[lit-ideas] Hitchens on Moore's flick

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  • Date: Tue, 29 Jun 2004 10:22:10 EDT

Ruthless criticism from the former Nation contributor. -EY
Unfairenheit 9/11
The lies of Michael Moore.
By Christopher Hitchens

One of the many problems with the American left, and indeed of the American 
left, has been its image and self-image as something rather too solemn, 
mirthless, herbivorous, dull, monochrome, righteous, and boring. How many 
times, in 
my old days at The Nation magazine, did I hear wistful and semienvious 
ruminations? Where was the radical Firing Line show? Who will be our Rush 
Limbaugh? I 
used privately to hope that the emphasis, if the comrades ever got around to 
it, would be on the first of those and not the second. But the meetings 
themselves were so mind-numbing and lugubrious that I thought the danger of 
on either front was infinitely slight.

Nonetheless, it seems that an answer to this long-felt need is finally 
beginning to emerge. I exempt Al Franken's unintentionally funny Air America 
network, to which I gave a couple of interviews in its early days. There, one 
hear the reassuring noise of collapsing scenery and tripped-over wires and be 
reminded once again that correct politics and smooth media presentation are not 
even distant cousins. With Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, however, an 
entirely new note has been struck. Here we glimpse a possible fusion between 
turgid routines of MoveOn.org and the filmic standards, if not exactly the 
filmic skills, of Sergei Eisenstein or Leni Riefenstahl.

To describe this film as dishonest and demagogic would almost be to promote 
those terms to the level of respectability. To describe this film as a piece of 
crap would be to run the risk of a discourse that would never again rise 
above the excremental. To describe it as an exercise in facile crowd-pleasing 
would be too obvious. Fahrenheit 9/11 is a sinister exercise in moral 
crudely disguised as an exercise in seriousness. It is also a spectacle of 
abject political cowardice masking itself as a demonstration of "dissenting" 

In late 2002, almost a year after the al-Qaida assault on American society, I 
had an onstage debate with Michael Moore at the Telluride Film Festival. In 
the course of this exchange, he stated his view that Osama Bin Laden should be 
considered innocent until proven guilty. This was, he said, the American way. 
The intervention in Afghanistan, he maintained, had been at least to that 
extent unjustified. Somethingâ??I cannot guess what, since we knew as much then 
we do nowâ??has since apparently persuaded Moore that Osama Bin Laden is as 
guilty as hell. Indeed, Osama is suddenly so guilty and so all-powerful that 
other discussion of any other topic is a dangerous "distraction" from the fight 
against him. I believe that I understand the convenience of this late 

Recruiters in Michigan
Fahrenheit 9/11 makes the following points about Bin Laden and about 
Afghanistan, and makes them in this order:

1) The Bin Laden family (if not exactly Osama himself) had a close if 
convoluted business relationship with the Bush family, through the Carlyle 

2) Saudi capital in general is a very large element of foreign investment in 
the United States.

3) The Unocal company in Texas had been willing to discuss a gas pipeline 
across Afghanistan with the Taliban, as had other vested interests.

4) The Bush administration sent far too few ground troops to Afghanistan and 
thus allowed far too many Taliban and al-Qaida members to escape.

5) The Afghan government, in supporting the coalition in Iraq, was purely 
risible in that its non-army was purely American.

6) The American lives lost in Afghanistan have been wasted. (This I divine 
from the fact that this supposedly "antiwar" film is dedicated ruefully to all 
those killed there, as well as in Iraq.)

It must be evident to anyone, despite the rapid-fire way in which Moore's 
direction eases the audience hastily past the contradictions, that these 
discrepant scatter shots do not cohere at any point. Either the Saudis run U.S. 
(through family ties or overwhelming economic interest), or they do not. As 
allies and patrons of the Taliban regime, they either opposed Bush's removal of 
it, or they did not. (They opposed the removal, all right: They wouldn't even 
let Tony Blair land his own plane on their soil at the time of the 
operation.) Either we sent too many troops, or were wrong to send any at 
allâ??the latter 
was Moore's view as late as 2002â??or we sent too few. If we were going to make 
sure no Taliban or al-Qaida forces survived or escaped, we would have had to 
be more ruthless than I suspect that Mr. Moore is really recommending. And 
these are simply observations on what is "in" the film. If we turn to the facts 
that are deliberately left out, we discover that there is an emerging Afghan 
army, that the country is now a joint NATO responsibility and thus under the 
protection of the broadest military alliance in history, that it has a new 
constitution and is preparing against hellish odds to hold a general election, 
that at least a million and a half of its former refugees have opted to return. 
I don't think a pipeline is being constructed yet, not that Afghanistan 
couldn't do with a pipeline. But a highway from Kabul to Kandaharâ??an 
against warlordism and a condition of nation-buildingâ??is nearing completion 
infinite labor and risk. We also discover that the parties of the Afghan 
leftâ??like the parties of the Iraqi secular leftâ??are strongly in favor of 
regime change. But this is not the sort of irony in which Moore chooses to 

