The Americans Who Matter: Michael Moore's White Liberal Racism in Bowling for Columbine by Kyla Schuller
Cannes Film Festival not only opened its hallowed doors to a documentary film for the first time in 46 years in May 2002 when it showed Michael Moore's polemic Bowling for Columbine,1 but also awarded it the 55th Annual Special Prize by the only unanimous vote of the festival.2 While perhaps some of this enthusiasm can be attributed to the institution's eagerness to recognize a film that sharply criticizes U.S. foreign policy and gun-crazy culture, some American critics and audiences have been hailing the film as a landmark event that, in the words of the Washington Post, “make[s] some brilliant connections between social history, mass communications and race.”3 Some reviewers even go as far as the San Francisco Chronicle's Jonathon Curiel in claiming that Bowling for Columbine “reaches an exalted level of filmmaking . . . [that] explains the very fabric of American society.”4
I would argue, however, that if the connections the film makes between US history, the media, and race indeed appear to get to the core of US society, then a critique of its own rhetorical strategy reveals the racism endemic to the United States, and to white liberalism more particularly. Employing Edward Said's methodological tool of “strategic location,”5 I will discuss how Michael Moore's rhetorical strategy, which denies speaking subjectivity to people of color and presents racism as a societal ill best discussed solely among white people, renders his purportedly anti-racist film complicit with a racist agenda. Said describes the rhetoric of “Orientalism” as “a kind of intellectual authority over the Orient within Western culture.”6 While Moore does not reproduce a colonial logic in his film and thus cannot be said to have created an Orientalist text, his film does enact a strategy of authority over issues of race and over people of color that can be profitably read through Said's critique of Orientalism in his seminal 1979 text of the same name. Using Said's theoretical framework to tease out the consolidation of white liberal authority in Bowling for Columbine reveals a film that performs a white masculinity ultimately more concerned with offering a critique of the US mass media than of structural racism. As such, its wide reception as a film that usefully discusses the role of racism in the United States (even in reviews that are sharply critical of Moore's sloppy logic elsewhere in the film) demonstrates that Bowling for Columbine tells us more about the inadequacy of white liberalism's critique of race than of the racial inequalities the film documents.
Lest I sound too nasty, I hasten to add that it is important to sharply critique Bowling for Columbine because Michael Moore is one of the few cultural workers in the contemporary United States who is actively constructing a politicized white working and middle class audience. It is certainly a gross understatement to contend that he is the only cultural critic today who could produce and release a film connecting the damning dealings of the Bush family with the bin Ladens two months before the 2004 election, however uncertain its distribution status is at the time this article goes to press. Moore's renegade interviews directly confront political and corporate abuses and criminals in a manner altogether absent from the current proliferation of celebrity news journalism, and his generally clever deployment of humor guarantees that his pranks create and politicize a TV, film, and reading audience that is not otherwise being addressed. However, it is Moore's status as a self-positioned liberal working class hero who says the things nobody else does that makes the hegemonic narrative in Bowling for Columbine so depressing. Michael Moore seems to think that he has properly addressed race and racism and indeed, his largely white liberal audience seems to be willingly blind to Moore's rhetoric, which reinscribes the very racism he attempts to deconstruct, and positions white liberals as the Americans who matter.
While Edward Said's discussion of Orientalism centers on the West's construction of and knowledge about the Arab Islamic world, his method of “strategic location, which is a way of describing the author's position in a text with regard to the Oriental material he writes about”7 can be usefully employed to interrogate Michael Moore's position as a white male filmmaker discussing racism and its impact on people of color. Said's attention to the role of each writer's authority in the discourse of Orientalism as an operative construct allows the critic to see how, to quote:
everyone who writes about the Orient must locate himself vis-à-vis the Orient; translated into his text, this location includes the kind of narrative voice he adopts, the type of structure he builds, the kinds of images, themes, motifs that circulate in his text—all of which add up to deliberate ways of addressing the reader, containing the Orient, and finally, representing it or speaking in its behalf.8
Michael Moore's self-location within the subject of race, and within the film itself, as safely and ironically removed from either the operation of racism or its effects takes two primary forms. The first consists of the ironic humorist who finds images demonstrating the perpetuation of racism entertainingly stupid. The second consists of the paternal authority who both comforts and speaks for people of color. Moore's medium, film, and his agenda to understand the culture and people of the United States all but require him to grant speaking subjectivity to US residents of color within his film, but he constructs himself and other white men as the subjects who can best interpret, understand, and describe the country, and the function of racism, to his viewers.
