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Monday, June 28, 2004

Christopher Unhitched: Part Three

Well! I have now seen "Fahrenheit 9/11," which is helpful in this endeavor. It's a flawed film, it was annoying to watch with a San Francisco audience that cheered Moore's every word, but it's a valuable film, and here, courtesy of Christopher Hitchens' colleague David Edelstein, who wrote Slate's other, shorter review of the film, is a big reason why:

" ... But when it comes to politics in a time of war, I think that relativism is, well, relative. Fahrenheit 9/11 must be viewed in the context of the Iraq occupation and the torrent of misleading claims that got us there. It must be viewed in the context of Rush Limbaugh repeating the charge that Hillary Clinton had Vince Foster murdered in Fort Marcy Park, or laughing off the exposure of Valerie Plame when, had this been a Democratic administration, he'd be calling every day for the traitor's head. It must be viewed in the context of Ann Coulter calling for the execution of people who disagree with her. It must be viewed in the context of another new documentary, the superb The Hunting of the President, that documents—irrefutably—the lengths to which the right went to destroy Bill Clinton. Moore might be a demagogue, but never—not even during Watergate—has a U.S. administration left itself so open to this kind of savaging."

Another reason this film is important?

Books critiquing the Bush administration and elucidating much of what Moore points out in this film have been at the top of best seller lists for more than a year now, but the American people are a group whose primary vehicle for processing information is moving pictures. Zooming out further, I'd say the human being of the 21st century's preferred information processing method is film.

All the books out there won't have the impact of a film on the same subject, because one moving picture is worth, like, a whole bunch of words.

Anyway, it is clear to me that Christopher Hitchens' reaction (hysterical screed) to this film says more about Christopher Hitchens than it does about "Fahrenheit 9/11."

But let's pick up where we left off.

Hitchens has just mocked Moore for having the "staunch courage to mock Bush for his verbal infelicity."

Hitchens continues sarcastically to itemize the various things Moore has had the ingenuity to point out: the capitalist nature of American society, the military-industrial complex, spin in politics.

"There's more," Hitchens writes. "Poor people often volunteer to join the army, and some of them are duskier than others. Betcha didn't know that."

Hitchens writes this point off, but it's an important (though obvious) one, because it's at the heart of what Moore is trying to say: People in impoverished communities such as Flint, Mich., who suffer at the hands of the economic policies carried out by the Bush administration,* are then perfect fodder for the armed forces, because military service guarantees a salary, job skills, money for education, a pension, etc.

(Meanwhile, Bush cuts veterans' benefits of every sort, while praising the sacrifices and the bravery of the American soldier, a hypocrisy that it just blows my mind clear out of my skull does not reverbrate more thumpingly with Johnny Q. Public.)

These are the people who fight and die so the rest of us -- for whom the prospect of military service carries with it little incentive besides the opportunity perhaps for increased self-discipline and the skill to make a mean, hospital-cornered bed -- can buy Gucci sandals, watch the finale of "Friends" and "The Apprenctice" and pretend they're important, drive SUVs, even write blogs, all the while protected by America's military might.

All these people ask in return, Moore says, at the very end of the film, is that we only send them into harm's way when it is absolutely necessary.

As far as the fact that many soldiers are "duskier than others," which, come to think of it, I find slightly offensive: A disproportionate amount of servicemen and women come from working class and poor families and a disproportionate amount of poor people are minorities and people of color.

It is, now that I really think about it, disgusting for Hitchens to discount this fact in such a high-handed manner.

In the film, Moore goes to the Capitol and confronts our congressional leadres, urging them to sign their sons up for military service, so that they too can sacrifice for George W. Bush's war. (In a comical moment, one Congressman, in his cowardly haste to avoid talking to Moore, bumps a woman out of his way in his effort to escape.)

Hitchens finds this ludicrous: "Does he think -- as he seems to suggest -- that parents can 'send' their children, as he stupidly asks elected members of Congress to do?"

Actually, Bitchens, though a member of Congress probably cannot sign his of her children up, that member of Congress could order or at least encourage his or her children to go, their enlistment depending upon whether they choose to defy their parents. And if you sign up for the army these days, it's a good bet your boots will hit Iraqi ground at some point in the not so distant future.

