Michael Moore’s “SiCKO” is, in certain respects, a perfect political movie. One film isn’t going give us single-payer universal health care in this country, but this one might just move us a little closer to it. In its portrayal of a perverse health care system that places profits before patients, “SiCKO” manages to do the two things that any effective piece of agitprop must.
The first, of course, is to inspire outrage. And there is plenty of outrage to be had. The guy who had to decide which finger he could afford to get reattached; the old folks living in their daughter’s storage room because they sold the house to pay medical bills; the woman whose daughter died because the hospital refused to treat her. At various points in the movie, I was teary-eyed with rage.
But it’s not enough to just upset people. This is a common mistake made by leftists—middle class white ones especially. They think that people will rise up if they find out how much they are being screwed. But it turns out that many people are perfectly aware that they are being screwed; they just don’t think there’s anything they can do about it. So after you get people riled up, it’s vitally important that you show them how things could be different.
And that’s where SiCKO really shines. Health care was really a brilliant choice of subject. Not just because, as many reviewers have pointed out, insurance companies make an excellent villain. The genius of it is that when it comes to our awful health care system, things not only can be better, they are better in every other rich country in the world. The strongest part of the movie was the parts talking about the Canadian, British, and French systems, which guarantee free health care to everyone. It really is that simple—just rip off the French!
Maybe that’s why Moore’s message is finding such a receptive audience. Even Oprah waxed social democratic after seeing it. Boing Boing (via TPM Café) reports that even in Texas, the movie can inspire spontaneous organizing. Meanwhile, the movie has apparently scared the crap out of the health insurance industry. And on right-wing TV, they’re reduced to arguing that universal healthcare causes terrorism. Unfortunately, SiCKO has not yet inspired any of the leading Democratic candidates to come out in favor of true single-payer universal coverage instead of some partial compromise position (Dennis Kucinich does support single payer Medicare-for-all, however).
It’s also worth noting that this movie is about a lot more than health care. Some of the more perceptive critics have noticed that Moore is just using health care as an entry point to a much broader social democratic vision. He wants to promote a vision of the country in which people look out for each other—and the government looks out for them—rather than our current ethos of ultra-individualism. That’s why Matt Yglesias—who is no socialist—suggests that the reaction to the movie is a sign of the “anti-capitalist folk instincts” of many Americans. “The crux of the matter”, he argues, “is that ordinary people think that if there’s a sick person, and you’re in a position to help the sick person, that you ought to help the sick person. This is what us socialists might call the principle of solidarity.
Is this right? Do Americans have “anti-capitalist folk instincts”? And if so, how do we tap into them and direct them toward political action?