Weekend book review: “Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life” by Michael Moore

In high school we used to do a science experiment to learn about a phenomenon called “supercooling.” Supercooling occurs when you reduce the temperature of a liquid below the point where it becomes solid, without it actually getting solid. Imagine water at 20 degrees, but instead of ice it’s still sloshing around in the glass. (Or it could, if sloshing didn’t risk freezing it.)

The fun part (to a high schooler) comes when you drop a tiny, crystalized (i.e., “frozen”) piece of the substance into the vat of supercooled whatever, because this causes the whole thing to go instantly solid. Pop. In a sort of poetic license-y way, the stuff was “frozen all the time — it just didn’t know it.” (Apologies to my high school science teachers on that one.)

This may be an odd, too-early-in-the-morning association to Michael Moore (it is — please bear with me), but you can’t think about him without thinking about his impact on our society over the past couple of decades, and how he tends perhaps to be viewed with such love and really, gratitude by a sizable percentage of our citizenry, while being intensely despised by so many on the right (or maybe more accurately, to the south?)

In his new and wonderful book, Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life, Moore shares a number of stories from his early life all the way up through the creation of his first breakout documentary, Roger and Me.  But Moore does more, because he also shares the penalty he’s had to pay for his success as a documentarian and through his life, as a public figure. Specifically, a lot of right wing hatred and death threats.

The hatred of a guy like Moore can take odd forms. I remember in a classroom discussion how a very conservative student (unusual in a psychology grad program) began criticizing Moore because, well, by that time in his career Moore had apparently made a fair amount of money. Not sure why material success should be seen as some kind of a bad mark, particularly by a Republican, but I suppose he was attacking a Fox News caricature of Moore, a sort of “hypocrite because he’s a millionaire playing a hermit who despises capitalism and so should live out of a begging bowl” fantasy. But that a fairly bright graduate student would see that trope as some how an invalidation of Moore’s work or ideas says, I think, a lot about Moore’s impact, or the impact of anyone who takes strong stands in the public arena. Because there is nothing logical about such a critique — it’s a purely emotional argument against the guy (likely crafted by those Foxy masters of the catchy, emotional, irrational argument.)

Psychological research, aided by our ability to film the “brain in action” in recent years, continues to show that people don’t really base their political opinions, their criticisms and arguments and ultimately, their laws on logic. They base them on raw emotion, what neuropsychologists call the “low road” of mental functioning. What Freud used to call (in a bad English via Latin) the “Id” (or more literally and I think, properly, “the It”) inside us. That part of us that is wired for aggression, for raw, clawing, roaring, fornicating, eating, sleeping, belching, farting and then fighting and roaring again, survival in the wild. This “low road” form of thinking is a big part of what we are, the part we try to overcome or to channel into constructive activities, at best, or just try to hide from the chumps and voters and investors and sex partners, at worst. Ultimately, many of our opinions tend to be wild rampaging boars, dressed up in a bowtie (or wearing lipstick).

So it should not be surprising that disagreements can get lethal. Moore describes a number of would-be assassinations, particularly during the group traumatization and symptomatic blood lust that enveloped the country after the events of 9/11, when he’d dared to speak out at the Oscars against Bush and his dishonest war, and how he ended up being hated, threatened as a result, living in hiding for a year or two, finally emerging but surrounded by what sound to be very cool but very necessary Navy SEAL-caliber bodyguards (it’s less fun than it sounds.)

What really surprised and delighted me as I read his book was the experiences he shares from earlier,  growing up in the fifties and sixties, his early experiences as a future famous rabble-rouser.

Besides the fact that he’s a delightful, accessible, moving writer (he was a journalist for many years before he took the plunge into films), Moore’s book was a treat for two big reasons.

First, he is a great tour guide. Here Comes Trouble is in fact one of the best “memory books” of highlights of the second half of the twentieth century (and the first dark decade of the 21st) that you can read. He touches on so many of the highlights of the progressive movements, from the civil rights struggle and the assassinations of the sixties, through the Nixon and Reagan eras and a chilling account of how he snuck into a meeting in Mexico, sponsored in secret by the Reagan Commerce Dept., where the plans were laid to export tens of thousands of American jobs to Mexico.   These stories are mixed with charming little interludes, like his story of how he as a child got lost wandering around the US Capital building and was found and rescued by a newspaper-reading stranger who turned out to be Senator Bobby Kennedy.

But Moore also brings back some long-forgotten experiences of my own, and in reading his book I started to wonder how many other people of his and my generation probably shared in these same experiences — the things that shape one’s world view and “character” for decades to come. Because much of the current cultural and political scene in America has evolved out of these activities, movements, conflicts from four and five decades past. The things he did, we did, back then, are still very much active forces (on both sides of the polarized spectrum.)

Two examples come to mind: he shared how he entered a speech contest as a high school student, sponsored by the Elks Club. The contest required a speech on “something-something-how-Lincoln was a great president.” But Moore opens the chapter by talking about how his dad had decided not to apply for membership to the local Elks Club-sponsored country club, because the Elks and their country clubs did not admit minorities. So young Michael of course gives a “how dare they invoke Lincoln?” speech about the Elks, the sponsors of the talk. And wins. And blunders into national media attention. Laws were ultimately written to prohibit that kind of discrimination in private organizations like the Elks.

But see, Mike wasn’t the only kid doing that kind of thing then. I know because I did it too, and  other kids around the country were also doing similar things. (In my case it was a VFW speech contest. We were supposed to write on “my responsibility to freedom” which, during the Vietnam war and sponsored by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, no doubt meant we should write clichés about how we should be downtown at the recruiting office right after you hear our speeches, signing up to fight in Nixon’s war. But being a slightly too young to be a hippie late boomer kid who was reading eastern philosophy and Gandhi, I of course wrote about how “freedom” means not being sucked into the craziness and it’s really all about inner freedom and so on. Won the school contest but my success didn’t rise any higher.)

