Michael Moore's Rockstar Moment
On a nasty, wet spring evening, in the back room of a church auditorium, a couple of reporters and independent bookstore types are waiting for Michael Moore, author and filmmaker of Roger & Me fame. We were promised exclusive interviews here, before his speech, but our allotted time has already come and gone.
Ten minutes before he's scheduled to speak, Moore breezes in, apologizing, bemoaning the traffic. But forget the reporters. "What about those people out there?" Michael Moore wants to know. Several hundred people are still outside, shivering on a line still wrapped around the corner, hoping against hope for last-minute tickets to a sold-out event. "Are they gonna get in? No? I gotta go talk to those people." He turns to me and my notebook. "Don't you think that's more important?"
What could I say?
Yes, Michael Moore's publicist promised me an interview, but Moore doesn't do well with publicists. He doesn't call, he doesn't write, and he doesn't have a "handler" to shepherd him around on his tours. Screw handlers. Michael Moore is a man of the people. He leaves the reporters and heads outside. The people standing there in the storm deserve at least a few minutes of what they came for -- his hilarious schtick. He talks outside for more than twenty minutes. Inside, the sounds of the cheering, grateful fans cut through the sound of the rain.
Take the energy of a tent revival, add a political message, deliver it with comic flair to rival Chris Rock's, and you've got Michael Moore's nationwide book tour, coming soon to an indie bookstore, college campus or church auditorium near you. The book is called "Stupid White Men," and it just climbed to #2 on the New York Times bestseller list, with no sign of stopping.
All this -- Moore wants you to know -- for a book that almost didn't get published.
On Sept. 10, HarperCollins printed the first 50,000 copies of Stupid White Men. On Sept. 11, the world went on hold, including distribution of the book. A couple of months later, according to Moore, he called his publisher to get an update on the book's status. He heard that the "political climate had changed," and his book -- a rollicking indictment of everything from the way Bush won the election to racism in America -- was no longer appropriate. The book is indeed provocative; it includes an open letter to Dubya that asks, among other pointed questions, "George, are you able to read and write on an adult level?" and then proceeds to raise some serious doubt about the issue. Other chapters are entitled "Idiot Nation" and "Kill Whitey."
HarperCollins thought Stupid White Men was not in keeping with America's mood (all of this is according to Moore, but the publisher has not denied any of it). They wanted him to change sections like "Kill Whitey." During his speech, Moore intones the velvety voice of a publishing executive, purring, "'Whitey is no longer the problem.'"
"Man," Moore yells, "Whitey is always the problem!" Everyone cheers.
Moore refused to change a single word of his book. On November 30, Moore got a call from his editor saying that since he wouldn't rewrite 50 percent, pay $100,000 to reprint the first 50,000 copies, or change the title, they planned to pulp the book.
Those threats were a mistake that may have inadvertently helped HarperCollins make millions.
When faced with this ugly case of censorship, Moore took advantage of his last option -- he leaked the story, at a speech in New Jersey. Enraged, a New Jersey librarian took up the cause, rallying librarians by email to attack HarperCollins for banning books.
Moore imitates the publishing exec, purring again, "'Moore, what did you do to the librarians? We're getting a lot of angry librarian hate mail.'" Then Moore launches into a bit about how you should never piss off the librarians. The crowd goes wild. "Hey, since when did librarians get a cult following?" he says, laughing.
But Moore knows what he is doing. His specialty, besides dead-on satirical humor, is whipping up that all-American brand of support for David against Goliath, for people who stand up for their beliefs, be they authors or librarians. Moore knows how to work the underdog position.
In fact, Moore plays the underdog card so well, he may have opted to play it before. In 1996, Moore made noise about similar trouble with a different corporate villain: Borders Books. He was on tour for Downsize This!, his first printed attack on the white guys who run everything. In November, the New York Times reported on an "odd rift" between the Borders and Moore. Moore said he had been prevented from speaking at a Borders appearance because he had supported one store's efforts to unionize. Some witnesses confirmed the ban. When Borders denied it, Moore took them at their word and resumed his appearances there. But he had already gotten mileage out of refusing to cross a picket line and siding with the Industrial Workers of the World. The Times wrote that "Borders officials suggest that Mr. Moore suffers from a persecution complex."
It's a plausible analysis. But this time around, HarperCollins' corporate misstep is much uglier, and the air is much more fraught with tension for those who dissent from the official party line. Today, it's a lot easier to believe that Goliath has it out for Michael Moore.
