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The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad by Fareed Zakaria
Polyarchy by Robert Dahl
The Nazi Seizure of Power by William Sheridan Allen
Terror and Liberalism by Paul Berman
The Moon Is Down by John Steinbeck
So I went and saw Fahrenheit 9/11 last night. It was a horrible film. Obviously not in a cinematic way, but I found his storytelling techniques so irritating and frustrating that for the first time ever, I considered walking out on a movie. It was a troubling movie on several points. One, the movie starts with a tactic stolen straight from the George W. Bush School of Misleading and Suggestive Innuendo: the alleged connection between the Bush family and the bin Laden family. Several days ago Kevin Drum had this to say about the shifty allegorical device Moore uses on the issue:
"Take the first half hour of the film, in which Moore exposes the close relationship between the Bush family and the House of Saud. Sure, it relies mostly on innuendo and imagery, but then again, he never really makes the case anyway. He never flat out says that the Bush family is on the Saudi payroll. Rather, he simply includes "9/11," "Bush," and "Saudi Arabia" in as many sentences as possible, thus leaving the distinct impression that George Bush is a bought and paid for subsidiary of the Saudi royal family.
"Which is all remarkably similar to the tactic Bush himself used to link Saddam Hussein to 9/11. He never flat out blamed Saddam, but rather made sure to include the words "9/11," "Saddam Hussein," and "al-Qaeda" in as many sentences as possible, thus leaving the distinct impression that Saddam had something to do with it."
I find this to be incredibly dishonest. It irritates me to no end when Bush does it and I think it irritates me even more when Moore does it. Why play that game? Why should those who know better bank on the ignorance of the public? The problem with both the Bush administration and Moore is that they both know how to manipulate a largely ignorant public. What bothered me the most in the theatre were the gasps and jeers when something that was suggestive at best was presented as cold hard fact. The entire section about the Bush-Saudi connection was like this.
Then, what bothers me further is how liberal pundits respond to it. In today's New York Times, Paul Krugman:
"There has been much tut-tutting by pundits who complain that the movie, though it has yet to be caught in any major factual errors, uses association and innuendo to create false impressions. Many of these same pundits consider it bad form to make a big fuss about the Bush administration's use of association and innuendo to link the Iraq war to 9/11. Why hold a self-proclaimed polemicist to a higher standard than you hold the president of the United States?"
Krugman clearly misses the point. If we want to end the partisan attacks and innuendo which caters to the lowest common denominator, we can't play that game. We shouldn't have to hold Moore to a higher standard than the president. But that doesn't mean we should let Moore get a free ride.
Moore had a segment in the movie where he pointed to the use of this juxtapositioning of Iraq, Al-Qaeda and September 11 by the Bush administration to prove how dishonest it is. Well duh! But if you do the same thing you're no better!
Other portions of the movie were in the same vein. Moore's underlying technique is to play on the shallow pool of understanding in the public mind. Moore suggestively questions why Secret Service patrol cars are hanging out at the Saudi Embassy in Washington. Why wouldn't they be? Those cars are all over the city. There is nothing unusual about them being between the Watergate and the Saudi Embassy. But of course to Moore this is all part of a vast conspiracy. It is incredibly dishonest.
At the beginning of the movie Moore chastised U.S. senators for not standing up for Al Gore in the 2000 election when members of the Congressional Black Caucus tried to continue the fight for the White House. Of course the reason no senator signed those petitions was because Al Gore didn't want to prolong the process. Gore wanted to bring the country together and not cause a divisive atmosphere. Moore painted the U.S. senate as a cold-hearted body of conspiracy-minded Republicans. Again, very dishonest.
Moore also went to great pains to show Bush at his worst. Of course this was intentional, but nevertheless unfair. He said Bush was on vacation 43% of his first seven months in office. What he doesn't tell you is that this includes weekends and holidays. It is still by far the largest period of vacation by any president in recent times, but is that necessarily an indictment? Even in the movie Bush is shown on "vacation" - meeting with Tony Blair. Is that really vacation? I mean, I might enjoy hanging out with Tony, but you can't really call that a true vacation. Furthermore, today's technology does make it possible to work from virtually anywhere. I have no doubts that the Crawford ranch has all the same amenities as the White House in terms of communications and other necessary tools of running the country. Moore of course showed Bush stumbling while making this point, and while I laughed at that and other Bushisms, the suggestion of Bush being away from the nation's business is a non-starter.
