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May 20, 2004

Is Michael Moore a new kind of politician?

moore_and_wilkes...asks Jackie Ashley in today's Guardian. I would suggest not. However, you have to go back a long way to find perhaps his most similar antecedent: John Wilkes (1727-97) - publisher, member of parliament, cause celebre, rabble rouser, satirist and poster-boy for opponents of the American war.

John Wilkes is barely known today, but his demogoguery was infamous in Britain (and particularly London) during the mid-to-late 18th century. There are many similarities that are worth looking at more closely. Not only because I think Wilkes ought to be much better known in his home country, but also because it may shed a bit of light on Moore and the reaction he gets.

Starting perhaps with the aesthetics and ambition, take Ashley on Moore:

He's huge. Huge personally - a great big hairy doughball of a man. He's huge commercially. He's huge on the web. And he's huge in the scale of his ambition - he is determined to bring down George Bush.

Wilkes was also famous for his idiosyncratic looks and grand sweeping intentions. The artist, William Hogarth, made the defining record of Wilkes and he didn't like him. Not a bit. The eyes are crossed, the grin leering and his back hunched..

Wilkes was bent on bringing down the government of the day. The king, George III, had installed his former tutor, the Scottish Earl of Bute, as Prime Minister. The government was seen as favouring Scots' special interests to the detriment of the English. Much perhaps as the current Bush administration's ties to the oil industry feature so heavily in Moore's forthcoming Fahrenheit 9/11.

Like Moore, Wilkes understood the power of the media. His response to Bute was the North Briton: a regular, popular newspaper, satirically named for the Scotsman. When Wilkes lampooned the King's speech in issue 45, the censors struck with libel writs. Wilkes, then a member of Parliament, was expelled from the House of Commons. The action backfired though. Wilkes became more popular than ever, Londoners graffitiing '45' in chalk all over the city in solidarity.

Moore has used Disney's ban on distributing Farenheit 9/11 most adoitly. Ashley again:

The resulting row has made headlines round the world, thrown Disney on the defensive and given Moore yet another cause connected to a traditional American issue - free speech. The New York Times accused Disney of craven censorship and awarded the company "the gold medal for cowardice". According to film critics who have seen it, the movie makes strong points about links between the Bin Laden and Bush families, and about US behaviour in Iraq. It is not as damaging as the torture pictures from Abu Ghraib: yet, thanks to Disney, it has taken the Moore phenomenon to a new level.

The North Briton was the epitome of popular media in its day. It was as close to the web we have today as you could get, supported by song sheets, popular prints (this was the era of Gilray and Richardson). His direct, humorous and easily understood approach had what you might call today 'stickiness'. Hogarth's caricature may not of been a kind one but the artist was a shrewd businessman: his print sold 4,000 copies to the benefit of Wilkes too. Like Wilkes, Moore has benefitted from media that feeds off itself:

...he is media-shrewd. Bowling for Columbine was brilliantly cut through with cartoons, and its humour appealed to the Simpsons generation: at my son's school it became an instant cult among 14- and 15-year-olds, some of whom now subscribe to the Michael Moore website and exchange news about his escapades. That website has become a place where facts, arguments and the latest gossip about Bush are gathered, as well as a selling point for Moore's books, DVDs and videos. (And, inevitably, the right is counter-attacking; there is a major anti-Michael Moore website, too.)
It all links together; the staged confrontations create controversy, so mainstream papers and news programmes do a lot of his work for him. Then the web picks it all up and develops it further. Moore uses every multiplication system the modern media world offers. As a result, he reaches the parts other political polemicists can't reach.

Of course let us not get carried away with the analogy. Wilkes was an elected politician (if only in a pre-reformed parliament), a notorious rake and hellraiser (a member of the Hellfire Club no less). He also duelled (though perhaps this is a link: Bowling for Westminster, anyone?). However, as a model he offers a perspective on where politics today is taking us. As has been said time and again, the web is changing society. Whether it is moblogging from Iraq or www.michaelmoore.com, the change in media means a change in politics. We are returning, I suggest, to the politics of the people - messy, at times violent, often funny; this is a kind of politics where party has no ideology and instead has social faction. This is a kind of politics where the mob erupts over single issues – often dissonant and even contradictory. This is a kind of politics where the likes of Wilkes and Moore thrive.

Ashley concludes with a commendation that could be applied to either of them:

This man has courage and conviction. He knows what he thinks: and it is amazing, even in a political system dominated by awesome fundraising and cynical political science, how impressive that can be.

May 20, 2004 in Current Affairs, Observations, Politics | Permalink


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