The World Tomorrow (Episode 4: Nabeel Rajab, Alaa Abdal-Fattah): a lesson in how to be a human rights activist / revolutionary

Julian Assange, “The World Tomorrow (Episode 4: Nabeel Rajab, Alaa Abdal-Fattah)” (Russia Today, 8 May 2012)

In this episode, Assange interviews two human rights activist revolutionaries, Nabeel Rajab of Bahrain and Alaa Abdal-Fattah of Egypt. At the time of the interview, Rajab had been menaced by police and government authorities who had tried to arrest at home while he was in the UK visiting Assange; after the interview, Rajab returned to Bahrain and was almost immediately detained by the authorities. Abdal-Fattah was under house arrest and forbidden to travel so he participated in the interview through a Skype connection. The interview took up three hours but only 28 minutes made it to video and this video constitutes the basis for this review.

Both interviewees are very articulate about their respective countries’ politics and the general politics of the Middle East. Rajab provides a quick short history of Bahrain: the country has long been ruled by one family with Western support (mostly British as Adam Curtis’s post “If You Take My Advice – I’d Repress Them” on his blog reveals) while the desires and needs of the Bahraini people for democracy go ignored. The media organisation Al Jazeera supports the Bahraini government and does not report on the meddling of Saudi Arabia in Bahraini affairs; ergo, Western media also ignores the situation in Bahrain and how Saudi Arabia undermines Bahraini sovereignty. Rajab admits that fighting for freedom and democracy involves a heavy cost but he is willing to fight to the utmost to achieve abstract ideals.

Abdal-Fattah describes the various crimes he has been accused of, to the extent that he finds humour in the list of crimes that make him appear super-human, being in two or more places at once and single-handedly taking on two platoons and stealing their stash of weapons. He discusses the current state of the Arab Spring uprising in Egypt and how it seems to have stalled with no clear direction. The interviewees move onto different aspects of the revolutions in Bahrain and Egypt including the role of social media and technology in spreading and exchanging information among different groups fighting for freedom, and the impact of the revolutions and the interviewees’ own experiences with the police and government authorities on their own families. Interestingly, far from being cowed by threats and harassment, the families resolved to resist the authorities. Even the role of football clubs in the Egyptian revolution got a mention – and you thought football clubs were good only for soccer hooliganism!

Apart from Nabeel’s opinion that Iraq is a democracy and that Russia and United States should speak with one voice on the situation in Syria and should help that country, I didn’t find much to fault what the two interviewees said. I do think that Nabeel is looking at Syria and Libya in a naive way, equating the struggles in those countries with the struggle in Bahrain, and not appreciating that these countries have had very different post-1945 histories from his own in spite of a shared language and to some extent cultural heritage. At least he said that the Syrians must be allowed to decide for themselves what government they want without interference from outside. The trio also discussed politics and democracy in the United States and the United Kingdom, finding much in those countries that paralleled the repressive rule in Egypt and Bahrain, but this part of the interview failed to make it to the 28-minute video presentation.

As it is, the video is a mere shadow of what the men ranged over and abruptly cuts off Abdal-Fattah while in the middle of talking about his son. I hope that Assange will be able to edit the three-hour interview he did and upload this to the Russia Today website. The 28-minute interview can be viewed here and the full three-hour transcript can be read here.

 

Mailer for Mayor: dull documentary of limited historical value

Dick Fontaine, “Mailer for Mayor” (1969)

This BBC documentary was included in UK journalist / film-maker Adam Curtis’s recent post “White Negro for Mayor” on his blog. With a minimal voice-over narrative, the film follows writer and intellectual Norman Mailer on his campaign to stand for mayor of New York City in 1969. Mailer discovers that he needs a huge campaign machine, an army of volunteers and (even in those days, over 40 years ago) shit-loads of money to finance his tireless campaigning. With an original theme (the 51st state), catchy logos and enthusiastic support from young people, fellow intellectuals like Gloria Steinem and an assortment of bohos, culture vultures and hipster types, Mailer tries to make some headway in the general consciousness of sceptical or apathetic New York City voters. Can he actually make an impact on a cynical electorate and become mayor?

The fly-on-the-wall style of presentation and the minimal narration which could have put all the details into a general context frankly made the film an ordeal to follow. Much of it is pernickety on details and viewers outside the United States (and many inside the US) not familiar with the day-to-day routine of political campaigning as it was done decades ago will be totally lost. The film is never clear on what Mailer’s platform was all about and I confess to having to look up Mailer’s Wikipedia entry to find out what it was: he was in favour of decentralising the city in a way such that every neighbourhood would have its own school system, police force, housing progams and philosophy that gave it purpose and direction. Minor issues that he stood for included non-fluoridation of the water supply and the freeing of Black Panther leader Huey Newton who was in prison at the time. While most of Mailer’s supporters were too young to vote, he did get some backing from surprising quarters: the libertarian economist / anarcho-capitalist and political activist Murray Rothbard gave his platform the thumbs-up, believing that Mailer’s decentralisation proposal would be the only answer to solving New York City’s many urban problems.

Not suprisingly, Mailer fails dismally in his campaign and the political right-wing forces he’s up against triumph yet again. If there is any value for contemporary audiences from the documentary, it is to show that life in 1960s NYC wasn’t the free-wheeling, love-is-all-you-need hippiedrome we imagine it was: for most people at the time, life was as strait-laced, conformist and dominated by socially and politically conservative ideologies as in the 1950s. The political machinations of Mailer’s more professional and seasoned opponents are as slick and cynical as ever they were in the days when Orson Welles made “Citizen Kane” and before then; the voters are also as disaffected and unimpressed by politicians and their hacks as their descendants are now. What has changed is the scale on which these things happen: larger amounts of money spent on spin and greasing palms, greater voter alienation, a greater sense that once again an opportunity to reach out to people, listen to what they’re really saying rather than going “I feel your pain” and actually doing something to right the wrongs of society is being wasted.

