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Michael Moore first received attention as the guerrilla filmmaker behind the 1989 documentary classic Roger & Me, which depicted his pursuit of an interview with General Motors CEO Roger Smith. The film, like most of Moore's projects, incites both laughter and anger, getting across a serious and humane message about corporate priorities and their effect on the lives of working people. Though he wrote and directed 1995's Canadian Bacon, a satire about a proposed war with Canada, most of Moore's work has revolved around real-life attempts to shed light on hypocrisy and misbehavior among those in corporate and government power. His short-lived, Emmy-winning 1995 series TV Nation has become a cult classic for its take on everything from race relations to the exploits of Crackers, its "Corporate Crime-Fighting Chicken." The Big One is a shambling 1997 tour film documenting the events--including a face-to-face interview with Nike CEO Phil Knight--surrounding Moore's nationwide tour to support his best-selling book, Downsize This! Today, when he isn't stumping for Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader or directing Rage Against The Machine videos, Moore is working on the second season of The Awful Truth, his TV Nation-style series for cable's Bravo network. (For those who don't receive Bravo, the first season's 10 episodes will be released on video and DVD Oct. 31.) Moore recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about the economy, Ralph Nader, Howard Stern, the elitism of the Left, his interview tactics, and more.
The Onion: Are we better or worse off than we were eight years ago?
Michael Moore: I can't speak for the whole country, but I'll speak to what I know. During 12 years of Reagan and Bush, in Flint [Michigan, Moore's hometown], there were 27,000 jobs eliminated. In Flint, under Clinton and Gore, 32,000 more jobs have been eliminated and 67% of the school kids live below the federal poverty level. We've got more people without health care. I could go down a whole list of things. Last year, there was a record number of bankruptcies filed in this country. We're carrying more personal debt than at any other time in our history. It's certainly gotten better for the top 30%. They're doing better. The top 10% is doing really well. At the bottom, the wages haven't really changed that much.
O: Why do you think it's been presented as such a booming economy?
MM: Because those doing the presenting are booming. I mean, people who work in the media are doing well. People who own the media are doing better than they are. So you lose touch and lose sight of what's really going on. That's my take on it. If it really was so great for everybody, why is Bush leading in the polls? You've never heard of an instance in an election where, when the economy is booming, people make a change. That's the critical thing. If you're paying your bills and you're getting to take that extra trip to Bermuda, you don't really want to change that. You don't want to risk changing it, right? The fact that people want to, I think, is in large part due to the fact that so many people in the middle and lower income brackets have not seen a change. Not that they think George Bush is going to give them anything better, but they don't trust that Gore is necessarily going to be on their side. I think a lot of people aren't going to vote, and that you're going to have one of the lowest turnouts again.
O: You've said that you think of non-voters as this sleeping giant, that they're not voting because they're cynical or detached from the system. Do you think that maybe a lot of them just don't care?
MM: No, they do care. I think a lot of people... I do think there are a lot of truly apathetic people who don't care10 or 20 million people who could give a shit, and maybe another 10 or 20 million who are complete idiots.
O: That's a big constituency.
MM: Yeah, but it's a big country. That's only 30 or 40 million people I just mentioned. That still leaves us with 230 million people who aren't idiots and who do care. And, yet, of the 200 millionknock off the kids thereyou've got roughly 100 million who aren't voting. Now, there are not 100 million people who don't care. So, what's going on there? I think it's because they don't see much of a difference on the ballot. As Studs Terkel said the other night, what do you want, a cold or the flu?
MM: You announced the creation of The Awful Truth on Howard Stern, who's sort of a convenient target for both the Left and the Right. Is he good or bad for America?
MM: He's good. He's good. Yeah, he's good. He's good for the crowd that he speaks to, and I think he's an entertainer. I don't think he's doing anything out of any particular belief system. I think that he says what he says, and he gets a response from people. He hates authority and goes after it with a decent amount of vigor, and I appreciate that.
O: How do you feel about the crusades against violence in entertainment?
MM: I guess that when I see their crusade to stop the kind of violence where, in my town, a six-year-old shoots another six-year-old to death in a classroom, then I'll believe them. But this whole thing about the movies and all that... Look, they watch the same violent movies in Canada and Germany and England, right? And they listen to the same violent rock 'n' roll. And they don't kill each other. There's something wrong with us that's much deeper than what's in the CD player or appearing in your local cinema.
O: Do CEOs have consciences?
O: Phil Knight really seemed to have one.
MM: Yes, all human beings do. I didn't even go see him; he called me. You would think they would run away when they see me coming, but most of them don't. In fact, some of them go looking for me.
O: He seemed really conflicted.
MM: I think he was. I think he was, and I was trying to appeal to him as a human being.
O: Do you really think Nader can win?
