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The Schlemiel as Muckraker

by SAUL LANDAU And FARRAH HASSEN

 

A muckraking shlemiel provides a cinematic case for US regime change. But “Fahrenheit 9/11” goes beyond the predictable anti-Bush screed; it delves into the nature of empire. Like Michael Moore’s earlier documentaries, “Roger and Me” and “Bowling for Columbine,” the new film treats contemporary class conflict at home and abroad. Its heroes, confused working class Americans, try to behave morally in the face of imperial evil.

Moore’s empathetic “documentary” characters evolve as the result of a traumatic social act: in “Roger,” General Motors closes eleven auto plants in Flint, Michigan, which brings consciousness or depression to those who lose jobs, stability, marriages; the high school shootings in Littleton, Colorado inspire two of permanently disabled Columbine students to confront the hidden hand behind gun violence; in “Fahrenheit,” Moore introduces Lila Lipscomb, a flag waving, conservative Democrat whose life personifies the bumper sticker line, “Bush Lied, My Son Died.”

Dead and wounded soldiers, victims of the Bushies’ lies in Iraq, emerge as foreign policy equivalents of the victims of General Motors’ irresponsibility in Michigan. Roger, the first name of GM CEO Roger Smith, offers empty euphemisms and platitudes to justify his profit seeking.

Using the pretext of reaching Roger, so the CEO can witness the results of his decision on the community, Moore returns to his hometown, Flint, to explore the lives of the newly unemployed coping with job loss and escalating crime–provoked by the obliteration of the city’s infrastructure. A GM lobbyist matter-of-factly explains that Smith had to move the plants to Mexico because it was “cost effective” — low wages and unenforceable labor and environmental standards. Hey, corporations can’t afford sentimentality. Remember, GM’s obligation to stockholders outstrips any duties the corporation might have toward large communities! And Roger got a multi million dollar raise for making the move!

“Bowling” targets another major corporation, Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest weapons manufacturer located, ironically, near Columbine High. Lockheed provided the Pentagon with lethal weapons while serving as Littleton’s biggest employer. Homicidal violence in American life, the film suggests, parallels US actions abroad. Guns, Moore shows, are equally accessible in peaceful Canada, which does not share either the imperial institutions or the cruel racial past maintained by violence.

In “Fahrenheit 9/11,” Moore communicates a sense of urgency as he punctures the aura of “smoke ’em out” George as well as the carefully crafted “protect America” patina that the military has elaborated as it institutionalized and inflated itself in the post World War II decades. His footage on Iraq recalls what the networks aired during the Vietnam War and now seem frightened to exhibit: a US killing machine and lots of gruesome shots of dead and wounded GIs. “Fahrenheit” shows troops in Iraq preparing to “kill the enemy” by listening to lyrics screaming, “Burn, motherfucker.”

And it shows the faces of the young victims, dead and wounded who enlisted, the poor and minority men and women who comprise the lower ranks of the armed forces. The “support our troops” slogan rings hollow when they return home without assistance for their needs in education, health care or employment. The film exposes Bush’s priorities: young people join the army because it’s the only way to pay for college–like Lila Lipscomb’s son.

In Iraq, the young soldiers, presumably like Lila’s son, a good natured and moral person, act like brutes and occupiers–in the name of doing their duty, following orders, liberating Iraq.

These young people don’t necessarily seek the military; the military looks for them. Moore follows two recruiters cynically pitching in “poor shopping areas,” with a ubiquitous Wal-Mart, trying to enlist poor black youths for lethal combat much as they do in high schools. These well-groomed, uniformed hucksters sell professional killing as “career opportunities.” What really happens to those who fight becomes clear when the camera enters a ward in the Walter Reed Army Hospital.

The wounded don’t make the evening news, but they stoically try to manage without arms, legs or eyes. In Iraq, images flash of innocent dead and wounded civilians– equally absent from TV news.

“Fahrenheit” demands that people understand the behavior of Bush as President and his criminally fraudulent case for the Iraqi invasion in order to throw him out of office in November. Moore implies a sinister connection between the Bush and Saudi royal families to an extent that actually colored the Administration’s response to 9/11.

The media reported, without concluding, the mysterious exodus of Saudis, including members of the bin Laden family, immediately following the dastardly September deeds. Moore gets a former FBI agent to describe such behavior as downright irresponsible. The FBI knew that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals and that bin Laden was the key suspect. Obviously, members of his family, however innocent, would surely have known something that could have helped find the chief conspirator.

