July 19, 2004

What Gus Here is Sayin’

Well, criticizing Michael Moore definitely seems to get a rise out of some people, judging from this Crooked Timber thread in which John Holbo springboards from some negative comments I made about Fahrenheit 911.

There are criticisms I feel free to disregard—the cry that attacking Moore is breaking ranks or failing to play for the home team. The political rap across the knuckles, the call for left solidarity, is one of the surest signs of intellectual weakness that I know of, and a major reason I have no interest any longer in whether I’m considered to be on “the left” or not. Equally is the reflexive, gut assumption that anyone who fails to genuflect to Moore must be a defender of the war on Iraq. Hardly, as anyone who reads this weblog knows very well.

A number of commentators protest what they see in my original comments or in John’s argument as an equivalence between Moore and the Bush Administration, or between Moore and the most grotesque liars and rabid animals of the polemical right like Ann Coulter or Michael Savage. I agree there’s an asymmetry. In the first instance, because the people who lead the country and the people who comment on that leadership are simply very different in the consequences of their views. There’s no question that the intellectual dishonesty and closed-mindedness of the Bush Administration’s key war planners is vastly worse, and of vastly more concern, than anything Michael Moore has to offer. And I don’t see anything in Fahrenheit, for all that I dislike it, that compares to someone like Ann Coulter wishing that Timothy McVeigh had blown up the New York Times building. There are differences of proportion in either comparison, and Moore is hardly job one or even job one hundred on a very long and filthy list.

But what some CT commentators seem to me to be saying is this: Politics is a dirty, hard business, and we have to play dirty to win. They're saying, don’t come in here with your effete intellectualism, your Marquis-of-Queensbury rules, your naïve pomposity. Moore works, he’s down with the people, he’s telling it like the American people need to hear it.

This is precisely what I took up in my Cliopatria essay: is Moore effective, and effective at what? So I don’t disagree with the CT commentators who say that you have to play politics to win, and that if Moore is effective, that’s a countervailing virtue that outweighs any pedantry one might unload at him. What I think is the CT commentators are actually revealing, however, is why the American left is on a persistent losing streak in the tough game of political struggle (not to mention a nasty little streak of intellectualized anti-intellectualism that is another classic kind of left-wing panic button).

They assume that fairness and intellectual discipline are somehow antithetical to the crafting of effective political argument and rhetoric and they assume rather than demonstrate that Fahrenheit is positively influencing the constituencies whose mobilization against the Iraq War and the Bush Administration is useful or needed at this point.

Fairness and open-mindedness is a pretty crucial part of my own political and intellectual voice. That’s first because I assume that it is a positive good, an ethical position, and to adopt an ethical mode of acting in the world is itself a political strategy. It is a commitment to the dispensation that one hopes to build. I assume, very deeply and I hope not unreasonably, that there would be enormous social good that would come to pass if the American public sphere was everywhere authentically marked by fairness, open-mindedness, and mutually agreed-upon standards for rational argument and use of meaningful evidence.

This the critics would be right to say is an insufficient reason to criticize anyone failing to reach that standard. By itself, it is a luxurious high-mindedness. However, fairness also works as politics in the operational sense. An operatic, performative commitment to decency, an over-the-top acknowledging of the legitimacy of potentially legitimate arguments, an attempt to reduce cheap shots, a showy constraint for saying only that which can be said based on strong evidence: these all function as powerful tools in political struggle within the American public sphere.

Who brought Joe McCarthy down in the end? Not somebody playing “dirty”, down in the same gutter with McCarthy, but someone who waited for their moment and caught McCarthy in a decency trap, who revealed the man’s fundamental unfairness and viciousness in part by being scrupulously decent themselves. How did Archibald Cox defeat Richard Nixon? By walking the straight and narrow. Being decent and fair and meticulous isn’t intellectual wankery: it’s hardball.

It’s especially important in the context of the metapolitics of weblogs as a subdomain of the public sphere. Crooked Timber’s contributors regularly take other webloggers to task for the inconsistency of present arguments with past positions, or for their contradictory use of evidentiary standards. That kind of critique only has political influence, e.g., the capacity to alter the way that others think and act, inasmuch as it is a performative, demonstrated constraint on those who offer it. This is what I understand John Holbo to be talking about most centrally in his own comments. If you hold someone else accountable to standards that you do not maintain when you're talking in the public sphere about someone on your "home team", you've shot your wad, you've blown your credibility, you've lost political capital.

That’s the league that Michael Moore is in: the public sphere, weblog and otherwise. Within that league, there are or ought to be rules. Playing by the rules earns you political capital—and if you have political capital, and spend it wisely, you’re effective in influencing other players in the public sphere, even sometimes those who may pretend not to care about those rules. If you have none, you never get the chance.

All this might be, as some CT commentators suggest, purely academic or at least confined to a sparsely inhabited region of the public sphere where the air is thin if Fahrenheit were a boffo smash with those American audiences who have yet to commit to the struggle against the Bush Administration. Some CT commentators assume this rather than demonstrate it, presumably on the basis of the movie’s impressive ticket sales to date. But by that same standard, one would have to assume that The Passion of The Christ converted huge numbers of previously secular Americans to Christianity. Ticket sales, even in the land of Mammon, can tell a thousand different sociological stories, and it takes more than that to know what a particular film, book or weblog is doing out there in the world. There’s nothing harder than studying an audience's mindset. But at the least, we already know enough about where Fahrenheit is doing well to suspect that it is largely preaching to the converted.

My own intution—just as thin evidentiarily as that provided by the usual working-class-heroes cheerleader squad—is that Moore’s particular confabulation of conspiracy theory, left-wing writ, smarminess, and powerfully affecting and moving scenes of suppressed truths is only sporadically persuasive for those American constitencies which are potentially moveable in their views on the war or on George Bush, and may at times be actively counterproductive. Much of what irritates me about Fahrenheit is that is often self-indulgent, unnecessary, superfluous, appealing mostly to the very intellectuals who then turn around and tell me that appealing to intellectuals is effete and ineffective. Though it might be aesthetically less satisfying and entertaining, something much more conventionally melodramatic or Ken-Burns-respectable might be more powerful by far, crucially because of a peformance of “fairness". The curious thing that moves through at least some defenses of Fahrenheit is an assumption that Ma and Pa Kettle aren't gonna come out and see a documentary unless it has plenty of bread-and-circus pleasures, lots of yuks, unless it goes down smooth and easy. To me, that defense isn't just vaguely condescending, I would also suggest it's wrong. I think you could sell $100 million in tickets for a de-Mooreified Fahrenheit that had all of the heat, all the anger, all the revelation, but without all of the bullshit.

Some reply further at this point in the argument that the effectiveness of Fahrenheit is not measured in whether it changes any hearts and minds, but in mobilizing and energizing the left for the struggle ahead. First of all, come on: how much angrier and more mobilized can people on the American left possibly get without having an aneuryism? YEAH! YEAH! I’M SO ANGRY! GRRRR! GONNA TAKE BACK MY COUNTRY!! GRRR!!

More to the point, I can’t think of anything less effective politically. Guess what happens to a boxer who gets wildly pissed off and starts taking huge swings at his opponent? He ends up tired and leaves himself wide open for jab after jab. Maybe he gets Buster-Douglas lucky once in a great while, but most of the time he ends up on the canvas.