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Triumph of the Shrill – Christopher Hitchens vs. Michael Moore on 9/11

“War is Gods’ way of teaching Americans geography.” – Ambrose Bierce
“When I was a boy I was told that anybody could become President. Now I’m beginning to believe it.” — Clarence Darrow

 

In 2004 Christopher Hitchens erupted in a spittle-slinging tirade against Michael Moore and his documentary Fahrenheit 9/11. Slashing and gouging, Hitchens veered far beyond criticizing the documentary for mere missteps or inaccuracies; instead, he unleashed a holy jihad of scorn and bile — as if Moore were some sort of loathsome belly crawler from the Precambrian.

In reality, however, it was Hitchens’ critique that was rife with distortions, sophistry, and infantile spite. As a response, I wrote the counter-critique that begins a few paragraphs below. I am adding this introduction a decade later, eleven years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It is an opportunity to appraise the fate of the Iraqis under U.S. ‘shock and awe’, and a chance to review the perspicacity of Christopher Hitchens in his relentless promotion of the invasion.

 

The Start of the U.S. Invasion

Shock and Awe – Baghdad

 

Hitchen’s death in 2011, a victim of throat cancer, was unfortunate. Despite his arrogance and appalling lack of judgement in championing the invasion, I continue to appreciate many of his books. On numerous occasions– most before 9/11– I attended his talks in the Bay Area, and once, in Tucson. A gifted debater and polemicist, he was also, on certain topics, an informative writer. I still recommend a handful of his books — including Why Orwell Matters, Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, and God is Not Great.

 

1949-2011

Christopher Hitchens

 

However, his transmigration from Trotskyist and ‘contrarian’ to neo-con and paladin for the Cheney, Bush, Blair invasion of Iraq was shocking. His firece and tendentious cheerleading for the war was aggravated by gleeful spite directed at anyone who questioned the invasion. Those who dared oppose the U.S. attack were excoriated as miscreants and dunces. Michael Moore was not the only or even primary target of abuse. Even as preeminent an intellectual as Noam Chomsky was berated as a buffoon [“soft on fascism”] for opposing the Cheney-Bush war and later the assassination of bin Laden.

Hitchen’s legacy as a serious political thinker was largely wrecked in the carnage and chaos of Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis are dead, millions displaced, an advanced Arab nation state was destroyed, and trillions of U.S. tax dollars wasted. On the other hand, Cheney’s Halliburton, to cite only one privatized profit monger, made a fortune during the occupation, while U.S. weapons manufacturers in general saw their profits soar.

A decade after Hitchens’ ballyhooed invasion, Iraq is a wretched basket case, a nation riddled with sectarian violence, religious extremism, ruined infrastructure, poverty, high rates of childhood cancer, and sheer human misery. The country is on the verge of disintegration. During the invasion, the National Museum and many archaeological sites were looted while U.S. tanks defended the Ministry of Oil. The cultural legacy of Iraq and the entire world was trampled under the invasion.

My own interest in Iraq stems largely from a month I spent traveling there in the fall of 1992 while working on a documentary. At the time, most Iraqis were concerned over the harsh economic conditions created by the international sanctions, which were orchestrated by the U.S. These sanctions, which were destroying the extensive Iraqi Middle Class,  also made it impossible for the excellent Iraqi health care system to function. Doctors tearfully described a lack of basic medicines–including antibiotics–while children died of treatable maladies and malnutrition. (I recorded much of this on video at several hospitals where doctors struggled to save children’s lives.)

 

Baghdad, 1992 -- Video by the author

Doctor Works with Sick Child

 

Many writers, including John Pilger, have reported on the utter brutality of killing the most vulnerable–infants and children– in order to uphold U.S. geopolitical aims. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright infamously asserted that the price of a half a million dead children in Iraq due to sanctions was “worth it.”

 

An Iraqi mother comforts her dying child

Iraqi Mother and Child – 1992

After returning to the U.S, I kept in contact with many Iraqi expatriates to try and understand what was happening within the country. In 1993, I tried to return to Iraq with  a medical team to record more documentary footage but could not get a visa.  In 2004, I hoped to return to Iraq with S. Taylor, the director of our first documentary, but we could procure any funding from PBS or other sources. Very soon conditions for interviewing Iraqis deteriorated, and our contacts told us that it was too dangerous for them to work with American filmmakers.

