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The hawks have only themselves to blame for Michael Moore's success

By Matthew d'Ancona
(Filed: 04/07/2004)

The morning after I saw Michael Moore's new film, Fahrenheit 9/11, I visited my local book shop to inspect the titles it stocked by the director himself and by other writers implacably hostile to George W Bush. On the counter was a pile of Moore's most recent bestseller, Dude, Where's My Country?. And his 2001 polemic, Stupid White Men, which has sold 350,000 copies in Britain alone, was also prominently displayed.

In the same genre, though not by Moore, the shop offered such gems as The Bush-Hater's Handbook, Bushwomen: Tales of a Cynical Species, Ugly Americans, What's Wrong with America?, and Amerika Psycho: Behind Uncle Sam's Mask of Sanity. According to the assistant who served me, there are now so many of these instant America-bashing books that the store simply cannot stock them all. When I told her that Moore's new film was compelling cinema and had to be seen, whether or not you agreed with its politics, she snorted with derision: "You just wonder how many people in the States will get to see it, since they live in a country under censorship."

Now, one angry bookseller does not a political trend make. But when you bear in mind that Stupid White Men has already sold more than three million copies worldwide and that Fahrenheit 9/11 took $24 million at the US box office last weekend - the first documentary ever to top the American film charts in its opening days - it becomes less easy to dismiss the fat man in the baseball cap as a marginal figure. Indeed, it looks to me as though Michael Moore is pretty much at the centre of things these days. The subculture has invaded the mainstream: it is an army of occupation.

As I watched Fahrenheit 9/11 - a ferocious attack on Bush's record since September 11 and a clarion-call for "regime change" in Washington - it struck me that Michael Moore's critics are missing the point by directing their wrath at the dodgy detail of his work. Certainly, some scenes in the film are downright offensive. In particular, the slow-motion images of an allegedly idyllic Iraq before last year's liberation campaign - children smiling, kites flying - are an insult to the one million or more Iraqis who died as a consequence of Saddam Hussein's policies.

Other sequences are plain daft. The invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Moore insinuates, was the result of a wicked plot by big business to build a natural gas pipeline across that benighted country - in spite of the fact that the pipeline scheme was ditched in 1998. As part of its bid to portray the Bush family as hopelessly beholden to the Saudis, the film also claims that the White House improperly authorised the flights from America of bin Laden family members immediately after the September 11 attacks. But guess what? The flights were personally cleared by none other than Richard A Clarke, Mr Bush's former counter-terrorism chief, who has since written his own book attacking the President's wartime record and has consequently become something of a hero to the Moore-istas.

Yet the forensic demolition of Fahrenheit 9/11 which has already been carried out in the American press has apparently done nothing to diminish Moore's appeal or his popularity around the world. He has himself said that the film is not meant to be fair. Nor is it aimed principally at the liberal elite, however much they may endorse its conclusions: Fahrenheit 9/11 is a movie for viewers reared on MTV and video games, not on arthouse cinema. This is popcorn politics, militancy for the multiplexes. And, as such, it is extremely successful. Moore uses all the techniques of modern mass entertainment with supreme skill: comic intercutting, brilliantly-selected music, shocking images of civilian casualties, a laconic voiceover interspersed with scenes of untrammelled emotion. I confess that I found it gripping.

Unlike Moore, I supported the destruction of the Taliban regime and the liberation of Iraq. But I also have to acknowledge the aplomb of his campaign, and the cunning of his strategy. He has not only touched a nerve; he has filled a vacuum. He has identified the feebleness of the campaign to persuade the public that the war on terror is necessary and exploited that weakness to the hilt.

In the process, he has done much to nurture the delusion that the war is simply the folly of a deranged President and his greedy acolytes, rather than a deeply-rooted global crisis and the defining challenge of our time. At precisely the moment that the horizons of Western electorates should be broadening, they are narrowing dangerously. The debate has grown perilously introspective: on both sides of the Atlantic, the war on terror is in danger of becoming just another sub-category of domestic politics.

Moore is the most powerful spokesman of the myth that gripped the Spanish people when they elected Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero as their Prime Minister in the wake of the Madrid bombing: namely, that if we oust specific politicians from office - replace Bush with Kerry, Blair with Brown - the Islamic fundamentalists will leave us alone. It is, of course, psychologically reassuring for voters to be told that they have this power, that there is something quick and clean they can do about their collective predicament. But it is also a fantasy. The theocratic guerrillas of al-Qaeda and its associates who, it emerged last week, were planning to bomb a British primary school in Madrid and, on Friday, promised fresh attacks in Europe, will not be appeased by any number of political scalps. Their ambitions for the world are much greater and more terrifying.

But who can blame Michael Moore for seizing his chance? No war in modern history has been as badly sold to the public as this one. In private, the Prime Minister admits to colleagues that, in this respect, "I have failed". No Western politician, including Mr Blair, has succesfully produced a political narrative which transcends the old methods of spin developed in the 1990s and explains why the war on terror is a completely new kind of struggle.

Indeed, the problem with the American "neocons" - Cheney, Rumsfeld et al - is that they are not "neo" enough. They use old Cold War language to describe an utterly modern conflict. This war may well, for a start, be longer than the great struggle of the second half of the last century. It is certainly more complex: the triple, interlocked threat of weapons of mass destruction, global terrorist groups and rogue states is much more difficult to explain than the monolithic danger which was represented by the Soviet bloc and its ideology. And, to be prosecuted successfully, the war on terror will require durable public faith in politicians and the intelligence services that inform them: the very trust which has taken such a terrible beating before, during and after the Iraqi conflict. The anti-war lobby has the slick movies of Michael Moore. And what do we hawks have? The sickening images of Abu Ghraib, that's what.

This is why it isn't enough to say that Moore manipulates the facts, or that he is a charlatan, or that his arguments are glib. The reality is that his methods are working, and working for a reason. He is the grizzled face of a culture in denial, the contrarian voice of the millions who would rather hate Dubya than confront the awesome threat that stalks our age. His success is an urgent warning to those who support the war, who grasp its importance, to raise their game, and fast. Nitpicking is not the answer. It's the big issues that count. And it's there that Michael Moore has no answers. If he is so visionary, why is his objective - to run Bush out of the White House - so parochial? What would he do about the new horrors of our time? Dude, where's your sense of history?

Telegraph article