The Documentary As Propaganda

by Gerard Donnelly Smith

August 2, 2004   


(Swans - August 2, 2004)  People, in general, are under the false assumption that propaganda equals false, misleading or deceptive rhetoric, including logical fallacies such as false emotional appeal, name-calling, false dilemmas and slippery slopes. Although I can't disagree with conservative republicans who call Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 propaganda, I do wish to qualify what type of propaganda Moore's documentary represents: does Michael Moore accurately slant the video footage, presenting an effective argument for the removal or George W. Bush from office? Or does Moore cross the line, using prejudicial language, exaggerating or misrepresenting the facts to achieve his agenda? At times Moore's imagery makes it clear that he despises (is that too strong a word?) George W. However, rather than present a dialectic or a soap-box roasting of Bush, he allows Bush and those who support him to speak for themselves. From their own mouths come the most damning evidence that the Bush administration should be, to a person, removed from office.

Recent documentaries, attacking the Fast Food industry and the current Bush administration, have done well at the box office, signaling a change in the audience's consciousness: from Europe to Asia, and even in America, political discourse has become a household item. True democracy -- founded on egalitarian social interactions like uncensored dissemination of information -- seems to be taking root within the body politic at the beginning of the 21st century. Producers, directors and writers like Moore and Spurlock have used the documentary genre to profitably make an argument. Technology like E-mail, Listservs, Web-based journals, databases, and Web-based non-profit organizations like MoveOn.org, and countless other advocacy groups like NORML, NRA, ACLU, have mobilized their members into significant voting blocks. Who attracts the audience gains control of the agenda, the information received, and the slant with which that information is presented.

When does that slant go too far? Considering that all communication carries the intended meaning of the speaker, one must be aware that the purpose of that slanted message might be to convince you to change your mind, to agree with the "agenda" of the communicator. That's not so bad, for how else will you convince that beautiful woman or man to spend the night? Beware listener, for those who produce propaganda have a more insidious agenda; they wish to so emotionally rattle your psyche that you forget that they produce no evidence to support their assertions. Rather than provide the evidence (good looks, steady job, honesty, integrity), the manipulator uses compliments and exaggerations of the potential paramour's physical features, wit and intelligence to fulfill his/her sexual needs. Everything is political, or perhaps we use propaganda to achieve all types of "ends."

What were Moore's ends? Simply to remove George W. Bush from the office of presidency? Actually, his documentary seeks to disgrace Bush and his supporters, to expose the spinelessness of most politicians, to illustrate the barbaric mentality and horrible cruelty of war, to criticize the mainstream media for their culpability, and to document the sacrifice made by the disenfranchised citizens in this country. Exposing the incompetence and complacency of America itself, Moore tells a story about how a national tragedy was turned into an international crime.

Moore's audience is intelligent and Moore respects that intelligence. Rather than interpret the image, Moore lets the image speak for itself. George W. Bush becomes Moore's best advocate, best testimonial that he, George W. should be removed from office, best witness that he, George W. lied to the American public, and most credible source that he, George W. was and still maybe is exactly what he appears. Moore does not interpret, but allows the facts to speak.

Yes, he does show images of dead Iraqi children, whose injuries will make you wince, but he does not exaggerate nor distort the image. In other words, his only slant is in the selection of the video footage, he does not embellish that footage. Yes, he does show you footage of congressmen fleeing from his questions about why their sons and daughters haven't volunteered to serve in the military, sacrificed like Mrs. Lipscomb and her son. But he does not use melodrama to create the cathartic response in his audience; he does not twist the facts to achieve his agenda. The congressmen really are running away from responsibility, from their duties: exactly. Not one senator supported the disenfranchised Black voters of Florida; none of our elected representatives read the Patriot Act before signing it into law. But these are facts, not the staged marches, speeches and rallies so indicative of the propaganda created by fascist regimes and their corporate media outlets. Nothing here is rehearsed.

Moore's images are juxtaposed yes, but not scripted for actors being paid for their parts in maintaining the ruling-class's power. He selected and edited the images for their emotional impact, but these images were not crafted to elicit blind love for the dictator, or xenophobic fear of an ethnic group destined for extermination. Moore's propaganda simply requires that the audience judge the facts themselves. He presents the evidence in a manner which may sway the audience to remove an illegitimate president from office, to remove from power a Commander and Chief who gave unlawful orders to invade a sovereign nation based on exaggerated and often faulty intelligence, in plain language, to defeat a politician who lied -- and not about sex.

Of course Moore includes wit in his documentary, for wit is essential in winning an argument. One must release the audience's stress or the emotional reaction will overwhelm it. Yes, you may be overwhelmed by Moore's images. Yet, like a good novel writer, or suspense-film director, Moore helps his audience step-back from the graphic horror, from the shock and utter disappointment. However, he does not ridicule. His wit makes the ironic point evident. When Moore ends his exposition on 9/11, his genius for selecting the best joke to underscore his satire or parody, literally, speaks for himself:

George W. speaks about being fooled. The overwhelming sad, yet hilarious truth, is that George W. really doesn't understand the irony of his foolish remarks. Like Oedipus, George W., perhaps unwittingly, fails to see the truth that the blind prophet has placed before him. Perhaps the ending would be more tragic if the protagonist were not so utterly pathetic.

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Propaganda: Then and Now - Gilles d'Aymery (11/12/01)

America the 'beautiful' on Swans

Poetry on Swans


Gerard Donnelly Smith, a poet and musician, teaches creative writing, literature and composition at Clark College in Vancouver WA. CERRO de la ESTRELLA (Logan Elm Press, 1992) was chosen for The Governor's Award for the Arts in Ohio, 1992. Excerpts from THE AMERICAN CORPSE (10 poems) were published in Apex of the M in 1995. He is the current director of the Columbia Writers Series, an Honorary Board Member of The Mountain Writers Series, and co-advisor of the Native American Student Council at Clark College. He has also organized readings for Poets Against the War.

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Published August 2, 2004
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