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

 

Blood Coltan: fact-finding documentary on coltan mining in DRC tells the horror like it is

Patrick Forestier, “Blood Coltan” (2007)

Saw mention of this documentary in Arena magazine (December 2011 / January 2012 issue) so I was curious as to what it has to say about the coltan industry and trade in the Democratic Republic of Congo. As if I couldn’t already guess at what it might say: the insatiable global demand for coltan and other “rare earth” minerals for consumer electronics gadgets fuels an ongoing war which according to the film resulted in the deaths of 4 million people at the time of its making. There are other consequences of the war, some of which the film covers, even if superficially: the mass rapes, the recruitment of children as miners, the corruption in everyday life and the breakdown of traditional life and degradation of modern life in the eastern DRC where the coltan mining industry is based.

The film is structured around a fact-finding visit some French journalists make to the eastern DRC on behalf of an activist to track and describe the process of mining, transport and air-freighting of the mineral: the purpose of the exercise is to highlight the connection between the political instability of the DRC and consumer desire for electronics toys. Along the way the reporters meet a church priest dedicated to fighting the exploitation of his flock and community by outsiders; they also come across a ropey character in the form of General N Kunda who is both a military leader and a spiritual leader peddling a very dodgy form of Christianity to both Christians and Muslims. The film reveals that N Kunda is supported by Paul Kagame, the current Rwandan President at this time of writing. The documentary then follows the path unrefined coltan material takes to factories in China which are contracted to Western corporations to refine the coltan and insert the material into consumer electronics goodies.

The film may look very bare-bones and sometimes is barely there but the narration and visit (probably heavily edited to fit a narrative stereotype) provide a definite direction for the images. “Blood Coltan” ends up looking as if it was made for a TV current affairs show and that might have been the original intention. As hidden cameras had to be used to film several scenes, the documentary sometimes is quite jumpy and the visuals are very distracting. There is considerable detail in the descriptions of the coltan trade combined with some very good visual images and often colourful scenery.

Little background history as to why the eastern DRC and the whole country generally are so unstable and dangerous, and the role that Rwanda plays in the country’s ongoing disorder are absent. Viewers can easily get the impression that the DRC has always lurched from one crisis to another with no breaks in-between when in fact throughout its history since independence in 1961, certain deliberate choices were made, politicians were assassinated and Western governments and their intelligence agencies supported a ruler (Mobutu Sese Seko) who violated human rights, suppressed all opposition and generally was a poster-boy for corrupt dealings and hiding vast amounts of money that belonged to his people in overseas bank accounts.

The connection between coltan mined in war zone areas and consumers, the levels of grey middle-men types in-between and the cynical exploitation of children and teenagers either in the mines or in Chinese-owned factories under contract to larger Western corporatons like Nokia are made very clear. There are probably some other issues the film failed to cover which it should have done – for one thing, the film says nothing about the impact that mining for coltan has on animals, vegetation and water supplies and disposal – and likewise there is nothing about the dangers of mining for adults and children alike or of the possibility that deforestation to make way for mines harms landscapes and increases the likelihood of stress on the land resulting in avalanches that could bury mines and the people inside them. There are even indirect effects of coltan mining on the health of the people in the area: in addition to obvious examples of workplace injury leading to permanent disability or even death, the encroachment of coltan mining on places where apes and monkeys live gives people opportunities to hunt these primates for bushmeat, and there is the possibility that exotic diseases may pass from apes and monkeys to humans with devastating results.

Overall this is a good exposition of the coltan industry and trade and of our role as consumers of consumer electronics products in the network that includes shady parties out for a quick buck and no consideration as to whether their activities will harm communities and the natural environment.

 

Blood of the Beasts: horror, death, poetry and beauty co-exist in slaughterhouse

Georges Franju, “Le sang des bêtes” / “Blood of the Beasts” (1949)

An amazing if very graphic realist film documentary of the work done in abbatoirs on the outskirts of Paris in the late 1940s, Franju’s “Le sang des bêtes” helped to establish the director as a distinctive voice in French cinema who combined both matter-of-fact realism and dream-like surrealism in his work. And this documentary is both very uncompromising in its portrayal of casual butchery of animals whose meat humans rely on, and poetic, even lyrical, in its deliberate depictions of city and suburban scenes of Paris.