Hitchens is old and, at this point, in the way, so he's not eligible for this exercise. But if anyone out there is willing to bet that military enlistment these days does not ipso facto equal a vacation in the Cradle of Civilization, roll them bones and sign up.

Hitchens goes on with a series of increasingly incomprehensible questions, related to the hypothetical institution of a draft: "Would [Moore} have abandoned Gettysburg because the Union allowed civilians to pay proxies to serve in their place? Would he have supported the antidraft (and very antiblack) riots against Lincoln in New York?"

Huh? Hitchens, come on back to the 21st century, baby. WTF are you talking about and how is it relevant?

Hitchens, however, thinks these questions are the paragon of intellectual sobriety, as he continues: "After a point, one realizes that it's a waste of time asking him questions of this sort. It would be too much like taking him seriously. He'll just try anything once and see if it floats or flies to get a cheer."

I think the reason asking those questions is a waste of time, Bitchens, is that nobody cares.

With the Gettysburg comment, I suppose Hitchens is saying, would it have been worth it for the Union to abandon its cause because rich people were allowed to pay poor people to serve in their place? Here's the problem: IT WAS THE CIVIL WAR. That, my friends, was a just cause. There is absolutely no basis for comparison between Iraq and the Civil War, even if the noble cause of freeing the slaves was less at the heart of Union motivation than sixth-grade textbooks tend to let on.

As for the antidraft riots question, I'm just going to allow myself to look stupid here. If anyone knows why this is a relevant question, please fill me in below in the comments section.

Now it's time for Hitchens to trot out the Todd Beamer "Let's roll" story, in response to Moore's alleged assertion in an interview that blacks would have fought back in the hijacked 9/11 planes.

One is granted a telling glimpse into Hitchens' mind in his celebration of one of the biggest myths to have emerged from that day in September, one that does much to underpin the post-9/11 conservative worldview. Not that the story is a fabrication, though much what happened on that plane remains unknown, but it is one of the narratives that continues to serve an administration that has exploited the events of that day for its own purposes.

Hitchens goes on to say the "Pennsylvania drama also reminds one of the self-evident fact that this war is not fought only 'overseas' or in uniform, but is being brought to our cities. Yet Moore is a silly and shady man who does not recognize courage or any sort even when he sees it because he cannot summon it in himself."

One observation. It's not really accurate to say the war "is being brought to our cities." It was brought to our cities on one occasion. Yes, Al Qaeda terrorists are planning to strike us as we speak, but to say the war "is being brought" to us denotes a continuous state of war that belies the everyday reality in America. When you step out of your apartment, do you feel like you are in a country that's at war?

Now Hitchens really starts to get kooky. "But I offer this, to Moore and to his rapid response rabble. Any time, Michael my boy. Let's redo Telluride. Any show. Any place. Any platform. Let's see what you're made of."

Okayyyyyyyyy ... Sounds good Chris.

More of Hitchens going insane, as he rebuts those who downplay the movie, claiming it's just "entertainment."

"Yeah, well," Hitchens writes, "I have myself written and presented about a dozen low-budget made-for-TV documentaries ... So I know, thanks, before you tell me, that a documentary must have a 'POV' or poit of view and that it must also impose a narrative line."

I'm not being defensive. You're being defensive.

Hitchens does go on to make a good point that if you make contradictory claims and don't care about glossing it over, then "you have betrayed your craft." And if you put in an ellipsis when quoting someone and distort the original meaning, breaking the pact with readers or viewers, you "are to be despised."

I agree with that, but I don't believe Moore breaks that pact. He bends that pact. He makes connections between events that constitute his opinion. But he never goes so far as, say Lisa Meyers of MSNBC, whose ugly, despicable work on Hillary Clinton in the Watergate era Atrios has been mentioned much of late.

And we're finally coming down the stretch.

To conclude his piece, Hitchens takes on Moore's quote from George Orwell's "1984," which he reads in a voice-over towards the end of the film.

Hitchens condescends to Moore again, "A short word of advice: In general, it's highly unwise to quote Orwell if you are already way out of your depth on the question of moral equivalance."

Only Hitchens can quote Orwell because only Hitchens has a brain large enough to comprehend Orwell.

The passage Moore reads has to do with the subject of unending war, how the neverending overseas conflicts in "1984" serve the interests of Big Brother, keeping the people in a state of fear and mindless patriotism.

