Fahrenheit 11/9

Fahrenheit 11.9

Fahrenheit 11/9 is of course Michael Moore’s latest documentary.

Moore is a highly divisive figure, despised and ridiculed ceaselessly on the Right, partly for understandable if not justifiable reasons, and partly (mostly) due to the opinion makers of the Right’s shameless, bald-faced lying about anyone who could potentially pose any threat to them.

Sometimes his movies have a pretty clear theme, a unifying story, even if he goes off on tangents here and there. Roger and Me, for instance, his first, was the comic story of his attempting to confront General Motors Chairman Roger Smith in person, embedded within the story of the horrific demise of Flint, Michigan and the role of GM and the 1% in that demise. Others, like Bowling for Columbine, are much more scattershot, jumping around to present whatever happens to be on Moore’s mind that he thinks is important to get across.

Fahrenheit 11/9 is of the latter type. It’s an impressionistic video essay that insofar as you want to attribute some unifying theme to it, it would have to be something very, very broad, like “What’s wrong with Trump and the America that elevates him and people like him to positions of power, and what is being done and should be done to combat it.”

So, let’s see, just from memory there’s: Why Trump entered the presidential race and why he won, Trump’s obvious sexual attraction to his daughter, various other things that are odious about Trump, the story of the Flint water crisis and Michigan Governor Dan Snyder’s role therein, Moore’s attempt to confront Snyder in person about the damage he has done to Flint (obviously a throwback to his film career’s beginning), Michigan’s “emergency manager” law that allows the governor to simply appoint an unelected dictator to rule a city, how the Democratic primary rules screwed over Bernie Sanders, criticism of the centrism and constant compromising of the establishment Democrats, the rise of an insurgency within the Democratic Party of Sanders-like candidates such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, criticism of the electoral college, parallels between Trump’s America and pre-Nazi Germany and a more general warning about how democracies can collapse into autocracies far easier than people assume when they’re living in a democracy, and Moore’s own encounters with Trump over the years as a fellow celebrity. And whatever else I’m forgetting.

I’m not saying you can’t tie all these things together, some more easily than others, but the connection is pretty stream-of-consciousness at times. The movie felt to me more like I was watching a string of YouTube videos of a few minutes each.

I’m not sure if that’s good or bad. On the one hand, I suppose it’s fitting for today’s short attention span audiences. I’m from an earlier generation and so don’t think of myself as having such a micro attention span, but it worked on me too. I was reasonably well engaged with this film throughout; perhaps if it was all more clearly one two-hour plus whole rather than numerous short segments it wouldn’t have been so easy to stick with.

On the other hand, it felt kind of lightweight to me. I have a sense that a feature-length movie is supposed to deliver more than what one gets from a string of YouTube videos, even interesting, well-done, thought-provoking YouTube videos.

Certainly Fahrenheit 11/9 can be criticized for fallacies such as suppressed evidence or cherry picking. That is, even if little if any of it is flat out false, routinely it presents only facts that support Moore’s preferred conclusions, including when a fuller examination of all the evidence would either justify a contrary conclusion or at the very least show that the issues are much more complex such that reasonable people can disagree about them.

But while that criticism is accurate, is it relevant? It’s kind of a pet peeve of mine that virtually all documentaries—at least those that take a stand on political or other controversial issues—are guilty of this. They’re advocacy pieces, like an attorney making a case, not objective, cogent arguments that would appeal to philosopher kings. I don’t like that, but it’s an accepted convention for this art form. There’s nothing unusually objectionable about Moore’s movies in this regard; they’re flawed in the way that almost all documentaries on controversial topics are.

So I don’t know how much you really want to knock him for this. But let’s look at one case as an example.

Since he would much prefer that the Democratic Party move left (at least on economic issues, I don’t think so much on identity politics type stuff, where I’m guessing it’s at least as far left as he would want), he paints “centrist” and “establishment”-style Democrats as unfairly keeping a tight grip on the party, and dooming it to electoral failure since the common people want a more feisty party that is willing to stick it to the Republicans and the 1%. So he believes in the notion that Sanders was “cheated” out of the nomination by party officials who rigged the system to make sure Clinton won in spite of the voters preferring Sanders. In support of this, he lists various states where Sanders won over half the primary vote, yet Clinton received a solid majority of the delegates as a result of the “super delegate” system and other skullduggery.

