The Perils of Michael Moore

The Perils of Michael Moore

Political Criticism in an Age of Entertainment

Michael Moore is probably America’s most prominent leftist. People who have never read Dissent have probably seen Moore on prime-time television (Fox, NBC, or Bravo) or in a movie cineplex (Bowling for Columbine most recently) or maybe purchased one of his best-selling books. Moore has busted through, as the saying goes, reaching a broad audience about such crucial issues as increased use of prison labor; botched urban renewal schemes; the temping of the workforce; and problems of welfare, violence, and racism. He has brought these issues into Americans’ living rooms, espousing a CIO-style politics of social justice for the twenty-first century. Donning his signature baseball cap and scruffy clothes, Moore plays up his working-class persona as he shuffles into the citadels of power-while the cameras roll-in order to expose the darker side of the American Dream.

Moore’s techniques are not new. He draws on a rich tradition of left-leaning political criticism. Think of Charlie Chaplin’s tramp. Chaplin too was born poor, immersed himself in the cultural left of his time (Max Eastman was a close friend), and played the “forgotten man.” Closer to Moore’s own time, the New Left embraced “guerrilla theater” as a means of confronting power. Consider Abbie Hoffman and his Yippie brethren trying to levitate the Pentagon or throwing dollar bills onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange to mock capitalist greed. Add to Chaplin and Hoffman the news magazine tradition of Edward R. Murrow and 60 Minutes (muckraking brought to television), mix in a heavy dose of postmodern irony, and you’ve pretty much got Michael Moore.

Moore has done something the left rarely does. He’s made political criticism entertaining. And as polls show, Generation X and Y Americans get their news increasingly from entertainment shows-the hip irony of political jokes told on The Late Show with David Letterman and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Indeed, when Moore’s TV Nation broadcast on NBC and Fox in 1994-1995, the demographic reports showed that a large number of the eighteen-to-thirty-four-year-old crowd was tuning in. Moore’s success illustrates how young people are reached via satellite dishes and mega-mall bookstores rather than through cafés or union halls or small magazines. His merging of political criticism and entertainment tells us something about the state of the American left as it faces the media-saturated world of postmodern America.

Evolution of a Working-Class Critic

Moore got his start in “alternative” print media. Growing up in Flint, Michigan, he edited a small paper, the Flint Voice and then the Michigan Voice, which got him enough attention to land a job at Mother Jones. He moved to San Francisco, only to find himself embroiled in a series of disputes with fellow editors at the...