I heard about the appalling attack on Jo Cox just before seeing Michael Moore’s mischievous new film, 'Where to Invade Next'. My viewing of his impossibly idealistic, optimistic and, arguably, feminist film was framed by the horror of that event.
Moore’s film celebrates just about everybody except Americans, although, significantly, the UK does not form part of his itinerary and it was made before the migrant crisis. The film’s conceit is to invade eight European countries (and Tunisia, the Arab world’s most progressive state) in order to steal their best ideas and take them back to the US. The practical humanistic initiatives he playfully colonises include Italy’s statutory paid holidays and maternity leave, France’s healthy school meals, Slovenia’s free college education (and absence of student debt), Iceland’s gender equality and Tunisia’s progressive women’s rights legislation. Moore concludes: 'Throughout my invasions, where women had power, people were simply better off’.
Moore makes this observation on his way to meet female Icelandic leaders such as Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, the world’s first democratically-elected woman president, and Halla Tómasdóttir, whose risk-averse Audur Capital was one of the few financial institutions to remain in the black when the country’s banks collapsed in 2008. Moore’s challenge to America (and the UK) is to insist on basic human rights whilst exploring alternative ways to counter worker exploitation, obesity, accountability for financial crimes (Iceland put all the culprits in jail), prison recidivism (90% in the US compared with 20% in Norway), and institutionalised racism.
The referendum debate has become so nasty partly because many people on both sides are utterly certain that theirs is the right answer and don’t seem to care that they can’t say why. Confirming one’s own view is what matters rather than trying to understand anyone else’s point of view. The hopeful and celebratory tone of Moore’s film and his ability to listen and learn are deeply affecting, particularly in a context where things have gone so badly wrong in this country as well as in America. 'Where to Invade Next' is all the more powerful for its mild, non-combative tone – so unlike the angry urgency of 'Bowling for Columbine', yet sneakily subversive of the very notion of American exceptionalism for that very reason.
The tragedy that occurred on Thursday was political and social. It cannot simply be understood as the act of a mentally disturbed loner. Opinions about migrants, Muslims and women – and poor people – that were unspeakable just a few years ago are now common currency and part and parcel of public discourse. This is most apparent in social media where there are no holds barred. Jo Cox spoke of misogynist and sexist messages sent to her via Facebook and Twitter, just for saying things that men would easily get away with. She also reported growing hostility and aggression towards female MPs and had approached the police over harassment shortly before her murder.
Such hate-fuelled vitriol is not confined to social media but features in official campaigning too. Nigel Farage’s unveiling of a poster on the morning of Jo Cox’s death depicting a horde of brown-skinned refugees advancing on rural Britain is a good example. The slogan was 'Breaking Point’. The refugees were not even trying to reach the UK but making for Slovenia, one of the places admired by Michael Moore for its educational institutions.
No wonder that the political atmosphere in the UK before Jo Cox’s death has been described as febrile and fetid. 'How foul this referendum is’, said the novelist Robert Harris a few days ago, 'the most depressing, divisive, duplicitous political event of my lifetime. May there never be another’. Harris here expresses a sentiment that is doubly salient for the non-secessionist Scot.