My wife and I belong to a Cinema Club where we see and discuss movies that are about to hit the screens. Today the film was a “documentary” titled, “Where to Invade Next.” After all the war-like occurrences in the last few weeks, I nearly left as I read the title. But I read further and saw that this was the latest movie by Michael Moore, who has brought us some terrific provocative flicks in the past. I am very glad I stayed, as the film is as good as anything he has done.
Starting with the premise that the US is in a perpetual state of war, Moore decides to “invade” a number of countries and bring back some spoils from each. Starting with Italy, he exposes their generous worker paid time-off policies with his characteristic exaggeration and satire. Leaving an American flag to indicate his conquest, he will bring back this practice with him to the overworked United States. I have already forgotten the invasion’s order, but he includes the free university system of Slovenia, the teaching of the oft-hidden past in Germany, “gourmet” school lunches in France, women’s rights in Tunisia and Iceland where women have played a key role in government and commerce. The Tunisian piece included an interview with the head of the majority Tunisian Islamist Party that had voted to include sweeping equal rights changes to their constitution. When Moore asked him why they had accepted these changes, he said simply something like it was the right thing to do and that government should not interfere with private issues. What a difference from the rhetoric that has been flying all over our media lately.
From Portugal he captured their decriminalization of drugs; Norway’s loot was their remarkable prison system based on redemption and return to society. Finland provided school without homework and the use of other humane practices that have pushed the country to the top ranking in education. An Icelandic prosecutor described the trials and jailing of the bankers responsible for the collapse of the Iceland financial system, in contrast to our treatment after the collapse of 2007-8. This was followed by a discussion of the role of Icelandic women in the recovery that has now taken place. I have already forgotten the other two or three countries or situations he covered.
In each case, he pointed to the lack of whatever he found to bring home. I am sure critics of his stance can find reasons to argue against each example. He is a master at using humor and exaggeration to make his points. As I watched I began to see a pattern emerge, whether intentional or not. Almost all the situations he used to make his points had to do with care, or in the case back here in the US, the lack of it. Several of the cases explicitly recognized the basic dignity of human beings and treated them as such. The Norwegian example was contrasted with the brutal treatment of blacks in our prisons. In each case, I can imagine arguments that we can’t act the same way here because of X or Y or Z. There is some truth in this criticism, but what got to me was the total impact of the film.
These countries, other than perhaps Tunisia, are all Western, modern societies. They share economies like ours. They are smaller and more homogeneous but, taken together, they are comparable to ours. In every country he “conquered,” the policy or practices he captured to return it to the US had to do with some variant of Kant’s moral imperative:
Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.
For those that might offer the knee-jerk response that these are socialist responses, not to be heeded here, I would point out that all are capitalistic countries, albeit with differing histories of socialism. None are without flaws from our chauvinistic perspective, but all partake of policies that celebrate our humanity rather than attempt to deny it. If it takes socialism, even a bit of it, to wake us up to the lack of caring that exists in the US, so be it. Amen. In many, maybe all, of the cases, the practices produce positive results, not the negative projections that opponents here picture. Decriminalization of drugs, all drugs, in Portugal has not produced a nation of addicts, as many here would argue. Incidence of drug use is much lower than here.
I would have to see the film a number of times to catch all the details, but the overall impact was immediate for me. The interviews on which the whole film is based are spontaneous and unrehearsed. The cutting is designed to give the talk maximum effect, but even so, much of what was said puts the lie to our justification for how we handle these diverse parts of societal life. Toward the end, one of the Icelandic women being interviewed was asked what she had to say about conditions in the US. She thought for a time a said something like, “I would not want to live there.”
The lack of care in our institutions, schools, industry, civil society, is appalling. Much of my on-going critique reflects my rather academic perspective and my relatively isolated station in life as a retiree. I think I have discovered the roots of the ills that Moore so graphically portrays in this film, but my words lack the power of the camera and the cutting room. The film ends with the message that many of the practices and policies that Moore highlights can be traced to origins in the United States. He leaves us with a big question, “What happened to them?” My answer has been and still is, “We have forgotten to care for the world of people and other life.” I don’t know when this film will hit the theaters, but I encourage you to look for it and go. Moore won an Academy Award for another of his so-called documentaries. This looks like another winner, but not just for its cinematic values. It deserves an award for its humanistic values.