What Michael Moore Misses About the Empire
I have been defending Michael Moore’s "Fahrenheit 9/11" from the criticism in mainstream and conservative circles that the film is leftist propaganda. Nothing could be further from the truth; there is very little left critique in the movie. In fact, it’s hard to find any coherent critique in the movie at all.
The sad truth is that "Fahrenheit 9/11" is a bad movie, but not for the reasons it is being attacked in the dominant culture. It’s at times a racist movie. And the analysis that underlies the film’s main political points is either dangerously incomplete or virtually incoherent.
But, most important, it’s a conservative movie that ends with an endorsement of one of the central lies of the United States, which should warm the hearts of the right-wingers who condemn Moore. And the real problem is that many left/liberal/progressive people are singing the film’s praises, which should tell us something about the impoverished nature of the left in this country.
I say all this not to pick at small points or harp on minor flaws. These aren’t minor points of disagreement but fundamental questions of analysis and integrity. But before elaborating on that, I want to talk about what the film does well.
The good stuff
First, Moore highlights the disenfranchisement of primarily black voters in Florida in the 2000 election, a political scandal that the mainstream commercial news media in the United States has largely ignored. The footage of a joint session of Congress in which Congressional Black Caucus members can’t get a senator to sign their letter to allow floor debate about the issue (a procedural requirement) is a powerful indictment not only of the Republicans who perpetrated the fraud but the Democratic leadership that refused to challenge it.
Moore also provides a sharp critique of U.S. military recruiting practices, with some amazing footage of recruiters cynically at work scouring low-income areas for targets, whom are disproportionately non-white. The film also effectively takes apart the Bush administration’s use of fear tactics after 9/11 to drive the public to accept its war policies.
"Fahrenheit 9/11" also does a good job of showing war’s effects on U.S. soldiers; we see soldiers dead and maimed, and we see how contemporary warfare deforms many of them psychologically as well. And the film pays attention to the victims of U.S. wars, showing Iraqis both before the U.S. invasion and after in a way that humanizes them rather than uses them as props.
The problem is that these positive elements don’t add up to a good film. It’s a shame that Moore’s talent and flair for the dramatic aren’t put in the service of a principled, clear analysis that could potentially be effective at something beyond defeating George W. Bush in 2004.
How dare I describe as racist a movie that highlights the disenfranchisement of black voters and goes after the way in which military recruiters chase low-income minority youth? My claim is not that Moore is an overt racist, but that the movie unconsciously replicates a more subtle racism, one that we all have to struggle to resist.
First, there is one segment that invokes the worst kind of ugly-American nativism, in which Moore mocks the Bush administration’s "coalition of the willing," the nations it lined up to support the invasion of Iraq. Aside from Great Britain there was no significant military support from other nations and no real coalition, which Moore is right to point out. But when he lists the countries in the so-called coalition, he uses images that have racist undertones. To depict the Republic of Palau (a small Pacific island nation), Moore chooses an image of stereotypical "native" dancers, while a man riding on an animal-drawn cart represents Costa Rica. Pictures of monkeys running are on the screen during a discussion of Morocco’s apparent offer to send monkeys to clear landmines. To ridicule the Bush propaganda on this issue, Moore uses these images and an exaggerated voice-over in a fashion that says, in essence, "What kind of coalition is it that has these backward countries?" Moore might argue that is not his intention, but intention is not the only question; we all are responsible for how we tap into these kinds of stereotypes.
More subtle and important is Moore’s invocation of a racism in which solidarity between dominant whites and non-white groups domestically can be forged by demonizing the foreign "enemy," which these days has an Arab and South Asian face. For example, in the segment about law-enforcement infiltration of peace groups, the camera pans the almost exclusively white faces (I noticed one Asian man in the scene) in the group Peace Fresno and asks how anyone could imagine these folks could be terrorists. There is no consideration of the fact that Arab and Muslim groups that are equally dedicated to peace have to endure routine harassment and constantly prove that they weren’t terrorists, precisely because they weren’t white.
The other example of political repression that "Fahrenheit 9/11" offers is the story of Barry Reingold, who was visited by FBI agents after making critical remarks about Bush and the war while working out at a gym in Oakland. Reingold, a white retired phone worker, was not detained or charged with a crime; the agents questioned him and left. This is the poster child for repression? In a country where hundreds of Arab, South Asian and Muslim men were thrown into secret detention after 9/11, this is the case Moore chooses to highlight? The only reference in the film to those detentions post-9/11 is in an interview with a former FBI agent about Saudis who were allowed to leave the United States shortly after 9/11, in which it appears that Moore mentions those detentions only to contrast the kid-gloves treatment that privileged Saudi nationals allegedly received.
