|by Jack Sommersby
What could have been just a ho-hum speaking gig attached to a nationwide book tour turned into a rollicking good time in the college town of Denton, Texas. Then again, with Michael Moore as the guest of honor, should this really come as a surprise?
The prolific Michael Moore was good enough to stop by the University of North Texas (in Denton) as part of a promotional tour for his take-no-prisoners non-fiction book Stupid White Men...And Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation!, which was enjoying the #1 place on the New York Time's best seller list for its third straight week.
Actually, it's nothing short of a miracle that the book was released to the general public at all, according to Moore, considering the heated resistance the publisher (Harper Collins) put up after the September 11th attacks. At first, only fifty-thousand copies were produced, and those were put on hold because the publishers felt the "political climate wasn't right". They gave Moore a couple of options: go back and change fifty percent of the text; or change the title. Naturally, Moore refused and threatened to take his book elsewhere; but according to the contract, he couldn't do so for a year. When he asked what would happen to his book in the meantime, the publishers told him they'd likely "pulp" it, meaning it'd be scrapped and recycled ("That's the first time I ever heard that word used as a verb.", its author quipped). Of course, being Michael Moore, he set up a reading of the first two chapters at a place in New Jersey. Luckily for him, there was a librarian present, who logged onto a librarian chat room and vented her outrage over the publishers. That outrage was shared and circulated to the point where the publishers were getting irate phone calls. A couple of weeks later, bowing to mounting public pressure, the book was released.
For the uninitiated, Michael Moore made a name for himself in 1989 with his searing documentary Roger & Me, which berated General Motors for considerably downsizing their workforce (about 35,000) in Flint, Michigan for a cheaper south-of-the-border operation. The film was much-revered and appeared on over one hundred ten-best lists. Moore followed that up with the TV newsmagazine TV Nation for a couple of years, which broke stories of wrongdoing by big businesses. In between those gigs he wrote and directed the halfway-amusing fictional comedy Canadian Bacon, which served as the late John Candy's last film. Getting his bearings back, he returned to his documentary roots with The Big One, which took another penetrating look (and more than a few jabs) at a corporate America that, even in years of record-setting profits, continued to lay off workers. Two years later, he scored another critical success with the newsmagazine, The Awful Truth, but it garnered low ratings and lasted only a mere season. Which brings us up to date with Stupid White Men.... (Out of respect for Moore, I'll omit the nauseating details of his gruesome supporting performance as Lisa Kudrow's habitually masturbating cousin in the John Travolta comedy Lucky Numbers.)
Clad in his trademark garb (jeans, t-shirt, baseball cap), Moore made for quite the refreshing lecturer here in conservative-minded Denton. At first, I wasn't sure if his appearance would go over all that well, what with the title of his book likely not faring too well with the majority of the narcissistic male student body who never met a date rape or gay joke they didn't like. Happily, the auditorium was packed with lots of loyal Moore supporters, and the man himself had some interesting comments on his day trips to Denton and Dallas.
First off, he found it quite interesting that while being driven past the infamous grassy knoll where former President Kennedy was shot and killed, there was a nearby billboard prominently displaying an ad for a gun show. (Guns are also the subject of Moore's provocative, award-winning documentary, Bowling for Columbine -- parts of which were screened for the audience). During his signing in Dallas, he had a teenage girl come up to him and confess she'd once smoked pot with the Bush twins ("I love the Bush twins -- they give Bush more grief than anyone else.", said Moore.) Here in Denton, his appearance couldn't have been more timely, considering the recent protests directed at the school's SGA for overriding the students' vote not to increase student fees for athletic funding. Moore was suitably irate over the matter. When inquiring how many signatures were needed to remove the twenty one acting SGA members, he was told three hundred, an amount a campus activist assured him they had. In typical Moore fashion, he boomed, "Let's get six hundred!".
