American Bigmouth

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

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We pull up to a side entrance at Occidental, and Moore is up and out of the car, loping toward a room off the auditorium, where he's scheduled to speak to a small group of local journalists. Press conferences don't bring out the best in him. Moore doesn't seem to understand that journalists get paid to ask awkward questions and refuse to be seduced. He's a man who desperately wants to be loved, and if he sees criticism, he assumes attack, and responds in kind. For someone who gets down on Howard Dean for being prickly, he's awfully sensitive himself. One unfortunate fellow makes the mistake of asking Moore about reports of inaccuracies in his work.

"These are not critics, but people who disagree with me politically," he tosses off testily, and launches into a checklist of the teams of fact checkers he employs, and the fact that in all four of his books there hasn't been a single lawsuit against him, and that his opinions might be wrong, but the facts are right. He alludes mysteriously to the good works he does in private, then slips in a coy disclaimer: "But I don't like to talk about them in public." When this fails to bring them round, he says, "And now it's time for me to play you a song," and closes out with a round of "Lean On Me," which is met with a less-than-appreciative silence.

The huge auditorium, on the other hand, is packed to capacity and buzzing with excitement—the Mohawk on a young man sitting behind me fairly quivers with anticipation. A sizable overflow crowd mills about outside, and Moore does what he's done at almost every public appearance on this tour—he goes out and gives them a potted version of his speech. Inside, his staff has set up a hilarious clip from Moore's television show The Awful Truth, in which Arab-looking gas-station attendants ("Undercutting the Infidel Since '91!") offer heartland Americans "Saddam Gas for Food" to be distributed to the Iraqi people.

Back inside, Moore is greeted with a standing ovation from an audience he's kept waiting for close to an hour. Radiant and visibly pumped, he thanks the audience for "having me during Marriage Protection Week," salutes the college as the first to adopt a no-sweatshop policy, dons a proffered Occidental baseball cap—and then points out that it was made in Taiwan. Though much of his speech is rehashed from Dude and his Web site, Moore is very quick on his feet, and he's a natural extemporizer. Not that this crowd needs much working up. One lonely, earnest Young Republican in jacket and tie asks why Moore is always dumping on the right. "You've acknowledged that the Republicans control everything," he quavers plaintively. "Who are the Angry White Males?" The student is rewarded with loud boos from the crowd (someone shouts, "They have all the money because they stole it from us!") and a few canned words from the maestro praising the Republicans for being organized and having the courage of their convictions. Almost everything that comes out of Moore's mouth is greeted with raucous cheers and foot-stamping. Limbaugh is in rehab! Drug offenders should be let out of prison right now! Then, warming to one of his central themes, that Americans are being kept in a state of enforced ignorance, he tells them that according to a recent study, 85 percent of American students couldn't find Iraq on a map, while a staggering 11 percent couldn't find the United States. "You should not be allowed into a country if you can't find it on a map," he roars. Then he asks for a Canadian C-student and an American A-student to come onstage—in seconds he has two eager volunteers—and gives them a quiz predesigned to show how even the most average Canadian intellect knows more about America than the brainiest American knows about Canada—or the rest of the world. The rapturous applause eggs Moore on to a passable Schwarzenegger imitation. Then he passes out post cards urging the students to mail them to Bush asking about the ties between the Bush and bin Laden dynasties—and leaves them laughing.

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Moore rarely uses the language of class struggle, and he won't own to being a socialist—he looks alarmed at the very mention of the word. Most Americans would do the same, and Moore knows that. Call him a populist, though, and he all but purrs.

"I am in the mainstream of public opinion," he says.

American populism has a long history, and in this country the term has almost infinite elasticity and a shape-shifting capacity to move with the times and the political temper. Right now, Moore is playing on a very crowded field. In an election year, everybody and his uncle is eager to declare himself a man of the people—including Bush, one of the most irritating and disingenuous practitioners alive of folksy language. Moore likes to portray himself as an old-school man of the people—he tells me proudly that his favorite movie of 2003 was Seabiscuit, the (highly doctored) history of a horse who came up from nothing, and brought with him the adoration of millions of unemployed workers in the Depression. But it's not that simple. Moore is naturally inclined to social movements—and to using them to take over political parties. He is the very embodiment of American populism, and of its limits in a country where many people on fixed incomes still firmly believe in the possibility of getting rich quick. Look at Michael Moore, and you see a man of the people. Look at him lately, and you see a man who got rich quick. As Larissa MacFarquhar points out in her recent New Yorker profile of Moore, this is unlikely to faze his following among the workers, who admire his riches. To some degree, his shelf life as a radical activist and motivator will depend on the balance he can sustain between average Joe and overnight success in presenting himself to young people. To a greater degree, it will depend on his ability to stick to the substance of his beliefs. When all the criticism is said and done, Michael Moore believes in universal health care, employment and education. He believes in gun control. He thinks taxes are a good thing. He believes in equal rights for the usual minorities. He believes businesses should treat their workers decently and share their profits. He believes in an enlightened participatory democracy to get and keep all of the above. He tells people that listening to a Michael Moore rant is not enough—beyond laughing, beyond being entertained, they have to get off their asses and get involved, and he gives them tips on how to do it. He may be prickly, but who cares? He's also right.

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