Thursday, December 22, 2011

How Hitchens Saved Aggressive American Wingnuttery From The Wrath Of A Lefty Film-Maker

Picture the scene:  It's early June 2004, and I'm on holiday in Massachusetts, the heartland of Democratic America.  The skies are blue and flags are flying.  Even in this bluest-of-blue states, you'd never know that the United States is currently embroiled in its largest, most violent war since Vietnam. 


The news channels are talking about Ronald Reagan 24/7, in preparation for the old fraud's funeral.  Over and over, It's morning in America, he made Americans feel good about America.  At a friend's house, a bunch of us watch the Patriots edge out the Panthers in a re-run of Super Bowl XXXVII over beer and barbecue chicken.  American football is incomprehensible - I have no idea what's happening on the screen or why.


In an internet cafe, the BBC News webpage describes car bombs and death in Iraq and how Attorney General John Ashcroft has denied government involvement in military torture programmes. The BBC correspondent Frank Gardner has just been shot and crippled in Saudi Arabia, and his cameraman Simon Cumber killed.


In the mornings, I watch a little TV and buy the Boston Globe or the New York Times.  Click, click, click - channel after channel, newspaper after newspaper, it's dead President, sports, lifestyle, sports.  What political news there is, is anodyne, he-said-she-said piffle.  When Iraq gets a mention, it's because the President has compared the invasion and occupation to World War II.  USA! USA! 


Then one morning, I find Fox News.  I'm vaguely aware of it and watch a few minutes - it's a repeat of the previous day's Bill O'Reilly Show, and big Bill is pissed off.  Michael Moore, who I know from The Awful Truth and Bowling For Columbine, has made a new film that claims George W. Bush bombed the Twin Towers, or something.  Michael Moore is a traitor, a communist and is also fat. 


I enjoy my holiday - visit New York, Cape Cod, Walden Pond and so on, and then head home with a suntan, some duty free and whacking great stars 'n' stripes I bought to use up the last of my dollars. 


Moore's film Fahrenheit 9/11 hits the news channels like a thunderbolt.  It's a one-eyed, entirely partisan demolition job on the Bush administration's response to the Al Qaeda attack on America and its subsequent invasion of Iraq.  It makes a series of specific and powerful claims... 


1)  That President Bush is a chump.  Most Americans have never seen the film footage of him sitting dumbly in that classroom listening to a reading from a children's book while the World Trade Centre burns.  Now, it's being shown on heavy rotation on cable news. 


2) That the Bush administration is so closely intertwined with the Saudi royal family that it spirited Bin Laden family members out of the country at its behest.  Moore asks, can these people be trusted to have Americans' best interests at heart?  


3)  That the US government intentionally exploited Americans' fear and alarm to stampede through regressive legislation and to launch a war on Iraq that was based almost entirely upon a series of astonishing lies and propaganda wheezes. 


4)  That the American media obediently reported everything that the government told it to, without seriously questioning any aspects major or minor, and that 


5)  US soldiers and Iraqi civilians are dying in large numbers thanks to that war, and that the administration that launched it are utterly clueless on what to do about it. 


America has no idea what to make of the film.  It contradicts everything that they've been told, everything they take for granted.


The news channels and print press, as is the way of things in the US, report the controversy.  The Democratic Party welcomes bad press for their political foes, but are as always too spineless to seize the opportunity, afraid to appear weak or unpatriotic. 


The Republicans and their media creatures flail desperately, hurling insults and denials this way and that, but the damage is done.  The frame has shifted - the discussion is no longer about Saddam Hussein's invented Al Qaeda links and fictional weapons, but is about whether the Bush administration is full of liars and the war on Iraq unjust and insane. 


For the first time, America is on the verge of seeing itself the way that the rest of the world has seen it, this past few years - as a dangerous, wounded animal lashing out at easy targets, led by mendacious propagandists and opportunists.  The US diplomatic service is so alarmed that it attempts to block screenings of the film.  


