Category Archives: Compassionate society

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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Rifkin on Empathy

Just found this new post by Jeremy Rifkin on the role of empathy and its relevance to, among other things, nominating Supreme Court justices.  Rifkin makes, very eloquently, the points I was fumbling about in my last post on the research on moral functioning (which is apparently empathy based) in babies, on the central role of empathy and compassion (as opposed to mere logic) in developing a society’s moral competence.  Well worth a read.

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Born Empaths: Toward a compassionate society

A really cool article by Paul Bloom in today’s NY Times Magazine on “morality in babies.”  Bloom describes research which shows a surprisingly well developed sense of empathy and a tendency to respond in “moral” ways in babies.  For instance, babies naturally tend to try to help others in distress.  They seem to be able to distinguish between helpful and “mean” behavior by others, and generally prefer the helpful person.  Bloom adds,

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Exploring “Have Gun-Will Travel”

We’ve been watching some of the old fifties and sixties TV shows, and I find the era fascinating.  Besides the fact that so many future great writers and actors were heavily represented in the first two decades of TV, the writing itself was often very impressive.

Our recent favorite is the first season of Have Gun – Will Travel.  I remember watching it as a kid, but it may take being much closer to geezerhood (ooops, I mean “wisdom”) to appreciate some of the sophistication in the show.

First of all, the name of the show.  It has a hyphen.  It’s a business card.  A professional gunfighter — with a business card!

Even that hyphen tells you something.  A show with punctuation!  Clearly, not the usual western.

And both the guy’s holster and business card have that horse head.  Which has no fewer than THREE different referential worlds linked to it: the “cowboy” genre and all the things you expect from that; the “knight” genre (Paladin is a term for a knight,of course, and even the western theme song refers to him as “a knight without armor in a savage land…”  — can you hear it?)  So the reference there is to another world entirely —  the King Arthur stuff and the morals and mystique of knights of yore (and yore itself, for that matter…)

But also, it’s a CHESS PIECE.

A chess piece suggests a thinker, Continue reading

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