MUST READ... The Perils of michael moore

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  1. 007
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    http://www.dissentmagazine.org/menutest/articles/sp03/mattson.htm


    The Perils of Michael Moore
    Political Criticism in an Age of Entertainment




    by Kevin Mattson

    This articles appears in the Spring 2003 issue of Dissent Magazine
    To visit Dissent's website, please visit www.dissentmagazine.org

    Michael Moore is probably America's most prominent leftist. People who have never read Dissent have probably seen Moore on prime-time television (Fox, NBC, or Bravo) or in a movie cineplex (Bowling for Columbine most recently) or maybe purchased one of his best-selling books. Moore has busted through, as the saying goes, reaching a broad audience about such crucial issues as increased use of prison labor; botched urban renewal schemes; the temping of the workforce; and problems of welfare, violence, and racism. He has brought these issues into Americans' living rooms, espousing a CIO-style politics of social justice for the twenty-first century. Donning his signature baseball cap and scruffy clothes, Moore plays up his working-class persona as he shuffles into the citadels of power-while the cameras roll-in order to expose the darker side of the American Dream.

    Moore's techniques are not new. He draws on a rich tradition of left-leaning political criticism. Think of Charlie Chaplin's tramp. Chaplin too was born poor, immersed himself in the cultural left of his time (Max Eastman was a close friend), and played the "forgotten man." Closer to Moore's own time, the New Left embraced "guerrilla theater" as a means of confronting power. Consider Abbie Hoffman and his Yippie brethren trying to levitate the Pentagon or throwing dollar bills onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange to mock capitalist greed. Add to Chaplin and Hoffman the news magazine tradition of Edward R. Murrow and 60 Minutes (muckraking brought to television), mix in a heavy dose of postmodern irony, and you've pretty much got Michael Moore.
    Moore has done something the left rarely does. He's made political criticism entertaining. And as polls show, Generation X and Y Americans get their news increasingly from entertainment shows-the hip irony of political jokes told on The Late Show with David Letterman and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Indeed, when Moore's TV Nation broadcast on NBC and Fox in 1994-1995, the demographic reports showed that a large number of the eighteen-to-thirty-four-year-old crowd was tuning in. Moore's success illustrates how young people are reached via satellite dishes and mega-mall bookstores rather than through cafés or union halls or small magazines. His merging of political criticism and entertainment tells us something about the state of the American left as it faces the media-saturated world of postmodern America.

    Evolution of a Working-Class Critic
    Moore got his start in "alternative" print media. Growing up in Flint, Michigan, he edited a small paper, the Flint Voice and then the Michigan Voice, which got him enough attention to land a job at Mother Jones. He moved to San Francisco, only to find himself embroiled in a series of disputes with fellow editors at the magazine. So Moore moved back to Flint just in time to witness the human dimension of "deindustrialization." He put aside print journalism for movies.
    The result was Roger and Me (1989), Moore's first feature-length documentary. Here he chronicled the wreckage wrought by General Motors as it shut down several plants in Flint. Moore filmed a number of evictions throughout the town and showed workers moving from well-paid union employment to minimum-wage jobs at places like Taco Bell. Most famously, Moore depicted a woman who turned to selling rabbits as either "Pets or Meat." He exposed the power of social class, interviewing wealthy Flint residents who, while playing golf at their country club, blamed workers for unemployment or hired unemployed factory workers as human statues for cocktail parties. He contrasted this with the populist rage of working-class people ranting about "fat cats." Yet while developing this concise morality play, Moore also embraced irony. He enjoyed depicting Flint's ridiculous race for urban renewal schemes, like the "Autoworld" theme park that flopped, and he ended the film by playing the Beach Boys' sweet song "Wouldn't It Be Nice" over scenes of dilapidated buildings in Flint.

    Moore himself rarely appears in Roger and Me-except when he frantically pursues an interview with Roger Smith, CEO of General Motors. The fact that he never gets Smith to confront the problems of Flint (Smith refuses to visit Flint with Moore) suggests the state of the left during the late 1980s-angry and vocal but lacking political force. Moore gave voice to Reagan-era discontents, and his film did surprisingly well (winning prizes at numerous festivals). It also helped codify the features of Moore's future career: his use of visual imagery to dissect corporate America, confrontation as a means to get the attention of the powerful, and the honing of a working-class heroic persona trying to speak truth to power.