It should be said that Mailer was no angel: he married six times with five marriages ending in divorce and he is known to have been violent to his second wife at least and unfaithful to his fourth wife. His fifth marriage in November 1980 lasted just a day and was done to legitimise the birth of a daughter in 1971 while he was married to Missus No 4.

The Century of the Self (Episode 4: Eight People sipping Wine in Kettering): too much focus on politics, not enough on culture and society

Adam Curtis, “The Century of the Self (Episode 4: Eight People sipping Wine in Kettering)” (2002)

Final episode in this 4-part documentary series brings the penetration of public relations from the corporate world into politics, news and current affairs reporting and nearly all other areas of Western society and culture up to the prexent day with a focus on Philip Gould and Matthew Freud (great-grandson of Sigmund Freud) who respectively advised the Democratic Party in the United States and New Labour in the United Kingdom on the tactics to win back power from political conservatives in those countries. Politicians across the political spectrum appealed to the self-interest of the so-called “aspirational” classes (the lower middle class, upper working-class people) to win power and to do this had to promise tax cuts or cut back on policies considered to be “social democratic”. Citizens became consumers in a culture increasingly focussed on fulfilling their short-term desires and appealing to a shrinking range of interests. People’s self-esteem became heavily dependent on having their needs and wants stimulated and catered to. Marketers and public relations firms developed more sophisticated methods and techniques of splitting consumers according to lifestyle, needs and desires and happily offered their wares and services to corporations, governments and other agencies alike.

As with previous episodes, Curtis employs snippets of old and recent newsreels and interviews to flesh out his thesis of how “left-wing” political parties in the US and Britain re-invented themselves into supposedly caring-and-sharing entities that followed closely the whims and aspirations of voters through polls, focus groups and other strategies recommended by PR consultants. He paints New Labour under its leader Tony Blair as slavishly copying the methods of the Democrats in the US, ignoring the influence of the Australian Labor Party which had re-invented itself as a social democratic party under Robert Hawke in the 1980s on Blair, and Blair’s own attempt to ingratiate himself with young people under the “Cool Britannia” label.

Curtis certainly makes a plausible case for the dominance of Freudian psychoanalysis and concepts as having had a huge influence on the thinking of governments and business without considering whether Freud’s theories happened to have come along at the right time when they did to be seized on by these and other agencies to legitimise their own agendas for controlling people. In other words, if Freud had not offered psychoanalysis to the world, something similiar would have had to be invented. Curtis also does not consider other possible influences on the thinking of both political conservatives and social democrats. The peculiar social, political, economic and cultural conditions in Europe and North America following World War I and continuing up to the present day, with the rise of the United States and its particular set of expansionist values and fantasies together with the collapse of European empires and their values, are ignored as an influential backdrop on the thinking of political and social elites and how they viewed the general public. It could be argued though that elites have always viewed everyone else as something less than human in order to justify their own elevated position to themselves, to make the Great Unwashed believe they are undeserving of democracy and control over their lives, and therefore to secure and maintain the elites’ psychological and physical hold over their serfs. Freudian psychoanalysis, Skinnerian behaviourism, Taylorist scientific management and Ayn Rand’s Objectivism are just some of the tools the elites have used time and again in various bizarre combinations to fine-tune, tweak and oil the joints in our social, economic and political hierarchies.

The episode focusses too much on American and British politics in the 1990s without really considering the effect of public relations on Western popular culture during that decade. There is a brief discussion on the use of product placement among Hollywood movie celebrities but no more; I would have thought that the rise of the cult of celebrity and reality TV shows during this decade merited more serious treatment than it does here. Social trends such as coccooning and the opportunities these gave to PR and marketing people are also ignored.

The sub-text of the entire series – that we have been tricked by our leaders into believing that human nature is essentially bestial and incapable of being improved, therefore we cannot and will never understand democracy, can never govern ourselves democratically and must always be under elite control – is a live current that Curtis addresses rather weakly and never seriously challenges. If anything, this deception is “the trap” that Curtis refers to in a number of his documentaries.

 

 

 

The Century of the Self (Episode 3: There is a Policeman inside all Our Heads – He must be Destroyed): a stroll through an amusement park of curious cultural fads and trends

Adam Curtis, “The Century of the Self (Episode 3: There is a Policeman inside all Our Heads – He must be Destroyed)” (2002)

The third installment in Curtis’s series focuses on the rival psychologists and radical groups that challenged Freudian psychoanalysis and its use as an instrument by governments and corporations for containing and controlling the supposed irrational desires and fears of human beings. Included is an inquiry into ways in which people and groups outwardly resisted being dictated to, and methods and techniques of inner examination and exploration with a view to finding a breakthrough to inner freedom. The upshot of using such strategies to resist external controls of oneself, physically, mentally and spiritually, is that these same methods ended up being co-opted by businesses in much the same way and towards the same ends as Freudian psychoanalysis had been used.

The documentary strolls through an assembly line of personalities, groups and pop culture movements and trends, all of whom and which had little in common except a general desire to be free of external social and cultural restraints and to pursue self-fulfilment and individuality. The corporate world rose to this challenge to its power by absorbing this drive for individual self-expression into its agenda: ideas, states of mind, methods and strategies arising from the counter-culture movement were adopted by companies which made them their own. This led to the development of new marketing strategies such as market segmentation based on lifestyle differentiation and the use of demographics, surveys, polls and statistics as well as psychology to measure people’s motivations and buying behaviours, and to predict these. Such strategies not only laid the groundwork for the birth of the consumer society, they also percolated into politics, education, health provision and other areas beyond buying and consuming goods and services. Politicians and political parties began to mould their strategies of attracting voters by appealing to their fears, desires and lifestyle preferences.

