Writer, filmmaker and noted wit Michael Moore is as popular as he is controversial. His work is very politically-driven, and some of his critics claim that it's also more biased than a documentary-maker should be. Others accuse him of being a privileged, hypocritical 'limousine liberal'. However, to his many fans and supporters, Michael Moore is a powerful and much-needed voice against corporate corruption and political deception. This entry takes a look at Moore's books.
Downsize This! Random Threats From An Unarmed American (1996)
A highly entertaining, often bleakly funny collection of essays about the state of the American nation in the mid-1990s. Its contents include cut-out-and-swap 'Corporate Crook' trading cards, made to resemble the similar cards honouring sports heroes' achievements, but instead listing details of corporate CEOs' records in terms of American workers' jobs destroyed and vast personal salaries claimed.
There's also an illuminating chapter detailing the range of jobs carried out by the inmates of America's prisons in the mid-1990s. These included telemarketing, answering passengers' enquiries and booking flights for a major airline, and making circuit boards for leading computer manufacturers.
Some sections of Downsize This! may make uncomfortable reading even for those who broadly agree with Moore's liberal, anti-corporate agenda. One chapter is devoted to demanding greatly increased reparations from Germany for Holocaust survivors, another bitterly berates American trade unions for their alleged complicity with job-cutting employers, while a third sardonically proposes a 'Rodney King Commemorative Riot' - but with the disaffected citizens of Los Angeles this time attacking rich areas of LA instead of the poorer districts that were devastated during the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Moore even thoughtfully provides a sketch map to help prospective participants find their way to Beverley Hills.
Despite its frequently edgy content, Downsize This! is a very funny book in which Moore often makes serious points via mischievous, mordant humour. One particularly entertaining chapter has Moore jokingly suggesting that the anti-abortion 'Right to Life' movement should campaign against male masturbation, since life could arguably be said to begin with the production of sperm rather than with conception. The books tells the story of how Moore had one of his staff call the National Right to Life Committee, a leading American anti-abortion pressure group, to put forward this argument. The NRLC's spokesman Christian Polking treated the call seriously and sympathetically.
Adventures In A TV Nation (1998)
Co-written by Moore and TV Nation producer Kathleen Glynn, Adventures In A TV Nation is a highly entertaining account of the making of the controversial but successful TV show. It's illustrated with copious photos from the making of the show, the song lyrics to the TV Nation anthems 'We Are All Corporations' and 'The Johns Of Justice', a TV Nation episode guide, and even the preliminary drawings that led to the creation of Crackers, the Corporate Crime-Fighting Chicken.
One chapter gives details of the five items shot for TV Nation that network executives refused to broadcast in the USA (although all of these items were boldly aired in Britain by the BBC).
These included a segment in which a reporter was sent to a succession of shops to ask for small sized condoms. Bizarrely, NBC executives apparently felt that the item would particularly offend advertisers in the southern states of the USA. An unnamed NBC executive is quoted as telling Moore and Glynn:
You cannot conjure up the image of a small penis on network television for a full seven minutes and expect people in the South to watch it.
More seriously, both NBC and Fox apparently felt that any discussion of condoms was unacceptable in a show transmitted in 'family' viewing hours. Moore and Glynn argued that it would have educational value and might even save lives, but the network bosses were unmoved.
The TV Nation producers were also ordered by NBC to change the outcome of an item called 'The Health Care Olympics', which compared the health care systems of the USA, Canada and Cuba by following the fate of three patients with leg injuries as they sought treatment in the three nations. American TV sports presenters Bob Costas and Ahmad Rashad were brought in to commentate on the 'event' and assess the performance of the three 'teams' in terms of ease of access to care, quality of care delivered and the cost to the patient.
By all three criteria (especially cost) the US team performed worst. The Cuban team actually performed best overall, but TV Nation's producers were told that showing the communists winning on prime-time TV was politically unacceptable. Since the main point of the item was to highlight the deficiencies of American health care, Moore and Glynn compromised and grudgingly agreed to have the Canadians declared the 'winners' on the show.
