This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

September-October 2004

Why must the left apologize for its own propaganda?

John DegenWebsite

During a recent long drive through the northeastern United States, I spent a few happy hours listening to the frothing weasels of right-wing American talk radio. I do this whenever I drive in the US, out of a rhetorician’s “know thine enemy” ethic. Picking my way past roadside deer one foggy evening in Maine, I listened to the vacillating Michael Savage take his requisite potshots at Michael Moore.

In a moment of supposed comedy, Savage interviewed a man claiming to be Moore, whose voice was disgustingly garbled by the sucking and chewing noises of someone stuffing his face with food. At one point the Moore character screamed at a nearby waiter who couldn’t deliver food fast enough. “I’m Michael Moore,” he yelled, before simpering something about a gay lover. So, according to neo-con America, the director of Fahrenheit 9/11 cannot make a valid point about the current administration because he is fat (true), rude (probably) and gay (who knows).

You might expect, but not realistically hope for, more clarity or depth from the American right on the subject of Fahrenheit 9/11. The important fact about Moore at present is that the right seems genuinely afraid of him. Witness the breathless and paranoid woman swooping into Moore’s frame as he films a dead soldier’s grieving mother in front of the White House. “This is all staged,” the woman screeches, and her desperation is unmistakable. She is the entire neo-conservative elite, furious at Moore for suggesting an awful truth at a time when patriotic fantasies are the only acceptable narratives.

Because of Moore’s well-documented “I’m just a schlub like you” populism, he is a very real danger to the red state power base. For the silver-spooned Bush to prop up his cynical man-of-the-people act, all critics of Republicanism should be easily dismissed as eastern seaboard elite who have never tasted melted nacho cheese. All anti-Bush people should get manicures, regardless of their gender. “Those” people should think a greyhound is just a delightful cocktail served in South Beach, Miami. Moore’s Flint, Michigan, pedigree, baggy-ass jeans and Denny’s Grand Slam appetite make him immune to these traditional Republican jibes. Whereas Bush flaunts a pretty effective down-homeism, Moore just lives it, and can better communicate an honest and genuine knowledge of the real concerns of Middle America. All that’s left to the Republicans is to point at Moore and say, “He so fat. He so gay.” Or, as in the case of Canadian neo-cons, to launch a petition to have Moore criminally charged for expressing a dissenting opinion.

What the right doesn’t seem to realize is they don’t need to attack Moore. They can just sit back and wait for moderates and the left to take Moore out on their own. Weirdly, though (sigh) not surprisingly, the most cogent criticism of Fahrenheit 9/11 has come from the left.

A couple of days after the film’s release in Toronto, I heard a reviewer on CBC Radio One raving about the film’s popularity and its potential political effect south of the border. She then went on to bemoan much of Moore’s technique. Apparently, the reviewer loved Roger and Me, but started to have doubts about Moore in Bowling for Columbine when he held Canada up as the social antidote for a crumbling America. This new film, she suggested, has too many such cheap tricks in it, which Moore “doesn’t need to use.” Meanwhile, the ever-moderate New Yorker, which just a few months ago ran a fawning portrait of the filmmaker, decided it was time to reverse the flow of love in the name of objectivity. In the New Yorker review, Fahrenheit 9/11 is generally welcomed but Moore himself is called a “polemicist,” his methods are labeled “tricky and too easy,” and he is accused of displaying a “paranoia so engulfing that it has blocked out normal skepticism.”

What the CBC and the New Yorker are engaged in is TLC—timid lefty contortionism, the Pilates-like stretching and bending necessary to make a socially progressive slam dunk into just another polite point in an even-handed game. It’s the same impulse that transforms a revolutionary moment for the Canadian left—say, the NDP leading in 28 ridings late on election night, very nearly grasping the balance of power in a progressive government—into business as usual for the ever-arrogant Liberal party. God forbid strategic voting should ever win the NDP a Conservative riding at the cost of a single Liberal vote. God forbid the left in Canada should hold the line and actually vote for the left in Canada. We eat Moore, apparently, for the same reason we vote Liberal, because our anger with the right must never overshadow our own self-criticism and self-doubts.

The only nearly respectable critique of Moore from the left was from the furious typing fingers of Slate magazine columnist Christopher Hitchens. In his late-June posting, he charges Moore with outright manipulation, suggesting the film is Leni Riefenstahl-style propaganda. He calls Moore’s work, among other things, “a spectacle of abject political cowardice masking itself as a demonstration of ‘dissenting’ bravery.” Of course, Hitchens’s bilious lefty contrarianism has been well-documented since he made way for our very own Naomi Klein at The Nation and began hurling rhetorical feces at anyone who might question the logic of invading Iraq. That Hitchens should dislike Moore or his film is not surprising, but the level of anger in this review, which at one point descends into a schoolyard-style invitation to fight—“Any time, Michael my boy…. Let’s see what you’re made of”—is pathetic. I have infinite respect for Hitchens’s grasp of international affairs, and I’ll take an attack inspired by genuine dislike over wishy-washy backpedalling anytime, but Hitchens’s swipe at Moore’s honesty is itself full of a rhetorical trickery far beneath this disciplined intellectual. It’s Moore’s schtick to leave things out. Hitchens shouldn’t be borrowing this schtick to counter it.

Indeed, contrary to what the CBC and the New Yorker fuss about, Moore does need his cheap tricks. He’s a cheap trick artist—the best the left has. What we need Moore and his very funny, very emotionally engaging movie for is to directly counter, on the same level of honesty, the grotesque spectacle of Colin Powell pointing to dots on fuzzy satellite photographs and saying we think that thing there is designed to kill American babies. You want cheap tricks and political manipulation? Read the transcript of the 2003 State of the Union address. You want embarrassing dishonesty? Observe the spectacle of a war president with a military record worth censoring. The Bush administration dragged public discourse down into that basement rec-room of debate. That they found Moore waiting for them there is nothing for the left to be embarrassed or frighteningly angry about. When the fight’s over down there, and it increasingly looks like Moore will be delivering the final wedgie, maybe Hitchens, the New Yorker and the CBC can move it back up into the pundit-rich studios and newsrooms. Until then, we on the left should leave the big man alone and let him do what we all want him to do.

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