Just as I thought America had lost its sense of humour in the light of 11 September, two things happened. I read a book that made me roar with laughter – Michael Moore's Stupid White Men. Published in the States on 1 March, it shot to the top of the bestsellers list, and is already in its 16th printing.
The other event that made me fall about was discovering that Courtney Love is a fully paid-up member of the Trollope Society (yes, the author with an e, not the floozy kind).
As this is a minor piece of tittle-tattle, let's dispose of it quickly. I met Courtney Love about 18 months ago, and when she came to London we had dinner. Courtney is weird, wonderful and intelligent. Trouble is, she never finishes a paragraph mentally or verbally. She'd watched one of my TV series on walking and was determined that the pair of us should don our boots and go for a stroll. Failing that, sex would be OK. I pointed her in the direction of another more willing contender.
From time to time I still receive communications from Love Central. There was a confused rant on her website last autumn and a voicemail message the other week. When I met Courtney again in Los Angeles last Monday, she claimed I was her "role model", a frightening thought, but then luckily started gushing about her new love object, Trollope. She had a captive audience in Chloë Sevigny and me, but lost us when she got sidetracked into an anecdote about serving Prince Andrew a cup of tea in her bunny pyjamas. Chloë rolled her eyes and slid off.
Irritating she may be, but Courtney is proof that ballsy, funny, intelligent women can survive in America, as long as they remain within the confines of the madhouse known as the music business.
Michael Moore, on the other hand, has reinvented the lost art of American satire. With his highly praised documentary Roger and Me, about the impact of General Motors' decision to lay off thousands of workers, he emerged as a fighter for the underdog. His critically acclaimed series TV Nation won Emmy awards and was shown here on BBC2.
During the presidential campaign in 2000, Moore supported veteran environmentalist and consumer activist Ralph Nader. When George Bush was "elected" Moore saw red, and Stupid White Men... and Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation is the devastating result. His publishers, HarperCollins (owned by Rupert Murdoch), tried to drop the book or get it substantially rewritten in the aftermath of 11 September, but Moore was having none of it; 50,000 copies had already been printed and there was a three-month period of disagreement before the publisher finally capitulated. According to Moore, America is in crisis, and the cause is the power wielded by white men.
The chapter called "A Very American Coup" details just how the Democrat presidential candidate Al Gore won the most votes – 539,898 more than Bush, to be exact – only to be denied the prize after all sorts of shenanigans in Florida, run by Jeb Bush, Dubya's brother. Moore shows how 173,000 voters were removed from the electoral registers, and in the largest county in the state, Miami-Dade, 66 per cent of them were black. This story was broken by the BBC and only later picked up by the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post. Anyone who had committed a "felony" was not entitled to vote – and this is in a country that calls elections in Africa unfair and rigged.
Moore's well-researched, breezy essay then details the dubious qualities of Bush's key appointees. The Vice President, Dick Cheney, voted against the Equal Rights Amendment when in Congress, and against a resolution calling for Nelson Mandela to be released from prison in South Africa. He is against federal funding for abortions, even in the case of rape or incest. Ditto John Ashcroft, Attorney General. Tommy Thompson, Secretary for Health, was once paid $72,000 in campaign fees by the cigarette manufacturers Philip Morris. The list goes on.
An open letter to George Bush lists all his funding cuts, and asks if he is actually able to read and write on an adult level (his "favourite" childhood book, The Hungry Caterpillar, was published a year after he left college). Moore asks George Bush if he will admit he's an alcoholic and former cocaine user. After all, the President has just decreed that that any students convicted of drug offences will be denied student aid. Bush's own lacklustre college record is laid bare and his intellectual capacity questioned.
But the most devastating section of the book, and in some ways the bravest, is Moore's attack on the racism that is inherent in American society.
"Kill Whitey" proposes the thesis that all the worst crimes in American history have been committed by whites, backed up by the assertion that, in his own life, every nasty experience inflicted on him has been by someone with a white skin. To read this diatribe and see it at the top of the bestseller list is a revelation.
Twelve years ago at the BBC we made a current affairs series for young people called Reportage. One episode looked at the fact that in Los Angeles black people were the ones who sat at reception desks, as the token bit of ethnic hiring, or wore uniforms. By 1990 LA was divided into white and black sections. Even though there was an established black middle class, to talk of integration in any real way was ludicrous. Now Michael Moore has confronted this subtle racism and laid it out in block capitals. The average income for a black American is 61 per cent less than the average white income – exactly the difference it was in 1880. Black levels of unemployment have been roughly double that of whites since 1954. Some progress.
Whitey is also responsible for the current US economic crisis – after all it was white CEOs who laid off more than 700,000 US workers last year. But women have an equally poor deal. Men run 496 out of the top 500 US companies. According to Moore, "We gave women the vote in 1920, and guess what? We remained in power."
You may find Moore's style simplistic and folksy, with his survival tips for the white American – hire only black people, don't buy a handgun, don't marry whitey – but there's no doubt that by writing the unsayable, he's hit a raw nerve. Best of all are his survival tips for black people – when driving place a white inflatable dummy in the car and the police will think you're a chauffeur; and go shopping in the nude so you can't be accused of stealing.
To round things off, Moore suggests that, because the male birth rate has been declining in America since 1990, God is sending a subtle message to mankind. He suggests men avoid extinction by letting women run the world.
But before we get too smug about Dubya's shortcomings, we'd do well to apply some of Moore's thinking about race to our own cities. His thesis that education, libraries and teachers are all grossly underfunded all sounds horribly familiar. We too have high unemployment among young Asians and blacks. And how integrated is our supposedly "multicultural" society?
Same old script
The award of Oscars for Sidney Poitier, Halle Berry and Denzel Washington – of which they were so pathetically proud – didn't mark any kind of breakthrough whatsoever. Hollywood is still run by elderly white men, and in Monster's Ball Miss Berry plays a piece of poor black trash who has to get her kit off yet again and have sex with Billy Bob Thornton. We'd be witnessing a breakthrough if she played a fully clothed presidential candidate and if Denzel Washington ran a studio instead of portraying yet another African-American in a uniform. In the meantime, that's showbiz, folks.
'Stupid White Men ... and Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation' is published on 3 April by ReganBooks, an imprint of HarperCollins, £16.99. Read more about Michael Moore on his website www.michaelmoore.com.Reuse content