During the commercial break in this year’s Oscars, the floor director approached the nominees for best documentary to tell them that their category was up next. Until then, the issue of an acceptance speech had not entered Michael Moore’s mind because he didn’t think he had a chance of winning.
But this was no regular ceremony. Taking place just three days after the US launched its attack on Iraq, the red carpet had been abandoned, a number of actors had dropped out, saying they thought it would be “inappropriate” to attend, and those who did show up dressed down for the event.
Moore’s wife, Kathleen Glynn, the producer on his film Bowling for Columbine, whispered, “Have you thought about what you are going to do?”
“No, because we’re not going to win,” replied Moore.
“But what if we do?” she said.
“I went into this panic,” recalls Moore. Going from self-doubt to presumptuous generosity, he leaned over to the other nominees, who were all wearing peace pins, and said he’d like them to join him on stage if he won. “Come up with me and celebrate the whole thing. I just want to warn you I may want to say something about what’s going on. I don’t know, because I haven’t prepared anything. Just so you know.”
When Bowling for Columbine was announced the winner, Moore came on stage, with fellow nominees in tow, to a standing ovation and still no idea what he was going to say. “I look out and I can see Martin Scorsese, Meryl Streep . . . all these people. And there’s the devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other. The angel’s saying, ‘Mike, just thank them, blow them a kiss and walk off the stage.’ And the devil’s saying, ‘No, you have a job to do.’ And then the angel says, ‘But it’s your moment, it’s your Oscar moment, it happens once in a lifetime, most people don’t win the Oscars. Just soak up the love.’ Every bone in me just wanted to say thank you and walk off,” says Moore.
Still in a quandary as he approached the microphone, he decided to repeat the speech he’d made the night before at the Independent Spirit Awards (the “alternative” event for indie film-makers), where he’d won a similar prize. To the din of boos and cheers, he said non-fiction films were important because, “We live in a time when fictitious election results elect a fictitious president. We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons.”
“Then it really explodes,” recalls Moore.
But he continued: “We are against this war, Mr Bush! Shame on you, Mr Bush! Shame on you!” The microphone was being lowered and the orchestra starting up as he delivered his last line: “Any time you’ve got both the Pope and the Dixie Chicks against you, you’re not long for the White House.”
The notion of Moore as a reluctant controversialist is a difficult one to swallow. This is the journalist who held a mock funeral of a dying man outside the offices of the healthcare provider that had denied him the transplant that would save his life. (The man got his transplant.) He is the film-maker who turned up at Kmart’s headquarters in Bowling for Columbine with two young boys who’d been shot, asking if they could return the bullets still in their bodies and demanding that the store stopped selling handgun ammunition. (Kmart finally complied.) In short, political tumult is not something that gatecrashes Moore’s otherwise quiet life. He courts it, flirts with it, engages it and is ultimately wedded to it.
As an activist, polemicist and journalist, Moore occupies a unique space in the US media and politics. He does so not because he is dissident – America has many dissenting voices, even if most are rarely heard – but because of the combination of what he says, and the way he says it, on television, film and in books. He is a choir of one with little in the way of back-up vocals.
He has equivalents on the right in America, such as the columnist Ann Coulter and the radio shock jock Mike Savage, but they have a rightwing Administration, Congress and media to back them up. He has equivalents on the left in Britain, but they have a long-established liberal network and a public understanding of satire to sustain them. Moore has no such tradition to fall back on. He is like Mark Thomas in a journalistic culture that has produced no John Pilger or Paul Foot; like Tony Benn in a political culture that never produced a Labour party; at his most scathing, he is like Julie Burchill in a nation that couldn’t cope with Spitting Image. Then, suddenly last year, he had lots of company. Stupid White Men became the best-selling non-fiction book of the year and Bowling for Columbine became a hit. Through them, he bypassed the cultural and political gatekeepers, and established a link with a huge swath of Americans whose voices were not being heard.
For Moore, this is not just a personal achievement, but a political triumph. “Only that British woman, J K Rowling, has sold more books than me this year,” he says gleefully. “Think about that. It’s Harry Potter and it’s Michael Moore. In fiction it’s her and in non-fiction it’s me. So the American public, during a time when everyone was supposedly rallying behind George Bush, was buying something called Stupid White Men, which essentially trashes George Bush.” His detractors have branded his work “Chomsky for children”, but my guess is that he would consider that a compliment. Chomsky reaches thousands, maybe tens of thousands. Moore reaches millions, maybe tens of millions.
