Origins: The Journey of Humankind (Season 1, Episode 3: The Power of Money) – a shallow and confusing enquiry into the historical importance of money

Celso R Garcia, “Origins: The Journey of Humankind (Season 1, Episode 3: The Power of Money)” (2017)

One viewing of this episode of the National Geographic series was enough to put me off watching the rest of the series. Host Jason Silva is an earnest and enthusiastic commentator but his vocal delivery seems to have a hard grinding quality and his voice sounds as if he is being strangled by too many rocks far down his throat. His movements are often jerky and for some odd reason the camera crew insists on holding the camera at angles so that at times Silva appears to be looking and talking away from the camera, and this approach tends to emphasise his stiff body movements even more. With his voice and his body language, Silva comes across as a sales representative trying (and not too successfully at that) to pressure his customer into buying something – an approach that might be apt for this particular episode in the “Origins …” series which is about the hold that money has over humans.

For a series intended for family viewing, if this episode is typical, then the whole project should be re-thought. The structure of the episode is hard to understand and follow: we jump backwards and forwards in time as the narrative pursues detours into the history of the Atlantic slave trade that robbed the African continent of human talent and energy and put millions (plus their children born into slavery in the Americas) into bondage to European political, social and economic elites, then into the Opium Wars between the British and Chinese empires in the 1840s which delivered Hong Kong to the British, and the use of paper money in China during the reign of Mongol emperor Kublai Khan in the 1200s. Very little is said about why money is such an important invention that it spread all over the ancient civilised world like wildfire (as a means of exchange and as a measure and store of value) and how it is superior to bartering and other non-money forms of exchange. Practically no attention is given to other inventions and technologies that were spawned by the widespread acceptance and use of money: the rise of banks for example and the concepts of debt, loans and interest, that would in their turn enable and encourage the rise of social and political hierarchies based on material wealth as measured by money as well as accidents of birth; the invention of the stock market and the concepts of investment, risk and hedging against uncertainty; various other institutions and concepts such as insurance or the idea of a central bank to approve issues of money and to develop and conduct monetary policy; and the birth of book-keeping and accountancy. Not to mention of course digital technologies and the phenomenon that is the global financial economy.

Historical re-enactments are downright cheesy and take liberty with historical accuracy. They run for far too long and upset the documentary’s momentum. Some re-enactments, such as one early scene in which two desert African tribes exchange food and weapons, or a later scene set in Mesopotamia in which a sinister-looking Middle Eastern man wearing a turban encourages a youth to gamble away money needed to buy medicine for a sick woman strike this viewer as racially prejudiced. I cannot believe that such racial stereotypes can still be considered acceptable for a documentary TV series aimed at the general public.

Significant events covered by the documentary are attributed in their causes to the hold that money has over the participants. The problem with this simplistic idea is to deliver more power over human decision-making to money – it’s one way of holding people down, by denying them free will and responsibility for their actions as masters and slaves in a social system where hierarchy reigns and inequality is rife. The differing attitudes of Roman Catholicism and Protestantism towards work and the acquisition of material wealth count for little in the European drive to collect colonies from the 1500s on, as do the desire for territory and natural resources, and souls to forcibly convert to Christianity. The Opium Wars in China may very well have had their cause in the British use of opium as a means of exchange to acquire tea and other desired Chinese goods – but the opium was also handy as a weapon to weaken China by creating widespread drug addiction on a massive scale that was bound to affect the Middle Kingdom economically and for which the Chinese had no remedy.

Viewers may pick up some interesting facts and pieces of knowledge but the episode lacks a clear narrative structure that would encompass those facts and demonstrate how they are all related. At its worst, the episode appears to cherry-pick facts and ignore other related and significant facts. In particular, there is little said about who is ultimately responsible for creating money and regulating its creation and supply at any one time. Dare I say that the episode takes for granted that money should be allowed to flow freely through society without regulation that would distribute it more evenly so that everyone has a share in the society’s wealth and none has far too much or far too little?

This jet fighter is a disaster … So why does US Congress keep paying for it? Military expenditure linked to lobbying politicians and creating jobs

Sam Ellis, “This jet fighter is a disaster, but Congress keeps buying it” (Vox channel, 26 January 2017)

Google the term “F-35” and among the suggestions the search engine offers you are terms like “problems” and “flying turkeys” which indicate the breadth and depth of the issue of technical and other defects surrounding the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II multi-role stealth fighter jet. The most expensive military weapons system in history and surely one of the longest, having started development in 1992, the F-35 fighter jet has been plagued with numerous problems, not only technical problems, but problems with its design, production, testing and pilot training among others. Yet the US government continues to throw money at it, even though hundreds of billions have already been sunk into the project, with no clear

