By now, everyone I know is tired of talking about Michael Moore and “Fahrenheit 9/11.” He's been successful beyond his wildest dreams in getting the movie out and talked about, and there've been ravings from left, right and center. He's been called a brilliant satirist, the savior of documentary, a propagandist, a traitor, a borderline war criminal and a big fat phony. Two Midwestern theater chains, one with 12 screens in my town, have banned it as “disloyal to the president during wartime.” With all this hyperbole, I was sick of hearing about the film before I even saw it.
Still, The Editor wanted to know what I thought, so I went. I didn't like it too much, and I had trouble focussing its arguments, so the Sunday night of Moore's $100 million, record-breaking weekend at the box office, I went to see it again. By now the movie is a rolling phenomenon: according to the AP, a Gallup survey in early July found that 8% of American adults had seen the film, another 18% planned to see it in a theater, and another 30% plan to see it on video before November. That's more than half the American adult population. The film is a frontal assault on George Bush in an election year, at a time when the outcome is too close to call. In the same AP story one Republican consultant says if it moves 3-4 percent of the electorate “it's been a success,” presumably for the Democrats. So going to see Fahrenheit 9/11 involves a lot more than popcorn and a movie. With the release of the congressional investigating commission's report on July 23, the experience got even more intense. Moore's movie seems to reinforce the report, and the report seems to underscore many of the broad claims of the film.
Still, I think it's propaganda. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
The movie starts with a dreamlike sequence of the stolen 2000 presidential election, in which a thorough purging of Florida's voter rolls, lousy voting machines, a high-pressure recount managed by the Florida Republican Party, and a Hail Mary pass from the Supreme Court handed Gore's victory to Bush. The clear implication is that there's been a coup. There hasn't exactly been a coup, of course: a coup is the seizure of power by military force. What happened in Florida was American electoral politics as usual, especially including the purposeful disenfranchisement of African-Americans. When I grew up in Philadelphia, the polling places in heavily black neighborhoods were on school buses: they drove away when undesirable voters showed up. Fraud, intimidation, contesting every marginal ballot, that's just how it's done. Those votes were stolen fair and square in a great American historical tradition. But Moore makes 2000 seem like a rupture rather than a striking example of what's wrong with our elections. And that's one of my main quarrels with Fahrenheit 9/11: it argues that history started that November.
As Fahrenheit 9/11 unfolds, Moore builds his case against Bush. The president is goofy, he takes too many vacations, he is stupid and venal, he used to do cocaine (this implied with a music clip) and he likes to play golf. He scrutinizes Bush's behavior in the famous “My Pet Goat” incident. We watch as Andrew Card whispers the news that a second airliner has hit the World Trade Center, and Bush goes blank, does nothing. Moore speculates on what Bush is thinking as the children chant their syllables, and he deduces he's counting his friends in the bin Laden family. He backs up to tell us that the national security team surely knew something big was coming from Osama's Al Qaeda by August 2001, but did nothing. As the recent report of the independent committee investigating September 11 has documented, this is true.
But why do nothing? According to Moore, it's all one big conspiracy. The Bush family is in tight with the prolific bin Ladens, who wanted Bush elected so that they might continue to milk the “special” US-Saudi-oil industry relationship. The Saudis own about six to seven percent of the United States economy, according to journalist Craig Unger, and heavily invested in the Carlyle Group, on whose board of directors Bushes sit. So that, when it became clear that Saudi nationals led the hijacking teams, the Bush administration looked the other way to let their intimate pals off the hook. And then, after waiting too long to bomb Afghanistan, and not bombing it hard enough, they went murderously after Iraq, with the disastrous results we're seeing every day.
It's all partly true, but not truthful enough. First of all, it's not a gigantic conspiracy. Interlocking multinational directorates and heavy investments in the military-industrial complex, bolstered by multigenerational family ties and friendships, that's the structure of international capitalism. There's a difference between an open secret that the media rarely acknowledges, and a smoke-filled-room conspiracy.
According to the 9/11 Commission report, there's a real conspiracy and cover-up involving the US and its CIA's relationships to Osama bin Laden's Pakistani patrons and handlers. It's much worse than Moore thinks, and it doesn't involve just two rich families.
Cozy ties to Sheik Bandar don't explain why this administration blinked when they saw a catastrophe coming. If they wanted to keep their conspiracy going, they would have conspired to get Mohamed Atta under control and the military bases away from Islamic holy land. Why allow so much disruption? Here's my best explanation: they didn't care who got hurt, just as they don't care about the victims of terrorism now. They may not have expected it to be so bad, maybe another incident on the scale of the USS Cole, and they certainly didn't count on the tenacity of the victims’ families. (Never mess with the angry, well-connected widow of a commodities trader.) But when it became clear that 9/11 had handed them a remarkable opportunity to restock the shelves of American imperialism, the Bushites grabbed it.
Moore's conspiracy theory — smuggling the bin Ladens out of the country on September 13, for example, is given as evidence of having something really big to hide — helps him evade the most important corpse that all the mass media have to keep under wraps. As Robert Jensen has pointed out so thoroughly, Moore ignores the larger scenes of American imperial history and Middle Eastern politics. In that bloodied part of the world, it's in the interests of the Saudis, the Bushes, and the Kerry-Heinzes that things continue more or less status quo: nothing can challenge United States support of Israel and its nuclear garrison, even if Israel's war against the Palestinians threatens to destabilize the Middle Eastern monarchies. Nothing can challenge the US military domination of the region. For national leaders, it's a delicate balance, and it has committed the entire Middle East to “war all the time.”
To be fair, Moore mentions Israel and the Palestinians in his airport book, “Dude, Who Stole My Country?,” a big hit with the high school and college set. He points out that Americans ought to look into why the entire world, and especially the Muslim world, is utterly furious about the Palestinian catastrophe. But that's about it. Moore can't even mention the word “Israel” in his film. If he did, he'd get no distribution at all from anybody, anytime, anywhere in the United States. And he can't risk that. Because if he did, then he'd really be an independent filmmaker, independent in the sense of broke with no chances of getting his film seen or his next film financed. There are a lot of those film-makers around, though. Is Moore helping fund any of them?
If you can't dig into the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and the historical sources of rage at the United States (where should we start: the CIA, subversion, occupation, coercion, invasion, torture, napalm…?) in what claims to be a devastating political critique, then it's not much of a political critique. It's a mainstream film in many ways, in its patriotism, its nationalism, its fairly light handling of the role of the military in American life, and especially in its history. Seeing it is probably better than not seeing it, but the reason it's so popular is that the rest of the media has been doing such a lousy job. There's a hunger out there for something, anything that explains some of this mess. It's not just that Moore's explanation isn't good enough, it's that its wide of the mark.
Toward the end, after a harrowing series of clips from embedded reporters in Iraq, and a devastating series of interviews with a woman who has lost her son, as she now knows, for no good reason at all, Moore lets a shattered Iraq veteran speak. He says he's going back to where he came from, and he's going to work like hell for the Democratic Party because Republicans are so dishonest. All you can feel is sick that this poor guy in going to get used again. It's plain that the film is propaganda: its anti-Bush propaganda (good) and pro-Democratic Party propaganda (bad faith). The Democrats are so deeply implicated in this disaster as far back as you care to go (Johnson? Kennedy? Truman?) that it's stunning how many chances Moore misses to point it out. If Fahrenheit 451 is the temperature at which paper burns, is Fahrenheit 9/11 the point at which we all melt down and vote for Kerry?