Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

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Fahrenheit 9/11 Reviews Show Restraint

Jerry Stratton, July 29, 2004

Reviewers of Michael Moore’s latest work appear to have learned their lesson: don’t put anything you learned in writing, because it is probably wrong.

I have not yet seen the movie. What most interests me is what people who like the movie feel they’ve learned. The answer appears to be “don’t tell people what you’ve learned.” While negative reviews of Fahrenheit 9/11 cite specifics about the movie left and right, most of the positive reviews I’ve seen are extremely vague on anything other than that the movie is “worth seeing”.

Positive reviews of Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine” fell into the trap of believing that Moore was not being deceptive, of believing that if they saw it on the screen, it must in fact have happened, and it happened that way. Reviewers ended up saying things like “and then forty-eight hours later, Heston was in Flint at another pro-gun rally”.

Now, Moore never actually said that Heston went to Flint for a pro-gun rally forty-eight hours after the Mt. Morris killing. He simply talked about the first event, flashed the words “forty-eight hours” up on the screen, and then talked about the second event. Reviewers only assumed that there was some relevance. Their reviews made it clear just how effectively deceptive Moore’s movie was. And they ended up looking like idiots for having trusted Moore.

So now, they’ve learned their lesson: no more facts from the movies, just platitudes. Most of the positive reviews I’ve seen could have been written by someone who has never seen the movie. For all Moore’s pride in his so-called “fact-checking”, the reviewers who like the movie do not seem to trust any of his facts enough to risk embarassing themselves in public.

And some of these reviews are long, too. Look at Andrew Somers’ review on the about.com civil liberties web site. Two pages of “you must see this movie” and zero pages of anything specific that was actually in the movie.

One who tried

It’s probably a good idea that they don’t. An example of why vagueness in defense of Moore is a good idea is Kevin Shay’s review on OpEdNews.com. While most of the review is filled with quotes about how it was a cool movie and “worth seeing”, he does find space to describe a few of the things that he learned from Fahrenheit 9/11. Here are the four items he based his conclusions on, up to the very last item just before he refuses an aspirin from a theater employee:

  1. “Only one out of 535 members of Congress, which largely supported the Iraqi invasion, had a child there.”
  2. “Bush spent 42% of his first eight months as president on vacation”
  3. “Bush tells a banquet room full of wealthy campaign contributors, ‘Here I am, with the haves and the have-mores. People call you the elite. I call you my base.’”
  4. “Even as fires from Flight 77 burned on one side of the Pentagon on 9/11, Rumsfeld wrote down his thoughts on the other side: ‘Judge whether good enough [to] hit S.H. [Saddam Hussein] at the same time. Not only UBL [Usama Bin Laden]... Go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not.’”

All four of these are wrong. Whatever Moore actually said in the movie, Kevin Shaw came out having learned things that were not true.

“Only one out of 535 members of Congress... had a child [in Iraq].”

As it turns out, there are at least seven members of congress with children in the military, and at least two members of Congress who have children in Iraq, twice as many as Kevin thinks Moore claimed. In today’s smaller military, this means that members of Congress are more likely than Americans as a whole to have children in Iraq.

“Bush spent 42% of his first eight months on vacation”

The Washington Post was the source of the 42% number. But the Washington Post did not say that Bush spent 42% of his first eight months on vacation. It says he spent 42% of his first eight months at vacation spots or en-route to vacation spots. As President, this is an important distinction, because “vacation spots” includes time spent with world leaders discussing world issues. In the clip that Moore shows of Bush “relaxing at Camp David”, U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair is right next to him. This is not a vacation.

“Bush tells a banquet room full of wealthy campaign contributors...”

They were not a banquet room full of wealthy campaign contributors. They were a banquet room full of wealthy charity contributors. It was not a campaign dinner, it was a hospital charities fund-raiser. Bush gave this speech on October 19, 2000, at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner. George Bush and Al Gore were both there as guests of honor. The speakers are expected to make fun of themselves. This was not a serious speech. Al Gore, for example, made fun of his having invented the Internet.

Both Al Gore and George Bush were there to raise money for hospital care for the poor. One would think this is something Michael Moore would approve of but perhaps Kevin misunderstood Moore’s point.

Rumsfeld wrote down his thoughts...

No, or at least, not those thoughts. Those “thoughts” were written by an unspecified Pentagon employee. What the employee wrote was “best info fast. Judge whether good enough hit S.H.” First, this is filtered through someone else’s shorthand. There is no telling what Rumsfeld actually said. But with the addition of “best info fast” this doesn’t sound quite so bad. Iraq was shooting at U.S. pilots every day. He had already called the United States a valid target for revenge. On September 11 he voiced support of the attacks in Iraqi newspapers. Getting the “best info” was not a bad idea.