In 2002 and 2003, when it became apparent that nothing would stop Cheney, Bush & Blair from their invasion, I again spoke with many Iraqi expatriates about the prospects for Iraq. For many of them, Saddam (with his sons Uday and Qusay lurking in the wings) was so monstrous that any disruption in his rule had to be an improvement. Still, many others feared the invasion would destroy the country.

Cheney and Bush were not hellbent on the invasion because they cared about improving the lives of Iraqis. The U.S. had supported Saddam when he had committed his worst atrocities against his own people, and backed him in the long and brutal war against Iran. As it turned out, the cost in Iraqi lives was far grimmer than even the worst projections.

 

Rumsfeld, President Reagan's Envoy, offers Saddam military support.

Donald Rumsfeld Meets with Saddam – Dec. 20, 1983

 

The justifications offered for the invasion were mendacious and ludicrous. In truth, the invasion was about oil; secondly, it was the desire of an imperial colossus to dominate the geopolitics of the Middle East; lastly, it would satisfy the desire of American Zionists such as Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, William Kristol, John Poderetz, Doug Feith, et al.  to destroy Iraq as a rival to Israel.

Aleksey Pushkov, the head of the Russian State Duma Committee in International Affairs, views the invasion as nothing more than military aggression orchestrated by the U.S.  “ruling elite.”  The Bush Administration first resolved to launch the war, then manufactured a casus belli.  Pushkov stated, “The entire war in Iraq was based on a huge lie.” It was an attempt to establish a ‘mono-polar’ world — a “global dictatorship” in his words.

Iraqis who cheered the American assault as liberation (from safely outside Iraq) failed to learn from the American invasion of Vietnam: the relentless bombing campaigns; the use of brutal weapons such as napalm and Agent Orange; and the millions of dead Asians who resisted American military power. Gazing back at the invasion of Vietnam offered a preview of what Iraqis could expect.

In 2003, it was possible to at least imagine that the anti-war critics were mistaken. Perhaps Saddam would quickly fall, the U.S occupation would be brief and minimally destructive, and the Iraqis would be freed from their national nightmare, empowered to begin a new history.

Unindicted ‘war criminals’ such as Tony Blair, Dick Cheney, and Paul Wolfowitz will never admit they were wrong in launching the invasion; they simply confabulate new lies to justify their carnage and crimes. However, wasn’t it still possible in 2003 for a reasonable person to argue that the invasion was the least evil of several bad options? Perhaps. However, that is not what Hitchens did.

Instead, he became an indefatigable bully boy for imperial thugs. He ridiculed people such as Scott Ritter — who turned out, of course, to be entirely correct on the concocted fantasy of ‘weapons of mass destruction’. Hitchens lambasted former Iraqi Ambassador Joseph Wilson (and his wife Valerie Plame) as dishonest and “conceited” in order to defend the lies of Dick Cheney (and his amanuensis Judith Miller of the NYT) on the Niger ‘yellowcake’ fabrication.

When the redoubtable intellectual and literary giant Gore Vidal questioned the validity of the ‘war on terror’, Hitchens smeared him as a purveyor of “crank-revisionist and denialist history” in an “awful, spiteful and miserable way.”

Hitchens claims to have experienced some extraordinary conversion after 9/11 — morphing from Nation Magazine ‘leftie’ to fire-breathing slayer of ‘Islamo-fascists’. The conjoining of the word fascist with Muslim is an odd and unnatural coupling. As RJ Eskow argues, “Misusing terms for propaganda purposes does violence to reason and to informed debate — precisely the qualities that should distinguish us from fascists and religious extremists, even if those two groups are not one and the same.”

