Arguably the best-publicized political-cultural phenomenon of recent months has been the release of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, a pseudo-documentary whose purpose, the director, has affirmed, is to remove President George W. Bush from office. While there is much to dislike in the film, from its tendentiousness to its glaring non-sequiturs, it is one of those works that raises a host of disturbing questions about the boundaries of free expression.
The first is whether a film openly touted as a political bludgeon can be a reliable statement on the Bush administration’s policies toward the war on terrorism and Iraq? While documentaries need not be impartial toward their subject matter, they do enjoy an atypical veneer of objectivity by virtue of their supposedly filming reality. Fahrenheit 9/11 was provided the added advantage of being awarded the Palme D’Or at Cannes, effectively endorsing the film’s artistic credibility. But is this credibility merited? Partisans on either side of the Moore divide will not convince each other of the worth or worthlessness of so divisive a film. However, there is one benchmark that both sides must be sensitive to: the internal consistency of the film. And by that yardstick, Moore has failed: in the first half of his film he posits that the Bushes have been in the Saudis’ pocket for years (an allegation initially made by journalist Craig Unger in his House of Bush, House of Saud, while in the second he traces the administration’s entry into the Iraq war. The two are implicitly linked in Fahrenheit 9/11, yet Moore never examines whether the relationship is legitimate. In fact, he cannot overcome a flagrant contradiction: if Bush is a Saudi stooge, why did he go into Iraq, a move the Saudis found deeply alarming, and that was to a large extent designed to wean the US off the Saudi oil teat?
Moore provides no explanation, and the absence of one has led critics to pan the film as “propaganda.” But the marketplace does allow propaganda (after all what is advertising?), though it also encourages an informed public to differentiate between the truth and lies. Has the American public been discerning? According to a recent poll by McLaughlin and Associates, a conservative polling firm in the US, a majority of likely voters didn’t have to be, since 87% of them (from a sample of 1,000 respondents) had not even seen Moore’s film. Nor was that just because Bush supporters boycotted Fahrenheit 9/11 in droves. Of likely John Kerry voters, a very high 78% had also not seen the film, while 81% of Nader voters had not either. In other words, even among the electorate that embraces Moore’s message, Fahrenheit 9/11 had a limited impact. A second aspect of Moore’s film that has raised alarm bells is his often-manipulative depiction of individuals he doesn’t like, or of the implied villains of his tale. At the start of the film, for example, Moore shows Bush and various other administration officials in embarrassing situations, usually while grooming themselves for a television appearance. Most famously, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz is shown sucking a comb so that he can plaster down his hair. While the shots are amusing, they are also cheap, since no one ever looks good in the hands of a political foe. However, that’s fair game in a propaganda film. Far more disturbing is the way Moore depicts the Saudis. He plainly pushes negative cultural buttons in his American audiences with regard to Arabs. In a commentary on the film, Turi Munthe, the Daily Star’s book editor wrote: “A long sequence in the central section of the film is intended symbolically to show how the Bushes and their men have metaphorically made a pact with the ‘Saudi devil,’ as Moore runs in succession two-dozen clips of George W. Bush, his father and their advisors shaking hands with brown men in Keffiyehs.”
For Munthe, there “is not a single ‘good’ Arab in the film, barring the charred bodies of Iraqi women and children who serve only as anti-Bush scarecrows.” For him the Arabs in Fahrenheit 9/11 are victims of friendly fire, “the kind that essentially kills the very people it is intended to cover.” There is truth there, as anyone who has seen the film can confirm, though Moore would deny it. Yet in his anti-Bush crusade he is single-minded in his destructive ambition, where all weapons, even the manipulation of cultural hostility, is acceptable. But is it acceptable? Even admitting it is, and many would disagree, the 12% of voters who have seen the film would do well to do what any market imposes: learn more about the product to see what part of it is counterfeit.