When documentary filmmaker and populist rabble-rouser Michael Moore came to San Francisco last week for a film festival screening of his gun violence-vilifying "Bowling for Columbine," he also spent an afternoon exercising his First Amendment rights and his ironic sense of humor in interviews with the press.
An intelligent, concerned, voracious consumer of current events, he's a man with many insights and suggestions regarding any and all topics pertaining to the American way of life -- especially on fronts that address habitual American inequities of class and race. He notes, for instance, that the catalyst for his new film -- the 1999 mass-murder school shootings by two angry teenagers in Colorado that left 12 kids and a teacher dead -- didn't become a "national tragedy" because it was a violent act against school kids.
"Violence in schools has been around for a long time," said the 40-something working-class mouthpiece, with piqued but benevolent cynicism in his voice. "It just had a different color attached to it. Now that it's going on in the suburbs, it's getting all this attention."
It's hard to argue with that; in fact it's hard to argue with most of Moore's points about our nation's propensity for violence. It's hard not to laugh nervously at some of his strange encounters in the film, like the footage in which he opens an account at a small-town bank where free checking also comes with a free firearm.
I personally agree with almost everything he stands for in the film, which includes unequivocal condemnations of imperialistic American foreign policy -- he notes that our nation helped train Osama bin Laden and his army, gave $4 billion to Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, and has helped overthrow democratically elected governments all over the world -- which he sees as a contributing factor to our culture of violence.
But I have a problem with some of Moore's conclusions and many of his methods, including some of his blindsiding interview tactics, his tendency in this film to leave out information that could provide a bigger picture when talking about specific cases of gun violence, and his scattershot way of assigning blame. So when we met, I took him to task, which made for interesting conversation.
|Rob Blackwelder: Let me ask you about the segment on the woman in Flint, Michigan, (who was) in the welfare-to-work program that kept her away from her son -- who then found a gun in the home of the uncle he was staying with, took it to school and killed another kid. Now, you really admonish the welfare-to-work program in that segment -- and there weren't any alternatives offered in that segment -- but you don't place any blame at the feet of the uncle who left the gun where the kid could find it. But you do go to L.A. to hassle Dick Clark, who really has no connection to the event except that he's a major shareholder in the restaurant that got a tax break for hiring the welfare mom. What does that accomplish?|
Michael Moore: OK, good. Those are good questions. Blaming the uncle for having the gun there in his house was done sufficiently by the mainstream media. Because I live there, I saw all that. The uncle not only was blamed, but he's now in prison.
|RB: But there was no mention of that in the film in any way. You put much more of the onus on the welfare-to-work program...|
MM: And I do! The mother was a good mother. She was not a criminal. She was not a drug-user. She was a woman who actually had two jobs. What I'm doing is putting out a belief, which is this: Had she been able to be a real mother and be around her kids, had she worked a job where she was paid a living wage instead of having to work two minimum-wage jobs and was still being evicted because she couldn't pay the rent, then she would have been there with her son. She would have taken him to school. He wouldn't have been at the uncles, you know? She would have been there to make sure he didn't have that gun.
|RB: OK, I'll give you that. I'll give you that, but...|
MM: That's a big give, though!
|RB: I understand the problems with the welfare-to-work...|
MM: It's not just problems with the welfare-to-work. It's inherently evil. It's an act of terrorism.
|RB: OK, but I didn't see too many alternatives offered.|
MM: The solution is, what if we had a president who -- like presidents who once said "we have nothing to fear but fear itself" or "we're gonna put a man on the moon in nine years" and had real vision -- what if we had a leader that said, it is a right in America to have job? We're gonna have full employment and everyone will be paid a living wage. Would you agree with me that if the person living next door to you is making $40,000 a year, that the chance of that person breaking into your house and stealing your TV is just about nil?
|RB: Yes, I agree with that. But you don't offer that in the movie.|
MM: Well, I'm not giving a sermon. I can't do it all for you. I'm asking you, the audience, to engage a bit. You've gotta actively come up with some of this yourself. Because if it's just Michael Moore imparting wisdom, then it becomes a passive activity for you. I need you to be an active citizen when you leave the theater.
|RB: I can understand your intention there. But how about Dick Clark? He's a shareholder in this company; his name is on it. But I would bet you that he didn't even know the company was working with the welfare program.|
MM: I agree with you.
|RB: You approach him, I wouldn't call it a sneak-attack, but he doesn't know what he's in for. You're throwing him a bunch of stuff that he can't possibly answer because he doesn't have the information on him. What does that accomplish when he can't really do anything but be made to look a fool?|
MM: This is why he's in the film: I do not believe in the "good German." I don't believe in "I only drove the train, I didn't kill anybody." I don't believe that K-Mart has the right to say, "We only put the bullets on the shelf. We didn't kill the kids at Columbine." I believe we all have a collective responsibility for our actions.
When Bush drops those bombs on Iraq, I believe those are my bombs. I pay my taxes, so I helped pay for that bomb. I personally feel responsible for the people those bombs will kill. That's being done in my name, with my tax dollars. I will not sit back and go, "I didn't vote for him! I had nothing to do with that." I do have something to do with it. I'm an American and it's being done in my name.
(In this case) this is the Dick Clark restaurant, it is his name and he is a shareholder in it, and he profits from it. He didn't put the gun under the bed that the boy found. He didn't shoot the little girl. He didn't make that woman poor. But he was trying to benefit from her poverty. He was trying to get a tax break. He wasn't motivated by altruistic reasons, like, "Let's try to employ as many poor black women as we can to raise their standard of living." No! Try, "Let's get workers for our restaurant at the bare, base minimum wage and then let's get a tax break so we don't have to pay our fair share of the taxes that could help elevate some of the poverty." All right? That's his little role in it, and he can't just divorce himself from it.
|RB: But he also didn't have a chance to prepare a defense of his position because he didn't know you were coming.|
MM: That's not true. No, no. For months I had been writing him long letters explaining why we wanted to come there, why we were coming there. I got nothing but resistance from his people.
|RB: Well if that was in the film, I must have missed it.|
Of course, no one has ever accused Michael Moore of being even-handed, and he wasn't ashamed to admit it when the conversation turned friendlier and he was asked a more general question by another journalist about being objective.
"All journalists should drop the pretense of objectivity. There's no such thing. We're subjective beings," he railed. "If you're subjective, you still have to tell the truth about the facts. If you say 165 people were killed (by guns) in Canada last year, it had better be 165 people. If you say that we gave Saddam Hussein $4 billion in the '80s, it had better be $4 billion.
"But once you've established the facts, I think you should be honest about what your point of view is. I just got back from London, and they've got 13 daily newspapers that run the gamut from far left to far right. You can read all this variety of opinion and point of view, then make up your own mind."
Why do Americans seem unreceptive to this kind of position-taking, debate-stirring approach to ideas when the public in Europe is so tolerant?
"They don't have the stupid gene," Moore said, only half-joking. "Right now any kid in France can show you where Iraq is on a globe. That is not gonna happen here. We can bomb it, but we can't find it on a map."
With only a few minutes left before another interview, Moore turned his attention back to "Bowling for Columbine," and how his reasons for making it went far beyond his concerns about guns in America.
"I wanted to say something much larger about how society is manipulated by politicians and corporations into being in a constant state of panic and fear," Moore asserted, "and how once you get the population whipped up like that, conservative regimes can get just about anything they want out of the people without firing a shot."
Since I'm not pretending to be an objective journalist in this article, I'll just conclude by saying, Amen to that, Brother.