Michael Moore’s Progressive Patriotism

sicko-poster-2.jpgOn Monday our Socialist Film Club in Swindon showed Michael Moore’s “Sicko”, there were about 15 people there including two GMB officials, and three members of the Green Party.

I was very impressed by this film, which is Moore’s best work to date. Liberal critics of Michael Moore criticise his techniques of doorstepping corporate suits to make them look shifty, and using tabloid presentational techniques and emotive arguments. But in truth, Moore is merely subverting the expectations and habits of mainstream film-making.

Spokespeople in organised press conferences in plush corporate settings have their words sanctified by the context, and they therefore exclude discordant voices. Although there is rarely meaningful content in the doorstepping approach Michael Moore uses, when confronting corporate spokespeople, he is taking them out of their context, and the real message that comes across is the truthful one that corporate power is inaccessible and unaccountable.

Similarly, Moore’s use of emotive examples is exactly what the corporations and government do, and only when it is used against them do they describe it as propaganda.

Illustrated throughout with heart-rending personal cases, and with whistle blowing individuals who have worked in the US health care system, Sicko shows an utterly rancid system, where insurance companies seek to minimise the amount of health care provided to Americans.

Particularly moving was the testimony of a a young women whose husband died of cancer despite the fact that his brother was a perfect match for a bone marrow transplant that could have saved his life. He was not one of the 50 million Americans who have no health cover, but the insurance company weaseled their way out of paying.

Moore then goes on to compare the US system with the socialised health care systems of Canada, Britain, France and Cuba. This includes interviews with Americans living in France and Britain, and taking American patients denied health care to Cuba for treatment.

The interesting thing here is Michael Moore’s very firm grasp of the potential of progressive patriotism. The common collective identity that Americans feel was illustrated in a positive way by showing the charity work and community spirit, and then this was contrasted with the selfishness of the Health companies. Similarly the strong and positive identification that Americans have with their state owned fire service, postal service and education system was used as an example of how a state owned health service could be compatible with American values.

The battle for values is at the heart of how socialists should relate to national identity and patriotism. Michael Moore brilliantly argues a case in the film for how other countries have a national culture of caring for each other in their socialised health care system. He then argues that American society instinctively has the same values, but that the private health care system and pharmaceutical companies betray those ideals, and that the rich are anti-social and un-American. In this way liberal and patriotic opinion can be channelled and shaped into a progressive direction, strengthening and consolidating the position of the left.

cuban-hospital.jpgThe highlight of the film is when he takes the patients to Cuba, some of them volunteers who became ill after working at ground Zero following 9/11, but who have been denied health care. Promising that they would receive no better and no worse treatment than Cubans, the American patients are overwhelmed by the quality of care and compassion, and that drugs they pay $120 for are available for 50c.

Brilliantly, the film ends with the 9/11 volunteers being received as honoured guests by a Cuban Fire station, and the international solidarity of working people is celebrated.

11 comments on “Michael Moore’s Progressive Patriotism

  1. I saw it at the cinema when it was first released here. It is such a powerful, witty yet poignant film. It reminded me a tad of Wal-Mart: the high cost of low price. I remember the guy at the start of the film who had no insurance therefore had to resort to DIY needle and thread. Also the tale of two women and their kids. One, due to the cruel bureaucracy of her HMO, had to go to a specific hospital but because of the time wasted her child died….needlessly.

    Contrast that to a woman living in French and her ill daughter who didn’t have to suffer the indignities of an uncaring, cruel faceless corporation intent on making a profit while deaths needlessly occur. Her daughter survived as there’s a welfare state. Watching the film made me very angry.

    But I loved the bit when Moore announces that he is going to the “land of the Devil” and there we see a cartoon of Fidel Castro with horns sticking out of his head. Yet the Americans he took to Cuba all got good healthcare there unlike the piss-poor care they got in the States! Says it all…..

  2. US health care is on its way from, local GP practices will have to accept tenders from US multinationals….markets and healthcare don’t work.

    Most cycle off to my conference and stop wasting time on the net!

  3. It was an excellent film- if anything of course from a British perspective it does understate problems here (understandable in relation to the US) and the trajectory in which we’re heading.

