By Charlie Lawing
Jul 13, 2004, 20:09
His work has been branded as “incendiary,” his rhetoric characterized as excessively emotional, and the man himself has been labeled a gross and unpatriotic distorter of the truth. A letter he received from Washington, DC warns that his slanderous accusations “cannot much longer be tolerated.” Another from Princeton, New Jersey reads: “You damned scoundrel. Hell is gaping for you!” One of his less radical liberal colleagues called him a “scold.” And even some of the financiers who helped bring his fiery voice to the American public expressed concern over the activist's notoriously combative style. His response? If the reputations and sensitivities of a few stupid white men “must be sacrificed to open the eyes of this nation and show the tyranny” of our government, “so be it. I expect and am willing to be persecuted.
It's a pity that many readers will not recognize this description of abolitionist editor and orator William Lloyd Garrison, who died one and a quarter century ago on May 24, 1879. For as his most recent biographer Henry Mayer wrote in 1998: “In the long struggle to achieve equality in the United States, William Lloyd Garrison occupies a place as central in the history of the nineteenth century as that of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the history of the twentieth.”
On June 22 my wife and I drove from Northern Virginia for a week-long vacation to New York City. The next day, we purchased advance tickets to the 7:30 p.m. premiere of “Fahrenheit 9/11” at a theatre near our hotel across the Hudson in Clifton, New Jersey. That Friday, the day of the documentary's national release, while lunching in NYC with a colleague and professor of history at the CUNY Graduate Center, I made a half-joking remark about the similarities I saw between Michael Moore and William Lloyd Garrison. But after seeing tw
o-thirds of “Fahrenheit 9/11” that night (stick with me, I'll explain shortly), I knew better. The similarities are no joking matter at all.
For thirty-five years beginning Saturday, January 1, 1831, Garrison edited and published his weekly antislavery newspaper The Liberator, never once missing a single printing. The newspaper's final edition (issue 1,803) was distributed on Friday, December 29, 1865, 11 days after the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment constitutionally abolished slavery in America. As a journalistic advocate for African American and women's rights, Garrison sought and readily attracted controversy, never retreating “a single inch” from a heated editorial quarrel. Indeed, Garrison and the historical record have proven that political agitation is a healthy, vital component of the social process.
It is a great understatement to say that not everyone in the country praised Garrison; some conservative abolitionists considered his editorial and oratorical language too seve
re, and many slaveholders wanted him dead. But no matter how obliterating his words were to the semantics of oppression, Garrison, who envisioned a better America, was an optimist at heart. Throughout his illustrious and turbulent career, William Lloyd Garrison—devoted husband, loving father, stalwart friend, and fearless patriot—served his wife, his children, his neighbors, and his country with uncompromising faith, holy conviction, selfless charity, and fervent courage. In addition to his publishing duties and many speechmaking appearances, Garrison founded the New England Anti-Slavery Society and helped establish the American Anti-Slavery Society, serving as the latter's president from 1843 to 1865. It is thus small wonder that in 1859 he received greater recognition in a major publisher's comprehensive encyclopedia of American culture and politics than did Frederick Douglass, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Wendell Phillips, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry David Thoreau combined.
Today, however, the story of
Garrison—who, like those twentieth-century peacemakers Mohandas K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., was imprisoned for his nonviolent resistance to a country's corrupt mandates and immoral laws—is typically reduced to footnotes in the pages of American history. Though his outspoken condemnations of human rights violations were met with social ridicule, verbal and physical abuse, murderous threats, a price on his head, and a nearly successful attempt on his life, Garrison sought to reform society through the exercise of peaceful protest. Three months shy of his 33rd birthday, in 1838 Garrison organized the New England Non-Resistance Society, whose antislavery members and followers would: 1) promote peace; 2) denounce force; 3) abstain from military service; 4) serve no office that executes penal laws; 5) not vote for officials whose authority arises from physical force; and 6) resist no operation of law, except by submitting to the penalty of disobedience. Published in 1849, Henry David Thoreau's “Civil Di
sobedience” (originally titled “Resistance to Civil Government”) would become a profoundly significant influence upon the nonviolent protest campaigns of Gandhi and King, who likely had little (if any) awareness of Thoreau's indebtedness to Garrison's sociopolitical ideology and practices.
Garrison's grand reputation dimmed in the twentieth century. As Henry Mayer wrote, “Garrison's formidable combination of romantic will and religious zeal came to be regarded as a menacing egotism, and his absolutism sounded extreme and dangerous to a modern society grown relativistic in its judgments and suspicious of ideology.” Mayer recognized that because “our political culture is not kind to those who challenge its norms,” Garrison's nonconformist agitation has “come to seem shrill, weird, and counterproductive. That is how the critics of his own day portrayed him, and some charged that his behavior retarded the very movement he helped create. It is unfortunate that the stereotype of Garrison as the lunatic frin
ge personified has become history's vantage point, because from the margins . . . he managed to shift the political center in a manner seldom matched in our history.”
