I have been, and always will be, a fan of the work of Michael Moore. I first discovered him in the summer of 1994 when, out of a lack of quality programming on TV, I watched an episode of TV Nation. I saw scathing social satire (the now infamous piece on the racism of taxi drivers in New York) mixed with more light-hearted pieces (what the least visited state in the USA – North Dakota – is doing to boost tourism). None of my local video stores had his first film, Roger & Me, but I was among the first to rent Canadian Bacon and The Big One. I watched every interview he did to promote his first book, Downsize This! His next book, Stupid White Men, was one of the ones I knew I had to bring with me to Japan. And when Bowling for Columbine came out in Kumagaya, I was first in line to see it.
I still think Bowling for Columbine is a great movie with a powerful message. I snapped it up on DVD as soon as it came out. But, nowadays, as I speak with my friends, I’m slowly coming to the realization of the backlash towards that film. Many websites have popped up to expose “the truth behind Michael Moore’s lies.” These website raise a lot of questions about the film. For example, the NRA rally that happened in Columbine after the school shootings. According to some of these websites, the rally was planned months in advance, and after the shooting, the NRA cancelled every rally they had planned except for one which they were required by law to have. And Charlton Heston’s speech from the rally was heavily edited by Moore. Same thing with the school shooting that happened between the two six-year olds in Moore’s hometown of Flint, Michigan. In the film, Moore maintains that the NRA rally happened “right after” the school shooting. Records show the rally was nine months later. And the film’s now-infamous opening of Moore getting his free gun when he opened the bank account? There are those who maintain that it was staged for the cameras and that really, you have to wait a week to get your gun and you pick it up from a gun warehouse on the other side of town.
But I had no idea this backlash was so far reaching until I was speaking with Trouble. Her grievance comes with the scene where Moore comes to Canada and, to show how lax gun laws are in Canada, he walks into a Canadian Wal-Mart and buys some bullets. Now, as Trouble pointed out and as I’ve verified on some of the “Truth about Bowling for Columbine” websites, under Canadian law, you have to present a valid Canadian firearms permit to buy ammunition. In Moore’s case, with him being an American, he had to present a special “foreigner allowed to carry a firearm” permit. Now, in the film, we never see Moore present a permit or any form of ID. The question is, was that edited out, or did Moore actively break Canadian law? The Canadian government has sent a letter of inquiry to Moore about this. Moore has yet to reply.
Now, things like this don’t really surprise me. While I am a fan of Moore’s work, I have always agreed with the argument that Bowling for Columbine isn’t really objective enough to be a true documentary. It’s more of a position paper. And of course, Moore has been challenged by this. When his statistics are questioned, he points to his sources (which are then instantly discredited by his critics). Moore still maintains that the opening scene with the bank wasn’t staged and that they do keep all those guns in the back room of the bank. And, when he’s left grasping for an answer, his fallback response tends to be, “Well, it’s political satire. It’s just a comedy.” So, by his own admission, the film isn’t a true documentary. A campaign has even begun to get the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences to revoke his best documentary Oscar.
But, the ultimate questioning of Michael Moore is underway. An aspiring young documentary filmmaker named Michael Wilson has begun work on a film which claims it will reveal “the truth, not just about Bowling for Columbine, but about Michael Moore and America as a whole.” Wilson’s goal is to get an interview with Moore, but to date, Moore has declined to be interviewed. This hasn’t stopped Wilson though. He’s now dogging Moore at every turn. This young filmmaker claims that his movie is just like Moore’s first film, Roger & Me, only, “now Moore is the sheltered corporate head that the little guy is trying to get in touch with. And we all know how well Roger came across in Roger & Me.” I kind of don’t blame Moore for not wanting to be interviewed. The title of the documentary is Michael Moore Hates America. It’s scheduled to come out in the summer of 2004, around the same time Moore’s next film, Fahrenheit 9/11, hits theatres.
But Moore’s reaction is just indicative of a trend I’ve seen all my life. You have political activists. The activists will come forth with all these damning allegations towards the government and/or big business. Then, someone will come forward and question the activist. This person will say, “Well, where did you get those numbers? Where did you get these allegations? What’s your proof?” The activists will do their best to defend themselves. But there will be answers that these questioners don’t like. They will continue to question the activists. And, more often than not, the activists will begin to respond with anger. “You’ve sold out to the other side! If you’re not with us, you’re against us!” And it’s not too long before the activists seem as fanatical as the government and/or big business that they’re trying to change. I’ve just always found it latently hypocritical that activists don’t like being held to the same level of scrutiny that they hold big business and/or the government.
As I said, I’ve seen it all my life. Back in university, Brad Goertz was a man who questioned authority, constantly broke school regulations he felt were unjust, and bragged about it; a political activist though and through. But he became incredibly touchy as soon I began to raise the question that, maybe, this attitude didn’t make him an ideal Student’s Union President. Suddenly he branded me a crackpot, a loon, a guy who never liked him in the first place and was just pushing a personal vendetta. And because he didn’t want to answer my questions, that just made me angry. Hell, I still see it. I have friends who liken eating at McDonald’s to, “sitting by and doing nothing while the Nazi soldier rapes the Jewish woman sitting next to you [which] has been proven to be a criminal act.” They get very testy when I ask them to prove that statement, and we wind up yelling at each other as I press for proof. And, as another friend put it, chances are a Jewish woman who has been raped by a Nazi soldier would take great offence to that analogy.
