Over the weekend, filmmaker Michael Moore wrote a piece keeping the peace over the Ground Zero Mosque.  However, the most fascinating part of Michael’s argument was found pinned at the end of his article — as if an afterthought — where he tossed in a quote from German Playwright and Grand Thinker, Bertolt Brecht:

The man who speaks of the enemy
Is the enemy himself.

Here’s a screenshot of the quote from Michael Moore’s website so you can see that how that quote appeared in the context of his article:

Michael Moore quoted Brecht’s poem — From a German War Primer — and here is that quote in a larger context, but make sure you read the whole poem to get a sense of not just these bits, but the entire bite:

WHEN IT COMES TO MARCHING MANY DO NOT KNOW
That their enemy is marching at their head.
The voice which gives them their orders
Is their enemy’s voice and
The man who speaks of the enemy
Is the enemy himself.

IT IS NIGHT
The married couples
Lie in their beds. The young women
Will bear orphans.

GENERAL, YOUR TANK IS A POWERFUL VEHICLE
It smashes down forests and crushes a hundred men.
But it has one defect:
It needs a driver.

Knowing Brecht’s writing and his sense of gnawing style — and the fact that the poem is titled “From a German War Primer” — Michael Moore misunderstood the original context of the quote he picked to button the argument on his blog post.

Brecht is writing the piece tongue in cheek — what appears to be so is just the opposite and what is said is not what is meant, but intimated — Brecht is mocking the classic German “War Primer” with insider digs and an ongoing, pinching, commentary that is highly sarcastic, yet sophisticated enough, to fool even the great mind of Michael Moore.

When Brecht says:

The man who speaks of the enemy
Is the enemy himself.

Brecht himself doesn’t mean it, even though the speaker — the “author” of the “War Primer” — does, and we come to understand that by reading the entirety of the piece in situ as Brecht intended.

One clue about the tone of the poem is revealed in the final stanza:

General, man is very useful.
He can fly and he can kill.
But he has one defect:
He can think.

A real “German War Primer” would never end with that sort of corporal condemnation and celebratory human correction — but a Brechtian War Primer certainly would, and does — and so Michael Moore’s entire blog article now becomes an inconvenient warning against those searching for a great quote to randomly cherry-pick for employment in their own writing.

Originating context matters, and choosing a quote out of context just because it appears to back up your argument on the surface — when it actually undermines the overall point you’re trying to make — is mealy and cringe-inducing instead of being pointedly persuasive.

Michale Moore’s end unjustified his meme.

Bertolt Brecht actually means just the opposite of —

The man who speaks of the enemy
Is the enemy himself.

— because the lesson Brecht is teaching us all is that speaking of the enemy is actually a way out of war without sinking deeper into the needless bloodshed of rules, the flaying static codes of conduct, and the cold, conditioned, autonomic reaction that only serve the lowest common interests of the State.

4 Comments

    1. I’m a big Michael Moore fan, Gordon. He does great work with his money. He addresses necessary topics in his movies. That’s why I was so disappointed in his pinning-on of the Brecht quote. It was totally unnecessary and, even if you don’t know Brecht, the quote sticks out in a really sharp and uncomfortable way that punctures his entire argument.

  1. Brecht, a German Communist, was looking back to Karl Liebknecht : “The main enemy of every people is in their own country!” And if that is the case, Moore was using the line very close to it’s contextual meaning.

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