The film slyly immerses viewers into its world with a montage of static shots of the Paris landscape, its bridges and historic buildings, edging us to the city outskirts where there are tableaux of children at play, an old man sitting in the sun and young lovers kissing. It’s a short casual trot over to the abbatoir where, after viewers get a quick look at the workers’ tools of the trade, we and they get down to business: killing the animal, draining its blood, skinning it and cutting out the meat, viscera and other parts either for human consumption or other uses. The scenes are very graphic but filming in black-and-white reduces the gore factor of what we see and replaces that loss with a clinical, dispassionate look at the workers as they go about their necessary tasks. Seeing the hot blood draining away in channels on the ground beneath the slatted frames where the sheep and calves have their throats cut, the light and dark tones of the liquid swirling in a psychedelic monochrome pattern, strikes me as a lyrical, almost meditative scene: blood as the fluid of life ebbing away into a larger, perhaps cosmic river that might power the universe.

The men working in the abbatoir are shown as ordinary humans, neither degraded untouchables nor heroic beings, performing hard but necessary work using skills that are as specific and specialised as the skills needed to be an electrician, a blacksmith, a carpenter or a plumber. The way the men work looks casual but then they’ve had years of experience to hone their skills; even so, the voice-over narration informs viewers that there are health risks (for example, a cyst on the wrist that that suggest repetitive strain injury) involved in carrying out often repetitive and heavy work.

Two narrators, Georges Hubert and Nicole Ladmiral, were employed for this documentary: Ladmiral describes the environs of Paris and Hubert in a neutral tone observes the abattoir workers’ activities. The narration intrudes only when necessary to explain some aspect of the work that’s not obvious on the screen to viewers and very long sections of the film are completely without speech. There’s very little music apart from one worker singing “La Mer” (the tune is familiar to Australians as it has been used in TV commercials promoting tourism in South Australia) who might have been thinking of his former job as a sailor while washing away streams of blood into the abattoir ground channels with water from a pressure hose.

It becomes apparent to viewers that violent death and its horror are much closer to us than we realise and that every time we eat meat and wear or use leather and other animal-derived products, we condone the deaths of innocent creatures that have been conceived, born and raised simply to die for our material benefit and comfort. The horrors also of the crematoria of Auschwitz-Birkenau and other death camps in Poland which occurred several years before the film was made also spring to mind.

 

Human Resources: documentary on mind control is mind-exploding

Scott Noble, “Human Resources” (2010)

What can I say? This two-hour documentary on the history of government and elite attempts to control human behaviour and direct human culture and society is sheer mindfuck: it covers a whole gamut of approaches, methods and techniques to control people’s thoughts, moods and actions from the late nineteenth century to the present day. No stone is apparently left unturned and unexamined by director Scott Noble as he trawls through psychology, eugenics, race relations, corporate philanthropy, scientific worker management, the structure of education and schooling, Nazi medical experiments and CIA mind control experiments that produced a torture manual. Interviews with various political, social and cultural commentators including Harvard academic Rebecca Lemov, activists Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn and former schoolteacher turned education critic John Taylor Gatto mix with hard-edged female voice-over narration, a slew of archived newsreel material and excerpts from Hollywood and other movies going as far back as 1917 to give an overwhelming and often disturbing presentation on the nature of political-economic-cultural power.

The Adam Curtis school of documentary film-making sure has much to answer for: the music soundtrack is eclectic, boasting artists like Phillip Glass, Do Make Say Think, Sigur Ros, Aphex Twin, Mira Calix, Amon Tobin and Bob Dylan, and unfortunately can be too intrusive and distracting, especially during John Taylor Gatto’s interview; but apart from the whimsical music choices, the film overall has a lo-fi appraoch with very few fancy special effects. It could have been better structured: the film weaves from one topic to another and by the time the relevant “chapter heading” in the guise of a quotation appears on a red background, the film is already quite deep into the issue under scrutiny. Possibly “Human Resources” could have been divided into a three-part mini-series in the style of Curtis’s tetralogy “The Century of the Self” which deals with a similar if more restricted theme; Noble could have included more jettisoned material (he had 10 hours’ worth) into a trilogy.

