The SiCKO Controversy : Views From the Left

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Moore speaking on health issues before sympathetic congresspeople.
C O N T R O V E R S Y

Michael Moore’s documentary Sicko (2007) has attracted its fair share of critics among the liberaloid guardians of the status quo, and, naturally, rabidly negative and mendacious reviews from the right. But a film of this importance, that has managed to touch off a desperately needed debate about the nature of the “health care” system in the US, and the grasping values underscoring it, has also elicited criticism from the left. In this series of posts we cover the more compelling arguments.

EXHIBIT 1
IN PRAISE OF “SICKO” BUT WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THE U.S. HEALTHCARE SYSTEM DIES?

By Carolyn Baker
Dateline: Sunday, 12 August 2007

It had to happen, but it took so long-indeed, too long, for a courageous filmmaker to rise up and put the abysmal U.S. healthcare system under a microscope in order to reveal how utterly pathological it has become. On one level, Moore repeated a blatant flaw in his craft so obvious in “Bowling For Columbine” and “Fahrenheit 911” in that he almost always fails to fully connect the dots and take his work to the next level, and “Sicko” was no exception. Nevertheless, the film left me laughing, cheering, and crying and particularly gleeful regarding memos sent by management throughout the Blue Cross system warning employees of the possible side-effects of “Sicko” on their company’s image.

In the light of Moore’s impressive research and documentation, after listening to the film’s horror stories of patients raped by the “disease-care” system, after witnessing the confessions of former players in that system who have come clean and can only live with themselves by spilling their guts regarding the devious methods they used to keep the system intact and bloat its profits, after hearing the Oval Office conversation between Richard Nixon and John Ehrlichman in which the two salivated over the spoils guaranteed to the industry as a result of creating a sprawling network of HMO’s, after the poignant scenes near the movie’s end of real people-9/11 rescue workers, actually getting extraordinarily humane and completely free healthcare in Cuba, there is little left to say about the American system because one can only hold one’s nose and gasp for fresh air in face of the overpowering, nauseating stench of the most brutal medical industry on earth. I do not hesitate to label it unequivocally, pure evil.

Not only is the American disease-care industry the biggest rip-off of any healthcare system on earth, but it is being used to prop up an expiring economy because it creates jobs, and without those jobs, the U.S. unemployment rate, already fudged with bogus statistics, would immediately spike. Not only is U.S. healthcare devastating the lives of Americans who use it, but it is being manipulated to give the appearance of economic health in a code-blue economy now in collapse.

Moreover, unlike the healthcare systems of many developed countries, the American system gives much lip service to preventive medicine, but only about 1% of the American healthcare dollar goes to prevention programs and for one simple reason: Sickness is profitable, and prevention is not.

But once again, Moore does not ask the deeper questions such as: What is inherent in the American capitalist system that propagates and rewards such carnage? In fact, he fails to notice that profit over people is at the core of Western civilization and the culture of empire. Ten thousand years of civilization which include the raping and overpopulating of the earth, the depletion of the planet’s resources, the dizzying pace of global warming, and the extinction of hundreds of species per day, have brought us to exactly this point. How could the inhabitants of the belly of the beast have access to anything better than a disease-purveying medical system that facilitates the elimination of the middle and working classes while guaranteeing that the ruling elite will wax healthier and more affluent? Fortunately, “Sicko” does not spend much time suggesting that somehow this system can be reformed, improved, or streamlined which would be the proverbial band-aid for cancer. But neither has Moore yet diagnosed the malignancy at the core not only of the American healthcare system but of civilization itself.

To his credit, perhaps the most important line in “Sicko” was the pivotal question: “What have we become that we have allowed this to happen?” And so I sit with the first four words of that question-what have we become? Until this question is explored, Moore and all other well-intentioned progressives will miss the point.

Civilization is in an inexorable, cataclysmic downward spiral of collapse. The American disease industry is only one of a plethora of institutions and systems in a process of abject crumbling-education, religion, economic systems, family, political systems, energy, transportation, infrastructure, food production-the list is virtually infinite. The tragic footage of the Minneapolis bridge collapse, now burned by corporate news media into the American mind, is a ghastly metaphor for the failed fiasco of civilization, as well as a ghoulish consequence of a rotting infrastructure that the corporatocracy refuses to attend to in its frantic obsession with global resource wars.

