Michael Moore Fahrenheit 9/11 Review - Convinced by Entertainment?
An essay by Rebecca Tromsness
In the wake of the terrorist attacks in September of 2001, blame needed to be placed, speculation was teeming, and questions needed to be answered. Michael Moore, author, film director, and social critic, offered answers for the American public through his documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11 . Released in July of 2004, this film was considered to be one of the most politically controversial American documentary films ever produced (Toplin). Documentaries are supposed to be anti-tone (LeBlanc), yet they still inevitably “represent a point of view; each editing decision is driven by the filmmaker’s bias” (Hoskin 120). Michael Moore is “the first to admit that he is a partisan filmmaker” (Alstead) and this obstructs his viewers’ ability to think for themselves. Before accepting his claims, Moore’s persona and audience, as well as his techniques of logic, emotion, and ethics used in presenting his arguments must be critically examined. Moore’s overall thesis is that America has been fooled by Bush, and two supplementary conclusions are that the United States is fighting a war that takes advantage of the “have-nots” and that Americans blindly rely on Bush for protection.
In Fahrenheit 9/11 , Moore carefully crafts his persona in terms of qualifications, personality, and tone. He demonstrates his credentials by displaying that he is known by Bush, congressmen, and others higher up in the “food chain;” if these men actually validate his existence, then, in a backwards way, his qualifications are confirmed. His investigative approach along with his ability to present original material to his viewers also confirms his qualifications to speak on the subject. Although not often, when Moore does appear on screen he is donned with a baseball cap and jeans, suggesting that he is just like “you and me.” Additionally, by using his hometown of Flint, MI as a case study, Moore relates to his viewers. Yet his fellow-citizen facade gives way to his persona of a story-teller and a sleuth, finding out unbelievable information from primary sources such as Bush’s uncensored military record. Moore’s tone of voice throughout Fahrenheit 9/11 is dry and sarcastic in nature. He states his case as though none of his findings are really all that surprising. His almost monotone voice carries the viewer through the film, inviting him or her to believe that the inexplicable, outright deceitfulness and corruption of Bush and his administration are perfectly customary. Considering the content of what is being said, the lack of emotion in Moore’s tone angers his viewers, which is exactly the reaction Moore wants to elicit.
Taking into account the entertainment format of contemporary popular culture as the main mode of media communication today (Altheide 42), it is difficult to avoid emotional overtones. That said, Moore does not appear to even make an attempt at avoiding emotion at all; instead he exploits it. Moore’s entire documentary is laden with heavy-handed emotion by use of editing tools: quick cuts, imagery, decontextualized images, Mise En Scene, and music; this heightened emotion manipulates every scene. Moore uses emotion because the public demands and responds to this form of communication (Altheide 9). Since Moore relies on emotion, he characterizes his audience as mostly fellow (voting) citizens who must be engaged; as well, his sarcastic informative manner creates an audience of ignorant, needy persons. The usual fence-sitters could have been convinced by Moore’s facts or emotion, but also could have been deterred by his faulty logic. If Moore wanted to reach the hostile audience in hopes that they would be enlightened and swayed, he definitely did not use the correct techniques. Emotional arguments do not generally win the adversary; it is through logic that the opposition can be persuaded, and, unfortunately, logic is largely lacking in Moore’s documentary. Moore’s goal was for his general public audience to continue the film’s story, stating that “its true ending [will] be written on November 2, 2004” (Rizzo) at the polls; Moore hoped that the film’s “ending” would be far from a mystery.
The main conclusion of Fahrenheit 9/11 is that Bush has failed the American public, and is developed through a minor premise that Bush is a shady, dishonest, and unethical person and/or president. Moore’s entire minor premise has problems with relevance as it is saturated with the ad hominem fallacy. Multiple grounds for this premise are provided, including Bush’s vacation and his feint about a link between the terrorist attacks (al Qaeda) and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.
Moore’s depiction of Bush on vacation is a red herring. A president taking a vacation has nothing to do with whether or not he is a shady, dishonest, and unethical person; however, a president who goes on vacation after receiving a security briefing that reported that Osama bin Laden was planning to attack America by hijacking airplanes could certainly be seen as irresponsible and a bit shady. Unfortunately, instead of leaving his audience to interpret the facts, Moore chooses to do them a favour, interpreting things himself by employing the non-qualification fallacy: he asserts that the President of the United States’ vacation is the same type of vacation that the average person would have. While on vacation, Bush was, in fact, not completely released from his duties and obligations as president because during this time six bills were passed (FahrenHYPE 9/11 ). Finally, Moore embraces the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy as well as an unsupported generalization by implying that the terrorist attacks occurring after Bush’s vacation were, therefore, because he took a vacation.
