Sunday, June 27, 2004

Farenheit 9/11

I saw Michael Moore's Farenheit 9/11 yesterday. I don't have a whole lot to say about it, but I thought it deserved a mention here.

Overall, it was good -- effectively put together, powerful, clever, all that stuff. I hope all the conservatives that are bustling around trying to bully theatres into not showing it succeed in getting more people interested in seeing it, and I hope as many U.S. citizens as possible give it a look. Moore's target audience, even more so than in his previous films, seems to be working-class folk who might vote Republican because of the cesspit of lies around terrorism and national security, rather than middle-class progressives (though we'll like it too, of course), which I think was a good choice. Loved all the footage of Bush; he just makes it so easy, sometimes.

A couple of nitpicks: I thought the narrative line of the film got a bit fuzzy towards the end. I might change my tune on this one if I saw the film again, and even if it's true it may not be a bad thing -- it might just be Moore pulling back from his usually intrusive kind of authorship (which was less in this film anyway) and letting things flow more on their own.

The other was the portrayal of Saudi Arabians. When he deals with Iraqis, he definitely went out of his way to humanize them, but the portrayal of Saudis seemed to be drawing on narratives and imagery that are just old orientalist rubbish -- these mysterious foreigners in funny clothes with funny accents who have pots of money that they are using to secretly influence our country, and that treat women badly in their own country. I doubt his actual position is that simplistic, and I know that presenting the unfamiliar is always more time consuming than presenting the familiar so adequate contextualization might have taken away from the narrative drive of the film. Nonetheless, contextualizing the great influence of the House of Saud and the House of Bin Laden on the Bush administration and the U.S. in general with at least a nod to colonial history and some sense of ordinary people on the Arabian peninsula rather than allowing the whole country to be represented by a small clique of oppressive elites would have taken the racist edge off that section of the film. (I was glad the information on the Bush/Bin Laden connection was in there, though, because most of the details were new to me.)

So go see it, already!

1 comment:

rabfish said...

Interesting commentary...

July 5, 2004

Stupid White Movie
What Michael Moore Misses About the Empire


I have been defending Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" from the
criticism in mainstream and conservative circles that the film is
leftist propaganda. Nothing could be further from the truth; there is
very little left critique in the movie. In fact, it's hard to find
any coherent critique in the movie at all.

The sad truth is that "Fahrenheit 9/11" is a bad movie, but not for
the reasons it is being attacked in the dominant culture. It's at
times a racist movie. And the analysis that underlies the film's main
political points is either dangerously incomplete or virtually

But, most important, it's a conservative movie that ends with an
endorsement of one of the central lies of the United States, which
should warm the hearts of the right-wingers who condemn Moore. And
the real problem is that many left/liberal/progressive people are
singing the film's praises, which should tell us something about the
impoverished nature of the left in this country.

I say all this not to pick at small points or harp on minor flaws.
These aren't minor points of disagreement but fundamental questions
of analysis and integrity. But before elaborating on that, I want to
talk about what the film does well.

The good stuff

First, Moore highlights the disenfranchisement of primarily black
voters in Florida in the 2000 election, a political scandal that the
mainstream commercial news media in the United States has largely
ignored. The footage of a joint session of Congress in which
Congressional Black Caucus members can't get a senator to sign their
letter to allow floor debate about the issue (a procedural
requirement) is a powerful indictment not only of the Republicans who
perpetrated the fraud but the Democratic leadership that refused to
challenge it.

Moore also provides a sharp critique of U.S. military recruiting
practices, with some amazing footage of recruiters cynically at work
scouring low-income areas for targets, whom are disproportionately
non-white. The film also effectively takes apart the Bush
administration's use of fear tactics after 9/11 to drive the public
to accept its war policies.

"Fahrenheit 9/11" also does a good job of showing war's effects on
U.S. soldiers; we see soldiers dead and maimed, and we see how
contemporary warfare deforms many of them psychologically as well.
And the film pays attention to the victims of U.S. wars, showing
Iraqis both before the U.S. invasion and after in a way that
humanizes them rather than uses them as props.

