Friday, July 02, 2004
It’s been about a week since my twelve-year-old sons & I went to see Fahrenheit 9/11 in nearby Oaks, Pennsylvania, a dot of a town northwest of Valley Forge. I’d gotten our tickets over the net ahead of time in order to ensure that it wouldn’t be sold out, but I was surprised, frankly, to see that the theater was showing the film in a room larger than the one reserved for White Chicks. In fact, our theater wasn’t sold out, but it was 97 percent full, maybe a smidgen more. Afterwards, we stood around with some friends who passed out voter registration cards – we were lucky, as it happened. At a mall in nearby Downingtown, another acquaintance got busted for passing out such cards. Five state police cars arrived at that theater within a couple of minutes in spite of the fact that the nearest barracks is 20 minutes away. Did I mention that I live in a community that has elected exactly one Democrat to anything – the schoolboard in the 1940s for a single term – since the 1890s, but that Al Gore won here in 2000?
I’ve reseen all of Moore’s major films in the past few weeks, ever since one of my sons picked up the book Stupid White Men & noted that “this is a guy who makes funny movies from a left perspective & writes funny books from a left perspective – this is like looking at my future.” Just how big of a hint does a father need? After we’d watched Roger and Me, we’d discussed how Moore didn’t present the entire picture with regards to globalism – rather, that film was a look at the short-term impact on a specific community. But that’s a view that is sustainable only if you argue that the United States has the right in perpetuity to utilize one-quarter of the world’s resources for the benefit of just four percent of the world’s population. The problem with globalism isn’t that it’s happening, but rather how it’s being done: for every dollar that is being shipped overseas, something like 30 cents is dropping to the bottom line (in the form of profits, executive pay & bonuses) & virtually nothing is being done to mitigate the impact on workers impacted by what Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction.”
When we watched Bowling for Columbine, we discussed how Michael Moore points out the stunning detail that gun control advocates never explain adequately – which is that Canada, with the same level of gun ownership as the United States & a culture that is more similar than different, has only a fraction of the gun deaths per capita that afflicts its neighbor to the south. But Moore doesn’t explore this anomaly at all. Instead he focuses on the gun lobby, which frankly is low hanging fruit. Possibly the topic is too large, or perhaps when Moore & the kids from Columbine provoked K-Mart to change its policy on selling bullets he found himself with a different story than the one he’d anticipated. But Bowling for Columbine strikes me as a major missed opportunity, going for laughs by focusing on the NRA rather than trying for an insight into why Canada & the U.S. have such different experiences under roughly parallel circumstances. For that matter, Moore doesn’t do a good job in explaining how the NRA has gotten to be the largest membership organization in the United States. They aren’t all psychotic fascists, even if that’s what the leadership wants to project.
So I approached Fahrenheit 9/11 with some trepidation. And what surprised me the most wasn’t that Moore spins an imperfect narrative – the topic is far too vast for any film shorter than The Godfather, if not Berlin Alexanderplatz. No, given everything that I’d read online or in the papers, plus everything I’d heard on TV, what most amazed me was how fair Moore is. Fair & ultimately balanced. Bill O'Reilly had not prepared me for that. But neither had Roger Ebert.
Consider the impossibility of the project, and how Moore in turn responded. In order to set the context – the “before” part of the tale – he chose to focus on how Bush got into office & what he did once he got there, which frankly was not much. In the “after” portion of the film, Moore makes three major arguments:
· The Bush family dynasty cannot be extricated from its relationship to the triangle of oil, the intelligence community and the Saudi elite.
· Wars are not fought by elites, but by kids who are swept up into the military for want of other economic alternatives in their lives.
· The loss of a loved one in war is overwhelming.