OK, there’s some truth to that. No question a lot of the people with say over the Democratic nomination process were in the tank for Clinton, in some cases because they thought her relatively centrist positions would make her a stronger general election candidate than Sanders with his farther left positions, and in some cases because many people in politics want to affirm whoever the front runner is in the belief that unifying the party behind one candidate as early as possible is always better than a prolonged primary battle that weakens all candidates. And some of what they did to advance their cause was kind of sleazy.

But there’s plenty of relevant information that Moore is leaving out, and plenty of assumptions he’s making that can at least be questioned. I’ll mention a couple.

One, is the super delegate system as self-evidently corrupt and unjustified as it is routinely painted by its opponents? (Party bigwigs in smoke-filled rooms acting anti-democratically to override the will of the people!) I don’t know. I think you can make at least a decent case in favor of having super delegates.

A political party is a private organization. How it goes about choosing its nominee is pretty much its own business. A super delegate system rewards people who have committed the most to the party and have the most at stake. It says, in effect, that an elected Democratic member of Congress, say, deserves a little more influence on who the party’s nominee is than just a random primary voter.

So what? I don’t think there’s anything morally obligatory about making the selection of a candidate (or the content of the party platform, the location of the party convention, whatever) a matter of pure “one person, one vote” democracy. Especially since you’d still have to determine as such a purist whether that meant primaries limited only to registered Democrats, or “open” primaries where all registered voters are free to participate. Again, this is a private entity, free to use pretty much any procedure it thinks will result in a candidate that best represents what the party stands for and that is most electable.

Two, contrary to the impression you get from the tiny bit of evidence Moore chooses to include, if you subtract out the super delegates entirely, Clinton received more total votes than Sanders—that is, votes from regular people in primaries and caucuses—and it wasn’t even that close. So even if it were somehow inherently unfair to choose a nominee by any process other than “one person, one vote” democracy, Clinton still would have been the nominee.

I will offer a caveat to that last point, though. Psychologically, voters may have been influenced by the fact that the media consistently throughout the process reported Clinton as having a certain size lead because they were including the super delegates who had expressed an intent to support a candidate (and almost all such super delegates were supporting Clinton). Since voters as much as party bureaucrats are prone to the bandwagon thinking that the sooner a party coalesces around a frontrunner the better, some of them may have then voted for Clinton even though they had at least a slight preference for Sanders.

So in a hypothetical world where there were no super delegates and nothing else that deviated from a fully level playing field for Clinton and Sanders (and O’Malley and whomever else), we can’t say for sure that Clinton would have gotten the most votes. But that’s really speculative, and making that case requires going a lot deeper into the matter than Moore has here. Even if there’s a potential cogent argument somewhere that Sanders got screwed and it cost him the nomination, Moore’s simplistic cherry picking isn’t it.

Moore made his name, in his early movies and in his TV shows, with his “gimmicks,” where he would trick people (conservatives) with some outlandish stunt on camera. That became harder the more recognizable he became. By now, in this film, it feels perfunctory, like an afterthought.

He goes to Michigan Republican Governor Dan Snyder’s office with a pair of handcuffs to perform a “citizen’s arrest.” Then he goes to Snyder’s governor’s mansion with a truck full of water from the Flint water system. He really doesn’t get anywhere on either occasion. At the office they tell him the Governor isn’t even in the building that day, and true or false there’s nothing he can do but walk away. The mansion sits a considerable distance from the street behind a locked gate, so the best Moore can do is take out a hose and spray part of the lawn with the water.

I mean, the thought’s there, and I respect that he was one of the pioneers in this area, but really is any of this more than 5% as inventive and funny as Sacha Baron Cohen’s stuff?

Not to mention, Moore looks so old and woefully out of shape now. I found that distracting, in that whenever he was on camera I was more conscious of my fear for his health than of anything he was doing or saying.

Better than his on-camera stunts is his editing, his juxtaposition of various historical clips accompanied by his narration to get a laugh or make a political point. The stunts feel tired now, but he’s still good at plenty of the other stuff.