The problem is that these positive elements don't add up to a good
film. It's a shame that Moore's talent and flair for the dramatic
aren't put in the service of a principled, clear analysis that could
potentially be effective at something beyond defeating George W. Bush
in 2004.

Subtle racism

How dare I describe as racist a movie that highlights the
disenfranchisement of black voters and goes after the way in which
military recruiters chase low-income minority youth? My claim is not
that Moore is an overt racist, but that the movie unconsciously
replicates a more subtle racism, one that we all have to struggle to

First, there is one segment that invokes the worst kind of
ugly-American nativism, in which Moore mocks the Bush
administration's "coalition of the willing," the nations it lined up
to support the invasion of Iraq. Aside from Great Britain there was
no significant military support from other nations and no real
coalition, which Moore is right to point out. But when he lists the
countries in the so-called coalition, he uses images that have racist
undertones. To depict the Republic of Palau (a small Pacific island
nation), Moore chooses an image of stereotypical "native" dancers,
while a man riding on an animal-drawn cart represents Costa Rica.
Pictures of monkeys running are on the screen during a discussion of
Morocco's apparent offer to send monkeys to clear landmines. To
ridicule the Bush propaganda on this issue, Moore uses these images
and an exaggerated voice-over in a fashion that says, in essence,
"What kind of coalition is it that has these backward countries?"

Moore might argue that is not his intention, but intention is not the
only question; we all are responsible for how we tap into these kinds
of stereotypes.

More subtle and important is Moore's invocation of a racism in which
solidarity between dominant whites and non-white groups domestically
can be forged by demonizing the foreign "enemy," which these days has
an Arab and South Asian face. For example, in the segment about
law-enforcement infiltration of peace groups, the camera pans the
almost exclusively white faces (I noticed one Asian man in the scene)
in the group Peace Fresno and asks how anyone could imagine these
folks could be terrorists. There is no consideration of the fact that
Arab and Muslim groups that are equally dedicated to peace have to
endure routine harassment and constantly prove that they weren't
terrorists, precisely because they weren't white.

The other example of political repression that "Fahrenheit 9/11"
offers is the story of Barry Reingold, who was visited by FBI agents
after making critical remarks about Bush and the war while working
out at a gym in Oakland. Reingold, a white retired phone worker, was
not detained or charged with a crime; the agents questioned him and
left. This is the poster child for repression? In a country where
hundreds of Arab, South Asian and Muslim men were thrown into secret
detention after 9/11, this is the case Moore chooses to highlight?
The only reference in the film to those detentions post-9/11 is in an
interview with a former FBI agent about Saudis who were allowed to
leave the United States shortly after 9/11, in which it appears that
Moore mentions those detentions only to contrast the kid-gloves
treatment that privileged Saudi nationals allegedly received.

When I made this point to a friend, he defended Moore by saying the
filmmaker was trying to reach a wide audience that likely is mostly
white and probably wanted to use examples that those people could
connect with. So, it's acceptable to pander to the white audience
members and over-dramatize their limited risks while ignoring the
actual serious harm done to non-white people? Could not a skilled
filmmaker tell the story of the people being seriously persecuted in
a way that non-Arab, non-South Asian, non-Muslims could empathize

Bad analysis

"Fahrenheit 9/11" is strong on tapping into emotions and raising
questions about why the United States invaded Afghanistan and Iraq
after 9/11, but it is extremely weak on answering those questions in
even marginally coherent fashion. To the degree the film has a
thesis, it appears to be that the wars were a product of the personal
politics of a corrupt Bush dynasty. I agree the Bush dynasty is
corrupt, but the analysis the film offers is both internally
inconsistent, extremely limited in historical understanding and,
hence, misguided.

Is the administration of George W. Bush full of ideological fanatics?
Yes. Have its actions since 9/11 been reckless and put the world at
risk? Yes. In the course of pursuing those policies, has it enriched
fat-cat friends? Yes.

