Why They’re Afraid of Michael Moore

In SiCKO, Michael Moore’s new film, a young Ronald Reagan is shown appealing to working-class Americans to reject “socialized medicine” as commie subversion. In the 1940s and 1950s, Reagan was employed by the American Medical Association and big business as the amiable mouthpiece of a neo-fascism bent on persuading ordinary Americans that their true interests, such as universal health care, were “anti-American”.

Watching this, I found myself recalling the effusive farewells to Reagan when he died three years ago. “Many people believe,” said Gavin Esler on the BBC’s Newsnight, “that he restored faith in American military action [and] was loved even by his political opponents.” In the Daily Mail, Esler wrote that Reagan “embodied the best of the American spirit — the optimistic belief that problems can be solved, that tomorrow will be better than today, and that our children will be wealthier and happier than we are”.

Such drivel about a man who, as president, was responsible for the 1980s bloodbath in Central America, and the rise of the very terrorism that produced al-Qaeda, became the received spin. Reagan’s walk-on part in SiCKO is a rare glimpse of the truth of his betrayal of the blue-collar nation he claimed to represent. The treacheries of another president, Richard Nixon, and a would-be president, Hillary Clinton, are similarly exposed by Moore.

Just when there seemed little else to say about the great Watergate crook, Moore extracts from the 1971 White House tapes a conversation between Nixon and John Erlichman, his aide who ended up in prison. A wealthy Republican Party backer, Edgar Kaiser, head of one of America’s biggest health insurance companies, is at the White House with a plan for “a national health-care industry”. Erlichman pitches it to Nixon, who is bored until the word “profit” is mentioned.

“All the incentives,” says Erlichman, “run the right way: the less [medical] care they give them, the more money they make.” To which Nixon replies without hesitation: “Fine!” The next cut shows the president announcing to the nation a task force that will deliver a system of “the finest health care”. In truth, it is one of the worst and most corrupt in the world, as SiCKO shows, denying common humanity to some 50 million Americans and, for many of them, the right to life.

The most haunting sequence is captured by a security camera in a Los Angeles street. A woman, still in her hospital gown, staggers through the traffic, where she has been dumped by the company (the one founded by Nixon’s backer) that runs the hospital to which she was admitted. She is ill and terrified and has no health insurance. She still wears her admission bracelet, though the name of the hospital has been thoughtfully erased.

Later on, we meet that glamorous liberal couple, Bill and Hillary Clinton. It is 1993 and the new president is announcing the appointment of the first lady as the one who will fulfill his promise to give America a universal health-care. And here is “charming and witty” Hillary herself, as a senator calls her, pitching her “vision” to Congress. Moore’s portrayal of the loquacious, flirting, sinister Hillary is reminiscent of Tim Robbins’s superb political satire Bob Roberts. You know her cynicism is already in her throat. “Hillary,” says Moore in voice-over, “was rewarded for her silence [in 2007] as the second-largest recipient in the Senate of health-care industry contributions.”

Moore has said that Harvey Weinstein, whose company produced SiCKO and who is a friend of the Clintons, wanted this cut, but he refused. The assault on the Democratic Party candidate likely to be the next president is a departure for Moore, who, in his personal campaign against George Bush in 2004, endorsed General Wesley Clark, the bomber of Serbia, for president and defended Bill Clinton himself, claiming that “no one ever died from a blow job.” (Maybe not, but half a million Iraqi infants died from Clinton’s medieval siege of their country, along with thousands of Haitians, Serbians, Sudanese and other victims of his unsung invasions.)

With this new independence apparent, Moore’s deftness and dark humor in SiCKO, which is a brilliant work of journalism and satire and film-making, explains — perhaps even better than the films that made his name, Roger and Me, Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11 — his popularity and influence and enemies. SiCKO is so good that you forgive its flaws, notably Moore’s romanticizing of Britain’s National Health Service, ignoring a two-tier system that neglects the elderly and the mentally ill.

