Q: When you started work on the book, did you plan to defend Moore against his opponents on the Right, or were you already clear in your own mind about the flaws in his work?
A: I didn't have much respect for Moore's work to start with, although I had initially been impressed with Roger and Me. But Columbine was pretty appalling; it was so transparently intellectually dishonest and manipulative. I've never cared for the lazily polemical style of Moore's books and articles, although he does occasionally make a good point. I resolved to be fair to Moore and to give him credit where credit is due, and I think I've done that. But as you've seen, I don't shy from pointing out where he's been dishonest and unfair.
As someone on the Left myself, as a matter of honour I don't want to win by using Karl Rove's tactics, and as a matter of practical politics I don't think the Left can win that way. The Left has been almost criminally negligent in fact-checking the Right; the Right has been absolutely vigilant in fact-checking the Left, and the Right controls the US media (more on this later; I know you don't agree.) This forces the Left to play by a higher standard than the right. Which, while it may be unfair, is not a bad thing.
A short digression is in order here, because it is important for everything that follows. There is no real Left at this time in the United States. There are some thoughtful, "small-d" democratic leftists, and there is an entirely separate (and marginal) class of radical leftists who think that Fidel is a great hero and who are nostalgic for the Soviet Union. But there are no left-wing politics in the sense of having an agenda and a party. There is no party in American contemporary life, for example, that seeks a national, single-payer health care system. Or that advocates a steeply graduated income tax. Or that proposes full civil rights for gay people. There is no movement or party doing these things, certainly not the national Democratic Party. So I don't think that left politics exists in this country, and it's important to understand that.
Q: When I first saw Roger & Me I thought it was a funny and informative piece of muck-raking journalism. Since then, of course, I’ve learned more about the fabrications and distortions in the film. When did you first have doubts about Moore’s working practices?
Roger & Me was the first Moore film I saw, and I had the same reaction as you did. With R&M the deception is less apparent; if one is sharp, one can note Moore's condescension to the working class (as Pauline Kael did at the time) but one would have to actually do some research to become aware of how Moore twists the facts here; it's not blatantly absurd, and he does have a broadly if not specifically accurate case against General Motors.
But Columbine was the next point at which I became aware of Moore's work, and it was just so clearly ridiculous that I stopped being able to take him seriously as a commentator. So many wild and disjointed political swings, all the while failing to address the central issue of gun control. It was amusing, in a way, but there was nothing intellectually serious about it; and when one is dealing with something as tragic as the Columbine massacre, I think it's just wrong to go for the cheap shot, so to speak. And Moore did something I would have thought impossible: he made me feel sorry for the odious Charlton Heston.
I do have to defend one short segment of the film, however. As I said in the book, the sequence exposing the background story of the situation of the mother of the six-year-old boy who took a gun to school and shot a classmate was powerful and true. Moore was right to point out the terrible social policy of the welfare law that forced the mother to take a low-paying, distant job that kept her away from her son when she could not afford child care, with the result that she left him with her drug-dealing brother in the crack house where he found the gun. This was a poignant and complex point and actually had some meaningful content as social criticism. I can't think of anything else in the film that did.
Q. Would you say that the Mother Jones period marked the turning point in Moore’s career? He seems to have been regarded as generally truthful and honest when he was at The Flint Voice.
The Flint Voice was an interesting publication. It was naïve and radical in its politics, but so far as I could tell it got the facts right. As I say in the book, I believe that writing about local issues and having a local readership that could use the experience of their daily lives as a sort of running fact-check kept Moore honest; he could and did editorialise in his news stories, but if he had gotten too far away from the facts, people would have noticed. Now that he has a national constituency and works with broader, more subjective issues, this check is gone. It's not impossible to do partisan, agenda-driven journalism honestly, but it takes a lot of discipline. Moore doesn't have it.
