by Charles Marowitz
(Swans - July 2, 2007) We may have lost our reverence for deities but we have doubled our reverence for celebrities. We might almost say that celebrities have effectively replaced our worship of gods -- if by "worship" we mean devout and mesmeric involvement with personalities whose lives we feel obliged to follow to the degree that the press feels obliged to publicize them.
But we have to make a distinction between those "celebrities" who often are non-entities that have acquired status because of media exposure and the public's irresistible weakness for scandal, and persons who represent essential aspects of our lives and times and who, beyond widespread public recognition, stand for something more than the aggrandizement of their personalities. Al Gore is a good example of the latter kind of celebrity, and so is Michael Moore. Significantly, they have both achieved prominence through the medium of documentary films -- and, whereas Anna Nichol Smith, Donald Trump, Paris Hilton, or Lindsey Lohan are, in Orwell's pert phrase, merely "holes in the air," Moore and Gore represent troubling and pertinent issues.
Moore is, in many ways, the more fascinating character because the whole of the conservative Establishment in America is determined to belittle his importance and the relevance of the issues he deals with. In a recent New York Times article preceding the premiere of his film Sicko, a sub-head in the article read: "Michael Moore tries to inject himself into a policy discussion on health care" -- as if a person who feels strongly about an issue that is swamped in corruption and duplicity has no right to "inject himself into" such a "policy discussion"; the inference being that he is intruding into areas where he doesn't really belong. But everyone in America who is subject to a rotten and overpriced health program and is repelled by the mendacities of drug cartels (disguised as sympathetic pharmaceutical distributors) and sincerely wishes to enact reform is entitled to express an opinion on this wide-ranging issue.
But because Moore is something of an oddball, often unshaven and not exactly a clothes horse, the media tend to be snide and belittling -- inferring that his positions on these issues can easily be ignored because he is obviously "a marginal character." "I'm doing this," Moore has said about Sicko, "because I really want to make a contribution to the national debate on this issue." To which the New York Times pundit replies, "(the film) lacks the credibility to move public opinion in a lasting way and . . . it will have no more impact than Mr. Moore's previous films." Michael F. Cannon of the Cato Institute then chips in to remind us how "after Bowling For Columbine, we all got together afterwards and decided to ban guns." Cannon's sarcasm is quite justified. Bowling For Columbine did not initiate a national outcry to ban guns, but it did reheat an issue that had been simmering in the minds of parents and educators for some time about the need to reduce the availability of weapons nationwide. We know that so long as the NRA maintains the support it does and no politician has the guts to challenge its lethal policies, the danger from guns will remain acute. But is that an argument for ignoring the issue and being snide about the hundreds and thousands of deaths that occur because of the easy availability of firearms? No one believes Mr. Moore's film is going to initiate a transformation of the health system in America or cause drug manufacturers to abandon their specious commercials for products whose side effects cause nausea, vomiting, headaches, dizziness, liver dysfunction, possible heart attacks, or four-hour erections. But if filmmakers, politicians, and the press do not persistently issue concerned criticism of these evils, the status quo will never change; more people will be made miserable, and more people will unnecessarily have their life spans shortened.
Moore's "single-payment system with the government as insurer which would guarantee access to health care for all" would, as Kevin Sack in The New York Times warns, "put the private insurance industry out of business." And what a blessing that would be! A system of regulated health-care sponsored by the government, which places America into the same civilized camp as England, Scandinavia, France, Canada, Cuba, and most of Europe, is both "a consummation devoutly to be wished" and a defensive action against one of the most corrupting monopolies in American life; an industry responsible for untold misery and the early and preventable deaths of millions of Americans. Why should such a proposal reek of infamy and be treated as a threat for shutting off everyone's oxygen supply? Are we so inured to good sense that we cannot entertain the notion of universal health care for all Americans? Are we so intimidated by the lies of capitalism that we cannot appreciate a socialist idea that could "promote the general welfare"? Or have we become so warped by super-slick commercials about bogus cures and preventive medicines that we can no longer comprehend the humanist notion of using our plentiful resources for the health and betterment of our citizenry?
Ken Johnson, a senior vice president of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers of America predicted Moore's film was "going to energize activists" but not "change anybody's party affiliations." Which, if one clearly reads the sub-text, says: We are shelling out millions of dollars to lobbyists to keep the present unfair system in place, and no transient muckraker or ex-hippie is going to change that system -- not so long as bought Republican and Democratic hirelings are out there obfuscating the issues and maintaining the illusion of "professional health care." Johnson's assumption is that not even the blinding truth about the abuses, the corruption, and the injustice is going to shift the power of well-financed corporate greed. And he's probably right.
The Left, no doubt, will embrace Moore's message as they did his previous cris-du-coeur, and a majority of Americans who can't be bothered about reform will view Sicko as simply another Moore-made "entertainment." Something to be riled up about for a few minutes after viewing and then erased along with the news from Iraq, the Middle East, or the malaise in Washington. But if we were living in revolutionary times, would we as blithely dismiss Tom Paine's Common Sense or James Otis's Rights Of The British Colonies, or the other patriotic pamphlets of the period as we do the portent of Michael Moore's film? Or would we be fired up by the urgency behind the criticism and demand reform that would abolish the abuses suffered by large segments of the population? During the period of the American Revolution, America had not yet become inured to the implications of political reform. There were pamphlets containing socially charged ideas that didn't have to be interrupted by 30-second commercials or saturation coverage from TV, radio, blogs, and a wide assortment of magazines. Mass communications had not diluted the significance of burning issues that affected everyone almost equally. The other big difference was that Americans belonged to a communal society and were united in their grievances and their sense of oppression. Today, although we bitch about the outrageous fees squeezed out of us by the medical and legal professions and the lackadaisical attitude of both doctors and lawyers, it all occurs in an atmosphere of fatalism; a sense that nothing we do -- either politically or socially -- can really eliminate the abuses. We know that whomever we elect, nothing will change because the private interests that run America are equally divided between the two dominant parties and no wrongs can truly be righted because the odds against genuine change are too overwhelming.
It is in such a social climate that films like Sicko and people like Moore assume such great significance. In a world where passivity and complacency rule our lives, the muckraker becomes the closest thing we have to a savior. A voice that says: things can change, if enough people get off their keisters to effect change. It is when a nation has been lulled into a state of stasis that we depend on the clarion call that comes from a growing, dissatisfied minority.
It is in the interests of the monopolies, the corporations, and the denizens of Red State complacency to belittle the efforts of people like Michael Moore -- as they once did with Al Gore, before the granting of an Oscar caused them to sit up and take some notice of what many more people now recognize as a threat to the health of the planet. But when political snideness fueled by a prevailing cynicism passes for film criticism, we have to transcend our knee-jerk reactions and reconsider the relevance of the issues before us. If we don't, we will all deserve the opprobrium attached to the word "sicko"; a word that connotes "sick minds" as much as it does sick bodies.
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