Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Michael Moore's Sicko

This past weekend I had the pleasure of seeing Michael Moore's latest documentary, Sicko. If you're living in the United States, or if you're living elsewhere and are mystified by the U.S. health care system, you ABSOLUTELY MUST SEE IT! It's moving, powerful, funny, informative, and revealing--everything you'd expect from a Michael Moore documentary.

A couple of parts stood out most to me. The first revolved around a young man who, after receiving a cancer diagnosis, returned to his native France for treatment after living for a decade or so in the United States. Upon completing chemotherapy, the man's doctor asked him how much time he wanted off from work. This type of leave is customary in France, I gather, and it's 100% paid (65% by the government, 35% by one's employer). The young man decided to spend his time convalescing on the beaches in the South of France.

Now, the story itself wasn't what jumped out at me per se (though it's always profound when someone shares a story about her or his struggle with cancer). What did jump out was my own reaction; initially, I felt myself scoffing at the man's decision to spend three subsidized months relaxing in the South of France. Shouldn't he just get back to work, I wondered? Wasn't that an abuse of the system? It was at that moment that I realized just how engrained American health care ideology and moralism have become, even in me--someone who bends Left and who therefore ought to know better. I mean, c'mon...isn't it sensible to give someone a little bit of time off to gather strength and regroup, especially after having to fight the fight of one's life?

What also struck me most about Sicko was one particular line. I don't recall now who uttered it, but basically, it went something like this: "In the United States, the people are afraid of the government. Elsewhere, the government is afraid of the people." Now, I realize this must be something of an over-statement. Yet, it does cut right to the heart of why (a) people in the U.S. feel so disempowered politically, and (b) why the government can get away with so many abuses of civil liberties and the like. This is especially true under the current administration.

In the spirit of Sicko, I'll share one health care "horror" story of my own. Thankfully it didn't affect me directly, but it's shameful nonetheless. A dispute involving doctors at my local hospital and my insurance company resulted in the latter refusing to cover hospitalizations here in Bloomington, albeit with some exceptions (e.g., pregnancy). Their dispute dragged on and on for months. The bottom line was that each party's greed resulted in people like me essentially losing coverage at our local hospital. I can't imagine what I would have had to do in the event of an emergency, or if I had become ill. I suppose I would have had to drive 40 miles to the next closest "in-network" hospital.

All that to say, those of us living in the United States not only need to see Sicko, but more importantly, we need to change this broken health care system of ours. It can work more or less well, sometimes, but too often it's a disgrace.


Me said...

Wasn't "People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people" the tag line from V for Vendetta? :)

I, too, saw Sicko last weekend (with very few people in the audience Friday evening) and enjoyed it. It felt more loose-jointed than his previous two films, closer to a long episode of one of his TV shows. I do think more people need to go see it.

Ted Striphas said...

...I think I need to get over my V for Vendetta thing. :)

In all seriousness, thanks for your comment and for sharing your response to the film. I agree that it seemed a bit more live TV Nation, now that you mention it.

Michael Kaplan said...

Hey, Ted:

I too was struck by the English talking head who uttered the line about European governments being afraid of the people. It resonates with something I've been ruminating about on and off as a side-effect of my own work. Another way to put the difference--which undoubtedly has its historical roots in the passage to "democracy" on the continent vs. here--is that American citizens criticize while European citizens demand. This is ridiculously simplistic, but it gets at the "ruling metaphors," if you will, of our respective systems. And it is patently clear in U.S. cultural criticism, where the emphasis is overwhelmingly on "resistance," "subversion," and "critique of political economy." This work is highly moralistic, pointing out all sorts of injustices; but it virtually never eventuates in advocacy of concrete political demands--the exception being narrow cases where clear policy options are on the table.

Unfortunately, while Sicko is quite powerful, it too succumbs to moralism. Sure, corrupt elites (in the insurance industry, Washington, etc.) are at fault; but it is not simply because they're greedy bastards. We expect them to be mis-motivated by their very location in positions of power; that's why we have structural controls (however inadequate). Alas, they have nothing to fear from us, as moral outrage gets us to the movie theater but leaves the bastards in their places.

Ted Striphas said...

Hi Michael,

Your points are excellent, and worth pondering far beyond the confines of this blog. For whatever it's worth, your "criticize" versus "demand" dichotomy, however simplistic it might sound, resonates well with me and with my own offhanded impressions of US/European politics. (The relevant example, for me, is the European tendency to demonstrate, and demonstrate constantly, over almost any issue. Here in the US, demonstration seems far more the exception than the rule.)

I see where your argument is headed: "criticism" is exhausted; perhaps it's always been. And in this respect, you echo some of my own frustrations with critique that lacks concrete imagination for the future.

I agree that Sicko is laden with moralism, and that as such it may well fall into many of the traps your note. That said, what was powerful to me about the film was its comparative impulse, i.e., the way in which it showed people apparently well-functioning alternatives to the US healthcare system. Of course, change is never as easy as saying, "oh...that seems to be working better over there than it does here." But then again, I'm hopeful that some perspective, some alternative, some other possibility might give people the fuel they need to begin transforming shrill criticism into concrete demand.

Would you agree with me than a well-conceived "otherwise" is a necessary bridge between the two?