Jeremy's Weblog

I recently graduated from Harvard Law School. This is my weblog. It tries to be funny. E-mail me if you like it. For an index of what's lurking in the archives, sorted by category, click here.

Sunday, December 01, 2002

Back in Boston. Cold.

I saw "Bowling for Columbine" last night. I liked it, thought it was very entertaining and parts of it were thought-provoking. But what confused me a bit was the point Michael Moore was trying to make.

(Warning: Non-specific spoilers ahead)

The overall message was "there's too much gun violence in America," which makes sense enough, and the data holds that it's the case that more people in America are killed by guns than anywhere else (although the documentary conveniently uses raw numbers instead of adjusting for population when comparing the US to other countries -- needlessly, really, because the numbers are much higher here regardless so why even try and mislead). But his explanations as to why seemed contradictory.

He argued (1) It's not just because we have more guns, because other countries have lots of guns, like Canada, and nowhere near as much gun violence. Then he argued (2) It's not because of lax gun control laws and too many bullets for sale -- because, again, Canada has similar laws and easy availability of bullets (although he spends a chunk of the film focusing on the fact that Wal-Mart and K-Mart sell bullets, and isn't that a shame -- which it is, I agree, but he contends it's not the reason for gun violence -- so why spend so much time on it). (3) He doesn't blame violent TV, movies, and video games. He says Japan has more, and they don't shoot each other. And he spends a segment interviewing Marilyn Manson and trying to convey the point that he's not the reason kids shoot each other. So we end up at (4) A culture of fear. We have more gun violence because our TV news focuses so much on violence and fear. BUT, he admits we have more gun violence. So that's kind of why it's on TV. They don't make it up. So I guess he's arguing that it's a cycle that feeds itself.

But gun violence was high here before the emergence of the mass media and hysterical local newscasts. And he doesn't present any actual evidence to show that fear spurred on by local newscasts leads people to shoot each other. And then he spends a chunk of time talking about a 6-year-old who shot a classmate in Michigan. Because he found a gun at his uncle's house. I can't find the connection between this and the TV news.

He also takes a segment to blame welfare-to-work programs for gun violence, which I couldn't quite follow -- I guess he was saying that taking parents out of the house gives the kids more time alone to find guns and then go shoot people with them... but why welfare-to-work is different from just normal work isn't clear to me, and it was not at all clear that he was arguing that parents shouldn't work at all.

Nevertheless, despite my problems with the logic, it was thought-provoking and entertaining. Definitely worth my two hours and ten dollars.

The New York Times liked it too but had similar reservations with the logic. From their review:

"Mr. Moore vacillates between acknowledging their complexity and giving in to his own urge to simplify. He dismisses a number of possible answers out of hand. Is violent popular culture to blame? No, because in a country like Japan, with a tiny fraction of our gun deaths, people consume super-brutal movies, video games and comic books with even more voracity than we do. Poverty? No, since Canada and many European nations have much higher unemployment rates and much lower homicide rates. Is it our history of warfare and brutality? Compared with imperial Britain and Nazi Germany, he suggests, we're downright pacific.

"But each of these assertions rides roughshod over some obvious doubts and qualifications. Unemployment, in countries with more extensive welfare states than ours, is not necessarily the same as poverty, and the wholesale brutality of states and empires engaged in wars of conquest is not the same as the retail mayhem of armed individuals.

"But though he seems to be hunting for a specific historical cause for events like Columbine, Mr. Moore, when it serves his purposes, is happy to generalize in the absence of empirical evidence and to make much of connections that seem spurious on close examination. Several times he notes that the Columbine shootings occurred on the same day as the heaviest United States bombing of the Kosovo war. The more you think about this coincidence, the less it seems to mean."