(CV #34, August 25, 2004)
. On its opening weekend at the end of June, Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 earned $23. 9 million, making it the #1 box-office seller, and breaking the record for films released in under 1000 theaters. In three days it had broken the domestic record for a documentary, which had been set by Moore's own Bowling for Columbine over a 9 month period. All this was in spite of it being initially released exclusively in small, or art-house type, theaters. For weeks after its wider release, Fahrenheit continued to sell out theaters all over the country. As of July 22, it had garnered $94 million. The success of this movie is an important political fact, and it dispels several myths: that Americans don't care about politics, and will always prefer the escapist fluff churned out by the media giants; that virtually all are united behind the Iraq war and the "war on terrorism".
. Especially during the first couple weeks of its release, the movie itself had a major politicizing effect. In places where organized leftist groups exist, activists had an easy time distributing literature, carrying petitions, etc. There was often a buzz of political talk in ticket lines, and spontaneous discussion groups were known to form after the movie, sometimes lasting over an hour. Seeing the movie in such large groups, with people calling out comments, hissing, clapping, laughing, etc. , made for an exciting experience, and created a communal feeling. Many left the theater with a renewed, or awakened, interest in some form of political activity.
. The film's appeal reached beyond the left community. In some conservative southern towns like Mobile, Alabama, it struck a nerve. Not long after all the artificial hoopla about Ronald Reagan's death, F-9/11 drew sell-outs and long ovations in Simi Valley, CA, "the Great Communicator's" own final resting place. In spite of fierce boycott campaigns by some right-wing groups, a section of Bush 2000 voters lauded the movie, reflecting a growing distaste for the neoconservative trend in the Republican Party. And importantly, Moore's movie has been received well by enlisted folks and their families.
. It is now undeniable that there are people in every corner of the country seething with hatred of George Bush and critical of some of the basic policies of the US government. There are several reasons for the film's wide appeal, and many issues are raised by Moore. Only a few of these things will be discussed below.
. Viewing Farenheit 9/11 is an emotionally affecting experience. The destruction of the twin towers (in a sequence of inspired artistry); a mother's tale of losing a son whose last letter from Iraq was full of despair at being trapped in the desert for no good reason; the rage of Iraqis under attack. These are some things that hit especially hard. Just as profound is the anger and disgust of seeing Bush and other capitalists behave like creatures from another world.
. The film also exposes things that have been undercovered or ignored in the major media. For example, we are reminded of the disenfranchisement of black Floridians in the 2000 elections, followed by the refusal of Al Gore and the Democratic Senators to allow debate on the issue. We are told in detail of the intimate business relationship between the Bush and bin Laden families. We meet some of the US veterans of the Iraq war, duped amputees in a bleak VA ward.
. No doubt a major contributor to the enlivening and refreshing effect the movie has had is its revealing scenes of class society. This elemental awareness of socioeconomic classes is rare in movies that reach a mass audience in modern America. For instance, we get a glimpse of a seldom-seen side of America: capitalists speaking freely and at ease with themselves. We see Bush quipping, without a stutter, to a banquet hall full of millionaires: "This is an impressive crowd: the haves . . . and the have-mores". The elation of his audience is almost palpable. "Some people call you the elite", he relishes, "I call you my base. " How liberating it must feel, freed from the tortures of feigning concern for the interest of "America" in general! In another scene, we are a fly on the wall at a conference on the business opportunities in post-war Iraq. A participant confides to the camera that the war is "good for business, bad for the people". In several other places it is implied that imperialist wars are fought by the poor in the interest of the rich. This comes across especially in the scenes in Flint, Michigan, where massive unemployment has made the military the number one job opportunity around. One scene in Flint follows a duo of vulturous marine recruiters on a typical raid of a lower-class mall. And towards the end of the movie Moore quotes George Orwell to the effect that foreign war is a mechanism for keeping the oppressed down.
. Moore also points to absurd examples of government repression, such as the police infiltration of a Northern California pacifist group. Domestically, the Republican-Democrat "war on terrorism" features the enlargement and refinement of government anti-immigrant, surveillance, political policing, and other repressive capabilities. This continues the work of previous administrations: the increased militarization of the police throughout the "war on drugs"; the development of "concentration camp" methods (as a judge described the treatment of protests at the Democratic Convention) to hinder large political demonstrations. Construction of police-state institutions such as the Department of Homeland Security is now proceeding apace, and will continue for many years. The first and major victim after 9/11 has been the Muslim and Arab communities. Other immigrants, notably Mexicans, have suffered as well. And as the years go by, wider and wider sections of the population will be victimized.
