The Two-Hour Lie

Saturday, October 30, 2004
this is an image
this is an image

During the twentieth century, the United States and the rest of the democratic world faced mortal threats from the twin totalitarianisms of fascism and communism, each deeply committed to the destruction of free and open societies. Both totalitarian movements relied extensively on propaganda to convey their messages to their manipulated mass publics. Instead of the thoughtful and nuanced consideration that can take place in an open discussion of political matters, propaganda relies on deceptive persuasion and simplistic, black-and-white imagery, while appealing to popular resentment against presumed evildoers. It operates with vilification, innuendo, and conspiracy theories.

Because propaganda is addressed to a mass public, it takes on its most characteristic form in the mass media, especially film. Cinematic classics such as Sergei Eisenstein’s celebrations of the Bolsheviks in Battleship Potemkin and Ten Days That Shook the World and Leni Riefenstahl’s glorification of Hitler and the Nazi movement in Triumph of the Will are regarded today as outstanding examples of totalitarian propaganda: artistic high points of the political low points of the past century. To be sure, there was an alternative cinema as well; one need only think of the rousing anti-fascism of Casablanca or the bitter Cold War struggles in Hollywood between pro-communist and anti-communist forces (the setting for Ronald Reagan’s entry into politics). Yet there seemed to be a special affinity between cinema and totalitarian movements, which explains why many cultural critics treated film with skepticism, judging it a tainted, mass cultural vehicle for conformism and group-think.

Today, modern democratic societies face a similarly threatening totalitarian opponent: the fundamentalist Muslim world. The war it is waging against modernity has been under way for some time, but the attacks on the Khobar Towers, the USS Cole, and the American embassies in East Africa were largely viewed as isolated incidents. The attacks of September 11, 2001, however, made it clear to most (if not all) that a new sort of enemy had emerged, one profoundly hostile to the Western way of life and prepared to carry out mass murder in the pursuit of Islamic ascendancy. Its goals include the reestablishment of the seventh-century caliphate, but as with earlier totalitarian movements, its aspirations are not limited by national boundaries: The fundamentalism of Islamic extremism aims at a reactionary transformation of much more than the Arab world alone.

The military aspects of the war between the West and its opponents following 9/11 have been played out primarily in Afghanistan and Iraq, but this war has an overwhelming ideological and cultural character as well. It is a war of ideas—in the Arab world it involves the crucial conflict between violent extremists and the beleaguered advocates of moderate reform, while a parallel cultural battle is under way in the West, where the sheer will to resist extremism is constantly called into question by advocates of appeasement and defeat. This is the context in which the propaganda film by Michael Moore, Fahrenheit 9/11, should be understood.


Appeasement and Deception

Addressing the war on terror, the response to 9/11, and the Iraq war, Moore’s film evades any significant treatment of the Islamicist threat to the United States. It does, however, cast multiple doubts on American efforts to respond to that threat. Yet if the threat of terror is itself treated as absent and the war on terror is denounced as insincere and ineffective, then one can only conclude that, for Moore, defensive measures against Islamic extremism are not worthwhile. Therefore, the goal of Fahrenheit 9/11 is to demoralize its public and to dissuade it from facing the very real threats to the West and to the United States in particular. This does not make Moore an explicit ideologue of Islamic extremism, but it does make him what used to be called a fellow traveler: Minimizing the threat, he effectively plays the role of an apologist, while doing all he can to convince the American public to lower its guard. Every totalitarian movement needs its useful idiots.

Fahrenheit 9/11 is not only a manipulative case against George W. Bush—the aspect of the film most discussed during the current electoral season—but also a denunciation of all American efforts to respond to the Islamicist threat. This is most evident in the treatment of the 9/11 attacks themselves. Among the many distortions that make up this film, this is perhaps the most outrageous: The attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon are never shown. Given the expectation that this “documentary” treat U.S. policy in the wake of the attacks, it is surprising indeed that they are not shown. Instead the screen goes black with just a soundtrack to evoke the events, until images return of individuals in the streets of New York, presumably looking in horror at the burning World Trade Center. This strategy is telling: For Moore, the important issue is not the act of terrorism itself (or its destructive consequences) but only the terrified public. The film shows the public’s fear but, curiously, not the cause of the fear, implying that the fear is groundless. The political calculation of the film requires excluding images of terrorism in order to avoid providing visual evidence of the casus belli in the war on terror. For Moore, the nation is evidently in a panic, but the reason for the panic is not worth exploring. Instead, the film suggests that the sole point of the war has been the manipulation of an emotional public in the pursuit of the nefarious ulterior motives of secret cabals.

These motives are never fully spelled out, but the film operates with suggestion and innuendo, implying hidden conspiracies and venal goals. Typically the voice-over narrator announces series of facts that, under scrutiny, add up to little but leave viewers with the misimpression of a case having been made. This deceptive form of argument is amplified by the consistent omission of counter-arguments, alternative points of view, and explanations of context.

Two examples highlight the limits of the film’s truthfulness. Fahrenheit 9/11 opens with the suggestion that Gore had won the vote in Florida until Bush connections were able to block the results. The film cites a CNN expert to this effect. Yet it omits the fact that a review of the election by the New York Times, the Washington Post, and CNN found that Bush would have won a recount had it been allowed. Moore has chosen to use one CNN reporter, while excluding alternative evaluations, even from CNN itself.

Suggesting ominous links between the Bush and the bin Laden families, Moore’s film references the closure of U.S. airspace after September 11, only to complain that mysterious flights of Saudis were permitted to leave “after September 13.” The implication is that the Saudis departed while no other flights were allowed. In fact, airspace was reopened on September 14, so departures after September 13 were hardly scandalous, and, as the staff report of the 9/11 Commission has shown, there is no evidence of illicit departures. As far as the credibility of the film goes, however, the point is that Moore’s text is literally correct: The Saudis did depart after September 13, but that is precisely when air travel was allowed to recommence. What the film tells may be true, but it does not tell the whole truth.

The first half of Fahrenheit 9/11 tries to demonstrate that the Bush administration was not tough enough in its domestic responses to terrorism in order to suggest that the government really does not take it seriously. Yet one can hardly believe that Moore and his following really wish for tougher anti-terror initiatives. The second half of the film concerns the Iraq war. It commences with one of the most offensive moments in the film: a sequence of images suggesting that Saddam’s Iraq was an idyllic society of happy, prosperous citizens. No mention is made of Saddam’s crimes against his own population, and no discussion takes place regarding the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the use of chemical weapons, or the firings on American and British flights patrolling the protected no-fly zones. Although most of Fahrenheit 9/11 concerns Moore’s conspiratorial vision of American politics, this passage betrays the fellow traveler’s fundamental sympathies through the idealization of the Iraqi dictatorship.

Fahrenheit 9/11 is not only deceptive; it is also incoherent. The political tendency of the first half, with its complaint that domestic anti-terror measures have been half-hearted, veers to the right. The second half, with its anti-war message, veers to the left. This confusion captures the predicament of the anti-Bush opposition forces, unsure how to position themselves toward the administration. As far as an analysis of the film goes, however, its propagandistic character has contributed unfortunately to the further polarization of American political life. One can only speculate as to the deleterious impact of the film overseas, where it will certainly provide aid and comfort to the enemies of the United States in the long-term war of ideas before us.