Why They're Afraid Of Michael Moore
By John Pilger
10/18/07 "ICH" -- -- In Sicko, Michael Moore's new film, a young
Ronald Reagan is shown appealing to working-class Americans to
reject "socialised medicine" as commie subversion. In the 1940s
and 1950s, Reagan was employed by the American Medical
Association and big business as the amiable mouthpiece of a
neo-fascism bent on persuading ordinary Americans that their
true interests, such as universal health care, were
Watching this, I found myself recalling the effusive farewells
to Reagan when he died three years ago. "Many people believe,"
said Gavin Esler on the BBC's Newsnight, "that he restored faith
in American military action [and] was loved even by his
political opponents." In the Daily Mail, Esler wrote that Reagan
"embodied the best of the American spirit – the optimistic
belief that problems can be solved, that tomorrow will be better
than today, and that our children will be wealthier and happier
than we are".
Such drivel about a man who, as president, was responsible for
the 1980s bloodbath in central America, and the rise of the very
terrorism that produced al-Qaeda, became the received spin.
Reagan's walk-on part in Sicko is a rare glimpse of the truth of
his betrayal of the blue-collar nation he claimed to represent.
The treacheries of another president, Richard Nixon, and a
would-be president, Hillary Clinton, are similarly exposed by
Just when there seemed little else to say about the great
Watergate crook, Moore extracts from the 1971 White House tapes
a conversation between Nixon and John Erlichman, his aide who
ended up in prison. A wealthy Republican Party backer, Edgar
Kaiser, head of one of America's biggest health insurance
companies, is at the White House with a plan for "a national
health-care industry". Erlichman pitches it to Nixon, who is
bored until the word "profit" is mentioned.
"All the incentives," says Erlichman, "run the right way: the
less [medical] care they give them, the more money they make."
To which Nixon replies without hesitation: "Fine!" The next cut
shows the president announcing to the nation a task force that
will deliver a system of "the finest health care". In truth, it
is one of the worst and most corrupt in the world, as Sicko
shows, denying common humanity to some 50 million Americans and,
for many of them, the right to life.
The most haunting sequence is captured by a security camera in a
Los Angeles street. A woman, still in her hospital gown,
staggers through the traffic, where she has been dumped by the
company (the one founded by Nixon's backer) that runs the
hospital to which she was admitted. She is ill and terrified and
has no health insurance. She still wears her admission bracelet,
though the name of the hospital has been thoughtfully erased.
Later on, we meet that glamorous liberal couple, Bill and
Hillary Clinton. It is 1993 and the new president is announcing
the appointment of the first lady as the one who will fulfil his
promise to give America a universal health-care. And here is
"charming and witty" Hillary herself, as a senator calls her,
pitching her "vision" to Congress. Moore's portrayal of the
loquacious, flirting, sinister Hillary is reminiscent of Tim
Robbins's superb political satire Bob Roberts. You know her
cynicism is already in her throat. "Hillary," says Moore in
voice-over, "was rewarded for her silence [in 2007] as the
second-largest recipient in the Senate of health-care industry
Moore has said that Harvey Weinstein, whose company produced
Sicko and who is a friend of the Clintons, wanted this cut, but
he refused. The assault on the Democratic Party candidate likely
to be the next president is a departure for Moore, who, in his
personal campaign against George Bush in 2004, endorsed General
Wesley Clark, the bomber of Serbia, for president and defended
Bill Clinton himself, claiming that "no one ever died from a
blow job". (Maybe not, but half a million Iraqi infants died
from Clinton's medieval siege of their country, along with
thousands of Haitians, Serbians, Sudanese and other victims of
his unsung invasions.)
With this new independence apparent, Moore's deftness and dark
humour in Sicko, which is a brilliant work of journalism and
satire and film-making, explains – perhaps even better than the
films that made his name, Roger and Me, Bowling for Columbine
and Fahrenheit 9/11 – his popularity and influence and enemies.
Sicko is so good that you forgive its flaws, notably Moore's
romanticising of Britain's National Health Service, ignoring a
two-tier system that neglects the elderly and the mentally ill.
The film opens with a wry carpenter describing how he had to
make a choice after two fingers were shorn off by an electric
saw. The choice was $60,000 to restore a forefinger or $12,000
to restore a middle finger. He could not afford both, and had no
insurance. "Being a hopeless romantic," says Moore, "he chose
the ring finger" on which he wore his wedding ring. Moore's wit
leads us to scenes that are searing, yet unsentimental, such as
the eloquent anger of a woman whose small daughter was denied
hospital care and died of a seizure. Within days of Sicko
opening in the United States, more than 25,000 people
overwhelmed Moore's website with similar stories.
