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The Rhetoric of Fahrenheit 9/11

Gilberto Perez

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  This article on Fahrenheit 9/11 was written in the summer of 2004, when the film came out. That was before the November election, which the film was intended to influence, though the article was to have appeared after the election. It was written for a quarterly journal, The Yale Review, whose regular film critic I had been for nearly a decade. But The Yale Review declined to publish this article. I offer it for reading now, in the midst of another Presidential campaign whose outcome is uncertain. – Gilberto Perez  



Fahrenheit 9/11 is very much a film of its moment, the summer of 2004, which is when I write this review, in the middle of a heated Presidential campaign toward an unpredictable November election. Rhetoric is always bound up with its social and historical context, and perhaps especially so in the case of this movie, which I propose to examine in relation to the larger rhetorical field where it operates and the various reactions it has elicited. In July 2004 Michael Moore was on the cover of Time, which called his film ‘a new kind of political weapon’, and also of Entertainment Weekly, which called him ‘the most dangerous man in movies ... a man who is trying to unseat a President’. By the time you read this you will know whether the Presi­dent was unseated, but you will probably still not be sure how effective the film was as a political weapon. The conventional wisdom before it opened was that it would appeal only to those who already hate George W. Bush. Produced by Miramax but disowned by Disney, which controls Miramax, the film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and found distribution by three small independent companies pooling their resources. Right away it was a hit, the highest-grossing documentary ever (aside from IMAX spectacles and rock-concert movies). Pressure groups have attempted to keep it out of theatres, but people everywhere have been going to see it and seem responsive to its political message. Time wondered whether this is good for America.

Disney’s refusal to distribute Fahrenheit 9/11 not only gave the film publicity but played into one of Michael Moore’s characteristic rhetorical moves: the little guy getting no hearing from the big guy. This David-and-Goliath rhetoric formed the basis of Moore’s first film, Roger & Me (1989), in which, after General Motors lays off large numbers of workers in his hometown of Flint, Michigan (which is also GM’s hometown), Moore keeps trying to see Roger Smith, the GM Chairman, and keeps being turned away. Now Michael Eisner, the Disney CEO, stepped into the role of Roger and looked no better than he. Who could believe his protestations that politics had nothing to do with it? Pitted against Moore’s ungainly working-class persona – Moore was born working-class, and he may be ungainly, but all the same this is a persona he assumes – the rich and powerful don’t come off well.

The poor and powerless are mostly the ones we send to fight our wars and to die in them. Fahrenheit 9/11 drives home this fact. Only one member of Congress has a kid in the armed forces in Iraq, Moore points out, and he approaches a number of Congressmen outside the Capitol in Washington with the suggestion that their own kids should enlist to fight in the war they voted for. You can imagine their response. One is slick (‘I don’t disagree’) but fails to dissemble his uneasiness; another freezes with an alarmed look in his eyes; a third runs away as fast as he can. Moore puts himself on the line of embarrassment in order to embarrass them. Here again he is the importunate little guy risking the big guy’s rebuff and turning that against him, the little guy willing to look foolish and showing up the big guy. (Physically Moore is big, not little, but in our society the rich stay thin and the poor grow fat.)

Moore has been criticised for putting too much of himself into his movies, which are documentaries and supposedly should stick to the facts. But there are different kinds of documentaries and different ways of making them. At one extreme is Errol Morris, who lets the people he interviews tell their stories with minimal interference from him; they don’t even address him directly but speak into an interviewing machine he devised that keeps him as much as possible out of the picture. Morris’ method requires subjects who open up before the camera and microphone and rise to the role he gives them as storytellers. Its drawback can be seen in his latest and to my mind least successful film, The Fog of War (2003), where he interviews Robert McNamara, who, especially when it comes to the Vietnam War, is self-justifying and evasive, not a reliable or even an interestingly unreliable storyteller. Moore is at the other extreme, the documentarian who intrudes into the picture. His method is precisely designed to deal with the evasive or reluctant or downright unapproachable subject, the Roger who wants nothing to do with the workers of Flint or anyone representing them, the McNamara who won’t really tell the story of the Vietnam War.

