Thursday, July 12, 2007

Michael Moore, Gimmicks, and Health Care

I just got done reading an article on Michael Moore’s new film Sicko by Christopher Hayes in The Nation (July 16/23, 2007, pp. 11 – 14). It’s an excellent article that I’d recommend reading for anyone interested in Michael Moore’s films and/or health care in the U.S. (I’ve not yet had the chance to see Sicko, so what I’ll be discussing here are Moore’s earlier films, which I have seen, and Hayes’ commentary on Sicko.)

Michael Moore’s Gimmicks

Michael Moore’s films have been widely critiqued (by critics sympathetic and highly unsympathetic) for often relying rhetorically on gimmicks, especially the use of ambush interviews, probably most famously that of GM CEO Roger Smith in Roger and Me and with Charlton Heston in Bowling for Columbine.

On the one hand, his gimmicks potentially undermine the often strong, and sometimes even nuanced, arguments of his films. Certainly most attention is given to his gimmicks, allowing less sympathetic critics to distract from his actual messages and decry his methods and dismiss him and his films.

For example, in Bowling for Columbine, Moore is concerned with the high rates of gun violence in the U.S. Contrary to what many right wing critics have written (just do an internet search for “Michael Moore” and you’ll find dozens of them), the film is not a simple anti-gun screed. In examining gun violence, he does start with the high rate of gun ownership in the U.S., which is a sensible enough place to begin, but he refuses to reduce rates of gun violence to rates of gun ownership. He spends a good deal of time in the film pointing out that Canadians own far more guns per capita, but have far lower rates of per capita gun violence. In other words, there’s something about American culture and society that makes the difference, which in a way allows that the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) slogan, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” has something to it.

When he interviews Charlton Heston, then president of the NRA (in an unscheduled interview at Heston’s house), Heston comes off in the film looking like a racist fool. Most of Moore’s questions are actually soft-ball, and he throws Heston a bone by raising the contrast in gun violence rates between Canada and the U.S. and asking for his reaction. It was a perfect opportunity for Heston to argue the NRA slogan, that it’s not guns per se that create gun violence (or else Canada would be a lot more violent), but something about economic, social or cultural patterns in contrast between the two countries. In a way, that’s what Heston does, but in blatantly racist terms. To me, this is actually one of Moore’s less gimmicky ambush interviews (he has shown up at the house unannounced, but Heston has an easy opportunity to refuse his entry, and time to prepare as Moore approaches the house from the gate at the street, and again, Moore’s questions aren’t particularly tricky), but to many critics, it somehow appeared like Moore verbally abusing an old man. In any case, it was unnecessary – Moore makes his case in a more sophisticated way in other parts of the film.

On the other hand, Moore’s gimmicks have drawn far more attention to his films than almost certainly would have been the case without them. It’s not going out on a limb to say that Fahrenheit 9/11 would not have made over $100 million at the U.S. box office without his gimmicks and the attention they drew.

At the same time, by now, I’m not sure Moore needs this anymore. His past gimmicks have established a reputation, and anything he does in the immediate future would attract interest, whether laden with gimmickry or not – i.e. his past gimmicks potentially allow him to forego them and still draw a large audience.

Sicko is apparently relatively free of gimmicks, according to what I’ve read in Hayes’ article and elsewhere – but it does have one big gimmick, taking workers from 9/11’s ground zero who’ve had trouble getting adequate health care (simply pointing that out forcefully might have been enough) to Cuba, first to Guantanamo Bay, where they’re refused, then to Havana where they receive quality health care.

As Hayes argues, one big problem with this is that it does the rhetorical work of the right for it. One of the biggest objections of many on the right to universal health coverage in the U.S. is that it’s socialism, which is or leads inevitably to communism. What better way to undermine an otherwise strong argument for social democracy and universal social health care than to confirm for some the equation between social democracy, socialism, and communism by going to communist Cuba.

Health Care as a Social Good

Otherwise, Moore’s argument is strong and important. Health care, potentially a matter of life and death, is a social good – it’s something all should have unquestioned equal access to regardless of income, gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, faith, etc. As a social good, it should be treated accordingly. In the U.S., fire departments and police departments aren’t run for profit, and the services they provide are available to all (albeit, unfortunately, sometimes the reality may not live up to the theory). That’s because fire protection and the maintenance of law and order (as with health care potentially matters of life and death) are public social goods, and (almost) no one thinks that profit should be a primary motivation in providing these services, nor that it would be acceptable for some to be excluded. Likewise with health care – profit should not be the primary motivation in the provision of service, and it’s unacceptable that 47 million Americans are left out of health care coverage.

This is a persuasive argument in no need of gimmicks for support that I think is best left to stand alone.

The only thing I’m potentially wary of with the argument here is that some might see the relation between health care and other social goods the other way around – that health care shouldn’t be treated like fire fighting or policing, but that fire fighting and policing should be treated like health care and be privatized for profit. After all, that’s already happened in much of the U.S. with prison administration and public utilities.

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