Tuesday, July 13, 2004

The American Intifada

I've discussed the absence of the question of Israel and Palestinians in Fahrenheit 9/11: "Michael Moore's Dilemma: Israel, Saudi Arabia, and John Kerry" (July 8, 2004).

What's interesting is that Moore managed to include an image of Palestinians in a film for which the question of the Israeli occupation is the least relevant among his feature-length works: Roger and Me. As the credits roll, Moore revisits the major interviewees in the film to poke fun at their cluelessness one more time. The third figure is Maxine Kronick, a Flint official who tried and failed to make downtown Flint "the entertainment center of the county" like Toronto (!) earlier in the film (the tragicomic distance between American cities and Canadian metropolises, the distance created by the strength of American racism that has caused white flight from urban areas and made the American welfare state the stingiest among the rich industrial nations, is even more effectively highlighted in Bowling for Columbine). Moore (off camera) asks Maxine: "Where are you going to?" Maxine happily replies: "I'm going to Tel Aviv." Moore asks again: "Why?" Maxine, beaming, jokes: "Well, maybe, someday I'll be the minister of tourism." Then, the film cuts to a scene of Palestinian youths throwing rocks at IDF soldiers, as the subtile reads "One month after Maxine arrived. . . ".

The more I think about it, the more Roger and Me stands out as Moore's equal skewering of both Reaganite Republicans and Democrats (unlike his overwhelming focus on the Bush Team in Fahrenheit 9/11). After the dubious strategy of wasting tax dollars on the tourist industry as the alternative to rapidly disappearing unionized manufacturing jobs collapses (Moore's voice-over sardonically commenting that "The Hyatt went bankrupt and was put up for sale, the Waterstreet Pavillion saw most of its stores go out of business, and only six months after opening, the Autoworld closed due to a lack of visitors. I guess it was like expecting a million people a year to go to New Jersey to Chemicalworld, or a million people going to Valdez, Alaska for Exxonworld. Some people just don't like to celebrate human tragedy while on vacation"), Kronick says:
It started to get looking like Toronto, upper-middle class Black and white people, and everybody was dressed nice. And we thought we would be the entertainment center of the county. In all truth, that may be naive, but that was my goal. Let's make it the entertainment center, let's make it so that everybody wants to be in downtown Flint. We're gonna have entertainment, we're gonna have art, it's gonna be very cultural, it's gonna be very upbeat.
Kronick's failed vision nicely sums up the liberal fantasy of happy racial integration of the upper-middle strata through commodification of art and culture -- no solution to the plight of the working class of any race even if the fantasy could become reality unlike in Flint.

Roger and Me suggests that it was not just Ronald Reagan, the Republican Party, and Roger Smiths of corporate America but also liberal downtown officials like Kronick, Democratic politicians like James J. Blanchard (who served four terms as a member of the United States Congress from 1975 to 1983 and two terms as governor of Michigan from 1983 to 1991), and union leaders like Owen Bieber (the UAW international president from 1983 to 1995) who were (and still are) responsible for the decline of the American working class.

Some have criticized Moore for his representation of American workers, especially his tendency to portray them mainly as passive victims or individual survivors like Rhonda Britton ("the rabbit lady" in Roger and Me -- one of the few representations of a working-class lesbian in American cinema) rather than to show them engaged in active collective resistance (be it successful or unsuccessful, on a small or large scale) to ruling-class power. For instance, Rich Gibson, an associate professor of Social Studies in the College of Education at San Diego State University, wrote: "Moore makes caricatures of working people (The rabbit woman), obliterates the history of real resistance (there were big battles in Flint when Moore was making his bogus docu-drama [Roger and Me])" (LBO-talk, May 17, 1998); and "[O]n the one hand, the UAW was busy helping with the layoff of its members, but on the other hand, public sector workers united with industrial workers to fight the cutbacks that were taking place in welfare and unemployment benefits. Dozens of peoiple [sic] went to jail, hundreds were involved in actions against the government and the companies. Moore was there, stood on the sides and chuckled, promoted his little local paper, used his friends, and split" (LBO-talk, May 17, 1998). There is a kernel of truth in Gibson's harsh remarks. For example, Fahrenheit 9/11 does not mention that Lila Lipscomb, the film's emotional pivot, has become an activist and member of Military Families Speak Out:
Parents of soldiers killed or wounded in Iraq, holding black wreaths and photos of their dead sons, marched to Dover Air Force Base March 14 to demand that George W. Bush stop hiding Iraq war casualties and bring the troops home.

