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Connecting the Dots: Michael Moore, White Nationalism & the Multiracial Left

by imc reposter guy Thursday, Jul. 29, 2004 at 11:47 AM

Found this one on the Azine. "Connecting the Dots: Michael Moore, White Nationalism & the Multiracial Left"

In a little more than a decade, filmmaker and writer Michael Moore has become one of the bad boys of the left.   Some may question our inclusion of Moore in the left given that few will garner the credentials Moore has amassed in the past ten years, which include two books on the New York Times bestseller list as well as the 2003 Best Documentary Oscar for a movie that confronts the gun industry and the highest honors at this year's Cannes Film Festival for Fahrenheit 9/11 , which critiques GW Bush's handling of 9-11.   That film companies fell over themselves to distribute Fahrenheit 9/11 after Disney CEO Michael Eisner blocked its release is another reason why Moore will probably never get credentials as a "progressive," let alone a "radical."   Overall, that he has entered with a burst of applause (at Cannes, twenty minutes worth) into the mainstream media world and become its bad boy darling is enough to discredit Moore in the eyes of many leftists whose ideas are marginalized within mainstream political discourse.  

We don't connect Moore to leftist politics to expand the parameters of what it means to be "left."   Rather, we seek to problematize a troubling undercurrent of many sectors of the left that are embedded in Moore's approach.   Simply, we think Michael Moore is a white nationalist.   And his white nationalist approach is what connects the self-professed liberal to the institutionalized left regardless if the latter takes Moore seriously or not.  



Some will be confused by our use of white nationalism since it's a term usually reserved for "extremist" organizations.   To the contrary, we consider white nationalism to be normalized in US social relations since by white nationalism we mean the project of nation building that is driven by the experiences and history of white people.   White nationalism, however, is more than just being white-centric, per se.   Rather, white nationalism is the project of maintaining or expanding the white nation--whether established along state lines or as socially created communities or both--in ways that reflect the anxieties, fears, dread and aspirations of white people.   As such, in a white nationalist discourse, whiteness and US civil society as well as the racialized and sexualized project of citizenship that maintains both are not confronted.   Instead the point of departure for a white nationalist approach is:   what stands in white people's way of being able to claim the nation as rightfully theirs?   A white nationalist project therefore is fixated with what government forces, "subversiveness" from below or shifts in the global economy threaten the rights of the white citizenry.

The white citizens' losses of rights and efforts to reclaim them are a consistent theme in all of Moore's work. Despite the disproportionate impact particular situations and institutions have on people of color, whether auto-industry layoffs in Flint, MI, the weapons industry, the stolen presidential election of 2000, or the USA PATRIOT Act, Moore positions the declining power of the white citizen/worker as the reason to be concerned about these issues.   Consider how, in the introduction to Stupid White Men , the top selling nonfiction book of 2002, Moore claims, "we, collectively, as Americans, all know that someone has pulled the plug on our all-night binge.   The American Century?   That's over.   Welcome to your Century 21 Nightmare!"   Reasons given for the end of the "American Century" is that a president who stole the election is sitting in office, (mainly professional) jobs are being downgraded or exported, the stock market isn't doing so well and it's difficult for homeowners to pay their mortgages.



The white, middle-class chauvinism expressed by Moore in Stupid White Men is also evident in his other bestseller, Dude, Where's My Country?   The title itself expresses a sentiment of ownership and entitlement to America that's central to the notion of white nationalist ideology.   Emphasizing 9-11 and the current war against Iraq, Dude is a treatise that is at once critical of government/corporate control and the eroding earning/buying power of the American citizen/worker and a hopeful statement about the "reformability" of the nation.   Whether bemoaning the middle class's difficulty paying the mortgage or rallying those who have access to voting to defeat Bush in the 2004 presidential election, Moore remains upbeat about the ability of the (free) citizenry to reform the re/public.   At one point Moore concludes, "There is a country I would like to tell you about.   It is a country like no other on the planet...It is a very, very liberal, liberated, and free-thinking country...This Land O' Left paradise I speak of is none other than... the United States of America! "   Not only is Moore's optimism white-centered in that it speaks from the position of someone who's lived a life much different than most non-whites in the US, it expresses an inherent commitment to a white supremacist state and the white citizenry.



Overall, throughout his work Moore never interrogates how in the American project, concepts such as "citizen" or "nation" are socially and legally constructed or how both are central to what James Baldwin quipped as "The White republic." Even though Moore has been defined by New York Times writer Frank Rich (another member of the white left elite) as the "everyman" (a racist and sexist term almost used exclusively for white men), it's clear that he's really only interested in white citizens' access to and inclusion in the nation-state rather than radical transformation.



