Stuck in a hotel room I turn on the television. It is a reflex habit, born not from an addiction to the idiot box but out of curiosity.
Like one more of those virtuous bourgeois progressives I own a television, but we use it only for movies and children’s videos. There is no cable hook-up, so all we can get without the shakedown from the media monopoly are a few grainy television channels.
The struggle to get any reception obviates any thirst for what’s on. And besides, my brief forays away from home and into the land of cable reinforce all my prejudices about the shallow torrent that is contemporary television. When I need to get that feeling further confirmed, I toss in another video from the Media Educational Foundation (MEF) that is so critical of television that I shudder from fear that simply watching the box is corrosive.
But this summer, despite the good weather, I have watched my share of television – or at least documentaries on television. Robert Greenwald’s Uncovered: the whole truth about the Iraq War, promoted by MoveOn.org began the rush. House parties to view the film morphed into political discussions and then, in some cases, local political actions. In my neighborhood, the man who held the house party put up flyers all over town to attract people.
When he announced the showing to his carpentry course in the local community college, the administration told him to stick to teaching his subject and leave politics out of it. But he persisted, and even did a cable access show on home repair with an audience of anti-war activists in regalia.
Greenwald, who gave us the forgettable Xanadu (1980) with Olivia Newton John, produced a film that truly uncovered the lies of the Iraq war long before the monopoly media had anything to say about the yellowcake-Niger fabrication or even the false al-Qaida/Ba’ath linkage. In some circles, the movie had a very important impact.
Then came Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, which is already a monument unto itself. I enjoyed the audience as much as the movie: it was good to be in a vast room, in a space where one normally feels the genuflection toward shallow patriotism, and experience outrage at the ruling class for its mendacity. From the roll-call of the Congressional Black Caucus who called upon the lily white Senate to offer one of its members to join them in their attempt to scuttle the ratification of the election to the final Jimi Hendrix style riff by Moore himself on the fundamental problems in our society – it felt like one long pep rally from and for the liberal left.
It is unusual to see images of the damage done by our bombs in the darker nations, and so those pictures had a very strong impact in the auditorium. In addition, while all the reviews talked about Lila Lipscomb, they didn’t mention the extraordinary Iraqi woman whose frustration with the murder of her family by a cruise missile led to her rage against the US and us. The moment humbled the audience as the chatter and laughter died down for an instant.
Moore is not a deep thinker, and his films offer a flimsy analysis of what ails the world. In this one he seems to impute that the corporate ties between the House of Bush and the House of Saud somehow explains 9/11 and the attack on Iraq. There is no analysis of the ruling class consensus (both Republican and Democratic Leadership Council) on US imperialism, and on the need to thwart any adversary early and often (the sanctions regime under Clinton simply continued the Bush Senior Gulf War into the Bush Junior Gulf War).
We don’t learn about the difference between the neo-cons and the neo-libs, between those who want to push for unilateral US domination versus those who want to produce a multilateral corporate domination. Nothing like that is attempted in a movie that simply comes out of and feeds on the culture of “Against Bush.” Bush’s own personal illiteracy seems to engender an immense sense of superiority amongst those sections of the cultural elite who want to have an intelligent man in the White House rather than a dullard and frat-boy. Michael Moore’s movie reflects the opinions of this particular class reaction.
For a more detailed and considered look at the lead up to the recent Iraq war, I recommend MEF’s Hijacking Catastrophe. Like many MEF movies, this one is well-researched and informative, even if a bit didactic. Unlike Fahrenheit 9/11, this movie does not go for cheap jokes or emotional roller-coaster rides. It puts into documentary form all the many analyses from the left of the long-term neo-conservative strategy to overthrow the Ba’ath regime in Iraq (from the Bush Senior Gulf War to the Project for the New American Century reports), and of the way the Bush Junior government manipulated the media to make the link between its Pearl Harbor (9/11) and Baghdad.
The film show us not only the long-term agenda of the neo-conservatives, but also how they were able to use 9/11 to sell this controversial agenda to the public via a subservient media. Tariq Ali and Immanuel Wallerstein make the important point that whereas oil is important to the PNAC agenda, the real issue is world domination (where oil is a subset, not the focus).
We hear from a host of important analysts (such as Noam Chomsky, Chalmers Johnson, Scott Ritter, Stan Goff, Jody Williams and others) whose commentary is valuable if a bit affected. If Moore’s film went to the heart and not the mind, MEF’s movie goes to the mind but not the heart.
There are far too many men doing the commentary in the MEF movie, but one woman steals the show. She is Lt. Col. Karen Kwaikowski of the USAF who worked for four year in the Pentagon at the Near East South Asia Policy directorate, and is now closely associated with the Libertarian Party.
Lt. Col. Kwaikowski tells us how the neo-conservatives in the White House and in the Defense Department pushed the Pentagon’s career officers like herself to manipulate raw intelligence for the media. Her brief is the most powerful information in the movie, because it is one of the few instances where we hear of the military’s information people being given talking points from the civilian staff to essentially become the yellow press for war.
In her forthright manner, Lt. Col. Kwaikowski tells us that the US bases in Afghanistan, for instance, are built along the route of a natural gas pipeline, and that the US military has become the appendage of corporate profit. I enjoyed her snippets in the movie, and appreciated that MEF had left an unedited half hour interview with her as an extra on the DVD. Lt. Col. Kwaikowksi is, in many ways, the Lila Lipscomb of this film, except just as the Michael Moore movie appeals to the grief of Lipscomb, the MEF film appeals to the intelligence and analysis of Kwaikowski.