Claude Lanzmann is another documentarian of the intrusive kind. The two parts of Shoah (1985), his movie about the Holocaust, last nine hours and a half, and much of that length comes from the way Lanzmann, an assertive and insistent inter­viewer, asks the same questions over again and has things repeated for rhetorical emphasis. The former Nazis he interviews agreed to talk to him on condition they did not appear in the movie, but he filmed them anyway, and he shows us how he did it, with a camera and sound equipment hidden in a van, thus flaunting his disregard for their wishes and expressing his contempt for them. Polish peasants who lived near the Nazi camps, and whom he also holds responsible for what was done to the Jews, he treats with similar undisguised contempt, which the questions he asks them are calculated to bear out. And Lanzmann does not spare Holocaust survivors: he presses the reticent ones, those who find it too painful to talk about the awful experience they went through, until they break down in front of the camera.

Both Lanzmann and Moore make their presence central to their films. But of course they are very different. Lanzmann is the Parisian intellectual, Moore the working-class American in a baseball cap and baggy blue jeans. Lanzmann is righteous and impervious to whether we like him or not; his is not a rhetoric of ingratiation but of gravity. Moore plays to our sympathy in a rhetoric of personal identification. Perhaps the biggest difference between them is that, while Lanzmann is like a stern preacher, Moore is like a stand-up comedian. Which may be why Moore’s centrality has met with objection as Lanzmann’s has not: Moore’s comic persona is deemed inappropriate to the seriousness of documentary. But comedy, we should know, is serious business.

During the credits of Fahrenheit 9/11, as if getting ready to appear in the movie we’re about to see, George W. Bush and company – Cheney, Powell, Rice, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Ashcroft – are being made up for the TV cameras, combed (Wolfowitz smilingly applies spit to his hair), powdered, primped. It’s funny to see our leaders going through all this fuss and embellishment before they’re ready to face us. But, it may be asked, couldn’t this be done to any politician, to anyone preparing for an appearance on television? Not exactly. Bush and company have cultivated an image as regular guys with no embellishment, plain talkers, straight shooters – unlike those other politicians who cheat and lie and dissemble. Moore’s debunking shows them to be like any other politicians when they’re pretending they’re not – worse because pretending they’re not, pretending to be above politics on some higher moral ground while busy playing politics, and playing dirty.


Like the clown who trips and falls and brings those higher than he down with him, Moore takes the comic low ground. He descends from a classic type of satirist, the outsider debunking the hypocrisies of society – though he’s not so much a social as a political satirist, an outsider debunking the hypocrisies of power. One of those hypocrisies is Bush’s pretense to be a regular guy, an ordinary man the American people can identify with, when in fact he was born to privilege and would have gotten nowhere without it. Bush’s phony populism, which somehow has managed to fool many, is a natural target for Moore’s populist satire. Moore’s persona as an ordinary man effectively counters Bush’s and better invites popular identification.

The rhetoric of populism in this country – the rhetoric, not the policies – has mostly been taken over by the right wing. Liberals may have always been an edu­cated elite, but in the days of the New Deal or even the Great Society they reached out to the farmers and the workers as they no longer do. The Republicans have appropriated the politics of class (even as they deny that class exists, as when Bush denied that being his father’s son had anything to do with his getting into Yale); they are the party of the haves yet they contrive to enlist the class resentment of the have-nots. Moore gives a new lease on life to a populism of the left. ‘The film’s appeal to working-class Americans, who are the true victims of George Bush’s policies’, Paul Krugman wrote about Fahrenheit 9/11 in his New York Times op-ed column, ‘should give pause to its critics, especially the nervous liberals rushing to disassociate themselves from Michael Moore’.

One such nervous liberal is David Edelstein, film critic for the online Slate, who was both ‘delighted’ and ‘disgusted’ by Fahrenheit 9/11. This is how his review begins:




Back in the ‘80s – the era of Reagan and Bush 41, when milquetoasts Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis were the ineffectual Democratic candidates ... when there was an explosion of dirty Republican tricksters like Lee Atwater and trash-talking right-wingers, from Morton Downey Jr. to the fledgling Rush Limbaugh – I found myself wishing, wishing fervidly, for a blowhard whom the left could call its own. Someone who wouldn’t shrink before the right’s bellicosity. Someone who would bellow back, mock unashamedly, and maybe even recapture the prankster spirit of counterculture figures like Abbie Hoffman.

Yeah, I know: Be careful what you wish for.




But Michael Moore is too little rather than too much of what Edelstein wished for. He neither bellows nor mocks unashamedly. He trespasses into the territory of power and privilege with a somewhat shamefaced awareness that he’s not welcome there; neither are we, who trespass with him and identify with his confrontational embarrassment. Moore brings to his encounters a certain working-class politeness and even diffidence. Only someone ill at ease with the ways of the working class would perceive him as an ill-mannered blowhard.

