Melvin Kadiri Barrolle
The Liberator Magazine 6.4 #20, 2007
Scratch the surface of the humanitarian packaging of Sicko and it bleeds white supremacy; another occasion for the imagined white republic to voice their discontent with the injustices of "their" America while casually erasing the multitudes of colored peoples that continue to writhe under the unforgiving hands of capitalism and racism -- the pillars of American civilization. Sicko transported me back to a moment when I first viewed the classic movie "A Time to Kill." The closing scene in the film featured Matthew McConaughey as a defendant lawyer describing the indescribable in his closing argument: the savaging of a little six-year old girl's sexual innocence, heavy punches meeting soft cheeks, and unopened cans of beer being hurled at her quivering and undeveloped flesh for good measure, exploding upon contact. Apparently, such a scene was not thought to be sufficient to move the all-white jury given the little girl was Black. As gruesome as the story was, McConnaughey had to resort to a disgusting appeal to white conscience, asking the jury in his southern drawl to imagine if the girl was white. Those who clapped at the verdict did not realize this travesty of justice merely reinforced the racist notion that only white suffering could be appreciated. Moore unfortunately takes a page out of this book in his latest filmmaking adventure, Sicko.
It's not that Sicko is not moving. Of course, the human stories of unjust treatment folk in America are receiving at the hands of a callous healthcare industry is wrenching. My frustration and disgust with the film is derived from the fact that it ultimately seeks to relieve this injustice by asking the capitalist scum that profit magnificently from this current economic arrangement for a larger piece of empire. Put differently, Michael Moore and those that he represents (white working and middle-classes) are demanding that the spoils of cheap exploitation of the third-world be distributed more fairly among them.
The prescient W.E.B. DuBois articulated this phenomenon early in his career when remarking on the dynamics fueling World War II. He stated boldly that the title World War was misleading and inaccurate. It was not a World War but a war between empires -- an imperialist war -- with the countries that were shortchanged during the Berlin Conference (Germany and Italy aka the "Central Powers") attempting to muscle their way into colonial territories considered vital to its national economies. In order to assure the loyalty (translated: military service) of their disgruntled masses, they offered working-classes cheap amenities and inflated wages at the expense of the exploited third-world who toiled on modern-day plantations to provide the industrial world with the raw materials needed to upkeep this lavish way of life.
Moore, tellingly, contains his exploration within this first-world, constantly reminding viewers that the United States is lagging behind other industrial nations when it comes to healthcare. Little mention is made of what this wealth of industrial nations is based upon. Like the millions of Africans in America that are now providing the economic base of rural counties in the U.S. through prison labor, the third-world is invisible. Their plight is subordinate to the comforts of the White working and middle-classes that are feeling the pinch of the economy as corporate owners are running amuck in their irrational quest for boundless profits.
The current healthcare impasse must be viewed within this context despite Moore's ahistorical approach. Richard Nixon's presidency is a great place to start and Moore helps us in this endeavor when he accurately fingers Nixon as the engineer of the for-profit healthcare industry that set in motion the system we are now confronted with today. What he fails to mention however is that Nixon's presidency marked the betrayal of the radical black movements of the sixties by so-called white liberals. President Nixon would emerge as the premier candidate by appealing to base racialist sentiments which featured code phrases such as "restoring law and order". Bluntly translated, this meant targeting Black radical organizations that had pushed this country to the brink in the late 1960s, realizing that for true change to occur the system needed to be completely razed and rebuilt. Though White radicals professed their support for this position, their experience at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago of 1968 -- where state troopers cordoned off the protesters in a local park and proceeded to pummel the crowd with nightsticks and other weaponry -- convinced them that the cost of this type of transformation was too steep. It was not lost on them that working-class whites were the main figures behind this assault, hurling "epithets" like race-traitor as they brought down their batons.
In turn, the majority of these radical Whites abandoned the movement, opting for the return to stability promised by Nixon; a stability that essentially meant the elimination of radical Black movements via jailing, assassination, buying-out and constant harassment. As historian Carole Horton explains in a recent work on Blacks and American liberalism, Whites were willing to struggle for change to the extent that the change did not endanger his/her social and economic position in the society. Upon realizing the lengths Blacks were willing to go, they retreated into the realm of safe racial politics. The Black Panther Party for Self Defense, the nominated vanguard of American radicalism, was thus left to fend for itself and consequently incurred the full wrath of the state while White America resumed life as usual. Paradoxically, their consent to this inquisition would later come back to haunt them as neoliberals shrewdly attached all aspects of the welfare state to the necessary purging of Black radicals. Beyond declaring education a privilege and steadily removing job securities, healthcare was targeted and systematically chipped at. Like today's gentrification and the not-so-recent dismantling of the welfare bill, race was employed to distract and marshal support for these anti-democratic policies and White America gullibly signed the dotted line.
Thus, we see the uncomfortable truth that many progressives (Moore included) fail to embrace: working-class consciousness does not preclude racism. To argue that the system is broken without exploring what ingredients went into its construction is to frolic on the surface of a deeper problem. Racism is sufficiently suffused with capitalism and as noted by South African activist Steve Biko, "the cause has become the consequence."
This dynamic is transferred across the Atlantic when Moore visits France and Britain. Perusing through the obviously affluent areas of these countries, he expresses amazement that people there were able to live "comfortable lives" (driving Audi 500s and living in $1.5 million homes) though their healthcare system was socialized. Of course, he neglected to include how this wealth is dependent upon the mass exploitation of mainly immigrant workers and the former colonies that continue to provide the raw materials for the factory jobs and cheap amenities which placate an otherwise frustrated working-class population. Likewise, his depiction of France as an egalitarian haven came as a surprise to those of us that can still smell the burning embers littering French suburbs from the French riots of 2006. To be sure, those that boast citizenship in French society are living pretty comfortably. However, the same cannot be said of the immigrants who are prevented from obtaining a citizenship and are living in draconian conditions. In Moore's utopia, they, too, do not exist.
