Accepted at face value, Michael Moore’s 2004 film Fahrenheit 9/11 would be a devastating indictment of President George W. Bush and his administration. In fact, the documentary is riddled with factual inaccuracies and deliberate deceptions that undermine the director’s basic argument. Numerous conservative commentators, anxious to defend the administration, have eagerly exposed these flaws, using them as evidence that the intellectual basis of the anti-war movement is fundamentally unsound. While many of the errors and deceits in Fahrenheit 9/11 are quite real, and in several cases unethical, conservative critiques of these shortcomings have been dominated by Iraq war apologists who skillfully insert their political talking points into film reviews. I would like to redress this situation by critiquing the critiques of Fahrenheit 9/11 and distinguishing the film’s genuine flaws from valid assertions.
I will examine the most thorough compilation of Fahrenheit’s errors, that of conservative commentator Dave Kopel, who lists over fifty alleged deceits on his website. Kopel defines a “deceit” as something that causes one “to accept as true or valid what is false or invalid.” This definition admits considerable variance of opinion, since intelligent people may disagree on the criteria for truth and validity. Nonetheless, many of the “deceits” on Kopel’s list do show a deliberate attempt by Moore to give the viewer an impression that was contrary to the facts that were at his disposal. This is eminently the case when editing takes a statement or event out of context to create an opposite meaning. Kopel’s convincing arguments on the clear incidents of deception enable him to elide into more dubious cases where Moore’s only crime is presenting a point of view different from the conservative reference frame that Kopel uses as the measure of truth, dismissing other opinions a priori. His bias is espcially pronounced on matters obliquely related to Israel, which he uncritically defends, and in his characterization of opponents of the Iraq war as “pro-Saddam.” As these biases are common to the pro-war movement, it will be fruitful to address these and other neoconservative assumptions as I distinguish Fahrenheit’s genuine deceptions from mere differences of opinion.
Moore indeed deceives the audience early in the film through a clever combination of images and narration that give the impression that Al Gore was celebrating a victory he believed he had won. I found this a surprising revelation when I saw the film, and only later did I learn this was a deception.
In a second deceit, Moore strongly implies that the other networks reversed their election verdicts only because the conservative Fox network did so first. This was contrary to my recollection of things, so I was surprised to see this in the film. Surely enough, CNN and CBS, not Fox, were the first to retract their call for Gore, which is what threw the election in doubt in the public eye. When most people went to sleep, the election was undecided. At 2:16 AM, Fox was the first to project Bush as the winner, as did others within minutes, since they were working from the same data. Since Fox did declare Bush first, Moore did not lie outright, but made a highly misleading deception.
Verdict: Both 1 & 2 were deceits.
Moore claims that Gore would have won the election under every recount scenario. In fact, there are numerous scenarios in which Bush could have emerged the winner in Florida, including those sought by Gore and the Florida Supreme Court. Moore’s claim is an outright falsehood and probable lie, as Moore had to have known better.
Verdict: Deceit 3 was a blatant falsehood, and probable lie.
Moore claims that Florida’s purge of convicted felons from the polls was racially motivated. Kopel naively contends that voters were not eliminated from the rolls on the basis of race, but on a race-blind system that eliminated convicted felons. This argument ignores the well-known fact that felony convictions are not race-neutral, but heavily skewed towards black men. Whether this race disparity is due to racism in our justice system or some other reason is immaterial to the question. The fact is that any reasonably smart people who wanted to reduce the influence of the overwhelmingly Democratic black vote would know that purging felons from the rolls would be an effective way to do this. Similarly, imposing literacy requirements or poll taxes were ostensibly race-neutral methods used in the Jim Crow era to reduce the black vote.
Granted, Moore cannot prove that the decision to purge felons from the Florida rolls was motivated by race or politics, but it is a reasonable conclusion that he is free to draw without being guilty of deception. It might be misleading to insinuate that the company removing the felons from the rolls is guilty of racism, since in fact this was mandated by Florida law, but it is unclear that Moore makes that specific accusation.
Verdict: Not a deceit by any politically-neutral measure.
I actually discern two distinct deceits here. First is the blatant falsehood about Bush’s limousine being pelted with eggs and not being able to conduct the traditional walk to the White House.
Second is Moore’s use of Bush’s now infamous “haves and have-mores” quote, which seemed like a damning indictment of the president, yet in fact it was part of an extended self-parody for a Catholic charity. This misuse of editing violates the basic trust of the audience.
One could make a similar criticism of Moore’s use of Bush’s statement that “a dictatorship would be easier,” but that may be exempted if it is common knowledge that this was said as a joke.
Verdict: One falsehood and one deliberate deception.
Moore claims Bush was on vacation 42% of the time, citing the Washington Post. There is nothing deceitful in simply citing the newspaper’s figure. Kopel has a problem with the 42% figure, but that would be a deception by the Post, not Moore. Kopel argues that Bush’s vacation time was mischaracterized since much work was accomplished during that time, yet this is a matter on which reasonable people can disagree, since we don’t have the data necessary to examine Bush’s time management in great detail. Thus portrayals of Bush as primarily loafing or working during his vacations are both valid. To accuse Moore of deception on points like this would needlessly stifle diversity of opinion.
Moore omits the context of Bush’s “watch this drive” response to a terrorism question while playing golf. This is not a deception, since the context does not affect Moore’s use of the quote. It matters not a whit that the terrorists in question were attacking Israel, since Moore’s point remains the same: the president is able to juxtapose the “war on terror” with idle leisure. Kopel’s preoccupation with Israeli concerns interferes with his judgment here.
