It’s astounding, and discouraging, how much abuse substitutes for argument on Twitter, in YouTube comments, etc., and how much of the abuse is mindlessly obscene. It bothers us even when the target is someone we didn’t particularly like up until two weeks ago and still don’t. So with regard to the ongoing controversy over Michael Moore’s Planet of the Humans we’d like to ask that if you thought Moore was great until two weeks ago don’t suddenly start calling him an idiot and vice versa. We ourselves said the film has some strengths and some weaknesses. But there’s nothing positive to be said about the argument over it degenerating into a paranoid brawl over who’s a sellout to rapacious capitalism. Moore says it’s the renewable energy folks. His critics say it’s Moore. Can’t they debate the issues instead of attacking each other’s motives?
In a scathing letter, Josh Fox of Gasland demanded that distributor Films for Action take the documentary down because “The film touts blatantly untrue fossil fuel industry talking points” and “employs specious techniques of misinformation to deliver a deeply cynical and erroneous message.” Erroneous? We’ll believe it when wind and solar make money without subsidies. But cynical? Michael Moore? A shill for the fossil fuel industry? We only wish Moore were a shill for industry, or productive human enterprise in general, instead of his obscure utopian vision in which people either don’t work or they do but they don’t earn anything in the process.
Moore is worse than a hypocrite. He has always had an ugly habit of thinking there’s a giant conspiracy out there and that the many problems that afflict humanity are generally the product of conscious malevolence. Especially by the hated capitalists now apparently burning up the planet they live on for money that will burn up along with them.
This sort of indictment totally misses the point, and not only because it portrays the conspirators as simultaneously brilliant and idiotic. What people call the “capitalist system” has the enormous strength and potential weakness of fundamentally being not a system but the absence of one. When just about everyone is free to seek opportunities to trade things they don’t want for things they do, or trade things they want (like their time and effort) for things they want even more (like food or a car), you have capitalism, unless and until other people who hold political power come up with a system to try and stop it, from minor individual annoyances at one end like marketing boards all the way to communism or fascism at the other.
Under capitalism, people sell what others want. Including bitter critiques of capitalism and environmentally conscious products. And this arrangement works so well precisely because it’s not one unified thing. It’s a set of rules that protects diversity by decentralizing decision-making authority, including in shops and theatres, where a vast array of people compete to satisfy their fellows.
Thus Naomi Klein’s No Logo became a best-seller and indeed a very lucrative and trendy brand because a publisher thought it would sell, and was right, and because a great many buyers lacked a sense of irony at least about their own conduct. Just as Michael Moore got rich critiquing getting rich. (For more on this general topic see The Rebel Sell by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter). Here as so often, capitalism feeds the mouth that bites it.
That mouth also snarls, and the habit of finding the vast right-wing conspiracy and unmasking it has ugly practical as well as moral consequences. Eric Worrall wonders “In the wake of harsh allegations of green corporate greed made in the documentary “Planet of the Humans”, who will Greens sacrifice to restore public confidence?” and says “Bill McKibben and the Sierra Club appear to be the leading contenders.” But in Rolling Stone McKibben hit back at Moore and hit back hard. Some of what he says addresses substance. But much of it trashes Moore as a deliberate liar and “carnival barker” and a bully. Which to some extent he is. But surely it would be less brutal and more constructive to sacrifice bad ideas rather than bad people.
To anyone given to conspiracy theories, we issue two warnings. First, do not assume people can contrive, execute and conceal such a scheme effectively over many years if what you do see about them leads you to doubt they could organize a brawl in a saloon. Second, Susan Sontag’s tart “I envy paranoids; they actually feel people are paying attention to them.” (OK, three warnings if you visit our site: We delete comments that espouse conspiracy theories. And if it makes you think we’re part of “Them”, complain to the aliens running the show. But be warned that their complaints department is not very customer-friendly. We also delete obscenities no matter how original the spelling, and including acronyms.)
Is everything in Planet of the Humans exactly right and up to date? Probably not. Is there enough there to force a rethink of alternative energy? Yes. Is there enough there to frame it as a vast capitalist conspiracy? No. Is there enough to make Moore part of that conspiracy? Of course not. He doesn’t even need the money.
In turning on a new target, Moore has done some valuable work. But he has also kept some very nasty habits that are as unattractive now as they were in his earlier films. And in turning on Moore, his critics have done the same.
Others have not. For instance Films for Action initially responded to Fox’s letter by denouncing and withdrawing his film. Then they thought better of it and put the film back up along with an explanation that they don’t want to give the film the added cachet that comes from a campaign to ban something, that on reflection they think it has both strengths and weaknesses, and inviting viewers to make an informed judgement. Which seems the right approach. (And follows the key “Dracula effect” argument in favour of free speech: sunlight destroys evil.)
At CDN, we do our best to argue facts and logic, and in our comment section we delete anything we notice that is obscene, libellous or just plain paranoid. (And to repeat, the ban on vulgarity is not a challenge to spell it in some new way.) We invite you to join us in lighting a candle whenever possible and cursing the darkness creatively rather than crudely when absolutely necessary.