The film starts off with an investigation of behaviourism and its development in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: even then, psychologists were seizing its concepts and philosophies to justify their agendas and political views and those of their sponsors in business, government and academia. From behaviourism the film goes into an exploration of eugenics and the social and political conditions prevailing in the United States that enabled the eugenics movement to flourish (though there is no mention of early links between birth control and family planning advocates on the one hand and the eugenics movement on the other) and then into how corporations tried to combat labour movements and unions with philanthropy and the adoption of scientific management or Taylorism (after Frederick Taylor, its founder). The attention given to Taylorism and how it dovetailed with Fordism, the organisation of work in factories and offices and the psychological effects of task fragmentation and deskilled work is considerable and chilling; needless to say, both Communists and fascists and other folks in-between found Taylorism attractive and tried to co-opt it into their workplaces. From the workplace to the school – ya gotta start oppressing ’em young! – and interviewee John Taylor Gatto (descended from Frederick Taylor) waxes strongly on the aim of Western education and its structures to control and mould children into passive, unquestioning and indifferent sheep, and the effect of grades, the use of testing and exams, and competition on children’s mental and emotional development.

The film emphasises that competition is far from natural – it takes care to mention that Charles Darwin never used the term “survival of the fittest” but only discussed natural selection – and there is mention of cross-cultural studies showing that co-operation rather than competition encourages creativity and originality whereas competition has the opposite effect. Frustration / aggression theory is invoked to explain why bullying, scapegoating and violence against outsiders or out-groups occurs and the idea of mental illness as being culture-specific is mentioned. Significantly governments and politicians are fingered as the most important mass murderers and serial killers in recent history and the film goes out of its way to examine the US government’s eagerness to employ Nazi German scientists, many if not most of whom were engaged in heinous medical experiments during the Second World War, in many post-war science and medical programmes. A depressing list of secret US government experiments in which unwitting civilians, sometimes whole cities, were exposed to uranium, radiation, bacteria, various chemicals and even yellow fever follows. (There is no mention of the government’s obtaining of documentation of Japanese medical / science experiments, equally and sometimes more horrific than those of the Germans, done in Manchuria and other parts of China, and apparently in Singapore and the Philippines as well during the same period. The documents are stored in a secret facility in Utah state.)

The rest of the documentary focusses on various mind control experiments sponsored by the CIA from the 1950s under Projects Artichoke, Bluebird, MKUltra, MKSearch and other related projects: adults and children alike were forcibly put on LSD, mescaline and other drugs, forced into prolonged sleep or subjected to electro-shock treatments. All these mind control experiments ultimately failed but helped to produce the CIA’s infamous torture manuals that were used in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq among other places. The film concludes with the ultimate mind control instrument: the television set and how the attrributes of moving images can ensnare viewers into passivity and suggestibility.

Inevitably with such an ambitious scope there will be weak spots and some of the film’s assumptions about frustration / aggression theory and behaviourism may be open to challenge. The film does not cover all it could and does not offer alternatives like W Edwards Deming’s Total Quality Management concept to Taylorist ways of organising work and the workplace, or forms of education other than the conventional Western kind with its emphasis on kids studying subjects in a fragmented way that emphasises testing and beating the other kids. No attention is given to public relations, marketing and advertising as forms of social control and the film also ignores Hollywood and other popular films and TV shows as potential propaganda tools: the narratives of most movies and TV shoes which emphasise conflict, winners and losers, and one hero individual against a mass enemy should have taken a beating. Pop music and other youth-oriented cultures and sub-cultures which stress individualism and peddle notions of freedom in the sense of being free from restraint and social conventions and doing whatever you like regardless of consequences also escape the hatchet job. The film does not cover gaming and whether gaming could encourage a passive mentality amenable to control and suggestion even though for some years now people at videogame-like consoles in the US send drone aircraft into faraway places around the world to kill selected target humans: there is a statistic doing the rounds on the Internet that for every two terrorists killed by drone aircraft, 98 innocent civilians are taken down as well. That’s some accurate kill rate.

