Super Sized Rhetoric

The pundits have been intoning that Fahrenheit 9/11 will not change any minds. But they are not taking into consideration the outlook of someone like Nick Anderson, a 22-year-old resident of New York who told the Times that he "wanted to see it as soon as possible. This is easier for people to understand than reading books, reading newspapers or watching C-Span."

Michael Moore is a master rhetorician, in the ancient and not flattering sense. But his rhetorical language is not English. It is film – not narrative film, but the information-imparting kind known as documentary. There is no point in accusing Moore, as some have, of not being a documentarian because he’s dishonest and manipulative. That’s like saying Hitler wasn’t an orator because his speeches told lies. The test of rhetorical skill is not truth but persuasion. Just ask Plato.

And Moore is persuasive. As a polemicist of film he is witty, inventive, messy in just the right way, and a master at three essential skills: timing, segue, and (not least) ironic juxtaposition. For example, he uses music brilliantly. Over a sequence of two spiffed-up Marine recruiters cruising a run-down shopping mall, he runs bright, effervescent disco. When a pumped GI says combat is more fun "with a good song playing in the background," Moore plays the soldier’s favorite, "Burn" by the punk band Rancid ("We don’t need no water / Let the motherfucker burn") over footage of an Iraqi man fleeing with a bloody child in his arms.

So here’s a tip for pundits and (especially) politicians: Don’t underestimate the power of rhetoric delivered in the crowd’s native tongue, just because you can’t speak it.

But Moore is a lazy thinker. Look for the ideas behind the polemic, and you will find a mind as flabby and inert as the body. Fahrenheit 9/11 contains a total of one idea and eight-tenths of a conspiracy theory.

First, the idea. It is fixed, unmovable, a regular North Star: The rich are out to screw the poor. There’s a lot to be said for this idea (as perhaps Moore understands, now that he’s rich). But usually it’s better to combine one idea with another, and this Moore seems incapable of doing.

Once you figure out what Moore’s fixed idea is, you can negotiate what to a normal mind seems inconsistent. Take the American soldiers in Iraq. When Moore sees them as poor, hailing from economically depressed places like Flint, Michigan, then they are the ones getting screwed. But when he sees them as rich, riding around in fancy tanks and shooting at ragged Iraqis, they are the ones doing the screwing. Really, it’s no more complicated than that.

This simplistic worldview causes some weird effects. For example, the sequence in which several African-American members of the House of Representatives register objections to the outcome of the 2000 election, only to be told by the Rich White Dude on the podium that without the support of at least one senator, their objections don’t count. In a voice-over oozing with sympathy for the underdog. Moore sums up what the Rich White Dude is really saying: "Shut up and sit down!" The only problem is, the Rich White Dude is Al Gore.

Now consider Moore’s conspiracy theory. Eight-tenths of it are the same as the conspiracy theory held by millions around the world, from European leftists to angry Muslims, who see Bush as the clueless but conniving head of a gigantic imperialist plot to take over the Middle East (not to mention the rest of the globe). But Moore’s version is missing two key elements.

First, Israel. In this entire frenzied centrifuge of a movie, in which no corrupt, finagling, behind-the-scenes, back-scratching connection among presidents, princes, CEOs, sheiks, and terrorists is too tenuous to be credited, there is not one single mention of Israel. Given that millions of Moore admirers around the world believe that the rich Americans are in cahoots with the rich Israelis, why does he focus on rich Americans in cahoots with rich Saudis?

The answer is simple. Moore can do without the added PR boost that comes with being called an anti-Semite. Earlier this spring, Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ got just such a boost, but with it came widespread opprobrium. If Moore were desperate for box-office tinder, he’d probably light this match. But he’s got plenty of other matches to light. Indeed, he does something very clever: he trades on both anti-Semitism and anti-Arab prejudice by casting the Saudis in the role typically reserved for the Israelis.

Still, in a film about terrorism and the Middle East, the omission of any mention of American support for Israel is not just glaring, it is (to judge from the lack of comment about it) blinding.

The second missing element is the link that, if made explicit, would complete Moore’s paranoid logic: George W. Bush is responsible for 9/11. Think about it. Without this conclusion, the film’s critique (if you can call it that) is strangely attentuated and unresolved. With it, everything falls into place. The Bush family, the bin Laden family, Halliburton, the Carlyle Group, the Unocal company and the rest of corporate America worked together to kill over 3,000 people on September 11, in order to provide a pretext for cracking down on civil liberties, sweeping the poor off the streets to serve as cannon fodder, and in general creating the conditions for what George Orwell called "perpetual war." All for the sake of greater profits.

If this is Moore’s message, then he ought to come out and say it, instead of relying on innuendo. But that would require guts, as opposed to a big gut.

July 12, 2004 11:00 AM |

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