Less is Moore
By KYLE SMITH
New York Post
September 27, 2009
Who denies that Michael Moore is a communist? Not Michael Moore.
I gave him the opportunity to stake out a position for himself as a non-extremist at Alice Tully Hall on Monday night.
After a screening of "Capitalism: A Love Story" at this sparkling palace of capitalism (cocktails in the Morgan Stanley lobby, little black dresses in the Citi balcony), Tina Brown brought Moore onstage for a Q&A.
She posed a series of questions about his skill and daring, then invited the audience to query the filmmaker. I went to a mike and said (I am paraphrasing our chat), "I couldn’t help noticing that you use the Bolshevik anthem [‘The Internationale’] on the soundtrack at the end of your film. Wouldn’t you agree, though, that communism was far worse than Clinton-Bush era capitalism in the US?"
I thought this a softball question that any reasonable person would answer in the affirmative. I was surprised when I was hustled away for asking it.
Moore at first tried misdirection. He said, "That’s not a Bolshevik anthem."
This was a lie, but Moore scurried on.
He continued, "It’s a beautiful 19th Century French song."
The song was indeed written in the 19th century — by a French communist. And it was later used by the Bolsheviks and communists as the dinner music for their murderous rampage. It was effectively the national anthem of the early Soviet Union. You might not recognize the version in the film because it’s a cheesy, big-band, "Mad Men"-ish recording by singer Tony Babino. But the song is full of bloodthirsty lyrics about smiting the rich.
I told Moore, "But the Bolsheviks used it."
Moore opined that anyone can use any song for anything.
Roaming far from the point, he asked my last name ("Smith," I said. And the audience of Moore fans and employees laughed. I’m still trying to figure out why Smith is more hilarious than Moore). Moore said that just as people have misused the term Marxism, 100 years from now someone might use the term "Smithism" to mean something I wouldn’t have supported.
Ah. All of this blowing of smoke reminded me of the New Yorker profile that caught Moore being asked by a student why someone who denounced the "culture of fear" in "Bowling for Columbine" brought three bodyguards to protect him from the scary scholars of Cambridge University.
Moore said, "Why are they assuming that? Because they’re black?"
The New Yorker writer added drily that the three men "were, of course, security guards," perceiving that, "Moore seemed momentarily to panic — and his instinctive response was to attack, and then to say something just short of a lie, delivered in the form of a joke."
At Alice Tully Hall, I persisted, repeating my question: Wouldn’t Moore agree that communism was far more evil than the Bush-Clinton version of capitalism? Moore got testy and said, "I’m not going to answer that. That’s bull - - - t. It’s not about capitalism vs. communism. It’s about democracy vs. greed," or words to that effect.
I politely pointed out that since he had brought in an anthem associated with communism, his views on the matter seemed to be a valid point.
Tina Brown cut me off, saying it was time for the next question. A security guard moved in to shut off my mike. The last words I got in before I was hustled away were, "But, Mr. Moore, I’m only doing the same thing to you that you did to all those GM execs."
Moore replied, with hot sarcasm, "Oh, yeah. It’s JUST the same," but did not explain how I was different from him.
So it goes for the common man in Moore-ocracy. Communism cannot work without suppressing dissent, and Moore understands that. Question the supreme thinker and you’re ushered away. I’m glad Alice Tully Hall is not equipped with a Goldman Sachs Detention and Reeducation Center or I might be in it right now.
It’s too easy to argue that Moore is a hypocrite, a guy who wants to milk the system and carve it into steaks at the same time. But I don’t begrudge Moore his earnings. Being allowed to separate suckers from their money is one of the more entertaining privileges of capitalism. Entertainment Weekly reported he was paid $25 million to make "Sicko" — which was therefore a much more profitable experience for him than for the studio, which must have lost millions.
To call Moore a hypocrite, though, is like erecting a theme park in Flint, Mich. It assumes something that isn’t there. It’s not that he fails to live up to admirable standards. The standards themselves are discredited, diseased and immoral. They’re scraps of carrion he plucked off the ash-heap of history.
In his recent book, David Denby defined "Snark" as, in part, a system that fails to make an affirmative argument. Snarkists are back-of-the-class spitballers who go silent when asked to teach the class themselves.
Moore, whose resemblance to the Cowardly Lion is not just physical, cannot stand in the front of the room and define for us a new system of government to replace the one he finds so unbearable. ("I refuse to live in a country like this — and I’m not leaving," he tells us at the end of the film, though residence or departure are his only two options.) If he shouted the name of the system he apparently worships (his previous movie was as enraptured with Fidel Castro than "Shakespeare in Love" was with Gwyneth Paltrow), he would be the mockee instead of the mocker. He’d have to play defense instead of merely being offensive.
As it is, Moore drops hints that communism is kinda groovy while solemnly presenting a clip of an angry victim of foreclosure who speaks of armed uprising against banks (who is this guy, anyway? Does he have a criminal record? How many bills did he fail to pay and why? Given that foreclosure is a money-loser for banks, what pushed things this far?).