He prefers leaden sarcasm to irony and, indeed, may not appreciate the 
distinction. In a long and paranoid (and tedious) section at the opening of the 
film, he makes heavy innuendoes about the flights that took members of the Bin 
Laden family out of the country after Sept. 11. I banged on about this myself 
the time and wrote a Nation column drawing attention to the groveling Larry 
King interview with the insufferable Prince Bandar, which Moore excerpts. 
However, recent developments have not been kind to our Mike. In the interval 
Moore's triumph at Cannes and the release of the film in the United States, 
the 9/11 commission has found nothing to complain of in the timing or 
arrangement of the flights. And Richard Clarke, Bush's former chief of 
counterterrorism, has come forward to say that he, and he alone, took the 
responsibility for 
authorizing those Saudi departures. This might not matter so much to the ethos 
of Fahrenheit 9/11, except thatâ??as you might expectâ??Clarke is presented 
throughout as the brow-furrowed ethical hero of the entire post-9/11 moment. 
And it 
does not seem very likely that, in his open admission about the Bin Laden 
family evacuation, Clarke is taking a fall, or a spear in the chest, for the 
administration. So, that's another bust for this windy and bloated cinematic 
"key to all mythologies."

A film that bases itself on a big lie and a big misrepresentation can only 
sustain itself by a dizzying succession of smaller falsehoods, beefed up by 
wilder and (if possible) yet more-contradictory claims. President Bush is 
of taking too many lazy vacations. (What is that about, by the way? Isn't he 
supposed to be an unceasing planner for future aggressive wars?) But the shot 
of him "relaxing at Camp David" shows him side by side with Tony Blair. I say 
"shows," even though this photograph is on-screen so briefly that if you sneeze 
or blink, you won't recognize the other figure. A meeting with the prime 
minister of the United Kingdom, or at least with this prime minister, is not a 

The president is also captured in a well-worn TV news clip, on a golf course, 
making a boilerplate response to a question on terrorism and then asking the 
reporters to watch his drive. Well, that's what you get if you catch the 
president on a golf course. If Eisenhower had done this, as he often did, it 
have been presented as calm statesmanship. If Clinton had done it, as he often 
did, it would have shown his charm. More interesting is the moment where Bush 
is shown frozen on his chair at the infant school in Florida, looking stunned 
and useless for seven whole minutes after the news of the second plane on 
9/11. Many are those who say that he should have leaped from his stool, adopted 
Russell Crowe stance, and gone to work. I could even wish that myself. But if 
he had done any such thing then (as he did with his "Let's roll" and "dead or 
alive" remarks a month later), half the Michael Moore community would now be 
calling him a man who went to war on a hectic, crazed impulse. The other half 
would be saying what they already sayâ??that he knew the attack was coming, was 
using it to cement himself in power, and couldn't wait to get on with his 
coup. This is the line taken by Gore Vidal and by a scandalous recent book that 
also revives the charge of FDR's collusion over Pearl Harbor. At least Moore's 
film should put the shameful purveyors of that last theory back in their 
paranoid box.

But it won't because it encourages their half-baked fantasies in so many 
other ways. We are introduced to Iraq, "a sovereign nation." (In fact, Iraq's 
"sovereignty" was heavily qualified by international sanctions, however 
questionable, which reflected its noncompliance with important U.N. 
resolutions.) In 
this peaceable kingdom, according to Moore's flabbergasting choice of film 
children are flying little kites, shoppers are smiling in the sunshine, and 
the gentle rhythms of life are undisturbed. Thenâ??wham! From the night sky 
the terror weapons of American imperialism. Watching the clips Moore uses, and 
recalling them well, I can recognize various Saddam palaces and military and 
police centers getting the treatment. But these sites are not identified as 
such. In fact, I don't think Al Jazeera would, on a bad day, have transmitted 
anything so utterly propagandistic. You would also be led to think that the 
"civilian casualty" had not even been in the Iraqi vocabulary until March 
2003. I remember asking Moore at Telluride if he was or was not a pacifist. He 
would not give a straight answer then, and he doesn't now, either. I'll just 
that the "insurgent" side is presented in this film as justifiably outraged, 
whereas the 30-year record of Baathist war crimes and repression and 
aggression is not mentioned once. (Actually, that's not quite right. It is 
mentioned but only, and smarmily, because of the bad period when Washington 
preferred Saddam to the likewise unmentioned Ayatollah Khomeini.)

