An intellectual freedom blog with an emphasis on libraries and technology

Monday, June 28, 2004

Fahrenheit 9/11

A Review

I saw Michael Moore's documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 on Sunday the 27th and this is my review. First, the theaters were more packed than I can ever remember in the 17 years that I have lived in San Francisco. All attempts by Moore's opponents to scuttle this film have failed. The box office gross reported so far indicates that this movie is doing well in all the theaters showing it.

I have had my problems with Moore's documentaries and television work in the past. This time he hired fact checkers from The New Yorker to vet the content and save him from the errors in fact that detract from some of his earlier works. He also quite wisely does not linger for long on camera, instead allowing those he interviews, people with relevant experience or expertise, do the talking instead. And he shows footage of the President and his inner circle speaking as well, often to very good effect. On the whole, Fahrenheit 9/11 succeeds despite Moore as much as because of him.

First the bad news
Michael Moore has a love of cheap shots and juvenile humor that makes him insufferable. He blew several great opportunities here. At one point instead of showing President Bush speaking a complete sentence, he robs the segment of context and information by "looping" a few frames to have Bush look and sound like a cartoon character. Not only did this not prove humorous but more clips of Bush making statements that have subsequently proven untrue would have done much more to educate the audience. Anyone can make almost anyone look ridiculous on camera with enough looping and editing. What does Moore prove?

The sequence on the invasion of Afghanistan in which "satire" takes the form of the opening credits of the old Western TV show "Bonanza" just wasted everyone's time. This bit of juvenile humor has already circulated on right-wing web sites as the principle example of Moore as the champion of the cheap shot. Jokes like these only give his detractors something to attack and focus on. And focus on his adolescent jokes they must, because the rest of the movie systematically deconstructs lie after lie, and hypocrisy after hypocrisy, and more.

The Good News
As much as I fume over Moore's poor taste and worse humor, he does an excellent job of nailing down the factual evidence that the viewer can use to judge whether or not Moore succeeds in proving that the President has plunged us into an unnecessary war without regard to consequences or loss of life. The President's attempts to characterize opposition to the war as a slap in the face of the soldiers smacks into the hard wall of reality: Bush has lowered combat pay, cut Veterans benefits, fought expansion of veterans' benefits and even mandatory minimum funding for veterans. At the same time that enlisted soldiers have seen pay cuts a truck driver for Halliburton in Iraq makes $10,000 a month. While the administration elevates the "threat level" now and then with only the most vague justifications, the entire coast of Oregon is patrolled by one State Trooper -- part time.

And my personal favorite: after the "shoe bomber" attempted to light an old-fashioned fuse for his device the Administration imposed restrictions on airline passengers from bringing matches or cigarette lighters on aircraft. But the rules only restrict how many, not forbidding them entirely. You can have two lighter and 4 books of matches, but no more. But would not restricting them entirely make more sense? Does anyone think that a bomber with 2 lighters is less dangerous than a one with 3 lighters?! Moore suggests that the tobacco industry may have had a word with the administration about how people who have just escaped from a long non-smoking flight will want to light up ASAP. I can think of no other explanation.

And there are a few "classic" Moore moments. For example, near the end of the documentary Moore approaches representatives and Senators on the steps of the capital and asks them to enlist their grown children in the army. Only one member of Congress has a son in Iraq. This contrasts with an earlier segment in which Marine recruiters approach young people at the mall in a poor neighborhood. The sight of a Congressman literally running away from Moore is one of the very last images you see.

The Gory Bits
Unfortunately, The R rating is well deserved. The movie does not flinch from showing the real effects of war. Images similar to what we saw during the Vietnam War and worse make this a difficult film to watch at times. I most dreaded the beheading -- a public execution in Saudi Arabia-- which I had read about before having seen the movie. But the execution is not as bad as I feared: it's in black & white, perhaps clandestinely filmed on grainy video, seen from a distance, and over quickly. Worse sights await you in other scenes: children killed or horribly wounded, a child's arm burned and/or ripped open to the bone and assorted other dead bodies. Do not plan to eat dinner afterwards.

Summary and recommendation
Fahrenheit 9/11 contains a large amount of verifiable factual information which Moore does an admirable job of weaving into a clear and focussed narrative. In spite of its flaws this is his best work ever.

Monday, June 14, 2004


Campaign to censor Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11

You can read an article by Kurt Nimmo in Progressive News Republicans behind effort to censor Fahrenheit 9/11 that describes the clumsy effort by a PR firm that works for the Republican Party to organize a letter writing campaign to intimidate theaters and distributors planning to show or considering showing Michael Moore's expose on the links between the Bush family and Saudi Arabia. Although Nimmo suggests that people contact the PR firm to voice their disapproval, Dan Perkins (a.k.a.: Tom Tomorrow) has a better idea: use the web site that urges people to write to the distributors and theaters to voice our support of businesses that "do not buckle under right-wing pressure tactics."