U.S. healthcare is a nightmare with few options. In order to receive efficient, free care, it is almost necessary to move to another country. Unfortunately, “Sicko” implies that moving to Canada is a viable option, but in reality, emigrating to any country is not easy and usually requires a long, mind-numbing process of bureaucratic red tape-especially for Americans whose investments and government checks are welcome in foreign banks, but whose quest for jobs is not. Furthermore, Canada will soon be inundated with immigrants as Americans move there in droves and as 4000 people per week leave the U.K. for destinations like Canada, South Africa, and Australia.

It behooves every American who takes collapse seriously and is consciously preparing for it, to learn healthcare skills. An individual can enroll in or audit almost any basic emergency lifesaving or first aid course at local community colleges or hospitals around the country. Health care professionals who are preparing for collapse can take their preparation to the next level by offering informal workshops on various aspects of healthcare for non-professionals. Moreover, a basic knowledge of herbal remedies and a generous inventory of them is essential, not only as access to traditional healthcare diminishes but as herbal remedies themselves become more difficult to acquire in terms of prices and the likelihood of government control or elimination of them.

In addition, the Hesperian Foundation offers a treasure-trove of books and DVD’s for non-professionals such as “Where There Is No Doctor”, “Where There Is No Dentist”, “Where Women Have No Doctor”, a “Handbook For Midwives”, “Helping Health Workers Learn”, and a variety of related topics. People with access to medical supplies may want to consider amassing a cache of them for times when they may not have access to healthcare at all, even if they have health insurance. Those who require specific medications for survival may want to work with their physician or experts in chemistry to stockpile medication or chemical ingredients necessary for the medicines they need. A series of articles by Dan Bednarz such as Peak Oil and Healthcare posted at the Energy Bulletin, offers detailed explanations of the impact of Peak Oil and collapse on the American healthcare system which is so energy and technology-dependent.

As I have written innumerable times, federal, state, and local governments are not going to be able to provide basic services in the throes of collapse-even if they want to. Katrina was nothing if not a glaring example of this reality.

I for one am not interested in making American systems better but instead, telling the truth about their irreversible demise. If I’m not honest about that, then I will do silly and meaningless things like vote in elections and believe that buying a Prius and converting to non-incandescent light bulbs or the development of magic-bullet technology will avert a catastrophic global energy crisis. In fact, if I don’t tell the truth about civilization’s collapse I will become seduced into the lie that we can keep the entire house of cards intact and worse, that doing so is a really good idea.

I want not only Michael Moore but the entire progressive movement to tell us the truth about what comes after the death of the American healthcare system. I want all of them to break the indelicate news that humanity is murdering the earth and all life forms on it-themselves and the rest of the planet. I want them to stop tenaciously, naively, delusionally hanging on to “hope” and other soporifics of consumerism and the American way of life, or more truthfully, the American way of death. I want them to stop calling me “dismal” because I say what is so and refuse to ignore the flatulent neon elephant in the very small room of planet earth which is growing smaller and more diseased by the moment. I want the so-called physicians of socio/political/ecological/and cultural well being to stop telling us terminal patients that there are solutions, elixirs and potions of political choice, actions to take, movements to marshal, candidates who will save us. I want them to tell the truth about their own and earth’s prognosis and the sinking of the Titanic and focus instead on creating lifeboats and look at the really, really big picture beyond myopic, truly terminal optimism.

So thank you Michael Moore for your gutsy, funny, but very poignant expose of the U.S. disease-care empire. Yet as much as I loved “Sicko”, I want a deeper diagnosis, one that will truly assess the vital signs of a crumbling culture and a civilization that the progressive community insists on keeping on life-support when the kindest and most scrupulous act any of us can perform is to simply, swiftly pull the plug and record time of death.

Carol Baker maintains a personal blog, Speaking Truth to Power at http://carolynbaker.net

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EXHIBIT 2
EXCHANGE OF LETTERS BETWEEN DAVID WALSH, FILM CRITIC FOR THE WORLD SOCIALIST WEB SITE (WSWS) AND READERS OF HIS SICKO REVIEW, ARGUING THAT WALSH WAS EXCESSIVELY HARSH.

