Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Independence Day

Happy birthday, USA!

Absence makes the heart grow fonder and, for me, a corollary to that cliché is that I become more patriotic when I don’t live in my own country. When I lived in France during the days of Vietnam, Nixon and Watergate, I got angry with French students who were saying the same things I had been saying a short time before on an American campus. Somehow, in the mouths of my Gallic acquaintances, criticisms of the Nixon administration got generalized into attacks on the United States itself. (Anyway, I hadn’t been a very serious protestor. If the truth be known, I was one of those people who showed up a protests because it was a fun way to spend an hour or so and sometimes a way to meet attractive, open-minded young women.)

These days, now that I’m back in Europe, it’s déjà vu all over again. I’m too old to rub shoulders with students this time around, and ordinary Irish people (even my in-laws) are too respectful to bombard me with awkward political questions about my government. (In the tense days before the invasion of Iraq, one sister-in-law did ask me, with no small amount of concern, “So, is this George Bush cracked or what?”) But the Irish media inundate their audience with enough lopsided reports about how America and Britain are ruining the world to choke a university sophomore.

So, maybe that is why I was getting a bit homesick. I was more than ready for our annual family visit to California. As fate would have it, our plane nearly crossed air space with Air Force One, which was bringing President Bush to the west of Ireland for a summit with the European Union. For weeks, the local media had focused on the upcoming brief visit, ignoring all substance of what the meeting was about and concentrating completely on plans for demonstrations and protests. Yet for all the coverage, I still wasn’t clear about what the demonstrators were actually demanding. A warm-up protest that I witnessed in the streets of Galway featured artful placards that screamed “No Blood for Oil!” and “Stop Bush’s War!” There is certainly an argument to make against (as well as for) the invasion of Iraq, but the time for that argument would seem to have come and gone. Earth to protestors: the invasion happened. The question is: what should happen now? Are the protestors actually demanding that the U.S. and its allies (and, yes, it does have some) immediately withdraw completely from Iraq? Wouldn’t that make the place even more violent, at least in the short term? And wouldn’t it make a stable and democratic country less likely? Just asking.

Of course, criticism of the current administration isn’t necessarily the same as criticism of the country itself. George W. Bush by himself is not America. Yet, coming from the talking heads and street rabble in Ireland, that’s what it sounds like. And it bothers me. If I want to hear criticism of George W. Bush, I’d just as soon come home and hear Americans criticizing him. So, we landed in Los Angeles and were immediately brought up to date with contemporary American life. Although I had seen reports that gas prices were finally dropping, in California they were still well over $2 a gallon. It’s a jolt to see, but it’s still cheaper than buying petrol in Ireland. And why is every storefront now advertising “low carb” versions of everything from donuts to toothpaste? Yes, I do come from a strange country. No doubt about it.

Since I have been stateside, Michael Moore’s “suppressed” documentary (sorry, I am going to follow my own advice and refer to it henceforth as a work of advocacy cinema) has opened as the No. 1 movie of the weekend. I seem to be writing about Moore fairly frequently, and maybe that is because I am sort of related to him. But it is appropriate to bring him up again on the occasion of our national holiday, because in a strange way Moore makes me feel good about being an American. And how, one or two of you may be asking, could Michael Moore possibly make me or anyone else feel good about being an American? After all, the running theme of Moore’s films is not exactly that America is a great country. His thesis is basically that America, as dominated by the current powers that be, is violent and full of inequality and dominated by corrupt corporations and politicians. So how can this make me feel good about being an American?

More than a year ago I suggested that Moore was the left’s equivalent of Rush Limbaugh. The hoopla around the release of Fahrenheit 9/11 only underscores that point. Like Limbaugh’s radio broadcasts, Moore’s films have no practical intention of changing anyone’s political opinions. No Republican is going to see his film and suddenly decide to support John Kerry. But people who already don’t like Bush will have their dislike of him whipped up into a fervor. Like Limbaugh (and many politicians), Moore does absolutely nothing to bring Americans together. He divides the country into good guys and bad guys, and then proceeds to make the bad guys seem as irredeemable as possible. I do not begrudge all the money that Moore is making from his latest film. I have never criticized any other movie for making a lot of money, and I won’t in this case. In fact, you have to admire Moore for being the cleverest slovenly dressed and groomed entrepreneur since Bill Gates. Gates merely figured out how to make every person who bought a PC pay him a few cents. Moore has figured out how to get a lot of voters to pay him money to sit through a Democratic party informercial. Is America a great country or what?

The answer is that it is a great country. It’s not a perfect country, but it is a great country. As we continue to hear disturbing things in the news, we shouldn’t lose sight of that fact. Those who imply that Bush is no better than Saddam are entitled to their opinion of Bush, but that kind of hyperbole doesn’t help their argument. After all, Bush is president of a country where movies like Michael Moore’s can be made. If Moore lived in Iraq under Saddam Hussein or in Afghanistan under the Taliban or in any country that should ever come under the control of Al Qaeda, he wouldn’t get very far making films so critical of the powers that be. By publicly highlighting the worst he can find in America and its current administration, he is actually demonstrating America’s greatest strength: its culture of freedom and its tolerance for dissent.

So, maybe I do come from a strange country that is obsessed with low-carb diets and celebrities and saturation coverage of the occasional murder or rape trial. And maybe my country infuriates other countries with its global economic power and its occasional military adventures. But, hey, if we have to sit through television coverage of yet one more celebrity trial, I can think of worse ones to endure than Saddam Hussein’s.

So, once again, happy birthday, Uncle Sam!

-S.L., 1 July 2004

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