By Sherry Lee Linkon and John Russo
In his latest film, Sicko, Michael Moore asks a question that, he says, he’s been wondering about for a while. As the camera zooms in for an extreme close-up of on an elderly woman who was dumped on the street because she couldn’t pay her hospital bill, he asks, “Who are we?”
This question lies at the heart of several of Moore’s films. Bowling for Columbine asked why, despite more or less equal rates of gun ownership, gun violence is so much higher in the U.S. than in Canada. In Sicko, he again compares the U.S. with Canada, highlighting the Canadian – and French, British, and even Cuban – belief that members of the society have a mutual responsibility to ensure that everyone has access to free, high-quality health care. While the old idea of American exceptionalism is both arrogant and incomplete, Moore suggests that the real challenge to solving our social problems lies not in politics or economics, he suggests, but in our culture – especially in the American faith in individualism.
Individualism covers a wide range of ideas, from valuing individual freedom of choice (in everything from where to live to what to eat), to the notion that achieving the American dream depends primarily on individual effort and ability, to the belief that each of us is responsible for ourselves. It also shapes how we think we ought to help each other. Collectivism in almost any form is seen as un-American, so socialized medicine and government hand-outs don’t look like good solutions. Policies that require everyone to pay for services that are not used equally seem deeply un-American (though, as Moore points out, we rely on many such programs, including police and fire protection). Some older adults whose children are long grown complain about paying property taxes to support public education. Some younger adults complain about paying into the social security system, worried that they won’t get their share back. Individualism can translate into selfishness: we want to hold on to what we earn for ourselves. If others are struggling, we prefer to help individually, by making a donation. We don’t want to pay higher taxes, even though doing so might provide health care, good education, or safe housing for everyone.
Even our responses to crises reflect individualism. When disaster strikes, we volunteer to build new houses in New Orleans or send checks to the Red Cross. We are eager help out as individuals. On the ugly flip side, we also expect people to help themselves. We feel some sympathy for Katrina victims who still haven’t found jobs or permanent housing, but the ones we really admire are those who are working day after day to rebuild their homes, despite inadequate help from federal disaster funds.
That’s partially because of another side effect of individualism: our belief that private enterprise works better than government programs. Business works well, we claim, but government is incompetent. In some cases, no doubt, both are true. Still, the U.S. government runs a number of efficient, effective services. And business works well only if you define “well” as making a profit, not as serving the needs of ordinary people.
Our faith in business is a major obstacle to solving the health care crisis, and it, too, is rooted in individualism. Despite all the talk in business circles about collaboration and team-building, we still view business success as based on individual effort, talent, and luck. If you’re rich, it’s because you worked hard – you, as an individual, not the hundreds or thousands of employees of a company, many of whom are not rich despite their hard work. We support capitalism without question because we hope to become capitalists.
Moore attempts to reach out to viewers on the basis of two other core American beliefs: community and democracy. But neither of these is as powerful as individualism. We like the idea of people coming together to work for common goals, of helping each other, of being connected. And we pursue that in individualistic ways: we join local organizations, volunteer our time, donate to charity. Like business, we want community to be a private matter of individual effort rather than something that is coordinated and provided by the government.
We believe in democracy, too, though only in abstract ways. We think majority should rule, but we doubt our own power. Ironically, this is another version of individualism: the individual matters, but one person can’t change things. My one vote doesn’t really matter, we tell ourselves, so why bother? At the same time, because we prefer to act as individuals, we’re not good at organized protest. As Moore demonstrates, people in other societies are much more likely than we are to speak up or to show up for rallies.
Meanwhile, health care and other issues have begun to disrupt individuals’ access to the American dream, as well as business profits, so it’s on the agenda of almost every presidential candidate (though only John Edwards has yet announced a concrete strategy). They should listen to Michael Moore – not only to his argument for universal health care but to his analysis of American culture. Solving America’s social problems will require leaders who can not only design effective policies but also inspire change in the heart and soul of American culture.
Sherry Lee Linkon is a professor of English and American Studies and Co-Director of the Center for Working-Class Studies at YSU. She was named a Carnegie Scholar in 1999 and has twice received the Distinguished Professor Award for Scholarship from YSU. In 2003, she was named the Ohio Professor of the Year by Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Her book Teaching Working Class (University of Massachusetts, 1999) was named one of the ten best academic books of the 1990s by the readers of Lingua Franca magazine. Along with John Russo, she published a book about work and community in Youngstown, Steeltown USA: Work and Memory in Youngstown (University Press of Kansas, 2002) and edited a recent book entitled New Working-Class Studies (Cornell University Press, 2005).
John Russo is the Coordinator of the Labor Studies Program in the Warren P. Williamson College of Business Administration at Youngstown State University and is a founder and the co-director of the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University. Dr. Russo has written widely of labor and social issues and is recognized as a national expert on labor unions and working-class issues. His most recent publication is a book co-authored with Sherry Linkon, Steeltown, USA: Work and Memory in Youngstown (2002). Also with Sherry Linkon, an edited book entitled New Working-Class Studies was published in 2005 by Cornell University Press in 2005. For his many activities, Dr. Russo is one of the few professors at YSU to have ever received Distinguished Professorship Awards in each of three areas: research and scholarship, teaching, and public service.