Tuesday, July 06, 2004

"I Am So Furious Right Now, Mama"

I finally watched Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004). That there was a line of people of all races eagerly queuing up for the 10:10 PM showing on Monday, June 28 -- the fifth day of showings in Columbus, Ohio -- says much about the power of the documentary, a highest grossing documentary ever released in the United States. Will Lester of the Associated Press reports that it "took in $23.9 million to become the first documentary to debut as Hollywood's top weekend film. Theater owners in cities large and small reported sellout crowds" ("'Fahrenheit 9/11' Boosts Interest in Iraq," July 29, 2004). Fahrenheit 9/11 is no ordinary documentary -- it is "a pop cultural phenomenon," as Lester puts it aptly. Film critics, too, have generally given it enthusiastic reviews: Steve Gorman/Reuters, "'Fahrenheit 9/11' Scores High Marks from Critics" (June 24, 2004). If for nothing else, those of us who are lovers of documentaries as a genre ought to thank Moore for demonstrating that documentaries (like Roger and Me) can be profitable and some of them (like Fahrenheit 9/11) may become blockbusters, thus opening distributors' doors to other documentary film-makers:
The record-breaking success of Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" may mark a turning point in the acceptance of documentaries by audiences as mass entertainment and by movie distributors as potential profit centers. . . .

"Fahrenheit 9/11," the satirical critique of President Bush and his decision to go to war in Iraq, had earned $56 million by Sunday, adding to the initial ticket sales that made it the highest-grossing feature-length documentary ever.

The sight of movie audiences lining up to see Mr. Moore's film, which the Walt Disney Company declined to distribute out of concern over its political nature, has not escaped the notice of Hollywood distributors, which have been growing receptive to the idea of documentaries in the last few years.

Howard Cohen, the co-president of Roadside Attractions, which is distributing "Super Size Me," said: "Are documentaries going to be taken more seriously? The short answer is yes. But Michael Moore is still a special case. He's become a star, almost like any other star. That said, I do think audiences are getting used to going to documentaries in a way they haven't before."

Harvey Weinstein, the co-chairman of Miramax, who was instrumental in popularizing both independent and foreign films with broad audiences, agrees. "I think we're beginning to see the audience's fascination with nonfiction when its done well," said Mr. Weinstein, who bought "Fahrenheit 9/11" back from Disney and released it independently.

"It reminds me of the breakthrough with `Sex, Lies and Videotape' for indie movies, and years later with `Cinema Paradiso,' all the way to `Life Is Beautiful' for foreign-language movies," he added. "There have been some moments in our film history where all of a sudden it has all changed." (Sharon Waxman, "Nonfiction Films Turn a Corner," New York Times, July 5, 2004)

Right-wing ideologues (e.g., Christopher Hitchens) and organizations (e.g., Move America Forward) have predictably attacked Moore for inaccuracies and contradictions in Fahrenheit 9/11. The attacks are full of lies of their own, hardly worth taking seriously. Besides, to criticize Fahrenheit 9/11 for being contradictory is (to borrow a Bushism) to "misunderestimate" the film's source of power. A rarity among the agit-prop works of leftists, Fahrenheit 9/11 has a potential to become the hegemonic ideology, not despite but by virtue of its contradictions. More often than not, leftists are too smart for their own good, so their works tend to have clear theses and logical arguments, well supported by meticulously documented evidence -- and that's one of the reasons why they remain merely counter-hegemonic, forever challenging the dominant ideology without being able to take its place. Why? Because, for an ideology to become hegemonic, it must be open and flexible, capable of incorporating ideas and feelings of diverse political factions of contending classes. To put it differently, only a seemingly "flawed" work that can embody the very contradictions of class society, rather than a logically coherent work, can allow many factions to see some of their own ideas and feelings reflected and elaborated in it, giving them reasons to become emotionally attached to it.

Therefore, it is no wonder that many viewers find the voices of Lila Lipscomb and her late son Army Sgt. Michael Pedersen the most haunting. Their lives, thoughts, and feelings are tragic testaments to the contradictions of the American working class, who serve the multinational elite of the empire both out of their selfless devotion to the ideal of patriotism and urgent need to make a living in the profit-driven mode of production that continually exploits their patriotism as well as labor power while threatening to make both redundant and obsolete.