A more substantial criticism of Moore’s point is: so what? As Christopher Hitchens has noted, this is to be expected when a president is asked questions on a golf course. More revealing was Bill Clinton’s recollection of how he drove golf balls while he awaited news of Yitzhak Rabin’s death. Not being a golfer myself, I tend to regard it as a purely frivolous activity, but Clinton’s example helps me understand that for others it can have a meditative, therapeutic value, and perhaps this is true for Bush. Moore, and many of his viewers, may be wrong in their interpretation of Bush’s golf activities, but this isn’t the result of any artistic deception. It is a result of the viewer’s pre-conceived notion that golfing is incompatible with grave responsibility.
Moore is giving a quick overview of the early Bush presidency, and makes a narrative transition, “It was a summer to remember. And when it was over, he left Texas for his second favorite place.” Kopel points out that this is not literally accurate, but that seems a bit pedantic.
Verdict: I found no deceptions here.
Finding no fault with Moore’s depiction of September 11 in the movie, Kopel feels a need to cite other Michael Moore quotes that, in his view, show insensitivity or belittle the importance of the tragedy. Even if we accepted Kopel’s critique of these statements as valid, there is no basis for accusing Moore of deception in the movie. As Kopel admits, Moore lost a professional colleague in the attacks, so it seems off-base to accuse him of being insincerely horrified by the disaster. Insufficient zeal for President Bush’s “war on terror” does not make one an insensitive monster. War ideologues seem unable to grasp that a person can oppose the “war on terror” as it is presently conducted and still be appalled by terrorism. Moore’s position is problematic to Kopel’s world-view, so he is forced to accuse the filmmaker of insincerity.
Verdict: No deception or insincerity.
This is a scene that I found valuable to the public discourse. It is raw footage of the president’s reaction to a national disaster, and admits of a variety of interpretations. If, as Kopel maintains, there was nothing shameful about Bush’s behavior immediately after he learned of the second terrorist strike, it is difficult to understand why he would consider this footage a “cheap shot.” Why cite people’s opinions about whether Bush acted rightly, when the audience can judge for themselves? Whether Bush was calm and composed, or merely confused and scared, is subjective. The president is prone to having dopey facial expressions, so he is hard to read. I also fail to understand why we should be reassured that the White House press secretary, Ari Fleischer, was flashing a legal pad reading, “Don’t say anything yet.” Does the president customarily follow instructions from his press secretary in moments of crisis? Whatever the merits or demerits of President Bush’s course of action, these are open to discussion, and Moore is free to narrate his comic opinion over the raw footage of a public appearance without being guilty of a cheap shot.
Verdict: No cheap shot, just good clean fun.
My question about the Paul Wolfowitz comb-licking shot and similar footage is: why do they record this stuff? I’m very fussy about how I’m seen in public, and I wouldn’t let anyone point a camera at me unless I was impeccable. Yes, everyone has bad hygiene moments, but Wolfowitz’s behavior was especially disgusting, and funny. He smiled about it, so I don’t see why he’d be too embarrassed. Is it unfair to insinuate that Wolfowitz is a bad person because he licks his comb? Yes, but I’m not sure that this insinuation was made, except independently in the minds of some audience members. The footage seems to have been used for comedic effect, and to demystify the aura surrounding our leaders by showing them unrehearsed, in all their frail humanity. It was enlightening to those of us who don’t get to meet these people personally. Nonetheless, this was footage that was not meant to be used, so some implicit confidentiality agreement was broken somewhere along the line, making this a cheap shot.
Verdict: A cheap shot, but not without some redeeming merit.
Moore says of Bush, “Or perhaps he just should have read the security briefing that was given to him on August 6, 2001 that said that Osama bin Laden was planning to attack America by hijacking airplanes.” This is not necessarily an assertion that Bush did not read the briefing, but could also be a sarcastic remark referencing the fact that he was given such a briefing but inexplicably did not act on it.
The claim “that the memo’s title was offered as an excuse for not reading the memo” is obviously a sarcastic comment, so it is absurd to regard this as a deceit.
More substantially, Moore deliberately omits the fact that the contents of the memo were considerably more equivocal than the title. Omitting evidence that is unfavorable to your position is unscholarly, but is it deception? Moore could argue that the equivocal content of the memo is not sufficiently muted to override the alarm raised in the title. Whatever the ultimate merits of that position may be, it is a defensible one. We would be demanding a very high standard if we treated mere omission of unfavorable evidence as deception. As long as such omission does not change the meaning of the evidence that is presented, one is not guilty of deceit, but merely flawed argument. Kopel here seems to confuse identifying deceptions in the film with constructing counter-arguments. Fahrenheit neither affirms nor denies that the PDB’s contents were equivocal, but correctly states that the title was explicit. Someone building an argument must make judgments about which facts are relevant, and Moore considers the title to be relevant. Similarly, a conservative apologist would maintain that the title should be ignored and we should focus on the content. Decisions about which facts to include are shaped by one’s subjective point of view, and Kopel faults Moore for having the “wrong” point of view. Even if he is wrong, being wrong is not the same as being deceitful.
Verdict: No deception.
Moore definitely misleads his audience into thinking that the Saudis were the only ones allowed to fly on September 13, 2001, even though facts to the contrary had been available for months. Here his omission materially affects the facts he does present, since he tries to show that the Saudis were getting extraordinarily preferential treatment. The Saudi flights took place on September 14 - 24, with the “Bin Laden flight” occurring on September 20.