When I made this point to a friend, he defended Moore by saying the filmmaker was trying to reach a wide audience that likely is mostly white and probably wanted to use examples that those people could connect with. So, it’s acceptable to pander to the white audience members and over-dramatize their limited risks while ignoring the actual serious harm done to non-white people? Could not a skilled filmmaker tell the story of the people being seriously persecuted in a way that non-Arab, non-South Asian, non-Muslims could empathize with?
"Fahrenheit 9/11" is strong on tapping into emotions and raising questions about why the United States invaded Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11, but it is extremely weak on answering those questions in even marginally coherent fashion. To the degree the film has a thesis, it appears to be that the wars were a product of the personal politics of a corrupt Bush dynasty. I agree the Bush dynasty is corrupt, but the analysis the film offers is both internally inconsistent, extremely limited in historical understanding and, hence, misguided.
Is the administration of George W. Bush full of ideological fanatics? Yes. Have its actions since 9/11 been reckless and put the world at risk? Yes. In the course of pursuing those policies, has it enriched fat-cat friends? Yes.
But it is a serious mistake to believe that these wars can be explained by focusing so exclusively on the Bush administration and ignoring clear trends in U.S. foreign and military policy. In short, these wars are not a sharp departure from the past but instead should be seen as an intensification of longstanding policies, affected by the confluence of this particular administration’s ideology and the opportunities created by the events of 9/11.
Look first at Moore’s treatment of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. He uses a clip of former counterterrorism official Richard Clarke complaining that the Bush administration’s response to 9/11 in Afghanistan was "slow and small," implying that we should have attacked faster and bigger. The film does nothing to question that assessment, leaving viewers to assume that Moore agrees. Does he think that a bombing campaign that killed at least as many innocent Afghans as Americans who died on 9/11 was justified? Does he think that a military response was appropriate, and simply should have been more intense, which would have guaranteed even more civilian casualties? Does he think that a military strategy, which many experts believe made it difficult to pursue more routine and productive counterterrorism law-enforcement methods, was a smart move?
Moore also suggests that the real motivation of the Bush administration in attacking Afghanistan was to secure a gas pipeline route from the Caspian Basin to the sea. It’s true that Unocal had sought such a pipeline, and at one point Taliban officials were courted by the United States when it looked as if they could make such a deal happen. Moore points out that Taliban officials traveled to Texas in 1997 when Bush was governor. He fails to point out that all this happened with the Clinton administration at the negotiating table. It is highly unlikely that policymakers would go to war for a single pipeline, but even if that were plausible it is clear that both Democrats and Republicans alike have been mixed up in that particular scheme.
The centerpiece of Moore’s analysis of U.S. policy in the Middle East is the relationship of the Bush family to the Saudis and the bin Laden family. The film appears to argue that those business interests, primarily through the Carlyle Group, led the administration to favor the Saudis to the point of ignoring potential Saudi complicity in the attacks of 9/11. After laying out the nature of those business dealings, Moore implies that the Bushes are literally on the take.
It is certainly true that the Bush family and its cronies have a relationship with Saudi Arabia that has led officials to overlook Saudi human-rights abuses and the support that many Saudis give to movements such as al Qaeda. That is true of the Bushes, just as it was of the Clinton administration and, in fact, every post-World War II president. Ever since FDR cut a deal with the House of Saud giving U.S. support in exchange for cooperation on the flow of oil and oil profits, U.S. administrations have been playing ball with the Saudis. The relationship is sometimes tense but has continued through ups and downs, with both sides getting at least part of what they need from the other. Concentrating on Bush family business connections ignores that history and encourages viewers to see the problem as specific to Bush. Would a Gore administration have treated the Saudis differently after 9/11? There’s no reason to think so, and Moore offers no evidence or argument why it would have.