I don't know that Mother Jones was specifically the turning point in this regard. After all, Moore was primarily an editor there, not a writer. His problems had more to do with his management style and his ideological rigidity than with any actual presentation of the news, I believe.
Q. You mention that you have followed Moore around the publicity trail? Did you try to interview him?
A: Very persistently, and got nowhere. Which isn't surprising; there's no percentage for Moore in talking to someone like me. Perhaps it was a mistake on my part to tell him that while the book would be no right-wing hatchet job, it was "not uncritical". Silly me! I don't really blame him; from a purely pragmatic point of view, he had nothing to gain and possibly something to lose in talking to me. I did chat with him for about five minutes at a private reception in California for a screening of F9/11. He was polite and seemed interested in the project, and directed me to his assistant, who also seemed enthusiastic and told me to send him details. He gave me his card, which had nothing on it but an e-mail address. I said that I'd sent maybe 20 e-mails to this address and gotten no response. He said, "Oh, but now I know who you are and what you're doing and I'll definitely reply." Well, to my astonishment...
Q: In my experience, it’s almost impossible to persuade people on the Left to look at the allegations made against Moore. How have your friends on the Left reacted to the details of fabrications, etc, you have listed? Do you now expect to be "excommunicated"?
A: I must say that this has not at all been my experience. The idea of Moore as the universal darling of the Left is, I think, a product of the right-wing media. There's been quite a lot of criticism of Moore in the left-wing press--or what passes for it--off the top of my head I can think of pieces in Dissent, The New Republic, Salon, Slate, LA Weekly, Blueprint, Open Democracy, and numerous left-wing blogs. Believe it or not, there are great numbers of thoughtful liberals who despise Moore and consider him very bad for the left. Most of my friends are on the Left, and none of them respect him. Well, maybe one or two, with reservations and caveats. Far from "excommunicating" me, my friends have encouraged me by saying that what I'm doing is important for the health of the Left, and wished me success.
Q. Were there any major points in Dave Kopel and David Hardy’s critiques of F 9/11 or Columbine that you disagreed with? There are websites devoted to debunking their claims, but most of the rebuttals I’ve seen have focused on fairly trivial matters.
A: I thought Kopel and Hardy got it right. I wouldn't agree with them on most political questions but they made strong, disciplined and honest arguments. The one place I think Kopel was a little simplistic was in regard to his criticism of the sequence in Columbine I mentioned above, about the mother who was basically forced by the state to abandon her child. Still, I would place my reaction here under difference of opinion rather than llegitimate argument. I think Kopel and I would have a lot to disagree about on these questions: he's a gun nut who really believes that American political liberties rest on the Second Amendment. Well, he's entitled to those opinions, and he fights fair.
Really, if we're going to go after lies and manipulations on the Left -- as we should -- let's hold the right to the same standard, shall we? I actually interviewed David Hardy, although the interview didn't make it into the book. At one point I asked him if he would now go after Ann Coulter's nonsense. "No," he chuckled, "She's too cute." I could easily assume that it was Coulter's political positions, more sympathetic to Hardy than Moore's rather than her physical charms that won Coulter her free pass. But Coulter and Rush Limbaugh take more liberties with the truth in an hour than Moore does in a week. And there just isn't anyone on the right who's willing to call them out in the way that I've called out Moore in my book. Why is that?
[UPDATE: David Hardy e-mails a response. I'd say he's too hard on Bill O'Reilly, but I can only judge from the TV show rather than the books:
I must have been feeling lighthearted that day, or I would have pointed out that in order to criticize Ann Coulter I'd first have to read her...I find most American political commentary these days isn't worth the time it takes to read. What passes for commentary is a collection of anecdotes mixed with righteous indignation... I did once skim "The O'Reilly Factor," since I was to be on his show and it might be useful to have some passing familiarity with his writing. What struck me was that his style was almost identical to that of Moore. If a person had no idea of Left vs. Right, didn't know that this criticism was of someone on the Right and that criticism was of someone on the Left, he might conclude that O'Reilly and Moore were the same author!]
