In 1998, Howie Klein was the president of Reprise Records, and had the privilege of attending a dinner Bill Clinton threw to honor Vaclav Havel. The entertainment that evening was Lou Reed. (Havel is a big fan.) Klein was seated at a table with Senator Dick Lugar, the Indiana Republican, and he remembers Lugar’s reaction to Reed’s performance:
Lou Reed sang “Dirty Blvd,” his then-current hit. People kind of recognized the melody or something and they kind of danced in their seats. I remember Lugar could barely contain himself. His big plastic smile never even faded when Lou sang:
Give me your hungry, your tired your poor I’ll piss on ‘em
That’s what the Statue of Bigotry says
Your poor huddled masses, let’s club ‘em to death
and get it over with and just dump ‘em on the boulevard
No one seems to have noticed but me and my friend Brian.
For that brief moment, it was as if the country had not just gone through the adolescent convulsions of the Lewinsky affair. Vice President Gore’s “chair rocked constantly during Reed’s 35-minute performance,” according to a report in the Washington Post.
“Political leaders rarely listen to lyrics,” writes Klein. Maybe that’s why none of the APEC leaders took much notice the other night when Makana, dressed in an Occupy with Aloha t-shirt, sang his “Occupy” song for 45 minutes to the assembled dignitaries. But I wonder if that’s all there is to it.
Something else might be at work here as well. I am especially intrigued by the Post report of Al Gore rocking back and forth in his chair to Lou Reed. That’s not someone ignoring the music; that’s someone digging it. And from what I have seen and read about Al Gore, it’s pretty safe to assume that he was genuinely enjoying Reed’s performance. And why not? In his mind, he’s no bigot; he’s a friend of the poor and the huddled masses. How could he think otherwise? He and Lou Reed are on the same side; he shares the rocker’s indignation.
I am willing to bet that Gore doesn’t see himself as an oppressor or exploiter, and neither, for that matter, does Dick Lugar. Does that make them delusional, or hypocrites, or is it evidence of false consciousness? Maybe. Gore’s detractors like to put up images of his compound in Tennessee and talk about its huge energy footprint. They calculate how much fossil fuel he burns, flying around in airplanes to educate people about climate change. It’s an easy game to play.
But I wonder what it really proves about Al Gore (or Dick Lugar, or anyone, for that matter). Would Gore be a more credible messenger if he lived in a small solar-powered cabin and cycled to his engagements? Probably. Would you and I have heard of him? Unlikely. Would the world be better off if he just gave up, sank into an oblivious rich man’s hedonism, and cackled with wild delight as he drove a Hummer over the fragile habitats of endangered species? Probably not.
The right has now learned from the politically-correct left to demand ideological and moral purity from the left. There is something ridiculous in the demand. I’d say the same about putting too much emphasis on moral consistency.
Be that as it may, it’s now Michael Moore’s turn to prove his authenticity, or at least disprove his duplicity. While mixing with the Occupy protestors, Moore has had to defend himself, repeatedly, against the charge that he belongs to the 1 percent. And there’s little doubt he does, if you look strictly at the numbers: the top one percent in this country earn around 350,000 dollars a year.
So a CBS reporter in Denver asks Moore whether it’s true that he’s worth 50 million dollars; Moore calls the reporter a punk and tells him to stop lying. A blogger with the same Denver TV station lambasts Moore for his “hypocrisy.” Fox News and the New York Post have been flashing pictures of Moore’s lavish Torch Lake compound. They were also posted on Andrew Breitbart’s Big Hollywood blog.
On CNN, Piers Morgan put the question to Moore this way:
“I need you to admit the bleeding obvious. I need you to sit here and say, ‘I’m in the 1 percent,’ ” Morgan pressed.
“I’m not,” Moore insisted. “I am devoting my life to those who have less and who have been crapped upon by the system.”
His evasive answer caused an uproar. “How Rich is Mr. 99%?” “Hypocrite and Liar.” “Occupy Wall Street Supporter Michael Moore Belongs to the Affluent Class.” But it’s also worth thinking about. Moore is trying, clumsily, to say you can be in a socio-economic class but not of it. He would have a much easier time of it if he would just “admit the bleeding obvious,” but let’s not pretend for a moment that that would silence his critics. Might Michael Moore be acting in his own rational economic self-interest by pretending to be one of, or at least one with, the 99 percent? Sure. But I’m naive enough, or optimistic enough about human nature, to think Moore’s concern for “those who have less” is genuine. Does it amount to more than noblesse oblige dressed down in a baseball cap? That’s hard to say.
It’s mildly amusing to see the American news media peddling class warfare and crude ideas about class-consciousness, but if that’s the game we’re playing, then let’s start looking at the class interests behind the American news media. CNN? Piers Morgan? CBS? Fox News? Andrew Breitbart? Follow the money. Let’s specify the interests behind the American news media’s questioning of Michael Moore’s true allegiances or those asking about his annual income. Let’s look at the rich people they ostracize and those they unthinkingly celebrate. It should be obvious – bleeding obvious — that Michael Moore is not the problem; but there are people determined to make him the problem, and you have to wonder why.
I’m certainly not out to defend Michael Moore. Nor does he need me to defend him. Yes, Michael Moore has gotten very rich from his books and films. Yes, he’s obnoxious. Yes, he shamelessly promotes himself. Would he command more credence if he were not all those things – if he were poor, soft-spoken, and retiring? Maybe, but then most likely his films would never have gotten made or shown, and — more to the point — the TV would just find somebody else to distract us all from the real troubles of the day, or some other way to feed the resentment that keeps ordinary people from acting in their own best interests.