But that’s only part of the story of U.S. policy in the Middle East, in which the Saudis play a role but are not the only players. The United States cuts deals with other governments in the region that are willing to support the U.S. aim of control over those energy resources. The Saudis are crucial in that system, but not alone. Egypt, Jordan and the other Gulf emirates have played a role, as did Iran under the Shah. As does, crucially, Israel. But there is no mention of Israel in the film. To raise questions about U.S. policy in the Middle East without addressing the role of Israel as a U.S. proxy is, to say the least, a significant omission. It’s unclear whether Moore actually backs Israeli crimes and U.S. support for them, or simply doesn’t understand the issue.
And what of the analysis of Iraq? Moore is correct in pointing out that U.S. support for Iraq during the 1980s, when Saddam Hussein’s war on Iran was looked upon favorably by U.S. policymakers, was a central part of Reagan and Bush I policy up to the Gulf War. And he’s correct in pointing out that Bush II’s invasion and occupation have caused great suffering in Iraq. What is missing is the intervening eight years in which the Clinton administration used the harshest economic embargo in modern history and regular bombing to further devastate an already devastated country. He fails to point out that Clinton killed more Iraqis through that policy than either of the Bush presidents. He fails to mention the 1998 Clinton cruise missile attack on Iraq, which was every bit as illegal as the 2003 invasion.
It’s not difficult to articulate what much of the rest of the world understands about U.S. policy in Iraq and the Middle East: Since the end of WWII, the United States has been the dominant power in the Middle East, constructing a system that tries to keep the Arab states weak and controllable (and, as a result, undemocratic) and undermine any pan-Arab nationalism, and uses allies as platforms and surrogates for U.S. power (such as Israel and Iran under the Shah). The goal is control over (not ownership of, but control over) the strategically crucial energy resources of the region and the profits that flow from them, which in an industrial world that runs on oil is a source of incredible leverage over competitors such as the European Union, Japan and China.
The Iraq invasion, however incompetently planned and executed by the Bush administration, is consistent with that policy. That’s the most plausible explanation for the war (by this time, we need no longer bother with the long-ago forgotten rationalizations of weapons of mass destruction and the alleged threat Iraq posed to the United States). The war was a gamble on the part of the Bush gang. Many in the foreign-policy establishment, including Bush I stalwarts such as Brent Scowcroft, spoke out publicly against war plans they thought were reckless. Whether Bush’s gamble, in pure power terms, will pay off or not is yet to be determined.
When the film addresses this question directly, what analysis does Moore offer of the reasons for the Iraq war? A family member of a soldier who died asks, "for what?" and Moore cuts to the subject of war profiteering. That segment appropriately highlights the vulture-like nature of businesses that benefit from war. But does Moore really want us to believe that a major war was launched so that Halliburton and other companies could increase its profits for a few years? Yes, war profiteering happens, but it is not the reason nations go to war. This kind of distorted analysis helps keep viewers’ attention focused on the Bush administration, by noting the close ties between Bush officials and these companies, not the routine way in which corporate America makes money off the misnamed Department of Defense, no matter who is in the White House.
All this is summed up when Lila Lipscomb, the mother of a son killed in the war, visits the White House in a final, emotional scene and says that she now has somewhere to put all her pain and anger. This is the message of the film: It’s all about the Bush administration. If that’s the case, the obvious conclusion is to get Bush out of the White House so that things can get back to to what? I’ll return to questions of political strategy at the end, but for now it’s important to realize how this attempt to construct Bush as pursuing some radically different policy is bad analysis and leads to a misunderstanding of the threat the United States poses to the world. Yes, Moore throws in a couple of jabs at the Democrats in Congress for not stopping the mad rush to war in Iraq, but the focus is always on the singular crimes of George W. Bush and his gang.
A conservative movie
The claim that "Fahrenheit 9/11" is a conservative movie may strike some as ludicrous. But the film endorses one of the central lies that Americans tell themselves, that the U.S. military fights for our freedom. This construction of the military as a defensive force obscures the harsh reality that the military is used to project U.S. power around the world to ensure dominance, not to defend anyone’s freedom, at home or abroad.
Instead of confronting this mythology, Moore ends the film with it. He points out, accurately, the irony that those who benefit the least from the U.S. system — the chronically poor and members of minority groups — are the very people who sign up for the military. "They offer to give up their lives so we can be free," Moore says, and all they ask in return is that we not send them in harm’s way unless it’s necessary. After the Iraq War, he wonders, "Will they ever trust us again?"