In Adventures In A TV Nation, Moore and Glynn observe: 'It makes you wonder what else is "changed" on TV if something this insignificant cannot even make it on the air in its original form.' But the book makes it clear that the TV Nation team got plenty of other contentious material on the air uncensored, and had a lot of fun doing so.
Stupid White Men... and Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation! (2002)
Michael Moore had a lot of trouble getting Stupid White Men published. His American publishers, Harper Collins, initially demanded that Moore tone down the book. They particularly objected to its scathing criticisms of President Bush, arguing that such fierce attacks on the President were inappropriate in the political climate prevailing after September 11, 2001.
Moore refused to back down, and the publication of Stupid White Men was delayed for months. But when it finally reached the shops in the spring of 2002, the book that so worried its publishers became a publishing phenomenon.
Stupid White Men shot straight to the top of the New York Times' list of best-selling books. It was still on the chart a year later, and during that year it returned to the top of the best-sellers list on four separate occasions.
The book also sold strongly in the UK as an expensive imported hardback, and when a British paperback edition appeared in the summer of 2002 it became an instant smash hit. Stupid White Men topped the UK best-sellers list, and stayed high in the British book in the months that followed. By April 2004 it had clocked up UK sales in excess of a million copies - an amazing popular success for a book primarily concerned with the politics of another country.
By then, Stupid White Men had been translated into 24 languages, and more than three million copies had been sold worldwide. The book topped the best-seller lists in Canada, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the Republic of Ireland as well as in the United States and the UK.
The book bitterly attacks the Bush administration right from its start. Chapter One, 'A Very American Coup', examines the machinations surrounding the hugely controversial 2000 US Presidential election. The second chapter is an open letter to President Bush1. It begins warmly, with the words 'You and I - we're like family', and the revelation that Bush's cousin Kevin Rafferty worked as a cameraman on his film Roger & Me.
It then goes on to lambast Bush's record in office, and to ask Bush whether or not he's a functional illiterate, an alcoholic or a felon - questions which Moore backs up with some interesting observations about the President's past.
Subsequent chapters deliver damning verdicts on other aspects of contemporary American life. Moore explains what he feels is wrong with his homeland's education system, foreign policy, business ethics, race relations and penal policy, among other things. He is consistently scathing about the Bush administration, but a chapter entitled 'Democrats DOA' delivers a similarly damning verdict on the US Democratic Party.
Though Moore's message may seem unpalatable to some, Stupid White Men is highly readable. Moore often makes his polemical points with bitter humour and anecdotes that highlight the human cost of the political policies he criticises. At the same time, Moore shows his seriousness by carefully listing his sources at the back of the book. The huge success of Stupid White Men suggests that many readers find this formula both entertaining and persuasive.
In February 2003, Stupid White Men was awarded the Best Book prize at the British Book Awards. It was the first year in which members of the UK public were allowed to take part in the process of choosing the winning book. In earlier years, the winners had been picked by a panel of people from the book industry, but Stupid White Men benefited from strong public support in a telephone poll.
Dude, Where's My Country? (2003)
After the runaway success of Stupid White Men, Moore followed up quickly with another book in the same vein. Dude, Where's My Country? is a slimmer volume than its predecessor2 but it packs plenty of venom into its pages. Like its predecessor, the book tears into George W Bush's administration right from the start: the opening chapter asks a series of awkward questions about alleged business links between Bush's family and that of Osama Bin Laden.
Dude... goes on to attack Bush's justifications for the war in Iraq, and questions the whole concept of the 'war on terror', pointedly asking: 'How exactly do you conduct a war on a noun?' Moore warns of ever-increasing corporate control of all aspects of American society, and asks how a nation in which a majority of citizens support liberal positions in opinion polls has become so dominated by the right.
