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NEW YORK, NY, USA - Before Michael Moore became the toast of Cannes, he shot an amusing picture, Roger and Me. Even if you've not seen the flick, you know the schtick: Moore, the very embodiment of the pot-bellied prole in shabby denim and shabbier cap, ambled about southeast Michigan. In Flint, in Detroit, in Detroit's gilded suburbs. Shoestring crew in tow, Moore tried to persuade then-GM Chairman Roger Smith to visit Flint -- historic home of the American automobile industry -- to see the effects of GM's numerous factory shutterings.
Beyond Roger and Me's humorous situations, I enjoyed the picture because I recognized the location of nearly every exterior shot. I hail from Flint myself. My entire family worked for Chevrolet. And - unlike Michael - I worked in the factories back when a college kid could land a job in a GM factory and earn real tuition money. And, during the ten-minute breaks, I sometimes flipped through the sporadically-published Flint Voice (later called the Michigan Voice) a rabble-rousing rag that featured the then-obscure Moore. The work was often more than unpleasant, especially in July when we worked 12-hour shifts, six p.m. to six a.m. On some workdays, the temperature was well above 100 for all twelve hours. (And I must take this moment to apologize to anyone out there unlucky enough to purchase one of those old Citations, the ones with the piston rings that snapped like pretzels. Yeah, that might've been me who fatally weakened the rings while my assembly line was banging out three engines a minute).
Roger and Me was especially refreshing in one important sense: a commercially successful movie about working-class trials and travails. Hollywood has produced countless treacly homilies to working class families, but here was a movie with Actual Working Class People, not perfectly coiffed pretty boys straining to fully occupy a flannel shirt. The background material was interesting, too, with clips of those iron-jawed union men of the watershed Flint sit-down strike of 1936-1937 --a strike that both my grandfathers participated in and, naturally, an event I heard plenty about while growing up.
Inevitably, GM apologists and the business press carped on Roger and Me's real and imagined sins: the chronological errors, for instance, or the tricky cutting that could produce "misleading" conclusions. Indeed, some of my relatives and acquaintances were angry at the movie, grousing that the movie "just made fun of Flint" and wanted only to "cut down the company."
Interestingly, these complaints were made by some of the very people who lost jobs and contracts due to GM's shuttering of Flint plants. Very interesting, I thought, people lose their jobs and get pissed at Moore, not the company. Some even expressed sympathy for Roger Smith! Maybe they suffered Battered Union Member Syndrome. They reminded me of the hapless PR suit in Roger and Me who defends GM's layoffs and suggests that Flint could make a comeback by producing lint rollers. Remember him? Yeah, he got laid off in the end of the movie. Maybe he flacks for lint rollers these days.
That aside, the complaints about Roger and Me had more than a grain of truth. Many people groused that Moore enjoyed tweaking the very people he's supposedly championing. Despite his Joe Sixpack routine, they charged, he's one of those liberal snobs who guffaws at the hicks who make ends meet by selling rabbit meat. Moore's other big picture, Bowling for Columbine, only strengthens that view. Columbine attacks the so-called "gun culture", a culture that's largely a working-class phenomenon.
If you grew up working class (at least in the Rust Belt of the Midwest), then you instantly recognize the gun scene. You probably knew plenty of people who owned guns. Maybe you owned guns yourself. The gun culture crowd is, of course, the ultimate target for Establishment liberals: it embodies everything liberals love to jeer. In the liberal lexicon, "gun owner" is typically short-hand for a truck-driving yahoo who rails against busy-body government bureaucrats.
In Columbine, Moore features some young people who, very sadly, have been permanently injured by firearms; he shows up with the injured kids to face down some PR hacks from K-Mart, and K-Mart ultimately agrees to stop selling ammunition.
For the most part, however, Columbine is a tedious, incoherent snicker at the squares. Indeed, the movie has no argument: it sets to find out why America is a violent nation and, unable to find an answer, it drags its lazy ass from one peripheral topic to another. Lacking substance, the movie has only the clichéd attitude of detached irony. That is to say, it reflexively mocks just about everything it comes across.
The Right, naturally, seizes upon this mockery to show that Moore is a fraud. Rather than a friend of the working stiff, so goes the charge, Moore merely patronizes the rubes ... a species of blue collar whom, if they followed the dinosaurs into the tar pits, would not be missed by the haughty liberals. Indeed, the entire fatuous PC crowd typically dismisses Actual Working Class People as primitive exotics, drinking domestic beer at the bowling alley, then coming home to the Fox News network.
But let's acknowledge the other side of the matter: if the blue collar crowd really did disappear, the business classes would be delighted. Like the liberal smart set, the learned business classes have little respect for labor either. For both the Left and the Right, Actual Working Class People are stage props, trotted out on Veteran's Day and the Fourth of July to demonstrate red state solidarity for Joe Six Pack and his wife Connie who loves Wal-Mart.
Sure, Michael Moore lampoons the working-class crowd, patting it on the head and winking at the camera. But much of the Right is equally disingenuous: even as it points out what a smart-aleck Leftists like Moore are, the Right rolls its eyes at labor. It's just kind of sad, clucks the Right, that these Neanderthal union members cling to a fading past. What's wrong with them? Why can't they get with the new global world order? Don't they read The Economist or The Weekly Standard?
Crucially, the Right has little of the Left's mocking irony; instead, the Right offers earnest sympathy for working people, even as it funds think tanks to dream up new ways to kick around labor. While the Left mocks working-class culture and tastes, the Right politicos praise it. Heck, there's George W. himself on the ranch, clearing brush and talking like a Texan, not like the son of a President and the grandson of a Senator! Unlike that underhanded Clinton, Bush Jr. defended Texas against communists! And then there're all those Republican congressmen who burn with religious fervor to get the government off the people's backs and let them toil to earn an honest living, liberated from those socialist labor unions. And goodness, don't America's working stiffs have a real friend in the Fox Network, which so manfully kicks around the sniffling Democrats, smart-ass liberals, and especially the French! (And isn't it that same Fox Network that knocks out shrill comedies that portray working class families as witless and dysfunctional, with ineffectual parents and snotty kids -- kids who chortle and high-five each other at Michael Moore movies?)
Predictably, the Right will howl indignantly at Fahrenheit 9/11's director. How dare he!? And the Left will puff itself up and wax Righteous about that lying Bush administration and its chickenhawk leader! How dare he!? Moore himself? He'll guffaw all the way to the bank, grinning happily. Behold the culture warriors, rising to face off yet again at the drop of a pin -- they're as conditioned as Pavlov's puppies!
"You unpatriotic snob liberals, drinking your double latte and wearing berets!"
"You stupid corporate shills, sticking up for that draft-dodging unelected President!"
And there's Michael Moore, holding a hand to his ear and listening ... but listening not to the culture warriors. No, he's concentrating on something far more dear:
Ka-ching! Ka-ching! Ka-ching!
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