The title of his book refers to the men in power in the United States: the politicians and big businessmen who are in cohoots. It's these people, according to Moore, who are exercising martinet-like control over our supposedly democratic country. Hardly an original view, to be sure. But Moore expands upon it, calling attention to President Bush's extraordinarily high approval ratings, which he contends isn't due to the peoples' championing of his policies, but rather to their psychological need to rally behind a leader in a time of distress. It's been surmised that it's this willingness to be led that has made the country resistant to opposing Bush's proposals; our fear of being viewed as unpatriotic has allowed Bush to use his war efforts as a smokescreen to (among other things) increase the Defense Department budget and tap into Social Security to fund expensive tax cuts. (I was disappointed, though, that Moore failed to mention that Attorney General John Ashcroft, who has labeled those opposed to Bush's war efforts as "unpatriotic", avoided service in the Vietnam War by getting a deferment for the noble cause of teaching law school in Missouri.) Supposedly, with as much as a 90% approval rating, the people are supportive of the president, right? Well...not as Moore sees it.
He claims the majority of Americans are totally indifferent to Bush and conservative stands yet are unwilling to break from the pack and vote their consciences. Moore cites a national poll of a 65% pro-choice rating and other high percentages, as well as the phenomenal success of his own book. This naturally opens the door for Moore to vent about about the 2000 election, where the majority did indeed speak, and our current president is not the one they chose. As it happens, Moore didn't vote for Al Gore. In fact, he takes the time to chasten and berate the former Vice President and Senate Majority leader Tom Daschle for being non-aggressive to Republicans and too middle-of-the-road on important issues. He's a huge supporter of Ralph Nader, however, and while he understands a lot of pro-Naders having voted for Gore as a defense tactic against Bush, he warns that if the young generation makes a habit of voting like this it will prove harmful; sublimating their instincts and compromising their ideals will likely impose upon them the mind-set that they're sell-outs whose votes and efforts don't mean or add up to anything. As for the bitter attitudes by some that voting for Nader gave us Bush, Moore doesn't satisfyingly address that, aside from the general aside of having to vote your conscience.
His central message to the audience was that Americans can make a difference in changing the dastardly ways of American politics by everybody contributing just a little. Protesting, running for local office, calling up your local senators, etc. are activities which can have a devastating cumulative effect. But we have to get past the belief that our efforts won't do any good, Moore emphasizes. He insists that the government likes its citizens dumb, inert, or just plain drugged-up, rendering themselves hopeless as either opponents or reformers. That's why he berates schools for teaching tired and already-solved problems instead of plotting students on new learning ventures. For instance, how is a lab experiment an experiment, after all, if the experiment's already been solved hundreds of times over by previous students? And the lack of encouragement in schools as well as in the workplace are also factors. In essence, the country's turning us into obedient, unquestioning, beat-out saps who don't dare challenge authority and are prone to riding the comfortable waves of faceless cosmopolitan conformity.
Moore also shared the following:
-- A 1997 meeting in Houston where Bush, Dick Cheney, and Saudi Arabians discussed a massive oil pipeline project that was to run through Saudi Arabia and into Texas, which, of course, would have made both sides obscenely rich. But the talks halted. How did the deal fall through? Was there possibly some resentment on the part of the Saudis? And isn't it more than a bit telling that fifteen of the seventeen September 11th terrorists were of that nationality?
-- Speaking of which, why is the U.S. bombing Afghanistan and not Saudi Arabia, where the majority of the terrorists came from? Isn't that like bombing China if the terrorists came from Cuba? Could it be that the matter of not bombing an oil-producing region has something to do with that? And do we know one hundred percent that the mastermind behind the September 11th attacks was Osama bin Laden, who to this date has refused to claim credit for the kind of mass destruction any terrorist organization in the world would be proud to own up to?
-- A Saudi plane was allowed into U.S. airspace after September 11th to pick up bin Laden's family and fly them to Paris. According to the White House, it was for the family's safety. How odd. When a crime is committed, aren't the suspect's family the first people to be thoroughly investigated and questioned?