There’s only one time when I was so angered by political activists that I lashed out in a huge, public display of anger. Back at Augustana, there was a group of political activists who organized themselves into the “Social Justice Club.” I was never really too sure of their objectives. I guess they spent most of their days sitting around writing letters for Amnesty International. But then, one day, they made themselves known. One lunch time, I was getting ready to enjoy my favourite Augustana cafeteria meal – grilled cheese sandwiches – when the Social Justice Club arrived. They were dressed in simple cotton rags. They’re goal was to bring attention to the starving masses in the third world. So, they showed up their third world best (although, in retrospect, they looked more like Zionites from The Matrix Reloaded) and proceeded to wander the cafeteria, holder their bellies in faux hunger pangs, and murmuring, “Feed me. Please, can you spare some food?” They were everywhere. They would collapse from “hunger” upon the dinner tables. They would lie on the floor holding up their hands and saying, “Please! Feed us!” to anyone who passed. I tried to open dialogues with them. I tried to ask them, “So, why are you doing this today? What are you hoping to accomplish by this protest?” They’d just look at me funny and say, “Feed me!” I recognized most of them as being drama majors. I guess they didn’t want to break character. I left the cafeteria rather disgusted not just at the display, but at their lack of desire to talk to anyone about what they were doing.
I went back to my dorm room and, having an hour or so before my next class, I wrote a very angry letter to the student newspaper about the Social Justice Club protest. I quite bluntly asked the Social Justice Club, “Seriously. What did you hope to accomplish by doing this today?” I also asked the question, “What gives you the right to do this when you’ve never experienced it for yourself? Don’t you think you’re mocking the people who really go through this?” I think I also made comparisons between them and spoiled rich kids who feel they have to do something to make the world a better place, latch onto a cause, stage a social function for the cause, then go home to their ivory tower, patting themselves on the back for having made the world a better place. Seeing as to how I’m pulling this from my memory, I’m certain I’m making this angry letter seem more polite than it actually was. I was a little stunned when my letter was printed verbatim, but I guess I shouldn’t have been, because it was the same kind of questioning of authority that editor and presidential candidate Brad Goertz thrived on.
The student newspaper was monthly. A month after my letter was printed, I grabbed the latest issue and I saw a reply to my letter from the President of the Social Justice Club. And, unlike most other political activists, he wasn’t angrily lashing back at me. He responded to my questions. Were they mocking those who go through it every day? Well, no, they didn’t think so because those who go through it every day don’t have a voice in our society, so the Social Justice Club felt they were providing a voice. Do they have a right to do that when they’ve never experienced it? Well, yeah, because they have a right to voice their concerns about society. They did think my whole ivory tower analogy was a little harsh and they called me on that. What did they hope to accomplish? Well, they hoped to bring attention the issue. They hoped that people like me would write angry letters and get talking and thinking about the issue. They hoped to start a dialogue and, thanks to my angry letter, they were considering their protest a success. I must say, I was rather impressed.
And, I guess it’s my hope that that will eventually become the attitude of all activists. If someone comes up to you and questions your beliefs, don’t snap and brand that person a right-wing nut; a guy pushing a personal agenda; a goober fish. Sit down with them. Talk with them. Hear their arguments. If they’re taking the time to read about the issue and question your stand, then that must mean that, on some level, they’re interested in what you have to say. So, activists of the world, take the time to hear what they have to say. It’s taken some doing, but I’m starting to bring my friends around to that position.
And I hope it won’t be much longer until Michael Moore adopts that position. I will admit, he does try. When the questions do arise, he does his best to answer them. He used to have a section on the Bowling for Columbine website dedicated to it. But, lately, in interviews to promote his new book Dude, Where’s My Country, he is a little quicker to jump to the reply of, “They’re just right-wing nuts! Tools of the Bush administration! Bush evil!” But, Moore should look at the websites springing up. They’re talking about the issues he’s raised. Shouldn’t that have been the ultimate goal? It’s through the discussion that the changes that Moore seeks will be achieved. So, it’s doubtful that Michael Moore will read this, but I would like to say this to him: calm down, buddy. Marilyn Manson said in your film, “Listen to what they have to say, because no one else is.” Please, answer the Canadian government about the whole presenting of the permit issue. Let’s face it, the clerk you bought the bullets from in the film was just a teenager. Odds are, she just forgot to card you. Sit down and have an interview with the maker of Michael Moore Hates America. At the very least, you might convince him to change the title. Regardless of what Michael Moore does, I know that I’ll probably go see Michael Moore Hates America when it comes out. Because, while I am still a fan of Michael Moore’s work, I’m starting to get very interested in what the other side has to say.