The thinking classes have become irrationally rational over Fahrenheit 9/11 and they’re tying themselves in knots. True, some have simply recoiled in outrage and disgust. These people tend to be either serious film aesthetes, like Armond White, whose virtuosic critique of Moore’s new place at the center of a sado-masochistic culture industry, though brilliant, is an example of a fine intellect thoroughly washing its hands, or those, like Christopher Hitchens, for whom the Islamist threat to liberal democracy takes precedence over all other threats to liberal democracy. Such people are purists, and Moore is anything but a pure taste. Others, most notably Todd Gitlin, have engaged in a kind of rueful and guilty accounting of Moore’s sins and virtues. He is Rush Limbaugh, but he’s the left’s Rush Limbaugh. Sometimes he shoots and misses badly, sometimes he hits home. And some of his points are even true.
Moore’s film has revived the old debate on the left between ends and means. If Bush is thrown out of office thanks to Fahrenheit 9/11, is it enough? Or ought a man who rose to power dishonestly be thrown out honestly? Slate’s David Edelstein recounts an argument with a friend, angry over Moore’s inclusion of the now famous grieving mother, Lila Lipscomb. Edelstein defends the scene as a potentially useful piece of propaganda if it saves other mothers’ children from dying in a senseless war. “When did you become a relativist?” retorts the friend. Both are a bit confused. Since Edelstein tries to clothe Moore in an isolated and supposedly coherent “moral universe,” the friend makes the relativist charge. But Edelstein is really grappling with whether the ends justify the means. His friend ought to have called him a “realist,” and they could have laughed and gone home friends. Still, you would think that they were old communists debating the historical necessity of the show trials, and that putting a woman on screen, presumably with her consent, was tantamount to murder.
The high tone of such arguments and the epithets that have been thrown at the film (and not just by the excitable Hitchens)—“stupid,” “sadistic,” “demagogic,” “intellectually dishonest,” “unfair”—reveal a curious error in judgment. It has been treated as an intellectual document that ought to make truth claims rather than insinuations, or a work of art that betrays the conditions of its creation. The sinister David Brooks gives the game away. Sarcastically he anoints Moore the left’s new Sartre, an intellectual hero. (Brooks once defined an intellectual as a purely sociological construct—someone who works at a think-tank at 23 and emerges on television or mainstream media at 30. Now he writes columns based on an implicit comparison between true and false men of ideas.) The thinking left has fallen into the trap, however, because they perform earnestly what Brooks does as a parody. No one expects articles in even respectable publications like the New York Times magazine to measure up to the same standards of rigor as The Critique of Pure Reason, and to come to Moore’s work with the expectations of modernist art-cinema or philosophy is either an exercise in deliberate and perverse frustration or a symptom of a screened-out prejudice.
That prejudice is a common elitist, aesthetic, and intellectual one against stupidity. To a man, the critics agree that the film is simple-minded. Man steals presidency, man relaxes while the state burns, turns surprise attack against his country into enormous political capital, just like his other crooked business dealings. Iraq was a sovereign state that had “never attacked us.” Yes, but it wasn’t exactly Switzerland. A handshake with a man wearing a dress and a towel on his head implies something shady. White men in suits are up to no good. Almost every frame of the film could yield a similar tag.
But Moore takes stupidity seriously, and so should we. It isn’t just a term of abuse for him, and he has something of a complex about it. He makes no secret of his obsession, from his book, Stupid White Men, to the sound-bites he gave to British papers, “We Americans suffer from an enforced ignorance. We don’t know about anything that’s happening outside our country. Our stupidity is embarrassing.” Our patriot networks typically have used such lines to pillory Moore as anti-American, but Moore includes himself in these comments. He makes fun of fat American tourists abroad, smiling to cover up the gap in their brains, but this isn’t just any fat American tourist. It’s Moore’s own persona.
Partly a pose, of course, but Moore understands that our democracy rewards the pose of stupidity, both culturally and politically. Intelligence can never be in the majority. The other people who understand this are Republican campaign strategists. They work with what they’ve been given, and they make it nice and simple. A terrorist is a bad man who wants to hurt Americans. He is an enemy of freedom. Marriage is between a man and a woman. The attempt to demonize Kerry as a flip-flopper is a calculated appeal to foolish consistency against intelligence. The twists and turns of reasoning that an intelligent person might regard as a sign of thoughtfulness, the voter is supposed to understand as a symptom of weakness and deceitfulness.
Those are the adversaries Moore wants to outdumb. Our media systems have created a simple-minded, schoolyard culture of question and answer that the good people at Fox News have adapted into a public version of an interrogation. “Are you a liberal?” “Do you support Saddam Hussein?” “Is your Epidermis showing?” “Have you got a bike?” We know that a lengthy explanation is a shady explanation and all answers to some questions are just wrong. Moore has mastered this technique. He is a doggedly stupid journalist, “How can you do these things to people?” “Why did you fire all the workers? Why did you bomb Iraq? Why? Why? Why?” He doesn’t load himself down thinking about the answers to questions before he asks them. He fires away greedy for easy satisfaction, like a child who trusts authority figures and yet is continually disappointed by them. He wants to hear the simple truth simply. Because he hasn’t received straight answers, he’s decided that these people are untrustworthy, and sometimes he’s right.
The one scene in Fahrenheit 9/11 that was almost universally condemned as unsporting was the sequence of Bush cabinet members being made-up to face the nation. David Denby sniffed, “This is cheap and meaningless. Everyone who goes on t.v. gets made up.” The scene, however, is one of the keys to the film. We are being shown the secrets of Oz. The point isn’t that these people are ugly, or uncomfortable, but that a political culture entirely reliant on the presentation of false appearances cannot possibly be trusted to show us any truth but the truth that is in the appearance itself.
