- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 24, 2002

Apart from the saga of What The Butler Saw, American foreign policy is the topic du jour in Britain today.
We all know why. So which book are literary types turning to for basic information? More high-minded readers of this newspaper might assume that libraries and bookshops are being overwhelmed with requests for Kenneth Pollack's new study of Saddam Hussein's Iraq "The Threatening Storm," or perhaps "Special Providence," Walter Russell Mead's history of America's dealings with the world at large.
The truth, sad to say, is a lot more prosaic. The author who wields most influence at the moment is satirist and one-man political movement Michael Moore. Britain is, in fact, on the receiving end of a hearts-and-minds offensive on his part. His polemic "Stupid White Men" is winning fulsome reviews on the literary pages, his documentary film "Bowling For Columbine" has film critics in a swoon, and if you want to see Michigan's answer to Mark Twain in full, three-dimensional glory, you can now catch his one-man show at the Roundhouse, a former railway depot turned theatre venue in the heart of liberal north London.
The show is certainly worth seeing, but not quite for the reasons that Mr. Moore imagines. If you want to know why much of the left has lost its moral compass, if you want to know why Christopher Hitchens no longer feels able to write for the Nation, the reasons are writ large in Mr. Moore's staggeringly crude mixture of agitprop and stand-up comedy.
He works from a simple premise. America is the evil empire, one vast, continental gulag with McDonald's golden arches towering above the barbed wire fence. Corporations grind the workers into the ground and devote endless ingenuity to finding new ways of polluting the atmosphere. Black people are little more than slaves, and all those intelligent people who did not vote for George W. Bush two years ago are busy digging an escape tunnel to Canada.
I exaggerate, of course. But not by much. In the past Mr. Moore has occasionally had worthwhile points to make about the excesses of corporate America. Today any serious argument is lost in a welter of hysterical conspiracy theories and mindless Marxist rhetoric.
The most breathtakingly idiotic segment of his show came toward the end, when he turned to the subject of the September 11 hijackings. Mr. Moore had already let us know that he had doubts as to whether Osama Bin Laden actually organized the attacks. If that were not bizarre enough, he went a step further. Brandishing a box-cutter, he wondered how the terrorists managed to subdue the passengers on the airliners using such modest weapons.
I would have thought the answer was obvious. Yet you can rely on Mr. Moore's fertile imagination to come up with a different response: The people on the airplanes allowed themselves to be intimidated because they belonged to a pampered, privileged class which had grown used to allowing other people to do the dirty work for them. What is more, Mr. Moore would have us believe that if the planes had been carrying 90 poor people or 90 black people or 90 skinheads, the outcome would have been very different. I am glad to report that even Mr. Moore's loyal audience fell silent at that point. There are, it seems, limits even to their gullibility.
Why is he taken so seriously here in the first place? Ignorance has to be a major factor in his success. Few members of his British fan club bother to acquaint themselves with the basic facts about the American political system, so they fall easy prey to his fictions. The point was put forcefully to me by David Adesnik, one of the three American post-grad students who run Oxblog, a new web log devoted to foreign policy musings. As Mr. Adesnik observed when I met him and his two colleagues Joshua Chafetz and Dan Urman last week, it is amazing how much familiarity with McDonald's, Arnold Schwarzenegger and MTV substitute for knowledge of real American culture.
Oxblog (which you can find at https://oxblog.blogspot.com) is one of the countless independent discussion pages opening up in cyberspace's teeming marketplace of ideas. The site has already given "Stupid White Men" a shakedown. (Some of the most detailed critiques of the book can found at spinsanity.com further proof that some of the liveliest journalism being written today is to be found outside the pages of the mainstream press.) Until a year or two ago, I'm not sure I had ever heard of a web log (or "blog"). Now, sites such as andrewsullivan.com or Mickey Kaus' "kausfiles" have become essential additions to my daily newspaper reading, and everyone seems to have an opinion about the future prospects of the "blogosphere."
All in their early 20s, Mr. Chafetz, Mr. Adesnik and Mr. Urman always deliver provocative reading. The page changes several times a day, whenever they are able to take time off from their research into international politics and political theory. When I logged onto them just a moment ago Mr. Chafetz and Mr. Adesnik both Rhodes Scholars were locked in a well-mannered debate over the latest reports of divisions between the administration's hawks and doves. On a good day the site receives around 1,000 visitors a day. One occasional caller even hails from the EOP (Executive Office of the Presidency), which has, understandably, prompted some idle speculation among the trio.
Oxblog finds itself very much at odds with conventional wisdom in the university. As Mr. Chafetz explains, most of the students he encounters are in the grip of what he calls "blas Marxism," a standardized worldview that is not a million miles from Michael Moore's. "Haven't you read your Foucault?" becomes the standard refrain. Facts become irrelevant.
To the true believers, America is the blundering enemy of world peace, a country lost in a swamp of ignorance. And yet, as the Oxbloggers can't help noticing, many of these would-be critics turn out to have only a rudimentary knowledge of American history or politics. Many do not even know how many states make up the Union. (The commonest answer, in case you are wondering, seems to be 50, plus Hawaii and Alaska.) If the level of awareness is this poor amidst the dreaming spires, imagine what it must be like elsewhere?

Clive Davis writes for the Times and the Sunday Times of London.



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