But it is a serious mistake to believe that these wars can be
explained by focusing so exclusively on the Bush administration and
ignoring clear trends in U.S. foreign and military policy. In short,
these wars are not a sharp departure from the past but instead should
be seen as an intensification of longstanding policies, affected by
the confluence of this particular administration's ideology and the
opportunities created by the events of 9/11.

Look first at Moore's treatment of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.
He uses a clip of former counterterrorism official Richard Clarke
complaining that the Bush administration's response to 9/11 in
Afghanistan was "slow and small," implying that we should have
attacked faster and bigger. The film does nothing to question that
assessment, leaving viewers to assume that Moore agrees. Does he
think that a bombing campaign that killed at least as many innocent
Afghans as Americans who died on 9/11 was justified? Does he think
that a military response was appropriate, and simply should have been
more intense, which would have guaranteed even more civilian
casualties? Does he think that a military strategy, which many
experts believe made it difficult to pursue more routine and
productive counterterrorism law-enforcement methods, was a smart move?

Moore also suggests that the real motivation of the Bush
administration in attacking Afghanistan was to secure a gas pipeline
route from the Caspian Basin to the sea. It's true that Unocal had
sought such a pipeline, and at one point Taliban officials were
courted by the United States when it looked as if they could make
such a deal happen. Moore points out that Taliban officials traveled
to Texas in 1997 when Bush was governor. He fails to point out that
all this happened with the Clinton administration at the negotiating
table. It is highly unlikely that policymakers would go to war for a
single pipeline, but even if that were plausible it is clear that
both Democrats and Republicans alike have been mixed up in that
particular scheme.

The centerpiece of Moore's analysis of U.S. policy in the Middle East
is the relationship of the Bush family to the Saudis and the bin
Laden family. The film appears to argue that those business
interests, primarily through the Carlyle Group, led the
administration to favor the Saudis to the point of ignoring potential
Saudi complicity in the attacks of 9/11. After laying out the nature
of those business dealings, Moore implies that the Bushes are
literally on the take.

It is certainly true that the Bush family and its cronies have a
relationship with Saudi Arabia that has led officials to overlook
Saudi human-rights abuses and the support that many Saudis give to
movements such as al Qaeda. That is true of the Bushes, just as it
was of the Clinton administration and, in fact, every post-World War
II president. Ever since FDR cut a deal with the House of Saud giving
U.S. support in exchange for cooperation on the flow of oil and oil
profits, U.S. administrations have been playing ball with the Saudis.
The relationship is sometimes tense but has continued through ups and
downs, with both sides getting at least part of what they need from
the other. Concentrating on Bush family business connections ignores
that history and encourages viewers to see the problem as specific to
Bush. Would a Gore administration have treated the Saudis differently
after 9/11? There's no reason to think so, and Moore offers no
evidence or argument why it would have.

But that's only part of the story of U.S. policy in the Middle East,
in which the Saudis play a role but are not the only players. The
United States cuts deals with other governments in the region that
are willing to support the U.S. aim of control over those energy
resources. The Saudis are crucial in that system, but not alone.
Egypt, Jordan and the other Gulf emirates have played a role, as did
Iran under the Shah. As does, crucially, Israel. But there is no
mention of Israel in the film. To raise questions about U.S. policy
in the Middle East without addressing the role of Israel as a U.S.
proxy is, to say the least, a significant omission. It's unclear
whether Moore actually backs Israeli crimes and U.S. support for
them, or simply doesn't understand the issue.

And what of the analysis of Iraq? Moore is correct in pointing out
that U.S. support for Iraq during the 1980s, when Saddam Hussein's
war on Iran was looked upon favorably by U.S. policymakers, was a
central part of Reagan and Bush I policy up to the Gulf War. And he's
correct in pointing out that Bush II's invasion and occupation have
caused great suffering in Iraq. What is missing is the intervening
eight years in which the Clinton administration used the harshest
economic embargo in modern history and regular bombing to further
devastate an already devastated country. He fails to point out that
Clinton killed more Iraqis through that policy than either of the
Bush presidents. He fails to mention the 1998 Clinton cruise missile
attack on Iraq, which was every bit as illegal as the 2003 invasion.

