Downsize This! is “early” Michael Moore, his first book, from the Clinton era. But if you’re familiar with Moore’s work in movies, TV, and his other books, this is very much of that same style. It’s an unapologetic, frank, funny takedown of the fascist-lite America of overwhelmingly powerful amoral corporations and their minions in the two major political parties.
As I’ve written elsewhere, you can sometimes judge a person pretty darn well from his enemies, and based on that I know Moore must be doing something right. You know the Right is scared to death of someone (from Ralph Nader in the ’60s to Obama and countless others in between) when all their pundits and such gang up on him with vicious character assassination and the nitpicking of every claim for any error or anything that can be spun to make it seem like an error, and Moore has gotten that treatment his whole career, including from many in the mainstream (supposedly liberal—what a joke) media.
Downsize This! is consistently modestly funny, and occasionally laugh out loud funny. Purely as a humor book I’d say it’s more of a success than a failure, but I wouldn’t rank it real high. But of course it’s a lot more than a humor book; Moore is deadly serious, and rightly so, in denouncing the avoidable human suffering caused by conservative, pro-corporate policies in this country.
Among the more entertaining sections of the book are the ones on Representative Robert Dornan and Senator Jesse Helms, two of the more rabid of the rabid right wingers of that era. Moore seeks to have Dornan involuntarily committed due to his being dangerously insane. (In spite of the evidence he marshals, this effort is not successful.) He seeks to have Helms investigated by the Secret Service after the Senator snickeringly alludes to how President Clinton better watch his back if he comes to North Carolina. It turns out his efforts here are unnecessary, as the Secret Service already has a file on Helms for threatening the life of the President, which I find rather delightful. The Secret Service official Moore talks to more or less admits that there would probably already be repercussions if Helms were an ordinary citizen, but that for political reasons they instead will simply monitor him closely for now.
When Moore really gets going on corporate criminals, and insists that they are worse than the stereotypical street criminals everybody is trained to hate and fear, I want to stand up and cheer. He’s also correct in objecting not just to literally criminal—as in illegal—behavior of theirs, but to their immoral but technically legal behavior that can sometimes do even more damage. (Actually it’s quite an accomplishment when the 1%ers do something illegal, since they practically write the laws, but they do sometimes manage it.)
But again as I’ve noted before in writing about Moore’s movies and books, though his positions and his general worldview are almost always right-headed, unfortunately you can’t expect thorough, logically rigorous arguments from someone using this pithy, humorous style.
If I play devil’s advocate in my head, I can almost always easily come up with a counter to what he says. That’s not to say he’s wrong and the hypothetical response is correct, but only that you typically would have to get a lot deeper into these issues and take into account a lot more points in order to come to any kind of justified conclusion. But because such responses are so readily available, there’s little likelihood that people who do not already agree with Moore would be swayed by what he has to say. More likely they’d be angry that he’s insulting them, and would be more than satisfied to dismiss his sometimes simplistic or exaggerated points with simplistic responses.
If you realize he’s being hyperbolic to get your attention and maybe get a laugh, and you focus instead on the deeper point he’s really getting at, his positions aren’t quite so easily dismissible.
Here’s an example: Moore notes that if you blow up a federal building in Oklahoma City, or if you close a profitable factory to move offshore to exploit near-slave labor and make even more profit, hundreds of lives, at least, are utterly devastated. So why, he asks, do we call one and not the other terrorism?
Well, the obvious response is that there’s a legal obligation not to blow people up, whereas there is no legal obligation to maintain a factory that employs people. You don’t have to build the factory in the first place, and if you do you can shut it down whenever you please. That’s basic freedom, at least as capitalism understands it, and any incidental harm, or benefit, of your actions isn’t your responsibility.