MM: Oh, yeah, he can win. Sure. I mean, it's a simple math problem. If there are three people in a race, you can win with as little as 34% of the vote.
O: But do you honestly think he has a chance?
MM: Yeah, of course he has a chance. It's the same as if you'd asked me 40 years ago, "Do you really think Rosa Parks is gonna win this?" It was one woman who wanted to sit at the front the bus, all alone. One person can make a difference, and millions of people can make a difference, and I'm telling you, the rallies have been incredible. Bush and Gore are not getting these kinds of crowds.
O: Do you think Nader has reached out to a broad enough constituency?
MM: I think he's trying to, but it's very hard when you don't have that kind of media.
O: There was some tabloid a few weeks ago that had "Donahue's Last Days," or "The Hard Times Of Phil Donahue," or something like that. He seemed fine when I saw him stumping for Nader.
MM: Oh, my God, he's in great shape. I can't believe it. The guy is pushing 65 and he's running circles around us. There are no hard times of Phil Donahue, believe me. I was talking to him on the phone and asked, "What are you doing these days?" He goes, "I'm sitting on my boat. I'm cruising up and down the Long Island Sound."
O: You've got a part in Lucky Numbers, but will you write or direct a fictional movie again?
MM: Oh, yeah, I'm writing one right now. I don't want to talk about it, but hopefully I'll be shooting it next year.
O: At the end of the day, are you an activist or an entertainer?
MM: I don't see myself as either. My job is I'm a filmmaker, and I do that either through making documentary films or making short films and calling them TV Nation or The Awful Truth, and putting them on TV or on video. That's my job. And I'm a citizen of this country. If I'm an American citizen, that should automatically imply that I'm an activist. To say that I'm an activist would be redundant, because you cannot be a citizen in a democracy and not be an activist. If you're not active, if you're passive, if you sit on the sidelines and are a spectator, then it's not a democracy. It's something else. If the people don't participate, if they all just check out, I don't know what that's called, but it's not a democracy. So I don't like the term "activist." I just think we're all activists if we're citizens. We'd better be activists.
O: Are you making a difference?
MM: A difference in what?
O: In the country. Changing people's minds.
MM: Who knows? I try to make it to dinner and I try to make it to bed. Am I making a difference? That's too heavy for me. Seriously. I hope I'm making a contribution.
O: In TV Nation, The Awful Truth, and the movies, how do you get the access that you do? Is it just sheer persistence?
MM: No. People want to be on TV.
O: Even the middle-management types who are put on the spot?
MM: It's usually the PR person. Just by that implication, they're in charge of public relations. They've chosen a profession where they want to be on TV, except they're used to being on TV with softball questions and people who are pro-business and don't ever give them a hassle. So I come with my camera, which is the same kind of Sony Betacam that the other media use, with the same little red light. They're a little confused at first that I'm asking different kinds of questions, and then they get upset, and then people start to feel sorry for them. I don't feel sorry for them. Most of them are former journalists, but they could make five times as much money working in PR telling lies than working in the media and supposedly telling the truth.
O: I was going to ask about that, because I always see misery in their faces and feel sorry for them. They're underpaid workers, too; they're not CEOs.
MM: Yeah, but the people I put on camera... You're talking about secretaries and things like that, and I don't ever hassle them. I feel very bad for them, and I only show them doing their job, which is to keep me the fuck out of there. But the PR guy at the HMO, who's also a vice-president of the company, I don't feel sorry for him. In the case on our show [The Awful Truth, an episode of which depicts a man's horrifying struggle to get a life-saving pancreas transplant through his HMO], they're participating in an effort to deny this person an operation that they should be paying for. That's who I feel sorry for. That's the misery I'm concerned about, not... I mean, for crying out loud, this guy has been a PR guy for the past 10 years, and for one day out of 10 years he has to deal with Michael Moore. Oh, boo hoo. Give me a break. He's upset because his lies aren't gonna go over like they do with the rest of the media. And I'm not gonna leave.
O: The challenge of being left-wing in mainstream culture seems to be that people see hypocrisy in you that they don't see in others. You know, "Oh, you made this movie for a big studio, and you did this book for a major publisher, and you're working with Rage Against The Machine, and they're on Sony. People seem to hold left-wing people to standards that they wouldn't hold...
