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November 11, 2007

Film Review: Sicko Dir. Michael Moore

The first appearance health care made in Michael Moore’s films was during Bowling For Columbine. While visiting Canada, contrasting the unlocked doors of one street with the paranoia of US society, Moore also enquired with faux ignorance about free health care. The youths he questioned responded with a mixture of bemusement and slight pride; the principle of universal healthcare was not up for debate. It’s a technique that Moore harnesses to devastating effect in Sicko.

Sicko is a white-hot indictment of a US health system that checks the wallet before the pulse. Unique among western states, the country is still without a free, universal system treating patients on the basis of need. Moore marshals a few basic facts; 50 million Americans are without health insurance, Costa Rica rank above the US for care, and then goes for his target hard. If you’re hoping for a technical, systematic analysis of health care then you’ll leave disappointed, but Moore’s film proves an inspiring reminder of the elementary principles of human solidarity. The opening of the film is a tour of some of the health horrors left neglected by the system. A couple are forced to sell their home after the man suffers three heart attacks and the woman contracts cancer. They end up living with their already overstretched daughter. For millions of citizens the choice is an unpalatable one of working till you die, or dying if you don’t work.

Perverse examples abound. One woman is charged for her ambulance journey after being told it was not “pre-ordered”. A 22-year old who contracts cervical cancer is told that she’s “too young” for her insurance deal to cover it. Such a callous system does not emerge in a vacuum, and Moore succinctly exposes those who have acquired a vested interest in its maintenance.

In a wonderful find, the deadly logic is described on tape by one of Richard Nixon’s aides. Reassuring an initially sceptical Nixon, John Ehrlichman declares, “All the incentives run the right way: the less care they give them, the more money they make.” Thus, those with insurance are then forced through the rigmarole of form filling and claim-sheets, obstacles designed to trip them up at every stage. A woman who failed to discover she had a “pre-existing condition”, in this case a yeast infection, is then denied the insurance claim she had paid out for.

The tentacles of the system have found fertile ground in Congress. With four times as many health lobbyists as members, representatives are handsomely rewarded for their silence and complicity. Most satisfyingly of all, Moore pins down Hillary Clinton. Hailed by some as the great liberal hope for the US, Clinton became strangely muted after receiving the second-largest health-industry campaign donations.

Sicko is Moore’s most necessary film yet and also his most expansive. In the second half of the film he travels to the UK, France and Cuba in search of alternatives. A stirring moment comes in an interview with left-wing veteran Tony Benn. What would happen if anyone tried to abolish the NHS? “There’d be a revolution” replies Benn swiftly, and his words segue into Street Fighting Man. In a film clearly targeted at an American audience, Moore cannily appeals to the consumerist mentality by emphasising what individuals get out of the welfare state. The discovery that French authorities offer a laundry service seems directed at lumbago-ridden Middle American moms. Moore relishes the fact that the only cashier in the NHS is one who reimburses low-income patients for their travel costs. The time that he uses just to reassure Americans that universal health care can work, is testimony to the prejudice against ‘socialised medicine’ inculcated by right-wing propaganda. Witness an early star turn by Ronald Reagan, the second-rate actor who became a third-rate president, warning that free health care is just a paving stone on the road to communism.

It’s only after taking a razor blade to this guff, that Moore finally mentions the thornier issue of what individuals have to put in to the system. He visits a prosperous, telegenic French couple as if to prove that funding the largesse of the state need not reduce you to begging from it. But you don’t need to look at income charts to know that they aren’t exactly average French taxpayers. A failure to adequately wrestle with funding issues is an omission in this film, but Moore’s strategy, to champion free health care to the point where taxes become an afterthought, is an effective one. In the case of a US audience notoriously suspicious of taxation it’s also a necessary one.

Moore’s penchant for attention-grabbing stunts has proved a defect in the past. Circling round Congress in a buggy, while bellowing the Patriot Act through a megaphone, was one of the many embarrassments of Fahrenheit 9/11. Leaving a photo of a young gun victim outside Charlton Heston’s house in Bowling for Columbine just seemed trite. This time Moore commanders a boat, fills it with 9/11 rescue workers, all suffering from related illnesses, and heads for Guantanamo Bay. For as he sardonically notes, the naval base provides the ‘enemy combatants’ with free health care unavailable to citizens on the mainland. It’s hard to suppress a wry smile as Moore cries from the boat, “We don’t want any more than what you are giving the evildoers!”

