On Unfairenheit 9/11, "The lies of Michael Moore" by Christopher Hitchens
In Fahrenheit 9/11 Michael Moore rather rudely sets out to show George W Bush to be an illegitimate president, a fool, and hopelessly compromised and corrupted by big oil and its business links to Saudi Arabia. Whatever your politics you'll have difficulty convincing yourself that he doesn't succeed in these aims. Plenty of reviewers other than Hitchens have admired the film but, partly because Hitchens would want to think that his review (like all his opinions) was being taken more seriously than anyone else's, let's look only at his. It may also be a fair way in which to make a case against the adventurism of the COW (Coalition Of the Willing) attack on Saddam, and against the neocon world vision thing more generally. Hitchens is able to argue their case for them more ably than can the neocons themselves, and his rants against Moore are ones that most of the neocon, chickenhawk, Bush/Cheney apologists and puppetmasters would be proud to call their own if they were as smart.
by Graeme Greenup
July 18, 2004
Hitchens attempts to make at least three killer charges stick against Moore: that his propagandistic approach to the facts amounts to "demagoguery", that he is a coward and a fool both in himself and for making this film, and that he backs "insurgents" in Iraq against the American liberators. Let's see.
Clearly Hitchens doesn't like Fahrenheit 9/11: "To describe this film as dishonest and demagogic would almost be to promote those terms to the level of respectability" he hyperventilates. But to make his point he would need to explain in what way a film, which clearly proves the Bush administration itself to be demagogic ("characteristic of a leader who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power"; Merriam Webster), is itself "demagogic". As it turns out, somewhat inexplicably, Hitchens thinks he can drop the word into his screed and just leave it there unsupported. He doesn't make a case against Moore on this charge, nor do any damage to the argument which Moore puts in this film that indeed, like a demagogue, Bush has excited popular prejudices where he's thought that would work in his favour. For instance by working as hard as he has to prejudicially conflate Iraq with al Qaeda in the public mind. It's true that Moore is using his website and his influence to attempt to mobilize US electors to vote against Bush in November, but a website is a website, not a film. This leaves the film perhaps propagandist polemic and character assassination (it clearly sets out to tear down the image of the character of Bush) - which is not demagoguery. Moore claims that every fact in his film is true and has been checked and checked again by capable researchers and editors. He states proudly that beyond the facts of the film are his opinions as heard in it, and that he is entitled to them. He makes a persuasive case for the Bush administration's demagoguery without actually using the term (as I recall); Hitchens chooses to throw the term at Moore himself, yet fails to make it stick. Strike one for Hitchens.
Says Hitchens of the film "Fahrenheit 9/11 is a sinister exercise in moral frivolity, crudely disguised as an exercise in seriousness. It is also a spectacle of abject political cowardice masking itself as a demonstration of "dissenting" bravery". Ouch! Now that's an opinion which amply implies that its owner, the writer Christopher Hitchens, is an altogether superior character to the author of the film and subject of such a rude spray. Later on he gets worked up to the point of uttering "However, I think we can agree that the film is so flat-out phony that "fact-checking" is beside the point. And as for the scary lawyers—get a life, or maybe see me in court. But I offer this, to Moore and to his rapid response rabble. Any time, Michael my boy. Let's redo Telluride. Any show. Any place. Any platform. Let's see what you're made of." Wow - Christopher Hitchens, penslinger! Or it may just be that he was drunk when he wrote this stuff, who knows?
In fact Hitchens has really ignored the film to focus on something he feels far more strongly about. This would be all of Moore's earlier work, opinions, character, weight, girth, and you get the picture. It's not about this film, which stubbornly remains not what Hitchens insists it should have been. The film is not cowardly and it's not wrong, although how right it is will depend on your prejudices before you walk into it. What Hitchens really objects to is Moore's pacifism, particularly his position on the way in which Bosnia and Kosovo were saved from Milosevic by the US. Moore thinks he knows better than its prosecutors and better than Hitchens how that campaign should have been fought. As it happens I agree with Hitchens that Moore's views on this are ignorant and even offensive to what I believe were the decent intentions and actions of the US and its allies in Kosovo. But that was then, and it was Bosnia and Kosovo. This is now, and the subject is supposedly Moore's current film. Hitchens should be playing this week's game, not reprising for us his hurt feelings over last week's.
