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Michael Moore, Fictitious Guy?

How his slippery way with truth hurt his cause.

By Terry Glavin 17 Apr 2007 |

Terry Glavin's most recent book is Waiting for the Macaws and Other Stories from the Age of Extinctions (Penguin). His column for The Tyee, Dissent, appears twice monthly. You can find previous ones here.

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'Symbolic rebel'
  • Forgive Us Our Spins: Michael Moore and the Future of the Left
  • Jesse Larner
  • John Wiley & Sons (2006)

"We live in fictitious times."

This was what Michael Moore famously declared during his Oscars-night acceptance speech in 2003, the event that confirmed him as the most famous left-wing personality in America. "We live in a time where we have fictitious election results that elect a fictitious president," Moore said. "We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons."

Moore's Bowling for Columbine, the top-grossing documentary of all time, had just won the Oscar for best documentary, and Moore's Oscar speech was stirring. But there was a problem with it.

Michael Moore himself is a fictitious character.

His story is almost legend. He's that working class guy in a baseball cap from Flint, Michigan, the crusading journalist from a local alternative paper who got noticed and got hired as editor of the fashionably liberal magazine Mother Jones in San Francisco, then got fired for refusing to run an axe job on Nicaragua's boldly socialist Sandinista government.

Always the plucky one, Moore then used his severance money to make hard-hitting documentaries, most notably Fahrenheit 9-11, which outperformed even Columbine, grossing $200 million and winning the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, the first documentary to do so in a half-century.

Never mind that Moore actually grew up in Davison, a Flint suburb. That's small spuds (as author Jesse Larner found out when he went looking). Never mind that Moore has told at least 14 contradictory stories about why he was fired from Mother Jones magazine: because he refused to smear the Sandinistas, because he refused to condone violations of the magazine's union contract, because he was planning a series of articles critical of Israel, because several of the women on staff had complained about the magazine's "sexist" publisher...take your pick.

The story that launched Moore's ascent into the American celebrity firmament was Roger and Me, his searing documentary indictment of American capitalism. The whole story revolves around Moore's many earnest and shambling attempts to get an interview with Roger Smith, the ruthless, plant-closing, layoff-notice-issuing, scorched-earth-policy General Motors chairman.

That whole story, it turns out, revolves around a fiction.

Moore actually did interview Smith. At least once (according to Ralph Nader and CNN). But in Roger and Me, all you see is Moore schlepping his hard-luck way through the ruins of America's industrial heartland in that charming and dishevelled way of his. The truth ended up on the cutting room floor.

Symbolic rebellion

Moore's shameless dissembling, sleight-of-hand and bait-and-switch gambits carry through his various forays into television and books, and right on through Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9-11. For all his strident proclamations against the evils of corporate America, Moore's stock holdings have run the gamut from pharmaceutical giants Pfizer, Merck and Ely Lilly, defence contractors Haliburton, Honeywell and General Electric, the oil giant Sunoco, and even the dreaded McDonald's.

What is disturbing about all this is not so much that Moore's been having everyone on from the very beginning. It's that his legions of fans failed to notice, or simply chose not to. Or maybe both. Whatever the case, Moore's endorsement is now the kiss of death for any serious politician in the United States. So recently a hero, there's an unmistakable whiff of carrion about Moore now.

Jesse Larner is a progressive New York journalist whose Forgive Us Our Spins: Michael Moore and the Future of the Left tries to make sense of what all this means. Debbie Melnyk and Rick Caine are two Canadian documentary filmmakers, both with similarly impressive credentials as liberal-left journalists, who found themselves confronting disturbing questions of their own while researching their just-finished documentary about Moore, Manufacturing Dissent.

When Larner set out to describe the phenomenon that Moore represents, he settled on this: "The problem for Americans who are interested in politics, and who are not conservative, is that Moore has so thoroughly captured the market for symbolic rebellion. This kind of rebellion is more about the confirmation of identities taken on through assumed, highly reductionist common "truths" (No blood for oil!) than it is about understanding what is happening and changing it for the better."

