I distrust this new hero of the left

There is something fishy about a polemicist who is so averse to dissent
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This evening, in the West End of London, a quasi-religious event will take place. Harvey Weinstein, the boss of Miramax Pictures, has invited along a few hundred people - opinion-making types, presumably, with a few liberal-minded celebs - to an early screening of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11. It is something of confidential occasion, according to the publicists. Guests have been asked not to speak too loudly about it; there will be no red carpet or barriers "in order to avoid attention from the crowds on Leicester Square".

This evening, in the West End of London, a quasi-religious event will take place. Harvey Weinstein, the boss of Miramax Pictures, has invited along a few hundred people - opinion-making types, presumably, with a few liberal-minded celebs - to an early screening of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11. It is something of confidential occasion, according to the publicists. Guests have been asked not to speak too loudly about it; there will be no red carpet or barriers "in order to avoid attention from the crowds on Leicester Square".

No doubt, it will be a marvellous, self-validating experience for many liberals in the audience. In America, where it has just been released, the film has grossed $21.8m, making it the most successful documentary of all time. The reaction of filmgoers, their sense of pride and ownership, has been compared to that which marked the release of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, and maybe there is something to that parallel. Suddenly, when least expected, an unlikely saviour of the Left is moving amongst us.

There will be some (admittedly predictable) treats in store: Dubya giving an impromptu press conference from a golf buggy, continuing to read My Pet Goat to a group of schoolchildren for several minutes after being told about the attack on the World Trade Center. I particularly look forward to the scene in which that urbane intellectual of the right, Paul Wolfowitz, is caught on camera wetting his comb with his own spittle before running it through his hair.

On the face of it, the elevation of Michael Moore to major status should be welcomed. The world could do with more scruffy, overweight, politically uncompromising celebrities. He is tough at a time when liberals have been apologetic. He is not afraid to throw his considerable weight around. He is effective at deploying humour, so long the preserve of right-wing writers.

Yet there is surely something faintly suspect about this new hero of the left, with his carefully spun celebrity radicalism. For a start, that meticulously honed public image as a great controversialist hardly bears much scrutiny. Invariably, he is out of step only with those whom he already regards as his political enemies. Like all stand-up comics, Moore likes to please his core audience. His books and films may have outraged conservatives but they also reassure his liberal constituency at every turn, hitting the acceptable targets (Republicans, the establishment press, businessmen) while always sticking up for the right plucky minorities. With issues that do not lend themselves to this cheerleading approach - Northern Ireland, Palestine - he tends to fall back on facetiousness of an easy, vague, right-on kind.

You would search in vain for any issue in which the great controversialist has taken a truly unpredictable or unpopular stand. His work is about confirming the political positions of his fans, making them feel unthreatened and at home with his world view. When Madonna confessed, after seeing the new film, "I don't think I ever cried so hard at a movie in my life," that is precisely the response - pure Hollywood - being sought.

For all Moore's arguments that he wants his audience to vote, his film may well have the opposite effect. When politics becomes a matter of laughter and tears rather than of analysis, thought and nuance, engagement with it is likely to begin and end in a film theatre.

Moore's sublime talent for presenting himself as the victim of brutal right-wing forces, the friend of the little man, is similarly dubious. Once it was the cruel Murdoch-owned publishers HarperCollins trying to censor Stupid White Men; then it was the brutal Disney Corporation refusing to distribute Fahrenheit 9/11. Last week, Moore was being victimised by the film's R rating, which deprived him of that much-needed teenage audience. These incidents have two things in common: they are perfectly timed to promote Moore's product of the moment and, in the end, in spite of being just li'l ole Michael, he always manages somehow to win his battles.

Those who have tangled with him have soon discovered that here is one victim who should be treated with caution. When it was suggested that certain scenes in Bowling for Columbine were not entirely accurate, the director responded with threats of a lawsuit. Within days of release of the new film, he is at it again. "Any attempts to libel me will be met by force," Moore told The New York Times, who reported that he had consulted with lawyers over potential defamation suits against anyone deemed to have maligned the great man or his reputation.

It is a fairly reliable rule of thumb that those who try to get their way by threatening litigation - Maxwell, Archer, Aitken - are rarely on the side of the good guys. It seems distinctly strange that a man who has built his career on attacking the belief-system of the right - in his words, "censorship, repression and keeping people ignorant" - would use these kinds of threats in the face of possible criticism.

There is something fishy about a polemicist who is so averse to dissent, about a victim who can suddenly become a bully, about a man of the people who seems so happy to play the celebrity game. I distrust him and, as a result, I distrust his arguments.

terblacker@aol.com

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