Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Whale Watched

Expect weeping, whaling and gnashing of teeth down Manhattan way: "Michael Moore Is A Big Fat Stupid White Man" has managed to grab number 9 spot on the NYT bestseller list. A considerable achievement for a book that not only eschews the Liberal establishment's articles of faith, but aims straight for the throat of their biggest star.

What's more, the success of MMIABFSWM is evidence of a shift in power between old media and new. Not only are both authors bloggers, with (Hardy) and (Clarke) respectively, but the book has risen with nary a trace in the traditional media. Its success is almost entirely a product of the net. So the book annoys the old media Liberal establishment - what more do you need ? Well, actually, you probably are asking one question: is it any good ?

First, a couple of whines. As you can probably guess from the fact the book's already out, the authors weren't able to take into account events surrounding Fahrenheit 911 - but more about this later. Plus - irony of ironies - the book's kind of slim. Excluding the extensive footnotes, there are just 206 pages of which 43 are actually reprinted articles by other authors, which inevitably means quite a bit of redundancy. Take Tim Blair's piece from the The Australian - it contains some absolutely brilliant insights, yet much of it is given over to covering ground already expertly dissected in previous chapters. Fortunately, however, of those remaining 163 pages, virtually all contain a hand grenade.

A difficult decision for any author seeking to deal with Fatso is the question of tone. Do they let the facts do the heavy lifting, and rely on a dry, even quasi-legalistic approach to exposing the Zeppelin - thereby exposing themselves to ostentatious Lefty eye-rolling and cries of 'calm down, dear, it's only a comedy' ? Or do they fight fire with fire (or, more correctly, Jabbah the Hut jokes), thereby leaving themselves open to Lefty moralising ? For an example of the latter, look no further than the reaction to the books title - it may be a double allusion to books by Mikey and Al Franken, but hey ? Those guys are lefty aristocrats, not like those fascists, Hardy and Clarke.

The authors have adopted an approach much like a coroner, carefully dissecting Moore's work, then dispassionately laying it all out for public scrutiny. With a more scrupulous target, this approach would risk falling fat flat, but it is the nature of Moore that his work is the living embodiment of the phrase 'to state it clearly is to refute it'. One of the most effective chapters consists merely of a series of recitations of a Moore prediction followed by what happened in reality (not to give the ending away, but the chapter is called The Prophet Of The Left Is Never Right).

The bulk of the book deals with debunking Moore's supposed masterpieces. Bowling For Columbine is justifiably notorious, yet even here Hardy and Clarke unearth much that is new and interesting. Meanwhile, even a Right Wing Death Beast such as myself was surprised to find out how much of Moore's work - even back to Roger and Me - was fraudulent. Hardy and Clarke manage to be comprehensive without becoming stodgy or resorting to nitpicking. The tone is relentlessly dispassionate such that there is never the feeling that the authors are beating you over the head with their opinion.

While the authors are remorselessly factual when dealing with Moore's work, they're not afraid to get down and dirty when dealing with the man himself. Chapters such as Moore's Millions go straight for the throat, while a more tongue-in-cheek attitude is present in Moore's Last days In Office. Both attitudes come together in the outstanding chapter of the book, which the authors open by noting that 'This is not one of those books where an author attempts a psychiatric analysis based on inadequate training and limited experience with the person being studied. The authors in this case have no psychoanalytical training whatsoever and have never met the person under study' before attempting to show how Moore is a textbook case of Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

It says a lot about how well Hardy and Clarke have studied Moore that they managed to write a chapter debunking Fahrenheit 911 before the film was actually completed. The authors guess correctly that Moore would try to construct loony conspiracy theories about pipelines, Saudis and oil. What they could not anticipate was Moore's grave-robbing exploits in the second half of the film - say what you like about the Fat Man, but he can always find new and innovative ways to disgust.

