Turning Up The Heat
Fahrenheit 9/11 is the new film by Michael Moore and has attracted a not inconsiderable amount of controversy. It has been lambasted by the right who see it as an unfair, inaccurate, partisan attack on George Bush. Disney, who owned the film's original distributor Miramax, even made noises about preventing its release. None of this is likely to be news, however, to anyone not being held incommunicado in an "undisclosed location" as it's been all over the media. Less well publicised have been the criticisms from those on the left. The film is clearly not short of critics then. But as with all such works you can't really have an opinion without seeing it yourself and so your intrepid reporter went along to see it.
It is probably worth noting from the start that I am a fan of Michael Moore's previous works and this will no doubt influence anything I have to say. Bowling For Columbine was a fascinating wander through American gun culture, while his previous film Roger & Me, is in my opinion even better. While Bowling... takes a scattergun approach to a widespread problem, Roger & Me feels more focused. It consists of an examination of the social problems which resulted when General Motors (GM) closed down factories in Moore's hometown Flint, Michigan leading to major unemployment and much of the film is taken up with Moore's attempts to meet GM CEO Roger Smith (hence the title) who he holds responsible.
Fahrenheit 9/11 has more of the focus of Roger & Me, being targeted primarily against the Bush Administration, but takes in much more that film, moving from Florida to Flint to Iraq and then on to Washington. It is also noticeable that it has a much stronger message than Bowling For Columbine. While that film examined the effects of gun culture in the States it didn't seem to have a message as such (apart perhaps from move to Canada!). Fahrenheit 9/11 makes no secret of it's agenda: to get Bush out of the White House.
The film begins by looking at the way Bush stole the 2000 election with the help of his first-cousin at Fox News, the removal of black voters from the register, the head of his campaign in Florida Katherine Harris, who certified the vote and his "daddy's friends" in the Supreme Court. In my opinion this is the weakest part of the film because it's dealt with too quickly. I doubt whether it would be very convincing to those to still believe that Bush did in fact get the most votes in Florida in 2000 (which a subsequent recount, buried in the aftermath of 9/11, confirmed he in fact hadn't). He deals with the issue much better in Stupid White Men (Regan Books, New York, 2001, pp. 3-16). However the footage, which I previously hadn't seen, of Congressional Black Caucasus members attempting to object to the disenfranchisement of black voters and the theft of the election, but unable to find senators to sign their objections was a damning indictment of the American system.
Having taken power Bush then proceeded to spend forty-two per-cent of the next eight months on vacation. Moore shows us footage of Bush playing golf, digging holes and playing with his dogs. This does show a human side to a man who has become something of a pantomime villain in recent times, but you also have to wonder if perhaps, just maybe, he should be running the country. Of course, his extended vacation was brought to an abrupt halt by the events of September 11th.
Moore's handling of the terrorist attacks of that day is powerful and imaginative. Rather than showing shots of the planes striking the towers and their subsequent collapse, which we have seen so many times, perhaps becoming immune to them, he focuses on the human side and those involved. He begins this sequence with a black screen. We hear the planes crash, followed by screams and shouts. He cuts to shots of various people looking up, the expressions on their faces saying more than narration ever could. We see people shocked by the horror of the events, pictures of missing family members, friends and loved ones and papers floating in the air.
While all this was happening in New York (and, of course, Washington) Bush was at a school in Florida. He was informed of the first attack, but decided to go ahead with his photo opportunity anyway. Part way through the lesson he is informed of the second tower being hit and told that the US is under attack. His response? Without anyone telling him what to do or whisking him away he just sits there. For seven minutes. What was he thinking Moore ponders? Perhaps that his relationship with the Saudis may come back to haunt him.
