American Bigmouth

The right, and even some on the left, would love to shut up Michael Moore. But he aint budging

Moore and his two sisters (besides Anne, there's Veronica, who teaches early-childhood education) came by their politics more organically than theoretically. Growing up in Flint, the company town of what was then the world's largest corporation, General Motors, they witnessed firsthand the decline of paternalistic capitalism and the plight of the workers that became the subject of Roger & Me. At the same time, they were raised in what amounted to a mini–welfare state, where powerful unions took care of most of their members' basic needs, right down to prescription eyeglasses. No wonder there's so much fellow feeling between Moore and Canada, which has socialized medicine, not to mention Europe, where he is hugely popular. In England, Stupid White Men recently outsold soccer star David Beckham's biography, and with only a fraction of the marketing hype. Moore hotly denies that he's popular abroad because he's a lightning rod for anti-American sentiment. "The feedback I get," he says firmly, "is that people can distinguish between the American people and the American government."

It's not hard to understand why conservatives can't stand Moore and why there are several Web sites exclusively devoted to zealously combing his every speech, book and movie for inaccuracies. For all Moore's protestations that liberals are less nasty and more laid-back than conservatives, he is one of the few on the left who hacks away at the right with its own methods, and he's usually more to the point. While Matt Drudge pants away on his Web site trying to drum up sexual dirt on John Kerry, Moore is busy firing off "Dear George" letters out of his, calling Bush on his policies at home and abroad. He remains the left's only well-known shock jock. And it's unlikely that either Al Franken or Molly Ivins, both of whom have anti-Bush books on the best-seller lists, would have gotten the book deals they did without Moore's trailblazing hits. Moore lacks the intellectual chops of either, but he's a deft popularizer and a very funny guy.

Which may be one reason why so many liberals and leftists, at least those who are over 30, don't like him. One New York Times piece fingered him as a senior member of the "Bush-hating left," and Daniel Okrent, introducing himself as the paper's new ombudsman, wrote snootily, "I'd rather spend my weekends exterminating rats in the tunnels below Penn Station than read a book by either Bill O'Reilly or Michael Moore." And few on the left are likely to be amused by his "endorsement" of Oprah, Paul Newman or the Dixie Chicks for president. Moore has been dumped on by organs as disparate as Alexander Cockburn's shrill far-left rag Counterpunch and the staidly democratic-socialist Dissent, which last spring heaped scorn on Moore's confrontational tactics, sniffed at his gifts as an entertainer, and accused him of cynicism for railing at both political parties. This last is absurd—you only have to spend five minutes in Moore's company to realize that sincerity is one quality he possesses in spades.

But even in England, the liberal newspaper The Guardian last November suggested that Moore has gotten sloppy and become a "left-wing version of loud-mouthed ultra-conservative shock-jocks such as Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter." And in our sister paper LA Weekly, Marc Cooper recently dismissed Moore as "a bloviator" and "a self-promoting clown."

It's true that Moore has an ego the size of a house, though this hardly places him beyond the pale of most entertainers or politicians. It's true that there's a reductive vulgarity to some of his political analysis. His writing can be hurried and maddeningly simplistic, and he's not above venturing into territory he knows next to nothing about. (When I mention that his analysis of the Middle East conflict in Dude is a bit crude, he mumbles something about "writing for an American audience," a curious remark for a self-professed champion of the average American's intelligence.) He has a terrible habit of creating spurious correlations, then bumping them up into spurious causality—which is how he arrived at the much-lampooned conclusion in Bowling for Columbine that, because the bombing of Kosovo took place within hours of the Columbine shooting, there was an inescapable connection between United States foreign policy and the American obsession with guns.

Still, Moore is an activist, not a theorist, and one turns to activists for inspiration, not nuance. Moore should probably get out of the endorsement racket—he didn't do the general any good, and his target audiences seemed to pay little attention. The big trade unions endorsed Richard Gephardt, and when that failed, threw in their lot with Kerry. And the kids went with Dean before the primaries began. Moore's greatest gift is as a rabble-rousing orator, a figure sorely needed on the prim liberal-left. And for all his carefully crafted, yet utterly sincere, persona as a defender of the working stiff, his primary audience is not the unions or the average guy, but—like Dean's—highly educated youth in high schools and colleges who are looking for political leadership. Barry Glassner, a USC sociology professor whose book The Culture of Fear is the backbone of Bowling for Columbine, and who is seen in the movie walking around South LA with Moore to show we have nothing to fear from inner-city black men, says that once the movie was out he, like Moore, became a sort of folk hero to friends' teenage sons who hitherto had considered him beneath their notice. The overwhelming majority of venues on Moore's multicity tour are campuses. Rather defensively, he says that's because they have the auditorium space—but so do sports stadiums, and he rarely holds court there. Watch Moore do one of his dog-and-pony shows on a college campus, and you see why he has half the left-leaning youth of America eating out of his hand.

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