Sunday, October 04, 2009

In Re Michael Moore and his Detractors.

Dennis Hartley has a great piece up about Moore and Roy and his commenters are going at it hammer and tongs too. Here's what I've been arguing in comments at Roy's as long as it was polite to do so. I've edited and fixed some things, added some links, and included a few of the intervening comments but the whole thread over there is great.

The unspoken issue here is actually class, not art.  Moore is a propagandist in a long and respectable tradition of political theater and political action through theater.  Well, who is that theater aimed at? Its not aimed at intellectuals or people who arrive at their political convictions and understandings through study. And its not aimed at the proportion of the population who is getting their moral experience of politics and capitalism through a steady diet of kinder, kuche, kirche fuzzy vaseline smeared evangelical films/images/art.  Its aimed at everyone who is dis-involved and dis-enchanted and dis-informed, exhausted and demoralized and who don't get any stimulation or education from a mass popular media market that is wholly corporate owned.  
  What he's trying to do isn't aimed at people who are choosing between high art and low brow entertainment.  Its aimed at people who have little real choice offered to them and who aren't interested in the aesthetic issues, of which clumsiness and repetition are only a few.  Moore has set himself the task of alarming, enthralling, challenging, stimulating, angering, and explicating some really complicated things to people who are really busy.  Limbaugh and Beck do the same thing and that is why their followers love them--they offer (however crazily) a kind of common sense explanation for the world around their listeners.  It can't be stressed too highly that the people who listen to these guys think they are getting a *free education* from someone who is more educated and more connected than they can be. [This, by the way, was one of the discoveries of Janice Radway in Reading the Romance. That the women reading pulp historical fiction actually experienced themselves as getting a powerful educational "boost" and social status boost because of the few, scattered, but valuable historical and cultural bits in the romances.]   
Moore is literally the only person on our side--and of course he's not a Democrat but a Progressive (or something)--who takes outreach seriously.  The upper class Dems and the serious political actors only care about turning out the vote periodically. They don't care about real outreach or real community building which takes a serious project aimed at informing and enraging voters.  But really caring enough to spend the time engaging people where they live is always a dicey proposition class wise.  Moore isn't accused of "going native" only because he's already assumed to be one of the low life, low class, radical scum.  
Yesterday, 1:26:26 PM

....But I don't agree entirely with your first sentence and would suggest losing it...

I disagree, Chuck...the unspoken issue here IS class. The way you can tell is that the Right's fallback position, after they've accused Moore of lying, manipulating timelines, and practicing cheap shot ambush filmmaking, and more often than not come up empty, is to pull put the all purpose weapon against anyone fighting for the little guy: the accusation of fomenting Class Warfare.
Yesterday, 8:33:54 PM

I guess  I'm not 100 percent sure who we're talking about anymore. If it's still liberals (you know I mean those other liberals (seriously)) who ritualistically chirp they agree with Moore's politics but don't like his methods, then perhaps I'd agree that it's primarily a class thing. But if we're talking about wingnuts, I'm inclined to believe that they really believe Moore is an elitist. An elite elitist at that. You know they see only what they want to see. They're not very sophisticasted. [sic]

Well, we don't have to be speaking permanently of any one section of society, do we? I agree with Chuckling that leading with that sentence

"The unspoken issue here is actually class, not art. "

was a bit ambiguous, because, of course, it leads to the question of "unspoken by whom." Also, subsidiary questions about Class and Art.  Let me just take the "by whom" and "Class" question:

I'd argue that we can split the "by whom" question into three: liberal critics, right wing critics, and an undifferentiated mass audience that Moore, the Liberals, and the Right want to capture and speak to for their own purposes.

1) Middle and Upper Brow (I'm dating myself) discussions of Moore, such as the one that just appeared in the New Yorker, are "about" class because a certain kind of middle class intellectual and liberal finds Moore's championing of the lower classes from their street side/world wrestling foundation aesthetic style disgusting or offputting or overly enthusiastic or too manipulative or all of the above.  Its related to class in both its classic formulations--class as a relationship to the economy (these cultural consumers and knowledge workers don't see themselves as being subject to the same class issues and pressures as the working class) and also class as a kind of social status/aesthetic position and, again, the people speaking about and for Moore don't see themselves as the legitimate targets or consumers of his work. His work is low class/low aesthetic/not challenging and people who like that stuff are too.