This video goes some way to explaining how the F-35 fighter jet’s development is as much an ongoing political and economic project as it is a military project. Private defence companies depend on the US government as virtually their sole client and hence compete hard for military defence contracts. To ensure support for their projects, they lobby and buy the support of Congress representatives at both House of Representatives and Senate levels. Companies establish plants in as many states as they can so they can lobby as many politicians as they can to push their case for winning contracts. Bought politicians will support those defence companies that will bring jobs to their states. The example of Lockheed Martin in buying Sikorski Technologies in Connecticut, so as to curry favour with politicians representing that state in Congress and beat Boeing in gaining the contract to build what became the F-35 fighter jet, is cited.

Several of the technical problems that the F-35 fighter jet is notorious for stem from the design and production process itself. Normally new products are researched, designed and tested for defects before mass production begins; with the F-35, production begins about the same time that testing is done. The problem with this approach is that jets already manufactured must be returned to the production to be retrofitted with amended parts if flaws are discovered during testing.

The election of Donald Trump as President in 2016 threw a spanner – pun intended – into the works of the F-35 fighter jet production when he threatened to cancel the US government order and ask Boeing to price a jet comparable to and competitive with the F-35. Trump’s decision highlighted the issues with the F-35 and also threatened the delicate network of connections among the US government, defence companies and jobs in nearly all 50 states. Since defence companies not only provide direct employment to people in those states but also work to other businesses through contracts for raw materials, parts and administration, and thus indirect work to those companies’ employees, Trump’s decision has the potential to derail individual state economies, especially those state economies highly dependent on government military contracts.

While very dense with information, at just over seven minutes the video is necessarily an introduction into some of the economics and politics behind the F-35 stealth fighter jet program. Good use of animation, charts and lively graphics explains the close connections between US politicians and defense corporations. The video does not go into any detail as to why a multi-role stealth fighter jet is needed to replace other jets used by the US Army, Navy and Air Force when perhaps a range of more specialised and less expensive fighter jets might be more appropriate to American defence needs. Nothing is said either about a culture in the Pentagon and US armed forces that favours F-35 fighter jets and using huge aircraft carriers to project US power around the world at a time when military technology and tactics have changed or advanced to a point where air forces may no longer be needed for land wars (because the majority of land wars being fought these days are being fought guerrlla-style) and where aircraft carriers and their flotillas become sitting ducks for electronic shutdown and thus targets for missile attacks.

Viewers may need to see the video a few times to absorb the information which comes at quite a fast pace. The presentation may be a bit too sharp and snappy for some but on the whole the video is a good and often shocking exposure of how much US politics and economy depend on pursuing a project vacuuming up billions of dollars with not much to show, at the cost of burdening American taxpayers with tremendous debt obligations that they eventually must pay.

The Corbett Report (Episode 33: Meet Edward Bernays, Master of Propaganda): still retaining the power to shock with minimalist presentation

James Corbett, “The Corbett Report (Episode 33: Meet Edward Bernays, Master of Propaganda)” (February 2008)

It might be a bit dated, what with social media platforms like Facebook now dominating people’s time (and perhaps moulding their thoughts, opinions and behaviours), and selling their personal details to corporate advertising sponsors and election campaign staff, but this episode of “The Corbett Report” on Edward Bernays and the poisonous legacy he left still has the power to shock viewers. Bernays is famous as the founder of public relations and modern methods of propaganda, based on discovering what motivates people and what they fear and desire, and using those fears and desires to manipulate people’s thoughts, views and behaviours, all to achieve certain ends. These methods are based on the assumption, derived from psychoanalytic theory (founded by Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, the uncle of Edward Bernays), that human beings are essential irrational creatures ruled by fears, feelings and instincts they are unaware of or which they cannot articulate in words.

Using various sources, of which the most prominent are two documentaries, Alix Spiegel’s “Freud’s Nephew and the Origins of Public Relations”, made for National Public Radio in 2005, and Adam Curtis’s “The Century of the Self”, made for the British Broadcasting Corporation in 2002, James Corbett demonstrates how Bernays was able to change public perceptions and behaviour, usually to the detriment of people’s long-term health and security, for the benefit of his private corporate clients – and ultimately himself, since he would have reaped quite an income along with a reputation for dramatic results which would have brought him more clients. The examples used are superb if gob-smacking: Bernays was able to change the US public’s perception of what a hearty, home-cooked breakfast should involve (bacon and eggs) for his client who wanted to increase its bacon sales; he created a strategy to promote cigarette smoking among women, which involved hiring a group of young women posing as feminists and suffragettes to light up cigarettes during an Easter Day parade in New York City, for his client The American Tobacco Company; and he orchestrated a media campaign using the American Dental Association promoting the fluoridation of public water supplies so that the Aluminum Company of America and other special interest lobbyists could legally dump aluminium fluoride waste into water repositories. Through such campaigns, Bernays and his clients may have contributed considerably to harming the long-term health of generations of Americans and others abroad. Furthermore, this harm may have also had an impact on Western societies and cultures as there are studies suggesting that fluoridation of water can damage children’s neurological development. Corbett mentions that Nazi German concentration camps and Soviet gulags put sodium fluoride into their water supplies to induce passive behaviour in prisoners; whether this is true, I do not know as considerable controversy still surrounds this matter.

