Celebrity Politics in an Age of Social Protest
Filmmaker Michael Moore is one of those people with a knack for making things happen.
As a high school student he wins an Elks Club-sponsored school essay on Lincoln’s legacy. Asked to read the essay before the unsuspecting Elks, he blasts the group’s racist policy excluding blacks as members. The Elks hate him, but Walter Cronkite from CBS News comes calling
Years later, at the premiere of Roger & Me, his first film, at the Telluride Film Festival, Moore boorishly pesters film critic Roger Ebert at a party about skipping the main premiere for his screening at the local Mason’s hall. A perturbed Ebert tells him he’ll see Roger & Me later. But moments before the film’s screening there’s Ebert making his way down the street to the Mason’s Hall. It was the strange look in Moore’s eyes that made him change his mind, he says. Ebert gives the film four stars.
And so it goes. In his early twenties, the unknown Moore manages to convince folksinger Harry Chapin to do a benefit concert to raise funds for The Flint Voice, his fledgling alternative newspaper. The concert is a sell-out and becomes an annual affair until Chapin’s untimely death five years later.
These stories and others are told in Moore’s new book, Here Comes Trouble, less a memoir than a loose collection of personal stories tied together by the theme of the Michigan filmmaker’s life-long resistance to social injustice. It’s a fortuitous life Moore has led, one that has led to awards, fame, and wealth. To his credit, Moore’s version of the charmed life hasn’t changed him much, defined as it is by his refusal to accept the increasingly uncharmed reality of life for most folks living in this capitalist society.
In a mainstream media so bereft of left-wing voices, certainly it’s easy to become a fan of Moore’s feisty, pro-working class politics. After all, who doesn’t enjoy seeing him on CNN or MSNBC taking jabs at the for-profit health care industry? Or denouncing the Iraq war and the president who started it from the stage of the Academy Awards.
But at times there’s a certain desperation in this fandom, rooted in the fact that Moore is one of precious few with a left-wing perspective to gain access to the mainstream media. Similarly, regardless of one’s political assessment of Ralph Nader’s presidential runs over the years, it’s not hard to appreciate Nader’s anti-corporate populism when it breaks into the mass media, such as during his 2000 presidential run. That was the year Moore, supporting Nader, referred to candidates Al Gore and George W. Bush as the “lesser of two evils.”
But that’s the thing about the American left. To a great degree influence has been measured in terms of personalities, not parties or large social movements. There are the celebrity figures like Moore, Nader, Noam Chomsky, or the late Howard Zinn, but where is the organized opposition of a mass socialist or labor party? Instead we have the Green Party, progressively amorphous (e.g., “It’s OK to vote for the Democrat instead of us if the Republican is really, really bad.”) and organizationally weak. Mostly, however, there is just the Democratic Party, the one percent’s regulator of rebellion and siphon for all social discontent among the 99 percent
On these issues, Moore’s politics have always been kind of a muddle. The late Green Party leader Peter Camejo in his early socialist days used to say a liberal is someone who doesn’t like what capitalism does, but likes capitalism. With Moore it’s more he doesn’t like what the Democratic Party does, but likes Democrats.
Indeed, the first sign of faintly progressive rhetoric detected from Obama (or past presidential contenders as John Kerry or Wesley Clark) is usually enough to earn Moore’s seal of approval. In 2004, in an appearance on HBO’s Real Time With Bill Maher, Moore and Maher ridiculously got on their knees and begged fellow guest Nader not to run for president. Moore’s electoral wisdom then amounted to the notion that both “Kerry and Bush suck. Vote Kerry.” Nader responded later in a rather unflattering statement calling Moore a “Court Jester” for the Democratic Party.
But perhaps the times they are a-changing? The Occupy Wall Street movement is throwing a spotlight on the deep anger and frustration building over an economy ruined by Wall Street financial institutions. As an aside, the movement also reveals just how shallow is the phenomenon of celebrity politics. Indeed, in more quiescent times the politics of social protest in this country can seem limited to the public flocking to a Moore movie, or a Chomsky lecture, or maybe just staying at home to watch Jon Stewart mock Republicans on Comedy Central.
Now the fire of social rebellion is being lit, match in hand, not by any of the familiar names, or by someone’s movie, but by thousands of young people in cities across the country. Now it is Michael Moore coming to the people’s theater, the one that meets not at the Cineplex but in occupied streets throughout America
That’s not a criticism of Moore. In Capitalism: A Love Story, he ends the movie with a call for the public to rise up and take the power back from the financial elite. Appearing recently on CNN’s Piers Morgan Show, Moore was also at his impassioned best damning corporate greed and lauding the heroism of the young Wall Street protestors.
While all the politicos and media types complain about the lack of a “clear message,” or the cornucopia of issues raised, the youthful occupiers in all their wondrous energy are asserting their humanity, their cry for a just and humane world. “We are the 99 percent,” they declare, and we are no longer willing to live in a society ruled by the sociopathic greed of a moneyed oligarchy.
That’s actually a rather unequivocal message. It’s also the simple message at the heart of Moore’s work as a filmmaker and writer, conveyed in Here Comes Trouble with equal touches of the bravado, humor, and passion that have made Moore a household name. But as remarkable as his successes and contributions have been, I suspect the emerging popular social movement we are seeing unfold today in opposition to Wall Street’s destructive polices will make an even more profound impact on the radicalization of American politics.
Here comes trouble, indeed.
Here Comes Trouble: Stories From My Life, by Michael Moore. (Grand Central Publishing, 2011). 427 pages.