Moore's thesis, which seeks to diagnose the reasons why gun violence is so prominent in the United States by culling anecdotal evidence from a wide variety of almost strictly white people, effectively interpellates (or “hails,” meaning creating through naming) a nation made up of white citizens. Because of this, the film employs a nationalist narrative, to borrow Benedict Anderson's definition of a nation as “an imagined political community—and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign,”9 thereby limiting Moore's political community to nearly entirely white people. I would argue that this interpellation of the United States as white, against the protected and contained “victims” of racism Moore speaks for, operates in similar ways to Orientalism's role in augmenting European culture's “strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self.”10 In particular, Michael Moore's lighthearted treatment of racism as a source of humorous footage signals that the political community his film constructs and addresses is white. I find Said's diagnosis of the canonical authors Nerval and Flaubert's problematic attitude that the Orient “was a world elsewhere, apart from the ordinary attachments, sentiments, and values of our world in the West”11 to be similar to Moore's distancing himself and his imagined white audience from racism via biting humor. Said demonstrates that Flaubert constructs the Orient as a “spectacular form,”12 and Moore similarly seems to enjoy showing his audiences imagery that embodies the spectacle of racism. Indeed, there are actually two spectacles performing in Bowling for Columbine: the bodies of color subjected to state violence and repression; and the white perpetrators of racism whose actions are rendered humorously stupid or, in the case of witnesses like Charlton Heston, inescapably evil. In other words, by positioning racism as the hang-up of other white people easily labeled as racists or idiots, Moore attempts to distance himself and his film from any problematic representations of racialized bodies.
Moore opens his segment on the problems with the mainstream media's presentation of race by remarking, “one thing I love about this country is that you can always count on white America's fear of black men,” in a voice dripping with sarcasm. A lengthy montage of graphic footage ensues: of black male bodies being frisked, chased, and beaten by the police, in custody, and even splayed out and bloodied on stretchers. In not one single shot do any of the men speak or even look directly at the camera. The accompanying soundtrack is upbeat, further signaling that the sequence is constructed along the lines of a South Park-style dissonance that pairs perky, comic musical aesthetics and violence. Perhaps Moore feels his sarcastic introductory comment is sufficient to render this scene “ironic entertainment” rather than a representation/reduction of black men to running, shooting, and bleeding bodies. However, Moore does not sufficiently question his own complicity in the circulation and purported enjoyment of these images. A detachment from the pain of daily experiences of racialization is necessary for these scenes to incite laughs, revealing the privilege of Moore's ironic gaze—and that of his imagined audience. His humor is very different from Chris Rock's, for example, whose jokes often succeed precisely because they make his audiences very aware of their racial positioning. Rock's humor for the most part does not rest upon the privilege of irony, and that his jokes that do rely on a comfortable detachment from the subject matter usually are at the expense of women and queer men is revealing. On the other hand, Moore includes two other graphic montages of murdered bodies of color at the hands of repressive imperialist regimes scored to “What a Wonderful World” and a rousing German opera, respectively; and he includes a highly reductive, inaccurate, and flippant cartoon made by the creators of South Park that attempts to present the history of racism in the United States. These scenes abide by a white liberal TV aesthetic that subsumes societal ills to the higher imperative of a good laugh. Moore's description of the film's comedic value as far outweighing its depressing commentary on American racism is supported by his own praise of his film as: “the kind of movie I like to see. It's funny, poignant and interesting, your perfect Saturday night out,"13 all but solidifying the comfortable position of privilege he imagines himself and his audience to have in relationship to racist violence. Moore's focus is revealed as a critique of the US mass media at the expense of its victims.
Following the above montage depicting graphic violence and black men, Moore cuts to a white male county attorney in Michigan who states that the white suburban areas in his district have more incidents of gun violence than the black, urban areas. While the attorney's evidence is crucial in disputing the myth of black men as prone to criminality (indeed, one misguided reviewer takes Moore to task for not concluding along with Charlton Heston in the film's closing segment that “mixed ethnicity” is the root of the violence in the United States)14, Moore denies speaking subjectivity to black men at a crucial moment in his narrative. Instead, he opts for a white man's opinion, and this absence undermines the effectiveness of his anti-racist critique. I would argue that Moore's whites-only discussion of the roots and effects of racism has been so widely received as an acceptable methodology because white liberals imagine, and indeed are encouraged by the film to imagine themselves as having authority over racism (and over people of color more generally).