    Success was his. Four years later, Moore made prime-time television with TV Nation, which first aired as a summer replacement series on NBC, then moved to Fox, and in the end won an Emmy for "Best Informational Series" in 1994 (though it was not renewed). In TV Nation, Moore's visage came front and center, his baseball cap, coat, and microphone symbolizing his readiness to go out into the cold world and confront corporate malfeasance. He poured his growing income into a feature-length fictional film, Canadian Bacon (1995), starring John Candy and Alan Alda. He also returned to print in Downsize This! (1997), a book that made it onto the best-seller lists, and then used his book tour as the basis for another documentary film, The Big One (1998). He then spun off TV Nation into the series The Awful Truth for the Bravo Channel. When that show wound down, he wrote Stupid White Men (2002), which after controversial wrangling with his publisher, went to the top of the best-seller list. Meanwhile, Bowling For Columbine (2002) hit the cineplexes, drawing large audiences.

    The Politics of Confrontation
    If Moore is known for anything, it is for walking into corporate offices, hunting down CEOs, and asking them to justify some business abuse -layoffs, say, or pollution. Confrontation seems to suit him, especially the sort that prompts humor. In one episode of The Awful Truth, he created a "Voice Box Chorus" made up of lung and throat cancer victims. He went to Philip Morris's headquarters, his chorus buzzing Christmas carols through tapped throats, and tried to find the CEO, only to be consigned to the lobby. Both The Big One and Bowling for Columbine culminate in confrontational interviews with powerful men-Phil Knight, the CEO of Nike, and Charlton Heston, president of the National Rifle Association (NRA).

    Some reviewers are put off by Moore's aggressiveness. But what's really shocking is how often his technique fails. Sure, in The Big One, Moore got Knight to admit he employs fourteen year olds in Indonesia, and in Bowling for Columbine, Heston mumbles something about ethnic mixing producing violence in America (though the point isn't very clear). Nonetheless, both interviews illustrate the uselessness of confrontation more than its effectiveness. Heston simply walks away from Moore's pushy questioning; Knight grows aloof. When Moore proposes that Knight open a shoe factory in Flint rather than Indonesia, Knight refuses, saying, "Americans don't want to make shoes." Moore returns to show Knight video clips of Flint citizens demanding a shoe factory. Knight laughs nervously but doesn't budge. Moore challenges Knight to a foot race for a factory in Flint; Knight, not surprisingly, declines. Moore ends this final segment of his film by saying, "I know what most of you're thinking: I sure would have liked to have seen that foot race. Well, maybe next movie." Which, if I read him correctly, suggests that this confrontation has become a humorous bust-the problems of globalization remain while the audience awaits Moore's next bit of entertainment.

    Moore's confrontational technique fails in more important ways, which speak to the marginalization of the left today. During an episode of TV Nation, Moore created a character, Crackers the Corporate Crime Fighting Chicken, who takes on business malfeasance. In his first appearance, Crackers learns that First Boston Bank received a tax break from New York City's government while promising no layoffs. Soon after the deal, the company fired numerous workers. So Moore takes Crackers with him to confront Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Not only was Crackers barred from City Hall (security reasons), but when Moore confronted the mayor, Giuliani refused to take his questions, saying Moore was "presenting" the issue as a "joke." The mayor explained that the matter was too serious for humor. Moore was stymied, seemingly dumbfounded, and when watching this, I was dumbfounded too, since the broadcast seemed to demonstrate that confrontation-especially when laced with humor-is too easy to sweep aside.
    Often Moore can't get to the upper echelons of a corporation or government. Then he winds up confronting a security worker or desk clerk, as the cameras roll. In The Big One, for instance, he tried to get Payday candy bar company executives to discuss layoffs. Security guards push him out the door, and Moore gets persnickety, challenging and mocking them. And so in the name of confronting the powers that be, Moore winds up annoying underpaid security guards. The point of this, I would assume, was lost on many viewers, not just me.

    These examples might not matter; they could all be chalked up to a joke, except that Moore thinks of what he's doing as political. Here he inherits the New Left's conflation of "guerrilla theater" with politics. Unfortunately, confrontation is very often not political but emotional or melodramatic, inviting opponents to scoff at legitimate concerns. It rarely produces deliberation or reform. The historian Christopher Lasch argued that Abbie Hoffman's guerrilla theater "imprisoned the left in a politics of. . .dramatic gestures, or style without substance-a mirror image of the politics of unreality which it should have been the purpose of the left to unmask." Aimed at Moore's predecessor, this critique hits Moore too. Generating a humorous buzz doesn't shake things up so much as symbolize powerlessness.

