Humanist Perspectives: issue 151: the Tradition and Techniques of Satire: the Case of Michael Moore

feature (continued from issue 149)
the Tradition & Techniques of Satire:
the Case of Michael Moore
part 2
by Brett Zimmerman

drawing by Dushan Milic

Regardless of to what extent we may want to argue with Moore over his tactics or rhetorical flaws, it’s difficult for anyone concerned with social justice to deny that he has his satirical finger very much on the pulse of America. We can create more prisons to control killers and other criminals, and hire more cops to round up social delinquents, and bring in more counsellors to deal with the dispossessed, and train more medical specialists to handle stress, heart disease and stroke, but Moore knows what is often at the root of such social and medical ailments:

With every round of firings, the societal problems we must deal with rise at a corresponding rate. According to a study conducted by economists at the University of Utah, for every 1 percent rise in the jobless rate, homicides increase by 6.7 percent, violent crimes by 3.4 percent, crimes against property go up by 2.4 percent, and deaths by heart disease and stroke rise by 5.6 and 3.1 percent, respectively. —from Moore’s Downsize This!

Now we see what I had in mind in part 1 of this essay, opening with an aphorism from the always quotable Thoreau: “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” Moore knows that the root of many of the social and medical evils in the USA is corporate behaviour, the refusal of the wealthiest and most powerful CEOs in the country to enable millions of regular Americans to make a decent living — to live out even a modest version of ‘the American Dream.’ Rather than advocate for more prisons and counsellors and officers to deal with the dispossessed — rather than hack at the branches of evil — Moore strikes at the root of the problem. He believes most people aren’t born bad, they are made bad. Environment, not genetics, is often to blame if out of desperation a citizen turns to crime. Roger & Me also shows some attempts to hack at the branches of evil rather than the roots: the film documents the social and economic consequences of massive layoffs (30,000 workers) at the General Motors plant — the town’s major employer — in Flint, Michigan. How did Flint deal with the dramatic increase in crime due to the layoffs? By curbing the quiet (and not so quiet) desperation of the unemployed by building new facilities to get people back to work? By rehabilitating offenders, those native sons, by giving them new chances to be gainfully employed? No! By building a new county prison! That is, by hacking at the branches of evil. Moore made Roger & Me to expose the root of the evil.

Now and then, Moore reinforces the satire in his books with stylistic flair. For example, in Stupid White Men, in an open letter to George Dubya, the “Thief-in-Chief,” Moore ends the chapter with “a Bush in the hand is better than a handout to a Bush.” I know I’m being pedantic in pointing out that this sentence combines two clever rhetorical figures — polyptoton (the use of a word with the same root but with different endings: hand, handout), and chiasmus (an AB:BA structure: Bush, hand, handout, Bush). These devices have been considered examples of linguistic wit since the ancient Greek rhetoricians classified them. In Downsize This!, Moore provides another instance of linguistic cleverness, a nice palindrome, when complaining about America’s perennially poor choices for political candidates: “we drag our ass into some smelly elementary school gym and vote no longer for the lesser of two evils, but for the evil of two lessers.” Note, again, by the way, the witty chiasmatic structure (lesser, evils, evil, lessers); and the meaning of “the evil of two lessers” reminds me of a lovely passage in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels where through necromancy a sorcerer is able to call up the spirits of the dead, enabling Gulliver to compare ancient public figures with modern ones: “I desired that the Senate of Rome might appear before me in one large chamber, and a modern representative in counterview in another. The first seemed to be an assembly of heroes and demigods; the other a knot of pedlars, pickpockets, highwaymen and bullies.”

In some stylistic respects Stupid White Men is perhaps more impressive than Downsize This! In Stupid White Men, Moore seems to have learned the usefulness of devices of repetition and syntactical parallelism. These stylistic features aren’t satirical in themselves, but Moore shows how they can serve that purpose:

So hack away, Ms Norton — last I heard, trees grow back! Bombs away, Mr Rumsfeld and General Powell — we’re all out of Sergeant McVeighs for you to pin medals on! Drill away, Mr Abraham — we’ll have you parking those big gas hogs at the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club before you know it!