It is true that Bush fabricated a link between al Qaeda and Hussein (Pincus). Moore could have had a problem in relevance here (an ad hominem), but avoids it on the grounds that presidents should not blatantly lie to their people, let alone send troops to war based on that lie. It actually is quite relevant to point out the fact that the President of the United States lied; however, Moore’s poor method of presenting this fact is what flaws his reasoning. His warrant, that all shady, dishonest, and unethical presidents fail the American public, is not very strong and begs the question: are not all presidents (and persons) a bit shady, dishonest, and unethical? Yet, not all of them have failed America. Next, Moore backs his warrant with ethics: “immoral behaviour breeds immoral behaviour” (Fahrenheit 9/11 ). For some, this backing falls short and would be considered a non-qualification fallacy or a faulty analogy; yet, for others, this backing is ethically sound: Solomon, the wisest man on earth, says essentially the same thing, “bad company corrupts good character,” (1 Cor. 15.33). There are some potential problems to Moore’s backing, but regardless of whether the truism requires qualification, or is solid, Moore throws all prospective logic to the wind by twisting it. By stating, “this is what happens when you send otherwise good kids to war based on a lie,” he implies that because Bush fibbed, this caused troops to behave “immorally.” This fallacy is a post hoc ergo propter hoc: there is no evidence to show that the troops’ behaviour is a result of a lie that Bush told. Moore’s statement is also a slippery slope, suggesting that because troops were sent to war based on a lie, which is immoral, that the inevitable result will be “kids” who dishonour, debase, and mock the war and its subjects, which is a greater immorality.
Furthermore, Moore “supplements” his argument through loaded language, using the word “kids” to describe the troops at war. This term generally connotes innocence, naivety, and goodness, and, when used in the context of fighting in war, elicits emotion. Far more than through loaded language, emotion is elicited through Moore’s reliance on disturbing images of both Iraqi civilians and U.S. troops. The footage he shows is mostly of young-looking soldiers, whom are not representative of the United States Armed Forces. Furthermore, by pointing out that Bush took a whole seven minutes to take action after being informed about the attacks is irrelevant (a red herring) because it has no bearing to the claim that Bush is shady, dishonest, and unethical. Besides, Bush was likely shocked and, if he had reacted too quickly, he would have been criticized for not thinking before he acted. Moore further spoils his evidence by narrating thoughts into Bush’s head, an obvious appeal to ignorance: neither Moore nor anyone else, for that matter, really knew what was going through Bush’s mind at that time.
One of Moore’s claims, that the United States is fighting a war that takes advantage of the “have-nots,” is undeniable. His warrant is backed by Lila Lipscomb’s declaration that families like hers are the backbone of America; Moore translates this, saying that the war in Iraq is being fought on the backs of the American citizenry, which are the innocent “have-nots.” Drawing on ethics and emotion, he makes the case that “those who join the ‘volunteer’ U.S. military are, in fact, economic conscripts, forced by desperate circumstances to put their lives at risk in hope of receiving education or job training” (Walsh). However, he lacks supplementary evidence and a comparative analysis as the only statistics used to prove his claim are from his hometown: Flint, MI. The devastating unemployment rate of Flint is certainly an example of, but not representative of the alleged places that have been destroyed by the economy. Additionally, because this claim implies only two options for the “have-nots”: be un(der)employed or join the military, it could be considered a false dilemma since other options such as relocation were not considered; but, Moore avoids this dilemma through Lipscomb when she states that the military “is an excellent option,” (Fahrenheit 9/11 ) not the only option. Interestingly, the fact that the military provides education and job training could actually be seen as a benefit for the “have-nots,” so that those who cannot afford post-secondary education still have the opportunity to receive it by joining the armed forces. This points to a non-sequitur fallacy in reasoning because how can “free education” not benefit someone? On the other hand, the education is not necessarily “free,” it is in exchange for military service. In this light, virtually the only means of education for the “have-nots” is through putting their lives at risk, which clearly manipulates and takes advantage of them. Moore’s minor premise is exemplified with a statement by Dr. Sam Kubba, America Iraqi Chamber of Commerce: “war is always good for certain companies […] that are in the business of war,” (Fahrenheit 9/11 ) namely, Halliburton. Moore gets his point across solely through ethics by letting a victim of the “have-mores,” a U.S. trooper, reveal that his salary is about $2-3000 a month while a Halliburton bus driver can make between $8-10000 a month. The disheartened trooper says, “where’s the justification in that?” (Fahrenheit 9/11 ). Complimenting this ethical stance, Moore elicits emotion through a quick cut showing an elite “have-more” saying “Good for business. Bad for the people.”