    Left-Wing Irrationality and Cynicism
    Since he began making movies, reviewers have often documented Moore's errors. Some accused him of compressing history in Roger and Me, making events look like they caused one another when they didn't. More recently, Bowling for Columbine suggested that the two students who shot their fellow students had been in a bowling class at 6 a.m. that day. Police reports contradict this. The film's opening scene shows Moore walking into a bank and getting a free gun in return for setting up an account. "You think it's a little dangerous handing out guns in a bank?" Moore asks while raising a rifle to his shoulder. Apparently, this scene was staged; bank customers actually had to go to a separate gun shop for their rifle-bad enough, so why not tell it straight?

    These complaints about Moore's work often have more to do with politics than a commitment to factual accuracy. It was Forbes magazine that documented the errors of Bowling for Columbine, and I doubt its editors show a similar interest in, say, the errors of Republican Party spokespeople. Besides, Moore's critics fail to recognize how much he gets right. In Bowling for Columbine, for instance, he depicts local news shows overplaying random acts of violence and thus sparking unwarranted fear. He shows the underbelly of welfare reform in which poorer workers are moving off the rolls into low-wage jobs. TV Nation documented depressed towns desperately recruiting new prisons as a means of economic revitalization and, in another episode, went after a wealthy Connecticut town that barred nonresidents from its beaches. In The Awful Truth, he portrayed fundamentalist protestors holding signs promising that "fags" will "burn in hell." Nothing factually wrong here.

    It's not the inaccuracies that matter as much as Moore's techniques. After all, his chosen tools-imagery and entertainment-have distinct limitations. Explanation tends to blur as images, cuts, and rapid sequences take over. As reviewers have pointed out, the logic of Bowling for Columbine often fails. One example, not yet noted, symbolizes a central problem in Moore's work. In trying to explain why Columbine happened, Moore floats the idea that Bill Clinton ordered a bombing in Sudan around the time of Columbine. He moves backward to show the violence endemic to American foreign policy, cutting and splicing together decontextualized images of America in Iran (1950s), Vietnam (1960s), Central America (1980s), and the Middle East (1990s). Clearly Moore was using this imagery to build up a sense of America as an inherently violent world power-arguing that America's violence is being turned against itself. If I followed his logic, he was also suggesting a specific link between American foreign policy and the Columbine killings. I admit to no knowledge of these particular students, but I find it hard to imagine they followed news about American action abroad, and I'm even surer they knew little about American intervention in Iran during the 1950s or even where Iran was. What I was left with were the decontextualized images Moore flung together in the hope that they would add up to a provocative point. But all I really had were decontextualized images.

    When asked what he hopes to accomplish, Moore sometimes takes a dangerous position - blurring the line between political criticism and entertainment. His reasoning goes: Sure, I'm engaging political issues, but I'm also putting on a show. One critic, Ben Fritz, quotes him as saying, "I always assume that only 10 to 20 percent of people who read my books or see my films will take the facts and hard-core analysis and do something with it. If I can bring the other 80 percent to it through entertainment and comedy, then some of it will trickle through." Here's Moore's realism: reaching people in an age of entertainment requires entertaining them. A fine point, to a certain extent, but then we learn that this might require junking accuracy. For when asked on CNN about mistakes in Stupid White Men, he responded, "How can there be inaccuracy in comedy?" Here's Moore's problem: is he an entertainer, who aims at provoking laughter, or a political critic who has some responsibility to the truth? Of course, it might be unfair to blame Moore for blurring the line between news and entertainment, since that's become the norm today. The difficult question is how effective the left can be when it accepts the norm.
    The critic Mark Crispin Miller has discussed the "hipness unto death" and ironic detachment prominent among television watchers. As television deflates, the viewer wants to avoid being conned, thus rejecting anyone's claim to truth and embracing cynicism instead. Think of early shows in this vein such as Beavis and Butthead, where the viewer both laughs at and with the stupid antics of two young critics of MTV videos, or Fox's signature show, Married with Children, with its cynical take on the American family, or Jerry Seinfeld's smirk. Think of Sprite's advertisements condemning "image." Irony and cynicism have become the norm of our postmodern culture, and Moore seems comfortable here. In one of his last episodes of The Awful Truth, he ran a fake ad for the "Michael Moore Play Set," replete with a Moore mask, microphone, and a bald wig for a friend to wear in order to play a business CEO. While kids play with the set, the narrator points out that Moore has become filthy rich from his TV shows, movies, and books (a point critics never fail to point out). Moore just chuckles.
     
