Friday, May 20, 2016

Book Review: Here Comes Trouble

A Fair Trade Book

Title: Here Comes Trouble

Author: Michael Moore

Author’s web page:

Date: 2011

Publisher: Grand Central / Hachette

ISBN: 978-0-446-53224-2

Length: 427 pages

Illustrations: black-and-white photos

Quote: “This is a book of short stories based on events that took place in the early years of my life.”

Critics complained, in documents we can easily identify as objective reports of facts by titles like Michael Moore Is a Big Fat Stupid White Man: that guileless twenty-something in Roger and Me who came back to Michigan straight out of college, and found his beloved hometown devastated by GM’s “outsourcing” of jobs, was a fictional character. The real Michael Moore is a bit older than that, a seasoned muckraking journalist. And although some Protestant “seminaries” are graduate programs at universities, in this book Moore explains that when he was expelled from a Catholic “seminary” he was in grade ten. He says he never actually went to college. And he really grew up in a suburb, not in downtown Flint.

And he didn’t just happen to film one of a very short list of great documentary movies by stumbling around with a video camera in hand. He now says he always was the rare adult (and heterosexual at that) who went to film festivals and studied movies. He apprenticed with the producers of Blood in the Face; the research that went into that movie was too scary for New York filmmakers, who found Moore’s impressive size and aw-shucks manner a reassuring buffer between themselves and the haters they were studying. Roger and Me was the first movie Moore produced all by himself, but he had some informal backing from people who, for various reasons, didn’t want to do the legwork, appear in the movie, or be publicly identified as its backers...just personal friends who happened to have lent some money to a buddy who wanted to try to make a movie.

The movie was a smash hit. Among other demographics it was a hit with people who, like me, really were college kids in the 1980s, who’d grown up with all that rhetoric about “careers” and “success,” only to find our career paths crowded with people just ten or fifteen years older than we were, even before employers started exporting all the steady jobs. Moore was the living proof that, if the older generation weren’t going to give us decent breadwinner-type jobs, we could jolly well become successful (and become breadwinners) on our own. So Roger and Me seemed to say. Only that aspect of Roger and Me happened not to be true.

The stories in Here Comes Trouble reflect Moore's real age and background. They seem carefully selected and edited. 

The ritual kowtow to the homosexual lobby, now apparently mandatory in all left-wing publications, is dreadful. At Moore’s school the “gay” boy was a few years ahead of Moore, and such a repulsive bully that his suicide seems to give his story a happy ending. Since readers are unlikely to buy into the claim that if only people had “accepted his sexuality” and cuddled up with this jerk he could have grown up making love not war—sexual pleasure didn’t cure Charles Manson, Jim Jones, or John Gacey—Moore comes awfully close to saying that male homosexuals should die before they get big enough to hurt younger kids. Let’s face it: even if one out of six or seven or even twenty Americans has the ability to complete a homosexual act, nowhere near that many people are actually homosexual. Most of us don’t grow up with “gay friends,” and the demand that we write as if we did is likely to produce more of this kind of thing.

Apart from that one, most of the stories are good stories, funny if you share that Irish genetic quirk that sees comic potential in everything, plausible, and generally the sort of thing that makes a book hard to put down. You will put Here Comes Trouble down, of course. Even fast readers need a break somewhere in between 427 pages; each story is conveniently discrete, so any chapter break is a reasonable place to pause. But you’ll want to come back for more and feel almost regretful when you finish the last story, although it leaves our hero the producer of a successful movie and, beyond that point, the newspapers have already told us most of what’s fit to print about the life of Michael Moore.

Highlights of this one include the first story in which Moore, as a successful movie producer and supporter of causes, takes up the cause of a convicted murderer who happens to share his name, and thus encounters counter-protesters whose slogan is “Kill Michael Moore” and newspaper headlines of “Michael Moore Executed”; the story of how his father and fellow Marines stormed a hill, routed a Japanese troop, and then did or didn’t survive an aerial attack by fellow U.S. troops firing on what they imagined must be the Japanese army; the story of how Moore, a not especially popular high school boy, was dazzled by a date with a popular girl, to the point where he agreed to share the date with the most unpopular girl in the class; two stories about Moore and friends infiltrating the scenes of politicians’ public addresses in order to hold up protest signs; and, of course, the story of Moore’s help with the research for Blood in the Face, titled “Hot Tanned Nazi.” 

Moore presents himself in these stories as very much like a modern American version of Giovanni Guareschi’s character, Don Camillo. I’m not sure I believe that he’s never hit a fellow human; I do believe that he’s one of those super-size guys who’ve grown up being told to use their brains, not their bulk, if they want to win respect, and he’s been able to do so. He has brains. And nerve. And a wonderful sense of humor. And a genuinely liberal view of the possibility that opposing points of view can probably be reconciled, to the benefit of both.

There are, of course, times when reconciliation will not work, at least not right away. Moore thinks that American employees should have the right to form unions. Check. And he’s seen firsthand that American employers have been motivated to “outsource” jobs to poorer countries with the bait that “Pancho,” or these days it’s more likely to be “Chang,” “won’t be joining any unions.” Check. Now we approach the point at which people take irreconcilable positions. Because his family and most of his friends were left-wingers, Moore takes the old twentieth-century left-wing position and thinks we need bigger government to force American employers to hire unionized American employees. The old twentieth-century counter-argument was that we need bigger government to force the unionized employees to bargain down and accept work on terms as unsatisfactory as what the employers are offering Pancho, or Chang.

