Michael Moore is first and foremost a story-teller – in the fine Celtic tradition. Moore has put his heart and soul into a memoir, Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life. Moore’s been accused of “injecting himself into the story,” as if that’s a bad thing – given the educational reach of his films and books. Of course, by definition, everyone injects themselves into an auto-biography. Forget whatever media-derived prior persona you’ve associated with the great documentarian. The character you come to know here is the real Michael Moore.
What this book leaves you with is: you really find out the personal moral underpinnings of why Michael Moore is Michael Moore; how he surrounds himself with and collaborates with other good-hearted, intelligent people; why he fiercely continues to take on the Imperial plutocracy…despite receiving more threats, and actual assaults, than any American except the president…despite all the unfair nattering that comes his way. You really come to understand his great sense of fair play, his love of family, community and country and where it comes from.
Though he explains his entrance into filmmaking and lavishes credit on the many who mentored and helped him on the way, I still can’t really figure out just how Moore became one of the few on the left to crack though the usual corporate media barricade and get out there what he has gotten out there. Of course, a lot of it is his genius, hard work, ability to identify and work with like-minded folks, sense of humor and timing – a Forrest Gump-like uncanny ability of being in the right place at the right time and rising to the occasion is a big part of it.
It’s certainly understandable why the right hates him, even to the point of Sean Hannity braying, with impunity, that he’d like to kill Moore on national TV (who else ever gets that said about them on TV? Osama? Gaddafi?) His oft-times critic, Reality Show star Sarah Palin never misses a chance to rail on about this “Commie Hypocrite;” an “anti-American” who really cares little about workers. This book will surely “refudiate” that blather.
The opening chapter recaps the changes to his and his family’s life due to his notoriety. He points out how he cannot go anywhere without bodyguards. He details the vicious hate mail and to-his-face aggression he got for courageously calling out the Iraq Invasion at the Academy Awards – at a time when noted liberals like Al Franken and establishment liberal media icons Bill Keller, David Remnick and Nicholas Kristof were cheer-leading it and 70% of the American public were willingly snookered by Bush into backing it. We also hear of the folks in Hollywood who smeared him at the time and the courage of Paramount Pictures head Sherry Lansing in publicly embracing him.
The self-doubt and guilt at impacting so many close family and friends that came with it pretty much paralyzed him for a couple years. The illustrious Kurt Vonnegut and none other than the very guy who lied us into the war shook him out of it. Moore took seriously George W.’s statement, “If we give in to the terrorists, the terrorists win;” got the band back together and set about creating Fahrenheit 9/11.
A Michigan Childhood
After getting that bracing update out of the way, Moore goes back to the beginning detailing his birth in Flint and early years as a boy growing up in Davison, a near-by white, farm town suburb just east of Flint. (Here I’m going to inject myself – I’m five years older than Michael and I grew up in inner northside Flint. I was always fearful of what I and my friends all saw as a racist, redneck, shit-kicker enclave. We never went to Davison, even though it was less than 10 miles away. The legendary Michigan rocker Bob Seger’s “Busters from the country and Hitters from the shop” just did not mix much. The only person I knew growing up who was from Davison was White Panther Party founder and MC5 manager John Sinclair. That’s another story; but, amazingly, I found out in the book that John and Michael grew up on the same short street!)
We hear of family tales of pioneer settlement in frontier Michigan and of some of the family’s great friendship with and concern for the local Natives. He recaps his father Frank’s time as a Marine on the island of New Britain in the South Pacific during World War Two.
His mother taught him to read at age four and took him on annual educational trips. At age eleven, young Forrest, err, Michael, gets separated from his mom, sister and cousin in the US Capitol and gets help from none other than Bobby Kennedy – a saint-like hero to us Catholic boys of the time. His love of his family comes through loud and clear.
The Transformative 60s
In 1967, Davison was in an uproar as the Detroit Riots broke out. From once being a stop on the Underground Railroad and a source of proud Union soldiers, Davison and environs had devolved to a site of major KKK rallies; to a bastion of nearby white supremacists. (In 1993, while watching the massacre of the Branch Davidians in Waco unfold live on TV, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols planned the Oklahoma City bombing in revenge at a farm Nichols owned nearby.) Though still 80% white, nearby Flint had elected the country’s first black mayor and passed the first Open Housing law and the city saw few incidents during the Detroit insurrection. But, some people in Michael’s neighborhood frantically packed and left town fearing a black incursion into Davison. A couple weeks later, the Moore family Chevy burst a radiator hose one night in Detroit’s recent riot zone upon leaving a Tigers game. A kind fellow fan who was black helped the scared family get back on their way.
