Blessed are the muckrakers: Michael Moore and other contemporary truth-tellers can trace their lineage to the biblical prophets and godly gadflies who took on the establishments of their day. (culture in context).
Long before Enron, Arthur Andersen, and WorldCom became household obscenities, this guerilla satirist with a video cam and a baseball cap was storming the bastilles and gated communities of the rich and famous and tossing their dirty laundry out the window. In a series of darkly comic and often outrageous documentaries Moore has asked why trickle-down economics and globalization have no clothes.
Most recently the blue-collar bomber has lobbed a couple of grenades inside the beltway and pointed an accusing finger at our national addiction to guns. His book Stupid White Men (Regan Books) blames George W. and his corporate and Capitol Hill buddies for a cornucopia of problems and ills, while his movie Bowling for Columbine takes a decidedly irreverent and occasionally outlandish poke at our idolatrous veneration of the Second Amendment.
Moore first hit the screens in 1989 with Roger and Me, a scathing and sidesplittingly funny satire on the fallout of Reaganomics. Tracking the elusive Roger Smith across the wasteland that was once Flint, Michigan, Moore sets out to ask the General Motors CEO about the human costs of corporate downsizing and outsourcing.
In this film noir version of It's a Wonderful Life, Moore's working-class hometown has become George Bailey's Pottersville, a rustbelt graveyard where the rich are ensconced behind phalanxes of security guards and the children of factory workers are being tossed from their homes. Would-be corporate gate crasher Moore wants somebody to step up to the mike and answer for this devastation. Understandably, Mr. Smith (and corporate America) is unavailable for comment.
Throughout the `90s the prankish and puckish Moore took potshots at lots of other "establishment" targets. His 1995 comedy Canadian Bacon lampooned America's hawkish foreign policy, and his two TV series (TV Nation and The Awful Truth) satirized the media while blasting hypocrisy and bureaucracy in politics, business, and religion. Corporate greed took some more shots in his New York Times bestseller Downsize This! (HarperPerennial) as well as The Big One, the documentary Moore made of the accompanying book tour.
BUT MOORE ISN'T THE ONLY CANDIDATE FOR MUCKRAKER laureate. Bill Maher's now canceled Politically Incorrect slaughtered herds of sacred cows, and his recent When You Ride Alone You Ride with Bin Laden (New Millennium) slices and dices America's greed, selfishness, and gluttonous oil consumption while taking more than a few pokes at Washington's prosecution of the war on terror.
Noam Chomsky's little book on 9-11 (Seven Stories Press) takes dead aim at America's national and international sins. And Molly Ivins feels free to barbecue a whole bunch of corporate and beltway good ol' boys, including the president and his oil friends, in Shrub: The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush (Vintage Books).
Still, Moore is my candidate. His populist politics, working-class rage and guerrilla tactics make him perfect for the job. The muckrakers Teddy Roosevelt blasted a century ago were social critics who had learned from yellow journalism that the public had an insatiable appetite for scandal, particularly when it involved the high and mighty. So these journalist gadflies grabbed their readers' attention with sensationalist exposes about the malignancy of corporate monopolies and the venality of the politicians they owned.
In McClure's and Collier's magazines reformers like Lincoln Steffens and Ida M. Tarbell woke the wrath and indignation of the masses in the early 1900s with tales of political graft and corporate spoils. Thomas Lawson and Edward Markham shocked their audience's sensibilities with revelations about stock market and insurance frauds and the barbarous conditions of child labor. And Upton Sinclair's The Jungle painted such a disturbing picture of the filth and cruelty of the meatpacking industry that Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.
These tabloid terrorists went for the jugular, hoping to reach the conscience of a nation through its guts. In their broadsheets and best-sellers they used scandal and satire to lance the boils of arrogant wealth and corrupt politics, and 100 years after the first muckraker articles appeared in McClure's, Michael Moore is still mixing entertainment and social criticism into an explosive combination.
THE BIBLE HAS ITS OWN SHARE OF muckrakers. Long before documentaries or investigative journalism, the Hebrew prophets exposed and condemned the scandalous abuses of wealth and power with oracles, curses, and dramatic gestures.
Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Micah, Amos, and Habakuk lampooned the high and mighty for their crimes against Yahweh's poor and lowly, ridiculed the folly and arrogance of Israel and Judah's foreign entanglements, and satirized the hypocrisy of burned sacrifices offered without mercy or justice.
These godly gadflies, despised for the sin of prophesying against the state, blasted the greed of landowners who coveted and seized the homes of the poor, the usury of moneylenders who drove their debtors into penury, the deceit of merchants who defrauded widows and aliens, the cruelty of tyrants who oppressed their peoples, and the venality of priests, judges, and court prophets whose services were always for sale to the highest bidder.
Amos and Micah, two of the Bible's sharpest social critics, were ordinary working stiffs like Moore, peasant shepherds who lob Yahweh's curses and judgments at wealthy and powerful Hebrews for breaking the covenant by turning their backs on widows, orphans, and aliens. And the curses and oracles they and other prophets level are barbed with scathing satire.
Attacking the rich women of Samaria for "oppressing the needy [and] crushing the poor," Amos calls them "cows of Basham" and promises that they will soon be dragged off to slaughter. God has Micah and Habakuk issue satires and dirges lampooning the rich, who are as greedy as death and want the whole world for themselves and all peoples for their slaves (Hab. 2:5-6). And the Lord has Isaiah and Jeremiah ridicule the hypocritical worship of those who dishonor the covenant by their cruelty and injustice.
THE MUCKRAKERS GOT THEIR NAME from a president who blasted them for criticizing a great nation, and the movement lasted less than a decade. The prophets were ridiculed and persecuted for having the temerity to issue oracles against God's chosen people, and a number of them were arrested and beaten for their troubles.
As Jesus told his disciples, every generation wants to build shrines to the prophets of the past, but nobody wants these gadflies lampooning our own greed, arrogance, and corruption. Muckrakers and prophets are rarely honored in their own day.
As Jeremiah notes, the Word of God had been put into his mouth "to tear up and to knock down" (1:10). No wonder he saw himself as "a man of strife and dissension for all the land" and complained that "all curse me" (15:10).
Still, we need muckrakers. In a time when the corruption of Enron, Arthur Andersen, and WorldCom rival or dwarf the hubris of the robber barons of the Gilded Age, in an era when big oil seems to be in the driver's seat of America's foreign and environmental policies--there must be someone to lampoon the insatiable appetite of multinational corporations and the neo-imperial designs of the world's last superpower.
It is, of course, unlikely that Congress will appoint such a person. But perhaps God has sent some of these gadflies among us, if only we have ears to hear.
By PATRICK MCCORMICK, an associate professor of Christian ethics at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.
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|Date:||Mar 1, 2003|
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