Michael and Me: Finding Light Amidst the Gloom

Friday July 09, 2004

Two weeks ago I had a bone scan. I was injected with radioactive barium. It migrated to my bones (“Don’t worry,” said the nurse, “it’s gone in a few hours, less radiation than an x-ray.”) I lay on a platform while a camera positioned a few inches above my nose slowly moved along a beam from my head to my feet, recording the emanations from my bones on a film. “The doctor is in the next room interpreting the film,” said the nurse as she helped me up and I threaded my belt through the loops of my pants and returned the keys to my pocket, relieved to be in charge of my life again.  

I peeked into the room and there was the doctor, recording his notes, while clipped to the viewing screen in front of him, the white light shining through the negative, was the eerie image of my skeleton, strangely shrunk to about eight inches, looking like one of those skeletons unearthed by archeologists in the excavation of tombs. It was a tiny perfect skeleton doll up there on the screen, and somehow the fact that I could be so reduced in scale seemed inconsistent with the fact that I was still alive. “No metastasis visible,” said the doctor (I had suspected as much; my prostate cancer is still in an early stage). “There’s a slight deterioration of the vertebrae in the lower back,” he said, showing me where the spine appeared to darken. He did not seem to think much of it, but that was it—a new obsession born. Ah ha, I thought, now the slight stiffness I have in the morning is explained. I had prided myself on the strength of my back. But now with age, all pride was being stripped away from me.  

“Why am I still alive?” I thought. 

I should have died upon some barricade. I should have been Rachel Corrie squished beneath a bulldozer. Or perhaps, like Abbie Hoffman and Phil Ochs, I should have committed suicide as the heroic days of hope in revolution faded. Instead I watch as all our revolutionary hopes wither on the vine and my body fails me. What will go next? My mind? No please, not the mind. Take whatever body part you want, but leave the mind. 

As the body goes so goes the world, I thought as I slipped deeper into depression. Darkness spreads across the planet. Reason is eclipsed. The empire at its apogee, drunk with power and trembling with fear, lashes out against unseen foes. Its enemies multiply. For them, life is no better than death. The rivers are polluted with corpses. The aquifers are contaminated with a constant drizzle of poisons. The winds stink. The genome is unwound.  

Thus sunk in gloom, I seriously needed to glimpse a light on the horizon. Well last night I saw Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 at the Grand Lake Cinema, and there it was—the bright and brazen light. It’s manipulative as all get out and why shouldn’t it be? This is what Fox news would look like if the rebels took over, and the staff went wild. No pretense of being fair and balanced. Its techniques are so blatant, they mock themselves (for example: The blinking arrows pointing at the unread memo describing the threat of an attack by al Qaeda in the United States.) Exposing the big boys is no kid’s game. Unfair to catch them in unguarded moments? Who’s playing fair? We’re in a full out brawl. Bring it on: They lick their combs! They lie through their comb’s teeth. My Pet Goat! Seven minutes of blankness! The pompous cant and the golf swing! We love it! 

So vast is the disconnect between the pretenses of power and the reality it attempts to conceal that the comic mode, which feasts on such disjunctions, is the right one. There’s a difference between truth and lie, between real and unreal, between real pain and crocodile tears, between real poverty, real loss—a child’s arm blown open so the bones are exposed—and the photo op, the sound bite, the faked emotion, the feigned empathy. We can tell the difference if given half a chance. There is a limit to the powers of deception. Truth has its vehicles. It will come out. What a bracing message! No power on earth can obliterate the truth, no matter how awesome its control of the creation of meanings, how complete command of the portals through which information flows. The faces, voices, looks, breathing gestures of the protagonists in this conflict—which is all of us—reveal which side we are on. The polished images of our leaders reflect no light. The face of a grieving mother reading the last letter of her soldier son, reflects a universe. 

“‘Tis the final conflict... let each stand in his place...” Who knows if there will ever be a final conflict. But when the empire has vanquished all its enemies, it has already begun its descent. The struggle against the empire, the struggle of the poor against the rich, of community against corporation is the struggle between false and real, between truth and lie. “We like nonfiction and we live in fictitious times,” shouted Michael Moore from the stage at the academy award ceremonies. Exactly. There are those who are fronting and those who are “for real.” For real. Linger over those words. Are we for the real or for the lie, for the “fiction” (and we’re not talking Toni Morrison here) or nonfiction? Ultimately that is the question. And because this movie shows the continuing power of the real in the face of the omnipresent lie, it is a source of hope, an instructional comedy with tears and laughter.  


Osha Neumann is a Berkeley artist and attorney.›