A Hint of Draft on a Cool Evening

To USC last night, to see Michael Moore on his Slacker Uprising tour. It was a fascinating couple of hours, a curious mixture of hippyish old-school Woodstock earnestness and multi-media Daily Show satire. The two didn’t always fit together smoothly, but the effect of that was to reflect poignantly, in a way that someone of my age and distance from the American experience of that time can’t honestly get first hand, on the parallels between Iraq and Vietnam. The ‘war’ is so very modern, and yet the position that America finds itself in picks at wounds that have barely healed, thirty years later.

It was more than fine to see the happy shiny kids of USC engaged with something political, though I wonder how many of them were there to see Moore the filmmaker, rather than Moore the activist. In any event, the large quad where the event (rally? show?) was held was genuinely teeming with hyped kids. Some parents, too. It happened to coincide with a parents’ weekend, so there were families and out-of-towners around. I saw one father, festooned with Bush/Cheney stickers, guide his wife and daughter away fifteen or so minutes after the thing had started. It looked like they’d done their best to stick around and not feel alienated and antagonised, but could only last so long. The father wrapped his arm around his daughter, pulling the family together. He looked sad and baffled.

Towards the back and, later, one side of the stage, the official Bush/Cheney protest area was appropriately loud and raucous. They served as a kind of heckler-on-tap for Moore to play with when he felt like it. In fact, a great deal of the time Moore seemed to be going through the motions somewhat. Only when he had something to push against did he really seem to come alive, find his passion. He is, after all, an antagonist. That’s the voice he’s found for himself, and it suits him. He’s not much of an orator, nor is he a comedian. Nor even a great writer — at least not in any sense that would value the writing apart from its purpose. It’s Moore’s purpose that fuels his passion, and his passion that animates him.

Tom Morello was support of sorts, playing three sound but mostly over-earnest protest songs. I don’t think the kids connected much. Perhaps it’s a more cynical age. Perhaps they’re just a more cynical group; USC is hardly known for its progressive and radical edge. Dante Zappala was strong and dignified, talking about the death of his brother in Iraq, and Jasaun Neff was funny and disarming about his own experiences. Both of them wrote letters in Moore’s new book. Aside from the occasional sparks of passion from Moore, the best moments of the night were those when a more modern, satirical edge was used. Spoof Bush TV ads were shown on the giant screens either side of the stage, and they were almost too close to the truth.

Towards the end of the evening, Moore began to raise a very dark spectre, one that cast a shadow across the many thousands of young kids in the open quad in the cool evening. He talked about the possibility of a draft. More than anything else, of course — more even than the naive and earnest edge in some of the speechmaking — this invoked Vietnam. I’m not sure it hit home as hard as it might have done. Though Moore moves easily between generations, there was still an element of old guy talking to young kid about the world he knew when he was young, and the young kid yawning a little and rolling his eyes. One can only hope that the threat of a draft remains a tedious hyperbole.

I don’t think very much of the crowd consisted of Moore’s choir. A small following at the front perhaps, more than balancing the loud protesters at the back. The great majority in the middle felt interested but a little sceptical, politically alert but unaligned. Young people with energy and potential, who haven’t quite decided where it’s going to take them.

As the light of the day had faded, and the huge crowd had begun to gather, I’d noticed the silhouette of a figure on the roof of the building on the other side of the quad. It poked around, looking, checking. Whether the intention was to protect Moore from some mad plot, or safeguard the crowd, or both of the above and more besides, it was a reminder that, however much the night might have borrowed from an earlier generation’s grammar of protest and activism, the new generation has its own reasons for paranoia.

(I did take some photographs, but the camera couldn’t deal with the low light, and they turned out crappy. Try Moore’s own, instead.)

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