Missing the anti-war movement in Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11
By Joseph G. Ramsey
Fahrenheit 9/11 is an entertaining and moving film, one which raises crucial concerns about the inequities of US capitalism, the human costs of US militarism, and the propagandistic nature of US media and government. Unfortunately, however, the movie fails to develop its radical "moments" into a coherent critique of US imperialism. Focusing almost exclusively on the "exceptional" Bush administration, the film ignores the continuities of US imperialist motivation and method in dealing with Iraq, the Middle East, and the world since World War II.
Moore's previous work, Bowling for Columbine, suggests-albeit somewhat impressionistically--that Moore knows better; that he is well aware of the mass-murder endemic to modern US foreign policy, in Southeast Asia, in Central America, in Iran, in Kosovo, as well as in Iraq. Yet F911 seems to have repressed this "un-American" knowledge in order to settle into a popular (and of so profitable) patriotic populism that all but limits its criticism to Bush administration and its cronies.
Moore impressively (and often hilariously) recounts a whole slew of criticisms of the second Bush administration, and moreover, succeeds in presenting these criticisms in a revealing and fresh way, using previously unseen, "inside" footage to electrify old points grown cold, and a musical score that imbues the facts with sentiment and irony. But in the end, Moore's short-sighted pragmatism blinds the film to the point that it suggests the big moral and political dilemma facing us today is not that the US military dominates large parts of the world for the benefits of our ruling class, but simply that the Bush Administration, in this rare and exceptional case, did not tell us and "our" soldiers the truth. Fahrenheit 9/11 indulges in the (dangerous) populist fantasy of the US as a "great" "freedom-fighting" nation, and sentimentalizes the suffering of the US military as "gifts given to us." "They fight, so that we don't have to...so that we can be free," Moore explains in a preachy (and sickening) moment near film's end.
Furthermore, despite its quick jabs at spineless Democrats, Moore's film never gestures beyond the horizon of the Party of Kerry. Most frustrating of all for this activist-viewer in fact, is the way that the film totally hides from view the faces and voices of the massive, global anti-war movement that took to the streets during the lead-up to the US invasion of Iraq. Essentially, the picture that Moore presents us of 'public opinion' in US in the lead-up to war-for all his supposed media-savvy-is not much different from the "self-portrait" shown us by the US corporate media: there is no dissent; everyone naively trusts the President. Of the massive movement against the war that existed outside the US, Moore says not a word.
Was I naïve to have been surprised and upset by Moore's silencing of the left in this film? Early on in F911, I sensed reason for hope. After all, when recounting the "theft" of the 2000 election by George W. Bush, Moore shows the Senate Democrats' complicity in effectively disenfranchising thousands of black Florida voters. Then, following this sequence, Moore cuts to footage of the 2002 "Shadow Inauguration" in D.C where-in stark contrast to the passive Senate Dems-- tens of thousands of militant anti-Bush protesters took it upon themselves to block the Bush's inaugural procession.
At this point in the film, Moore appears to be genuinely on the side of these outraged people in the street (as opposed to the passive politicians in Congress). As this egg-chucking direct action forces the newly inaugurated Prez--for the first time in US history-- to double back and forego the ceremonial walk into the White House, the potential power of the people is implied. Similarly, in Moore's review of the process by which the USA PATRIOT ACT was voted into law, the government as a whole comes in for deserved criticism for passing this proto-fascist bill virtually unanimously, without most of Congress ever having read it. We must look elsewhere for real leaders, the film would seem to be saying.
But when it comes to the crucial period leading up to the invasion of Iraq, the period of the Bush administration's intense propaganda effort to manufacture consent and Congressional approval, Moore loses sight of those people in the street. The left in short, is left out here. Hiding behind the unexamined "fact" that a "majority of Americans trusted Bush" about Iraq-the film paints a picture of an America without dissent from the war-mongers' consensus. It is as if we were all-like the majority of Kerry's Democrats in the Senate-"convinced" by the administration's claims: about Iraq's WMDs, about Iraq's propensity to use such weapons if it had possessed them, about Saddam's ties to Al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden, about the likelihood of US occupation bringing real democracy or security to the Iraqi people, about the "surgical" nature of US Cruise missile strikes.