Political writer L.A. Rollins elaborates on this opportunistic commingling in a book review dedicated to deciphering Hitchens:

‘Among Hitchens’s fetishes is “antifascism.” He absurdly labels al Qaeda et al. “Islamic Fascists,” but what’s fascism got to do with it? Hitchens uses the terms “fascist” and “fascism” frequently, but he never bothers to define them. Apparently, almost anyone that Hitchens strongly disapproves of and wants to drop bombs on is a “fascist.” It’s interesting to see an alleged disciple of George Orwell, author of the essay, “Politics and the English Language,” abusing the English language so outrageously in his deceitful war propaganda. Hitchens even has the chutzpah to label Islamic fanatics as ‘nihilists.”‘

Part of the motive that energized Hitchens was the delusion that he was the second coming of George Orwell. As George Orwell fought real fascists in Spain, Hichens would do battle with their Islamic brethren –or at least denounce them safely from his pulpit. The horrible irony is that Hitchens’ wars have done nothing to promote the Enlightenment, secular values, or the freedom of women– and have largely undermined all of them.

As Joshua Blakeney argues in his obituary for Hitchens:

‘The war machine has benefited significantly from Hitchens’ defense of “the war on terror,” cloaked in the mantle of secularism and the enlightenment. Much secular, progressive energy has been wastefully channeled into naïve support for 9/11 wars, thanks to the mantra of “defending the rights of Islamic women” and ‘fighting theocracy.”’

It seems unlikely that Hitchens would ever have admitted that he was disastrously wrong. When someone advocates for a position that belligerently, thoughtful reconsideration is rarely an option. Admittedly, Hitchens never fought in Iraq or Afghanistan. He did not order the invasion; he did not launch the cruise missiles or gun down Iraqi civilians in Fallujah. He only complained, “the death toll is not nearly high enough . . . too many [jihadists] have escaped.”  The invasion would have proceeded apace even if he had opposed it. However, Hitchens himself insisted that words and ideas matter. In truth, he celebrated international war crimes, propagandized for wars of aggression, and backed the most odious of U.S. and UK leaders. He was wrong about everything that matters.

Why did Hitchens do it? Some have suggested the haze of alcoholism. When I heard him debate Chris Hedges on religion in Berkeley in 2007, he seemed a bit ‘tipsy’ on stage although lucid. Others suggested the motivation was dumping bagels and beer as a Nation columnist and moving up to caviar and champagne as a first-class cheerleader at the Washington Imperial Court. (After his infection with war fever, the Bush White House invited Hitchens to stop by, he became buddy-buddy with Paul Wolfowitz, and Homeland Security Head Michael Chertoff personally handled his citizenship ceremony.

My defense of Fahrenheit 9/11 runs long but Hitchens had become an incorrigible propagandist for Bush and Blair by 2004, and it seemed worthwhile to try to show that. Some of my sarcastic comments — such as encouraging Hitchens (vis-à-vis Orwell) to join the assault on Fallujah — are dated and peevish, but I left them in. I added some photos to break up the traffic jam of text.

There are no statues of George W. Bush in Baghdad and there never will be. Essays and speeches by Hitchens touting the virtues of the invasion will never be required reading for Iraqi students. (Unless they are studying propaganda.) Today there is one image that serves as an almost universally recognized symbol for the American invasion of Iraq. The unknown Abu Ghraib prisoner — the hooded man standing on a box.

 

The Hooded Man of Abu Ghraib

The Universal Symbol for Hitchens’ Holy War

 

Triumph of the Shrill – Christopher Hitchens vs. Michael Moore on 9/11 

Rather than demonstrating reputed flaws in the film Fahrenheit 9/11, Christopher Hitchens’ scalding ‘review’ simply bares his visceral distaste for Michael Moore.Readers impressed by Hitchens, a furious polemicist of the scorched earth school, may imagine that he dismembers the film. Behind the rhetorical curtain, however, is a concoction of bluster, mangled logic, and sophistry. Hitchens’ UnFahrenheit 9/11 first appeared in Slate but has since popped up widely, including on numerous right-wing blogs, as an antidote to Moore’s film. The commentary–provocative, caustic and allegedly serious–warrants a measured response, and it is only fair to quote Hitchens liberally (and accurately, a courtesy he does not extend to Moore):

“Here we glimpse a possible fusion between the turgid routines of MoveOn.org and the filmic standards, if not exactly the filmic skills, of Sergei Eisenstein or Leni Riefenstahl.”

