I’d end up thinking it a huge liberal agenda propaganda piece. I had seen a lot of buzz and controversy over the documentary, suggesting that his facts weren’t actually facts, and that he’d made a lot of stuff up.

I came away with a far different reaction. I find myself now asking what I think was Michael’s main question and subject of the documentary. Why does America have so much violent gun related crime? It’s not answered of course – no one can be certain why, but he does go down a few explorations of why.

One of the ideas he had was that we are a nation pumped full of fear by the media. That idea struck me squarely because I’ve been reeling, and quite literally getting sick to my stomach over American television. Before moving to Oregon, I watched local evening news in Southern California pretty regularly. Not religiously, but enough to become used to it. Multiple murders and gang slayings and such were the norm. It was abnormal (I now shudder to think) if there wasn’t some kind of gruesome and violent murder, car chase, or rapist.

When we moved to Oregon, we were surprised by the news. It was only every other night or so where you’d hear about anything even close to Southern California crime. A shooting in Gresham, no one hurt, a car chase that happened in the middle of the night up the I-5, etc. Violent crime was less, according to the news.

In the UK, there’s no such thing as far as I know as our version of local metropolitan city evening news. There are nationwide news shows run by both the BBC and cable and satellite providers, but nothing of a similar nature to the 3 or 4 major networks each running an “Evening News” show at the same time nightly.

And the content the UK news shows broadcast usually covers things like politics, hedgehogs, science, history, weather, world news, fox hunting, and the occasional missing kid. In 4 months, watching perhaps a few times a week, the evening news didn’t once tell me of a violent gun crime, and only once talked about a crime where a teen in East London stabbed another teen with a three inch blade.

Coming back to Oregon from the UK, we turned on the evening news and were stunned. Crime had gone up it seemed in Oregon. We were hearing about murderers, rapists, thieves, child molesters, and more, in one night. Except that it was the same level of despair – our sensitivity to it had increased due to its absence.

After watching Bowling for Columbine, and hearing the quote “we are a nation pumped full of fear. As long as we are in a state of fear, we consume. Fear drives consumption.”*, I believe I understand. Portland is just as safe as its always been, and South Central LA is not as dangerous as it’s made out to be. It seems crystal clear to me that fear drives consumption. Remember all the money spent on Y2K (fear of Armageddon), On dot coms (fear of missing out), on gas masks, duct tape and plastic, bomb shelters (fear of terrorists), on Cold War programs, nuclear weapons, fighter jets, bombers, laser armed satellites, intelligence gathering (fear of attack)?

What I’m not crystal clear on, however, is a that there’s some kind of huge government conspiracy to promote fear, or that the media is out to promote fear. Fear drives ratings, and ratings get advertising dollars. If stories about puppies and parakeets got big ratings, the news would show just as many breaking news stories about them as they now do about kids killing kids. Oprah seems to be the only person in the media today who can make money off of shows about charity and doing good for others, but even she sinks to selling fear from time to time. Governments need an excuse to stay big, and to collect taxes, and benefit from a society in fear. A society willing to put an incredibly disproportionate amount of money towards attacking other countries than they are towards educating their own children must be scared of something.

I appreciate Michael Moore bringing up the question of why America has so much violent gun crime. I’m glad he didn’t try to say exactly what we should do – it’s too hard a question to answer, and I think it’s beneficial to let people come up with an answer on their own. What is clear despite anything bad that can be said about the documentary is that we are a nation of mass consumption, and that consumption has massive consequences on our children and other human beings in this world.

The fact that Americans use guns to kill each other is a symptom of something broader, and is likely a combination of a lot of things. Perhaps it’s a combination of mass consumption, selfishness, lack of personal responsibility, lack of goal setting, lack of a feeling of worth, or lack of focusing on the worth of other individuals. Whatever it is, it’s growing like a cancer, and we’ll likely not see a regression any time soon.

* This isn’t an exact quote, but the words and meaning are generally the same. The person who said it: Marilyn Manson, after having been blamed for the shootings at Columbine. He also brought up another point, saying to the effect “the day of the Columbine Shootings President Clinton dropped more bombs in the Kosovo conflict than had been dropped during the entire campaign. He’s directly responsible for killing people – I’ve simply expressed my opinion through my music. I’d like to think I have more influence over the world than The President of the United States, but I probably don’t – why is he not being held just as responsible?”