Michael and me

Sep 11, 2002 at 12:00 am
In his book Downsize This!, humorist Michael Moore suggests that what the United States really needs is a new name, a name--as Madison Avenue might say--that gives us more marketing bang for the buck. Look at the British, he writes. They call their country Great Britain, a lofty-sounding sobriquet for a shabby little island.

And so, Moore recommends that we call ourselves the Big One. I love it. It matches the bellicosity and swagger of these days and times. Think how much taller in the saddle President Bush might sit if he could introduce himself as "President of the Big One," instead of "President of the United States." Consider how perfectly the name fits Vice President Cheney's perpetual scowl.

In keeping with his makeover theme, Moore also recommends that we adopt a flag featuring praying hands holding a dollar bill, which would tell the world that we're a Christian country with specific priorities. And he comes up with several possibilities for a new slogan, including "Our citizens are armed and they like to shoot!" or "The United States of America: You got a better idea?" Our national anthem, Moore says, can be Queen's "We Will Rock You."

Moore's satiric look at our society is perfect for Labor Day. He's the guy behind Roger and Me, the 1989 documentary about how General Motors screwed his hometown of Flint, Mich., by closing factories and laying off tens of thousands of workers at the same time it raked in record profits. In 1996, Downsize This! showed that GM wasn't the only American corporation to follow that script. And then Moore made another documentary, The Big One, ostensibly about a promotional tour for his book but really a story about his odyssey through middle America, where he encounters the same story every where he goes.

In Moore's America, people are angry, wrung dry by fear, pushed to the brink of desperation. "Remember the American Dream?" he asks in Downsize This! "[I]t used to be: If you work hard, and your company prospers, you, too, shall prosper. That dream has gone up in smoke. Now it's the American Bad Dream: You work hard, the company prospers--and you lose your job."

Sure enough, in 1997's The Big One, Moore ambushes sweating corporate types and gets them to admit on camera that, yes, they are laying off workers, not in spite of the company's success, but because of it. Why, Moore demands. We want to continue doing well, the suits answer.

The fascinating thing about Moore's body of work is the way it reveals how totally unprepared corporate America is when it comes to answering that question. It suggests that no one else is challenging them. Thousands of people are laid off from work, monthly, and apparently Moore is the only one demanding to know why. As a journalist, I'm embarrassed for my profession.

Of course, it may be that nobody bothers to ask questions when they already know the answer. America (or the Big One) at the new millennium has fractured into a nation of winners and losers; the fabulously rich and the desperately poor, with those of us in the middle being stretched and pulled both ways. We are coming off of one of the most prosperous eras on record, yet, as Moore notes with such bitter, satirical humor, that period was marked by endless layoffs and downsizing, record levels of personal bankruptcies, and personal savings that not only are at their lowest level in history but the lowest in the industrialized world.

"We all know it's over, this way of life we once had, or thought we could have if we put in a decent day's work," Moore writes. "Now we must fight each other for whatever scraps are left, leaving the rich to enjoy the greatest wealth this country has ever seen."

Moore talks about how a growing plurality of Americans no longer vote, convinced, he says, that their votes will have no effect on public policy. He talks about how federal, state, and local governments have cut drastically back on services such as education in order to funnel public funds to corporate fat cats.

His observations are eerily similar to those of the Justice Policy Institute, which recently reported that during the 1980s and '90s state spending for higher education declined as spending on prisons increased so that, today, there are more African-American men sitting behind bars than in classrooms.

I wish I could tell you that Moore, or anyone else, has practical solutions to offer. Unfortunately, alternatives such as communism have been discredited. Organized labor has lost its teeth. (Only about 14 percent of the work force belongs to unions today, down from about 40 percent in the 1950s.) Moore talks dreamily about everyday people imposing values such as putting people over profits on corporate America, but I think it's far too late for that.

Our only recourse is to laugh at the bad guys. If we cannot reform the system, humanize it, or overthrow it, we can at least poke fun at the people at the top--the more savage the humor, the better. My man Michael Moore is a good place to start.

Wiley Hall III writes for City Paper, where this feature first appeared. Send comments to [email protected]