The most worrying aspect of Bernays’s career as a spin doctor is the work he did for the US government and the CIA in convincing the US public in the 1950s that the somewhat social-democratic Arbenz government of the small Central American nation Guatemala was Communist and therefore a major threat to American security. The success of Bernays’s campaigns led to US public support for the eventual overthrow of the government and its replacement by an authoritarian military government. The ultimate beneficiary of this destabilisation of an entire country (which entrenched it further in a culture of political instability, poverty and violence) was the American corporation The United Fruit Company which resented the nationalisation of several of its properties by the Arbenz government.

Bernays’s influence spread far outside American public relations and political propaganda: his book “Propaganda”, published in 1927, his ideas and campaigns were studied by the Nazi German and Soviet governments who put their new-found knowledge to use in their own public propaganda campaigns. That Bernays was surprised that enemies of the US were using his book and propaganda methods to promote their ideologies and change their populations suggests a lack of insight and reflection on his part. Certainly such news did not stop him from eagerly offering his services (for money of course) to the US government and its agencies to get rid of governments that encroached on the interests of US private corporations. Eventually Bernays seems to have become cynical about human nature as suggested by his daughter Ann in the episode’s last scene; but the quality of thinking, believing and acting by the American public as it developed during the 20th century generally must be seen as a reflection of the predatory and anti-intellectual capitalist society that helped to shape it, and in this Bernays must bear a great deal of the blame for his role in demonstrating the potential of propaganda campaigns in manipulating human emotions, fears and instincts for short-term profit.

The episode is easy to follow but listeners may have to hear it a few times to absorb the information – the presentation is very dense and far-ranging. It ends with recent examples of US propaganda aimed at deceiving the public into believing outright lies about US government policies and actions. A situation has now developed in which the American public has become increasingly estranged from the US government and the elites who dominate it and determine its policies: this strained relationship extends also to the mainstream news media industry which peddles lies and stereotypes, and manufactures or misrepresents propaganda stunts designed and timed to sway public opinion to favour US government actions that promote the interests of global finance, the arms industry and giant energy and other corporations. Were Sigmund Freud alive today, he would be horrified at how his psychoanalytic theories have been used and abused to bring about a dysfunctional world.

The Corbett Report (Episode 332: The Weaponisation of Social Media): a brisk survey of government online propaganda methods

James Corbett, “The Corbett Report (Episode 332 The Weaponisation of Social Media)” (April 2018)

A brisk, and at times even brusque, survey of how governments, the military and intelligence agencies use and exploit social media platforms to influence and change public opinion and to spread disinformation and propaganda, this episode of “The Corbett Report” might need a few viewings for its message to burrow into your brain. Part of the reason is that this 15-minute video breezes across a range of methods and subterfuges the US government and its agencies resort to, to insinuate themselves into social media conversations and discussions through sockpuppets, false online identities, trolling practices and astroturfing campaigns; but the video does not dwell very long on one of these deceptive techniques before flying onto another. For people who have never considered that their governments would deliberately try to manipulate their thinking and behaviour to deceive them and to direct them into agreeing with their rulers’ agenda or to do things they would otherwise never consider or refuse to do, such information will come as a huge shock.

For all that though, and despite its far-ranging reach that includes an interview with US law professor Cass Sunstein, who also served as a public official under US President Barack Obama from 2009 to 2012, the video is surprisingly tepid on what individuals can do to recognise manipulation when they experience it online, how to deal with trolls and sockpuppets, and how to lessen their exposure to manipulation in future, not to mention how people can come together to confront government deception and propaganda. The video also does not propose non-profit social media alternatives to Facebook and similar platforms that could be used by children, teenagers and others who find Facebook’s business model repellent.

While the video is very well presented and its pace is smooth if urgent, I couldn’t help but think the film could have been much more effective if it had spent more time on each subterfuge that the US, the UK and Israel engage in (including selective editing of articles on Wikipedia) and where possible show a few examples of each, explore the history behind it and reveal also the consequences where these occurred. Perhaps at a later time, “The Corbett Report” could revisit this topic in greater depth.