In another Slate article about Fahrenheit 9/11, Christopher Hitchens – not a nervous liberal but a renegade leftist – mounts an all-out attack as unfair to the film as he claims the film is unfair to Bush. Moore, he says at one point, ‘is the guy who thought it so clever and amusing to catch Charlton Heston, in Bowling for Columbine, at the onset of his senile dementia’. But the interview with Heston is the most complex and nuanced of Moore’s encounters. In Bowling for Columbine (2002), an inquiry into the problem of guns in America, Heston is Moore’s opposite number. The two have in common their success in the movies, and the fact that they were both born in Michigan and bred in gunmanship; but Heston is a spokesman for the National Rifle Association who went to Littleton right after the Columbine killings, and to Flint right after a first-grader shot and killed a classmate at a school there, to hold rallies against gun control. Moore makes clear his disapproval of the public Heston presiding over those crass rallies, but he does not mock the ageing man receiving him in his home, who comes across with dignity. For once Moore isn’t the unwelcome intruder, though it’s under a false pretense of sorts – he presents himself as a lifelong member of the N.R.A., which is true but misleading – that Heston agrees to see him. A documentary filmmaker, even when welcome, is always something of an intruder; an interview, even when the subject agrees to it, is always conducted under something like false pretenses, for the subject never knows exactly what he or she has agreed to. Moore makes us aware of the awkward moral terrain he must negotiate and brings us with him into that terrain.

We identify with Moore and also with Heston, who slowly comes to realise that he faces a contentious interviewer and even then remains polite to his guest. If he had thrown him out, that would have made things easier for Moore, who usually gets that kind of treatment and turns it into a moral victory. But Heston doesn’t argue when Moore suggests that he should apologise to the people of Littleton and Flint: he merely stands up and silently walks away. It would have been wrong for Moore – it would have been the obnoxious and irresponsible Moore hypothesised by Edelstein and Hitchens – to push confrontation any further in the home of a man whose mind is waning and who has treated him nicely. But all Moore does is ask the retreating Heston to look at a photograph of the little girl killed in the Flint school, and when Heston doesn’t respond he puts the photograph on the ground and props it against a pillar, making a shrine for the little girl, the kind of humble shrine with a photograph of the dead often found on the side of a road – or on the sidewalks of New York City after September 11th – but here set up inside Heston’s house. This is a rhetorical gesture but also a sincere one, and it is the right gesture. For a memorial to the working-class girl Moore claims a corner of the movie star’s home.

Cicero thought rhetoric called for sincerity: you can only persuade others of what you believe yourself. But in our cynical times we commonly think of rhetoric as deliberate misrepresentation, ‘spin’, the opposite of sincerity. Moore’s critics note his rhetoric and take it as proof of his insincerity, his untrustworthiness. Much rhetoric is insincere, untrustworthy – that goes without saying. But how, if not through rhetoric, is your sincerity, your sense of the truth, to be conveyed to others so that it makes itself felt? Moore is being held to the standards of ‘objectivity’ customarily applied in our television news: we hear one side’s point of view and then the other side’s, which is supposed to be fair and balanced, though in fact it renounces the search for truth and reduces everything to ‘spin’. Moore is faulted for giving us his point of view and not the other side’s, but a sincere man cannot give us a point of view he believes to be false.

Only our suspicion of rhetoric, our widespread prejudice against it, can have led critics to object to Moore’s use of Lila Lipscomb in Fahrenheit 9/11. A resident of Flint, she first appears in the film when Moore is looking into military recruiting there, which targets impoverished areas and employs the tactics of slick salesmen; she says that joining the military is a good option for a disadvantaged kid. At this point we don’t know that her own son was killed in Iraq. She describes herself as a conservative Democrat who always hated war protestors; we see her raising the flag outside her house. Later we see her crying over the death of her son and hear her reading his last letter home from Iraq: ‘I really hope they do not reelect that fool’. Moore is ‘exploiting a mother’s grief’, Edelstein feels, but this mother’s grief is not only a personal matter: it is a national matter, a grief we should all share, which is why Moore rhetorically brings it forward. Averting our gaze from it would be like Bush’s staying away from the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq and not allowing their coffins to be shown on television. Moreover, Lila Lipscomb is not merely a victim Moore makes part of his argument: she is well capable of making her own argument, and he lets her speak for herself, as a representative of the wronged working class who has come to understand what has been done to the likes of her. Moore’s presence is less prominent in Fahrenheit 9/11 than in earlier films, ‘perhaps because his own celebrity’, A.O. Scott suggested in the New York Times, ‘has made the man-in-the-street pose harder to sustain’. And that may be in part why Moore relies on Lipscomb as a woman in the street standing in for him.

