Sense of Wonder: Dissing Dickens' Ghost Story

“A cynical, Anti-American “Hollywood” filmmaker sets out on a crusade to abolish the 4th of July holiday. He is visited by three spirits who take him on a journey in an attempt to show him the true meaning of America.”Plot synopsis of AN AMERICAN CAROL

I have no particular interest in seeing David Zucker’snew anti-Michael Moore comedy, AN AMERICAN CAROL, and what I am writing now is not a review. Rather, I find the existence of this piece of pop-culture effluvium interesting because of what it represents: a misreading of both Michael Moore and Charles Dickens, it is a fine epitome of a “Straw-man” argument. It may or may not be funny – director David Zucker has had his ups and downs since AIRPLANE – but the concept violates the very basis of A Christmas Carol.
To state the obvious: Dickens’ classic tale was not just a put-down of a greey old man; it was a satire of a particularly philosophy. For Victorian England, Scrooge represented The Man. His wealth gave hm power to lord it over the poor and the helpless, but in Dickens’ view, the working classes and the labourers were just as worthy – in fact, more so – in the eyes of God. Dickens’ was doing what today we would call “speaking Truth to Power.” He was the friend of the little guy, and his target was a corrupt system that treated its citizens unjustly. He was poking fun at sacred cows, satirizing a worldview that favored working hard, keeping your nose to the grindstone, and saving money (rather than spending it frivolously).
Perhaps you see where I’m going with this: Dickens was Victorian England’s equivalent of Michael Moore. The ghosts in A Christmas Carol were voicing sentments that would offend and outrage the pampered pundits at Fox News. Were he writing in America today, Dickens would be dissed by conservative commentators; right-wing blogs would write angry screeds against his “liberal bias;” and even mainstream pundits shakes their heads about his exaggerated methods, fretting over his angry portrayal of Scrooge as a cruel miser. Dickens would be dismissed as “Anti-American.
Regardless of their respective talents (Moore may not have Dickens’ finesse), Michael Moore is keeping the ghost of Dickens alive by in his films. He knows that love for institutions and traditions does not mean blindly ignoring social problems that harm the population at large. He knows that you can love something so much that you want the reality to be as it ought to be, and this requires calling out those who would subvert it for their own cynical ends. There is nothing remotely cynical or anti-American in this; Moore’s target has never been “America” itself either as a country or as an ideal. One obvious example: the Bush Administration is not synomymous with “America”; hating the former may be an example of love for the latter. In any case, it cannot be considered an anti-American position; since Bush has plummeted to record-low disapporval ratings, this position is now the mainstream majority opinion of America.
In fact, Moore’s films actually evince a charming naivete. The filmmaker clearly believes that America is – or should be – the land he believed in as a child, a land where people behaved better than they had to; where justice was the norm, no the exception; where generosity, tolerance, and understanding were to be expected.
All of his movies evince a profound disappointment when these ideals are not upheld, but he never blames “America” or “Americans.” He blames corporate greed, corrupt politicians, gun manufacturers, and HMOs; in other words, he goes after the modern day equivalent of Scrooge – the rich and the powerful who lord it over the poor and the helpless.
One could certainly argue about Moore’s strategy as a filmmaker. He tends to go for the broad stroke rather than the subtle detail, but that is part of his satirical approach: a satirist’s job is to poke fun at sacred cows, to show that we do not have to accept the status quo as some kind of god-given inevitability just because someone in power says so. Afterwards, subtle details can be examined by experts; the satirist merely needs to get the debate started – in some cases, to prove that a debate even needs to be started.
Not having seen AN AMERICAN CAROL, I cannot comment on its aesthetic qualities, but I do question its choice of targets. Satire should go after the big guys, the people in power, the ones who seem out of touch and unreachable. Elevating Moore to this level strikes me as slightly absurd, and it is unintentionally revealing that the movie’s caricature of Moore wants to abolish the 4th of July. Moore’s real arguments and positions simply don’t provide the sort of fodder that the film could spoof, so they attribute an indefensible position to him – setting up a Strawman so that they can knock him down. The very fact that the film needed to make stuff up tells you how little reality they could find to spoof.
Sadly, this is all too emblematic of conservative thinking these days. Dissenting voices are no longer respected as the Loyal Opposite; they are actively derided and slandered as terrorist-loving enemies. We certainly are living in a strange kind of bizarro world when people who seek to uphold American ideals are dismissed an anti-American.

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