Oh, good, Michael Moore is back. With a movie about capitalism! Apparently he calls it “evil?” Yeah. I know.
Now: It’s not as if I haven’t been fucked over by capitalism myself, in this past year. Like a lot of people, I totally have. And it’s not as if I am not sympathetic to radical critiques of the system. But oh, for the love of God, I do not want Michael Fucking Moore to set the terms of this conversation.
Sooner or later, I think, progressives are going to have to deal with the legacy of progressive media during the Bush administration. Like, Bush was pretty unequivocally a bad president, right? He did a lot of bad stuff. I know I didn’t like him. But then, all of this progressive media arose in response to him – Air America, a bunch of blogs, a resurgence in the popularity of one Michael Moore – and that stuff, well-intentioned as it may have been, was often more interested in rabble-rousing and Republican-bashing and getting people angry than it was with analyzing the issues. In a time of crisis, that language felt right; you don’t have time for nuance, you just need to get people in the mood to take action. And it worked, too: I’ve met several people who left the conservative fold and began to speak about Bush in ways that sounded so much like Michael Moore that they might as well have been scripted by him. But I worry about the conversation getting stuck there. About bringing people that far out, and no further.
It sucks, right? Because I feel like left-leaning media, and left-leaning people, come under fire so often that it’s really not kind or even worthwhile to criticize them. But I used to wake up to Air America every morning, thanks to the dude I lived with, and what I heard was a lot of screaming about “sheeple,” a lot of self-righteousness, a lot of talking points. And not a lot of deep thought. And Moore, to me, is like the “sheeple” screaming turned up to eleven. He is so angry! And he is so angry in such a catchy, slogan-y way! He wants you to join him so we can all be angry together! Isn’t that fun? We are such good people. We are people. Not sheeple. God forbid. Hey, let’s throw the word “evil” around! Because we all know that’s not a tactic people commonly use to rile up a base and/or oversimplify issues in a really dangerous way. It’s just fun to say when you don’t like someone and want to scare people away from agreeing with them. Evil evil evil. Woo!
To really explain why this disturbs me, in such a visceral way, I have to take a detour, and explain to you why I did not want to see or write about Inglourious Basterds. It would have been easy – finally, a Tarantino movie that no-one likes – but I didn’t want to go there, because basically, Quentin Tarantino’s entire moral cosmos seems so ridiculously simplistic that I can’t even be bothered. As far as I can figure out, it goes like this:
- Violence looks cool!
- Oh, but people who do violence are BAD!
- So I will have some people do some really cool-looking extreme violence to show the audience how BAD they are!
- And then the good guys will fight them! ALSO WITH VIOLENCE!
And, I mean, you could argue that Tarantino doesn’t have a moral cosmos, that the point is just to create sensation – or you could go the whole “postmodern,” “commentary” route, if you liked, though I think that stuff in his movies tends to be gimmicky and not enough to hang your entire Understanding of Tarantino on – but if you’re arguing that, then you’re arguing that Beatrix gets raped in Kill Bill Part One for no reason other than to set up a few awesome death scenes. And that’s not what his fans like the movies for, in my experience. Tarantino seems to have moved from flat-out nihilism to nihilism disguised as empowerment, in recent years. So it’s fine to engage with him on that level. Because that level is equally problematic.
I mean: the thought of Tarantino applying this to World War Fucking Two was really not appealing to me. I’ve heard there’s not even that much violence in the movie, that it’s all talk-talk-talk, that it’s mostly about a girl, and you know what? Super. Great. Did you get the requisite foot fetish scene in, QT? Oh, you totally did? Awesome. But here’s the thing I can’t get around: the feeling that it’s using World War Two as a setting and Nazis as villains, not so that Quentin Tarantino can actually deal with the sobering realities of genocide and the human need for revenge and resistance, but so that literally anything the good guys do will be considered justifiable. Basically, I think he’s using the Holocaust to write himself a blank check.
It’s the Godwin’s Law school of filmmaking. You compare someone to Hitler to shut down the argument. You make Hitler the villain of your film to shut down any argument about your protagonists’ actions. Because it’s not like anyone is going to be all, “oh, those poor Nazis! Quit being so mean to them!” No reasonable person, anyway. Oh, and then you end your film by shooting Hitler a whole bunch of times in the face? Oh, WHAT. You have a problem with shooting Hitler in the face? Blah blah “trivializing history” blah blah “exploiting real tragedy for the sake of sensationalism” blah. You know who else probably had a problem with shooting Hitler in the face: HITLER. Granted, he changed his mind a bit toward the end, but still.
I know you could apply this criticism to a lot of movies that are not Inglourious Basterds. The whole trick whereby you make your antagonists unambiguously, facelessly Evil (minions of Sauron, stormtroopers in service to the Evil Empire, whatever) kind of allows you to write your way around the whole “what violence is justifiable and when and why and by whom” question. And that question may not be answerable in screenplay format. It’s a really uncomfortable question, actually, and I can fully see why you wouldn’t want your audience to be wrestling with it while they enjoy your many well-crafted action setpieces. But it plays into this very basic need that humans have, this need to feel like they are on the side of the Good, and I distrust that need for oh, so many reasons, because here’s how it tends to play out:
- The people and things we oppose are Bad.
- Therefore, we are Good.
- Our actions are taken in the service of defeating the Bad.
- Therefore, our actions are, by default, Good.
It’s problematic enough to do this in fiction. (Like: when a whole bunch of people pointed out that, in Inglourious Basterds, the Basterds actually seemed just as sadistic and monstrous as the Nazis. Whoops!) It’s way more problematic to do this in the realm of politics. It never ends well. In point of fact, if you want to ask yourself why people are capable of committing atrocities, I’d say that this line of thinking is one of the primary culprits.
I’m not saying that I’ve never done this: that I’ve never engaged in unapologetic rabble-rousing, that I’ve never oversimplified a complex argument for the sake of what I believed to be a more important point, that I’ve never toted a party line or considered winning an argument more important than being right. I’m saying that I don’t feel good about it. And I feel especially bad about it when I look at Michael Moore, someone who has made an entire career out of those very tactics.
I mean: I would bet that, if you asked him, and if he were obliged to be honest, Michael Moore would admit that he tries to get people riled up. That he’s manipulative. That his style of argument can be risible and dishonest. That people don’t walk away from his movies deeply informed about his subjects, but that they do walk away deeply angry, and full of self-righteousness, and that this is the point. I don’t know whether he’d feel bad about it. I don’t know if he’d feel bad even if you pointed out that this is also how Bill O’Reilly functions. Or how George W. Bush functioned. I’m pretty sure he’d say that the tactics are unacceptable from them, and acceptable from him, because his cause is Good, and theirs is Bad. Or, you know, “evil.”
And that’s why he scares me. To be honest, it’s what scares me sometimes about myself. Because I basically think that, in order to be a good person, you have to continually ask yourself whether you are a bad one. You always have to consider the possibility that you’re the bad guy – that you can be a bad guy regardless of your cause. You have to constantly look at your enemies, not to see how you are different, but to see how you are the same.