June 29, 2004

But then disjointed and incoherent is hip these days, right?

I'd like now to make some observations about Michael Moore's Farenheit 9/11 that will be more disjointed and incoherent than I might like because 1) I have actual work to do today and 2) I haven't seen the film yet (not through any resistance; it's just that neither Moore nor Kev has volunteered to come and babysit yet).

As an early critic of Moore, I've been watching the criticism of his new flick pretty closely, and I've noticed a couple of trends that don't reflect particularly well on the critics. Even without having seen the movie, I can see what's wrong with the complaints.

The first trend involves the conflation of a well-established (and appropriate) criticism of Moore -- that he gets his facts wrong -- with a newer, sillier criticism -- that his opinions are wrong. Obviously I don't mean that it's inherently silly to say that a man's opinions are wrong -- by definition everyone's opinions are wrong to someone else -- but numerous writers are casting this as part of the same problem, lumping the whole thing together into one cry of, "you see, Michael Moore still can't be trusted."

There are a lot of examples of this, but here's the first one I could get my hands on. Goldberg calls Moore a liar for his one-sided selection and juxtaposition of images and facts. But that's how an opinionated filmmaker expresses his opinion. It's no different from Paul Bremer's "come to Hillah" speech: a way of saying how he sees the situation in Iraq and why. Neither man is trying to take a fair and balanced look at the situation, they're trying to convince you of something. You may not like that Moore's only images of pre-war Iraq are of boys flying kites, but unless you can show that that footage was actually taken in Mohave, it's no more a lie than pre-war footage on CNN that never showed boys flying kites. And no, I don't think that Iraq under Saddam was all kite-flying fun, and I doubt Moore does either. But it's not inherently improper of him to only show scenes like this because he knows that the other side of the story -- the horrors of Saddam's regime -- are already deeply ingrained in our consciousness. He doesn't need to show them.

A related complaint of Moore's critics this time around (again, here's one example among many) is that Moore's arguments should be dismissed because they're shrill, or because he's given to bufoonish stunts and grandstanding. But while I can sympathize with people who don't enjoy that kind of stuff -- whether from Moore or Rush Limbaugh (as the comparison so often goes) -- making this argument to dismiss F911 is a little disingenous. After all, if the claim is that a Moore-like view of the world is acceptable but only if it's presented calmly, rationally, and with an honest airing of opposing points of view, why aren't these people giving airtime and column-inches to Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, or Arhundati Roy? It seems like what the critics are really saying is that they don't like Moore's style because, unlike that of the dry, academic lefties, it actually gets people's attention.

The second major trend in neo-anti-Mooreism is saying that his claims and assertions -- especially regarding the relationship between Bush and the Saudis -- are contradictory and suggest wrongdoing without proving it. (Cf, Hitchens). This one is trickier for me to comment on without having seen the film, but it seems that what the critics are somewhat ironically doing is condeming Moore for not being a full-fledged conspiracy nut. See, they say, you haven't shown that Bush did X because, behind the scenes, the Saudis did Y.

As Labash complains: "Here, if we're going to play connect-the-dots, a few questions are in order. For starters, are we really supposed to believe that 9/11 and the ensuing wars were a collaborative profiteering scheme between the bin Ladens, the Bushes, and defense contractors? Furthermore, will Moore's DVD director's cut elucidate Bush ties to the Illuminati, the Trilateral Commission, and the Freemasons? Who knows? Who cares? Moore doesn't seem to, as he speedily moves on"

Yes, if only Moore cared about some wack-job conspiracy, it would be so much easier to dismiss him. But he doesn't, and he shouldn't, because the real world doesn't work that way. If his facts about the relationship between the Saudis and US policy are contradictory, it's because that relationship is contradictory. In some instances, on some levels, financial and political ties with the Saudi royal family improperly influence the US, in other cases, those ties cause trouble for the US because it has to cut them. Moore's critics condemn him for not proving some grand, perfectly orchestrated scheme, when (from what I can tell) he's not trying to do that. What he's saying is that it's not a conspiracy, it's a mess -- an ugly mess, in his opinion.

To date I've seen only one serious charge that Moore distorted information -- regarding Saudi flights out of the US post 9/11. The charge originated with Isikoff in Newsweek and has since been repeated elsewhere, despite the fact that Moore has effectively demolished it on his site.

The anti-Moore fanatics have come up with only a couple minor exaggerations and some crazed ranting in their F911 Lies page. (Digression: Moorewatch is also hosting a free download of the film. They think they're being quite clever: Moore claims that he doesn't oppose illegal downloading because he wants to get his message out by any means possible, but we'll just see about that! I link this because I suspect that Moore is actually telling the truth.

In a smart post, Juan Cole does dissect what looks like a big, sloppy (if honest) error that should not have gotten past the fact-checkers, though he does admit that he can't be sure Moore really said what his source thinks he did.

On a better day, I'd have some snappy way to wrap this all up. But I don't.

Update: Richard Goldstein makes much the same point: "Note that none of the facts in Fahrenheit 9/11 are in dispute. What ABC and NBC called into question is Moore's extrapolation and interpretation of information; in other words, his slant. But by using loaded phrases like "truth squad" and "fact or fiction," and by omitting Moore's answers to key questions, these networks did the very thing they accuse him of doing. I would argue that this sort of distortion is far more dangerous in the context of a news broadcast than in a clearly opinionated film."

Goldstein's theory on why Fox went easy on Moore is ludicrous, though: "Rupert Murdoch is covering his ass in case John Kerry wins. For that matter, his news machine doesn't have to prove itself to the Bushies—and besides, an attack from Fox would have easily been dismissed as partisan."

That's three contradictory assertions. If the second one is true (which it is) how does the first one make sense? Somehow going easy on this one story will convince people that Fox is unbiased? And if the third assertion is true, why does Fox bother to attack anything, knowing that it will be "dismissed"?

Posted by Daniel Radosh


Daniel -

Take some time out from jerking around poor Wonkette and get thee to a cinema. I'm sure you'll have much more interesting stuff to say about this once you've actually seen it, and I'm sure I'm not the only one who would be particularly interested in what you think. I, for one, was surprised - after reading plenty of critiques of its veracity - at how good it was and how little the "illogic" here and there had to do with the impact of it.

Twins with fifth disease vs. F 9/11? I think Daniel can be cut some slack for not making it to the theater so promptly.

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