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Beyond Good And Evil, Straight To Annoying: A Few Thoughts on Michael Moore

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:

  1. Violence looks cool!
  2. Oh, but people who do violence are BAD!
  3. So I will have some people do some really cool-looking extreme violence to show the audience how BAD they are!
  4. 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:

  1. The people and things we oppose are Bad.
  2. Therefore, we are Good.
  3. Our actions are taken in the service of defeating the Bad.
  4. 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.


  1. McDuff wrote:

    You’re demanding the right to be the center of the conversation, to control it, and you’ve proven that you WILL NOT SHUT UP until you have the final word.

    Up until now, nobody has actually asked me to shut up. Yours was a long post with some pretty long responses in the comments. And it’s not just Tarantino I’ll defend, it’s just that nobody is talking about Moore any more.

    (incidentally, I hadn’t put Moore and Tarantino in the same camps of cinema at all before, but thanks to this post I am starting to see them in similar lights, particularly in the ways that people respond to both of them. There’s probably a PhD in there for someone with more time on their hands)

    I’m not going to quote and pick because your objections there are pretty complex and I can’t point-by-point them without being all long, so let me at least try to be brief.

    Firstly, I didn’t elevate Tarantino or Picasso above the proles, that’s your reading of where Picasso is, not mine. I just think Picasso was a good visual artist, and you can be any class you want and still appreciate that. I don’t distinguish between high art and low art, I think it’s a pretty rubbish way of looking at things, I prefer good art and bad art. One can draw a venn diagram of influential art that crosses both camps, but the whole “some stuff is genuine art and other stuff merely populist rubbish” depresses the fuck out of me.

    As for Shepard Fairey, well, it may be true (although I think it’s not as true as you might think mainly because you haven’t seen Jackie Brown and Inglourious Basterds, which are both significantly less flashy and sparkly than Pulp Fiction or the Kill Bill movies) but then the reason that is an insult is predicated on that tedious “style isn’t art, especially if lots of people like it” assumption, which I have been through: it’s a very boring assumption to make about art, and makes you into a boring commenter on it. The world truly does not need someone else explaining why we’re not smart enough to like the same art as them, thanks.

    Right, but, on “why tarantino annoys you”: I guess I don’t see the contradiction between a visceral response to art and an intellectual response to art. See also: Guernica. I don’t see why one cannot want to create a gut level reaction to visual imagery, if you are a visual artist, as part of a palette of storytelling techniques. When I talk about Tarantino’s postmodernism (oh, how the word irritates me, with its capacity to mean so much and so little at the same time) I am referring to his films self-awareness, the fact that his movies know they are movies that are being watched by an audience, that even though the characters in the film have no conception of The Dirty Dozen that the audience does, and plays with that fact in order to tell a story (This guy covers it in much more depth). At the same time, you don’t have to know any of that in order to get the shiny lights and the magnificently restrained long shots punctuated by stylised cuts and jumps.

    Now, this is not to say that if you are engaging with Tarantino on an intellectual level and not liking it that you’re doing a bad thing by saying that as opposed to just dropping out to the “ooh, sparkly” level of cinema appreciation. But I don’t know whether I’d expect many film makers to not personally try and cop out of criticisms of their work. “Yes, but…” is hardly a tactic used solely by Tarantino to get people to stop slating his shit. Basically, I won’t go there. But Sam B was saying that Tarantino is all style and no substance, and that’s not even remotely the same argument, nor is it correct.

    As for obnoxiously pointing out that we’re not going to reach even the grounds for an agreement, well, what would you have me do here? Quite obviously we’re talking about subjective interpretations of subject matter and I’m not the kind of person who thinks my subjective opinion about art is right. I’ll defend it and give reasons for it but if Tarantino’s style is too garish and visceral for you then, frankly, the fact that it isn’t for me is not going to change your mind, because you are not me and that is the basic grounds of the disagreement. I do object to the notion that my personal taste in liking Tarantino and Park over Haneke makes me some kind of cultural redneck, worthy of derision because I simply do not know any better. I also object to the notion that one can hold forth on a film without having seen it (although I loved Nussbaum’s revelation that she hadn’t taken the time to see Life is Beautiful, but she had taken the time to read a book confirming her suspicions about why she wouldn’t like it anyway. I have no possible answer for any argument made from that planet, although I can admire its beauty on an aesthetic level).

