Michael Moore has been making political documentaries for almost thirty years now. While his targets typically vary on a film-by-film basis—Roger & Me (1989): globalization; Bowling for Columbine (2002): gun violence and the peculiarly American fetishization of firearms; Fahrenheit 9/11(2004): the Iraq War; Sicko (2007): for-profit healthcare; Capitalism: A Love Story (2009): the bank bailouts following the subprime mortgage disaster—his solutions to the problems have remained, in a way, steadily consistent. Not the content of the solutions, of course—Moore lacks the strange intellectual chemistry of curiosity combined with narrowmindedness required to be a fanatic—but the way they’re packaged for audiences, reassuring us that nothing new under the sun is necessary to heal the woes plaguing the nation. It’s all been done before, we’re told. Union militancy, national-pride projects, Dodd-Frank. All we need is to go back to the way things once were.
Where to Invade Next is, at least in this sense, no different than Moore’s previous cinematic outputs—although this time the nostalgia trip takes a roundabout way of getting there, going through Europe and Northern Africa first. At the thematic center of the film is Moore acting as surrogate for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, his mission being to appropriate for the United States desirable elements of other cultures and societies without the use of force or projection of strength. (A graphic montage chronicling the misery, barbarism, and death resulting from the Iraq War and the United States’ “no-win” Middle East policy leading up to it is shown at the beginning of the film, illustrating the stark differences between what will be Moore’s methods of appropriation and what has been business as usual.) Thus, Moore sets out to “invade” these other countries but this time it’s in pursuit of domestic-reform templates rather than pipeline contracts and oil reserves.
Moore visits all the usual suspects of social-democratic prosperity—Norway, Finland, and Germany—in addition to a few surprise stops—Italy, Slovenia, and Tunisia. In Italy it’s mandated by law that employees must be provided at least five paid weeks off a year for vacation and rest. Moore spends most his time there with a married couple (the husband is a police officer and the wife works in merchandising) who at least affect shock upon discovery that the number of vacation days an employee has in the United States is left entirely up to his or her employer.
In Slovenia higher education is completely socialized, even for foreign students. When Moore asks an American studying there why she doesn’t have to pay, since after all neither she nor her parents ever paid into the educational system, she says that if Slovenians asked foreign students to pay for their educations, it would open up the possibility of challenging the principle of socialized education altogether.
In Tunisia, still very much in between the death of its old social order and the birth of a new one, Moore points out that the progression of women’s rights is conferred by their constitution. This means, among other things, guaranteeing gender parity in all its elected bodies. Incidentally, Moore doesn’t mention that Tunisia’s constitution also includes an article legally compelling its government to “contribute to the protection of the climate…for future generations,” making it one of only a handful of constitutionally compelled governments on the issue of ecological sustainability.
As for the remaining countries Moore set his sights on? Norway has a penal system that treats prisoners as if they’re still citizens, focusing on rehabilitation and not stripping them of basic rights such as voting. Until the 1980s, Finland’s educational performance was comparable to the United States’, but now it has one of the best performing systems in the world, primarily as a result of banning tuition fees for private institutions and maintaining student-focused and, in many cases, student-directed curriculums. While at school, the French serve their young ones food that doesn’t look like something an orc threw up. Codetermination is practiced in Germany, whereby any company over a certain size must ensure that half of those on its board of directors represent workers. And Iceland threw the members of its moneyed class in prison not merely for recklessness but for their criminal responsibility for the 2008 worldwide financial crisis.
Iceland is further celebrated by Moore for its social initiatives concerning the wellbeing and dignity of female citizens. (In recent years, Iceland’s been called “the most feminist place in the world” by the Nation and “a feminist utopia” by the Guardian.) Strip clubs have been banned in the tiny republic. Female participation in the labor force is the highest in the world. And in 2006 the country implemented a quota system that mandates at least 40 percent representation for either sex in all corporate boardrooms. For either sex is an important proviso, since otherwise the quotas would feel like pandering, patronizing, or, more than likely, a bit of both. While the last scene of the film is set at the ruins of the Berlin Wall, with Moore and an old friend sharing memories of the week it came down, both the film’s conclusion and its ethic (the empowerment of women) are clearly settled in Iceland.
Moore eventually plants his flag in all these countries, claiming that he’s bringing their ideas back to the States for implementation. At the same time, he usually finds they’ve been here all along. Or at least since the New Deal. After all, a Norwegian prison warden tells him, isn’t it the US Constitution that forbids cruel and unusual punishment? Yes it is, however only those who already find the mass incarceration state to be brutal, inhumane, and in need of dismantlement will find Moore’s dubious linkage particularly compelling. Such is, in fact, a common criticism of Moore and his documentaries: that they merely preach to the converted—or, rather, the preordained. The cheap jokes at the expense of Dick Cheney and former president George W. Bush (hardly sympathetic political creatures) are a perfect example, delivered perfunctorily and coming across as more of a snobbish ritual than an actual incentive for laughter.
This isn’t the only shortfall of the film. Indeed, Moore raises no questions as to why these welfare functions and business laws are in place in, for example, Scandinavia but not here in the United States. Nor is there any acknowledgment of the therapeutic remedies that have been tried here in various state prisons. Or how or why these therapeutic remedies coexist with such extreme acts of violence and brutality by prison guards like the ones shown in the film. Moore would perhaps also be surprised to discover that the history lessons taught in most US schools today agree wholeheartedly with his rumination that we come from “a great country that was born in genocide and built on the backs of slaves.” Praise is steeped on the Germans for constant remembrance through architecture and monuments of their horrible past. Moore invites us to do the same when it comes to our long record of inhumanity. But has he never been to Birmingham?
Most worrisome, no mention is made of the growing momentum of reactionary and outright fascistic forces in much of Europe today—forces that set themselves up as a coherent opposition to most of the ideas Moore wants to expropriate. Instead, we’re told he’s there to pick flowers not thorns, with the added insinuation that any resistance to progress in these countries derives almost exclusively from powerful interest groups in the state-corporate nexus.
Thus, like his predecessors in the defense department, Moore “invades” these countries with little understanding or appreciation for their tensions and nuances. And, like more than a few doctors, Moore seems keen to prescribe the proper antidotes for his patient without uncovering what the actual ailment is.