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What Michael Moore Really Teaches Us About Political and Social Change In America - Part 4

August 2nd, 2007 by Howard Ditkoff

Moral Courage as a Central Theme in Michael Moore’s Work and Life (Part 4 of 8)

Note: This is Part 4 of an eight-part series. You may want to start at Part 1 of the series, Summary and Table of Contents.

I believe, and seeing Sicko again reinforced, that Michael Moore is one of our greatest examples of moral courage. He is far from perfect, he sometimes uses questionable tactics, and I’m fully aware of how controversial he is. But I feel that the work he does plays a crucial role in our society by provoking awareness and discussion among those who agree with him, those who disagree, and even those who previously were apathetic. As a sheer provocateur, he is a master.

Moore takes issues that desperately need attention out of the darkness and bravely puts them in front of our faces along with a healthy dose of humor and entertainment, as well as plenty of controversy. But while the particular issues usually receive the focus, the courage Moore demonstrates and discusses in the methods and content of his work, as well as in his own life, is not tangential, but central.

Moral Courage in Michael Moore’s Methods

Perhaps Moore is known most of all for the confrontational methods he uses within his films. He confronts the wealthy and powerful, those held unaccountable, and often does so through outrageous over the top stunts. He takes great risks, including arrest, to make his points, despite his own fears, which he admits to still feeling even after all these years. At times, watching his work can feel like watching a socially conscious trapeze artist or tightrope walker.

It was these methods that originally grabbed my attention back when Moore did his television show TV Nation. I wondered who on earth this man was with the nerve to have the garbage noisily dumped early in the morning at the house of the garbage company’s CEO  in a “payback” bit or to have a correspondent take some slaves to the mall upon learning that they were still technically legal in Mississippi. At the time I was in college and was a person with a strong sense of justice, but a great deal of shyness and fearfulness to speak out about most of my perceptions. I was still very much conforming to others’ views and desires for me. Yet I also had a strong sense of the absurd. Moore’s boisterous, confrontational antics, combined with his representing a worldview that I basically shared, stirred up my repressed self and made him a bit of a hero to me at that age.

Moral Courage in Michael Moore’s Content

At several points in his films, Moore discusses issues of courage directly. For example, in Sicko he spends some time comparing the culture in France with American culture, showing how the French are willing to speak out more frequently and strongly against their government than Americans are. He shows how this relates to the lower levels of debt the French maintain, as well as how governments can often have an incentive to keep citizens in debt and in fear since this makes them easier to control.

An even larger discussion of fear and courage takes place in Bowling for Columbine, where Moore talk with Professor Barry Glassner about his book The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things and demonstrates the tremendous role fear plays in perpetuating some of our social ills.

In my view, though none of Moore’s movies focus specifically on fear and courage as their main topics, the fact that they show up repeatedly in all of his films demonstrates just how crucial these issues are – perhaps just as important as the main topics of the films.

Moral Courage in Michael Moore’s Life

It must strike one after seeing what Moore has done that only a person of courage could be capable of doing it. And indeed, in his own life, Moore has shown examples of great moral courage. His career started by taking enormous financial risks in order to make Roger & Me, effectively betting his future on the film. This is a step that can be admired by anyone who has felt a strong desire to pursue a just cause against the odds, regardless of whether you share his particular viewpoints.

I have repeatedly seen Moore in television interviews confronting injustices in ways that, despite our supposed free speech, are so rare to hear on television as to be shocking. He spoke out about the war in Iraq during his Best Documentary Oscar speech for Bowling for Columbine, and was heartily booed and attacked by many despite turning out to be correct in what he said. With just about everything he does, Moore faces a great deal of backlash, but he continues to do what he believes.

Inspiration of Moral Courage as Moore’s Greatest Legacy

While Michael Moore’s work has done much to bring awareness to a variety of causes, it may be his examples and discussions of moral courage that have the greatest impact. Indeed, the topics on which his films focus are themselves in great part symptoms of a lack of courage in the population. Would we be in Iraq if American citizens and their media had been more willing to speak out when it was considered “unpatriotic”? Would insurance companies be able to corruptly deny patient claims if people of conscience inside and outside of those organizations were willing to stand up and refuse to be part of that system? Moore’s work validates people’s perceptions, provides role modeling, and in doing so inspires courage.

Since my days in college, I have seen all of Moore’s films, and gotten to meet him a few times. I still struggle a lot with the fear of speaking out. But thanks to Moore and others, I have grown in this regard, allowing me to do many things I otherwise could not have, including starting this website, starting this blog, coordinating a campaign for Instant Runoff Voting and starting my own company. I know that for me, the development of moral courage has been Moore’s greatest impact.

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