With the documentary moving into the 1960s, Curtis’s choice of music soundtrack becomes more eccentric and kitschy, and the images he chooses range from movie snippets to newsreels to what look like excerpts from home videos. Emphasis is on the idea that corporations not only found the drive for self-expression and individuality a godsend in their quest for profit but subverted this drive so that people’s need for self-affirmation and individualisation ultimately depends on buying products and services seemingly tailored to their “needs” and “desires” as determined by business.

Walking through a bewildering amusement park of different counter-cultural fads and trends, I couldn’t help but notice how casually Curtis saunters through them all without giving viewers some idea of where these fads came from, what inspired them and ultimately what happened to them, whether they were fully or partly incorporated into corporate culture or if they died out because of some financial or other scandal. The man stands accused of picking whatever fits his thesis in much the same way that corporations sampled whatever self-actualisation methods fitted their particular agendas. Business is presented as always playing catch-up with whatever fancy notions get into the public’s collective head; there’s no suggestion that companies and government agencies might have seeded the cultural underground with substances like LSD (developed by the CIA and introduced into colleges and universities and other places where young people went) in order to derail it and divide it into segments more susceptible to infiltration and control.

It’s not a bad episode on the whole but it does get repetitive and a shorter running time could have been considered. The development of the consumer society with its concomitant treatment of citizens as consumers and clients rather than as individuals is documented fairly well.  The information given can be patchy and it wanders all over the shop as Curtis trots through one fad or cultural tendency after another.

 

The Century of the Self (Episode 2: The Engineering of Consent): the use of psychoanalysis as tool for social control

Adam Curtis, “The Century of the Self (Episode 2: The Engineering of Consent)” (2002)

This episode continues Curtis’s investigation of the ways in which Freudian psychoanalysis was hijacked by governments and corporations as a tool to control the public and shape society to achieve goals these agencies desired. The tale is picked up in the context of World War 2 and the Shoah (Nazi-Jewish Holocaust) and what German popular support for Adolf Hitler’s government implied about human nature to Western governments. Horrified by the apparent irrational behaviours displayed by people across Europe, Asia and North America as a result of the Great Depression and the political instability and war that followed, the US government sought to investigate and mould the psychology of the American people through the use of psychoanalysis. Corporations, government agencies and social planners alike employed psychoanalysts to examine human motivation, hidden and unconscious desires and fears, with the aim of manipulating these forces for profit or to control people’s thinking and feeling.

Particular attention is paid to Sigmund Freud’s daughter Anna and nephew Edward Bernays who promoted Freud’s ideas and theories and who (especially in Bernays’s case) were happy to offer their knowledge and services to the US government for dubious ends. The most outrageous example of psychoanalysis being used in a way Freud would have disapproved of was in Bernays’s eager co-operation in undermining and toppling the Arbenz government of Guatemala in the 1950s by presenting it to the US public as a tyrannical Communist government allied with the Soviet Union and playing on Americans’ fears of Communist control and supposed loss of their freedoms. Other attempts to understand human irrationality and unconsciousness led to the CIA funding experiments by Dr Ewen Cameron under the MKULTRA project which eventually proved to be a failure. Psychoanalysis entered popular culture: Hollywood movie culture was permeated by the theory and actress Marilyn Monroe consulted high-profile psychoanalyst Dr Ralph Greenson for help with her emotional problems. Her suicide in 1962 was a catalyst for a backlash against psychoanalysis: Anna Freud and her followers were accused of encouraging social control and repression. According to the documentary, Freud retreated to London where she died in 1982.

As is usual with his documentaries, Curtis draws on BBC archival material and mixes it with interviews, snippets of old Hollywood films and an eclectic mix of popular music over which he presents his premise of Freudian psychoanalysis and psychology in general willingly co-operating with government and big business to control people. Implicit is the belief that people are at the mercy of their desires, fears and other hidden psychic forces they can’t understand or control and which make them hysterical or violent; therefore the people must depend on an elite to control and tell them what to think and how to behave. The way Curtis tells his story, it’s as if the arrival of Freudian psychoanalysis suddenly opened the eyes of government and big business and made them see people in a way that makes the hoi polloi putty in these agencies’ hands; Curtis doesn’t appear to concede that before Bernays, governments and corporations had used other methods to convince the general public to support them and their goals. Nor does Curtis consider that other ideas such as French psychologist Gustave le Bon’s theory of crowd behaviour and that crowds might develop a herd mentality could have had some influence on Bernays.

As in another Curtis documentary “The Living Dead (You have used me as a Fish long enough)”, Dr Ewen Cameron’s experiments are not described as being part of the MKULTRA project even though knowledge of the MKULTRA experiments has long passed into popular Western culture. Curtis deals very little with the impact of psychoanalysis on popular culture in the 1950s and early 1960s – the films that Alfred Hitchcock made during this time (“Vertigo”, “North by Northwest”, “Psycho”, “The Birds” and “Marnie”) could have been referenced. He also does not cover any resistance from the psychiatric profession towards psychoanalysis during the 1940s-50s, nor does he mention the potential that psychoanalysis has for encouraging abusive or dependent relationships between the practitioner and his (rarely her) patients. The emphasis given over to psychoanalysis also ignores the social / political / economic context in which the theory began to be used as a tool of control; if people turn to apparently irrational ideologies or forms of government, that may well be because the economic and political situation they found themselves in and which was created by governments and corporations itself was extreme and irrational.