"We will not allow this administration to hide the toll and hide the tears any longer," declared Nancy Lessin, coordinator of Military Families Speak Out, which cosponsored the memorial with Iraq Pledge of Resistance. Lessin, whose stepson returned from Iraq last May, addressed 800 mourners packed on a strip of grass outside the chain-link fence of the air base. "Start telling the truth!" she cried. "Bring an end to this war!" . . .

Lila Lipscomb of Flint, Mich., also held a poster with a photo of her son Sgt. Michael Pedersen, who died in a helicopter crash in Iraq on April 2, 2003. "Michael was 27 years old," she said, tears streaming down her cheeks. "I don’t want any other mother to have to give their son a headstone for his birthday." (Tim Wheeler, "Grieving Moms & Dads: 'End the War!'" People's Weekly World, March 20, 2004)
More often than not, the hegemonic ideology tells us that there are "activists" and there are "ordinary Americans" and "ordinary Americans" are decent individualists and would never be caught dead among kooky group-thinking "activists," so Fahrenheit 9/11 missed a great opportunity to show that Americans like Lipscomb whom the film presents as the archetypal image of an "ordinary American" -- in contrast to the film's portrayal of young militants at the Bush inauguration protest and lovably dorky and pacific members of Peace Fresno -- do not only change their minds but also become members of an activist group and organize protests.

Gibson's total dismissal of Moore's work is too hasty, though, for it cannot be denied that working-class Americans can be feckless, and for many American workers, collective resistance is often the farthest thing from their mind, and if a film like Roger and Me depicts a truth of the problem of working-class subjectivity, it can serve as a wake-up call or at least a valuable historical document, as long as we do not take it as The Only Truth about working-class America.

In a nation like the United States, where there exist no strong political and cultural institutions on the left that act as guardians of popular memories of class struggles in the past, perhaps for most workers, there is no other way of learning than learning the hard way. Lipscomb herself learned it the hard way:
She [Lila Lipscomb] had seen Moore's first film, Roger and Me, a documentary about the devastating closure of Flint's General Motors plant, and been impressed. When he asked her to participate in Fahrenheit 9/11 she went away and watched his last film, Bowling for Columbine. This also, she thought, had merit. But she had other reasons for taking part; chiefly guilt, for not having spoken up sooner, for having, she says, been complacent and gullible enough to believe Bush's arguments for war.

"The reason I didn't hesitate was because I was carrying my son's words with me. And as a mother I have to carry each and every day the fact, could I have done a little bit more? Could I have been more vocal so that the president would not have been given that much authority within himself? And nobody can make that go away. My son got sent into harm's way by a decision made by the president of the United States that was based on a lie. Would my son still be here today if I had had my uprising then?"

The day Michael decided to join the army, she says, "I was so proud of him, so proud of him. It was the first grown-up, manly decision that he'd ever made in his life." She knew the risks -- her daughter Jennifer served in the first Gulf war -- but she also thought it a smart career move for people in their position, a low-income family. Then, over Christmas 2002, on his last home visit, Michael said something surprising. "I so vividly remember. I walked out of my bedroom and we have a long hallway upstairs and he was standing there and he said he would have to go to Kuwait and then to Baghdad. And he said he didn't support the war, that he didn't know why he had to go over there. We talked about fear. I was petrified, because in my mind I was thinking that's where Bin Laden is, because that's what we'd been told." (emphasis added, Emma Brockes, "The Lie That Killed My Son," The Guardian, July 8, 2004)
So, the image of the intifada in Roger and Me is not so odd, after all. The intifada simply means "an uprising" in Arabic (though many on the right treat the word as if it were synonymous with violence), so Moore's deepest conviction (at odds with his weakness for the Democratic Party in this election year) is that, as Lipscomb has come to realize, the American working class need their own intifada at home.

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