Moore’s cinema techniques and standards share little, good or bad, with Eisenstein or Riefenstahl, two of the seminal innovators in film history. It’s more plausible to link Moore’s sensibility to Candid Camera or the Marx Brothers than to the monumental Riefenstahl. Hitchens, however, is not really elucidating Moore the filmmaker; rather the Riefenstahl allusion is simply to smear Moore as a ‘soft on fascism’ propagandist. (Mel Gibson, hardly a Moore fellow traveler, also received the promiscuous kiss of Riefenstahl from Hitchens for his Passion of Christ.) Riefenstahl, at least in Triumph of the Will, champions the myth of the demigod who fuses the State and the Volk. Her vision of power is solemn, transcendent, and unifying.

 

Directed by Leni Riefenstahl - 1935

Triumph of the Will

 

Comparing Fahrenheit 9/11 to Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will is so hyperbolic as to be ludicrous. Why not Animal House? Hitchens could claim that Michael Moore shows the same anarchic disrespect for authority, the same rotund clownishness, the same grasp of history — “Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor” — as John Belushi’s Bluto. While one might imagine Moore impishly starting a food fight, it strains credulity to visualize him worshiping Adolf Hitler as he descends from the clouds.

Rather than a worshiper of power, Moore is an anarchic trickster using satire and nettlesome questions to deflate state and corporate propaganda. He follows in the tradition of another caustic humorist who parodied the lying politicians and phony patriots, and opposed war and American Empire.

“Man is the only animal that deals in that atrocity of atrocities, War. He is the only one that gathers his brethren about him and goes forth in cold blood and calm pulse to exterminate his kind. He is the only animal that for sordid wages will march out… and help to slaughter strangers of his own species who have done him no harm and with whom he has no quarrel… And in the intervals between campaigns he washes the blood off his hands and works for ‘the universal brotherhood of man’ — with his mouth.”     Mark Twain, What Is Man

Consider the widespread calumny directed against Moore even though he is a filmmaker with limited resources. Although he has done occasional political parody on TV, he certainly does not have a prominent presence on any network. Although adversarial, he does not serve up a leaden party line in the style of Pravda or spin tabloid state propaganda as Murdoch’s FOX News does. His film, in fact, challenges an unparalleled concentration of political and media power.

 

Fahrenheit 9/11

Michael Moore and Friend

There is, however, a figure who does share the standards and goals, if not the genius of Riefenstahl, and he is Bush’s mythmaker, Karl Rove. A consummate propagandist, Rove manipulates the mise-en-scene of flags, religious symbols, nationalism, and the demagogic slogans of the leader. Compare Bush’s staged iconic landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln and Hitler’s descent into Nuremberg. In each case, the Kriegfuhrer descends, godlike, from the clouds to his adoring throngs. Mission Accomplished; Triumph of the Will.

“To describe this film as dishonest and demagogic would almost be to promote those terms to the level of respectability. To describe this film as a piece of crap would be to run the risk of a discourse that would never again rise above the excremental. To describe it as an exercise in facile crowd-pleasing would be too obvious. Fahrenheit 9/11 is a sinister exercise in moral frivolity, crudely disguised as an exercise in seriousness. It is also a spectacle of abject political cowardice masking itself as a demonstration of “dissenting” bravery.”

How do you respond to them apples? The passage says far more about Hitchens’ agenda than it does about Moore’s film. In his review, Hitchens gripes that Moore initially insisted that Osama should be presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, that being the American way, but that the film seems to presume bin Laden’s guilt. One could, however, feel confident of someone’s guilt and still demand that he receive a fair trial. Or is advocating a fair trial for bin Laden now treasonous, too? We were told repeatedly by the Bushites that Osama orchestrated the Twin Tower slaughter and that this act qualitatively altered all of modern history (a view that Hitchens himself holds). In F. 9/11, Moore accepts this premise and then raises obvious questions:

NARRATOR: The United States began bombing Afghanistan just four weeks after 9/11. Mr. Bush said he was doing so because the Taliban government of Afghanistan had been harboring bin Laden.