Each sentence begins with a damaging hortatory verb used ironically (hack, bomb, drill), follows up with the names of the culprits responsible, and finishes with an ironic statement of consolation. This syntactical and lexical strategy is harmful enough when used once, but the decision to repeat it two more times creates a sense of cumulative satirical damage. Perhaps complementing that sense of cumulative damage is the syllabic expansion of successive sentences: the statement of consolation in the first has six syllables; the statement of consolation in the second has fifteen; the statement of consolation in the final has twenty. Bob Cluett and Rina Kampeas have written in their sportively titled manual Grossly Speaking that “Expansion was for a long time taught, in English as in Latin, as an aspect of rhetoric and was considered a necessary part of the repertory of any writer who wanted to attain ‘pleasing sound’ in his sentences.” I doubt that Moore was so deliberate, but more important than pleasing sound, as I suggest, above, is the expanding sense of outrage that expanded clauses of criticism can create — “first they did this and this; then they did this and this and this! Then they did this and this and this and that!” If Moore was not consciously aware of the usefulness of expansion for satirical purposes, then we might at least conclude that he has an impressively intuitive sense of it. Not bad for a guy who admits that “I have no college degree.”

He has also learned the appeal of the extended metaphor used for satirical purposes, as in this passage from Stupid White Men referring to the election that Bush stole:

The events of those thirty-six days shook us hard, knocked the wind out of us, and wedged something deep in our national craw. Nothing short of one big national Heimlich manoeuvre can save us now. We’re stumbling around blue in the face, wondering if relief will come in time.

We find an even longer extended metaphor on the next page:

Hard-core Republicans are desperately hoping that Big Dick Cheney can survive half a dozen more heart attacks and last long enough to oversee the raping and pillaging of everything west of Wichita. What they don’t realize is that he’s already put the rest of the country into cardiac arrest. Meanwhile, he and his gang are double-timing it to dismantle as much of the environment, the Constitution, and the evidence in Tallahassee as they can before the EMS unit called Election 2002 arrives… And if there’s one thing I’m certain of, there’s a triage a-comin’. The American public will be turning off the life support system on this administration faster than you can say “Jack Splat Kevorkian.”

The comedic effectiveness of these passages doesn’t obscure Moore’s Swiftian contempt for the scoundrels currently overseeing the world’s most powerful nation, and it’s worth noting the nature of the metaphors he uses, suggesting his sense that America is sick and desperately in need of medical attention.

Another satirical technique is, of course, the reductio ad absurdum — the attempt to reduce an opponent’s argument to absurdity by following it to its ultimate logical conclusion. Moore gives us a sample of this approach in Downsize This! when he suggests that the logical extension of the right-to-life stance is the execution for murder of all women who have had abortions:

Right to Life must be consistent; if they truly believe the fetus is a human life, then they must demand the same punishment you or I would get if we were to gun down a guy in the street. A life is a life… A murderer is a murderer. Right to Life has spent years getting the whole country all gooey-eyed by showing us those pictures of the little fetuses with their little heartbeats and their tiny little hands and feet [a classic appeal to pathos]. “Look, they’re human!” If they’re human, then we must prosecute the mother who slaughters this little innocent. Thirty-eight states now have the death penalty for premeditated murder.

It also goes without saying, Moore insists, that we execute the doctors who perform abortions. Only the most fanatical anti-abortionists — such as those who turned vigilante and did indeed murder abortionists — would extend their rhetoric to include the execution of mothers and doctors; the more sane among them would scoff at Moore’s recommendations. He is, of course, facetious — as facetious as Swift is in A Modest Proposal when he recommends that the children of the poor should be fattened to feed the rich. This pamphlet has been called “a masterpiece of ironic logic,” and we see that ironic logic is also occasionally one of Moore’s satirical techniques. But the point of ironic logic is to make a point. If anti-abortionists don’t really want to adopt Moore’s recommendation that mothers and doctors involved in abortions should be executed, and presumably they don’t, then could it be that some other agenda is motivating them? Could it be, Moore wonders, if “this whole anti-abortion movement is actually not about ‘abortion’ at all — but rather about controlling women and their bodies and keeping them ‘in their place’?”

