Issue 229 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
What's wonderful about Michael Moore's work, whether it be his journalism, films or television, is that it combines his tremendous outrage at injustice with his equally powerful sense of mischief and fun. He instantly sees the 'them' and 'us' in every situation.
The 'us' is the working class, the people he grew up with, worked alongside in a car plant in Detroit and saw smashed by unemployment. The 'them' are the fat cats like the elusive car boss in Moore's brilliant film Roger and Me.
The Awful Truth, his new series on Wednesday evenings on Channel 4, keeps the outrage/fun formula and is subversive to the core. Nothing daunts him, not the most powerful corporations nor the most controversial political issues.
In the first show, his prey was the US health insurance industry. This is hardly a soft target--after all, it took on and humiliated the Clintons when they made a pathetic attempt to reform healthcare. Moore arrives at the marbled foyer of a huge health insurance firm with the ever present hand held camera. With him is a man who is dying. As a result of diabetes, the man's pancreas is failing and he deperately needs a transplant. There is no medical reason to stop him having the operation. There is, however, a money reason. The firm with the marbled foyer has ruled that the sub-clause in the man's health insurance that says he is not covered for transplants takes precedence over the sub-clause that says he is covered for any complications arising from diabetes.
What could be more damning of world's richest country than that allows financial institutions to determine whether someone lives or dies? What could be a more moving scene than a man yellowed by illness surrounded by opulence being told that even though the technology exists to save his life, his wife and two young children must watch him die because of a sub-clause?
The company, needless to say, was not moved by the scene and refused to change its policy. So Moore. in a macabre stunt took a hearse to the marbled building and handed out invitations to the man's funeral. That did the trick and the man had his operation. The joy of the victory, however, was overwhelmed by the sense that all over the US sick people are being murdered every day by the money grabbers.
The second show opened with a straightforward blast at the rich. Three men, Moore announced. own $181 billion. equalling the total gross domestic product of 162 countries. One American, Bill Gates, owns $97 billions, equalling the net worth of 120 million other Americans. What can be the explanation for this concentrated wealth, he asked. Can it really be that these men are that much smarter than the rest of us? He decided to put it to the test with his own special quiz, 'How smart are the rich?' He pitted a selection of wealthy people from Madison Avenue, New York against a selection of working people from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
The easy starter question was whether the contestants knew their postcodes. The result? Nought percent for the rich, 100 percent for the workers. None of the rich knew what the minimum wage was either. The workers did: '$5.50, and it's low.' A similar ignorance was shown by the Madison Avenue set about the price of a McDonald's supersize burger. Even a man who said he owned McDonald's stores got the price wrong!
The second half of the show was devoted to homophobia. Moore's quest was to expose that being gay is a crime in 20 US states and, partly as a result of such laws, violent attacks on gays are escalating dramatically. His solution was to pack a van full of gay men and lesbians, paint the van pink daub it with signs such as 'Buggery on Board', name it the Sodomobile, and drive it through those 20 states as noisily as possible.
The opening sequence of the series shows the five men who dominate the world's media. The voiceover says that the mission of Moore's 'People's Democratic Republic of Television' is to challenge the media moguls' view of the world and to bring to viewers 'the awful truths'. It is a mark of his talent that he is able to do just that. When he tried to make his first television series, the US network NBC turned him down. Only after the BBC signed him up did NBC agree to show the series. When they saw it they cut seven items. Despite the excellence of the shows and their popularity, NBC was strangely uninterested in a second series. Only Channel 4 was up to the challenge, and for that we should thank it.