Reasoning from an historical and etymological interpretation of the term “liberal,” I propose that taking a really liberal position would require either side to back away from the unproductive twentieth-century conflict. Free our minds from Cold War ideologies. Look at the situation without prejudice; consider what both sides really wanted and needed, and why they’ve not achieved it.

Business leaders, let's call them "Roger" here, as in Smith, wanted to avoid the annoyance of dealing with unions by exploiting near-slave labor in poor countries. Did that work? No; for a few years it seemed to serve a few businessmen well, but as a general practice it’s leaving a critical number of Americans too poor to support our own businesses.

Union leaders, let's call them "Jimmy" here, as in Hoffa, wanted to boost their own standard of living by demanding higher wages and better benefits for American employees. Did that work? No; as the jobs have gone overseas, an increasing number of Americans are competing for a decreasing number of jobs, and turning their backs on unions that haven’t done anything for them. The reaction of union leaders has not been to reconsider what the unions are doing and bring their work into line with employees’ actual needs, but to harass non-unionized workers and the businesses that employ businesses even more of an incentive to have all the work done by non-unionized, low-wage, no-benefits workers in poor countries, and pulling the U.S. economy even further down.

Both Roger and Jimmy are wrong, but a realistic understanding of human nature does not require us to believe that these individuals are permanently locked into wrongheaded positions. When some people observe disparities between their expectations and external reality, they can actually change their expectations and adjust their course of action accordingly.

What should Roger and Jimmy do now? The genuinely liberal thing for them to do would be to admit that they went wrong—in both cases, by failing to consider other people’s needs as being equally important with their own, by forgetting that what goes around has a tendency to come around. American businesses need to employ American workers so that the American economy continues to support American businesses. American workers need the right to form unions, and to keep those unions flexible, temporary, and small enough that the unions truly represent the workers’ interests—that, for example, when the workers don’t agree that their working conditions are completely unacceptable, the only reason for them to go on paying union dues would be that the union is putting those dues into a pension fund. And when there are sound reasons for American businesses to go on employing foreigners, those foreigners are entitled to the same benefits and working conditions as Americans; paying them the same wages as Americans might not be feasible, but analogous wages and benefits should be mandatory.

The liberal approach to this kind of thing is always voluntary, not coercive; it allows government to encourage people to do the right thing, by public displays of moral support and, if the economy can stand it, even by tax breaks. (Coercive approaches are not liberal but merely left-wing, and have very seldom motivated anybody to do the genuinely right thing.)

Unfortunately this is far beyond what Michael Moore is saying. Moore is very, very good, probably the best  of our generation, at finding examples of just how much harm Roger’s right-wing and Jimmy’s left-wing approach have done; but he’s not applied his brain to any actual solution of the problem he’s set up so well. Here it is 2011 and he’s still writing as if he thinks Jimmy’s approach could work. There used to be a country that at least claimed to be trying Jimmy’s approach, when Moore and I were young. It was called the Soviet Union. It ceased to exist during our formative years, because Jimmy’s approach is inherently incapable of working. I  think Moore was just so caught up in the work of producing movies, books, and TV shows that he’s never really taken time to absorb the news that, instead of turning into communist utopias, the socialist democracies of Europe have been collapsing, one after another throughout our adult lives.

The result is that, although you weren’t reading Here Comes Trouble with any expectation of a serious proposition for ending the recession, you do notice turns of phrase like “the Commerce Department had to be ‘not so public’ in its apparently some Democratic union-sympathizers...found a clause in some ‘ridiculous law’ say­ing that it was illegal—illegal!—for U.S. tax dollars to go toward anything that promotes jobs being moved overseas.” You have to read the fine print—a footnote below the scene where “Republican congressman Jim Kolbe from Arizona...was a big backer of the move of American business to Mexico” observes that “In 2010, Barack Obama appointed Jim Kolbe to his Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiations”—to realize that, probably against his will, Moore has recognized this as a bipartisan problem. If you’ve been thinking about the problem enough to recognize how bipartisan it is, Moore’s continuing to identify himself as a “lefty” and a “Democratic union-sympathizer” becomes annoying.

Moore was, in between books, the Greenie who did most to expose the disturbing numbers of “Republicrats” in both major parties who aren’t working toward party principles but are blatantly in politics for personal gain alone. However, he was advised that his exposure of left-wing “Republicrats” might have had something to do with the election of W Bush. So in Here Comes Trouble, Moore seems to have retreated safely inside the good old familiar party line, and although I enjoyed the book immensely and although Moore never even worked with George Peters, a memory of George Peters’ voice comes to mind: You can do better than this.

Still, even if Moore can and should be leading his “lefty” audience back toward a really liberal position from which real progress might be made in this century, is this the book in which he should have done it? Why should it be? Here Comes Trouble is autobiographical fiction; it’s primarily about Moore’s life during the Cold War years. It’s primarily an entertaining read about the early adventures of a humorist, with one detour into a really sad story about the death of Moore’s mother. It’s also the confession of a Catholic who’s kept some religious faith in his life, but has never felt obliged to let the strict truth interfere with a good story...and has probably enjoyed the fact that many of his fans believed him to be ten or fifteen years younger than he is.

You will laugh. You may cry. You’ll see Michael Moore as different from the narrator of Roger and Me, but not necessarily less likable. And if you like short, self-contained stories but prefer them to be linked by a consistent cast of characters and chain of events, you will love Here Comes Trouble.

To buy it here, send $5 per book + $5 per package to either of the addresses at the bottom of the screen, for a total of $10, out of which $1 will go to Moore or a charity of his choice. Here Comes Trouble is a big fat book, but we could probably squeeze a few of Moore's DVDs or one or two standard-sized books into the package and keep the total cost down to one $5 shipping fee.