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I could imagine Where to Invade Next, the new documentary by left-wing American filmmaker Michael Moore, annoying a lot of right-wing folks in the USA – if any of those folks were ever likely to sit down and watch a Michael Moore movie.
A gentle and humorous travelogue with a political slant, Where to Invade Next sees Moore ambling in his usual manner, like a cross between a docile grizzly bear and the Honey Monster, across various European countries (plus Tunisia in northern Africa), identifying various good things in their political and social systems and ‘claiming’ them for America – because these good things don’t exist in his less enlightened and more capitalist home country.
For example, Moore chooses Italy’s generous system of paid leave, which is absent in the USA even though, as he points out, productivity levels in both countries are about the same. He chooses Slovenia’s policy of free tuition in higher education, something that in the States you pay for out of your own wallet (or your parents pay for out of their own wallets). He chooses Iceland’s decision after its 2008-2011 financial meltdown to stick the 26 bankers responsible in jail, whist noting that the only equivalent banker to do porridge in the USA was a chap, Kareem Serageldin, who (probably entirely coincidentally) had a Muslim-sounding name.
Yes, I’d love to see America’s usual right-wing suspects – Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly and of course current Republican Deranged Blowhard-in-Chief Donald Trump – watch Moore as he gradually and affably belittles the American Way in Where to Invade Next, until blood vessels start popping in their faces and smoke starts pouring out of their ears. Indeed, one major American right-wing bawbag appears in the documentary: former Texan governor Rick Perry, shown during an episode where Moore highlights the gulf between the French approach to teaching sex education in schools, i.e. being mature, realistic and accepting about it, and the considerably more puritanical and scaremongering American approach. In a clip from a TV interview, quizzed about why Texas has the third-highest rate of teen pregnancy in the country despite school programmes promoting abstinence, Perry splutters: “Abstinence… works!” No wonder the live TV audience titters in the background.
Critics of Moore’s partisan style of filmmaking will no doubt complain about his selectivity. He turns a blind eye to the negative aspects of the countries he visits. He praises Italy’s paid-leave system but discretely ignores its unemployment rate (11.7% two months ago, compared with an American rate of 5%). From his enthusiasm for all things French, you’d never guess that strikes have been ravaging the place lately in response to its government’s proposed labour-law reforms. And he honours Tunisia’s reproductive health clinics and its commitment to women’s rights in its post-revolution constitution, drafted in 2014. But as my partner immediately pointed out – both of us lived in Tunisia for three years, before, during and after the 2011 revolution – women have a much higher chance of being harassed on Tunisian streets than they do on American ones.
Incidentally, whilst in Tunisia, Moore interviews Rachid Ghannouchi, the co-founder and guiding light of the former Islamist governing party, Ennahda. Ghannouchi, whilst boldly declaring that the state has no right to tell people how to behave in their own homes, manages to shoot himself in the foot by noting that in his home, he tells his wife to cover her hair.
© Dog Eat Dog Films / IMG Films
To be fair, along the way, Moore makes the odd admission that not everything is hunky-dory. As I’ve said, he mentions Iceland’s recent economic crisis – if only to highlight the fact that 26 greedy and reckless Icelandic bankers were banged away afterwards. (Wonderfully, the prosecutor who got them sent down was called Thor.)
And I wondered if, while he was heaping praise on Norway for its penal system, which attempts to treat its inmates as human beings, emphasises rehabilitation over punishment and has achieved a reoffending rate amongst released prisoners that’s 60% lower than the equivalent rate in the States, Moore would mention the notorious Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Breivik. He does, though again to reinforce his own argument. He interviews the father of one of Breivik’s 77 victims, who refuses to call for a harsher punishment (like the death sentence) for his child’s killer. That, he says, would be going down the ‘evolutionary ladder’ to Breivik’s level and betraying the tolerant Norwegian values that the ‘piece of scum’ had wanted to destroy.
I have to say that the clip Moore uses to highlight the niceness of Norway’s maximum security prison made me wonder if it was actually nice at all. He shows a video made by the prison staff as a way of welcoming new convicts. It has the warders singing We are the World, the ghastly saccharine anthem first recorded by USA For Africa back in 1985. Surely a few minutes of exposure to that would reduce the most hardened criminal in Scandinavia to a quivering jelly.
Indeed, Moore’s simplistic ‘this-is-good-why-don’t-we-do-the-same?’ methodology is critiqued by at least one of his European interviewees – a Portuguese health expert who observes that you can’t just implement in the USA the Portuguese policy of not arresting drug users. That’s because in Portugal there’s a back-up system of health and social-welfare measures to help people who use and abuse drugs. Without such back-up, which doesn’t exist in the States, the relaxed Portuguese approach to drug use simply wouldn’t work.
Nevertheless, in some ways, Moore’s rose-tinted – some would say downright biased – glasses are what gives the film its charm. Partly this is because daily we get subjected to downright biased accounts of what’s going on in the world from the right; from right-wing shock-jocks in right-wing news outlets like Fox News, the Spectator and the Daily Mail. So it’s cheering to have the same thing coming from the left for a change. Also, Moore’s approach gives the film an agreeable sense of optimism. There’s bad shit happening in America, he’s saying, but hey, the Europeans have implemented humane solutions to these problems and surely it’s not beyond our ken to solve them humanely too.
Indeed, what makes the film most subversive is Moore’s habit, throughout, of observing that the Europeans’ solutions were all, at some time in history, devised by Americans and / or first introduced in the USA.
It’s telling that Moore felt no urge to visit the United Kingdom during Where to Invade Next to pinch any good, humane ideas from us; presumably because we have none. And with the referendum when Britain decides whether to remain in or leave the European Union fast approaching, I can understand why Britain’s own tribe of right-wing idiots like Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Michael Gove and Iain Duncan Smith are so desperate for us to leave it. Horrid ideas are rife on the continent, like paid vacation time for workers, decent school meals, effective sex education, free tuition in higher education, prisons that rehabilitate prisoners and tolerant drugs policies that actually reduce the number of people taking drugs. No wonder that bunch want us to distance ourselves as much as possible from the place.
© Dog Eat Dog Films / IMG Films