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.