The controversy over Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" provides sharp insight into contemporary American liberalism. You might think from all the noise that something radical or revealing or important was happening.
But you would be wrong. The noise represents another example of what Robert Hughes called America's "Culture of Complaint," an endless bickering, never deciding anything but enjoyed purely for itself.
The film is at its heart a thoroughly conservative document, a fact which generally has gone unnoticed except in Robert Jensen's acute review, "A Stupid White Movie." Worse, it explains virtually nothing about events it claims to examine.
Michael Moore's role is to make American liberals feel good about themselves without having to question the practices of a society which cast an increasingly long, cold, dark shadow over the planet. The job pays well, and Moore is becoming a wealthy man, a kind of well-kept court jester for those with occasional twinges of liberal conscience or human decency.
Moore likes to play the big, innocent kid from the heartland, a kind of latter-day Spanky McFarland, only much older, happily shuffling along with a beat-up baseball cap instead of beanie, keeping the faith with values absorbed in 1950s Flint, Michigan, but asking bright-eyed, impertinent questions about serious things. He's America's backyard Socrates in baggy pants and gym shoes.
The image appeals to the confused, clinging-to-childhood quality of American culture. Yet that very quality is what let the invasion of Iraq and so many other terrible events happen.
Moore, unlike straight-shooter Spanky, also displays a streak of the somewhat unpleasant practical joker or prankster. I do not mean the talent for funny lines that makes his books sell well, but a certain tendency to sly sniggering tricks, a certain Eddy Haskel or Candid Camera quality which overlays and sours the honest Spanky image. We see this clearly in the many stunts he uses, some quite clever, in movies or television to get filmed reactions from or about those who will not respond to him in a direct manner. These are the tricks of the process server or repo-man.
Moore's film revels in exactly the kind of inconsistent thinking, full of unwarranted assumptions, thick with suggestions of undefined conspiracy, typical to one degree or another of most media in the United States. The thinking also is typical of a President who keeps telling us he decimated Iraq and spent a hundred billion dollars to save American lives.
Moore told the world some months back that he had found his presidential candidate in former General Wesley Clark. That announcement should have been a warning, because Clark is indistinguishable in his views from George Bush, and the general's behavior in the former Yugoslavia was arrogant, provocative, and dangerous.
Moore simply wants to be rid of Bush, and he was ready to support an opportunistic and dangerous man like Wesley Clark to do it. Now, in his movie he has assembled a pastiche of attitudes, assumptions, and interesting, but largely unenlightening, film clips hoping to elicit enough of an emotional response to be rid of Bush.
Why does Moore, and I use him to represent all of liberal America, so want to be rid of Bush that he takes what I regard as the unprincipled position of supporting someone as bad or worse?
I do not believe it is because Bush represents a danger to American values, the favorite charge of many fuzzy-thinking American liberals, because in many ways Bush accurately reflects those values. I think they are desperate to be rid of Bush because he is an embarrassment. There is something excruciatingly American about Bush, revealing some painful truths about the society he represents, much the same as was the case with President Nixon's brother and his efforts to create a fast-food empire based on Nixon-burgers or President Carter's whining, beer-swilling brother, Billy.
Yes, Bush has done a lot of damage in the world, but Presidents can't act alone. In Nixon's last days of wandering the White House corridors late at night, a muttering ghost with a tumbler of Bourbon, the armed forces and others were alerted not to respond to orders that did not pass through the appropriate chain of command. And it is not just the cabinet that limits a President's ability to act. It is the Congress and, more generally, the people of the country. The anti-war protests that engulfed America, once Vietnam was seen for the ugly fraud that it was, had no force of law but they very much influenced policy. The murderous fiasco of Iraq happened with the complicity of Congress, notably including Senator Kerry, and with the passive acceptance or indifference of most Americans.
The truth is that Bush is a fairly typical white, suburban, middle-aged American. He talks and thinks the way a great many Americans talk and think. He jogs and plays golf. He has a fondness for school-boy pranks, although less clever ones, similar to Michael Moore's. He unquestioningly accepts America's fairy-tale, official version of itself as God's own chosen place on the planet with liberty and justice for all - something shared by Michael Moore and most flag-waving American liberals.
Bush's personal redemption story is shared in tens of millions of American homes. When Americans aren't experiencing redemption first-hand, they are consuming it from check-out-line magazines and talk shows. Itís a national obsession with its promise of being able to start life over representing another kind of clinging to childhood.
Bush has always enjoyed a comfortable life without any evidence of earning or meriting it, but that is what so many Americans dream of doing as they throw away money on state lotteries and at casinos. Americans love watching television families similar to Ozzie and Harriet in the 1950s where nothing real ever happened, just nice people floating in a timeless space. Many modern shows, like Seinfeld, are just hipper versions of the same thing.