  2. 007
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    One of his least discussed projects, Canadian Bacon, captures the depth of his cynicism. Moore was writer, producer, and director of this fictional movie that's intended as political commentary. Like Stanley Kubrick in the classic Dr. Strangelove, Moore takes on the cold war, now from retrospect. The film views the cold war as a prop for the American economy, elaborating on the peace movement's criticism of the warfare-welfare state. The president is a liberal (played by Alan Alda), blaming the "penny pinching wimps" in D.C. for not pumping up the economy after the fall of the Soviet Union. The president's macho National Security Adviser pushes him to seek a new enemy to replace the Soviet Union and get the warfare state up and running again. The adviser suggests Canada. When the president balks, the advisor blurts out, "The American people will buy whatever we tell them to; you know that." Unlike the ineffective and Adlai Stevenson-like president in Dr. Strangelove, who at least protests the misbehaviors of generals in the war room, the liberal president here caves in to his reactionary adviser and rushes into a conflict with Canada. So, the movie reasons, not only is American foreign policy a slave to domestic economic slumps and unfounded animosities, but even liberals don't have the guts to oppose any of this.

    Moore's cynicism seems to conflict with his hopes for political change. And here he joins a major tendency in contemporary left-wing political criticism. Moore is one of the loudest to argue there is no difference between the Republican and Democratic parties. So in Downsize This!, Moore coins the word Republicrats (a mantra among Naderites) and rips quotes out of context to make Democrats sound anti-liberal. He lambastes Ted Kennedy for arguing against open immigration and then contrasts his statement with pro-immigration statements of Newt Gingrich and then-governor of Texas George W. Bush. This is, of course, a far more complex issue than Moore acknowledges. But no matter, because his major point is that Democrats are as bad-or worse!-than Republicans. In Stupid White Men, Moore argues that "the choice between Bush's 'compassionate conservatism' and Clintonism is no more meaningful than the choice between castor oil and cherry-flavored Robitussin." This sounds odd coming from a man who spent a great deal of time and energy defending Clinton from the right's impeachment attack. How can Moore square cynicism and effective political engagement? Not much better than anyone else. He makes the general left-leaning error of misreading cynicism about politics as thoughtful critique.

    Moore's Anti-Politics
    Certainly Moore wants to change things. He urges political action sometimes-publishing the telephone numbers of politicians, for example, in Stupid White Men. He also believes in the muckraking ethic that exposure can induce reform. On occasion, Moore will praise the labor movement (though in general, he criticizes its conservatism). In Bowling for Columbine, he showed anti-NRA protestors, suggesting a burgeoning movement among middle-class people against the gun industry. But the parent of a student killed at Columbine and a leader in anti-NRA protests may be right to describe Moore as "just a guy trying to capitalize on the tragedy of others." The remark is troubling; is Moore more interested in entertainment than social change? Structurally, Moore centers his films and television shows around his own activity-not the political action of other people. Ultimately, he is strangely apolitical, incapable of transcending the limits of the entertainment industry.

    Take Bowling for Columbine, which documents a political triumph. Moore joins two victims of the Columbine shooting to press K-Mart to stop selling the sort of bullets used at Columbine. In one scene, Moore pleads with a K-Mart spokesperson, who hesitates to take the students seriously, explaining that he promised something would happen if the students took action. This is a touching scene; Moore's plea is almost a paean to civic engagement. In the end, Moore and his two students get what they want; K-Mart announces it will stop selling the bullets. Moore appears genuinely happy and even a bit surprised in the face of this announcement. Could this offer a new form of activism and political change? Armed with nothing more than a movie camera, Moore shames a corporation into making a moral decision.

