[Marxism] A critical look at Michael Moore

Louis Proyect 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 
became radicals.

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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