Michael & we

Mar 20, 2002 at 12:00 am

Michael Moore is on a roll — and running late. Some 1,600 people have jammed into the University of Michigan’s Fisher Theatre to hear him speak, reflecting the response he’s been getting nationwide on a tour to promote his new best seller, Stupid White Men.

The next stop is Detroit, for a Tuesday night peace rally at St. Andrew’s Hall. But first he has to scratch his signature on scores of books held by a phalanx of fans in Ann Arbor. And so the Detroit crowd of several hundred listens to poetry and rocks out to Sista Otis singing, “The most important part of the revolution is showin’ up.”

When Moore finally arrives, about an hour past his scheduled 9 p.m. starting time, the first joke of the night is already apparent to those who know he just came from U of M. The trademark ball cap he wears this night isn’t maize and blue, but instead the arch-rival Spartan green with the block “S” in front.

Typical. Moore, it seems, is a guy genetically programmed to swim against the prevailing current. It’s the key to his success. Or at least one of the keys. The other is caring deeply, passionately about the plight of this country’s working class and poor. But that aspect can be overlooked, lost amid the irony and rebellion.

The kid from Flint earned his first taste of national recognition at the age of 16 when he won a state speech contest sponsored by the Elks Club. Moore entered on a whim when seeing the subject was Abraham Lincoln. His tack: to rail against the hypocrisy of the Elks, which in the early ’70s was still a whites-only organization. The national news media picked up on the story and, the way Moore tells it, legislation quickly followed that forced open private organizations to people of color.

It was a valuable lesson.

“A few people, doing just a little bit, can make a lot happen,” Moore tells the crowd in a talk that is part stand-up comedy routine, part rant and part motivational speech. Moore wants the liberals here to know they’re not alone. The overflow crowds showing up in city after city, and the overwhelming response to his new book — which this week hit the top of the New York Times best-seller list — is proof of that.

It’s also proof that the de facto amnesty regarding criticism of George Bush that has been in place since Sept. 11 is ending.

What’s amazing, given the popularity of the book — which lambastes everything from the Republican-led purging of minorities from Florida’s voter rolls to the limp state of the Democratic Party — is how close it came to the shredder.

Just as the book was set to hit store shelves, those jets hijacked by terrorists hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The publisher, HarperCollins, delayed the release, then asked Moore to make substantial changes, saying the harsh tenor needed to be dialed back because of the shift in public sentiment. Although 50,000 copies had been printed, the company wanted Moore to change the title and rewrite as much as 50 percent of the book.

“I told them I wouldn’t rewrite 50 percent of one word,” says Moore. As to the title, he suggested Bring Me the Head of Antonin Scalia as an alternative. At that point, he says, the publisher threatened to “pulp” all 50,000 copies, thinking it better to recycle them than offer them to a public caught in the throes of unbridled patriotism. Moore’s response: Go ahead.

“I told them there’s something they need to know about me,” he tells the crowd. “I told them, ‘I don’t give a shit.’”

It’s another key to success. “When you don’t give a shit,” he explains, “they can’t own you.”

That attitude has paid off. From his first film, Roger & Me, to his television shows “TV Nation” and “The Awful Truth,” Moore has raised iconoclasm to an art form and established himself as one of this country’s leading progressive voices.

His impact is evident following the talk, as people line up for more than an hour to have their books signed. And it’s during the signing that another side of Moore emerges.

It has been a long day. Although he still maintains a home in Flint, he’s based in Manhattan these days. And on this day he began conducting interviews at 6:30 with radio stations around the country. Then he spent a couple hours editing his newest film, Bowling for Columbine, which sets its sights on America’s gun culture. (He showed a few compelling clips to the crowd at St. Andrew’s. One scene has him opening an account at a Traverse City bank that entices new customers with the offer of free firearms. After getting himself a brand-new rifle, Moore, holding the firearm in hand, asks the manager if anyone ever questioned the wisdom of handing weapons to people walking into a bank.)

After flying to Michigan, and giving two presentations and a “pep talk” to unionized graduate teaching assistants, Moore is patient and gracious with the autograph seekers who continue to file past as the clock ticks toward 1 a.m.

People have driven from as far away as Cincinnati. When a grad student says she’s come from Kalamazoo with fellow activists, Moore quietly asks if they need any gas money to help get back home.

Several people suggest future documentaries for Moore to work on. He responds by telling each to get a video camera and start doing it themselves. “It doesn’t matter that you don’t know what you’re doing,” he counsels. “That’s the way you learn, by making mistakes.”

Others tell him that he’s an inspiration. “I saw Roger & Me when I was 8 years old,” says a man in his 20s. “It changed my life.”

A young woman comes up and offers a poem in his honor. People press CDs on him. A marijuana activist gives him a black baseball cap made of hemp. And one after another simply shakes his hand and says, ‘Thank you so much for what you are doing.’”

Moore seems embarrassed by the outpouring of affection.

Afterward, standing outside the hall, with the long drive to Flint still ahead, he takes time to answer a few more questions. When asked about the show of support, and the way he’s being received, there are no jokes, no sarcasm.

“It is,” he says, “what keeps me going.”

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]