The Politics of Michael Moore
1st October 2004
If there is one person who personifies the increasing popularity of critical politics it is the American author and filmmaker Michael Moore. Over the last three years his books, Stupid White Men and Dude, Where’s My Country? have topped the bestseller lists. In 2003 his documentary Bowling for Columbine won an Academy Award. This critical and commercial success for an overtly political figure such as Moore is really unprecedented.
There is no doubt that Moore is political. His work cannot be written off as merely art. While it has an artistic quality its power and popularity lies in its political message. The reason why Moore’s books and films are successful is because they reflect the views of millions of people around the world who are opposed to the power of multi-national corporations, and are against war and oppression. Moore doesn’t create those opinions but articulates them in a way that is entertaining and popular. If Moore is selling millions of books and millions of tickets are being sold for his films then it is because those critical opinions are becoming more widespread in society. The fact is that Michael Moore had been slogging way for years with modest success. Between his fist acclaimed documentary Roger and Me in 1989, about the closure of a General Motors plant in his home town, and Bowling for Columbine fourteen years later, all he had produced were a couple of short run TV series and the terrible comedy film Canadian Bacon. What has brought Moore to prominence is the period of political upheaval in which we live and people’s reactions to it. His work is a product of the process of globalisation and events such as 9/11 and the war in Iraq.
This is most clearly seen in Moore’s latest film Fahrenheit 9/11, a searing indictment of the Bush administration’s reaction to the events of 9/11. Its opening was not a movie premiere but a political event. Moore made clear that the agenda of the film was to damage Bush and aid his defeat in November’s Presidential election. He proudly declared it to be a “partisan” movie, adding “It is partisan on the side of the poor and working people in this country who provide fodder for this war machine.” Fahrenheit 9/11 provided the opportunity for millions of people to register their disgust at the war in Iraq and the policies of the Bush administration. It also broke through the restrictions imposed by the established US media on political debate. One example of these restrictions was the attempt by the Disney Corporation to block the distribution of Fahrenheit 9/11. Disney initially owned the distribution rights to the film and decided to hold it back until after the Presidential election. It believed that Moore’s film was too contentious and would be bad for business, endangering the tax breaks its theme park and other ventures receive in the state of Florida, where Jeb Bush is governor. Fahrenheit 9/11 only got a pre-election release when its producers Miramax bought the distribution rights from Disney. This move was welcomed by Moore: “All I can say is, thank God for Harvey Weinstein and Miramax who have stood by me during the entire production of this movie.” However, the idea of Miramax as a courageous independent production company battling against censorship is far from reality. As a company it is every bit as ruthless in the pursuit of profit as Disney. While Fahrenheit 9/11 may have been contentious it was also an opportunity to make money. Miramax also has its own record of censorship. It refused to release The Quiet American for 18 months after September 11, claiming that it could be regarded as “anti-American” and “unpatriotic”. Clearly the film, based on a novel by Graham Greene about early American involvement in Vietnam, had too many parallels with contemporary events. It also held back Buffalo Soldiers, a satire of US army life in Germany in the late 1980s, claiming that it was “too difficult” to release under conditions of the US “war against terrorism.” In many ways Disney/Miramax is a microcosm of Republican/Democrat distinction. While one may appear to be more progressive than the other in reality they are very similar. Moore’s endorsement of Miramax over Disney is a misjudgement. However it becomes much more serious when it is transferred from a commercial to a political level.
Praise for Fahrenheit 9/11
Before we criticise Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 we should first recognise its positive aspects. It is a powerful film that shows the complete rottenness of the Bush administration. With passion and humour Moore mercilessly eposes its personnel, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and all the rest, as liars and war criminals who are completely in hock to the interests of big business.
More starts the film with the stolen presidential election of 2000, highlighting the disenfranchisement of thousands of African-American voters. The most effective scene in this section is the footage of the joint session of Congress to ratify the election results. When Black Representatives try to move a motion highlighting this scandal they are unable to gain the support of even one Senator to have it debated. Repeatedly Al Gore, the defeated presidential candidate in his role as chair, rules them out of order. This is a powerful indictment not only of the Republicans who carried out the fraud but also the Democratic leaders who failed to challenge it. The film also exposes the cynical recruitment practices of the US, with recruiters shown scarring the poorest neighbours. It shows how the Bush administration manipulated and deliberately heightened the fears of the population to rally support for its war policies. Importantly, Fahrenheit 9/11 puts a human face to the victims that war, both Iraqi and American.
All those themes are brought together when Moore returns to his hometown of Flint, Michigan. As in previous films Flint acts the emblem and touchstone for what he wants to say. The strongest sections of film are when Moore is on this familiar ground. For it is in the scenes shot in Flint that lay bare the social structure of the United States. A town that was once home to thousands of jobs in the motor industry now has an unemployment rate of fifty per cent. One of the young men interviewed compares his own neighbourhood to the picture of bombed out houses in Iraq he saw on the television. The shots of derelict and depressed neighbourhoods support his claim. For the people who live in these areas the only way out is to join the military. While formally volunteers, they are in reality economic conscripts, putting their lives at risk in the hope of receiving some education or training. When Moore asks a group of black youths if they have a relative in the military nearly all raise their hand. To illustrate the contrast between those who fight and those who give the orders Moore intercuts shots of injured soldiers in a military hospital with scenes of Bush addressing a fun raising dinner, to which he declares, “This is a gathering of the haves and the have-mores. Some call you the elite, but I call you my base.”
