They're Afraid Of Michael Moore
By John Pilger
19 October, 2007
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 "anti-American".
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 Moore.
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"
"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 many
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 defenestration".
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 Günter 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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