    I think I know what you mean by ‘progressive patriotism’ but don’t really agree- Moore’s line that ordinary Americans deserve better is a fine use of the latent anger and sadness many feel about their fellow Americans being sold down the river by the system and I think has a long and honourable position but it’s to do with ordinary working class people being taken for a ride not to argue there’s anything progressive in patriotism.

    We can believe our country is great as one amongst equals just like a city, region or area. But patriotism I think implies something along the lines of my country right or wrong or one country being better than another- not sure Moore does this.

    American workers can be proud of the battles against the British, against slavery, for civil rights, the mass mobilisations against the war against Vietnam but American workers are part of a world wide class the ordinary people pitted against the greedy privateers ripping apart our planet and our lives.

  4. Yeah Derek is right, some of these private healthcare providers are already giving “advice” to NL and will be involved in healthcare provision in the UK……Scary times…

  5. Joepolitix on said:

    I disagree Andy, I think the brilliance of Moore is his ability to subvert the patriotic narrative. I haven’t seen Sicko but take fahrenheit 9 11 in which he demonstrates how in wars its fundementally the working class who bare the brunt while the rich make fat profits. He illustrates this by showing how the army go around rectruiting in the poorest communities where the worst job opportunities exist and people have little option but to kill or be killed in order to survive. What you describe in your post in not patriotism but community cohesion.

    Whereas patriotism in oppressed nations like Palestine or Kurdistan has a progressive content American patriotism, the twin ruling class ideology alongside religion, is reactionary to the core. Its false consciousness that only serves to bind the working class to their exploiters

  6. Tom Long on said:

    Great post.

    However Jason and Louise mistakenly think its the UK thats on a trajectory towards US style heathcare – its England that’s on this trajectory.

    Gordon Brown is currently trying to increase doctors hours only in England (he has no say over the Health system in Scotland or Wales) and the doctors in England have stated they fear that if they don’t submit to Gordons will he will have an excuse to adopt American style healthcare reforms – walk in supermarket style healthcare clinics provided by ‘for profit’ global corporations.

    Funding will be diverted from the budget for the current system in the form of grants to get these supermarket clinics up and running. Meanwhile the current system will become worse because of the diversion of funds thus forcing the sick of England to use
    these supermarket style clinics, thus making them viable. Job done!

    Another nail in Englands coffin by this third rate ‘Brtiish’ Government.

  7. There is a history and literature on progressive patriotism. Can I recommend “The Lion and the Unicorn” or “My country, right or left” by Geroge Orwell. George Orwell, of course, lived long enough to see the beginning of the NHS, but not the first one adult one vote election in the UK.

  8. In the UK, maufacturing medicines is a bigger and more profitable industry than in France or Germany. The UK Government pays less for medicines than the French amnd German governments.

    That’s the kind of market the UK needs more of.

  9. Tom Long is very misinformed about the NHS. Longer opening hours for a surgery does not imply any individual worker or contractor working longer hours.

    The Drs he is defending are self-employed private sector contractors. They make 8 or 9 times as many contacts with patients as the employed Drs in the hospitals. Most of the public experience of the NHS is with private sector contractors. It always has been. The NHS is the public service that makes most use of privates sector contrators face to face with the public. It took over that position from the post office on day one.

  10. Jason, the point about progressive patriotism is this…

    Just as Moore turns around the form of documentary making (sensational and emotive style) in his films so he turns around patriotism – so that loyalty is not to the state and top brass but to ordinary service personne; not to private health companies but to the sick and disabled, etc.

    In this switch it is not supporters of what they call in America “socialised medicine” who are unpatriotic – it is health insurance companies.

  11. The popularity of “Sicko” in the US should give us all a lift.

    Too often our own ‘nationalist’ stereotypes interfere with conceptions of what American workers think and believe. The problem is that the political system in the US would make Stalin jealous.

    Personally, I think Michael Moore is a good old fashioned Liberal (US dialect) who, if prodded, is opposed, deeply opposed to the exclusionary and superior parts of American “identity”. He knows he has to confront “patriotism” (we all do) as a starting block for engaging with anything other than the already converted, and sizeable, and growing choir.

    He does a great job. But so does John Stewart, Steve Colbert, Matt Damon (free audio book voiceovers for Howard Zinn), George Clooney (“You never, ever cross a picket line…”) and this week Stevie Spielberg… The sophistication of cultural engagement, typically riven with class analysis can also be seen in the best of current TV shows over there: The Wire.