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November 26, 2007

Michael Moore seems to be saying that the audience he wants is too stupid or nasty to be taken seriously, argues Richard D. North: Sicko - Michael Moore; Manufacturing Dissent - Rick Caine and Debbie Melnyk

Posted by Richard D. North

Written, Produced and Directed by Michael Moore
certificate 12A, 2007

Manufacturing Disssent
Written and Directed by Rick Caine and Debbie Melnyk
certificate 15, 2007

Until Sicko, I was a Michael Moore virgin and didn't suppose I was missing much. I thought it not much of a risk to suppose that I knew enough about the gun control issue and the Gulf War II issues to pass by both Bowling for Columbine (2002) and Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004). But curiosity got the better of me with Sicko, and not least because here was an issue that truly foxes nearly everyone. It's not the work of a genius to point out that the USA has a sub-optimal health care system, and it might be interesting to see what Moore made of it. There was hardly any chance, I thought, that Moore could be interesting on the subject, and he wasn't, very.

Poking about in the blogosphere, it emerges that friend and foe alike think that this is Moore's most useful and insightful film, though not his funniest. All but a few of his fans admit that this doesn't make his account even remotely fair-minded and his foes very reasonably insist that it would be hard for even the most incompetent comic not to land some palpable hits in the health care region.

By the way, this film might amuse you if you have the sort of sense of humour that roars away at Borat [although it is not a humour which often works for me, see: Borat? Bor-ing - Richard D. North finds Sacha Baron Cohen a nasty piece of work]. It clumps around. In one repetitive ploy, Michael Moore pitches up at a British NHS hospital and makes every kind of joke possible around the theme of being an ignorant American who is looking for Brits who can tell him how much their health care costs.

(The answer is: about 7.7 percent of GDP and a highish tax rate as against the US's 15 per cent of GDP and a lowish tax rate. [See an interesting essay in Reason magazine by the perennially interesting Ronald Bailey.])

This is a style that few presenters can carry off, with Ruby Wax perhaps the only exponent with sufficient chutzpah and charm. Moore comes off as a student prankster who ought to hang up his baseball hat and his trainers and his Desperate Dan demeanour and see he if he can't operate as a grown-up.

There were two points where the film showed us arguments which were truly unpleasant. One was the excursion which took Moore and some "victims" of the US system first to Guantanamo Bay (where the US's supposed enemies have excellent health care) and then to Cuba, where the happy proletariat are famously the beneficiaries of socialised medicine. It is an important criticism of the Moore movie that we have no idea about how his party actually got to Cuba, nor what arrangements were made for their treatment. What seems clear is that Moore's victims got care which most Cubans would die for.

It emerges about halfway through the film that Michael Moore is indeed raising a question that is worth thinking about, but his seeming answer to it is so trite as to be absurd. The question itself undoes most of the film's footage.

So here's the problem. Moore's movie tells us nothing new about the US health care system. The only real mystery is why Americans put up with it. Moore's main answer to this is that they have been oppressed and lied-to. He suggests that the obvious solution to the US's health care problem is socialised medicine (as in the UK or France) and that the average US citizen (he himself, until the scales fell from his eyes) has been propagandised into believing that to go that route is to embrace communism.

But can that be remotely true? Americans don't know as much as we would like about "abroad" - but do they really suppose that Mr Blair (let alone their adored Mrs Thatcher) or even M Chirac have been running totalitarian leftwing states all these years?

I imagine Moore shares the view of many Chomskyites that there is a kind of cognitive dissonance at work. Americans, on this analysis, sort of know what needs to be done, but can't quite imagine the cultural shifts by which they could happen. To help us here, Moore wheels on Tony Benn, who has been wrestling for years with the British reluctance to become lefty. The Sage of Holland Park tells Moore that the ruling elite keep the masses uneducated, fearful and demoralised. In that condition, says Benn, it's amazing what The People will bear.

Moore eats this stuff up and then constructs a case that Americans are kept so indebted by their education and health costs that they are mind-numbed into corporate subservience. Besides, all their politicians have been bought and paid for by the health industry, and that includes that erstwhile advocate of wholesale health care reform, Hillary Clinton. (It may not matter much but this surely completes Moore's political switchbacks. He has been a campaigner for the Greens of Ralph Nader and for the Democrats and now at least one serious Democrat won't do either.)

There is a nugget of value in this general argument. Why do Americans seem to choose an economic and political system which it might be argued does not deliver what most of them want? After all, US society has become, it is cogently argued, rather biased against the middle class. The oddity isn't that the poor are getting poorer (they don't seem to be), but that the middle classes aren't getting much richer. That should make for a lot of dissent, since all but the very lucky ought to want change.

