Michael Moore’s politics

Jason Stahl

Two weeks ago my mom left me a message informing me that I would absolutely need to watch Oprah that day because Michael Moore was on the show talking about his new film “Sicko” – a documentary on the U.S. health-care industry. I’ve been a big fan of all of Moore’s films going back to “Roger and Me,” so I was interested to hear what he would have to say about the atrocious U.S. health-care system. Obviously, I will reserve judgment until I see the full film, but Moore’s appearance on Oprah gave me a good sense of what I will see in the theater.

First, the positive: Moore can be extremely politically savvy, and this trait clearly comes through in the film. “Sicko” will apparently focus not only on those without health insurance but also those with insurance who are often denied coverage. This allows for the broadest alliance possible around the issue of universal health care. Moreover, the movie clearly links the need for free universal health care to other social services that are free and universal – such as the fire department, the police department, public schools and libraries. As Moore said on the show, “We don’t expect the fire department to turn a profit Ö because it is a life and death issue” – just like health care. Such a tactic ultimately allows free universal health care to seem less extreme.

Despite these positive aspects, much of Moore’s appearance made me question whether he was losing his edge – the best quality of his past films. Often the show’s conversation went back to “coming together,” to making the issue nonpartisan and apolitical, and to all the Republicans who saw the film and liked it. This all sounds great – and possibly reflects a change in Moore’s tactics after the partisan reception of his previous films – but it also ignores the history of the 1994 Clinton health-care fight, where conservative ideologues fought to destroy any health-care plan. The same will happen the next time around despite happy talk of nonpartisanship.

However, even more disturbing than these paeans to nonpartisanship was the way in which the movie seems to, at times, advance right-wing narratives in order to advocate for the health-care issue. This is particularly true in one scene from the movie where Moore takes Sept. 11 rescue workers – who are having trouble receiving health care – to the Guantanamo Bay prison to get medical attention – “the same kind that al-Qaida is getting.” In this same sequence, the film shows U.S. military personnel talking about the fantastic health care available to prisoners at Guantanamo and prisoners socializing outside. This “Utopia Guantanamo” portrayal comes right out of the right-wing playbook and ignores the reality of what is occurring there. Guantanamo was created in order to hold people outside the bounds of international law. Numerous reports have been written of mass hunger strikes and suicides by desperate prisoners who do not know if they will ever leave. The health care that Moore idealizes there is often administered simply to keep prisoners alive – such as was the case in the mass force feedings of hunger strikers. Finally, many of the prisoners there are not “al-Qaida,” but innocent men, who are often released after years of incarceration without charges.

It is a shame to see Moore’s concession to right-wing narratives in order to advocate for universal health care and I hope the full movie shows little more of this. Progressives are at our worst when we engage in this tactic rather than showing that human rights – be they to free universal health care in the United States or to Geneva Convention protections in Guantanamo – can never be compromised.

Jason Stahl welcomes comments at [email protected]