Not that Moore is self-effacing in this movie: though he appears less often on the screen, on the soundtrack we hear him throughout. Voice-over narration in docu­mentaries or TV news programs usually assumes an impersonal, authoritative tone we are to take as unbiased, but Moore’s voice-over commentary is a personal and frankly biased expression of opinion. The factual tone of the usual documentary voice is a rhetorical device meant to keep us from questioning the facts we are being offered. Moore forgoes that device, and so his facts have been questioned (‘Even if only a quarter of what he says is true!’ exclaimed a young woman in defense of a movie that aroused her interest in politics), though not, as far as I know, successfully challenged. A conversational first-person narration similar to Moore’s has been used in other documentaries – Chris Marker’s, for example – but not in the way that, in keeping with his on-screen persona, Moore’s narration is addressed to a popular audience.

Perhaps his boldest narrational move comes early on, in his account of Bush’s visit on the morning of September 11th to an elementary school in Florida whose videotape of the occasion Moore managed to obtain. On his way there the President was ‘informed of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center, where terrorists had struck just eight years prior’, but ‘decided to go ahead with his photo opportunity’. ‘When the second plane hit the tower, his chief of staff entered the classroom and told Mr Bush the nation is under attack’, Moore goes on. ‘Not knowing what to do, with no one telling him what to do ... Mr Bush just sat there and continued to read My Pet Goat with the children’. And now, speculatively, Moore moves inside the head of a President advertised as decisive but paralysed in that classroom while seven crucial minutes passed: ‘Was he thinking, have I been hanging out with the wrong crowd? Which one of them screwed me?’ The film cuts away from the Florida school and variously documents the Bush family connections with Saudi royalty and the bin Ladens – which we may have already heard about but at this point affect us incisively. ‘Is it rude to suggest that when the Bush family wakes up in the morning they might be thinking about what’s good for the Saudis instead of what’s good for you or me?’ And the cutting seems to stretch the time of Bush’s sitting there doing nothing, so that when we return to the classroom we have an accented sense of both his lacking leadership and his Saudi entanglement. It goes along with the increased use of voice-over narration in this movie that Moore’s cutting technique has grown more assertive and skillful.

‘Mixing sober outrage with mischievous humor and blithely trampling the boundary between documentary and demagoguery’, A.O. Scott wrote, ‘Moore takes wholesale aim at the Bush administration, whose tenure has been distinguished, in his view, by unparalleled and unmitigated arrogance, mendacity and incompetence’. Yes, but where is the boundary between documentary and demagoguery? No more than any other kind of rhetoric is demagoguery out of bounds for documentary. Scott is not alone in calling Moore a demagogue, a term for which my dictionary gives two definitions:



  1: a leader championing the cause of the common people in ancient times 2: a leader who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power  



A term that originally designated a champion of the common people has acquired a derogatory sense that only an anti-popular bias can have motivated. And anyone who takes up the cause of the people is liable to be called a demagogue in the bad sense. Rhetoric always in some way plays to the prejudices of the audience it addresses, but we have no term for rhetoric playing to the prejudices of the rich or the educated – such as the prejudice against the common people that led to the prevalent derogatory use of the term ‘demagogue’.

At one point in Fahrenheit 9/11 we see Bush before an audience of his wealthy supporters, whom he smilingly addresses as ‘the haves ... and the have-mores ... Some people call you the elite ... I call you my base’. I don’t know how Moore got hold of this footage, but he explained to an interviewer that White House publicists initially took care to protect the President from the cameras but stopped worrying when they realised that the media were ‘complicit in presenting a good face on Bush’ and ‘would censor themselves’. Bush speaking to his base of the haves and the have-mores, whom his policies have thoroughly favoured while his more public rhetoric would pretend otherwise, isn’t something we are likely to see on TV. By showing it in his film Moore is employing populist rhetoric and playing to the resentment of the have-nots, but he is also exposing the falsity of Bush’s own populist rhetoric, in which our media have been complicit. If someone should be called a demagogue in the sense of making ‘false claims and promises in order to gain power’, surely it is the President.