Since Curtis spends much time covering the US invasion of Guatemala and the overthrow of General Arbenz, he might have considered mentioning the impact of that invasion on the Guatemalan people: in particular, how many people died or were injured, and how the invasion set back the country’s political, cultural and economic development.

Generally this film, like many of AC’s films, draws together some interesting parallel strands to create a challenging thesis which isn’t the be-all and end-all of what it covers. If it starts a discussion or encourages further investigation, then this episode of “The Century of the Self” has done its work.

 

 

 

The Century of the Self (Episode 1: Happiness Machines): the rise of consumerism, passivity and other anti-democratic forces

Adam Curtis, “The Century of the Self (Episode 1: Happiness Machines)” (2002)

Finally after much nagging by a friend in London, I got around to watching Adam Curtis’s documentary series “The Century of the Self”, or its first episode at least. For Curtis, this is a relatively straightforward account of the career of American public relations man Edward Bernays and how he used his German psychoanalyst uncle Sigmund Freud’s ideas and theories on human consciousness and unconsciousness to manipulate the public and its desires in business, economics and politics. Bernays’s career is firmly grounded in the context of post-WW1 society and political, environmental and cultural developments therein; a major issue in the documentary is the way in which governments in the United States and Germany, and American corporations in the 1930s used Bernays’s ideas and techniques to control the public and its desires and needs for their own ends.

Less whimsical than many of his other documentaries, and with a more urgent narrative style from AC himself, the film details Bernays’s belief that people are essentially irrational and subject to desires they do not understand or can control and it is up to others like himself to take over that control. Many ideas and concepts that are now established in marketing practice were innovations of Bernays’s: product placement in films, press releases, appeals to individuality, the use of third parties such as “independent experts” to promote products, celebrity endorsements and identifying leaders or perceived leaders in groups and networks as people who can convince others to follow their example in buying products. Through Bernays, corporations shifted from promoting the utility of products to emphasising their desirability and studying buyers’ vulnerabilities as a means to convince people they need the products. Rational citizens are transformed into passive consumers who can be told what they want and manipulated into believing they need something when they don’t.

Freud’s ideas about human psychology percolate into government and corporations in other ways in the 1920s – 1930s: if people are basically irrational and ruled by desire, it follows therefore that democracy will be ineffective as it relies on people being rational. From this point on, governments and corporations start to hire psychologists to pinpoint how crowds work with a view to shaping public opinion and thus behaviour. Incredibly, in the 1930s after the advent of the Great Depression leads to the rise of fascist and other similar anti-democratic forces in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, the German government under Adolf Hitler as Chancellor and then Reichsfuhrer starts using Bernays’s work to take over business corporations and to control the German people’s feelings and desires and channel them into acts of nationalism and patriotism. Such acts also include scapegoating undesirable groups in society such as homosexuals and Jewish people. At the same time President Franklin D Roosevelt, believing in humans as essentially decent and rational thinkers, introduces his New Deal policies which invest heavily in new industrial and infrastructure development projects and rely on George Gallup’s opinion and popularity polls as a gauge of public approval of such projects. American business corporations, alarmed at FDR’s success with the public, begin a counter-attack, again employing Bernays, to convince the public that democracy and capitalism are synonymous and one can’t work without the other.

In the meantime Freud grows pessimistic about human nature as the Nazis increasingly control people’s lives in so many areas – work, school, health, use of media, policing – and frantic about his and his family’s future in a Germany becoming more hostile to Jewish people. Through a friend with connections to the British government, Freud and his family flee to London in 1938 where not long afterwards Freud dies from cancer.

The film flows smoothly and efficiently with little annoying and distracting kitsch music and it’s only really at the end when an excerpt from Raymond Scott’s trilogy of “Soothing Sounds for Babies” starts tinkling in the film’s coda that I realise I hadn’t heard anything else other than AC’s voice and those of his interviewees. Oh, there is music but definitely very unobtrusive music at that. Old archival film, splices of popular movies including “The Wizard of Oz” and shots of people interviewed make for quite an engaging film.

At the centre of this film and, I suspect, the other films in “The Century of the Self” series is a tussle between those ideologies and beliefs that posit that people are at the mercy of inner drives and emotions they can’t understand and control, and which must be controlled and directed closely by the State or corporations on the one hand, and on the other belief systems that hold that people are decent, rational and are able to exercise self-control and discipline, and can be trusted to govern themselves fairly without interference from others. The State as represented by FDR is an entity that believes in people’s rationality and ultimately in democracy; the State as represented by Adolf Hitler and American business corporations believe that people are unable to exercise rational behaviour and must be treated as passive empty vessels to be filled with corporate fascist beliefs. In FDR’s state, positive freedom becomes possible; in Adolf Hitler’s state, no freedom is possible; in the state governed by Bernays’s ideas, corporations sell the illusion of negative freedom.

 

Ghostwatch: very funny hoax documentary that blurs reality and fiction, and raises issues about authenticity

Lesley Manning, “Ghostwatch” (1992)

Subject of a post on Adam Curtis’s BBC blog, this BBC hoax drama is quite a laugh to watch. Hard to believe that many adults were convinced this show was for real when it first broadcast in the UK in 1992; it’s understandable that children and teenagers would be taken in as the film looks fairly realistic overall and young people would not pick up the stagey quality of the production, evident in early small-crowd scenes around a house which have the look of something deliberately set up.

The show is in the form of a reality TV show of the same name as the hoax itself and features real-life TV presenters Michael Parkinson and Sarah Greene as respectively host of and reporter for the TV show. Greene leads a team of BBC reporters investigating suspect poltergeist activity at a London house – the investigation is shown live. Through the team’s investigations and interviews with the woman and her two daughters living in the house and with neighbours, viewers discover that the spirit menacing the family belongs to a disturbed man who himself is spooked by another spirit of a woman who once took in babies for wet-nursing and killed them.