That thisâ??his pro-American momentâ??was the worst Moore could possibly say of 
Saddam's depravity is further suggested by some astonishing falsifications. 
Moore asserts that Iraq under Saddam had never attacked or killed or even 
threatened (his words) any American. I never quite know whether Moore is as 
as he looks, or even if that would be humanly possible. Baghdad was for years 
the official, undisguised home address of Abu Nidal, then the most-wanted 
gangster in the world, who had been sentenced to death even by the PLO and had 
blown up airports in Vienna* and Rome. Baghdad was the safe house for the man 
whose "operation" murdered Leon Klinghoffer. Saddam boasted publicly of his 
financial sponsorship of suicide bombers in Israel. (Quite a few Americans of 
denominations walk the streets of Jerusalem.) In 1991, a large number of 
Western hostages were taken by the hideous Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and held in 
terrible conditions for a long time. After that same invasion was 
having killed quite a few Americans and Egyptians and Syrians and Brits in 
the meantime and having threatened to kill many moreâ??the Iraqi secret police 
were caught trying to murder former President Bush during his visit to Kuwait. 
Never mind whether his son should take that personally. (Though why should he 
not?) Should you and I not resent any foreign dictatorship that attempts to 
one of our retired chief executives? (President Clinton certainly took it 
that way: He ordered the destruction by cruise missiles of the Baathist 
"security" headquarters.) Iraqi forces fired, every day, for 10 years, on the 
that patrolled the no-fly zones and staved off further genocide in the north 
and south of the country. In 1993, a certain Mr. Yasin helped mix the chemicals 
for the bomb at the World Trade Center and then skipped to Iraq, where he 
remained a guest of the state until the overthrow of Saddam. In 2001, Saddam's 
regime was the only one in the region that openly celebrated the attacks on New 
York and Washington and described them as just the beginning of a larger 
revenge. Its official media regularly spewed out a stream of anti-Semitic 
incitement. I think one might describe that as "threatening," even if one was 
enough to think that anti-Semitism only menaces Jews. And it was after, and not 
before, the 9/11 attacks that Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi moved from Afghanistan to 
Baghdad and began to plan his now very open and lethal design for a holy and 
ethnic civil war. On Dec. 1, 2003, the New York Times reportedâ??and the David 
Kay report had establishedâ??that Saddam had been secretly negotiating with the 
"Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il in a series of secret meetings in Syria, as late as 
the spring of 2003, to buy a North Korean missile system, and 
system, right off the shelf. (This attempt was not uncovered until after the 
fall of Baghdad, the coalition's presence having meanwhile put an end to the 

Thus, in spite of the film's loaded bias against the work of the mind, you 
can grasp even while watching it that Michael Moore has just said, in so many 
words, the one thing that no reflective or informed person can possibly 
that Saddam Hussein was no problem. No problem at all. Now look again at the 
facts I have cited above. If these things had been allowed to happen under any 
other administration, you can be sure that Moore and others would now glibly 
be accusing the president of ignoring, or of having ignored, some fairly 
unmistakable "warnings."

The same "let's have it both ways" opportunism infects his treatment of 
another very serious subject, namely domestic counterterrorist policy. From 
accused of overlooking too many warningsâ??not exactly an original pointâ??the 
administration is now lavishly taunted for issuing too many. (Would there not 
have been "fear" if the harbingers of 9/11 had been taken seriously?) We are 
shown some American civilians who have had absurd encounters with idiotic 
"security" staff. (Have you ever met anyone who can't tell such a story?) Then 
we are 
immediately shown underfunded police departments that don't have the means or 
the manpower to do any stop-and-search: a power suddenly demanded by Moore on 
their behalf that we know by definition would at least lead to some ridiculous 
interrogations. Finally, Moore complains that there isn't enough intrusion 
and confiscation at airports and says that it is appalling that every air 
traveler is not forcibly relieved of all matches and lighters. (Cue mood music 
sinister influence of Big Tobacco.) Soâ??he wants even more pocket-rummaging by 
airport officials? Uh, no, not exactly. But by this stage, who's counting? 
Moore is having it three ways and asserting everything and nothing. 
not serious.

