Despairing for Columbine
09.06.03

First of all, apologies for the site being down over the last few days; I'm not sure what happened there. Still, at least there's plenty of new stuff to enjoy while you're supposed to be working, eh?


My somewhat trite review of Bowling for Columbine, whose brevity was in part motivated largely by the extortionate expense of the internet cafe, seems suddenly grossly inadequate as I peruse this week's Mail and Guardian over a breakfast pancake. True, to an extent the movie is in itself a fairly pointless piece of lefty propaganda with no real thrust and a liberal (no pun intended) dose of White Guilt but the scathing sideswipe on the lack of "answers", as dished out in its review, seems also to miss the point. Moore's film is, and I think I have to say this, indicative of my own worst fears for my generation. Everybody gets excited about the fast food, MTV generation, to the point where voicing concern has become as cliche as last week's soft drinks. However, while it is easy to bemoan these rotting plinths, I don't think anybody is really considering how deep the cracks in the pillars really run. Moore has been hailed as a groundbreaking investigator, leaving no stone unturned and making his mark - and yet, frankly, his methods, and the presentation therof, seem almost childish when compared to the product of the news channels he attempts to blame for the gun culture in America. Interviewing "culpable" fat cats as they leave for important meetings is a sure-fire way to make them look bad; catch anyone in a hurry and they'll be brusque and dismissive. As Moore watches his prey ride off in a suitably black people carrier, he plaintively carries on asking somewhat garbled questions with plenty of emotive words ("mother.. work.. abandoned") to the empty street. On the one hand, it's a commendable effort to put such a documentary together on a minimal budget; on the other, who the hell is going to get a straight answer to difficult questions when dressed in a lumberjack shirt and a peaked cap?

Moore's credibility is already at rock-bottom when he "pointedly" leans a photocopied photo of a school shooting victim against the wall of Charleton Heston's garage but the almost comical fashion in which it doesn't have the rigidity to stay upright only serves to give one pause to think: "What on Earth is this actually acheiving?" Moore, clearly a product of the society we all complain so much about, has gone so far left of professionalism that he's not stripping his movie to the bare bones, he's floundering in a quagmire of poorly-expressed sensationalism. His publicity stunt, "returning the K-Mart bullets still inside the bodies of two Columbine students" is somewhat better executed, even if it takes a second visit (accompanied by the local news crews) to get a result. One feels deeply sorry for the two students hanging around at reception for six hours waiting for representatives who never show up, and then outraged that Moore must resort to using the very medium he purports to lambast in order to get his point across.

It is fair to say that using the enemy's weapon against himself has a certain Zen-like poetry to it, but the point he misses completely is that the press aren't there out of concern, they are there for the lemon juice in the eye ten second tragedy of the story. The store, equally, isn't withdrawing the sale of bullets out of any motive other than to stop a PR disaster. Guaranteed, some Clintonesque rewording will put the ammunition, or similar, back on the shelves within a month. And what of the withdrawal anyway? Moore himself admits that gun ownership and ease of purchase of live rounds has nothing to do with the murder rate, as he discovers in Canada. The lack of focus and the patronising farce of three t-shirted guys propping each other up in the K-Mart HQ foyer is starkly indicative of the lack of credibility of the entire project.

I wouldn't, perhaps, have such a bee in my bonnet if it wasn't a pressing issue in South Africa. Since I've been in Cape Town I have had numerous moments of sadness over quite ordinary things. Perhaps the worst was the "Adult Services" column in the Cape Argus classifieds. Covering an entire page, the most notable theme is the lack of racial definition; the only personal information given is hair colour. In the twenty-first century, female empowerment and the abolishment of racism appears to be put into practice with the legalisation of prostitution and a total denial of ethnicity. In the corner is a large advert asking, "Are you happy with your career direction?" I could have cried.

This cheapening of centuries of personal advancement is perhaps the biggest single reason I feel like a fraud in SA. On the one hand I urge friends to tough out university or get involved with community education projects, and on the other I see those who have had all that civilisation has to offer singing the praises of a beardy slob with a camcorder. It appears sometimes that, in our eagerness to reject all that is adult, we are throwing away some genuinely valuable lessons in professionalism. Surely Moore would not have had such a hard time making an appointment in a more orthodox way than over the gate intercom at Heston's house? Why didn't he pause for five minutes to mount the dead girl's photograph on card? Satirist Chris Morris (and I don't wish to be making a transatlantic contrast here, merely a specific one) is so professional he scores interviews with people who won't appear on the BBC - and he's taking the mickey. Moore's indignant amateurism only serves to make him as risible as those he attempts to lambast. The sad flaw, however, is that because his standpoint is compatible with the kneejerk anti-establishment feeling of young people, they rally behind him and call him a model of fearless, objective commentary.

It may be very well to dismiss this as something restricted to children, but the malaise is a generational one; as the years go by so does the rot spread up the ranks of age. The Internet, supposedly the most open and derestricted medium for information ever, is actually the most right-wing, close-minded forum for the most right-wing, close-minded generation ever. Sites like Worth1000 have actually regressed about 50 years and taken to censoring entire conversations on their dicussion board because the site convenors didn't like what was said. Netizens are so desperate to get along with everyone that topical issues are almost never discussed anyway for fear of upsetting others. When they are brought up, most are in agreement and slip back into lawyer jokes. The free exchange of lawyer jokes - for this Bell invented the telephone?