The presentation and narrative are cleverly done in spite of the limited budget – the show includes a team of people receiving phone calls from viewers reporting sightings of the poltergeist in film clips of the children’s bedroom. Parkinson maintains a sceptical stand with regard to the paranormal occurrences while paranormal expert Dr Lin Pascoe (Gillian Bevan) plays the credulous paranormal researcher in the manner of The X-Files characters Dana Scully and Fox Mulder. Filming techniques using jerky hand-held cameras give the film an immediate newsreel feel. Current technology of the period including a thermographic camera and secret cameras, and motion and temperature sensors are emphasised throughout the film, making it look even morre realistic and impressive. (Which in itself says something about people’s faith in cutting-edge technology.) The sets look real if camp with Halloween slapstick decorations like a tarantula on one wall and ghost magnets on the kitchen cabinets. An American psychologist is consulted for his opinion on the ghost activity. At a critical point in the film, one of the children is exposed as generating some of the poltergeist activity which adds an interesting slant and a new tension to the film. The poltergeist decides to bring proceedings to a predictably hokey end by advancing all the way to the BBC studio where the reality TV show is being filmed and broadcast live.

The film touches on interesting issues such as puberty and neuroses affecting young teenage girls, children as innocent (or maybe not-so-innocent) channels for the supernatural, the struggle between belief and scepticism and the consequences of both, the effect of publicity and obsessive national attention on the girls who start playing up to the BBC cameras, and the deliberate blurring of reality and fantasy as the cheeky spirit finds a conduit through the BBC’s technology and travels to the very studio where Parkinson and the doctor are sitting; too late the good doctor realises that the entire show itself has been hijacked by the poltergeist who proceeds to trash the studio. This in itself brings up questions about the role of technology as a portal between the real world and the fantasy world which in earlier times was played by shamans, religious rituals or ouija boards played by Victorian-era party-goers high on mild ether: now folks can sit back passively and allow modern electronics gadgets to bring the spirit world to them. (The only problem is the gadgets and the spirits connive to hassle the owners in their own sweet time, not that of the humans!)

I thought the film lost its nerve by descending into conventional horror-film theatrics: lights blow out overhead in the “Ghostwatch” studio, a piece of filming equipment turns Dalek-feral and Parkinson doesn’t know what to do even after most of the cast has fled the studio. His dazed and mumbling presence which becomes pathetically infantile holds the final scenes together. On another level though I can see the conclusion is appropriate: believers in poltergeists and the worldview they represented are “raptured” into the spirit world (where they don’t find any comfort) – it’s interesting that Dr Pascoe is nowhere to be seen in the studio after the poltergeist whirlwind hits it – and sceptics like Parkinson are left on the material plane trying to make sense of the sudden chaos that’s hit them and just as quickly left them in a material void. The spirit invasion leaves believers in the rational teetering on the edge of insanity.

Acting was quite credible although the girls might have overplayed their parts (inevitable, since they would have had a lot of fun and encouragement from the BBC crew). Some scenes in the film look like tongue-in-cheek references to famous movies like The Exoricist (one girl lying catatonic on her bed with scratch marks over her body) and possibly Fatal Attraction (scene where Greene fishes out a drowned toy bunny from the kitchen sink). Parkinson and Bevan are credible as the voices of scepticism and incredulous belief generally and the growing tension between them and their attitudes and belief systems. Sarah Greene and Chris Charles as the on-site reporters hold up their end fairly well though Charles mugs a lot for the camera, perhaps because if he didn’t he’d be laughing the whole way through and that would have blown “Ghostwatch” for the fiction it is. The camera crew, reminiscent of the film-makers following the serial killer in the hilarious Belgian mockumentary “Man Bites Dog”, stoically follow Greene all the way to their (presumably grisly) demise. Hope the guys haven’t left behind any pregnant girlfriends called Marie-Paule to grieve over their loss.

Overall this BBC production is a gentle and funny satirical mockumentary on the modern narrative construct of the paranormal (haunted suburban house / children and prepubescent girls in particular as conduits for supernatural activity / the conflict between belief and non-belief) and perhaps this in itself gives the program considerable power, more than its makers had anticipated or the program itself deserves. The overwhelming response that “Ghostwatch” received, reminiscent of the panic that followed Orson Welles’s infamous 1938 radio broadcast of “War of the Worlds”, delivered as a series of news bulletins and itself a throwback to Ronald Knox’s BBC radio news hoax “Broadcasting from the Barricades” in 1926 which also generated panic, suggests as much. Seems that people and the BBC especially have short memories about causing mass hysteria by presenting programs that have the look, feel and structures of “genuine” news, and this in itself raises questions about how much people might rely on the format of news rather than the news itself to judge if a particular news report is authentic.

 

 

It Felt like a Kiss: coming across as a self-indulgent and unremarkable trip into 1960s US pop culture nostalgia

Adam Curtis, “It Felt Like A Kiss” (2009)

A quirky visual montage of old newsreels and Hollywood films that documents a culturally transitional age in American history – the 1960s – during which the United States reigned supreme as the most economically, culturally and militarily dominant power in the world yet also a time when the roots of the country’s decline and perhaps eventual undoing and destruction were being planted: this is Adam Curtis’s “It Felt like a Kiss”. Instead of his usual soothing if slightly shocked narration, the music and captions have taken over: the captions hint at significant events yet to happen and the music, which in the main is 1960s girl-group bubblegum pop and related muzak, is sometimes an ironic commentary on the images and subject matter that suggests itself in the passages of selected montaged images and their neighbours before and after them. The film was originally part of a multi-media presentation with original music provided by Damon Albarn and the Kronos Quartet at its inception as part of the Manchester International Festival in 2009.