World Socialist Web Site www.wsws.org

An exchange on Michael Moore’s Sicko

By David Walsh \ 14 July 2007

A number of readers have written in to the WSWS expressing disagreement with the comment we posted on Michael Moore’s new documentary film, Sicko. “Michael Moore’s Sicko: very limited conceptions, very limited results”.

The following letter perhaps best sums up these views:

Dear David Walsh:

I have not seen Sicko yet, but I thought your criticisms were off base.

Your main objection seems to be that Moore emphasized the mass entertainment aspect too much for your tastes, and underemphasized the larger social and historical context of the healthcare issue. Here is the problem: If Moore had made his film the way you suggest, it would have a tiny audience, rather than the millions who will watch and appreciate Sicko. The WSWS is excellent in substantive terms—but how many people read it every day? Compare that with the numbers that watch Moore’s films …

My entire adult life (and I suspect yours too) has been consumed with the simple question: When will the left come up with something that works? When will it find a formula that appeals to a genuinely mass audience in the USA? Watching Fahrenheit 9/11, I left with the impression that Moore may have finally done it. It appears Sicko will have a similar impact. Why be so vituperative in criticizing this success?

For what it is worth, I enjoy your reviews, and read them regularly.

Sincerely,
DG
11 July 2007

This letter raises a number of important questions related to the political situation in the US and the development of popular consciousness, as well as problems in filmmaking.

DG may not be aware of it, but I find it significant (and ironic) that he—and several other critics of the WSWS review, as a matter of fact—defends Moore and Sicko although he hasn’t seen the film. What does this suggest? That he believes, and probably correctly, that one can gain a fairly accurate idea of its themes and approach minus an actual viewing.

At that point one is clearly speaking about something other than a significant work of art. A film, even a documentary, establishes its truth not as a series of formal concepts, summarized in a few sentences or images, but as a dramatic and intellectual experience. Serious filmmakers struggle with their material and in some fashion the viewer reproduces that effort in watching the final product and responding to its challenges.

Moore’s film, DG implies, is something else, essentially the “left” lowest common denominator. And he’s right in that. We know more or less what we will see and hear before we take our seats.

But how could such a film have a deep impact? In fact, I think there is less challenging material in Sicko than in some of Moore’s previous efforts, for example, Roger & Me and Fahrenheit 9/11, with all their weaknesses. And, as far as I understand, it has not had the same impact as those films, at the box office or anywhere else.

This has to do both with the content and the form of his work.

The assumption of Moore, and the assumption of some of our critics, is that a film must make matters simple for the American public either to gain a wide audience or have a significant influence. We reject this notion. In fact, we think the opposite is the case.

No one at the WSWS idealizes the present level of consciousness; we are well aware of the political difficulties that exist. Unfortunately, those who adapt themselves, or half-adapt themselves, to the present state of confusion very rarely want to consider its historical background or their own role in perpetuating it. They say, ‘People have very little knowledge about politics or history, so we have to tailor our arguments to what people will currently accept.’ If no one tells the public the truth, and very few have in America in recent decades, then how is it to learn anything?

DG says, “My entire adult life (and I suspect yours too) has been consumed with the simple question: When will the left come up with something that works? When will it find a formula that appeals to a genuinely mass audience in the USA?” That isn’t how we see it at all. The development of a mass left-wing movement in the US is not a matter of finding something, as every garden variety pragmatist would argue, “that works.” It is, first and foremost, a question of the maturity of the crisis of American and world capitalism. The task of Marxists is to engage in a struggle to raise political and cultural consciousness, confident that such a struggle will meet, under certain conditions, with a massive popular response.

Moore’s continued prominence, frankly, is itself an expression of the political immaturity of wide layers of the population, including its “left” elements.

Honestly, which aspects of Moore’s film genuinely rise above the level of individual segments aired on CBS’ “60 Minutes” or other similar television programs, done every week and sometimes more effectively? Much of Sicko has that quality, of an extended broadcast news item, with a “left” or populist twist.

For example, another of our reader-critics, JW, asserts that “there are several points that the film makes that are stunning” and includes under this category the scene of for-profit hospital patients “taken by cab to the downtown [Los Angeles] ‘skid row’ area, and dumped still wearing thin hospital gowns and no shoes!”

