Politics & Policy

Taking one for the team, &c.

Ladies and gentlemen, I “took one for the team.” I saw the new Michael Moore movie, Sicko. Why? In order to rebut its claims about Cuban health care, which are, of course, fantastic and outrageous. These lies have been around for a long time. Moore has merely given them fresh legs.

The piece I have written — “The Myth of Cuban Health Care” — appears in the forthcoming National Review (available tomorrow). I hope you will peruse it — the whole issue (which is stocked with excellent articles, if I may say).

But I wanted to tell you a little bit, here, about the experience of seeing Sicko. There is a kind of cult of Michael Moore. I noticed this in Fahrenheit 9/11 days. I encountered a group of women in Central Park, and one of them said to the others, “I’m going to see Fahrenheit today.” Then they all squealed, and kind of jumped up and down. It was a remarkable, creepy moment.

Anyway, I saw Sicko — which is Moore’s plea for what we used to call socialized medicine — on the Upper West Side. (The theater is not very far from where those women squealed.) At the beginning of the movie, there is a clip of President Bush. The woman behind me let out an exclamation: It was a cross between “ugh” and “ach.” Then she did it again. Then, when Bush was through speaking, she hissed.

Why does the Left always hiss? Why? Hissing has got to be the least attractive thing in the world. (I took this up in Impromptus a few months ago, and intend to do so again, sometime.)

Before long, Moore said, “There are 50 million uninsured in this country.” The woman said, sort of belligerently, “59.” And she was chewing her popcorn very, very loud.

As the movie continued, she emitted a running commentary, particularly in the form of grunts, guffaws, sighs, and so on. Soon, I couldn’t take it anymore — and got up and moved.

Passing the dear woman, I saw that she was alone. She was not commenting to anybody; she was just sort of commenting to the air. And she looked straight from Central Casting. I mean, if you cast her as a feminist leftist Upper West Sider — you would be accused of gross stereotyping.

The general tone of the theater was that of a church, filled with reverent devotees. And the movie? A vile, disgusting piece of propaganda, one absurdity piled on top of another. Up is down, January is July, etc. Unfortunately, the film is very artfully and skillfully done.

With this exception: The movie is a pure cartoon, pure good and evil, black and white. I think Moore hurts himself here. Everyone in every country with a state-run system is perfectly happy. A cloud never crosses the sky. And America is a nightmare. In socialist countries, the music is happy, carefree, harmonious. And when the scene shifts to America, the music turns clangorous, spooky, lugubrious.

This is, in fact, the soundtrack of a cartoon. I’ll give you a specific: When a woman is testifying before Congress about health-care failures, Moore plays Barber’s Adagio for Strings (a great piece, of course). Things are that cartoony.

If Moore had allowed for a little nuance, if he had made a few concessions, the movie would be much more effective (and therefore more damaging). If he had said, “Yeah, there are a few problems with socialist systems: a little rationing, some wait times that are too long,” he would have helped himself immeasurably. But, for some reason, he does not do that.

A few stray points, or observations: Moore includes a speech by the pre-gubernatorial Ronald Reagan, on the evils of socialized medicine — and we’re all supposed to laugh at him. Gotta tell you: I loved hearing his voice. And I agreed with every word out of his mouth.

Moore has the old British pinko, Tony Benn, speak at length. (Eloquent old coot — they all are, those Brits.) My Upper West Side audience burst into applause as he spoke. If Thatcher had not vanquished him and his ilk, at the critical hour in the late 1970s — what would Britain look like today? Burkina Faso?

(Incidentally, I am not up on the condition of Burkina Faso — formerly Upper Volta — and intend no insult.)

At a certain point, Moore asks, “Remember how we all felt after 9/11 — how we all pulled together?” Well, I remember what Michael Moore said on 9/11. He wrote on his website,

Many families have been devastated tonight. This just is not right. They did not deserve to die. If someone did this to get back at Bush, then they did so by killing thousands of people who DID NOT VOTE for him! Boston, New York, DC, and the planes’ destination of California — these were places that voted AGAINST Bush!

Why kill them? Why kill anyone?

