Tue, June 29, 2004
The lies of Christopher Hitchens.
I made the best attempt I could to avoid sparking political debate in my review of Fahrenheit 9/11. I wanted to tell the concession stand story, and record the Kiele Sanchez sighting (this site is as much personal record book as it is online journal), and I thought I could discuss the filmmaking side of Fahrenheit 9/11 while leaving aside the majority of the politics. In fact, I opened by criticizing a major omission that would've made the film much better while cooling some of the controversy, and my only reference to its politics was to refer to the partisan chatter going back and forth about the film (not in it).
But we can't always get what we want. Arksie got under my skin by making me feel condescended to, which it turns out I don't particularly enjoy, especially on a topic that I have relatively strong feelings about. (Mind you, my objection to the Iraq war pales in comparison to my objection to Bonnie McFarlane getting voted out of Last Comic Standing.) So, I was forced to read this Christopher Hitchens article I've been hearing so much about, and I'm dismayed to report that it's utter shit. Rather than engaging a thoughtful debate about the film, it sinks to the lowest level of rabid guttersniping and personal attacks.
To begin with, I enjoy Michael Moore. I think he's a smart and funny guy – an agitator, yes, but in a fairly innocuous way – and I'm glad that people like him with such passion can find a voice. The runaway success of his last two filims testifies to the fact that he's not entirely alone. While I may not agree with Moore on every conspiracy theory, I'm generally on his side that the Bush administration has been, at best, deceitful and irresponsible. However, that's not really why Fahrenheit 9/11 speaks to me so strongly.
The most important element of Fahrenheit 9/11, to me, is the same as the crux of Bowling for Columbine. That we must recognize when our government and our media (independently or in collusion) are attempting to use fear to control us. This is singlehandedly the most irksome issue, personally for me, about the Bush administration and the news media post-9/11. The obfuscation, the mistruths, the unjust war – all affect us in the short term. But the rampant fearmongering has taken hold and promises to disrupt this country's productivity and promise for a long time to come. That it can be used to prop up or even smokescreen the administration's goals like preemptive war and civil liberties rollbacks is all the more egregious.
By which I mean to say, I'm not here to be a staunch defender of Moore's every assertion. I liked the film; I thought it did an excellent job of presenting itself as exactly what it was – a critical look at an important period in our country's history, seen from one man's viewpoint. As I said, I thought it could have used some additional exposition from Moore, but it was still very skillfully made, and I found it engaging and entertaining. Hitchens disagrees.
Fahrenheit 9/11 is a sinister exercise in moral frivolity, crudely disguised as an exercise in seriousness.
The same could be said of any news broadcast on CNN, FoxNews, or the networks. In fact, more gravely, Hitchens's article itself qualifies. At least Moore does it with a shade of humor and irony; you go in knowing that it's one man's opinion and it isn't intended to be the whole picture or an objective view. There's a seriousness to the subject matter, but a playful tone throughout – with the exception of the Flint, Michigan, woman who lost her son in Iraq – which makes the cherrypicking and sarcasm excusable because it's so transparent. Fahrenheit 9/11 is not a history book. It's a conversation with your friends about politics.
Hitchens mistakenly classifies Moore's gusto for pursuing Bin Laden as some sort of hypocritical judgment of Bin Laden's guilt. Rather, Moore is simply pointing out how – while telling the world that Bin Laden was the mastermind – the Bush administration spent less time, energy, and troops on pursuing him, and more on fabricating a pretense for war in Iraq. He's not saying Bin Laden is "guilty as hell," as Hitchens describes it. He's saying, "Bush, if Osama's the bad guy here, how come you're not moving heaven and hell to find him? Is it because of the business ties between your family, the Bin Ladens, and the Saudis? It probably isn't, but that's pretty interesting, isn't it?"