Q. You say in the book’s introduction that the Democratic leadership has no enthusiasm for Moore. Yet he was invited to sit in the VIP section at the convention, and Terry McAuliffe and other Democratic worthies attended a screening of F9/11. Was it just a question of cynically trying to tap in to anti-Bush sentiment? And how should the Democrats treat Moore in future?
A: I think the Democratic embrace of Moore was a serious mistake, but I think it was driven more by laziness and an emotional satisfaction than any reasoned endorsement of the interpretation that Moore was presenting. I don't think it was primarily a cynical association, as you suggest, although that might have played some role too. I think it was an emotional self-indulgence.
As for McAuliffe et al attending a screening, correct me if I'm wrong, but I think you're referring to the Washington premiere. By definition they hadn't seen it before and didn't know what was in it. If
they praised it afterwards--as they may or may not have done, I don't recall--they didn't have time to make a reasoned, fact-checked assessment of the claims in the film. Which doesn't excuse any endorsement, because they should have waited until they could properly assess it.
But I'd like to say a few words about the immediate emotional temptation of a positive reaction to F9/11, which I admit to experiencing myself, at least partially, when I first saw the film in the summer of 2004. Here another digression is in order, but I think it's an important one if one is to understand the state of American politics.
Let's be clear: Moore gets the historical and political specifics wrong in many regards, but he is entirely right in his assessment of Bush's character. I really do see Bush as a creepy, conscienceless, arrogant, narcissistic, strutting little sociopath who believes he was appointed by god to the presidency, and that therefore little things like actual election results don't matter. He did in fact steal the presidency in 2000, and not because of any close-result, election-day-chaos, bureaucratic-inadequacy scenario either; it was a very calculated, well-laid plan.
It's hard to describe the feelings of rage that a stolen election generates, and it can lead to some lapses in judgment. It is this kind of deep and quite justified contempt for Bush that leads to tactical and ethical mistakes like the warm welcome given by politicians, who should have known better, to Moore's film. As for Carter inviting Moore to sit with him at the convention, that I really can't explain except to say that Carter was acting like a fool. But I won't try to justify it.
How should the Democrats deal with Moore in future? Shun him. Because 1) he's political poison, and 2) more importantly, he's a blind ideologue who seems to believe that the ends justify the means. I think history pretty clearly shows this to be a disastrous delusion that has too often served the larger purposes of demagogues, not least those of George W. Bush.
Q. Don't feel obliged to answer this if you feel it's too sensitive. You quote one of Moore’s ex-colleagues’ assessment of his "manic-depressive" behaviour at Mother Jones. You also mention that Moore’s use of deceptions has an "almost masochistic" quality, as if he wants to be caught. Can you expand on this?
Not too sensitive at all! David Hardy and Jason Clarke, in their anti-Moore book, speculate that Moore is filled with self-loathing. I think psychological diagnoses at a distance are iffy at best, and I'm not prepared to say anything about Moore's state of mind. But I think we can look at the fact-checking on his movies and at how he's responded to that and modified (or not) his behavior, and draw certain conclusions. Both R&Me and Columbine came in for some pretty serious criticism in terms of their confusion of cause and effect, ther use of out-of-context stock footage, their assertion of false details in support of a shaky thesis. Now, even if Moore didn't feel any ethical compulsion to present an honest argument, you'd think he'd at least learn the lesson that breaking the rules of the documentary like this was giving his critics a lot of ammunition. But he didn't! He's back doing the same things in F9/11. It's particularly frustrating because there was so much that he could legitimately have gone after Bush for.
I could turn one of Moore's stock phrases back on him: "Will they ever trust him again?" If we're smart, I think, the answer is No -- at least until he shapes up and gives us a reason to do so. But the bar will be set high for that, because he's set it so low for himself in the past. As I say in the book, I think it was the growing, retroactive awareness of the very serious problems in R&Me and in Columbine that kept F9/11 out of contention for the 2004 Oscar.
