Michael Appleton - on holiday, Cambridge

Monday, July 12, 2004


I'm told that marital trust is a little like virginity: once gone, you can never get it back. Though some couples try and muddle through and make the best of a bad situation, as soon as infidelity is exposed things can never be the same, and doubts forever fester in the mind of the cheated. As I sat down to watch Fahrenheit 9/11 at the weekend, I felt a little like Michael Moore's cheated wife (yes, not the most pleasant mental picture).

I had very much enjoyed Bowling For Columbine (BFC), my first Moore filmic or televisual experience. Above all, I was very amused by it, an amusement tempered by the thought than an American watching would not have the same luxury. But then last year, as editor of Victoria University's Salient, I was delivered by my resident right-wing columnist Michael Keenan a piece about inaccuracies and deceptions in BFC. As I did a bit of web reading on the issue, I started to feel intellectually cheated, violated even. Moore had made me feel well informed (and probably a little smug), and I had fallen for the traps he set my incurious mind.

And so F9/11 was always going to be met with more hostile, inquisitive eyes. Much has been written about the film’s faults and virtues. However, as someone from a nation with a stake in challenging the notion that because a place is small it is not worthy of respect, what struck me was perhaps a rather tangential concern. Moore cares as little about the world as he claims Bush does: world politics seem to him to be just the most convenient stick with which to smack the President.

At one moment, he wishes to lampoon the “coalition of the willing” that Bush built to fight Iraq. He does so by flashing up names of countries he expects no-one to know much about, cueing images to play to the crudest stereotypes of their people: the Dutch are pot-smokers; Romanians descend from vampires; Palau is a savage society with quaint people who are jolly but know nothing about the modern world (probably like all Pacific Islanders). He then, presumably, awaits the laughter, which duly arrived from my fellow cinemagoers.

Now, leaving aside the fact that Moore omits the countries in the coalition that most Westerners would likely know the most about – including Australia, Spain, Italy, and Britain – I felt some unseemly undercurrents to this display which are revealing about Moore’s view of world affairs.

First, he’s implying that the moral weight of a country’s opinion on an issue of international import depends on how big it is (or, perhaps, on how many Americans recognise its name); had Bush gathered up more “big names”, then the war on Iraq would have been more moral. New Zealanders should be under no illusions that, had Helen Clark made a different call on this issue, we too would have been lampooned in this way because, really, who cares what we think and knows what we are about other than that we rear loads of sheep? But this is precisely the view, which sees America as King and the rest of the world as populated by quirky but unserious exotics, that most of Bush’s opponents are rallying against.

Second, it’s deeply xenophobic, playing to what I can only guess are the prejudices Moore believes exist in “his people” – i.e. “normal Americans”. One could say it’s humour, an attempt to leaven a serious film, and that all humour requires making fun of others. But if one point of this film is to argue against American cultural and political exceptionalism and feelings of smug supremacy, and for the worth of respecting other countries’/peoples’ views on issues like the war on Iraq, then making fun of people just because they live in countries and do things that Americans might find quirky seems massively counterproductive and perverse.

Third, in sinking to the lowest rhetorical tricks, Moore misses an important opportunity to explore a serious criticism of the coalition of the willing: namely, that many countries to join did so because they were offered financial incentives by the Bush Administration to do so. That Moore ignores this suggests (as do so many other parts of the film) that he’s not interested in critiquing Bush foreign policy in a serious manner – just with using the same wide-ranging smear tactics that he accuses his opponents of.

Moore’s treatment of relationships between American capital and Saudi Arabia is similarly xenophobic. I suspect that viewers of the film who knew little of geography or politics would assume that the term “Saudis” refers not to the 20 million citizens of a country in the Gulf but rather a shady Middle Eastern crime family: an Arab mafia, if you will. The images and words he uses are sneering, and insinuate that everything and anyone associated with Saudi Arabia is in cahoots with Osama bin Laden. The way he makes fun of Bush senior meeting and greeting Saudi businessmen and politicians in an Islamically respectful manner brought to mind the way Bush junior mocked an American journalist who asked Jacques Chirac a question in French and the way some commentators ridicule European politicians who, when in Muslim countries, add “peace be upon him” to mentions of Allah and Mohammed as a show of respect.

Moore seemed to be saying, “Ha! Look at those towelheads with their strange cultural ways! They must be devious!” Sadly, this was on a par with much of Moore’s material. As much as he likes to criticise Americans for being insular and not knowing enough about the world, he plays to, and emulates, this (inaccurate) stereotype of the crude, rude, uninformed American. If anything, his attitude to The Other in this film seems to suggest he shares the foreign policy isolationism, built on feelings of exceptionalism and supremacy, that some traditional conservatives adhere to in the United States. In any case, on this evidence, he couldn’t care less about other cultures and peoples, and is undoubtedly even more ignorant of Islam than the President he despises.

Postscript one: For a more sophisticated, genuinely humorous, and adept film involved in social and political criticism of American elites, you should catch Spike Lee's She Hate Me, which had its British premiere in Cambridge last night.

Postscript two: The Sunday Times' Simon Wilde greeted the Black Caps' victory over the West Indies at the weekend with charming imperial paternalism. He wrote, "Few would have thought when McMillan mirrored New Zealand society by being trapped in the fifties that we had seen the last domineering batting of the day."