I have to admit that although some of the songs were familiar – I was born in the 1960s so some music should be familiar! – I felt they were more a turn-off than a soundtrack to draw me in. There were personalities and excerpts of TV shows and films that I vaguely knew or remembered and of course I recognised Doris Day and Rock Hudson, if not the film they appeared together in. How people born after 1970 can relate to some if not most of the material and the songs in the film is beyond me, unless their parents obsessively reminded them of what they lived through before the offspring were born. If I recognise people like Patrice Lumumba and Nikita Khrushchev or images like the Vietnamese Buddhist monk who dumped petrol on himself and then self-ignited in protest at the civil war in his country, it’s because I was curious enough to try looking up some of these incidents and personalities in print or online media, or they have become iconic in contemporary pop culture.

The film does ground viewers into its preferred time-range by showing captions of significant events about to unfold or to be realised off-screen at a later date: thus the film mentions that construction of the World Trade Center buildings began in the mid-1960s and that Osama bin Laden’s father Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden died in 1967, having built up a successful construction business that spanned nearly 40 years and which included clients such as the Saudi royal family and the Carlyle Group, the global private equity investment firm whose directors and senior management have included George H W Bush, former British Prime Minister John Major, Olivier Sarkozy (the half-brother of the French President) and Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Prime Minister of Thailand whose sister Yingluck is the current incumbent. Other events covered include the assassinations of the two Kennedy brothers, JFK and Robert, the history of HIV and how it jumped the species barrier from apes to humans, and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s rise to power which was aided by the CIA. The way these tidbits of information are scattered throughout the documentary is meant to be intriguing and titillating but after a while they get a little irritating because they come without much context: the emergence of HIV as a major threat to humankind means little without reference to Mobutu Sese Seko’s corrupt rule as President of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) and the civil war fought in Katanga / Shaba province which tried to secede from the country: both the corruption and the war among other things kept most Zairois stuck in poverty and many people must have hunted apes as a free source of food – this may be one explanation for how HIV came to infect humans. (Another possible if very un-PC explanation is that apes were used as sacrificial victims in religious rituals and their blood included in local medicines or religious worship.) Similarly, mention of the TV show “Bonanza” being Osama bin Laden’s favourite viewing as a child means nothing unless we know for sure if bin Laden sympathised with the Indians and not the cowboys.

The episode overall looks like a rather self-indulgent, even timid excursion in nostalgia for the fads, pop culture and celebrities of mainstream US culture in the 1960s. There’s nothing about experimental or cutting-edge artistic, scientific and technological trends that emerged during the period (we get a brief glimpsed of a young Andy Warhol but that’s about it) which were to become significant in later decades; I would have thought at least the musician and composer Raymond Scott, whose music was adapted by Carl Stalling for classic Bugs Bunny cartoons and who was a significant pioneer in electronic music composition and inventor of various electronic music devices and instruments, might have rated a mention or a music credit as might also the BBC Radiophonic Workshop at the time. The message that the episode is meant to convey – that the dominance of US pop culture throughout the world in the 1960s was overwhelming to the extent that other cultural alternatives were either forgotten or went underground where they festered and warped into something abnormal and diseased – is lost on viewers.

The song “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)”, based on US singer Little Eva’s relationship with her abusive boyfriend, is an allusion to the episode’s theme; it was covered by girl-group the Crystals who were famous for songs like “Da Doo Ron Ron”. Little Eva herself became famous for the original version of “The Loco-Motion”, later made famous around the world by Australian singer Kylie Minogue as her debut single.

 

The Trap … (Episode 3: We will Force You to be Free): picking apart arguments over nature of freedom

Adam Curtis, “The Trap – What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom? (Episode 3: We will Force You to be Free)” (2007)

Part of Adam Curtis’s “The Trap – What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom?” trilogy exploring how the concept of freedom came to be narrowly defined by politicians in order to deal with a particular historical emergency (the Cold War) and how this definition helped to turn people in Western societies into self-seeking, soulless automatons lacking in purpose, this episode targets concepts of negative freedom and positive freedom as proposed and developed by the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin in the 1950s, and how these concepts formed the basis of policies followed by Western powers to stifle revolutions in Third World countries and / or to bring Western-style notions of democracy and liberty to these countries, often by force and violence. Using archival newsreel footage and excerpts of movies and documentaries such as Gillo Pontecorvo’s famous 1966 “Battle of Algiers” film, Curtis weaves a seductive argument about how the over-emphasis on negative freedom and the West’s fear of and desire to suppress positive freedom have ironically led to the current global situation that the West most feared positive freedom would birth: an unstable and violent world where democracy and freedom are retreating even in its traditional strongholds and where people have become so fearful and insular that they come to lack initiative and direction.

In Berlin’s view, developed in his paper “Two Concepts of Liberty”, negative freedom (freedom from externally imposed constraints) is to be preferred over positive freedom (the improvement of human beings to make them more “rational” thinkers so that among other things they can choose what sort of society they wish to live in). Berlin believed that the Soviet Union and societies with similar political cultures were the greatest threat to freedom in the world because they insisted on imposing positive freedom on their people and this imposition not only curtailed the people’s negative freedoms but was accompanied by fanaticism, violence and mass deaths. Systems must therefore restrain the “do-gooders” who want to improve humanity in case they get ideas about resorting to “tyranny”, whatever that is, to force-feed such improvements. Of course, “coincidentally” Berlin’s ideas dovetailed with other ideas derived from capitalist economics, American cultural values that emphasised individualism and competition, industrial relations (in particular, the scientific management ideas of Frederick Taylor) and were adopted by Western governments as part of an integrated package.