Circling back to where we began, why did Moore's evil Saudis not join "the 
Coalition of the Willing"? Why instead did they force the United States to 
switch its regional military headquarters to Qatar? If the Bush family and the 
al-Saud dynasty live in each other's pockets, as is alleged in a sort of vulgar 
sub-Brechtian scene with Arab headdresses replacing top hats, then how come the 
most reactionary regime in the region has been powerless to stop Bush from 
demolishing its clone in Kabul and its buffer regime in Baghdad? The Saudis 
as they did in 1991, the idea that Iraq's recuperated oil industry might 
challenge their near-monopoly. They fear the liberation of the Shiite Muslims 
so despise. To make these elementary points is to collapse the whole pathetic 
edifice of the film's "theory." Perhaps Moore prefers the pro-Saudi 
Kissinger/Scowcroft plan for the Middle East, where stability trumps every 
consideration and where one dare not upset the local house of cards, or 
killing-field of Kurds? This would be a strange position for a purported 
radical. Then 
again, perhaps he does not take this conservative line because his real pitch 
not to any audience member with a serious interest in foreign policy. It is to 
the provincial isolationist.

I have already said that Moore's film has the staunch courage to mock Bush 
for his verbal infelicity. Yet it's much, much braver than that. From 
9/11 you can glean even more astounding and hidden disclosures, such as the 
capitalist nature of American society, the existence of Eisenhower's 
"military-industrial complex," and the use of "spin" in the presentation of our 
politicians. It's high time someone had the nerve to point this out. There's 
Poor people often volunteer to join the army, and some of them are duskier than 
others. Betcha didn't know that. Back in Flint, Mich., Moore feels on safe 
ground. There are no martyred rabbits this time. Instead, it's the poor and 
who shoulder the packs and rifles and march away. I won't dwell on the fact 
that black Americans have fought for almost a century and a half, from 
on their right to join the U.S. Army and fight in the Civil War to the right 
to have a desegregated Army that set the pace for post-1945 civil rights. I'll 
merely ask this: In the film, Moore says loudly and repeatedly that not 
enough troops were sent to garrison Afghanistan and Iraq. (This is now a 
cleverness of those who were, in the first place, against sending any soldiers 
at all.) Well, where does he think those needful heroes and heroines would 
have come from? Does he favor a draftâ??the most statist and oppressive 
Does he think that only hapless and gullible proles sign up for the Marines? 
Does he thinkâ??as he seems to suggestâ??that parents can "send" their 
children, as 
he stupidly asks elected members of Congress to do? Would he have abandoned 
Gettysburg because the Union allowed civilians to pay proxies to serve in their 
place? Would he have supported the antidraft (and very antiblack) riots 
against Lincoln in New York? After a point, one realizes that it's a waste of 
asking him questions of this sort. It would be too much like taking him 
seriously. He'll just try anything once and see if it floats or flies or gets a 

Trying to talk congressmen into sending their sons to war
Indeed, Moore's affected and ostentatious concern for black America is one of 
the most suspect ingredients of his pitch package. In a recent interview, he 
yelled that if the hijacked civilians of 9/11 had been black, they would have 
fought back, unlike the stupid and presumably cowardly white men and women 
(and children). Never mind for now how many black passengers were on those 
we happen to know what Moore does not care to mention: that Todd Beamer and a 
few of his co-passengers, shouting "Let's roll," rammed the hijackers with a 
trolley, fought them tooth and nail, and helped bring down a United Airlines 
plane, in Pennsylvania, that was speeding toward either the White House or the 
Capitol. There are no words for real, impromptu bravery like that, which 
helped save our republic from worse than actually befell. The Pennsylvania 
also reminds one of the self-evident fact that this war is not fought only 
"overseas" or in uniform, but is being brought to our cities. Yet Moore is a 
and shady man who does not recognize courage of any sort even when he sees it 
because he cannot summon it in himself. To him, easy applause, in front of 
credulous audiences, is everything.

Moore has announced that he won't even appear on TV shows where he might face 
hostile questioning. I notice from the New York Times of June 20 that he has 
pompously established a rapid response team, and a fact-checking staff, and 
some tough lawyers, to bulwark himself against attack. He'll sue, Moore says, 
anyone insults him or his pet. Some right-wing hack groups, I gather, are 
planning to bring pressure on their local movie theaters to drop the film. How 
dumb or thuggish do you have to be in order to counter one form of stupidity 
cowardice with another? By all means go and see this terrible film, and take 
your friends, and if the fools in the audience strike up one cry, in favor of 
surrender or defeat, feel free to join in the conversation.

