Sunday, August 28, 2016

Where to Invade Next

In high school the guy who made my life hell didn’t even know I existed. It seemed like everything he did, though, was targeted towards me and my friends: every stupid, callous action, every bit of trash-talking, his overreactions and underreactions, his weak-ass moral code… And for all his hate of me and my kind, I gloried in hating him right back. I made fun of him, my friends all talked shit about him; I even used his face for a dart board in my room.

I am of course referring to George W. Bush.

I had this poster in my room.

And then I went off to college, and this asshole followed me there for another four miserable years.

But during high school I had a lot of friends who supported me. Aaron McGruder was one – when the country lost its mind and backed Bush McGruder stood firm and kept reminding people the President was an idiot. 

One of the best comic strips the U.S. ever ran.

Michael Moore was another. After deciding to go to school in Colorado, after Columbine, his documentary was very influential for me. I remember buying it on VHS while in high school – and kids in my class would get together and watch it.

Most of my VHS I’d replaced over the years, but somehow I’d not gotten the DVD of Bowling for Columbine, and, while purchasing other movies last week, found it on sale for $2. So I bought it and rewatched it for the first time since I was 17.

Parts of it have not aged well. Parts have. It succeeded, I guess, in that it made me angry all over again. By comparison, when Fahrenheit 9/11 came out my family stood in line at the theater for it – but I hardly recall any of that film, and, after all these years, remembered most of Bowling. That’s due to multiple viewings versus one, but it also just struck a chord that Fahrenheit didn’t – because Fahrenheit didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know.

And I'm sure that's why Bowling won an Oscar and Fahrenheit didn't.

This problem is echoed a bit in Where to Invade Next. However, it is a weak echo. Most of the film is rather fabulous, and most of it I did not already know – or at least not the specifics. Moore travels to different countries and unabashedly cherry-picks the best elements of their societies to bring back to the U.S. Obvious spoilers ahead (and throughout the remainder, really):

Here, then, are those cherry-picked ideas:

Italy – eight weeks paid for vacations, honeymoons, and family leave
France – amazing school lunches and real sex education
Finland – how to do education right (no homework, 20 hours of class a week, etc)
Slovenia – free college tuition

So these countries thematically cover birth to adulthood. Then he focuses on working conditions in Germany with work/life balance before moving on to:

Portugal – drug tolerance and death penalty abolishment
Norway – prison reform

Here he pauses, acknowledging the socialist tone of the film so far. We’ve all known, for a while now, that Scandinavia does it better. He asks “Where next? Sweden? Denmark?” before settling on the most unexpected choice, Tunisia, chosen because it has passed a women’s equal rights amendment, with half of their parliament being female, and all women have free state-sponsored access to abortion clinics. In Tunisia. Following this thread he looks at Iceland, both its feminist culture and how they jailed their bankers after the 2008 financial crisis.

Tunisian women

Unexpectedly he takes the final segment back to Germany. Here, with a friend, they reminisce, having both been present during the first nights that people started chipping away at the Berlin Wall, and how within the week, the Wall was gone. He marvels at this, and repeats his still-present astonishment “Built to last forever.”

All of the ideas he “claims” from his “invasions” are doable in the United States. And he addresses issues like the difference in taxes (deflating the arguments in the process). They seem impossible now, but five years ago so did universal gay marriage. Especially important is how each good idea is backed by a coherent rationale. Regular people explain why the changes came about, for example studies of stress or societal norms regarding human dignity. Everyday people have been taught the societal values, considered them, and embraced them as the rational steps their governments must take to improve the lives of everyone. It was all so reasonable, and sensible, which Moore backs up by often discussing the issue in question before and after these changes – with the after always being a clear improvement.

Tunisian women have free access to abortion clinics… It was those moments which were hard to take. This is a problem, the flip side to Moore’s optimism is, of course, that it exposes and reminds you of how fucked up we are in many ways. The footage of the prisons in America was, not surprisingly but still painfully, horrible. His segment on Germany, besides worker’s rights, also addressed how their national education system deals with Nazism and the Holocaust, by acknowledging it, head on, and not pretending it didn’t happen, or burying it out of embarrassment. I couldn’t help but think of the case in Oklahoma where they tried to stop teaching AP US History because, they said, it emphasizes “what is bad about America”. I hate to break it you, but much of our history is really that wretched. And we have to own it to move on.

This should not be a thing in 2016.

So this documentary was very pleasant. It reminded me why I liked Moore’s work, and how much further we have to go. All of his conquered ideas were, to my way of thinking, good ones. I’d love to live in a U.S. where these ideas were adopted (many are straight out of Sanders’ playbook, of course). And after the Berlin Wall his very last point was to show how each of these ideas wasn’t actually derived from other countries – they had all originated right here, in the United States. We could, if we wanted to, bring them back. That’s the real way we could make America great again.

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