Later on, he gets involved in starting a little community alternative newspaper in his hometown of Flint, Michigan, and this is where he ends up spending his early career. In my case, some kids from Scranton did the same thing and for one issue (till my parents told me I couldn’t be out that late) I was a “co-editor” of the first issue of “Slocum Hollow.”  Wrote the editorial in the “Harrisburg Seven” trial or something like that.

It was eerie reading this stuff. It was as though Mike Moore did my adolescence, only he did it so much better. Perhaps he took more risks, but certainly, he brings a genius to these activities that is unique. You admire his nerve, and I wonder, how many of us secretly wish it were us shepherding a boatload of medical patients to Cuba for low cost medical care.

And that’s where my thinking about the “supercooling” thing comes in: the real service Michael Moore has provided the country has been to act as that single, tiny crystal that gets dropped into the beaker of supercooled liquid. He is someone who has the gift of being able to “activate” other people who already feel the same things, who are well past ready to speak out, organize, contribute… but who somehow, particularly in times of high-groupthink and danger for speaking out, tend to nurse these feelings in darkness and silence. He’s a principled man who is willing to express his beliefs and stand for what’s right even when it means death threats. Agree with him or not, you have to admire his willingness to play this role.

But agree with him or not, the other point is that he’s not the only one. And if Michael Moore didn’t exist, someone else would have no doubt spoken up instead, whether it was about the Iraq war or the barbarity of our “capitalist” health care system, or many other such causes. This is really a struggle about the core, the soul of America: are we to be a compassionate society, caring about each other and organizing a government and economy to meet the needs of the citizens… or are we wanting to be basically a feudal society, in thrall to our “lords and ladies” (i.e., “job creators”) who have the money, the power, the control of our lives, and who’ve permanently rigged the system to ensure their position and our subservience forever?

There’s an old saying in the psychotherapy biz, that the role of “town drunk” is an elected position. Meaning that if there is a dysfunctional society or organization or family, sooner or later someone gets “drafted” to speak out, act out, express the problem or the need. (After which, they get “blamed” for being “the only one with this problem.”) Historians argue about whether “times make the hero” or “the hero makes the times.” The answer is, of course, both. Michael Moore has had a remarkable impact on our country… and yet, perhaps the mass of people who admire his work contains the “seeds” of so many more Michael Moores, waiting for the right heat, or the right light, to crack open and change everything in an instant.

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4 Comments

Filed under Books, Compassionate society, Writing and society

4 responses to “Weekend book review: “Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life” by Michael Moore

  1. L. James

    I agree with Moore on most issues; but why does he get to have Navy Seal bodyguards and yet deny the rest of us our own protection? He has the resources to afford round-the-clock protection from a phalanx of heavily armed men; but tout le monde can’t (under his anti-gun stance) arm ourselves for our own DIY-style safety. It’s typical bourgeois nonsense and I am sick to death of it. If I had millions of dollars I’d hire bodyguards too; but I don’t so I carry a .45 (legal in my state btw). Why does Moore have a problem with this? And I am a socialist for crying-out-loud so I don’t need any knee-jerk reactions accusing me of being a redneck or right-winger. Ok?

    • Greg Korgeski

      Dunno. The whole gun thing seems to bring out the crazy in people, though. I think for me, that’s an important part of his message: that our whole culture gets so up in arms about being up in arms. Certainly people exaggerate the dangers in some situations, eg. hunters and sportsmen and -women should be able to have guns and some self-protection seems reasonable. But then there are the Columbines and the Zimmermans and frankly, yeah, the obsessed with guns as a sort of extension of one’s self in a way that does seem kind of nuts. Heavily armed gang bangers (and kids in homes with guns) die more often from gun violence than do school marms and Quakers (and kids in unarmed homes).

      • L. James

        You are missing the point. I am calling for the democratization of self-defense. I am saying that each citizen has a fundamental right to protect themselves; and that it is not a privledge of the wealthy who can afford Navy Seals to guard them.

        And guns are legally used to prevent crime all the time; but those stories rarely make the news. All themedia cares to describe are times when bad things happen due to guns. Guns SAVE lives many many times each year in our country; I know mine saved me once, and I didn’t even have to fire it. I merely showed it to my attackers and they bounced. Try to be objective; guns do both harm and good. In the final analysis, the larger point is that each of us has a right to defend ourselves; Moore, me, you, all of us. QED.

      • L. James

        also, I am in full support of requiring that each citizen who wants to be armed to be trained in the law, threat assessment, gun safety and the like. I think mandatory education for all manner of civic duties/rights should be the law of the land. But once educated and trained, each citizen should have the same rights as Moore’s ex-military bodyguards. I doubt youthink those guys are “crazy”; and in fact you most likely think they are professionals and doing us a great service by protecting Moore. I aqree; and I only add that I have an enormous amount of firearms training and legal training as well (in the use of deadly force laws) and cannot be described as “crazy” or “unstable” by anyone.

        My objection is to the division of our citizenry into two groups: those who can afford bodyguards and the rest of us. I object on the grounds that a citizen who is trained and educated can be as sound and ethical a gun owner as any ex-military professional paid 100k a year; and we can and should be able to defend ourselves legally and morally under any legitimate political system. I have had my concealed carry license for 11 years and only ever had to use it once, and even then I didn’t fire it. In effect I STOPPED a crime from happening; I didn’t commit one. Anyone who cannot see this as a civic good is obtuse or cynically motivated.

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