The majority of the liberal audience, which hates the same things Moore hates and laughs at the same things he finds funny (any image of George W. Bush, when shown to Moore fans, automatically causes titters or at least self-gratifying boos), feels so cozy in his company that they fail to ask themselves where Moore-ism leads.
Noted economics expert Wallace Shawn (best known as the scheming little man in "The Princess Bride," though I’ll always remember him as the rival Woody Allen dubbed "that homunculus" in "Manhattan") says in the movie that when you have capitalism, it very quickly becomes true that some enjoy five times the wealth of others. True. Some people work five times as hard as others or are five times as smart or five times as talented. Some have 5,000 times the wealth of others and some have five million times the wealth of others. But is 500% of the poverty line where the wrong kicks in, where the referee of government needs to step in and blow the whistle? Michael Moore is 5,000 times as rich as I am, and he can split his wealth with me if he likes. But few in the Alice Tully crowd would be pleased if confiscation of wealth began at the level Shawn and Moore seem to be suggesting. The crowd applauded the movie merrily, rattling their jewelry with delight, only because they know Moore lacks the power to get his ideas taken seriously by policymakers.
Nor is he likely to be taken seriously by his supposed new allies in the Catholic Church. The new film includes scenes of several priests and bishops denouncing capitalism, in harsh terms. "God will come down and eradicate it somehow," one vows. (If He allowed the Holocaust to happen, is He going to get worked up about Exxon-Mobil?) Moore is an ex-seminarian who, on Monday, said his faith was central to his politics.
But if the Church is an authority on capitalism, then it is equally an authority on abortion. What other Biblical arguments will Moore support? Will his next film explain how the universe was created in seven days or denounce men who lie with other men?
If the Church and the Bible aren’t political authorities, though, their arguments stand or fall by the same standards as anyone else’s: Whether they make sense. Moore doesn’t care to debate socialism — but he does present a recent poll that (apparently) showed 37% support of capitalism vs. 33% for socialism.
In reality, the Rasmussen poll taken in April, which appears to be the one Moore is referring to (his films are so sloppy about sourcing it’s difficult to check their claims), showed capitalism winning, 53-20 — but only by 37 to 33 among those under 30. So to Moore, voters over 30 don’t count? How does that work with his clarion call for "democracy"?
Another passage of "Capitalism: A Love Story" shows how large corporations buy life insurance for groups of employees, naming themselves as the beneficiary. Moore interviews a Wal-Mart employee who is grieving for her dead husband when she discovers that his employer insured the deceased, paid all the premiums, and can therefore now cash in.
Odd. But this isn’t Agatha Christie stuff. The companies aren’t suspected of murdering their clerks to make money. If the practice were made illegal, it wouldn’t benefit the poor employees in any way. It would simply make some rich corporations a little less rich. Moore may or may not remember this, but his last film was a denunciation of insurance companies. In this one, he’s saying Wal-Mart shouldn’t be allowed to make money from insurance companies. He’s like the nature channel Jerry Seinfeld used to do a routine about: When the leopard is the star, you root for the leopard. Go, leopard! Catch that wildebeest! The next week is about the wildebeest and you’re heartbroken if the leopard gets to eat lunch. What does it matter to Moore if this company or that one profits? What really seems to enrage him is that a lawyer tells him these contracts are called "dead peasant insurance."
Gazing down from his penthouse, through morose-colored glasses, Moore is a deeply confused individual. He segues from a piece on Franklin Roosevelt (where is Moore’s expose of this notorious bank bailer-outer?) to a clip of — er, Hurricane Katrina? What does that have to do with capitalism? Maybe if FDR had lived he could have halted the floodwaters. Or at least diverted them towards the wealthier suburbs of Houston.
Over footage of flooded New Orleans, Moore gravely informs us that when something like this happens, it’s always the poor who get hit. That sounds like an argument with God, not politics, but like most of Moore’s arguments it withers after a moment’s thought. As his film was rolling out, well-off Atlantans were under 18 feet of water. Or think of the Malibu wildfires. Think about what happened to a group of white-collar workers in downtown Manhattan, the ones who inspired the movie Moore made before "Sicko."
What’s most surprising about Moore’s latest is that he was standing in front of a big fat piñata with a chainsaw and made only noise, not damage. Even capitalism’s most ardent proponents fret about the moral hazard of failure being rewarded with bailouts, the dizzying leverage ratios that accelerated the crisis and the startling lack of linkage between compensation and performance of financial executives.
These are serious questions for serious times. Moore fancies himself a serious comedian. Instead, he gives us sketchy anecdotes about co-op bakeries where assembly-line workers make $65,000 a year, slogans about sit-down strikes and nudge-nudging about the need for violence ("Was this the beginning of a workers’ revolt against Wall Street?"). Then he wraps it all up with Team Lenin’s favorite fight song.
Moore thinks he is leading a march to the barricades, but there is no one following behind. He’s Will Ferrell in "Old School," running naked down the street with his misshapen, ugly little prejudices flopping and dangling in the night. "We’re streaking! We’re streaking!" Not we, Michael. Just you.