    What's odd about this sort of engagement, though, is that it avoids the hard work of forming movements that could press for change. No need for that when Michael Moore, with just his camera, microphone, and baseball cap, can come to the rescue. Acting as the lone fighter for social justice, Moore reminds us that there are few movements at work on the array of issues he grapples with. When, in one episode of The Awful Truth, he helps someone challenge an inhumane Health Maintenance Organization decision, we can't help remember that though there is plenty of anger at HMOs today, there's no organized movement for health care reform. When Moore documents increased use of prison labor, we confront the fact that, except for a weak labor movement, no one is out there fighting prison labor. If we add to this Moore's own self-expressed cynicism about the state of American politics, we are faced with our central predicament: the left today is armed with anger but no political solutions or realistic tactics for long-term change.

    Think back to Edward R. Murrow's famous television broadcast "Harvest of Shame" (1960). The show documented the plight of migrant farm workers through interviews with poor families explaining their toil and an American Farm Bureau Federation representative making sloppy excuses for their poverty. It's not hard to watch the show and imagine how it must have worked in tandem with Michael Harrington's The Other America and the initiatives of labor unions and community organizers to help energize LBJ's "Great Society." Murrow insisted that CBS allow him to include a final plea for political change, where he argues that only an "enlightened" and "aroused public opinion" can solve the documented injustices.

    Comparing "Harvest of Shame" to Moore's efforts illustrates a sea change in the mass media and the state of American politics. "Harvest of Shame" doesn't have a drop of irony. Murrow was a moralist, in the best sense of that term. He knew that for things to change, people had to care enough to defend the interests of those too poor and weak to speak for themselves. That's what makes "Harvest of Shame" seem so entirely dated today. Its moral symbolism is overwrought. There are constant comparisons between the way Americans treat animals-including waterfowl or horses-and the way they treat the poor. At one moment, a narrator calls the show "a 1960s Grapes of Wrath." For Murrow, injustice did not lend itself to humor or irony; the viewer is not to laugh but get indignant and ready for battle. The postmodern media sap Murrow's politically charged and moralistic approach. There's nothing funny or entertaining about his outdated puritanism. Moore fills that void.

    Our Moorean Dilemma
    In criticizing Moore, it's hard not to sound like sour grapes. Moore's defenders will claim I'm jealous because I lack a camera and large audience and my views are consigned to small magazines. I grant the point. Moore has expended a great deal of energy and time to ensure his views reach a wide audience. For that, he deserves respect. My point is simply that he's paid a price in the process of getting heard. Here is what I would call the Moorean dilemma: do leftists stay on the margins or do we bust through and play by the rules of the entertainment industry? I am not against humor (ask my friends). But I am worried about what happens to the vision of the left when it plays on the grounds of the sound-bite society.

    None of what I've discussed here would matter if Moore's techniques didn't symbolize bigger weaknesses in the American left today. Moore is not just a quirky guy with enough talent and dough to reach a wide audience. His political criticism signals problems faced by the left more generally: marginalization, a tendency to seek the purity of confrontation rather than to work for long-term political solutions, a cynicism about the possibilities of politics today, and questionable political judgments. Moore exhibits all these weaknesses. Unfortunately, an effective left cannot draw energy or inspiration from a deeply cynical view of politics that blurs entertainment and argument. Moore takes short-cuts when it comes to politics. He entertains, but he doesn't always do much more. That speaks to the state of the left; we are angry and sometimes vocal, but we have too little to offer those looking for or needing social change. Meanwhile, the entertainment industry chugs on, denigrating serious political argument and avoiding deliberation. That is the depressing world Michael Moore has broken into.

    Kevin Mattson teaches American history at Ohio University. He has written Intellectuals in Action and co-edited Steal This University: The Rise of the Corporate University and the Academic Labor Movement.
     
  3. 007
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    Just my thoughts here but, if you want to talk about moore, do it in a thread that starts out with the proper denunciation of his lies. Not in a thread that is pro moore.
     
  4. tim_duncan2000
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    tim_duncan2000 Active Member

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    That's always what he does. He wants people to see his films and think about the points he makes, but if people comment on the inaccuracies, he says that it was just a comedy anyway.
     
  5. Gop guy
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    Pale you really hate this guy, I know, he's a joke.

    Just laugh him and his isane radical propoganda off.
     
  6. 007
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    Yup. I do hate him. He's a liar... and I hate liar's.

    I'd rather kick his fat stinking ass. :D
     
  7. Bullypulpit
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    Dubbyuh only thinks he's a godsend. God really talks to me, and she says she has nothing to do with Dubbyuh and his crowd.
     
  8. 007
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    You inspire me everytime I see how devoted you are to God.
     

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