The two things that really smacked me over the head were the revelation that the theory of evolution as Darwin had originally conceived it says nothing about competition being part of the process of natural selection – the idea originated with Darwin’s contemporary, the biologist / philosopher Herbert Spencer – and the news that economist Adam Smith had predicted that the organisation of work into a fragmented series of repetitive and boring tasks would destroy people psychologically and turn them into soulless beings.

Although an investigation of Western economies is outside the scope of the film, I consider that the kind of economic system we have and its assumptions connect too well with the social and psychological forms of control “Human Resources” discusses. Debt-based financial systems have the pernicious effect of encouraging competition among businesses and consumers which then spreads to other areas of society, irrespective of whether it’s needed or useful; scrambling for money to pay debts may force individuals to stay in unwanted jobs in which fragmented work tasks destroy their initiative and make them passive, and businesses to engage in intense forms of competition such as perpetual redesigning and marketing of products, aggressive and unethical marketing, pursuing cheapness, mediocrity and quantity at the expense of durability and quality, and stifling innovation and creativity. The result is that a short-term point of view is preferred over a long-term viewpoint and the economy lurches from one crisis to another. Competition biases economies towards a growth orientation which results in wastage of resources, pollution, environmental rape, economic colonialism which has to be justified somehow (hence, the need for propaganda about the racial, religious or other inferiorities of people like Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims generally and First Nations people of various countries to demean them as true owners of land and other resources so that foreigners can strip them of their wealth) and the accompanying military adventurism which generates even more environmental destruction, pollution and resource wastage, to say nothing of the lives and cultures destroyed.

When all modes of social, psychological and economic control are taken together, the conclusion that “Human Resources” comes to is that they reveal the nature of power as wielded by generations of elites as something psychopathic and wilful and that those who work for it willingly, even eagerly, will end up as much victims as the rest of us already under its jackboot. The film may require several viewings for its message to be absorbed.

Fallujah, the Hidden Massacre: documentary makes case for war crime but provides no context for attack

Sigfrido Ranucci and Maurizio Torrealta, “Fallujah, the Hidden Massacre” (2005)

This 27-minute film plays like an extended news or current affairs report: it originally aired on Italy’s Radiotelevisione Italiana state government TV network on 8 November, 2005. It asserts that the weapons used during Operation Phantom Fury on the city of Fallujah in central Iraq in November 2004 were chemical weapons such as white phosphorus and other substances similar in nature to napalm which had been used during the Vietnam War in the late 1960s and early 1970s.With a mix of newsreels, interviews with various parties including former US soldiers now turned activists, Iraqi civilians and Italian journalists, the film builds a case for war crimes against the people of Fallujah by US military forces.

The presentation is bare-bones straightforward with a shrill Arab music soundtrack that sometimes threatens to overwhelm the voice-over narration. Various issues that viewers will pick up include the murder of children by US forces (because children as young as 10 years of age were fighting the soldiers), the targetting and killing of journalists not embedded with US and Coalition forces, US marines shooting and killing wounded people and the deliberate neglect in reporting civilian casualties as a result of the pounding of the city. The film gradually homes in on reports of people suffering unusual injuries and of bodies of people and animals who suffer no outward injuries but have horrific internal wounds. Film footage of corpses with faces simply scorched and blackened or melted away appears and it seems that weapons that produce intense heat and burning have been used against them.

A major part of the film includes interviews with Jeff Engleheart and Garret Reppenhagen who say that the use of white phosphorus, which penetrates through layers of clothing and other protection to burn skin and which, if inhaled, will burn lungs and other internal organs, on Fallujah residents was intentional. However these activists and others who appear in the film did not participate in the Fallujah attacks. Other interviewees include two Italian women journalists who claim that US forces tried to prevent them from revealing what happened in Fallujah and British ex-Labour Party member Alice Mahon who criticised the UK government under Prime Minister Tony Blair for supporting the Iraq war.

