Moore recounts a trouble-making history

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Here Comes Trouble: Stories From My Life
By Michael Moore
Allen Lane, 2011
427 pages, $29.95 (pb)

In 1968, the 14-year-old Michael Moore was expelled from the seminary where he was training to become a Catholic priest. His offense had been to ask awkward questions, like why can’t women become priests.

As Moore had to be reminded by Church authorities, “you either have to accept things or not”. For Moore, accepting the status quo was not an option, so authority would always be having trouble with Moore.

Authorities like the US military, for example. Moore resolved to never pick up a gun after the traumatising death in Vietnam of the husband of his unorthodox but fascinating black teacher.

Moore learned to never trust what US governments and their complicit media said after Canadian television showed the bad things the US military was doing in Vietnam and how they lied about it.

When Moore nearly lost a close friend from a backyard abortion, sexist religious and legal authority became other deserving recipients of trouble. Bigotry and prejudice, the divide-and-rule scam of the elite, repelled Moore, whether it was the bullying of gay students “to make them Normal” or the race hate of Michigan’s Ku Klux Klan which was “dedicated to terrorising and lynching black people”.

The young Moore did not just wring his hands at hypocrisy and injustice. He spoke up.

At a school speech contest on Abraham Lincoln and the civil war that ended slavery, Moore attacked the contest’s sponsor, the local Elks Club, which barred black people from its golf course.

A media sensation ensued and although a reluctant Moore declined an appearance on national TV — “there wasn’t enough Clearasil in the world to get me to do that” — his boldness initiated the demise of racial discrimination by the Elks and beyond.

Moore also became the youngest ever elected official in the US when he stood for election to his school board and won the community vote.

Moore forced the “retirement” of the school’s principal and assistant principal who had indulged in sadistic corporal punishment (including Moore, once, for not having his shirt tucked in).

Moore also set up a local newspaper in his car-factory hometown of Flint to challenge the General Motors-friendly local paper, scoring successes as a “true muckraking paper that didn’t care who it pissed off”.

This attitude lead to Moore famously giving a speech against the Iraq war when accepting an Oscar at the Academy Awards ceremony in 2003.

This made him a personal target of a vigilante right, a situation compounded when “I decided to do what anyone in my position would do: make a movie [Fahrenheit 9/11] suggesting the president of the United States is a war criminal. I mean, why take the easy road?”.

The right-wing hate speech that Moore subsequently copped “had the sad and tragic effect of unhinging the already slightly unglued”. He faced attack by knife, blunt object, scalding coffee, a very sharp #2 graphite pencil, fist, gun and bomb.

Only nine ex-navy SEALS, black and Hispanic volunteers, who were hired as his bodyguards kept Moore from becoming a martyr.

Moore’s account of how he became a fighter against the huge power and wealth of the tiny few is interspersed with his storytelling gift for comedy (his fumbling history of dating girls) and for pathos.

Jobless in the mid-1980s, like one third of Flint as General Motors went on a factory-closing rampage lured by cheap, union-free labour in Mexico, Moore had just an unemployment cheque in his pocket, a high school degree and a quarter tank of petrol.

What to do? Why, make a film, of course.

Roger and Me, his documentary about GM’s elusive CEO Roger Smit), was an “angry comedy about an economic system that I believed to be unfair and unjust. And not democratic.”

The movie set its viewers “howling, cheering, hissing, and leaving the movie house ready to rumble”. This is Michael Moore’s special talent — leave ’em laughing but mad as hell.

From GLW issue 905