Michael Moore

“Where to Invade Next:” Notes and thoughts on Michael Moore’s movie

Michael MooreShould I recommend Michael Moore’s 2016 movie,” Where to Invade Next”? On the plus side, there are some really good jokes.  The biggest laugh came when Moore asked someone whose alphabet does not include the letter “W” if they dropped the letter during the last Bush administration.

No doubt Moore is really good at a certain kind of humor.  The movie is also worth watching just to see parts of other countries we probably wouldn’t normally get to visit.  For example, a prison on an island in Denmark.  Or the office of the president of Slovenia.  Or the balcony of an Italian couple overlooking a lovely village.

The downside of the experience is the shock of realizing how brutal our American culture is compared to more evolved societies.

Moore visited a young Italian couple to find out what kind of vacation time Italian workers enjoy.  He is a police officer.  She is a buyer for a women’s clothing firm.  They described their summer vacation, their December holiday getaway, and the extra pay they receive in December to enjoy their time off work.  The reasoning is that the workers have to spend the money they earn all year on living expenses which doesn’t leave them anything to pay for a holiday vacation.

Seriously.  I’m not making this up.  By law, all Italian workers receive several weeks of paid vacation each year because they need time to nurture their minds, bodies and family connections.  Healthier workers are more productive, and families that enjoy relaxed time together are much less likely to fall apart.

This same attitude toward the importance of a healthy lifestyle was evident in two other countries Moore visited.  He wanted to see the inside of a factory and talk to the CEO’s.  At noon, a whistle blows and the workers go home for a two hour lunch with family.  Again, it’s the family connections that are so important.  The workers return to work refreshed and, usually, in a good mood.

Workers are appreciated and given benefits even beyond what is required by law.  Moore interviewed the CEO’s of a factory that makes motorbikes.  The man and his two sisters own and run the company.  They think of the workers as their friends, and  because everyone wants the company to succeed, workers feel free to offer suggestions if they think of a better or faster way to get the job done.

Moore asked why the owners don’t pay themselves more like the CEO’s in America.   One of the women answered:  “What’s the point of being richer?”   She said keeping too much wealth for themselves would put a barrier between them and the workers who are their friends.

In one of the countries, it is mandated that half of the seats on company boards must be held by workers.  Not just a token seat, but half.  And they are listened to and respected.   Workers who have a vested interest in the success of a company will be more productive and enjoy better health in the long run.

Focusing on well-being

In all of the interviews Moore conducted, the main goal in each case seems to be the health and well-being of the people.

And it starts with babies and children.  In one country, Moore discovered that women who give birth receive five months paid leave to bond with their babies.  One new mother asked Moore how women in America can bond with their babies if they are not with them for those first important months.  He didn’t have an answer.

When those babies are old enough to go to school, they will be fed nutritious food and given plenty of time to build relationships with other children.

Of course France was the highlight of the school lunchroom tours.  Children have plenty of time for lunch and are served at round tables on real china with real silverware.  No Styrofoam plates or plastic forks and spoons.

Food is prepared by a chef with the help of several cooks.  A food committee meets once a month to plan the next month’s menus. The goal is fresh, healthy food, plenty of water, and time for the children to develop relationships with each other.  Lunch time is considered to be another class where students learn to eat right and share food family style.  Sharing and bonding with others seems to be at the heart of most of what Michael Moore saw in Europe.

Moore showed the French children photos of what American children are served as school lunches, and the kids were confused.  They didn’t recognize what they saw as food.  One child asked if American children really had to eat what they saw in those photos.  The general feeling was sympathy if not shock.

Finland is recognized worldwide as offering the best opportunity for children to learn and grow into healthy, well-adjusted adults.  It wasn’t always that way.  When Finnish educators reworked their public education system, they  focused on creating happy, healthy productive adults.  Students attend classes only twenty hours a week, but the time is spent productively with the kids choosing how they want to learn.  There are no standardized tests.  In fact, when Moore asked the teachers what they would change about American education, they were adamant about getting rid of standardized tests.  They said children don’t really learn anything by memorizing facts that they will forget immediately because they have no connection to the students’ lives.  Learning experiences are actual experiences that leave an imprint on the brain.

Moore visited classrooms where students were building things, learning to cook, and playing games.  Yes, “playing” is considered part of the curriculum.  Again, the emphasis is on developing relationships and learning to care about others.  Admittedly, this is much easier in a country with a smaller, fairly homogenous population.  But what a great concept…… producing happy, healthy adults with the skills and knowledge they need to succeed personally and contribute something to society.

