July 2004
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Day July 4, 2004

Final Fourth of July Thoughts

From President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1940 State of the Union Address:

The social and economic forces which have been mismanaged abroad until they have resulted in revolution, dictatorship and war are the same as those which we here are struggling to adjust peacefully at home.

You are well aware that dictatorships–and the philosophy of force that justifies and accompanies dictatorships–have originated in almost every case in the necessity for drastic action to improve internal conditions in places where democratic action for one reason or another has failed to respond to modern needs and modern demands.

It was with far-sighted wisdom that the framers of our Constitution brought together in one magnificent phrase three great concepts–“common defense,” “general welfare” and “domestic tranquility.”

More than a century and a half later we, who are here today, still believe with them that our best defense is the promotion of our general welfare and domestic tranquillity.

In previous messages to the Congress I have repeatedly warned that, whether we like it or not, the daily lives of American citizens will, of necessity, feel the shock of events on other continents. This is no longer mere theory; because it has been definitely proved to us by the facts of yesterday and today.

To say that the domestic well-being of one hundred and thirty million Americans is deeply affected by the well-being or the ill-being of the populations of other nations is only to recognize in world affairs the truth that we all accept in home affairs.

If in any local unit-a city, county, State or region–low standards of living are permitted to continue, the level of the civilization of the entire nation will be pulled downward.

The identical principle extends to the rest of the civilized world. But there are those who wishfully insist, in innocence or ignorance or both, that the United States of America as a self-contained unit can live happily and prosperously, its future secure, inside a high wall of isolation while, outside, the rest of Civilization and the commerce and culture of mankind are shattered.

Further reflections on Fahrenheit 9/11

Last night I saw Fahrenheit 9/11 again, with a different group of friends. The Neptune theatre was packed, with a long ticket holder’s line down the block. My feeling about the movie remains the same — it’s a terrific work, but it could be better. My sole reservation about the movie, which in all other respects is a brilliant piece of editorial documentary (or polemic electioneering, you decide) is that Moore slips into conspiracy theory far too much. It simply isn’t necessary, and in fact detracts from Moore’s overall point.

Moore spends roughly the first half of the movie painting the links in what appears to be a conspiracy between the Bush family, their cronies in the U.S. defense and oil sector, and the Saudi elite. In the process of portraying Bush family history as a grand conspiracy which would make an X-Files screenwriter proud, Moore misses a more important point. It doesn’t take a conspiracy for money, power, and influence to be tightly cross-linked between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. What Moore calls a conspiracy is usually called the “stock market.” The Saudis aren’t alone in investing in U.S. funds like Carlyle — investors from 55 countries have money in the Carlyle Group’s funds, mainly because the stock market boom of the 1990’s made U.S. funds extremely attractive places to put capital.

There’s a laundry list of ways in which Moore ties together individual pieces of data into a conspiracy theory, and it would be largely redundant to catalog them here. The blogging community is well ahead of the game and you can find analysis everywhere you look. The real point is that conspiracy isn’t necessary for the nation to conclude that Bush and his team have been terrible leaders. Destructive tax-cutting practices combined with increased spending, intentional disregard for the results of solid economic and scientific advisors, poor handling of terrorist threats before 9/11, and a welter of lies designed to justify the Iraq War speak for themselves.

We don’t need to believe, for example, that Saddam is an innocent guy who never threatened America or killed Americans in order to question whether a headlong, poorly planned rush to war was the right decision to make.

We don’t need to believe that there is an elite conspiracy between rich Westerners and rich Saudis to understand how the current terrorist onslaught is a direct result of decades of U.S. Middle Eastern policy — policy pursued by Democrats and Republicans alike.

I simply think Moore’s movie would have been even stronger without resort to elaborate conspiracies. Nevertheless, the movie will have an impact. Moore has an incredible talent for shocking you, making you angry, and wanting to know more. My hope is that people who see the movie will be motivated to learn more about the reality and not treat F9/11 as gospel, because if there’s one thing Moore isn’t, it’s a an accurate journalist.

The American people would be better served, in my opinion by not resorting to conspiracy theories to explain events which are largely structural. Conspiracies, by their nature, can be stopped by stopping the people involved. Structural features of our economy and foreign policy aren’t changed by simply voting people out of office, arresting evildoers, or going to war.

But the truth is that grand conspiracies are rare. The fact is, most of the time bad things occur right out in the open, and nobody notices because we don’t pay attention. Anybody armed with a web browser, Google, and a couple of hours to sit and read can learn more about the Bushes, Saudi Arabia, terrorism, Middle Eastern policy, and recent history than we could ever absorb from a movie. But we don’t.

The real point of Fahrenheit 9/11, the most important point Moore makes, isn’t about Bush at all. For me, the movie’s most powerful moment is Lila Lipscomb standing in front of the White House in tears, saying “People think they know but they don’t know. I thought I knew but I didn’t know.

We don’t know because we don’t pay attention. Americans are more interested in reality TV than reality. And that, not elaborate conspiracies, is going to be the downfall of democracy in this country, because democracy requires an informed citizenry, a population that KNOWS what they’re voting for.

James Madison wrote: “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power that knowledge gives.

Never has this been more true than today, and never have we failed so spectacularly to heed its advice.