In fact, on July 13 CNN broadcast an extended item on this practice, noting pointedly that it had been covering the story for “two years.” The cable channel may have felt incentive to promote its coverage of the hospitals’ malfeasance as a result of Sicko’s release, but this merely underscores the essential point: exposés of this variety, which fail to trace social atrocities to their general source in capitalism and the continued disenfranchisement of the working class within the two-party system, are not unusual, certainly not “stunning,” and represent no threat by themselves to the status quo.

Why are our critics so certain that American audiences could not have understood something more complicated? Why do they ask so little? Moore spends a few misleading minutes on history in Sicko, blaming Richard Nixon for the present state of healthcare and referring to Ronald Reagan’s role in the anti-“socialized medicine” campaign of the Cold War years.

The US has powerful political and ideological traditions. The revolutionary democratic ideas of Tom Paine and others swept the colonies in 1776. The number of copies distributed of Paine’s Common Sense is a matter of controversy, but it apparently totaled at least 150,000 (and perhaps as many as 600,000), within a population of only a few million colonists. In the 1850s, which also witnessed an American Renaissance in literature (Melville, Whitman, Hawthorne, Thoreau and others), the US population found itself riveted by complex political and constitutional issues.

Historian James McPherson, in an interview with the WSWS in 2003 (See “A conversation with historian James M. McPherson”), noted that during the famed 1858 campaign between Democrat Stephen Douglas and Republican Abraham Lincoln, candidates for the US Senate in Illinois, “People traveled miles and waited for hours to hear the debates [each of which lasted at least three hours], on critical political issues. The population was aware of the issues, there was great political interest and intensity. Big ideas were advanced, and policies arose from these big ideas.”

The muckrakers of the Progressive Era, including Upton Sinclair (The Jungle); novelists like Dreiser, Dos Passos, Fitzgerald, Hemingway; commentators like Mencken—all of these figures, and many more, had wide audiences for substantial and artistically presented conceptions.

Is the American population now stupid and indifferent? If our critics think so, they should say as much and explain how this has happened.

Moore is a filmmaker, who has demonstrated a degree of courage and independence in the past. He has showed a certain commitment to the working class population and attempts to picture its difficulties.

Politically, however, Moore belongs to the liberal left in the US, whose aversion to theory, political laziness and unseriousness are among the factors hindering a genuine mass political development. Such people always excuse themselves by blaming the population. “They” would be “ready” to break with the Democrats, of course, but the “people” aren’t. “They” are for very “radical” policies, but Americans are so “backward.” “They” are even “socialists,” in the privacy of their own homes, but the so-called “S” word is “unmentionable” in the US. Such people fail to see that their own half-heartedness and fear of principled struggle play an objective role in helping to prop up the existing political set-up.

Grasping the present problems in social consciousness requires, among other things, a historical evaluation of the role of the various parties and organizations that have claimed in some way to represent the interests of broad layers of the population: the trade unions, American liberalism, the civil rights leadership. This is not the place for such an evaluation, but we are convinced that any objective observer would conclude that the US population has been abandoned to the tender mercies of a rapacious ruling elite by all of these social elements, which have moved sharply to the right.

It is, one must repeat, verging on the dishonest of Moore to treat the question of healthcare without any reference to the refusal of the Democratic Party in the 1940s (under Roosevelt and Truman), at its social reformist height, to enact deep-going social measures. The eager participation of the AFL and CIO bureaucracies in the purging of socialist and left-wing forces during the McCarthy era meant the subsequent political strangulation of the labor movement and its unwavering commitment to pro-capitalist policies. It is impossible to understand the absence of universal healthcare in the US or struggle for such a measure today without considering these historical issues. Moore chose not to discuss any of this.

In a friendly review of Sicko in the Nation magazine, Christopher Hayes writes that “Sicko is different from Moore’s last two efforts. Not just because of an absence of gimmicky gotcha moments, or a reduction in screen time for Moore himself, but because its topic isn’t fundamentally polarizing in the way his previous works were…. Moore’s solution is simple: Get rid of the health insurance companies. Don’t just tinker with the healthcare system, banish profit from the delivery of healthcare altogether. Socialize it. Make it a public good.”