When you're concerned more with symbols than with the real world, you don't have to be accountable for the real-world consequences of your actions. It's that irresponsibility that persists in Ralph Nader campaigners, Moore among them, whose vote-splitting is the reason Al Gore lost and George W. Bush got elected to the White House in the first place, back in 2000.

'The big split'

For Melnyk and Caine -- both of whom began their research as admirers of Moore -- the story they ended up with exposes a deep division in the left, one that is not confined to the United States: "For us, the big split is between the thoughtful left and the thoughtless, blind following left," Melnyk told me the other day. And there's an obvious lesson: "We should stop following people blindly. We should start thinking for ourselves again."

Caine also attributes the rise of Moore-style polemics to the decline of mainstream, honest journalism. The shuttering of dozens of international bureaus, the increasing reliance on syndicated news, and the rise of media chains and conglomerates has left serious journalism at a grave disadvantage. It's easily replaced with cheap entertainment, celebrity gossip, pundit panels and hotline blowhards.

"This really is a critical question of our time," Caine said. "When you're in the trenches and there's a culture war going on and you're willing to lie for the cause, then where does that leave the voters?"

In Bowling for Columbine, Moore draws elaborate connections between the weapons-manufacturing plants in the vicinity of Littleton, Colorado, where the 1999 Columbine High School massacre occurred, and a series of savage American overseas adventures through the 20th century. He throws in the Enron scandal, racist cops, the Ku Klux Klan and the National Rifle Association, and voila: guns don't kill people. People don't even kill people. Americans kill people.

But, as Larner observes, "when you take away the fun and games and ideological agenda, the images aren't necessarily attached to anything in the real world." Once you cut your moorings from all those old-fashioned ideas about honesty, truth, the facts and accuracy, it's amazing what you can get away with.

You can present Canada as a kind of peaceable socialist kingdom, for instance, where people have a great health care system and leave their doors unlocked and hardly ever shoot each other, despite owning more guns than Americans do. Self-loathing leftish Americans eat this stuff up. So do self-righteous Canadians.

But to maintain this fiction, you have to carefully ignore the fact that Canadians tend to own long-gun hunting rifles, not handguns, which are banned in Canada but are ubiquitous in America. You also have to ignore the reason Canada banned handguns, which was that we were killing each other with them as enthusiastically as Americans.

"The emotional pull of a thesis doesn't mean it explains anything," Larner points out. But it sure brings in the bling and piles on the fame: Columbine won awards at the Vancouver and Toronto film festivals, and at festivals in Australia, Sweden, Norway and Brazil.

Revolutionary demands

Canadian philosophers Joseph Health and Andrew Potter, in The Rebel Sell: Why the Culture Can't be Jammed, get straight to the heart of the damage Moore does: "For Moore, the Columbine massacre was not simply a criminal act, it was an indictment of all American society and history.... Not only does he insist upon revolutionary change in the culture, he rejects anything less."

Didn't Columbine change anything? Clearly nothing for the better, Larner concludes. What you take away from a Michael Moore film is no more and no less than what you came in with. If you're "conservative," you'll be offended and insulted. If you're a "liberal," you'll have your comfortable assumptions confirmed.

Moore is particularly popular in Canada, precisely because he tells us what we like to hear about ourselves. Moore likes Canada so much (his one feature film hit was the comedy Canadian Bacon) he's practically turned our country into a fetish object -- a weirdly romanticized funhouse mirror for Americans to look at themselves and see a bunch of violent, warmongering, half-witted oafs. If you want to understand why certain American conservative windbags hate Canada so much, you could do worse than watch a Michael Moore movie.

Similarly, if you want to understand why certain European pseudo-intellectuals like Michael Moore so much, read Moore's Stupid White Men. It encourages their contempt for America, and they lap it up -- Stupid White Men sold a million copies in Germany, far more than it sold in the United States.

In Fahrenheit 9-11, Moore's dissembling was in hyperdrive before the film was even released. Moore falsely claimed that the Disney Corporation, which funded the movie, had refused to distribute it at the last minute because it was too hot to handle. Moore's public-relations machine alleged that Disney was worried it would lose its tax breaks in Florida, where President Bush's brother Jeb is governor.