Where the film suffers is in providing a historical context as to why the United States should have pounded Fallujah in the ferocious way it did. It’s not as if there weren’t plenty of information available at the time: the unhappy relationship between Fallujah and the US that led to the attacks in August and November 2004 on two separate occasions can be traced back to an incident in April 2003 in which city residents protested outside a school that had been taken over by US forces, demanding that the school be handed back to them so children could attend lessons. Soldiers opened fire on the crowd, killing several and wounding many others. After a second protest during which US troops again fired on civilians, the city’s mood was sour and hostile. Into this situation in March 2004, a convoy guarded by four private military soldiers from Blackwater USA (later Xe Services, now Academi) arrived and was ambushed by Iraqis who lynched the four soldiers and mutilated their bodies. According to Jeremy Scahill in his book “Blackwater: the Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army”, there is evidence that the four soldiers were set up by Blackwater USA as one of them had criticised his supervisor; normally a convoy such as theirs travelling into a hostile city must have eight soldiers guarding it, four in front and four at the back. The lynchings made worldwide headlines and prompted the US armed forces to launch an attack on Fallujah in August 2004 and the second attack in November 2004 (source: Wikipedia, various articles).

Since the attacks in 2004, doctors in Fallujah have reported that rates of cancer, leukaemia and birth defects in newborn babies have risen greatly and city officials have apparently advised female Fallujah residents not to have children. The sex ratios of newborn babies since 2004 have also become very skewed: normally in most places each year the number of boy babies born slightly exceeds the number of girls babies born (usually about 103 – 106 boys for every 100 girls) but in Fallujah, the post-2004 ratios had fallen to about 85 – 86 boys for every 100 girls. There are reports that the birth defects observed are consistent with exposure to depleted uranium (DU) radiation. As far as I know, only one scientific study on this subject has been carried out and back-up studies are needed to verify the results but it’s likely that any future studies will be affected by harassment from US-led forces.

If it can be proved that white phosphorus and/or other dangerous chemicals have been used on Fallujah and that the ongoing sufferings of the Fallujah residents can be attributed to the use of these weapons and DU ordnance, the US government and military at the time must be held responsible for war crimes and crimes against peace. In November 2011, a war crimes tribunal in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, found former US and UK leaders George W Bush and Tony Blair respectively guilty of crimes against peace against the Iraqi people; the tribunal judges intend to add Bush and Blair’s names to a war crimes register and pass on their findings to the signatory nations of the Rome Statute which established the International Court of Crimes (source: Wake Up World, www.wakeup-world.com).

 

 

 

Sprawling from Grace, Driven to Madness: a fair documentary on car culture and its effects on American economy and society

David M Edwards, “Sprawling from Grace, Driven to Madness” (2008)

Stumbled across this very pertinent documentary on the consequences of Western societies’ dependence on cars as the dominant form of transport for most people on cities, life-styles, economies, public health and even government policies, in particular foreign policies. “Sprawling from Grace, Driven to Madness” was made at a time when Peak Oil warnings – the concern that global oil production would soon hit its maximum and thereafter decline as major oil fields in Saudi Arabia and Mexico were depleted – were attracting much attention and a significant part of the film revolves around the effects that long-term oil production decline and the depletion of other fossil fuels such as natural gas and coal will have on societies and government energy policies. Although the film was made mainly for an American audience, it has relevance for Australian audiences, most of whom live in cities and their sprawling suburbs along the south-eastern Australian coast, and people in other countries living in flat cities also spreading out far and wide from their urban cores so much so that the idea of commuters spending up to 2 or more hours in their cars travelling from home to work each day is common.

The film divides conveniently into two parts thanks to an off-screen Kate Bush warbling “Hello Earth” over a CGI animation of the planet right in the middle of the documentary: a really whimsical moment in an otherwise po-faced feature. The first half of the film concerns itself with the problems that over-reliance on the car poses for American people and the economy: having been touted by advertising as a symbol of freedom, independence, individuality, adventure and exploration, the car comes to enslave Americans in their mobility and life-styles. Commuting to the city for work and other reasons takes up ever greater amounts of time in people’s lives and exposes them to more air pollution which endangers their health. Traffic engineers trying to solve traffic jam problems by adding extra lanes or building more freeways quickly find that drivers adjust their behaviours to the technological fix with the result that there is more traffic on the roads and the old bottleneck problems return on a greater, more intense scale. There are economic costs as well: as the road infrastructure ages, the cost of maintaining roads and bridges in a time when US government debt levels are already high becomes a headache; but ignoring the problem and allowing roads and bridges to deteriorate will result in major disasters like bridge and road collapses that claim people’s lives. At the same time, growing middle classes in China and India desire to emulate the Western life-style which includes driving cars.