Moore proposes “simple,” easy, unchallenging answers to extremely complex questions. He advocates alleviating the healthcare crisis in America while leaving untouched the foundations of the profit system, through the medium of the Democratic Party. This “practical,” “realistic” approach is the most fantastic and deluded. The Democrats represent the corporate-financial elite. For holidays and election campaigns they mobilize a few populist phrases and arguments.

Moore has associated himself, critically or otherwise, with the various healthcare plans advanced by the leading 2008 Democratic presidential hopefuls, while acknowledging that former vice president Al Gore, who has yet to announce his entrance into the race, is the candidate closest to his heart. Let’s not forget that in 2004 Moore initially supported retired General Wesley Clark, commander of the NATO bombing campaign during the brutal Kosovo War in 1999, in the Democratic Party presidential nomination process.

Why, contrary to our critics, should we be grateful for small mercies, such as Sicko’s attack on the private insurance carriers? One of our critics, RL, argues that “You don’t try to fight the greed-ridden nature of privatized medicine for profit with nuanced intellectual analysis, which, of course, has its place.” Then with what? Vague populism, which remains attached to the Democratic Party? With vulgar and, to be blunt, inaccurate depictions of the Canadian and European healthcare systems? What would be the reaction of Moore and our reader-critics to slashing, left-wing exposés by Canadian and European filmmakers of the healthcare systems in their countries? Would they argue that such things are “unhelpful” and that the critics should keep their mouths shut because the stupid Americans might be confused otherwise?

On the contrary, we believe the population needs far more, ten times more, “nuanced intellectual analysis.” There is hardly anything in such short supply in America, and the political, social and cultural consequences of its absence should be clear for everyone to see.

The development of a broadly based socialist movement in the US and globally depends on the cultivation of complicated ideas among masses of people. Simplification, “dumbing down,” even “left mythologizing,” help no one. As the noted French left-wing writer Daniel Guerin explained in the 1930s in Fascism and Big Business, unlike the extreme right, socialism “appeals more to intelligence and reason than to the senses and imagination. Socialism does not impose a faith to be accepted without discussion; it presents a rational criticism of the capitalist system and requires of everybody, before his adherence, a personal effort of reason and judgment. It appeals more to the brain than to the eye or the nerves; it seeks to convince the reader or listener calmly, not to seize him, move him, and hypnotize him.”

Moore is indulging in a variety of left-wing tabloid journalism, for which a number of commentators have commended him.

Jonathan Cohn, writing in the New Republic, observes: “I spotted plenty of intellectual dishonesties and arguments without context—enough, surely, to keep right-wing truth squads (and some left-wing ones) busy for weeks…. Still, by the time the final credits ran, it was hard to get too worked up about all of that. Because, beyond all the grandstanding and political theater, the movie actually made a compelling, argument about what’s wrong with US healthcare and how to fix it. Sicko got a lot of the little things wrong. But it got most of the big things right.”

Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page is even more explicit: “It’s hard for the public to make an intelligent choice when only one side’s view gets the big megaphone. Moore evens things up a bit. He uses the same big-screen pop culture that brings us Paris Hilton and ‘American Idol’ to summon our eyeballs to something truly valuable: a vision of how much better America’s healthcare system could be.”

There is a relation between form and content. The sloppiness and inaccuracy of Moore’s film speaks to the half-baked conceptions behind it. Critics like Cohn, from the right-wing, anticommunist New Republic, approve of Sicko because the film neither fundamentally challenges the economic and political status quo nor seeks to elevate the American population in a profound way. For the same reason, the film has been hailed by sections of the Democratic Party and Moore has been feted by a host of charlatans, Rep. Dennis Kucinich among them.

Is Sicko an enduring and important work of art? American cinema has produced extraordinary works, socially probing and artistically complex. In the 1930s and 1940s, and even beyond, filmmakers influenced by socialist ideas, Orson Welles and others, offered serious pictures of life within the limited confines of the studio system.

What indication is there that Moore has paid the slightest attention to the history of his art form? His flair, his willingness to ask embarrassing questions, his opposition to the biggest corporate and political villains have sometimes made it possible to overlook his artistic failings. There were genuinely affecting segments of Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11, and such moments are not lacking in Sicko, but, in the long run, the weaknesses far outweigh the strengths. And the truth is that popular opinion has largely caught up to and surpassed Moore. He is not telling anyone very much that he or she doesn’t know by now. On the contrary, he is beginning to belabor the obvious, which is always a dangerous sign.