This is why Moore doesn't premise Sicko on the misfortunes of the very poor. Rather, he is making a movie about why the middle classes aren't doing well. The middle classes aren't really Moore's favourite sort, but they are the handiest stick to beat the system with at this juncture. But even here he is on very weak ground. It is one thing to say the working classes are under-educated and debt-stunned. It is another to posit that the middle classes can't at least diagnose their condition. Presumably at some point they could mobilise a political solution.

It is indeed possible that the middle classes value freedom even more than universal health care. But it is hard to believe that they are the mass victims of a political con, which is the core of Moore's assertion. What's more, it has been argued that Moore is actually counterproductive. A voice in Manufacturing Dissent (see below) suggests that Moore binds Republicans to Bush much more than he energises Democrats against him.

Sicko poses a riddle, but mostly reminds us that reforming America's health care system is a peculiar project. But then so is reforming our own. The US doesn't have a free-market healthcare system and it doesn't have to reform along the lines of European state provision.

Moore seems really nasty. In Sicko, for instance, he shows how one of his arch enemies in the blogosphere has to pack in his online work because of his wife's heath care bills. So Moore anonymously sends a $12,000 cheque and it's gratefully received and acknowledged. Oh, and then the incident becomes an episode in the movie in progress. So much for virtue understanding that it must not be self-advertising. The worst of this is that his fans don't seem remotely disturbed by the unpleasantness. (The recipient blogger, it may be noted, is pretty gracious about the gift.)

Naturally, Moore has prompted a fair amount of criticism. Indeed, there is a cottage industry devoted to rubbishing him in print, on-screen and online. Much of this looks tiresome stuff, and most doesn't reach the intelligence and fair-mindedness which it demands of Moore.

Manufacturing Dissent bids fair to be a cut above the average. The title is a skit on the Chomsky classic, Manufacturing Consent, which looks like the backbone to most of Moore's thinking (including in Bowling for Columbine).

"Dissent" is a diligent and decent piece of work which has genuine difficulty in its stated aim - and visual and narrative conceit - of bagging an interview with the great man. We are left waiting, but in the end Manufacturing Dissent gives us its killer trick. It points out that Moore himself erected his first big hit - Roger and Me (1989) - on a quest to interview Roger Smith, CEO of General Motors, who it was supposed had wrecked Moore's home town of Flint, Michigan, when he shut down a plant there. It transpires that Smith had given Moore two interviews and so the whole work was erected on a fundamental untruth.

Meantime, Debbie Melnyk and Rick Caine only snatched bibs and bobs of screen-time with Moore, and most of it showed Moore being evasive. So far as I know, Moore has never addressed his critics in a sustained way.

The charges against him are of two kinds. One is that his various theses are stupid. That sort of charge isn't very interesting, because he isn't. The real meat of one's irritation with him is the quality of his journalism. But even here we have to be careful. You sometimes read that Michael Moore is a documentary maker and therefore has an obligation to the truth. Or to fair-mindedness. Or to balance. That's all debatable and interesting and open to all sort of different answers.

Manufacturing Dissent rightly mostly settles on the more important bit: the business of being transparent about one's methods. Thus, it doesn't really matter that Moore may talk prejudiced nonsense about, for instance, the Cuban health care system or anything else. But it does very much matter that he tells us on what terms he gained access to Cuba's hospitals for his supposed victims. The difference is in the nature of the rebuttal. Common or garden nonsense we can refute by looking around for better material. But Moore's own dealings are harder to untangle, unless he lets us. This is a matter of a film-makers' journeyman honesty.

Manufacturing Dissent gives us some good ammunition for this core point (it predates the release of Sicko, so doesn't cover that). For instance, it says that it was plain dishonest of Moore to criticize Charlton Heston, of Ben Hur and the National Rifle Association in Bowling for Columbine. The details are complex, but seem to accord with Melnyk and Caine's account.

So far, so good. I fear that Manufacturing Dissent is not so much wrong as a bit weak. It doesn't really nail Moore so much as just get cross about him. Maybe because of my own agendas (I am a fan of bias and mischief, but think that argument should not trick its audience), I wanted Melnyk and Caine to be even more clear about the case they were erecting against Moore.

By showing us Moore in action, Manufacturing Dissent shows all sorts of reasons for not warming to him. The one which most got to me was his use of class. Thus he says that his style may be crude but it appeals to the working class of his own background and that of course snotty educated people don't get it. By this argument, he suggests that if the liberal, thoughtful intelligentsia doesn't like his movies, it's because it is too stuck up.

It ought to depress Moore to have to admit that he thinks the audience he wants is too stupid or nasty to be treated seriously. In any case, I rather doubt that Moore has brought his arguments to the working class. He has more likely brought them to the disenchanted, dissident, alternativist, grungy left - bless 'em.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.

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