Michael Moore, America's simultaneously most-loved and most-hated politically progressive media star, has a new movie, Bowling for Columbine. It's in limited release in major markets in the U.S. now, after wowing them at Cannes—a market always ready to enjoy contemplating American barbarism—back in May.
The documentary is, on its surface, a meditation on American gun violence. But it functions in effect as a general summation of lefty complaints about America. In its feckless collection of sad plaints with only the barest glimmer of a hope of solution, it is also a good summation of the progressive left's intellectual impotence.
Moore, allegedly a very funny guy, hits the usual targets, some of them worthwhile. Excoriated in the movie are: America's bloody historical interventions in nations such as Iran, Vietnam, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Afghanistan; welfare-to-work programs; crass and empty consumerist excrescences like Dick Clark theme restaurants; urban air pollution; auto factory shutdowns; cops; and, yes, the omnipresence of guns.
The first supposed-to-be funny set piece shows Moore signing up for an account at a Michigan bank that gives a free gun to new customers. This is a sadly typical example of political humor of any stripe, meant not so much to be genuinely witty or funny, but to give the self-selected viewers a pleasing frisson of agreement with the artist in recognizing the patent risibility of what's presented.
The bank employees—those goofy hicks!—clearly don't see what's so damn funny about giving away a useful and desirable premium. Indeed, Moore does nothing to convince us it is funny. Perhaps he's merely playing on his own inherently zany unkempt girth for chuckles when he proudly walks out into the bank parking lot with his brand-new rifle slung over his shoulder. He attempts a bit of stand-up-level wit by asking a bank clerk, isn't it unsafe to give away guns in a bank? Of course, in their community, among their clientele, it clearly isn't. Moore, ostensible defender of America's common man, doesn't seem to realize it's insulting to suggest otherwise.
With his relentless self-promotion, phony common-man image, and tendency to get facts wrong in pursuit of his agenda, Moore makes a big and tempting target. (Yes, his size is often picked on by his foes as well.) With the exception of the factual errors, most of what Moore is regularly pilloried for is irrelevant for anything other than playing a game of spot-the-hypocrite—not necessarily the most productive intellectual sport.
He pretends to a working class consciousness, but he's really a millionaire Manhattanite. He makes his living bothering people with cameras but had an old employee arrested for doing the same to him. He sticks it to the boss man but is by most accounts such an unpleasant man to work for that one former staffer called him "not just ruthless, but sadistic" and like "Idi Amin—without the laughs."
But Moore gained his wealth fairly, by selling products many people wanted to buy. As he would surely point out, he didn't even have to lay off thousands or sell weapons to do so. And if those who excoriate him for having his camera-stalker arrested are saying he was wrong to do it, then what he did to the head of GM in his career-making documentary Roger and Me was OK. At worst, these examples impugn his moral authority. They don't say much about whether his basic stances and strategies are right or wrong.
So Moore, big target though he may be, won't be easily felled by the (many) stories of the "he's an annoying self-promoting blowhard" variety, as amusing as such accounts are. He's still going strong—his latest book, Stupid White Men, is in its 31st week on The New York Times best-seller list, and its 32nd printing.
A memo on his Web site, urging his fans to strike a blow for justice by giving Bowling for Columbine a big opening weekend, is almost charming in its self-aggrandizement. Moore really does seem to believe that his being rich and famous is the strongest sign of hope for progressivism in America today.
But his new documentary implies that he is the only hope. Moore's message is powerfully presented. In his telling, America is a naked city full of a million stories, all of them bummers. Deluded Michigan militia men prancing through the woods (the only people in the movie who voice the argument that it is a personal responsibility to defend yourself and your family, and that guns can be an important aid to that function); scary hidden-camera shots of the Columbine massacre with anguished 911 calls superimposed; black woman navigating perilously between the Scylla of having a shitty service job and the Charybdis of not having a shitty service job; and racists scaring us to death with bogus tales of "Africanized" killer bees on their way.
And of course, lots and lots of shooting deaths. Moore's fearmongering about gun deaths presents stories and raw numbers with no per capita or time series comparisons. Firearm homicides fell from 1991 to 1999 by nearly 40 percent, but Moore doesn't tell you that.
He just tells you that the world is sad. Young men driven mad by high school status games become mass killers; 6-year-olds kill 6-year-olds because mothers have to work. Factories close down; tragic murders occur overseas thanks to U.S. imperialism. You can play Louis Armstrong singing "What A Wonderful World" over scenes of stacked corpses and it's a sad, sad thing.
But except for one bright moment—when Our Hero himself, as he presents it, pressures Kmart into promising to phase out ammunition sales—there is no meaningful hint of an answer as to how to make the world a less sad place. Moore raises many of the obvious answers to the conundrum of American shooting deaths—our violent history, our violent pop culture, the presence of so many weapons—and pretty much debunks them all. Bowling for Columbine does not make a pro-gun control case. It is more existential nightmare than political document. It has no answers.
Critics have picked on Bowling for Columbine's final scene as an example of Moore's tendency to go too far. He beards Charlton Heston, president of the National Rifle Association, in his lair and asks him some tough questions about America's high shooting death numbers—questions Moore himself couldn't answer.
Heston stumbles toward mentioning our ethnic composition, then realizes he'd better stop. He doesn't have a good answer. Moore tries to show him a photo of a 6-year-old gunned down by another 6-year-old. Moses stumbles imperiously away, and doesn't look back. Moore's action is not meaningless cruelty. The head of an organization standing for gun rights should damn well be prepared to address emotional anecdotal arguments about the tragedies that guns can cause. Heston failed here, not Moore.
But Moore, like Heston, ultimately has to walk away from his toughest question without answers. Because the only thing that ultimately explains each individual gun death is an individual's choice to pull a trigger. Sociology can't provide the thousands of separate answers to why thousands of individuals made that choice. Any pressures of background or culture or poverty that weighed on the shooters weighed similarly on thousands of other non-shooters.
In the end, Moore, like the progressive left he stands for, has no valid solutions. Gun control laws won't stop gun crimes; Canadians also have plenty of guns and not many gun deaths. No one thinks that a life on welfare is a better option in the long term than trying to work for a living. Grander socialist dreams died with the Soviet Union. All the progressive left has are laments, tears, and tragedies. That suffices to sell movie tickets—moviegoers have always loved tragedy. It isn't enough for a lively and effective political movement.