Moore’s omission of the fact that Richard Clarke authorized the Saudi flights could be relevant on two grounds. First, it could change our perception of Clarke, making him look like more of an insider. This may weaken Moore’s argument, but isn’t really a deception. If Moore’s later depiction of Clarke is misleading because of this omission, we will note it in the appropriate place. Second, having Clarke give the order might seem to exculpate Bush. Of course, we can’t really know, apart from Clarke’s testimony, whether or not he received verbal authorization from the president on this matter. Moore is not obligated to accept Clarke’s testimony on all matters, and it is fallacious to argue that if Clarke lied once, all of his testimony is worthless. At any rate, Moore only says the order came from “the White House” which is certainly true.
Kopel lists one of Moore’s comments in a Jake Tapper interview as a deceit. Since this does not take place in the movie, I will ignore it, since we are not going to expand our discussion to deceits about the movie.
Moore narrates, “But, really, who wanted to fly? No one. Except the Bin Ladens.” To regard this as a lie, or even a deceit, is to fail to grasp the concept of sarcasm.
Verdict: Only the first of these four is a real deceit.
Moore correctly states that James Bath, who had managed Bin Laden family investments, invested in Bush’s Arbusto company. There is no direct evidence that Bin Laden money went into Arbusto. Moore presents the Bath connection to arouse our suspicion, but he makes no false assertions. Even if Moore is ultimately wrong in his apparent belief that Bin Laden money went into Arbusto, he is not thereby guilty of deception, as he has not declared anything beyond the evidence.
Moore insinuates that Bush’s National Guard Record had James Bath’s name blacked out for nefarious reasons, when in fact this was required by new HIPAA privacy regulations. I don’t expect Moore to have known this, in which case he drew a false inference that was reasonable based on his limited knowledge.
Verdict: One false implication (deception if done knowingly).
Moore fails to point out that Prince Bandar has been bipartisan in his political and financial support. Nonetheless, Bandar’s relationship with the Bushes seems to have been considerably more intimate than with other American politicians, so Moore is not wrong to raise this concern. Since it is not clear what false or invalid belief Moore is encouraging us to hold, I cannot call this a deception. Just because Democrats are also friendly with Prince Bandar, that should not diminish our concern that the Bushes may be compromised.
Verdict: No deception.
Moore accuses Bush of insider trading when he sold $848,000 worth of Harken stock two months before the company lost $23 million dollars. This is a reasonable inference for someone with a cursory knowledge of the facts. More detailed analysis of SEC records shows much evidence in support of Bush’s innocence. Of course, Moore suggests “Bush beat the rap from the SEC,” so he would not trust the SEC’s findings. Once again, Kopel confuses faulty argument with deceit. Even if Moore is wrong on this issue, he is not thereby deceitful. The facts he presents are accurate and he acknowledges that the SEC exonerated Bush but thinks that is evidence of favoritism. We may contend that Moore’s position is unreasonable or uninformed, but that alone does not qualify as deception.
Verdict: No deception, just faulty argument.
Moore makes much of the Bushes’ involvement in the Carlyle Group. Kopel, quoting Michael Isikoff in Newsweek, counters that the Bush administration’s cancellation of the Crusader weapons system shows it is not unduly influenced by the Carlyle Group. This is a good counter-argument, but it does nothing to show Moore is being deceitful. Kopel has lost sight of his original intent and is now just arguing against the movie.
Similarly, omission of the fact that George Soros and some Democrats are in the Carlyle Group may have some merit as a counter-argument, but Moore is not necessarily deceitful in omitting this. His concern is with Bush, who might be abusing his presidential power, and not with those who have no presidential power to abuse.
Neglecting to mention that the Bin Ladens withdrew before Carlyle’s public offering of United Defense is materially misleading, and thus a deception.
The $1.4 billion figure is misleading, but this is because of Moore’s source, Craig Unger, who includes Saudi investments in BDM, which was sold by Carlyle before Bush Sr. joined the board. The deception, if there is any, is not on the part of Moore.
Kopel speculates that Bush could have legitimate reasons for requesting CIA briefings, but this does not show deceit in Moore’s film.
Verdict: I found only one deception here.
Moore is not an expert on Saudi investment in the U.S., so he asks Craig Unger for a figure, and the response is “as high as $860 billion.” Kopel then argues that this figure has no factual basis, and that the true figure is between $500 billion and $700 billion. Aside from the trivialness of this discrepancy, once again Kopel is merely arguing with the movie, and not showing acts of deception by the filmmaker.
Moore then asks, “What percentage of our economy is that?” Unger answers, “Well, in terms of investments in Wall Street, American equities, it’s roughly six or seven percent of America.” Unger’s statement is accurate, though it perhaps is not an answer to Moore’s question. Unger states that Saudi investments are 6 or 7 percent of Wall Street investments, which is correct, since $860 billion is about 7 percent of $12 trillion, the capitalization value of the New York Stock Exchange. Kopel counters that this is not the entirety of the nation’s wealth, as it does not include real estate, privately owned businesses, etc. True enough, but that is not what Unger is stating, nor claims to be stating. He chooses to restrict himself to Wall Street since Saudi investments are not principally in real estate or privately owned businesses. Whether we consider this a useful measure or not is irrelevant, for Unger is accurate and explicit about what his statement signifies.
Verdict: No deception.