Moore later admitted that indeed, a year before the film was finished, Disney had made it clear it wasn't interested in the distribution rights. That work went to Mirimax and Lions Gate Films, which made a killing.

Lovely Baghdad

There's no question that Fahrenheit 9-11 succeeds in making Bush look like a complete idiot, and Moore pays much closer attention to the facts than he did with Columbine. But the film is every bit as deceitful. Baghdad is presented as a place of sidewalk cafés and kite-flying children before the 2003 invasion. The Iraq war is presented as merely a sinister grab for supplies of cheap oil, undertaken on behalf of the Saudis by their puppets in the White House.

There are millions of nominally "left-wing" Americans who actually believe this rubbish, and if Moore was just subjecting a pack of suckers to a cinematic shakedown like some latter-day P.T. Barnum, that would be one thing. But the reduction of left-wing discourse to the level of puerile conspiracy theory has its consequences.

The way Caine and Melnyk reckon things, for every simpleton that Fahrenheit 9-11 motivated to vote Democrat, it transformed two softcore conservatives into hardcore Republicans out of sheer disgust. If Moore put a spring in the step of certain liberal activists, he also mobilized hordes of right-wing bloggers and provided America's redneck punditry with a nearly inexhaustible supply of evidence for left-wing lunacy.

Here's the way Larner puts it: "For those viewers who despised both Bush and Moore it was absolutely maddening that just when Bush was vulnerable to a thousand legitimate attacks, Moore chose to waste the cultural moment and six million Disney dollars on overhyped connections and ahistorical polemics that the right could easily refute."

And so it came to pass that on Nov. 2, 2004, George W. Bush was returned to the White House. It would be facile to lay this at the feet of Michael Moore, of course. But the "truthiness" he represents, and the celebrity-ridden, populist politics in which he thrives, has everything to do with it.

Right at the moment in American history when the power of the big media corporations was being seriously undermined by new forms of media -- everything from political-commentary blogs to easily-produced film documentaries -- the American left had no compelling narrative to offer.

It was crippled by its retreat into identity politics and the postmodernist acceptance of a world where there is no universal truth, where facts don't matter, everything is relative, and all reality is contingent and constructed. Just like a Michael Moore documentary.

In a world like that, there's little use for proper journalism. In a world like that, documentaries have little value except to entrench pre-ordained narratives and affirm political identities. Advocacy journalism becomes the work of telling your side what it wants to hear instead of what it might actually need to know.

'Serious about truth'

It's all perfectly democratic, of course, and tailor-made for the marketplace. You get to pick the propaganda you want. You'll find demagogues like Anne Coulter, Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly down one aisle, and the equally fatuous and shrill Cindy Sheehan, Michael Moore and Rosie O'Donnell down the other aisle. Take your pick.

But the American left had been crippled by something else as well -- its persistent humiliation and betrayal. Since the 1960s, only two Democrats have occupied the White House -- Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Republican appointees dominate the judiciary, and last November's elections gave Democrats only a hair's-breadth control of Congress -- the first time they'd managed to edge out a Republican majority in more than a decade.

This has created what Larner calls "a hole in the heart of American politics." The Democratic Party is not, in the main, of the left. It is not for a steeply graduated income tax, or a single-payer health care system, or full equality for gay people. It doesn't stand firmly with labour unions and working people, and will not rise against the baleful influence of evangelical Christians.

That hole in the American heart has also left the reigning American conservatives dangerously enfeebled: "In the absence of any coherent popular and intellectual challenge," Larner writes, "it has descended into a lazy and bullying triumphalism."

So where to go?

"If Democrats want to regain power, they will have to be serious about truth," Larner concludes. "They will have to start aggressively calling out the grievous distortions of the right-wing propagandists who have gotten away with a duplicitous game for far too long, but also calling out the distortions of those in their own camp who justify means by ends. When Democrats win, it is in spite of Michael Moore, not because of him."

Melnyk told me that she and Caine reached similar conclusions. What they found in their documentary was an American society mired in warring, almost tribal factions, with each side soaking up its own preferred propaganda, and very little honest debate percolating to the surface.

"How is this moving anything forward?" Melnyk asked. "They're just going to end up with another moron in the White House."