Moore's fixation with inclusion in the nation-state means that he never really challenges the American project of white supremacy, capitalism and US dominance.   To Moore, the main hurdle in the way of "real" democracy is corporate control and the government forces and special interest groups that support it. His sole focus therefore becomes rich white men (or "stupid white men"), such as GM Chairman Roger B. Smith, Lockheed Martin executive Evan McCollum, NRA advocate Charlton Heston, GW Bush and Dick Cheney - and the white middle and working classes that are adversely affected by their greed. Moore doesn't critique capitalism as a system that is inherently oppressive, particularly to non-white bodies, but instead suggests that rich white men shouldn't be so greedy. "Stupid white men" therefore, should share the wealth with their white middle and working class brethren, thereby allowing them to participate in and enjoy the fruits of the American project.

To problematize corrupt individuals and ignore corrupt systems of oppression (carried out by institutions such as corporations and the state) not only lets capitalism and white supremacy off the hook, but also doesn't call into question the ways in which, despite internal differences, the white middle and working classes are complicit in upholding all systems of oppression vis-à-vis their allegiance to white supremacy and white nationalism. This allegiance to white supremacy and white nationalism (via an investment in notions of citizenship and democracy) also reflects an investment in anti-black racism and sexism.



Evident from debates during the 1787 Constitutional Convention, citizenship in the US was constructed initially in opposition to an enslaved body.   In the US, the citizen or "free" person able to participate fully in civil society is a racialized/sexualized subject.   So too is its antithesis, the slave.   Despite different groups experiencing slavery or indentured servitude, only Black people were viewed racially as slaves for life, meaning incapable of or unfit for freedom and participation in the re/public.   And although there were "free" Blacks during the legalized era of slavery, they were continuously threatened with being returned to or forced into slavery, violence and de facto and de jure discrimination.  



Today, despite the incorporation of a variety of bodies into the American project that has turned the white re/public into a multiracial one, blackness has continuously stood outside of citizenship or "the assimilable," thereby serving as the antithetical object to the citizen subject.   While the citizenship status of non-Black people of color is often tenuous at best and never tantamount to the citizenship status of white people, blackness nevertheless functions as anti-citizen to give coherence to the project of multiracial American citizenship.  



Thus, Moore's investment in citizenship and democracy doesn't question how, as Joy James puts it, in racialized societies such as the US, the " plague of criminality, deviancy, immorality, and corruption is embodied in the black" and "the dreams and desires of a society and state will be centered on the control of the black body."   Moore's lack of engagement with such analysis is apparent when he interviews the white militia families to understand their fixation with guns in his Academy Award winning film Bowling for Columbine.   Although he's clearly weirded out, Moore doesn't question the anti-black undertones the interviewees use when talking about the need to arm themselves against "criminals" or "intruders."   Nor does he question that such organized white anti-state militias are allowed to exist, especially when militant movements like the Black Panther Party   and the American Indian Movement (AIM) who encouraged armed liberation struggles (against a hostile and violent white state and citizenry) were dismantled systematically and violently by the same state Moore is selectively critical of through FBI informants, COINTELPRO and the myriad of institutions that worked to destabilize Black and Indigenous communities. In other words, the same white citizenry Moore identifies with and portrays as sympathetic, albeit confused, is also protected by a white nation-state that today controls aggressively Black and Indigenous people - largely through repressing radicalism, de-funding public education, practicing various types of structural adjustment programs in ghettoes and poor rural areas, criminalizing poverty and addictions (while participating in the drug trade), public housing and reservations, and policing and mass incarceration.  

Some might consider our argument that Moore's project is anti-black as unfair given that in both his books and films he addresses issues such as slavery, racial profiling and the prison system.   Yet Moore does so in a way that doesn't disrupt his white nationalist project.   Rather, Moore's project depends on the very realities he discusses in order to make the white citizen/worker/anti-corporate personality a sympathetic figure worthy of mass support.  



And in some cases, Moore is willing to lend this support to non-whites who can fit into these paradigms, a "generosity" that reveals the problematic partnership between white nationalism and the multiracial left.  



An example of how white nationalism can coexist with a support for the multiracial re/public is Moore's criticism in Dude of the detention of Middle Eastern and South Asian immigrant men that occurred after 9-11 .   While we of course think that the detention of large numbers of non-white people in the name of national security is white supremacist, we take issue with Moore's defense of immigrant detainees: "It is un-American to incarcerate a large group of people when there is no credible reason to think they are dangerous."   The obvious problem with this statement is that it's very American to lock up people without any credible reason, a point buttressed by the fact that the US has the largest imprisoned population in the world.   But more problematic is that inherent in Moore's challenge to the detention and deportation of non-white immigrants is a reliance on the presumed reality of a "criminal" body that is "dangerous" and therefore should be locked up for credible reasons.   Given that African Americans have, since the legal end of chattel slavery, been incarcerated overwhelmingly compared to other racial groups--and that in the "free world," blackness serves as the criminal profile that informs policing measures, including those applied to non-Black bodies--Moore's sympathy towards the unfair incarceration of immigrants reflects an anxiety that they are being treated like "real criminals" (read: Black people) when they don't deserve to be.   This approach doesn't question a social structure's reliance on a black position to function but instead draws from it to make its claims about innocence.



