Critical Reception: The Meaning of ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’

By Irfan Khawaja

The press juggernaut for Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 is now well underway, and from the sound of it, what we have on our hands is a full-fledged love-fest. Given the pockmarked nature of the beloved, however, the chansons d'amour and billets doux have been marked by a curious, even schizophrenic, ambivalence. The going trend is to enumerate the film's flaws (thereby demonstrating one's nominal commitment to intellectual integrity) while pronouncing it a work of staggering filmic genius and civic commitment (thereby demonstrating that intellectual integrity makes no difference to anything).

Thus Paul Krugman tells us in The New York Times that the film promotes "a few unproven conspiracy theories," and induces its viewers to believe "some things that probably aren't true." Having done so, he then praises the film's "appeal to working-class Americans" and its "public service" for having manipulated us in the right way.

William Raspberry describes Fahrenheit 9/11 in The Washington Post as an "overwrought piece of propaganda," a "110-minute hatchet job that doesn't even pretend to be fair"-and for good measure, as dishonest, lacking in objectivity, and partially fabricated. That doesn't stop him, of course, from praising it for doing a "masterful job," for having the right "attitude" and for (literally) demonizing George W. Bush.

David Edelstein describes Fahrenheit 9/11 in Slate as disgusting, lamenting its "boorish, bullying" qualities, and describing it as "an abuse of power"; in the same breath, he tells us that the film "delighted" him, and that he "celebrates" its sheer panache.

Todd Gitlin's review in Open Democracy calls Fahrenheit 9/11 a "shoddy work": the film's "sloppy insinuations, emotional blackmail and all-around demagoguery," he argues, are an affront to one's "conscience," and make it the moral equivalent of a beer commercial. The same conscientious concern induces Gitlin to describe Fahrenheit 9/11 somewhat paradoxically as a moral necessity. Meanwhile, he lionizes Moore himself as a "master demagogue."

Juan Cole describes the film on his weblog as making "no sense," as "inaccurate" and as "full of illogic"; having said so, he goes out of his way to tell us that he found it "inspired." Stanley Kaufmann in The New Republic calls the film "slipshod in its making, juvenile in its trappings," and in considerable part, "contextually inane"-indeed, as "debased," "smug," and "regrettable." Having filled a column full of invective of this sort, he ends his review by praising Moore's fans for the "ardor" with which they've received his film.

Perhaps the first example of this "our-propaganda-good-their-propaganda-bad" genre was A.O. Scott's review of Fahrenheit 9/11 in The New York Times, which can be taken as representative of the literature as a whole June 23). Best described as a case study in sacrificium intellectus, the review repays scrutiny as much for what it says about Moore's film as for what it says about the intellectual integrity of his acquiescent critics and adoring fans.

The review begins by telling us that Moore's film "blithely tramples the boundary between documentary and demagogy." If this means anything, it means that the film exploits its audience's emotions to put something over on them. And yet, Scott insists, the film deserves high marks for being a "high spirited and unruly exercise in democratic self-expression." And so, in the name of "democracy"-which depends for its existence on rational discourse—we're to make allowances for demagogy, which consists in the subversion of cognition. If that sounds like a contradiction, rest assured: there's more to come.

"High spirits" and "unruliness," of course, are the defining traits of infants and toddlers; to describe a film in these terms is to invite the inference that its auteur be regarded as a member of the same demographic group, and his work judged by the appropriate standards. A functionary for the local Democratic Party apparatus where I live (which has actively promoted Moore's film as a vote-getter for Kerry) summarizes the relevant attitude rather well: "I thought it would be really fun for people to see the movie with like-minded people…[The film] reaches people in a way that reading about it or just seeing news reports about what's going on in the world doesn't." The operative words here are "like-minded" and "fun."

So what insight does Fahrenheit 9/11 convey about "what's going on in the world"? Turning to Scott, we learn that the film's "argument" is "synthetic rather than comprehensive, and…not always internally consistent." How "synthetic" contrasts with "comprehensive" is anybody's guess, but "not always internally consistent" sounds like a euphemistic way of saying that Moore doesn't have much of a case at all-a theme that recurs, strangely enough, in practically every review that's so far been written, whether by his defenders or by his detractors.

Straining to find something resembling a straightforward description of the film's thesis, we learn that Moore "dwells on the connections between the Bush family and the Saudi Arabian elite." Connections, huh? Well, having spent a year debunking the supposedly discredited "connections" between Al Qaeda and the Ba'ath Party of Iraq, everyone in this fair republic ought to know a phony "connection" when they see one. Turning to the evidence for this "connection," Scott informs us that while Moore has done his level best to explain it, his "larger point is not altogether clear." So we're dealing with a "not always consistent account" of a "not altogether clear" point. Getting warmer….

But don't let the fraudulence of Moore's "connection" get in the way of the "fun." And don't let the pathetic deflation of his "Bush-flew-the-bin-Laden-family-out-of-the-country" conspiracy do so, either. After all, as Scott tells us, the film's "confusion" is precisely what makes it "an authentic and indispensable document of its time," and "worth seeing, debating, and thinking about, regardless of your political allegiances."

