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Moore Is Less

Illustration by Erik Sandberg

I know very well the role that Michael Moore ought to be playing.

For it was neither Marx nor Marcuse that initially radicalized me as a teenager in the 1960s but rather the comic, Mort Sahl.

Emerging out of the Bay Area beatnik stew, the sweater-clad standup with a halting, digressing delivery, a folded New York Times under his arm, made his breakthrough at San Francisco’s Hungry i in the waning days of Ike. Unimaginable by the current sewer-level standards of local TV, Sahl — by the mid-’60s — was holding down a live weekly program on KTTV, showcasing his radical musings and interviews, breathtakingly pushing the ideological margins. Equally zealous about politics and “motoring” (Mort was a Rover fanatic two decades before Hollywood ever discovered the brand), at ease in a graduate seminar or hanging out at the Playboy mansion, a connoisseur of David Hume and Miles Davis, Sahl applied his mordant sarcasm to the daily headlines with a rapier-sharp intellect and verbal “jazz-like improvisations,” as the keeper of his Web site puts it.

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By day I would half-heartedly argue for the war, but by night I found myself charmed and seduced by Mort. I sat wide-eyed as Sahl ran the paces of what became his legendary political chalk talk, furiously deconstructing the entirety of American politics on a single blackboard. On the extreme-right, Mort would argue, we could find Buckley and Goldwater supporting the bombing of North Vietnam . . . on Sunday . . . in hospital zones. By contrast, out on the other end of the American political spectrum, left-wing social democrats like Teddy Kennedy, Sahl would say laughing, merely supported the bombing of North Vietnam. My loyalty slowly shifted from Bill Buckley’s Firing Line to The Mort Sahl Show.

On Sahl’s word that the now-defunct Hunters was L.A.’s best political bookstore, I began frequenting the shop on Little Santa Monica. And one afternoon in 1967 I bumped right into Sahl as he thumbed through the special table of titles on Vietnam. We chatted for a half-hour during which he told me I still had a lot to learn. As a last-minute gesture, Sahl bought me a copy of British correspondent Bernard Fall’s classic The Two Viet-Nams — a moment, and a book that would mark the rest of my life.

I cannot imagine Michael Moore having that sort of transformational effect on anyone. Moore arrives before us not with a newspaper under his arm, but rather with a bullhorn and a sledgehammer. Sahl engaged his audience in subtle, complicated dialogue, enticing his fans to think beyond the conventional wisdom. Moore’s style is to bully and bluster. Sahl helped teach me how to think. Moore purports to tell us what to think.

Which wouldn’t be so objectionable if there was evidence that Moore had any depth, any nuance or at least some consistency to his own thought.

I find no trace. His books are crude pastiches, not plagiarized but, let us say, deeply dependent on the work of others. Even his Oscar-winning Bowling for Columbine is but a cinematic redux of USC sociologist Barry Glassner’s far superior book, The Culture of Fear.

Moore supported Nader’s 2000 campaign and then at the end, called for a strategic vote for Gore. He slammed Clinton but simultaneously swooned over Hillary, describing her as his fantasy woman in his best-selling Downsize This! In Bowling for Columbine, Moore makes the phantasmagoric assertion that the Littleton killings are somehow linked to the tonnage of NATO bombs dropped on Yugoslavia that same day. Yet, he vigorously supported Wesley Clark for president — who, as former NATO Supreme Commander, oversaw that same bombing.

Moore’s shtick is to deftly read the emotional contours of the liberal left and then to profitably mold and expand himself to fill the void. He’s a polarizer, not a teacher. His ramped-up stage style, shouting and screaming profanities at Dubya, no doubt provides some satisfying moments for the already-converted but can only alienate and confound those still in doubt.

While touring his current book, Moore has boasted that turnouts of two, three or more thousand fans to see him in this or that venue proves something important about the existence of a majoritarian opposition in America. It does? Some Orange County cathedral services draw bigger crowds every Sunday.

Moore has had some great moments and, yes, he can be very funny. His 1989 Roger & Me deserved its unexpected success. But even that supposedly ultra-populist piece seemed oddly streaked with a scornful misanthropy, a sentiment, I suspect, that reveals something rather dark about Moore’s core views.

But at least in his original public incarnation, Moore took a refreshing posture as the politically incorrect defender of mainstream blue-collar workers, of the GM rivet heads that populated his hometown of Flint. In some of his earlier jeremiads where he poked the left for its humorlessness, its alternative sub-culture, its sniffy aloofness from Middle America, Moore seemed to be positioning himself in an intriguing intersection. Go to a baseball game, sit with the regular folks, eat a hot dog and don’t get freaked out when they sing the national anthem was his advice to hair-shirt radicals.

Moore has since reversed positions. There isn’t a fringe to which he doesn’t pander, even playing footsie with some of the 9/11 conspiracy theorizers. While all the time making sure he doesn’t piss off the lucrative liberal Democrat sector of his market. The once-champion of white working men is today’s author of Stupid White Men.

Last year, writer Mark Dowie, a founder of Mother Jones, had a tough time selling an essay critical of Moore to several obeisant “alternative”-press papers that feared offending Saint Michael. (He didn’t try the L.A. Weekly.) But Dowie persuasively argued in that unpublished piece that our public political discourse was dangerously descending into little more than a sub-literate clown show, a comic wrestling match. The symptoms were unmistakable: The right wing has its best-selling screamer Anne Coulter in one corner while the left cheers on the equally obnoxious Michael Moore.

Call me a nostalgic or even a stupid, white man, but when I hear the bellowing of Michael Moore I achingly long for the days of Mort Sahl. Or even, yes, it’s true, William F. Buckley.