Sunday, February 14, 2016

Movie Review: WHERE TO INVADE NEXT

Moore was hospitalized with pneumonia and missed many appearances to publicize his new film. He's asking others to help get news about the film out now, especially since it was passed over for an Oscar nomination after being shortlisted in the  Best Documentary Feature category. Photo credit: MichiganPopulist.org
In Where To Invade Next Michael Moore has made an entire film about U.S. exceptionalism -- without ever using that word. The deadly results of patriarchy are examined in excruciating detail, and feminist values are applauded and extolled -- without ever using those words either. 

Moore looks at what allowing patriarchy to occupy the narrative has wrought and explicitly says nothing about that particular problem; he simply reoccupies the narrative, brilliantly, to let us in on the news that everything we think is an intractable problem could, in fact, vanish rapidly. If only we believe, and then pick up a hammer and chisel and start breaking it down.
Bree Newsome, a filmmaker in her own right, makes a cameo appearance taking down the Confederate flag at South Carolina's Capitol. Her image is offered as an example of how committed action can change facts on the ground rather quickly. (Photo credit: cnn.com)
This film may well be Moore's magnum opus. It combines elements of his trademark faux naif style of investigative reporting, his fascination with industry (Roger & Me), his analysis of the roots of U.S. aggression (Bowling for Columbine), his thesis that government on behalf of greed is killing us (Capitalism: A Love Story) and that if other wealthy nations can afford necessities like universal health care (Sicko), then we can, too.

Moore nods at the Pentagon budget in passing at the start of the film but he never returns to this starting point to explain some of the mysterious budget shortfalls that prevent U.S. citizens from enjoying the same quality of life as Europeans. Didactic is not his style. He'd rather make us laugh at the foolishness of a photograph of the joint chiefs of staff holding their hands over their crotches or what Moore calls (for a big laugh from the audience I saw the film with) their "no fly zones." 

This is after he has thrown down the biggest gauntlet of all in the culture of vicious patriarchs, taunting the Pentagon brass as failures for losing every war since "the big one." This is the platform from which to launch the organizing idea of the film: an overweight, undergroomed American will go forth bearing our flag and invade other nations to see what we can take that the U.S. needs.

I'm making the movie sound a lot more funny than it actually was. Not much of what Moore shared about the state we're in or how those on the other side of the pond live was news to me, but it felt tragic. The archival footage of police violence against Black people was not new but was still just as horrifying, as intended. Coupled with multiple images of incarcerated Black men it was enough to make me weep. Slavery isn't over, and Moore points out the obscene profits produced by prisoner labor. He even names a few brand names you might be wearing as products of this labor arrangement. There's an implied comparison with the Italian clothing manufacturer whose employees enjoy benefits and vacations beyond the wildest dreams of hourly workers in the U.S.

Moore also points out that it's not likely a coincidence that mass incarceration of Black men in the "war on drugs" coincided with the assassination of Black leaders and the rise of Black empowerment at the end of the civil rights ferment of the 1960's.

But the wisest nugget in a very wise film turns out to be about Holocaust denial: how the Germans don't do it, and so they heal.  The dearth of teaching about the truth of genocide against the Native people of the Americas is a reason why the U.S. can't heal itself from the violence that continues to plague it. Also, though Moore doesn't point this out, it's the foundation for this genocide to be ongoing in the pollution of the last few scraps of Native territory by uranium mining, fracking, pipeline construction and dioxin, and in disproportionate violence against Native women and girls.

In light of the really heavy stuff you may be surprised to hear that a tragedy that left the audience in Waterville, Maine yesterday in stunned silence was: school lunches. 

French children horrified at the images of U.S. school lunch. What even is that? indeed.

Seldom has there been a more vivid depiction of patriarchy's lack of care for the young than the U.S. school lunch. Spoiler alert: the opening scenes of chefs at work preparing fresh local food turn out to be set in a school kitchen in the French Alps. Because one of the film crew told her daughter they were filming there, the stateside student began sending her mother a photo of the lunch at her school each day. Placing these photos side by side is the picture worth a thousand words about the dismal state of nutrition, childcare, and public education in the U.S. today.

Moore thinks he can explain all this: women are fully involved in making the decisions that result in bankers being jailed for crashing their economy (Iceland), children eating exquisitely prepared vegetables (France), employees going home for a two hour home-cooked midday meal with their families every day (Italy), and women being able to participate in a government that represents its people (Tunisia). 

Oh, and did I mention free university education for all comers including U.S. students who emigrated because they couldn't afford even community college (Slovenia)? This is far from a complete list of the ideas Moore came to steal. Treatment of criminals (Norway) and the re-design of early public education to a model that actually works (Finland) plus women's reproductive health care for free (Tunisia) are also covered.

Critics will find much missing from Where To Invade Next: treatment of immigrants in the featured countries is glossed over, plus the Eurocentric bias of the entire project will likely come up. As my husband observed, the film is a sea of white faces. Moore doesn't explain why Japan or Nigeria didn't make it onto his radar as countries where English is widely spoken and ideas that are working are worth stealing. I suspect he went to countries where the heads of companies or governmental officials would agree to be in his film. 
Moore at the Toronto Film Festival where the movie debuted last fall. He poses with Amel Smaoui (second from right) and Pasi Sahlberg (right), also Jenny Tumas (left) all of whome were interviewed  in the film.
(Photo: Evan Agostini, Invision via AP)
It was fun to hear more from Pasi Sahlberg, a former official of the Ministry of Education and Culture in Finland, as I had found much to think about after seeing his presentation last March at an education conference in Washington DC. No homework, fewer hours in school, fewer standardized tests, and rigorous teacher preparation is the Finnish prescription for what ails U.S. public education. Currently they're #1 and we're #29. 

