Thoughts on the Fahrenheit 9/11 Phenomenon

by Roger B. White, Jr., July 2004

It is now July 2004, and I have been watching the Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" (F 9-11) phenomenon grow since May. I haven't seen the movie yet, but I have seen the steady drumbeat in the media since Moore first claimed he was being censored by Disney when they said they wouldn't distribute his movie.

This phenomenon is an interesting mix of two phenomenon: the first is watching Michael Moore succeed at some world-class manipulating. The second is watching him become a "man of the moment" -- which is an entirely different phenomenon

First, Congrats to Moore on doing World Class Manipulation

"Hmm..." thinks I last May, "You, the press, are telling me that Mr. Moore got money from Disney to make this controversial movie, and he's now surprised that they won't distribute it? You know Disney better than that, Michael, and you, the press, know that Michael Moore knows better than that, too!" What I saw is a story of manipulation starting from the first article back in May.

As the months roll by, I discover that Moore not only knows Disney better than that, he knows the Cannes Film Festival better than that, and the heads of Disney's Miramax distribution arm better than that. What a world-class manipulator this man is! World-class, I tell you! Not only did he have Disney pay for the film in the first place, he then embarrasses them into selling distribution rights to friendly partners of his for a song (the heads of the Miramax division), and now Moore and his partners have made a killing! World-class manipulation! I will applaud you, Mr. Moore, as I give you a raspberry.

So by late June this is a now-tiresome non-story in my mind. But, then comes the audience reaction to all this: people are seeing the movie in record breaking numbers....

Second, becoming a "Man of the Moment"

My "social phenomenon" antenna rises, and I hear warning beeps. Alert! ALERT!! This goes beyond world class manipulation. MOORE HAS HITCHED HIMSELF TO "A MOMENT IN TIME."

This is my take on the phenomenon: This huge success of "Fahrenheit 9/11" at the theaters is signaling a fundamental shift in American thinking about Bush and Iraq. Moore's movie is not making a change, it is signaling a change that has already happened.

In the future Moore will take credit for the change in American thinking, and some historians may agree with him. But what's really happening is that the popularity of Moore's movie is a messenger -- a signal that a change has already occurred.

A Similar Moment in the Past

The similar "Moment in Time" that comes to mind most vividly is Daniel Ellsberg and The Pentagon Papers in 1971. The Pentagon Papers revealed "the truth" about the Golf of Tonkin Incident in 1964. The truth was: it was an incident cooked up so that Congress would support Johnson on a build up in Vietnam. <Gasp!>

The only trouble with this "Gasp!" Is that I, as highschooler when the Gulf of Tonkin occurred, figured out that it was a cooked incident (or extremely fortuitous) the day I read the article in Time magazine saying the incident occurred! Some time before this incident, I had started reading Time regularly, and for months leading up to the incident, the articles in Time had been saying that Vietnam would go a lot better for Americans (and the South Vietnamese) if we'd just send a bunch of US troops over there to chase off those nasty guerrillas -- all we needed was a good excuse to get started. I was also an avid military history reader in those days, and as I read the Gulf of Tonkin incident article, I said to myself and those around me, "I know a Marco Polo Bridge Incident when I see one." (referring to the incident that Japanese used as an excuse to invade China in 1936. You can also "Remember the Maine" in 1898, if you prefer American history.)

So, in 1971, when America is now clearly trying to get out of Vietnam, Ellsberg shows up with these Pentagon Papers and becomes a media phenomenon for six months to a year. Opposition Leaders of Congress swore up and down that this was the first hint they'd had that the Gulf of Tonkin was fabricated and they were "shocked, simply shocked" to find this was so.

But, as with Michael Moore's "revelations" about Bush in the movie F 9-11, Ellsberg really wasn't bringing up anything new in the Pentagon Papers. In both cases the information being revealed is years and years old.

So, the big question becomes: why does this kind of stale information suddenly become exciting?

Signaling a shift in thinking

Stale information becomes exciting when people think about the information in a different light.

In the case of Moore, the American public is starting to have the symptoms of "hangover" following the giddy days of saying, "We will be unbowed, and we will take this war to our enemy's ground." (I hope that this hangover thinking means that we are in the terminal stages of an activist/militarist War on Terrorism, and we will go back to treating this problem as the civil/criminal problem it has conventionally been.)

In the case of Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, the American public was realizing that Nixon was not going to pack up the troops and come home until the North Vietnamese did some compromising, so many people became even more upset with Nixon than they were with Johnson, and the antiwar movement turned violently ugly.

Thus my theory is that F 9-11's popularity is a strong signal that America has changed it's mind about Bush and the War on Terrorism. Reviewers may carp about the inaccuracies and one-sidedness of the documentary, (I certainly will when I see it) but that's clearly not the point. What is the point is that people are not dismissing the movie out of hand, and not staying away from the theater in droves.

This is a really bad sign for Bush. The popularity of this movie indicates that America is, in effect, now asking the question, "Where did we go so wrong?" and the answer points to only one place. The popularity of this movie also indicates that the American public will no longer accept Bush's post 9-11 style of giving vague answers to hard questions and saying, in effect, "Trust me." That time is over.

The Coming Aftermaths


For the Bush Administration

The tide as turned. Bush may survive if the Democrats can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, but the success of the movie indicates that American public opinion about how to conduct the War on Terrorism is now changing rapidly.

What an irony. Two one term Bush presidents, and both cut out from a second term in spite of winning a spectacular military victory against Iraq. This will go down in history as one of the great ironies of the early 21st century.

I have always wondered why there was a proverb, "Revenge is a dish best served cold." The conduct of this post 9-11 War on Terrorism is showing me an answer.

For Mr. Moore

As for Mr. Moore: He is still a world-class manipulator, and it's also unlikely that he will recognize that his movie is a messenger, not the message. (See my thinking on delusion)

I predict that he will attempt to duplicate this F 9-11 success by taking on the next "cause de jour", or two. He will be backed by aspiring sycophants who see him as "the next Bob Woodward", and he will spend a lot more money making his next couple films than he did on F 9-11. But these follow-on movies will be box office flops compared to F 9-11.

Moore betrayed a lot of people on this F 9-11 promotion campaign, and their memories will be longer than the "F 9-11 moment" itself. I predict that when he slips, he's going to find himself all alone, except for his most dedicated sycophants. When this happens, he will whine that his failures are evidence of a conspiracy against him. And this time he will be right, but it will be a passive conspiracy of those in the entertainment industry that he stepped all over to make 9-11 happen, not an active one of strange and exotic people with nefarious motives.

I also predict that aspiring documentarists will not recognize that his popularity was due to being a man of the moment, and we will see a lot more axe-to-grind documentaries for the next few years. Brace yourselves! Reality TV Meets Michael Moore is not far off!! (and that thought truly gives me shivers!)

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