There was a time, I suppose, when the word "propaganda" didn't have a pejorative connotation in certain segments of the American left. In the Marxist tradition, the truth is largely a bourgeois construct anyway and the pieties of liberalism the product of that class' own mechanisms of propaganda. So fire must be fought with fire.

For Lenin, propaganda was a tool of the revolutionary's trade. When he noted that "a lie told often enough becomes truth," he was making a useful observation, not a moral judgment.

As the influence of Marxism has waned among the American left, this view looks both increasingly quaint and distasteful. Indeed, one of the chief lessons of the Bush administration has been the dangers of detaching rhetoric from facts.

If any group in recent American history modeled itself after Lenin, it was the New Right, one of whose leaders, Grover Norquist, evidently hung a picture of Lenin in his living room. In large part as a response to the moral perversions that conservatism's Leninist turn has produced, the left now proudly declares itself to be the "reality-based" community, and propaganda is frowned upon. Our side believes that facts are stubborn things; their side, still clinging to the delusion that Iraq is a success, doesn't.

And this is why filmmaker Michael Moore occupies such a vexed position for many on the left. Moore is an old-school propagandist, and a talented one. His approach is Brechtian. "Art is not a mirror to hold up to reality," said Brecht," but a hammer with which to shape it."

But in Moore's case, that shaping can be crude and heavy-handed, and it opens up Moore to accusations of cutting factual corners or manipulating chronology. Some of his political allies feel the total effect does more harm to the cause than good.

In his last film, the financially successful but politically ineffectual Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore darkly intimated, somewhat implausibly, the that US went to war with Afghanistan so as to speed the construction of a natural gas pipeline. Using a shot of a kid flying a kite, he seemed to portray Saddam Hussein's Iraq as an oasis of stability and development. For a left besieged by accusations that it was soft on tyranny, this was a touch unhelpful. Even Katie Couric took Moore to task for the kite-flying scene.

But propaganda and truth aren't necessarily mutually exclusive, and in the case of pre-war Iraq, Moore was providing a necessary corrective to the emerging image of the country as a carnival or unceasing horrors. It's a different conception of accuracy from, say, documentarians at PBS: balancing the narrative of the ruling interests as opposed to providing a comprehensive picture. Critics call this manipulative or one-sided, but it's not like the ruling interests, especially in the case of the Iraq war, were without their platforms.

What's most striking about the first three-quarters of Moore's latest film Sicko, is how unpropagandistic it feels. Moore is mostly off camera, and front and center are simply ordinary people telling their stories.

But there's clearly a part of Moore that delights in upsetting careful sensibilities of the upper-middle-class liberals who go to his movies, and in Sicko, that impulse dominates the final 15 minutes when Moore leads a number of ailing 9/11 rescue workers on a field trip to Cuba.

In Cuba, the group takes full advantage of the country's socialized medicine, getting the red-carpet treatment from attentive doctors. It all culminates in a nearly unwatchable bit of pomp and circumstance when a group of Cuban firemen assemble in uniform and salute to pay homage to their brave American "brothers" who were there on 9/11.

I couldn't help but think about what Moore would have done with footage of a similar kind of ceremony had it been staged by the US government in Iraq. You can imagine just how gleefully Moore would have skewered the footage, perhaps underscoring it with some maudlin pop tune, or a faux-ingenuous voice over.

Watching the scene made me squirm. It was propaganda at its worst, and though I'm bigger fan of Moore's than many, it drove home the point. When it comes to propaganda, sometimes fighting fire with fire leaves the original message burned beyond recognition.