PRESIDENT BUSH: We will smoke ‘em out of their holes. / We’re gonna smoke ‘em out. / Smoke ‘em out. / Smoke him out of his cave. / WESTERN GUY: Let’s rush him and smoke him out.

NARRATOR: For all his tough talk, Bush really didn’t do much.

DICK CLARKE: But what they did was slow and small. They put only 11,000 troops into Afghanistan—there are more police here in Manhattan, more police here in Manhattan than there are US troops in Afghanistan. Basically the President botched the response to 9/11. He should have gone right after bin Laden. The US Special Forces didn’t get into the area where bin Laden was for two months.

NARRATOR: Two months? A mass murderer who attacked the United States was given a two month head start? Who in their right mind would do that? (video of Bush)

Osama bin Goldstein, the monstrous mass murderer, soon slips down the memory hole. Bush acknowledges, “Terror is bigger than one person. And he’s just, he’s, he’s a, he’s a person who’s now been marginalized, so, I, I don’t know where he is, nor… and I just don’t spend that much time on it…to be honest with ya.” Moore wonders, and not alone, how could Bush so serenely marginalize Osama the mass murderer? It’s as if Shakespeare ushered Richard the Third off the stage and into oblivion after the First Act.

“In the film, Moore says loudly and repeatedly that not enough troops were sent to garrison Afghanistan and Iraq. (This is now a favorite cleverness of those who were, in the first place, against sending any soldiers at all.) Well, where does he think those needful heroes and heroines would have come from? Does he favor a draft—the most statist and oppressive solution?”

To make his case, Hitchens distorts what Moore actually said in the movie. Here are the verbatim transcripts:

NARRATOR: With the war not going as planned, and the military in need of many more troops, where would they find the new recruits?

REPORTER: Military experts say three times the 120,000 US troops now deployed would be needed to pacify and rebuild the country.

NARRATOR: They would find them all across America in the places that had been destroyed by the economy. Places where one of the only jobs available was to join the Army. Places like my hometown of Flint, Michigan.

Where does he call for more troops to Iraq? Moore has never called for more troops in Iraq, be they drafted, enslaved or beamed down from the Starship Enterprise. He has called for their withdrawal. Opposing the illegal invasion does not bar one from criticizing the incompetent way the war was waged, the torture at Abu Ghraib, or the trigger-happy killing of Iraqis by U.S. forces. Marine General Anthony Zinni and Army Chief of Staff Eric Shineski warned that an occupation would prove difficult and require several hundred thousand troops—far more than Rumsfeld and the neo-cons (and Hitchens) wanted to believe. For their disloyal pessimism, the generals were cashiered.

“In a long and paranoid (and tedious) section at the opening of the film, he makes heavy innuendoes about the flights that took members of the Bin Laden family out of the country after Sept. 11. I banged on about this myself at the time and wrote a Nation column drawing attention to the groveling Larry King interview with the insufferable Prince Bandar, which Moore excerpts. However, recent developments have not been kind to our Mike. In the interval between Moore’s triumph at Cannes and the release of the film in the United States, the 9/11 commission has found nothing to complain of in the timing or arrangement of the flights.”

If Hitchens himself “banged on about this,” why is Moore paranoid for looking into it? Was Hitchens formerly paranoid but now cured? Hitchens adds, “Richard Clarke…has come forward to say that he and he alone took the responsibility for authorizing those Saudi departures.” Has Moore overstated the connection? Perhaps. That this is finally coming out after two years of stonewalling, however, is not Moore’s fault. Remember, this administration has done everything possible to block inquiries into 9/11, as Moore cites in his film.

Considering that Clarke has complained that Bush insisted on linking 9/11 with Saddam, although it was a false connection, and quoted Rumsfeld yearning to bomb Iraq just because it had ample targets, he has earned a measure of credibility. Still, Clarke is not in the employ of Michael Moore. He worked for George W. Bush and his boss should take responsibility for something. Bush refuses blame for the lethal failures of 9/11, for the lies promulgated about WMDs, for the mayhem of the occupation, and for the torture and murders at Abu Ghraib. With Bush, the buck always stops somewhere else.

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