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On Sunday night, 35 friends and strangers crammed into a 350-square-foot studio on Avenue C in the East Village for the nationwide "premiere" of Uncovered, The Whole Truth About the Iraq War, an antiwar exposé by Hollywood producer Robert Greenwald.
Sipping wine and munching on black-bean crostinis and other vegan hor d'ouevres, the twenty- and thirty-something crowd watched a litany of former spooks, CIA analysts, military officers, weapons inspectors, and career diplomats deconstruct the Bush administration's claims of the threat of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, once the central rationale for going to war. They snickered over a clip of Bush referring to Iraq's "fizzleuh, fissile nuclear material," and cheered when Ray McGovern, a 27-year veteran of the CIA, summed up the Bush Administration's case as "a very successful, very deliberate, and very immoral use of PR to mislead the people of this country."
Over at Margaret Scott's townhouse in Chelsea, the 20 or so people who gathered to watch Uncovered over Chicken Asopao and salad were more well-healed and seasoned (most were over 50, and many had participated in protests against the Vietnam war). But their reaction to the film was in some ways more radical: "This film should be the beginning of an impeachment campaign against Bush," declared Martin Gettelman, a professor of clinical psychology. "We should repeatedly ask members of congress to bring articles of impeachment. We need a million signatures," he said as he scratched out a petition on a piece of scrap paper, which nearly all the other guests signed.
No doubt Greenwaldwho directed and produced the film with backing from MoveOn, The Nation Institute, and the newly formed liberal think tank the Center for American Progresswould consider such responses to Uncovered a big "two thumbs up." More than 2600 people across the nation signed up through the MoveOn website (moveon.org) to host screenings of the film on Sunday night and to participate in a conference call with Greenwaldand most events were packed to capacity.
"It's pretty amazing," says Eli Pariser, MoveOn's international campaigns director, who helped orchestrate the call-in at a house party sponsored by Moby. Pariser estimates more than 50,000 people watched in gatherings that took place in private homes, bars, restaurants, church basementseven yoga salons ("Knowledge may not always be pleasant, but it is power," advised a posting from Kula yoga, which hosted over 50 people in its Tribeca loft). Pariser says that Greenwald and MoveOn decided to distribute the film online in order to foster a "real-time" debate about Bushs role in the war instead of pushing for a traditional theater or TV release, which would have taken months or a year.
"When we first offered it on our site, we expected to just do a couple thousand copies," Pariser says. "But when 23,000 people asked for it, we knew there was something significant about this movie."
Maybe that's because the film speaks to many Americans' hunger for a "weapon" to unseat Bushsomething that Greenwald, who helped found the group Artists United to Win Without War with M.A.S.H. veteran Mike Farrell, was happy to deliver. (Greenwald also made the anti-Bush documentary Unprecedented, about the 2000 Florida election debacle.)
Part documentary, part agitprop infomercial, Uncovered plays footage of Bush and his cabinet members repeatedly insisting they have verifiable proof of Iraq's WMD off of interviews with such seasoned experts as ex-CIA chief Stansfield Turner; weapons inspector David Albright; Milt Bearden, who helped oversea the CIA's covert support for the Afghan resistance to the Soviet Union; and Karen Kwiatkowski, a senior intelligence analyst at the Pentagon who resigned her post last April because she believed members of the administration were manipulating intelligence about Iraq. There's also John Dean, Nixons White House counsel made famous for his testimony during the Watergate impeachment hearings, who reminds viewers that, "It's a federal felony [for elected officials] to deliberately mislead."
Though Greenwald delivers no smoking guns, by assembling such a no-nonsense cast of level-headed critics, he does make a compelling case for the way the Bush Administration relied on distorted, unfounded, and even concocted (in the case of the Niger yellowcake allegations) evidence to convince Congress and the American people of the necessity for going to war.
And by using grassroots distribution through the Net, the Uncovered release represents another extension of the kind of "viral marketing" groups like MoveOn and Dean bloggers have used to rally Bush opponents into action. The Dean campaign may have helped pioneer the phenomena of using the Net to fuel face-to-face Meetups and house parties with like-minded politicos. But by using its 2 million-plus online subscriber base, the MoveOn team is looking to mobilize a potentially broader base of disgruntled Americans to take action in their local communities. "We want to give people something more to do than just click," says Pariser.
Last month, when MoveOn released a membership-funded ad in Charleston, West Virginia criticizing Bush for spending $87 billion in Iraq while he shortchanges healthcare and education here at home, Bushs approval rating dropped four points. Such ad campaigns will soon take on added heft thanks to the $5 million that billionaire philanthropists George Soros and Peter Lewis recently contributed to MoveOns Voter Fund. On Thursday MoveOn is launching a $1.9 million two-week ad blitz in five key swing states: Florida, Ohio, Missouri, Nevada, and West Virginia. MoveOn is also encouraging its members to make their own attack ads with a Bush in 30-seconds ad competition, intended to help find the most memorable take on why Bush must go. The entries will be judged by a panel of celebrity Bushwhackers, including Jack Black, Michael Moore, Donna Brazile, Gus Van Sant, Michael Stipe, Margaret Cho, and Moby.
Such DIY media are efforts to engage an American public fed up with high-gloss spin campaigns. But political power also requires people to unify, which is where the house party comes in.
In many ways, the house party phenom is a progressive flip to the way the Christian right used church socials and coffee klatches during the late 80s to mobilize "true believers" to pack school boards and other local offices with a bottom-up strategy that skewed the Republican party to the right. Now Bush's policiesand the lackluster scrutiny of those policies by major media outletsare propelling progressives to mobilize with similar fervor. While the notion of having a house party to screen a political documentary might have drawn snores a few years ago, these days it's the basis for a movement.
"It's a resurgence of the idea of the political salon on a mass level," says Leigh Smith, an Australian "dot.com refugee" who helped host the Avenue C gathering with his partner, Jill, a video editor who asked that her last name not be used because the media company she works for is squeamish about its employees engaging publicly in partisan activities. "The suffragette movement started out with high-society home gatherings," Leigh observes.
Leigh calls today's Net-powered salons "distributed agitation and home projects to break through media control." And he thinks the movement is gaining momentum: "The idea of going to a political rock concert was hip in the '80s, but this is a really interesting new kind of forum. It plays into the whole flashmob phenomena, which is something that people want to feel part of."