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The phenomenon of Fahrenheit 9/11

After countless imperialist wars, is a sea-change coming?

By Deirdre Griswold

Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" has made it out of the art theaters and become a huge box office hit, even though the Disney Corp. did everything it could to torpedo the documentary. This alone makes it important to evaluate the film and try to understand why it has penetrated what is commonly called "popular culture"--which 99 percent of the time is in a politically conservative mold shaped by giant corporate institutions.

Across the country--and, indeed, in much of the world--this film seems to have fallen like rain on a cultural landscape thirsting for the unvarnished truth. People are clamoring to see it--from Joplin, Mo., to Crawford, Texas, to cities in Australia and U.S. Army bases in South Korea.

Go to Google News and type in "Fah ren heit 9/11" and you will read reviews from hundreds of small-town newspapers across the U.S. Most report a standing ovation and cheers when the film ends. Audiences laugh and cry, and few are unmoved.

In Joplin, Mo., 60 people signed a petition to their local theater demanding it be shown. In Crawford, Texas--where Bush has his "ranch"--nearby movie houses are afraid to offend the don, but local peace activists intend to show it outdoors, on the side of a barn. They don't have a building large enough for the expected crowd.

Audiences go far beyond those already opposed to Bush and the war. Dale Earn hardt Jr., the NASCAR racing-car icon, took his crew to see the movie. It is especially popular in towns near military bases. Republicans are being offered free admission in some areas to test their faith in Bush.

The last time a cultural work evoked this much interest and passion from the "silent majority" in the U.S. was the 1850s, when Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was published and soon began outselling the Bible. In 1856, 2 million copies of this anti-slavery novel were sold. Families gathered at the end of the day on farms and in cities in the U.S. North, reading it aloud and weeping. The book was banned in the South--just to have a copy was illegal. It was soon translated into 13 languages. Its impact on the people of Britain is said to have helped deter London from entering the Civil War on the side of the Confederacy.

As with Moore's film, one can be highly critical of "Uncle Tom's Cabin"--especially today, when its stereotypes of African Americans and women, as well as its religiosity and sentimentality, are so jarring. But africaonline.com makes this very thoughtful and objective summary of the book: "The cry that Stowe had hoped to sound about African Americans was indeed heard, and while Uncle Tom's Cabin did perpetuate cultural stereotypes of African Americans, it also turned the tide of public opinion against slavery in the United States."

When he finally met her in 1862, Pre sident Abraham Lincoln is reported to have called Stowe "the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war." Of course, the freedom struggle of Black people over generations is completely ignored in Lincoln's patronizing phrase.

"Fahrenheit 9/11" is also stamped with many of the prejudices and misconceptions of the present day. Like Stowe's book, it too seems to address itself primarily to whites and be most interested in their consciousness. We can safely assume that Michael Moore, also author of the highly successful book "Stupid White Men," knowingly panders to prejudices to get his message across to this audience. He recently wrote an opinion piece urging the anti-war movement to wrap itself in the U.S. flag: "For too long now we have abandoned our flag to those who see it as a symbol of war and dominance, as a way to crush dissent at home." ("The Patriot's Act," Los Angeles Times, July 4)

But the flag IS the symbol of the U.S. state. And the U.S. IS an imperialist country that has run roughshod over much of the world. That's why burning the U.S. flag has become commonplace. Nothing short of a revolution to overturn capitalist exploitation and oppression will change this--and the revolution will have its own flag.

Perhaps the film's biggest flaw is in how it treats the relationship between the Bushes and the Saudi rulers. It presents a real "wag the dog" interpretation of history. The implication is that the Saudis, with their oil wealth, run U.S. foreign policy--especially through the Bush family. Of course, this is very popular among millions of people who are hearing of the Bush-Saudi connection for the first time. They have been manipulated to see Iraqis as the "evil ones" responsible for 9/11, the Iraq war and lots more. Now, absolutely shocked to hear that Iraqis weren't responsible for all the deaths and suffering, they can angrily blame other Arabs, the Saudis--as manipulators of the Bush political dynasty.

This explanation may help John Kerry get elected in November, but it doesn't enlighten people about the wiles of the imperialists. The U.S. population has much to learn about how the super-rich right here--not in Saudi Arabia--are adept at creat ing governments and then pretending not to control them. Which, of course, is going on in Iraq right now. It's the immen sely powerful and wealthy U.S. ruling class, with some help from its British allies, that runs Saudi Arabia, and not vice versa.

But, these and other flaws aside, Moore's film has touched a nerve that had seemed to be dead. For, underneath all the details, isn't the real issue the fact that ordinary working people here and in other imperialist countries, who have for the most part gone along with imperialism's conquests, are growing ever more sick and horrified at its effects?

Back in Stowe's time, Northern whites were finding they couldn't escape the horrors of chattel slavery. Under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, African Americans who had managed to escape from the South, some helped by the Underground Rail way, were pursued and dragged back to a ghastly fate. Battles erupted in Northern cities as the Abolitionists, some former slaves themselves, fought the bounty hunters in the streets.

At the same time, slavery was a potent threat to free workers trying to earn a living wage. In his famous trilogy "Capital," Karl Marx addressed these workers with the warning: "Labor with a white skin cannot emancipate itself where labor with a black skin is branded." The workers' organizations in Europe that he helped found strongly supported the anti-slavery struggle in the United States, and some of his followers even came here to fight for the Union in the Civil War.

Today, workers in the developed imperialist countries find that, in this now thoroughly global economy, they have to compete with the starvation wages prevalent in countries caught in the coils of modern-day slavery: capitalist imperialism, the global rule of the huge banks and corporations.

At the same time, those here fighting hardest against sweatshops and poverty wages often come from countries where intol erable conditions created by these same corporations are forcing millions to emigrate. They are today's fugitive slaves, and they are now living all over this country.

All this is going on while imperialist wars are raging in Iraq and Afghanistan and young workers here have to choose bet ween dead-end jobs, prison or the military.

At some point, there must be a sea-change in the attitude of the more conservatized workers here, a realization that their enemies are not abroad but are in the boardrooms and mansions at home. Moore's film may not draw out all the right lessons, but its immense popularity shows that anger and distrust of the rich and powerful, personified by the Bush-Cheney gang, are reaching the boiling point.

The millionaires are starting to realize this, too, and are now throwing their money at Kerry. But since he'd be the richest president ever, and one pledged to continuing and even escalating the occupation of Iraq, his election would be unlikely to do more than delay the inevitable: an all-out revolt against the modern-day slavemasters.

Reprinted from the July 29, 2004, issue of Workers World newspaper
This article is copyrighted under a Creative Commons License.
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