If his speech on Oscar night tells us a lot about Moore, the response to it tells us even more about the political mood in America, particularly shortly after the beginning of the war. His only concern after the ceremony, he says, was not that he made a fool of himself, but that he compromised the safety of those closest to him. “I felt like I’d put my family in danger. In the weeks and months after the Oscars, there wasn’t a day went by without someone trying to pick a fight with me in the street, coming right in my face, screaming at me, calling me an asshole, telling me to fuck off.” A woman in a business suit approached him at New York’s LaGuardia airport and told him he should be exiled. A man refused to sit next to him on a plane. His home in Michigan was vandalised and traitor signs tacked up on the trees outside his house.
But for all that, looking back on it, he does not see how he could have not said anything. “I did not make a film about birds or insects. I made a film about American violence. Let’s turn the clock back and it’s 1936 in Berlin and you got a theatre award: would it be inappropriate if you say something then, or do you just accept the award because ‘You don’t mix up politics and theatre’?”
Berlin in 1936 is a fairly good analogy for where Moore thinks America is at the moment. Not that he is comparing Bush to Hitler, but because he believes America’s democracy is in peril, as Germany’s was in the years following the burning down of the Reichstag. “Since 9/11, the Bush Administration has used that tragic event as a justification to rip up our constitution and our civil liberties. And I honestly believe that one or two 9/11s, and martial law will be declared in our country and we’re inching towards a police state.” He admits “it’s not happening tomorrow”, but some well-placed suicide bombs or terrorist attacks, he believes, could change everything. “At that point, you will find millions of Americans clamouring for martial law. I’m not talking about a takeover by Bush and his people. They won’t have to fire a shot. The American people will be so freaked out they will demand that the White House take action, round up anyone and everyone. That’s what I fear. It won’t happen with a bang but with the whimpering sound of a frightened nation.”
Moore believes such extreme circumstances demand moderate measures. In Stupid White Men, he urged the Democrats to merge with the Republicans, so that they could carry on representing the interests of the rich while “the working people of this country will finally get to have their own party”. The presidential election between Al Gore and Bush he characterised as a contest between “Tweedledum (things differing only in name!!)and Tweedledumber”.
September 11 and the Bush Administration’s response to it changed his mind. In the current climate, Moore believes defending democracy against Bush is a far greater priority than revitalising it through a third-party candidate. In 2000, he backed Green candidate Ralph Nader; for 2004, he has been desperately trying to draft talk show host Oprah. “Now we have a crisis, we have to consider doing things we otherwise wouldn’t do. Tweedledum wouldn’t lead us to a police state. Tweedledumber would. This year, there are enough good Democrats running, some of whom give us 80% of what we’d like to see happen in this country. It’s not a huge compromise to stop the eventual formation of a police state.”
While the strategy may differ, Moore’s overarching political take on America remains the same and can be summarised thus: the American people are a decent and basically fair-minded nation who are either ill-informed or misinformed and certainly misled into behaving otherwise.
In his new book, Dude, Where’s My Country?, in a chapter entitled Liberal Paradise, he points to polls showing that the majority of Americans are pro-choice “in all or most cases”, agree with the goals of the civil rights movement and the environmental movement, believe health insurance should be provided to everyone, and that gays and lesbians should enjoy equal opportunity in the workplace. “You live in a nation of progressive-thinking, liberal-leaning, good-hearted people,” he writes. “Let’s take a victory lap together and then get to work on fixing the Great Disconnect – how is it that, in a nation of lefties, the right hand controls everything?”
There is more to this than many liberals on either side of the pond would dare to admit. And yet there are two major problems with it, too. The first is that there are many other polls that suggest Americans are pretty rightwing. Almost half (48%) believe the US has had special protection from God for most of its history. More than half (57%) oppose abortion solely to end an unwanted pregnancy “if the mother is unmarried and does not want the baby”. And while Bush may have got fewer votes than Gore, he was still the choice of nearly half the country who voted.
The second problem is that Moore’s answer to his own question concerning the source of this “Great Disconnect” suggests that the American public have been infantilised and can no longer think for themselves or work out their own interests. “There’s a gullible side to the American people,” he says. “They can be easily misled. Religion is the best device used to mislead them. People are easily manipulated . . and we have disastrous media.”