The Jimmy Dore Show: Interview with Carla Ortiz (23 April 2018) – exposing the reality behind the Syrian White Helmets

The Jimmy Dore Show: Interview with Carla Ortiz (23 April, 2018)

A most unexpected surprise from what I would have considered the least likely medium surfaced recently: US stand-up comedian (and political commentator) Jimmy Dore featured Bolivian actress Carla Ortiz on his weekly one-hour radio / online show. Ortiz recently returned from a trip to Syria – her second trip I think, although I’m not really sure – during which she visited Aleppo and among other things saw for herself the headquarters of the fake humanitarian first-response group the Syrian White Helmets … which happened to be located a couple of metres away from the headquarters of Al Nusra (the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda). The actress also spoke to several people who had done volunteer work for the White Helmets – which mostly involved acting in the group’s propaganda films – and filmed scenes in sections of Aleppo that had just been liberated from terrorists by the Syrian Arab Army.

I missed seeing the first 20 minutes of the interview but what I did see and hear was in turns astounding, horrifying, depressing and uplifting. One astounding fact was that while volunteers working for the Syrian Arab Army would be paid the Syrian equivalent of US$50 a month for 16 to 18 hours of work, volunteers for the White Helmets could expect to receive a hefty US$1,500 a month. The temptation for Syrian civilians in areas captured by terrorists to work for the White Helmets – especially as the terrorists deliberately withheld food from civilian hostages unless they were prepared to pay hugely inflated prices – must have been immense. Ortiz and Dore do not discuss where the money would have come from to pay White Helmets volunteers but one suspects the most likely sources of funding are donations from Western governments and money from Sunni-dominated oil kingdoms on the Arabian Peninsula.

In her film, in which she enters the White Helmets headquarters, Ortiz points out two Al Nusra flags and states that they could not have been placed there accidentally, as very few Syrian citizens support Al Nusra and most such citizens hate the group. Ortiz notes that nearly all terrorists operating in Syria are from overseas. She reels off a list of actions of the terrorists that demonstrate their callous brutality: they keep civilians in cages and use them as human shields, and commandeer schools and hospitals, thus stunting children’s education and preventing families from obtaining medical help and medicines. People are deliberately starved as well and children die from malnutrition and diseases that could have been treated.

At least twice in the interview, Jimmy Dore mentions the CIA as paymaster for the terrorists to overthrow Assad but the reality may be more complicated than that: several Western governments want Assad gone and each would be using several agencies, including intel agencies, charities and news media outlets, to channel money and weapons to the terrorists, train them and promote them in the guise of humanitarian aid groups and organisations such as the White Helmets and Violet Organisation Syria.

However horrifying the war has been in Syria and especially in Aleppo, Ortiz speaks highly of the Syrian people: she notes that Syrian society has made great advances in giving women leadership roles in politics (the current Syrian vice-president is female and 30% of the country’s ministries are headed by women) and society generally. Since Aleppo’s liberation in 2016, 800,000 refugees have returned to the city and people are busy in rebuilding the city and making it function normally again. Ortiz draws inspiration from Syrians’ upbeat and positive attitudes, their love for their country (which, interestingly, they regard as a “living motherland”) and their pride in their 7,000-year history in which they themselves find inspiration and hope. Ortiz also speaks about the kind of world we are bequeathing to future generations, and what should be our legacy to them.

The interview flowed freely and quickly – Ortiz speaks quite rapidly and animatedly, and becomes emotional a couple of times – and the conversation bounces smoothly from one topic to another. Ortiz and Dore get on very well together and I am sure Ortiz will be returning to Dore’s show as guest interviewee in the not too distant future. The show is highly informative though viewers and listeners need to have some background knowledge of contemporary Syrian politics, how the current war began in the country and the various groups involved in fighting the Syrian government.

One thing that emerges from their talk, though Ortiz and Dore may not have been aware at the time, is the way in which Western news media portrays Syrians and Arab peoples generally: as backward people obsessed with religious sectarianism and literal interpretations of Islam and Shari’a law in particular. In the mindset of Western MSM news, Arab countries are always unstable and have long histories of tribal and religious conflict; this particular stereotype is not only racist but is part and parcel of a worldview in which Arabs cannot be trusted as stewards of energy resources needed by the West and cannot (and by implication should not) control their own lands. In this view also, Israel is the only country that is stable and democratic, and therefore should be treated favourably – in spite of its genocidal policies towards Palestinians and racist attitudes towards guest workers, refugees, immigrants and even Jewish people with non-Western backgrounds.

