Sunday, March 09, 2003

It’s the Fear, Stupid

I saw Bowling for Columbine at the Byrd last night. Since it was Saturday, we got to enjoy a few numbers by Bob Gulledge on the Mighty Wurlitzer, first.

I had been missing Michael Moore, and not known it. He does the things that need to be done, that I might have conceived of doing, but am way too shy and lazy to carry out. And in this episode, he seems to bring about a real change: K-Mart will, in fact, phase out the selling of ammunition. He achieves this as part of a bigger mission to find out why so many people in the US die because of guns.

A leading answer turns out to be “because we live in a culture of fear.” Though I had not been able to perceive the bigger pattern and meaning as well as Moore, I have known for a number of years that we are a fear-mongering culture. I first had an inkling around 19, when a camp director mentioned weather-report-generated calls to camp. Concerned families called to say “channel 12 said there were dangerous thunderstorms there last night, is little Susie okay?” Or, “the news says it’s going to be dangerously hot today: what are you going to do about it?” As I took on more and more responsibility, I took more and more of those calls myself. The Weather Channel and internet had combined with improvements in forecasting to create a situation in which most people had ready access to scary-sounding data. But wait. Is it the data that’s scary, or is it the way news people use pictures and charts and graphs and numbers to tell you about the heat index and how you should under no circumstances leave your air-conditioned home that alarms people? Reporting scares them (and makes them call camp to demand that their daughter be kept in A/C all day), not numbers. Though I don’t recall a weather clip, Moore provides lots of other American news clips (and at least one salesman) that depict the growing alarmist culture. He contrasts our local news with a few Canadian clips, including the memorable graphic: Breaking News! New Speed Bumps.

I like his movie making style. He cuts old news footage of violent world situations the US set up or got involved in, with movies, “South Park,” interviews, and that trademark walk into the corporate (K-Mart) headquarters to demand something apparently outrageous of the CEO. Even imagining the divestment of bullets as in the works, I have to give the chain store credit for letting Moore’s appearance in their lobby with two Columbine shooting-injured boys appear to be an immediate cause.

Perhaps that success will make it possible for the filmmaker to do more of his important work.

Capital City weather: sunny and low 60s.

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