The first time I heard an audience stand and applaud a film, it was for Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, an indictment of a mass shooting and America’s gun laws.
The second time I heard it was last week at the first screening of his film, Which country should we invade next? About 100 boomers sat in the Civic Theatre’s ample seats where decades ago they had brought their girlfriends, and stared up at the Civic Theatre’s ornate designs and its starlit ‘sky’.
This was to be a film which humiliated America’s values – though its title hinted at more military interventions, given the USA has been involved in over 45 coups in the past half century. But that was just a prop Moore used to launch his ‘invasion’. He would invade Europe but only to investigate why its countries were so much more productive, and their citizens well… so much happier than their US counterparts.
He started with Italy, asking : ‘Ever noticed why the Italians all look as if they’ve just had sex?” And they do – for good reason. Moore found that Italians have four weeks paid leave, 20 weeks maternal leave, religious holidays and then some. Workers at companies like Ducati which produces some of the hottest motorbikes in the world, work 36 hours a week but are paid for 40. They all go home for lunch and a siesta. All of this stunned Moore and he asked a top exec of the company that surely this must reduce productivity.
On the contrary said the exec. Productivity is high and he wanted to keep it that way by providing those benevolent working conditions. Moore planted a US flag there and told the man he would take his idea back to the States.
Then on to France he went and into what he thought was a four star kitchen preparing what looked liked gourmet treats. In fact it was lunch for school kids in a working class area. The French students looked at photos of an American school lunch, wrinkling their noses while trying to identify what was what on the plates. Their three course lunch was served with water and a teacher told Moore that the school treated lunch much like a lesson, not just about food, but table manners. She was horrified at the way people were treated in the States and pointed out that in France, health and education are free.
Moore planted his second flag and caught the fast train to Finland, rated as the country with the best education in the world. One of the keys to its success is no homework, limited hours for younger pupils and an emphasis on play and socialising. Teachers tell Moore that in the US schooling is seen as a business model, not a public good in itself, and they all emphasised that they wanted good, happy children. Senior students who had been exchange scholars to America, were openly scornful of multi-choice questions there. They said the country’s insistence on testing only trained students to pass tests.
Another conquest of ideas, another flag.
Off next to Slovenia, known for its mountains, its fables and its castles – less well known for its free health and education. It’s illegal to charge for education in this country but one government tinkered with the idea – then rapidly backed off after mass student demonstrations. Unsurprisingly, American students are finishing off their degrees there because they couldn’t afford to do it in their home country.
Through all these exchanges the film made it clear that Europeans focus more on what a good society needs. The Market is important, but not dominant. Paying more tax made sense to them because it was an investment in the future. When Moore compared taxes in Europe and America he found that once indirect charges, levies and the like were added to the total, Americans paid more. More alarmingly he found that some countries in the Euro block itemised which public expenditure was going where. Alarming because Moore pointed out that in the States, one statistic in a similar but less detailed return to US taxpayers indicated a 59% expenditure. That, said Moore, was for the military.
On to Portugal which has decriminalised drug-taking. Moore interviewed three policemen and taunted them by saying he had drugs on him. Would they arrest him? All three shook their heads, saying there were no longer any penalties for using drugs. What’s more – and this startled Moore – drug use had dropped. He asked if they had a message for the States: They said the country should make human dignity their priority. Cue images of blacks being batoned in prisons and elsewhere, and later in the film a gathering of contented white folks. Behind them in the photo, a small detail – a black man hanging from a tree.
Another flag and off to Norway to look at crime and punishment. He visited low and high security prisons. At both, prisoners had keys to their own cells. Guards did not carry guns. Norway’s maximum prison sentence is 21 years. The emphasis said the prison staff, was on rehabilitation not revenge. This was the social sunlight light Norwegians bathed in. There was however the darkness of Anders Breivik, who shot 69 youth workers on the island of Utoya in 2011. Moore interviewed the father of a 17-year-old killed in the massacre. Even when pushed he told Moore revenge was out of the question. To take revenge he added, was to ‘take a step down the ladder.’
In Germany Moore found that half the Board of VW is made up of workers. Ditto Mercedes. He also discovered the depth of the country’s contrition when he visited schools where teachers earnestly told young children about the holocaust.
His flags were planted everywhere it seemed and yet as one of his interviewees told him, most of their ideas had originally come from America. No ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ is in your Constitution one reminded him. Britain and America took the neo-liberal path in the late 1970s and New Zealand followed. In the years since, we lost everything the Europeans gained. It might account for the applause at the Civic Theatre that day.