Less clever for satire, perhaps, than extended ironic logic is a device called antiphrasis by rhetoricians: the use of a single word 180 degrees opposite to its normally intended meaning. We find a sample in Downsize This! when Moore notes that “Mercedes made only $1.51 billion in profits in 1995” (my italics). Antiphrasis figures more often in Stupid White Men, as when Moore mentions America’s “thriving democracy,” or its “fine political parties,” or “the modest and selfless ranks of corporate America,” or the “greedy bastards” at the Delta union who were demanding a whopping $20,000 for their pilots’ starting pay, or the obsession on the part of American citizens with Monica Lewinsky, O J Simpson and Hugh Grant’s dating habits instead of with such “insignificant matters like sparing the world from nuclear annihilation.” He ends Bowling for Columbine, that devastating Juvenalian satire on the USA gun culture, with the statement, “It was a glorious time to be an American.”

There are some interesting differences between Moore’s written and his cinematic satire, certainly as we find it in Roger & Me. For one thing, in his books Moore expresses his Swiftian savage indignation, his Juvenalian disgust, in no uncertain terms. The anger behind Roger & Me, on the other hand, isn’t usually expressed explicitly. The tone of the narrative is calmer, for Moore typically allows the images to speak for themselves and the audience to decide their own emotional reactions. He even admits, in some introductory remarks to the DVD edition of Bowling for Columbine, that the film speaks for itself and needs no editorial comments. As editor, however, Moore combines the images so expertly that he has little trouble in evoking the desired emotions. He knows that didactic commentary is unnecessary — as when (in Roger & Me) Michigan’s shallow, self-centred beauty queen is asked if she has any message of hope for the down-and-out citizens of Flint. Misunderstanding the import of the question, she urges them all to cross their fingers and hope that she’ll win the Miss America pageant! We are simultaneously amused and disgusted, and Moore refrains from telling us that we should be feeling those emotions.

Neither is Moore didactic when he shows the Reverend Robert Schuller visiting Flint but offering little more than empty palliative mottoes to boost public morale: “Turn your hurt into a halo” — “Tough times don’t last, but tough people do” — “The sorrow becomes a servant” — “Just because you’ve got problems is no excuse to be unhappy.” In the same category of useless encouragement are the shallow comments from entertainer Anita Bryant: “Today is a new day!” Neither does Moore comment after the remarks of affluent white women at their Golf Club to the effect that those on welfare are “lazy” people who just want to “take the easy way out.” Neither does he comment when other affluent whites celebrate the opening of a new county jail to contain the criminal unemployed by paying $100 to spend the night there — you know, just for a lark! As well, he knows that he doesn’t need to point out the tragic irony of how GM and the UAW union came up with the idea of training ex-autoworkers as prison guards and hiring them to man the jails filling up with their former assembly-line colleagues. He is largely (but less) quiet throughout Bowling for Columbine, though he finally really does let loose his savage indignation on Charlton Heston (who in my opinion deserves it).

With his keen sense of irony, Moore typically allows the viciously ironic juxtaposition of sound bites and images to provide the moral outrage for him, such as when he ends Roger & Me with Pat Boone singing Michigan “Happy Birthday” — “and 150 years more” — while the image of a building being demolished in down-and-out Flint plays on the screen. After all the scenes of impoverished ex-autoworkers, of boarded-up houses and a ruined infrastructure, of human tragedy, of expressions of cold-hearted corporate philosophy and of affluent white hypocrites, the film rolls its closing credits accompanied by Boone singing “I am proud to be an American.” That scene is a splendid example, indeed, of one of Moore’s central satirical tactics: juxtaposition — a technique used to devastating effect in both Roger & Me and Bowling for Columbine. Sometimes the sound track is ironically at odds with the visual images, as I’ve shown. The central musical score for Roger & Me is “Wouldn’t it Be Nice” by the Beach Boys, which Moore plays along with images of rat-infested, abandoned homes and overgrown lawns in Flint. Near the movie’s conclusion, we hear an exclusively white choir at GM’s Christmas gala singing “Hallelujah!” and “Rejoice, rejoice” against the image of yet another black family being evicted on Christmas Eve and the image of another torn-down Flint factory. The same technique — I call it video-audio juxtaposition — in Bowling for Columbine combines Louis Armstrong’s version of “What a Wonderful World” with a brief visual history of the murderous effects of American foreign policy.

