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Thursday, June 24, 2004

"Faux" populism

The letters to the editor about the two-sides-of-the-coin review that Salon gave Fahrenheit 9/11 are quite interesting. The reason I don't say "balanced" is because they dispensed with the media definition of "balance", which would mean that a liberal meekly says, "Well, I guess it might be censorship to keep the movie from being shown, and it's possible Bush has been less than honest, maybe" and a conservative compares Moore to Goebbels. Nah, they had a liberal who liked it and a liberal who whined that it seemed a little too entertaining. (Sorry, Zacharek, you're usually a good writer, too.) Anyway, the letters are funny. I like the one sop they give to fire-breathing conservatives:

Your article that puts him in the company of Dickens, Springsteen? At least they had a salable talent. Whether you agree with his politics or not, the quality of Moore's movies is B-movie crap. Maybe his next will be "The Fat, Stupid White Guy Who Screwed Us All ... for Money."

Who knew George Will had a crank habit? Anyway, how can it possibly make sense to praise Dickens and Springsteen for having salable talent in one sentence and then criticize Moore for making money off his movies in the next? Actually, the comparison to Dickens is apt. Both came out of nowhere and rose to the top of their fields on talent alone. Both championed for the poor and became wealthy doing so. Both hold the opinion that society is pretty much run by madmen. Both had the tendency to self-aggrandize and assume that their personal issues had some bearing on the zeitgeist, but weirdly, both are right about that. Both skate on the line between maudlin and brillant, a line that establishment critics like to pretend doesn't even exist.
One can only imagine how Dickens would be received if he were alive today. The right would come out against his novels (and the movie versions of them) with guns blazing. The left would clutch their pearls and wonder why he has to be so heavy-handed and maudlin, and why does he have to pander (aka, make his stuff entertaining so that busy people are inclined to make time to read/watch it). Bill O'Reilly would declare that Bob Cratchit wouldn't even have a job if there wasn't a Scrooge. Critics on the left would say that having a child who is crippled, and starved, and losing out on time with his father because his father has to work so hard to feed him is a little over the top, and don't you think it's a bit unfair to all but blame Scrooge for Tiny Tim's health problems? And sooner or later, someone would call him a "faux populist".
Who decided that personality, not politics, determines who a populist is? Somehow it got determined that in order to be a real populist, you have to eschew making money and have a good raport with "common" people? Left critics complain that Moore is just using people, subjecting these poor common folk to his street theater, using their sad stories to make a point. Jeez, how condescending can you be? It seems to me that the people in Moore's movies and shows are using him just as much--they know who he is and they know they can use him to get attention and leverage to their cause.
The accusations that Moore is a "faux populist" remind me of a profile I read of Jim Hightower (can't remember where, sorry) a while ago that examined the car he drove, the food he ate, and the beer he drank, looking for signs of genuine populism. Of course, Hightower couldn't win--drinking Lone Star, driving a pick-up, and eating ribs were only signs that he was trying too hard. If he had been sipping on import beer or wine, driving a Volvo, and eating quiche, then he would have certainly been labeled a "faux populist". Granted, Hightower does enjoy writing up his enjoyment of local beers and food, but that's color commentary, if you will, the way he brings the people and places he's writing about to life.
I suspect that the people who lob accusations of phoniness at liberals with a populist bent are those same people who suspect that the valorized Middle America has gone completely Republican, that every single working class white man and woman in the flyover states voted for Bush and intends to do so again. And therefore they believe that populist tendencies are lies in and of themselves--how can you sympathize with working class white people when they all hate your liberal guts, every last one? And populism isn't going to work unless it encompasses all ordinary Americans, yes, even the white working class.
That's a self-defeating attitude, to say the least. I've gone to see Hightower speak, and he's not kidding when he describes his audience as being a huge mix of people. Different ages, races, styles, whatever. Some people were clearly on their lunch hour, even though it was a Saturday. One man got up to ask a question and he was still wearing a dirty work shirt, and my guess is that after this he probably had to go back to work. There was the usual hippie contigent, but there were also grandmas. I've never gone to see Moore, but I wouldn't be surprised if you got a similar turn-out.
Of course, Austin is a bit different from the majority of Middle America. We have alot of tolerance and community involvement here. But that didn't just happen; people rolled up their sleeves and created this community, and they couldn't have done it if they thought populism was a joke. More liberals around the country need to see that injecting a little humor and populism in their politics will do wonders for attracting the white working class back to the fold. People like Moore are necessary for this. Instead of needling him on piddly shit, more people need to embrace his methods and hit the air, making jokes and engaging ordinary people.

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