Bowling for Columbine: An Interview with Michael Moore

Michael Moore asks questions for a living. Most often, they’re good questions, pertinent and provocative, even if the answers aren’t coherent or definitive. With the documentaries Roger & Me (about his pursuit of GM chairman Roger Smith, 1989) and The Big One (his pursuit of Nike CEO Phil Knight, 1997), as well as with his irreverent television series, TV Nation (1994-5) and The Awful Truth (1999-ish), his website for Dog Eat Dog Films, as well as his books, Downsize This! and Stupid White Men, Moore has made it his business to challenge the seeming inevitability of consumer culture and popular beliefs.

The 48-year-old Flint, Michigan native, whose average guy’s slouch and baseball cap are by now familiar — he appears regularly in his films as well as on talk tv — is upfront about his sense of mission. Some critics find him irritating or “outrageous.” But if by such irritation he can change the dangerous “normal” order, he’s done what he needs to do. He does his homework, is quick to voice his opinion, and ready to back it up. He’s less worried, for instance, about Saddam Hussein seeking “weapons of mass destruction” than he is about the Bush Administration’s current campaign to obscure what’s happening, their creation of “weapons of mass distraction.”

Moore’s new film, Bowling for Columbine, takes as its point of departure the April 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, then spreads its attentions increasingly wide, considering and concocting connections among Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris and the Lockheed Martin missile-making plant that provides much of the employment for Littleton denizens, as well as the bullets sold so cheaply by K-Mart, the NRA’s birth just as the KKK was declared a “terrorist” organization, Cops, and U.S foreign policy.

The documentary, like Moore’s previous films, is driven by questions: Why is the gun murder rate so much higher in the United States than in many other countries? How is such pervasive aggression linked to economic, political, or social circumstances? In Washington DC recently, I was able to ask Michael Moore some questions.

PopMatters: Bowling for Columbine argues that extreme acts of violence, for example, the Littleton shootings or the DC area sniper, are less deviant than they are produced by a culture based on fear. Can you say more about how you see that relationship, between violence and fear?

Michael Moore: I think that there’s something in the American psyche, it’s almost this kind of right or privilege, this sense of entitlement, to resolve our conflicts with violence. There’s an arrogance to that concept if you think about it. To actually have to sit down and talk, to listen, to compromise, that’s hard work. To go for the gun, that’s the cowardly act. My question is, why do we believe that way and other cultures don’t? And I think it’s because we do not feel a collective responsibility for each other. And we punish you if you end up as one of the have-nots, instead of embracing or helping you. A country that will still not, to this day, put into law that a child has the right to a doctor: we won’t even say that our own children has the right to a doctor. If a group of people won’t do that for their own children, what would they do to the children of Iraq? It’s why a lot of the world is pretty frightened of us, because they see how we treat each other. “Jeez, if they do that to their own, what will they do to us?”

PM: And, it makes violence the coin of the realm, the way to get U.S. attention.

MM: Yes. I’m not drawing an A to B connection, that because they build missiles in Littleton, that’s why these kids did that. It’s not that simple. I’m just saying that it’s worth looking at, how all these things weave into each other. If you were from another planet, and you came here and observed, it would not be lost upon you that in the town where this school massacre took place, the parents of these kids build weapons of mass destruction. It’s not just a coincidence. Just as plopping my camera down in Flint, within a two hour radius, you find Charlton Heston; Eric Harris, who grew up there; the Nichols brothers, from the Oklahoma City bombing; and the Michigan Militia. But you could plop that camera down any place in America and within a two-hour drive, draw a similar pattern of insanity.

PM: Insanity that becomes so normalized…

MM: …That you don’t even think about it, you just accept it. Nobody would think about Lockheed Martin and Littleton, nobody did. All those reporters were out there, all these satellite trucks. Did anybody notice that the Lockheed Martin plant was down the road? Hmmm. What’s the lesson we’re teaching our children here.

PM: You demonize the individuals who commit violent acts, and contain the fear, not having to consider the systemic underpinnings.

MM: We don’t want to think that Eric and Dylan are “normal.” We need them to be “monsters.” It’s why we were taught to call them Nazis in WWII, instead of Germans. Germans are “normal.” If the guy out in the woods with the Michigan Militia is a real estate negotiator, instead of some crackpot, and has a normal life, that’s unnerving. You don’t want to think it’s as normal as the guy next door, hedging his lawn. It’s easier to demonize or separate them off from “us.” Same thing with the sniper: we’re hoping against hope. What if he’s just some suburban scoutmaster, with a family? What if he goes home after these shootings and has dinner with his wife and helps his kids with their homework? Don’t let us think we’re capable of this, that he’s one of us.