A security officer tells Moore that the Secret Service does not usually guard foreign embassies. This is correct, as anyone who visits Washington should know. All the foreign embassies I have seen did not have Secret Service protection the way this Saudi embassy did, and I certainly was not forbidden to approach the embassy. Kopel quotes Debbie Schlussel, who makes this misleading statement: “Any tourist to Washington, DC, will see plenty of Secret Service Police guarding all of the other foreign embassies which request such protection.” The operative clause is “which request such protection.” Most embassies do not request such protection, so the statement in Fahrenheit 9/11 is correct. Nonetheless, it is misleading to suggest the Saudis in particular are being singled out for special treatment.
Verdict: This is a deception.
There is no specific accusation of deceit here, only a counter-argument to Moore’s contention that the Bushes are unduly influenced by the Saudis. Kopel’s difference with Moore on this point seems to be only a matter of degree.
Kopel also goes off on a bizarre tangent about how Michael Moore is anti-Israel (having earlier made a similar charge against Jimmy Carter!), and then appallingly defends the killing of Rachel Corrie by an Israeli bulldozer as an act against an accomplice to terrorism. Not only is Kopel blinded by his militant Zionism, but he introduces it at the most inappropriate places.
Verdict: No deception.
Moore does not state, but implies, that Bush met with the Taliban. This is certainly misleading.
Failure to mention that the Unocal deal was abandoned in 1998 is a serious omission, though Moore is not alone in this failing.
Moore ought to have mentioned that the 2003 protocol is for a completely different pipeline than in the 1998 deal.
As of 2004, construction on the new pipeline had not begun. Footage shown of a pipeline being constructed has nothing to do with either the 1998 or 2003 proposals.
Moore claims that Enron would have benefited from the pipeline, citing the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. Even if this turns out to be erroneous, that hardly makes Moore a deceiver.
Moore’s assertion that Hamid Karzai was a former Unocal consultant comes from Le Monde. Kopel complains that Le Monde provides no backup (did he ask for any?), and notes that Unocal denies this. This is an open question, and Moore could not be accused of deceit on this matter even if he turns out to be erroneous.
Verdict: Four deceptions can be found here.
In March 2001, a Taliban envoy visited the U.S. seeking to improve the image of his government. Moore fails to note that the Bush administration rebuffed his requests and refused to recognize his government, and instead implies that the administration was sympathetic to the envoy.
Verdict: This is a deception.
Here Kopel criticizes Moore for apparently changing his position on Afghanistan. This may be legitimate criticism, but it is of Moore and not his film. If the film claimed that Michael Moore had never opposed the Afghanistan war, Kopel would have a point. Otherwise, we’re no longer discussing the movie.
Verdict: No deception, since we’re not talking about the film.
Quoting Christopher Hitchens in Slate, Kopel seems to be saying that Moore’s omission of facts in Afghanistan unfavorable to his argument qualifies as a deception. All but the most scrupulous scholars do this all the time. Conservative apologists do it when they insist that we focus on the good that happens in Afghanistan and dismiss the bad as insignificant or growing pains.
Verdict: No deception, just difference of perspective.
Moore juxtaposes quotes to make it seem as if Bush is contradicted by Commission Chairman Thomas Kean, who complains the administration has been uncooperative. Kean’s statement was made in July 2003, while Bush spoke in February 2004, after the administration had become considerably more cooperative.
Fahrenheit correctly states that John Ashcroft lost to a candidate, Mel Carnahan, who was quite dead on Election Day. Kopel, quoting the Chicago Sun-Times, says this is misleading, because voters knew they were actually voting for Carnahan’s widow, Jean. Since Jean Carnahan was a political non-entity, it is quite obvious that swing votes for her were either sympathy votes for the late Mel Carnahan, or votes against John Ashcroft. Ashcroft still effectively lost to a dead guy. Even if viewers of Fahrenheit didn’t know about Jean Carnahan, they can probably figure out that someone else would be appointed in place of the deceased. That a non-politician was able to win made the victory more remarkable.
Verdict: No deception. The only thing worse than losing to a dead guy is losing to his politically inexperienced widow.
In Fahrenheit, the Justice Department’s prior knowledge of al-Qaeda flight training is exaggerated. Former acting FBI Director Thomas Pickard did testify that Ashcroft did not want to hear about terrorism in general, but the flight school activity is said not to have reached even Pickard’s level. Moore’s main point that Ashcroft was negligent in monitoring terrorism is still valid, but he exaggerates on the details. Kopel can only offer the weak defense that Ashcroft denied the charge (obviously) and the 9/11 commission could not determine who was telling the truth (unsurprisingly), and he ludicrously faults Moore for failing to speculate that Pickard may have been trying to deflect blame. It is not Moore’s responsibility to make his opponent’s argument.
Kopel corrects Moore by clarifying that Ashcroft did not really cut the FBI’s counter-terrorism budget, but merely rejected several proposed increases. It is actually quite common in Washington budget-speak to refer to a rejected increase as a cut, just as in business a lower than expected gain is often regarded as a loss. For example, if the government made the disastrous decision of not giving at least a 3% increase to the annual NIH budget, this would certainly be regarded as a budget cut, and many projects would have to be scaled down or terminated. Though the use of the term “cut” is technically inaccurate, there is some real truth in the sense of the term if the increase is really needed. Since Ashcroft consistently rejected necessary increases in counter-terrorism funding, Moore is not out of bounds in calling this a “cut”, and his point that Ashcroft treated counter-terrorism as a low priority is unchanged by substituting the more accurate phrase “rejection of proposed increase.”
Verdict: One exaggeration, and one technical inaccuracy.