Before the cameras, Ashcroft, Wolfowitz, Cheney, and Bush are knights putting their armor on before the battle of Agincourt. Their naked faces reveal their insecurity. These are human faces, but they’re the faces of those who like to forget their humanity. This is what makes them demonic. “Make me look young,” Ashcroft says, like an aging Hollywood roué, and Wolfowitz’s eager spit comb, although played for laughs, reveals an earnest, nervous, and untidy boy eager to fit with the older preps. Our laughter isn’t just cruel, it’s protective of his embarrassment and our own. It covers up what we see as we see it. This is how our politicians go to war. And for them, as for Moore, the war for hearts and minds takes place on screens first, and only later, among a small minority of elite skirmishers, in writing or in the civilized discussion and debate of enlightenment democracy. The real war, as Moore shows, is fought by the groundlings, and his film is pitched to them.
America is a democracy, and precisely because it is a democracy and not Plato’s Republic, the people are free to make dumb decisions with irrevocable consequences based on imperfect or misleading information. They can be played for suckers. That’s Moore’s America and it’s also Karl Rove’s America. Democracy does not mean rule by the best or those who speak the truth, but simply a legitimation of government action by the lowest, the people. And our people are not making decisions in the refined light of truth, but by the eerie blue light cast by television and computer screens.
“We live in fictitious times,” Moore said at the academy awards. Despite the malapropism, we know what he means. The 2000 election was a crisis, and the Supreme Court’s decision forced us to play pretend for four years. We had to believe in democracy like Dorothy thinking of home, and we’re still trying to believe in it. Then, another crisis, an attack and war, and on top of the strained trust of 2000 came the greatest strain on any people’s trust.
This is where Moore could win a debate with Chrisopher Hitchens, in his own medium. Hitchens hammers Moore with the word, and very effectively. But lending our own words to Moore’s film, it answers back, “Look at these people. Do you trust them to lead the nation into a just war against Islamic fundamentalism? If you say you do, you are either in cahoots with them, or you are lying to yourself. You’re allowing your ideas to get in the way of your eyes; these people are smug, they look complacent because they are. They have too many outside interests, and that means they will come out ahead even if we lose. If New York and all your loved ones went down in flames, their base would still be largely intact. They have nothing in common with you. In other words, trust your stupidity, your basic interests and your senses.”
The enlightenment liberal prizes truth arrived at through an exchange of ideas in a zone free from basic prejudices of faction or identity. If he wishes to keep a sense of his value inside our big polis, he must forget this unpleasant fact: Americans make too many decisions on appearance. Call it stupidity or call it emotional intelligence, “I liked his face,” but whatever you call it, it’s not foolproof. Moore feels America’s love of stupidity. He is part fat clown and barking Barnum. If it makes anxious left wing intellectuals feel better, we can reach to academic language for an ennobling term, the Rabelaisian. Moore is our gigantic carnival figure. He plays us for suckers and we love him or hate him for it. He mocks the reasoning that has tied us in circles and does what he wants. He stands up for the oppressed, for the left of flesh and blood: prick us do we not bleed, tickle us do we not laugh? And he farted in the general direction of the liberal order of fair play, reasoned debate, and open covenants openly arrived at, because he felt wronged and he took his revenge.
The best way to enjoy Fahrenheit 9/11 is as a revenge flick. It is fine vengeance for all the indignities the liberal left has suffered at the hands of the Republicans and especially the Bush dynasty and its minions since 1988. Moore has plotted his payback for a long time. For Willie Horton, for Hillary Clinton’s social kiss of Yasser Arafat, Moore returns the favor with a montage of handshakes with kaffiyehed Saudis that is undeniably racist. No American politician will ever shake hands with an Arab wearing traditional garb again without first banishing all cameras. In retaliation for the success the Republicans had with the wooden Al Gore of 2000 and the ballyhooed bad pancake make-up in his first debate with Bush, Moore fires back with W.‘s flickering lost look when he hears that the planes have hit, and, of course, the make-over sequence at the beginning of the film. The final touch, Moore hopes, will be fooling the same people the Republicans have been fooling for years.
The revenge isn’t finished, and there may yet be an honest judge waiting in the wings to make sure that the pound of flesh isn’t fully exacted. But regardless of the outcome of the next election, no one on the left, or even in the liberal center, can keep a nervous distance from this film. Whatever position we take publicly, for or against, further entangles us. I remember my nausea and dismay while taking part in a rally for graduate student unionization where we were told to wear t-shirts saying “This is what democracy looks like” as we lined up and marched in uniform rows. The combined brains of three hundred PhD students in diverse disciplines had produced a display that looked anything but democratic. Identifying ourselves with the politically disempowered seemed to lead us into a brutal self-mutilation. I did my duty and it was terrible.
There is a price to be paid for indulging an aesthetic of anger and revenge, for disowning the intellect to make common cause with the many who will win or lose the future for all of us. But to assert one’s own superior rationality when confronted with stupidity also has its costs. Which way to turn? If one wants to remain aloof, it may be better to say nothing at all. But if you’re going to speak publicly about Moore, and you’re not on the right, why take the occasion to display your superior smarts? Think of him with a grain of hope. O liberal who hauls Moore before the tribunal of history and blames him for a greater coarsening of our very coarse political culture—are you afraid of winning the election?