Stupid White Men, Michael Moore

Penguin UK, 2002, 281 pages, C$16.00 tpb, ISBN 0-141-01190-4

I know, I know: Even if you’re an avowed liberal, chances are that you don’t like Michael Moore. Can’t say I blame you, really: If Moore can be bitterly amusing to watch, his loose relationship with truth has hurt his cause over the past few years. With his cultural stature after BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE and then FAHRENHEIT 9/11 (to say nothing of books such as Dude, Where’s My Country?) everyone feels entitled to a pot-shot or two in his direction. He’s fat; he lied; he got sued by that guy; he said this or that silly thing. As one of the most preeminent voices from the American left, he gets the enmity of conservatives and the dubious glares of the liberals trying to appease the centre. Ah, the wages of success…

One of the sparks for that celebrity was the publication of a book called Stupid White Men, back in the woolly old days of 2001. Riffing on turn-of-the-century America, Moore offers observations on the “sorry excuses for the state of the nation” and targets the Bush administration before it actually had the chance to turn ugly. The UK edition of the book, here reviewed, offers a post-9/11 introduction and epilogue in which Moore bravely portrays himself (and the book) as nearly-censored victims of a timid publisher. Otherwise, Stupid White Men has already become a quaint time capsule from a pre-“War on Terror” period.

Reading Stupid White Men five years after its original date of publication is often an exercise in futility. Moore’s denunciation of the way Bush won the 2000 elections seems so passé, much like his warnings about various members of the Bush cabinet. Over and over again, readers will want to grab a phone line to early 2001 and tell Moore that he hasn’t seen anything yet. That whatever outrage he musters over this or that minor incident should be marshaled for even worse abuses to come. On the other hand, Moore seldom shies away from criticizing the Clinton administration, which is an useful reminder that Bill only looks good in hindsightful comparison.

And yet Stupid White Men isn’t completely past its expiration date. One of the greatest tragedies of an era where terrorists are hiding behind every security checkpoint is that this single-minded obsession with one particular (and relatively rare) problem has sweept everything else under the rug. Education, wages, racism, environmentalism, corruption: these are all valid issues, except that no one has been paying any attention to them when the GWOT swats everything else aside. Stupid White Men, at its best, it a reminder that -oh yeah- there are other, far more prevalent issues to solve.

Alas, to get to those points you will have to wade through a lot of misplaced humour. Moore’s style has often relied upon buffoonery to make a point –-much to the dismay of everyone who would like to take Moore seriously. It’s not that Moore is incapable of being funny: it’s that he seldom seems to know when enough is enough. Stupid White Men is filled with passages where Moore keeps going farther away in absurdity when more restraint would have served his point a lot better. It’s difficult enough to balance the demands of hyperbolic humour with the factual accuracy of political commentary, but Stupid White Men is often too goofy for its own good. It doesn’t help that Moore’s satire can be so convoluted as to be indistinguishable from actual conservative rhetoric.

This tension between class-clown humour and loftier social criticism eventually takes its toll: The cheap shots, the silly lists, the name-calling can be fun in small column-sized doses, but they get tiresome over the course of a full book. Even those who are on Moore’s side may come to appreciate what his opponents are claiming. In the political exposé/satire genre, Al Franken was generally more successful with Lies and the Lying Liars that Tell Them, reaching a better balance between facts and humour (though TeamFranken probably had a lot to do with the careful research.) It’s also worth noting that Moore’s follow-up, Dude, Where’s My Country?, is also generally better that Stupid White Men. So take heart, all Moore doubters: there’s still hope for him yet.

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