It is no doubt true that many who join the military believe they will be fighting for freedom. But we must distinguish between the mythology that many internalize and may truly believe, from the reality of the role of the U.S. military. The film includes some comments by soldiers questioning that very claim, but Moore’s narration implies that somehow a glorious tradition of U.S. military endeavors to protect freedom has now been sullied by the Iraq War.
The problem is not just that the Iraq War was fundamentally illegal and immoral. The whole rotten project of empire building has been illegal and immoral — and every bit as much a Democratic as a Republican project. The millions of dead around the world — in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia — as a result of U.S. military actions and proxy wars don’t care which U.S. party was pulling the strings and pulling the trigger when they were killed. It’s true that much of the world hates Bush. It’s also true that much of the world has hated every post-WWII U.S. president. And for good reasons.
It is one thing to express solidarity for people forced into the military by economic conditions. It is quite another to pander to the lies this country tells itself about the military. It is not disrespectful to those who join up to tell the truth. It is our obligation to try to prevent future wars in which people are sent to die not for freedom but for power and profit. It’s hard to understand how we can do that by repeating the lies of the people who plan, and benefit from, those wars.
The most common defense I have heard from liberals and progressives to these criticisms of "Fahrenheit 9/11" is that, whatever its flaws, the movie sparks people to political action. One response is obvious: There is no reason a film can’t spark people to political action with intelligent and defensible analysis, and without subtle racism.
But beyond that, it’s not entirely clear the political action that this film will spark goes much beyond voting against Bush. The "what can I do now?" link on Moore’s website suggests four actions, all of which are about turning out the vote. These resources about voting are well organized and helpful. But there are no links to grassroots groups organizing against not only the Bush regime but the American empire more generally.
I agree that Bush should be kicked out of the White House, and if I lived in a swing state I would consider voting Democratic. But I don’t believe that will be meaningful unless there emerges in the United States a significant anti-empire movement. In other words, if we beat Bush and go back to "normal," we’re all in trouble. Normal is empire building. Normal is U.S. domination, economic and military, and the suffering that vulnerable people around the world experience as a result. This doesn’t mean voters can’t judge one particular empire-building politician more dangerous than another. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t sometimes make strategic choices to vote for one over the other. It simply means we should make such choices with eyes open and no illusions. This seems particularly important when the likely Democratic presidential candidate tries to out-hawk Bush on support for Israel, pledges to continue the occupation of Iraq, and says nothing about reversing the basic trends in foreign policy.
In this sentiment, I am not alone. Ironically, Barry Reingold — the Oakland man who was visited by the FBI — is critical of what he sees as the main message of the film. He was quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle saying: "I think Michael Moore’s agenda is to get Bush out, but I think it (should be) about more than Bush. I think it’s about the capitalist system, which is inequitable." He went on to critique Bush and Kerry: "I think both of them are bad. I think Kerry is actually worse because he gives the illusion that he’s going to do a lot more. Bush has never given that illusion. People know that he’s a friend of big business."
Nothing I have said here is an argument against reaching out to a wider audience and trying to politicize more people. That’s what I try to do in my own writing and local organizing work, as do countless other activists. The question isn’t whether to reach out, but with what kind of analysis and arguments. Emotional appeals and humor have their place; the activists I work with use them. The question is, where do such appeals lead people?
It is obvious that "Fahrenheit 9/11" taps into many Americans’ fear and/or hatred of Bush and his gang of thugs. Such feelings are understandable, and I share them. But feelings are not analysis, and the film’s analysis, unfortunately, doesn’t go much beyond the feeling: It’s all Bush’s fault. That may be appealing to people, but it’s wrong. And it is hard to imagine how a successful anti-empire movement can be built on this film’s analysis unless it is challenged. Hence, the reason for this essay.
The potential value of Moore’s film will be realized only if it is discussed and critiqued, honestly. Yes, the film is under attack from the right, for very different reasons than I have raised. But those attacks shouldn’t stop those who consider themselves left, progressive, liberal, anti-war, anti-empire or just plain pissed-off from criticizing the film’s flaws and limitations. I think my critique of the film is accurate and relevant. Others may disagree. The focus of debate should be on the issues raised, with an eye toward the question of how to build an anti-empire movement. Rallying around the film can too easily lead to rallying around bad analysis. Let’s instead rally around the struggle for a better world, the struggle to dismantle the American empire.
ROBERT JENSEN is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of "Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity" from City Lights Books. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.