Fahrenheit 9/11's most memorable statement is one made in Pedersen's last letter, read by Lipscomb, a self-described conservative Democrat who encouraged her children to enlist in the military, so they can gain what she couldn't give:
Lipscomb is onscreen for 20 minutes of the 110-minute film. She recounts the death of her 26-year-old son, Sgt. Michael Pedersen, a crew chief on a Black Hawk helicopter that crashed in Iraq on April 2, 2003. She talks about her grief, her evolving views on war and her disdain for Bush.

In the movie, she stands in front of the White House, declaring, "I finally have a place to put all my pain and anger."

She also reads her son's last letter, in which he describes his own rage at Bush and his questions about U.S. policy.

"He got us out here for nothing whatsoever. I am so furious right now, Mama," the letter says. (emphasis added, Ben Schmitt, "Flint Woman Spotlighted in Moore's Latest Movie," Detroit Free Press, May 29, 2004)
Pedersen's remark points to another reason for Fahrenheit 9/11's popularity: like Roger and Me, which indicts the economic elite for their betrayal of American workers, Fahrenheit 9/11 is a narrative of betrayal -- first and foremost, the political elite's betrayal of American soldiers. The question is whether the narrative of betrayal itself -- the most enduring plot of American jeremiads -- doesn't betray American workers, preserving an illusion of the identity of interests between the ruling and working classes by indicting its absence as if such an identity had once existed or could be created.

Speaking of "some of the 4,000-plus American casualties" who are interviewed in the film, Frank Rich notes: "They talk about their pain and their morphine, and they talk about betrayal. 'I was a Republican for quite a few years,' one soldier says with an almost innocent air of bafflement, 'and for some reason they conduct business in a very dishonest way'" ("Michael Moore's Candid Camera," New York Times, May 23, 2004). The soldier goes on to say, "I am going to be incredibly active in the democratic party down where I live once I get out. So . . . I'm going to definitely do my best to insure that the Democrats win control." However, after four years of wars and fiscal austerity under the next President of the United States, who is likely to be John Kerry, won't the same soldier end up saying in 2008: "I'm so furious right now, Mama"?

Fahrenheit 9/11, unlike Roger and Me that evokes the golden age of GM workers in contrast to the subsequent economic decline of Flint, does include brief suggestions that the Democratic Party is hardly a solution -- most importantly, the sequence that shows the Congressional Black Caucus's inability to get a single Democratic Senator to sign onto their effort to call attention to disenfranchisement of many Black voters and contest the Republican theft of the 2000 presidential election near the film's beginning and Moore's voice-over narration at the film's end:
It's not a matter of whether the war is not real, or if it is, Victory is not possible. The war is not meant to be won, it is ment to be continuous. Hierarchical society is only possible on the basis of poverty and ignorance. This new version is the past and no different past can ever have existed. In principle the war effort is always planned to keep society on the brink of starvation. The war is waged by the grueling group against its own subjects and its object is not the victory over either Eurasia or East Asia but to keep the very structure of society intact.
Such moments, however, are too brief, submerged by the film's overwhelming focus on the crimes of George W. Bush and his cronies -- hence the film's utility for the Democratic Party: e.g., MoveOn Pac, "Help Make Fahrenheit 9/11 a Huge Hit" and "Turn Up the Heat Town Meeting a Massive Success! "

The weakness for the Democratic Party (which made Israel totally absent in Fahrenheit 9/11, as Bob Dreyfuss criticized in "Blind, Or A Coward?" [June 30, 2004]) on the part of Moore, who endorsed and voted for Wesley Clark in the primary because he wanted to "win," is not his individual fault: it is an accurate reflection of the weakness of the anti-war and other social movements in the United States:
I am convinced that the surest slam dunk to remove Bush is with a four-star-general-top-of-his-class-at-West-Point-Rhodes-Scholar-Medal-of-Freedom-winning-gun-owner-from-the-South -- who also, by chance, happens to be pro-choice, pro environment, and anti-war. You don't get handed a gift like this very often. I hope the liberal/left is wise enough to accept it. It's hard, when you're so used to losing, to think that this time you can actually win. It is Clark who stands the best chance -- maybe the only chance -- to win those Southern and Midwestern states that we MUST win in order to accomplish Bush Removal. (Michael Moore, "I'll Be Voting For Wesley Clark/Good-Bye Mr. Bush," January 14th, 2004)
Of course, electing a pro-war Democratic President does not equal working-class victory, and Moore, as well as most intellectuals of the anti-war movement, know this truth at one level. And yet, the impacts of the Anybody But Bush ideology on a sizable segment of movement intellectuals and organizers are felt inside and outside the Democratic Party.