Bush's total lack of interest in serious books - there is no evidence he's ever read one - genuine art, and new ideas is quite typical. The last President of the United States who took some interest in the arts or thinkers was Kennedy. Bush's lack of interest in anything outside the United States - only altered as required in his role as President - and his Blondie Bumsted behavior, right down to choking on a pretzel while watching football from a couch, put him at the very middle of middle America.
You may ask, we know Bush is a brutal, rather psychopathic man, so how can he be like so much of middle America? You see, middle America is not the harmless, gentle place it seems in Hollywood's confections. It is the place where thirty-year old couples assume they are entitled to a five-bedroom home on a sprawling lot in the suburbs with at least two lumbering vehicles in the driveway. It is the place which ignores the ugly parts of its own society, the ghettos, the broken-down schools, the lack of healthcare. It is the place where the relentless demand for still more endangers the planet's future. And it is the place that drives America to global empire.
Bush is not, as so many American liberals claim, out of step with American history. Childish slogans about taking back America or, even worse, "Dude, Where's My Country?" are just that, childish. Bush is an awkward, unpleasant exemplar of enduring American behavior and values. Did the invasion of Iraq represent different values or attitudes than the "Remember the Maine" invasion of Cuba? How about the invasion of Mexico, or the seizure of Hawaii, or the holocaust in Vietnam and Cambodia? Does the Patriot Act represent anything different than the Alien and Sedition laws of John Adam's day or the dark excesses of the FBI under Hoover?
Americans are always attracted, like Marlon Brando's wonderful character in "On the Waterfront," to what used to be called "class." The movies of Hollywood's golden era, from those with John Garfield to Humphrey Bogart, are filled with that word used in that way. Because the entire throbbing core of America is about making as much money as possible as quickly as possible in almost any way possible, afterwards, you are supposed to settle in for some show of class.
While the flavor of American culture has changed, especially in its complete abandonment of post-depression era sympathy for struggling little people, the desire to display something that is the equivalent of "class" in 1950 remains palpable. It's there in everything from the names bestowed on car models and real-estate subdivisions to the look of popular American designers like Ralph Lauren or figures like Martha Stewart. Part of the problem with Bush, no matter how quintessentially American he is, is that he has no class. It's unnerving to have an empire whose Caesar is laughed at by much of the world, all those funny-talking people out there in the world sniggering at the leader of God's own chosen place.
I have a problem with all the liberal whining in America over professional soldiers being killed in Iraq, actually still a small number compared to the tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis killed both in the war and in the decade-long run-up of brutally harsh American-imposed restrictions, and it is no different for Moore's scene of a mother's tears. No, I'm not talking about the poor mother herself whose loss is real, but about the calculation of Moore's film in using the scene and about the very predictable result on American audiences. Pictures of a small number of flag-draped coffins appear to be almost the only thing fueling America's limp antiwar movement.
When I see pleas about dead American soldiers I can't help but think of all the tears shed at the Vietnam memorial for the relatively few who died helping in the work of bringing overwhelming destruction to another land, but there is never a tear shed for the millions of souls extinguished by America.
There is a scene in a much more moving documentary from the Vietnam War called "Hearts and Minds" in which a poor Vietnamese man bawls and screams over the limp limbs of his dead young child, one of countless innocents snuffed out by Americans flying too high ever to glimpse the horror they delivered. The film then cut to an interview with General Westmoreland sitting comfortably, pontificating about the way Asians didn't regard life the same way Americans do. Propaganda, yes, but still shatteringly true and unforgettable.
Well, it was a fine film of its type, but it wasn't destined to make its director a wealthy man. Americans just are not much interested in the suffering of others, especially it seems when they cause it. Although, in mitigation, it is fair to point out how little of the suffering they ever are permitted to see, the lack of imagination over what must happen when you drop thousands of tons of high explosives and flesh-ripping shrapnel is still appalling.
But even if you do not feel the same way I do, and you were moved by the mother's tears in the last part of the movie, be very careful how you vote to get rid of Bush. Kerry has never so much as condemned the war. He has never condemned Bush, except by repeating official-report findings all thinking people on the planet understood a year before the official report. Kerry's view of the Middle East, frantic pandering to Israel's darkest interests, promises no end to future troubles. He is an unrepentant, unimaginative supporter of global empire.
That brings us to the real tragedy of America and the real cause of 9/11 and so many other horrors: America's swaggering readiness to play the game of global empire with all the brutality and incivility that it implies. You tell me how a confused film like Moore's, even if it contributes to toppling a confused President like Bush, adds anything to resolving America's great dilemma of insatiable greed and willingness to do terrible deeds while mouthing high-sounding ideals.
John Chuckman lives in Canada and is former chief economist for a large Canadian oil company.
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