To top it off, in this rather ridiculous pissing contest that Hitchens would like to think he's winning, bigtime, and for all his boasting about Moore's "lack of courage" .... Moore does for one thing at least have an email address and is open (although I haven't tested this myself) to responses from real people! Quite a famous email address too, MMFlint@aol.com.nobushies or something, isn't it? Unfortunately for all his boasts of courage in print, Hitchens offers his fans and detractors nothing of the sort. Untraceable and uncontactable he dwells on the delphic heights of Slate.com, from where I guess the mediocre intellects scrabbling after scraps of his holy wit and writ look but like ants. Let them swallow his opinions, and be grateful. Whatever it is you wouldn't call it "courageous" and nor, for that matter, does it look terribly brave to be falling into line and saluting - as Hitchens has - such weighty men of matters martial and military as Perle, Wolfowitz, Feith and Bush. Christopher, these are not men of war, they're a ship of fools. And you're a cabin boy.
From what he's said here and elsewhere recently, it seems Hitchens may believe he's the one true leftie left in the world. Better than all you ersatz, effete ones. Better still, as he sees it he's a leftie so tough he talks turkey with chickenhawks! Feeling so superior to other lefties that he would see himself as in an ideological category all of his own, he doesn't care or comprehend that on this issue at least his category is owned by the mad, bad right.
Quite early in this article Hitchens lists six points which he claims Moore has made in his film, and writes "It must be evident to anyone, despite the rapid-fire way in which Moore's direction eases the audience hastily past the contradictions, that these discrepant scatter shots [the points] do not cohere at any point." The trouble is that what they do in fact have in common is that they are all true (Moore would possibly dispute the sixth "shot" though) and they all form part of Moore's spray against dishonesty and deceit in the present US administration. That's all they need to do for Moore's purposes; if Hitchens must have more than that in his entertainment he may, sadly, have gone to the wrong film.
"I'll just say that the "insurgent" side is presented in this film as justifiably outraged" says Hitchens. But the "other side" in the film is represented by an unidentified Iraqi woman whose family had just been killed by US bombs. Perhaps Hitchens knows more of the provenance of that scene than I do (knowing nothing of it other than what was shown in the film) but if so he fails to so say, leaving himself open to the charge that he's a duped goose whose opinions in this piece are no more than polemical apologia for his current heroes of convenience in the Chickenhawk administration. Or so his prose reads!
The human interest theme of Moore's film, the awakening of an all-American mum to the reality of the deceptions that have caused her son to be killed in Iraq, is a compelling one. It is ignored by Hitchens for whom, you could conclude, it is still "Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die", which would be a little too last millennium for those of us not completely out of touch with the working class footsoldiers trapped on Hitchens' neocon crusade to Iraq - and beyond! If the chickenhawks at the Whitehouse didn't have a once-left, useful fool turned to their childlike worldview they'd have to invent one but, as it is, they have Hitchens.
