I know very well that you don't read Armond White's articles to be convinced by them, and I feel a little silly taking up my pen to argue against something he wrote. Still, his latest piece for National Review is bizarre even by his gloriously strange standards, and I feel compelled, as though mesmerized by some magickal Troll Crystal, to debate it.
It's called "The Year the Culture Broke." The year in question—the time, White tells us, that partisan division finally overtook the country, as "no-longer-impartial media used their prominence to drive those who disagreed into quiet but resentful enclaves"—is 2004.
In the spring of 2004, there was the media's lynch-mob excommunication of Mel Gibson and his film The Passion of the Christ, soon followed by the Cannes Film Festival's ordination of Michael Moore's anti–G. W. Bush documentary Fahrenheit 9/11. These events proved the effectiveness of pre-release hype, furthered acquiescence to cultural authority, and discouraged social unity. This was a moral, aesthetic, intellectual, and political shift—a break and a decline.
Through these two films, religion and politics—topics one had never argued about in polite company—became the basis for categorizing moviegoers as members of factions. Beliefs and positions calcified. Passion became a red-state movie, and Fahrenheit became a blue-state movie.
That turning point may also be where the canard of calling for a "conversation" (about race, sex, violence…take your pick) began.
I included that last sentence just to show how much recent history White has forgotten. No, people did not start calling for national conversations in 2004. The phrase took off in the '90s, most famously when Bill Clinton called for a "national conversation about race."
That's a minor point, but it underlines how much amnesia is at work in this essay. When White finally alludes to some earlier moments of partisan division, near the end of his article, he treats them as a mere prelude to the Moore/Gibson face-off, though every one of the examples he cites had a more lasting impact than either film did:
This break in public civility—unbridled hostility for Bush, disrespect for the office of the presidency, ruthless personal attacks on ideological opponents—resulted from pent-up political differences and partisan complaint going back to Robert Bork's dismissal, Clarence Thomas's Supreme Court nomination hearings, Bill Clinton's impeachment, and Al Gore's concession in the 2000 presidential race.
"Pent up"? There's nothing pent up about that series of events. They exploded, one after the other, making a rubble of "public civility" each time. Needless to say, it's easy to extend the list of rancorous battles long before Bork. And needless to say, the parallel universe of conservative alternative media—what White calls "quiet but resentful enclaves," though they've never been quiet in my lifetime—existed long before 2004. If anything, in the last 10 years it has been unprecedentedly easier, not harder, for outsiders to hear what those once-enclaved voices have been saying. That's part of the actual significance of Gibson's film: It proved that those alternative networks could make a movie a hit.
But what makes 2004 an especially odd place to locate the break is that Fahrenheit and Passion, despite the hype around them, were not irresolutely opposed. Gibson and Moore, unlike Bush and Gore, actually admired each other. Here's a New York Times report from January 2005:
Asked if he had seen Mr. Gibson's film, Mr. Moore lighted up.
"I saw it twice," Mr. Moore said. "It's a very powerful film. I'm a practicing Catholic. My film might have been called 'The Compassion of the Christ,' though. The great thing about this country is the diversity of voices. When we limit the voices, we cease being a free society."
When Mr. Gibson walked to the press room lectern, he and Mr. Moore seemed delighted to meet each other.
"I feel a strange kinship with Michael," Mr. Gibson said. "They're trying to pit us against each other in the press, but it's a hologram. They really have got nothing to do with one another. It's just some kind of device, some left-right. He makes some salient points. There was some very expert, elliptical editing going on. However, what the hell are we doing in Iraq? No one can explain to me in a reasonable manner that I can accept why we're there, why we went there, and why we're still there."
I suspect there was more than a little overlap between the two films' audiences too. Certainly much more overlap than there was between the supporters of Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill.
Bonus link: In a sidebar of sorts, White offers capsule descriptions of 20 films that "effectively destroyed art, social unity, and spiritual confidence." If you ever wondered what would happen if they asked Ed Anger to fill in for Leonard Maltin, here's your chance to find out.