[Marxism] A critical look at Michael Moore
lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Jul 26 17:26:38 MDT 2004
In some ways, Michael Moore's rise to fame and fortune is a classic
Horatio Alger story. Starting out as the son of a General Motors
assembly line worker who lived in blue-collar Flint, Michigan, Moore now
sits at the top of the mountain. With his face on the cover of Time
Magazine and ticket sales for "Fahrenheit 9/11" breaking all sorts of
records, one can say that he has really made it. Since this meteoric
rise has been the subject of some debate on the left, we are obligated
to come to terms with the Michael Moore phenomenon. Whatever one says
about Moore, he is like the proverbial 800 pound gorilla sitting in the
doorway demanding our attention: too big to be ignored--both
figuratively and literally.
From a lengthy and invaluable New Yorker Magazine profile that ran in
the Feb. 16, 2004 issue
(http://www.newyorker.com/fact/content/?040216fa_fact7), we learn that
Moore was born in 1954, educated in a Catholic school and enjoyed a
happy and conventional childhood. Like so many people a little too young
to have participated directly in the 1960s revolt, he was still affected
by lingering cultural and political themes that persisted into the late
1970s at least. Affecting the shaggy look of the "hippies", Moore
launched a radio show called "Radio Free Flint" and participated in
anti-nuclear rallies. His next step was to publish an "underground"
newspaper called the Flint Voice. One contributor was an assembly-line
worker named Ben Hamper who went on to write a much-acclaimed memoir
titled "Rivethead". Hamper and Moore eventually had a falling out that
can only be understood in terms of the latter's transformation into a
big-time entrepreneur on the left and the abuse of power that tends to
go with it. When Hamper's complaints about Moore's imperiousness were
brought up in a May 23, 2004 Guardian interview, the film-maker
attributed them to alcohol and drug abuse.
In 1986, Moore was invited to edit Mother Jones magazine, a magazine
catering to Birkenstock-wearing, Sierra Club-donating, brie-eating
liberals. Before the year was up, Moore was fired by Adam Hochschild,
the magazine's publisher who was left a fortune by his father. He was
the owner of American Metals, a mining company that did business in
Zambia. To Moore's ever-lasting credit, he refused to print an article
by Paul Berman, a self-styled anarchist who used to attack the FSLN from
the pages of the Village Voice, a New York "alternative" weekly. As
Alexander Cockburn put it in a Nation Magazine article, "It turned out
that the working-class boy from Flint had ideas of his own. This was
never the game plan of the rich boy in San Francisco."
A settlement from Mother Jones over wrongful firing and proceeds from
the sale of his house in Flint, allowed Moore to make "Roger and Me", a
film that was successful beyond his wildest imagination. Originally
expecting to show it in church basements for movement groups, he found
that it was considered to be a highly marketable item by the Disney
corporation, the same company that refused to market "Fahrenheit 9/11"
for fear of alienating the Bush administration. Moore instead went with
Warner Brothers who paid him three million dollars, an unprecedented sum
for a documentary.
It is no surprise that they would pay top dollar for the film, since
Moore was and is a consummate entertainer. Although there's hardly been
any attention paid to this in the vast amount of literature around
Michael Moore, it seems obvious to me that he has been strongly
influenced by the early David Letterman, another affable Midwesterner
who made a career out of thumbing his nose at the establishment. In
Letterman's case, the jokes were always fairly harmless--usually having
something to do with the cluelessness of NBC executives. (When comic
strip author and radical Harvey Pekar attacked parent company GE's
dangerous nuclear plants and Hudson River pollution on Letterman's show,
he was never invited back.)
What Moore shares with Letterman is an affinity for college pranks
raised to the level of art. For example, Letterman was fond of blaring
goofy messages to bemused suburbanites while driving around in a
sound-truck. Moore pulls the same stunt in "Fahrenheit 9/11", in this
instance using an ice-cream truck loudspeaker to invite members of
Congress to read the Patriot Act, something they evidently voted in
favor of without having read in advance.