Thus, while there are differences between Moore and the multiracial left that he lends support to, the two share similar tendencies.   Most of today's progressive movements, themselves critical of "stupid white men" in power, are also driven by the same fear of blackness, which put simply, is a lack of concern for Black people and instead more of an anxiety of being treated like them.



Consider, for instance, the anti-globalization movement in the US, which is comprised of a multiracial cadre of labor, immigrant rights, and anti-sweatshop, anti-corporation and anti-prison forces.   As Frank Wilderson describes, "the democratic populism of the anti-globalization movement is rhetorically and materially scaffolded by an unspoken, but nonetheless necessary and pervasive anti-Blackness...where the anti-globalization movement is concerned Black people are refugees, squatters in somebody else's project."

Black death as the "condition of possibility" for the anti-globalization movement has its roots, according to Wilderson, in Jacksonian Democracy, a 19th century tradition that sought to expand greater access to civil society and citizenship rights for the "average" white man in opposition to the white ruling class.   This effort wasn't just simultaneously pro-American and anti-ruling class however; it was also anti-black because the project of self-enlightenment and expansion of rights for the "everyman" necessitated the continued existence of slavery or an enslaved, anti-rational figure in order to give coherence to notions of enlightenment, freedom and citizenship.   Just like the Jacksonian Democrats, Moore uncritically relies on society's fear and dread of a black position to marshal support for the rights of the "everyman" even as he dukes it out with the ruling class.  



But as Wilderson points out, "unlike today's anti-globalization movement, Jacksonians openly avowed their white supremacy."   Today, in an era of multiracial politics, white people invested in citizenship and democracy can remain silent on how black death functions to provide coherence for social access and mobility and yet avoid being labeled a white nationalist by chastising and ridiculing "stupid white men" or "white people in power" (a redundant term if ever there was one), as well as express sympathy or appreciation for some folks of color (Moore's favorite is Oprah Winfrey).



In this sense, Moore and most leftist movements have a lot in common.  Given the multiracial nature of today's re/public, few contemporary progressive movements that have institutional currency promote what can be taken as explicitly white nationalist projects.   Yet rather than question the fundamental nature of the American project as one structured by the containment and death of Black people, most progressive movements, in their efforts to access US civil society, take on "stupid white men" in a manner similar to Moore.  



That is, although today's multiracial progressive movements aren't necessarily white nationalist, their main preoccupations tend to express both a desire to access US civil society and an anxiety of being pushed down to blackness.   This is demonstrated by popular concerns about citizenship access or impingements on civil liberties and individual rights.   So while not all leftist movements are necessarily white nationalist per se, they do share a point of convergence with Moore's project and therefore with the Jacksonian Democratic principles of the 19th century.  This point of convergence, simply, is anti-black racism.  Wilderson is instructive on this matter: "This is not to say that all oppositional political desire today is pro-White, but it is to say that it is almost always anti-Black..."   Simply, whether multiracial or not, most movements of whatever political persuasion don't fundamentally seek radical transformation by challenging the American project's reliance on a black position to function but rather rely on the existence of such a position to gain political visibility and make claims to citizenship, democracy and rights.

Given all of this, the challenge for activists, then, is how do we avoid replicating the white nationalism and anti-black racism/sexism of folks like Moore in our fight for social justice?   How do activists draw attention to urgent matters without necessitating the physical and social death of Black people to gain sympathy, support or funding for their efforts?  Under white nationalism, how do non-Black bodies claim innocence without relying on the shadowy figure of the Black criminal as their antithesis?  How do we challenge exploitative conditions and oppression in ways that challenge the purpose of a black position rather than reproducing it?   What does such an effort look and sound like?  



We do not have the answers to these questions given that this is a daunting task, daunting because it requires an entire reorganization of political vocabulary, identifications, commitments and desires than what generally gets published, circulated and institutionalized as "left" in this era of white nationalist/multiracial politics.   This then necessitates the need to question established discourses and modes of politics that have gained institutionalized currency in today's political movements, even those that are deemed progressive, radical and revolutionary.   Overall, such an effort requires engaging critically and then eventually looking beyond the institutionalized canon of leftist discourse, including that the work of Michael Moore and other political projects with similar tendencies.    



© 2004 Kenyon Farrow and Kil Ja Kim



Kenyon Farrow is a writer, organizer, and performer in New Orleans.



Kil Ja Kim is a writer, researcher, educator and activist in Philadelphia

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My Recomendation Young Dr. Kildaire Thursday, Jul. 29, 2004 at 12:23 PM
moore is a conservative democrat imc reposter guy Thursday, Jul. 29, 2004 at 12:24 PM
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