As far as “Sweep it all up. Things related and not,” looking only at intelligence we thought was relevant is part of how we missed the 9/11 attacks. The aid appears to be hearing nothing more than Rumsfeld asking him or her to look at all the data they can on the subject, even if at first glance it does not appear related. This is what “sweep it all up” means in an investigation. It is a reference to what investigators will do once they have picked up everything they think is relevant in regards to a case: sweep the rest of the room clean and bag even the dust for later analysis. Whether the dust is believed to be related to the case or not, you do not throw it out in an important investigation.

Whether interpreted in a good or a bad light, however, Rumsfeld did not write this. Unless Rumsfeld speaks in shorthand, it is also not a quote of whatever Rumsfeld did say.

Deception is truth?

One of the more fascinating reviews is Paul Krugman’s in the New York Times. The only real “fact” that he writes about, he goes ahead and debunks. He then says that “Viewers may come away from Moore’s movie believing some things that probably aren’t true...”. But it doesn’t matter, because, hey, other people lie, too. And in a nod to Orwell, deception is truth. “It would be a better movie if it didn’t promote a few unproven conspiracy theories,” he says, but the movie “tells essential truths”.

This contrasts strongly with other things Krugman has written, for example in this September 6, 2002 New York Times editorial:

War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength... Once an administration believes that it can get away with insisting that black is white and up is down--and everything in this administration’s history suggests that it believes just that--it’s hard to see where the process stops. A habit of ignoring inconvenient reality, and presuming that the docile media will go along, soon infects all aspects of policy.

We cannot oppose Orwellian deceptions when used in defense of policies we oppose and ignore such deceptions when used in the service of polices we support. Replace “administration” with “director” and this is what Krugman says about Moore--except that in Moore’s case, it’s a good thing, an “essential truth”.

Why does it matter?

In the twenties, when the prohibitionists used deception to pass prohibition laws, and promised unfulfillable promises if prohibition were passed, those promises were remembered. When prohibition resulted in greater violence and more alcohol-induced emergencies, people remembered, and prohibition was blamed for the violence and disease.

When we say that the war in Iraq is wrong because so few congressmen have children in Iraq, that means that the war in Iraq is good when it turns out that more congressmen than other Americans have children in Iraq.

When we say that Bush is a bad president because he takes so much vacation time, that makes Bush a good president when it turns out that this wasn’t vacation time at all, but rather meetings with world leaders about domestic and world issues.

What future will the Alfred E. Smith charity dinner have now that politicians cannot speak without having their words taken completely out of context?

This is what bothers me the most about Moore’s form of deception: it punishes people for the good that they do as much as the bad. People come out of that movie thinking that charity work was bad!

When something like 9/11 happens again, will our politicians detain and risk the lives of more innocent people than they did this time, because of what people come out of this movie believing? I have not heard anyone come out of Fahrenheit complaining that we’re holding too many people at Guantanamo Bay. But I have heard them come out complaining that we didn’t hold enough innocent Arabs after 9/11!

What good does it do to bring one politician down if the end result is that more politicians fear to do good?

Honesty cannot be a mere convenience abrogated for people and views we agree with, and deception only something we point out for people and views we disagree with.

In the end, any deceptive movie claiming to be a documentary will be--and should be--remembered more for the depth to which its footage is deceptive than for any supposed “good cause” in whose name the deception was committed. We do not counter deception with deception. We can only counter deception with truth.

This is not just Moore’s fault. Yes, he has a history of deception, but everyone knows he has a history of deception. Many of these positive reviews even mention that. Despite that, some of the things reviewers are coming out of Fahrenheit believing are so obviously untrue. If they did not already want to believe it, no one could look at George Bush’s “haves and have mores” speech without realizing it wasn’t a real speech. Kevin Shay claims that Fahrenheit “made me think” but he clearly didn’t carry that thinking very far. Bob Brown acknowledges that “Moore takes licence”, but still manages to believe such a blatant falsehood. (Brown then ironically goes on to add “this, in a nation with 30 million people too poor to access hospital care.”)

If there are any good questions coming out of Moore’s movies, I don’t see reviewers asking them. How much deception are we willing to accept from someone when we agree with them? How much distortion should we accept if it's toward a good cause? We cannot make good political decisions based on a flawed foundation. Deception breeds deception and lies breed lies. If we accept deception today because it is in a good cause, we will end up accepting lies tomorrow for a bad cause.

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