The film opens with a wry carpenter describing how he had to make a choice after two fingers were shorn off by an electric saw. The choice was $60,000 to restore a forefinger or $12,000 to restore a middle finger. He could not afford both, and had no insurance. “Being a hopeless romantic,” says Moore, “he chose the ring finger” on which he wore his wedding ring. Moore’s wit leads us to scenes that are searing, yet unsentimental, such as the eloquent anger of a woman whose small daughter was denied hospital care and died of a seizure. Within days of SiCKO opening in the United States, more than 25,000 people overwhelmed Moore’s website with similar stories.

The California Nurses Association and the National Nurses Organizing Committee dispatched volunteers to go on the road with the film. “From my sense,” says Jan Rodolfo, an oncology nurse, “it demonstrates the potential for a true national movement because it’s obviously inspiring so many people in so many places.”

Moore’s “threat” is his unerring view from the ground. He abrogates the contempt in which elite America and the media hold ordinary people. This is a taboo subject among many journalists, especially those claiming to have risen to the nirvana of “impartiality” and others who profess to teach journalism. If Moore simply presented victims in the time-honored, ambulance-chasing way, leaving the audience tearful but paralyzed, he would have few enemies. He would not be looked down upon as a polemicist and self-promoter and all the other pejorative tags that await those who step beyond the invisible boundaries in societies where wealth is said to equal freedom. The few who dig deep into the nature of a liberal ideology that regards itself as superior, yet is responsible for crimes epic in proportion and generally unrecognized, risk being eased out of the “mainstream”, especially if they are young — a process that a former editor once described to me as “a sort of gentle defenestration”.

None has broken through like Moore, and his detractors are perverse to say he is not a “professional journalist” when the role of the professional journalist is so often that of zealously, if surreptitiously, serving the status quo. Without the loyalty of these professionals on the New York Times and other august (mostly liberal) media institutions “of record,” the criminal invasion of Iraq might not have happened and a million people would be alive today. Deployed in Hollywood’s sanctum — the cinema — Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 shone a light in their eyes, reached into the memory hole, and told the truth. That is why audiences all over the world stood and cheered.

What struck me when I first saw Roger and Me, Moore’s first major film, was that you were invited to like ordinary Americans for their struggle and resilience and politics that reached beyond the din and fakery of the American democracy industry. Moreover, it is clear they “get it” about him: that despite being rich and famous he is, at heart, one of them. A foreigner doing something similar risks being attacked as “anti-American,” a term Moore often uses as irony in order to demonstrate its dishonesty.

John Pilger is an internationally renowned investigative journalist and documentary filmmaker. His latest film is The War on Democracy. His most recent book is Freedom Next Time: Resisting the Empire (Bantam/Random House, 2006). Read other articles by John, or visit John's website.

23 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. rosemarie jackowski said on October 19th, 2007 at 8:35am #

    John, I love you. You are one of the most remarkable journalists of our time. For the past several years, I have been spreading the word about your film, “The Stealing of a Nation”. It is amazing how few in the usa know how the usa got its base on Giego Garcia. Thank you for all of your work.

  2. Alan Donelson said on October 19th, 2007 at 11:26am #

    I think that this is a wonderfully written, thoughtful piece on Michael Moore’s SiCKO. Counting myself among the converted, I saw the film months ago. Like the film, John’s essay serves to shore up faith, that substance of things hoped for, that evidence of things unseen. Keep the faith, folks, the clouds can’t obscure the sun forever!

  3. Hue Longer said on October 19th, 2007 at 12:45pm #

    Stealing of a Nation was good, Rosmarie but I don’t think many Americans have even heard of DG. I loved the part where John confronted the cynical shlesinger …the evil smile he gave when questioning John’s motivations is a good reminder that these nasty little people are insane

  4. rosemarie jackowski said on October 19th, 2007 at 4:32pm #

    Hue…You are right most in the US don’t know and don’t care about those who are oppressed by the US. I believe that what the US did in Diego Garcia is a Crime Against Humanity. I have advocated that reparations be paid. The US should leave the area immediately and pay for the toxic clean up.
    About SICKO – in the US 18,000 die every year from lack of health care. That is like having a 9/11 every 60 days.