I thought his early sequence about election night, showing Trump’s upset of Clinton had some emotional power to it. (Though it’s marred, again, by his misleading citing of partial evidence. To make it more dramatic, he makes it sound like “everybody” was convinced Clinton was going to win in a landslide. Bullshit. Leaving aside diehard partisans on both sides, pollsters and serious observers made Clinton a slight to moderate favorite, expecting her to win by low to middle single digits. Which she in fact did—at least at the low end of expectations—but the fluke of how the votes were distributed resulted in an Electoral College victory for Trump. Expectations would have been a bit higher—perhaps middle or middle to high single digits—if not for the Comey statement just before the election about reopening the ridiculous and endless probe into Clinton conducting too much of her business by private e-mail rather than her official government e-mail. So it was an upset, but not some huge upset. It was like a football team that’s a 4 point underdog winning, not a team that’s a two or three touchdown underdog winning.)

Anyway, I’m far from a Clinton fan—I think she’s a repellent epitome of the utterly insincere, unprincipled, slimy, Machiavellian political insider wheeler dealer—but it really did take me back to a dark place watching scene after scene of women crying and looking shocked as they realize that we’re not yet going to have the first woman president in U.S. history after all. Though really what was far worse—to me anyway—was reliving not her loss but Trump’s win. What a genuinely horrible human being he is. Moore renders his ascendancy to the presidency appropriately ominous.

The fact that seeing that again was jarring to me even to the degree it was is a little concerning. I mean, it’s not desirable to be appalled/infuriated/depressed all day every day while he’s president, but by the same token it’s also not desirable to let it gradually feel normal and acceptable over time, and my reaction to this reminder of how horrific his victory was is perhaps an indication that I’ve allowed some degree of such normalization to creep into my perceptions without realizing it.

I think as it has played out, his administration has only been awful in the usual ways one would expect a mainstream Republican administration to be (massive budget-irresponsible tax cuts to benefit the 1%, ceased enforcement of any regulations that might be inconvenient for big business, saber-rattling foreign policy with the occasional gratuitous bombing, right wing appointments to federal courts, etc.), so it is “normal,” albeit terrible, in that sense, but given the unprecedented mental instability, impulsiveness, mean-spiritedness, and utter incompetence of this person and administration, there’s always the realistic potential on any given day that it will veer into decidedly abnormal awfulness (e.g., the whole “finger on the nuclear trigger” scariness).

So it’s really not something one should get used to as if it’s not an insanely bad situation.

Speaking of which, what does one make of Moore’s analogizing Trump and his America with the advent of Nazi Germany?

It’s certainly attention-grabbing. But I’ll admit that my first reaction was to cringe at his succumbing to the “Godwin’s law” fallacy of hyperbolic Hitler comparisons, of indulging in the kind of extremist rhetoric that people who already hate Trump might be receptive to but that gives Moore critics a greater opportunity than ever to gleefully dismiss him as an irrelevant fringe leftist.

But in the end my reaction softened. Yes, if the point were that Trump is like Hitler in all relevant evil respects, and that Trump’s election means that inevitably our democracy will soon be replaced by a fascist dictatorship with concentration camps and all the rest, then it would be silly scaremongering. But in fact his point, as I take it, is much more nuanced and defensible. (Which I appreciate, since the lack of nuance in advocacy documentaries like his is one of the things that troubles me about them.)

What he’s saying, I think, is something like this: Democracies are fragile. There is no guarantee that they will survive and thrive indefinitely. They are always vulnerable to being replaced by more authoritarian systems. There are certain conditions that can develop within democracies, and certain types of demagogic individuals and political parties skilled at exploiting them, that constitute serious danger signs that they could be so supplanted shortly. These are things like an increasing gap between rich and poor and a shrinking middle class, leaders who exhibit a lack of civility and even a certain winking at violence from their side, increasingly frequent and successful divisive racial and similar appeals and scapegoating of unpopular groups, attacks on the legitimacy of any institutions that could potentially oppose the would-be autocrat and his allies (such as the press, universities, the career non-partisan civil service, scientists, churches, etc.), and a more mainstream political party that tags along with a vicious demagogue for short term political benefit thinking they can control him. Hitler’s rise to power in Germany is an example of an advanced democracy with a great deal of freedom, and technological, intellectual and artistic achievement succumbing to such vulnerabilities and collapsing. If you look at the United States today, and the behavior of Trump, Republicans, and Trump supporters, you can see plenty of parallels with Germany back then. Not enough that a fascist dictatorship is inevitable, but enough to justify more concern than just the usual level of awareness you should always maintain if you care about preserving your democracy, and enough to justify sounding the alarm and taking countermeasures.

