I think of Michael Moore as one of those public figures either you love or you hate, but I can honestly say I don’t fall into either category. I’m a moderate but not hardcore fan of his films. I think they are well done but they don’t blow me away. I’m maybe 75%-80% in agreement with his politics, but I have mixed feelings about the way he tries to convey those politics. It is too polemical a methodology for me to ever be fully comfortable with; I am of the type who wants fully cogent, fair, logical arguments, and of course his stuff falls way short of that. He gives himself permission to cut corners on any such ideals where he thinks the payoff in entertainment and persuasion justifies doing so.
On the other hand, I have no use for the vast majority of the criticisms of him. Whereas he’s flawed but basically fighting for what’s right, the bulk of his critics are just out and out liars willing to use any means at their disposal to further their nefarious ends. He bends the rules more than I’d like in pursuit of good ends; they acknowledge no rules whatsoever in pursuit of evil ends.
For the first half or more of Capitalism: A Love Story, I reacted as I typically would to a Michael Moore film:
* It’s clever, well-paced, and has some laughs, but is only decent rather than great as comedy. Plus the humor isn’t fair, isn’t earned. Of course you can find some camera shots and some quotes where the people you’re targeting look ridiculous if you shoot enough footage. But it’s not like such cheap shots really mean anything.
* The politics are right headed and welcome, but simplistic and vague. There’s a lot more arguing against than arguing for. There’s no attempt to present all sides fully and fairly. Facts and statistics are cherry-picked, and outnumbered by anecdotal evidence.
* Those anecdotes have some value in terms of putting a human face on certain situations for those already on Moore’s side politically, but carry virtually zero argumentative weight. (Yes, it’s bad for a family to be forced out of the home they’ve lived in for decades because of forces mostly but not fully out of their control, but that fact does not tell us that Moore’s preferred alternative system–which is never spelled out–would result in fewer such injustices and less human suffering. Maybe different people would lose their homes instead. Maybe fewer people would have their own home to begin with. Maybe it would be great for home ownership but horrible in other ways that outweigh that. Etc.)
(By the way, one of those early anecdotes that I did appreciate is the one about the corrupt privatized juvenile prison system in Pennsylvania. It nicely illustrates the bizarre incentive structure of having people financially advantaged by higher incarceration rates. Though even there of course that doesn’t establish that other ways of doing things wouldn’t have as bad consequences of their own. But I think it’s a nice reminder of how this “privatize everything” mentality can create a truly warped society.)
* The style is the usual stream-of-consciousness meandering through whatever topics happen to be on Moore’s mind, rather than a logically structured, coherent argument, though not as maddeningly so as in Bowling for Columbine.
* There’s Moore’s usual celebration of the wisdom of the “common man,” the knocks on the political and economic elite for acting contrary to the wishes of the masses, and the calls for greater democracy. (Alas for this feel-good populism, “regular folks” are equally or more likely to be “Joe the Plumber” as to be the 1937 Flint sitdown strikers. Their democratic desires are more apt to be reflected in attitudes of “I don’t want my kids going to school with niggers and being taught by queers who won’t let them pray” than in any concern with progressive taxation, bankruptcy laws, labor laws that make it easier or harder to join a union, etc. But it’s common on the Left to not want to admit the inconvenient fact that as often as not we’re advocating for the interests of people who are too dumb and too duped to know they’re being screwed.)
Something changed for me at some point in the second half of this film, however. Somehow I became more emotionally drawn in than I can ever remember happening when watching one of Moore’s films.
Normally with his movies–as was true for much of this one–I’m enjoying things somewhat, but mostly assessing it all from a detached perspective. I’m uneasily tolerating the fact that a lot of it’s designed to push people’s emotional buttons, because I recognize that regrettably a better quality two hour fact-and-logic-heavy academic presentation by Noam Chomsky will never garner 5% of this audience and so will have little impact.
But by some point in Capitalism: A Love Story I wasn’t watching him push other people’s buttons; I was having my buttons pushed. I was feeling at a deeper level than usual the intended empathy for the victims and the intended outrage at the perpetrators of the crimes of this “plutonomy.” (According to the film, that’s the term Citigroup itself used in a leaked report to describe the system–which of course it’s applauding and seeking to safeguard–whereby the ultra-rich control just about everything for their own benefit.)
I’m not going to claim to know why I got as caught up in the film emotionally as I did, or even to remember all the specific points that hit me the hardest, but maybe Moore’s even better at this than I thought. Multiple times I was upset enough that I was actually choked up.
Still, I don’t know that it has much staying power for me. When all is said and done, the way I’ll remember the film is as a marshaling of mostly anecdotal evidence, in a mostly impressionistic fashion, for polemical purposes, in support of a never well-specified alternative, to a system that he and I both find appallingly, inhumanly bad in many respects. I don’t know that I feel much different or believe much different from what I did going in, except maybe that things are marginally worse even than I thought.
Nor do I feel significantly different about Moore’s work. I still mostly agree with his ends, and only partly agree with his means (while being utterly disgusted by both the means and ends of almost all of those who bitterly trash him).
I’d like to be able to say that this was a departure for Moore, that he used his considerable skills to put together a more cogent, well-reasoned presentation than in the past in favor of the ideals we share. But no, in that respect it’s the usual stuff.
But it’s an impressive version–an at times very emotionally powerful version–of that usual stuff.