Where to Invade Next
When a country invades another country, it’s generally after something. When we invaded Iraq in 2003, we were after oil, whatever homilies the White House PR machine cloaked it in. Sometimes the spoils of war are territory, sometimes loot. The ancient Greeks went to war over a beautiful woman.
Michael Moore is on the warpath, and what he’s after are ideas — ideas about how to make the U.S.A. work better.
With a directive to find a winning strategy from a fictional Joint Chiefs of Staff, who confess to him that they haven’t won a war since they were in Boy Scouts, Moore sets off to see what other countries have that we don’t, and claim what he can for the Stars and Stripes. He invades Italy first, then France, and cuts a swath through other European countries, with a side trip to North Africa. In each place he focuses on an aspect of the culture — political, economic, or educational — that he can bring home as booty.
In Italy it’s abundant paid vacation time, two-hour lunch breaks, and kinder, gentler worker-management relations. “It’s their right, and our pleasure,” says a factory owner. In France, Moore visits a gourmet kitchen, and reveals that it is in a public-school cafeteria, where the kids learn about good food and healthy eating. Shown the dispiriting fare American students get, the chef sniffs, “Frankly, that’s not food.”
And so it goes. In each country, as he finds a better idea that he can claim for the U.S. of A., he plants the American flag. Finland, Norway, Slovenia, each has something to offer — shorter school days, shorter work days, better police training, better prison systems. He contrasts what he finds with clips of police brutality or charts of educational shortcomings at home. In Germany, where he sees a lot of things to admire, he doesn’t ignore the evil past of the Third Reich. But he shows how reminders of it are everywhere, lest Germans be tempted to forget. Historical markers on Berlin street corners tell passersby what Nazi atrocity occurred there. Imagine, he says, if there were signs on Wall Street recalling the time when it was the central New York slave market.
Moore’s attitude through all of these invasions is one of gentle, good-humored bemusement. There’s none of the confrontational ambushing he sometimes employs in his films. Probably the most uncomfortable moment occurs when, in an ironic bit of devil’s advocacy, he tries to press a can of Coke on the appalled kids in the lunchroom at the French school. Now in all fairness, this is a highly selective bit of propaganda. Coca-Cola is far from unknown in France where, we learned from Pulp Fiction, the McDonald’s Quarter Pounder is known as a Royale with cheese. But Moore is in pursuit of uplifting examples.
Tunisia takes Moore a bit out of his way, but his point is clear. In this only Muslim country on his tour, women’s rights are robust, and women’s representation in the legislature is equal to men’s. When the post-revolution Islamist government tried in 2011 to deny those rights in a new constitution, women took to the streets to demonstrate, and the mullahs knew when they were licked.
The message is even stronger in Iceland, the penultimate stop on Moore’s juggernaut. Iceland has boasted Europe’s first democratically elected female president, and the one Icelandic bank that survived the country’s economic meltdown in ’08 was run by women, who tell Moore that they avoided disaster by not investing in anything they didn’t understand. The feminist takeaway from this invasion may have some resonance as Americans prepare for a presidential election that could offer a sea change in our executive branch.
Moore wraps it up with a visit to the site of the Berlin Wall, amidst the rubble of which he discovers a powerful symbol of the possibility of change where change might seem unlikely. There, he ruminates about the things he has seen and the ideas he has harvested from his campaign of invasion, and offers a flower of peace and reconciliation to his native land.
On one level, this movie might seem to smack of wide-eyed naiveté. But Moore’s thrust is canny. He hasn’t invaded Europe to expose its rotten underbelly, he’s there to capture the best of its ideas. And in doing so, he provides for all of us, whether we’re liberal, conservative, libertarian, or marching to the drummer of our choosing, a smorgasbord of ideas on which to chew.
Give me a child, and I’ll shape him into anything: Michael Moore and schoolchildren