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The Uncivil Servant: Michael Moore’s Invasions

Mitchell Abidor
February 16, 2016

by Mitchell Abidor

maxresdefaultMICHAEL MOORE’S latest film, Where to Invade Next, is amazingly timely. Moore travels the world, a one-man invasion team searching for social programs other countries have that we don’t, so he can bring them back to the U.S. The film is, for most of its length, a virtual Bernie Sanders campaign ad, demonstrating the benefits of the European social-democratic state Sanders speaks of, even when the state is run by conservatives.

After a brilliant montage showing the all-too daily horrors of life in the U.S. — police killings, militarized police forces, pointless wars, set to the empty yakking of politicians — Moore sets off on his trip of conquest to find ways to improve American life.

He goes to Italy, where a charming couple matter-of-factly talks about their eight weeks of vacation and thirteenth month of pay, and are incredulous when Moore informs them that no such rights are guaranteed for Americans. At the Ducati motorcycle factory, he’s also told of the five months of paid childcare leave that Italians enjoy.

He visits an elementary school in France, where he is shown kids being served a four-course lunch, with blue cheese and water — not soda — on the menu; prisons in Norway where murderers are trained to be chefs and have free access to knives and meat cleavers; Slovenia, where a college education is free, even for international students; Portugal, which stopped arresting drug users; Germany, where companies’ computer servers are shut down so workers can’t be emailed after working hours or on weekends; Finland, with the highest-rated educational system in the world, in which kids get no homework; Iceland, which made the bankers who ruined its economy pay for it with jail sentences; and even Tunisia, where women marched and fought to ensure a place for themselves in the post-Ali society.

Moore makes certain to cut off any criticism about his being selective by admitting that he was plucking roses, not weeds, and that his aim is to show what is possible, not to present these societies as perfect. He also short-circuits the how-much-it-costs argument by demonstrating that however lower our taxes may be than those of the countries that provide such benefits, when you add in what we pay for services Europeans get — college costs, child care, insurance premiums, etc. — we pay far more that they do.

ALL OF THIS could serve as Bernie Sanders campaign material. As Moore and some of the people interviewed point out, many of the ideas started with us: Mayday, the banning of cruel and unusual punishment, and more. What is required — and this isn’t sufficiently stressed in the film — is the need to organize and fight for these benefits. One interview with an Italian union delegate, and a meeting with Slovenian students who discuss their struggle against the attempt to impose tuition, are far outweighed by a friendly bourgeois who is presented as all too happy to give the workers all the advantages they have. The reality is that while it’s possible for the rich to abide workers having a livable life, they do not willingly grant it.

A far more serious problem in the film comes its final quarter hour, when it switches gears from a Bernie film to a Hillary Clinton film. Suddenly we are informed that when women run the world, it will be a better place, that the removal or reduction of testosterone from business and politics will bring a reign of reason and peace. Such gender-determinist balderdash is not worthy of Moore, and actually undercuts the optimistic tone of the film, which ends with the tearing down of the Berlin Wall as proof that something once thought impossible was indeed possible.

Of course, we have yet to live in a world, or even a region, in which empowerment by gender is flipped. According a post on Daily Kos, the top twenty countries in terms of women’s parliamentary (or higher) representation include post-genocidal Rwanda at number one, with 49 percent of its parliament female. Others in the list include Cuba, Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands, Iceland, Denmark, and Norway. There’s also Angola, Uganda, South Africa, Nicaragua, and Argentina — lands that hardly can claim higher levels of well-being than the U.S. (which weighs in at number 80!)

If what will save us is women in power, we are doomed, since no matter how we look at it, men will always have a role; evil will forever be lying in wait. Moore’s analysis is also belied by almost everything else in his film, in which understanding male prison wardens and factory owners and human resources managers are every bit as sympathetic as the women we see. It is even a group of male Portuguese policemen who make a call to their American fellows to fight for the abolition of the death penalty.

WHAT ENSURES social democracy in the much of the world is a determined belief in government as a force for good. In the U.S., mainstream discourse holds that government can do nothing but harm — a point for which there is absolutely no evidence. That this is the baseline was proved at the most recent of the Democratic debates, where the candidates were asked several times what they would do to pare back the role of the federal government. Bernie rightly stood up for the positive things a government can do, especially in time of crisis, but his is a rearguard battle. Bragging of budget surpluses is actually a sign, as the philosopher Peter Singer pointed out several years ago, that the government simply didn’t spend money on things it probably should have; cutting taxes is another way of saying services were cut. The only way to see to it that the rights workers obtained through their struggles are maintained is a government that watches over the bosses. In the U.S., we have neither struggles nor a government serving our interests.

As a result, Americans are right to complain about taxes, since we get so little for what we pay; but Americans are at fault for this, for in insisting that low taxes are the measure of a government’s success, we get even less services, and so the world of Where to Invade Next becomes a distant dream.

Essentially, Clinton’s campaign is based on combating Bernie’s insistence that the benefits we see in Moore’s film are possible to gain here, too. That social democracy is unrealistic — that’s what is touted as her “realism” and her practical, can-do experience. What needs to be heeded is what is said by an Icelandic woman interviewed in the film: that she wouldn’t want to live in the U.S. for all the money in the world, for we are “a society based on me and not we.” Then there are the stirring words of the Tunisian journalist, who chastises America and Americans for our lack of curiosity about the rest of the world. These two elements, in combination, are deadly, for in looking out only for ourselves and in refusing to see we have much to learn from the rest of the world, we condemn ourselves to a dismal future.

For my wife and me the dismal future was not far off: hours after seeing Where to Invade Next, which we left invigorated, we watched the Republican debate, and heard and read the unjustified encomia for Antonin Scalia, and were brought back to reality. But we didn’t regret a moment of the two hours we spent in the alternative universe of Where to Invade Next.

Mitchell Abidor, our contributing writer, is the recipient of a Hemingway Grant from the French Ministry of Culture for his new translation of Emmanuel Bove’s A Raskolnikoff. His other new books are Voices of the Paris Commune and his collection of writings by and about the anarchist “propagandists of the deed,” Death to Bourgeois Society.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.