The indomitable, inimitable American writer and activist Rebecca Solnit was in Vancouver last week to give a talk. Her speech, titled We Can Be Heroes, kicked off on a rather surprising note of hope. Yes, folks, hope -- that most resilient and pernicious of seeds has taken root in these dark days of climate change, whitey Oscars and general blarghiness. It's easy, almost ridiculously so, to look around and see mountains of things that profoundly suck (Solnit's best one-liner was a quip about snatching the teddy bear of despair from the loving arms of the left). But despair isn't useful -- it leaches out the joy of everyday living and replaces it with enervating bitterness and passivity.
Instead, Solnit asked people to look around and see the good that is being done in the world. She spoke passionately about her own struggles to remain hopeful and optimistic, though couldn't help but mention several times how embarrassed she was about the state of her country. It's a sentiment seemingly shared by filmmaker Michael Moore. Moore has made a career out of upending American hypocrisy, whether it's gun control (Bowling for Columbine) or the War on Terror (Fahrenheit 9/11). His new film, Where to Invade Next, sets sail from American shores to look at what the rest of the world has been up to while the U.S. boils and festers in its own madness.
Now, before we get going, let's acknowledge that Moore has been accused of being something of a hypocrite himself, and that his everyman shtick has grown increasingly tired over the years. I didn't expect to like Where to Invade Next very much, but I did, maybe because beneath Moore's bombast and theatrics there is a genuine sense of desperation and the need for hope. How could it be otherwise, you might ask? A country that would take Donald Trump as anything other than a terrible, awful joke seems resigned to its fate. But never count the Americans out. They have a way of surprising you. Witness the dynamic duo of Killer Mike and Bernie Sanders, a convergence that makes my heart sing!
But let's go back to the film. The central conceit is just this -- many of the greatest ideas in the world, be it labour unions or the women's movement, had deep roots in the U.S. before they spread to other countries. America may have lost herself, but deep down the seeds of what made her a great nation are still there.
Where to Invade Next opens with Moore exploring the American tradition of ongoing and near-constant war. As he states, "The U.S. was born in genocide and built on the backs of slaves." Since then the nation has spent trillions of dollars in one failed war after another -- Lebanon, Iraq, Vietnam, etc. Meanwhile at home, young black men are gunned down by the police, military vets are left to freeze in the streets, and in Moore's hometown of Flint, Michigan, the water is poison.
There is some rather deep shit to deal with. What else to do but uphold the American tradition, invade some other country, and take all their resources? Which in the case of Where to Invade Next are good ideas, common sense and basic human decency.
So, in his costume of baseball cap and army jacket, Moore launches a global invasion. He heads first to Italy to look at the working conditions of ordinary Italians. There, workers are provided eight weeks of paid holiday, maternity leave, and two-hour lunch breaks due in part to the strength of their labour movement. As Moore remarks at the beginning of his campaign, "Italians always look like they just made love." Indeed, everyone he meets has that special glow, from the working class couple that cheerfully explains how their lives include time for family, hobbies and frolicking nude in the sun, to the owner of the Ducati Factory who honours the principle of paying people a decent wage.
Whether they're making motorcycles or cutting patterns for high-end fashion, the Italian workers and their employers espouse the need for people to be treated fairly and humanely. Everyone looks tanned, relaxed and super duper sexy. Sex, food and a lack of stress, it all sounds very simple.
This is the main critique that has been levied at the film, and it's fair. The world is not simple, but Moore's intent in being purposely, obstinately naive about the power of social change serves a purpose. Call it Socialism for Dummies. Like all jesters who pull down the pants of power, it is his job to reveal the ridiculous. This approach is as big and exaggerated as Moore himself, but it works. The act of blowing up simple things to a massive scale allows for a new perspective, in a funhouse mirror kind of way. And as Moore points out, he's here to pick the flowers, not pull the weeds, and that in and of itself is kind of revolutionary.
Next up on the invasion route is France, where the cafeteria in an ordinary elementary school puts the American food system to shame. The cheese course with every meal seems to rivet Moore's attention. That plus the fact that sex education in France is rooted in pleasure. With immoderate glee, Moore compares the French approach to sex-ed with the abstinence-only programs in the U.S. that have resulted in one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the world. Sex and cheese, two things the French do best! What's not to love?
After this we're off to Finland, a country that radically revamped its education system in the mid-1970s. Schools largely did away with homework, cut the daily hours of attendance in schools, and watched their kids' scores soar to the top of the global best-educated list. In Slovenia, free university education has drawn American students who are unable to afford even a community college education in their home country. When the Slovenian government threatened to start charging tuition, the student uprising brought down the government.
Tuition hikes in Canada, Germany, France and Norway resulted in similar marching in the street. But in Canada and the U.S., tuition hikes seem to simply be a fact of life. The notion of education as a public good doesn't seem like a particularly radical idea, and young adults enter their working life with a financial load that is equivalent to being consigned to a debtor's prison.
Moore's tour continues throughout Europe with a visit to a German pencil factory (well-lit and sunny) and a Norwegian maximum-security prison, where guards and inmates are relaxed and friendly. In Portugal, the decision to end the war on drugs resulted in a precipitous drop in actual drug usage. No one has been sent to prison for drug-related crimes for the previous 15 years.
Moore compares this to the American example of the war on drugs that curiously came into being just as the civil rights movement was heating up. Suddenly, drug-related crimes resulted in countless black men being incarcerated and their right to vote taken away. The end result was the creation of a massive prison population that was put to work to serve corporations as varied as Victoria's Secret and Microsoft. Welcome to 21st century slavery.
Countries outside of Europe have embraced change, too. Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, ratified equal rights for women, an achievement that American women have sought unsuccessfully since 1979. It doesn't take too much imagination to draw a connective line between the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment to the current war on women's reproductive rights in America (as Moore points out, abortion in Tunisia has been legal since 1973.) The rights of women are often intimately tied to the state of the nation. As Tunisian radio journalist Amel Smaoui explains, women played a key role in the revolution, but when the Islamist party refused to honour women's rights the women of Tunisia fought back, taking to the streets.
Where women rule
Here's where the film hits its stride, looking at the example set by women around the world. Take Iceland, the first country in the world to democratically elect a woman president. Vigdís Finnbogadóttir's election came five years after the Women's Strike on Oct. 24, 1975, a rally for equal rights. This single event changed everything, because as one Icelandic woman noted, "When women don't work, nothing works."
Coincidentally enough, Iceland was one of the only countries in the world to penalize the bankers who brought the country to its financial knees in 2008. In Iceland, the banking system that was run by women put bankers in prison and saved the country. In Germany, it was ordinary workers who called out the corruption in the Volkswagen company. The examples of men and women changing things runs the gamut, from small moves like no email after regular working hours to the large shifts in modern history, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall.
As Moore points out, none of the ideas he discovers in his film -- unionized work, fair pay, equal rights, the elimination of the death penalty -- are new. The U.S. originated many of these things before it got lost in the madness of predatory capitalism. But can you really go home again? It is that simple? Maybe so! With Where to Invade Next, Moore has picked up the banner of hopefulness and is waving it proudly. It looks a lot like an American flag.