2) Right wing discussions of Moore are also "about" class and class issues but from a different perspective. The right wing in this country is, of course, a composite of an uneasy mix between capitalist rulers who trade money and media manipulation for votes in order to loot the treasury,  and sucker rubes from the lower and working classes who have votes to trade for psychological massage (spite voters, libertarians, evangelicals).  In that context Moore's agitprop is *competing for votes* with Fox and Murdoch.  Moore specifically rejects the entire ideology and cultural edifice that makes "capitalism" and "the free market" and "individualism" code identical to the interests of any actual working class, immigrant, or poor person. His work is aimed at creating a mass populist movement.   Well, so is Fox's work aimed at creating a mass public movement: just one that serves the interests of larger corporate masters. 

In this analysis Fox and right wing commenters and analysts have to attack Moore's methods, and also his standing with the imaginary populist crowd.  They can do that a number of ways--and they do.  They can attack the "crowd" that he's representing and argue that its poor/non white.  But Moore counters that by focusing on their very target audience (working class whites) and showing how their interests are not severed from the interests of Fox's out groups (blacks, women, immigrants).  They also attack Moore as an authentic representative of their populace--by arguing that he's "not religious" (which is always an ambiguous and shifting target because what they really mean is he's not evangelical and focused on the prosperity gospel, and they are confounded by his catholic/seminary Christianity) or "not nice" or fat, or has no "values" or is anti American, or not a gun owner (which he countered directly in Bowling for Columbine) or that he's not a respectable elite *because* he's working class or he's a hypocritical manipulative elite *because* he's made money doing what he's doing.  That's the accusation that he isn't walking the walk by "sharing the wealth" with his employees.  That is, that he's nothing but another fat cat elite and so can't ever be aligned with, or speak for, the poor.

Discussions of Moore's wealth and class status, by the right, are extremely complicated and can only be understood with reference to some basic and contradictory assumptions about the way wealth and power play to their populist base. On the one hand wealthy individualists are exalted and held up as the standard towards which even the humblest poor American can and should aspire. That's the market in Galt futures discussed here (and see also its popular, romantic, children's version here and here.)

On the other hand wealthy “elites” are of course, for propaganda purposes, excoriated when necessary as too libertine, too liberal, or too deracinated/unamerican/globalist (see e.g. Gore, Polanski, Soros, Kennedy and hundreds more). Fox News and other rightist organizations play all sides of this court at all times. Underlying these polar opposites—the rich man who deserves everything he's gotten and the rich man who doesn't are lots of other little bits of fifth business. Underlying these is a basic argument that the right wing makes, even when its not making it, that since all people are self interested and wealth interested first any person who, by virtue of their wealth, is now in the upper class has to be a hypocrite and a con man for continuing to pretend that they care about poverty or social justice. 

Then there's the actual target audience: that's everyone I talked about up above.  And the scary thing about Moore's work for his competitors is that he's damned good at what he does. He knows his audience. He's very convincing to a lot of people, whether because of his low brow, unaesthetic, funny, style or in spite of it.  Ask any right wing, conservative, working class guy if he's seen one of Moore's films and he'll tell you he was blown away by how much sense it made. That's why the right wing spends so much time simply trying to defang Moore and prevent people from even wanting to go see his stuff.  They don't screen Moore's films to make fun of them. They don't use his films as object lessons. They work incredibly hard to make sure that every time Moore's name is mentioned some weak kneed liberal is standing by to tut tut and say "well, of course he goes over the top" or "the film drags a bit" or "anyway, he's fat..."  I see why Fox and the conservatives have to do this--they are simply trying to protect market share--but I'm damned if I can see why liberals buy into it unless, as I suppose one is forced to, one decides that the liberal project is, as Rosenberg is arguing over at Open Left, a complete con and a failure and doesn't want to achieve its own aims.  

If Moore had Murdoch's money and Murdoch's control of Fox News? We'd see a revolution in this country along the lines that Moore wants. 

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