Round Zero

Does a "good cause" justify demagoguery of 9/11?


A number of people have compared Fahrenheit 9/11, the new film by left-wing enfant terrible Michael Moore, to the other controversial hit movie of 2004, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. In his weblog, journalist Andrew Sullivan outlines some unflattering similarities, from the demonization of the villains to the emotional bludgeoning of the audience with graphic violence to the crude exploitation of a bereaved mother's grief. Several film critics have also pointed to the kinship between the two movies.

There are intriguing off-screen parallels, too. Both films became the focus of heated debate before their release; both had troubles with distributors. Both Gibson and Moore adroitly milked the controversy for all it was worth, marketing their oeuvre as the movie that The Powers That Be (Hollywood and the liberal media, the Bush administration and the conservative attack machine) didn't want you to see. In each case, this politicized and polarizing marketing campaign appealed to its target audience's sense of paranoia and victimization: to many conservative Christians' conviction that they and their values are under assault by secularist liberals; to many liberal Democrats' conviction that they live under illegal occupation by an evil fascist clique.

Some reviewers, such as the Los Angeles Times' Kenneth Turan and Slate's David Edelstein, have noted the kinship between the two films; Edelstein bluntly dubbed Fahrenheit 9/11 "the liberals' The Passion of the Christ." Yet, curiously, these critics treated Moore's film far more favorably. The titles of Turan's reviews capture the difference: "A Narrow Vision and Staggering Violence" versus "No holds barred: Michael Moore's partisan yet provocative Fahrenheit 9/11 commands attention."

Other critics who, not long ago, assailed The Passion of the Christ for its simplistic mindset, its intolerance, its lack of balance, and its distortions of history have praised Fahrenheit 9/11, sometimes while fully acknowledging that it shares these flaws. (This trend was first noted on a website called Beautiful Atrocities.) "Some of its particulars may not be true or fair"; "blithely trampling the boundary between documentary and demagoguery"; "obviously skews facts to its own advantage"—those comments are from the good reviews.

Edelstein, for one, is startlingly candid about one factor behind this attitude. It can be summed up as: Michael Moore is a demagogue, but he's our demagogue. This point is underscored by the caption on a still with his review, " 9/11: Bias and bullying in a good cause." Edelstein freely admits that many of Moore's swipes at his targets are boorish cheap shots, but he laughs anyway because they're directed at the right people. Moore's shameless manipulation of facts and emotions, he concludes, "must be viewed in the context of the Iraq occupation and the torrent of misleading claims that got us there," and in the context of the right-wing hate-mongering of the Ann Coulters and the Rush Limbaughs. This is the playground argument: They started it.

Yet such arguments are being made all the time. A critique of Moore's dirty tactics in the left-of-center Salon.com prompted angry letters claiming that, as one writer put it, "the left needs its own dirty fighters." The corollary argument is that the end justifies the means: If Moore's demagoguery is what it takes to turn public opinion against Bush, so be it.

Never mind that Fahrenheit 9/11 is about as likely to change minds as The Passion of the Christ is to convert non-Christians. If anything, as Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen notes, it may push undecided voters the other way. This is, after all, a film in which we are treated to idyllic images of life in Saddam's Iraq, and are expected to find President Bush's stunned reaction to the news of the second plane hitting the World Trade Center either laughable or sinister.

Meanwhile, some conservatives will no doubt use Moore's movie as a justification for nastiness and demagoguery on the right. Is Michael Moore the counter-Ann Coulter? Is Ann Coulter the counter-Michael Moore? Either way, the vicious cycle keeps getting more vicious. Just recently, the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign contributed to the Moorification (or Coulterization) of public discourse with a television ad that juxtaposed Hitler images with ones of Al Gore and John Kerry. Their excuse? The Hitler images were taken from two ads comparing Bush to Hitler, briefly hosted by the democratic fund-raising group MoveOn.org earlier this year among some 1,500 entries in a contest. In other words, they started it. (At least MoveOn.org removed the spots and expressed regret over their appearance.)

Maybe Michael Moore is a man for our time. That's a pretty damning indictment of our time.