Among the Democratic Party leaders and organizers, voices against the wars and occupations are silent, even while a whopping 56% of the rank and file Democratic voters say the US troops should "leave Iraq as soon as possible, even if Iraq is not completely stable":
In the past, Democrats have sometimes been badly divided, to the point of riots and walkouts, by fights over the platform. This happened over civil rights, for instance, in 1948 and over the war in Vietnam in 1968. But this year, the party appears determined to remain unified to challenge Mr. Bush.

Even the most ardent opponents of the war in Iraq have said they will not bring challenges to the platform's stand in favor of a continuing American military presence in Iraq. That is the case despite the finding in the latest New York Times/CBS News poll that, by a margin of 56 percent to 38 percent, people who call themselves Democrats say the United States troops should "leave Iraq as soon as possible, even if Iraq is not completely stable" rather than "stay in Iraq as long as it takes to make sure Iraq is a stable democracy." (David E. Rosenbaum and David E. Sanger, "Democratic Platform Focuses on National Security," New York Times, July 4, 2004)
Outside the Democratic Party, the Green Party has committed political suicide, the Workers World Party/International ANSWER has split, and the movement against corporate globalization has virtually collapsed. About the political suicide of the Green Party, I have written here before: "Missing the 'Walter Cronkite Moment'" (June 29, 2004), "The Green Party's Political Suicide" (June 30, 2004), and "Green Strategy 2004-2008" (July 1, 2004). About the splintering of the WWP/ANSWER, take a look at the following report:
The Workers’ World Party (WWP) has splintered. This will have no importance in the news if it wasn’t for the fact that for a long time the WWP – a formation of about 300 militants nationwide -- allegedly dominated ANSWER, one of the main antiwar coalitions in the US.

According to unofficial reports, the entire West Coast membership of the WWP left the organization following the discussions about the Presidential ticket of the organization. According to different sources, some of those leaving the group opposed the WWP running candidates for President and Vice-President and pushed for a line of activism rather than electoralism.

They argued that the party was too small and irrelevant to play any role in the elections and that that would alienate many allies in the antiwar movement who are supporting John Kerry, the Democratic Party candidate, as the "lesser of two evils." The WWP have fielded presidential and vice-presidential candidates in the past, gathering a handful of votes in a few states.

This group allegedly does not support the Democrats or endorsing John Kerry, but they simply contend that the party should not oppose the "Anyone but Bush" trend, which translated into real world terms means "Nobody but Kerry."

The majority in the leadership disagreed and pushed for the John Parker –- Theresa Gutierrez displacing the Monica Moorehead –- Gloria LaRiva team who represented the party in the last few elections. Gloria La Riva is heading the splinter group or was pushed out of the Workers World Party as a result of the crisis. (Simon Morales, "The WWP, Main Force behind the Antiwar ANSWER, Splits," Bella Ciao, June 24, 2004)
As far as the manifestation of the global justice movement in the United States is concerned, even Maria Sitrin, who is still hopeful of its ability to "generate new ideas, passions, and movements all over the world," does note "a decline in the numbers of people demonstrating in the street," and Chuck Morse goes so far as to say that "[t]he anti-globalization movement has . . . come and gone" in a recent dialogue in a publication of the Institute for Anarchist Studies: "The anti-globalization movement has also come and gone. It leapt to world attention during the Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization and died with the February 2002 mobilizations against the World Economic Forum in New York City. Although struggles against capitalist globalization are ongoing, this particular movement is in need of an obituary" ("The Life -- or Death -- of the Anti-Globalization Movement," Perspectives on Anarchist Theory 8.1, Spring 2004)

What is terribly frustrating is that many leading intellectuals and organizers of coalitions, organizations, and movements of the left have consented to the hegemony of the Democratic Party in one way or another, diminishing the vitality of social movements ranging from Green, anti-war, to global justice movements, while the public opinion has continued to move to the left -- as we can see in the immense popularity of Fahrenheit 9/11, the New York Times/CBS News poll quoted above, and 3-7% support for Ralph Nader registered in various opinion polls -- becoming increasingly at odds with the foreign policies of the two pro-war and pro-occupation presidential candidates of the Democratic and Republican Parties.

"I'm so furious right now, mama."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Don't know who you are, my friend, but that's a nice bit of writing -- insightful, meticulous and (apparently) well-supported in its objective. And how often do ya get to read "hegemonic" and "jeremiad" in the same piece? I enjoyed it very much. Nicely done.