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Sicko: A Prophetic Cry for Forging a "We Nation"

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Sicko (2007) is Michael Moore's best reviewed movie to date, a documentary earning widespread acclaim from Democrats and Republicans alike for socking it to the profiteers and heartless bastards in the US healthcare industry. Its greatest success isn't in making a sustained argument for changing health care policy, but in creating a vehicle for the transformation of base selfishness into a higher calling for American selflessness.

The movie tells story after story of Americans getting cruel and inhumane treatment from their healthcare providers (not to mention the pharmaceutical industry). A young woman loses her child after taking the child to an emergency room (her HMO insists that the child be treated in an in-network hospital). A man originally from France must leave his home in the US to return to France when he learns he has cancer (like millions of Americans, he carried no health insurance). An American man without insurance must choose how many of his severed fingers he can afford to reattach. And so on...

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Yes, as you might expect from a Michael Moore film, Sicko is manipulative, questionable, gimmicky, melodramatic, and it plays situations as often for laughs as for wisdom. It's vintage Moore. But if it is his most successful film to date, it's because Sicko takes on the most complex and divisive social policy issue of our day and produces a vision that is likely to win assent in degrees from moviegoers from all over the political spectrum.

It's obvious that Moore favors a single-payer, government-run universal health system like those offered in Canada, Great Britain, France, and Cuba (the countries he visits in the documentary). Those countries have lower infant mortality and higher life expectancies than the US. They also spend far less per capita as a percentage of GDP than the US. And of course, they achieve full coverage for all their citizens, not just those who can afford and are eligible for private health insurance.

No matter one's conclusions about government-sponsored healthcare, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that Americans are paying far too much for health care and getting less than we deserve for too few. There seems to be a huge discrepancy between our present reality, what we can afford, and what our other industrial nations have been able to achieve.

To listen to Sicko tell the story, the difference between the likes of the US, Canada, and Great Britain is simple. At some point in their history, Canada and Great Britain each made national health care a top priority, and they marshaled great resources towards producing a mammoth social reform. Today, despite all the inevitable imperfections, few in Canada or the UK would change their system for one such as ours.

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The United States, besought by entrenched and well-funded special interests (Sicko tells us that there are four health care lobbyists for each member of Congress), has failed to mount a similar Marshall Plan for health care. Historically, we attempted to treat health care largely as a luxury available to those who can afford it rather than a right available to all regardless of ability to pay. By and large, we have pursued a core system to protect the self-interest of the young, the healthy, the strong and the selfish over against the weaker and the older and the poorer. This is the root of the problems we face today over universal access to health care.

The way out, Sicko suggests, is not a mere shift in policy (as if that could happen magically). Even if it doesn't frame the issue in quite this way, Sicko says we need a radical change in the consciousness of the American people. In short, we must pursue a less selfish and more selfless country. We must create a We nation, not a Me nation.

In short we must be willing to make sacrifices for the benefit of those who need a helping hand, because in the future that person in need could very well be us. The movie offers a spiritual vision, one calling each person to take a less egocentric perspective and to put others (especially the less fortunate) on a level playing field with their own concerns.

According to the film's message, we must overcome the voices of cynicism and fear that create an epidemic of powerlessness and defeatism. We must have the humility as a nation to actually learn from what other countries can teach us, because in the area of health care they just might be on to something good.

The film is in itself an intrinsic part of Moore's vision for creating a better society. The film enters the public consciousness and sows the seeds for a more reasonable and comprehensive discourse over health care policy. The film helps to create the change it advocates by elevating awareness and appealing to our better and most humane instincts.

Judged as a vehicle for creating an emotional, intellectual, and even spiritual call to transforming our health care system, Sicko packs quite a wallop into 113 minutes. It is most effective when it unflinchingly takes on the voice of prophet, and falters somewhat in donning the voice of pundit.

As a prophet, Moore shows us the injustice of our system in unforgettable ways that are virtually impossible to ignore or whitewash. However, as a pundit, Moore makes his share of cheap shots and unsubstantiated assertions that could fuel partisan bickering at the expensive of the film's core concerns. Is it really necessary to go to Cuba? Can we do  no better than to dismiss critic's objections (say over the need for higher taxes) with a single one-liner instead of a sustained argument?

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Perhaps the film's greatest shortcoming is its failure as a vehicle for social transformation, not really a failure as a conversation-sparking documentary. Unlike, say, Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, there's little effort to tie the audience's participation in the film to concrete changes that they can make in their lives. The audience is left wondering what to do with their new convictions about health care, but provided with nowhere in particular to turn. Without that sort of link, there's a greater risk that the Sicko message will be quickly inserted and recycled in the information overload and analysis paralysis plaguing our society. The film's prophetic cry is far too urgent and essential to allow that to happen.


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I'm a Seattle-based writer exploring integral approaches to values, politics, culture, religion, spirituality, and contemporary life. My books include Soulfully Gay (Integral Books/Shambhala, 2007), the first published "how-i-found-my-faith" sort of memoir in the Integral Spirituality tradition. I am currently blogging at my eponymous blog, (more...)

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