posted to www.marxmail.org on September 15, 2003
I had been meaning to say a few words about Michael Moore after watching "Bowling for Columbine" on DVD, so I am glad the subject has come up.
Moore has come under attack from various sectors of the left from time to time. For example, the social-democratic Dissent magazine ran an article by Kevin Mattson that can be read at: http://www.dissentmagazine.org/menutest/archives/2003/sp03/mattson.htm
Filled with the usual complaints about factual errors, etc. in his films and books, the main complaint seems to be this, especially telling in light of the business about Wesley Clark:
"Moore's cynicism seems to conflict with his hopes for political change. And here he joins a major tendency in contemporary left-wing political criticism. Moore is one of the loudest to argue there is no difference between the Republican and Democratic parties. So in Downsize This!, Moore coins the word Republicrats (a mantra among Naderites) and rips quotes out of context to make Democrats sound anti-liberal. He lambastes Ted Kennedy for arguing against open immigration and then contrasts his statement with pro-immigration statements of Newt Gingrich and then-governor of Texas George W. Bush. This is, of course, a far more complex issue than Moore acknowledges."
When I rented "Bowling for Colombine", I wasn't that enthusiastic despite being a big fan of Moore's. Perhaps it was my lingering affinity for that bit of Trotskyist ideology that made opposition to gun control laws tantamount to support for the transitional program--I just wasn't looking forward to a 2-hour sermon against guns.
This film is not so much about guns as it is about homicide. By looking at the social history of Colombine, Moore was able to identify some of the key elements of an empire in decline. When future historians of a socialist America look back into the past in order to figure out what made this dysfunctional society tick, they will study this film in the same manner that other historians study comedies from the Roman Empire. In the final analysis, Moore is examining our own bread and circuses, an important element of which is public spectacles involving Fear and Hatred of the Other.
In a key scene he interviews the producer of Fox Television's "Cops", a weekly show that films mostly white cops on the beat rounding up mostly minority criminals, from drug dealers to auto thieves. When Moore tells the producer that the program does not take into account the reality of declining minority crime rates, or the achievements of minorities against all odds in a racist society, the producer agrees with him. So, Moore follows up, why not make a show that tells the truth about the real criminals, namely the Enrons and Worldcom executives of the world. He replies that it would never get advertisers, let alone backing from Fox TV. Of course, this was exactly the format of Moore's own television show, which was dumped unceremoniously by Fox TV about a decade ago.
The other interesting aspect of Moore's documentary is its ability to "only connect", as E.M. Forster once put it. We learn that a grade schooler takes his uncle's gun to school and kills a classmate in Flint, Michigan, Moore's home town. The child's single mother has not been able to look after him properly since after having been thrown off the welfare rolls she has been forced to work 2 jobs. It turns out that the company that has been involved in creating a labor pool for these ex-welfare recipients is Lockheed, the arms manufacture and main employer in Colombine.
I have no idea what Moore's understanding of Marxism is. I do know that his webmaster was subbed to this mailing list for a year or so and I used to have frequent email exchanges with him. He told me that he relied on the list for inspiration and information.
I also had contact with Moore himself back in 1990 shortly after he had been canned by Mother Jones magazine for refusing to print a Sandinista-bashing article by Paul Berman. I was organizing a big debate in NYC with Berman on behalf of the NY Nicaragua Solidarity Committee. I have no idea who persuaded me to look elsewhere, but I ended up inviting Professor John Weeks, a Latin America and Nicaragua expert recommended by the rapidly "evolving" NACLA magazine.
Weeks is also a big-time expert on Marxist economics and developed a reputation as a critic of "dependency theory" in the 1970s when the Brenner thesis was all the rage. On the night of the debate Weeks made a fool of himself and us for inviting him. He spent his entire time explaining why there was not really a revolution in Nicaragua--something that the CIA seems to have lost sight of. What Weeks missed and what Moore would have presumably brought to the event was an appreciation for how ordinary people had struggled to change their lives for the better.
The Sandinista revolution demonstrated to me most effectively that in order for a revolutionary movement to succeed it has to communicate with the most oppressed layers of society in terms that are meaningful to them. This means eschewing jargon and symbols that belong to some other time and some other place, Russia 1917 in particular.
This is something that Moore clearly understands and that our movement still needs to learn.