It's not difficult to articulate what much of the rest of the world
understands about U.S. policy in Iraq and the Middle East: Since the
end of WWII, the United States has been the dominant power in the
Middle East, constructing a system that tries to keep the Arab states
weak and controllable (and, as a result, undemocratic) and undermine
any pan-Arab nationalism, and uses allies as platforms and surrogates
for U.S. power (such as Israel and Iran under the Shah). The goal is
control over (not ownership of, but control over) the strategically
crucial energy resources of the region and the profits that flow from
them, which in an industrial world that runs on oil is a source of
incredible leverage over competitors such as the European Union,
Japan and China.

The Iraq invasion, however incompetently planned and executed by the
Bush administration, is consistent with that policy. That's the most
plausible explanation for the war (by this time, we need no longer
bother with the long-ago forgotten rationalizations of weapons of
mass destruction and the alleged threat Iraq posed to the United
States). The war was a gamble on the part of the Bush gang. Many in
the foreign-policy establishment, including Bush I stalwarts such as
Brent Scowcroft, spoke out publicly against war plans they thought
were reckless. Whether Bush's gamble, in pure power terms, will pay
off or not is yet to be determined.

When the film addresses this question directly, what analysis does
Moore offer of the reasons for the Iraq war? A family member of a
soldier who died asks, "for what?" and Moore cuts to the subject of
war profiteering. That segment appropriately highlights the
vulture-like nature of businesses that benefit from war. But does
Moore really want us to believe that a major war was launched so that
Halliburton and other companies could increase its profits for a few
years? Yes, war profiteering happens, but it is not the reason
nations go to war. This kind of distorted analysis helps keep
viewers' attention focused on the Bush administration, by noting the
close ties between Bush officials and these companies, not the
routine way in which corporate America makes money off the misnamed
Department of Defense, no matter who is in the White House.

All this is summed up when Lila Lipscomb, the mother of a son killed
in the war, visits the White House in a final, emotional scene and
says that she now has somewhere to put all her pain and anger. This
is the message of the film: It's all about the Bush administration.
If that's the case, the obvious conclusion is to get Bush out of the
White House so that things can get back to to what? I'll return to
questions of political strategy at the end, but for now it's
important to realize how this attempt to construct Bush as pursuing
some radically different policy is bad analysis and leads to a
misunderstanding of the threat the United States poses to the world.
Yes, Moore throws in a couple of jabs at the Democrats in Congress
for not stopping the mad rush to war in Iraq, but the focus is always
on the singular crimes of George W. Bush and his gang.

A conservative movie

The claim that "Fahrenheit 9/11" is a conservative movie may strike
some as ludicrous. But the film endorses one of the central lies that
Americans tell themselves, that the U.S. military fights for our
freedom. This construction of the military as a defensive force
obscures the harsh reality that the military is used to project U.S.
power around the world to ensure dominance, not to defend anyone's
freedom, at home or abroad.

Instead of confronting this mythology, Moore ends the film with it.
He points out, accurately, the irony that those who benefit the least
from the U.S. system -- the chronically poor and members of minority
groups -- are the very people who sign up for the military. "They
offer to give up their lives so we can be free," Moore says, and all
they ask in return is that we not send them in harm's way unless it's
necessary. After the Iraq War, he wonders, "Will they ever trust us

It is no doubt true that many who join the military believe they will
be fighting for freedom. But we must distinguish between the
mythology that many internalize and may truly believe, from the
reality of the role of the U.S. military. The film includes some
comments by soldiers questioning that very claim, but Moore's
narration implies that somehow a glorious tradition of U.S. military
endeavors to protect freedom has now been sullied by the Iraq War.