It is not difficult to see why Moore would think this. The US media have ill-served their readers, viewers and listeners; political and religious leadership is poor and, with more than two-thirds of the country believing that Iraq had something to do with September 11, people are ill-informed. But they are not stupid. Could it not be that, as residents of the most powerful nation in the world, they believe it is in their interests to dominate weaker countries and pilfer their natural resources, so they can have cheap oil and maintain a relatively high standard of living? Is it not true that, if the world were fairer, most Americans would be poorer? One may disagree with their assessment, but that is different from saying they came to it because they are misled.
The line between paternalism and idealism on the left is a thin one. On the one side lies the belief that the left knows best. At its root is the notion of false consciousness, meaning that those who act in a certain way do so because they are unable to perceive the objective nature and source of their oppression. On the other side is the hope that we can build a better world if people look beyond their individual interests to the collective good. At its root is the evangelical notion that a better world is possible if people would only have the confidence to fight for it.
Moore straddles both, but leans towards the latter. With a laugh bordering on the maniacal, he relates how rightwing talk-show hosts accuse him of instigating class warfare. “Like that’s some horrible thing. I always take it as a compliment. I say, ‘Thank you. I don’t have to instigate it, though. It already exists. And it’s going to get greater and you’re going to lose. And next time could you please just introduce me as America’s best-selling author, because I want all your rightwing buddies to know that we’re coming.’”
Suddenly the laughter stops and he becomes deadly serious. “It’s not just Michael Moore. There are millions who think like I do. They just don’t know where to go or what to do yet. The Democratic Party has failed them. And so they don’t have anything to grasp on to politically. But we’ll figure it out.”
Does he say that because he actually believes it, or because he has to believe it just to keep on going? “I absolutely believe that. Like most people, I’d much rather slide into cynicism and despair,” he says, the laughter returning. “Just reach for another Budweiser and forget about it all. I am truly optimistic, because when people are given the information and given leaders who will truly lead and have the courage of their convictions, the majority will go with them. It’s not a large majority, it’s a slim majority. But it’s a majority nonetheless.”
In his landmark book, Democracy In America, the 19th-century French intellectual Alexis de Tocqueville makes reference to the often shrill tone that can characterise American political discourse in a chapter entitled Why American Writers And Speakers Are Often Bombastic. “I have often noticed that the Americans whose language when talking business is clear and dry . . . easily turn bombastic when they attempt a poetic style . . . Writers for their part almost always pander to this propensity . . . they inflate their imaginations and swell them out beyond bounds, so that they achieve gigantism, missing real grandeur.”
A hundred-and-fifty years later, little has changed. America’s most popular polemicists, on the left or the right, have little use for subtlety or nuance. The titles of the best-selling diatribes say it all. The last two books by Al Franken, who is liberal, were called Lies And The Lying Liars Who Tell Them and Rush Limbaugh Is A Big Fat Idiot. The most recent two by Ann Coulter, who is on the right, were called Treason and Slander.
Coming from this tradition, the title Dude, Where’s My Country? sounds positively conciliatory. Open the cover, though, and Moore once again delivers a tirade worthy of the genre. At one point he writes: “These bastards who run our country are a bunch of conniving, thieving, smug pricks who need to be brought down and removed and replaced with a whole new system that we control.”
His arguments, however, are for the most part lucid and powerful, and his humour effective. But just in case you ever miss the point, he often draws attention to it with the use of capital letters, italics, bold type and exclamation marks. Reading his prose, there are times, in the words of Hugh Grant, when he seems to have gone “shouty crackers”.
Between the man in print and the man in person, there are definite similarities. Face to face, Moore is funny. When I mention his Arsenal cap, he breaks into an impersonation of the Clock End singing opera tunes in praise of Patrick Vieira (he’s been to a match or two at Highbury). He is also passionate about his politics and determined in his activism. But in everything but his size – Moore is big in all three dimensions – he is not overbearing. For a start, he listens. Even though he is the one being interviewed, he is very ready to engage in a dialogue. Even though the opinions in his book are forthright, they are not finished. He is still thinking. And so – and this is rare among male opinion-formers of his age – he does not consider being challenged an act of insolence. In fact, you get the impression that he really rather enjoys it.
