In the Shadow of The Jungle
I had a chance to see Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911 while I was away. My overall reactions to it are not particularly unique, and are pretty much how I’ve felt about everything Michael Moore has ever done. I think he’s got a good comic touch, which helps distinguish him from the schoolmarm left (though I’m fascinated with how he doesn’t get attacked by the schoolmarms for some of what he does—his montage on the “Coalition of the Willing” in Fahrenheit uses loaded racial and ethnic imagery, for example). If he was content to be a humorist, he wouldn’t annoy me so much. But he’s not content, and habitually insists on sticking in every cheap shot, misleading claim, exaggeration, simplification, and agit-prop sleight-of-hand that he can get away with while pursuing very serious, accurate, important and substantial political arguments. Even when I substantially agree with much of what he has to say, as I do about the Iraq War and the Bush Administration, he still manages to irritate me.
What I find equally grating is the defense of Moore’s work as “fighting dirty” because the other side is doing so. I agree that many of the critics of Fahrenheit are astonishing hypocrites, applying standards that they systematically exempt their own favored pundits and politicians from, but the proposition that one has to play by those degraded rules to win the game repels me. If it's true, then God help us all.
Worse still is the lauding of Moore’s work as effective and therefore desirable agit-prop. The most powerful material in Fahrenheit are the images that the American public has not been permitted to see or hear, and when Moore shows those images and otherwise shuts the hell up, the film is hugely effective. When he insists on dragging the narrative line of the film to all the favored mental habitats of the most ideologically incoherent lineage of the contemporary American left, or when he unconvincingly pretends to great enthusiasm for the rapid and aggressive use of American military power in Afghanistan, or great sympathy for the young men and women in the military, the effectiveness of the film sags. Because the measure of effectiveness in this case has to be not how well the film speaks to those who are already convinced—who the hell cares if it moves me and others like me or not about Iraq or Bush, given that I’ve had deep, intense feelings on both subjects for three years—but whether it can reach those who are potentially reachable. Not the zombies and lickspittles who would apparently laud Bush as their political savior even if he ordered every ship in the Navy to sink itself, but those Americans who are wavering, uncertain, fearing terrorism but also desperately wanting to do the right thing. I believe such an audience exists, and I believe that Michael Moore’s film can’t possibly reach them, except for those few, precious, powerful moments when he has the accidental grace and wisdom to shut the fuck up. The rest of the time he insists on mugging for his usual peanut gallery, and gets the expected applause from them.
This made me think a bit about the modern history of attempted political mobilization through popular culture in the United States, about what was both effective and a memorable work of art. There’s not a lot of work that can occupy both categories, some that occupies one, and much that occupies none.
What makes a work of culture effective in this sense? That it reaches an audience which was previously unmobilized or unconcerned by an issue and crystallizes or focuses their attention on a concrete issue in a way that produces an outcome that plausibly might not have occurred but for a particular film, book, television show or other cultural work. That might be a large public audience, or some segment of the public, or it might be a particular group of politicians, bureaucrats or institutional actors. The Jungle is an obvious and prototypical example. The China Syndrome would be another. Sometimes effectiveness is less a measure of changing future policy and more a matter of changing popular consensus about a past event or policy. Roots clearly made many Americans, both black and white, intensely aware of slavery as a legacy.
What would be examples of ineffectiveness? The John Wayne film The Green Berets might be one—the crudely irrelevant, stock-character patriotism of the film could only have convinced the already-convinced about Vietnam, and probably not even them.
This is a long and complicated history to consider, but when I try (however haltingly) to take a step back from my nearly instinctive dislike of Moore’s grandstanding to evaluate the claim that he is legitimate because he is effective, I can’t help but wonder whether he persuades anyone who is not already persuaded—the only measure of historical effectiveness that I think matters, past or present. I am prepared to find out that he does persuade and thus does matter, and belongs in the class of other creators who have mattered in the past, but my gut says not. What I fear is that he reinforces instead the self-referential insularity of one particular strand of the American left, which is not excusable even though it is mirrored by a vastly more grotesque, powerful and destructive form of the same behavior on the right.
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John E. St. Lawrence - 7/29/2004
Just found you via CT, where people are only slowly beginning to realize what you were saying. Your patience is admirable, and I will certainly add your blog to my regular reading.
And while this is a very nice article, you ARE being naiive about one thing. Moore is a polemicist. You are not. You are looking for an honest, intellectual argument. More power to you: we need that, and not just because it's in short supply.
As Marx observed (not a fan, just sayin'), a political movement must have a polemic if it is to struggle. That is, in modern English, "if you don't bitch you're not gonna be in the news." Intellectuals on the left are finally realizing that not all political engagements are in good faith, and that their stubborn adherence to any standard of argument is just the opening their opponent is looking for.
Now, the left must catch up on a whole generation of political-machine and propaganda-machine development (and they must do this with a comparitive shortage of capital, since they are not in the business of polemicising for privilege and concentrations of capital; beginning this enterprise in an era of $="speech" and consolidated/intimidated mass-media is like trying to start a vinyard in an ice age).
This means they're going to be producing a lot more with which you could find fault, if you are so inclined. (and a lot of it will probably be amateurish, and most of it will be ignored, at first) The more intellectual wing of the right does not seem to share your distaste for polemics, but that's another step in adaptation and maturation to the current climate of power. Ben Stein isn't stupid enough to buy into the daily Limbaugh spew, but still says he thinks Rush is pretty neato. I'm not expecting you to similarly stoop; again, just sayin'.
Moore's latest work is the first success the left's machine has had against the right's. David's adulation, yes, overlooks the fact that he needs a bath and a lesson in manners, simply because Goliath finally took one in the face.
Trying to apply standards to inapplicable situations is, at best, an academic exercise. I certainly don't begrudge you that, since I'm here now, writing in all likelihood into the void...
Kenneth T Heintz - 7/18/2004
using tactics that I take it (having not yet seen F9/11) are similar to those with which he makes his points in his film.
Recall: MM called Bush a deserter. MM had endorsed Wes Clark, so in the next Dem debate, Peter Jennings basically demanded that Clark denounce MM's remark "because we know it isn't true" (or some such; quoted from memory).
Except that "we" knew nothing of the sort. Technically, Jennings was correct in that "deserter" is a tough charge to make stick to Bush. But Jennings seemed to imply that the AWOL charge was unfair as well, which isn't true at all. Reporters, prompted by Jennings' strident defense of Bush, then took a second look at the AWOL story. The result was that Bush was knocked off-message for a couple of weeks, and hasn't completely shaken off the effects of that episode even now.
1. Though MM's use of the word "deserter" was tendentious and exaggerated, wasn't the result of it unambiguously favorable from the standpoint of a Bush opponent?
2. Isn't F9/11 really an example of the same approach, though obviously writ somewhat larger?
David Lion Salmanson - 7/12/2004
I don't think it was the China Crisis movie so much as the incident at Three Mile Island that turned the culture around on nuke issues. That combined with larger but less well-known disasters that were actually worse than TMI really turned the tide against the nuclear industry. Pro-nukers at the time called it TMItis. Very few mentions of the movie in pro- or anti- nuke literature that I have seen. I also remember being in the movie theater and they hit the line about "what if this happened in say Pennsylvania" and everybody cracking up. Granted, I lived in New York at the time so we thought it was pretty funny. Now if Shoreham had gone...
On a side note, it is interesting just how much the failure of nuclear energy transformed our corporate energy landscape. Goodbye Lilco and TVA; hello exelon.
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