Bowling for Columbine

Starring:
  • The Best Kind of Self-Promotion
  • Some Real Crazies
  • An Aging Moses

 

 
Directed by the Awful Truth

"You gotta admit, Mike, that Saddam Hussein fucking Satan in the ass under a picture of Skeet Ulrich is pretty funny."

From Captive Narratives to "COPS": The Dark Side of America's Divine Drama

JimmyO's review of Bowling for Columbine covers most of what I'd like to say about the movie itself and Moore's theme of fear and paranoia fueling America's culture of violence. We know that Moore can be a hypocrite, but he's the only liberal with any balls right now, and (to break with JimmyO) had Al Gore ran farther to the left and gave the Green Party a reason not to throw away their votes, then we wouldn't be dealing with the environmental crisis we are now. But that's beside the point. I would like to address the idea of fear as the foundation of American culture and the myth of the black criminal. Moore cites piles of statistics that show that America disproportionately imprisons a far higher percentage of blacks than whites, and I'm pretty sure that anyone whose understanding of criminology and crime statistics extends beyond "COPS" would agree. Moore also shows, rather successfully, how the media perpetuates the myth of the black criminal. Mind you that the "myth of the black criminal" doesn't mean that blacks don't commit crimes, but the idea that the Black Man is a bogeyman from which White America needs protection. Moore claims that Americans pull the trigger because of this culture of fear, rather than because of the usual culprits of video games, lax gun laws, etc., and that's why the murder rate is so much higher than in Canada or Britain. Moore makes his point, but by saying that these ideas are ingrained in a culture of fear, we have to extend the idea to the roots of the culture. Is there something in the American cultural history that distinguishes us from the Canadians, British, or Germans that can be pointed to as a cultural legacy passed from generation to generation?

Personally, I'm not of the opinion that Americans are inherently paranoid racists, but there is something to Moore's idea that there is something deeply ingrained in the American culture concerning fear and demonization based upon skin color. When we talk about being "ingrained in the American culture," that inevitably takes us back to the Puritans. Plymouth Rock is the foundation stone of the culture; many of our most defining customs and ideas are rooted in their traditions: The Puritan Curse of self-improvement (to the extent of self-loathing), for one, but the idea that I have always found most telling is the Puritan notion of America the Promised Land. The Puritans saw themselves as performing, literally, the Divine Drama of Genesis and Exodus. Essentially, God guided the Mayflower's ostracized band of God's Chosen People from the sin and slavery of Europe as God parted the sea for Moses and the Israelites, the wilderness of the New World the New Eden by which the Puritans would famously build their City Upon a Hill.

For the Puritans, this was no metaphor: Typology was an ingrained mode of thought, leading Cotton Mather to declare John Winthrop the "Puritan Moses" in God's Design, in which no facts were too small or insignificant not to be a sign of His work, understood even four centuries pre-Shyamalan. Of course, it's this Divine providence that eventually gave us the worthy concepts of Manifest Destiny and the American Dream. These ideas are evidence of remarkable imagination, but when we think of the phrase "Puritan Literature," we think of the sparse, meditative poetry of Anne Bradstreet or the Awakening fire of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." Yet the most passionate, imaginative, and influential literature of the time is found in the New England Captive Narratives.

The Captive Narratives are the intense morality plays of the not-unfounded Puritan fear of being captured and tortured by the Savages, or the Indians of the woods just beyond Plymouth. If the new colony was the stage upon which the Divine play was to be performed, then in the untamed world of darkness lived the Savages, whom the Puritans saw as, literally, Satan's minions. Puritans were sometimes captured, tortured in Indian settlements, and returned to the colony presumably as a warning; but in the Puritan typography, this was seen as man confronting Satan in that "howling wilderness." King Phillip's War spawned many narrative accounts of Indian capture, in which man suffered and eventually sought salvation from cruelty described with words reserved for demons. As with the burning of Anne Bradstreet's house becoming an allegory for the forsaking of earthly goods, Mary Rowlandson's (and others') captive narratives became allegories of salvation.

To declare the native peoples "hell hounds" is obviously reductionist, but the power of the myth lived on in the American gothic tradition and is still American Literature's essential sermon. Still, the Puritans lived in ever-present threat of the Indians, as the Indians did them, and as the captive narrative has been passed on through the traditions of American literature, thus the culture of fear seeped deeply into the American unconscious. It's perhaps beside the point that the Indians and the Puritans had much different skin colors, but the physical difference is the eye's, and thus the mind's, most distinguishing characteristic, and thus it was that Satan's minions were dark skinned. Again, in the Puritan's literal-minded typology, no detail is not a piece of God's Divine Plan, and so it must be no mistake that the Evil Doers were not white-skinned and fair-haired.

Am I trying to say that Bowling for Columbine is "right" because of the Puritans? No, I'm not. My point is that those critics who dismiss Moore's viewpoint that fear and paranoia of skin color is deeply entrenched in the American culture are missing the larger picture. It's not a popular idea, and maybe it's not patriotic, especially in these jingoistic times, but the most noble ideas of America are deeply rooted in our national myths, as are our most embarrassing failures. And we know that the Puritans ruled by fear: fear of God (as Sinners in His Angry Hands), fear of the Devil (the witchcraft trials), and fear of his minions (the Indians). Considering The Crucible's place in most American high school curriculums, Arthur Miller has informed much of our perception of Puritan culture, and his research seems right: staunch and pious, yet passionately and deeply felt. His allegory of the witchcraft trials for McCarthyism seems fair, even if his human drama is forced, Tituba's spellmaking as feared as Communist infiltration. Even beyond that 1950's witchunt, what possible reason, other than blind, almost supernatural fear, could the white folks of the Mirage casino in Las Vegas have had to ask the hotel to drain and refill the pool after Duke Ellington swam in it?

So what does the Captive Narrative have to do with America's gun culture? Let me allow Mrs. Rowlandson to answer that in her words from 1682:

"On the tenth of February 1675, Came the Indians with great numbers upon Lancaster: Their first coming was about Sunrising; hearing the noise of some Guns, we looke out; several Houses were burning, and the Smoke ascending to Heaven....he begged of them his life, promising them Money (as they told me) but they would not hearken to him but knockt him in head, and stript him naked, and split open his Bowels."

Now think of what might have happened if Mr. Rowlandson had to fiddle with the trigger-lock on his musket, wait on a background check, or battle Indians with semiautomatic muskets. Because if they're Satan's Hell Hounds, then God and the Second Amendment give you the right to pull the trigger.

The Pitch:
2 Roger and Me
Plus
2 Charlton Heston
Equals
4 Bowling for Columbine
See It For:
Moore decides on a new strategy for his Oscar campaign after getting screwed for Roger and Me.