Sicko is a poorly constructed film. A series of loosely strung together sequences, it has no central thrust or impulse. Moore points his camera in one direction or another, and sometimes gets it right. He relies on his political instincts and his ability to improvise. Those qualities have sometimes yielded valuable material, but they have their definite limitations. Those limitations have been reached. Moore could only advance by deepening his analysis of contemporary life.

The film relies, as we noted in the original review, on personal anecdote. Why couldn’t a right-wing director make a film composed of interviews with thoroughly satisfied health insurance company clients in the US and thoroughly dissatisfied Europeans and Canadians? What would that prove?

Crudity is never excusable. “A pockmarked art,” it was pointed out many years ago, “is no art and is therefore not necessary to the working masses. Those who believe in a ‘pock-marked’ art are imbued to a considerable extent with contempt for the masses” (Trotsky).

And there is a specific history of documentary filmmaking, both American and international. Is Moore familiar with the work of Robert Flaherty, or the “Direct Cinema” of Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker, Albert Maysles and Frederick Wiseman? Not for the sake of his personal edification, but to render his images more precise and elegant. Form has an impact on content. If Moore began with a serious approach to cinema he could not be satisfied with such careless and sometimes manipulative results.

DG writes that “If Moore had made his film the way you suggest, it would have a tiny audience, rather than the millions who will watch and appreciate Sicko. The WSWS is excellent in substantive terms—but how many people read it every day? Compare that with the numbers that watch Moore’s films …”

A different, more challenging film might have reached a smaller audience, but if it provided genuine direction, depth, its impact would, in the end, have been far greater. Muddy, quasi-socialist, populist notions will rally around them a vague, unclear and unfocused political movement that the Democratic Party will have no difficulty in bringing under its sway. The WSWS has a different conception and perspective.

World Socialist Web Site www.wsws.org

WSWS : Arts Review : Film Reviews

A further exchange: Sicko and American politics and cinema

25 July 2007

Dear David Walsh,

I agree with many of your comments regarding the movie Sicko and particularly when you rightly criticized the scene where Moore apparently blamed the entire reason America has a privatized insurance scheme on Richard Nixon. However, I also feel, and this is a common current I have in reading most of the WSWS reviews, that you are too harsh and fail to take into account many of the positive aspects of the film that, while they may not be everything you or I want, they do lead to room for a greater, deeper critique that may raise consciousness.

For instance, how many movies out there, in mainstream American theater today, could you have the kind of conversation you and I are having today about something as important as changing the American healthcare system? How many other movies standing right next to Sicko as viewing options have absolutely zero intellectual value, where discussions such as this would be remote and next to impossible?

Some of the more positive moments in the film that went unmentioned was his refusal to shy behind the word “Socialized”; he took it head-on and even pointed out some of the socialistic practices that continue in America to this day. The scene where Cuban and American workers work and learn from one another, in a spirit of internationalism that leaves room for what can happen in this small piece of internationalist cooperation and could be extended, on a much greater scale, all over the globe. Finally, where he, after praising Hillary Clinton’s healthcare plan (yes, way over the top), then castigates her as being one of the top recipients of campaign contributions from private healthcare companies. Moore makes it appear that she sold out, and although this is not stated outright in the film, I don’t think it would be reading too much between the lines to come to the conclusion that not just Hillary Clinton but the entire Democratic Party has sold out as well.

I think Moore deserves a degree of credit for his movies for providing that opening for further discussion, further criticism, and, yes, a deeper analysis of the issue at hand. Moore opens the door to a major problem and introduces the issue, but as you and others point out, does not always go as deep or as meaningful as you (or I) would like. However, that perhaps could be the responsibility of the audience to do so or a politically conscious artist watching the film to make a better film if the desire is there.

Which brings me to another point I read from you in your exchange with another reader over Sicko, that you deny that the American general public has been “dumbed down.” If not, then how do you explain the litany of (what you and I would both agree are) brain-dead movies with no intellectual value making huge amounts of money at the box office? How is this explained if the American public is so desperate for thought-provoking intellectual films? Why aren’t any of the movies that you or your website view favorably making any significant headway at the box office? You claim that perhaps more honest movies would make less money at the box office but raise a higher consciousness; if this is so, then which movie of the last 10, 15 years would you say has produced that high level of consciousness and actively helped to change American opinion, in a real and tangible manner?

