Preposterous Universe

Thursday, July 01, 2004
761 Kelvin

It's generally a good idea to hold people who are on our side to higher, rather than lower, standards than people to whom we are opposed. That is why, for example, prisoner abuses by our own soldiers are upsetting in a different way than equivalent actions by terrorists would be (not that either are okay).

And that's why I didn't think much of Fahrenheit 9/11. I should say that it did live up to my expectations, which weren't that high. Michael Moore is a talented polemicist and agitator, but also someone who is perfectly willing to use cheap ploys and judicious editing to create an emotional impact rather than a reasoned argument.

Moore has an overarching idea that colors everything he does: the conflict between the heroic genius of the virtuous working classes against the self-interested venality of the wealthy. As a result, the first half of the movie concentrates on an issue that is interesting but by no means central: the close connections between the Bush family and the Saudi ruling classes. (See also comments at Crooked Timber, Majikthise and uggabugga.)The connections are real, and worrisome; but even in the context of the movie it is not exactly clear what we are supposed to be concluding from the existence of the relationship. The movie would have been much better if it had concentrated on the war in Iraq and how it could ultimately prove disastrously counterproductive in the fight against terror, but this topic is sacrificed to concentrate on images of Prince Bandar and the Saudi embassy. Furthermore, Moore's singlemindedness prohibits him from appreciating that there were multiple reasons for turning to Iraq; many people in the administration were actually idealistic about the opportunity to establish democracy in the Middle East. They might have been crazy, but the reasons for the Iraq war stretch well beyond the straightforward desire for increased oil revenues.

As far as technique is concerned, Moore has never met a theatrical stunt or piece of sentimental melodrama that he didn't like. Concerned that members of Congress haven't closely studied their own Patriot Act? Drive around in an ice-cream truck reading it out loud. The second half of the movie is driven by interviews with a Michigan woman whose son has been killed in the war. We get pictures of her crying, talking proudly about the military service in her family, worrying about job prospects for the youth of her community, and being dragged to the White House to cry again. From this I think we are supposed to understand that war is hell. I don't see how this should be any more persuasive about the failure of our Iraq policy than interviews with the family of victims of accused murderers should sway our opinion of the death penalty.

Unlike some of my fellow liberals, I do not think that these manipulative rhetorical devices are okay when deployed in the service of liberalism because we all know that conservatives do much worse (an extension of the Lieberman doctrine that the U.S. can do nothing wrong since the terrorists were much worse). This judgment flows from a dramatic new ethical theory I have just now developed, called "two wrongs don't make a right." As has been pointed out elsewhere, Moore's movies are like strident political cartoons; they can make you laugh and feel better if you are predisposed to agreeing with their point of view, but they'll never convince you of anything. Which is too bad, since I'm sure there is plenty of good material out there to make a compelling documentary that sets out well-reasoned objections to our current misadventures. Or is that asking too much?

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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