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My Opinion of the Moment

Why I Trust Michael Moore

I'm a fan of Michael Moore's. I've seen Fahrenheit 911 twice, seen him speak in person, read Stupid White Men, and visited his web site. I even read Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. Okay, I was a teenager when I read that, but boy did I feel smart for not needing to have the movie's title explained! Come on, I'll take what I can get. Anyway...

I've read some commentators say Moore needs no defending when he's getting so much attention himself. I disagree. Anybody who gets frequent death threats just for an opinion needs ample defending. It's more than just a matter of free speech, however, that makes me rise to his defense. In principal, even those whose opinions are worthless must have their right to express them secured, but to say someone shouldn't be silenced isn't to say they should be listened to.

Yes, I agree with Moore most of the time. That's not enough however to make me rely on what he says. Ill informed people sometimes stumble onto correct conclusions. Conspiracy theorists can get lucky. Liars can misrepresent the facts while agreeing with me. No, there has to be more to earning my respect than just holding my opinions. So why do I respect one of the most despised men in America?

Despite the charges of his critics that he makes things up, my observation is he's gotten more careful about his facts. Maybe that's to the credit of the critics who caught him in errors in earlier projects, or at least claimed to catch him. Whatever the case, being a news-junkie, I've often found other sources for the information I get from him, and what I've learned from him has usually checked out. Moreover, he tends to make that easy by providing his sources. On his web site, he often links to his source. His books are properly footnoted. In his latest film, he shows his sources, whether interviews or documents. When a supposed lefty conspiracy theorist gets information from not just other left-wing sources, not just mainstream media, but also from conservative media, it rather puts the lie to the idea that he's making it all up. However, this is still only the second reason I trust him.

The main reason I trust him goes back to that addage, "You can judge a man by the quality of his enemies." I look at the people who despise Moore, and I see people who are powerful, arrogant, and corrupt. That's all the proof anyone should need that he's telling the truth.

If someone needs more proof than that, look at the tactics of his critics. There's the right wing calling him unpatriotic, accusing him of hating America, shrieking rather than entering into debate. Granted that's their usual way of political discourse, but they're particularly agitated in the case of Fahrenheit 911. He really struck a nerve this time. If the contents of the film were clearly untrue, or at least strongly in doubt, would the reaction be so strong? Or could the strong reaction come from the undeniable truth of his main point, that the Bush administration has lied to cover up failure to act on warnings about the 911 attacks, failed to deal appropriately with the Saudi government, and manipulated the public to support restrictions on our freedom and an invasion of a country that had nothing to do with 911? When someone is attacked as a liar by liars and people who uncritically pass on the lies as truth, he's almost surely telling the truth.

If you're reading this, and thinking to yourself that I'm going too far the other direction, and there's no way to know who to believe, then have a look at the tactics of the critics. For example, there's the second-hand quote from a critic, an example of which is this screed by Dave Kopel, a columnist for the National Review and Research Director for the Independence Institute (which, on its web site, mentions that it takes a "pro-freedom perspective": apparently if you disagree, you're against freedom, another favorite debating point of the right). A central theme of the article is that Michael Moore is only now pretending to care about 911, because he blew it off earlier. This is based on a claim by Ed Koch, former mayor of New York and supporter of the war on Iraq, that Moore made a remark to that effect before filming started on a program on which they both appeared. The quote, if accurate, is taken out of context, still a sneaky move. Presumably if this remark were recorded, Kopel could just quote Moore instead of quoting Koch. Instead, he asks his readers to assume that Koch, who thoroughly detests Moore, is being honest, heard it right, and remembers it exactly.