In Slovenia, Moore visited a university where tuition is free with open admissions and the classes are taught in English.  Students from the U.S. are finding out about this free education and transferring there.  One American young woman said she couldn’t even afford to go to community college in the U.S.  Another American student said he already had $9,000 in debt and didn’t want to add to that.  Moore asked the Slovenian students what kind of debt they had, and the students had to ask someone to explain the word “debt” to them.

Prisons

First off, there is no death penalty in European countries, and they asked what we think we accomplish by executing people.  In Denmark, there is one prison that is on an island and every inmate has a job to keep the operation running.  Their “cells” are small rooms such as we would see in an old-fashioned college dormitory complete with private shower and flat-screen TV.  Each resident has the only key to his room.  There is enough space for shelves where they can keep their books and other personal belongings.  The longest sentence in Denmark is 21 years.

Moore visited the father of one of the teenagers who was murdered a few years ago in that horrible killing spree at a youth camp on an island.  Moore asked the grieving parent if he would want the killer of his son to be executed.  The man immediately said no.  Moore asked if he didn’t want to kill the man himself.  He answered that he wouldn’t want to “go down that ladder” and become like that murderer.  He respected himself too much to want to kill someone, even the man who murdered his son.   That murderer received the harshest penalty of 21 years in prison with 10 of those in solitary confinement.  What that means in Denmark is probably not what we picture as solitary confinement in the U.S.  The Danes feel that keeping someone from their family and even from other prisoners is punishment enough.

The Portuguese decriminalized all drugs and provide readily available mental health services for addicts wishing to quit.  There are no drug gangs because there is no profit to be made by selling illegal drugs.

The only country outside of Europe that Moore visited was Tunisia in northern Africa. The Tunisian women were instrumental in overthrowing the last dictator and establishing a representative government. In a Muslim country, the Islamic political leaders stepped down voluntarily when they saw the people were serious about wanting more power over their lives.

Financial systems

Moore’s final stop was in Iceland which suffered the collapse of most of its biggest banks in the 2008-2009 meltdown.  The men who ran those banks into the ground and lost millions of other people’s money were tried, convicted and sent to prison.  What a concept !  The only bank that didn’t collapse was one run by three women.  Moore interviewed those women and asked why their bank was immune.

The answer will probably not be surprising to female readers of this little movie review.  The female bankers did not feel the pressure to outsmart each other in order to achieve “top dog” status.  They said that men are too concerned with power and their “rank” among their male peers.  Women don’t have the hormonal drive to be the richest, most important “king of the hill.”  They value and want to achieve success, of course, but not necessarily at the expense of their customers or clients.  Banking and investing is not a game to them.

When the movie ended, we were asked if we had any comments.  There was so much to think about that we needed time to digest what we had seen.

Some noted that we definitely need more women in positions of authority.   Others said what most of us were thinking.  The United States of America has not evolved as much as some countries have in terms of reaching a more just, humane, and nurturing society.

Michael Moore showed scenes from some American jails where men, mostly black men, were being treated worse than most of us would treat a wild animal.   I couldn’t help turning away from those scenes.  Why have we allowed the “law enforcement” and “correctional” systems to become so dehumanizing?

Moore believes that white, privileged Americans with the power to do it, reacted to the civil rights protests and, particularly, to the militant Black Power groups, with the purposeful objective of  destroying black families with illegal drugs.  The vehicle?  Crack cocaine.  I vaguely remember something about the CIA bringing drugs back from Central America, selling it and buying weapons for the Nicaraguan Contras.  How much of that is true, I don’t know.  But, if someone wanted to tear apart a community, encouraging gang wars would certainly be a good place to start.

And was it just a coincidence that, when women were pushing to add an Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the reproductive rights issue surfaced?  Roe v Wade was in 1973.  The ERA fell short of ratification by three states.  The anti-abortion issue has been front and center ever since. I doubt that most men in positions of power back then cared one way or another about abortion, but they realized they could use that issue to convince voters to send them to Congress and state legislatures where they could push their free market, anti-tax agenda.

What’s the matter with America?

Thomas Frank spelled this out in “What’s the Matter with Kansas” years ago.  People will vote against their own interest and that of their families when they are stirred up emotionally about a particular issue.

We’ve been electing anyone who promises to lower our taxes which ultimately means weaker and weaker bonds that hold us together.  While we are arguing over having to pay too much for governmental services and screaming about “big government” taking away our freedoms, our lives are becoming meaner and less secure.