Moore offers a little salve to our wounded pride by pointing out late in the film that most of the ideas being realized so brilliantly elsewhere have roots in the U.S. He includes testimony from several Europeans to this effect. But it's Amel Smaoui, a journalist in Tunisia, who diagnoses the underlying disease. Looking directly into the camera for a moment, she urges us to be curious about the rest of the world. She tells Moore's audience that they invented one of the best things in the world: the Internet. She prescribes using it to find out about other cultures, to inquire about and learn from them. 

No need to invade after all.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Obama's Budget Swan Song: Quadruple Budget For U.S. Military In Europe


As liberals and so-called progressives in the U.S. duke it out over whether to nominate the candidate with the prettiest words or the prettiest bank account, their current president has released his final, lame duck budget request. Graphed above, it couldn't be more clear what the biggest priority continues to be: the Pentagon and its contractors. 

How can liberals and so-called progressives continue to support spending over half of discretionary funds on killing innocents abroad? The Obama administration dropped 23,144 bombs on Muslim civilians in 2015 alone. While still emitting pretty words on a daily basis.

As the economy tanks yet again with millions homeless, hungry or still un- and underemployed from the '08 crash, why would it be a priority to quadruple funding for U.S. weapons and military bases in Europe?

Thanks to the analysts at National Priorities Project for the pie chart above and for their examination of yet another guns over butter budget request from this "progressive" president:
The budget maintains the status quo, with more than half of discretionary funding (the funding Congress allocates each year during its budget process) reserved for the Pentagon and spending on nuclear weapons and related items. Total Pentagon and related spending in the request amounts to nearly $623 billion, including the Pentagon budget, nuclear weapons and aid to foreign militaries [my note: e.g. Israel]. The budget provides $583 billion for the Pentagon alone in 2017, a $2 billion increase over 2016. 
  • A $59 billion 2017 Pentagon slush fund, or Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funding – a fund that began as an Iraq and Afghanistan war fund and has since morphed into a Pentagon petty cash jar, and which permits the Pentagon to bust through legislated budget caps;
  • Just $7.5 billion, less than two percent of the Pentagon’s total budget, for fighting ISIS, making clear that even real terrorist threats are often cynically used to secure billions in unrelated Pentagon funding;
  • Quadrupled funding, or $3.4 billion, for the European Reassurance Initiative, recommitting the United States to military involvement in a conflict where our ability to make a positive difference is highly questionable.
What continues to perplex and amaze me is that the people who support Obama and who will likely support any candidate with a D after his or her name are, for the most part, educated. They've studied world history. They've examined, in high school or college, the brutal end of societies who overspent on wars of aggression while crushing dissenting voices at home.

Why can they not recognize the U.S. going down this same path again? They fall all over themselves with enthusiasm for possible future presidents with equally abysmal records on funding wars all over the planet. Most of these same people would tell you they are concerned about the environment, worried about climate change, and pessimistic about the future of commons like water, air and soil being pillaged for corporate profit.

What do they not get about the Pentagon being the biggest consumer of fossil fuels of any organization on the planet?

In the end I explain it by another history lesson, on the power of propaganda. Information management's real strength is not in selling you lies but in narrowing your vision down to a tiny peephole that blocks out most of reality. Televised sports contests are the eye candy of a sinister plot to render the populace as uninformed as possible. It is working brilliantly, for the most part.
Matt Cowan / Getty Images
I have mad respect for BeyoncĂ©'s introduction of political truth at the Super Bowl 50 halftime show this year. It's also the 50th anniversary of the Black Panthers, and in the current atmosphere of police violence without accountability that gave rise to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, that matters.

But who snuck into the Super Bowl with news that the U.S. is heating up a possible nuclear confrontation with Russia? That ISIS and al-Qaeda and the Taleban are a) supported and often funded by the U.S. and allies Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey and b) continue to succeed at recruiting new jihadis because you funded 23,144 opportunities for them to develop a virulent hatred of the U.S. in 2015 alone? 


I'll gird my loins now for the barrage of abuse I'll trigger by sharing news that I'll be supporting Green Party candidate Jill Stein for president. Her platform would drastically cut the Pentagon budget (in half, still not enough for my tastes, but I do support a living wage and healthcare for military personnel plus cleaning up all those toxic sites the military has created) and actually fully fund environmental stewardship, public education, and universal health care.

The liberals and "progressives" will scorn me for not choosing the "less evil" of two sides in the false dichotomy of corporate government. They will say if the demagogue with the bad hair or the one that looks like Count Dracula win, it will be my fault.

There are a lot of things I like about living in Maine, and here's one of them: we have a whopping three electoral votes. No national election is going to be determined by the voters of my state under the rigged system known as the electoral college. 

So, you can vote your conscience in Maine -- if you can still hear it calling.