Moore, no less than his detractors, can be pedantic and nitpicky when it suits him. Moore denies that Rep. Porter Goss has an “800 number” to report problems with the USA PATRIOT Act. He does not explain that there is such a toll-free number, but it has an 877 prefix. Moore exploits this trivial distinction to brand Goss as a liar, in an astonishing display of his willingness to abuse the audience’s trust.
Verdict: A gross deception.
The Oregon troopers scene is a substantial deceit, since it pretends to show that Bush is unconcerned with homeland security. Kopel points out that Oregon State Troopers are funded by the State of Oregon, not the federal government. This is common knowledge, so Moore is not derelict in omitting this fact. Furthermore, states are generally dependent on the federal government for auxiliary funding, and homeland security is one area where it should be easier to successfully claim such aid. More pertinent is the fact that it is not the state troopers’ responsibility to defend the coast. That function is quite adequately fulfilled by the Department of Defense.
Verdict: A substantial deceit.
Fahrenheit states that Iraq had never attacked nor threatened to attack the United States, nor had it ever “murdered a single American citizen.” These are sensitive points, since much rhetoric about the war hinges upon whether Iraq was a threat. Moore’s point is that the United States invasion of Iraq was unprovoked, and while Kopel may find fault with Moore’s “hyper-legal” use of the term “murdered,” Kopel is equally pedantic in pointing out offenses committed by the Hussein regime that are not normally considered an “attack” by an entire nation.
Harboring prominent Arab terrorists after the fact does not constitute an attack on the United States, nor does offering a reward to suicide bombers in Israel. Despite Kopel’s feverishly pro-Israel rhetoric, many of the terrorists that Saddam supported were considered heroes in a Palestinian nationalist cause. This is not the place to enter a discussion whether the Jews had a right to expel or overrun Arab Palestinians in 1948 and 1967. It suffices to observe that opposing Israel does not constitute an attack on the United States.
It is true that Saddam provided a safe haven for the 1993 WTC bombmaker, giving Moore’s claim that Iraq never murdered a single American citizen a somewhat hollow ring. Moore would probably not hesitate to blame the United States for crimes committed by regimes our government knowingly supported, and rightfully so, since to knowingly support murderers is to be an accessory to murder. Not only was Saddam an accessory after the fact to the murder of American citizens, but he attempted an assassination of George Bush, Sr. Moore’s statement is technically correct, but misleading in spirit. One can reasonably argue that Saddam’s Iraq was a negligible threat to the U.S., but Moore overstates the case.
Kopel contends that Iraqi resistance to the “no-fly” zones over its own territory constituted acts of aggression. These zones were imposed with the explicit aim of limiting the Iraqi regime’s ability to subdue the Kurds and Shiites, thus Iraq was responding to a direct infringement of its sovereignty. Only convoluted logic could make firing at U.S. aircraft in Iraqi airspace an act of Iraqi aggression.
Iraqi rewards to families of suicide bombers might be construed as assisting murder before the fact. Kopel neglects to mention that Saddam established this system in an attempt to win popularity in the mainstream Arab world. Kopel’s Israeli-centric view forces him to demonize anyone who would advocate violent resistance to Israel’s expulsion and subjugation of Palestinian Arabs. The Palestinian question is much more complex than Kopel’s Manichaean world-view would have us believe.
Verdict: One deceit (though technically accurate).
Kopel increasingly exposes his right-wing extremism as he tries to substantiate an Al-Qaeda-Iraq connection long after even the Bush administration has learned better. Calling Moore “pro-Saddam” for accurately stating that the dictator “never threatened to attack the United States,” Kopel’s tone shifts as it is clear we are entering a sensitive zone upon which his Iraq paradigm depends.
Kopel cites Iraqi rhetoric threatening U.S. and British military and diplomatic assets in 1997. If these constituted threats to attack these two countries, neither interpreted it as such at the time. The intelligence community understands the difference between lurid rhetorical bluster (common in Arab culture) and substantive threats.
The previously mentioned harboring of terrorists is re-introduced here. Harboring terrorists after the fact, though deplorable, does not constitute a threat to attack the United States. Nor does rewarding the families of suicide bombers whose primary target is Israel, and only incidentally kill American citizens.
The idea that resisting the no-fly zones constitutes an aggressive act is laughable, unless one arrogantly accepts that the U.S. and Britain have a greater right to Iraqi airspace than Iraq.
Planning to buy missiles from North Korea might make Iraq regionally dangerous, as would chemical weapons, but that would not mean Iraq threatened to attack the United States. France and Britain have far more terrible weapons, but they are not therefore considered threats. Saddam had only used chemical weapons against the Kurds and the Iranians, and never received more than a wrist slap from the U.S. at the time. The right wing hypocritically invokes these same acts that they tolerated at the time as a reason for invasion 15 years later. The intellectual and ethical bankruptcy of neo-conservatism could hardly be better illustrated.
At any rate, our role here is not to make arguments and counter-arguments. It suffices to show that Moore’s position is defensible, and he is not guilty of any deception. It can be plausibly maintained that Iraq did not “threaten to attack the United States” in any of the usual senses of the phrase.
Verdict: No deception, just a case of having the “wrong” opinion.
Kopel continues to squander whatever intellectual credibility he earned earlier, as he enters the realm of extreme right wing lunacy by insisting that there really was a connection between Iraq and al Qaeda. This sorry state of denial is truly pitiful, as even the Bush administration has long abandoned this position.