The California Nurses Association and the National Nurses
Organising Committee despatched volunteers to go on the road
with the film. "From my sense," says Jan Rodolfo, an oncology
nurse, "it demonstrates the potential for a true national
movement because it's obviously inspiring so many people in so
Moore's "threat" is his unerring view from the ground. He
abrogates the contempt in which elite America and the media hold
ordinary people. This is a taboo subject among many journalists,
especially those claiming to have risen to the nirvana of
"impartiality" and others who profess to teach journalism. If
Moore simply presented victims in the time-honoured,
ambulance-chasing way, leaving the audience tearful but
paralysed, he would have few enemies. He would not be looked
down upon as a polemicist and self-promoter and all the other
pejorative tags that await those who step beyond the invisible
boundaries in societies where wealth is said to equal freedom.
The few who dig deep into the nature of a liberal ideology that
regards itself as superior, yet is responsible for crimes epic
in proportion and generally unrecognised, risk being eased out
of the "mainstream", especially if they are young – a process
that a former editor once described to me as "a sort of gentle
None has broken through like Moore, and his detractors are
perverse to say he is not a "professional journalist" when the
role of the professional journalist is so often that of
zealously, if surreptitiously, serving the status quo. Without
the loyalty of these professionals on the New York Times and
other august (mostly liberal) media institutions "of record",
the criminal invasion of Iraq might not have happened and a
million people would be alive today. Deployed in Hollywood's
sanctum – the cinema – Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 shone a light in
their eyes, reached into the memory hole, and told the truth.
That is why audiences all over the world stood and cheered.
What struck me when I first saw Roger and Me, Moore's first
major film, was that you were invited to like ordinary Americans
for their struggle and resilience and politics that reached
beyond the din and fakery of the American democracy industry.
Moreover, it is clear they "get it" about him: that despite
being rich and famous he is, at heart, one of them. A foreigner
doing something similar risks being attacked as "anti-American",
a term Moore often uses as irony in order to demonstrate its
dishonesty. At a stroke, he sees off the kind of guff
exemplified by a recent BBC Radio 4 series that presented
humanity as pro- or anti-American while the reporter oozed about
America, "the city on the hill".
Just as tendentious is a documentary called Manufacturing
Dissent, which appears to have been timed to discredit, if not
Sicko, then Moore himself. Made by the Canadians Debbie Melnyk
and Rick Caine, it says more about liberals who love to face
both ways and the whiny jealousies aroused by tall poppies.
Melnyk tells us ad nauseam how much she admires Moore's films
and politics and is inspired by him, then proceeds to attempt
character assassination with a blunderbuss of assertions and
hearsay about his "methods", along with personal abuse, such as
that of the critic who objected to Moore's "waddle" and someone
else who said he reckoned Moore actually hated America – was
anti-American, no less!
Melnyk pursues Moore to ask him why, in his own pursuit of an
interview with Roger Smith of General Motors, he failed to
mention that he had already spoken to him. Moore has said he
interviewed Smith long before he began filming. When she twice
intercepts Moore on tour, she is rightly embarrassed by his
gracious response. If there is a renaissance of documentaries,
it is not served by films such as this.
This is not to suggest Moore should not be pursued and
challenged about whether or not he "cuts corners", just as the
work of the revered father of British documentary, John
Grierson, has been re-examined and questioned. But feckless
parody is not the way. Turning the camera around, as Moore has
done, and revealing great power's "invisible government" of
manipulation and often subtle propaganda is certainly one way.
In doing so, the documentary-maker breaches a silence and
complicity described by GŁnter Grass in his confessional
autobiography, Peeling the Onion, as maintained by those
"feigning their own ignorance and vouching for another's...
divert[ing] attention from something intended to be forgotten,
something that nevertheless refuses to go away".
For me, an earlier Michael Moore was that other great
"anti-American" whistleblower, Tom Paine, who incurred the wrath
of corrupt power when he warned that if the majority of the
people were being denied "the ideas of truth", it was time to
storm what he called the "Bastille of words" and we call "the
media". That time is overdue.
John Pilger's new cinema documentary, The
War on Democracy, is
released in the UK and other countries. www.johnpilger.com
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