(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2003)
I’m an immigrant to Canada – one of the luckiest of all immigrants in that I came here as an English speaker, with a Canadian wife and a good job already lined up. I wouldn’t pretend to have suffered or struggled in the way that the term “immigrant” often connotes. Still, I’ve shared the experience of arriving in Canada with a profound sense of fear and insecurity, of not recognizing basic references or understanding basic rituals, then of assimilating and settling into accepting Canada wholeheartedly as the place where I ought to be.
Ten years ago, my wife and I had a choice between New York and Toronto. At the time I may have been somewhat more inclined toward the former – after all, it’s New York. But we mutually decided to come here instead. I’ve never regretted it for a second, and I’d be very reluctant to move to the States now; I’m generally lukewarm even about visiting there. I’ve become very disillusioned with America (I suppose a cynical interpretation might be that this is the measure of how I’ve become Canadian). It’s de rigeur to be a detractor of George W. Bush, but my heart sinks whenever I contemplate the record to date. It’s so far beyond a laughing matter.
The 51st State
The other week I was watching the action movie Formula 51. In its European release it was called The 51st State, which alludes to Britain, where most of the action is set, as an appendage of the US. There’s a scene where a Liverpool drug dealer played by Rhys Ifans (a former schoolmate of mine in Wales, readers may recall) lays out a vast arsenal of high-tech guns for the inspection of an assassin played by Emily Mortimer (the winsome younger sister from Lovely and Amazing). It’s one of those scenes that wallows in the intimacy of destructive possibility, of Schwarzenegger-type murderous potential dropped into your back yard. I was rather taken aback at the crassness of it. And then it struck me – I couldn’t imagine something like this in a Canadian film.
Not that I’ve seen every Canadian film, of course, so there may be some evidence to the contrary that I’m not aware of. But if there is, it’s an anomaly. British films increasingly spawn that kind of posturing – think of Guy Ritchie movies (pre-Swept Away), Gangster No. 1, numerous other Rhys Ifans movies. And yet, British gun control is even tougher than Canada’s, and the murder rate is almost as low. Not to mention that given the geographical distance, Canada ought to be far more susceptible to cultural influence from the south. But we seem to retain our decorum in a way that others, frankly, don’t.
Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine explores America’s gun culture, with the bear-like Moore doing his familiar sub-Letterman shtick with a variety of nuts and celebrities (most prominently, NRA president Charlton Heston), weaving in some broader reflections on what led the country to its wretched state. The movie effectively establishes its key thesis – that America’s propensity for guns and violence is correlated with a pervasive excess of fear: fear of violent crime, home invasion, fear itself, and of more esoteric threats that fade in and out, like shark attacks and killer bees. The sensationalist media feeds this frenzy; so do the swaggering language of politicians, the coarse popular culture, and a bastardization of the country’s “traditions.” Guns in such jumpy hands breed violence that seems to reinforce the original fear, leading to more guns and more violence – a delusional, sick spiral.
The movie is rife with omissions though. Most prominently – Moore says he’s a lifelong member of the NRA, and although he says in interviews that he merely holds his membership for contrarian purposes, this isn’t clear from the film. It never actually proposes banning personal use of guns, and says nothing about control measures stopping short of that. It just keeps reasserting the broad, relatively easy point that America has too many guns.
But, and here’s the surprise, it allegedly doesn’t have so many more guns than Canada, on a per capita basis (according to the movie). So Moore comes to Sarnia and Windsor and Toronto, where he “discovers” that Toronto’s “slums” look like America’s middle-class neighborhoods, and no one locks their doors. Which makes you wonder about the accuracy of what he shows us of America. But still, he captures the key point: that Canada avoids America’s neuroses and rhetorical excesses.
That famous slogan “it’s the economy, stupid” wasn’t quite right, or at least isn’t now. Americans don’t just vote the big-ticket issues. On the contrary, they allow issues like gun control and abortion and other ideological “litmus tests” to outweigh any subtler considerations. If they thought about it rationally, they’d realize the substance of their lives isn’t found there. But they don’t think, and the country thus drifts into dysfunction. The gap between rich and poor widens to a potentially destabilizing extent, and still the Republicans propose further tax cuts and breaks that would widen the disparity further. America’s dealings with the rest of the world have regressed to the crudity of good vs. evil, with the UN lectured on its lack of “backbone” and the whole notion of international cooperation reduced to a cynical shrug.
The situation demands raw anger, which isn’t Moore’s stock in trade. Not that humour isn’t often the sharpest ideological tool. But Moore’s shtick is all too easy to brush off. His film seems structured to highlight outrage and guffaws in equal measure. At one point he harasses Dick Clark for what seem to me like tenuous reasons, and he carries out one of his patented attacks on corporate America, turning up at K-mart headquarters with two Columbine survivors, demanding that the company stop selling handgun ammunition. When K-mart promptly agrees, Moore seems properly non-plussed and ceases his activism, but it’s hard to know where this really gets us. He doesn’t prescribe a broad agenda for action. Basically, he sugars the pill (or would sugar it except that, as I already pointed out, he doesn’t actually prescribe one). And when he presents a catalogue of American outrages to the accompaniment of Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World, we can only conclude we’re in the company of a pretty crass sensibility.
Obviously, I’m letting my own preconceptions colour the review pretty heavily here. But I think Moore’s movies demand that kind of response. Bowling for Columbine is in many ways one of last year’s most worthwhile films. But it takes on a subject that seems to me to demand nothing short of greatness, if it’s to avoid the kinds of easy generalizations and woolly affirmations favoured by gun control advocates. Even so, the movie has truth enough, and is profoundly depressing. We have but one consolation – that we’re here rather than there – but for how long can we sustain it?