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ELLEN GOODMAN

Limbaughing to the left?

MAYBE IT was because the man on my left was doing a play-by-play when any member of the Bush team came on the screen. Maybe it was because the movie theater was within pitching range of Fenway Park.

But halfway through "Fahrenheit 9/11," I realized this wasn't an audience, it was a fan club. They weren't watching the movie, they were rooting for it.

I saw this movie in a sold-out theater on a Monday night surrounded by people in their 20s. You go, Michael. If "Fahrenheit 9/11" preaches to the choir, you could find me in the alto section.

More to the point -- or Moore to the point -- I agreed with the filmmaker that Bush didn't exactly win the 2000 election, that we were misled into Iraq, and that the White House has used the terrorism alerts as a political toy. So add my review to the marquee: I laughed! I cried!

But at some point, I also began to feel just a touch out of harmony. Not even this alto believes that the Iraq war was brought to us courtesy of the Bush-Saudi oil-money connection. Not even the rosiest pair of my retro-spectacles sees prewar Iraq as a happy valley where little children flew kites.

There were a few too many cheap shots among the direct hits, conspiracy theories among the solid facts, and tidbits of propaganda in the documentary. Going for the jugular, he sometimes went over the top.

The simple fact that George Bush the First called Moore a "slimeball" makes me itch to call him a "genius." But that's the problem. If the right is after him, does the choir have to sing the filmmaker's praises as our own cuddly and amusing pit bull?

Michael Moore has been called the left-wing answer to Rush Limbaugh. Rush without the OxyContin. But is it heresy to ask whether the left actually wants its own Rush?

More than a decade ago, talk radio became talk right. Then Fox News took out a trademark on "fair and balanced." The right wing tried to take possession of "patriotism" the way they took over "family."

After years as a punching bag, is it any wonder that the left wants its own punching machines? But the end result is that we've hardened further into "us and them."

Politics isn't polarized between ideas as much as it is divided between teams in an endless color war. The famous geopolitical map of 2000 painted the states red and blue. Now we have added red and blue talkmeisters, red and blue books, red and blue movies.

If the reds have Bill O'Reilly, the blues now have Al Franken. If red people read "Treason," blue people read "Thieves in High Places." Log onto Amazon.com, and one click takes you to the literary red team, another to the blue team.

There was even an unseemly competition when political sportscasters pitted the TV ratings for the funeral of Ronald (the Red) Reagan versus the literary resurrection of Bill (the Blue) Clinton.

Now we are getting our own space in the cineplex. When "Fahrenheit 9/11" hit $23.9 million the first weekend, box office receipts were read like political tea leaves. Moore was also cast as the left's Mel Gibson. Whose "passion" was more powerful?

One letter writer in The New York Times described the "fun" of watching "conservatives throw up their hands in horror and dismay as the one-man liberal attack machine scores points against them." He called it a "taste of their own medicine."

Well, I am happy to write prescriptions for this medicine. After all, those who attack Moore's ad hominem attacks on the president do so with ad hominem attacks on Michael Moore. But it's getting awfully rare to see anyone trying to write or speak across the political color line.

Moore described his movie as an "op-ed piece," not a documentary. Well, I know something about op-ed pieces. Over the long run, you don't get anywhere just whacking your audience upside the head; you try to change the mind within it. You don't just go for the gut. You try, gulp, reason.

I actually agree with P.J. O'Rourke, a conservative who writes in The Atlantic that he tunes out Rush because there's no room for measured debate: "Arguing, in the sense of attempting to convince others, has gone out of fashion with conservatives." But now liberals are trudging purposefully down the same low road.

In the election between Bush and Anybody But Bush, reason and civility are now designated for wimps. But what happens to the country when the left only meets the right at the American jugular?

The name of Moore's production company, you may recall, is Dog Eat Dog.

Ellen Goodman's e-mail address is ellengoodman@globe.com. 

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