Given the book's success, 2002's corporate bad-guy now seems to be scrambling to back Moore. As Moore points out, you can always count on the corporate bigwigs to follow the money. But the deed was done. Threatening to pulp a book because it criticizes the president is about as un-American as it gets, and Moore is not about to let HarperCollins forget it. On Moore's site, he posted an email from a man who disagrees with Moore's views and calls himself "right of center," but says: "I had friends in the World Trade Center. I almost went to work in the World Trade Center. I'm glad we bombed the hell out of the Taliban. But this is America. WE DO NOT BAN BOOKS!" Indeed.
And Moore's not done with HarperCollins, not as long as he still feels guilty over "getting into bed with the devil," (aka working with a company owned by Rupert Murdoch). At his speeches and on his Web site, Moore is insisting that the publisher still isn't shipping his book out properly. While some bookstores say they've had no problem getting the book, others have noticed strange lags. Five warehouses for one of the major distributors, in Tennessee, Virginia, Indiana, Oregon and Connecticut, show orders for thousands of books that haven't arrived, according to the manager at well-known independent Russo's Marketplace Books in Bakersfield, CA. "None of 'em have it," says Linda Ross, of Russo's. "It's kinda strange." Such warehouses get books directly from the publisher.
Back at HarperCollins, a spokeswoman says that she spoke to Moore about the issue yesterday and that the book is a "runaway bestseller, and hasn't been out of stock since it was published."
"They're going as fast as they can," says beleaguered-sounding Lisa Herling. "We have 165,000 in print, and it's #2 on the New York Times bestseller list." She doesn't admit to being surprised by the book's success, but recites, seemingly by rote, "Moore is always provocative, we're very pleased."
Moore is also complaining about his tour. He says that HarperCollins wouldn't fly him to California, that he had to ask Bill Maher at Politically Incorrect to fly him out for the show (tough life, eh?). "The original tour was about 6 cities," says Herling. Now the official tour includes 14 cities. "It expanded over a period of time, as interest picked up. OK?"
In his talk, Moore mimics HarperCollins again. Convinced that the book wasn't going to sell, the exec is now panicking. "'What about the 80 percent approval ratings for the president?'" he simpers. Moore has a theory. "I'll tell you what's going on," he says. "Any group that feels threatened is going to rally behind their leader."
"I'll tell you why you've got 80 percent," he continues. "It's 9pm and the phone rings and it's a pollster." Moore's voice gets low and spooky. "'Hi, I'm a pollllsterrrr.... Do you approve of our president? Hm?' And the guy on the phone is like, 'Uh, yes, Mr. Pollster! We approve! Everybody approves! The kids approve, the dog approves! Look at the cat! The cat approves. Approve, cat!'"
HarperCollins's concerns were, in fact, part of the stifling atmosphere of self-censorship that Moore sends up so effectively. But that very atmosphere may also be the reason that it's the perfect time for Stupid White Men. A rich source of humor is sitting in the White House, and very few people are drawing from that well. Consider that in 2000, bashing Bush was late-night comics' favorite pastime, according to a study by a Washington D.C. thinktank called the Center for Media and Public Affairs. On Sept. 11, the jokes dried up in an instant. "Late-night comics used to walk all over President Bush, but now he's sacred ground," says Matthew Felling, media director for the CMPA. "Except for a bounce in January due to the pretzel incident, they've laid off him altogether."
After 9/11, we needed a grace period. But political jokes overall are bouncing back now, they're just not bouncing back about Bush. "Political humor now begins at our borders, while politics ends at our borders," says Felling. "Late-night comics get this reputation for being edgy, when they're actually relying strictly on safe humor." So, while Leno and Letterman may own the "Where's Osama been Hiding" cracks, the field is wide open for the Moore to make cracks about Hooked on Phonics in the Oval Office.
Corporate HarperCollins may or may not be the devil that Michael Moore makes them out to be. They certainly miscalculated, and in doing so, they gave him the perfect platform to give the Goliath in the White House a pounding that's starting to seem overdue.
Moore has always used a working Joe, wise-ass, underdog persona to reach out and draw everyday people into politics. But perhaps now, more than ever, his schtick has found its moment. We have a president who talks to all Americans like we're teenagers, and talks to teens like they're toddlers (how is abstinence-only education possible when Dawson's Creek is on primetime?). By contrast, Moore talks to adults like they can handle the truth, and tells teenagers to publish their own newspapers. Moore doesn't have "handlers." Regardless of what you think of Bush's policies, isn't it kind of nice, these days, to listen to speeches from someone who doesn't have "handlers"?
One of Moore's anecdotes in the book is about running for the school board at age 18, so that he could fire the principal. Every slacker and stoner in the district between 18 and 25 voted for him. Moore won. We may not all want to see Dubya resign on the opening day of baseball season, as Moore does. But in a stifling political atmosphere where dissent is treated as treason, who doesn't feel like firing the principal?
Michael Moore's Web site has a diary of his book tour. Michelle Chihara is senior writer for AlterNet.org.