Perhaps (overly ?) anxious not to descend to Moore-style partisanship, Hardy and Clarke steer clear of trying to draw any wider conclusions about what the success of Moore means for modern politics. Guest author Andrew Sullivan at least has a go, explaining the Moore phenomenon as a result of an intellectual vacuum on the Left. Even so, this is unsatisfying. Moore didn't just happen to the Left: lefty papers slobber over him, senators and film stars attend his screenings - these people aren't innocent bystanders. What does it say about the Left when their star player is a proven liar ? More philosophically, can the loose association between Liberals and reality as revealed by their Moore worship be one of the reasons for the high failure rate of their policies ? Hardy and Clarke ain't saying.

Quite correctly, the authors devote a chapter to the overlap between Moore's philosophy and that of the Islamists. If Clinton could virtually indict Rush Limbaugh as an accessory to the OK city bombing, then we're free to ask what it says about Moore when counsel for one of the Bali bombers cites his work as proof of the evil of the West. Again, however, the authors steer around wider issues.

One wider point the authors do make is the sheer snobbery inherent in Moore's work. To quote Tim Blair, Moore is always ready to stand up to the little guy. His movies feature him bamboozling, bullying, victimising and humiliating ordinary, decent Americans. One of the secrets of Moore's success is that he's found a way to allow metropolitan yuppie scum to sneer at small town folk and still babble on about how unprejudiced they are.

The authors point out that Moore has become less coherent as his career goes on. In Roger And Me there was still an actual point: GM's redundancy program was creating thousands of casualties. BfC supposedly dealt with an actual problem, namely America's high murder rate, albeit only as an excuse for Moore to mock people and spew lefty drivel. Fahrenheit 911 ? With the exception of Bush's satanic nature, what exactly is that all about ? My own suspicion is that this is tied to the other trend in Moore's career - namely, the way he has become more and more cunning at hiding his lies. Roger And Me could be debunked by anyone with a basic knowledge of current events in Flint, BfC - with it's quick editing and bogus footage - required a deeper analysis while Fahrenheit 911 is the high point of Moore's deceptiveness, for example Moore presents a montage of idyllic images of pre-war Iraq. Of course, they did fly kites in Saddam's Baghdad, so in that sense Moore is not actually lying, yet what he presents is far from the truth. Moore has learned to replace easily refutable facts with subtle innuendo, and if obscuring his mischief means obscuring his actual point, that's a price worth paying.

The book ends on an optimistic note. Whatever success Moore has had, he has helped bring on a new wave of creativity amongst the right. The authors rightly (if somewhat excessively) pay tribute to young filmmaker Michael Wilson, maker of the documentary Michael Moore Hates America. While doubtless too modest to mention their own contribution, Hardy and Clarke note the grass roots agitation that has sprung up against Moore, with efforts such as this latest example here. Moore's rantings are ultimately self-limiting, the hate and the rage prevent him actually generating any kind of positive message - it would be ironic indeed if the only long-term effect of Moore's theatrics was to energise a new generation of Hillary's Vast Right Wing Conspiracy.

So is the book worth buying ? Well…. it is unparalleled in it's dissection of Moore's work. If you're working somewhere that's knee-deep in Moore fans, like a school, university or mental hospital, this book will give you all the ammo you need to repel drones. Even on the fisked-to-oblivion BfC, Hardy and Clarke unearth new bodies. At the same time though, the book does seem strangely unsatisfying. Hardy and Clarke lay out the case against both Moore's work and Moore himself, yet what does it all mean ? The book lacks any sense of a central narrative or context. No doubt this will increase the books appeal to the ideologically less committed, but at the same time the book seems at time to be merely concerned with cataloguing Moore's offences rather than attempting any kind of deeper analysis. Inevitably, you find yourself wondering what a more spiky commentator would do with this material. Obviously, the book is a must-read for Moore Haters, while Conservative bloggers and the like will appreciate an exhaustive reference to the many and varied misdeeds of the fat pest but those of a less political bent may prefer to wait for the paperback version before indulging in the pleasures of seeing one of the most bloated (in every sense) figures in Hollyweird today given a right kicking.

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