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Where to Invade Next: Stealing Europe's Best Ideas

Ron Briley: Michael Moore’s latest film Where to Invade Next suggests that the European democratic socialism advocated by Bernie Sanders may be the answer to many of the ills plaguing the American economy.

Michael Moore’s latest film Where to Invade Next suggests that the European democratic socialism advocated by Bernie Sanders may be the answer to many of the ills plaguing the American economy. Using the model of military intervention that has characterized the foreign policy of the United States in the post-World War II era, Moore urges that American leaders abandon militarism and instead “invade” other nations to steal their best ideas and practices to implement greater economic democracy within the homeland. The result is an amusing portrait of the United States that deplores a lack of progressive polices especially when contrasted with many of America’s Western European allies. In his positive depiction of European welfare programs, Moore, however, tends to ignore issues of race and immigration which cause considerable turmoil in contemporary Europe. The French educational system may not appear so egalitarian to French Muslims of Algerian descent. On the other hand, it is wonderful to see Moore back in the struggle for economic justice after the lead poisoning of children in his native Flint, Michigan.

Michael Moore Where to Invade Next

Moore documents that many Italian manufacturing firms take a two-hour lunch break so that employees may go home and prepare a hot meal, take a short nap, and perhaps even have some time for sexual activity.

Moore begins his film with an examination of the Italian working class. He interviews a handsome young couple who enjoy four weeks of paid vacation a year, in addition to various paid holidays, which provide them with the time and money to take vacations that include such destinations as Miami Beach. The couple was shocked to learn that such vacation time, along with paternity and maternity leave, was not a right guaranteed to all American workers. Moore also documents that many Italian manufacturing firms take a two-hour lunch break so that employees may go home and prepare a hot meal, take a short nap, and perhaps even have some time for sexual activity—and several of Moore’s Italian subjects believe Americans might enjoy life better with less work and more sex. The filmmaker also meets with several Italian business owners who assert that greater leisure time and a less stressful work environment lead to happier workers and greater productivity. However, a conversation with an Italian union official makes it clear that such gains were not achieved without union organization and struggle. Yet, in the United States only approximately ten percent of workers are unionized and the political climate for worker organization is discouraging.

Moore then visits schools in France where he is amazed by the gourmet meals provided for school children. The subsidized school lunches are nutritious and tasty; with the children reluctant to taste Moore’s soft drink or try fast food. With multiple courses and eating off real dishes, the atmosphere is relatively calm and the children take their time during the hour assigned for lunch. Moore observes that such programs, similar to government-financed health care, which he addressed in his film Sicko (2007), do require somewhat higher taxes, but in the long run they are cost effective with healthy benefits for the entire society.

This approach is evident in the educational system of Slovenia where a college education is available for all; even migrants from the United States. Here, young people do not begin their careers burdened by college debt, and all of society benefits from a well-educated citizenry; although there is increased taxation. In the United States, however, Bernie Sanders is ridiculed for suggesting tuition free university public education. The pre-collegiate education in Finland is touted as perhaps the best in the world, and Moore marvels that homework is discouraged. The Finnish teachers whom Moore interviews insist that children need time to play as well for personal growth and development. The Finns seem to celebrate the joy of learning rather than the drudgery of homework and an educational system dependent upon standardized testing. Yet, Moore does not exactly explain how the Finns are able to achieve these results, but he praises the Finnish system for eschewing private education in favor of a more egalitarian public model. The filmmaker, however, does fail to emphasize the issues of poverty, homelessness, and violence which many students in America must deal with every day.

In Portugal, Moore was impressed with the degree of solidarity evident in celebrations of May Day, but he was particularly drawn to the nation’s decision to decriminalize drugs in favor of rehabilitation; leading to reduced rates of violent crime. The Portuguese police officers with whom Moore speaks also emphasize the significance of taking a more humanitarian approach to police work, and they urge Americans to abandon the death penalty. A similar approach to incarceration is evident in Moore’s visit to prisons in Norway. The director contrasts the benevolent approach of Norwegian authorities with the brutality of American law enforcement often employed against people of color. Moore also examines the case of Anders Breivik, a neo-Nazi who murdered over fifty school children at a summer camp. However, under Norwegian law the maximum sentence for Breivik is twenty-one years in prison, and parents whom Moore interviews do not perceive a death sentence as providing justice for the victims. It is not that the Norwegians are superior to Americans, but there is a cultural emphasis upon respect for all of humanity from which the filmmaker believes Americans would benefit. However, this more humanitarian approach would need to address how the prison system in America is employed as a means of capitalist labor exploitation as well as a form of Jim Crow segregation. Moore also points out that convicted felons are disenfranchised in many states; limiting the access of many black males to the ballot box.

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Moore finds much to extoll in the German social welfare system, but he reserves special praise for the willingness of the German people to confront their Nazi past in the educational system, public monuments, and museums. He contrasts this open attitude with the reluctance of many Americans to confront the reality and legacy of racial slavery. Thus, the Confederate flag becomes a symbol of regional pride rather than racial oppression. Moore’s observations, however, fail to address the decades immediately following the Second World War and Holocaust when there was considerable denial of wartime atrocities throughout German society.

Almost all of Moore’s examples are taken from Europe, but he does applaud the role of women in Tunisia during the Arab Spring. After toppling a dictatorship, these women refused to accept second-class citizenship in an Arab republic. Moore, however, devotes most of his focus on women to the prominent role played by women in the politics of Iceland, which elected the first female president of a European nation in 1972. Moore argues that the strong female participation in Icelandic government provides a more humanitarian approach to politics, but this did not prevent Icelandic banks from collapsing with investors losing their savings during the financial crisis of 2008. However, the reaction to the economic collapse in Iceland was considerably different from that of the United States. Instead of bailing out the financial institutions, in Iceland the banks were subjected to criminal investigations and those bankers who broke the law and brought on the crisis are now serving prison terms. Moore also highlights the positive investment strategies of new banks under a female board of directors.

Moore concludes his film by suggesting that perhaps the United States does not need to invade Europe and steal their ideas; arguing that many of these progressive principles are part of the American experience in struggling for social, economic, and economic justice within a government of, by, and for the people. Similar to Bernie Sanders, Michael Moore is calling for a political revolution, but the filmmaker offers little in the way of a strategy to tap the nation’s progressive traditions. As Moore points out in his film, European models of health care, education, worker rights, paternity leave, and a less punitive criminal justice system illustrate that there is nothing incompatible between democracy and socialist ideas.

Nevertheless, in commending the European welfare state, it is important to recognize the issues of immigration and racism that plague European society and politics. Muslims living in the slums of a major European city such as Brussels might not perceive European democracy in the same positive light as Moore, and it is also worth remembering the degree to which European economic growth was developed by exploiting the labor and resources of colonial empires in Africa and Asia. The issues of race and discrimination cast a large shadow over Europe as well as the United States.

ron briley

Ron Briley