    If anything, I think it’s good to establish the boundaries on where people can agree to disagree (Tarantino annoys you, he doesn’t annoy me) so we can not be distracted away from the bits that are actually better meat for discussion – should Tarantino even have made a war movie based on Jews getting revenge on Hitler? That’s a big, meaty question, and I think a big part of the answer (sorry to keep returning to this but, y’know) is contained in the movie that he actually made, rather than the movie that you think he probably made but haven’t seen. While I understand the inherent problems with someone as garish as Tarantino can be taking on a subject matter with a kind of deliberate apple-cart disruptive intent, I genuinely think you have to balance those out with the fact that the film he actually made wasn’t a three hour epic about Jews violently killing Nazis and how awesome that is.

    So, I’m balancing out the Sady Doyle points out that my my privilege may be making me blind (normally quite a cool compass) against other sources, also not unknown to point out things about my privilege that I may have missed, saying “no no, here’s my Jewish Female perspective: it’s a good film.” I think it’s valid to not wish to tread heavily on certain aspects of history; it’s also valid to not wish every image of Jewry in WWII movies to be of inescapable victimhood, even if that was actually closer to the reality. On balance, that’s the side I sway towards. I don’t want to get offended on someone else’s behalf, especially if they aren’t offended themselves. It’s just not in me to say that someone’s personal emotional responses to a film they’ve seen are somehow factually incorrect, although I’m happy to say that about a film that they haven’t seen.

    But this is another too-long comment, I am very sorry. Let’s have that drink sometime.

    Thursday, September 17, 2009 at 1:13 pm | Permalink
  2. Ashley wrote:


    I think I speak for alot of people when I say that I’m no longer reading past the first couple of sentences of your replies anymore. Let it go.

    Thursday, September 17, 2009 at 1:45 pm | Permalink
  3. McDuff wrote:


    Righty o.

    Thursday, September 17, 2009 at 5:15 pm | Permalink
  4. Sady wrote:

    @McDuff: Ha ha, I love the “my tireless commenting in the name of getting The Last Word isn’t working out, so let’s leave a final comment that will be The Last Word On Not Getting The Last Word” maneuver. Awesome! Classic! Super! Four stars!

    For the record, I am just pretty much posting this comment in the name of not letting you have the last one in the thread. Not to be a dick! But just (a) to remind you that men have a long history of demanding to center their own voices and opinions in conversations like these, and (b) in the hopes that, once you’ve learned that you can’t just badger people into agreeing with you by monopolizing the conversation (seriously: there are probably more words, in your comments put together, than there are in the original post. Which was lengthy. Do you even SEE the problem here, or…?) you’ll be a better conversational partner. Again: thanks for reading the blog! You seem like a cool guy! Comment again sometime! But, you know, in a way that’s a little less derail-y, if you can.

    Thursday, September 17, 2009 at 6:52 pm | Permalink
  5. Isa wrote:

    @McDuff: I like you.

    Thursday, September 17, 2009 at 7:11 pm | Permalink
  6. Kelly wrote:

    sady I think we should invite mcduff over for tom collins and record a vlog 😉

    Thursday, September 17, 2009 at 7:31 pm | Permalink
  7. Sady wrote:

    @emjaybee: “It would be interesting to see your criticisms of Moore, as a filmmaker, all in one piece. Because like others, I did kind of think your piece was typical “hey liberals are crazy too, let’s all be sensible here in the middle” stuff.”

    See? That’s such a knee-jerk reaction, and has nothing to do with what I actually wrote. And the entire post was about the perils of groupthink and unthinking adherence to a party line. For the record, I DON’T think liberals are incapable of being “crazy” or stupid. No-one is incapable of being crazy or stupid. The same is true of conservatives, moderates, whatever. People get SO SHITTY whenever you say that, and you can’t even say the words “too far” without getting criticized: although, you know, you can go too far, or at least too crazy. “Firefly takes misogyny to a new level of terrifying,”, anyone? I believe the woman argues that the character of Wash is a rapist and that Joss Whedon abuses his wife. Oh, no, wait: I don’t believe, I know. Because she totally does.

