Sunday, May 20, 2007

Fleshing out the Story

It turns out that the BBC story that provided me with grounds for giving Michael Moore a Chutzpah of the Week award was more than a little bit incomplete. The lacunae do not detract from either Moore or the chutzpah, but they are still interesting. Apparently, Associated Press has been doing a better job of covering Moore; and Jocelyn Noveck can now offer a more thorough account:

Lost in all the publicity over Moore's trip is the reason he went to Cuba in the first place.

He says he hadn't intended to go, but then discovered the U.S. government was boasting of the excellent medical care it provides terror suspects detained at Guantanamo. So Moore decided that the 9/11 workers and a few other patients, all of whom had serious trouble paying for care at home, should have the same chance.

"Here the detainees were getting colonoscopies and nutrition counseling," Moore told The Associated Press in an interview, "and these people at home were suffering. I said, 'We gotta go and see if we can get these people the same treatment the government gives al-Qaida.' It seemed the only fair thing to do."

So the group, which included eight patients — three ground zero workers and five others — headed off by boat towards Guantanamo. From a distance, with cameras rolling, Moore called out through a bullhorn that he wanted to bring his friends for treatment at the naval base. He got no response.

"So there I was with a group of sick people," he says. "What was I going to do?"

The answer: head to Havana. There, the film shows the group getting thorough care from kind doctors. They don't have to fill out any long forms; health care is free in the Communist nation, after all.

But did the American film crew get special treatment because they were, well, an American film crew? Moore and his producer, Meghan O'Hara, insist not. "We demanded that we be treated on the same floor as all Cubans, not the special floor for foreigners," Moore told The AP. Still, the doctors obviously knew they were being filmed, so it's hard to know — although Cervantes [one of the patients] said she went back alone with no cameras and was treated similarly.

If anything, this extended account further justifies Moore's award for exercising chutzpah so outrageously in order to make his point. However he chose to frame the narrative, it is hard to believe that Moore had not anticipated the folly of sailing to Guantanamo with no means of communicating with anyone there other than a bullhorn from a boat. Since his film Sicko pursues the advocacy of a socialized medical system, Moore most likely realized that this would be a provocative way to show his viewers socialized medicine "in action." It was just his rhetorical game, and the Cubans were happy to play it.

The real insight from this story comes back to the reaction of our government and Moore's reaction to that reaction. I suppose that ordinary life has always been the battleground on which opposing propagandas duke it out. We are most aware of it in all the negative advertising that fills the airwaves in the months (now years, apparently) leading up to an election; but we tend to forget that all the advertising we encounter amounts to little more that the progression of skirmishes in a series of propaganda wars. Health care just happens to be one of the bigger battlefields. It is this more general state of affairs that we come to recognize when Moore undertakes one of his muckraking projects. The only real irony is the extent to which the muck-generators serve his cause through acts of opposition that end up shining more light on the very things Moore wanted us to see in the first place!

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