Hitchens' hatred for the fat guy who makes more popular films than he does is so consuming that he can't give Moore credit for his point of view on anything. "Moore asserts that Iraq under Saddam had never attacked or killed or even threatened (his words) any American" [my emphasis]. But that wasn't the assertion made. Moore said that Iraq hadn't threatened any Americans. Is the difference significant? Well to Hitchens and Moore both, it is! Hitchens calls Moore a fool and a liar for that statement, yet he knows that both of them are calling Saddam the criminal while both are at pains to quarantine ordinary Iraqis from the allegations of crimes committed or threatened against America. Hitchens also knows that Moore's complaint is that innocent Iraqis have been killed by an immoral invasion of Iraq by COWs in pursuit of Saddam and his despotic regime. Hitchens of course knows that Moore is distinguishing between innocent Iraq and the guilty regime of its tyrant Saddam ..... but if you can't stand the other guy it doesn't matter what he's really saying, does it? The facts are, as Hitchens well knows, that ordinary Iraqis did not support Saddam and would not fight for him. Hitchens thinks it was worth the cost in lives lost of innocent Iraqis, who had never threatened America, to free them from their tyrant. Moore thinks the method and the war were wrong because innocent Iraq was attacked and suffered in the pursuit of Saddam. So there's a difference of opinion here, but Hitchens' frat boy attitude to debate with people like Moore makes for a disastrous distraction from things which ought to matter more, such as the disturbing possibility of protracted civil war in Iraq. That threat is not mentioned in the film (a cross perhaps against Moore), but Hitchens is worse and idiotically only refers to it as a project now being fomented in Iraq by Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi - as though a foreign terrorist would be the only way in which such a disaster could befall Iraq in the aftermath of his glorious US attack on Saddam's regime.
Hitchens resents "any foreign dictatorship that attempts to kill one of our retired chief executives [George H Bush]". George W Bush announced to the world that he was going to invade another country in order to "kill or capture" - it was, immorally, in that order - its leader. Christopher gets all bent out of shape when the bad guys want to do it to us, but oozes complicity when it's his team talking up murder. It's moral relativism of the lowest and most unenlightened kind, the kind of stupidity that westerners wiser than he find most alarming about Hitchens' Heroes in Washington. America created Saddam the murderous despot in the '80s. America removed Saddam the madman in 2004. The civilians are picking up the pieces. Terrific! and just like in wild west comics.
For Hitchens it may be OK that you have today the most foolish and dangerous US administration in history, because he really believes in their world view. It's a picture that involves freedom, the deploring of Saddam's genocide against the Kurds and Marsh arabs, supports Israel's right to exist in peace, and admits sometimes and grudgingly to some truth in the fact of the US' addiction to Middle East oil. There's lots of other stuff that Hitchens and his new friends see as all-consuming, and which most of us agree to be a large part of the picture. But it's their and Hitchens' personal lack of experience of what it is they are talking about (war), their consequent inability to think clearly or decently on the subject, or control their emotions, or see past the brave and glorious image they have of themselves, that allows Michael Moore to so easily do what he's done to the gormless "war president" and boy warriors of the Whitehouse.
It would infuriate Hitchens to hear it said that his chickenhawk positioning may be in part explained by feelings of guilt for having voiced such strident support for the invasion of Iraq which, tragically, has killed friends of his. He would insist they died in a fight for what was right; pure and simple, no guilt. He would have to believe in the goodness of the cause or - the alternative is too terrible for him to contemplate. Well, everyone sympathizes with the innocent casualties of war.
He may also be irritated that even back in the days when he thought he was a leftie, none of his polemic had the popular success that Moore's stuff has had in recent times. Sadly, now that he's no longer a leftie Hitch could be writing better than ever, ideology being better grown out of than into. Instead he chooses to throw a tanty at someone who has made a devastatingly effective attack on what once were Hitchens' own targets, such as idiocy and corruption in high places, rather than outwriting him.
"Does he think—as he seems to suggest—that parents can "send" their children, as he stupidly asks elected members of Congress to do? .......... After a point, one realizes that it's a waste of time asking him questions of this sort. It would be too much like taking him seriously. He'll just try anything once and see if it floats or flies or gets a cheer." Hitchens has bought the big lie of the neocons, and nothing anyone could do will ever bring him back to his senses. Does Hitchens really think that it's not a valid point to make, that the Congressmen who sent Americans where they were mostly unwanted, into Iraq, have none (well one only, was Moore's claim) of their own children in harm's way there? Is it his guilt that friends have died there that is motivating this wailing and gnashing of teeth over Moore's caustic view of the Bush administration? Is he seriously suggesting that Moore has no serious point in asking that question of bovine congressmen who fell into line behind Bush, and sent duped poor kids off to fight in Iraq against the monster of Baghdad who was responsible for 9/11 (according to the flagrantly lying, still in 2004, Dick Cheney)?