MM: But the people who do that are not people from the working class. Nobody from the working class would ever begrudge my success. If you're from the working class, if any of us escape and do well, it's like a big cheer goes up. "One more made it out! I'm next! I'm in line!" The local paper in Flint has never written the words, "and he lives in a beautiful apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan," because the local paper in Flint hates me. If they wrote that, that would be a positive. Everybody would be like, "All right, Mike! One for our side!" So they will never write that, because it would be such a badge of honor that I've done well, or that my book sold all these copies, or that I made all this money. They never mention that in Flint. But I'll read it in the liberal publications that are mainly written by people who believe... They're just pissed because they're not sitting in this apartment. They went to all the right schools, and they paid a lot of money. I didn't even fucking go to college. I went for a year and dropped out. They played by the rules, and now they're a grunt at Newsweek or The New Yorker or someplace like that, and they want to know why they're living with five other people in a five-floor walk-up down in the East Village, and now they have to move to Jersey City. And I'm sitting here. There's a voice in their head, the voice of class, screaming, [adopts whining voice] "Not fair! Not fair!" I don't pay any attention to those people, because where I come from, none of that matters. I got a letter last night from some independent bookstore owner. "How dare you have a link to Amazon on your web site! They're evil! You're part of the corporate machine!" I wrote her back and said, "This is a really good point you're bringing up, and my next book is published by HarperCollins, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch. So I assume that you won't be selling it, because it's published by HarperCollins. I assume you don't sell any books by Random House, Simon & Schuster, or HarperCollins, because they're owned by the corporate conglomerate that's eaten up all the small publishing houses." Of course, she wrote back and said, "Okay, you've got me there." I feel like, "Why are you running this shit on me? You're feeding the machine, too. Unless you want to go be a hermit and live in a cave..." I write all these people back. I say, "Yeah, I'm wearing my Levis right now and I'm drinking a Coca-Cola. Fuck you." I hate liberals.
O: That was sort of my next question. How do you present a populist message to a left-wing movement that...
MM: I don't present it. I don't care about the left-wing movement. I don't care. I mean, I care about them to the extent that I feel like, God bless them. God bless them for sitting there at a card table with their Greenpeace petition 24 hours a day. We need those people. God bless 'em. But my mission is to speak to the people I know, people where I came from. There's no left-wing community in Flint, Michigan. I was not raised in any kind of family like that, just people who watch a lot of TV and eat all the wrong foods. If change is going to occur in this county, it's going to come by reaching out to those people, not going and preaching to the choir. I don't care what they think or what they say about any of this. A lot of it's just jealousy, and I'd like to see them get into the position that I'm in and do what I do. Because I know what I do. I know how much I give away. I know how I live my life. I know that every day I'm following my conscience. I don't compromise my values, and I don't compromise my work. That's why I've been kicked from one network to the next: I fucking won't give in. And it's cost me dearly: I've got to be on a cable channel now, and it's up around... It's channel 64 here in New York. And then I've got to put the thing out on home video so people can see it, because not everybody has cable. It's a lot of work, whereas if I would have, back when I was on Fox, just played ball with the team, we might still be on the air for all I know, now that reality TV is such a big fucking deal. You know what I'm getting at here? It's not easy. I wouldn't cross the picket line at Borders, and they canceled all my appearances on my book tour, and I got into a big brouhaha with them when my book was out. That's not a smart thing to do if you're trying to sell books, to go after the second largest book chain in the country. Getting back to the idea of hypocrisy, with bands like Rage, their answer is, "Look, we want our albums in as many people's hands as possible." Obviously, the best way to do that is to get a contract with Sony. It's up to you whether or not you're going to sell out at that point. The thing about why major publishers and studios and networks put me on... This is a basic tenet of capitalism: They would never do this if they didn't think they were going to make a lot of money off me. In order for them to think they're going to make a lot of money off me, they must believe there are millions of us who like this sort of thing and agree with what I'm saying. They, the corporate behemoths, believe that our numbers are bigger than we believe they are. We should take that as a compliment instead of bemoaning the fact that they're distributing Rage or Michael Moore. We should go, "Wow, the enemy thinks we've got a lot more troops than we actually know we have. Good. Keep them thinking that."
O: And you've proven them right, I guess. Rage is a platinum-selling act and you've hit the top of the bestseller list.
MM: That's right. And, you know, as long as we continue to make the money, they'll continue to put it out there, because they also believe that they've so dumbed down and numbed out the American people with the other crap they put out there that the average Joe sitting on the couch isn't gonna get up after turning off The Awful Truth and go out and start a revolution. They're so confident that people will not participate in their democracy that they can actually put this on TV. In the new season of The Awful Truth... GE owns 25% of Bravo. Jack Welch [the CEO of GE] announced that he was retiring, so we threw a retirement party for him in Times Square with a big banner that said, "That bastard Jack Welch." And this is the guy who owns 25% of the network we're on! You could even put that on, because they're so confident nobody will do anything. So what this is, really, is a race. It's a race between what they believe and what we believe. They believe that it doesn't matter, that as long as they make money off it they'll keep putting it on, because it won't really upset their apple cart. We believe that the more it gets out there and the more people watch The Awful Truth and listen to Rage, the more I believe that, sooner or later, things will get better, because they'll get off the couch and do something. I may be right, and I might be wrong. They might be right, they might be wrong. It's a race, and we'll see who wins.