In Bowling for Columbine, as an answer to the question of why there is so much violence in America – not only are there far fewer killings in countries with greater gun control, but also in a country like Canada, whose citizens own plenty of guns – Moore put forward the notion that Americans are more afraid than other people. I think he has something there, and the Bush administration seems to think so too, considering the way that, as Moore argues in Fahrenheit 9/11, it has been playing the politics of fear. What, if not to keep us scared, is the point of all those terror alerts that tell us to go on as usual with our daily lives? Not that the terrorist threat isn’t real, but why keep issuing warnings to the public, why keep raising the alert – lowering it only to raise it again – unless some precautions are being proposed, unless we’re being asked to do something by which we might deal better with the situation? The aim of terrorism is to instill fear in a civilian population, and that’s just what our government is doing. Such instilling of fear, according to Moore, enabled the Bush administration to enlist wide public support for a war in Iraq that had nothing to do with the terrorist threat.

In an interview on National Public Radio, Tommy Franks, the General who commanded the invasion of Iraq, was asked if he had seen Fahrenheit 9/11 and replied that he had not but intended to. Many refuse to see it, the interviewer said, but the General thought it good to acquaint oneself with the extremes, Michael Moore as well as Rush Limbaugh. Nervous liberals similarly perceive Moore as a kind of left-wing Limbaugh, but the General wasn’t nervous: with the aplomb of a much-used rhetorical ploy, he was adopting a posture of broadmindedness and placing himself at a ‘centre’ from which he could discount a film he hadn’t seen as the work of a rabid extremist. Slanted though it may be, Fahrenheit 9/11 is no irresponsible Limbaugh-style invective: it makes an argument and it backs it up with evidence, documentary evidence. While expressing opinion, it offers much pertinent information, though its detractors would relegate the information to mere opinion – as if it were a matter of opinion to give us information that our media have slighted or suppressed. ‘Why didn’t I know this, why haven’t we been told about that?’, people often ask when they see the movie.

In a New Yorker piece about Fahrenheit 9/11 and the documentary tradition, Louis Menand finds the movie ‘immensely satisfying’ but politically simplistic. He considers Moore ‘a populist ideologue who boils everything down to a single article of belief: the rich screw the poor’. But he has a question:



  Why do people who do not credit Michael Moore with much political so­phistication like his movie anyway? One common reaction to Fahrenheit 9/11 is that it shows you things that have never been seen before – the Pet Goat and ‘Now watch this drive’ clips, scenes of carnage and brutality in Iraq, Saudi-schmoozing, Ashcroft singing, Al Gore being forced to reject repeated petitions by black representatives to contest the official counting of the electoral-college votes in the 2000 election. It may be that most of these things were shown somewhere, but the movie is designed to make audiences feel that they have never been seen, or that, having been seen, they have been deliberately suppressed. Someone doesn’t want us to see this: it’s the pure documentary impulse, and it works.  



Showing us what has not been seen is indeed basic to documentary, to its impulse and also to its rhetoric, its way of engaging its audience, how it works on us. And when what has not been seen has been withheld from view by someone in power, that basic documentary rhetoric becomes, as it does in Fahrenheit 9/11, a political rhetoric. Menand’s insight is couched in a condescending tone – intellectual condescension bespeaking class condescension – but Moore knows exactly what he’s doing. His movie is not a political treatise but a polemic meant for the common people, and as such is more sophisticated, rhetorically and politically, than Menand thinks.

It may be my own lack of political sophistication, but it seems to me that ‘the rich screw the poor’ goes a long way to explain the doings of the Bush administra­tion, and though this is something that has been said, it has not been said enough. The Democrats need to say it, and say it forcefully, if they are to win the November election, and Moore is saying it for them with peculiar documentary force. Menand argues that the Bush administration



  did not go to war in Iraq because the war would be good for Halliburton. It went to war because of an idea about America’s world-historical mission. It was an idea that a lot of people who were not conservative Republicans signed on to with enthusiasm and with reasons more articulate than any Bush himself is capable of uttering. The war and the occupation have gone sour, but although you don’t hear much about the idea anymore, it’s not at all obvious that it has been abandoned. The intellectual investment in the Iraq war is much scarier than the financial involvement.  


  Maybe, but why does Menand, having called Moore an ‘ideologue’, now talk about an ‘intellectual’ rather than an ideological investment? The fact remains, in any case, that Halliburton, and not only Halliburton, is profiting, and that the poor are being screwed, that they were lied to and sent to fight and die in that war. ‘They serve so that we don’t’, Moore says near the end of the movie. ‘Their gift to us is remarkable’. Speaking with emotion as sincere as it is rhetorical, he speaks not as one of them, in his working-class persona, but as one of us: ‘All they ask in return is that we never send them into harm’s way unless it is absolutely necessary’.  

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© Gilberto Perez 2004 and Rouge 2008. Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.
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