Using juxtaposition of images with mood inducing music to mold emotions, Moore maintains the audience. All films employ emotional manipulation, not book logic, to make their point. Imagine Moore trying to talk about the significance of the neo-con Project for a New American Century that prioritized Iraqi regime change. Yawn!

“Fahrenheit” begins by presenting the President as a privileged jerk who set a record for vacation taking, a man both absent-minded and downright absent. “I call upon all nations to do everything they can to stop these terrorist killers. Thank you.” Then, Bush turns and strokes a golf ball: “Now watch this drive.”

The persona that White House spinners fed the media after 9/11 was of Bush as the fearless commander. In contrast, Moore shows Bush after receiving news of the 9/11 attacks as dazed and confused. The President looks lost while trying to follow the story line of “My Pet Goat,” which he was reading to second grade Florida students. Seven minutes tick by as the Chief executive holds the oversized picture book. Chaos, death and destruction envelope lower Manhattan while a hijacking pilot of the third plane aims for the Pentagon.

Moore’s quiet but tendentious narration leads the public to conclusions. He clearly does not rely on the audience’s own intelligence. Like Hollywood producers, Moore seems to assume that mainstream America, battered by mass media’s shotgun pellets of trivia, has become befuddled.

In the film, Moore skewers the media for their absence and their toadying. Some networks that dropped their investigative ball after 9/11 now question facts and motives behind “Fahrenheit.” On CBS’ “The Early Show” (June 25, 2004), Hannah Storm piously intoned: “the one thing that journalists try to do is to present both sides of the story, and it could be argued that you did not do that in this movie.”

“My side,” Moore responded, “the side of millions of Americans, rarely gets told. Why don’t you ask them [the Administration] the hard questions?” Storm had no answer.

“Fahrenheit’s” message and its surrounding publicity, has begun to resonate. At a Covina, California local hair salon, where chatting usually involves the latest diet trends, love lives of celebrities, or the unfulfilling sex lives of hair stylists and clients alike, the talk has turned to Bush and his failings.

At the AMC theater in Covina and the Edwards in West Covina, a mix of Latinos, Arabs, Chinese and Caucasians applauded at the end. In one Oakland, California theater, the owner announced he would not enforce the R rating. Teenagers flocked to see the film.

Did Moore convince them that the Bush family colluded with the corrupt Saudi monarchy and the bin Laden family? Did the shots of Bushies shaking hands with Crown Prince Abdullah establish guilt by association? The close ups of dark-skinned Saudi princes juxtaposed with a public beheading in Saudi Arabia certainly reinforce the Hollywood black hat image. The Saudi focus also lets Moore off the hook on the more politically cantankerous subject of Israel, a missing ingredient in the “Fahrenheit” script.

But he does not compromise on the issue of class. Indeed, he screams about the failure of Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” to reach the pockets of the jobless and uninsured poor. The real Bush, with his characteristic shit-eating grin, extols the white tie set at a fundraising dinner. “Here we have the haves and the have-mores,” he quips. “Some people call you the elite. I call you my base.” Yes, Bush is the progeny of this parasitic class and from them he derives his destructive “vision” of power.

Moore appears in his documentaries as the polar opposite of Bush, obese and unshaven–or is that a beard? This non-celebrity needs a tailor. Feigning innocence and sometimes righteousness, this self-proclaimed member of the oppressed class has made Time magazine’s cover. This shameless self-promoter–is there any other way to generate publicity?–has also made mass box office hits on the core issues of capitalism: class war, racism, violence–the ingredients of empire.

At a time when poor and minorities have no clear political representation, Michael Moore emerges–in all his imperfections–to articulate their grievances and steer them toward meaningful politics.

Farrah Hassen graduated from Cal Poly Pomona University.

Saul Landau is the Director of Digital Media and International Outreach Programs for the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences. His new book is The Business of America.

An Informal Rejoinder to Jensen on F9/11 Moore Has Done Us a Service; More Must be Done

By VIJAY PRASHAD

Robert Jensen’s review of F9/11 irritated me. It seems to have missed the wood from the trees. There is the phenomenon of F9/11 which deserves comment — those who see the movie are not only seeing what Moore has edited for us, but many have been going for an experience, as an act of rebellion against the warfare culture, as a way to have conversations with relatives and friends whom one might take along, etc. (this, as far as press reports are concerned, and many are on michael moore’s own website). The movie enables and provokes a wider set of discussions and debates. What is in the movie, then, should not be judged only for what it is, but for what it enables. Jensen does not get this.