Shamefully, there is not a trace in the film of the more than one million Americans, and of the over ten million people worldwide who took to the streets-in many cases took over the streets-just on Feb. 15, 2003 alone-to publicly oppose a US attack on Iraq. Even CNN and the networks were forced to cover that day of mass protest, yet F9/11 leaves it out. Why? As I write this, it saddens and frustrates me to think of what Moore might have done with this poignant piece of repressed contemporary history.
In response to criticism of F9/11, Moore has often spoken rightfully of how-contrary to the cliché-- it is critical to "preach to the choir" in order to fire them up and get them singing loud and clear to the unconverted. This in mind: how vindicating and energizing it would have been for anti-war activists-and how potentially illuminating for others-if Moore had bothered to represent the prophetic views and to dramatize the diverse, militant, global mass actions of the anti-war movement of 2002-3?! It could have made for a great film-sequence-the record breaking crowds in London, Madrid, and Rome, all those different placards and protest art, ranging from liberal to radical in message, the vivacious street theatre, the police riots in California, as well as in Turkey and Egypt. It would have fired activist types up, while forcing other viewers to grapple both with the international nature of the current conjuncture and with the idea that there is (or could be) an alternative to "lesser evil" voting-and-hoping in the US, a praxis beyond and better than the ballot box, where people who really want to end the war in Iraq could put their outrage, time and energy.
In the course of discussing the abuses of the USA PATRIOT Act, Moore does present us with one brief portrait of one local peace group, Peace Fresno, a small, mostly white, weekly meeting group that was infiltrated by law enforcement as a potentially "terrorist" organization. Moore depicts Peace Fresno as an almost comically harmless neighborhood club that hangs out together to "eat cookies" and "talk about peace." Interested only in how they were affected by the government surveillance, not in their ideas or political practices, Moore does not even allow liberal Peace Fresno to offer their views on the Iraq occupation. Shown to us slumped in reclining chairs-like good Americans-rather than out in the street agitating and protesting, Peace Fresno is included simply to poke fun at the excesses of the PATRIOT ACT (while the more serious government abuses perpetrated against the thousands of Middle Eastern and West-Asian people in this country are ignored by the film). Forget ANSWER, Not In Our Name, all the Anarchist groups, Veterans for Peace, AFSC, UJP and the Socialist Workers Party - Peace Fresno is depoliticized and cut off from any larger movement. In fact, ironically, it would seem to be Moore's point that the problem with the USA PATRIOT ACT is that it bothers to pay attention to such harmless little groups like Peace Fresno. Apparently, for Moore, such groups are not worthy of such attention, governmental or otherwise.
Having erased the anti-war movement as an option, Fahrenheit 9/11's select examples of people undergoing political "transformation" have no place to go. "I used to be a Republican, now I'm going to work for the Democratic Party where I live," just about sums it up, multiplied times three. Such statements of political "awakening"-mostly coming from Iraq-veterans-are quite different, and much more limiting, than statements like, for instance: "I'm going to work to end this war," or "We've got to end the occupation of Iraq now." No one in Moore's film utters such a "controversial," principled anti-occupation (let alone an anti-imperialist) statement-though presumably "Bring the troops home now" is still Michael Moore's own political line.
It seems likely, of course, that the omission of the serious anti-war movement from Fahrenheit 9/11 stems from Moore's reluctance to publicly criticize or embarrass John Kerry in this crucial election year. Kerry after all, not only voted for the Senate Resolution authorizing the use of force vs. Iraq, but-while millions were in the street demolishing Bush's argument for war-spoke in strong support of the "use of force" resolution on the Senate floor on Oct. 9, 2002.
My worry is that Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, for all its creative virtues and its radical populism, masks from view the alternative, "actually existing" forms of political agency needed to end the current imperialist occupation. The film does little to make the millions of Bush-haters out there aware of the existence of politics beyond the frustrating offerings of the two-(war)-party system. Indeed, if the post-film theatre cheers of "Vote for Kerry!" which accompanied the rolling of Moore's credits (even in the liberal "safe-state" where I reside) are any indication, for many folks the film would seem to be reinvigorating their faith in the Democratic establishment, rather than challenging them to push beyond it.
Joseph Ramsey is a PhD. candidate in English at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts.
The working title of his dissertation in progress is Red Pulp: Radicalism and Repression in U.S. Mass/Popular Literature, 1930-60.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.