-- Butane lighters were listed as no-nos to bring aboard airliners after September 11th...but after lobbying from the tobacco industry -- with smokers complaining they were being (so help me!) inconvenienced -- lighters were no longer banned, even after the shoe bomb incident a few months before, where the device itself was to be ignite(!). (I, myself, had just returned from Ireland and assumed the lighter ban was still in place, for I placed my lighters in my checked baggage to and from.) Since you can't smoke on flights -- not even international ones -- where the hell was the inconvenience? Oh, you mean between the time you landed and reclaimed your baggage? But you can't smoke in American airports!
Michael Moore is a virtuoso speaker and entertainer. His ragamuffin appearance is the perfect counterbalance to a sharp and bracing wit that can practically thunderbolt the ill-prepared. He doesn't hold back, but he also doesn't rant and rave like a spastic orator totally bereft of insight. Most of the deplorable acts that escape our attention, Moore notices and fastens upon; instead of shucking them off, he goes after them with the headstrong determination of a pit bull. In his television and film work, he's right there with his microphone, entering a company's headquarters to get at the truth. Moore knows perfectly well the CEOs and higher-ups in general aren't likely to cooperate, but his insistence and won't-take-No-for-an-answer demeanor serves a purpose, he feels, by shining light on the problem in view of the public eye. If the conservative, corporate-owned national publications and media won't cover certain controversial issues, he will.
Moore isn't an Einstein in intelligence nor Bertand Russell-ish in observation, yet he doesn't have to be in these cases; he simply cares enough to pursue, so the stunning revelations he uncovers aren't necessarily the result of genius reporting but dogged dedication. His method may be uncouth, but it's managed to get the job done on more than a few occasions. Of course, once these revelations are exposed to the public eye, nothing out of TV Land comes from them: no take-down litigators or prosecutors come crawling out of the woodwork and manage to flush the guilty corporate scum down the filthiest urinals in a matter of weeks. Again, Moore knows this. Yet the way he sees it, he's doing quite the patriotic thing by just doing what he feels every American citizen has the right and -- more importantly -- responsibility to do. He's after immediate effects to get an eventual overall result, never kidding himself that he's likely to topple the evil castle singlehandedly. He's taking action, though, no matter how little ends up being derived from it. At least he's trying. From that, you get the feeling that Moore manages to live with himself and sleep well at night. According to his logic, millions of Michael Moores working for the good of the people could be capable of breaking down numerous political and corporate barriers.
Moore certainly came off as an admirable American-loving doodle, all right. But his logic can also be a bit shoddy at times, and you're left wondering if he's omitting something he knows is a given or if he just isn't attuned or wise to it.
For example, he expressed his outrage over a sign in the American Airlines terminal at D/FW Airport. It was a list of all the airline's employees who hadn't missed a day of work in years. So basically it was a proud display of perfect attendance. But Moore saw it as something totally different: a dangerous indication that airline employees are being worked to death in a profession that requires their abilities be tip-top and their instincts razor-sharp. But the sign wasn't conveying that the employees were working endless seven-day weeks without so much as a day off; it was proudly informing that they hadn't missed a working day during the weeks they were scheduled, just like any perfect-attendance grade-school students. Just dumb, this.
By and large, it's people -- everyday people, American citizens -- who lay at the root of the problems Moore's addressing. While your average John Doe isn't the one who lifted the butane lighter ban, it's he and millions of others who elected the man responsible for doing so. I strongly doubt a Jane Doe popped out a cell phone and arranged safe transport for a reputed world-known terrorist's Republican-donating family to be safely flown out of harm's way. Still, the man at the top was responsible for that one, and Scottish Scottie certainly didn't beam him up and into the Oval Office. He was elected by the people. While Bush is to blame for these heinous decisions, the very root of the problem lies with the American people, millions of whom elect who'll serve their immediate best interests.