From the New Yorker profile, we discover that Letterman's ex-girlfriend
(and source of much of his distinctive wit) Merrill Markoe worked on
Moore's short-lived “TV Nation” show. Another Letterman alumnus who
worked on the show was Randy Cohen who invented the “monkey cam”--a
Letterman show stunt involving a monkey who ran around the studio with a
camera strapped to his back. If you mix this sort of irreverence with
left-leaning politics, you end up with a formula for success. Key to all
this, needless to say, is Moore's on-camera persona which is about as
distinctive in popular culture as Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp or
Woody Allen's neurotic Jewish New Yorker.
Turning now to the question of Moore's politics, there's no better
source for this than a Nov. 17, 1997 article he wrote for the Nation
Magazine, posing the question "Is the Left Nuts?" In it, he complains
that the left ignores anything that "really matters to the American
public." He is also convinced that "there's a good number of you who are
simply addicted to listening to yourselves talk and talk and talk-MUMIA!
PACIFICA! CUBA! ENOUGH ALREADY!" Against this kind of purist
isolationism, Moore urges an orientation to the "bus driver at the
airport who told me he's been cut back to a thirty-hour week so the
airport commission won't have to pay the health insurance for his
asthmatic daughter" or the woman at Sears who sells blouses by day and
then waitresses at Denny's from 8 PM. to midnight". In other words, the
left should focus on economic issues that were always the stock-in-trade
of the Democratic Party and the trade union movement before things got
nuts in the 1960s.
This, of course, is a common complaint among others who are trying to
"fix" a dysfunctional left. In "Achieving Our Country," Richard Rorty,
the celebrated philosopher, wrote that the New Left forsook concerns
over health-care and unemployment in favor of protesting the war in
Vietnam and "cultural" issues such as abortion rights. In a newly
published best-seller titled "What's Wrong With Kansas," Thomas Frank
blames Democratic Party losses on the failure to put forward a populist
economic program and identifying itself with divisive "cultural" issues.
Key to all of these strategies is a belief that working people in the
USA (especially whites) will never be won over to gay rights or a fair
trial for Mumia. In an earlier epoch, socialists were never afraid to
push for such seemingly "peripheral" concerns. In "What is to Be Done,"
Lenin would appear to be exactly one of those leftists who Rorty, Frank
and Moore are complaining about. In giving an example of how socialists
should serve as a "tribune of the people," Lenin cites the German
Socialist Party that took up the right of artists to create works that
were considered "obscene." Moving forward to the 1960s, it is important
to recall that many of the blue-collar workers, such as Ben Hamper, that
came to Michael Moore's attention were cultural rebels before they
Perhaps the desire to idealize an American working class that has
stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting owes more to fantasy than
reality. In Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11", we are introduced to Lila
Lipscomb, a conservative white woman who flew the American flag every
day and who turned against the war after her son was killed in Iraq.
Although it goes by without comment in the film, she is married to a
black man. Before the "cultural" changes that shook up American society
in the 1960s, this would have practically been considered un-American.
Social progress is measured in many different ways and the left should
not be afraid to embrace it no matter how many feathers are ruffled.
Turning now to "Fahrenheit 9/11," the film that has effectively
catapulted him to a level of fame and success that is unparalleled in
left circles, we should say at the outset that the film is both a
failure and a success. It fails to put forward a coherent explanation of
why the USA is in Iraq. It successfully, however, drives a wedge between
the ordinary Americans he cares so much about and the government that is
killing their sons and daughters--as well as the Iraqis themselves.
Although Moore obviously made the film with the intention of removing
Bush from the White House--the ostensible reason we are in Iraq--it will
make it that much more difficult for Kerry to sustain the war effort. In
the final analysis, putting people like Lila Lipscomb and antiwar
veterans of the Iraq war on the big screen undermines support for the
war whether it is prosecuted by an inept Republican president or a more
adroit Democrat who will likely be more successful in broadening the
forces arrayed against the Iraqi people.