. So F-9/11 features at times an emotional and sincere identification with the working class; expresses outrage at government repression; and has some internationalist sympathy for the Iraqi people. But alas, Moore is essentially a satirist with a working-class touch, and not a consistent analyst of class society. His work reflects the fine qualities of the laboring class as well as its misconceptions. He sees no working-class path in the current crisis, and the film suffers from an accommodation to the Democratic electioneering.
. For example, along with the many hints that the poor are sent to kill and die for the rich, we get myth-making about the supposed defensive nature of the armed forces. The US military was and is created primarily for aggression and "defense" of economic and strategic capitalist interests abroad. In this "unipolar" era of world history, where the US is unrivaled militarily, nothing is more clear. With its "precision bombing" and "shock and awe" campaigns, the US seeks not merely to defeat the immediate enemy, but to strike fear into any government or other force that would oppose the American plan for global dominance. Further, the aggressive nature of the military doesn't change in the rare case that the enemy of the moment fires the first shot. But Moore insinuates that the Army is simply the natural outlet for selfless idealists. He waxes that "They fight so that we don't have to . . . so that we can be free. " He presents that the problem is that Bush's crude leadership and audacious diplomacy has clouded the conscience of the soldiers.
. This distortion is really unfortunate. The wide hatred for Bush is due in large part to his bloody-minded war-mongering. Unlike the Democratic Party strategists, Moore seeks to connect with the popular anti-war feeling. He doesn't refer to the huge anti-war protests in the US and over the world in early 2003, but he denounces the Iraq invasion, and has a level of sympathy for Iraqis and their anti-occupation feelings. However, the whole myth of the "war on terror" is that it's defensive. In fact the "war on terror" is the misnomer for a series of open wars, covert interventions, and for the expansion of a military presence across the globe. The list of enemies includes many reactionary forces, such as the Taliban, as well as some progressive ones, such as peasant fighters in Columbia and Nepal. It is not a war to defend the nation against attacks, nor is it mainly a response to 9/11. It is a series of military and related operations in pursuit of a number of objectives, among them the reordering of the Middle East in accordance with a strategic ideal, and the crushing of forces threatening undermine friendly regimes around the world. Moore ridicules various absurdities of the "war on terror", such as the playing with "terrorist threat levels", but he doesn't challenge the false defensive rationale.
. The bombing of Afghanistan, just two months after 9/11, was the initial salvo of the boundless "anti-terrorist" offensive. Democrats look back fondly on the Afghan war as a golden time of bipartisan unity. Only with their eyes on the electoral spoils do some of them quibble, often along the lines of official critics like Richard Clarke (whom Moore favorably interviews in F-9/11) that Bush's war was "slow [!!] and small". The attempt to create a level of acceptance for this war among a still very traumatized population included a constant barrage of bloodthirsty patriotic hysteria on TV and radio. (It is awful for Moore to go along with Clarke's assertion that Bush's hand was forced on Afghanistan by the vengeful cries of the populace. ) With its torture and mass killings of prisoners in alliance with local warlords, random bombings of weddings and other civilian gatherings, the war and occupation of Afghanistan is every bit as outrageous as that of Iraq. And as in Iraq, the "democracy" being implemented there is a feeble charade. The puppet government of Hamid Karzai in Kabul is maintained only by US soldiers and shaky agreements with entrenched warlord factions. In conditions of mass hunger and a growing insurgency in the south, humanitarian organizations such as Oxfam and Doctors Without Borders have lately made it known that the US-led occupiers have a habit of allowing food only to those who inform on opposition militias.
. Rigorous analysis of international affairs is not Moore's strong point. The US has long sought to undermine Hussein's Baathist regime in Iraq, which had sought to carve out a regional hegemony at odds with US domination on crucial points. This proceeded throughout the 90s following the first Gulf war in attempts to engineer military coups and the imposition of crippling (mainly for common Iraqis) sanctions. Insofar as Moore deduces a cause of the Iraq war, he attributes it to the immediate profiteering motive of influential corporations close to the Bush administration. He also intimates, along with the Democrats, that it was a distraction from the "real" war on terrorism. These superficial explanations fail to explain the universal capitalist agreement on the necessity of US domination of Iraq, the region, and its oil.
. Many leftist writers have criticised Moore's portrayal of the US relationship with the Saudi Arabian sheiks. These relations with Saudi Arabia are part of a system of relationships with several Arab monarchies and mainly with Israel, the major military power in the region. Ever since FDR cut a deal with the kingdom in 1944, Democratic and Republican administrations have protected the House of Saud, mainly in order to ensure the flow of oil and oil profits, and also because the Saudi government has helped out over the years in recruiting and financing anti-democratic forces in the region and the world -- from funding the mujaheddin in 1980's Afghanistan, to the recent offer to help bring to Iraq an adjutant occupation force from various muslim countries. After the first Gulf War, the US established its own bases in Saudi Arabia. The huge flow of recycled oil money into the US economy gives the US an added reason to help maintain this brutal tyranny. Its fall now would jar the economy even in the event that the US were able to control Iraqi oil production.
