Saturday, November 7, 2009

A Late Post about Michael Moore

Awhile back, a friend of ours sent me an email containing a message that Michael Moore had posted on his website in support of his movie "Capitalism: A Love Story." Here's an excerpt:

"Friends,
I'd like to have a word with those of you who call yourselves Christians (Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Bill Maherists, etc. can read along, too, as much of what I have to say, I'm sure, can be applied to your own spiritual/ethical values).

I have come to believe that there is no getting around the fact that capitalism is opposite everything that Jesus (and Moses and Mohammed and Buddha) taught. All the great religions are clear about one thing: It is evil to take the majority of the pie and leave what's left for everyone to fight over. Jesus said that the rich man would have a very hard time getting into heaven. He told us that we had to be our brother's and sister's keepers and that the riches that did exist were to be divided fairly. He said that if you failed to house the homeless and feed the hungry, you'd have a hard time finding the pin code to the pearly gates.

At the same time, Wall Street bankers ("Blessed Are the Wealthy"?) are amassing more and more loot -- and they do their best to pay little or no income tax (last year Goldman Sachs' tax rate was a mere 1%!). Would Jesus approve of this? If not, why do we let such an evil system continue? It doesn't seem you can call yourself a Capitalist AND a Christian -- because you cannot love your money AND love your neighbor when you are denying your neighbor the ability to see a doctor just so you can have a better bottom line. That's called "immoral" -- and you are committing a sin when you benefit at the expense of others."

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I wrote an email response to our friend, but then thought that if I really wanted to argue against Moore's film, I should probably go to see it first. But how could I justify paying $11.50 to Michael Moore when he clearly is against capitalism, and would certainly not want to take my hard-earned money? The solution was simple: I paid to see another movie, then snuck in later to watch his as well. Moral crisis averted. I also brought a small notebook so I could recall exactly what he was saying.

But before I get to his film, I'd like to answer some of the questions he raises in his letter. First, his initial few questions strike me as a flawed premise. Is there something inherently “sinful” in creating something people want and then selling it to them at a profit? Did he and Joseph just give their stuff away? As for what form of economy & government Jesus would approve of, I think we’re trying to read too much into his purpose and goals. Jesus was apolitical – but he did tell the Pharisees to “Give to Caesar what is Caesar's,” so he at least recommended supporting whatever government one found themselves under. As far as capitalism goes, I’m sure Jesus would be against many of the excesses, but probably not the system as a whole.

I think he’s less concerned about economic systems than he is about attitudes of the heart. If your sole aim is money and you’re consumed by greed and lust for wealth, I don’t think he’d be happy with you regardless of how fair your business practices were. In theory, communism was supposed to be an egalitarian society based on common ownership of property & production – and we’ve seen how that system eventually imploded after only 70 years of practice.

As for the Bible, Michael distorts different passages and takes them out of context. Why did Jesus say what he did to the rich young ruler? Was it simply because he was wealthy? Or did he know that great wealth creates a feeling of self-sufficiency that can cause one to rely one oneself to the exclusion of God? Was it about his physical possessions or the attitude of his heart? As the saying goes, “When a man becomes rich, God either receives a great deal of money or loses a man.”

Michael mentions that “It is evil to take the majority of the pie and leave what's left for everyone to fight over.” This sounds noble enough on the surface, but what pie is he talking about? Are resources so limited that if I make a million dollars I’m somehow “robbing” others of some of that money? And I’m sorry, but I’ve never read the passage where Jesus says that all riches are to be divided fairly – maybe someone could point that one out for me. Again with the homeless & hungry, Jesus is talking about compassion – an attitude of the heart – and not about a form of government and/or an individual’s ability to gain wealth.

He probably has some good points to make in examining corporate greed and the unethical practices that many investment firms followed which led to the economic quagmire that we are now swimming in. But he loses me when he tries to take that big picture and narrow it down to you and me. I’m not denying anyone their healthcare, nor am I benefiting at the expense of anyone else.

The part that gets me the most – the pill that I have a hard time swallowing – is where he declares that he intends “to do what I can to stop this evil.” Considering that his personal net worth is somewhere north of $50 million – what exactly is he going to do? Is he going to give his money away to those who need it more than he does? Is he going to move to France as a means of protest against “evil America?” He’s not exactly known for his philanthropy – according to Peter Schweizer’s book "Do As I Say (Not As I Do): Profiles in Liberal Hypocrisy," he found that "for a man who by 2002 had a net worth in eight figures, he gave away a modest $36,000 through the foundation, much of it to his friends in the film business or tony cultural organizations that later provided him with venues to promote his books and film."

As for the movie itself, it was another example of Moore's well-known pseudo-documentary style of film-making. That is, he claims he is making a documentary, but he takes clips out of context and edits them in such a way as to support his bias, instead of presenting the facts as they are and letting his audience draw their own conclusions. Basically, it fits the definition of propaganda.

This is not to say that he doesn't have any good points to make - he does - but they're buried in all the other rubbish. For instance, he points out the pitiful wages that airline pilots make these days and how some of them are on welfare or getting food stamps to make ends meet. Ok, I agree that it seems pretty absurd to pay people who are doing such an important job little more than what they could earn working at Wal-Mart, but nobody's forcing them to do it. Their career is their choice - if they don't like the pay, they can always leave and find another job.

Despite Moore's religious-sounding letter, there was actually very little in the movie about the immorality of capitalism. He "interviews" three liberal Catholic priests - Father Dick Preston, who married Michael and his wife; Father Peter Dougherty, who married his sister; and Thomas John Gumbleton, a retired bishop of the Archdiocese of Detroit. The whole segment took maybe five minutes (out of two hours) and provided little in the way of enlightenment. Father Preston said that capitalism is evil, wrong and unjust - but provided nothing in the way of Biblical support for his opinions. Likewise, Dougherty said that capitalism was "radically evil" and Gumbleton quoted the "woe to the rich - blessed are the poor" passage, but neither gave any convincing argument from Scripture.

Of course, as expected he devoted a significant chunk of his film to bashing on Republicans. Reagan was portrayed as an actor endorsing various products, and Bush was presented as the master conspirator behind a national financial "coup d'etat" to undermine the economy and pass the bailout bill. No criticism was leveled at Obama, despite the fact that the bailout passed on his watch, and he was an ardent supporter of it, along with Pelosi, Reid, and others. In fact, a quick search will reveal that 60% of Democrats voted in support of the bill, while only 33% of Republicans did so.

The end of the film has Moore showing FDR's proposal in 1944 of a "2nd Bill of Rights" that would guarantee every American:

  • A job with a living wage
  • Freedom from unfair competition and monopolies
  • A home
  • Medical Care
  • Education
  • Recreation
While I agree that all of these things are good - and may in fact be necessary - they are in no way a "guaranteed right" for any of us. The key issue here is freedom of choice - if I choose to show up for work late or not finish my assignments, I may lose my job. If I do, that's my choice. Similarly, I may not want to go to college, buy a home or pay for health care - those are all choices that I make. It's not the government's job to provide any of those things for me (I for one would hate to see what government-sponsored "entertainment" looks like) - it's my job to decide for myself what I want to accomplish seek to meet my goals. The governments job should simply be to remove any unfair impediments - such as racism or sexism - that would stand in the way.

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