Additionally, there is a total disrespect for expertise and the hard work backing up the media we use. We're a generation of users; the mailbag for any webmaster will testify that very few have any inkling of what really goes on behind the scenes of a website. Friends of mine email saying, "I was just trying to figure out how your admin side works" - assuming that the browser display is somehow going to tell you something about the inner workings. It is no exaggeration to equate the relevance the HTML output of this diary shows to the workings of the scripts with the relevance of a car's colour to the workings of its engine. We are so used to computers doing the thinking for us that we assume that it's all laid on to the extent that we don't appreciate what goes on backstage in almost anything we use. A cellphone "expert" to somebody my age is someone who can save a number, then the name rather than vice versa. Never mind that GSM used to be called the Great Software Monster in its infancy. Never mind the complexities of packet switching and cell-to-cell transfer and digital encoding! What's important is that your phone plays the right tunes, and if you can implement that, well you're practically an expert. Oh, and it isn't a personal thing, it's a generational thing. Client of mine over thirty will ask respectful questions like, "is it a problem to have th title in blue instead of black?" and clients under thirty will say, "let's bung a search box in, for fun."

And so it goes with Moore; because he's seen plenty of effortless 60 minutes reporters, he reckons he can do the same only without the research or the script. And yes, I did see the statistics he used, but without an indication of the population size, comparing total murders per annum is pretty meaninless, I'm afraid. Hey, a per capita figure would be even better, but unfortunately Moore seems to have forgotten the URL of a good online calculator. Presenting such meaningless crap is insulting and it undermines whatever residual credibility he may have.

Back in Cape Town, I gave a lift to a white guy on my way home last night. We chatted briefly about the decline of Muizenburg; a place where Agatha Christie used to surf in her youth but now a burnt-out decaying shell. "Muzie has gone," he said, "over to the darkies." For a moment I thought he meant the 'dark ages' but then I realised what he did mean. I laughed; the poor sod was no older than me and he still doesn't get it, ten years after the end of apartheid. It's easy to see the fault in that comment but there are degrees of blindness and frankly I don't think many middle-aged liberals are doing much better.

Today I picked up the Mail and Guardian and had a good chuckle at Madam and Eve reporting that Colin Powell didn't say anything about "foreign weapons of mass destruction" but rather spoke of "foreign weapons of maths destruction" - he ran over a calculator with his BMW. Yes, yes, have a good laugh at the clowns in the White House. For heaven's sake don't pause long enough to think that perhaps a lot more goes on in there than the bigoted decision making that is the only part reported in the papers. On the next page is a humorous article expounding the benefits of hosting a Grand Prix in Cape Town. The only downsides, remarks the young, scrubbed, white, male author, would be Schumacher being overtaken on the chicane by an overladen taxi with "Dream Wagon" on the side, and parking beggars not listening to his protests that he's only stopping for 7.2 seconds and doesn't think R5 is a reasonable tip. Hilarious! As long as you yourself are cruising around town in a Golf IV and have a hot shower waiting for you in the morning. This guy reckons the beggars are there for fun, doesn't he? He's happy for taxis to be dangerous as long as he doesn't have to ride one, and even happier to laugh at the misfortune of others over his veal steak and Paarl wine. South African whites are very adept at laughing tentatively at these things and yet they refuse to accept any responsibility for them. Isn't it hilarious that maids wear silly clothes? I bet it's their culture or something. It couldn't possibly be because they aren't paid enough, could it? R1,500 has been set as the minimum monthly wage for a domestic servant in CT and many are outraged. The madams, that is. These are people who couldn't survive on less than 5 grand a month - and I mean survive - who have some kind of very convenient misconception that black people simply don't need as much money. There are mythical get-out-clause township shops that sell enough for a family of sixteen to get by, for roughly a tenth of what it costs in white suburbia. The only problem is.. they don't really exist.

Similarly, and I appreciate this is a rambling load of crap that violates my own complaint by not being planned, there is a complacency about the "what a shame" attitude of Naomi Klein and her ardent middle-class parent supporters. It's great fun to complain about the ills of the world and the poor Africans but what, as I have asked before, is this information acheiving? Nothing. Why? Because we don't have an alternative answer. Michael Moore lambasts news companies but can't actually do any better because he leans as far towards unprofessionalism as they do towards panic. The Internet isn't any better than the real world because the people on it haven't actually learned anything from the organisation of the world around them; they are trying to do it all from scratch and making the same mistakes all over again. Additionally, they are relying on systems of whose inner workings they have no concept, meaning that when things go wrong they have no idea what to do. Young people knock politics but because everyone knows that actually running a country would be way beyond them, they will never be listened to. White South Africans think the plight of the poor is terrible but they have no compulsion to change things because they are so very comfortable.

So, what's my answer? Botswana. Transparent government with a conscience, good education, enough infrastructure that people have a good quality of life without being spoiled into being significant polluters and, as will be proven in a fortnight or so, a better football team than Swaziland. And frankly, if you argue with that, I'll delete your comments from the discussion board. If I can work out how from the colour of the buttons..

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