And of course, we talk of him as a “he,” though there’s not a shred of evidence that he is a “he.” We just “instinctively” know that this violence comes from men. This is truly one of the flaws of the film: there’s no mention of gender. And that’s because it was made by a guy, frankly. If a woman had made it, you could not go for two hours and not note at least once, that we’re safe from 52% of the population; 52% of the population will not jump you on the street, will not mug you, will not break into your house and kill you, will not drive around the suburbs with an assault rifle, will not drive by with her other girlfriends shooting guns out the car in a drive-by. It simply does not happen.

PM: And, that 52% walks around having to think about rape.

MM: That’s right. When the sun goes down, you’re a prisoner. At that point, if you do choose to leave the house, your radar has to be on. Guys never have to think about this. We walk out after 8 o’clock at night and it might as well be 12 noon for us. You have to be extremely careful. I wonder what it would be like if it was like that for guys. The only thing that keeps you somewhat safe is the light. Though that leaves out the fact that most of this violence — rape, murder — takes place between people who know each other, day or night. It’s going to occur because you trust a male and end up in that situation. It must be because we’re the XY — something got lopped off of that other X. It’s the volume control. That’s why we talk so loud, slams the toilet seat down (when we put it down). It’s something about aggression, the desire to be violent. At the airport, the only profiling they should do is to men.

PM: I was impressed that you addressed race and racism so forthrightly in the film. Why do you think that white people are so reluctant to discuss race and racism?

MM: Because I think that most white people know that we have failed to solve the problem. We have not cured this cancer. And because we know that, we sit on a tinderbox that could blow at any moment. The most incredible day for me in the last decade was during the L.A. riots, in 1992. I was in New York, and walking to the Warner Brothers building; it was the day after the riots started to slow down. And there was an announcement in the building that it was closing, and everyone should go home. Manhattan shut down. People were running to the train stations to get to the suburbs. The streets were empty. I walked into a store and the manager had a baseball bat on the counter. I asked him why and he said, “Just in case.” I said, “The riots are 3000 miles away, what are you worried about here?” He knew, they all knew, that it could happen anytime, anywhere, because we have refused to deal with the problem. I’m not going to refuse to deal with it. I’m going to talk about it and talk about it, and I want to see change in my lifetime.

I’m speaking in a very spiritual sense here: I am not allowed to not speak out. Whatever that judgment day is, I will not be granted any kind of eternity if I benefit as a result of others’ hardships. Especially, when it’s because of the color of their skin. I’m not waiting for that day. I ask myself this every day: what is it that I’m doing? I’m listening to that lesson I learned as a child, that a rich man will have a harder time getting into heaven than a camel will passing through the eye of a needle. We will be judged by how we treat the least among us. And so, as my books or films become more successful, I’m challenged more. I just broke my own record, broke Roger & Me‘s record for the largest gross for a documentary. But what am I doing now? I ask myself, “Are you sitting at the Ritz doing interviews or are you working on that 9-11 film you’re supposed to be making, to make sure that Bush isn’t returned? Where’s the HMO documentary that you’ve already spent a few months on? You’ve got to go back and finish these things. And are you taking care of yourself, so you’re going to be around 20 years from now?”

I am so proud of going down these roads that other people don’t want to go down. I’m hoping that people like me, guys like me, will at least listen to something that I’m saying because it’s coming from me, even when I bring up the subject of race. When we show this film for the first time in Flint, next Monday night, I’m going to sit there, with a majority black audience, because it’s a majority black town. Even the limited black audiences that I’ve seen it with, in these premieres, appreciate that I’ve done it. I didn’t have to do it; it would have been a great film without it. But of course, I did have to do it. I can’t let it pass. And lefties go, “It’s not about race, it’s about class.” But the class thing succeeds because race is used to keep the people apart.

And maybe you have to grow up in a place like Detroit or Flint, to understand that. I have to rite about this someday. And it’s not because I have a parochial love for where I’m from. But I’m really from a different place. Michigan is a different place: it was the first state to get rid of the death penalty, back in the 1850s. The whole cultural thing that’s come out of Detroit, in terms of its music: whether it’s the voice of the white underclass in Eminem or the MC5, or black resistance, in Motown. And then you’ve got rebellious little girls like Madonna, whose dad worked at Chrysler. All these levels of art that comes out of Michigan. This is where the union movement started. And one of the first things the UAW did was integrate the assembly lines, so our dads worked with black dads. So Flint because the first city in the country to have a black mayor, even though it was still 70% white. It was the first city in the country to pass an open housing ordinance. That’s where I’m coming from.

