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“universal is for everybody” – oprah discovers socialism

with 8 comments

Absolutely amazing moment today on tv. I had heard that Cormac McCarthy was going to be on Oprah to discuss The Road – which seemed like an unlikely and interesting thing to see so I taped the show. But as it turned out, the McCarthy section was by far less interesting than the first segment, which featured Michael Moore discussing his new movie about the American health care situation, Sicko.

The moment when it felt like the ground was giving way beneath my feet comes about 1:30 into this video (which is bound not to last on-line, so get it while the getting’s good)…

(The video is, as I predicted, now gone…)

Here’s a transcript of the exchange in question:


OK this is what I was going to say about the film – that I got it in a way that I hadn’t gotten it before. Now don’t you love when that happens. When you just go “Ooo! I got it!” Because you know the word “socialism” really stirs up…


[Scarily] Socialized Medicine…


Socialized Medicine


[Scarily] Ooo…

O: And then when you showed the example of [how] we have socialized activities in this country. The fire department – we don’t pay for a fire department. We don’t pay for the police department. We don’t pay for public schools.


And it’s universal.


We don’t pay for the library. And it’s universal – universal is for everybody.




And so the very idea of extending that to the care of people is really something that I have to honestly say that I hadn’t thought about it because I’m one of those people, “I got mine,” so I wasn’t thinking about who didn’t have theirs. Really. Right.


And we don’t expect the fire department to turn a profit. It would be an appalling thought, and the reason we don’t is because it’s a life and death issue. Well, health care is a life and death issue.




And that’s why turning a profit has to be removed from the system.

Good Christ, that’s amazing. The slow but distinct re-discovery of what that word, “socialism,” might mean by a figure obviously not associated with words like that. The discovery that we already very much have elements of it all around us, elements that we would never willingly part with. The emergence that a better synonym for “socialism” would be “universality,” rather than “Stalinism” or “gulag” or “bread-lines” that it’s usually equated with, when it’s mentioned at all, in the US. The revelation of the fact that “socialism” in fact provides very simple, but persuasive answers to issues that only at first seem incredibly complex, impossible to repair, and as if natural, inevitable features of our sociopolitical landscape.

In short, I think this little episode renders abundantly clear why exactly socialized medicine is such an important – perhaps the important – issue today in the US. Just as the right has own Overton Window games that they’ve long played with school prayer and vouchers and the like, a nation with a public medical system funded by even a large fractional amount that the US currently spends on health care today would be a nation on its way, I believe, toward a whole branching set of public sector reinvestments.

And it further, Moore’s appearance on Oprah puts to shame ten thousand cute and clever forms of aestheticized intervention – simple, spirited explanation may have set us on a path toward improvement that no act of detournement or deconstruction, no dialectical ruse, nor metatextual abyssalism could accomplish.

This is a sobering, yet inspiring thing to realize, if you’re someone who does what I do for a living.

I’ve really liked Michael Moore for a long time, but he is now officially one of the patron saints of this blog.

Written by adswithoutproducts

June 5, 2007 at 11:05 pm

8 Responses

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  1. I only wish the revelations about Roger & Me hadn’t hit the scene when they did, because you know people are going to use it against him. That’s the problem, I think, with being a propagandist … the corners you cut to make one point haunt you when you try to make another, completely valid point.*

    *I say this as someone who was informed that it would cost me over $2,000 a month to get insured at this point. MM is obviously right, but I think his credibility’s been shot because, you know, he did get to meet Roger. Sad that this is significant, but what can you do?

    Scott Eric Kaufman

    June 5, 2007 at 11:40 pm

  2. Well, that would be sad, and stupid. I’m not sure it will matter if the film gets big numbers. The situation with medical care (as you just said) is so patently irrational and ridiculous that the first person to say that clearly might break the whole thing open.

    The time is right for this to happen. The democratic debate the other night was cheering (and really quite unbelievable, given where we’ve been for so long) as the candidates not only played the “who’s most socialist on health care game” but further kept one-upping each other on who could promise the most free higher education. (Oh god would that be something for all of us…)

    Anyway, it is interesting to think about the issue that you bring up in connection with Oprah’s entanglement withe James Frey last year – more or less the same issue, right? (Actually – and this is terrible to say out loud for fear that someone makes a wrong turn and ends up over here who shouldn’t, but it would actually be a brilliant move for the Rovians to call Oprah out on just this point – “First Frey, and now Moore! Oprah, you love liars!” End up with a full-hour of MM unconvincingly trying to extricate himself from that, and, likely, Oprah taking down the red flag….


    June 5, 2007 at 11:57 pm

  3. I think this is important, too–I’d only heard about the McCarthy part. I hate to admit, but over all Oprah is very impressive.

    This explanation via fire depts., police depts., etc., is excellent, but also why your bringing specifically the countries you just went to–Holland and Sweden in particular–but all the rest up that way including Sweden, where the enlightened aspects of socialism have long proved to work. If the extraordinary accomplishments of these nations which are explicitly socialist accomplishments were constantly held before people’s eyes, there is no question that other people besides Oprah would begin to ‘get it.’ I remember my 5 weeks in Switzerland in 1997, and how I couldn’t believe how almost all of the basic problems of public life had already been solved, whereas Americans are content to just campaign about them, and everybody assumes they have to lie because they never do solve the problems, and they don’t even intend to for the most part. Nevermind how everybody, including myself, has read about ‘Switzerland’s high standard of living’, and that a British friend, half Swedish, told me that it was like that in Sweden too. Norway has the oil and can luxuriate and Denmark lives in a way we imagine as bland, but this is also because we can’t imagine it (until, again, till we’ve seen it.)