The Queen of Versailles: portrait of a billionaire family living the American Dream and exploiting it to excess

Lauren Greenfield, “The Queen of Versailles” (2012)

Originally intended as a documentary on the construction of one of the largest single-family detached houses in the United States, this film ended up being a character study investigation of the house’s owners, David and Jackie Siegel, after David Siegel’s timeshare resort company Westgate Resorts crashed in a mountain of debt during the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 and the Great Recession that came soon after. Following the Siegels as they try to cope with the fall in their fortunes to the extent of having to fire thousands of employees and most of their domestic servants, and putting their unfinished home up for sale at a time when others are dumping their houses on the market as well, the film becomes a fly-on-the-wall observer of this particular American Dream gone badly sour and the effect it has on one family’s relationships and the family members’ characters. Not commenting on the Siegels’ behaviour and excesses, and the sometimes abominable ways in which they treat their employees and household staff, the film forces viewers to make up their own minds about the character and morality of David and Jackie.

The astonishing aspect of the film is not the way in which the various characters, in particular David and Jackie Siegel, react and behave in the wake of their misfortune, nor the devastation they leave behind, nor even their children’s maturity in coping with their straitened circumstances compared to the parents’ own immaturity, but in how completely open the Siegels are in allowing the film-makers to track them and the ways in which they deal with the changes in their circumstances. Jackie copes by going on compulsive shopping splurges which result in a lot of waste and a considerable number of pet animals (bought for her children, who number eight in total plus a niece) dying unnecessarily because no-one knows how to look after them – the hired staff did all that but they’ve been let go – but she is clearly devoted to her husband and children, and is prepared to downsize her lifestyle. Her obsession with plastic surgery stems from a background of having been abused by her first husband and her desire to please her second husband David who – perhaps unsurprisingly – turns out to be the more contemptible figure. A Scrooge-like figure, David Siegel is uninterested in his younger children’s welfare – he has not even set aside money for their future education – and regards Jackie as a tiresome trophy wife cum compulsive shopper. Siegel’s idea of fun is to surround himself with 50 Miss America contestants in his home during a reception to promote the pageant: is this creepy or not for a man in his 70s?

One important part of the documentary is its description of the parasitic business model Westgate Resorts used that was the foundation of the Siegels’ excessive wealth: the company sold timeshare mortgages to people who dreamed of owning vacation homes for two weeks each year: homes that they would have to share with 26 other starry-eyed owners who were also sold timeshare mortgages, regardless of their ability to pay. Siegel then bundled these mortgages together in packages and used them as collateral to borrow even more money from banks to build more resorts which were then sold to more ordinary working folks who had to buy timeshare mortgages … and so the cycle continued. This particular house of cards was bound to collapse along with the banks that pursued similar lending policies once their respective vacation home and property bubbles burst. Once the money dries up and Westgate Resorts’ business model falls apart, Siegel becomes obsessed with holding onto a lavish hotel in Las Vegas. This means 7,000 Westgate Resorts employees are suddenly thrown into unemployment queues (presumably with no advice as to how to find work and no employment references) and the household staff are cut down with no thought as to how the Siegel children will be affected. Two nannies from the Philippines speak of how working for the Siegels has impacted on their families back home: one woman has not seen her children, siblings and parents for years on end.

As the weeks, months and eventually years drag on, the family’s financial situation becomes even more dire and relationships among the Siegels become very estranged. David Siegel retreats into his office amid a tower of papers and bills he refuses to pay, and doomsday in the form of a letter from the ban informing the couple of impending foreclosure encroaches upon them. While initially Jackie Siegel continues to stack up mounds of shopping, few of which she or her children need, the blonde bombshell turns out to be more realistic than her husband: she begins donating unwanted toys, clothes and other items to charity, she teaches her daughters how to prepare family meals and she anticipates having to move into a four-bedroom home that will be physically squeezy for a family of ten but plenty of room for steadfast and unconditional love (mostly coming from her).

At the end of the film, the family’s manifold problems remain unresolved but Jackie holds her head high as she surveys the crumbling ruins of her Versailles home and gardens. Whatever her faults and weaknesses, one has to admire Jackie for her lack of guile, her pluck and her loyalty to her family and friends. She tries to help an old school-friend keep her home by giving her $5,000 but unfortunately once the friend’s bank starts foreclosure proceedings, it insists on going through to the bitter end and the friend loses her home. On the other hand, David Siegel elicits little sympathy from viewers for his greed, his lack of reflection and his pathological need to hang onto that hotel in Las Vegas against all advice. Incredibly he boasts about having put George W Bush in power as US President before having second thoughts about admitting to doing something illegal and undemocratic to strangers who might report him.