  5. Hue Longer said on October 20th, 2007 at 2:11am #

    If I may say, I like your work, rosemarie—thanks for addressing me

  6. Rev. José M. Tirado said on October 20th, 2007 at 3:24am #

    Michael Moosre´s SiCKO only came to Iceland (where I live) recently. It continually sold out,; the showings were packed and the discussions pained. Icelanders benefit from the kind of “socialized medicine” only dreamed about in Moore´s movie and there is a trend here to go towards the American style of privatised insurance led by the so called “Independence Party.” But after this movie, it appears the breaks are on.

    Icelanders´comments after the movie were enough to shame me. I couldn´t explain to them what they regarded as the immorality of allowing people–one´s own neighbors, fellow citizens–to live and die on the streets (I have been here 6 years and have yet to see a “homeless” person). That the US would allow about 50 million people to not have health coverage they considered beyond the pale. I have been asked many times since arriving here, “What has happened to America?” Indeed.

    Now the “choices” are clear: continue the present course with insurance companies dominating politics and the choices that you as Americans have. Or to demand a true, single payer system that guarantees universal health care for everyone. That the Dems have cynically co-opted this “universal coverage” language is indication enough that they are afraid of YOU. But as I noticed and as the Icelanders here repeated nodded i nagreement over, in SiCKO, one American ex-pat in France sums up the nature of the problem beautifully, “In France, the government fears the peopl, in the US, the people fear the government.”

    Do something. It´s long past time.

  7. Rev. José M. Tirado said on October 20th, 2007 at 3:24am #

    Michael Moosre´s SiCKO only came to Iceland (where I live) recently. It continually sold out,; the showings were packed and the discussions pained. Icelanders benefit from the kind of “socialized medicine” only dreamed about in Moore´s movie and there is a trend here to go towards the American style of privatised insurance led by the so called “Independence Party.” But after this movie, it appears the breaks are on.

    Icelanders´comments after the movie were enough to shame me. I couldn´t explain to them what they regarded as the immorality of allowing people–one´s own neighbors, fellow citizens–to live and die on the streets (I have been here 6 years and have yet to see a “homeless” person). That the US would allow about 50 million people to not have health coverage they considered beyond the pale. I have been asked many times since arriving here, “What has happened to America?” Indeed.

    Now the “choices” are clear: continue the present course with insurance companies dominating politics and the choices that you as Americans have. Or to demand a true, single payer system that guarantees universal health care for everyone. That the Dems have cynically co-opted this “universal coverage” language is indication enough that they are afraid of YOU. But as I noticed and as the Icelanders here repeated nodded i nagreement over, in SiCKO, one American ex-pat in France sums up the nature of the problem beautifully, “In France, the government fears the people, in the US, the people fear the government.”

    Do something. It´s long past time.

  8. rosemarie jackowski said on October 20th, 2007 at 6:03am #

    Thanks, Hue.

    Rev. Tirado… Your comment is perfect. The problem in the US is exactly as you say – here the people fear the government. But it is even worse than that. The people in the US have been propagandized into believing that if anyone is in need, it is their own fault. The poor, homeless, and those without access to health care are thought of as being stupid, lazy, and morally deficient. Many of the problems here could be solved if the people supported each other. They don’t. There is an underlying, subtle spirit of hate that permeates the USA. The message that should go out to every other country on the plant is, DON’T BECOME LIKE THE USA !

