Michael Moore Comes to Columbia, Heroically

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The Reuters Forum, which is this periodic occurrence at the Columbia Journalism School?human beings of the journalistic classes assembling in a third-floor auditorium to take notes in an atmosphere of hard-white lecture-hall light, and also bathed in the celebrity-panel warmth that will irradiate, on this sopping and flowing rainy Wednesday evening of last week, from such as?

From such as?

From such as?

But they're not here yet?that is, those gentlemen who will preside, tonight, from the panel table: Michael Moore, P.J. O' Rourke, some guy named Brown or something like that, and some fourth guy whose name, at the time, it also seemed insufficiently critical to register. Then, suddenly, at the back of the room, there's a slopping and a low but persistent snuffling, and heads turn from their genteel toothy chuckles and conversations to follow the buzz. And it's Moore, alone, set to make his entrance, and to proceed down the aisle toward the dais, and to his microphoned seat at the table.

But watching him is fascinating. This Flint, MI, Working-Class Slob trip Moore's on, at least when he's in public?it's amazing. You ever seen Moore work? He milks it for all it's worth. Sure, he's a heavy guy, but so was the immaculate Sydney Greenstreet. I got the impression, looking at Moore, less of an ambulating biped than of a half-ton of raw squid being shoved down the aisle by a tractor, chunks writhing, spilling, flopping and rolling over each other: progress, bit by bit, chunk by chunk. My jaw dropped. The tent-like jeans, for sticking your hands deep down into when you've got to scratch an itch; the sweatshirt; the baseball cap; the stupendously malnourished beard, patchy and testicular; and the shambling posture, the rolling and world-weary gait, implying sheer misery. Fwop?fwop?fwop?fwop?one webbed foot placed deliberately before the other whilst the amphibious head swivels, mushroomed and barnacled and peering around with unblinking eyes for snails, newts and periwinkles to suck from shells.

Moore's public persona is that convincingly abject. He's a great actor.

Reaches the dais, all hunched and wretched?he should have been dragging his belongings behind him in a soiled rucksack, checking into some YMCA somewhere in a bad neighborhood, where they dunk your head into kerosene to delouse you; you could almost smell the gentleman?Moore's a performance artist. And had we been outside, and had it been summer, he'd have contrived to have been surrounded by flies.

But anyway, he reaches the dais and, lifting one leg straight out and up to achieve altitude, he cliiiiiiiiimbs upward and?agony?liiiiiiifts himself up onto the platform?up there on the dais?slooooooopppppps, breathes, all a-wheeze and a-garble...

I confess that, for some reason and for at least a second and a half, as God is my witness, I forgot that the gentleman is a film producer, an intimate with pop stars, a television personality, a resident of Manhattan's moneyed precincts?he's that skilled.

There's a wonderful recurring phrase in Sinclair Lewis' great novel Arrowsmith?a phrase that's applied to the genteel, respectable, establishment, Ivy League-style elements who can be expected to smirk at the novel's visionary eponymous doctor hero at every turn: Lewis calls them "men of measured merriment." I thought of this when Moore collapsed in his seat and, killing time before O'Rourke and the rest of the panel joined him, started riffing a little, taking questions from the audience.

"Thank you for coming here today. I have nothing to say. I'll answer some questions while I'm waiting..."

Then, in response perhaps to an audience question that I didn't hear, there was this?although it's possibly not exactly verbatim, because people here at the office keep walking off with my tape recorder, and my shorthand's lacking:

"I like going to Ivy League schools, because I consider it Mother Teresa-like work."


He continued: "Most of the people who have done harm to the people of Flint, Michigan, are Ivy League graduates. So I like to talk to them to?"

Here my notes expire, perhaps in a haze of stupefaction. Was he really saying this? And then came the coup de grace: there's written in my notebook the phrase?surrounded by quotation marks, referring to the same Ivy League graduates who've victimized Moore and the rest of Flint's proletariat?the phrase "done us harm." He said that; he used the word "us." And he actually talked in such unexamined, self-dramatizing terms, he didn't seem to have any capacity to register the facility of what he was saying, to register that it was cant.

Moore's probably a lost cause. He's a mainstream, occasionally Clinton-defending liberal of the sort that leftists of integrity have always distrusted. So it's hard to get angry at him. You might as well get angry at a cat for spilling milk. But what about this audience of journalists? I wonder why these guardians of the public discourse didn't call Moore for degrading the language this way, for consigning yet more words to the realm of the meaningless. There were so many obvious challenges that could have been made. To what extent can a millionaire Manhattanite media celebrity in good conscience ennoble himself through association with (as opposed to respectful concern for the plight of) the Steel Belt proletariat? If Moore's sincere, then why his flirtation with the Clintons, America's ultimate (that is, at least until they ceded the position to George W. Bush) corporation-stroking, Ivy League yuppies? And if he's really setting out to lacerate audiences at such universities as Columbia, what does it mean for the efficacy and honestly of his mission that these audiences applaud him with genteel laughter, brushing their well-scrubbed palms together? You'd suspect that being a radical means that upper-middle-class Manhattan Clintonite liberals don't like you, by definition. If they're turning out to cheer you, you're possibly?possibly?not doing what you claim to be doing.

Men and women of measured merriment, here in the audience, applauding one of their own. I bailed, waded out through the rain to browse for books at Papyrus, missed the show. I wonder what this crowd would have made of Sinclair Lewis. They probably would have assumed that he was writing about everyone but them, and cheered him until their arms fell off.

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