Walter has tried to pre-empt any critical appraisal of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 in his writeup. He has attempted to show that criticizing the film's generalizations is pointless. However, I will here do just that. I hope that you will not immediately decry me as a Bush-loving, pro-war boogieman. I am not a Republican, nor a Democrat, since I am indeed not even an American. As a citizen of Finland, a neutral country, I have no personal interest in defending President Bush or criticizing Michael Moore.
Some Czech and Polish commentators have likened Fahrenheit 9/11 to Soviet propaganda films and even to Hitler's court filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. That may be stretching it a bit far, but Moore does use propaganda techniques throughout the picture.1 We see plenty of George Bush's linguistic fumbles, and watching him just sit and read to children for seven minutes after he had learned of the attacks on the World Trade Center is somewhat disturbing. All this gives us - especially us Europeans - a chance to laugh at a man who is generally considered a mediocre intellect, to put it mildly. But that just clouds the issues, which is exactly the objective of propaganda. Anyone can be made to look stupid with the right editing. Showing George Bush as an idiot works so well because it panders to our prejudices. Because Moore does this, the audience lets him get away with a lot of things.
The most glaring example of Moore's one-sidedness is his coverage of the war in Iraq. He portrays the Iraq of Saddam Hussein as a Middle-Eastern paradise. We see footage of a wedding, and happy people walking the streets of Baghdad. Then the bombs start falling, and we see an Iraqi woman calling on God to avenge the destruction. Which is of course something the Bush administration would prefer us not to see, and it is sobering to witness. But how is this woman's anguish more important than that of those murdered or tortured by Saddam Hussein? Or of those deprived by UN sanctions of basic necessities? The Bush administration has tried to show the invasion in the best possible light; Moore has tried to show it in the worst possible light. Neither cares for objectivity, and neither is to be believed.
According to Moore, Iraq was a sovereign country that has never attacked the United States nor killed a single American citizen. Thus, an American invasion of Iraq sounds as bad as if the United States had attacked Sweden. There is absolutely no mention of Saddam Hussein's war with Iran, or his invasion of Kuwait. We never hear of Saddam's murder of the Kurds. And we most definitely do not hear of the crippling UN sanctions on Iraq. Of course we know all these things, but a mention of them would have given Moore's film at least an air of objectivity. Just like it didn't suit the Bush administration's interests to consider the possibility there might be no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or show the civilian casualties caused by the precision bombing, it didn't suit Michael Moore's interests to consider whether Iraq really was well off under Saddam Hussein after all. The other critical question he failed to ask is whether the economic sanctions or the invasion caused more damage. I for one would have been much more persuaded by his argument had he considered the evidence on both sides of the case and then concluded that even taking into account the brutality of the Saddam Hussein regime, the suffering caused by his toppling was so great that the war was a mistake.
The part of the film focusing on the connections between both George Bushes and the bin Laden family is much more convincing. There seems to be no denying that the families have done business together. But the whole argument hinges on the assertion by an American author that some of the other members of the bin Laden family were at the same wedding in Afghanistan in 2001 as Osama bin Laden. Perhaps this is true, but it is the only piece of evidence presented that the assertion of the bin Ladens that they have had no contact with Osama is untrue. And even if they have had contact with him, it does not prove that the bin Laden family have financed Osama bin Laden's terrorism. There is an implicit accusation in the film that the September 11th terrorist attacks were good for the Bush family and the bin Ladens because of their joint business ventures. Of course this easily leads one to believe that there is a sinister connection - George W. Bush didn't seriously tackle terrorism before 9/11 because he stood to gain financially from a successful attack. This is an extremely serious accusation, and should not be taken lightly by even the most die-hard Bush-hater. The film gives rise to such speculation, but the evidence put forth is hardly sufficient to sustain the argument.
Fahrenheit 9/11 is a very well made piece of propaganda. Michael Moore has admitted that the film is aimed at throwing George W. Bush out of the White House in the next presidential election. This in itself is fine, if only Moore reached a negative verdict on Bush's performance based on an objective evaluation of the facts. However, Moore resorts to showing only one side of the argument. In this way, he is no better than the Bush administration.2
I do not wish to fully condemn the film, however. Some of the issues it raises are genuine. Why were the bin Laden family flown out of the United States right after 9/11 and not questioned? Why does the United States continue to support a regime widely condemned for its human rights violations? How on earth was it possible for the 2000 presidential election to be such a fiasco? The film also touches on another important subject, the 'culture of fear' in the United States, which Moore exposed in Bowling for Columbine. Americans have a tradition of overreacting to events (internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War, the Communist scares during the Cold War, the panic over the Millennium, and so forth). Guantanamo bay and the Patriot Act are perhaps the starkest present day examples of this. Moore asserts that the Bush administration worsened the fears of the populace by issuing terror alerts and raising the threat level. I think it is hard to deny that this was a major factor in the widespread public support in the United States for the invasion of Iraq. It is one of the best points that the film makes.
More generally, I think the film is healthy for American public debate. At least now there is an alternate viewpoint, though one which is hardly more objective than the official one. One of the arguments John Stuart Mill presents for the freedom of expression in On Liberty is valid here. It is good that opposing points of view are presented, since it may thus be possible to discover the truth which lies somewhere between the two extremes.
1. Walter argues that since Fahrenheit 9/11 is not an essay but a film, it is "built out of emotions". But there is a necessary difference between a piece of fiction and a documentary, just like there is a difference between a short story and an essay. Both can be about the same thing, but the documentary should at least attempt to achieve some objectivity. Of course a documentary can appeal to your emotions. So it's fine showing grieving Iraqis or Americans who have lost their loved ones in war. But you should also show the damage Saddam Hussein did to his people and his neighbors. If you do not do this at all, you cannot claim any objectivity, and you are using the grief of those mourning Iraqis and Americans for your own ends.
2. Walter conveniently circumvents the issue by asking whether Moore has a huge media empire or political connections. This is a different question - it is one of power. Obviously Michael Moore is not nearly as powerful as George W. Bush. But he is as bad as the Bush administration in his extremely selective use of evidence.