Saturday, June 30, 2007

Michael Moore Asks: Who Are We?

In his new documentary, "Sicko," which opened nationwide last night, Michael Moore asks the question: "Who are we?" It is really the same question he has been asking in all of his provocative and controversial films. Who are we as a nation? What has happened to our soul?

This film pretends to be about only the state of the American health care system. But Moore is far more subversive than that. Everyone knows that the for-profit medical system is broken, kaput. Our life expectancy and infant mortality rates are woefully lower than those of other "civilized" countries. The high number of uninsured poor in this country is a scandal, and innocent children suffer the most. Our private health care system is what it is because politicians are bought and paid for by insurance and pharmaceutical companies. But even those people WITH health insurance are at the mercy of HMO doctors out to deny them service, and thereby serve the corporate bottom line.

Moore knows all this. He tells us up front that "Sicko" is not about the plight of the uninsured, the man who has to sew up his own cut, the carpenter forced by exorbitant costs to repair only one severed finger and not the other. And even though it might look like his target is the for-profit health care industry, and therefore capitalism itself, his critique is more subtle and therefore he puts his hand into a deeper wound.

Why are we so bad off? If capitalism were the problem, then other capitalist countries would also offer their citizens lousy medical care. But that is not the case. Moore spends considerable time looking at health care in Canada, England and France and shows decisively that it is superior to ours in each country. I lived in London during the 1960's where my oldest son was born. Not only was his birth paid for by the National Health Service, but we were provided with free milk and orange juice for a number of weeks to insure his health. Moore interviews British politician Tony Benn who explains that the NHS, started after the war, is a triumph of democracy, equal health care for everyone. The same goes in Canada and France, where a government-paid nanny does laundry and makes soup. While Moore has been accused by his critics of willfully overlooking the flaws of state-run medical systems, his point is that there are alternatives, even within the capitalist economy. Why not try one?

To explain why we ferociously cling to a greedy system that harms and even kills sick people while fattening the bank accounts of CEOs and politicians, Moore shows propaganda films from the 1950s and 1960s warning against the evils of socialized medicine. He includes a sound bite from a B-movie actor named Ronald Reagan who claims that state-run medicine is the first step towards Communist domination. These scare tactics are obviously similar to those the government uses today for terrorism. Fear fueled the Red Menace of the Cold War and fear fuels Bush and Cheney's demand for an American empire based on endless warfare.

In America fear has always been manipulated, from fear of the native peoples which justified their extermination, to fear of the wilderness which justified logging, fences, irrigation and large-scale urban development. Americans are certain they are superior to nature: they build houses and cities where rivers periodically flood, and they erect cabins and ski resorts in the forested mountains where frequently fires rage. In California we demonized Asians, put them in concentration camps and took away their homes and businesses. Now 9/11 and Iraq are justifying the dismantling of our civil rights. Although Europe has been racked by wars over the century, they are forced to get along because the countries are small and the borders near. Europe is the home of the Enlightenment when democracy was born out of the demise of monarchy, and Europeans continue to take to the streets to demand liberty, fraternity and equality, the rights of democracy. Here in America we are deadened by our fears and by an entertainment regime that provides fantasies and dreams rather than knowledge and wisdom. In America the streets are full of cars, not people, and we puff with pride at an individualism which values the self over the common good. Not for us the control of Big Brother!

But, Moore asks, in the film's most brilliant moment, don't we already have socialized fire and police services, a socialized public library, and (although it's changing rapidly) socialized schools? Why isn't health for all citizens valued as highly as education, child care, books for all, freedom from fear of fire and crime? What's wrong with socialism, if that means merely public ownership of essential services? We can of course drop the word, for it remains meaningless outside of a highly charged political context. The point is, simple morality dictates that a just society take care of the basic needs of its citizens. The Europeans understand this. They are appalled at what they hear about unequal health care and an overpriced education system in the United States. Even Cuba, one of the last remaining bastions of state socialism in the world today, takes care of its citizens better than we do. In the highly publicized conclusion of "Sicko," Moore takes several people ill from rescue work on 9/11 to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba where Al Queda members get better medical treatment than the average American (a stunt inspired by his friend Borat). Turned away by the threat of mines in the harbor, they are taken to a hospital in Havana where they receive a complete checkup and medication (a spray that costs $120 here is sold to one woman for 5 cents).

Admittedly, Michael Moore is a showman and his grandstanding and Utopian overviews may be somewhat simplistic. Other cooler heads are circulating realistic single-payer health care plans for legislative approval at the national and state levels. But Moore takes the argument to its most basic level, and diagnoses the American soul to be sick and in need of healing. At a press conference in Cannes, where "Sicko" was shown for the first time last month, Moore said he was not optimistic that Americans would overthrow their for-profit health care system any time soon. But now at least the corporate and government flacks will find it harder to boast that America has the best health care in the world. Once again, the emperor is shown to have no clothes.

Who we are is sick, sick to our very core, and the only cure is radical treatment. If I were living outside this country (and I will be soon), I might consider quarantine. America could become the leper colony for the 21st century.

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