I would like to think as you do that the American public is yearning for movies of a greater intellectual intensity and passion, but after seeing which movies year in and year out remain at the top of the box office—banal, trite movies like Die Hard 3, Fantastic Four, Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean 3, Evan Almighty (the list goes on but mercifully I’ll stop here)—it makes me doubt whether this is truly the situation.

I enjoy reading much of the material here at the WSWS, but I would politely encourage some of the movie reviewers to be a little less harsh about some of the left-liberal movies that while admittedly are flawed, do not have a revolutionary socialist message and do not contain that higher-level analysis that is needed, at least provide the opening for viewers to, on their own, attain that higher consciousness through discussion and research with others, if the desire is there to do so.

P.S. Also in the exchange, I remember you attacked your critics for being “pragmatic.” I found this somewhat strange; were not Marx and Lenin pragmatic socialists? Never afraid to use the reformist structures of the bourgeois to the advantage of the working class even if it did not necessarily yield the final goal of socialism by doing so? A la Marx’s involvement with the British trade unions, endorsing Lincoln for President, endorsing the Paris Commune, which was not controlled primarily by communists or socialists. And Lenin’s pragmatism is well known; some socialists and anarchists even call it “ultra pragmatism”—for instance, when Lenin made peace with the German government instead of waiting and encouraging the German workers to rebel and fight against it, and, of course, the New Economic Policy, which opened up the country to private enterprise and re-instituted capitalism in Russia.

GC

16 July

* * *
Dear GC,

Your letter is built around a contradiction. You write: “I think Moore deserves a degree of credit for his movies for providing that opening for further discussion, further criticism, and, yes, a deeper analysis of the issue at hand.” Yet when the WSWS does precisely that, offering “further discussion” and “further criticism,” you react with a considerable degree of irritation. In fact, it seems, you don’t want our kind of discussion and criticism at all.

You argue that our review of Sicko, along with those of other “left-liberal movies” (I’m not certain which you have in mind), is too “harsh”; another reader termed the comment on Sicko “vituperative.” We are speaking about serious social questions here, above all, the type of movement that needs to be built in opposition to American capitalism in crisis. If we can’t speak plainly and honestly, nothing of any value will come out of this. We give Moore his due, and then we explain where we think his big weaknesses lie. We are highly critical. How else can one approach these matters? Why should he be a sacred cow?

You sidestep most of the points I made in the last published exchange, about the film’s sloppiness and inaccuracies; about the approval it has received from sections of the media and the Democratic Party; about its refusal to treat complex historical and social problems; about its use of personal anecdote as a method of analysis; about its failure to go much beyond the efforts of network television “exposé” programs such as “60 Minutes”; about its tabloid approach to social issues.

And what about the Canadian and European healthcare systems? If Moore had made a film that argued, “In these countries certain steps were taken, as a result of labor struggles of the past, but now gains in health care and social programs are threatened there too, as part of a global process,” that would have been one thing. But he falsified the situation in those countries, in the name, presumably, of simplifying matters and convincing American audiences. He sought out Tony Benn, a decrepit representative of the more-than-decrepit British reformism, who doesn’t and can’t speak honestly about the Labour Party or the state of the National Health Service in Britain. How can all this possibly help anyone? There is a certain crude kind of argumentation at work. And crude methods produce crude results.

The same type of argumentation, “Of course, it’s inadequate, but at least…,” after all, is made about the Democratic Party. Why can’t you say the same thing about former Senator John Edwards as you do about Moore? “I don’t share all his views, but at least he’s raising the issue of social class in America….” If you don’t say this, believe me, many others do.

“At least he…” “Well, yes, but…” Where does this end? If you add up all the “At least he…”s and “Well, yes, but…”s, you get the politics of the Nation magazine, which is already preparing to support the candidacy of Hillary Clinton if she wins the Democratic Party nomination. The editors of the Nation will come up with the requisite alibis, justifications and rationales—that is their specialty, as leading voices of the liberal left milieu.