If the nation was alerted with irrefutable proof that unless industrial and automotive pollutants were reduced in five years, the United States would fall into an insufferable and destructive environmental chasm in seven years. Isn't it likely that Americans would finally grasp the environmental ramifications and refuse to elect those who'd be perceived as willing to bend over for Big Business? Of course. Because their lives -- not those of distant future generations -- would be in jeopardy. You might as well be telling them polluting will eventually kill off lifeforms from another planet for all the care and concern they currently give the matter. Businesses refuse to conform because it'll cost them money; the public balks because, for example, environment-friendly automobiles will cost more. You can talk and listen to all the declarations you want concerning the sacred value of all human life, but when it's only the immediate lives that are deemed worthy, then that altruistic pretense quickly evaporates.
Moore brings up issues that infuriate, but he doesn't seem to have too many bright ideas on how to specifically combat and rectify them, aside from the 'ol Rocking the Establishment routine. Our national minimum wage is obscenely low given the ever-increasing costs of living, to be sure. But could a middle ground possibly be reached, when businesses would likely lay off workers to make up for that increase? On the environmental side, getting polluting plants up to par on proper emission standards would certainly be great. But what about the inevitable layoffs that would occur due to the costs incurred to accomplish that? (As we all know, business execs will expunge workers before reducing their own salaries.) Requiring environment-friendly automobiles would be peachy-keen, as well. But won't the steep sticker prices attached to them be met with grimaces by customers of all political parties?
There are pros and cons to each of these issues, and nothing in the way of a satisfactory clear-cut resolution has been heard. With both Republicans and Democrats stubbornly drawing lines in the sand, can a middle ground be reached? And if so, is the American public willing to accept it, if it means giving something up? This is the sort of thing that frustrates the masses because it's difficult to discern how everybody can be appeased (as if being appeased is somehow a luxury we were guaranteed at birth). Moore wants to hold the government accountable while letting us, the citizens, off the hook mostly, as if we're in no way affiliated whatsoever with our elected officials. It's Us against Them! Big Business is an influence on politics, of course, but so are people, voters. We don't, in some direct or indirect way, somehow shape the world we live in?
To be fair, Moore made sure to get across that we in the audience were not doing all that we can, that we'd grown lazy and too comfortable and just plain desensitized to all the widespread corruption -- to the point where it's sadly viewed as the solidified rule rather than the vulnerable exception. But he also didn't burrow as deep into this as he might have; he seemed wary of offending the very same people he was aiming to activate. Moore's messages may have slapped a few of the thin-skinned but they never really stung; they seared instead of scorched. Politicians are the scum who make the United States a sewer, but if that's the case, then aren't the ones who elect them just as guilty (as well as their opponents who do nothing)? Negating the supposed humanitarian convictions of a liberal crowd may not be the most pleasant and popular course to take for a liberal celebrity activist, but in an attempt to join hands to fight many powerful and encompassing targets, a no-holds-barred berating of both sides might just be the only way to open up the number of eyes needed to see an unpleasant but lucid view of things rather than a superior-minded but fogged-over one that lays the blame off on everyone but ourselves.
Warts and all, Michael Moore provided three hours of the best entertainment I've experienced in Denton in quite some time. He's cordial, graceful, and just plain fun to have in the same room with you (though he'd likely be as welcome in a Republican's home as a reggae band at a Ku Klux Klan rally). And he's so refreshingly candid, even going so far as to compliment the Bush administration for at least being steadfast in both their intentions and actions, while berating the Democrats for dragging their heels with a toe-tagged sense of urgency. Further, you gotta hand it to the guy whose book has topped the charts, even though nationwide talk shows (excepting Bill Maher) refused to have him on as a guest to promote it. He may not be everyone's cup of tea, but there's nary a doubt of his ability to make the most definitive impression possible. You may not wind up liking the man, yet there's little denying him.
link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=684
originally posted: 02/05/03 07:13:12
last updated: 05/31/04 05:25:00