Forgive Us Our Spins: Michael Moore and the Future of the Left
by Jesse Larner
The Loud Mouth
A review by Jamie Malanowski
Jesse Larner is a learned writer of an unquestionably intellectual bent who has contributed articles to the Nation and appears on NPR and the BBC. He has just written a solid, thoroughly researched, amply annoted book called Forgive Us Our Spins: Michael Moore and the Future of the American Left, in which he examines Moore as a person, writer, filmmaker, and thinker, and in all respects finds him wanting. Larner portrays Moore as an influential political figure who commands a large audience, but whose work is fatally flawed by methodological liberties that the arrogant, narcissistic Moore felt free to take. In addition, Larner says that Moore promulgates political positions that lack nuance and insight and which are not only wrong but which are also ultimately counterproductive to the causes Moore seemingly supports. "That Moore is so profoundly unsatisfying when it comes to taking on these vital issues in the real world, as opposed to the playground world of entertainment and the emotionally satisfying world of incitement," writes Lerner, "is a measure of his ultimate failure to offer a stable and effective pole of attraction in American politics." Nor has he figured out the secrets of cold fusion, Larner may as well have added.
Gosh, call me naïve, but if this isn't a case of hunting flies with a howitzer, I haven't seen one. You can say Moore isn't funny, you can say he's wrong, you can say, as Larner convincingly does, that Moore is a cheater, you can say, as Bernard Goldberg does, that Moore ranks first among the 110 people who are screwing up America, but it's hard to blame Moore for failing to offer a stable and effective pole of attraction in American politics, a goal that has recently eluded Al Gore, John Kerry, Howard Dean, Nancy Pelosi and many, many more. A bit outside his job description, eh?
Moore represents a fairly new phenomenon in our culture. He is among that select group of communicators who have parlayed themselves into positions in the new, exploding media environment that didn't quite exist before. Think of them as hybrids: Where once we had political operatives like Lyn Nofzinger and Lee Atwater, anchormen like Walter Cronkite, pundits like the Alsops, and comedians like Mort Sahl, all tending to their plots in the garden, now we have political opundits like Tony Snow and David Gergen, comedidits like Rush Limbaugh and Steven Colbert and Al Franken, anchoredians like Keith Olbermann and Jon Stewart. One might throw the aptly named Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger into this group as well. It's proving to be a congenial era for people who have both skills and an act.
Michael Moore, documedian, is among the most successful of this new breed. As Larner recounts, Moore for many years was the editor of an alternative weekly newspaper in Flint, Mich. He parlayed his skills as a journalist, muckraker, and gadfly into a job as editor of Mother Jones, where his managerial and personal shortcomings were quickly exposed in an unusually short-lived tenure. Nevertheless, he was able to take his severance payment and underwrite Roger and Me, a documentary about General Motor's purported indifference to the economic devastation that resulted from the closing of a General Motors plant in Flint. The film is most memorable for Moore's hilariously audacious efforts to talk to GM's chairman, Roger Smith, and the bureaucratic obstacles that thwarted him.
Moore worked the success of Roger and Me into a couple of bestselling books, two short-lived television shows, and another acclaimed documentary, Bowling for Columbine, about guns in America. All of this work established, as Larner shrewdly calls it, the Michael Moore brand -- satirical humor grounded not so much in wisecracks or jokes but in the juxtaposition of real words and images that expose falsity and hypocrisy. These images are brought to us by Moore, in the character of a scruffy, overweight true son of the heartland. (To say he adopted the character is not to imply that Moore did anything false, but that by adopting a consistent appearance and wardrobe, Moore, like the Stetson-hatted Will Rogers or the cardigan-wearing Mort Sahl, signaled his comic persona.) Then, in 2004, Moore released his piece de resistance, Fahrenheit 9/11, a funny, sick-making, devastating answer to Bush administration's responses to the 9/11 attacks, including especially the invasion of Iraq. The film contains Moore's most brilliant moment as a satirist, his decision to include the raw, unedited footage of the president continuing to sit and read The Pet Goat after having been informed of the attack on the World Trade Center. This will surely be one of the enduring images of this progressively ineffective presidency.