In the final voice-over, Moore returns powerfully to the social questions, emphasising the point that it is the sons and daughters of the working class who are having to conduct a war that benefits only the wealthy. He concludes with a quotation from British left-wing author George Orwell’s novel 1984, “The war is not meant to be won, but it is meant to be continuous.... The hierarchy of society is only possible on the basis of poverty and ignorance. In principle, the war effort is always planned to keep society on the brink of starvation. The war is waged by the ruling group against its own subjects, and its object is not victory...but to keep the very structure of society intact.” The conclusion of Fahrenheit 9/11 is a fierce condemnation of the capitalist system and of the war it has produced.
Criticism of Fahrenheit 9/11
Fahrenheit 9/11is strong in tapping emotions and raising questions over the reasons why the US went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, it is when Moore attempts to answer these questions that the film’s weaknesses are revealed. Rather than providing a coherent political analysis Moore reduces everything down to a personal level. In this schema it is not the general dynamics of American capitalism that is driving the war but the particular interests of the Bush dynasty and its hangers on. This obsessive focus on Bush leads Moore towards a conspiratorial explanation for events. For example, the second section of the film on the financial links between the Bush family and wealthy Saudis completely distorts the real relationship between the US and Saudi Arabs. The inference of Fahrenheit 9/11 is that Bush has been bought by Saudi oil money and that is why he is not pressing them on their role in the attacks on 9/11. Moore also repeats the tired old claim that the war in Afghanistan was the result in a breakdown in negotiations with the Taliban over an oil pipeline. Both these claims display a complete misunderstanding of US foreign policy in the Middle East. While there is relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia, it is not one of equal partners but of an imperialist power and its client. The US has a similar relationship with other Arab states such as Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf monarchies. US relations with Saudi Arabia are not unique. Nor is Saudi Arabia its most important ally. In the Middle East region that is the state of Israel, which is wholly dependent on the US for its survival. For Moore to put forward an analysis of the Middle East without mentioning Israel is a serious omission.
The other affect of concentrating on Bush is to absolve any previous US government or his current Democratic opponents of any responsibility. Fahrenheit 9/11 presents the Bush administration as unique and abnormal, rather than as a continuation of the course set by previous administrations. Is Bush’s war against Iraq really any worse than the sanctions regime imposed by his Democratic predecessor Bill Clinton that resulted in the deaths of half a million Iraqi children? Is Bush’s war against Afghanistan any worse that the policy of Democratic President Jimmy Carter’s sponsorship of Islamic fundamentalists to attack the pro-Soviet Afghan government in the 1970’s? Is Bush any worse that Democratic Presidents Kennedy and Johnson who waged war against Vietnam in the 1960’s? By concentrating on Bush Moore encourages the viewers to ignore history. In this schema the way to bring about change to get Bush out of the White House. And of course the way to do that is to vote for his Democratic rival in the presidential election. Although Fahrenheit 9/11 does not say this directly it the logical consequence of the argument that runs through it. This is personified in the figure of Lila Lipscomb, the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq, when she is seen outside the White House saying that she now has somewhere to direct her anger and pain. It is also the message of the injured soldier in the military hospital who says when he gets out he is going to do all he can to help the Democrats. This is really the only course of political action that Fahrenheit 9/11 leaves open to its viewers.
Moore’s political judgements
The consequences of this position was made clear by Moore’s intervention in the campaign for the Democratic Presidential nomination when he endorsed the candidacy of former general Wesley Clark. His argument was that as white, southern, conservative, ex-military man, Clark would be best placed to unseat Bush. He did not mention Clark’s own record of waging a two-month bombing campaign against Yugoslavia in 1999 when he was Commander of NATO. Of course this would have spoiled the illusion that he was any different from Bush. If successful he would have been far from the “breath of fresh air in the White House” that Moore hoped for. The fact that Moore should intervene in the Democratic race at all shows the limitations and contradictions of his politics. In 2000, he supported the presidential candidate of the Greens, Ralph Nader. As recently as October 2003, he labelled the Democrats a “miserable, pathetic excuse for a party.” However, by demonising Bush he is able to swing behind the Democrats on the basis that they are the lesser evil.
Like the left-liberal milieu he is a part of Moore’s political judgements are based largely on impressions, eschewing theory or analysis in order to concentrate on what seems to be the immediate goal, in this case getting Bush out of the White House. Little thought is given to what happens after that. However, any serious examination of American society or the US government’s policy in the Middle East would conclude that Bush as an individual is the not source of its problems. Like all previous presidents he is a representative of America’s ruling class, and a mouthpiece for their views. A change of personnel in the White House may bring a change in style but not will change in substance any of the policies that are being pursued. Indeed, the Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry has already endorsed much of the agenda of the current administration.
Despite these limitations Fahrenheit 9/11
has value in that it does raise questions about American society that rarely
receive an airing in the mainstream media. The challenge for both
Moore and his audience is to go beyond an emotional and impressionistic
view of American society and to penetrate its real class structure.
It is only thorough such an analysis that events, such as the war in Iraq,
can be understood. It also an essential step if we are to build a
movement that can successfully oppose them. Bashing Bush is all very
well but there is a danger it can become a means of evading this critical