What apathy? "Fahrenheit 9-11" and the activist spirit

It seems fitting that this particular election day take place the day after successful first weekend of Michael Moore’s latest tour de force. Throughout this election, I’ve read a lot about people whose distrust of politicians has prompted them to embrace apathy, even to advocate against participation in democracy at the simplest level, by refusing to vote.

Reading the papers and watching tv, one could even come to believe the majority has given up on politics, turning away to study the sports pages, and leaving the field open to people like, well, George W. Bush.

The point that struck me today, reading the papers announcing the financial success of Moore’s movie this past weekend–the first documentary to top the weekend box office sweepstakes–and bemoaning apathy about today’s election, is that this election feels less apathetic than any I can remember, not more.

Yes, there are a good many people who will vote blindly, having failed to inform themselves about candidates and platforms. Some of them will vote in reaction to news of scandals in the federal Liberal government.

Some, in BC, will vote in reaction to the scandals in the provincial Liberal government–just as many voted in reaction to scandals in the provincial NDP government that left office three years ago. And some will stay away from the polls.

But despite the shallow content of the federal leadership debates and the major parties’ print, tv and radio advertisements, I have the feeling the public is more exercised by this election than I can recall for years.

It would be trite to say that the recent spate of popular activist documentaries such as Bowling for Columbine, The Corporation, Super Size Me and, now, Fahrenheit 9/11 has ruffled the public’s feathers, awakening them from apathetic somnolence.

In my effervescent naivete, I believe these documentaries have had some effect on the public’s engagement in politics, and, at the same time, believe that the public’s increasing engagement in politics is part of the reason for the success of these new documentaries.

Some people, in other words, believe that the failings of our political leaders and local representatives are a reason to turn their back on electoral politics. A greater number, I believe, have decided to do something about it, to get informed, and to take action.

For these people, even those who abhor his views, Michael Moore must be an inspiration. His persona as an ordinary guy may be, at this point, manufactured, or at least carefully maintained, but he comes by it honestly, and plays the role perfectly.

There’s a reason he had the final word in The Corporation, saying he believes that despite the corporate elite’s belief that apathy will continue to pave the way for the status quo they love, ordinary people can change the world.

Moore’s latest movie is his most direct attempt to change the world. And its success at the box office suggests that there is a bigger audience for that kind of movie than most pundits acknowledged.

The movie is not perfect, though it is more polished than his previous movies. It is Moore’s most polemical movie and his most direct attack, on screen at least, on George W. Bush and other political and corporate bosses who control the United States.

The movie’s flaws include a treatment of Saudi involvement with the Bush family that sometimes seems to play to American distrust of Arab peoples, and American xenophobia in general, and a shaky balance between criticism of the conduct of US soldiers in Iraq, and empathy for the plight of ordinary, poor Americans drifting into the Army, and finding themselves in Iraq.

The movie is also a bit long, over-emphasising its themes at some parts. In its last half hour, though, it gathers potency again, focusing on one woman, Lila Lipscomb, a self-described conservative democrat, a practical activist who helps the unemployed in Moore’s stomping grounds, Flint, Michigan.

She calls herself a conservative democrat, and talks of her resentment toward anti-war protestors. Then, when her son dies in Iraq a week after sending her a plaintive letter condemning his President for sending him to that country, Lila’s perspective changes.

The scene in which she visits the White House, and is confronted by a passer-by who claims “this is all staged,” is simple, and powerful. Lila might be an emblem of a growing sector of the populace, shaken out of a complacent faith in their government, questioning their assumptions, and determined to speak up.

It may be too simple to say that more people are speaking up, or that Moore’s movie will provoke a major change in citizen involvement in the decisions that affect them. But I think the evidence suggests that increasing activism is overtaking apathy.

Footnote: the internet, despite all its inadequacies, may in fact be part of the reason that citizen activism is increasing. The ‘net enables activist documentarians like Michael Moore to reach a wide audience, complete with regular email bulletins.

In the United States, websites like www.moveon.org are taking advantage of the concept of “viral marketing” (e.g. amusing video clips that people email to their friends, a kind of activist chain letter).

And the web features credible alternative news magazines such as BC’s The Tyee to o’erleap the hurdle of the high start-up costs of traditional magazines. Not to mention the Dogwood Bulletin, and other newsletters and stories such as those found here on Dogwood Initaitive’s website.

However–and whether–you voted in the federal election, and whatever you think of Michael Moore’s views and techniques, I encourage you to get involved in the decisions that affect you, from local zoning bylaws, to the allocation of provincial forest and energy resources, to decisions about sending individuals to war. The issues are too significant to be ignored, and too complex and ever-changing to be left to a mark on a ballot every few years.

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