At other places in Moore’s documentaries, the juxtaposition of visual images alone creates the irony and our sense of moral disgust. For example, in Roger & Me Moore takes us to a “Great Gatsby party” at the home of one of GM’s wealthy founding families; then, after a statement from an affluent white citizen to the effect that Flint is a “great place to live,” the scene switches to Deputy-Sheriff Fred Ross’ eviction of another black family. The very next scene? — the mansions of the rich, again. Moore is fond of the quotes from GM spokesman Tom Kay, and at one point shows Kay insisting that all kinds of employment opportunities remain in Flint; for the next scene, we switch to the home of the poverty-stricken Bunny Lady who is reduced to murdering, butchering, and skinning rabbits to make a living (which activity brings in a whopping ten or fifteen dollars a week). Then we’re out on the street outside a blood-donor clinic, where desperate unemployed young men have to give blood to earn money.

With Swiftian rage and savage indignation Moore exhorts his fellow citizens to reset their moral compasses and live up to their nation’s potential.

Yet the most satirically effective (and climactic) scenes of ironic juxtaposition come right near the end of the film; they involve the holiday speech given by GM Chairman Roger Smith and scenes of a Christmas Eve eviction. Smith, remember, made the decision to close Flint’s GM factories and put 30,000 people out of work — and Roger & Me documents their struggles. Smith, who closed the plants not because GM was losing money but because more money could be made by reopening the plants in Mexico, speaks about “the warmth of human companionship,” of how Christmas lights “lift us out of winter’s cold and gloom” and of “the individual dignity and worth of each human being.” Meanwhile, Deputy Fred Ross is having another black family thrown out into the winter’s chill allegedly for not being able to pay their rent on time — presumably victims of Smith’s cold-hearted corporate decisions. Smith then has the chutzpah to quote Dickens: “I have always thought of Christmas as a good time.” Switch back to the scene of an angry black mother not having such a good time: “Get your goddamned coats on! … All I owed the bitch was $150 and I was going to give it to her stinkin’ ass.”

I cannot help recalling the words of one of America’s first visionaries, governor John Winthrop, who predicted in a sermon preached before his fleet made landfall that his adventurous Puritans sailing to the New World could found a shining city on a hill, a model for all of Christendom to imitate. This utopian prediction appears in a sermon that Winthrop called “A Model of Christian Charity,” but the prediction never came true, as modern Jeremiahs like Michael Moore demonstrate. For his satirical books and documentaries are indeed jeremiads — prolonged complaints that things have gone all to hell. Even as far back as 1630, Winthrop worried that, rather than create a new utopia, his fellow Puritans might bungle their covenant with God:

If we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world; we shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God and all professors for God’s sake; we shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whether we are going… —quoted in Daniel J Boorstin’s American Primer

This prediction has come true: by creating a plutocracy but pretending it’s a democracy, by worshipping Mammon but only giving “lip service” to the Christian god of charity and compassion, by allowing the worst features of capitalism to dominate the marketplace, by permitting corporate crooks to ruin the lives of countless citizens in the name of profit, by fomenting a culture of fear in which citizens gun down one another by the thousands every year, and by wreaking havoc on the global stage through a ruthlessly self-serving foreign policy, America has indeed become “a story and a by-word through the world.” Moore himself admits as much in Stupid White Men: “Yes, once again, the whole world hates our guts… we just look like ignoramuses and fools. The world is laughing at us, not with us.” This from a chapter ironically titled ‘We’re Number One!’ As a Juvenalian satirist Moore has exposed the extent to which America has strayed from the moral path set out by that visionary Puritan, John Winthrop. With Swiftian rage and savage indignation Moore exhorts his fellow citizens to reset their moral compasses and live up to their nation’s potential. Concerns about occasionally questionable tactics and rhetorical strategies aside, the world needs more Moores.

Brett Zimmerman has written frequently for Humanist in Canada and other publications, and is soon to publish Edgar Allen Poe: Rhetoric and Style with McGill-Queen’s University Press.