I think I’m the truth messiah/ I mask sloppy arguments as jokes/
You ain’t feelin me?/ You ain’t supposed to, that’s for gay folks
I went and saw Fahrenheit 9/11 on Saturday night with Eric. The movie doesn’t live up to its hype, and indeed as I expected, engaged in overly simplistic arguments that at times crossed the line of fair play. If Moore wanted to make a film damning Bush, I thought he could have done a better job. If he only sought to entertain America, I suppose he probably has done better than Dodgeball shall hope to. While the film is more scholastically honest than Bowling for Columbine, I still have some major quips, which grow with each day I examine his argument.
First and foremost, Moore indulges in a fallacy that the right has been guilty of since the Communist witch-hunt of the 1950s: guilt by association. Moore damns Bush for being cozy with the Bin Laden family and Saudi royalty. To the first, even with the sparse contact with Osama that Moore claims the Bin Laden family has had, you simply can’t fault an entire group of people for the doings of one. Moore was only able to find one wedding that Osama purportedly was at in the last twenty years of being ostracized. Perhaps communications with Osama and his family have been more frequent and perhaps not; but to expect the family to turn over their son is the same as expecting the Italian Mafia to go down by next Easter. In claiming that the relatives are nearly as culpable as Osama, and that Bush should stop fraternizing with the “enemy’s family,” is to engage in monarchist politics that went out with the French Revolution.
Even more unsophisticated is Moore’s attempt at damning Bush for doing business with the Saudi royal family. In a xenophobic argument that could make Front Page Magazine blush, Moore comes short of calling Saudi Arabia the new “evil empire.” Fifteen of the nineteen highjackers were Saudi Arabian, Moore reminds us, and members of the royal family have been accused of funneling money to terrorists. Moore even throws in that Saudi Arabia owns 6-7% of American capital for good measure. Our director here either demonstrates that he knows nothing about Middle East politics or that he is too lazy to draw out complexities that he could cover in 10 minutes of footage. There shouldn’t be that much surprise that fifteen of the highjackers were from the same country. The 9/11 attacks required a lot of coordination and it would be more sensible for them to recruit people from closer circles than communicate with terrorists in Indonesia. That they were all from Saudi Arabia is also not that surprising; that nation is one of the few “developed” nation-states in the region that still has a lot of anti-American extremists. Where would you expect them to be from? Qatar or Kuwait? Where police forces are stronger and relations with the United States are sanctimonious? To its advantage, Saudi Arabia not only has many extremists with a nation-state too weak to do anything about it, but it also has a relatively good education system and plentiful resources. Terrorists, the successful ones anyway, typically come from college-educated and middle-class backgrounds. Given that, you don’t really need a conspiracy theory to explain why so many of the highjackers were from Saudi Arabia. The charge that the Saudi royal family supports terrorists, thus making the Bush family guilty of colluding with the enemy, reminds me of Russian-German feuds whereby each nation’s citizens decried any contact with the hated opposition’s high families. Only this time, Moore’s argument isn’t as sophisticated as the nationalist pauper’s fury in the late 1800s. The Saudi royal family cannot be analyzed with the same assumptions we give to developed nations’ governments in the West. For Saudi Arabia, there are two marked characteristics. The first is that the government is comprised of loosely connected royal family members who often have easy access to national resources; hierarchal control and accountability isn’t as strong as they are in Western governments, thus this allows for vanguard members to use government funds/ family money to fund things the government isn’t fully behind. Even if Prince Bandar and Princess Haifa are caught funding terrorists (which is highly disputed right now anyway), you can’t hold the entire government responsible as if it acted as one giant monolithic being. Furthermore, Bush would be a larger international monkey than he is now if he walked into Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and demanded that the royal family crack down on its own sons and daughters for funding terrorists. Such a move would only prove to the extremists that their government is truly a puppet of the Untied States and must be overthrown. Fareed Zakaria wrote about the nature of Saudi Arabia in his book, The Future of Freedom (the latest great statement on democracy and classical liberalism):
The Saudi monarchy’s most articulate spokeman, Price Bandar bin Sultan, often reminds American officials that if they press his government too hard, the likely alternative to the regime is not Jeffersonian democracy but a Taliban-style theocracy.The Saudi government is riding a very fine line of not trying to look too pro-American and also not falling into extremist hands, Bush would serve the American people well to keep good relations with them as all presidents have done. Some people, other than Moore, fail to understand the importance of this, and have caused us some great financial pains because of their carelessness.