. Moore dwells extensively on the issue of Saudi relations. The hypocrisy of the leaders of the "war on terror" is made tangible as they rub shoulders with the medievalist tyrants and lackeys of the Saudi dynasty, who also have an agreement with al Qaeda. But Moore reduces the whole issue to being a mere Bush family affair. And he even goes further in contending that the Bush dynasty is sold-out to the Saudis! It's the same ass-backwards sentiment reflected in the title of his recent book, Dude, Where's My Country?.
. No doubt some are attracted to this and other nationalist aspects of the movie. Moore's foolish ideas about the Saudi influence are compounded by his tendency to carp about "Saudis" in general, and not mention that the ruling faction is a tiny minority of the population there. And there is indeed a tone of light-minded jingoism in the crude national stereotypes used in his depiction of Bush's "coalition of the willing". Thus the film's appeal to conservatives is more than just a measure of the widespread anger with Bush. Moore's grasp of class dynamics is shaky, and he tends to lose it altogether when it comes to international politics. Along with his nationalism, this weakens the effect of the international sympathies Moore does express, such as for the besieged Iraqis. The basic prerequisite for a principled internationalist appeal is support for the working masses of a given country in struggle against their domestic oppressors, as well as against imperialist attacks. Some commentators, mostly from the right, have noted Moore's short scene of pre-war Iraq, in which children play and fly kites. They fume that Moore is prettifying Saddam's rule. Most likely his device is mainly to heighten the contrast between daily life and the horrible reality of bombing. That life before bombing was no walk in the park was due to the heartless UN sanctions, but was also (and primarily) due to the oppressive Baathist rule. Given the widespread confusion on the left of internationalism with supporting the bourgeoisie of subordinate countries, expecting perfect clarity on this from Moore would be a little naïve.
. Finally, there is the pressing question of what to do about one's outrage. Michael Moore has said, "I don't like this film being reduced to Bush vs. Kerry. The issues in it are larger than that . . . " Indeed. The Iraq war, the "war on terror", corporate censorship and propaganda, the rich tricking the poor into fighting for empire, the impoverishment of the working class -- all will continue to plague us after November. At the very moment, according to polls, that over half of respondents opined that the US should have never gone into Iraq, the Democrats prevented Kucinich supporters from inserting into the party platform the mild rebuke that the war was "mistaken from the beginning". Kerry's main complaint about the "war on terror" is that Bush is neglecting it. All the establishment politicians, and especially the Democrats, are busily devising new and clever ways to pressure and cajole young men and women into bloodstained uniforms. Kerry's "trickle-down" program of corporate tax cuts can only increase job insecurity.
. It is true that Moore doesn't share the attack-dog mentality of Democratic Party hacks in the "Anybody but Bush" crowd. He supported Nader in 2000 against a similar campaign, and has built up a following among people who are somewhat disaffected with the Democrats. Kerry, for his part, doesn't want much to do with Moore and his populist leanings. Yet one sees again and again in the enthusiastic letters from viewers posted on Moore's website that the overriding message taken away tends to be merely "vote Bush out". Further, the movie gives the impression that a big change will come from a Democratic victory. This begins at the beginning, with a dreamy reverie of Gore's abortive victory celebration in 2000. It continues with Lila Lipscomb finding in the White House the source for all the grief of losing a son. It ends with the confident assertion that "we won't get fooled again" with Bush out of office, as if he's the first to lie the people into war. (Just one example is the fake "Gulf of Tonkin incident" that was used by a Democratic administration to get congressional backing for a full-blown war against Vietnam. ) Actually, since the Democratic convention at the end of July, his campaigning for Kerry around the movie has become more and more open.
. Moore has the popular view that if "rabble-rousers" apply enough pressure to the Democrats,
they will stop favoring big business over the masses of people. But the Democrats have not
betrayed their working-class base, as Moore believes. On the contrary, they agree with the
Republicans on all the major issues of the day because they are based in the same class of "haves
and have-mores" that Bush appeals to. No sooner than Bush will they oppose the oil and financial
interests behind his family fortune. People angered and energized by the images in Fahrenheit
9/11 should feel the need to move beyond Moore's "quick-fix" of getting the vote out for a more
tactful party of exploiters. They should come around to the idea that we need to build a long-term
movement within the class that has no natural interest in putting a respectable face on a world
empire, or in enriching the bosses who cheat us. <>
Last modified: Sept. 12, 2004.