Monday, July 12, 2004

"Fool Me Once . . . ": Race, Class, and Betrayal

While watching the sequence of Lila Lipscomb and her family gathering in Fahrenheit 9/11 -- during which she reads her son's last letter to his family, the most powerful scene in the film -- one part of my mind was feeling her devastating experience of betrayal and another part of my mind was thinking about the question of race and class with regard to faith and betrayal. I probably would have had a similar reaction to the sequence even if Lila Lipscomb's husband were white, but since her husband Howard is Black and she is surrounded by both white and Black members of her family, the sequence made me think about race, class, and betrayal even more.

While many film critics -- especially those who are liberal or left-wing politically -- have talked much about the heart-breaking testimony of Lila Lipscomb's betrayal and awakening, few have taken note of the relation among race, class, and betrayal, perhaps because it didn't occur to them, perhaps because they thought it awkward to discuss it, or perhaps because Fahrenheit 9/11 doesn't specifically cue the audience to think about it (her Black family members are mostly silent supporting characters in the film).

While some Black working-class individuals may have exactly the same sort of faith in the country and its political leaders as Lila Lipscomb says she had before her son's death, such individuals are probably a small minority in the Black working class. Therefore, if Fahrenheit 9/11 had focused on the emotion of a Black person, it wouldn't have had the same narrative of betrayal, the power of which in large part depends on the intensity of the protagonist's initial faith in the person or institution by which she would later feel betrayed. About pathos, Aristotle says, among other things, "we pity those who are like us in age, character, disposition, social standing, or birth; for in all these cases it appears more likely that the same misfortune may befall us also" (Rhetoric, Book II, Chapter 8). In this sense, Fahrenheit 9/11 is a movie whose primary implied audience are white working-class viewers -- though non-white working-class viewers would also find much in it that would appeal to them -- as the film's emotional appeal is the most powerfully made to those who once had the same sense of faith as Lila Lipscomb.

The Vietnam War, too, inspired many narratives of betrayal. The tragedy is that American workers have never succeeded in creating their own political institutions that act as guardians of collective memories of struggle, so that they won't have to experience the same narrative of betrayal again and again.

The last scene of Fahrenheit 9/11 is a clip of Bush mangling an old saying: "There's an old saying in Tennessee -- I know it's in Texas, maybe in Tennessee -- that says, 'Fool me once, shame on -- shame on you. Fool me -- can't get fooled again.'"

Of course, that's Moore's way of saying that white American working-class voters should vote out Bush, rather than getting fooled by him again, but, if the viewer really thinks about the unbearable recurrence of the narrative of betrayal -- including Fahrenheit 9/11 -- in American culture, the mangled old saying becomes haunting, as Fahrenheit 9/11 will not be the last narrative of betrayal.

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