The dependence on cars and the depletion of once reliable oil fields such as al-Ghawar in Saudi Arabia and Canterell in Mexico start to influence US energy policy and foreign policy as well, with the result that the US is now intervening in (and interfering with) many areas around the world known to have large oil and gas fields: Libya, southern Sudan, the Adriatic Sea off the coast of Albania and western Africa come to mind. Many if not most people around the world suspect the real reason for the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 was due to greed for that country’s oil; ditto for Libya which has Africa’s largest oil-fields. (I rather think that the two countries not belonging to the Bank for International Settlements was the main reason they had to be punished.) So it could be said that over-reliance on cars for transport is literally killing other people in other lands.

The second half of the film emphasises how American society can be weaned away from oil with the use of renewable energy sources and rethinking the design of urban communities: the rethink might include mixing residential, commercial and industrial functions in the same neighbourhoods so that these areas can acquire their own distinctive and attractive characteristics; greater density in housing which itself will be mixed, catering for individuals and households in varied stages of their life-cycles; and privileging public transport above private forms of transport.

Structure is straightforward with a mix of 1950s advertisements, cityscape shots, excerpts from the movie “Mad Max” and interviews with city government officials, energy consultants and commentators such as James Kunstler who has written books on issues about suburbia and residential land use. The film is strong, determined and straight to the point early on but as it ploughs through its second half, momentum drains away and the documentary becomes a boring series of endless talking heads and pretty scenes of light rail and families enjoying leisure activities in public parks in cities that have adopted solutions approved of by the film-makers. The music in the film’s second half becomes ever more hopeful and uplifting to a point where it starts to grate on the ear.

Fixing cities so that they are less petrol-dependent sounds so easy according to “Sprawling from Grace …” but the truth is there are vested interests that may want to keep cities the way they are; developers and corporations may influence and/or bribe city government officials to ignore the public interest and favour the people lining politicians’ pockets. The film fails to consider the power corporations may have over city and suburban planning. Corporations may also block government efforts to develop alternative sources of energy in often ingenious ways: for example, they may buy up the alternative-energy competitors, strip them of their assets and use them as tax shelters; again, the film fails to mention that there could be problems in achieving a desired state where society relies on multiple sources of energy rather than just the one.

In all, this is not a bad documentary but it’s also not the really great, hard-hitting gutsy film it could have been.

 

How to Start a Revolution: documentary gives too much credit to DIY revolution manual

Ruaridh Arrow, “How to Start a Revolution” (2011)

Interesting 1-hour documentary about Gene Sharp, a modest politcal science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose writings have influenced liberation movements around the globe for nearly 20 years. With a mix of voice-over narration, newsreels and interviews with Sharp and his trusty side-kick Jamila Raqib, who is as much the daughter he needs as assistant, at their modest non-profit Albert Einstein Institute offices, Arrow’s “How to Start a Revolution” shows the methodology Sharp developed to guide wannabe DIY revolutionaries in undermining repressive governments with the aim of winning over police and armed forces to their side. The methodology emphasises a non-violent approach to revolution by enouraging wannabe DIY revolutionaries to study the systems and institutions that underpin their repressive governments’ grip over the general population, and to see how they can undermine public support for those systems and institutions. The armed forces and police in particular are targeted as institutions that revolutionaries should try to win over to their side. A key theme that underlines Sharp’s methodology, detailed in works like “From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation” which can be downloaded, is that governments, whatever their ideology or structure, only have as much power as the general public is willing to surrender to them and that if subject populations refuse to obey their rulers, those rulers lose power and can be toppled.