The basis for this conspiracy theory is semi-reliable intelligence on intermittent contacts between al-Qaeda operatives and Iraqi intelligence. Requests for aid by Iraq were often rebuffed, and despite some apparently “friendly contacts” the two entities were understandably mistrustful of each other, having serious political and religious differences. Al-Qaeda members and other Islamic militants rejoiced at the fall of Saddam’s secularist regime, and have resurged in power where they were once brutally repressed. It is unlikely in the extreme that the paranoid Saddam would give al-Qaeda weapons powerful enough to threaten his own regime, much less the United States. Even if he were that foolish, he no longer had the capacity to make WMDs, as the Bush administration admits.
Yet we do not need to refute the al-Qaeda-Iraq conspiracy theory in order to show that Moore is not deceitful on this point. His position is defensible, since he is merely following the conclusion of the bipartisan 9/11 commission, which determined that there was no “collaborative operational relationship” between Iraq and al-Qaeda to conduct attacks against the U.S.
Undaunted, Kopel proudly affirms that no-one can deny that there was some relationship between al-Qaeda and Iraq. No kidding. Just like there was some relationship between Truman and Stalin, whom he called “Uncle Joe.” But I wouldn’t make too much of that either. Any two entities that come in contact with each other have a relationship, but what kind? Since Michael Moore is eminently discussing the threat Iraq posed to the United States, the only kind of relationship between Iraq and al-Qaeda that would be relevant would be precisely the kind that the 9/11 commission and every semi-objective observer since then has denied to have existed.
Moore edits a Condoleeza Rice quote of context to make it look as though she does believe Iraq had something to do with 9/11. I don’t know why Kopel would have a problem with this, since he finds nothing embarrassing about holding similar views himself. Nonetheless, Moore’s use of the Rice quotation is another abuse of his audience’s trust. Which is a shame, since the unedited Rice quote would have been just as easy to lampoon. Basically, it’s the administration’s current face-saving position that although Iraq had nothing to do operationally with 9/11, in some vague ideological sense all the Arab bad guys are united, so Iraq is central to the war on terror, etc. It’s the domino theory all over again.
Verdict: Only one deception here.
Kopel thinks it is deceitful for Moore to show happy Iraqis before the war. This is just silly. Requiring Moore to show exclusively negative depictions of pre-war Iraq is to insist that he make a war propaganda film. Aside from his ignorant assumption that all insurgents are murderers/terrorists (I guess Arabs should be happy to live under the enlightened tutelage of Americans, and just submit in docility), Kopel refuses to allow Moore to select images that reflect any view that is unfavorable to the war party line on Iraq. Everyone already knows that Saddam committed atrocities, but Moore does what Kopel steadfastly refuses to do: he humanizes the supposed enemy, and shows that even in an awful regime, people can have relatively ordinary lives and even experience joy. Thus even the toppling of a bad regime must be weighed against the destruction and disruption of daily life for the vast majority. This is why the Catholic Church, for example, has consistently opposed revolutions, even against regimes that were notoriously corrupt. Whatever the limitations this line of argument may have, Moore has a right to make it artistically. To characterize this as a deceit reflects a petulant intolerance of dissent. It also reflects a refusal to come to grips with the moral implications of civilian casualties of U.S. bombing, which Kopel insists should be blamed on Saddam (for not preventing the war by disarming weapons he didn’t have) or the insurgents (for having the audacity to resist their benevolent masters).
Verdict: No deception.
It is well established that thousands of Iraqi non-combatants were killed by the bombing in March 2003, and tens of thousands have died violent deaths since then. Moore is not out of line in depicting victims of U.S. bombing. I cannot discern an actual reason why Kopel finds this deceitful, other than it doesn’t support his viewpoint. He weakly suggests Moore should have made sure the bomb in question wasn’t Iraqi anti-aircraft fire. This simply evades the argument, which is that U.S. bombs did hit more than a few civilians. Kopel cannot come to grips with any moral ambiguity, so he is forced to illogically blame Baathists and Iraqi insurgents for U.S. bombs, when neither of these groups wanted war with the U.S., and Saddam did everything he could to avoid it so he could remain in power. It is one thing to argue that the war was worth it, despite the civilian casualties, but at least take responsibility for your actions, including its ugly side effects, which were anticipated in advance and taken into consideration as acceptable “collateral damage.” Blaming the enemy for its own casualties is a rhetorical trope as ancient as war, but that doesn’t make it any less absurd. Anyway, Moore is well within the bounds of rational discourse in making his argument and is not guilty of deception in the proper sense.
An Australian filmmaker claims interviews from his documentary were taken out of context. It is unclear whether Moore’s editing materially altered the meaning of the evidence he did present.
Moore’s use of the “Mission Accomplished” speech is not misleading or inappropriate. President Bush himself has admitted that the insurgency was much stronger and prolonged than he had anticipated. This is yet another instance where Kopel’s partisan bias effects a perverse unwillingness to admit error, even long after the relevant facts have been established.
Verdict: No deception, except for possible misuse of Australian footage.
For comic effect, Moore lists the countless minor countries that constitute the “coalition of the willing.” Kopel complains that the major countries are deceitfully omitted. This is baseless, since one could not credibly argue that viewers of Fahrenheit 9/11 did not already know that Britain was a member of the coalition. Facts of common knowledge may be omitted without deceit. Moore focused on the minor countries since, numerically, they constitute the vast majority, and expose how inflated the administration’s claims were about building a broad coalition, especially when we consider the token contributions most countries make. The “coalition of the willing” was put together not for operational purposes, but to save political face for the administration and make them look less alienated from the rest of the world. Moore is actually correcting a deceit here, but Kopel complains, since he values his intractable opinions above factual criteria.