OK, that is indeed a relevant distinction, but if we take it a step further we can ask why as a society we embrace a system that can often have comparable consequences to terrorism. Yes, it’s legal to implement devastating corporate decisions like that, but should it be? Should we be celebrating such a system, giving such entities massive tax breaks, letting their lobbyists write our laws and regulations, feeling pride when our offspring advance up these corporate ladders? If letting corporations run amuck does as much damage as it does, should we be more open to alternatives? If any such alternatives seem to come with an even greater downside, could we at least modify the system we have, with more or at least wiser regulations? Like, should some of the corporate welfare and corporate bailouts and such come with more strings attached?
If even that is not possible, if the corporate-dominated system we have is basically the best we can do, can we at least lament that rather than sing its praises? If somehow—and I’m not saying it’s true—letting these corporate overlords have their way is a necessary evil, and even if they’re not literally terrorists in the legal sense, aren’t they still terrible people doing terrible things that cause as much or more damage than terrorists do?
Another example: Moore talks about how virtually every American, including those railing against immigrants, either is an immigrant or is descended from immigrants, and he provides a long list of prominent Americans who were not born in this country, but who presumably we are glad came here. Thus, the people so worked up about immigration are wrong, if not hypocritical.
The obvious response is to make the distinction between legal and illegal immigration, as the anti-immigration folks routinely do. To object to people entering the country illegally doesn’t mean one opposes all immigration.
OK, but going a little deeper, the vast majority of people who are apoplectic about illegal immigration don’t like legal immigration either, and it’s generally for racial or ethnic reasons. It’s not like they want to change the laws so that more people can enter this country legally; they are trying to keep people, especially nonwhite people, out. So, yes, they make that distinction between legal and illegal immigration when it’s convenient to their argument, but when you get right down to it they hate people they regard as foreigners, not thinking about the fact that they themselves, or their ancestors, were foreigners not so long ago, which is precisely Moore’s point.
A final example: Moore contends that the Democratic and Republican parties are largely indistinguishable, especially on the issues he focuses on of corporate malfeasance and such. As evidence for this he offers several quotations from Democrats that sound conservative, and several quotations from Republicans that sound liberal.
Is this a strong argument? No, because obviously he’s cherry picking whatever handful of quotations—of the thousands to choose from among—best support his point. A more thorough investigation would look into such things as the frequency of the statements (maybe 75% of quotations from Republicans and 10% of quotations from Democrats sound conservative, for example; in that case would the parties really be indistinguishable?), how well subsequent actions matched these statements (maybe both parties sound very similar in how they talk about, say, the deficit, but when it comes to what they actually propose and how they actually vote, one party chooses policies that result in much bigger budget deficits than does the other), and the context (I’ll bet a lot of these statements were followed by “but…,” as in “I do not in any way believe politicians should control what women do with their bodies, but once a woman is pregnant there is a human being within her that is not simply part of her body…” etc.—see how what starts like a pro-choice statement can turn out to be the opposite?).
Also, even if we look at actions and not rhetoric, context still matters. Imagine a Republican governor and a Democratic governor both sign into law bills that provide the kind of corporate welfare Moore abhors. Even then I don’t think we can say that these governors, and their parties, are the same. Imagine, for example, that the context in the case of the Democratic governor’s action was that the bill was a result of a negotiated compromise where the conservatives were pushing for a vastly bigger corporate welfare package with fewer strings, and/or the corporate welfare bill had way more votes than needed to override a potential veto. Maybe the governor opposed the bill ideologically—precisely because he’s not indistinguishable from a Republican—but the circumstances were such that it was politically or strategically best to agree to it.
But again, going a little deeper Moore might well have a point here. Democrats do depressingly often do conservative, pro-Big Business things after all. And even when it’s just rhetoric, and underneath that rhetoric they hold very different opinions, why do both parties (and the media and the Establishment in general) have to constantly affirm “mainstream” pro-corporate positions? What does that tell us about our society and how power is distributed?
So Moore’s style makes a book like Downsize This! far from ideal in terms of presenting thorough, cogent arguments, but it’s both a fun read and largely correct.