I went to the tiny town of Bellaire in northern Michigan last weekend to see the world premiere of Sicko, Michael Moore's new movie about health care in the United States. I didn't go to the press showing; I bought a regular ticket, to see what the audience's reaction would be.
Frankly, I was prepared to be less than overwhelmed by the movie itself. While most of his past documentaries have been must-sees, most also had distracting flaws. Everyone remembers the infamous rabbit-slaying scene in Roger and Me; as anti-gun as I notoriously am, I was left uncomfortable by Moore's badgering of a seemingly senile Charlton Heston in Bowling for Columbine. Even Fahrenheit 911, his best film till now, had moments that seemed to be self-indulgent and more about Moore than the subject.
Sicko, however, is an utter masterpiece. Simultaneously brilliant, acidly funny and terribly anger-inspiring, it makes you want to start a revolution and worry at some deep level that the oppressed are far too beaten-down to care. The movie, in fact, is only partly about the failure of health care in this country. Mostly, it is the story of how we are falling apart as a nation and have failed as a society.
But as subtly portrayed by Sicko, the enemy is not who you might think. True, the movie does show a country being destroyed by a predatory and greedy health care system, and citizens who are losing their lives because of it. Yes, it does make an effective case that a lot of our problems are traceable to the health care giants, Aetna and Kaiser-Permanente and Humana and the rest.
Their health care lobbyists have mostly bought off the politicians, including, according to one of the movie's most controversial sequences, one Hillary Rodham Clinton, who in 1993 led her husband's charge to come up with a system of universal health care. The medical-industrial complex crushed that effort like a bug.
The "health care" giants are, indeed, the problem. (One of their evaluators who evidently developed a conscience is shown piteously detailing how she was rewarded for denying people benefits that could have saved their lives.) The people themselves know they are being wronged. The filmmaker shows case after case of citizens who allegedly have full coverage getting the shaft, including 9/11 rescue workers whose lungs were terribly damaged.
Moore talks with the widow of a man whose life could have been saved by a bone marrow transplant that was not allowed because it was "experimental."
But saddest and perhaps most frightening of all is the deadening and pervasive apathy. The victims mostly don't fight back, or make a few weak efforts and give up. There is the heartening case of one plucky man who writes his insurer and threatens to expose them to ta-da Michael Moore unless they will restore his daughter's hearing in both ears, not just one. Guess whose case was swiftly reassessed! But mostly, the afflicted sit there, bewildered, penniless and suffering.
Possibly the biggest service this movie does is to expose the big lie we've been told about "socialized medicine" in other nations, which as the vast majority of Canadians or British or French will tell you, works pretty well.
Those systems do have problems, yes, and the movie doesn't discuss them. (I also know a millionaire who is having problems with the glove box on his Lexus.) But people in those countries live longer and are healthier than here. Thirty-five years ago, in the same week Watergate happened, a New Left radical said something I never forgot.
"Eventually the United States and the Soviet Union will become mirror images of each other," he told a bunch of us college students. "They will get color TV, and we will get bugging, inefficiency and long lines." That memory came back to me when Sicko showed how crowded hospitals bundle confused, disoriented and indigent patients into taxis and dump them out on Skid Row, in front of a mission. (A hospital administrator even defends this practice, on camera.)
Yes, we are becoming the Soviet Union in decline. (By the way, have you seen that country on the map lately?)
What's pretty clear is that we'd better start some form of revolution that involves single-payer health care, or this nation is doomed. By the way, Michael Moore, whom I had never before met, spoke before the film. (It was a fundraiser for the tiny Democratic Party in microscopic Antrim County; his wife is the county chair.) I had heard all the stories of his famous arrogance and boorishness, but on this occasion the filmmaker seemed humble, deferential, even a tad meek.
When the movie was over, a man in the audience walked up to him, congratulated him, and shook his hand. He was former Gov. William Milliken, a Republican (!). He said he thought Sicko did a brilliant job calling attention to the nation's biggest problem, and that he hoped everyone saw it. We had leaders in this state and nation once upon a time, you know. It's up to us to find some, or become some, again.
Amnesty update: No, not for the poor immigrants, for whom it's fashionable to have malice towards all and charity for none, as Abraham Lincoln didn't say. I am talking about the gentlest and most selfless group in town, the Detroit chapter of Amnesty International.
For years, they have gathered once a month in an empty room in Sacred Heart Seminary, where they would decide who they would try to help which unjustly imprisoned political prisoners they'd write letters on behalf of next. Occasionally they were even known to have milk and cookies.
Then, at the start of this month, they heard from the Inquisition. They were being evicted, effective immediately. John Duncan, the building administrator, sent chapter leaders Ken and Geraldine Grunow a note. "It recently came to my attention that the International Executive Committee of Amnesty International approved a new policy regarding a woman's right to have an abortion in cases related to rape or incest. Unfortunately this ... requires me to inform you that Amnesty International will no longer be able to hold their meetings at the Seminary.
"The Seminary is a very visible part of the Catholic Church in the metropolitan Detroit area and we cannot allow outside groups who support policies contrary to Catholic doctrine to use our building. It is very unfortunate that this has to happen as Amnesty International does a tremendous amount of good work around the world."
The Detroit chapter has never taken a position on abortion, though they seem to be against forcible rape by jailors, but that's evidently irrelevant. Bowing to the will of Comrade Stalin oops Benedict is more important.
Not to worry. I contacted the Grunows, who were preparing to spend Father's Day at home under "house arrest" to protest the arrest and jailing of some very brave women in Myanmar, formerly Burma. They intend to stay in Detroit, and have had offers of a new home from three congregations.
Here's my suggestion: If you have ever had a single thought contrary to the brain-dead dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church, or suspect that maybe women shouldn't be second-class citizens, you should show respect for them by never giving that church a dime again. Send it to Amnesty International instead. As Poseidon always tells me, if there is a higher power, She'll be happy that you did.Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org