However, I think we can agree that the film is so flat-out phony that 
"fact-checking" is beside the point. And as for the scary lawyersâ??get a life, 
maybe see me in court. But I offer this, to Moore and to his rapid response 
rabble. Any time, Michael my boy. Let's redo Telluride. Any show. Any place. 
platform. Let's see what you're made of.

Some people soothingly say that one should relax about all this. It's only a 
movie. No biggie. It's no worse than the tomfoolery of Oliver Stone. It's 
kick-ass entertainment. It might even help get out "the youth vote." Yeah, 
well, I 
have myself written and presented about a dozen low-budget made-for-TV 
documentaries, on subjects as various as Mother Teresa and Bill Clinton and the 
Cyprus crisis, and I also helped produce a slightly more polished one on Henry 
Kissinger that was shown in movie theaters. So I know, thanks, before you tell 
me, that a documentary must have a "POV" or point of view and that it must also 
impose a narrative line. But if you leave out absolutely everything that might 
give your "narrative" a problem and throw in any old rubbish that might 
support it, and you don't even care that one bit of that rubbish flatly 
the next bit, and you give no chance to those who might differ, then you have 
betrayed your craft. If you flatter and fawn upon your potential audience, I 
might add, you are patronizing them and insulting them. By the same token, if 
I write an article and I quote somebody and for space reasons put in an 
ellipsis like this (â?¦), I swear on my children that I am not leaving out 
that, if quoted in full, would alter the original meaning or its significance. 
Those who violate this pact with readers or viewers are to be despised. At no 
point does Michael Moore make the smallest effort to be objective. At no moment 
does he pass up the chance of a cheap sneer or a jeer. He pitilessly focuses 
his camera, for minutes after he should have turned it off, on a distraught 
and bereaved mother whose grief we have already shared. (But then, this is the 
guy who thought it so clever and amusing to catch Charlton Heston, in Bowling 
for Columbine, at the onset of his senile dementia.) Such courage.

Perhaps vaguely aware that his movie so completely lacks gravitas, Moore 
concludes with a sonorous reading of some words from George Orwell. The words 
taken from 1984 and consist of a third-person analysis of a hypothetical, 
endless, and contrived war between three superpowers. The clear intention, as 
clumsily excerpted like this (...) is to suggest that there is no moral 
distinction between the United States, the Taliban, and the Baath Party and 
that the war 
against jihad is about nothing. If Moore had studied a bit more, or at all, 
he could have read Orwell really saying, and in his own voice, the following:

The majority of pacifists either belong to obscure religious sects or are 
simply humanitarians who object to taking life and prefer not to follow their 
thoughts beyond that point. But there is a minority of intellectual pacifists, 
whose real though unacknowledged motive appears to be hatred of western 
democracy and admiration for totalitarianism. Pacifist propaganda usually boils 
to saying that one side is as bad as the other, but if one looks closely at the 
writing of the younger intellectual pacifists, one finds that they do not by 
any means express impartial disapproval but are directed almost entirely 
against Britain and the United States â?¦

And that's just from Orwell's Notes on Nationalism in May 1945. A short word 
of advice: In general, it's highly unwise to quote Orwell if you are already 
way out of your depth on the question of moral equivalence. It's also 
incautious to remind people of Orwell if you are engaged in a sophomoric 
rewriting of recent history.

If Michael Moore had had his way, Slobodan Milosevic would still be the big 
man in a starved and tyrannical Serbia. Bosnia and Kosovo would have been 
cleansed and annexed. If Michael Moore had been listened to, Afghanistan would 
still be under Taliban rule, and Kuwait would have remained part of Iraq. And 
itself would still be the personal property of a psychopathic crime family, 
bargaining covertly with the slave state of North Korea for WMD. You might hope 
that a retrospective awareness of this kind would induce a little modesty. To 
the contrary, it is employed to pump air into one of the great sagging blimps 
of our sorry, mediocre, celeb-rotten culture. Rock the vote, indeed. 

Correction, June 22, 2004: This piece originally referred to terrorist 
attacks by Abu Nidal's group on the Munich and Rome airports. The 1985 attacks 
occurred at the Rome and Vienna airports. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair. His latest book, Blood, 
Class and Empire: The Enduring Anglo-American Relationship, is out in 

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