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Fahrenheit 212: the boiling point
Published September 2, 2004

If there’s one thing that could be said about Michael Moore that everyone would likely agree on, it’s that he’s good at stirring up controversy and getting people mad. Sometimes they’re mad at him, sometimes at his targets. He’s not fair, and he’s not unbiased; he freely admits this, and it can be infuriating. But whether you hate him or love him, there’s no reason to ban Moore from the theater.

The executive committee for the Academy Theater in downtown Meadville recently decided that Moore’s film “Fahrenheit 9/11” should not be shown before the November presidential elections. The ostensible reason for this delay was that the filmmaker’s professed intent is to help remove President Bush from office. The theater’s directors said they felt it was inappropriate to show a film that had such a strong political message, preferring to stay neutral.

The committee also admitted, however, that they had felt some pressure from local patrons who did not want the film shown. I wonder who that could be? “This isn’t censorship. This is patriotism,” said Patrick McHenry, Crawford County’s chairman for the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign. “We do the same thing with pornography.”

McHenry’s right that something is disgusting about this situation, but it isn’t Moore’s film. It’s the attitude that criticism of the president and his administration’s policies is both un-American and dirty. It’s also the idea that art should be apolitical. Movies have been about ideas and politics since the beginning of cinema. “Dr. Strangelove,” both the original and the very recent “Manchurian Candidate,” and even “Free Willy” all have a message. Documentaries, despite their non-fictional nature, always express the viewpoint of the filmmaker.

The important distinction here is that documentaries are not news. Moore does not pretend to be a newsman. What his critics are complaining about is that he might influence people to vote against Bush. What a shock! There are several documentaries out there hoping to do the opposite. Sadly, none of them has generated much interest, or we could have had a double feature at the Academy Theater instead of this fiasco.

What is at the heart of this is the idea that the American people are too stupid to make up their minds about what they see. I have not watched Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” and I’m not sure I want to. I see it as a move towards a further polarization of the political sphere, redefining political debate in absolute terms, without room for compromise. This appeals to lots of people, but I think it’s a bad idea. That’s my decision, and there’s no reason that other people can’t make their own, whether to see the film or not, whether to believe it or not. What Moore says about his film is irrelevant to those decisions.

The Academy’s film committee decided to show a popular film that had not been seen in Meadville. They similarly had had many requests for the film, and were confident that it would make money for the theater. If the committee had been allowed to screen the film, it quite likely would have enraged people as well as entertained them; frankly, considering the media frenzy surrounding the movie, it’s likely that most of the audience would have already made up their mind on the presidential election, one way or another. If the film changed some opinions, the only thing that would be hurt is the idea that people shouldn’t be able to watch what they want to watch and make up their own minds.

“This is one man’s opinion,” said McHenry. He is exactly right. Just because that man is a filmmaker does not mean that we have the right to silence him. He did not make his movie with government money; he did not distribute it using the taxpayer’s dollars; it was not shown in courthouses, libraries and post offices. It is not propaganda, it is one man’s opinion, and silencing him is censoring him and denying the rest of us the right to listen to what he has to say.