At one point in his rant Hitchens draws a nice distinction by omission, referring to "our republic" while not using the democracy word anywhere, and despite quoting a slab from George Orwell which does use the word. Nice try Chris, but we noticed that you'd prefer not to think about how undemocratic the United States of America has become under this administration which stole, as Moore easily shows, the last presidential election from the majority who voted against it. Reminds one of somebody famous who recently jibed: "US democracy? - it'd be good to see!"
One of the great strengths of America has been freedom of speech. Notwithstanding that, it probably does take some courage to criticize the leadership of the mad right in America because they can and do shoot people - presidents even - that they don't like. There's also no point thanking anyone in this present administration for American birthrights such as freedom of speech because, firstly, these rights were introduced to the world by genuine American titans more than two hundred years ago and, secondly, the current Whitehouse incumbents are doing what they can - as Moore charges and shows - to dismantle those same rights. Torture and imprisonment without trial for real and potential enemies are only a part of it (and not part of this film). Back then they wanted to impeach Clinton because he wasn't willing to apologize to them for lying about his sex life. Now, when their boys George and Dick lie repeatedly to the nation about matters of somewhat more import than sex with interns, there are useful fools like Hitchens to defend them from the comparatively snow white journalism of Michael Moore. Really, if it's true that in this film Moore is not bending over backwards to be fair and balanced to George 'n Dick .... tell us, for instance, why should one man be held to that kind of a standard in a world where dumploads of egregious bumf is fed daily and nightly to millions of American consumers of Foxy faux infotainment?
Hitchens complains, ingenuously, "Moore has announced that he won't even appear on TV shows where he might face hostile questioning". Chris - the US has an allegedly democratically elected president who refuses to face any kind of noncomplicit, noncompliant, questioning from the public! But Hitchens doesn't care, he's just after the fat guy who sells more movie tickets than his documentaries ever did and who sees the world differently (therefore must be "evil!").
In the end Moore either makes his point eloquently in this film, or like a rabid squirrel mad for something to bite, with the President of the US in its sight. Your view will depend upon your prior politics. But to explain it to anyone who, like Hitchens, just isn't able to grasp it: Moore says that the alarmingly close ties between wealthy Americans, their corporations, and the medieval dictatorship that is Saudi Arabia, exist because of America's huge oil habit. They don't have many other reasons for being so buddy buddy, and Saudi makes plenty from its best customer while America just can't get enough of the stuff. Osama bin Laden loathes and detests both sides for various reasons including his religious fundamentalism and interest in murderous "jihad". It's not so difficult Chris, just watch the film again if you're still puzzled by it all.
Also, for someone who is complaining that Moore's interest in the underprivileged of small town America must be feigned and fraudulent, it can be said that Hitchens has never consciously written a paragraph himself aimed at a reader of less than academic grade. The man in the street? Let him watch Fox! Here is an intellectual with no respect at all for what the ordinary bloke is thinking or saying (unless it might perhaps be threatening to bite him on the arse), yet vitriol and sarcasm drip from his every comment on the good old boy of Flint Michigan, Michael Moore, when he tells their story for them. Makes Hitchens sound like a hypocrite as he cosies up to the neocon establishment - none of whom has ever served at grunt level in the armed forces, even - in his own recent writing.