  9. brian said on October 20th, 2007 at 8:27pm #

    ‘ I believe that what the US did in Diego Garcia is a Crime Against Humanity’

    US has a longer history of crimes against humanity than any country even Israel…and all the while it preaches freedom and democray out of its lying mouths. And it will go on doing so so long as the educated and those in positions of power prove themselves loyal servants of the Empire.

  10. brian said on October 20th, 2007 at 8:33pm #

    privitation and the devil take the hindmost are as american as apple pie. Thats because americans have been brainwashed by the doctrine of individualism…which in the end says, each looks after himself. Until americans manage to infuse their power elite with a sense of social responsibility, the situation is unlikely to change….no amount of wringing hands will have any effect.
    And dont asume you can change things by voting…you saw what effect that had with the democrats in the midterms!

  11. rosemarie jackowski said on October 21st, 2007 at 6:53am #

    brian…I agree completely. If voting would change anything, they wouldn’t let us do it. Outside intervention is needed. Sadly, it will be up to the rest of the world to change things. Hopefully, that will happen before the USA destroys the whole planet. Right now the news is reporting that the USA just slaughtered 49? more in Iraq. The Press referred to the dead as “criminals” – no trial – found guilty by the Press.

  12. Brian said on October 21st, 2007 at 1:46pm #

    Not to mention that many of the 49 criminals killed in Iraq included a signifcant number of women and children who were asleep in their houses when a helicopter gunship opened fire. Bet you will not see pictures of that….on CNN.

  13. Hue Longer said on October 21st, 2007 at 2:42pm #

    and how sad is it that grown men who may have a problem being occupied by a violent, illegal thieving force are always criminal?

  14. C. L. Cook said on October 21st, 2007 at 3:31pm #

    Yes, Mr. Pilger; right on again – especially in forgiving Moore his “romanticism” regarding Britain’s health care system – as he has done the same with both Canadian healthcare, and our idealistically stated domestic pacifism.

  15. David Short said on October 21st, 2007 at 9:22pm #

    Not to contradict your fundamental point, José, but isn’t the main reason for there being no homeless people in Iceland the simple fact that anyone having to sleep rough would rapidly freeze to death, especially in the winter months?

  16. brian said on October 21st, 2007 at 9:30pm #

    ‘Outside intervention is needed’

    NOW heres a chance for the US to get a taste of its own humanitarian intervention medicine….some country or countries should intervene humanitarianly in the US…and if a few people die, well, thats the price of freedom and democracy!!!!

  17. Mulga Mumblebrain said on October 22nd, 2007 at 3:47am #

    The healthcare system of the United States, where health is commodified, like everything else, and one’s life expectancy and enjoyment of life are determined by one’s ability to pay, may revolt the humane, but to others it is an ideal to be emulated. In Australia the Market Fundamentalist regime of the Iraq War criminal John Howard, who slavishly worships all aspects of the US corporate state, has been slowly , but inexorably, moving to a US style health system for years. Public hospitals are slowly being squeezed of funds, private insurance is directly subsidised by the state and the world acclaimed pharmaceutical approval system has been gutted to ingratiate the regime with the all powerful, insatiably rapacious Big Pharma corporations. Howard is a master of dissembling, of slow attrition and unscrupulous machinations. He, naturally, denies the Americanisation of healthcare is his aim, but the facts speak otherwise. He is abetted by the corporate media, who know where their class loyalties lie. Murdoch’s local flagship ‘The Fundament’, a bastion of extreme Rightist propaganda, backs Howard, as in the Iraqi War, Climate Change Denialism and in Market Absolutist propaganda generally, to the hilt. The pathopsychology of the international business parasite class is pretty well unmasked these days. They care not a whit whether the plebs live or die, just so long as they go on consuming until the end. The cruelty and indifference to the suffering of others Moore so eloquently exposed, are true hallmarks of the psychopath. Our masters are unspeakably mad, bad and dangerous to be around, and they are driving us all down the road to perdition.