Hitchens clings to that most desperate trick of debaters with no ground to stand on – the straw man argument. He continually posits that Moore is angry with Bush for being light on the Taliban, the Saudis, and Bin Laden – using that assertion to say that Moore is both pro-war and anti-war. In reality, Moore is simply exposing the contradictions in Bush's movements. Bush makes terror the number one priority, whips up fear using the Al Qaeda bogeyman, but then dodges Iraqward when it comes time to really do anything about it. Hitchens pretends that Moore is arguing that Saddam Hussein presented "no problem" to America or the world. "No problem at all." (His snide emphasis.) Hitchens doesn't get sarcasm, so he rails against the scenes of kite-flying Iraqi children which are juxtaposed with Bush's address to the nation as the invasion got underway. Moore isn't arguing that Saddam was a sweetie or that Iraq's most dangerous weapon was a kite. He's saying Saddam is maybe fifth (if we're generous) out of the most threatening people to America, when we take into account not only his actions and his beliefs but also his means to do specific harm to Americans. If Hussein were really as dangerous to America as we've been told, then why the need to cook up this Iraq/Al Qaeda connection? I'll go so far as to stipulate that the WMD issue isn't Bush's fault. People were pretty sure he had weapons and the intelligence community told Bush. Okay. I'll give you that. Still, why focus on some fabricated connection with Al Qaeda? If he's really so dangerous, you shouldn't have to fib to make the case for taking him out. The reality is, he never posed an imminent threat to Americans in America, and that made the invasion unwarranted and preemptive. Which I agree with Moore is a very dangerous precedent to set. (Watch The Daily Show with guest Stephen F. Hayes, author of The Connection. I've got it on TiVo if you need it.) I'm not one of Orwell's hippy pacifists. If war is a necessary last resort, so be it. I don't think Moore is either – he says in the film (literally, his narration), "we owe it to [the troops] not to send them into harm's way unless it's absolutely necessary."
You can tell that Hitchens is grasping at straws because he tries to pick apart Moore's assertion that Bush spends too much time on vacation by attacking the photographs Moore puts in the film. Hitchens says that the "relaxing at Camp David" picture features Bush strolling with Tony Blair and therefore shouldn't qualify as "vacation." (By this definition, the Scalia/Cheney duck-hunting trip should qualify as "work," which would challenge Scalia's assertions about the imbroglio.) Hitchens says "the photograph is on the screen so briefly that if you sneeze or blink, you won't recognize the other figure." Well, I recognized him. Don't you think if the picture were really so damaging to Moore's argument, he would have just left it out of his own film? I'm pretty sure Moore gets final cut. There are plenty – plenty – of other pictures of Bush on vacation. The one with him falling off the Segway is notably absent. Hitchens devolves from this into just making no sense whatsoever. He criticizes Moore's assertion that Bush overlooked 9/11 warnings as "not exactly an original point." Well, no. It isn't. The 9/11 Commission thought of it first. But this isn't Die Hard. It's not a scripted movie where originality is key. He's just presenting his case. Was Moore supposed to leave out the "Bin Laden Determined To Attack In U.S." memo because it's "been done"? Oh, don't mention the Iraq war, people have already covered that one. What?! If these are the criticisms you're leveling against Fahrenheit 9/11 then it's clear that you just hate it and that's all there is. Hitchens doesn't write a reasoned counter-argument to Moore's film, he just squawks bitterly about it, then starts attacking Moore personally.
In his attempts to discredit Fahrenheit 9/11 rather than just disagree with it, Hitchens makes as many slanted assertions as Moore does in the film, but more dangerously, does so in the guise of a serious piece of journalism. (Albeit one with a gay title: "Unfairenheit 9/11" "Yeah, Lisa. That's what I meant. State unfair.") And I am really fucking tired of hearing hawks make the case that if Bush hadn't done more, we'd be castigating him right now for ignoring warnings. Ridiculous hypotheticals like this tear apart the fabric of reasoned debate. It's just as likely that if he hadn't done more, nothing would have happened, and we'd be fine. Hitchens does as Bush likes to do when stumping against Kerry – he constructs a straw man view of Moore's hypothetical objections to a lack of force in Iraq, contrasts them with his actual views about the invasion, and says you can't have it both ways. That's like if you're hungry and you buy a slice of pizza, then someone comes up and says, "What if you'd ordered a burger instead? You'd be eating a burger right now! You can't have it both ways!" The past isn't either/or. One thing happened. That thing is the way we have it. The other way is the thing that didn't happen. We don't have that. We have it one way.
Hitchens concludes by further stating opinions on Moore's behalf. He says that in Moore's world there would be no war and so tyrants would run everything. At this point, it's pointless to even pick apart such a silly assertion. Hitchens is just angry, and in his anger he stops making sense. I know the feeling. When I rail against Kerry or Ari Fleischer my rants frequently spin off into nonsensical tirades. But in those cases, I'm hardly asking to be taken seriously. Columns like Hitchens's are irresponsible and destructive. Criticize the film on its merits, but don't make stuff up. People who haven't seen the film read this column, take it seriously in a way that nobody who actually saw Fahrenheit 9/11 would take it seriously (Moore uses Dragnet clips and superimposes administration figures onto the bodies of the Bonanza cast, for crying out loud!), and then it becomes impossible to debate and rebuke them because they have some falsified view of who Moore is and what he's saying.