When Moore turns to Guantanamo Bay, he plays to the worst stereotypes: "I just want the same treatment that Al-Qaeda is receiving", he trumpets to the Coast Guard. This bold and reckless statement does not take note of the fact that the majority of detainees have not been actually charged with anything concrete. In proclaiming this, Moore deflects sympathy away from the detainees, many of whom have been abducted from foreign countries on specious allegations and are routinely thrashed, starved and prevented from worshipping their deity. No sympathy for Moore or his cohorts. In their eyes, these detainees are unfairly "stealing" treatment that is the preserve of U.S. citizens. To this end, the detainees remain "sand-niggers" and his baseless pandering to these stereotypes only strengthens the racial gaze many here in this country have cast on the representatives of that region. Like Africans in America, they too, are guilty until proven innocent.
Even more crass is his trip to Havana hospital after being denied entry to Guantanamo Bay. When he arrives at the medical center with 9-11 workers in tow seeking treatment they could not receive in the States, it is not to express solidarity with the people on that besieged island. It is only to exercise White privilege and obtain treatment at the expense of Cuban taxpayers. This episode shows the self-centeredness of "Americans" who expect the world to be sympathetic with their plight but cannot find it within themselves to reciprocate this concern. There was no suggestion on Moore's part of coming back to the United States and lobbying officials to end the crippling economic sanctions on the country. It was simply a thank you for supplying cheap drugs and expressing concern over 9-11.
I could also not help but scorn at the facility of Moore's travels in Cuba and his success at obtaining the sought-after medicines, especially after stumbling upon an article that detailed how sixty-two immigrants have died in U.S. detention centers waiting for their paperwork to be processed. They were all denied requested medical help. The most recent victim, a Bajan (Barbadian Creole) grandmother, was denied mandatory medicine for high blood pressure and wound up dying of hypertension while in the midst of asking her granddaughter to recruit legal counsel to extricate her from the virtual prison she was languishing in. Such medical malfeasance is rampant in U.S. immigration centers, particularly when it comes to people of color. One wonders if such contradictions plague Moore and the rest of White Americans now contemplating traveling elsewhere for needed medical treatment. It only raises the cold truth that globalization has not conferred the freedom of mobility to the world. Indeed, those immigrants, the descendants of ancestors who provided the wealth enjoyed in industrial countries are typically arrested, shacked in squalor detention centers, and shipped back to their homelands like cattle without a second thought. Like the plaintiff lawyer asserted in the riveting film Bamako, "The world is not free. It is only free for the White man to travel."
These contradictions cannot be papered over for they have deep implications for how we move today. If Sicko is neither anti-capitalist (Moore champions Hillary Clinton in her earlier days although she only intended to "reform" the system and leave the for-profit insurance companies intact) nor anti-racist, then what can we pull from this timely expose on the healthcare industry? Moore's previous project Fahrenheit 9-11 suggests that these superficial radical films do little to engender real change and actually favor the rapacious capitalists financing Moore's projects. Take the railroading of democracy that took place in Florida with the disenfranchising of Black voters. This was conducted with the implicit consent of Democrats, evidenced in Moore's first scene where the Congressional Black Caucus could not garner one measly vote from the Senate to launch a full-scale investigation. Incredulously, at the end of the film, Moore urges his audience to vote Democratic. It was thus not surprising when the Democrats teamed with the Republicans in 2004 to strengthen their monopoly over the political system by ruthlessly suppressing the Green Party in every state it attempted to register voters. Of course, this escaped the attention of liberals, as did the reenacted disenfranchisement of Black voters in Ohio. Moore's film must be critiqued for it only distracts and relieves White Americans of any responsibility (outside of shedding guilty tears for participating) towards changing this society.
I ask, is it coincidental then that the same atrocities taking place in Iraq are mirrored in this society? That just as Iraqi women now holding refugee status in neighboring countries like Syria are reduced to prostituting their bodies for subsistence, the same phenomenon is raging in places like Atlanta where young Black women as young as thirteen are creating an international market for sex solicitors? Or that little Iraqi girls being brutally gang-raped by American soldiers is a more extreme version of young Black high school girls being stripped searched and molested by police officers in schools? That the description of the American military busting down doors and squeezing off massive amounts of ammo at unsuspecting Iraqi families are similar to the brutal murder of the elderly Black woman in Atlanta who also illegally had "evidence" planted on her to cover up the crime? Or that the stories leaked during the 2004 election season of U.S. National Guard soldiers visiting elderly Black women in Florida with sophisticated machine guns in the hopes of intimidation are eerily similar to the tactics being employed in Iraq housing raids? That the mockery made of the court systems in Iraq are not far from the dozens of innocent Black men and women that are being held on death row on specious charges? It should not surprise us that the slaughtering of Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell are brushed away as easily as the dozens of U.S. military soldiers that have stood trial for their confessed roles in murdering innocent Iraqis. The nexus between race and class must continuously be articulated, for America's odious imperial campaigns abroad are first rehearsed at home. Of course, there are instances where the lines between both fronts blur considerably. Simply recall how private military contractors such as Blackwater were pulled from Iraq and hired to patrol New Orleans streets for "looters" after Hurricane Katrina to "restore law and order."
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