Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Michael Moore, Catholicism, and Poverty

Here's a clip that I think gets at what has always bothered me about Michael Moore. It really isn't so much that I think the questions he (maybe) raises aren't good ones, and I suppose one could say his heart is in the right place, although I'm skeptical. But I think it's an issue of his tone: I find it hard to get past the self-aggrandizement and smug ill will that he projects. Here, Wolf Blitzer asks him a fairly anodyne question and he acts like he's deeply offended, both as a person and as a Catholic. More on that in a second.

Admittedly, Claire and I watched a Canadian documentary called Manufacturing Dissent that did a fairly good job of deflating Michael Moore, and I think made it sort of impossible to take him seriously. The filmmakers are liberals and their film began as a celebration of Moore, but eventually, they found it hard to square his supposed ideals with the way he treats his employees, interview subjects, and ultimately his audience. I watched it thinking "Okay, well Roger & Me was still good, right?" And then they explained that well, no, Moore really was allowed to interview Roger Smith and just faked the footage in which his mic is turned off at the shareholders meeting. So, there goes that one too.

Manufacturing Dissent
is interesting too because the critiques they make are specifically Canadian. They're arguing that the American political system has been poisoned by these celebrity mountebanks whose primary allegiance is to themselves, and then maybe to some party that also wants power, and they believe Canadians should avoid growing its own Michael Moores or Rush Limbaughs. Of course, Canadian politics come with their own dysfunctionalities; but that's not to say the filmmakers don't have a point.

The problem I have with people like Michael Moore or Rush Limbaugh is that, instead of seeing a discussion as a way that we mutually arrive at truths about the world, they see it as a war, in which one takes positions whose value is not based in truth at all, but in how devastating they are to the other "side". They instrumentalize "ideas" in order to beat the other guy and see their relative truth values as irrelevant. When Moore makes an empty statement, like saying we should replace capitalism with Christianity, I have no sense that he means it, or how such a thing would even be possible; and I doubt that he either knows or cares.

In a sort of oblique way, Moore gets at an interesting question about what moral obligations we have in a capitalist society, although I don't think he sees it as a question. I often say that I was not raised Catholic, but I was raised by Catholics. And I hear the Catholic dog whistle he blows here. It's probably the same with other religions, but indeed I was raised with the idea of having a responsibility for the world, particularly for the oppressed and the poor. My parents certainly were not believers in "liberation theology", or even Catholic theology, to be honest. But, we still had the sense that caring for the sick and the poor is just the duty you're born with, which most of us, myself highlighted, fail to carry out.

do we have a moral obligation to provide for the sick and the poor, if we can? And, if so, how should we carry it out? Should Catholics be out tubthumping for universal health care, or welfare, or a stronger social safety net? I suspect that's what Moore is getting at, and honestly, I don't know. I wish you could safely ask the questions without people getting angry!

Or should these things just be a matter of individual charity? I always took Dostoevsky's grand inquisitor parable as suggesting that a state that buys its people's love with food and shelter will also remove the conditions of their freedom, and hence their chance for individual salvation. And many critiques of "socialism" take the same position; if you remove chance or contingency from people's lives, they won't be free, and therefore unable to do good or evil. But, then you start wondering if the idea there isn't that poverty is a good motivator to religious faith and so maybe the church is buying devotion instead. Maybe there are no atheists in soup lines.

And, of course, some people, at least seemingly, see poverty as the result of immorality.
Sometimes, when I talk to people about things like health care reform, or welfare, or other sorts of social safety nets, they'll say something along the lines of, "It's just not right to take money from the good people who work and give it to the deadbeats who don't." In a sense, I see what they're getting at, and I can't see how paying taxes could be a moral act. And there certainly are deadbeats in the world, although in my experience, no social group has a monopoly on them. But, I suppose I was raised to see the issue of whether the poor are "deserving" or "undeserving" as being beside the point, and basically a way of avoiding your obligation. Because, in the end, Christ didn't say, "Whatever you do for one of these least brothers of Mine, you do for me.... but, uh, don't do anything for the deadbeats, especially Chuck!"

Maybe it's different with the other Christian denominations. I always got the feeling that Protestants, with their work ethic, see being poor as a sign that you're probably not a member of the elect. On the other hand, I also had the feeling that Catholics see being wealthy as a sign that you're in trouble! But I haven't really got any idea what sort of ethical system actually teaches that poverty is the result of immorality. Well, aside from Objectivism, which is just horseshit anyway.

Of course, I'm not a believer. And I've likely pissed off any believers who might be reading this! Sorry about that. I will say that, personally, I have no idea what our ethical obligations are in modern society. I'm not exactly sure what Moore expects from Catholics. But, he does sort of raise an interesting question, at least to me. Finally, I'm probably wrong here too, but one question that's been on my mind as of late: I always thought that, when it came to "universal health care" the Catholic position was: 1. No abortion, 2. No euthanasia, but 3. if the first two requirements are met, Catholics want universal health care. So, it would be good to hear from practicing Catholics on the issue, and not some guy trying to score political points.

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