The problem is not just that the Iraq War was fundamentally illegal
and immoral. The whole rotten project of empire building has been
illegal and immoral -- and every bit as much a Democratic as a
Republican project. The millions of dead around the world -- in Latin
America, Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia -- as a result of
U.S. military actions and proxy wars don't care which U.S. party was
pulling the strings and pulling the trigger when they were killed.
It's true that much of the world hates Bush. It's also true that much
of the world has hated every post-WWII U.S. president. And for good

It is one thing to express solidarity for people forced into the
military by economic conditions. It is quite another to pander to the
lies this country tells itself about the military. It is not
disrespectful to those who join up to tell the truth. It is our
obligation to try to prevent future wars in which people are sent to
die not for freedom but for power and profit. It's hard to understand
how we can do that by repeating the lies of the people who plan, and
benefit from, those wars.

Political strategy

The most common defense I have heard from liberals and progressives
to these criticisms of "Fahrenheit 9/11" is that, whatever its flaws,
the movie sparks people to political action. One response is obvious:
There is no reason a film can't spark people to political action with
intelligent and defensible analysis, and without subtle racism.

But beyond that, it's not entirely clear the political action that
this film will spark goes much beyond voting against Bush. The "what
can I do now?" link on Moore's website suggests four actions, all of
which are about turning out the vote. These resources about voting
are well organized and helpful. But there are no links to grassroots
groups organizing against not only the Bush regime but the American
empire more generally.

I agree that Bush should be kicked out of the White House, and if I
lived in a swing state I would consider voting Democratic. But I
don't believe that will be meaningful unless there emerges in the
United States a significant anti-empire movement. In other words, if
we beat Bush and go back to "normal," we're all in trouble. Normal is
empire building. Normal is U.S. domination, economic and military,
and the suffering that vulnerable people around the world experience
as a result. This doesn't mean voters can't judge one particular
empire-building politician more dangerous than another. It doesn't
mean we shouldn't sometimes make strategic choices to vote for one
over the other. It simply means we should make such choices with eyes
open and no illusions. This seems particularly important when the
likely Democratic presidential candidate tries to out-hawk Bush on
support for Israel, pledges to continue the occupation of Iraq, and
says nothing about reversing the basic trends in foreign policy.

In this sentiment, I am not alone. Ironically, Barry Reingold -- the
Oakland man who was visited by the FBI -- is critical of what he sees
as the main message of the film. He was quoted in the San Francisco
Chronicle saying: "I think Michael Moore's agenda is to get Bush out,
but I think it (should be) about more than Bush.

I think it's about the capitalist system, which is inequitable." He
went on to critique Bush and Kerry: "I think both of them are bad. I
think Kerry is actually worse because he gives the illusion that he's
going to do a lot more. Bush has never given that illusion. People
know that he's a friend of big business."

Nothing I have said here is an argument against reaching out to a
wider audience and trying to politicize more people. That's what I
try to do in my own writing and local organizing work, as do
countless other activists. The question isn't whether to reach out,
but with what kind of analysis and arguments. Emotional appeals and
humor have their place; the activists I work with use them. The
question is, where do such appeals lead people?

It is obvious that "Fahrenheit 9/11" taps into many Americans' fear
and/or hatred of Bush and his gang of thugs. Such feelings are
understandable, and I share them. But feelings are not analysis, and
the film's analysis, unfortunately, doesn't go much beyond the
feeling: It's all Bush's fault. That may be appealing to people, but
it's wrong. And it is hard to imagine how a successful anti-empire
movement can be built on this film's analysis unless it is
challenged. Hence, the reason for this essay.

The potential value of Moore's film will be realized only if it is
discussed and critiqued, honestly. Yes, the film is under attack from
the right, for very different reasons than I have raised. But those
attacks shouldn't stop those who consider themselves left,
progressive, liberal, anti-war, anti-empire or just plain pissed-off
from criticizing the film's flaws and limitations. I think my
critique of the film is accurate and relevant. Others may disagree.
The focus of debate should be on the issues raised, with an eye
toward the question of how to build an anti-empire movement. Rallying
around the film can too easily lead to rallying around bad analysis.
Let's instead rally around the struggle for a better world, the
struggle to dismantle the American empire.

Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at
Austin and the author of "Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to
Claim Our Humanity" from City Lights Books.