Wednesday, July 7, 2004
Fahrenheit 9/11 -- An Exemplar of the “Bread and Circuses” Politics It Condemns
Stephen P. Dresch
[Author's Note: This is the original, submitted version of "'F-9/11' deft combination of propaganda, poor man's, art," The Daily Mining Gazette, Houghton Michigan, Saturday/Sunday, July 10/11, 2004, Page 5A. Changes in the published version (and its title), made by the editors of the paper, were not authorized by the author.]
Exiting, in a rather angry mood, into the cold early-evening rain last Sunday after seeing Fahrenheit 9/11, a quotation from Pablo Picasso came insistently to mind: “We all know that art is not truth. Art is the lie that makes us realize truth -- at least the truth that is given to us to understand.” (My thanks to Professor K. I. Pelc for long ago bringing that quote to my attention.)
Moore’s well-documented inaccuracies, distortions, unsubstantiated allegations, nontrivial inconsistencies and biases certainly justify the characterization of Fahrenheit 9/11 as a lie; for a thorough but fundamentally fair critique see Christopher Hitchens, “Unfairenheit 9/11: The lies of Michael Moore,” Slate, June 21, 2004.
If the film had been presented as a Ph.D. dissertation, or even an undergraduate term paper, in history or political science, it would rightly warrant a failing grade (although, given the deplorable decline in standards at all levels of American education, it might well have passed -- in fact, it is not unlikely that some some benighted institution will award Moore a degree, honorary or even earned, not in art but in one of these ostensibly more confining “disciplines”).
If it were presented as “objective” journalism, it would justify contempt comparable to that expressed by thoughtful (largely foreign) observers for the oxymoronic “embedded journalism” -- embedded not only with the military but also the White House, the Department of Defense, the Department of Justice, das Abteilung der Heimatsicherheit (errr, I mean, the Department of Homeland Security), ... -- which has come to dominate the American media since September 11, 2001, and was all too prevalent earlier.
In short, if Moore is presenting us with a work of cinematic scholarship or journalism, then we can simply write off Fahrenheit 9/11 as fundamentally fraudulent.
But, standing in the rain with the Picasso quote gnawing at my brain, I realized that, intentionally or unintentionally, Moore may have produced something quite different than a work of scholarship or journalism, that an evaluation of Fahrenheit 9/11 required determining what this “something else” might be.
My angry mood gave me my first clue: Despite its undeniably serious flaws Fahrenheit 9/11 ultimately paints what impresses me as an astonishingly insightful portrait of the Bush regime -- one of the unbridled mendacity and venality of a dubiously distinguished, superficial claque (Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Ashcroft, Ridge, Powell, Rice, ..., oh, and, yes, of course, G. W. Bush himself) convinced of its own importance and devoted primarily to the selfaggrandizing perpetuation of its power. Moreover, the otherwise fatal flaws of Fahrenheit 9/11 contribute significantly to the vividness of this portrait of a fundamentally corrupted regime.
If, then, “art is the lie that makes us realize truth,” I wondered, should I recognize Fahrenheit 9/11 as a perhaps-minor masterpiece of cinematic art? But then I recalled Picasso’s final qualification, “at least the truth that is given to us to understand.” Does Fahrenheit 9/11 help us “realize ... the truth that is given to us to understand,” or does it lead us to recognize only a part of that truth? Worse, does it purposefully divert us from realizing that larger truth? If so, Fahrenheit 9/11 is not art but propaganda,
And here I recognized the other source of the angry mood in which I left the theater: As fundamentally accurate as is Moore’s portrait of the Bush regime, he clearly intended the audience to believe that this portrait would not have applied if Al Gore had been elected/selected/annointed president in 2000. Nothing could be further from the truth. Fahrenheit 9/11 descended from art to propaganda when its vivid portrait of a fundamentally corrupted regime intentionally diverted attention from the much more serious truth of a fundamentally corrupted and selfperpetuating governing class.
Space does not permit the documentation of the innumerable less-than-admirable special interests for which Gore flacked in his fevered pursuit of political success. And, as with Bush, there is an intergenerational dimension to the Gore story: The wealth of his father, Senator Albert Gore, Sr., derived largely from his role as political-water-carrier for Armand Hammer, whose wealth, in turn, derived from his close and mutually-rewarding relationship with V. I. Lenin, Joseph Stalin and their Soviet successors.
Fahrenheit 9/11 would have achieved the status of art if it had paralleled the fundamentally corrupted Bush and Clinton regimes. For only a few examples, equally graphic film footage could have depicted:
Arriving in Lansing in January 1991 [as a newly-elected member of the Michigan House of Representatives], in the wake of a particularly bruising gubernatorial election, in which candidates Blanchard and Engler appeared to personally detest each other (all the while working closely, behind closed doors, to divide the spoils), my first discovery was that partisan politics constitutes primarily “bread and circuses” for the masses.
If Moore had produced a “lie” which aided the masses to understand THAT truth, Fahrenheit 9/11 would be a work of valuable art rather than a deceptive piece of “bread and circuses” propaganda. On the other hand, if Moore isn’t bright enough to have been “given to understand” that truth, perhaps Fahrenheit 9/ll is at least a minor work of art nonetheless.
Postscript: It is difficult to imagine that anyone in a previous or future regime will match Paul Wolfowitz for the number of people whose DNA would be found embedded in his (or her) hair.
Last updated 11.7.2004