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Tuesday, November 05, 2002

What's the Question?

American politicians are very good at coming up with answers. Our current president has been on a whistle stop tour of the country supporting Republican candidates on the ballot for the election today. His answer to everything is to invade Iraq. The problem with our president is that he doesn’t know the question. He hasn’t listened to the country when it has posed questions.

We haven’t asked our political leaders to be philosophers. Philosophers ask questions. We see people who ask questions as being indecisive, wishy washy or just plain cowardly. We seem to view those who constantly give out answers as being the opposite of indecisive, we see them as leaders, we see them as strong. The problem, as I see it, is that the absence of philosophy is religion. Religion doesn’t ask questions, it spews forth answers. Perhaps we should seek political leaders who have more in common with philosophers than priests.

Asking questions is at the heart of the brilliant new film by Michael Moore, Bowling for Columbine. The main question the film asks is why we Americans kill one another at such an alarming rate. He asks many questions. Critics of the movie point out that he doesn’t provide any answers. Again with the answers thing!

Bowling for Columbine is steered by the questions it raises. At one point Moore travels to Canada to try to find out why Canadians are less homicidal than their neighbors to the south. He interviews three teenagers that he catches skipping school. One of the film’s finest moments occurs when he comes to the subject of Canada’s universal health care system. When he asks the kids if they think national health care for everyone is a good idea, they all agree that it is. When he asks them why, the young girl he is interviewing simply laughs at him, as if she found the question so ridiculous that it didn’t warrant a verbal response.

About as close as Moore comes to providing an answer for the senseless violence in the United States is the film’s suggestion that perhaps we are too preoccupied with fear to address the true problems of this nation. For decades we lived in constant fear of a third world nation called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. For the past year this nation has been practically paralyzed with fear because of an act of terrorism committed by a handful of fanatics. We are told that this nation cannot afford to provide health care for all of its citizens yet we have increased defense spending to the highest level in over forty years. I have a few questions of my own concerning what will make America a better place to live for its people. I don’t know the answers but I know it doesn’t entail invading Iraq.

Bowling for Columbine is not journalism. It is a work of art with more in common with the traditions of Dickens and Zola than the current trash being heaped upon us by Hollywood. I don't think that most of what we think of as literature is much better that the vapid cinema that surrounds us. Very few recent American novelists have bothered to explore our society to discover what questions we should be asking ourselves. When was the last time that a film or a novel provoked a serious dialogue? Moore's film will have viewers leaving the theaters and asking many questions of their own. I think that everyone who sees this movie will have a completely new outlook on television news. It will make everyone aware of how violence has been exploited to secure viewership. Art that doesn't provoke questions is pretty frivolous in my opinion. This isn't a frivolous movie.

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