Like so many of William Lloyd Garrison's critics did in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Michael Moore's twenty-first century critics are hard at work, trying to rewrite his history as rapidly as possible. An article in The Oregonian (June 30, 2004) challenges news reports “on the opening of Michael Moore's new movie ‘Fahrenheit 9/11,'” which “invariably referred to it as ‘the highest-grossing documentary of all time' on its first weekend in release. Indeed,” concedes the writer, “the film raked in an eye-popping $23.9 million in its first three days, but don't call it a ‘documentary.' That's like calling Rush Limbaugh's show a ‘newscast.' True documentaries seek at least a pretense of journalistic balance. What Moore has created instead, much like his film ‘Bowling for Columbine'—winner of the 2003 Academy Award for best documenta
ry—is no such thing. It's a polemic—a 112-minute anti-Bush screed that people are standing in line to see.”
Though there is no byline for this article, perhaps the writer thinks of himself or herself as a journalist, and thus subscribes to the self-serving myth of “journalistic balance” (aka “fair and balanced reporting”), a fantasy which leads readers to believe that journalism is something not only different from but superior to polemics. But considering that a polemicist is “a writer who argues in opposition to others,” how does The Oregonian writer's journalism differ from Michael Moore's? Moreover, a documentary is nothing more than a film or television program “relating to or consisting of or derived from documents,” hence the word document-ary. Perhaps the confusion over the meaning of “documentary” arises from the following definition: “Customarily an interpretation of theoretical, factual, political, social or historical events or issues presented either objectively or with a specific point o
Many journalists (and historians), especially those who believe there exists such a phenomenon as “journalistic balance” have faith in its parent myth—“objectivity.” In an article in Slate (June 21, 2004), Christopher Hitchens criticizes that “at no point” in “Fahrenheit 9/11” “does Michael Moore make the smallest effort to be objective.” Hitchens then goes on to argue—objectively, of course—that Moore never passes up “the chance of a cheap sneer or a jeer.” “To describe this film as dishonest and demagogic,” writes Hitchens, “would almost be to promote those terms to the level of respectability. To describe this film as a piece of crap would be to run the risk of a discourse that would never again rise above the excremental.” Is Hitchens a polemicist? Yes. Is he a journalist? Absolutely. In fact, he is a talented polemical journalist. I don't agree with his subjective ideas, but they are nonetheless delivered in an entertaining and skillfully-crafted propagandistic way.
In an intervie
w with Michael Moore on CBS's The Early Show, co-anchor Hannah Storm quoted Hitchens who called Moore's movie “a sinister exercise in moral frivolity cruelly disguised as an exercise in seriousness.” On June 25, 2004, a posting on The Early Show's website informed readers that “though the film won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes film festival and has gotten excellent reviews, Storm points out a lot of people are questioning whether it allows viewers to think for themselves. Some say it is propaganda.” When she asked Moore if he considers his film propaganda, Storm sprung her own trap. “No,” he responded,
[quote]"I consider the CBS Evening News propaganda. Why don't we talk about the news on this and the other networks that didn't do the job they should have done at the beginning of this war, demanded the evidence, asked the hard questions. We may not have even gone into this war, had these networks done their job. I mean, it was a great disservice to the American people because we depend on pe
ople who work here and the other networks to go after those in power and say, “Hey, wait a minute. You want to send our kids off to war? We want to know where the weapons of mass destruction are. Let's see the proof. Let's see the proof Saddam Hussein had something to do with September 11.” There was no proof and everybody got embedded and everybody rolled over and everybody knows that now." [/quote]
Struggling to locate something with which to cut herself free, Storm produced the old saw that “the one thing that journalists try to do is present both sides of the story and ‘it could be argued you did not do that in this movie.'” Moore, however, understands that to bow before the phantom of objectivity is to worship sociopolitical inertia.