    What is singularly annoying is how rarely leftists talk about the socialist successes of these nations, because these are the ones where a real example has been set. Is it because these nations are also such capitalist successes as well? If so, the same is true of China, but that’s not a good example, because nobody finds that bland, just undesirable and the emphasis is only on the capitalism and the socialism is just the famous repressive stuff. Does China maybe have the same combination as the European nations, but unbalanced–ultimately, more like the U.S. in some ways, because too big and unwieldy? The places still called ‘Communist’ are the oppressive ones, even with this weird thing of a Laotian Hmong coup attempt, in which the U.S. has to oppose the overthrow of the Communist Laotian government because ‘we are at peace with them’ (now. Also, we neatly abandoned them when the gettin’ was good. What a weird spectacle, the U.S. opposing a conspiracy to overthrow a Communist regime–one which doesn’t even have nuclear weapons.)

    Anyway, I definitely think there is a strong strain of attraction to a specific kind of misery and suffering within leftism, and that’s why these glittering successes are so rarely discussed. This is pretty crude, but ‘universal’ is good, and also seems to suggest that the best aspects of socialism have to separated from all pure or purish Marxisms, because these are always tainted with deep love of defeatism. Yes, that’s close, I think–that peculiar brand of Marxist defeatism, that convinces few but hobbyists anymore.

    patrick j. mullins

    June 6, 2007 at 12:44 am

  4. Patrick,

    A very good comment. I imagine that the sticky thing about deploying the “European counter-example” here is that so many of the Americans who actually need to hear it are such resolute isolationists and provincials, that it would be counter-productive. (Moore himself is very careful to constantly throw around the phrase “real American patriot” and ham up the fat-guy with mustard on his shirt at the minor-league baseball game thing for just this reason. “I’m an American slob who appreciates Canada!” That sort of thing.

    I think my politics are very swiftly morphing in just the direction you describe. I have slowly come to terms with the fact that (undoubtedly for good reasons and not so good reasons) I’m at heart invested in democratic reform rather than, say, highly improbable and likely counter-productive (but let’s remember – highly improbable) revolutionary violence…

    In short, I could live with a Swedenized USA for a long time without getting too itchy. That would be a huge start, and it would likely have immensely beneficial effects well beyond American shores.

    I’m a great admirer of Marx who is increasingly uncomfortable with labeling myself a “Marxist.” (The funny thing is that this actually is an academic labeling issue – the work that I do is most efficiently, if not exactly accurately, described as of Marxist formalism. Because “Marxist” means “invested in economic issues and a certain set of theorists” in the academy.

    But, yes, the strangely hubristic defeatism is what has driven me away from what I’ve been driven away from. You’re right about that.


    June 6, 2007 at 12:56 am

  5. Thank you, CR. That’s a good way of describing Moore’s technique, which explains a lot of what is called for by all politicians in the U.S., what they have no choice but to speak to. Occurred to me after writing my comment that Oprah was also showing brilliant technique that I missed for a second:

    when she said: ‘is really something that I have to honestly say that I hadn’t thought about it because I’m one of those people, “I got mine,” so I wasn’t thinking about who didn’t have theirs.’ I doubt that is literally true at all, and my guess is that she did it so as to be a spokesman for those who really are only ‘I got mine.’ I think she meant that she herself hadn’t thought about the examples Moore gave that make universal health care so obviously necessarily forthcoming, but there’s no way that someone from dirt-poor origins and who recently opened up a girls’ school in South Africa (I think that’s where) is an ‘I got mine’ sort of person. She really is gracious in the truest sense, putting up with bullshitters like Marianne Williamson and Tom Cruise and Michael Jackson–but then when she runs into smart people like Moore and McCarthy, you can see the refined aspects of her mind, which is quite formidable, I now see. She was clearly helping Moore open up his ideas by speaking for the ‘I got mine’ people who are not herself personally. Breathtaking, really.

    patrick j. mullins

    June 6, 2007 at 11:51 am

  6. Here’s an extract from a typically superficial but nonetheless illuminating BBC article, entitled “Norway’s formula for a happy life”. Note that Norway doesn’t just have a socialised fire brigade and socialized medicine, but socialized wealth:

    “The UN has ranked Norway as the most prosperous country in the world for the fifth year running. […] The oil wealth only goes so far to explain why this country keeps coming out top of the United Nations’ ranking of countries. After all, Saudi Arabia only makes it to number 72, just ahead of Ukraine. The Norwegian welfare state – another reason we come out top – has developed over decades, mostly well before we hit oil in the North Sea. It started soon after the end of World War II. After five years of German occupation, people here were keen to avoid divisions. An egalitarian society was the way to go.

    To me it is that equality in Norwegian society which makes it so pleasant for the vast majority of people to live here. Very few are immensely rich. In fact extreme wealth is frowned upon by many. And even fewer are desperately poor.

    There is remarkably little difference between the amount of money a factory worker or bus driver takes home and the pay cheque of a medical doctor. Both earn just over £2,000 a month.”

    This intuition is surely almost universal – that “extreme wealth” is just plain wrong. And it’s only really in Britain and the US that filthy plutocrats are still managing to wear their greed and selfishness as some kind of badge of moral distinction.


    June 7, 2007 at 8:08 am

  7. Seems a pity that an argument for socialized health care has to be made by implying that Gitmo inmates are living it large at the taxpayers’ expense. Just shows who the first victim of American ‘town-hall’ bipartisanship will always be.


    June 7, 2007 at 7:02 pm

  8. I just discovered the Overton Window today. I’d love your comment on my view of it.

    The Glenn Beck Review

    June 18, 2010 at 3:23 am

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