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Big Fat Stupid White Man?

BY MICHAEL MANVILLE
08.01.2004 | BOOKS

Michael Moore is a Big Fat Stupid White Man
By David T. Hardy and Jason Clarke
Regan Books, 240 Pages, $22.95

Halfway through Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 there is a shot of a lone state trooper keeping vigil over thousands of miles of Oregonian coast. The trooper looks wholly inadequate to the task, a sense compounded by a deadpan tour of his empty station. Because of public-safety cutbacks, Moore tells us, Oregon has been left dangerously unprotected. Homeland Security, he says, is a sham.

It's a funny scene, and I'm sympathetic to the argument. But I also know that Oregon has almost no police because its residents, in a referendum held last year, refused to raise their own taxes--a selfish decision that had nothing to do with the federal government. For that matter, Oregon is surrounded by California and Washington. What "border" was Moore talking about? The ocean? That's the jurisdiction of the Coast Guard, not the state police. And what exactly was Moore's concern? That al Qaeda was going to storm the beaches in Zodiac rafts? This from a man whose last movie was a harangue against fearmongering?

The scene was vintage Moore. The facts don't add up but the shot looks good, so let's roll tape and hope no one notices. Moore wants his viewers angry, not educated, and he represents what he claims to loathe, which is the triumph of imagery over substance.

We all know that Michael Moore hails from working-class Flint, Michigan, and uses that rust belt city to illustrate many of his concerns about capitalism. We know that he made Roger & Me, the darkly comic film that exposed General Motors' callousness when it left Flint behind; that he made the short-lived television series TV Nation; and that he wrote, directed and starred in the ferocious Bowling for Columbine--an impassioned film about gun violence--before turning his attention to the Bush Administration.

What we might not know about Michael Moore is that he grew up in Flint's much more prosperous suburb of Davison; or that he lives not in Michigan but in a million-dollar Manhattan apartment, with only occasional escapes to a million-dollar lakefront house in his home state; or that the timeline of Roger & Me was largely invented; or that he fought his employees at TV Nation when they tried to unionize; or that much of Bowling for Columbine was simply untrue, the product of deceptive editing and omitted facts. (The infamous Lockheed plant in Littleton, Colorado, makes rockets for launching satellites, not missiles. The NRA was not founded as part of the Ku Klux Klan. And so on.)

Michael Moore Is a Big Fat Stupid White Man is a strange and snide book, which in many ways is fitting, since Moore is himself a strange and snide man. Some of the book's contributions are tiresome (has Andrew Sullivan ever had anything to say?), some are inexplicable (a college senior weighs in with an essay that reads like it was written by a college senior) and there are a few too many lame zingers. Almost nothing in the book could be called sophisticated. But the authors don't want to be sophisticated; they want you to know that Moore is a liar and a hypocrite.

Is he? Moore has called Charlton Heston, who marched with Martin Luther King, a racist. He decries the politics of fear and makes movies laden with sinister inferences. He lashes out at doublespeak but only rarely musters a coherent argument of his own. Most of all, he lopes and shuffles through his films as an advocate of the American people, but he doesn't seem to like the American people, and he seems to dislike in particular the working class he claims to come from. Plenty of urbane, sophisticated people hold conservative views, but Moore always manages to trot out some rube with bad teeth and a funny accent when he needs to air the Republican side. It's hard not to see this as a wink to his liberal-cosmopolitan audiences, a reassurance to those of us who have college degrees and like ethnic cuisine that we are correct after all, and that it's only the bumpkins and the sellouts who disagree.

Moore is also wildly popular, and this makes him unsettling for liberals, since we ostensibly prize nuance and fair play. What do we make of this man who distorts and condescends, who has all of Orwell's ferocity, few of his good manners and almost none of his allegiance to accuracy? On the one hand we can just call him our O'Reilly, our Limbaugh, our own version of all the right-wing stooges who parade nightly across our TVs. We can say he is a small price to pay for an end to the Bush administration, that one liar deserves to be taken down by another.

But this gives Moore both too much credit and too little. Toward the end of Fahrenheit 9/11, we see pictures that we don't see anywhere else. Soldiers disappear into the flames of a detonating bomb. Soldiers lie on dirty streets with their insides hanging out. Children wail on hospital gurneys after an air raid while doctors hold their small heads together. Homes destroyed; prisoners humiliated; the widening of a woman's eyes as a machine gun is pointed at her and soldiers enter her home to take her husband away.

This is our war, and it is fair to ask why we need Michael Moore, of all people, to show it to us. These images, which should be so central to our lives and the way we think of ourselves as a nation--which show both what we're doing and what it's doing to us--are nowhere to be found on network tv. They have been pushed to the margins, and now only a marginal figure can bring them forward. We have all made room for Moore; because the mainstream media refused to make the honest case against Bush's war, Moore has stepped up and made the dishonest one. He is the logical conclusion to our debased public discourse, the highest evolution of a politics that wants to leer rather than listen. Moore's conscience should not rest easy over his film, but the ground he has seized is only available because we abdicated it.

About the Author
Michael Manville's writing has appeared in a number of online and print publications. He lives in Los Angeles.
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