It's a precarious time.  The presidential election is coming up in November, and things have taken a disastrous turn for the Bush admin.  Somebody needs to do something to shore up their wounded, leaking public image, before the damage becomes serious. 


But what's that portly figure on the horizon?  He's striding towards us with determination and a glint in his eye, hiking up his trousers around his rotund waist and steeling his will.  Who is this man?  What could he possibly want? 


Why, it's Christopher Hitchens, and he's here to save the day for war, destruction and the Republican Party!   Hallelujah, brothers, for Hitchens has rescued the American People from reality! 


I exaggerate, of course.  Hitchens' piece was the first serious attempt to rebut Moore's movie, and he scores some good hits.  The Afghanistan section is, as Hitch says, pissweak stuff, a work of circumstantial innuendo worthy of Hitchens himself.  


Michael Moore has always been a kind of populist Hitchens, minus the overwrought prose and Oxbridge education, and without the mania for war, death, murder and destruction.  In another life, they should've been lovers.  They were perfect for each other, each as hackish as the other in pursuit of political goals. 


But even now, you have to marvel at how Hitchens rallied the troops to the flag.  I don't exaggerate when I say that US wingnuts were flailing, howling incoherently over Fahrenheit 9/11.  For the first time in three years, they'd utterly lost control of The Message, and all manner of horrible leftist goblins were springing out of the ground to ask dangerous questions about President Bush's statements, actions and integrity.  


Enter Hitchens the Englishman of the left, to save the President from an American, socialist anti-war activist.


We can immediately dispense with every single one of Hitchens' complaints about Moore's honesty.  As we saw yesterday, Hitchens was an expert bullshitter who could and did effortlessly match Moore's most ludicrous elisions and misdirections. 


We can also dismiss his comparison of Moore to Leni Reifenstahl with a chuckle.  Say what you like about Michael Moore, but his angry-ordinary-Joe act never got anyone killed.  You can't say the same for Hitch's gleefully ridiculous poacher-turned-gamekeeper schtick. 


Marvel also that Hitchens, who propped up his later career with the comical pretense that his full-throated endorsement of official US government policy was an act of exemplary political courage, had the GIANT BRASS BALLS OF STEEL required to commit the following sentence to paper... 


(the film) ..."Is also a spectacle of abject political cowardice masking itself as a demonstration of "dissenting" bravery".


"Abject political cowardice", says the man who spent who knows how many hours defending such glorious paragons of virtue as Ahmad Chalabi and Paul Wolfowitz!  Well, we can at least have a laugh as he tries to de-schmuckify Bush's toe-curling encounter with The Pet Goat or his infamous "Now watch this drive!" scene, as he ran the War on Terror from the golf course.


Hitchens' complaint that Moore shows pre-war Iraq by depicting kite-flying children and happy families has now entered pro-war folklore.  The kite-flying kiddies, followed immediately by the shattering aerial assault on Baghdad, are all a sub-Hitchens goon like Nick Cohen need invoke any time he mentions Moore, confident that his point is made. And yet...


Let's be blunt.  As a depiction of the victims of the Iraq War, Moore's choice of clips are a million times more representative than Hitchens' unending war against Saddam and whoever he was calling Genocidal Fascists on any given day.  The lowest, definitely undercounting estimate for civilian deaths in Iraq is in the region of 100,000 and I'd happily place a bet that for every fanatical terrorist whose end Hitchens celebrated, a thousand happy families lost a parent, a sibling or a child, kite or no.


The point of lowest bathos comes when Hitchens tries to explain that, contra Moore's claim, Iraq did attack Americans.  Iraq started it!  Why, they sheltered Abu Nidal!  You remember Abu Nidal?  Most won't because nobody gave a fuck about one elderly terrorist, before or after the war, barring Hitchens.


They sheltered Abu Musab al Zarqawi!  If they did, of course - and I can't establish this one way or the other - it's in the sense that the US "sheltered" the 9/11 hijackers, since Zarqawi was as murderously disposed towards the various tyrannies of the Middle East as he was to the US.  Hitchens certainly knows this, yet says it anyway.  Honesty and truth, indeed. 