The fact that only one member of the five hundred thirty five-member congress had a son enlisted in Iraq speaks for itself, and to see a congressman endorsing Moore’s point that “if they’re for the war, to get behind it [and] send their own” (Fahrenheit 9/11 ) portrays the use of ethics to challenge the testimony of the congressmen, shamelessly taking advantage of the “have-nots.” His warrant (all in favour of war should send their kids) seems, at first, to be valid, but is illogical: someone in favour of war could quite possibly have a moral obligation to fight, but most definitely does not have an obligation to send his or her child to war based on his or her values. This argument holds significant water emotionally and ethically, but remains a red herring, because it really has nothing to do with the fact that the “have-nots” are being taken advantage of. If Moore could somehow prove that the reason for the exploitation of the poor is because the elite’s offspring are not fighting in Iraq, then this argument would be valid. Lastly, Bush’s alleged disregard for soldiers and veterans through his proposal to cut combat and soldiers’ aid by 33% and assistance to their families by 60%, his opposition to increasing healthcare benefits for veterans, his support of closing veteran hospitals, and his attempt at increasing prescription drugs for veterans is very relevant, telling the audience that the benefits to the “have-nots” were not being considered at all, but were being treated unjustly.
Another claim made by Moore is that Americans (blindly) rely on the president for protection. The stated reason is that Americans are afraid, and the warrant is that fear prompts reliance on the leader for protection. The conclusion seems to have problems because the public relies on formal agents of social control, such as police, to save them, not necessarily president Bush, per se; but, at the same time, broadly speaking, formal agents of control generally all link back to government control: Bush. The grounds that Moore uses in his attempts to prove his stated reason definitely need to be explored. Psychiatrist and Congressman, Jim McDermott, states that terror alerts spark fear in Americans. This begs the question, are people actually legitimately afraid? Moore shows evidence of people’s “fear” with clips of people’s assertions that a terrorist attack could happen, anytime, anywhere; but these people were not convincingly afraid, some even out in public areas, shopping, despite terror warnings. McDermott goes on to say that “[Bush] got people to believe that there was a real threat out there” (Fahrenheit 9/11 ), but did he? Strong evidence of this alleged fear in the public is lacking; but Moore makes up for this by showing a plethora of media, which could reflect, but more likely creates, fear in the public. Examples of media-created fear were the color-coded terror alert system, the advertisement for an in-case-of-terrorist-attacks-and-you-are-on-the-top-floor-of-the-building parachute, and the terrorist-proof box; the media elicits fear in the public so that they will in turn rely on the president (et. al) for protection. Moore’s warrant is solidly backed by the fact that the media’s “pervasive form of communication, symbolic awareness, and expectation that danger and risk are a central feature of the effective environment” will cause people to become fearful, rely on the government (Bush) to save them, and will also “contribute to stances and reactive social policies that promote state control and surveillance” (Altheide 60). Additionally, Moore implies that by keeping this nation in constant fear, Americans were fooled into accepting the USA Patriot Act, which is actually a violation of basic human rights. It is true that if people are fearful enough (or are told that they should be fearful), they usually are willing to give up their rights (Altheide 60) and this was and is Bush’s method of controlling the nation. The fact that it is three times more likely that you will be struck by lightning than die from an act of terror (Kopel), and that the likelihood of dying in a bathtub is far greater than that of being a victim of terrorist attacks (Stewart) provides evidence for Moore’s implication that terror alerts and messages of fear are actually falsely portrayed information that exaggerate the public’s actual risks in order to keep them afraid and controlled.
Fahrenheit 9/11 “rests on the idea that entertainment is the most effective realm for political criticism” (Mattson(b) 86) and for reaching the voting American public. Entertainment relies on emotion, thus the credibility of Moore’s argument is manipulated through his use of emotion. Right from square one, Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 poisons the well as he “throws fairness to the wind,” characterizing Bush as a halfwit; in doing this, Moore unfortunately “throws the remainder of its credibility overboard at the same time” (Hoskin). Although some of Moore’s points are valid, the way he goes about presenting them, relying too heavily on emotion, flaws them. In terms of a fair argument, Fahrenheit 9/11 fails miserably. In terms of controversy based on emotion, Fahrenheit 9/11 succeeded. But considering Moore’s purpose for the film, to “throw the bastard out of office” (Rizzo), the poll results did not prove this film’s arguments to be as successful as Moore would have liked.
Written by R. Tromsness
I wrote the above essay for an English class in 2006. The course placed special emphasis on rhetoric, with a focus on audience, authorial voice, and a range of style.
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Moore’s overall thesis is that America has been fooled by Bush, and two supplementary conclusions are that the United States is fighting a war that takes advantage of the “have-nots” and that Americans blindly rely on Bush for protection.
Summary of Moore's "logic" in Fahrenheit 9/11
The presentation of Moore's arguments are littered with logical fallacies:
1. Major premise (warrant): All shady, dishonest, and unethical presidents fail the American public
- Minor premise: Bush is a shady, dishonest, and unethical president
- Conclusion: Bush failed the American public
2. Major premise (warrant): The have mores take advantage of the have-nots
- Minor premise: Fighting a war in Iraq benefits the have-mores
- Conclusion: Fighting a war in Iraq takes advantage of the have-nots
3. Major premise (warrant): All in favour of war should send their kids
- Minor premise: Congressmen are in favour of the war
- Conclusion: Congressmen should send their kids to war
4. Major premise (warrant): Fear prompts reliance on president for protection
- Minor premise: Americans are afraid
- Conclusion: Americans rely on president for protection