'Where to Invade Next'

Michael Moore's Assault on American Smugness

Last year at a Republican campaign event, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani bluntly charged that President Obama does not love America. “With all our flaws we’re the most exceptional country in the world,” Rudy blustered, announcing his own preference “for a presidential candidate who can express that.”

Isn’t there something blatantly indefensible about American exceptionalism? Travel abroad inescapably teaches that every country possesses some virtues and lacks others. Why should the United States be different? American superiority is especially fervent when it comes to socialism. Anyone who has ever lived in Europe will cringe to hear fellow Americans complacently denigrate “European socialism,” as if it is obvious that our system is vastly superior. To judge by American political rhetoric, you’d think that life in Europe is the scurviest, sketchiest, most pathetic affair imaginable.

In Where to Invade Next, Michael Moore sets out to rectify this misconception with a one-man seriocomic assault on American smugness. Moore made his name a quarter-century ago with Roger & Me, in which he pursued General Motors CEO Roger Smith with barbed questions about his corporation and the sorry state of Moore’s impoverished hometown of Flint, Michigan. The same madcap muckraking informed Bowling for Columbine, his 2002 satire of guns in American life, and Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), a conspiratorial indictment of the Bush administration.  

With his trademark mix of whimsy and moral wrath, his rowdy satire giving off equal parts silliness and snark, Moore is a curious creature—part Nation magazine, part Mad magazine. His dogged pursuit of reluctant interviewees derives from 60 Minutes; his freewheeling cultural criticism is postmodern; and his politics, behind all the drollery, are traditional socialist. The argument for Moore is that a cartoonish simplicity can restore perspective. His pretense of innocent inquiry lets him pose the sensible questions that a perceptive visitor to this country would ask. Moore’s critics on the right dismiss him as an America-hater, and would have him love it or leave it; but in fact, a Moore film is about finding a way to see America from the outside while remaining here, as a kind of inner exile.

His new film sets up the inverse—not the inner exile, but the American abroad, agog with wonder. Mocking up a fantasized meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, then grabbing an American flag and setting off across the ocean in a boat, Moore proclaims his mission: “I will invade countries...take the things we need from them, and bring it all back home to the United States.” This witty mash-up of the tropes of conquest and tourism aims at plunder: specifically, a glittering sampling of the arrangements by which European social democracies have shaped a way of life that Moore clearly feels so far exceeds ours in generosity, cultivation, and humaneness, it’s not even funny. Except that, this being Michael Moore, it is.

Looking older and slower this time out, lumbering and limping his way through various European countries, at times using his flag as a cane, Moore compiles his travel scrapbook of European social wonders. From Italy, he highlights the ample paid vacation all workers receive and the ritual of the two-hour workday lunch—at home; from France, healthful school meals for all; from Germany, worker representation on corporate boards and generous universal health care; from Tunisia, an equal-rights amendment for women; from Portugal, the decriminalization of drug use; from Iceland, the business empowerment of women and aggressive prosecution of financial-sector misfeasance; from Slovenia, free college tuition; from Finland, an educational system that produces world-beating results by abandoning standardized testing; and from Norway, a correctional system geared to rehabilitation rather than punishment.

In assembling this piecemeal progressive utopia and contrasting it with the bleakness of life on our side of the Atlantic, Where to Invade Next deploys the satiric juxtapositions that are Moore’s bread and butter. Sometimes they’re harsh, as when bucolic images of Norwegian prison inmates riding bikes and sunbathing are followed by scenes of U.S. inmates being treated with savage violence. Elsewhere they’re hilarious, as when Moore places photos of a French grade-school lunch side by side with its dismal U.S. cafeteria counterpart. Americans can only shake our heads in awe at the French school lunch: a four-course repast, served over an hour—with instruction in table manners—including a cheese course, a shrimp and scallops appetizer, and a homemade dessert. Why not uncork the Clicquot while we’re at it?

