Since coming to prominence with his documentary Roger and Me about the heavy impact of General Motors’ downsizing plans on his home town of Flint, Michigan, Michael Moore has enjoyed great success as an author and film maker. Combining a colorful and accessible style with a measure of courage too, this "Capped Crusader"1 has carved out a position as a cult figure for many socialists and semi-socialists on both sides of the Atlantic, while also appealing to others who simply dislike the culture of militarism that informs so many U.S. and of course British government actions.
Now, capitalizing on the success of his latest film, Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore is working hard to promote his political agenda in the run-up to the November 2 election, with the film’s appearance on DVD last week doubtless calculated to exercise maximum political influence.
Subtlety has never been one of Moore’s strong suits, and predictably his strident interventions have also provoked some harsh criticism, not only from government supporters aggrieved by his popularity, but also by a number of more discerning commentators who have noted the shaky theoretical foundations of many of his assertions.
Setting aside the various ad-hominem attacks, one of the most persistent charges laid against him is that of playing fast and loose with the facts. Reviewing Moore’s film, Bowling for Columbine, for example, the pro-gun rights attorney David Kopel2 documented a host of misleading and wrong statements, and cynical editing, all of which were quite clearly intended to private gun ownership, the NRA and its president in the worst possible light.
More generally, it was quite obvious that in making the film, Moore had deliberately set out to interview a selection of gun owners who could hardly have been better calculated to alarm the average movie-goer. Why else in a nation with tens of millions of gun owners did he have to look to James Nichols3 of all people for a defense of Second Amendment rights?
Beyond the deeply tendentious character of his films and writing, however, there lie more deep seated problems. One of these is his evident failure to appreciate the principles of economics, with a good example of this being his condemnation of General Motors for its cutbacks in Flint. According to Moore, as the company was making a substantial profit from its other operations, far exceeding the losses at Flint, it could easily have afforded to maintain its plants there. Anything less was a sign of corporate greed.
Now it is not my purpose to defend General Motors, but what Moore ignored, of course, was the fact that a major reason for the company’s profitability over the years has been its concentration of production at its best-performing facilities. If it had followed his advice in the past, it would likely have gone out of business long ago, with all its workers losing their jobs.
There is also his quite extraordinary attitude to foreign investment by U.S. firms, which he slates as one of the causes of terrorism4. According to Moore, by not paying wages sufficient to allow workers to buy the product of their own labor, these firms stoke up resentment against U.S. interests. While it may go down well at his rallies, this sort of thinking practically defies parody.
And one shouldn’t overlook the sheer eccentricity of much that Moore says. A striking example of this are his absurd suggestions in relation to the Bush and bin Laden families and the Saudi government, chief among them the notion that the 9/11 hijackers may have been Saudi military men5. In dealing with this topic, Moore also exhibits an attitude towards Saudis that he himself would surely label racist were the boot on the other foot.
All this is true, yet there is another charge that can be laid against Moore that is less commonly heard. This concerns his attitude to the use of force.
On the face of it, there is much in Moore’s vision of an apparently less violent America that liberals can agree with. After all, even if hardly alone in this view, he has not been wrong in his firm opposition to the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time, many of his attacks on Bush and his warrior satellites6 in London, Canberra and elsewhere have been much nearer the mark than those of various alleged "opposition" parties.
In Bowling for Columbine, his juxtaposition of official condemnation for the private killings at Columbine High School with official enthusiasm for the simultaneous NATO-organized killing in Yugoslavia was a point well made even if it did sit very strangely indeed with his subsequent and fulsome endorsement of Wesley Clark as Democratic candidate for president7.
Moreover, even the most ardent Rothbardian would find it easy to make common cause with Moore in his call for the U.S. government to dismantle its nuclear arsenal, the maintenance of which, like others of its kind, amounts to a standing threat to commit mass murder.
Domestically, too, he has accurately identified the essential violence against the unthreatening individual inherent in the "war on terrorism" and its elder sister, the "war on drugs," and has rightly condemned the way that politicians have both fostered and cynically exploited post-9/11 paranoia to tighten their grip on the population and create a base for aggression abroad even if he has not been above fomenting some paranoia of his own.
However, when one looks at Moore’s vision for American society, and in particular how it is to be achieved, it is all too apparent that behind the cheerful facade of "diversity," economic security, environmental protection and safer neighborhoods lies the mailed fist of state power, always ready to intervene with overwhelming violence against anyone foolish enough to dissent from his semi-socialist project.
One imagines that he and his cheerleaders would be quick to ridicule this idea, most likely with the retort that their policies would be carried out through democratic as opposed to violent means the old "bullets or ballots" argument! Yet consider for a moment what would happen in Moore’s ideal world to anyone who stepped out of line; let us say, a store owner, unwise enough to persist in selling some product that has fallen out of political favor.
Initially he would likely receive some kind of warning, followed perhaps by an attempt by officials to seize the offending product. And what if he resisted this attack on his property? No doubt a warrant for his arrest would soon follow, with due consideration now also being given to his obstructive behavior. And what if he then resisted arrest, perhaps unwittingly brandishing a weapon freshly prohibited thanks to the gun control measures so favored by Moore? Suffice it to say that would find himself in mortal danger at best.
Now you might say that this all seems rather extreme and highly colored. But a moment’s reflection will reveal that the possibility of such an outcome, however rarely things may actually go that far, is a necessary condition for the implementation of any government regulation8. Without it, who would listen to interfering government officials?
So we can see that rather than being opposed to the inherent violence of political government as such, Moore merely wishes to redirect its focus to those targets he approves of. Not only this, but because of the far-reaching nature of his goals, such aggressive interventions in individuals’ lives would necessarily be far more widespread than is the case today, even under the current oppressive arrangements.
Now if I have misunderstood Moore and his ideas, then I hope he will accept my apologies; but it is surely not without significance that throughout his prolific output, he has been strangely reticent when it comes to questioning the power of the state itself surely a case of a dog that didn’t bark in the night. Indeed, his well-publicized voter registration campaigns only serve to emphasize the importance he attaches to political power in other words, the threat of state-initiated violence to fulfill his goals.
In fact, bearing all this in mind, it begins to look as though Moore might not be quite so anti-gun as his films, books and speeches would suggest just so long as the guns in question are in the hands of the government.
- As Gary Younge of the London Guardian dubbed him in a feature that was so laudatory that Moore reprinted the whole thing as an appendix to the British edition of Dude, Where’s My Country? (Penguin Books, 2004).
- See his website. I would also thoroughly recommend his books: David Kopel, The Samurai, the Mounty, and the Cowboy and David Kopel (ed.), Guns: Who Should Have Them.
- Brother of Terry Nichols, accomplice of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
- See Michael Moore, Dude, Where’s My Country?, chapter five.
- See Michael Moore, Dude, Where’s My Country?, chapter one.
- I am indebted to British historian Correlli Barnet for this apt expression, although he applied it to the UK as a whole.
- NATO Supreme Commander at the time of that organization’s illegal attack on Yugoslavia on 24 March 1999.
- The events at Waco on 19 April 1993 provide an horrific example of this process reaching its rarely seen final stage. Bear in mind that the incident began with the suggestion that Koresh and his followers might be breaching certain firearms regulations.
October 14, 2004