The documentary follows with various examples the paths taken by the proponents of negative freedom and positive freedom with their associated cultural packages in different countries and how these paths clashed. We boing from the American neoconservatives in the 1980s who believed that the US should use its power to actively spread “demcracy” and “freedom” by force to other countries which didn’t necessarily want them (in their American versions) to the 1979 Iranian revolution which according to Curtis was inspired by Iranian sociologist Ali Shariati’s fusion of ideas from Jean-Paul Sartre and Frantz Fanon on decision and freedom in day-to-day life and on colonialism respectively with Islamic principles; to the deregulation / privatisation “shock treatment” meted out to Russia under President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s by Jeffrey Sachs and his team of economists which resulted in widespread poverty among the public and in asset-stripping by well-placed members of the nomenklatura (the former Communist Party network of government and government agency insiders and their families) and favoured individuals who became known as the “oligarchs”. (And I imagine Sachs and some of his team got their share of riches as well.) The social and economic upheavals caused by the Sachs team’s recommendations resulted in greater political repression by the Yeltsin government which then pursued confrontations with groups in Chechnya wanting independence as a way of diverting the public attention away from the economic problems; this paved the way for Vladimir Putin to assume power. Somehow we end up in Iraq after 2003 where Paul Bremer, as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority overseeing Iraq’s transition to US-imposed “democracy”, tried to remake the country’s economic and political structures: the result was huge unemployment, hundreds of thousands of people thrown into poverty and greater terrorist activity after the Iraqi army was disbanded (bad move, that) and public servants belonging to Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party were banned from government employment. The country’s entire pool of secondary and primary school teachers – many of them women, I imagine – must have been thrown into an employment black hole overnight.

Curtis’s argument sounds quite convincing, at least for those who haven’t read Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine: the Rise of Disaster Capitalism” which covers much the same territory as Curtis’s documentary does (Russia, Iraq) but from a different viewpoint in which the economic theories of Milton Friedman and Frederick Hayek take pride of place over the gift of negative freedom and its benefits to supposedly benighted peoples. Like Curtis, Klein is guilty of cherry-picking examples to bolster her arguments especially in her comparison of economic shock treatment to the MK-ULTRA and related psychology experiments carried out by Ewen Donald Cameron and others from the 1950s to 1970s. In both the book and the documentary, the influence of German-American philosopher Leo Strauss’s views, or at least his followers’ interpretations of them, on American political and economic neoliberalism becomes the proverbial elephant in the room; it’s debatable as to whether Isaiah Berlin’s notions about the nature of freedom should be given any preference over Strauss’s views on liberalism (belief in liberty and equal rights) as a precursor to two forms of nihilism (brutality and terror being one, the result of positive freedom; and materialistic, purposeless hedonism the other, the child of negative freedom)  and the role of elites in society as an influence on the American neocons. Indeed Curtis’s documentary in parts looks more like a criticism of Straussian philosophy than of Berlin’s philosophy.

Curtis concludes by saying Berlin that was mistaken in his ideas and that governments and societies following his views on positive and negative freedoms have created a “trap” in which humans live lives lacking in purpose and devoted to materialistic self-interest and hedonism supplied not from within their own imaginations and resources but by external others with hidden agendas. The only way to escape the trap is to create outlets and opportunities for positive freedom. Curtis does not suggest any alternatives as to how to do this; neither does he actually look at whether Berlin’s definition of positive freedom is flawed or ambiguous. If the ideal of positive freedom is to create a better, more “rational” kind of human who can determine what society s/he wants to live in, we had better ask ourselves what we mean by “rational” so that we don’t end up creating a society of so-called “positive” freedoms of the sort that both Berlin and Strauss feared so much and which forced them and their families to leave Russia in 1920 and Germany in the 1930s respectively to avoid persecution as Jews and as members of the middle class. I note that in the documentary, Curtis refers to “rational” people as being motivated by self-interest without reference to emotion: that’s one definition of a sociopath.

We must redefine positive freedom in a way that avoids ambiguity in its definition and takes it beyond a mirror opposite of negative freedom. I prefer to see positive freedom as the freedom that expands one’s horizons as a result of having made a choice between or among mutually exclusive options, such that if you had the opportunity to make the same choice again between or among these options, you’d still go with your original choice. An example would be choosing between an easy, secure life in which you never leave your comfort zone and operate according to your desires and insecurities; and a life that might be hard, lonely, uncertain at times and inviting scorn from others but also a life that makes you a better person morally and spiritually. This enables a person to be in control of his/her life and to achieve self-actualisation.

 

The Living Dead (Episode 3: The Attic): how a romantic fantasy of a glorious past disguised a thirst for power at any cost

Adam Curtis, “The Living Dead (Episode 3: The Attic)” (1995)

Having seen the mishmash that was “The Iron Lady”, I figured it was high time I saw something a bit more factual about the period when Margaret Thatcher reigned over Britain as quasi-monarch from 1979 to 1990. Happily that maker of whimsical documentaries Adam Curtis comes to the rescue with this installment in his “The Living Dead” trilogy which posits an interesting parallel between Thatcher’s dream of restoring British imperial glory to a demoralised country on the one hand, and past Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s attempts to shore up the crumbling empire during World War II. The essay that Curtis weaves holds strong throughout the episode’s 1-hour running-time; if anything, Curtis could have made his case stronger still by emphasising the destructive effects of both Churchill and Thatcher’s dreams and the ways in which they and their governments used their vision to keep the public under control.