MEF has borrowed a distribution trick from Robert Greenwald and moveon.org. The movie is available at an affordable price from MEF’s new website (www.mef.tv), and, for the money, it is well worth it. I plan to use it this Fall in my class on nationalism.
Both Moore and MEF offer an internal critique of the US war plans. From neither do we hear the many voices in the Arab world that are perplexed and angered by the hell-fire directed at them. In this regard Jehane Noujam’s Control Room is truly extraordinary.
Purportedly about Al Jazeera, the documentary actually introduces us to a set of very moving characters who work for the station and who represent the many contradictions in the Arabic speaking professional class. These newsroom operators have a genuine global double consciousness: they are able to see the world through the eyes of US imperialism, and they are able to see it through the eyes of the bombed. When they speak with the officials of imperialism they are far more aware of what is going on in the interaction than the blinded bureaucrats of war whose own parochialism is apparent.
Reviews of the movie tend to emphasize the boyish US Centcom press liaison Lt. John Rushing, but his innocence is not idiosyncratic. The guise of innocence and simple curiosity has already been severely dispatched by Graham Greene’s satire The Quiet American: it is the innocence that pretends not to know its own strength.
Rather than Rushing, the most intelligent and complex characters are the former BBC reporter and now Al Jazeera producer Hassan Ibrahim, the senior producer Sameer Khader (the “smoking man”) and the control room producer Deema Khatib. From Ibrahim we get the best line of the movie: “You are the most powerful nation on earth, you can crush everyone,” he says to the US, “but don’t ask us to love it as well.”
One minute Ibrahim is talking to his wife in Hebrew, another he is in the middle of a discussion with Josh Rushing about the state of the media in wartime, and another he is the raconteur for our own film. These are not people who sympathize with Saddam Hussein at all, and indeed many of them have been his victims or have fled from his rule (such as Khader, an Iraqi).
But when the US occupies Iraq, Ibrahim shares his grief, just as Deema Khatib offers us her disbelief that an Arab capital, regardless of the character of the regime, has fallen so fast to an invader. The last time an Arab capital had been captured was 1967, when the Israeli army took Jerusalem – outside the living memory of Khatib who would have just been born around then.
“Where are all the soldiers,” she asks incredulously, “where did they vanish to?” Khatib’s question is prescient, because those soldiers dissolved into their neighborhoods to regroup not as Ba’athists but as nationalist insurgents (and some of them appear in Patrick Graham’s report from Falluja published in Harpers in June 2004).
That these producers are aware of the intricate details of life in the region allows them to so quickly deconstruct the US army’s pantomime destruction of the Saddam statue in Firdos Square (April 2003). Khader, who knows the many Iraqi dialects, quickly asserted that the men chanted with an Arabic that was not from the area, and the others threw in their own assessment of how empty the square looked.
Also, Khatib pointed out that the men produced a pre-Ba’ath flag, which was forbidden in 1963. How could they have so quickly extracted a flag that had no circulation within Iraq for four decades? The men looked suspiciously like a detachment from Ahmed Chalabi’s “Free Iraqi” militia. When the rest of the media went along with the fabrication, these three producers quickly saw it for what it probably was: a PsyOps campaign to replicate the sentiment meant to have showered US troops with flowers and perfume. They got bullets instead of roses.
The sharpness of these three producers is even more sharply revealed in contrast to the US media pool at Central Command in Doha, Qatar. The bulk of the reporters seem utterly incurious, from an age when image seems to have devoured substance. The MSNBC reporter is vacuous, as are a host of others who seem not to realize that they might want to learn something of the region that they have been sent to cover. Their parochial lens makes them cover the war as if were an American story first and foremost, and to not only not show Iraqi casualties, but to avoid any coverage of Iraqi matters.
No wonder the US media continues to be puzzled by the rest of the world, because it fails to study it. The hollow question “Why do they hate us” can only be asked by those who have no desire to learn anything about “them” and who are so enamored of themselves that they cannot conceive of this dislike and distrust. Those who are vacuous are bested by a few who are smart enough to be nothing short of pompous – they know everything so they don’t need to waste their time learning anything.
There is one old hand who is beloved, because he harkens to an earlier epoch of the US media when the story (and truth) played an important role for the reporter.
Rushing offers a chilling riposte to the US government line that Al Jazeera is simply pro-insurgent propaganda. In the film he notes that if Al Jazeera is at one end of the political spectrum, Fox News is at another. Sameer Khader, between puffs of his cigarette, mimics this line with his wonderfully explicable Third World sentiment, “Between us, if I’m offered a job at Fox News, I’ll take it. [I want to] exchange the Arab nightmare for the American dream.”
Taken together these films provide a wide array of opinions and analyses, as well as emotions, on the US pulverization of Iraq. If PBS really were “public” it would do us the service of playing each of these movies, one a night, to provide the kind of pedagogical work that is necessary for the plurality of people who still believe that Saddam had something to do with 9/11.
And for those of us who know that Saddam’s rule was appalling on its own terms and it did not need to have 9/11 attached to make it gruesome, these films offer hints of information, ounces of inspiration and a great deal of appreciation for people like Ibrahim, Khader and Khatib. They outfox us.