[quote]“I certainly didn't. That's right. I present my side. Because my side, that's the side of millions of Americans, rarely gets told. And so this is just a humble plea on my behalf, not to you personally, Hannah, but I'm saying to jour
nalists in general that instead of working so hard to tell both sides of the story, why don't you just tell that one side, which is the administration's. Why don't you ask them the hard questions?”[/quote]
One hundred and forty-six years ago, William Lloyd Garrison similarly criticized journalists. “The American press is,” he wrote, “to a fearful extent, in the hands of a cowardly, mercenary and unprincipled class of men, who have no regard for truth in dealing with what is unpopular; who cater to the lowest passions of the multitude, and caricature every movement aiming at the overthrow of established wrong; who are as destitute of all fairness in controversy as they are lacking in self-respect; and whose columns are closed against reply that may be proffered.” Hannah Storm is not the first media personality to appear nonplussed by Michael Moore's from-the-hip and from-the-heart type of truth-telling, nor will she be the last. For the avoidance of fairness in controversy is rooted in journ
alism's heritage of bias and subjectivity.
The Bush administration will not return for a second term. This rosy prediction came to me two-thirds of the way into watching the premiere of “Fahrenheit 9/11” in Clifton, New Jersey on the night of July 25, 2004, for it was thereafter when the movie screen went black, and through the theatre loudspeakers came the announcement of fire in the building. There was no panic, nor even excitement, as the audience calmly and cordially strolled toward the exit doors. Outside those doors it was dark and raining. Some of us went home. But many, including my wife and I, huddled beneath our umbrellas, waiting to see if we would be let back into the theater. After about an hour we were told to disperse, that we could return tomorrow for free passes to any AMC Theatre.
It was later that night when my blood reached Fahrenheit 212. It had at first frozen at 32 degrees in my veins as I witnessed the gut-wrenching anguish of an Iraqi woman who lost the family she cheris
hed. It had then started simmering as I witnessed the agonizing pain of Lila Lipscomb still tortured by the death of her son in Iraq. But it reached the boiling point when my wife and I returned to the theatre not the following day, but later that evening. There had been no fire, we learned. Someone has triggered a false alarm.
I don't believe that the Bush administration will lose the White House because the pranks of juvenile saboteurs expose such raw partisan desperation (btw, the following day my wife and I and the cheering multitudes saw the film in its uninterrupted entirety at an AMC Theatre in NYC). I believe the administration will lose because, no matter what critics say about the “truthful” content of “Fahrenheit 9/11,” the film's core truths mirror America's core values, nonpartisan values which the current administration abhors, truths around which Moore encourages all patriotic Americans to rally.
Like Moore, William Lloyd Garrison was accused of hyperbole, of not truthfully repor
ting all sides of a hotly debated national issue. “How,” Garrison wondered, “ought I to feel and speak and write, in view of a system which is red with innocent blood drawn from the bodies of millions. . . . My soul should be, as it is, on fire. I should thunder, I should lighten, I should blow the trumpet of alarm long and loud.”
To paraphrase historian Howard Zinn, if we start from the ethical assumption that it is fundamentally wrong to launch an unprovoked assault against a sovereign country and to torture its citizens, and that restoring honesty, integrity, and legitimacy to the United States of America “requires penetrating the moral sensibilities of a nation, then it is justifiable to focus on those aspects” of an issue “which support this goal. When you teach a child to be careful crossing the street, and say, ‘You can be killed by an automobile,' you are singling out of the totality of automobile behaviors that small percentage of incidents in which people are killed. You are not telling the w
hole truth about automobiles and traffic. But you are emphasizing that portion of the truth which supports a morally desirable action.”
As an article in The Boston Globe (June 30, 2004) put it, “Moore is devastatingly accurate in his depiction of the victims of war—Iraqis weeping over relatives buried in rubble, a family terrified when soldiers invade their home, an American mother grieving the loss of her son, and wounded US soldiers screaming on stretchers. The film rightly questions the Bush administration's justification for war, the politicizing of the terrorist threat, and the strictures on individual liberty in the US Patriot Act.” These fundamental truths, whether they are mingled with fact or with fiction, will no longer be denied.
© Copyright 2004 by AxisofLogic.com
The author, Charles Lawing, completed his second year as a Doctoral Pre-Candidate in History at George Mason University (GMU) in Fairfax, Virginia in May, 2004. He graduated with a Master of
Arts in Liberal Studies from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where his research orbited the study of bond-servitude and slavery in colonial and antebellum America, the concurrent failure of Reconstruction and the growth of scientific racism in post-bellum America, and the Progressive-era eugenics assault in early-1900s America. He has presented conference papers at Virginia Tech and Harvard University, respectively, about Loving v. Virginia, the 1967 landmark United States Supreme Court case that overturned all existing anti-“miscegenation” laws. His study at GMU concentrates on Loving v. Virginia and its intersection with the codependent concepts of “race” and “miscegenation.” He recently completed a biography about William Lloyd Garrison for young adults, which is currently under consideration at Oxford UP. You can reach Mr. Lawing at email@example.com