Most viewers outside the US will wonder at the kind of psychopathic society that enables people like David Siegel and his company, and financial institutions to prey on and exploit the dreams and hopes of ordinary Americans for a better life, if not a luxurious one given to excess, and through their own short-sighted stupidity, avarice and incompetence bring a whole society crashing down in a succession of debt bubbles, in the process wiping out the middle class and sending huge numbers into poverty and destitution. While the film does not say anything about the context in which Westgate Resorts thrived by exploiting people’s dreams and desires, let alone pass judgement on it, nevertheless overseas audiences are likely to notice the apparent lack of proper government or other institutional oversight of an industry that allowed such corporate parasites to prey on the vulnerable and the unsuspecting.

Since the documentary was made, David Siegel attempted to sue the film-makers but failed. Jackie Siegel appeared on Celebrity Wife Swap. In mid-2015, the couple’s 18-year-old daughter Victoria died from an accidental overdose of methadone. Westgate Resorts has recovered to become a lucrative timeshare business once again, employing some 4,700 people and earning billions in sales revenues. The Siegels may one day be able to complete the construction of their Versailles mansion and move in. One wonders though what sort of “Happily Ever After” world will greet them if and when they do.

Rethinking Putin: stripping away Western criticism and fantasy, and painting a picture of pragmatic and steady leadership

Stephen F Cohen, “Rethinking Putin”, Annual Nation Cruise (2 December 2017)

Professor Stephen Cohen is a scholar and professor emeritus of Russian studies at Princeton University and New York University, and the spouse of Katrina vanden Heuvel who edits The Nation magazine, so perhaps it’s no surprise that he was invited to give a speech to the magazine’s subscribers on its annual cruise. He chose as his subject current Russian President Vladimir Putin who, if you believe Western mainstream news media, is Planet Earth’s equivalent of Star Wars villain Darth Vader, and in his speech sets out to show Putin as a major national leader of importance and a politician born of historic circumstances and political and economic trends in post-Soviet Russia.

Regrettably Cohen gets off on a wrong footing by stating that Putin has been in power for 18 years since early 2000; in fact, Putin was only Prime Minister from 2008 to 2012, second to President Dmitri Medvedev. During this period, Russia supported the Western call for a no-fly zone over Libya in 2011, such call leading to the NATO invasion of that country and its descent into chaos. Had Putin been President then, Russia most probably would not have supported a no-fly zone over Libya and the country might not have lost its independence and Colonel Muammar Gaddhafi. From then on, listeners are wise to be wary of any prejudices and limitations on Cohen’s part in discussing the extent to which Putin currently wields power in Russia as the current President. Anyway, Cohen observes the extreme and often hysterical demonisation of President Putin in the Western news media, and starts his talk proper by emphasising what Putin is not, rather than what he is. He emphasises that Boris Yeltsin as President from 1991 to 1999 behaved in a way that was highly authoritarian and corrupt, and presided over post-Soviet decline and deindustrialisation, often with the underhanded help of the US government, so any authoritarian tendencies in the current Russian administration or any corruption and concentration of wealth in the hands of an oligarchic elite did not start with Putin. Cohen also states that the killings of Russian journalists and prominent opposition figures did not begin during Putin’s early presidency. From there, Cohen strips further layers of Western criticism and fantasy about Putin.

For Cohen, Putin comes across as a reactive and conservative politician, especially in the realm of foreign policy, in the sense of attempting to preserve the status quo. Putin’s previous work in the KGB has had no bearing on his leadership style or the policies he pursues. In the last few minutes of his speech, Cohen outlines his idea of Putin: initially a young, inexperienced public servant who found a collapsing and unstable Russia, and who over the years restores proper governance, stability and security to the country in a pragmatic system of “managed democracy”. This for Cohen extends to controlling to some extent what history and historical narratives can be passed from one generation to the next, so that young people have a sure idea of what Russia represents and what its values are: this is actually no more and no less what Western countries have done for much of the 20th century. To an extent, Putin represents a conservative, somewhat traditional segment of the Russian population (who might be called the silent majority in most Western countries) who desire to see Russia as a great power with a stable and robust economy, and a society with a clear direction not disturbed and riven by the agendas of competing social and cultural groups.

At this point, the talk breaks off just as Cohen warms up to discussing Russia’s treatment of its Jewish minority but the gist of his view of Putin has been established. Whether Cohen’s view is accurate, I have no idea, not knowing any more about Russia or Putin than most people in the West do but it seems to me that to call Putin reactive and conservative in his foreign policy is doing him and his government an injustice. In an age where governments are expected to spring to action immediately over a major terrorist or other incident with no thought as to the consequences of such action, Russian delay in response, and the kind of considered action that does follow – and which often ends up flummoxing the US and its allies, and puts them in a bad light (which they richly deserve) – is no bad thing at all. One even senses that Putin takes mischievous delight in the considered actions he does take, especially if the West ends up with egg on its collective face.