By Eighth Grade at St. John’s parochial school, Vietnam was dominating the news and boy and girl classmates were beginning to notice one another. A loving teacher, Mrs. Beachum, set out to teach the kids social/dating manners and then vanished for good one day. The kids later found out that her husband was killed in Vietnam. One evening when Michael was serving as an altar boy, a parishioner burst in and exclaimed “King’s been shot.” In what Moore calls “one of the most depressing things I would ever witness,” some in the crowd cheered. After the Vietnam deaths of Sgt. Beachum and a boy from the local high school and the assassinations of Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy, Michael vowed to never pick up a gun in anger, to stand up to racism whenever it reared its ugly head AND to enter the seminary.
Moore lasted a year in the seminary, highlighted by a preposterous teaching on do-it-yourself exorcism and then returned to public high school in Davison. Understandably slow catching up on the social scene, he tells endearing tales of his two high school dates. It’s here in high school that his penchant for mischief and fierce anger at social injustice breaks out. He wins an Elks Club Boys State speech trophy with a blistering speech taking none other than the Elks to task for their “Caucasians Only” rules. (He knew of the policy because his father, who had had a taste of anti-Catholic discrimination, once applied – for the golfing perks – and then refused to join when he was presented with it.)
Within a year, the Elks abandoned the repulsive policy – but, only after the federal courts stripped them of tax exempt status. Soon thereafter, such discrimination was banned throughout the country.
The Youngest Elected Official in the US
During his senior year, a central casting vice-principal took a paddle to Moore for having his shirt untucked. That began his successful effort to get elected to the school board – 18-year-olds had just gotten the right to vote AND run for office. Moore became the youngest elected official in the country. The school board eventually removed the offending vice-principal AND the principal. He spent four contentious years on the school board, garnering some victories for student rights. He now laments his youthful lack of “the necessary compassion and mercy for two men who were just in the wrong job.”
During graduation, the same vice-principal removed a classmate from graduating with the class because he had on a bolo tie instead of a more conventional one. Though recently elected to the school board, Michael, and everyone else, was cowed into silence. Shame at not having done anything led to a vow to never again stand silent in the face of injustice which led directly to the Michael Moore we know today.
Fearing getting drafted upon graduation (he didn’t due to a high Lottery number), Moore and like-minded buddies made a hilarious scouting trip across the Blue Water Bridge from Port Huron to Sarnia, Ontario to see if it was true that Canada would welcome resisters of conscience.
Soon, Michael moved on to become a crisis counselor and founder of an alternative newspaper for Flint (like many city papers, the Flint Journal -“Urinal” – was in the pocket of the local oligarchs – in this case General Motors.) The Flint Voice was greatly helped financially by the singer/songwriter Harry Chapin, who shared its ideals. Many local talents found an outlet in the Voice and went on to become best-selling authors and journalists. The Flint Voice hammered away at GM’s plans to abandon its hometown, despite the denial and resignation casting a gloomy shadow over the town. The Flint Voice eventually morphed into the statewide Michigan Voice.
It was hard at the time to find conscientious civic leaders who would embrace the thankless, if not impossible, task of ramping down a major industrial city – finding a soft landing – as its major industry was ripped out from under it. Some admirable efforts came later on – and continue – though, well after the factory zones seen in Moore’s films began to resemble Beirut at the height of Lebanon’s civil war. After the Voice published a story on a $30,000 “gift” to the former police chief mayor from a local gambler, the local authorities cracked back and the police raided the office of the Voice’s printer. This set off a firestorm across the country. The ACLU and various press freedom groups got involved. A month later, a similar fishing-expedition on a CBS affiliate in Boise occurred. Both events revived a dormant bill in Congress and led to the 1980 passage of PA 96-440 – the Privacy Protection Act – the “Newspaper Shield Law.”
John Lennon called the Voice and offered to help. Moore, at first, hung up thinking it was one of his crony’s pranks. Lennon, Stevie Wonder and others had done a famous benefit concert in Michigan and Lennon wrote a song (“a ditty” he called it) for the now-incarcerated (and quickly-after-the-benefit-released) John Sinclairhttp://annarborchronicle.com/2009/12/27/the-day-a-beatle-came-to-town/ . Lennon offered to do another benefit concert for the Voice. Never happened, as eight weeks later, Lennon was sadly gone. Sadly as well, soon thereafter, Ronald Reagan was elected president.
In 1985, Reagan announced plans to lay a wreath at the graves of Nazi SS troopers while he would be in the Fatherland attending an upcoming G-7 summit. Moore’s friend Gary Boren had lost most of his family to the Holocaust. Boren and Moore went to Bitburg, scammed press credentials (the bad guys didn’t know him yet), went to the cemetery and unfurled a bed sheet-sized banner in front of Reagan’s limo, reading:
We Came From Michigan, USA, To Remind You:
They Killed My Family
Terror from the Skies
From there, Michael goes on to a series of quite touching serendipitous encounters.