    I wasn’t even recommending moderation. What I was saying is that party lines, IN AND OF THEMSELVES, are dangerous if construed as evidence of one’s own moral worth, if used to prop up one’s self esteem and sense of self-righteousness, or if adopted because that’s what other folks are doing rather than after careful individual consideration. It leads to this thing where we are Right and they are Wrong and anything we do in the service of that Rightness and Goodness is okay, whereas Bill O’Reilly is consciously, cynically evil and you know this because… he disagrees with you? How do you know this? How did the woman in the blog post linked above know that Joss Whedon abused his wife? She didn’t. She just said that because she didn’t like that he had a sex worker in his show and didn’t show her life as one of unmitigated horror.

    I’m not EVEN defending Bill O’Reilly here. I’m saying that it is your job to interrogate yourself and each and every message you receive every day to make sure it is correct. After you’ve performed the interrogation, I think you’ll find that feminist messages are correct the vast majority of the time. But orthodoxy, a susceptibility to fine inflammatory rhetoric, and a knee-jerk aversion to criticism can’t take you as far as intelligence and judgment, and they may very well take you the wrong way at times.

    I am a radical, at least in American terms. But I’m not going to do or believe everything that anyone else brands as “radical,” or to give up my right to think for myself and just tote a party line around. I recommend that you don’t do that either. It makes you a better radical, in the long run.

    Thursday, September 17, 2009 at 7:39 pm | Permalink
  8. Isa wrote:

    I am so fucking tired of Michael Moore. Excellent post, as always.

    Friday, September 18, 2009 at 4:12 am | Permalink
  9. Ashley wrote:

    “What I was saying is that party lines, IN AND OF THEMSELVES, are dangerous if construed as evidence of one’s own moral worth, if used to prop up one’s self esteem and sense of self-righteousness, or if adopted because that’s what other folks are doing rather than after careful individual consideration.”

    Just to take this back to the upcoming Moore film in question: the current political climate, in which the word “SOCIALIST!!11!!1” is being thrown around by conservatives as if it’s synonymous with “EVIL” (also fascism and nazism, which would be hilarious if it weren’t so sad) really needs is a pragmatic engagement with different social theories that disrupts the assumption that ANY model is a transcendent good in and of itself.

    What we need is someone to honestly say that capitalism has a long history of exploitation, corruption, and despotism JUST LIKE SOCIALISM. Yes, you have U.S. based mega-corporations, industrial era sweat shops, the slave trade, etc., but I also don’t think you can seriously engage socialist theory without being honest about, you know, the government mandated starvation of peasants in the Ukraine or the Stalinist party purges. There’s horror on every side, so suggesting that what is a feature of one system is just a bug in the other is loathsomely disingenuous. However, once we’ve established that its the application of social theories to practical situations that matters, and that taking from each in moderation is a tenable middle-ground–like, say, free market principles are a great way to advance the latest computer technology but are a shitty basis for a health care system–then maybe a discussion will be possible.

    Moore’s film isn’t out yet, so I might have to temper the following once I actually see it, but what it seems like he’s doing is merely replacing one set of essentialist principles (socialism is evil, capitalism is good) with another essentialist principles, even if all he’s doing is characterizing capitalism as inherently and unavoidably evil without demanding some kind of Marxist Revolution. If, as Sam Holloway suggested earlier, Moore really is trying to win the hearts and minds of his opposition, than going about it this way is 100% guaranteed to fail.

    Friday, September 18, 2009 at 9:07 am | Permalink
  10. Samantha b. wrote:

    Ashley, I’m thinking you are conflating communism and socialism. Communism has a long tradition of despotism- democratic socialism does not.

    Friday, September 18, 2009 at 10:57 am | Permalink
  11. Ashley wrote:

    @Samantha: You are right, and I suppose I was only because that’s what’s been happening in public discourse. We can’t seem to get to a discussion of how democratic socialism or market socialism or social democracy are different from Stalinism and Maoism simply because any theory of economic and political organization that contains the word “social” in it raises such extremes of vitriol among a sizable portion of the electorate. Furthermore, because democratic socialism is, for better or for worse, an ideological cousin (albeit estranged) of communism, it’s probably always going to live in the shadow of Stalin in the context of public discourse, just like liberal mainline Christians have to live in the shadow of Pat Robertson.

    My point is that essentializing market capitalism as pure, unadulterated evil, especially if one is suggesting that there is clearly some alternative that evades the messiness of history doesn’t advance the discussion much further. At best, it only keeps the discussion going among the liberals who know enough and care enough to parse it out.

