By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 20, 2016)
The phrase “American exceptionalism” gets bandied about quite a bit these days, and with such polarized political intent that it seems to have become devoid of any one particular meaning. I think this is because, while the idea has been around for eons, its semantic malleability allows it to be handily co-opted by conservatives and liberals alike. In other words, it depends on who you ask. Does it mean America is exceptionally awesome and the world should follow our awesomely exceptional example? Or does it mean America sports an awesomely long history of making exceptionally bad decisions?
In his new documentary, cheekily entitled Where to Invade Next, Michael Moore takes a noble stab at breaking that stalemate by implementing a clever bit of reverse engineering. That is to say, he embarks on an earnest search and recovery mission for America’s most commendable ideals and founding principles…scouring anywhere in the world but here.
Armed only with an American flag and his highly developed sense of irony, Moore sets off to “invade” countries throughout Europe and North Africa. His goal is not to acquire land or resources, but rather to cull ideas; ideas that could be put to good use here in the U S of A. Yes, I know…ideas can be dangerous. And undoubtedly, at this point his usual detractors would assume that these “ideas” were communistic; or at best “un-American”.
However, as them furreners say…au contraire, bon ami.
For starters, take Italy, where workers are given two-hour lunches, paid maternity leave, innumerable paid vacation days, an additional “13th month” of full salary every December, and (oh, what is that word again?) respect…all as a matter of course. Now, this wasn’t handed to the Italian people on a silver platter; it took years of struggle (as Moore is careful to point out), but hey folks, welcome to the 21st century (well, in Italy).
Moore shifts from employment to education, taking a peek at countries like Finland (no standardized tests, little to no emphasis on homework) France (freshly prepared, nutritionally balanced school lunches that would be strictly 4-star restaurant fare in the U.S.) and Slovenia, with free college for any and all who apply (including non-citizens). And guess what? None of the aforementioned countries’ education systems suffer for it.
That’s all fine and dandy, some may interject this point, but isn’t Moore cherry-picking? And hasn’t he used this device before in his previous films, making idealized “A-B” comparisons between the U.S. and countries that seem to have a much better handle on very specific sociopolitical maladies? Yes, and yes. So what? Is there a law against that?
Speaking of the law, Moore’s most fascinating and illuminating pit stop is in Norway, where the concept of “incarceration” is quite different from ours. If you are not familiar with it (I wasn’t), it will blow your fucking mind. In a nutshell, their prison system is based on rehabilitation, not retribution (no matter how unfathomably horrendous the crime). And as counter-intuitive as that seems, Norway’s recidivism rate is shockingly low.
Initially, Moore not only seems to be literally “all over the map”, but figuratively as well; an uncharacteristic lack of focused advocacy. However, there is a method to his madness, and it is genius. As I watched the film, I gleaned a common thread, key words that kept popping up. Words like “dignity”, “respect”, “freedom”, and (wait for it) “happiness”. It’s almost as if these folks, be they French, Italian, Tunisian, Norwegian, Slovenian, believe that these are, I don’t know, the “inalienable rights” of all humans, or something. I mean, someone should collate these types of ideas into some kind of “declaration”, or maybe draw up a “constitution” of some sort…and then actually, like…implement them.
Now that is an exceptional idea.