The worst part of it is, they may be right. The Arab rulers of the Middle East are autocratic, corrupt, and heavy-handed. But they are still more liberal, tolerant, and pluralistic than what would likely replace them. Elections in many Arab countries would produce politicians who espouse views that are closer to Osama bin Ladeen’s than those of Jordan’s liberal monarch, King Abdullah (Zakaria 2004, 120).
Moore seems to pull anything and everything out his bag to attack the Saudis, even at the expense of having a coherent argument. His reminder that the Saudi royal family has $750 billion dollars invested in America is supposed to send a shock among Americans akin to the “Japanese people are buying everything in America” scare of the 1980s. Rather, even upon casual examination, you would find it difficult to understand why a family with $750 billion dollars invested in a nation would also fund terrorists to disrupt that nation’s security and financial markets. They wouldn’t, that’s the point. It goes against all liberal theory of rational actors and logic. Saudi Arabia investing in our nation not only brings much needed capital during a great financial downturn, but also ensures that the royal family has a vested stake in not having their citizens attack us. It is legally impossible for them to pull out their money all at once, and any great pull outs would only send great shocks through the market that would affect their investments just as much ours. Let us not revert back to simplistic and barbaric nationalist arguments about international relations that we have worked so hard to get away from.
Moore continues with his sloppy thesis throughout the film. At one point he criticizes foreign investors for going into Iraq for business opportunities. What is Moore hoping for? That foreign investors stay out and let Iraqis build up their own industries? Lacking skills and capital, any Iraqi industry would be doomed to begging for government subsidies within a year, only making them more dependent and inefficient as time went on. Nothing produced by an Iraqi company at this point, with the exception of oil, would be suitable for the export market. With no export market, they can’t move towards more value-added manufacturing, get money for much needed imports, or expand their operations. Exporting oil would get them where every oil-export dominated nation has gotten, nowhere. Economies of this sort don’t develop along capitalist lines, moving from low-end manufacturing and agriculture to high-level services. Instead they just rely on their natural resources to feign modernity by buying luxury items that do nothing for the productive sectors. People in these nations remain in their same positions, albeit with even more wealth inequality, as they always have been: uneducated, unskilled, and poor. Having oil fields is akin to having a rich uncle, and both will be gone eventually and leave you at the same point you were at when you found them. Having foreign investors come in, however, changes that dynamic. Moore shouldn’t be criticizing the fact that foreign companies are going into Iraq, he should he asking, “What type of corporations are they? Are they only extractive corporations? Will they build up skills like the garment industry did for East Asia? Is government, capital, and labor cooperating with each other in these deals?” Rather than be sophisticated about the matter, he employs the usual trendy argument of our time, “corporations are the axis of evil,” which runs in the face of all economic logic and development history (just read up on East Asian history for the past fifty years, an area leftists often like to ignore when talking about dependency theory or developmental economics).
Of course, Moore’s slop doesn’t stop dripping there. Anxious to give everyone the quick and simple story to the Iraq war, he employs the “War for Oil” argument. My problem isn’t with the argument itself, it’s Moore’s insinuation that it’s the whole story. Like everything in life, nothing has one sole reason. Bush went to war for many different reasons, and perhaps like many of us, told his bullshit so often that at some point even he may have begun to believe it himself. We can’t discount the need to overthrown Saddam, protect Kurds, push for inspections, or for that matter, secure cheap oil. To weigh each of these ingredients in our pastry of war is one thing, to say that one has a monopoly, or close to it, on the impetus that drove us to war is to over simplify not only politics, but life itself.
