In late summer 2000, as the presidential campaign headed into the homestretch, Alfred A. Knopf released respected Emory University historian Michael Bellesiles’ “Arming America,” and the response from the cultural establishment was pure gush.
Garry Wills’ 2000-word review in the New York Times nicely captures the establishment embrace of Bellesiles’ thesis. Although guns are a “holy object” in American mythology, writes the happily re-educated Wills, “they were barely in existence” before the Civil War. Those few guns that did exist – here he quotes Bellesiles – “were state-controlled.” The joy in Wills’ review is unmistakable.
In April 2001, Bellesiles capped his season of honors by winning Columbia University’s highly coveted Bancroft Prize for American history. But while the rest of the history world cheered, graduate student Clayton Cramer and other “gun nuts” busied themselves checking facts. “I could flip his book open at random and find a significant error,” says Cramer. As Cramer notes wryly, “It took me 12 hours of hunting before I found a citation that was completely correct.” The truth, as Cramer knew, was exactly the opposite of Bellesiles’ thesis: Guns were widespread in the early America, highly valued and not state-controlled.
A decade earlier, Bellesiles would likely have gotten away with his inventions. But determined individuals like Cramer, empowered by the Internet, exposed his deceits to the point where historians could no longer ignore them. When finally pressed for his notes by Emory University, Bellesiles claimed they had been lost in a campus flood. Emory wasn’t buying. In October 2002, the university accepted his resignation. In December 2002, Columbia University withdrew the Bancroft Award. In January 2003, Knopf cancelled Bellesiles’ contract.
If Bellesiles’ career was moribund, his essential message was alive, well and about to saturate the culture. Filmmaker Michael Moore was spreading Bellesiles’ larger anti-gun, anti-American message to a much wider audience, and he was doing so, if possible, even more dishonestly. The vehicle was Moore’s new film, “Bowling for Columbine.” It had received a special prize and a standing ovation at Cannes and was on its way to mega sales and Oscar glory.
An animated section of “Bowling” nicely distills the multicultural take on American gun ownership into a toxic little brew. Fleeing Europe out of fear, America’s early settlers meet the cartoon’s cute Indians. Alas, they “get scared all over again” and “killed them all.” Next, the settlers “started killing the British so they could be free.” Along the way, they enslave Africans, which makes America “the richest country in the world.” Slave uprisings drive Americans to a new level of fear, and Samuel Colt invents the revolver “just in the nick of time.”
After the Civil War, the NRA is founded in the same year the Ku Klux Klan is declared illegal. “Just a coincidence?” asks Moore. The viewer is led to believe exactly the opposite. By advocating “responsible gun ownership,” the NRA somehow facilitates the lynching of blacks in the south for the next century.
Moore counts on the ignorance of his audience to enable him to rewrite history as he pleases. Yes, the National Rifle Association was formed in 1871 the same year that President Ulysses S. Grant signed the federal Ku Klux Klan Act into law. Left unsaid, however, is that the NRA was created by an act of the New York state Legislature at the request of a pair of former Union officers. After the Klan-busting Grant left the White House, the NRA elected him president. From the beginning, the NRA contested the gun-control laws that denied guns to blacks as they do to this day.
In a classic Moore touch, the film shows a 1988 George Bush ad that attacked Michael Dukakis for allowing convicted murderers weekend leave. The “Bowling” version of the ad features the photo of Willie Horton and the caption, “Willie Horton released. Then kills again.” A sloppy propagandist, Moore inserted the caption into the ad unaware that Horton did not kill upon his infamous weekend leave. He merely raped and assaulted. Nor did the George Bush ad show or name Willie Horton.
Moore even tars NRA President Charlton Heston with the implied charge of racism. It doesn’t matter to Moore that Heston was leading civil-rights marches with Martin Luther King when such activities could actually hurt an actor’s career, or that he was personally responsible for breaking the interracial romance barrier on screen.
The Heston that the viewer meets is stunningly callous. He comes to Denver just 10 days after the killings at nearby Columbine High School and holds “a large pro-gun rally for the National Rifle Association.” There, brandishing a musket, he shouts, “I have only five words for you: ‘from my cold, dead hands.’” When a 6-year-old girl is shot in Moore’s hometown of Flint, Mich., Heston exploits her death as well. Says Moore, narrating the movie, “Just as he did after the Columbine shooting, Charlton Heston showed up in Flint to have a big pro-gun rally.”
What the viewer does not learn is that the annual NRA convention had been scheduled years in advance for Denver and that by law it could not be cancelled, even after the shooting at Columbine. The NRA did, however, cancel all events other than its mandatory members’ voting. By cobbling together five different parts of Heston’s Denver speech and adding the “cold, dead hands” section from a speech given in North Carolina, Moore turns Heston’s conciliatory address in Denver to a provocative call to arms.
As to Flint, Heston passed through there as he did many other cities in battleground states a full eight months after the killing of the little girl. This was not a pro-gun rally, but a get-out-the-vote drive a month before the 2000 presidential election. Moore himself was there hustling votes for Ralph Nader. Al Gore was there at the same time.
Although most serious reviewers chastise Moore for what A.O. Scott of the New York Times calls his “slippery logic, tendentious grandstanding and outright demagoguery,” few, if any, challenge the dishonest foundation on which the logic is built. This is the multicultural logic that informs his animated “brief history” of America. Conditioned to believe that history themselves, critics fail to see the corrosive nature of his dissembling and dismiss it as mere mischief from a “cheerful rabble-rouser.”
Indeed, few movies have been as widely honored as “Bowling.” Not only did it win an Oscar for best “documentary” it also received top honors at a score or more of film festivals from Chicago to Sao Paolo. Its success prompted Moore to make “Fahrenheit 9-11,” an even more subversive and deceitful look at America, released in the middle of a war.
“To describe this film as dishonest and demagogic would almost be to promote those terms to the level of respectability,” writes Christopher Hitchens of “Fahrenheit 9-11.” His, however, was a voice in the wilderness. In full collaborative spirit, the cultural establishment cheered “Fahrenheit” even more enthusiastically than it did “Bowling.” In an election year, it seemed so very useful.
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