I really do wish, though, that in spelling out his analogy between 1930s Germany and present and recent America he had not linked the Reichstag fire with 9/11. I mean, I assume he is alluding to the use of these incidents to crack down on dissent, narrow the range of acceptable political opinion and shift it to the right, limit civil liberties in favor of security, etc., but there’s the obvious danger that it’ll be interpreted as an endorsement of the more ludicrous 9/11 conspiracy claims that the attack itself was carried out by the government or right wing elements within it.

As strong an element as anything in the film, in my opinion, are the snippets of interview clips with Professor Timothy Snyder, a top historian with an expertise specifically in how democracies fail. I read his Bloodlands a few years ago, a very highly regarded history of Eastern Europe from the prewar 1930s through World War II, when Hitler and Stalin and their allies basically took turns massacring unimaginable numbers of people.

As he notes, Americans tend to have this attitude that our democratic system has been around forever and so there’s no realistic chance that it’ll change, when in fact for much of its history there were formal and informal means of making impossible or meaningless the participation in that democracy of the majority of people—women, blacks, etc. So really we’ve only had a functioning democracy that included almost all competent adults for a few decades at most. We’re still quite early in this experiment, in other words, and it’s not at all far-fetched our system could fall apart. There’s no justification for complacency.

Especially today, with Trump and his hateful rhetoric.

So I ended up mostly in agreement with the “Trump as a threat to our democratic system” part of the film, substantively. But I’m still not fully comfortable pragmatically with how it’s presented.

Even if a fair-minded reading of this portion of the film renders it more justified than not, of course it will not receive a fair-minded reading from many—I’d say the majority—of people with influential opinions who choose to comment on it. Instead it’ll get plenty of “Moore has totally lost it! Now he says Trump’s as bad as Hitler! What is it with these lefties?!” reactions. It doesn’t matter if they’re bullshit reactions: they’ll still go a long way toward shaping what the general public thinks of Fahrenheit 11/9, Michael Moore, and the political Left in general.

Relatedly, it furthers the general impression much of the public has that “both sides” are constantly leveling equally irresponsible extremist charges at each other, whether it’s Obama being a secret Muslim who faked his birth certificate, or Trump being another Hitler. Again, I’m not saying Moore’s Hitler comparisons in fact are the equivalent of the routinely completely baseless accusations of the Right, only that to people not paying close attention it could well seem that way.

Further, there’s the “crying wolf” problem. Let’s say that for the average 4-year presidential term, there is a 2% chance that our democracy will catastrophically collapse and be replaced by some demagogic authoritarian dictator who cancels elections and rules through some sort of emergency powers, that the character of Trump and the state of the country upon his election in 2016 made that instead a 15% chance, and that the difference between a 2% chance and a 15% chance is sufficient to justify sounding the alarm and getting people to wake up and stand strong against the present threat to democracy, including by pointing out the parallels with the rise of the Nazis and other historic cases.

OK, well in that case there’s still an 85% chance that we have the usual elections in 2020, that Trump doesn’t seize dictatorial power after some real or faked terrorist attack or whatever, and that all we suffer as a country is roughly the usual (very, very serious, but still in some sense “normal”) type and amount of damage of the typical Republican presidency.

That’s how it’ll probably play out, and if it does then we can look forward to endless denunciations and chortling from the Right about how Moore and his ilk really went off the deep end with their wild predictions of doom, and they’ll never recover any shred of credibility after squealing about how big bad Donald Trump was another Hitler, blah, blah, blah. Then the next time Trump or someone like him significantly increases the likelihood of fascist dictatorship or nuclear war or what have you, and anyone on the Left calls attention to that and seeks to warn people, it’ll be that much harder to be taken seriously, since “Y’all always say that about any conservative, and you’re always wrong!”

In the end, if you take what Moore is saying in this movie and don’t misrepresent it and lie about it, I think it contains a lot more that’s right than wrong. But of course it will be massively misrepresented and lied about, since that’s what political advocates always do with expression that threatens them, with political advocates on the Right doing so most often, most viciously, and most shamelessly.

I seriously doubt that there’s any fully effective defense against that, but you can probably modestly mitigate it. I think Moore has left himself wide open to it though, and unfortunately that means Fahrenheit 11/9 is very much a “preaching to the converted” film. If anything it feels even more that way to me than most of his previous work. Conservatives won’t watch it, moderates mostly won’t watch it, and I suspect very few of the exceptions who do will buy into it at all.

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