Thursday, November 6, 2008

Open-Source Political Discourse

Allow me to pour some political lemon juice on our current collective papercut of electoral anticlimax. That's right, after a three-week hiatus from blogging, during which time the most noteworthy presidential campaign in at least the last forty years came to a head, I want to talk about... Michael Moore?

Regardless of how you feel about his politics or his personality (I'm a lefty, but I find him annoying too), you must concede that he has done something very important in the history of popular political discourse. He has done something so obvious it's unthinkable. He has become the Radiohead of American politics:

He released a feature-length political documentary on the internet for free.

Slacker Uprising, as it's known, is something that I probably won't ever see, simply because, unlike Moore himself, I see little value in preaching to the choir. But by releasing it for free, he has completely eliminated the number-one reason that his ideological opponents would otherwise have used to avoid seeing it.

Think back to 2004:

You: Dude, have you seen "Fahrenheit 9/11" yet? It's awesome!
Joe the Plumber: That's the new Michael Moore movie, right?
You: Yeah, it's about how the Bush administration led us to war in Iraq on false pretenses, and --
Joe the Plumber: I hate Michael Moore.
You: I can definitely see why you'd say that -- he has an insufferable, whiny voice and kind of a nebbishy, loserish persona, like if Woody Allen and Roseanne Barr had a love child.
Joe the Plumber: Good one!
You: Thanks. But anyway, yeah, Moore made the film, but it's still really good. It has a lot of good information in it.
Joe the Plumber: Maybe so, but there's no way I'm going to help make that fat Commie fuck rich.

Now that Moore has taken personal enrichment out of the equation, Joe the Plumber will have to rack his walnut-sized brain for weeks to find a replacement excuse not to watch it.

Now, the market for political documentaries is pretty small, and the overall effect they have on people's political opinions is arguable. So even if this trend catches on in that market, it won't revolutionize the exchange of political ideas much. But I'm hoping that it could trickle into the world of book publishing.

Remember when Scott McClellan wrote What Happened, his tell-all book about the Bush White House? The Bush team made it sound like McClellan was writing the book simply to make a quick buck, and not to vindicate his own name in the eyes of the majority of Americans who realized that Bush is the world's only nuclear-armed special needs baby. And presumably a portion of the conservative electorate bought that argument. "He's just a liberal turncoat! I don't want my $30 going into his pocket!" And so they missed out on important information.

I keep using anti-conservative examples, but it cuts both ways. If Jim Inhofe, for instance, wrote a memoir, a certain sick fascination would make me want to read it, but I would balk at having to pay the man money to read the story of his evil, deranged life. I would play the liberal Joe the Plumber to his conservative Michael Moore.

Wouldn't it be great if America's political discourse simply stopped involving retail sales? If you publish the exact same manuscript as a PDF on your website, you could genuinely be viewed as making contributions to the marketplace of ideas, instead of just trying to make a buck. Your ideological opponents would have no reason other than closed-mindedness not to read you. Ideas would be exchanged more widely. And -- best of all -- it would drive the true profiteers out of business. Would Bill O'Reilly really write a sequel to Culture Warrior if there weren't any money in it?

So thank you, Michael Moore, for nudging us in the direction of open-source political discourse. Perhaps you should reward yourself by watching another funny yet insightful documentary, Morgan Spurlock's Super-Size Me.


Joe Hafeman said...

You lost me when you called a Michael Moore film a documentary. I can't accept that. It's not the money that I don't want to waste; it's my time. Michael Moore may have a worthy message somewhere, but, I cannot accept the delivery.

Owen T. Cunningham said...

All due respect, but that strikes me as kind of a silly argument. The implication is that "real documentaries" don't have an agenda. Um... since when? Show me a documentary without any agenda, without any kind of point to prove.

The analogous argument would be to claim that McClellan's What Happened "isn't a book," even though it demonstrably is. Granted, McClellan is arguably a more respectable figure than Moore (he's certainly easier to take), but they're both trying to contribute to the public discourse.

In any event, the larger point is this: even if you personally don't use the personal enrichment argument as a way of avoiding the views of the opposing side, there are many people who do.

Joe Hafeman said...

Silly, me?
In my mind, a documentary is something that makes an attempt at presenting facts. Granted, historical documentaries will be slanted since all history is slanted. Michael Moore makes things up. Label his movies as his personal political statements. That's fine. The word documentary has other implications. My documentary preferences fall into the "March of the Penguins" category. For political content, I would rather read than watch video.