As usual with Moore, deadly serious subject matter is mixed with sharp satirical humour. In a chapter entitled 'Jesus W Christ', Moore takes on the persona of a disgruntled God angry at Bush's habit of claiming divine support for all his actions:He was not supposed to be president. I... answered all your prayers and that guy Gore got the most votes. Like you, I did not count on the interference of any other supreme beings or supreme courts.
Moore's 'God' goes on to reject some Americans' belief that their nation has a special relationship with Him, and denounces the phrase 'God Bless America':
Do you think I keep making so many Chinese and Russians because I don't like them? ...What makes you think you get to be blessed and nobody else does? You don't hear anyone in Djibouti saying "God Bless Djibouti". I have never heard anyone utter the words "God Bless Botswana". They know better.
In a chapter headed 'How To Talk To Your Conservative Brother-In-Law', Moore describes a section of the American electorate who he terms 'RINOs': Republicans In Name Only. According to Moore, there are millions who support many liberal positions on social issues yet vote Republican because they believe that a Republican government will benefit them financially. Moore suggests that liberals must first respect and understand them. He says:
What you will encounter in the conservative mind is fear. Fear of crime. Fear of enemies. Fear of change. Fear of people not exactly like them. And of course, fear of losing any money on anything.
Moore points out that there are many of these fears that any reasonable-minded American could sympathise with: for instance, no-one wants to be a victim of crime. Moore then risks alienating some of his own supporters by listing areas in which he feels the American Left has been misguided, and should admit to making mistakes. He argues that '...vegetarianism is unhealthy...', that too many on the Left '...think the religious are superstitious 15th Century ignoramuses' and that 'Nixon was more liberal than the last five presidents we've had.'
Moore suggests trying to win over conservatives by explaining how some things that liberals believe in can make or save money for them. For instance, giving employees health insurance and sick leave makes business sense because healthy workers are more productive, and those who are economically forced to work while ill may infect co-workers or make expensive mistakes. Taking better care of the environment would have economic benefits because the cost of treating American citizens whose health has been affected by air pollution has been estimated by the US government as between $40 billion and $50 billion, and productivity is lost because of sickness caused by pollution. Meanwhile, the cost to American taxpayers of cleaning up contaminated industrial sites is estimated at about $700 million per year. Cut pollution, argues Moore, and those related costs could also be cut.
Moore offers his thoughts on the 'War On Terror' in a chapter whose title gets straight to the point: 'How To Stop Terror? Stop Being Terrorists!' He admits that the US's first priority must be to capture Osama Bin Laden - who, he speculates, is probably ...back home in Saudi Arabia being protected by those who have been funding him...'
However, says Moore, a radical revision of American foreign policy should follow Bin Laden's capture. Moore urges that the United States should stop doing some of the things that he believes do most to cause resentment against America, such as supporting foreign dictators and helping to overthrow elected governments. He cites Chile, Indonesia and Guatemala as countries whose citizens have been forced '...to live under a US-sponsored dictatorship...'.
Moore also calls for America to provide much more aid to impoverished nations. He points out that an estimated 1.3 billion people are without safe drinking water, and asks: 'What if we vowed to provide clean drinking water for everyone on Earth within the next five years? And then we did it? How would we be thought of then? Who would want to kill us?'
He concludes by asking:
...What if we were known as the country that sought first to help people instead of first seeking to exploit them for their labour or their natural resources? What if we were known as the country that shared its incredible wealth - shared it even to the point where it might mean that we go without some of the luxuries we're accustomed to? How would the poor and desperate around the globe feel about us then? Wouldn't this reduce our chances of being victims of terrorist attacks? Wouldn't it be a better world to live in all round? Isn't it the right thing to do?
Dude, Where's My Country? ends, naturally enough, with a call to its readers to do everything possible to ensure the removal of President Bush from office. Moore even names his ideal replacement: American TV personality Oprah Winfrey. Sadly for Moore, unlike some other showbiz figures, Ms Winfrey remains stubbornly reluctant to enter politics.
Published in October 2003, Dude, Where's My Country? topped the best-seller lists in both the United States and the UK. It was still on the New York Times' best-seller chart in April 2004.