Regardless of what you may think of Michael Moore, he has provided information and viewpoints absent from mainstream media. When Mel Gibson released his everything-but-the-rat-bites movie about the gruesome crucifixion of Jeshua ben David (a.k.a.: Jesus Christ) he answered critics by saying "Don't criticize it if you haven't seen it." Why should Moore and his movie not receive the same consideration?

Below I have provided the text of e-mail that I sent. You can find the e-mail addresses of the distributors and theaters that have decided and to promote and show the film as well as those considering showing the movie at the Stop Micheal Moore web site. Brief, polite and to the point e-mails should prove most effective.

Sample e-mails:

[To a theater in your city that is undecided]:

Subject: Please show Fahrenheit 9/11

I am writing to ask you to show Michael Moore's film "Fahrenheit 9/11." I realize that an organized campaign to intimidate theaters that plan to show this movie has already started and I hope that theaters and distributors will stand up to right-wing pressure tactics. I am an avid movie-goer and I often see movies in the AMC 1000 Van Ness and AMC Kabuki theaters in San Francisco. I am looking forward to seeing this movie and appreciate businesses that uphold and practice freedom of speech.

[To a theater or distributor that has started to promote the film]:

Subject: Fahrenheit 9/11 thank you!

Thank you for promoting Michael Moore's film "Fahrenheit 9/11" I am glad that theaters and distributors are standing up to right-wing pressure tactics. I am looking forward to seeing this movie and appreciate businesses that uphold and practice freedom of speech.

Thursday, June 03, 2004

Who was Martin Niemöller and why should you care?

Mini-Biography and Bibliography

   In Germany they came first for the Communists and I didn't speak up
because I wasn't a Communist. Then they came for the Jews and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant. Then the came for me--and by that time no one was left to speak up. *

Martin Niemöller 1892-1984.

I have noticed that this quote comes up frequently in discussions about Intellectual Freedom issues and therefore provide this background:

The son of a pastor, a U-Boat Captain (WWI) and later a pastor in a comfortable Berlin Suburb in the 1930s Niemöller did not start out as a great advocate for intellectual freedom. He initially supported Hitler but quickly grew disillusioned. Although arrested by the Gestapo in 1937 for his open opposition to Hitler and incarcerated in Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps, he nonetheless berated himself for not doing more, as in the quote above.

His accomplishments include:

  • Founded "Confessing Church" part of the larger Lutheran Reformed Church of Germany.
  • Founded the Pfarrernotbund (Pastors' Emergency League) During the 1930s.
  • Partly responsible for the "Stuttgarter Schuldbekenntnis"
    ("Stuttgart Confession of Guilt") acknowledging the German People's collective guilt for the Holocaust
  • President of the World Council of Churches (1961-1968)

He became unpopular with many Western political leaders for his outspoken pacificism: he preached reconciliation and disarmament throughout the post-war years.

The quote above serves as a rallying cry for intellectual freedom advocates and the most eloquent justification for defending the free speech rights individuals and groups that many in society regard with contempt (i.e.: the KKK, Larry Flynt, Oliver North, to name a few).

A further note about the quote: This quote appears in a number of wordings in various sources. Niemöller gave hundreds of speeches and talks in his post-war travels and often concluded his speaking engagements in the United States with these words. Thus, he may have changed the wording somewhat from one speech to the next. I have yet to find an original source for any of Niemöller's exact wordings. Bartlett's Familiar Quotations (from which I derive the wording above) does not cite an exact source, but renders the note: "attributed."

Yet another note about the quote: several people have e-mailed me with the citation from the Congressional Record. This is the only instance of Niemöller's name occuring in that source. I checked the reference. Unfortunately, Niemöller never addressed the U.S. Congress. The quote comes from a Representative parapharasing Niemöller and not the man himself and thus an authoritative "single, correct" version of these famous words continues to elude us.


Bartlett, John, 1820-1905. Familiar quotations : a collection of passages, phrases, and proverbs traced to their sources in ancient and modern literature / John Bartlett ; Justin Kaplan, general editor. 16th ed. (Boston : Little, Brown, 1992) p.684:19

Vom U-Boot zur Kanzel (1934; From U-Boat to Pulpit). [His Autobiography]

Exile in the Fatherland : Martin Niemöller's letters from Moabit Prison / Translated by Ernst Kaemke, et al (Grand Rapids, MI : Eerdmans, 1986)

D. Schmid. Pastor Niemöller (Eng. trans., 1959)

C. Start-Davidson God's Man (1959).

"Niemöller, (Friedrich Gustav Emil) Martin" Encyclopedia Britannica Online

William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall the Third Reich (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1960) p.234-239.

Many thanks to Ann Hotta of Graduate Theological Union (Berkeley, CA) for her asssistance in the research for this page.