One thing that particularly troubled me was how Moore initially cast the American Soldier in a bad light. He showed servicemen tuning up heavy metal as they went on missions in Iraq - admittedly a questionable thing to do - but he seemed to depicted them in this way to show how uncaring and brutal the military is. Moore fell into the trap so many on the left fall into: he began to blame the soldiers for their mission. He suggested that infantryman Joe was nothing but a trigger-happy moron determined to crush the idyllic peace that was Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
Oh, and that's another thing: The scene with Iraqi children frolicking with kites and women laughing in the streets as they enjoyed their pre-war lives? It was sickening. It seems Moore believes that Iraq was doing just fine under the benevolent genocide of Saddam Hussein. As one of my friends said, "you could actually hear the birds chirping." Now, I'm certainly not one to call anti-war activists just members of "the other side" but I have not yet come up with a reasonable explanation as to why Moore would depict Iraq as a happy, innocent funhouse. That isn't even dishonest, that's straight up lying.
Admittedly Moore does come back and embrace the American soldier and depict him as bait for military recruiters and suggestively, as a pawn of the CEO's who stand to gain from a war, but he does so using the same juxtapositioning which Bush uses. He shows hand-picked soundbytes of corporate kingpins doing their best Montgomery Burns impression. "It'll be good for business, bad for the people," was one quote which stuck out to me when I saw the trailer. In the trailer the clip is used to suggest that the people who the man is talking about are the American people. Then, in the movie it's clear that he's instead talking about the Iraqi people. Quite dishonest. But I'm sure it goes further. I imagine the man was talking about how war is bad for the people initially and how business will stand to gain from the machinery of war-making, but Moore dismisses all this by leaving it hanging - a hang which suggests that the people will forever be screwed by the invasion. This is simply not the case.
A few notes on what I did enjoy about the movie: I thought the section which highlighted the dead soldier's mother was effective and touching. It made a strong point about how little the American public has seen of the costs of the war. Every few days we hear of another two or three soldiers killed in Fallujah or Mosul, but that is usually the extent of it. Few Americans experience the ultimate cost of war. In that respect Moore was effective in sharing the sense of pain with the rest of us. That is something Americans need. If there are no costs to war, there can not be sound decision-making and opinion-making.
I do think that Moore hit some important chords when he highlighted the socioeconomic inequality of today's military. Unfortunately I don't think there is much which can be done about this - a draft is unnecessary and impractical and the military does not want soldiers who do not want to be there - but it is important that the public understand the true nature of the country's sacrifices.
I did enjoy how effectively Moore matched scenes with devastatingly appropriate music. It was timed perfectly. Though I thought the scene was quite deceitful, for Moore to have the lyrics "we see you when you're sleeping" from the a Christmas song play as U.S. troops wave flashlights around the streets of Iraq at night was quite well done.
I also thought the section about underfunding Homeland Security and the lack of cooperation with the 9/11 commission was particularly useful. These are things that I pay attention to, but to hear the gasps and disgust from others in the theatre made me remember that not everyone knows about this kind of thing. If only on that point, the movie did it's job.
However, I was struck by Moore's intentions in the opening scene where the main administration characters were being made up for the cameras. He used unguarded moments to show these officials as fake and, in the case of Wolfowitz, disgusting. But what was the purpose of this section? Why put Bush's face on the screen for a prolonged period of time in slow motion in order to make him look like a moron? It of course achieved its objective, but I think it's goal was nothing short of hate. Moore wanted viewers to concentrate on administration officials and stir their hate. As a friend of mine said after we got out of the movie, "That was like the two minute hate sessions from Orwell's 1984 where people were told to yell and boo traitors and criminals." The similarity is nothing short of frightening.
Ultimately though, what bothered me most about this movie was how effective it was in convincing its viewers that the suggestions and lies were actually cold-hard fact. It is a sad day when both sides of the political spectrum aim for the lowest common emotion in Americans in order to get them to go along with their view. I found Moore to be just as manipulative of the facts as the Bush administration. That is not a pleasant omen for the future of political debate in this country.
It came early. Paul Bremer couldn't even wait two more days before he got out of town. He must have been in a hurry to get away from the dangerous prosperity and freedom that he left behind. Or something.
But seriously, good luck to President Ghazi Yawar, Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and the rest of the interim Iraqi government. They are going to need all the luck and support they can get.