There is the heart-wrenching parable of the chaplain/priest who blessed the H-bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The good pastor spent the rest of his life ministering at Sacred Heart, an inner city Flint parish, unable to forgive himself. Father Zabelka became a fierce advocate for the poor, vocally opposing the Vietnam War, being a civil rights champion – never backing down … and, volunteering at the Flint Voice. The pacifist priest even opened up his church for people (some decidedly not pacifists) to sleep in during the infamous 1969 Flint SDS War Council.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flint_War_Council
There are more Arab-Americans and people of Arab descent in southeastern Michigan than anywhere in the non-Arab world. Unlike many Americans, people from Flint grew up knowing and liking Arabs, many Christian Palestinians. The day after Christmas 1985, Moore, now of the Michigan Voice, got a fellowship to go on a PR trip to the West Bank and Gaza with others from the area. As the plane loaded with Middle Easterners and a handful of sympathetic Americans descended twenty minutes late into Vienna and approached the terminal, military vehicles surrounded it and the El Al airline next to it at the gate.
Abu Nidal’s terrorist organization had launched simultaneous attacks on Vienna and Rome’s airports. Dozens lay dead in the terminals. After a traumatic four hour delay and a thorough search, the plane was refueled and sent on its way to Amman. Moore’s chapter telling this harrowing tale contains the most even-handed assessment of the plight of the Palestinians that I have read since Le Carre’s The Little Drummer Girl.
James Ridgeway, the eminent writer for the Village Voice wanted to examine and do a documentary on the Aryan Nation movement and a gathering of various factions of white supremacist groups at a farm south of Flint. The decline of Flint was ludicrously being blamed by these folks on Blacks and Jews and they saw Flint as fertile recruiting ground. Ridgeway called Moore and set it up. Moore, Ridgeway and filmmakers Anne Bohlen and Kevin Rafferty somehow talked the host Grand Dragon Robert Miles into allowing them to film the event where they uncomfortably stood out from the various brown-shirted costumes and Nazi regalia of the attendees. Though he’d always been a movie buff/addict, this very creepy encounter was to be Moore’s first foray into the documentary world and his first nervous screen appearance.
Before he went on to film Roger & Me, Moore made a stop in San Francisco as newly-hired editor of the liberal magazine Mother Jones. He quickly realized he was a “fish out of water” there, never fitting in with the limousine liberal crowd. As he puts it, “…my efforts to make changes were met with much resistance. They wanted neo-nudnik Paul Berman covering the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. I wanted Alexander Cockburn. They wanted to do an investigative piece on herbal teas; I wanted to give a monthly column to an autoworker on the assembly line in Flint.”
After four months he was fired; later he sued and won $60,000 for breach of contract and fraud.
Roger & Me
While licking his wounds, he found out about a US Commerce Department conference in Acapulco that was all about how the US Government would help you move your company to Mexico. Disguised as a small Flint auto parts manufacturer, he attended. Shocked to discover nauseating GM plans to close even more plants in Flint and replace them with plants in Mexico, Moore planned his next move on the ride back.
He called Ben Hamper, the autoworker he put on the cover of Mother Jones to sound out his idea. He next called Kevin Rafferty and went to New York to lay out his plan for the documentary that became Roger & Me. How they pulled it off with no money and gratitude to all the many good folks who helped is the final chapter.
Michael Moore is a national treasure. He is compassionate, empathetic, generous and a ferocious defender of average Americans. He never wavers in his communitarian value that we can do better; should do better; and, will do better for all of us. As my brother Patrick notes, “He’s a real patriot and is our Mark Twain.”
Like I said, not many have been able to crack through and get the corporate and imperial lies out there in the mass consciousness in this era of deflective 24/7 Kardashian Reality TV. Michael Moore started out exposing the evil done to the community of our hometown. He saw the connections between that, Imperial wars and escalating civic violence across the land. He went on to make two of the greatest movies of all time. Looking at just why we became such a violent society, Bowling for Columbine won the Oscar that led to the Delphian acceptance speech that won him the admiration of, as well as, the enmity of so many. The most financially successful documentary of all time is Fahrenheit 9/11, his look at how we became a corporate/military Empire; blindly locked into the dusty script of all Empires; how we were lied into war; and the vast consequences of all of it. (His Sicko is #5; Bowling for Columbine is #7; Capitalism: A Love Story is #11 and Roger & Me clocks in at #21)
The stories in Here Comes Trouble collectively represent how an ethnic, working class kid from Michigan grew to become the person he is and what motivates him to do what he has done and continues to do in the public sphere. Michael Moore and his good-hearted, intelligent band of comrades have, in desperate times of Imperial folly, reminded us of our better, all-in-it-together instincts, given us some serious information with a dose of humor and helped change America for the better.
MICHAEL DONNELLY was born and raised in Flint, spent two years in the seminary and went to work for GM and joined the UAW while attending Community College at age 19. He now lives in Salem, OR. He can be reached at Pahtoo@aol.com