Cohen paints a picture of a pragmatic and cautious leader who has steadily restored stability, security, economic and cultural progress, and most of all pride to Russia. He does not say anything about how Putin’s leadership has inspired the country to turn around from a failing and despairing post-industrial scrap-heap into a growing economic power in the space of less than 20 years; that could have been a very interesting discussion. At the very least though, Cohen gives us a vision of a country that has rediscovered a path to security and prosperity.

 

Risk: a supposed character study about Wikileaks founder is a confused mess

Laura Poitras, “Risk” (2016)

Filmed over six years, its focus on the life of Julian Assange since he founded Wikileaks and obtained and released thousands of US government documents of evidence of American war crimes in Iraq since 2003, Laura Poitras’ “Risk” could have been an intriguing character study on what motivates Assange to continue doing what he does in spite of the enormous threats to his life and freedom from the US and its allies. Assange’s freedom of movement has been severely compromised since allegations of rape and subsequent rape charges were made against him by two Swedish women and the Swedish justice system respectively, and the UK prepared to extradite him to Sweden to face those charges; Assange feared such extradition would open the way for Sweden to then extradite him to the US to face espionage charges in a closed court with a grand jury, so he sought asylum (and was granted it) in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Yet Assange and Wikileaks continue to release documents that expose US government duplicity, corruption and more war crimes.

We certainly get a sense of the paranoia that surrounds Assange holed up in the embassy and in the Norfolk country house where he lived previously, subject to a night curfew, and of the doubts, struggles and in-fighting within the Wikileaks community and its following. Unfortunately the film comes across as something of a mess that seems to gloss over many things or treats them in a desultory way despite the fact that the time-period it covers features some stupendous events: the so-called Arab Spring in 2011; Bradley Manning’s arrest, imprisonment, trial and imprisonment for giving Wikileaks documents on American war crimes in Iraq; Edward Snowden’s leaking of thousands of National Security Agency documents, demonstrating widespread and deep government surveillance of US citizens and others abroad with the co-operation of telecommunication companies and governments, to Poitras and journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen Macaskill of The Guardian newspaper; and Wikileaks’ own release of US Democratic National Committee emails and emails by Hillary Clinton’s campaign staff showing how Clinton bullied the Democrats into making her their Presidential candidate over Bernie Sanders and various other actions of hers that demonstrate her unfitness for the US Presidency. Viewers not familiar with the topics touched on in the film will be mightily confused and will wonder how they all relate to one another. At times the documentary descends to the level of soap opera melodrama as Poitras admits in her voice-over narrative that she had an affair with Jacob Appelbaum who had been leading the Tor Project, a cyber-partner of Wikileaks. After the affair broke up, Poitras hears that Appelbaum apparently engaged in sexual abuse of another woman yet no charges were made against him.

Assange himself comes across as a complex, conflicted and contradictory figure, at times very remote yet passionate about what he fights for; at times arrogant and egotistical but concerned for Bradley (later Chelsea) Manning as the US private is treated horrifically while in prison and then at trial. Assange appears not to take the rape allegations and charges against him very seriously. Poitras seems to bounce from one viewpoint of Assange to another without ever being able to decide which viewpoint describes him best. The people who surround him are either gushy about him or fall out with him and don’t want anything more to do with him; it seems that Assange excites very extreme reactions in people.

For someone who had so much access to Assange and Wikileaks, Poitras has ended up making a film that says very little about Assange that people don’t know already. How Assange copes with the threats against him, the world closing in on him; how and why he continues on his personal crusade to bring truth about the use and misuse of power by political elites to the public despite the personal cost; what he believes is his future: all these issues that Poitras could have brought up in her film that could have made it great are missing.

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 16: Adam Ruins the Future): this episode should have gone out on a high note

Tim Wilkime, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 16: Adam Ruins the Future)” (2017)

As the last episode of its season, “Adam Ruins the Future” should go out on a high note but after having seen most of the season, I must admit that before seeing it my expectations were on the low side.  The episode turned out quite predictably: based around the theme of the future but with very little relationship to one another, three topics are treated at a quick zip in rather superficial fashion. Pressed by girlfriend Melinda to consider their future together, Adam changes the subject to explain why use-by dates on food labels are misleading and how 401K funds (the US equivalent of superannuation funds in Australia) won’t support most people in retirement. Melinda answers back by showing Adam how all the research in the world can’t predict the future generally, let alone the future of their relationship, and that people’s assumptions about the future are really an extension of present trends (which can always be disrupted and overthrown). Adam and Melinda finally agree that they don’t really have a future together and Adam acknowledges that breaking up says nothing about his worth as a human being.

