The flukish reign of "Fahrenheit 9/11" at the top of the box-office rankings came to an end on Wednesday, thanks to "Spider-Man 2."
But Michael Moore, the director of "Fahrenheit," now finds himself in a legal tangle. And while Moore's enemies might cheer at his troubles, they should know that they, too, could get snared in the same trap some day.
Here's the story: The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, commonly referred to as McCain-Feingold, after its chief sponsors, put severe limits on contributions to the two political parties. Proponents hoped that the legislation would "get money out of politics" but, of course, it did no such thing. All it did was divert donors' campaign cash into new channels, away from the parties, toward mysterious "527 committees," which run their own parallel campaigns for and against candidates.
These 527s are supposed to be independent of the parties and their nominees, but one such 527, Americans Coming Together (ACT), has hired veteran Democratic activist Jim Jordan, who until November was John Kerry's campaign manager. Does that sound like "independence"?
The Republicans have challenged these 527s before the Federal Election Commission, but the FEC won't take any action before November. Meanwhile, nobody knows how much money these groups are spending. Financer George Soros, for example, has reportedly pledged $10 million to ACT. And Soros, whose wealth is estimated at $7 billion, has given to other pro-Democratic groups as well. In fact, he says that defeating President George W. Bush is "the central focus of my life." So how much could Bush's defeat be worth to him?
In the meantime, alternative avenues for activists have opened up -- such as documentary films.
Moore openly claims that his goal in making "Fahrenheit" was to un-elect Bush. This declaration has led a Washington-based conservative group, Citizens United, to file a complaint with the FEC against the movie, arguing that its advertising after July 30 will violate provisions of McCain-Feingold that prohibit "independent expenditures" too close to a political convention or an election. Moore protests that his First Amendment rights are threatened by this provision and, of course, he's correct.
Interestingly, the head of Citizens United, David Bossie, opposed McCain-Feingold two years ago, calling the bill an "abhorrent" restriction that threatened his group's independent activism. But now Bossie says that the law should be enforced -- and if it hurts Moore's movie, well, that's OK, too.
Meanwhile, shock jock Howard Stern, having been scourged and fined by another government agency, the Federal Communications Commission, is waging his own independent campaign to defeat Bush this November. Don't be surprised if Republicans seek to use the government to silence him, too.
So the battle between "campaign finance reform" and free speech will continue. Campaign finance "reformers" have a goal: the full funding of politics by the government, sweeping away all private contributions. This is a vision of politics as a tidy process, in which omniscient regulators purge the "coarseness" and "corruption" of the current system. And both parties seem eager to help stifle freedom, attacking the First Amendment in the name of short-term partisan advantage.
But others have looked ahead further, to see what happens when freedom is squelched in the name of orderly good government. One such seer is Ray Bradbury, author of the 1953 sci-fi novel, "Fahrenheit 451," from which Moore derived his title. Bradbury's book imagines "firemen" whose job is not to stop fires, but rather to start them -- burning books. The novel's book-burning binge is begun not by a dictator, but rather by "nice" people who want a more placid society in which nobody is offended.
Freedom -- as exercised by Moore, or Bossie, or Stern -- is inherently messy. But tidy is worse. Tidy is halfway to totalitarianism.
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