Jeff Greenfield is senior political correspondent for CBS News.
(John P. Filo/CBS)
Filmmaker Michael Moore has no qualms about revealing the purpose of his new movie, "Sicko".
"Politically I want this country to guarantee health care for every single citizen and make it so those citizens don't have to worry about paying a bill for it," he hold me in an interview this week. And he's not just talking about universal health care, or mandated insurance (as with car owners) with a subsidy to the poor. His movie celebrates—more or less uncritically—government-run systems, as in Canada, Britain, and France. In scene after scene, he offers moving, often chilling accounts of what happened to American who thought they were covered, along with scenes of contented Europeans and Canadians unburdened by issues of payment.
(The only cashier's window we see is in a British hospital where patients are being given money—for transportation.)
Critics, particular those on the Right, are likely to need medical care of their own should they view scenes of Moore and a group of Americans—including 9/11 rescue workers denied health care because they were volunteers—being treated royally at a hospital in Havana, Cuba.
Says Moore: "Here in a dictatorship that's one of the poorest countries, in this hemisphere, they are able to provide universal health care for all of their citizens and they wind up living longer than we do in US...they have a better infant mortality rate than we do...it should be disgusting and embarrassing to most of us as Americans that Cuba can pull that off and we cant't and that's why we went there to show the most obscene example of how it can happen and it should be happening here..."
But beyond the debate that seems to surround every Moore film -—honest advocacy or distorted propaganda? -- lies a different question: can a cultural event such as a movie actually affect political events?
In the past, plenty of books have—from "Uncle Tom's Cabin," that helped fan abolitionist sentiment before the Civil War, to Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" a century ago that led to federal food regulation, to Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," that spawned the environmental movement.
Even a movie, like 1979's The China Syndrome" helped trigger increased opposition to nuclear power
But there are plenty of counter-examples: 1983's "The Right Stuff" did nothing for the Presidential campaign of ex-astronaut John Glenn; Howard Stern's endorsement of John Kerry didn't keep Bush from winning a landslide among young white men—Stern's core group. Moore himself acknowledges that his last film, 2004's "Fahrenheit 9/11" was viewed mostly by people who didn't like Bush in the first place.
More important, Americans—unlike Europeans and Canadians—simply have a different relationship with government. Even though Medicare is a highly popular program, people do not go to government doctors or government hospitals; they have a near-visceral resistance to the idea. (Years ago, I heard a voter say, "I sure hope they don't ruin Medicare by turning it over to the government.")
Moore himself says that there's a "pioneer" mentality, an "everyone for himself" individualism, that runs deep in our history. As a man of the Left, he wants to see that changed to a "we're-all-in-this-together" philosophy. But for most Americans, however angry they are at the cost, inefficiency and --at times -- the heartlessness of our system, embracing the idea of a government run system will be a hard pill to swallow.