The structure of the film follows to some extent the structure of “From Dictatorship to Democracy …” and is also chronological, crossing various continents as it progresses from the past (some time in the late 1980s) to the present day. Revolutionaries and would-be revolutionaries in Serbia, Ukraine, Egypt and Syria plus a grizzled Vietnam war veteran are interviewed and failed uprisings such as the Tiananmen Square student protest in China, 1989, and the one that followed the Iranian presidential elections in 2009 are covered. Triumphal and overwrought musical melodrama accompanies sections of the documentary in a way that suggests Sharp’s path to liberation and freedom is more or less the right path. Reactions of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and the Iranian government, the latter in a computer-animated propaganda film clip, suggest that repressive governments are wary of his influence.

Would that I could be so sanguine about Sharp’s influence and value to the world! – but my feeling throughout this doco is that Arrow gives Sharp and his work more credit than they deserve. If it were true that using a non-violent approach to insurrection gets results nearly 100% of the time, then Tibet would be an independent state by now; instead that region continues to be undermined itself by Chinese industrial development with an accompanying influx of Han Chinese settlers into Lhasa and other urban centres there. The Dalai Lama himself has given up hope that Tibet will achieve independence and seeks accommodation with the Beijing regime. One problem I have with the idea of trying to win over the armed forces to one’s side, however noble it is, is that such institutions may have their own agenda which they may try to impose on revolutionaries, forcing them into compromises they cannot later amend or break. Certainly in some horrible countries where religion, particularly Roman Catholicism, is banned or severely circumscribed, the Roman Catholic Church may be a willing partner and sponsor of revolution but would you really want it on your side after the despots are overthrown and you need to hammer out a constitution enshrining religious freedoms, the separation of religion and politics, and equal rights for women, homosexuals and religious minorities?

In addition, how do we define a repressive or tyrannical government? Revolutionaries are often drawn from a comfortable middle-class layer in society and if a government follows policies and spends its money in a way that privileges the lower-class majority while leaving the upper-class minority feeling badly treated in certain areas such as freedom to travel anywhere it likes or free university education at the expense of general and technical education for the majority, can it then be said that such a government is “tyrannical”? The government appears tyrannical to the wannabe rebels but not so for most people who often have a “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know” attitude towards politics. Indeed a big part of why the rebels failed in Iran in 2009 is that the general Iranian population actually preferred incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: a pre-election poll by the Washington Post newspaper done across Iran three weeks before the election indicated that Ahmadinejad had two-thirds of the voters’ support. There may have been some fraud in districts where officials believed he might lose support but generally Ahmadinejad, who is a savvy politician who campaigned widely and tirelessly during election period (while Moussavi barely ventured outside the cities), won the vote fair and square.

Repressive governments themselves (especially if they are staffed by people with technical, scientific and engineering qualifications) can often be very sophisticated, progressive and forward-thinking, and achieve results that benefit people materially. Countries like South Korea, Taiwan and Japan might not be the technological powerhouses they are without leaders like Park Chunghee (Sth Korea) and the Guomindang (Taiwan) who often ruled with an iron fist but spent money on planned industrial development, education and necessary infrastructure. True, farmers were often thrown off their lands and forced to go into cities to work in factories in dreadful conditions for measly pay, and the countries may still have massive social problems arising from the dislocations caused by rapid development; but would many Koreans, Taiwanese and others in east and southeast Asia want to go back to the pre-industrial days of poverty and colonial domination? Likewise, the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin is reviled by the West, rightly for his purges of the intelligentsia and armed forces, and for deportations of ethnic groups like the Chechens and Ingush to Kazakhstan that amount to genocide, but most Russians have been and still are happy with what they believe he did for the Soviet Union from the 1920s until his death in 1953. It is significant that China has studied the example of its near neighbours and is emulating them diligently. Strict Communist deology be damned! – Chinese politicians and their bureaucrats can be flexible and pragmatic when need be.

