Isaiah Zeavin-Moss: Invasion of our idealism

Wednesday, February 24, 2016 - 5:27pm

In Michael Moore’s newest film, “Where to Invade Next,” Moore goes on an international tour in order to “steal” the best aspects of other countries’ social politics. The film, which is an almost-two-hour critique of America’s social fabric — its schools, its prisons, its eroding middle class — somehow conveys a profound sense of optimism. Moore ends the film by reminding us that other nations’ current bustling, successful systems derive from methods and notions first developed in the United States. In order for us to change our ways, he says, we must only look inward, to our past, to ourselves.

In other words, the power lies within us to create the world that many so desperately seek: a world that, poetically, might include elementary school students — regardless of socioeconomic status — being fed gourmet lunches by real chefs, or prisoners — no matter how severe their crimes — being placed in prisons where rehabilitation and re-entrance are actually possible, or teenagers attending world-class universities for free.

This message — turning inward to drive us forward — represents democratic empowerment. No matter who you are, inherently, as an American, you have the right, and thus, potentially, the power to create the change you seek. This idea rests at the heart of “equality,” the core principal of our founding documents. And yet today, in our political discourse, this kind of empowerment is derided as overly “optimistic,” as far too “ideal” of a wish.

Despite the film’s relentless, empirical critique of how we conduct ourselves today, it is a classically American text. The very idea of opening a dialogue that allows for criticism is an extension of this idea of “equality”: Together, by honestly examining what our brothers and sisters around the world are doing best, we can better ourselves, we can learn, we can become equally egalitarian.

In the film’s final scene, Moore walks next to what remains of the Berlin Wall, a divide that, as Moore remarks, was once built to stand for eternity, but was actually torn down in just a matter of years. One can imagine the minds of those people who fought for its destruction — despite every societal force stacking up against them, they had a vision for the world within them, and that vision drove their actions. Moore, who by the film’s end dubs himself an “idealist,” has created a profoundly optimistic text: By looking inward to our pasts as Americans as well as to our comrades’ efforts from across the oceans, we can realize even our wildest ideals.  

And this classically American film, furthermore, ought to inform how we locate ourselves along the political spectrum during this ongoing election season. Over the past several weeks, my friends have often asked me to give my pitch about why I wholeheartedly support Bernie Sanders. After I discuss his policies, his integrity and his boldness, my friends will often say something to the effect of: “Oh yeah, that would all be nice, but it’s just too idealistic of a vision.”

Moore’s film speaks volumes about the numbness and insensibility of this notion that we ought not strive toward idealism and instead settle for the system under which we currently live. It seems these friends of mine do not believe that the type of radical social change that Moore directly observes has taken place in the world. These friends of mine do not believe that this kind of change can happen here, nor that we ought to vote for a system whose leader is proposing that it might.

I don’t want to use this as a platform to advocate for my political beliefs — by all means, support whomever you wish. I just cannot fathom why or how we have, somewhere along the line, lowered our expectations for what is possible by such a great margin to the point that the world that we all wish to one day inhabit — which, for a moment at least, comes alive through bits and pieces from throughout the world in Moore’s masterpiece — is unrealizable, a fantasy.

As a heterosexual white man, society has never institutionally tried to shut me up. I understand that millions of people, because of identities out of their control, have been and will continue to be kicked to the curb and silenced by our world that prefers and judges people based on their given identities. This becomes an opportunity for the rest of us — the privileged rest of us, who are not societally and institutionally targeted for certain identities and circumstances beyond our control — to fight. Everyone, then, from those people who society has institutionally marginalized to those it has left untouched, has an opportunity to fight together.

Those who dismiss these concepts as too idealistic need only to examine the United States’ history to find a long-lasting, deeply impactful social movement whose core philosophy was one of mutual respect and love. In "The Power of Non-violence," Martin Luther King Jr. describes a kind of “agape love,” one that is neither aesthetic nor reciprocated. Yet he believes agape love to be a catalyzing idea that all Americans must adopt: “And when you come to love on this level you begin to love men not because they are likeable … but because God loves them and here we love the person who does the evil deed while hating the deed the person does.”

Instead of giving up, we ought to fight, and within this activism lies the truest form of love: the belief that we are all divine, we all contain the potential for divinity. As Moore’s film argues, egalitarian generosity lies deeply within the fabric of American society.

I would characterize this rejection of idealism both as cowardly and selfish. If you believe this world is good enough, that our country is living up to its standards, then you are ignoring the realities of millions of your brothers and sisters, millions of your fellow Americans, who did just as little to arrive in their circumstances as you did to arrive in yours. Acknowledge your privilege as someone the world has, for no real reason at all, selected to spare, and then use your place in society to advocate for the basic liberties of the rest of our populus.

The optimism of Moore’s film comes from its belief that change, inherently, lies within us. It preaches a message of empowerment. This “ideal” vision should not be castigated, because it is a vision that includes a people who are ideal toward each other, a people who fight for each other. And we are that people. To dismiss the ideal is to say that you are not capable of such generosity, of such strength. And I think that’s a tragedy. When did it become so outlandish to believe that you can be whatever you wish?

Moore’s film advocates for generosity on a national scale among citizens. We must collectively believe we are capable of this kind of intermingling. Otherwise, who are we? An acceptingly, admittedly cruel people? I reject that.

Isaiah Zeavin-Moss can be reached at izeavinm@umich.edu.