WASHINGTON — Michael Moore, clad in customary baseball cap, a black T-shirt, baggy trousers and white sneakers, strolled into the neo-Gothic splendor of Georgetown University’s Gaston Hall and began to preach.
“We as Americans have allowed a very small group of people to be highly skilled practitioners of one of the seven deadly sins,” he told his youthful and multinational audience on Friday, “and that sin, of course, is greed.”
The Oscar-winning filmmaker, author and scourge of the American Right was schooled by Roman Catholic priests and after noting that Georgetown, whose main campus is in the eponymous, wealthy district of the US capital, was founded by Jesuits he scolded the inequalities pervading the modern day United States.
Back in the 1960s and 1970s, when he was growing up in the motor city of Flint, Michigan, the rich paid high taxes, but still lived well, he said. So too did the not-so-rich who had good homes, free education and job security.
Not so today, said the director of “Bowling for Columbine,” “Fahrenheit 9/11,” “Sicko” and “Capitalism: A Love Story” who is touring the United States and Canada to promote his just-published memoirs, “Here Comes Trouble.”
“What on earth got into us in these last 30 years where we thought we were doing ourselves good by creating a society that’s filled with so much poverty?” he asked, recalling the record 46.2 million Americans now living in poverty.
“What part of what Jesus said had to do with kicking people out of their homes?” he said, citing a record number of foreclosures triggered by sub-prime lending and the ensuing global financial crisis.
“Or for not providing them with health insurance, or just treatment when they become sick?” he said, reminding his listeners in the university’s most prestigious auditorium that the United States is the only industrialized nation without universal health care.
With his blend of confrontational interviewing and ironic humor, Moore, 57, is perhaps his generation’s best-known documentary filmmaker, winning an Academy Award for “Bowling for Columbine” and the Palme d’Or at Cannes for “Fahrenheit 9/11”.
“Here Comes Trouble” covers the years before he took up the movie camera, and in doing so it reveals the origins of his politics, clearly influenced by his outspoken, liberal-minded Irish American family.
It is unabashedly nostalgic and sometimes painfully candid, no more so than in a chapter — Moore wrestled over whether to include it — that recounts the agony of the death of his mother.
“Trouble” entered the New York Times hardcover non-fiction bestseller list at number eight last week, after it was praised by the newspaper’s critic as Moore’s best book “by far.”
A hero to liberals in the United States and abroad, Moore is reviled by conservatives at home. His Oscar win in 2003 was followed by death threats, and he is still accompanied by bodyguards today.
“Be respectful of the speaker,” Friday’s crowd of several hundred were needlessly told, before Moore read a chapter from “Trouble” about his unlikely election to his local school board when he was still attending high school.
Settling into a burgundy leather armchair, he also fielded questions on the economy (“The main problem is not the debt, we need jobs — jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs”) and gun control (“You don’t need a machine gun to shoot a deer”).
He name-checked Bono on poverty, and Matt Damon on clean water for the developing world. With a US football metaphor, he scolded Obama for doing too little, too late (“You can’t suck for the first three quarters and then try to win the game”).
He won applause when he said: “Nobody makes a profit on a fire department or a police department or a library. We should not make a profit when people make sick.”
The root cause of America’s woes, he added, was “21st century capitalism”.
“This has to be completely restructured,” he said.
“I don’t think that it’s impossible — some of it is just going back to the way it was — but it’s going to require more government, meaning ‘we the people,’ and making sure the pie is divided fairly.”
He added: “It doesn’t have to be divided evenly — that would be impossible with 300 million people — but at least fairly.”