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16.7.04

Ionarts in Paris: More Thoughts on Fahrenheit 9/11

As mentioned yesterday, I saw Fahrenheit 9/11 in Paris, at the legendary Max Linder Panorama (24, bd Poissonière). Given the film's reputation as a full-out attack on the Bush family and the latest war in Iraq, I was worried that Michael Moore had traded in his accustomed irreverent tone for a more serious documentary approach. While there are parts of the movie that are far from funny, I at least was relieved to discover that the Moore voice, which narrates the film, and sense of humor are very much present in his latest work. In fact, I think that Michael Moore may be, in a sense other than the truly literary one, the inheritor of Voltaire and Diderot, who also were remarkably gifted at using over-the-top satire, which can be in the right hands the most powerful political weapon.

I am less concerned than Michelle (see her post from June 26) about the truth of the story Moore is peddling. There are some who think that the film is a starkly realistic portrayal of the Bush administration and its exploits. Indeed, in response to critics of the truthfulness of his movie, Michael Moore has made available online his fact-checking notes for the film. There are others who will spin the film as a biased piece of propaganda (a word, I agree with David Nishimura who wrote so wisely on this at Cronaca, that has little meaning when used by politicians). Big news anchors and news organizations in general are harping on the fact that the movie is not journalism, as if it should be or ever meant to be. This is probably mostly just resentment of the fact that Moore rubs their noses in the error-ridden coverage of the 2000 election, showing big news anchors like Tom Brokaw, Ted Koppel, and Dan Rather admitting the mistake about calling Florida. We also see them, in embedded battle gear gushing about being brought along to play war with the big boys in the desert. Excuse me, but whose coverage is biased?

The "truth" of Moore's film is probably somewhere in between those two opposing views. Anyone who decides to vote in November's election solely on the basis of believing or not believing Moore's film is a fool. It's a movie, and by itself it provides no reason either to run out and become a Democratic activist (the Democrats are heavily criticized by Moore, and rightly so, for their pathetic opposition to the certification of the 2000 election and to the Patriot Act, as well as for actually voting for the Iraq war) or to delay the November election (I read somewhat confusing reports about this while I was in France).

What the film does provide is a list of points that I, at least, needed to remember. The first part of the film brings back to mind how tenuous President Bush's mandate was in the 2000 election. Not that the election was stolen, because one of many possible legitimate processes played out to decide it. This sequence, near the film's opening, is one of the most damning in the film, in my opinion. As I watched the film, I didn't remember this scene happening at all (although there is the coverage on the screen, from C-SPAN), but whether it was not fully reported by the media or whether I had tuned out of the news coverage from post-election fatigue by that point, I can't say. With Vice-President Gore presiding as President of the Senate over a joint session of both legislative houses, representatives from Florida and other states try to voice objections to the certification of the election for George Bush. All they need is to submit the objection in writing and to have the signature of at least one senator, but not one of them can find just a single senator to help them. Any Democrat who really thinks that the election was "stolen" should complain, not to President Bush, but to any Democratic senator, only of one of whom would have had to do nothing but sign his or her name to the numerous objections to the election's certification, brought by mostly African-American congressional representatives.

Elected officials from both sides and most of the electorate, myself included, approach the question of war and its impact in a dishonest way, because the United States now has armed forces comprised solely of volunteers. If military service were mandatory for all young men and women, it would mean that the people who went to fight wars for the United States would represent a much larger percentage of the electorate. This would make our support or opposition to war a much more honest affair. There will be times when we need to wage war, but we would not make such a terrible decision believing that, well, the soldiers signed up for this so I guess it's alright. In one humorous scene, Michael Moore hands out armed forces literature to members of Congress, encouraging them to have their children volunteer to fight in the war that they have all voted to support. Later, in the most tragic sequence in the movie, Moore follows the life of Lila Lipscomb, who encourages young people from disadvantaged backgrounds in Moore's ravaged home town of Flint, Michigan, to join the armed forces. She comes from a military family and is proud that her children have served as well. Then she gets the worst news possible, that her own son has been killed in Iraq. As she reads his last letter, in which he wonders why the hell he is even in Iraq, it's absolutely heartbreaking. This is a patriotic woman, who stands for everything that is good about Americans. When she comes to Washington, she goes to the White House, and a callous woman, who thinks that Moore is staging something, tells her, "Well, you're not the only one. You should blame Al-Qaeda." Whatever you do, please, do not say that combination of words to a mother who has lost her child.

The other area where we have not really been honest is in understanding the impact of the war on Iraqis. The Department of Defense, by embedding reporters as they did, seduced the American media into a very compliant stance. We have not been allowed to see much footage of Iraqi civilians wounded and killed or of Americans, soldiers or civilians, who have been casualties. I thank Michael Moore for remedying that with this film. I needed to see some footage of children playing in Baghdad and of mothers losing children in American "precision bombing" so that the war cannot, in my mind, seem to take place solely on one of those computerized maps you see on the American news networks. War is terrible, and we should always remember that, so that we do not resort to war except when there is no other choice. Unfortunately, the war in Iraq was sold to the American public on the basis of false information.

One thing that Michael Moore does not skewer in the film, which he certainly could have, is how the Bush administration, because of the war in Iraq, has squandered the incredible amount of international good will toward the United States. I imagined a sequence showing first, in the days after September 11, 2001, the band of the Garde Républicaine at the Elysée Palace in Paris, playing the Star-Spangled Banner and Jacques Chirac saying, "Nous sommes tous américains." The scene could be reproduced in some form in most international capitals. The world was on our side. We have not even reached the third anniversary of that horrible day, and we are in a situation that is directly in contrast. Not only has President Bush completely alienated most of the world's population, but by using the September 11 attacks as a justification for the Iraq war (dishonestly, as it turns out), he has turned the events of that day from something deserving sympathy and shared horror to something used callously only to give legitimacy to actions disguised as defensive. See the movie, because it's good, but don't vote based on what you see.

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