Because he is an intellectual's intellectual Hitchens is an easy mark for the intelligent idiots he has, elsewhere, called "the intellectuals of the Pentagon". He means Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith but doesn't choose to say it here, perhaps through lack of courage. One man's Pentagon brains trust would be another's ship of well fed, self-basting egoists with no personal martial or even military experience. Hitchens is infatuated by their hubris and their zealotry just as wide-eyedly as are, for example, so many older age converts from an old dogma to a new. Cult members and religious zealots, or neocon recruits who've always called themselves more left than thou, are very similar phenomena. They're seekers after truth who believe, naively, that somebody else can give it to them if only they believe. I know this doesn't sound like most people's impression of Hitchens and nothing like he would himself tell you he is. Just watch his space. Hitchens really believes in the "war president", "war on terror" rubbish from Washington. But while he and they are squawking and preening, one-eyed and looking one way at their mess in Iraq, the real face of the enemy is behind them and watching, waiting.
By 2004 the terrorists have already won too much of what they were after, because they have instilled violence and barbarism into policy debate in the first world. Writers like Hitchens with no martial experience or military competence at all hurl insults of "coward" at people with whom they're having some trivial disagreement (not just Moore in this case), just as some jihadists jeered so foolishly and ignorantly that the west was too weak and afraid to fight them on the ground, to risk death. While there's no hope in this life for the loudest and most vacuous of the terrorists, for Hitchens and so many others who are abusing the language in their minor spats with fellow intellectuals, shame should give them pause. Considering Hitchens' strident support for military options it seems worth observing that he's not actually hitherto proven himself notable as a military mind, has he? Does he have any more experience or ability in matters of war and military strategy than any of the other chickenhawks: Wolfowitz, Perle, Feith, or Cheney? President Bush? What would Hitchens or Wolfowitz know about the nature of killing and being killed, in reality? Further, in another piece where Hitchens has carelessly and callously lampooned the desperate last minute peace bid that came from Iraq before the US invaded, he shows quite clearly how ready and willing he is to use violence to overthrow violence (yet every decently brought up child knows it is lamentable and a resort only of extremity) and how little he cares for honesty, transparency and representative democracy in the prosecution of state business.
Finally, a troubling question hangs in the air three years on from September 2001, not only unanswered but mostly unasked. Would the terrorists have succeeded in striking New York and Washington in 2001 had Bush, Cheney and the gang not gotten away with stealing the 2000 election? It's another matter entirely which should be carefully addressed in its own right in another place. But the election was stolen and US democracy was defeated, as Moore and others have explained in detail. Subsequently, intelligence and security failures continued to pile up from the very poor performance of the Clinton years to reach some kind of acme of incompetence under the fresh and clueless Bush administration. Had a Gore administration been installed, as it was legitimately elected to be, in the year 2000, why could not any one of the hundreds or more simple yet sufficient actions been taken, or even just insights had, in the twelve months before 9/11, that would, could and should have stopped the terrorist attack dead in its tracks? It's an awful thought, one which I wish more of those who allowed the debacle and fraud of that election to occur would be forced by an angry nation to think about, long and hard, and answer questions. Will that ever happen?
For those who don't read too well, or perhaps just read too fast, let me explicitly state that I'm for motherhood and apple pie, for western civilization, and against those who threaten it. At the moment the greatest threat to the most powerful civilization in history - ours - is not Dick 'n Dubya's evildoing axis of islamic cutthroats. We, and ordinary decent Moslems, are stronger than they are. No, the greatest danger to the west today is posed by those who stole the presidency of the United States, and by the fifth column in the press who, either through gullibility or culpability, apologize and propagandize for them.
What's more, Michael Moore is and was wrong about the quality and nature of those US operations in Bosnia and Kosovo. While Christopher Hitchens is now wrong about the worth of Moore's film, and uses ugly language to tell us how poorly he rates all of Moore's work. The difference between us is that I won't be reassessing the worth of Hitchens' past work in light of this rubbish he's just written about Moore. Hitchens' past work remains an impressive body of writing from what was once a keen mind, and may be once again if the hypothesis that Hitchens was drunk as a skunk when he wrote this crap proves correct and he sobers up for his next outing in print
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