Sadly, for those of us who enjoy Moore's work, he cheats. In the most devastating part of the book, Larner (drawing mostly on the work of other journalists) offers numerous examples of important moments in Moore's films where he changes things, takes them out of context, unfairly edits film, and more. For example, in Roger and Me, the organizing principle of the film is that Smith staunchly avoids speaking to Moore. In fact, Smith at one point did speak to Moore, about tax abatements, an untidy fact that never made it into the film. In Bowling for Columbine, Moore conflates two speeches by NRA president Charlton Heston, delivered more than a year apart, and edits them together such that Heston appears to be talking about prying his gun "from his cold, dead hands" in a traumatized Denver 10 days after the Columbine shootings. In Fahrenheit 9/11, he says that representatives of the Taliban were "welcomed" to the United States five months before the World Trade Center attacks. Not true: They met with State Department officials, but their request for diplomatic recognition was rejected. He also included footage of Bush delivering a fundraising speech in which, baring his cynical soul, he says ,"this is an impressive crowd of the haves and have-mores. Some call you the elite; I call you my base." Missing was any indication that Bush was engaging in a moment of self-parody, moments after Al Gore, in the same spirit, had just bragged about his invention of the Internet. Moore has explanations and defenses for these and other transgressions, but they don't hold water. Moore's stuff is funny because we think it's real. Oh, we know it's colored and maybe even slanted, but at some fundamental level, the stuff would pass journalistic muster. If we don't think it's real, we're not laughing, and if we're not laughing, we're not buying the Michael Moore brand. And unfortunately for Moore, even just one manipulation casts a shadow on the credibility of his entire work. It's hard to think that Moore's next project, whenever it appears, won't be viewed more skeptically.
Beyond the methodological issues, Larner has problems with Moore's thinking on key issues. "[T]he most serious problem with Moore as spokesman for a vital, popular and forward-looking left, and that is his failure to grasp the meaning of the war on terror." He disagrees with Moore's pacifism, with Moore's objection to war in Afghanistan to eliminate the Taliban, with Moore's failure to recognize the brutality of Saddam Hussein's regime as a sufficient reason for going to war in Iraq, with Moore's willingness to accuse Bush of waging war for business interests, and with many other positions Moore has taken. Larner says that these positions are wrong in themselves, but that they prevent "the decent left," in Peter Beinart's phrase -- that is, the left that believes in the war -- to succeed.
Well, first, I don't know why anyone who is against the war should muffle his views so that people who do believe in the war, be they on the left or the right, should prevail. Second, the problem with the phrase "Moore as a spokesman for a vital, popular and forward-looking left" is that there is no vital, popular and forward-looking left, and that Moore, if he's a spokesman for anything, is for an angry mass that doesn't like Bush, what he stands for, or what he's done, but cannot find a better spokesman to rally behind. Third, if anyone thinks Moore is a spokesman for the left, it's the Republican right and its myrmidons in the media who want to belittle him and denigrate him. The reason they want to do that is because he draws blood. For all that he's a loose cannon, the clever, incisive Moore is an effective weapon. Fahrenheit 9/11 was a barrage that had Bush reeling, and had John Kerry not been so ineffective, the film may have been the lever that would have unseated the president.
I don't want Michael Moore making policy. I think he's wrong on a lot of issues. And I deeply resent that he resorted to manipulations to make points in his film that, if he had enough discipline, he probably could have made in other ways. But Michael Moore has guts, courage, and, as Aristotle tells us, courage is the virtue that makes all the other virtues possible. At a time when the Bush administration had effectively manipulated and scare-mongered his allies, his opponents, the news media, and the population in general into a war in Iraq that they have criminally mismanaged, Moore stood up and said, "This emperor has no clothes." That's a good enough record for me.
The problem for progressives in this country, and for this country in general, is not that Moore has shortcomings. The problem is that he was ever necessary.
Jamie Malanowski is the managing editor of Playboy. His novel The Coup will be published by Doubleday in the spring.
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