Michael Moore, artist and patriot

John Berger
16 August 2004

Fahrenheit 9/11 is astounding. Not so much as a film – although it is a cunning and moving film – but as an event. Many commentators try to dismiss the event and disparage the film. We will see why later.

Michael Moore’s film profoundly moved the artists on the Cannes Film Festival jury and it seems that they voted unanimously to award it the Palme d’Or. Since then it has touched many millions of people. During the first six weeks of its showing in the United States, the box office takings amounted to over $100 million; this sum is, astoundingly, about half of what Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone made during a comparable period.

People have never seen another film like Fahrenheit 9/11. Only the so-called opinion-makers in the press and media appear to have been put out by it.

The film, considered as a political act, may be a historical landmark. Yet to have a sense of this, a certain perspective for the future is required. Living only close-up to the latest news, as most opinion-makers do, reduces one’s perspectives: everything is a hassle, no more. The film by contrast believes it may be making a very small contribution towards the changing of world history. It is a work inspired by hope.

What makes it an event is the fact that it is an effective and independent intervention into immediate world politics. Today it is rare for an artist (Moore is one) to succeed in making such an intervention, and in interrupting the prepared, prevaricating statements of politicians. Its immediate aim is to make it less likely that President Bush will be re-elected in November. From start to finish it invites a political and social argument.

Will Michael Moore’s film help prevent George W Bush’s re-election? Todd Gitlin’s weekly openDemocracy column, written with verve and insight, is an unmatched guide to the presidential election race.

Maverick movie, political event

To denigrate this as propaganda is either naive or perverse, forgetting (deliberately?) what the last century taught us. Propaganda requires a permanent network of communication so that it can systematically stifle reflection with emotive or utopian slogans. Its pace is usually fast. Propaganda invariably serves the long-term interests of some elite.

This single maverick movie is often reflectively slow and is not afraid of silence. It appeals to people to think for themselves and make thought-out connections. And it identifies with, and pleads for, those who are normally unlistened to.

Making a strong case is not the same thing as saturating with propaganda. Fox TV does the latter, Michael Moore the former.

Ever since the Greek tragedies artists have, from time to time, asked themselves how they might influence ongoing political events. A tricky question because two very different types of power are involved. Many theories of aesthetics and ethics revolve round this question. For those living under political tyrannies art has frequently been a form of hidden resistance, and tyrants habitually look for ways to control art.

All this, however, is in general terms and over a large terrain. Fahrenheit 9/11 is something different. It has succeeded in intervening in a political programme on the programme’s own ground.

For this to happen a convergence of factors were needed. The Cannes award and the misjudged attempt to prevent the film being distributed played a significant part in creating the event.

For other views of Fahrenheit 9/11, see Todd Gitlin’s “Michael Moore, alas” on openDemocracy, and Christopher Hitchens’s “Unfairenheit 9/11” on Slate.

To point this out in no way implies that the film as such doesn’t deserve the attention it is receiving. It’s simply to remind ourselves that within the realm of the mass-media a breakthrough (a smashing down of the daily wall of lies and half-truths) is bound to be rare. And it is this rarity which has made the film exemplary. It is setting an example to millions – as if they’d been waiting for it.

A People’s Tribune

The film proposes that, in the first year of the millennium, the White House and the Pentagon were taken over by a gang of thugs – plus their Born Again Frontman – so that United States power should henceforth serve, as a priority, the global interests of the Corporations. A stark scenario which is closer to the truth than most nuanced editorials.

Behind Michael Moore’s film comes a powerful documentary tracking another dimension of power in the United States: The Corporation, by Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott, and Joel Bakan.

Yet more important than the scenario is the way the movie speaks out. It demonstrates that a single independent voice – pointing out certain home truths which countless Americans are already discovering for themselves – can withstand all the manipulative power of communications experts, lying presidential speeches and vapid press conferences, and break through the conspiracy of silence, the manufactured atmosphere of fear and the solitude of feeling politically impotent.

It’s a movie that speaks of obstinate faraway desires in a period of disillusion. A movie that tells jokes whilst the band plays the Apocalypse. A movie in which millions of Americans recognise themselves and the precise ways in which they are being cheated. A movie about surprises, mostly bad but some good, being discussed together. Fahrenheit 9/11 reminds the spectator that when courage is shared one can fight against the odds.

Michael Moore’s filmic reference to George Orwell’s nightmare vision of political order based on total power and systematic deceit is echoed in Mark Medish’s openDemocracy article, “Four more years for Big Brother?” (July 2004).

In over a thousand cinemas across the country Michael Moore becomes with this film a People’s Tribune. And what do we see? Bush is visibly a political cretin, as ignorant of the world as he is indifferent to it. Whilst the Tribune, informed by popular experience, acquires political credibility, not as a politician himself, but as the voice of the anger of a multitude and its will to resist.

There is something else which is astounding. The aim of Fahrenheit 9/11 is to stop Bush fixing the next election as he fixed the last. Its focus is on the totally unjustified war in Iraq. Yet its conclusion is larger than either of these issues. It declares that a political economy which creates colossally increasing wealth surrounded by disastrously increasing poverty, needs – in order to survive – a continual war with some invented foreign enemy to maintain its own internal order and security. It requires ceaseless war.

Thus – fifteen years after the fall of Communism, decades after the declared End of History, one of the main theses of Marx’s interpretation of history, again becomes a debating point and a possible explanation of the catastrophes being lived.

Can dialogue between Americans and non-Americans clarify the issues at stake in the US election? Be provoked, surprised and infuriated by openDemocracy’s “Letters to Americans”.

It is always the poor who make the most sacrifices, Fahrenheit 9/11 announces quietly during its last minutes. For how much longer?

There is no future for any civilisation anywhere in the world today that ignores this question. And this is why the film was made and became what it became. It’s a film that deeply wants America to survive.

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