By DAVID BROOKS
The New York Times
June 26, 2004
In years past, American liberals have had to settle for intellectual and moral leadership from the likes of John Dewey, Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King Jr. But now, a grander beacon has appeared on the mountaintop, and from sea to shining sea, tens of thousands have joined in the adulation.
So it is worth taking a moment to study the metaphysics of Michael Moore. For Moore is not only a filmmaker; he is a man of ideas, and his work is based on an actual worldview.
Like Hemingway, Moore does his boldest thinking while abroad. For example, it was during an interview with the British paper The Mirror that Moore unfurled what is perhaps the central insight of his oeuvre, that Americans are kind of crappy.
"They are possibly the dumbest people on the planet . . . in thrall to conniving, thieving smug [pieces of the human anatomy]," Moore intoned. "We Americans suffer from an enforced ignorance. We don't know about anything that's happening outside our country. Our stupidity is embarrassing."
It transpires that Europeans are quite excited to hear this supple description of the American mind. And Moore has been kind enough to crisscross the continent, speaking to packed lecture halls, explicating the general vapidity and crassness of his countrymen. "That's why we're smiling all the time," he told a rapturous throng in Munich. "You can see us coming down the street. You know, `Hey! Hi! How's it going?' We've got that big [expletive] grin on our face all the time because our brains aren't loaded down."
Naturally, the people from the continent that brought us Descartes, Kant and Goethe are fascinated by these insights. Moore's books have sold faster there than at home. No American intellectual is taken so seriously in Europe, save perhaps the great Chomsky.
Before a delighted Cambridge crowd, Moore reflected on the tragedy of human existence: "You're stuck with being connected to this country of mine, which is known for bringing sadness and misery to places around the globe." In Liverpool, he paused to contemplate the epicenters of evil in the modern world: "It's all part of the same ball of wax, right? The oil companies, Israel, Halliburton."
In the days after Sept. 11, while others were disoriented, Moore was able to see clearly: "We, the United States of America, are culpable in committing so many acts of terror and bloodshed that we had better get a clue about the culture of violence in which we have been active participants."
This leads to Michael Moore's global plan of action. "Don't be like us," he told a crowd in Berlin. "You've got to stand up, right? You've got to be brave."
In an open letter to the German people in Die Zeit, Moore asked, "Should such an ignorant people lead the world?" Then he began to reflect on things economic. His central insight here is that the American economy, like its people, is pretty crappy, too: "Don't go the American way when it comes to economics, jobs and services for the poor and immigrants. It is the wrong way."
In an interview with a Japanese newspaper, Moore helped citizens of that country understand why the United States went to war in Iraq: "The motivation for war is simple. The U.S. government started the war with Iraq in order to make it easy for U.S. corporations to do business in other countries. They intend to use cheap labor in those countries, which will make Americans rich."
But venality doesn't come up when he writes about those who are killing Americans in Iraq: "The Iraqis who have risen up against the occupation are not `insurgents' or `terrorists' or `The Enemy.' They are the REVOLUTION, the Minutemen, and their numbers will grow — and they will win." Until then, few social observers had made the connection between Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Paul Revere.
So we have our Sartre. And the liberal grandees Arthur Schlesinger, Ted Sorenson, Tom Harkin and Barbara Boxer flock to his openings. In Washington, a Senate vote was delayed because so many Democrats wanted to see his movie.
The standards of socially acceptable liberal opinion have shifted. We're a long way from John Dewey.
Perhaps inspired by Moore, I got a fact wrong in my previous column. Bill Clinton did not win the evangelical vote in 1992 and 1996. I had relied on a report that was later corrected.