In short, the limitations of the white liberal conception of race are that it positions racism as intentional and therefore easily identifiable and punishable as the action of an individual. US Constitutional law, for example, has defined racism as “a purposeful device to discriminate” since the Supreme Court case of Washington v Davis in 1976, something quite different from a structural oppression denying equal wages, public space, education, and health care that operates regardless of individual intention. A more radical critique of racism, for example, would find a white woman locking her car doors when a black male pedestrian approaches as a significant act of racism, regardless of whether or not the woman was conscious of her motives. In the view of what constitutes racism that I endorse, what matters is not only a deliberate choice to discriminate, but more often an ignorance of how one's actions and society are organized along racial lines and the lack of acknowledgment of the privileges this bestows upon white US residents. It is precisely Moore's production of knowledge about racism in which people of color are entirely absent as speaking subjects and his self and audience are free from any need to think critically about their own perpetuation of the racism endemic to US culture that renders his film complicit with the racism he attempts to deconstruct.
Further evidence of Moore's troubling representation of racism as a problem best understood and managed by whites appears in the two subsequent scenes, both interviews with white men about the problems with the media's representation of men of color. Moore accompanies Barry Glassner, the white author of The Culture of Fear, for a walk through South Central Los Angeles. Moore's ostensible goal is to reveal South Central (to viewers Moore perhaps imagines as most likely not having first-hand knowledge of South Central) as a pleasant neighborhood that poses no threat to two white men on an afternoon stroll, despite its frequent appearance in news media reports as inescapably dangerous. Yet Moore does not interview a single resident of the neighborhood, a move that would directly counteract the overrepresentation of men of color in violent scenes within his own film, and locate South Central as a subject (rather than a distant locale constructed by white professional opinion in the discursive regimes of the media, law enforcement, Glassner's social science, and Moore's own film). Rather, Moore follows the TV crews and cops who soon assemble on the street corner where they are apprehending local residents. In a move that explicitly locates Moore and the viewer as fundamentally outside of the neighborhood, despite Moore's and the camera's physical location within it, Moore asks a white cop about what he's doing and the viewer's eye joins that of Moore and the cop in a long pan to the distance, where several phenotypically black men are gathered. This is the only time the camera brings the residents of South Central LA to the viewer, via the gaze of a policeman in a neighborhood notorious for the police's brutal repression of its residents. Thus, South Central LA is treated with similarly loaded power dynamics to which the West, in Said's view, treats the Orient and its inhabitants. Like Orientalist writers, academics, and politicians, Moore denies subjectivity to the neighborhood's residents, and the geopolitical space the neighborhood represents is “produced and exists in an uneven exchange with various kinds of power.”15
Even when Moore attempts to localize issues of race in a neighborhood severely impacted by the media's portrayal of blacks and Latinas/os as criminal, he opts instead to tell the cops and reporters that he finds the pursuit of pollution (a much safer white liberal territory, to be sure) to be a more pressing issue than the crime they are currently chasing. He aligns himself with two agents of paternal state and corporate oppression, and all three unite in the task of containing and representing the neighborhood and turning it into a spectacle for the consumption of Moore's constructed audience. This self-location with the white professionals whose job it is to criminalize and sensationalize the residents of South Central places Moore solidly within a hegemonic project that finds the opinions of outside experts to stand in for the representation of people of color themselves. Furthermore, when taken with Moore's subsequent pitching of a show entitled “Corporate Cops” that hunts down corporate criminals, Moore himself seems to be acting the role of a cop tracking down pollution. This self-positioning with the state, or even of replacing the state with his own surveillance, reinforces that the Americans who matter to Moore are those who possess and enforce political power. It further constructs the residents of South Central as shadowy, underground figures who serve only to solidify the authority of white liberal hegemony.