We don’t condemn Moore’s moviemaking because of his continued orientation to the Democrats. Individuals with worse politics can still make important films. (Nor do we reject anyone because his or her film doesn’t “have a revolutionary socialist message”—where did you ever read such a thing on the WSWS?)

We reject the lazy populism, the unseriousness, the anti-intellectualism, while we certainly take note of the coincidence that Moore continues to support the Democrats.

And we criticize the artistic failings. None of our critics want to discuss that either. There’s something slipshod and amateurish about Moore’s filmmaking. (His only foray into fiction, Canadian Bacon, was, frankly, pretty dreadful.) Why should we be satisfied with that? The American film industry has made great films in the past, including documentaries. Moore could do better work, if he thought about things more precisely and thoroughly, if he studied history and society, if he studied the history of his art form. He’s not obliged to do any of that, but then we don’t feel obliged to give him a pass.

You write: “Which brings me to another point I read from you in your exchange with another reader over Sicko, that you deny that the American general public has been ‘dumbed down.’ If not, then how do you explain the litany of (what you and I would both agree are) brain-dead movies with no intellectual value making huge amounts of money at the box office?”

You missed my point. I never denied that there were problems in popular thinking or that there has been a decline in class consciousness. We approach this question quite forthrightly on the WSWS all the time. The difficulties and traumas of the twentieth century—the degeneration and demise of the USSR under Stalinism, the decay of the labor movement and traditional workers’ organizations everywhere, the relatively free hand the ruling elites have had to enforce their social policies and encourage every form of ideological poison—all of this has had an impact.

However, we examine these problems concretely, indicting the parties, tendencies and bureaucracies historically responsible for this situation. We insist a change has to take place and we don’t adapt ourselves to prevailing moods, but we don’t blame the working class for what has been done to its consciousness and its social position.

You continue: “How is this explained if the American public is so desperate for thought-provoking intellectual films? Why aren’t any of the movies that you or your website view favorably making any significant headway at the box office? You claim that perhaps more honest movies would make less money at the box office but raise a higher consciousness; if this is so, then which movie of the last 10, 15 years would you say has produced that high level of consciousness and actively helped to change American opinion, in a real and tangible manner?”

This is just cynicism and resignation. On that basis, why bother at all? No one responds to anything, the population is content with the current fare. That a series of inane films makes money tells us far less about the American population, frankly, than it does about a culture at the end of its rope.

The alternative to this sort of pessimism is not painting imaginary pictures, but in grasping the underlying currents at work, which will break up the present stagnation, and encouraging the emergence of clear-sighted, complex, artistic films and other works.

In all honesty, I think you’re speaking less in defense of Moore than in defense of a certain approach to politics and culture, which involves bending in the breeze. You don’t make enough demands on Moore, in my opinion, because you don’t make enough demands on yourself.

The problem with Moore is that he has certain preconceptions about the American population and he decides in advance what he thinks people will and won’t accept. That’s not the same thing as the relentless pursuit of artistic truth.

As for the supposed “pragmatism” of Marxists of the past, you misunderstand the issue. Pragmatism is a strand of modern bourgeois thought, with particularly strong roots and influence in the United States. Pragmatism calls into question the primacy of matter over thought and dissolves the objectivity of reality into the subjective category of “experience.” In any event, in this context, we’re not speaking about the defenders of philosophical pragmatism, but the advocates of vulgar opportunism (“Whatever works…”).

You refer to a series of historical episodes, which are far too complicated and heterogeneous to discuss in detail in the body of this reply. In general, however, you mix up flexibility in tactics—always grounded in the firmest adherence to principles and to advancing, under various historical circumstances, the long-term, independent interests of the working class—with “pragmatism,” which inevitably sacrifices those long-term interests to more immediate gains.

Yours sincerely,

David Walsh

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Michael Moore’s Sicko: very limited conceptions, very limited results http://www.bestcyrano.org/cyrano/?p=138

One comment on “The SiCKO Controversy : Views From the Left
  1. The CJO editors certainly take exception to Walsh’s characterization of Dennis Kucinich as a “charlatan.” That pretty much sums up how he literally destroys his own credibility—and he does make very good points—by overstating his criticism of people engaged in social change efforts operating in difficult circumstances, a flaw that is regrettably much too common among Trotsky followers.

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