Topic: Sports & Entertainment

Fahrenheit 911
(6/30/2004)

It is usually pointless to debate the ethics of satirical documentaries like Michael Moore's latest, "Fahrenheit 911." Its dual objectives of advocacy and humor both support and undermine each other, yet together they give the filmmaker and his admirers an iron-clad defense to any accusation of unfairness or exaggeration. It's a joke, see? Moore is simply not going to be held to the same standards as a serious journalist or even a serious documentary maker; it is more appropriate to hold him to standards we apply to Woody Allen, say, or someone funnier, like Oliver Stone.

Even Moore, however, deserves to be called on his below-the-belt style, in which contempt and gratuitous nastiness ooze off the screen. One of the strongest arguments the politically correct among us have regarding the inappropriateness of telling some otherwise very funny jokes about various ethnic groups is an ethical one.

When mean and callous behavior by others gives us enjoyment, that behavior is reinforced, not only in them, because they get pleasure from our laughter, but in us as well. The denigrating but effective joke that "nobody really means," and the vicious joke at the expense of someone "who deserves it," both have the same unfortunate tendency of making us abandon, if only for that brief moment of laughter, important ethical values like charity, empathy, respect, fairness, and dignity. Over time, this has real effects on our ethical compasses; think of it as magnetic pull that distorts true readings. The next thing you know, you are producing cable TV shows like "Scare Tactics," putting ordinary and unsuspecting people under abnormal stress to ridicule their reactions.

Or you become like Michael Moore. The sequences from the movie that are getting the most comment are ethically unforgivable. In one, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz is shown surreptitiously licking his comb in preparation for Congressional testimony under the cameras. I know: Eeeuuww! Moore's point is that this proves Wolfowitz is a low life, a sleazy guy whose policy opinions should be devalued accordingly. And, of course, it's funny to see the famous and powerful embarrass themselves. Yet not one among us hasn't had dozens of questionable hygiene moments that we would be mortified to have witnessed by anyone, not to mention see featured in a nationally released documentary. Moore knows that Wolfowitz's desperate act in attempting to tame unruly hair for a public appearance will look much worse on movie screen than it really is, and he must know that periodic hygiene failings are not any kind of proof of depravity: after all, we're talking about a director here who habitually appears in public unshaven and sloppily dressed. To Moore's likely retort that Wolfowitz deserves to be gratuitously ridiculed for doing nothing worse than any member of his audience could easily recall doing himself, the answer is that nobody deserves to be treated this way. It is cruel and hypocritical, and violates basic ethical reciprocity. Doing so is wrong, and far more wrong, and infinitely more harmful to others, than licking one's own comb.

The second moment of note is President Bush's pause of seven minutes after being told, on the morning of September 11, that the country was under attack by terrorists. He was reading to schoolchildren at the time, and after the stunning news, finished the story. To Moore, the sequence is proof positive of Bush's unfitness to lead. It is not only an absurd contention, it is an unfair one. We don't have films of how Franklin Roosevelt acted as he received the first news of Pearl Harbor's bombing. We don't have any idea how Lincoln responded when he was told that Fort Sumter had been attacked. We have never been shown films of the previously anonymous Harry Truman learning that he was suddenly leading the nation during World War II. And none of us, including Moore, know how we ourselves would initially respond to the challenge of leadership under momentous circumstances and crisis. We might be momentarily stunned, or panicked, or afraid, or thoughtful. We might get angry, or shout, or become depressed: it doesn't matter. All that matters is whether we pull ourselves together and do our job, which is what Bush did.

Using this footage to attack the President is the calling card of either a man unfamiliar with human nature or utterly contemptuous of it. Using his considerable skills as a comic director to make audiences laugh at such moment is analogous to successfully seeking humor in the hysterical reaction of a parent to news of their child's death. It is callous, and it is a willful attempt to encourage public ignorance of basic human realities, holding our leaders to impossible standards.

Give Michael Moore a pass when he ridicules Bush's vacations, even though most people know that the President's job is a 365 day a year job whether he takes vacations or not. Forgive his blatant factual errors and paranoid conspiracy theories: they don't get in the way of the laughs too much.

But we can't forgive the meanness, because it risks making us mean like him.

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