PM: You mentioned that you hoped white guys might listen to what you say in your film. Who do you imagine as your audience? I’m wondering this because it seems that some of the people you interview in your films don’t know who you are.

MM: Actually, they do know. But they want to be on tv. Even the militia types will say that they know that for every 100 people who see the movie, 99 will hate them, but one will love them. And their attitude is, they want me to just keep showing the film, assuming they’ll pick up one there, and one there. It’s smart organizing on their part.

PM: They are good at organizing around objects of fear, much like the U.S. administration tends to be. Marilyn Manson makes a sharp observation in Bowling for Columbine, linking fear and consumption: did he say that before or after George Bush told everyone to go out to the malls, after 9-11?

MM: I spoke to him before. And the point is important: by creating a fearful and panicked public, you not only get them to buy things they don’t need, you also get them to vote for politicians who have a right wing agenda. Fascism thrives when the people are in a panic, because people are willing to give up their freedoms and liberties, if they believe they’re going to live as a result. And so the right wing politician says, “Vote for me and I’ll put a 100,000 more cops on the streets. Vote for me and I’ll build more bombs. Vote for me and I’ll bomb Iraq.” That creates this false sense of security. Also, it’s important to keep people ignorant.

So as long as you can keep them glued to the tv, as they are today with the sniper story, hat’s good. That way they won’t watch or read the real news, or know what they should really be frightened of. Of the people in the DC area, you and I have a one in 2 million chance of being shot by the sniper today. I would bet the odds are greater that you and I are going to get cancer, or get struck by lightning, than the sniper is going to shoot us. I’m afraid that we have 40 million people living below the poverty level. Or 40 million adults who cannot read above a fourth grade level, or almost 50 million now who don’t have health care. That is something to be afraid of, because that will unravel a society. What do we have to do to get the news to cover that as the main story every night?

PM: That point comes out in your interview with the Cops producer [in Bowling for Columbine].

MM: Yes. He says, “I wish I knew what to do, I just don’t know.” So he does what everyone else does. That’s the case with most journalism, isn’t it? It’s laziness. You don’t know what to do, so you do what’s familiar. I was talking to a Fox News guy [in DC] today, and asked him why they had to spend 15 minutes on the sniper story, when there’s no new information about it. Are people going to be enlightened? No, you’re just putting cotton candy in their heads. I said, “You’re here in Virginia, why don’t you go out and ask the NRA why they oppose ballistic fingerprinting?” That’s a story.

PM: And case in point: when, in the film, you try to get the L.A. reporters and cops to talk about the smog.

MM: Right, it’s a joke, but it’s not a joke. That smog will kill more people than the corner of Florence and Normandy will.

PM: The film is tightly structured. I know you had about 200 hours worth of tape to put together: do you have a specific process?

MM: You cut and cut and cut. I’m always trying to find a movie in those 200 hours that I would like to go see on a Friday night. If I were just making a political statement, I’d run for office, and if I were giving a sermon, I’d be a preacher. I’m making a movie, an entertaining experience. And if a few people leave thinking about the issues, great. If one becomes active, great. I keep my expectations low. I know where I live.

PM: Many U.S. interviewers want to position you as “controversial,” and so “out there.”

MM: And I have to keep reminding them that more people have bought my book than have bought any other book in America this year. And the documentary set the record this weekend. Somebody should start thinking about that, instead of trying to put me out on some limb. Maybe I represent the mainstream now.

PM: It is disheartening, that the resistance to attacking Iraq was articulated and organized, and polls revealed more concern about the economy than Iraq. Then, Congress voted, and suddenly, the president’s ability to make war is a done deal.

MM: And people are really more concerned with the economy than Iraq. I’ve seen it in talking with people. This is why the Democrats are once again going to lose an election, because they weren’t in touch with the fact that the majority of Americans are afraid that their pension isn’t going to be there, that their 401K is gone, that they were convinced to invest their meager savings in the stock market.

PM: To what to you attribute that perennial out-of-touchness?

MM: Ignorance and laziness. I sound like I’m back with my nuns. I was on Tim Russert’s show today. And I told him that it was great that he recently showed, on the screen, the record for the 20 months of the George Bush administration: stock market down 35%, unemployment up 32%, 2 million jobs lost, we had a surplus of $280 billion, now we have a deficit of $157 billion. And he said, that after he ran that, Democrats called him to find out where he got that information. He told them, “I got it just from the news reports.” They are so lame!