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Heston, Obama, and Race in America

I saw Michael Moore’s 2002 “documentary” Bowling for Columbine in a packed movie theater on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. In the movie’s most painful sequence, Moore badgers the aged and ailing Charlton Heston about gun violence in America. Watching the impact of Moore’s disingenuous sucker punch criticisms on Heston’s face was enough to make me turn away from the screen. But not so my right-thinking co-audience members.

At one point in the action, however, this thoughtful New York City bunch decided they had had enough. After Moore makes his case against America and her historic bloodlust, Heston tries to wind down the interview: “Well, it’s an interesting point, which can be explored and you’re good to explore it at great lengths, but I think that’s about all I have to say on it.”

Not satisfied, Moore presses on:”You don’t have any opinion, though, as to why that is, that we are the unique country,the only country, that does this, that kills each other on this level, with guns?”

Heston’s response: “Well, we have, probably, more mixed ethnicity than other countries, some other countries.”

The collective gasp of the audience nearly robbed the theater of air. It was the kind of animated disgust that trailed on in snickers and hisses for half a minute, which is why most of them probably missed what followed.

Moore: You think it’s an ethnic thing?

Heston: No, I don’t. It’s…I wouldn’t go so far as to say that. We had enough problems with civil rights in the beginning.

For a man under that kind of fire, ill or not, he made, I think, an excellent double-point. A) America’s unique ethnic history is a factor in violent crime, but B) to label it an “ethnic thing” is to distort the issue and risk the health of the discussion.

Someone will have to tell me how that’s less honorable than the sentiment of these words taken from Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech:

We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.

When Charlton Heston said that the history of race in the U.S. is a factor in analyzing some of America’s domestic conflicts, liberal Americans hissed him into oblivion. When Obama said it, he was heralded as a bold speaker of truths willing to level with Americans like adults.

There is, however, a telling difference between the sentiments of the two men. Charlton Heston wanted to drop the subject, so that his words wouldn’t be used to “tackle race only as spectacle,” as Obama put it. Obama himself, however, did in fact go on to “recite here the history of racial injustice in this country,” in order to create a diversion that distracted people from the jam he was in.

In any case, the movie manipulation worked and Charlton Heston—a genuine civil rights activist—was portrayed as a racist by Michael Moore—the man who said that if more blacks had been on the hijacked planes, the 9/11 attacks would have been thwarted. As for Obama, Moore should put the question to him. The anti-Americanism in his church: “You think it’s an ethnic thing?”



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