How one measures the "worth" of a film that evinces so brazen a contempt for the truth is unclear. How we're to "think about or debate" a film that seeks only to exploit our emotions is yet another imponderable. And how we're to "wrest clarity" (Scott's phrase) from what Scott has just described as an orgy of inscrutability, demagogy, and self-contradiction-well, let's just say that that's what makes Fahrenheit 9/11 the demanding film that it is.

Scott ends his review with the by-now hackneyed claim that "Mr. Moore's instincts have never been sharper, and he is, as ever, at his best when he turns down the showmanship and listens to what people have to say"-a roundabout way of saying that he's at his best when he isn't around. It seems almost superfluous to point out that the reprieve from his presence might be intensified if he were to absent himself altogether. But I guess Moore's instincts aren't sharp enough to turn down the showmanship to that degree, and Scott's instincts aren't sharp enough to see why he wouldn't.

I should add that Scott is referring here to a scene in the film in which a mother grieves for the son that she's just lost in Iraq. This is a reminder that death, too, is part of the "fun," "high spirits" and generally "unruly" hijinx of this madcap film—to be exploited for maximum partisan advantage so that "like-minded" and "fun-loving" audiences can avoid the exertions of inquiry about Iraq as they wallow in the sanctimonious muck of "democratic self-expression."

What's the point—you might ask—of reviews that praise a film so extravagantly for its flaws while offering so devastating an enumeration of them?

Maybe it's to embody in print what Moore's film embodies in celluloid: the desire to have things all ways at once, to do so while wearing a self-conferred badge of intellectual sophistication—and above all, to get away with the scam while winning the moral high ground. And so we get reviews that neither succeed in appeasing Moore's desire to be taken seriously, nor manage to offer a coherent critique of his malfeasances, but instead pretend to discharge both tasks at once—winking and nodding at us all the while to induce complicity in their cowardice.

Moore's film, we're told, is unfair, impolite, unsubtle, unwise, obnoxious, tendentious, and maddeningly self-contradictory—all Scott's terms, not mine. And yet, Scott insists, Moore is a "credit to the republic" for having made the film despite this. It seems not to have occurred to Scott that once you concede that crap like Fahrenheit 9/11 is a "credit to the republic," you've already conceded that the republic is itself a piece of crap—at which point it seems futile to insist that the film is but "a partisan rallying cry, an angry polemic, a muckraking inquisition into the use and abuse of power."

When you boil down the posturing of the Moore—boosting genre, you find at last a very strange and hypocritical exercise in special pleading and excuse-making. What Moore's quasi-defenders are telling us is that an illogical, dishonest and tendentious film offers an inarticulate indictment of an evil Administration. The trouble is, if we take this morally confused verdict at face value, we reach not an indictment but an equivalence—not the intended conclusion that Moore's film is "worth seeing and debating" but the rather different conclusion that Michael Moore is morally on par with George Bush, and that his film has all of the moral credibility of an ad for the Bush campaign. Is that really where these people want to go?

I guess it is. In his review of The Clinton Wars—Sidney Blumenthal's memoir of the Clinton years—Christopher Hitchens offers the following glimpse into the mentality of the liberal "apparatchik":

I'll never forget a Georgetown dinner, at which [Blumenthal] was probably the most conservative person in attendance, where various liberals wondered aloud what the limits of 'lesser evil' politics might be. One misgiving after another was mentioned, until Blumenthal impatiently quelled the bleats. 'You don't understand,' he said. 'It's our turn.'

"Our turn." Such is the standard to which the wise now repair, and which they describe in all candor as calling for "our propaganda" (Todd Gitlin's phrase). The strategy here is to mimic from the Left what the Left professes to hate about the Right. You could call it Machiavellian ("it is necessary to learn how not to be good…") or even Miltonian ("To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell…")—so long as you forgot the stature of its practitioners. But I don't want to insult them. One eventually learns that there's no feasible way to insult a crew like this one: there's no insult you can hurl at them that they aren't content to hurl at themselves. There's no contempt like self-contempt.

Michael Moore may have won his prize at Cannes, he may make his millions, and he may even change the course of Election 2004. But the fact remains that he either has to repudiate Fahrenheit 9/11 or spend the rest of his life coming up with rationalizations for it. I myself would hate to face a choice like that. But if that is Michael Moore's definition of success, as it seems to be, what more is there to say but "to the victor belongs the spoils"?

Paul Krugman, "Moore's Public Service," New York Times, July 2:

William Raspberry, "Fiery Hatchet Job," Washington Post, June 28:

David Edelstein, "Proper Propaganda," Slate, June 24:

Todd Gitlin, "Michael Moore, Alas," Open Democracy, July 1:

Juan Cole, "Informed Comment," June 29:

Stanley Kauffman, "Accusation," The New Republic, July 19:

A.O. Scott, "Unruly Scorn Leaves Room for Restraint, But Not A Lot," New York Times, June 23:

Princeton Town Topics, " 'Fahrenheit 9/11' Documentary Draws Sold-Out Audiences to Garden Theater," June 30: 

Alexander Bolton, "Clarke Claims Responsibility: Ex-Terrorism Czar Approved post-9/11 Flights for Bin Laden Family," The Hill, May 26:

Christopher Hitchens, "Thinking Like an Apparatchik," The Atlantic, July 2003: 

Irfan Khawaja is adjunct professor of philosophy at The College of New Jersey.