Other juxtapositions serve up important civic challenges. In Berlin Moore surveys the German effort to inform citizens about Nazi atrocities, taking us along the streets of the city, where sidewalk plaques known as Stolpersteine—stumbling stones—show where Jews where chased from their homes, or yellow “Jewish” park benches signify the hideous pogrom of German fascism. He then segues to the streets of American cities and asks aloud, where are the signs memorializing slave auctions or lynchings, or the mass displacements of Native Americans? Moore clearly admires how the comforts of daily life in Germany are purposefully interrupted and abraded by painful historical reminders—while our own country, built on the genocidal near-extermination of one race and the systemic enslavement of another, lets itself off scot-free.

Needless to say, this film won’t win converts; Moore is a master of preaching to the choir, and acolytes of American exceptionalism will see Where to Invade Next as just another “apology tour” by an America-hater. It’s true that in dangling Europe’s social splendors in front of us—five months of paid maternity leave! spa vacations covered by universal health insurance!—Moore can’t resist a certain taunting glee. One American reviewer noted that watching the film is like being a deprived child with his face pressed against the glass window of a magical toy store. Moore milks this rueful sense of exclusion for standup-comedy laughs. “Have you ever noticed that Italians all look like they just had sex?” he asks, as the screen follows sexy young Italian couples using all that paid vacation time to cavort in the sunshine. Each scene outdoes the previous one in serving up social-welfare goodies designed to incite American incredulity and envy.

Of course, his goals are polemical and hortatory. The corrective Moore proposes partly addresses policy—which of these benefits might we adopt to improve our society?—and partly attitude. Where to Invade Next targets the American concoction of provincialism and power that progressives like Moore rue. “You are the biggest and strongest country in the world,” a Tunisian woman says, speaking to the camera. “But sometimes when you are the biggest, you are not so curious about the rest.” We invented the internet, she reminds us; we should use it the right way—stop wasting time watching the Kardashians, and bone up on other countries instead. We might learn something.

Moore is never one to fret over fine points, and it’s not difficult to sketch in a counter-narrative to the film’s depiction of Europe as paradise. We don’t hear anything about the slow-motion financial collapse of the EU; the ever-increasing outbreaks of ugly anti-immigrant violence; the webs of regulation that hamper entrepreneurial creativity and make economies sluggish; the near-extinction of religion in many places; and so on. The basket this film puts in front of us is full of carefully picked cherries.

But such cavils don’t negate the fundamental challenge Moore raises. That challenge implicitly poses a Rawlsian “veil of ignorance”–type thought experiment: If you had two bags, one marked “Europe” and one “United States,” each containing a hundred random lives within that particular system, which bag would you choose your life from, if your goal was maximizing your chance of snagging a decent life? Moore’s film argues that you’d be nuts to choose from the U.S. bag. Sure, if you were lucky enough to grab a life from the top 10 percent, you’d be doing great. Failing that, however, you’re in trouble; better choose Germany or Italy. Or even Slovenia. 

That’s a depressing thought, but in the end Moore offers two upbeat reminders: first, that no matter how entrenched problems seem, anything can change (a point he reinforces with a return to Berlin, where he was present at the fall of the Wall in 1989); and second, that most of the European innovations we’ve been envying during his grand tour are in fact originally American ideas, traceable to American labor activism, suffragettes, civil-rights movements, constitutional provisions and proscriptions (such as that against cruel and unusual punishments), and the like—and perhaps a trip to “the American lost and found,” as he puts it, will restore them to us, their inventors and rightful owners. The film ends wittily with the famous closing moment from The Wizard of Oz, where the good witch Glinda informs Dorothy that she has always been home after all. Three taps of the ruby slippers. “Kansas, anyone?” Moore asks.

It’s entirely possible to share Moore’s politics without always embracing his tactics—or liking him, with his slouching, smirking sarcasm and habitual moral grandstanding. And yet, in the end, his hopeful invocation for us to return to the Kansas of our political heritage both explains and justifies the big old Stars and Stripes he has been hauling around Europe like some crazed explorer. Where to Invade Next reminds us that however painful it might be, however much chagrin it might provoke, a national self-criticism that recalls us to our idealistic roots is the true work of a patriot. 

Published in the March 11, 2016 issue: 
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Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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