Less eccentric than other AC documentaries I have seen, “The Attic” follows a conventional chronological narrative detailing MT’s rise to the Conservative Party leadership in the mid-1970s in the wake of the oil crisis and election as Prime Minister in 1979 with her vision of returning Britain to the imperial glory the country had once enjoyed (supposedly). This vision included attacking and dismantling where possible the bogeys afflicting British society and economy, namely, trade unions seen to be overrun by left-wing, possibly Communist, radicals and other socialistic influences eating away at the nation’s moral fibre. Thatcher embraced the economic theories of Milton Friedman and Frederick Hayek which emphasise less government control and regulation of the economy and that economic freedom underpins political freedom. In her vision for a New Britain, MT invoked the memory of a previous British Prime Minister Winston Churchill who had led the country during World War II, a major event still fresh in the minds of many people in the 1970s.

As Prime Minister, MT got off to a bad start: the economy failed to respond to her nostrums, trade unions became even more restless and strike activity was frequent, unemployment rates continued to climb, and resistance to British rule in Northern Ireland became more violent. Just when it looked as though MT’s reign as Prime Minister was to be short-lived, an unexpected life-line was thrown: Argentina, at the time under military rule and its leaders wishing to deflect public attention away from the country’s ongoing economic crisis and human rights violations, invaded the Falkland Islands in early 1982. Britain’s successful defence of the islands gave MT the space she needed to implement her economic policy and allowed her to win the 1983 general election in a landslide. From then on, the Conservative Party more or less dominated the political landscape in Britain until 1997 but the influence of so-called “Thatcherism” in the country’s political and economic life has never really gone away.

I think “The Attic” should have focussed much more on the insidious and destructive aspects of Thatcher’s vision and the Churchillian vision that inspired her and her considerable fanbase throughout the world. I presume that Thatcher’s vision of Churchill as a great leader conveniently leaves out the fact that in the late 1930s when the British government considered investing in radar technology for defence purposes, Churchill opposed the proposal: needless to say, radar technology played a major defence role during the Battle of Britain in 1941. Churchill’s idea of wartime leadership consisted of beating Germany into a pulp and throwing that country back into a pre-industrial age; hence his enthusiasm for the firebombing of Dresden in February 1945, resisted by the US military high command (in particular by Dwight D Eisenhower, then Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe) and now recognised as a major war crime by historians. It can be argued that Germany’s determination to fight to the death at the cost of millions of lives during World War II was as much due to Churchill’s refusal to negotiate or have anything to do with anti-Hitler groups in that country, as to the German leader’s paranoia and mania. Churchill would later approve the Morgenthau Plan which called for turning Germany into an agricultural backwater, stripped entirely of its industrial base, and which led to the deaths of 1 – 2 million Germans (some sources say as many as 10 million) from starvation in 1945 – 1950. And there is also that episode in which Churchill agreed to hand over 90,000 Cossack men and their families living in Yugoslavia to the Soviet Union; most of these people, who had left Russia in 1918 and were technically not Soviet citizens, perished in the gulags. It is difficult to believe that Churchill had no idea what would happen to them after the “hand-back”.

Even in the domestic sphere Churchill’s “vision” amounted to very little: it seems to have had as its goal power at all costs and to that end, Churchill happily wandered the entire economic spectrum from free market economic liberalism to virtual democratic socialism. During the war, he allowed Britain to become a social welfare state by approving plans for a national insurance scheme and for housing and health services. As Prime Minister in the early 1950s, he presided over the Mau-Mau uprising in Kenya in 1951, an ongoing revolt in Malaya and the 1953 overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh by the CIA. Once again, it could be argued that British handling of or participation in these crises was poor (the military option was preferred) and in the case of Iran, the coup which Britain backed stymied any democratic and progressive tendencies in that country for decades. Interestingly, as Prime Minister, Churchill and his Labour Minister Walter Monckton adopted a policy of appeasement towards trade unions and this perhaps encouraged the union movement to assume an attitude of entitlement that decades later Thatcher tried to fight.

A brief look at Thatcher’s friends and networks should give us some pause for thought: during the Falklands War the Chilean government under Pinochet, itself notorious for human rights abuses and imposing its own version of Friedman / Hayek economic change on its people, supplied information about Argentine military forces and their movements to the British. (This at the same time that both Chile and Argentina were sharing information about torture methods and helping to arrest one another’s “dissidents” under Operation Condor!) Pinochet himself later became a friend of MT to the extent that she opposed any move by the British government under Tony Blair to extradite him to Spain on war crimes charges when he visited Britain for medical treatment in the late 1990s. Hayek himself visited Chile a few times in the 1970s – 1980s and accepted honorary chairmanship of a free-market economic think-tank in that country. The fact that in Chile and Britain, and several other countries, economic freedom as perceived by Friedman and his followers at the University of Chicago had to be imposed on people and political freedom sacrificed in the process – not to mention that the “reformers’ benefitted financially from claiming privatised government assets for themselves – suggests that this form of “capitalism” is more gravity-defying flooding-up rather than “natural” trickle-down as I was taught at school and university.

Yes, when we look at Churchill and Thatcher’s visions and compare them, what do they really amount to? – they amount to retaining power at any cost without principle. The cynicism and selective thinking involved are breath-taking to say the least. The result in both cases is an impoverishment of British culture and society in some way: the Churchillian “social welfare” society was taken for granted with people and institutions alike not learning how to negotiate for rights and privileges, and that such rights and privileges need to be defended and expanded upon skilfully with diplomacy and negotiation; now that this society is being dismantled by Thatcher’s successors, people erupt with violence, become passive or try to beat one another over an ever-shrinking pie. Pity that Curtis’s otherwise fine documentary with its narrow focus on the spin-doctoring during Thatcher’s reign missed that point.

Sources used: Ralph Raico, “Rethinking Churchill” http://mises.org/daily/2973 and various Wikipedia articles