Iraqi ground units shot at American planes patrolling the No-Fly Zone over Iraq!  Well, on and on he goes.  You can imagine what type of film all of these caveats would feature in, what form of documentary Hitch might prefer to see. 


"At no point does Michael Moore make the smallest effort to be objective. At no moment does he pass up the chance of a cheap sneer or a jeer".


Says Hitchens, the famously objective, well-mannered gentleman*. 


Hitchens' gripes get more bizarre - about Moore's "affected and ostentatious concern for Black America", as if Hitch has never affected ostentatious concern for the people he actively advocates bombing.  He demands to know whether Moore would support a military draft, or the draft riots of 1863.  Thankfully, he doesn't ask whether Mike is still beating his wife. 


Hilariously, given his well-known habit of minimising and diverting from American crimes and fuck-ups, he also trots out this humdinger of a line... 


"In general, it's highly unwise to quote Orwell if you are already way out of your depth on the question of moral equivalence".


Yoy. 


Well anyway, you know the rest.  The wingnut literati all promiscuously linked to Hitchens' piece, expanded and wanked up the most egregious of his points and soon enough, they steadied the rocking Republican ship.  The monster Moore was repelled, sent wailing and thrashing back into the depths of the sea, and the world made safe for the US government's insane wars.  President Bush squeaked re-election.  Both his administration and its criminal ineptitude passed into history, leaving the rest of the planet with the Mother of All Economic And Military Fuck-Ups in our laps.


The big barbecue in Fallujah was only months away; coalition forces continued to bleed troops until the great slaughter of the Iraqi civil war ensued, murdering thousands upon thousands of civilians in an orgy of horrifying violence and blood-letting.  The coalition lost almost five thousand men and women killed and tens of thousands more injured.  Many thousands of veterans continue to struggle badly with adjustment to civilian life, with far higher rates of homelessness, unemployment and mental illness than the norm.  The bodycount for Iraqis is too large to accurately count.


The Iraq War has gone down in history as one of the most needless and wasteful military disasters of the modern era and the killing is a long way from finished yet. 


Chris Hitchens continued to make highly tendentious, fork-tongued arguments for violence and mayhem, picking up fat paycheques for angrily denouncing those of his former colleagues on the left who had the temerity to complain about war.  He died in 2011, on the same day that the occupation of Iraq ended.  Tributes poured in from all quarters, although many of the wingnuts who once fed on the scraps from his table denounced him as an antisemite and a commie for insufficient pro-Israel belligerence. 


Michael Moore made successful films about American healthcare reform and the injustices of capitalism.  A few years later, a programme of subsidised healthcare was instituted and world capitalism burned its own house down in an orgy of greed and recrimination.  


History, I think, will be kinder to one than it will to the other, Literary Lion or not.


Anyway, let's leave the last word to Hitchens, since he isn't here to speak for himself.  


...If you leave out absolutely everything that might give your "narrative" a problem and throw in any old rubbish that might support it, and you don't even care that one bit of that rubbish flatly contradicts the next bit, and you give no chance to those who might differ, then you have betrayed your craft.


Oh, yes.  Those are words to live by alright, Chris.


*On the topic of sneering and jeering, see this passage, quoted from Lawyers, Guns & Money... 


“If you wanted more Iraqi support,” Atiyyah bellowed at Hitchens,” you should have given us more money and food once you got there!” 


“So you’re saying, sir, that you can be bought,” Hitchens shot back...


...If I didn’t deeply dislike Hitchens already, that would do it. He’s talking to one of the leaders of one of the liberal Iraqi institutions upon which the future of Iraq depends. There’s no way that the guy has the resources he needs. And Hitchens has the gall to talk about humanitarian aid and support for his projects as if it was some sort of bribe that Atiyyah should have the self-respect to refuse. You want more money for the military? Are you saying, sir, that the United States Armed Forces can be bought? I shall have to say good day to you, sir!


Pure class, our Chris.

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