At least he said, “Why kill anyone?” And, by the way, what did anyone have to “get back at Bush” for? His decision to poison our water supply with arsenic (as the Democrats and their media allies portrayed it)?

I believe Moore’s movie will do a lot of harm, as people drink it in like Kool-Aid. I believe it will do specific harm where Cuba is concerned. Fidel Castro’s dictatorship has been the subject of endless myth-making, for the entire 48 years of its existence. Those who are loath to let this stand have had to write endless articles titled “The Myth of Cuban Health Care.” I have contributed another one, in this next NR — it is my mite.

But you just wonder whether such efforts can make a dent, in the face of what Michael Moore and other major apologists and propagandists can do.

I’ll have more to say on this topic another time, and probably another time soon — but I think we’ve had enough for now, don’t you?

‐Oh, one more word about Michael Moore: I watched a clip of him the other day, being interviewed by Wolf Blitzer on CNN. I did so because Drudge said Moore had mocked an Indian name: Sanjay Gupta. (The clip is here.)

Talking with Blitzer, Moore said he had a policy of doing only live interviews, never taped ones. The reason: Editors can do what they want with tape, shaping the material any which way.

I am completely sympathetic to this, but I thought it was extremely rich coming from Moore: Shifty editing is his stock in trade. He is a master manipulator of tape. You should see what he does to Rep. Billy Tauzin in Sicko!

In all likelihood, Moore doesn’t want to be edited because he knows, from his own practice, how editing can work.

Also, Blitzer was very, very delicate with Moore, who was his usual bullying and blustering self. Blitzer handled him with sugar tongs, although he did defend the aforementioned Sanjay Gupta.

(A quick aside: Here in America we pronounce that first name “SAHN-jay.” But in India, they pronounce it “SUN-jay.” Same with “Jagdish” and “Manju” — “JUG-dish” and “MUN-ju.” Same with “SUN-skrit,” actually. I have long pleaded for more accurate transliteration from Indian languages. In fact, I know a man who changed the spelling of his name, “Amit,” to “Umit,” so that Americans would pronounce it correctly. Good move, too.)

Where was I? Oh, yeah: The Blitzer/Moore experience reminded me of Ted Koppel, and something I found distasteful about him. Many years ago, I watched Nightline regularly. And one night Louis Farrakhan came on. Koppel was incredibly delicate with him, even obsequious — he did everything but polish his shoes.

You are a great sage, Minister, and, If you would be so kind as to entertain this question, Minister. (I am being rhetorical here, but Koppel’s performance was pretty bad.)

Another guest — probably not the same night — was Lauren Hutton, I believe. The topic was wealth, as I recall, and guilt over it. And Koppel absolutely beat the stuffing out of Lauren. She was wearing some stylish get-up, including a headband — and Koppel even mocked the headband.

I thought that this manner of handling things was pretty disgusting.

Back to Wolf Blitzer for a second: The same delicacy that he applied to Michael Moore — would he apply it to, say, Rep. John Boehner? I doubt it — and I hope he wouldn’t.

Constancy is a fine quality in a television interviewer, as in people at large.

‐For quite some time, I’ve been wanting to direct your attention to two speeches by Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom — two really wonderful speeches. Who are the Thernstroms? You know: They are a pair of scholars and, in their ways, leaders. She is vice-chairman of the civil rights commission; he is the Winthrop Professor of History at Harvard.

Years ago, he was my teacher, and he was not regarded as a conservative, I can tell you. But he was fair-minded and genuinely liberal — which meant that he was probably destined to be labeled “right-wing.” These are strange times we live in, terminologically and otherwise.

The Thernstroms have authored many books, both singly and jointly. One in the latter category is No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning. I happened to review that book, and you can find what I said here.

Anyway, this sterling couple — golden couple — received the Bradley Prize earlier this year. And the speeches they gave, in accepting the award, were prizewinners themselves. You may find them on the Bradley website. What you do is go here, click on “2007 Bradley Prize recipients,” locate the Thernstroms (amid other sterling or golden names), and proceed.

