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Book Review

Revealing the fictions of American supremacy

Yusuf Al-Khabbaz

STUPID WHITE MEN (AND OTHER SORRY EXCUSES FOR THE STATE OF THE NATION) by Michael Moore. Pub: Penguin Books, London, 2002. Pp: 281. Pbk: £7.99.

"We live in fictitious times. We live in a time where we have fictitious election results that elect a fictitious president. We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons, whether it’s the fiction of duct tape or the fiction of Orange Alert. We are against this war, Mr. Bush. Shame on you, Mr. Bush, shame on you. And any time you’ve got the Pope and the Dixie Chicks against you, your time is up!"

With these words American film director Michael Moore revived an old tradition of Hollywood’s Academy Awards: that of using the awards ceremony to make a political statement. Along with Marlon Brando, who sent an Apache woman to decline his award for The Godfather in protest against the government’s treatment of American Indians, and Vanessa Redgrave, who used the podium to denounce "Zionist hoodlums," Moore has entered the annals of Oscar lore.

Moore was accepting the Academy award for Best Documentary for his film Bowling for Columbine about gun culture and violence in America. The film had already won high honours in Europe at the Cannes Festival, and its screenplay received a Writer’s Guild Award (unprecedented for a documentary). It was also voted "greatest documentary of all time" by the International Documentary Association, and it has become the best-selling documentary ever. Moore’s message, that Americans are paranoid and militaristic, both at home and abroad, has a wide resonance, not only in Canada and Europe, but elsewhere as well. For example, in a press conference during the American invasion, the Iraqi information minister cited Moore’s challenge to America’s "fictitious president."

In his previous films Moore has tackled other topical subjects, such as American corporate greed. Before Bowling for Columbine he was probably best known for Roger and Me (1989), about his quest to bring the CEO of General Motors to his hometown to witness the devastation brought about by mass-layoffs. Since then Moore has produced several other films and television series that have focused on the dark underbelly of America. Also an author of note, Moore wroteDownsize This (1997) about corporate greed, and Adventures in a TV Nation (1998) about America’s television culture. But with his most recent book, Stupid White Men (2002), Moore has become a bestselling author. Like his films, Moore’s books are hard-hitting and opinionated, pulling no punches in his quest to denounce corruption, greed and other pathologies of contemporary American society.

Moore’s notion of "fictitious election results" and "a fictitious president" form a central part ofStupid White Men. In several chapters, he discusses the controversy surrounding the presidential elections that brought Bush to power in 2000. He notes that, for the first time in US history, a president was selected by the American Supreme Court, not by the American people. In fact, Bush lost the popular vote to Gore, and it is still not decided whether he actually won the state of Florida for the crucial Electoral College votes that decide the presidency. The election results in Florida were so close (well within the usual margin of error for elections) that re-counts had been called for. As the re-counts progressed, two things became clear: the vote was so close that it appeared to be a tie, and, more ominously, instances of fraud had emerged. Jeb Bush, the governor of Florida (also George W.’s brother) was implicated in a number of cases involving the prevention of Black voters from reaching polling-stations, and there were also instances of missing ballots. For more than a month Americans watched the re-count on TV, wondering who would become their next president; then the Supreme Court was called in to appoint Bush. Moore calls this "a very American coup," and describes several aspects of this democratic scandal in detail.

Stupid White Men was written in the months before the strikes on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon, those symbols of American economic and military supremacy. Although 50,000 copies of the book had already been printed and awaited distribution, Moore’s publisher asked him to rewrite significant sections after the attacks. Although at first it looked as if the book would be banned in the post-911 patriotic fervour, Moore persevered and, with the assistance of several citizens’ groups, eventually succeeded in getting it distributed as it was intended to be read. Since then it has become a best-seller in America, Canada and Europe. The British edition, under review here, has a new introduction and epilogue that are not available in the US.

In addition to informative chapters on the American election scandal, Moore discusses the ongoing stock-market crash, racism in American society, the decline of manhood, the woes of public schooling, the perils of American disregard for the environment, condition in American prisons and the emerging American police state, and the death of the US Democratic Party.

In Chapter Eight, "We’re Number One," Moore discusses the real nature of America’s leadership in the world. America is "number one" in millionaires and billionaires, military spending, firearm deaths, beef consumption, per-capita energy use, carbon dioxide emissions, municipal waste, oil and gas consumption, per-capita consumption of calories, recorded rapes, injuries and deaths from automobile accidents, births to teenage mothers, executions of under-age offenders, child poverty, childhood deaths by gunfire, and teenage suicide. At the same time, America also tops the list in least amount of government spending on public services, lowest voter-turnout, lowest eighth-grade mathematics scores, and fewest number of political parties. America’s refusal to sign international human-rights and environmental treaties is also condemned roundly.

Like Moore’s other books, Stupid White Men is a pleasure to read, with his irreverent style delivering the bad news with a witty edge. Of course, if readers still prefer to wallow in the fictitious images of American greatness, then this book will definitely be a failure for them. But its mass appeal suggests that there is a broad audience for this kind of work, which points out both the best and the worst of America. The best is that voices like Moore’s are growling more loudly from within the belly of the beast, and the worst is that its exposure of the fallacies of American life and leadership are irrefutable. It ought to be read widely outside its target audiences in North America and Europe, and its message ought to inform future dealings with American sloganeers, who are deeply deceived into still somehow clinging to the worn-out, fictitious imagery of American supremacy on the world stage.

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