Forum, which is this periodic occurrence at the Columbia Journalism School–human
beings of the journalistic classes assembling in a third-floor auditorium to
take notes in an atmosphere of hard-white lecture-hall light, and also bathed
in the celebrity-panel warmth that will irradiate, on this sopping and flowing
rainy Wednesday evening of last week, from such as–
From such as–
From such as–
not here yet–that is, those gentlemen who will preside, tonight, from the
panel table: Michael Moore, P.J. O’ Rourke, some guy named Brown or something
like that, and some fourth guy whose name, at the time, it also seemed insufficiently
critical to register. Then, suddenly, at the back of the room, there’s
a slopping and a low but persistent snuffling, and heads turn from their genteel
toothy chuckles and conversations to follow the buzz. And it’s Moore, alone,
set to make his entrance, and to proceed down the aisle toward the dais, and
to his microphoned seat at the table.
him is fascinating. This Flint, MI, Working-Class Slob trip Moore’s on,
at least when he’s in public–it’s amazing. You ever seen
Moore work? He milks it for all it’s worth. Sure, he’s a heavy guy,
but so was the immaculate Sydney Greenstreet. I got the impression, looking
at Moore, less of an ambulating biped than of a half-ton of raw squid being
shoved down the aisle by a tractor, chunks writhing, spilling, flopping and
rolling over each other: progress, bit by bit, chunk by chunk. My jaw dropped.
The tent-like jeans, for sticking your hands deep down into when you’ve
got to scratch an itch; the sweatshirt; the baseball cap; the stupendously malnourished
beard, patchy and testicular; and the shambling posture, the rolling and world-weary
gait, implying sheer misery. Fwop–fwop–fwop–fwop–one
webbed foot placed deliberately before the other whilst the amphibious head
swivels, mushroomed and barnacled and peering around with unblinking eyes for
snails, newts and periwinkles to suck from shells.
public persona is that convincingly abject. He’s a great actor.
dais, all hunched and wretched–he should have been dragging his belongings
behind him in a soiled rucksack, checking into some YMCA somewhere in a bad
neighborhood, where they dunk your head into kerosene to delouse you; you could
almost smell the gentleman–Moore’s a performance artist. And had we
been outside, and had it been summer, he’d have contrived to have been
surrounded by flies.
he reaches the dais and, lifting one leg straight out and up to achieve altitude,
he cliiiiiiiiimbs upward and–agony–liiiiiiifts himself
up onto the platform–up there on the dais–slooooooopppppps, breathes,
all a-wheeze and a-garble…
I confess that,
for some reason and for at least a second and a half, as God is my witness,
I forgot that the gentleman is a film producer, an intimate with pop stars,
a television personality, a resident of Manhattan’s moneyed precincts–he’s
a wonderful recurring phrase in Sinclair Lewis’ great novel Arrowsmith–a
phrase that’s applied to the genteel, respectable, establishment, Ivy League-style
elements who can be expected to smirk at the novel’s visionary eponymous
doctor hero at every turn: Lewis calls them "men of measured merriment."
I thought of this when Moore collapsed in his seat and, killing time before
O’Rourke and the rest of the panel joined him, started riffing a little,
taking questions from the audience.
you for coming here today. I have nothing to say. I’ll answer some questions
while I’m waiting…"
Then, in response
perhaps to an audience question that I didn’t hear, there was this–although
it’s possibly not exactly verbatim, because people here at the office keep
walking off with my tape recorder, and my shorthand’s lacking:
going to Ivy League schools, because I consider it Mother Teresa-like work."
"Most of the people who have done harm to the people of Flint, Michigan,
are Ivy League graduates. So I like to talk to them to–"
Here my notes
expire, perhaps in a haze of stupefaction. Was he really saying this? And then
came the coup de grace: there’s written in my notebook the phrase–surrounded
by quotation marks, referring to the same Ivy League graduates who’ve victimized
Moore and the rest of Flint’s proletariat–the phrase "done us
harm." He said that; he used the word "us." And he actually talked
in such unexamined, self-dramatizing terms, he didn’t seem to have any
capacity to register the facility of what he was saying, to register that it
probably a lost cause. He’s a mainstream, occasionally Clinton-defending
liberal of the sort that leftists of integrity have always distrusted. So it’s
hard to get angry at him. You might as well get angry at a cat for spilling
milk. But what about this audience of journalists? I wonder why these guardians
of the public discourse didn’t call Moore for degrading the language this
way, for consigning yet more words to the realm of the meaningless. There were
so many obvious challenges that could have been made. To what extent can a millionaire
Manhattanite media celebrity in good conscience ennoble himself through association
with (as opposed to respectful concern for the plight of) the Steel Belt proletariat?
If Moore’s sincere, then why his flirtation with the Clintons, America’s
ultimate (that is, at least until they ceded the position to George W. Bush)
corporation-stroking, Ivy League yuppies? And if he’s really setting out
to lacerate audiences at such universities as Columbia, what does it mean for
the efficacy and honestly of his mission that these audiences applaud him with
genteel laughter, brushing their well-scrubbed palms together? You’d suspect
that being a radical means that upper-middle-class Manhattan Clintonite liberals
don’t like you, by definition. If they’re turning out to cheer you,
you’re possibly–possibly–not doing what you claim to be doing.
Men and women
of measured merriment, here in the audience, applauding one of their own. I
bailed, waded out through the rain to browse for books at Papyrus, missed the
show. I wonder what this crowd would have made of Sinclair Lewis. They probably
would have assumed that he was writing about everyone but them, and cheered
him until their arms fell off.