Jensen makes much of the racism in the movie: that South Asians and Arabs are not part of the frame when Moore discusses the Patriot Act. This is so. But the lack of discussion on South Asians and Arabs by Moore should not take away from the fact that the heart of the movie is in three places, all of them with much to say about race and racism:

(1) The opening, when the Black Congressional Caucus and one Asian representative rebuke the all-white Senate for failing to challenge the SC’s delivery of the presidency to GWB. This is a powerful scene, and it will make everyone recognize the strength of the Black-Asian voice in the House, and the racist cowardice of the Senate (which is basically an old-boys club). If Barack Obama wins, I wonder if he will be able to do anything there.

(2) The strong presence of Iraqis in the movie, notably the grandmother who grieves powerfully for the loss of a part of her family. She is the one who cries out for revenge as the last act of those who have been rendered helpless in the face of such state terror. This woman is the Iraqi version of Lila Lipscomb, of whom more below.

(3) Lila Lipscomb anchors this movie. She is a polycultural woman, of the working-class, with all the powerful contradictions of life in that sphere of America. Her honesty and forthrightness not only silence Moore (a fact that has been much related in the media coverage), but it also shows us the complexities of belief among people whose name the left often speaks.

Rather than take out Moore’s movie, it might be more useful to add to his framework. Here are two supplements to the opening section that might have enriched the film, and that do extend Moore’s rather limited analysis of capitalism:

(1) The political economy of the Ibn Saud-Multinational Oil Firm-Pentagon-Wall Street relationship. Moore relies upon the familial relationship between the Bushes and the Al-Saud clan to personalize or to dramatize the nexus between the monarchs of the peninsula, the multinational oil firms (mainly of US origin), the US military (and its contractors, such as United Defense — the Carlyle Group), and Wall Street (or global finance). For a documentary, the personal story makes certain abstract connections very compelling — it brings the abstractions to life with a concrete, made for television example. The documentaries from Media Education Foundation on sexism and on media criticism are able to be very didactic and successful — but they were geared to the classroom and not a mass audience. Documentaries that tend to go for a mass audience use the personal story to illustrate or illuminate the broader connections. One way to have intimated the broader contradictions would have been to have mentioned the report that Saddam Hussein had been trying to get his OPEC partners to shift their oil profits from Dollars to Euros. Such a move would have threatened the financial stability of the Dollar, hence the Dollar-Wall Street Complex (so well analyzed by Peter Gowan in Global Gamble). Moore could have even talked to a mainstream analyst at the Cambridge Energy Associates who, if they hewed close to the facts, would have told him that yes, there has been informal discussion in OPEC to consider such a move; and he could have spoken to a mainstream currency broker who would have said that such a move would have had grave effects for the US economy. That might have shown how integral the Saudi holdings of T-Bills is to the “stability” of the financial architecture.

(2) The destruction of the Saudi Left. Since Moore continued to talk of the Al-Saud clan as the “Saudis” he gave the very mistaken impression that all Saudis benefit from the actions of this undemocratic regime. He could have had a very short quote from someone like Fred Halliday, or any number of Saudi intellectuals who would have told him that the oil lands were once home to a vibrant left, that state repression by the monarchy destroyed enlightened groups such as the Arabian Peninsula People’s Union and Voice of the Vanguard, and that one of the instruments for the counter-revolution via a very intolerant brand of “Islam” was the creation, with CIA support, of the Rabitat al-Alam al-Islami, the World Muslim Congress. He treated “Saudis” as a monolith, had one too many images of the grotesque Al-Saud family fawning on Bush Senior, and an image of men at prayer — all without any other Saudi voice, so as to show that it is a society in ferment, with disagreement, and that state repression by the US (and ARAMCO, the oil monopoly) contributed to the barrenness of the left in the region. The details for this will be in my next book, The Rise and Fall of the Third World (New Press, forthcoming in the Spring of 2005).

I enjoyed Fahrenheit 9/11, and found it to be a very valuable op-ed in these times of corporate media strangulation of many of the basic ‘facts’ of our contemporary history. Moore has done us a good service. There is much more to do be done. So let’s do it.