I could continue with the laziness that Moore is guilty of. In one instance he faults Bush for not going into Afghanistan quick enough to capture Osama bin Laden. How conveniently he forgets that his comrades, myself included, were holding events across the country calling for the need to wait and pursue diplomatic means further to get Osama extradited to an international court. Indeed Moore himself claimed, outrageously, that Osama shouldn’t be presume guilty until he had a fair trail and lamented about our destructive and horrific bullying of the second poorest country in the world through our invasion. Should we have been stronger in our war efforts and forget international norms or weaker and not go to war at all? Moore needs to make up his mind. Similarly, he has footage of a Taliban ambassador to the US going around Texas meeting with Bush and the public before September 11th, a time when the Taliban was still harboring the world’s greatest terrorist. What Moore forgets to add is that diplomacy happens even between enemies, thank God, and that this Taliban representative was working at a time when the Taliban had made great concessions to destroy their poppy-seed fields at the bequest of Western nations. It was the beginning to a normalization of relations, and quite possibly a hand-over of Osama within seven to ten years. Leaving out these intricacies not only helps Moore’s indictment of Bush, but also offers the public a more scandalous story to get them riled up about their treacherous leader. I'm also not impressed by his now famous showman display of trying to get Congressmen to send their children off to the war. I understand the point he's making, albeit you don't actually "enlist your kids," but it seems just a form of ad-hominem fallacy. I'm unsure on why Congressmen who don't have their children in the war effort are more incompetent to make policy decisions about war; if anything, being removed allows you to be more objective. His recruitment effort is odd coming from a man who would probably protest the new draft bill (S89 & HR 163), which has been designed to have a more fair enlisting of military personnel. I'm left with the feeling that any prudent policy, no matter which way it turns, Moore would have an scorching attack on it. However, anything reckless, such as having a Democratic Senator sign off on the bill blocking Bush's inaugration, and effectively labeling the entire Democratic Party as a bunch of sore losers for the next four years and costing both Congress and Presidential elections, would be praised by our sensible director.
The movie is riddled with over simplifications and sloppiness that wouldn’t even get past a lower-division Political Science midterm. However, it is somewhat entertaining and successfully fills the vacuum that has been left since the disappearance of town halls, barbershops, and other public forums where political discourse used to occur. I thank Moore for at least making a widely successful film that addresses an issue more substantive than most movies cover. This summer has been alive with poli-tainment productions, including creative video games against Bush, and Moore’s new film is a blockbuster among such company. While the mass-consumption right (as differentiated from the intellectual right) have always offered overly simplified (may I say idiotic) arguments to the public, the left has suffered from overly academic and intellectual discourse that often flies over most people’s heads. In my John Stuart Mill loyalties, I don’t approve of dumbing down arguments for the public, but my Platonian and Machiavellian sentiments aren’t exactly arguing against such tactics before November 2004 either. Eben noted, correctly I believe, that this film has done more for the progressive movement than all the academics have done in the past 50 years. Although I agree, it somewhat bothers me that messages have to be couched in entertainment in order to reach people. Invariably, scholarship gets compromised in these forums, and you end up with simplified and sensationalist messages like Moore's new endeavor.
For the most unforgiving review of Moore’s new film, read the ever opinionated, and equally eloquent, Christopher Hitchens in his latest article at Slate, excerpted here:
He prefers leaden sarcasm to irony and, indeed, may not appreciate the distinction. In a long and paranoid (and tedious) section at the opening of the film, he makes heavy innuendoes about the flights that took members of the Bin Laden family out of the country after Sept. 11. I banged on about this myself at the time and wrote a Nation column drawing attention to the groveling Larry King interview with the insufferable Prince Bandar, which Moore excerpts. However, recent developments have not been kind to our Mike. In the interval between Moore's triumph at Cannes and the release of the film in the United States, the 9/11 commission has found nothing to complain of in the timing or arrangement of the flights. And Richard Clarke, Bush's former chief of counterterrorism, has come forward to say that he, and he alone, took the responsibility for authorizing those Saudi departures. This might not matter so much to the ethos of Fahrenheit 9/11, except that—as you might expect—Clarke is presented throughout as the brow-furrowed ethical hero of the entire post-9/11 moment. And it does not seem very likely that, in his open admission about the Bin Laden family evacuation, Clarke is taking a fall, or a spear in the chest, for the Bush administration. So, that's another bust for this windy and bloated cinematic "key to all mythologies."Hitchens' work is as preempted by an agenda as Moore's, but it's a worthwhile read nonetheless.
To view the *best* critique of Moore so far, check out David Koppel's piece.