The legislation governing use-by dates and the information about 401K funds are quite specific to an American audience so the discussion will be of limited value to overseas viewers. Probably the most audiences outside the US can gain from these segments is to investigate the legislation in their own countries that govern food labelling and expiry dates, and to know what their countries’ pension and super funds can and can’t do for them,  and what the alternatives if any are. The one thing 401K funds may have in common with super funds in Australia and possibly elsewhere is that they operate in a context where mostly ill-informed individuals are expected to accept the risks and responsibility in investing in such funds without much help from the government or independent agencies that do not have a vested interest in marketing these financial products. Everyone who works is expected to invest in his/her future retirement by contributing towards superannuation but the superannuation industry is dominated by a bewildering range of products whose features and characteristics may be difficult to understand (unless buyers have a background knowledge of how finance works) and which are sold by companies and institutions that purport to be trustworthy and reliable but whose past histories might suggest otherwise.

The episode almost ends on a somewhat despairing note – viewers may not be satisfied being urged to pressure the US government to reform legislation governing 401K funds when everyone knows that business lobby groups and their money shout louder than the public interest – and Adam and Melinda separate rather abruptly without so much as saying “We can still be friends even if we can’t be lovers”. Emily makes a brief appearance to counsel Adam on being comfortable with one’s own company and at least he is happy with her advice, even if only temporarily, as the episode concludes.

While the series has been good on the whole, and has presented a lot of valuable information, the formula it follows has become tiresome and the slapstick is tedious and somewhat forced. A future series will need to include a bit more wit and some actual situation comedy along with information that doesn’t throw around statistics so much but flows a bit more naturally and shows evidence of digging deeper past the surface.

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 15: Adam Ruins Science): making a stand for public funding for science

Laura Murphy, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 15: Adam Ruins Science)” (2017)

Television programs about science and scientific studies may abound in many forms (as in documentaries or reports on news and current affairs programs) but a television program about the culture and practice of science, and how political and economic ideologies affect, even hinder science is very rare, and in this respect this episode of “Adam Ruins Everything” is very welcome. It seems much less silly than some earlier episodes but then perhaps the topics covered and what they imply together as well as separately are much more substantial than subjects like Halloween or visiting a health spa, and need lightening up to be palatable to the general public. Adam Conover visits Winnie, a science student about to start her project, and disabuses her of the value of laboratory mice in medical studies that are supposed to be relevant for human health. He also shows her how the practice of science is highly dependent on financial grants from various groups of donors – private companies, the pharmaceutical industry, individual and corporate philanthropists, and the government / public sector – all of whom have reasons and agendas for wanting to support particular areas or strands of scientific endeavour and who expect certain results from the recipients of the money, resources and staff they provide. Finally Adam warns Winnie that science journals are not necessarily repositories of truth with regard to the reporting of experiments and studies, as most such research are often flawed, with the most common flaws being small sample size, variables overlooked by researchers in forming hypotheses and designing experiments, and manipulating, even faking results. Adam advises Winnie of the value of studies being reproducible (that is, if another group of researchers undertake a similar study with the same experiment design and a similar-sized sample as the original, the researchers should be able to achieve similar results) and this encourages Winnie to adopt a more humble, less egocentric attitude in deciding what science project she will do for college class.

While the approach of (metaphorically) using a sledgehammer where a nutcracker might have been called for might be crude fun for kiddie viewers, the show does pound home the fact that much research in some areas (such as psychology) not only cannot be reproduced but could even be worthless; yet such research has often been trumpeted over and over in mainstream news media with the result that the phenomena the research has investigated (but not been able to prove) have passed into pop culture and urban folklore. The show’s middle segment on the funding of science makes for quite dismal viewing and is sure to force people to question how much value Western society really places on scientific pursuit and progress when science is at the mercy of the profit motive and corporate greed.

Although the program doesn’t go that far, the connection between who funds science and the faking of results in experiments and studies that could well end up in prestigious science journals can be made by astute viewers. This surely makes a case for public funding of science more important yet this is likely to be seen as anti-capitalist, even socialistic, by Western governments and therefore more public funding with less private funding would be considered as beyond the pale.

As is usual in most episodes, Adam’s companion descends into the pits of despair after one devastating revelation after another made by Adam or his expert helpers, only within a split second to zoom back into boundless optimism when Adam gives a pep talk about how s/he can still contribute something of benefit now that s/he understands the reality of the topic in question. Must Adam always pick on the most emotionally extreme characters to demonstrate how so much of what we believe and take for granted isn’t necessarily the truth?