It’s not just about rebuilding our infrastructure although we are decades behind more developed countries in that regard.  And it’s not just about the good paying jobs that rebuilding creates.  It’s about whether we are a society that takes care of ourselves and our neighbors or not.  Do we really want an “every man for himself, dog eat dog” society?  Isn’t that what we supposedly left behind when we established a representative government with the goal of minding the “general welfare”?  Michael Moore told folks in Europe that “welfare” is a dirty word in the U. S.  They were shocked.

We could have the same level of civilized society as most European nations  if we paid more in taxes.  But we’ve trapped ourselves into believing we shouldn’t pay a penny more in taxes than we absolutely must.  And millionaires can stash their wealth in other countries without penalty.

The movie included a graphic showing the level of taxes we Americans pay and the much higher level that Europeans pay.  But then the costs we bear were added to the U.S. column, and it jumped to the top of the screen.  We don’t think about how much we pay for health care, education (especially post-secondary) or other things that are included in the European tax system.  If we paid our schools enough to offer healthy food and if women could stay home and bond with their babies and workers were given enough time off to take care of their health and happiness, what a different society we would have.

Americans are proud of the myth of “rugged individualism.”  We reward success and appreciate incredible talent.  That’s all well and good.  But we have also evolved to the point where we know that we are all better off when no one is left behind.  The Progressive Era in the early 1900’s was one of those periods.  We instituted the income tax and gave women the right to vote.  We gave government the responsibility of protecting our food supply.  We established the Federal Reserve System to avoid financial chaos.

The Great Depression showed us that we needed to take better care of our most vulnerable citizens including the elderly, orphans and the handicapped.   After another period of stepping back to digest the changes, we pushed ahead again in the 60’s and 70’s for more civil rights, a cleaner environment and subsidized health care for senior citizens.

We were due for the next progressive era in the 1980’s or 1990’s, but it didn’t come.  Why?  One reason was the well-organized and well-financed strategic plan by free market Republicans to infiltrate the various levels of political power and take the reins of government at the highest level.  I refer anyone who wants to read the outline of their plan to look up the Powell Memorandum online.

As we become more and more selfish as a society, we also increase the fear  that someone will take away what belongs to us.  As we become more afraid of each other, we become more prone to violence against others and ourselves.  The suicide rate among middle aged Americans increases every year.  These are people who used to be comfortably middle class, but the rug was pulled out from under them by the “Great Recession” and subsequent changes in the job market and economy.   We’ve always known that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, but it’s not just a truism anymore.  It’s dangerous to the point of lethality.

Donald Trump is the grotesque end result of decades of well-organized, well-funded propaganda that has convinced us to take care of “number one” and to hell with everyone else.  We want and need scapegoats because we realize we can never make up what we’ve lost financially.  We feel helpless as the rich and powerful suck more and more life out of our sense of self-worth.

Climate change deniers control Congress while we suffer the consequences of the decades we’ve lost when we could have been building a healthier energy system. What happened to the 1970’s push to save Mother Earth?

What happened to “no more war”?  And the right of women to control their own bodies?  And the Montessori system of educating children as individuals instead of as cogs in a machine?   What happened to the movement to include the history of women, African-Americans and Native Americans in our textbooks?  Have we really ever come to grips with the sins of our fathers?  In Germany, children are taught about the Nazis, the Holocaust, the personal horror suffered by Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies and other targeted groups.  The names of those who died in concentration camps are embedded in the city sidewalks so they can never be dismissed or forgotten.

How have we allowed ourselves to be trapped in this tea party nightmare?  Some speculate that Trump will lose badly, the Democrats will gain control of Congress and our long national nightmare will be over.  Sen. Bernie Sanders and his legions of supporters have pushed the Democratic Party to include more progressive ideas in the party platform.  They plan on attending the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia to make sure their demands are met.  Is this the beginning of the next Progressive Era?  Does Bernie’s “revolution” start soon?  There are signs that the tide is turning (recent Supreme Court decisions, the “sit in” by House Democrats  for gun violence legislation, the anti-Trump coalition of different ethnic groups.)

The main editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on July 4, 2016 is about Thomas Jefferson’s belief that we all owe a “debt of service” to our nation.  This is something to think about as we celebrate on the 240th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.   We may never reach the level of concern for our fellow citizens that the Europeans have developed, but we certainly can make life safer and healthier for everyone living within our borders

Susan Cunningham Susan Cunningham (53 Posts)

Susan Cunningham is a retired teacher of American history. She lives near St. Louis, Missouri.