Verdict: No deceit.
The family of Major Gregory Stone was enraged that Moore used footage of his Arlington National Cemetery burial. Their anger stems from the fact that it was used in an anti-conservative, anti-war film. It is not clear that there is any reasonable expectation of privacy at Arlington National Cemetery, so it is hard to call this an invasion of privacy issue. Whether the footage is exploitative is a purely subjective judgment. At any rate, this is a sidebar, unrelated to enumerating deceits.
Moore’s footage of amputee Reservist Peter Damon was used with permission from NBC Nightly News. As angered as the conservative Damon might be that the footage was used by Moore without his permission, he has no basis for an invasion of privacy claim since he agreed to be nationally televised. NBC owns the rights to the footage, so Damon’s permission was not required. Moore is free to use the footage for purposes Damon would find contemptible, and to deny Moore this right would effectively deny liberals the right to use footage of conservatives and vice versa.
Verdict: No invasion of privacy. Whether such footage is exploitative is a purely subjective judgment.
Kopel misconstrues Moore’s depiction of the mainstream media. It is not that they supported Bush or the war in Iraq, but once it was clear that the war was inevitable, they jumped on the patriotic bandwagon and postured as pro-militarists. The timidity of the American media during wartime in the last two decades is obvious in my view. They simply re-state official reports as though they were facts and have very little independent access to the battlefield. Evidently, they were not sycophantic enough for Kopel’s liking, while Moore might have preferred less war cheerleading. All have a right to their opinion, and Moore can hardly be accused of deceit for having different expectations of the media than Kopel.
Verdict: No deceit.
Kopel’s logic is difficult to follow here: Moore is deceptive because he appears to be showing soldiers desecrating a corpse, when in fact the object of their ridicule is a passed out drunk. So the fact that he’s alive makes it less offensive?
More disturbing is Kopel’s attempt to justify the action because it occurs all over the world. Similar logic might excuse some Abu Ghraib abuses since prison guards regularly abuse prisoners in American prisons.
Kopel is correct to criticize Moore’s reasoning that such abuse is the inevitable result of the president’s “immoral act” of initiating an unjust war. Yet Moore’s faulty logic is apparent to any critical observer, so no effective deception is involved here, just a bad argument.
Verdict: No deception.
Moore was misleading, even if accurate, in his statement that Bush was closing veterans’ hospitals, failing to mention that new hospitals were also being created. It is unclear whether this was outright deception or just inadequate research on Moore’s part.
Moore says Bush “tried to double the prescription drug costs for veterans,” by which he means double the co-pay from $7 to $15. This is accurate and not misleading. Kopel declares that such an increase is not significant, but someone making only $24,000 might disagree. At any rate, Moore’s basic point holds, which is that Bush promotes the military only when it is useful to him, but is stingy with benefits.
Bush, according to Moore, “proposed cutting combat soldiers’ pay by 33%.” When I saw the film, I thought it was obvious that this meant special combat pay, not total salary. Kopel thinks otherwise, and accuses Moore of deceit. In April 2003, Congress passed a retroactive increase of $75 to the $150 monthly imminent danger bonus. The administration opposed renewing this increase, and Moore characterizes this as a “cut.” This is not unreasonable, as many regular budget items require congressional renewal, and the default expectation is often that they will be renewed.
Still, the overall line of argument on salary is misleading since it ignores that Bush increased military salaries by 3.7% in 2003. If Moore had access to more obscure data, it is unlikely that he could not have found this basic figure.
Verdict: At least one deceit, implying that overall military pay was cut by Bush. The veteran’s hospital issue is another possible deceit.
Moore says only one congressman had an enlisted son who served in Iraq. Kopel names a second who was deployed in February 2004. This is certainly an inaccuracy, but perhaps only because Moore did not update his research. Kopel suggests Duncan Hunter’s son was deliberately and cunningly omitted because he is an officer, not an “enlisted” man. If that is the case, Moore would be guilty of deceit.
Moore’s failure to include relevant data that would not support his thesis is unscholarly, but not deceptive. He is not required to make his opponent’s argument.
Moore edited his interview with Representative Kennedy, making him look confused and bewildered, when in fact he offered to help Moore and indicated he had a nephew on his way to Afghanistan. This was deliberate deception.
Representative Castle waves Moore off, and Kopel notes that Castle has no children. Judging from the quality of the rest of Moore’s research, I am willing to believe Moore was unaware of this fact.
Moore has not made a solid statistical argument that congressmen are less likely to send their sons to war than other people. Yet that is not essential to his point, for he believes that congressmen who voted for war have a greater responsibility to send their children to war if they are going to expect others to send theirs involuntarily.
I will point out one deception that Kopel did not note, which is simply that nobody can “send” their son to war. Only adults may enlist, and these are free to make their own decisions. A representative’s son is his own man, and his choice to serve or not serve is not necessarily a reflection of his father’s courage or cowardice.
Verdict: One inaccuracy and two deceits.
Lila Lipscomb reads her dead son’s angry letter criticizing President Bush. Kopel points out that her son, Sgt. Michael Pederson, apologized for the letter shortly thereafter. Kopel fails to mention that it was Mrs. Lipscomb who wanted her son to apologize out of respect for the office of the president. Kopel is being deceptive, suggesting that the son repented of his opposition to Bush’s policies.
Moore depicts a confrontation between Mrs. Lipscomb and a passerby, but not their subsequent reconciliation. This is misleading, but not a deception by the standards we defined at the outset.
