Fahrenheit 9/11: Firing Up the Choir

The media chatter about Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" comes down to three basic issues:


    Is the film 100 percent accurate, or is it fundamentally misleading?

    Can it sway the undecideds and thereby affect the election itself, or will only partisans fork out their money for a ticket?

    Is this a legitimate use of a medium whose role is to entertain us, not ridicule the government or lecture the populace?


Those three media preoccupations largely miss the point, however. Moore's brilliant political achievement – whether intended or not – doesn't happen directly on the screen, and it's not likely to show up in weekend polls.

This is not an electorate easily swayed by reasoned discourse. If it were, the war on Iraq might never have been initiated. The winning formula for this election won't be convincing the formerly hostile; it will be mobilizing the already convinced.

Moore may conceivably nudge a few undecideds, but his real accomplishment may be firing up his own partisans, especially the cynical young and the economically ignored. By legitimizing their anger and alienation, he may motivate them to participate in what otherwise seems to many of them a futile electoral exercise.

Not only will this be an election campaign to mobilize the partisans; it will also be a tug of war to define the subject matter. Is it the economy, stupid? Is it wounded pride and feel-good patriotism? Is it fear of terrorism? The war on evil? Iraq? Torture? Education? Abortion and gay marriage? Civil liberties? The Ten Commandments?

We've all grown accustomed to manipulation by carefully posed photos, orchestrated "messages of the day" and focus-grouped slogans for which candidates pay consultants exorbitant fees. They're the essence of contemporary American politics, but no one would maintain that they are exercises in reasoned debate. Rather, they're attempts to stake out territory as one's own, with little or no regard for policy content.

"The Education President," for example, makes no pretense of telling the voter what the candidate would do for education – only that he's a guy who really, really cares a whole lot more than his opponent about that issue. For instance, here he is reading to a grade-school class.

The key to those "messages of the day" is to grab the initiative; to make sure that the contest is fought in your home stadium. And that's where Michael Moore has thrown his monkey wrench into George Bush's finely tuned campaign machine. For no matter what you think of Moore's arguments, no matter what you think of his film's persuasiveness, no matter what you think of his factual assumptions ... Michael Moore has rewritten the agenda. He has seized home-field advantage.

No doubt the disintegration in Iraq softened the opposition for Moore. But both in his film and in the buzz surrounding it, he has brashly commandeered attention. The press, the public and especially the Bush White House, normally so adept at guiding the media discourse, must deal with Moore's images and his issues, and that can only work to John Kerry's advantage.

A White House that stage-manages every single photo op to the tiniest detail (and a press corps that compliantly retails those images) is now forced to contend with unscripted, real-world images – sometimes as goofy as the official photos are saccharine.

Moore's issues, too, are in the national spotlight, driven partly by attempts to suppress them or challenge them. Did the president's negligence or his loyalty to the Saudis or the Bin Laden family distort his response to 9/11? The answer is debatable, but the focus now, belatedly, is on the question itself. Was the war in Iraq all about the poor being cajoled into risking their lives on behalf of oil plutocrats, ideologues and defense contractors? Once again, Moore's answer is not as significant as the fact that the question is being asked – and heard.

If the White House had its way, this campaign would not be waged on issues like the undue influence of Saudi potentates or greedy defense contractors ... or on economic equity ... or whether the president was on autopilot while New York and Washington burned.

But for the past week (and, with its unprecedented box-office popularity, for the foreseeable future), those have indeed become issues in this campaign, whether John Kerry raised them or not – and whether or not Michael Moore has every last one of his facts right. What's more, the issues are being addressed not in Washington code talk but in language and images familiar to the average dude.

That is Michael Moore's great achievement. He got the White House and its allies to lunge for his bait. It's rather like an animal trap – the more aggressively the prey fights back, the more tightly bound it becomes.

Brilliant.

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