  18. AJ Nasreddin said on October 22nd, 2007 at 7:14am #

    I have yet to see a perfect system. On one hand, the question is how much you can spend on yourself – the other, how much the state is willing to spend on you. The US system is of course good if you have money – and a lot of money you need. I wonder if socialized health systems would provide the same care? From what I’ve seen, no.

    Didn’t Bush Sr. want charities to step in where government stepped out? If the governement isn’t helping you, where are the churches and whatnot?

    Can we all move to Iceland?

  19. Rev. José M. Tirado said on October 23rd, 2007 at 2:26am #

    Hi David and AJ,
    Iceland is (so far so good) warmed by the Gulf Stream so the weather is quite moderate.There are no homeless people here because the social contract among Icelanders is to take care of the elderly, children, and those who are mentally ill. Certainly, one can see a few old timer drunks in downtown Reykjavik hanging out in bus stations but there are shelters here. No, when people demand a just society, they get it. (remeber that.)

    Most of Europe after WW2 understood the disastrous effects of selfish nationalism and by and large adopted across the board a set of systems that enshrined diplomacy over saber rattling and strong labor unions to assuage business rampages. (I know people who remember clearly the poverty and devastation of the post war period and they are proud of the mixed economiy, social protections taht are enshrined i ntheir body politic.) It isn´t perfect, but I´ll tell you this, I would take pretty much any country here in Europe over pretty much anywhere in the US for safety and a good safety net. It´s shameful.

    AJ, you say, “from what I´ve seen..:” Well, what have you seen? I live in Iceland and travel regularly. In every country I have been in I have seen better care than the US (Italy, Greece, Iceland, England,) And I have friends i nmany other countries, including many American ex-pats like myself who say the same.

    Moving here is probably a whole lot easier than moving to the States. And in addition, even though I am a non-citizen they are civilized enough here to grant me the right to vote in all local elections since I pay taxes like every one else.
    José

  20. Rev. José M. Tirado said on October 23rd, 2007 at 2:27am #

    Hi David and AJ,
    Iceland is (so far so good) warmed by the Gulf Stream so the weather is quite moderate.There are no homeless people here because the social contract among Icelanders is to take care of the elderly, children, and those who are mentally ill. Certainly, one can see a few old timer drunks in downtown Reykjavik hanging out in bus stations but there are shelters here. No, when people demand a just society, they get it. (remeber that.)

    Most of Europe after WW2 understood the disastrous effects of selfish nationalism and by and large adopted across the board a set of systems that enshrined diplomacy over saber rattling and strong labor unions to assuage business rampages. (I know people who remember clearly the poverty and devastation of the post war period and they are proud of the mixed economiy, social protections taht are enshrined i ntheir body politic.) It isn´t perfect, but I´ll tell you this, I would take pretty much any country here in Europe over pretty much anywhere in the US for safety and a good safety net. It´s shameful.

    AJ, you say, “from what I´ve seen..:” Well, what have you seen? I live in Iceland and travel regularly. In every country I have been in I have seen better care than the US (Italy, Greece, Iceland, England,) And I have friends in many other countries, including many American ex-pats like myself who say the same.

    Moving here is probably a whole lot easier than moving to the States. And in addition, even though I am a non-citizen they are civilized enough here to grant me the right to vote in all local elections since I pay taxes like every one else.
    José

  21. Hue Longer said on October 23rd, 2007 at 3:40am #

    thanks for that post, Jose

    Remember the crow from animal farm who would tell all the animals that they needn’t go looking for they lived in the best place? I actually read that book in the 8th grade in California…the teacher dissected it for us and instructed us to think how brainwashed Russians were for believing the crow…oh, the irony

  22. Rev. José M. Tirado said on October 23rd, 2007 at 12:08pm #

    Your welcome.
    And your example is brilliant.
    j

  23. Rev. José M. Tirado said on October 23rd, 2007 at 12:08pm #

    You´re welcome.
    And your example is brilliant.
    j