[lit-ideas] Re: Hitchens on Moore's flick

  • From: Stephen Straker <straker@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Tue, 29 Jun 2004 12:59:37 -0700

Hitchens, who I have always found able and admirable, has lately become
most annoying. His criticism of "Fahrenheit 911" repeats the same
irritating mishandling of argumentation he has been applying for some
time now to other left-wing critics. The approach, and the error, is
exemplified in the following passage: 

> I had an onstage debate with Michael Moore at the Telluride Film Festival. 
> ... he stated his view that Osama Bin Laden should be
> considered innocent until proven guilty. This was, he said, the American 
> way... 
> ... Something -- I cannot guess what, since we knew as much then as
> we do now -- 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 
> any
> 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
> conversion. ... 

Hitchens is stubbornly opaque to this form of argument contra-Bush ---> 

"IF you insist that such-and-so is the case, THEN why are you so ineptly
doing x, y, and z which are so utterly contrary to your stated purposes
and, indeed, destructive of real American interests?  If you were
serious about dealing with such-and-so, you'd be actively doing a, b,
and c."  

So, in this case: IF the removal of the Taliban and the capture of Osama
bin Laden is so crucial in the war on terrorism, WHY have you virtually
abandoned the campaign in Afghanistan (in order to go after Saddam) to
the point that the old order is reasserting itself, etc., etc.?? Is this
not incompetent, dishonest, incoherent, & crying out for explanation? 

Hitchens routinely attacks this kind of argument as if its point were to
promote invasion or war, rather than to critique the hypocrisy or
dishonesty or incompetence of the ways in which invasion or war is being

So, he asks, what has changed your mind about the importance of armed
intervention in Afghanistan? Why just a year ago you said we had no
business there ... etc. 

It is largely because he consistently mischaracterizes the arguments
this way that he can then insist on the *contradictions* in the critics'
arguments. But the contradictions are not in the argument. The anti-Bush
critique involves many examining many lines of argument with many
different premises. There is no need for the premises of all the
arguments to be compatible (or even comparable) if the point of the
critique is to show *defects* in the various moves from whatever
premises to their purported conclusions. 

Hitchens continues, pointing out 
> wilder and (if possible) yet more-contradictory claims. President Bush is 
> accused
> 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?) ... 

No, he's supposed to be an un-interested hands-off TOOL of those who
unceasingly plan -- the odious Cheney -- while Bush (how appropriate) is
occupied clearing brush.  

Hitchens refers to 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, 
> ... If Clinton had done it, as he often did ... 

Hitchens is making this up. Neither Eisenhower nor Clinton ever did
anything like this. (BTW - Some of us will recall that Kennedy, who
enjoyed golf, refused to be photographed with a golf club lest he appear
to be, like Eisenhower, too unengaged and lackadaisical.) 

It is Bush's routine display of "ignorant, smirking, chest-out,
crotch-forward triumphalism" /** [note below] that is objectionable, and
the golf clip is yet another, muted, version of this. 

BTW - Can you imagine Eisenhower tarted up in flight gear doing that
carrier stunt? I can safely bet my house that Eisenhower *never*
appeared in military gear during his entire presidency.  

more Hitchens (there he goes again)

> ... the one thing that no reflective or informed person can possibly believe:
> 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." ... 

Hitchens does not mention what the film shows -- both Rice and Powell in
2001 explaining earnestly that Saddam is contained and is no problem, no
threat to anyone. Hitchens can argue against anyone who ever believed
this, but (AGAIN) he misses Moore's point that administration
spokespeople say this in 2001 and then completely reverse themselves in
2002, that the connection between their premises and their conclusion is

> The same "let's have it both ways" opportunism infects his treatment of
> another very serious subject, namely domestic counterterrorist policy.  

Here Hitchens even finds a name for his dogged mis-handling of what
Moore is up to. 

> ... 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...
> So -- 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. Again -- 
> simply
> not serious.

I'd say it's Hitchens's insistent missing the point that is not serious. 

> ... In the film, Moore says loudly and repeatedly that not
> enough troops were sent to garrison Afghanistan and Iraq. (This is now a 
> favorite
> 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? ... 

There's that argument again ... 

> 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. 

here's another critic:
"Still, this is Moore's most powerful movie - the largest in scope, the
most resourceful and skillful in means - and the best things in it have
little to do with his usual ideological take on American power and
George Bush.  In the last third of the film, Moore gets hold of a
genuine protagonist [Lila Lipscomb], and he has the good sense to stay
out of her way." /** 

"... in sharing her grief with Mr. Moore, she also gives his film an
eloquence that its most determined critics will find hard to dismiss. 
Mr. Bush is under no obligation to answer Mr. Moore's charges, but he
will have to answer to Mrs. Lipscomb." /***

"George & Me," The New Yorker (28 June 2004)
by David Denby

"'Fahrenheit 9/11': Unruly Scorn Leaves Room for Restraint, but Not a
Lot," The New York Times (23 June 2004)
by A.O. Scott

See also:

"Bush's Monica Moment," Atlantic Unbound (23 June 2004)
by Jack Beatty

"Proper Propaganda," Slate (24 June 2004)
by David Edelstein
a more direct response to Hitchens.

Stephen Straker 

Vancouver, B.C.

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