I'm With Smarty-Pants

Seeing Michael Moore's new movie Sicko last night, I left the theater surprised and impressed. I'd always had mixed feelings about Moore: he was on the right side of the issues, but he wasn't much of a thinker. Moore's first film, Roger and Me, forced Americans to look at the realities of Rust Belt layoffs but bracketed off the complex dynamics of the global economy as beyond its mandate. Farenheit 9/11 reminded Americans that Bush was a lightweight in over his head, but its political analysis never got much beyond innuendo about shady Bush family dealings with bearded sheiks in man-dresses. Critic Marco Roth spoke for many on the Left, when he backed Moore solely for his rhetorical talents at attacking Bush rather than his analysis of world affairs. Roth's essay, published in the journal N + 1 just before the 2004 presidential election, was brilliantly named "I'm With Stupid."

But my response to "Sicko" is: "I'm with smarty-pants." Ostensibly, Sicko is about the American healthcare mess, but it's actually a much broader and deeper look at American exceptionalism. It takes on the entire American economic model -- with its hundred-thousand dollar college tuitions, lack of childcare for parents of infants and toddlers, and no guarantees of vacation time or even sick days -- and speculates about who benefits from our system. Not the vast majority of Americans, Moore shows, but employers who get servile workers who are dependent on them for their lives as well as their livelihoods.

And rather than vilify the people who make their living from denying their fellow Americans the healthcare they need -- Moore's usual move of vilifying the hapless corporate flack-catchers -- he does something much smarter in Sicko. He seeks out people who work in the healthcare industry and can't sleep at night. He features a call center functionary who says she acts like "a bitch" to callers because if she's friendly and polite they tell her about their lives and make her feel even worse about her job of weeding out the very people who need insurance the most. She ends the interview in tears over hearing a woman exult that she's finally going to get insurance for her sick husband, knowing full well they'll get a letter in a few weeks denying them coverage. Later in the film, Moore features a former healthcare industry investigator whose job was to research people's medical past in the hope of denying them the treatments they need today. He ultimately quit the job because it was so, well, sickening to make a living off destroying other people's lives.

Unfortunately, Moore's speculation about why America lacks a health insurance system doesn't live up to the wisdom of the rest of the movie. He thinks Americans are too individualistic and don't have the notions of solidarity common in other wealthy democracies. There's certainly some truth to this, but that's not the reason we don't have universal healthcare. Universal healthcare has plenty of support in the US. In recent polls, which Moore never cites, two-thirds of Americans support universal healthcare even if it means higher taxes. In a functioning democracy, this kind of overwhelming popular support would lead to universal healthcare. The reason it doesn't has a lot more to do with the legalized bribery of the campaign finance system than it does with any actual opposition from the American people. It's frustrating to watch Moore retreat to this blame-the-victims position after doing such a great job exposing various members of Congress -- including one-time universal healthcare advocate Hillary Clinton -- as paid spokespeople for the health insurance industry. Whether we can switch over to the kind of universal system the rest of the world uses and most Americans want is perhaps the ultimate test of whether we are still a democracy -- or whether we have become a plutocracy. And if we can't switch over, don't blame the victims. Blame the plutocrats.