When I ask why he did not write more in the new book about Israel and America’s relationship to it, he pauses. The issue receives a couple of passing mentions and the book is dedicated to, among others, Rachel Corrie, the young American who was crushed by a bulldozer while trying to defend Palestinian houses from being demolished. But, considering its centrality to America’s actions in the Middle East, it gets relatively little space. “That’s interesting,” he says. “The only piece of criticism I got from my publisher about this book are the pieces about Israel. She thought they were too harsh. So the parameters of the debate are different in this country than they are in Britain, and there is a lot of pressure to toe the line.”
A little bit later, he comes back to the question of his own volition. “I think it’s a good point, because, as much as I think I’ve done, I haven’t done enough. I feel that one of the big flaws in Bowling for Columbine is that I go through the history of American violence around the world and completely miss out what we’ve done in the Middle East when it comes to the Israelis and the Palestinians.”
All in all, given that he is a millionaire celebrity sitting in an armchair in a spacious 18th-floor office with a panoramic view of Broadway, Moore is pretty grounded. He puts this down to the fact that he has kept the same circle of friends that he had in Flint, where he grew up. “Maybe the lucky part of this for me is that this so-called success didn’t happen until I was 35, and by that age you’re kind of set in your ways. I’m in the same relationship I was in when I was 22. I have no friends in this business. I don’t go to movie premieres. I like the life I always had.”
Moore, now 49, was raised in a working-class Irish-American family. He is not a professional dissident – for most of his life he has done it for free. At 18, he ran for the Flint school board on the platform of firing the headmaster at his high school. He succeeded. Later, he would drop out of college to work for a leftwing paper, Flint Voice. After that came a short – and by all accounts unhappy – stint as editor of the radical monthly magazine Mother Jones. “I was one of these people who would sit around saying, ‘Somebody should do a film about this’, and then I got to 35 and I thought, ‘OK, nobody’s gonna do it’.”
So he did it himself, in 1989, with Roger & Me, a documentary about how General Motors destroyed the manufacturing base of Flint when it laid off 30,000 workers; 14 years later, he is worth millions. In Dude there is a chapter called Horatio Alger Must Die, in which he rails against the American dream of social mobility (Alger, a 19th-century author, wrote improving tales of lads who rise from rags to riches). “Listen friends,” Moore writes, “you have to face the truth: you are never going to be rich. The chance of that happening is about one in a million.” It is a good argument, but Moore, being one of those one in a million, is probably not the best person to be making it. “There is great irony in the fact that, by my railing against the wealthy, I have had the good fortune of this financial success.”
Perhaps as a result of his Catholic upbringing – at one stage he wanted to be a priest – he couches his relationship to money, celebrity and politics in ascetic moral terms. “It would be a sin” to use his tax break in any other way than to defeat Bush.
One of the main consequences of being rich, he says, is that he feels a greater responsibility. “Instead of creating a feeling of, ‘Ooh, I’ve made it, let’s go sailing’, in my conscience it forces me to a place where I feel I have to work harder and do more to make things better. It’s a very dangerous thing to give someone like me a lot of money. Because I have so few material needs and so little desire for things [this is a man who doesn't drink coffee, let alone alcohol], if you put that much money in my hands I am going to do a lot of damage with it. It’s like handing me a Molotov cocktail.”
The other things it gives him is political and journalistic independence. “Because I have this money now, nobody can tell me this has to be taken out of the movie. Nobody can say to me again, ‘This has to be taken out of your book’ – I’ll just go publish my own damn book, I’ll make my own movie. I don’t need your money. This is every working-class kid’s dream. You have the money to tell the boss to fuck off. You don’t have to take an ounce of shit from anybody.”
There is a price he pays for that. In his personal life he claims to be introverted, but in his professional life he is on the cover of all his books and on the posters promoting his films. Like Martha Stewart and Puff Daddy, he is the person become product. Moore is aware of this even as he tries to resist it.
He does fewer interviews now, and even once he agreed to this one he was hell to pin down. He confides in me that he’s hoping the interview runs on so long he’ll have no time for the photographer. But Moore is consumed by his message. “I really don’t like doing interviews. I have no control over what you’re going to write. But somewhere I hope you’re going to say that I hold Blair more responsible than Bush for this war. Because Bush doesn’t know better, Blair does. Bush couldn’t have gotten away with this without Blair. It is my challenge to the British public to get up off the couch and find another way.”