Thursday, October 21, 2004

The Power of Nightmares - TV Justifies its Existence

Last night, the much-trailed BBC documentary The Power of Nightmares punched in. Adam Curtis's film kicks off from 1949, when the leader of the Islamic Brotherhood and the founder of neo-conservatism were both living in the US and not liking it. What sticks out is the community of language, not just between the protagonists, but with a lot of other really nasty bastards too. Both Sayyid Qubt and Leo Strauss spoke of people being infected with false values, that these...creatures...would never realise their own corruption unless someone forced them to. Someone - like a Leader. Bourgeois individualism and materialism were spreading! Like germs! Or growing - like a cancer! Now, if my understanding of the last 150 years of history isn't completely antic, it's when people start to talk biology you've got to get scared. Once you start talking about germs and toxins and cancers and infection and parasites, it's pretty clear what you think we should do. Hack it out. Disinfect. Cauterise. Poison. Kill'em all! It's not as if they were people! In fact, they're not even vertebrates!

The other implication of this language of genocide is that it's all medical. The nation is sick, and we are the doctors. You can find quotes from almost every 20th Century tyrant talking about this stuff. We know what's good for everyone else, and even if it hurts, it's because it's doing them good. (Even John Major went in for this! Remember "Yes It Hurt. Yes It Worked"?) Getting back to the film, this chimes with the Straussian idea, taken originally from Plato if I'm not very much mistaken, that the elite has to maintain certain myths or lies for the good of the people. (Don't tell them it's a placebo.) For much of its history, medicine could do little more than just that. Curtis ties this to the arms-control controversy of the 70s and Paul Wolfowitz's Team B analysts trying to prove that the Soviet Union was doing all kinds of evil things in secret, even though the CIA satellite photos and economic analyses showed they didn't exist.

This is crucial. Basically, authority through myth (Max Weber's charismatic legitimacy) is a pre-rational, a primitive idea. It's the shaman whose spells exist to buttress the chief's power. If the facts don't fit, you better get some new facts. The danger this presents in a modern society ought to be obvious, especially when people close to the US presidency talk about everyone else as the "reality-based community" who just "study reality" and then decide.

If there's a criticism I'd make of this film, it's that it is too impressive as pure cinema. The whole thing is constructed of brilliantly edited news footage, including things as diverse as interviews with Kissinger, the main street of Greeley, Colorado in 1949, the assassination of Anwar Sadat, the mass show-trial of his assassins, Egyptian late-70s TV ads, the Dawson's Field aircraft blowing up and a dancing girl in Red Square. It is worryingly persuasive, Riefenstahlesque. I fear it actually subtracts from the intellectual content - isn't this sort of political engineering exactly what it rails against?

Anyway, I watched every frame expecting the screen to go black at any moment. Somebody rich could do the world a mighty public service simply by buying the rights and three hours on US network TV, between now and the election. Well, the BBC's commercial division is at BBC World Wide. George Soros, call your office.

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