Michael & us
Take it as a given that Michael Moore has engaged in intentional deception in every one of his feature-length documentaries, from Roger & Me to Fahrenheit 9/11, because he cares more about scoring emotional points than about being loyal to the truth. He’s a propagandist first and an artist second. Take it as a given, also, that he’s very good at what he does—let’s call it “docuproptainment”—and that millions of people have been influenced by his work.
One could document Moore’s duplicity, and Jesse Larner’s new book, Forgive Us Our Spins: Michael Moore and the Future of the Left, does so convincingly, but it’s beside the point. If Moore were an honest filmmaker, he would be much less famous than he is, and he’d be the subject of an academic monograph rather than the subject of the kind of quick-turnaround current-affairs book that Larner’s written.
It’s precisely Moore’s excess of talent combined with his lack of scruples that infuriates (and secretly delights) the right, delights (and secretly worries) the left and above all demands an answer to one of the great problems of political existence: the problem of the demagogue. Does it matter if Moore fiddles with facts, chronology and causation, and dabbles in conspiracy, if he convinces people to vote and act in the cause of justice? Does the demagoguery of the right demand a countervailing demagoguery of the left? Is he good for the left? Is he good for the right? Do the ends justify the means? Does an ends-justifies-the-means strategy end up defeating itself?
Larner, a contributor to The Nation and the author of a revisionist study of Mount Rushmore, captures the dilemma well in his description of Moore’s success in television. He writes that “before Moore there were few on the left who were willing to do a show that was both political and a circus. This shortfall opened a certain cultural niche for Moore somewhere between the present-day Fear and O’Reilly factors, and his ability to fill this need has always been a key aspect of his success. … He needs a gimmick, a hook to draw in his audience—the more outrageous, the better. When he finds one, he can appeal to people who would be moved by the leftist conspiratorial arguments of, say, Noam Chomsky, if they weren’t too lazy to read him. Moore’s diatribes are easy to absorb: precut, prechewed, and often highly entertaining.”
Forgive Us Our Spins is a failure because it keeps shying away, theoretically, from this unpleasant fact that it keeps documenting—that really good docuproptainment can be really good at docuproptaining the masses. Thus Rush Limbaugh. Thus Bill O’Reilly. Thus Michael Moore. Rather than engaging the possibility that Moore is useful to the left precisely because he’s more interested in emotional manipulation than truth, Larner takes the easy way out. “Moore’s enemies,” he writes, “have never failed to hit him with charges of playing loose with the facts whenever it suits his editorial position, and he has given them many opportunities to discredit not only his material but also his theses. This has considerably dulled the effect of Moore’s voice on American politics.” Right—just as Sean Hannity’s falsehoods have been so devastating to the Republican party.
Forgive Us Our Spins is a well-researched, thoughtful book, and Larner doesn’t have a partisan ax to grind, which is a relief. Unfortunately, he also doesn’t have much of a thesis, but rather a set of propositions that he can’t really square with each other or with reality, and the book is directionless as a result.