Kopel’s statistics show that blacks do not suffer disproportionate casualties, though he does not abolish the reality that lower socioeconomic classes bear a disproportionate burden of war.
Verdict: Misleading not to show Mrs. Lipscomb making peace with her heckler.
It is extremely misleading for Moore to repeatedly refer to Flint as his hometown as he shows a depressed, working-class community. In fact, he grew up in the wealthy suburb of Davison which is nothing like Flint. Normally, this level of inaccuracy would not be considered a deceit, but since Moore goes out of his way to use his Flint origins as establishing his working-class credentials, this certainly qualifies as a deceit.
Kopel believes Mrs. Lipscomb is mistaken when she says the unemployed are not counted when they cease to receive benefits. He cites the Bureau of Labor Statistics method of calculating unemployment as evidence. He fails to consider, however, that when a person ceases to receive benefits, the BLS has no way of knowing whether a person is continuing to seek employment, so in practice, many cease to be counted after they stop receiving benefits. There are statistical methods to estimate these uncounted, and so an attempt is made to include them in the unemployment rate. The accuracy of unemployment rates is contestable on this and many other grounds, so no one is to be accused of deception here.
Verdict: It is a deceit for Moore to constantly remind us Flint is his “hometown.”
Aside from the ludicrous rhetorical claim that Representative Jim McDermott is “pro-Saddam” (Wow, you really are “with us or against us!”), Kopel is off-base in dismissing everything McDermott has to say out of hand. McDermott’s statements should be judged on their merits, not on his political affiliation.
McDermott is inaccurate in saying the threat level was raised to red, but that was immaterial to his point, which was simply that the threat level was periodically moved up and down for no apparent reason, and this seemed to be psychologically manipulative. Many mainstream observers made similar comments when mysterious threats were announced and then nothing transpired. What was the public supposed to do when the threat level became orange? Look at their neighbors more suspiciously? Even the administration seemed conflicted on whether it should encourage people to be alert or to carry on their business as usual. Naturally, cynics would question the timing of these alerts as perhaps deflecting from the president’s domestic weaknesses and re-establishing his status as a paternal “war president.” These are debatable opinions, and not to be summarily dismissed as insane ravings.
Verdict: No bonus.
Moore apparently hugged a lawyer who looked like Tom Daschle, thinking it was Daschle, and continues to insist the same.
Verdict: Too bizarre to comment.
Kopel suggests that Moore is being disingenuous at best when he claims he is supporting the troops, when in public comments he has expressed his view that the resistance in Iraq should be compared to the Minutemen, not “insurgents” or “terrorists” or “the Enemy.” Thus Moore is cheering for the people who are killing the troops he claims to support. I have filtered out Kopel’s senseless rhetoric about Moore supporting terrorists, or characterizing all anti-U.S. fighters as “Saddam loyalists, al Qaeda operatives, or terrorists controlled by Iran and Syria.” Moore disputes these characterizations, so he does not knowingly support terrorists. Still, his positive view of the Iraqi resistance seems to be at odds with his “support the troops” rhetoric in Fahrenheit.
Kopel himself gives the key to reconciling this contradiction: “There are some sincere opponents of the Iraq War who want to ‘support our troops’ by bringing them home, and thereby getting them out danger.” This certainly describes Moore’s position. No rational person thinks Moore takes glee in seeing American soldiers die. He believes the war is unjust, which is why Americans are in the unfortunate position of fighting an Iraqi resistance which contains (in his view) many good men and patriotic qualities. Those who insist that the war is just must paint all Iraqi resistance as evil; to admit otherwise would cause one to question the necessity of the war. Moore would support both the resistance and the U.S. troops bloodlessly, by ending the occupation. We may disagree with Moore’s characterization of the Iraqi resistance or the feasibility of American withdrawal, but it is a valid, largely coherent position that need not involve “hating America” or “recruiting terrorists.”
Verdict: No deceit, though Moore certainly does downplay his admiration of the Iraqi resistance in the film.
This last section is just an anti-Moore polemic which doesn’t actually identify a deceit in the film. Of course Hezbollah likes the film. It bashes the despised President Bush and opposes the equally despised occupation of Iraq. But the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend, and the normally rational Kopel is off-base to make this fallacious connection between Moore and terrorists. Yes, liberals oppose many of the same things that Islamic radicals oppose, but that doesn’t make them friends or even like-minded.
Verdict: No deceit was even articulated here.
Okay, let’s see what we’ve found. Out of fifty-nine or so potential deceits, we have:
Only the deceits have been exhaustively counted; the other kinds of flaws were counted only incidentally, without any attempt to find those that Kopel didn’t mention. I would like to express my utmost respect to Mr. Kopel, despite some disparaging comments above, as he did most of the research to make this discussion possible, while I have just comfortably taken potshots at some of his arguments. It is only because he invited readers to revise the list as they see fit that I have undertaken this exercise. I come up with twenty-one deceits, which is still a substantial number, and several of these deceptions are whoppers.
Nonetheless, I would not want Michael Moore’s sometimes sloppy research and manipulative editing to detract from the valid points made in the film, nor to be used as an occasion to advance the neo-conservative agenda wholesale, while characterizing dissenters as terrorist supporters. This base level of discourse is unworthy of the intellects of Kopel and others, and I hope to have ameliorated it somewhat by giving a more moderate treatment to these touchy subjects, letting both sides have it when they deserve it. For myself, I have left open the possibility of being mistaken on several of these judgments, and I believe this as an essential component of civilized discourse. Thank you for reading.
© 2005 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved. http://www.arcaneknowledge.org