Vijay Prashad teaches at Trinity College, Hartford, CT. His latest book is Keeping Up with the Dow Joneses: Debt, Prison, Workfare (Boston: South End Press). He also contributes a chilling essay on prisons and poverty in CounterPunch’s forthcoming book, A Dime’s Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils.

A Screening in a Working Class Town
A Contrarian Review of F9/11

By DAVE LINDORFF

As someone who has frequently been a harsh critic of Michael Moore, I have to say I tip my hat to him for his film “Fahrenheit 9-11.”

Leftists who saw the film at early showings in New York City, or in some suburban mall or college town, where most of the audiences tent do be composed of middle class liberals, might be tempted to dismiss the film’s appeal as being a sop to liberal sensitivities.

I, however, was sitting in an urban theater in working-class Ambler, PA. In the theater with me were a mix of some middle-class liberals, teenage kids and working people of all races.

The response to the documentary in that theater was simply staggering. People-ordinary people who work for hourly wages, punch time cards and who may even have voted for Bush in 2000–were laughing uproariously at the images of Bush staring dumbly into space after being informed of the attacks on the Trade Center towers, groaning and laughing as Bush told a group of assembled business leaders that they were his “base,” and applauding wildly during the film’s credits.

But what really gripped the Ambler theatergoers was the part of Moore’s film where he interviewed troops in Iraq-both those that showed young men dehumanized to the point that they were killing to taped rock music, and those that showed troubled soldiers distraught that they were killing innocents and fighting and risking their lives for no discernable purpose. They were also gripped, as was I, by the images of a distraught Iraqi grandmother cursing America and bewailing the loss of a household of her relatives to an American bomb, and of a Flint mother who had lost her soldier son.

Equally powerful, and clearly troubling to those in the Ambler Theater around me, who expressed their disgust and dismay loudly, and almost involuntarily, were the scenes of bloody carnage, especially the shattered Iraqi children.

Whatever complaints one might have about things that Moore did or didn’t do in this film-he didn’t delve deeply enough into Bush’s AWOL record in the National Guard, he didn’t touch on Israel’s role in promoting the Iraq war or in helping train U.S. forces during the occupation, and he didn’t say much of anything about the Democrats’ complicity in the invasion and in the so-called “War on Terror” and the Patriot Act assault on the Bill of Rights-this is a powerful film.

It’s a powerful film for what it does do, and that is to show mainstream America for the first time the real horrors of this war. It shows clearly how it is the children of the working class who are being asked to fight this war on behalf of a corporate elite that President Bush declared to be “my base.” It shows, graphically, the corporate feeding frenzy to make money out of Iraq’s misery. And it shows how the poor in America, in run-down cities like Moore’s native Flint, Michigan, are being left to rot while Washington spends hundreds of billions fighting for corporate interests in the Middle East.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, this film has to be worth 1000 words per frame-certainly 1000 words in any mainstream corporate newspaper or read from the teleprompter of any corporate TV “news” anchor– and Moore is to be commended for producing it, even if it does make him filthy rich.

We don’t live in a perfect world, and given the extent to which our mass media have become little more than state organs for the purveyance of official government propaganda, this documentary, which is reportedly reaching deep into the heartland of America and garnering tremendous support, is about as good as it’s going to get. To criticize this film because it doesn’t go beyond an exposé of the Bush administration to deconstruct the evils of the U.S capitalist system is what Lenin might have called infantile leftism.

There are films like that being made, but they don’t run in the local Cineplex, which is the point. Besides, I suspect that most of the ordinary working-class people watching this film have anough common sense to realize that it’s not just Republicans who are calling American corporate leaders their “base” in private.

While it’s fair and appropriate to critique Moore and his film, and to call attention to its mistakes and omissions, I think we on the left should at the same time acknowledge the importance of such a powerful anti-war, anti-corporate message–one which is reaching more ordinary Americans than any other I can think of.

For my part, I’m recommending it ­warts and all–to everyone I meet.

Dave Lindorff is the author of Killing Time: an Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. His new book of CounterPunch columns titled “This Can’t be Happening!” to be published this fall by Common Courage Press. Information about both books and other work by Lindorff can be found at www.thiscantbehappening.net.

He can be reached at: dlindorff@yahoo.com

 

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