But I can’t help providing a few healthy excerpts, here and now. Begin with Mrs. T. (not to be confused with the former prime minister of Britain — although they are not dissimilar):

. . . Steve and I never left the civil rights movement; the civil rights establishment left us.

We are true neo-cons. We lingered long on the left until mugged by reality. Even in the ’50s, however, when we met, I was a political disappointment to my parents, who had sent me to Communist schools. Literally. The children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg arrived at my high school after I left.

But my Communist political education failed to take. For reasons I don’t know, I was stubborn, fiercely independent, and willing to pay the price for rebellion. I was the only student in my school, for instance, who refused to wear a black armband when the Rosenbergs were executed in June 1953. It was not a recipe for popularity at that school. . . .

People often say to us, you are so courageous. That’s nonsense. We say what we believe because that’s what intellectuals are supposed to do, a point much of the conformist academy can’t seem to remember. I have no problem with disagreement. But when academics — particularly academics — whisper, I agree with your views, but I would never express them publiclythat drives me crazy. [Amen.] Why is intellectual combat so scary? Indeed, what’s so terrifying about standing alone if you are standing by your convictions? . . .

Steve and I have always been risk-takers. When we married, we had only known each other three months. I took a big risk in dropping out of Harvard graduate school for a decade to raise our two fabulous children — one of the best decisions of my life. . . .

And so on. Simply marvelous speech. And here’s Mr. T. (no, not the guy with the mohawk who says, “I pity da foo’”):

Abby hails from Greenwich Village; I’m from the heartland, specifically two small Midwestern industrial cities, Port Huron and Battle Creek, Michigan. My father, the son of a Swedish immigrant laborer, had to leave school after the 8th grade to earn his keep. My mother’s formal education ended with high school, but she was a devoted life-long reader who encouraged me to read voraciously from an early age. . . .

I met Abby at Harvard in 1958. By then, I had read deeply in Marx, and considered myself a democratic socialist. Over time, though — a long time — I gradually lost my faith that the government could run the economy more fairly than a free market, and began to move back towards Battle Creek, as it were. The year spent in England as a visiting professor at Cambridge University in 1978-79 was particularly eye-opening, as we lived through the final months of the Callaghan Labour government and found ourselves cheering Margaret Thatcher’s election. The tragic degeneration of the civil rights movement, in which I had been active in college and graduate school, also sapped my faith in left liberalism. . . .

[T]he evidence I’ve seen of America’s social mobility makes me highly skeptical of the conventional liberal wisdom that today we face a crisis of rising inequality. Dire warnings that “the rich are getting richer” ignore the crucial fact that those who are wealthy today are very often not the same people who were rich two or three decades ago. In America, fortunes are made — and lost — every day. People with great ideas are able to amass wealth by creating something that enriches all of us.

Such mobility is evident not only at the rarified level of the super-rich; it is pervasive throughout the economy — one of the reasons that millions of immigrants have arrived in recent years. This is a land of unparalleled opportunity — as it has been for me and my family.

Again, my thanks for this great honor. My only regret tonight is that my parents did not live long enough to see my gravitation back towards their values. They would have been thrilled to see me receive this award.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Thernstroms’ remarks are some of the most beautiful I have read in ages. And, frankly, they remind me a bit of my own experiences, I blush to say. You will want to read the speeches in full. Again, start here.

‐A little language? Yesterday, I saw my first instance of a certain use of “offline.” A company said, in an e-mail, “If you wish to contact us, write to [the company’s e-address].” Also, “you may contact us offline, at . . .” (there followed a plain old street address).

“Contact us offline”! A little linguistic token of a new age.

‐Throw a little music at you? In the June New Criterion, I summed up the 2006-07 music season in New York. Or, more accurately, I looked back on highlights — go here.

‐Finally, a little note on Ann Arbor. In yesterday’s Impromptus, I tweaked my hometown a bit, as I tend to do. And a friend of mine forwarded me an article called “Fighting Islamophobia in New Zealand.”

The author writes, “New Zealand often resembles a Down Under Berkeley, the Ann Arbor of the Antipodes.”

My friend thought I would get a chuckle out of that — and so I did.

Thanks for joining me this week, guys, and — in summer, this may have a double meaning — stay cool.

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