    Friday, September 18, 2009 at 11:25 am | Permalink
  12. Kelly wrote:

    I seriously want to be friends in real life with everyone who was part of this discussion. Sady, you should have a Tiger Beatdown mixer.

    Friday, September 18, 2009 at 2:42 pm | Permalink
  13. Gracie wrote:

    @Sady: “…once you’ve learned that you can’t just badger people into agreeing with you by monopolizing the conversation”
    I don’t think McDuff was trying to badger you into agreeing with him. In fact, in the post you’re replying to he stated that your disagreement is mostly subjective and therefore somewhat irreconcilable. And I also don’t understand how he was monopolizing the conversation. Unlike some of my fellow posters above I read through each post and didn’t see any attempts to shut the conversation down, at least not by McDuff.

    “Comment again sometime! But, you know, in a way that’s a little less derail-y, if you can.”
    But your post was about Tarantino as much as it was about Moore.

    “there are probably more words, in your comments put together, than there are in the original post. Which was lengthy. Do you even SEE the problem here, or…”
    I don’t. Is the issue that McDuff was writing a lot? How is this bad? Forgive me, but I love your blog and think that each post is worthy of discussion. It’s disappointing to see that a particularly wordy contribution to that discussion merits a dismissal.

    “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.”
    I love this. I was actually confronted with the same truth upon hearing about Obama’s factual error concerning Otto Raddatz, and feeling pretty apathetic about it; the particular way I justified it was “it could have happened, and probably does quite a bit.” If such an error had been coming from the right, however, I would have been furious.

    Tuesday, September 22, 2009 at 9:37 am | Permalink
  14. this website is astonishing. it is pretty much the first intelligent, sane, genuinely balanced discussion i have seen, like, ANYWHERE. i am SO RELIEVED that there are people out there who can STILL THINK.

    as for michael moore and the propagandists, i have nothing to add, except that it is great to see both my concern about the political shouting match as well as the apparent uselessness of even attempting to play fair, actually frikkin articulated in a lucid manner.

    pardon me for piping up with what ought to be an unnecessary compliment, but it seems to be so out of vogue these days and that, i think, has been the chief source of my personal distress.

    thank you all so very very much. i am officially addicted to this blog.

    Wednesday, September 30, 2009 at 8:45 pm | Permalink
  15. Kaye wrote:

    Maybe I’m too late but I just had to comment on this. Sady, as usual you wrote a great post with lots of great points that you continued to articulate in greater detail in the comments section. I agreed with a lot of what you said, particularly the part about calling Michael Moore to task for not injecting gender, race and class analyses into his films.

    However, while I see some clear flaws in his films (e.g., I’m not a fan of his hyperbole), in general I think they’re great and needed. So often people are not deep thinkers so to just get them aware of topics, they need to see and hear things with broad strokes. Then they may be primed for deeper analyses. Unfortunately, part of the problem is that you do get angry and then have no place in which to constructively use that anger. Moore’s films need to be paired with resources where you can read more in depth reporting on the topic or places/groups where you can volunteer your time, money, etc.

    For me, the major things I love about Moore’s films are the stories he tells. If you can get past the manipulative parts, he finds people who are riveting and relates the very stories that should be at the heart of our national conversations yet aren’t. From Fahrenheit 911, I will never forget the image of the grieving mother doubling over in front of the White House as she tries to protest the unjust war that killed her son. There were tons of great stories from Sicko. As a psychologist who works in healthcare, I can tell you that he got it right in showing how people suffer under our current system. These are the stories that the mainstream media should be showing but aren’t. Like I said, I could do without all the fluff he presents but I admit I laughed at the “evildoer” line when he approached Guantanamo and I think his broad point about how we do provide good healthcare when it suits us is valid.

    In short, I think his films have huge limitations but no one else is offering the stories he can tell on the topics that matter.

    Sunday, October 4, 2009 at 5:10 pm | Permalink
  16. I like these ideas a lot. Well spoken!

    Tuesday, October 20, 2009 at 11:27 pm | Permalink
  17. Goodmorning
    awesome post – i’m creating video about it and i will post it to youtube !
    if you wana to help or just need a link send me email !

    Wednesday, March 17, 2010 at 1:32 am | Permalink

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  1. […] This is what it has come down to. {September 30, 2009}   One day, I should try writing again, instead of just quoting. I forgot how awesome Tiger Beatdown is. I read and liked a quote in comment 18 of this post. […]