Fahrenheit 9/11

The argument about the intervention in the former Mesopotamia has shifted. The question is no longer "Were there really fairies in Iraq?" The question isn't "If there really had been fairies in Iraq, would that have been a good reason for going to war?" or even "Did George and Tony sincerely believe that there were fairies at the bottom of Saddam's garden?" The question has become "If Tony and George lied about the doubleyoo-em-dees; or allowed themselves to fooled by the big bad intelligence wolf, does it matter?" The battle lines are between those who say: "The world is better without Saddam Hussein; therefore, the war was a Good Thing even if the original reasons for starting it turn out to have been a pile of pants" and those of us who say "Taking us into a war on a false or erroneous premise is a Bad Thing, even if the end result is quite good." (1)

The question is no longer "Did Tony tell the truth?" but "Does it matter whether or not Tony told the truth?".

I don't mean to be glib. (Well, actually, I do mean to be glib, but I've finished now.) Let's suppose that it is 1938 and Nevil Chamberlain had realized that the British People will not be terribly enthusiastic about a second Great War. Mr. Hitler is certainly not very nice, they are saying, and we feel terribly sorry for all those Jews, provided, of course, that they don't come and live here, but is it really any of our business? So Mr. Chamberlain announces that Mr. Hitler is in possession of a Martian Heat Ray, that he has got it pointed at Big Ben and that he could therefore vaporize London within 45 minutes. It follows that we have got to go to war. Right now. The War starts a year early, and we avoid the fall of France, the worst of the holocaust, and most of Vera Lynn's records. And in 1946, a commission discovers that actually, he was fibbing, or at any rate, wasn't sufficiently skeptical about a dossier which depended substantially on evidence presented in a radio documentary by a Mr. Orson Welles. Would we all put our hands on our hearts and say that Mr. Chamberlain had done wrong?

Does the truth matter?

 

I've admired Michael Moore for as long as I have known about him. In a supposedly post-ideological age, Moore thinks he knows what is wrong with the world, and what could be done about it. He's one of the last people who still seems to be believe in a (whisper it softly) Marxist analysis of history. America has to fight wars because they provide jobs for poor people; it has to keep people poor in order to fight wars; the essential economic inequality produces the other injustices. But I also find him incredibly irritating. The ironic documentary style of Roger and Me, where he showed us what was happening and fooled us into thinking we were drawing our own conclusions, has given way to more and more conspiracy theory, bombarding us with unsupported data, and telling us what to think. As he became well known, the faux nave interview style, where he encouraged people to talk, appeared to agree with them, and gradually allowed them to have enough Socratic rope to hang themselves became impossible: he turned into a politicized Noel Edmunds, doing highly contrived stunts and practical jokes, in the apparent belief that embarrassing a succession of US congressmen provides a critique of the military-industrial complex. In common with the Socialist Worker he is inclined to think injustices are being promoted consciously and intentionally. In Stupid White Men he comes close to arguing that the American system of justice has been deliberately crafted with a view to hanging as many blacks as possible. But, I admit, that his prejudices are sufficiently close to mine that I am inclined to say "Right on!" even when he is at his silliest.

No one can doubt his cleverness as a film maker. I prefer his documentary montages — the archive footage of George brushing his hair and playing golf during a crisis, juxta-positionings of politicians saying different things at different times, or saying the same thing over and over again -- to his use of pastiche and outright comedy Pasting George and Tony's heads into old cowboy movies isn't really very funny and doesn't really prove very much. Of course American politicians sometimes use clichéd terms like "smoke 'em out"; in the same way that British politicians sometimes use clichéd terms like "British bobby". It's called "rhetoric".

Where Roger and Me documented a sequence of events (the closing down of the industry in his home town) from an ironically detached perspective which implied an explanation and a critique, Fahrenheit 9/11 makes a very explicit case: that Bush consciously manipulated the events of 11-09-01 to justify a war in Iraq, knowing full well that Saddam had no involvement in the terrorist attack. This case depends on specific claims and arguments – for example, that Bush was up to his eyes in Saudi money, that he has tried to conceal this, and (at some length) that he permitted members of Bin Laden's family to leave America when other flights were grounded. To make this case, he marshals a lot of information: sheets of paper with section highlighted and sections blotted out, photographs of Bush at various times in his career, bits of interviews.

None of this convinced me. If anything, it made me suspicious. I kept saying "Slow down. That picture of a younger Bush in his limo...where did you find it? Those documents linking him to Saudi money – where did you get them? Are they accepted by everyone involved? Would they be permissible in court?" I challenge anyone to actually explain, 45 minutes after leaving the cinema, what Moore's case was. One minute we are having Bush's Saudi links explained to us; the next, we are at war with Iraq. Unless I dropped off (a distinct possibility, since the film contains several long ers between the funny bits) I don't think we were told how we got from one to the other.

