“Sicko” Offers Profound Critique of America

by Randy Shaw on July 9, 2007

After reading Paul Hogarth’s July 6 piece critical of Michael Moore’s new film, Sicko, I anticipated sharing his reaction. But after seeing the film this past weekend, I reached a completely different conclusion: the film is brilliant on multiple levels. Although Sicko is ostensibly about the health care industry, Moore uses the health crisis as a backdrop for a more profound inquiry: why did selfishness become the dominant policy agenda for America, and what happened to the nation’s communal spirit so powerfully exhibited during the Depression, World War II, and in the aftermath of 9/11? Sicko is as much about the mentality that led to the invasion of Iraq as it is about the health care crisis, and the film’s impact could lead many to reassess their attitudes toward public institutions.

While watching Sicko, I had two dominant feelings.

First, Michael Moore is unsurpassed at framing a progressive agenda. No domestic writer, filmmaker, dancer, singer or politician comes close to Moore in conveying progressive ideals as common-sense principles that are solidly American.

Moore is so good at what he does that many of his brilliant little touches—such as the film’s linking to Soviet-era newsreels, and the record album where Ronald Reagan speaks of the evils of socialized medicine—tend to be taken for granted or even overlooked.

Moore got his start in journalism as someone who knew how to convey a progressive message to blue-collar workers who had briefly become “Reagan Democrats.” He has continued seeking to broaden the audience for progressive ideas for over two decades.

Michael Moore’s films work because he is damn good. And even though I kept waiting for his appearances to screw up portions of the film, in Sicko, Moore’s on-camera presence was perfect.

Second, I was struck by the film’s mammoth ambition. While nearly all of the reviews and discussion of Sicko surrounds health care, and its newspaper blurbs tout how funny the film is, Moore has never made a more serious film about the deep crack at the heart of American society.

That “crack” is the enshrinement of selfishness into the bedrock of society.

Moore clearly feared hitting this point too hard, as it would tag him with being “elitist,” or of “lecturing” to his audience. So he addressed this theme softly, using old video footage of neighbors bringing food to the sick and of community service drives.

What Moore wants to know is: if Americans have a history of pitching in to help neighbors, why do we perpetuate a system where we allow our neighbors to die due to the inability to afford health insurance? What happened to America’s caring spirit?

The answer is that it has been privatized. And he shows how this privatization occurred through a mass propaganda campaign designed to enshrine private solutions to all problems and stigmatize communal ones.

Moore does something very interesting when he asks Britain’s Tony Benn about the origins of that country’s national health service in 1948. Moore notes that Britain was in ruins in 1948, yet still launched universal health care.

What Moore leaves unspoken is that America was on top of the world in 1948, and could easily have implemented a health care system like Britain’s. But our political leaders used the post-war years to launch a Red Scare that weakened American labor unions, so that unlike other industrialized nations our politics moved rightward after the war.

The United States also squandered its post-war boom on a costly Cold-War with the Soviets. Just as George W. Bush dissipated the entire Clinton surplus on an endless war on terror, one that ensures a lack of available money for a government health care system.

Yes, history does have a way of repeating itself.

The most common criticism of Sicko is that Moore did not interview health care experts about what reform would look like. But Moore understands far better than his critics that universal health care is not a function of a specific “plan” or proposal; rather, it requires a change in attitude toward government solutions.

That’s why Moore did not bother providing a progressive critique of Hillary Clinton’s 1993-94 health care reform package. Clinton’s effort was defeated not due to its specifics, but rather due to American’s lack of faith in a government solution.

With Beyond Chron editors sharply split over Sicko, that’s all the more reason to go see the film and reach your own conclusion.

Send feedback to rshaw@beyondchron.org

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