There's no such thing as a free road, there's no such thing as an objective documentary, and there might be no such thing as our 1,000th issue
Rarely is the poverty of this thinking clearly illustrated, but bless the furor over toll roads, currently the hottest of hot-button political topics, for letting in the light.
Folks are outraged at the very thought of tolls, denouncing them as "taxation without representation." This illustrates classic contemporary thinking, by politicians and voters, about government spending. If we put off paying for it, call it something else, or just disguise deficits with creative bookkeeping then the money isn't really being spent. We can spend and spend without ever having to pay!
Now, there are some federal and state funds available for roads (taxpayer money, of course), but not enough to cover all the construction being considered. Read the opening quote again. Bonds are simply public borrowing of funds; they have to be paid back at some point, and the interest on them has to be serviced. Bonds are not money; they are not taxpayer funds; they are not free. We are not being asked to pay twice; we're being asked to pay once, which has some of us yowling like babies. Bonds simply postpone payment, adding significant costs to the financial burden our grandchildren will bear an already staggeringly unfair amount, courtesy of the Bush administration.
It makes sense that those who don't want new roads oppose tolls. I'm a Yankee who began paying tolls as soon as I started driving, so I don't get the outrage. But if you favor new roads, then you have to accept that there are going to be huge costs involved. So, how are we going to pay for them?
"Is it true?" seems to be the opening question in almost any discussion of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11. Given how bizarrely simplistic that very thought is, at the least Moore deserves credit for so audaciously setting the agenda.
It's the word "documentary," which has come to connote "truth." Outside of the eyes of God, "truth" is a pretty hollow term that most people (myself included) use to mean, "This is what I believe." "Objective" is equally misleading in that it implies uninfluenced and undirected reporting. Every reporter makes decisions as to what to and what not to include in telling a story, so attempting objectivity is usually more distorting than acknowledging one's biases.
What does "Is it true?" mean? All of Moore's work is argumentative and polemical. "Is most of the information Moore marshals in Fahrenheit accurate?" is the more reasonable question. Keep in mind it all could be accurate and still not validate the points Moore is making.
Documentary simply means "nonfiction," in that the footage shown is captured rather than scripted and constructed by the filmmakers. The fact remains that when, where, who, and how they film still impact the footage they use. How the film is constructed, what is included, what is left out, and how it's edited all contribute to the voice of the finished film. Adding archival footage, as Moore does, just makes authorship even more pronounced.
Periodically, I'm contacted by a friend or reader who has just discovered an article or Web site debunking Moore's work. Example after example demonstrates how dishonestly his arguments are constructed, as he distorts chronologies, facts, and people's statements. Shortly after first seeing Roger & Me, I read Pauline Kael's dissection of the film's distortions and manipulations in The New Yorker. At first, I was shocked. But Moore is a political provocateur, a polemicist, a rabble-rouser in the great American tradition of Patrick Henry. His purpose is to engage, outrage, and mobilize, not to educate. Thinking about Roger & Me, I realized the core arguments in the film were true regardless of how much the information was manipulated. American industry is abandoning the communities that have long housed and nurtured it, breaking promises and violating trust along the way. At best, government response has been ineffectual; at worst, it's actually complicit.
When arguing ideas, especially politics, we emphasize some information and leave other chunks out, while spinning everything. How many times do you exaggerate in any argument?
Moore is a demagogue at worst. Whether or not you agree with him, he manipulates to make points. At best, he is a daring political agent, a brave cinematic essayist aggressively tackling dangerous topics that too few others dare.
It is hysterical to hear right-wing media denouncing Moore for doing what they do every day, expressing outrage at the thought that convictions might influence presentation, or ideology impact information. The great genius of the Limbaugh armies was to position conformist acceptance of the status quo at its most reactionary as both embattled and courageously rebellious. Characterizing the most knee-jerk conservative beliefs of most Americans as those most threatened while casting the more marginalized progressive communities as those in control recast mainstream thinking as contrarian and revolutionary. Certainly, it helped that satire and humor, once the tools of the left, had been politically denuded, allowing Limbaugh to repoliticize them with a deeply conservative cast. Not just the specific ideological agenda, but the tone and very language of political discussion became owned by the right. The meaning of words was recast, history distorted, and the very terms of political debate redefined.
Most significantly, Moore (along with others, such as Molly Ivins, Al Franken, and Jim Hightower) exploded the right-wing ideological monolith, recasting the discussion along far more inclusive and bipartisan lines. There is no wonder they are all so outraged at Moore. He stole their clothes while they slept, their soapboxes while they were standing on them, and their dominance of the dialogue when they were taking it so completely for granted.
Now back to that term "documentary." Anne S. Lewis, my wife, has profiled more than 50 documentary filmmakers over the last half decade. If you want to get any of them going, ask them first to define a documentary, and then ask them to talk about the work of other documentary filmmakers. They all get aggressive, insisting that what they do is the only pure documentary style while denouncing most other documentary filmmakers.
In his film La Chinoise, Jean-Luc Godard has a character face the camera and say something along the lines of: "It has always been stated that the Lumières created documentary film and that Méliès created fiction film; I say the Lumières created fiction film and that Méliès created documentary."
Both are early cinema pioneers: The Lumière brothers simply turned on the camera, recording scenes such as a train arriving at a station or workers leaving the factory. Méliès, an illusionist and the father of special effects, carefully edited his films to tell stories with amazing visuals. The point is that to pretend a film is factual/documentary, that it tells the "truth," is inherently a lie. Even if you turn a camera on and off, when you do so impacts what you show. A created film is a reflection of the world it was created in. One pretends to truth but is, inherently, a fiction, the other pretends to fiction, but, also inherently, reveals much about the world in which it was created.
Moore is up-front about being ideologically engaged. He gleefully manipulates information to make points. This makes him a lot more honest than most. Even granting serious hesitations about his style and content, Moore's "truths" (observations) may well offer more content than just the facts (whatever the hell a fact may be).
Often people wax nostalgic for the news coverage of the past, the two-fisted writers, the objective coverage. This is romanticized garbage. Do you think when most major areas had at least two papers, and some six or seven, that the reporting was mannered? If you name the great reporters of the first half of last century, you'll find that most manufactured quotes, offered composite characters as individuals, and made up incidents. They wanted to convey a "truth," as they understood it, a truth sometimes so amorphous that more disciplined reporting couldn't capture it.
Many years back, a friend ended up housesitting for a local lobbyist who bad-mouthed the Chronicle's reporting on development issues as being very negative to her clients. Television and the daily newspaper were much better, she argued, because as they tried to be objective by presenting both sides of every story information that neutralized or refocused an issue could always be offered to them.
Is Fahrenheit 9/11 true? What does that even mean? Much of the information it offers is not only generally regarded to be accurate, but is also common knowledge. Some of its points are excessive, over the top, or mostly speculative, if not complete fiction. Ultimately, the film may inform your thinking. But no film, Web site, book, or authority ever owns the simple, exclusive truth on any complex topic.
This is our 1,000th issue (see Nick Barbaro's "Counting to 1,000"). So many years, so many people, so many issues. Hell, where did 23 years go? This one is no different from all the others except that it marks the beginning of a new redesign, which will be introduced over the next several months. Toward that end, this is the last time for "The Straight Dope" in the Chronicle. Devotees can check the Web site www.straightdope.com.
Look for more changes soon. We are grateful to all of you, our readers, but right now, we have to get started on issue No. 1,001.