While Moore's often brilliant interrogation of people in power via sarcastic, ironic humor has made for excellent television in Moore's two syndicated series, TV Nation and True Lies, the extension of this TV aesthetic to issues of race and racism undermines Moore's ability to deconstruct racism, for it aligns Moore with the institutions that perpetuate it. When Bowling for Columbine turns to the white male former producer of the TV show Cops, the clip strikingly opens with his declaration: “I think if you look up liberal in the dictionary, it has my picture.” This segue seems to signal that Moore will explore why the producer does not see producing a racist television show as a contradiction of his professed liberalism, potentially questioning the centrality of racism in the white liberal agenda. Moore has an opening to see racism as a structural oppression with deep resonance in every aspect of US society, including within liberal discourse, but instead he drops this point. And once more, Moore does not seem sufficiently concerned with his own complicity in the false representation of men of color as dangerous criminals—again, racism is usually unintentional—for he includes another lengthy collage sequence of African-American and Latino men in handcuffs, firing guns, being frisked by the police, with nightsticks in their backs, running from the police, etc. While he criticizes the former producer of Cops for capitalizing on these images, the sequence's status as one of the few moments that black and Latino men appear in Bowling for Columbine renders Moore's critique insufficient and Moore appears thoroughly undisturbed with how he puts these scenes in the service of his own privileged irony.
At other moments we see Michael Moore, whose overbearing presence within the film has been criticized by many reviewers, enacting a paternal authority that simultaneously contains and speaks for people of color. In one of the two interviews with a person of color in the US (he interviews one African-American man across the Canadian border), Moore speaks with the African-American principal of the school in Flint, Michigan where a six-year-old was shot by her classmate. When the principal breaks down crying, we see Moore pat her on the shoulder, and offer her stiff and slightly awkward words of comfort as he turns his and her backs to the still-rolling camera. Moore's on-camera role is as protector, as guardian of a crying black woman permitting the expression of her grief while simultaneously containing and managing it (compare this scene to the silence with which Moore greets a white male security professional who breaks into tears earlier in the film). His actions recall some of the more insidious functions of white liberalism as endlessly offering manifestations of guilt and apology to African-Americans, rather than following radical black suggestions for structural change. Moore's explanation of his decision not to edit out the scene (along with the 198 hours of footage he scrapped) reveals his self-conscious location as paternal white apologist: “because race plays such a strong part in this film, I don't think it's such a bad thing to see a white guy offering comfort to a black woman in the United States of America.”16
In addition to employing a rhetorical strategy that locates Moore and racism in a similar relationship to the West's position via the “Orient,” Bowling for Columbine also contains the explicit racism that Said describes as a crucial element of Orientalism. While this is not the place to fully address the South Park-style cartoon that presents a history of US race relations alongside a narrative of gun ownership, I will suffice to mention the cartoon's racist caricature of slaves as innocent, passive flower-bearing children prior to the acquisition of “the white man's” guns, and the equally problematic claim that the Pilgrims killed off all the indigenous people and then imported Africans because they were “too lazy to work.” While I do not expect Moore to present a thorough academic analysis of the centrality of race-based mass murder and slave labor to the creation and governing of the United States up to the present, the above representations contain egregious reductions and fallacies that deploy an explicit racism that always already constructs African- Americans and native peoples as irreducibly Other. Once again, that the intention of the scenes is to make people laugh and question racism does not make these stock racist drawings and narratives of the childlike simplicity of natives and blacks acceptable as an anti-racist strategy. If we are to take seriously Moore's comment that he included issues of race in the film in part because “we will be judged by how we treat the least among us,”17 then we can perhaps at least congratulate Moore on effectively conveying who exactly he considers “the least” to be.
Perhaps this privileging of white liberal subjects is no more shockingly evident than in the film's final moments, when Moore reductively finds the true victims of gun violence in the United States today to be effectively symbolized by the photograph of a little white girl left on Charlton Heston's doorstep. It is with the (perhaps naïve) expectation that white liberalism will come to adequately address its structural reliance on racism that I place such censure on Bowling for Columbine and on the audience it constructs. Perhaps, however, Moore's presentation at the Academy Awards last March, in which he launched an incisive critique of the war in Iraq that got him hauled off stage, reveals a more realistic view. While the Academy is apparently comfortable with awarding this “radical” film the Best Documentary prize, neither its audience nor its promoters seem to have any ears for a critique of racism, hegemonic politics, and empire. While it is unfair to hold an author accountable for the readings others make of his or her work, one cannot help but think that the Academy found the biting critique of US culture in Bowling for Columbine properly tempered by its privileging of white liberals as the only Americans who matter •
Kyla Schuller is a Ph.D. student in UC San Diego's Literature Department and lives around the corner from a cosmetic surgeon's office with oil paintings of plastic surgery on its lobby walls. Lest this sound creepy enough, be advised of the details: the surgeon's daughter painted scenes of her father operating on her face.
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