If Moore begins by targeting the consumerist values of the American psyche, he ends by appealing to those of citizenship. It is time for a population that so values its rescue workers to create a health system that does the same. Sicko is an unequivocal return to form and a mordant assault on those who deny these hopes.

Published in the Warwick Boar, 08/11/07

December 13, 2006

Pinochet's Death Reminds Us Of Today's Terrors

The death of Augusto Pinochet provided us with a neat dichotomy. On one side, Lady Thatcher, with appalling consistency, was said by her office to be “greatly saddened”. On the other, global campaigners marked International Human Rights Day. The difference between those who support universal human rights and those who conveniently pick and choose is one of the most important and enduring political divides today.

On the weekend of Pinochet’s heart attack, another great polarising Latin American figure, Fidel Castro, remained too ill to join his postponed birthday party. He has his own friends in British politics. Ken Livingstone, visiting Cuba recently, lavished praise once more on its government. George Galloway, no doubt aware he hasn’t got much longer to fawn over his Middle Eastern dictator of choice, has just published a hagiography of Castro, declaring him the “most popular politician in the world.” If so, one rather wonders why he has never bothered to put himself forward for free election in his own country. For democracy is what it comes down to in all cases.

Right-wingers were attracted to Chile politically as a bulwark against communism, and economically as a laboratory for the neo-liberal policies developed by the ‘Chicago Boys’. Indeed, Pinochet’s end came just weeks after the death of the free-marketeer, Milton Friedman, who spoke of the economic “miracle of Chile.” Leftists back Cuba politically as a plucky upstart resisting US hegemony, and socially for its high-quality health and education services.

In reality even forgetting the 3,000 dead the Chilean ‘miracle’ was only a miracle for the rich. The majority suffered as unemployment swelled to 40 per cent. Cuba continues to have a better story to tell. Life expectancy is 77 years compared to 69 for the rest of the region, 2.5 per cent of the population are undernourished compared to 10 per cent regionally and the literacy rate is one of the highest. Indeed, I spent a holiday in Havana reciting this and more to my weary family. These being my more romantic political days I was somewhat taken with the revolution’s iconography. Even reaching the dizzy heights of Fidel’s speech-making podium.

But all of this is negated when democracy is absent. The problem remains that prominent British politicians have been willing to put narrow ideological concerns before democracy and human rights in Chile and Cuba. Democracy and human rights should be the first and foremost test of a government, not mere after-thoughts. Allende’s government had been democratically elected, though Thatcher told Pinochet he brought “democracy to Chile”. Nope me neither.

Henry Kissinger, Pinochet’s second most famous western supporter, is yet to comment on his death. As National Security Adviser at the time of the CIA-backed coup he infamously declared that “I don’t see why we need to stand idly by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people.” One would have hoped that by now the US could have left behind the double standards epitomised by Kissinger’s realpolitik.

Sadly the terrorist attacks on the US, the same date as Pinochet’s 1973 coup, ushered in a new generation of human rights abuses under the guise of the “war on terror”. From Guantánamo Bay to “extraordinary rendition”, sufficient evidence has now emerged of the US engaging in the kind of systematic torture they helped bring to Chile by propping up the regime. New research by academics and human rights groups details abuses including sleep deprivation, mock executions and sexual abuse. And remember this leaves out unrecorded cases. The findings of the Detainee Abuse and Accountability Project implicate more than 600 US military and civilian personnel in abuse of over 460 detainees. Only half of these allegations have been adequately investigated. It now seems that Abu Ghraib was closer to the rule than the exception; the exception was that we all found out.

The biggest irony of Pinochet’s wretched life was that it made a central contribution to human rights law. His 1998 arrest in London led to the legal precedent that former heads of state are stripped of their immunity when faced with serious breaches of international law. Such legal progress was buffeted by the creation of the international criminal court, able to step in when domestic states were either unable or unwilling to do so. That the US refuses to sign, let alone ratify, the ICC treaty is a disgrace. Though as the findings above show they have good reason to fear the court.

One by one the old human relics of the Cold War are leaving us, biology is seeing to that. By contrast, too many of the moral double standards of that age remain stubbornly entrenched. Pinochet may have escaped justice but his last days were lived out amidst a backdrop of global revulsion. Today we must similarly hound out the perpetrators of and the apologists for any abuses.

Published in the Warwick Boar, 23/01/07

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