Turning to the film's analysis of why we are in Iraq, much of it hinges
on the analysis of Craig Unger's "House of Bush, House of Saud." Unger
is featured prominently in the film and a chapter of his book appears on
MichaelMoore.com. In Unger's view, the Saudis exercise an enormous
influence on U.S. foreign policy due to their sizable investment in the
American economy and their oil supplies. One nearly gets the impression
that the USA is a kind of colony in thrall to Saudi power. If they
pulled their money out of the country, the USA economy might collapse
like a house of cards.
To make things worse, the Bush family is supposedly very intimate with
the Saudi monarchs through their Carlyle Group business ties. This case
is made in Dan Briody's "The Iron Triangle: Inside the Secret World of
the Carlyle Group," also excerpted on Moore's website. Thus, the failure
to successfully prosecute a war on Osama bin-Laden is a function of a
secret relationship between the President of the USA and oil sheikhs.
This lament about wasting resources on Iraq that could have been better
utilized in Afghanistan is, of course, heard prominently in Democratic
Party circles, especially from former anti-terrorism czar Richard
Clarke. Obviously, Moore does not challenge the prevailing wisdom that
the USA has the right to invade a country in pursuit of such a dubious
mission. Missing entirely from "Fahrenheit 9/11" is a consideration of
what is fuelling Islamic radicalism and why it would resort to such
desperate measures such as flying airplanes into the WTC. The road to
world peace would seem to line in resolving such grievances.
Taking this one step further, it would require Moore to say something
about the occupation of Palestinian land, something that is bitterly
resented throughout the Arab and Islamic world. It would also require
him to say something about the ties between both the Republican and
Democratic Parties on one side and the Israeli government on the other.
Any criticisms of Israel half as sharp as his assault on Saudi princes
would clearly have condemned the film to inadequate distribution. In the
final analysis, Arabs are the one ethnic group that it is permissible to
demonize today without restraint.
Running like a blue thread throughout "Fahrenheit 9/11" and all of
Moore's films is a hope that the USA can once again return to the values
that made it great. In "Roger and Me," he urges GM to respect its
employees once again. In "Bowling for Columbine," he hopes that the
hatred that has infected American society and led to attacks by
rifle-toting youths on fellow students, can be purged from our system
and that we can be more like Canada, where gun ownership and a low
homicide rate go hand in hand.
The New Yorker profile provides some insights:
"Moore wishes that America would become more like other, gentler
countries--'a little bit of Norway, a little bit of Costa Rica,' as he
puts it. He believes that the government should regulate companies to
prevent them from making an excessive profit. If a company wants to move
a factory abroad after American workers have made it profitable, he
believes that the company should have to pay reparations to its former
employees, just as a husband whose wife has put him through medical
school is obliged to pay alimony if he leaves her."
Clearly, what is missing here is an understanding of why the USA has
become so committed to downsizing at home and wars abroad. This is not a
function of Evil Rulers as much as it is of a need to compete with rival
capitalist powers. Something of that message was conveyed in "Roger and
Me," but it is entirely dispensed with in "Fahrenheit 9/11." In order to
make a film that explained war and economic exploitation in systemic
terms, commercial considerations would have to be secondary. Who knows,
if Michael Moore someday achieves the wealth and power of Mel Gibson, he
might decide to make a film that went against conventional political
views as much as "The Passion" went against the religious establishment.
Considering the fact that Gibson had plans at one point to bankroll
"Fahrenheit 9/11," this does not seem so far-fetched. Moore's next
project will deal with the health-care crisis in the USA. One can only
hope that he zeros in on the corporate greed of the pharmaceutical
industry. That would be a useful metaphor for the crisis of the system
as a whole. Such hopes may not be in vain, for in the final analysis
Moore--despite all his flaws--is one of us.
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