An article getting frequently linked by Moore's critics (yes I know, I'm linking it too: would it not be dishonest to criticize it without linking to it?) is this Slate piece by Christopher Hitchens. He resorts to the common "if you don't agree with Bush you must hate freedom" argument: "If Michael Moore had been listened to, Afghanistan would still be under Taliban rule, and Kuwait would have remained part of Iraq." Apparently he somewhere found Moore's endorsement of the Taliban and forgot to quote it. Never mind that the Taliban are among the bad guys of Fahrenheit 911 and Bush has never explained why he was dealing with these guys. Elsewhere, Hitchens resorts to his strongest argument, the deliberate misunderstanding of someone's point. He says, "Finally, Moore complains that there isn't enough intrusion and confiscation at airports and says that it is appalling that every air traveler is not forcibly relieved of all matches and lighters." Actually, Moore did not make that complaint. He does point out that airport security keeps out harmless items while allowing the matches and lighters necessary to set off shoe bombs, but it comes in the context of several government actions that make no sense if the goal really is improving homeland security. The implication isn't that matches should be banned, but that the tobacco lobby managed to make corporate concerns override security. Even that is a sidelight to the big point, which Hitchens missed altogether, that the government used the threat of terror to get us to back a war against Iraq, and we're being deliberately kept on edge. One could disagree with that conclusion of course, but to misinterpret the film to avoid seeing the point is just disingenuous.

Want another misinterpretation? Hitchens asks, "Does he think—as he seems to suggest—that parents can "send" their children, as he stupidly asks elected members of Congress to do?". The point he pretends to not get is that members of Congress voted for the war, but won't put their own children in harm's way. He also managed to miss it earlier in that same paragraph, when he wrote, "There are no martyred rabbits this time. Instead, it's the poor and black who shoulder the packs and rifles and march away. I won't dwell on the fact that black Americans have fought for almost a century and a half, from insisting on their right to join the U.S. Army and fight in the Civil War to the right to have a desegregated Army that set the pace for post-1945 civil rights." Well, thank you for not dwelling on a point that wasn't part of the film. It seems the least Moore's financially comfortable critics could do is admit they don't care that the poor do the fighting while they themselves sacrifice nothing and make the profits.

Oh, before those of you who hate Moore get too excited about the Hitchens article, you might want to see what he said about Ronald Reagan. I've little good to say about Reagan, but even I wouldn't say some of that.

A common attempt to discredit the film which would be hilarious if it weren't quite so serious is the attempt to label it "propaganda". The people who use that word know it conjures up Soviet propaganda and Nazi propaganda, and hope to associate Fahrenheit 911 with such villainous propagandists. Perhaps they're honestly unaware that there was American propaganda too. If a newsreel is a plea to buy war bonds, and a radio broadcast tells German soldiers to surrender because they can't win, what else do you call it? Being propaganda doesn't mean it's false. The Germans were told the truth, they were losing, but it's still propaganda: one-sided, intended to persuade the audience to the producer's point of view. What's hypocritical is that government propaganda to mislead us into the war was passed on as truth by the same people who denounce Fahrenheit 911 as propaganda. What's ironic is that the stuff they passed on to the public actually met the assumption that propaganda is false.

Perhaps critics hope that a tactic Hitchens accuses Moore of using might just work, namely, throw up a bunch of accusations and hope something sticks. Perhaps they're thinking, "Okay, Moore did loads of fact checking, but he must have missed a detail somewhere, and maybe if we can knock off a couple details, maybe the public will ignore everything that was right and his credibility will be destroyed." Maybe. Or maybe after having deceived the public for so long and having been caught in so many lies, they'll find they can't knock down the big points: that none of the reasons for war proved accurate; that the assumptions about how it would go proved wrong; that the mainstream media were patsies who bought it all and handed it to us like it was news; that Bush cronies have been profiteering; that Bush did everything in his power to obstruct an investigation into 911 and got caught in a coverup.

What I suspect really drives some people utterly nuts is that they were all prepared to denounce Moore for the disrespectful way he treated our soldiers, which would be the definitive proof they needed that he sympathizes with terrorists, hates America, opposes freedom, and is just congenitally unamerican. Then Moore screwed things up by not being disrespectful. He drives home the sacrifices soldiers and their families make, part and parcel with the powerful profiting rather than sacrificing. The soldiers tell their own stories, share their own opinions, and of course Moore shows the ones who have grown critical of the war and the neocons who sent them. It's not about showing both sides. It's about showing the side the mainstream media never let us see. We see lots of soldiers determined to do their jobs, speaking about the worthiness of their mission and the good things they've accomplished. What Moore shows is the shocking fact that soldiers' opinions vary as much as those of civilians. Maybe what accounts for sellout crowds at movie theaters near military bases is that soldiers and families who thought they were the only ones who had a problem with the profiteer-in-chief find they're not alone.

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