The first of those points has been detailed in far greater detail by none other than Kevin Phillips, the man who first gave Richard Nixon’s Republican Party the Southern Strategy it follows to this day, in his anti-Bush tome, American Dynasty. It may be a bit much to suggest, as some viewers see Moore doing, that Bush’ primary goal in invading Iraq may have been profit – there are other reasons* why the far right might well want to be in Iraq – but the problematics created by our entanglement with the Saudis are hard to underestimate. The difficulty in unpacking the problem of Islamic fundamentalism when your “best friends” are just such fundamentalists is the trick that has to be solved if the West, and especially the United States, is ever to extricate itself from the jihad against modernism.
Moore’s second point, tho hardly new or original, is really this film’s great contribution to the debate over Iraq. He outlines in the clearest possible terms the great secret of the American military – that it is, especially now that it is all voluntary, the GOP form of welfare state. It does precisely what welfare has always done: provides for those who cannot provide for themselves, connects them to opportunities, education & security. Only it does so without admitting that this is what it’s all about, and its one major requirement is that beneficiaries aren’t supposed to complain just because they’re being asked to kill & be killed. Furthermore, as Republicans have known for generations, it cannot be attacked on these terms, precisely because to do so can be characterized as “unpatriotic.”**
Moore’s third point, Lila Lipscomb’s extraordinary story within the film, functions as the synthesis or conclusion in the director’s narrative syllogism: elites make war; the underclass fights wars; it is hell for the underclass. I’ve been surprised, frankly, that there haven’t been more complaints on the left about this being emotionally manipulative, given the left’s preference for complexity, for a tale not just in black & white, but with the grays left in. Moore’s great talent, his unique contribution to the left, has been his ability to make entertaining progressive films that are not at all subtle. Unlike, say, Jim Hightower (on the humorous side) or Alexander Cockburn & Naom Chomsky (on the ponderous end of the scale), Moore doesn’t scratch against the blackboard of the soul with his oversimplifications & just-plain-got-it-wrongs, even tho he has just as many.
In the battle for political hegemony, the American left has always been hamstrung by the fact that it usually has to fight not over any given political point, but over the issue of depth & complexity simultaneously. The moral absolutism & simple-minded arguments of the right – say, over abstinence instead of sex education in schools or over needle exchange programs to prevent AIDS, or that support of our troops necessarily means support of the war – are not just endearing quirks of the right, but in fact an important political dimension to their argument, one that plays itself out powerfully along class lines. When Lila Lipscomb describes how she felt about anti-war protestors against the first Iraq war, she is saying a lot about the inability of the left to communicate to anyone other than itself. It’s the same point that Bill Clinton has made repeatedly when he says that the American voters would rather have a leader who is strong, but wrong, in times of crisis. And it is also precisely the risk that John Kerry runs whenever he responds to any question in a way that looks too cautious – which is mostly all the time.
Moore’s film is an argument that it need not be this way. It can, I think, be faulted for any, perhaps all, of the individual choices he makes in constructing an argument that you can reach people with a skeletal but powerful narrative far more readily than through the nuances of true debate. You might cringe at how he steals the “plastic bag in the wind” scene from American Beauty as his model for conveying the transcendant power of September 11 through pages & dust drifting in the air. But the simple fact is that Michael Moore has managed to go over the heads not just of his fellow ambiguity junkies on the left, but over the right as well, including the very same media mavens such as Bill O'Reilly & Brit Hume who effectively ganged up on & dismantled an unprepared Howard Dean campaign just three months ago. Is it any accident that the greatest master of agit-prop since at least Bertie Brecht happens to look just like a real-life Archie Bunker?
* I tend to agree with the Stratfor Group’s analysis that putting upwards of a dozen military bases in the second largest oil producing nation, thus completing the “chain” of western military presence in the Middle East from Israel to the west to Afghanistan in the East was the foremost political goal of the invasion.
** The closest we have come to having any public recognition of these dynamics has been around Clinton’s concept of a civilian service core, which should have been the other half of his own welfare “reform” program. GOP attacks on civilian service are exactly what they are not willing to make against the military, not because it serves a different function, but because it is, almost in the Mafia sense of the phrase, their thing.