Q: Finally, are you wholly pessimistic about the general level of the Left v Right debate. What faults should both sides admit to if we’re to start a proper exchange of views?
A: A broad and general question that invites me to indulge myself. So here goes.
If the goal is to return to a bi-partisan spirit of co-operation in the national interest--hmmm, wait a minute, "return"? Well anyway, there are several things the Right could do. First of all, publicly admit that the 2000 election was stolen and see to it that Bush and Rove and Harris and James Baker and everyone else who was involved in that coup are successfully prosecuted and spend the rest of their lives in gaol for conspiring against the constitution.
Of course I'm not being serious here. This isn't going to happen in the real world. But that's why I make this point. It illustrates the profound damage that has been done to the public trust in the last few years, how deep the divide is, and how pessimistic we unfortunately have to be that it can be bridged. Because this really is the sine qua non for getting past the political crisis of the Bush years, and it's not going to happen.
Short of that, what can the Right realistically do to help us return to debate in a public rather than partisan spirit? Stop having to win every single political battle completely; stop insisting on crushing and humiliating the opposition. If Republicans want to "change the tone", they should stop calling judges with whom they disagree "activist" judges who make law from the bench. Just stop it. Right-wing judges just as frequently as left-wing judges do exactly this. Furthermore, when judges refuse to be activist judges in ways that don't please Republicans (cf. the recent Terry Schiavo case) they get furious and insist on judicial activism.
Republicans have to rein in their own viciously partisan manipulators. You asked why Michael Moore is loved by some on the Left, and what the Democrats should do about him. I could ask the same question in regard to Rush Limbaugh, Michael Reagan, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, Neil Boortz, G. Gordon Liddy, Tucker Carlson, Jay Nordlinger... The list goes on and on and on and on. It's quite fair to criticize Jimmy Carter for inviting Moore into his box at the convention; what about the radical Congressional Republicans of '94 naming Rush Limbaugh an honorary member of the House? What about the Right's embrace of Coulter and Savage, who routinely refer to Democrats as traitors and terrorist sympathizers? What about Richard Mellon Scaife generating rumors that Clinton was a murderer and a drug dealer? Don't recall any Republicans denouncing that.
Oh yes, and when Democrats block really radical extremist judicial nominations, Bill Frist should not try to rally the Republican evangelicals by proclaiming that they were blocked because the democrats can't tolerate "people of faith". That's just so wrong, in so many ways.
I could go on and on, but these issues are at the top of my list for what the Republicans could and should do to lead us back to civil political debate in the national interest.
Here's what Democrats could and should do. Stand for something. This is hard for an opposition party to do; the party in power generally sets the agenda, and the opposition reacts. But it's not helpful, in a partisan or a national sense, just to oppose. It's the Democrats' duty to look beyond short term political gain and do this, even when the positions they know are right--defense of secular government and progressive taxation, say--are politically unpopular. Hold themselves to a higher standard.
There is a natural temptation on the part of the Democrats to find our own Karl Rove, and I think this explains a lot of the tolerance for Moore, as I said. But this temptation should be resisted; I want to believe that we can fight fair and still win, even if Republicans don't. Besides, Rove is so much better at it than anyone on the Democratic side. So the Democrats have to really get away from Moore and people like him, not just tactically with a wink and a nudge but convincingly and sincerely.
I realise that this list will seem unbalanced to you. I sincerely believe that the Republican record on honesty and the public trust is just so much more egregious than that of Democrats that I just have a lot more to say on that side. Partly, again, this is a function of the imbalance of power; the party in power has more opportunities for sleaziness, and is more able to get away with it. I could make a much longer list of what Democrats ought to do to be politically successful, but that was not the point of your question.
[Go here for my update on Larner & Moore]