October 14, 2009—Is it just a coincidence that celebrity documentarian Michael Moore’s latest film, Capitalism: A Love Story, hit theaters the same week as the comedy The Invention of Lying? No, Moore did not invent lying. In fact, he’s pretty careful to avoid outright, overt, spoken falsehoods in his films. But he does regularly bend the truth to the point of breaking. He lies with misleading images and juxtapositions and with warped chronology. He lies by omission and implication.
No need to take my word for it, though. Moore’s strained relationship with fairness and fact has inspired numerous take-down books and films. In the 2007 documentary Manufacturing Dissent, for instance, we learn that a scene from Roger & Me in which Moore’s microphone was cut off when he tried to ask a question at a General Motors shareholders’ meeting was in fact an in-studio fabrication. In reality, his microphone was not cut off. We also learn that Moore actually questioned GM chairman Roger Smith at some length , though Moore’s film makes it appear as though he was never able to speak with Smith. (Moore himself contests the relevance of the access he had to Smith.) And we learn that banks do not really just hand out shotguns over the counter to anyone who walks in to open a new account, as implied in Bowling for Columbine. The bank officials he dealt with bent over backwards to accommodate Moore, and in return, they were burned by his duplicity, as many others have been. In light of these and other examples available to anyone with an Internet connection and a half an hour to spare, how can anyone still take Michael Moore at his word?
In Manufacturing Dissent, we are shown a scene in which Moore stands at a podium before a supportive audience and addresses those critics who accuse him of manipulating the facts: “Film is edited,” he says in his own defense. “It is manipulated to present a point of view.” That’s just the way it is, apparently. But documentaries, unlike regular feature films, are supposed to document reality. Does everybody cherry-pick data, misrepresent other people’s views, omit inconvenient but essential evidence, and twist the truth into knots to fit an agenda?
Michael Moore lies with misleading images and juxtapositions, with warped chronology, and by omission and implication.
Moore wants us to conclude that he is no worse than anybody else, but it is simply false to maintain that everyone dissembles the way Michael Moore dissembles. It may not be easy to engage honestly with opposing viewpoints, to seek them out and give them a fair hearing. Confirmation bias—by which people try to confirm their preexisting beliefs instead of trying to challenge them—may be woefully common. But the truth is that some people try to be fair, and some people don’t. It is the refuge of the scoundrel to claim that everybody’s rotten.
In crafting this present article, for example, it is true that I am making decisions about what to include and what not to include, and about how to present the things I do include. It is also true that I have a point of view, a view of the world to help me organize the information I absorb every day. I did not come to this article with zero preconceptions about Michael Moore, for instance. The world is simply too complex to make sense of it without some kind of lens to help one focus on essentials.
But does this mean there is no hope for objectivity, and we should all be as blasé about manipulating facts as Moore obviously is? Not at all. A worldview is like a map, helping you pick out the essential features of the world. A good city map helps you get where you need to go, whereas a bad one mixes up the street names, or focuses on inessential details like what kinds of trees grow in the city’s parks.
As Jeffrey Friedman argues in the introduction to The Bias Issue of his journal, Critical Review , “A bias that distorts the truth is simply a flawed lens on the world.” How, then, can I best ensure that my own lens is not fatally flawed? By “listening to divergent viewpoints advocated by their best proponents.” Michael Moore is hardly one of the left’s best proponents, but he remains popular nonetheless, so I decided to give his latest film a listen.
While Moore may not have become a priest—as he tells us he wanted to growing up—he certainly does his fair share of preaching. An uncritical viewer of Capitalism: A Love Story could easily come away believing that no one who loses his home bears any responsibility for the loss; that GM failed to compete with German and Japanese automakers over the years because it was mean to its unions; and that former President George W. Bush is the world’s preeminent proponent of capitalism. If this film puts capitalism on trial, the only really credible witness for the defense is The Wall Street Journal’s Stephen Moore, founder of the free-market Club for Growth, who gets all of 30 seconds to state that capitalism is more important than democracy. There may be something to this statement, but without the chance to support it with any kind of argument, it merely serves to further implicate the defendant in the eyes of the casual moviegoer.
Moore is at his best when he attacks last fall’s grotesque $700-billion bailout of the banking industry.
The film isn’t all bad, though. Moore is at his best when he attacks last fall’s grotesque $700-billion bailout of the banking industry. We are treated to a moving account of how then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and company played the fear card to scare Congress into acting quickly. The media was by and large only too happy to fan the flames. The American people, however, flooded Congress with messages of protest, and the bailout bill failed, only to be reborn and triumph mere days later. Does this mean Wall Street is really in charge, as Moore claims? Is the Treasury Department basically just an arm of Wall Street? The passage of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 certainly lent some weight to that accusation.
The problem is that Moore can only see one alternative to this lamentable state of affairs. Instead of “the fat cats” having their way with the Treasury, he wants “the people” to have their turn at the trough. He has no problem with class warfare, just with who happens to be winning at the moment. He reiterates FDR’s so-called Second Bill of Rights, saying that everyone is entitled to goods like a useful job, a decent home, adequate medical care, and unemployment protection. To hear Moore tell it, one would think FDR and subsequent presidents had made no progress whatsoever down this socialistic path. And of course, no one in the film raises the philosophical objection that there can be no such thing as a right to something that must be produced by someone else.
What Moore is rightly criticizing when he attacks bank bailouts is corporatism, in which corporations are in bed with governments. But corporatism and socialism are not the only two ways to organize a society. To pretend that they are is a classic example of a false dichotomy.
There is another, fundamentally different alternative: capitalism. As one of Moore’s talking heads points out, the free market is all about “sink or swim,” not “sink and cry for a bailout.” When property rights are really and truly respected, no one gets bailed out using taxpayer funds, because government officials have no authority to use those funds any which way they please.
And to preempt an objection: no, capitalism is not doomed to degenerate into corporatism. It does take a certain amount of vigilance to keep it from doing so, however. In order to remain vigilant, people need to appreciate the importance of separating state and economics, “ in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church,” to quote Ayn Rand. Under free market capitalism, with property rights truly respected, there exists a harmony of interests among all honest people, because nobody is stealing from anybody. The alternative Moore presents is not really an alternative at all, just a continuation of class warfare with a continued oscillation between corporatism and socialism. When rich and poor fight over the spoils of government-confiscated taxes, one sure outcome is reduced liberty for all.