What Moore is really talking about is the culture of fear in America and how the prospect of a neverending "war on terror" serves the interests of the Bush administration. The part that Hitchens evidently reacted to is the moment where Moore mentions Oceania's two interchangeable foes (I just reread the book yet I forget their names) and shows for one a photo of Saddam and the other a photo of Osama Bin Laden.

Hitchens takes this as follows: "The clear intention, as clumsily excerpted like this (...) is to suggest that there is no moral distinction between the United States, the Taliban, and the Baath Party and that the war against jihad is about nothing."

Hitchens then throws out his own Orwell quote, about pacificism, which I'll get to in a second.

Hitchens gets Moore's "clear intention" utterly wrong. (By the way, is it a breach of the contract between journalist and reader for the journsalist falsely to infer the "clear intention" of something?)

I understand the confusion that could arise from Moore's juxtaposition of these words and pictures, and it may have been ill-advised. But here is what Moore is saying:

He's not saying Osama and Saddam are morally equivalent to the United States. He is in fact using Orwell's words to make a broader statement about where we are as a nation, at a moment when an administration lies to the public and instills fear within its subjects in order to consolidate its power and pursue its goals, all under the penumbra of a war without end against, essentially, a negative emotional state (terror). In that context, Osama and Saddam are simply the two major players in the Bush administration's unceasing "war on terror."

Moreover, the photographs of Bin Laden and Saddam don't have to mean they are equivalent, or equally culpable, but rather that one (Saddam) has been subsituted for the other (Osama), which is in fact the case and totally in keeping with "1984" analogy.

Hitchens' Orwell quote from Notes on Nationalism, published in 1945, has to do with pacifists who believed that totalitarianism is no worse than democracy. But this passage is utterly worthless. Why? Because that was an utterly different time. Anyone who believed during and after the Second World War that the Nazis and Italian Fascists and Stalinist Russia were no worse than the Western democracies were clearly in the wrong and worthy of contempt.

But no one is saying that America is "as bad as" the Taliban or Saddam. What those of us who opposed the invasion of Iraq are saying is that Iraq's involvement with Sept. 11th is a canard, that the Bush administration has lied to the American public to pursue its own ends and that American soldiers should not be dying in agony on that basis.

What Moore is saying is that the Bush administration has postulated a moral equivalence between Saddam and Osama with respect to the Sept. 11th attacks that is completely false.

Hitchens winds up by stating that if Moore had his way, Milosevic would still be in power, Afghanistan would be under Taliban rule and Kuwait would have remained part of Iraq. (Is Moore, by the way, on record as having opposed the intervention in Kosovo, or is this yet another inference on the part of our top-notch journalist, Hitchens? [UPDATE: Moore apparently spoke out against the Kosovo campaign in "Bowling for Columbine," which I saw the film but don't remember this but that don't mean it didn't happen.])

Moore's film is not a paean to pacificism but an indictment of a corrupt administration, an indictment that ends (as I mentioned before) with a plea on behalf of American soldiers that we not send them into harm's way unless it is absolutely necessary.

Part of me believes or wishes that Hitchens' violent and poisonous response to this film stems from the fact that, sitting in that theater as the film ended, he realized how compromised he is in his unflagging support of this administration, he realized how he has overlooked the pain and suffering and death that has resulted from this war (this is a man who wrote a book indicting Kissinger for the illegal and needless deaths of Cambodians after all), and, backed into a corner, realizing at some level of consciousness that he is in the wrong, went to his computer and gave birth in a final spasm of neoconservative fervor to this screed, fueled by denial and ensnared, like William H. Macy's character in "Fargo," impotently raging against the trap into which he has gotten himself.

Perhaps Hitchens, having painted himself into such a corner, might identify with these words of Macbeth, which so aptly express the blind inertia of the man who has committed himself to the wrong path: "I am in blood stepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o'er."

It's okay, Christopher. No one is going to judge you. Take a deep breath. Just admit your mistake. The first step to recovery is admitting you were wrong.

*Democrats aren't without culpability here, either, having been behind the free trade agreements that helped GM move its plants out of Flint; nor has anyone figured out how to eliminate unemployment and poverty in a capitalist society. But the supply-side theories of the Reagan and Dubya administrations are so heedless to the plight of the poor that ... well, if you don't understand that, then there's not much hope for you.

.: posted by hornswaggler 1:57 PM

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