Michael Moore: Q+A

The documentary-maker on capitalism, Obama and why Britain is about to get punished

This weekend, I've been watching films at Sheffield's Doc/Fest. One of the highlights so far has been Michael Moore's Capitalism: a Love Story, which Jonathan has already blogged about here. After the screening, Moore answered questions from the audience (via Skype, no less). Below are a few choice excerpts.

Your film outlines the human impact of last year's financial crash. Do you have much hope that Obama can fix these problems?

You can't expect things to change overnight and there's not time in nine months to fix catastrophes left by the Bush administration. But I don't believe in the tooth fairy or Santa Claus, and he might not be able to fix the problems left by Bush and Cheney.

In the UK there seemed to be more protection against the banking collapse. Why do you think the US doesn't have that protection?

For some reason as Americans we want you to be punished if you lose your job or get an illness. If you hit hard times it's at that moment that we want to be exceptionally cruel. People in America are good on an individual basis, but collectively we get angry at the world. Why do we want to punish people when they get ill? I've never really understood it.

Perhaps it's also because Americans don't know what's happening in the rest of the world. Why don't Americans travel more?

Why should we care about the rest of the world? People here aren't given a reason to care. And it's this attitude that kills creativity, kills curiosity. We don't want to know what's going on in France, Ireland, Finland; that's not surprising, really, seeing as we don't even care about ourselves.

I believe there is a basic goodness in people, but they've been made stupid. There are 44 million illiterate adults in the US. The media reinforces the stupidity and ignorance, which makes it very easy to manipulate people with fear. That's my country, anyway, I don't know how it is in the UK when you have a prime minister who tells you that Iraq could fire a missile on you within 45 minutes [laughs].

What is capitalism?

Well, I can only define it as it exists today -- the same as these days you wouldn't answer the question "What is marriage?" by saying: "Well, it's something that happens when the groom visits the bride's father to ask permission . . ." In 2009 capitalism is a system of legalised greed, organised to protect the 1 per cent who own most of the wealth.

Is the "American Dream" -- the idea that anyone can become rich if they work hard enough -- a good thing?

I think that's what it is: a dream, not a reality for most people. These days it's more of a nightmare. In the old days you could work hard and if your boss prospered, then you would prosper. Now you work hard, your boss prospers, then you get sick and you lose your job.

But there are a lot of reasons people all around the world like America. There is something about our get-up-and-go. Sometimes we're full of ideas -- sometimes they're not very good ideas, sometimes they're great. My frustration is our capacity to do so much good for the world, the fact we don't do it is criminal.

You were midway through making the film when Obama was elected president. How did that impact on the project?

Well, I can tell you how it impacted on us as a team: 4 November 2008 was one of the happiest days we've had in decades. We could not believe our fellow citizens came through and did this. There is a lot of racism around, so just the fact that people pushed through that and chose the better person, the smarter person.

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected in the 1930s, suddenly you had John Steinbeck, all this art, cinema, all these books -- we felt we were one of the first films of a new era, out of the darkness of the last 30 years. Kind of an enlightenment, that's how it feels.

I would like Roosevelt's dream of a second Bill of Rights [which would guarantee the right to a job, to education and to health care] to live on. When I say [in the film] that Europe has all these things, I don't mean you shouldn't have them. No system is perfect -- not even the NHS is perfect -- but you have at your core a belief that if someone gets sick they should be able to go to a doctor. So Obama gave us the feeling that maybe he will be the Roosevelt of the 21st century. We still have that hope, even after a year.

What practical advice would you give to everyday people who want to act on what they've seen in your film?

What you in the UK can do is stop being like us. All the consumption, the way we eat, the way we treat each other. What you've done in the UK, first during the Thatcher years, then during the Thatcher-lite years -- and especially your last prime minister -- you have copied the US and made it easier for the rich to get away with murder. You once had a system based on social democracy and you need to make sure that people still have a say.

Now you're going to have a Conservative prime minister, because people who supported Labour didn't rise up and say "enough". The UK provided a cover for Bush. Now you're going to get punished for it with a Conservative prime minister and I'm so sorry about that.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.