Reflections on Michael Moore
Recently I've been reading some of the British blogs
associated with the Euston Manifesto
, which is a subject I'd like to take up in more depth at a later date (I've got a copy of Nick Cohen's What's Left
on order but the busy elves at Amazon have told me that it's going to be a few weeks before it arrives). I'm interested in all this for the purposes of contemplating the exceedingly difficult position in which the liberal/social democratic left finds itself with regard to terrorism and anti-totalitarianism globally - though one thing I'll note is that the Euston folks seem to underestimate the degree of difference between the American and British political contexts.
At any rate, I finally got around to checking out the Euston-associated journal Democratiya
, beginning with David Adler's review
of Jesse Larner's book
about Michael Moore (Adler's own blog is here
). I was a Moore fan long before he crashed the global Zeitgeist with Fahrenheit 9/11
. Roger & Me
made a huge impression, and I vividly remember my slack-jawed delight at the very idea that TV Nation
could make it onto the mainstream airwaves - even if only for a short run.
So it's with some reluctance that I've come to admit my growing disenchantment with the slovenly fellow in the baseball cap, as Dinesh D'Souza (wanker) called him. Some of it was a result of the frankly bizarre logic of Bowling for Columbine
. Some of it came from silly arguments in F9/11
- like the suggestion that the US invaded Afghanistan in order to build an oil pipeline. And some was the product of being forced to admit that Moore has, many times, had a less-than-perfect relationship with the facts.
Still, I won't throw my lot in with the anti-Moore fanatics of the right, who are many times more mendacious than he. The man may be wrong, but that's no reason to take up with the bad faith of his conservative critics. And the same applies to dishonest liberal critics.
So it was kind of a relief to read Adler's article. Honestly, given the energy the Euston circle expends on attacking portions of the anti-war left, I had expected something of a hit piece. Instead, it's a balanced, conscientious review of what appears to be a balanced, conscientious book. Both Larner and Adler seem to be determined not fall into cheap attacks on Moore, nor do they intend to allow their criticism to give cover to rightist cretins.
Much of Larner's book is evidently focused on a biographical examination of Moore and his work - and the flaws in that work. Both authors make the point that Moore is not some anti-American ideologue - rather, he's an entertainer whose arguments can be all over the map. Adler aptly uses Stephen Colbert's term 'truthiness' to characterize Moore's style, which often seems to rely on appeals to what we know we know
, rather than what might actually hold up under scrutiny. I won't delve into the analysis here - you should read it yourself
. I only want to comment very briefly on the role that Moore has played for the American left in recent years.
Larner's book compares Moore to the attention-seeking British leftist politician George Galloway. He does not argue that they are perfectly analogous - again, where Galloway is an ideologue, Moore is not. The Respect Party MP is inarguably a loathesome character, whereas Moore just tends to be irresponsible. But in one respect - especially for Americans - they have played a similar role. Adler refers to Larner's analysis:
He begins with George Galloway's blustery and evasive Senate testimony in May 2005, which many on the left greeted 'like water in the parched desert of American politics' (p. 215). After exposing Galloway's appalling anti-democratic record, Larner presses the case that Moore is a kinder, gentler version, whose 'very unserious' arguments about terrorism have harmed the left's standing with the American public.
This is the thing. When Galloway testified in Washington, I was fully aware of his own disgraceful record. But the Republican Senators grilling him were hardly any more sympathetic - and it was in some ways immensely gratifying to finally see someone - anyone - treating them and their stupid warmongering enthusiasms with the contempt they deserved. It would be hyperbolic to compare it to seeing the Soviets and the Nazis duke it out, so let's put it in Mets terms: watching the Yankees play the Braves, one feels nothing more than a fervent desire to see them both
Michael Moore, with Fahrenheit 9/11
, filled a void that nobody else
at that time was willing to fill. When nobody in American public discourse - not even our "respectable" liberal intellectuals - was willing to point out that the Iraq war was stupid and wrong, F9/11
was there. There was a time not so long ago when the organs of the mainstream American left were cheerleading right along with the neocons. No wonder the film was so popular: our public conservation was dry indeed, so how can you blame millions of Americans for taking up the only relief they could find?
I believe in agency. I don't think that the left has been shut out of the national dialogue because of some capitalist conspiracy or cosmic injustice. Since the 1960s, we've simply done a terrible job at political organization and media penetration. We have ourselves to blame - and I include myself, remembering how much I used to care about marching against bad things and how little I used to care about the practical elements of electoral politics or message-making.
Still, Moore succeeded because his was practically the only prominent voice against the war at a time when the entire American political class had abdicated its responsibility. Likewise, when Adler asks, "Will well-intentioned liberals continue to ally with International A.N.S.W.E.R. and The World Can't Wait, entities that may as well have been dreamed up by Ann Coulter to discredit the left?" - I agree with him, but for a long while there it looked like those old Trotskyists were the only opposition to the insane official line. And if the Democrats, having been elected with a clear mandate to end the Iraq war, find themselves unwilling to make clearly the case for bringing the troops home, I fear the A.N.S.W.E.R. crowd - foolish as they are - will only look vindicated in the eyes of many.
But this is drifting off the point. The question is: what should American liberals make of Michael Moore? Here I think Adler draws the right conclusion, but for the wrong reasons. Says Adler:
His narrative points to a slackening of intellectual and moral standards that must be challenged by the left, or it will continue to be used as a cudgel by the right.
This reminds me of Reagan's famous '11th Commandment': the dictum that conservatives should have no enemies on the right. I've often chewed over whether and how liberals should apply this reasoning to the left. The more I think about it, the more it strikes me as an essentially right-wing mindset: victory matters more than truth.
Victory does matter. But so does truth. For liberals, victory without truth is not victory at all. Sloppy logic and faulty moral standards like those sometimes propagated by Moore should be challenged, but not because we fear they will be used as a cudgel by the right. They should be challenged because they are wrong. The right will always
slander the left, whether we are honest or not. So we might as well be honest, because that way we'll be stronger, and we'll look
stronger too - acting on the basis of our values and the truth, not on the basis of what we fear conservatives will say about us.
And this points back to the reasons for Moore's success. He was wrong, but he acted without fear of what the right would say about him. And that was admirable. If more of our liberal intellectuals had had that kind of courage, we might not ever have needed a Michael Moore at all.
Labels: Democratiya, Euston Manifesto, Iraq, Michael Moore, progressives