Moore reveals how many including several members of the Bin Laden family were whisked out of the country after September 11th while other planes were grounded and argues that this was, at least in part, because of the extensive links between the Bush family and various powerful Saudis. He proceeds to set these links out in some detail. This section of the film is fascinating, but also slightly lacking. Certainly key members of the Bush Administration and family had a relationship with the Saudis, but as Robert Jensen notes (in an article which the movie),
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. (Z-Net, 5/7/04)Saudi business dealings in the US go far beyond the Bushs, the film suggests that they may amount to an investment of $860 billion which is "roughly six or seven percent of America." It seems fair to ask if Gore would have acted any differently in the same situation. Of course we shall never know, although Jensen's conclusion that he would have done much the same seems credible.
Moore next takes on the war in Afghanistan, which he insinuates was not taken seriously by an administration more interested in Iraq. He does suggest however that the building of a pipeline through the country was a major factor. I am unconvinced by this line of argument, certainly it was a factor and it looks like the pipeline may well be built, but a war for a single pipeline? The key issue was credibility, both because the US had come under attack and those in government felt the need to reassert their power and because they could not simply launch an attack against Iraq as they might like to because it was clear that the attack had been carried out by groups based in Afghanistan and there was no credible evidence of a link between Al-Qaeda and Saddam. In my opinion Moore makes a mistake at this point having counterterrorism official Richard Clarke complaining that the Bush administration's action in Afghanistan was "slow and small", without further comment by Moore. Are we to conclude that it should instead have been fast and large, regardless of the consequences for the already stricken Afghan population?
The film then turns to homeland security. Moore's points out that the US Government were perfectly happy to pass legislation in the form of the PATRIOT Act (which apparently almost no-one had read) which would take away citizen's rights, but had not taken various basic steps to make the US any safer. While peace groups and ageing weight lifters are targeted by the FBI and police as potential terrorists, budget cutbacks mean there are only eight state troopers (state police officers not assigned to towns) on duty in the whole state of Oregon on some nights. Even worse, people are still allowed to take four boxes of matches and two butane lighters onto a plane, apparently because of pressure from cigarette companies keen to ensure that passengers can light up as soon as they land.
At this point Moore turns to Iraq. He shows how the US operates a 'poverty draft' encouraging those from communities destroyed by the impact of capitalism to enlist in the army and defend the very system which has made them destitute. The sight of two marine recruiters in full dress uniforms wandering around the car park of a local superstore (not, Moore emphasises the middle-class one in the suburbs) is slightly comical, but also horrific when you consider that many of the kids they are recruiting could be sent of to kill or even die in Iraq at some point in the not-to-distant future.
One of the most striking aspects of the film is the footage Moore has been able to get from Iraq. We see tank crews explain how they like to listen to nu-metal during combat, listing Drowning Pool's Bodies (key lyric: "Let the bodies hit the floor") as a particular favourite. He also shows soldiers humiliating Iraqi they have apparently just captured. One reviewer remarked that this was redundant after the Abu Ghraib photos, however quite the opposite is true. The footage serves to demonstrate how routine and widespread such abuses are. They are, unfortunately, far more than the actions of a "few bad apples". As I've commented before and as Moore suggests when he notes that "immorality breeds immorality", it's not just the fruit that's rotten, but the basket their kept in. We also see US troops bursting into an Iraqi family's house to arrest a male living their. They terrify his family and force him to lie facedown on the floor, a scene intercut with a solider pondering why Iraqis don't appreciate the US's benevolence, something he is apparently incapable of understanding.
One of the problems I have with this part of the film is that it tends to focus more on the effects of the war on US soldiers than on Iraqis who have suffered far, far worse. It was after all their country which was invaded. Iraq Body Count currently calculates that the number of civilians reported killed as a result of military intervention in the country is somewhere between 11,164-13,118. The total numbers killed is likely to be much higher. Not that Moore doesn't show the horrific realities of "collateral damage", but somehow it feels as though this is a secondary concern to the deaths of US troops.
