Liberal DocsDocumentary films appear to be becoming for liberals, what AM radio is for conservatives. This year I’ve watched a few of the bevy of the political documentaries being produced from a left of center perspective, and somehow I can’t help but feel a little let down. I’m not going to write a piece on distortions and documentaries, enough of that has been written already. No, my main critique is that the documentaries I have watched this year, The Corporation, Fahrenheit 9/11, Outfoxed, and (admittedly way after it was released, but it was new to me) Bowling for Columbine leave off just where they start to ask the really interesting questions. I’ll use Bowling for Columbine as an example here because I think it’s a little bit less contentious than the other films, and far enough in the past to get a bit of distance in analyzing it.
There is no moment in Bowling for Columbine when Moore, Like Ibsen through Nora, steps into one of his interviewees and lays out his views on gun control. But, I think it’s safe to say his conclusion is one of deep ambivalence towards gun control itself. While he shows no sympathy for gun makers he ultimately seems to discard gun ownership as a root cause of American gun violence. Moore makes much of the puzzle that Canada has a lower crime rate despite similar gun ownership. This, ultimately, is a strange conclusion for a movie about guns to come to. Does Moore think the question he spends so much time on is even important?
While I’m not sure Canada alone is sufficient evidence to conclude that gun ownership is irrelevant, I actually agree with Moore on this point. I think the debate over gun ownership is something of a red herring. Personally, I don’t support the “right” to own so-called assault rifles, but I don’t think removing them is going to really end our problems with violence. Too much energy gets wasted on this question, and not enough time spent on the real and much more challenging question about the sources of American gun violence.
The problem is that Moore has wasted so much time on guns; he seems to pursue a myriad of causes for violence without coming to much of a conclusion about any of them. Moore tries in turn, weapons manufacturing, bowling, America’s violent past, and poverty, as theories for explaining violence. Of these Moore never really examines any in detail but he seems to adopt racism the most as an explanation for violence.
Unfortunately Moore botches a study of race in America too badly to pose any kind of answer to the puzzles he raises of American violence. His short history of American racism is a laughable caricature of American history, where Americans head off to Africa to kidnap Africans and enslave them. After that the the rise of the KKK, gun ownership, and white flight to the suburbs are all somehow mooshed together into one phenomenon explaining the history of race in America. Factually incorrect (slaves were sold by Africans not kidnapped by Americans), and hopelessly muddled this history can’t really do much to explain racism, other than pointing up the obvious events of slavery and civil rights (which Moore does not to link to any pattern of either gun ownership or crime).
We also have an interview with Charlton Heston, where Moore seems to imply Heston is a racist. This particular move has rightly drawn much ire , due to Heston’s past as a civil rights activist. But even if it were true, the clearly aging Heston can hardly serve as a case study in racism, and couldn’t answer our questions about racism and violence. The Heston interview just seems like wasted space that could have been used on, say, a real history of racism in America or more analysis on race, class and violence in America in the present.
And, for good measure, Moore goes to Canada. There he interviews African Americans who find Canada a good place to go to get a break from the racism of the U.S. Are we really supposed to believe that Canada is the only European colony that doesn’t have a past and a present filled with troubles over race and racism? I'm sorry, a few visitors commenting on how accepting canada seems does not convince me.
Moore’s film winds up asking some interesting questions, and discarding some bad leads to understanding American violence. But, somehow, that doesn’t seem like quite enough for me. One leaves Columbine with little further understanding about the enormous problems Moore addresses, and no potential solution to crime, aside from ending racism and poverty (which would be nice, but seems challenging). And one wonders if this undermines any political message his film might present. If Moore doesn’t have any answers, why are we listening to him when so many pundits (left and right) are willing to offer up proposals and elaborate theories?