There a number of obvious contradictions. At one point, we were invited to think that the war was a Bad Thing because the marines drove into battle playing obscene death metal music on their tank's stereo-systems. Well, yes: most of us had guessed that soldiers were scary, rough men of the kind which most of us might not want meet in a pub, and not actually knights on white chargers. Would the converse have followed: they killed a lot of kids, but this is okay, because they were playing Mozart at the time?

But a little bit later, we are asked to think that the war is a Bad Thing because a short haired all-American boy who really believed in the value of patriotism and service got killed.

But you can't have it both ways. The war can't be wrong because soldiers are thugs and also because soldiers are innocent lambs. Maybe the death metal thugs had mothers who would have been sorry if they had been killed; come to that, if Sgt Lipscombe had been one of those yelling "Still got a hard-on, Ali Baba?" at an Iraqi corpse, he probably wouldn't have mentioned it in a letter home to Mom. You can't have it both ways. What is your point?

Moore shamelessly milks the emotions of both Mrs. Lipscombe and the audience in this sequence: we see her reading out her son's letters, and weeping; being interviewed by Michael Moore, and weeping, going to visit the White House for no very clear reason, and weeping.

But hang on. It is usually the right wing press who claim that grief confers moral authority, that the mere fact that your child has been murdered makes you some kind of expert in jurisprudence. I don't like it when the head-bangers say "Mrs. Smith is crying, so we should bring back the death penalty"; and I would be guilty of a double-standard if I liked it any more when Michael Moore says "Mrs. Lipscombe is crying, so the war in Iraq was wrong." It isn't even clear to me what kind of value-shift her bereavement is meant to have caused. She approved of the army; she was proud when her son signed up: wasn't she aware that soldiers sometimes got killed in wars? Her hysteria outside the White House resembled, if anything, some kind of religious conversion. America had been her God; the marines were part of its priesthood, and the American flag (which she never let touch the ground) was somehow sacramental. The death of her son while doing a very dangerous job somehow took her God away from her. Her imaginary America, where the good guys come home, no longer existed. This is quite interesting at the level of Big Brother psychological voyeurism, but it doesn't tell me anything about the war. Beautiful boys would have been killed, and their mothers would have been sad even if Bush had been completely honest and the war totally justified. This poor woman's loss of faith doesn't tell us anything about international politics, any more than one individual's conversion at a Billy Graham meeting tells us anything about the existence of God. What is your point?

 

I have to say that I have never seen Screen 2 of the Camden Odeon so full before: they were actually turning punters away: it wasn't like that for, say, Mel Gibson's "film the whole world is talking about" (2) Like me, they all enjoyed the film, laughed and applauded at the end. I guess that, like me, most of them already disliked George and Tony and disapproved of their war; and they will have had their prejudices confirmed by a sequence of factoids and stunts which seem like arguments, but really aren't. Maybe a few were pro-Bush and pro-War, and they probably had their prejudices confirmed as well: liberals are fat, silly, and unpatriotic. I suppose it is possible that someone even had an I've-seen-the-light moment and said "Yes! I used to support the war, but because the congressman wouldn't sign his son up to the marines when Michael asked him to, I'm now against it!" But I question whether this long movie presented any actual, rational grounds for holding or changing an opinion one way or the other.

Does it matter? Is there anything wrong with bit of political knock about -- a two hour rant that makes George look sinister and ridiculous, the equivalent of the guy who puts custard pies in the face of pompous celebrities? If it makes it slightly less likely that George will win the next election, then hasn't the movie done a good deed?

It depends, I suppose, where you are coming from. Some people knew in advance, on doctrinal or tribal grounds, that the Iraqi war was a Bad Thing. For them, a few little white lies in the name of propaganda can't seem very important. But I'm one of those who intends to vote against Tony Blair, not because he got us involved in a war, but because he misled us about his reasons. And that makes it hard for me to say "Some of Michael Moore's arguments are weak or illogical; and I have no way of finding out whether his facts are correct—but none of this matters, because he supports by basic position." The idea that it is wrong to support a case with weak, misleading, illogical arguments and dubious facts is my basic position.

Does the truth matter?

A lot of the time, Moore comes across as an incoherent, ranting, demagogue. But at least he's our incoherent, ranting demagogue.

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(1): We are told that the present situation in Iraq is much better than it was when Doctor Doom was running the place. But then, we are told that Doctor Doom was so evil that anything would be much better than having him running the place. "He's so bad that whatever we do, however awful, must be an improvement; therefore, we can do anything we like" is not the most compelling moral argument I have ever heard.

 

(2) By the way: I felt uncomfortable about watching the film with a 100% British audience. I think that when English people laugh at George Bush getting his worms muggled up, there is an undercurrent of "Gosh, chaps, look at how dumb these Yanks are." There's a reflex "we hate Americans, although, of course, some of my best friends are Americans and they do have a wonderful sense of rhythm" in some left-wing campaigning, and I don't like it very much.