Another criticism I have is, as with the Saudi issue, the lack of context. It would be easy to forget, while watching the film, that the US and UK had been torturing Iraq since the First Gulf War. This took the form of a sanctions regime which may have killed as many as 1.5 million people, most of them children and bombings which continued for years with little or no media coverage in the wider world. Much of this happened under Clinton who conceded recently that the policy "wasn't so great for the Iraqis", something of an understatement. The policies taken by various administrations must also be viewed in the light of US policy in the Middle East since the Second World War which has been to maintain control over the region’s invaluable oil reserves, usually by proxy alongside the wider US policy of preventing the emergence of ‘nationalist’ regimes which try to go it alone rather than take their proper place in the US dominated global system.
Broadly I liked the film, it is not without it's flaws. I have noted my concerns about those things it did address, but one can also think of much that it missed out, the Israeli-US relationship and Christian Fundamentalism the US being only two of the most obvious. Nonetheless there is only so much which can be fitted into one film and it does raise questions about many issues the corporate media, obsequious as ever, has gone out of its way to avoid. For this it is to be praised, even where I disagree about some of the conclusions it draws.
Moore has expressed his hope that the film will inspire people to action, and I agree that this would be a positive development. Nonetheless the action which seems to be suggested is, in my opinion of limited value. The film's message, such as it is, seems to be best encapsulated by one solider, who was injured in Iraq, who notes that he was formerly a Republican, but will now campaign vigorously for the Democrats. Now don't get me wrong, I hate Bush as much as the next guy and he has been an awful president. The arguments for removing him from power are compelling. It is true that he represents a particularly extreme section of the elite policy spectrum (although the differences between him and Kerry are likely to be more obvious in the domestic than the foreign policy arena), but the spectrum is limited. Additionally a movement to get Kerry into office isn't really sustainable in the long term. What happens if and when he's elected? Perhaps ironically Barry Reingold, who appears in the film recounting how he was visited by the FBI after comments he made at the local gym were passed onto the Bureau, has made this very point: "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 continued, "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."
Encouraging people to have illusions about the Democrats is, I believe, a serious mistake. Most Democrats supported the war, including Kerry and Edwards whose "solution" to the crisis in Iraq is to send more troops. As I've said before, the best hope for peace and stability, let alone democracy, in Iraq is a complete withdrawal of the occupying forces, perhaps with a limited UN and/or Arab peacekeeping force taking over some of their roles, where necessary. More troops means more chance for conflict, more targets for insurgents, more deaths on both sides, more resentment with very little to show for it.
It would be fair at this point for an American to interject that none of this is really my business. It is for my American comrades to deal with the fallout from the film in their own country and this is quite true. The film raises more complicated questions about potential responses for activists outside the US. It would be easy to be smug about the fact that Bush isn't our president and conclude that we needn't do anything. Indeed many people who see the film may draw this very conclusion. This is a particularly pressing problem in the UK which was and remains the only serious member of the "coalition" other than the US. Focusing too heavily on Bush may encourage people to forget that Blair was just as keen on going to war as his American counterpart, all the nonsense about him being a restraining influence aside. It is unfortunate that Fahrenheit 9/11 does not devote more time to Blair, although this is a shortcoming Moore is aware of. Apparently leaving the British PM out of the film was a tough decision. Moore has remarked, "I personally hold Blair more responsible for this war than I do George Bush. The reason is, Blair knows better. Blair is not an idiot. What is he doing hanging around this guy?" For this reason he is reportedly considering making a film about Blair and the UK's role in the war.
The film has fuelled a debate on the morality of the war and this is something we should use to our advantage. It has reached out to hundreds of thousands of people, all potential recruits for a movement which could effect real change. Such a movement would not concern itself primarily with electoral victories, although this could form an element of its work. Instead it would set itself the task of confronting and dismantling the US Empire, of which Bush is merely the latest incarnation, challenging those national leaders who support it and ultimately tackling the global capitalist system on which it rests. This will not be easy and perhaps I'm getting carried away, but I sincerely hope that the huge numbers of people who see this film are inspired to do more than simply put a cross in one or another box. For the sake of the human race.