Ultimately the contention that a government’s source of power is the loyalty and support that its citizens give it could well be the Sharp methodology’s weak point. How can revolutionaries undermine the public’s support for a repressive government and win people over to their side if such a government pursues policies that provide material benefits and establish structures of a welfare state? Over time the people’s loyalty and obedience to their government become so strong that it can relax its grip and assume the guise of a benevolent “soft authoritarian” nanny state that knows what’s best for its citizens and invests in their future with appropriate policies and actions that press all the right warm buttons from a social / economic / environmental / technological point of view. This is the kind of state that exists in Japan and many other Asian countries; such countries stay more or less successful or at least acceptable to their publics until a major disaster like the Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown of March 2011 occurs. Until October 2011, Libya also followed a similar state model under Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. If people are unhappy about living in such a country because of restrictions on their freedoms, the country can simply relax its emigration rules and encourage such people to leave.

I have a sneaking feeling that Sharp missed out on infiltration, an art form that the FBI, CIA and the British government’s MI5 and MI6 are very good at. How might revolutionaries know whether one of their number is actually working for the enemy? Might not the enemy itself use Sharp’s methodology to undermine the revolutionaries? Additionally foreign governments and intelligence agencies like the CIA can co-opt Sharp’s tactics for their own use against a country whose leader they don’t like. They could manipulate earnest young idealists through social media networks like Facebook and Twitter and feed them information that’s not in the idealists’ interests. Above all, how effective would Sharp’s methods of running revolutions be against a government that is backed by US, NATO or other major power with the weapons and firepower to steamroll totally any opposition to their pet dictators?

In short, aspiring revolutionaries should not have any faith in Sharp’s document and the people promoting it but must develop their own methods and strategies for achieving the overthrow of hated governments, else they will find themselves unwitting shock troops for a new tyranny backed by their country’s enemies.

Zoo: film teeters gingerly around its subject and suffers for that

Robinson Devor, “Zoo” (2007)

Based on the case of a Boeing employee who died from a perforated colon while being anally penetrated by a horse in Enumclaw, a town in rural Washington state, “Zoo” (the term is short for zoophilia, the sexual love of animals) is a brave attempt to address a highly controversial and polarising issue in a dispassionate way that neither condemns nor sympathises with the people involved in bestiality. The film recreates the events leading up to the man’s death and its aftermath in a way that’s part documentary / part drama with re-enactments of scenes and emphasising a soft, dream-like mood with delicately muted, wafting music. Director Devor uses four narrators, talking to an unseen listener, to retell the events from the point of view of the people who knew the man, referred to in the film as “Mr Hands”, and this approach thrusts (um) the viewer right into the twilight world of zoophiles: how they found each other through Internet contacts, how they organised their tryst and their reactions when the man was injured and when their secret activites became known to the outside world.

The film has the air of a noir mystery: the majority of scenes are filmed in shadow, at night or in dark colours with blue being predominant. The story unfolds slowly and elliptically and anyone who is unaware in advance as to what the film is about may be puzzled at the indirect way “Zoo” tiptoes around the subject until near half-way when a news report drops its headline in deadpan style. The pace is very steady, perhaps too steady and slow, and the film often dwells on several still camera shots which look deliberately staged as if for static display purposes. Close-ups and landscapes often look very abstract with washes of blue across a background; an orchard looks like a misty fairyland beneath a light coating of rain. The mood is even and quite blank until a scene in which police investigators viewing a DVD recording appears; the police react with horror and shock watching the act of buggery and only then do viewers feel something creepy crawl up their spines.

For all its delicacy, “Zoo” gives the impression of something much bigger than its subject matter struggling to make itself seen and heard: the zoophiles give the impression of wanting companionship, a sense of belonging, a need to share something special that gives meaning to their lives, and thinking they have found it. They seek a utopia in which everyone is equal and no-one is judged by how much money s/he earns or how educated s/he is. The places in rural Washington where many of them live look impoverished and some zoophiles may well be drifters or marginalised people barely managing to make a living and survive. (Difficult to tell as many scenes are recreations of actual events with actors playing the zoophiles.) If the film had directly addressed the need of the zoophiles for meaning, for companionship, it might have been able to gain more co-operation from the people involved; as it is, the level of co-operation it got is very restricted. The dead man’s family refused to be interviewed for the film which is a pity as the wife and child might have presented him as more well-rounded than he appears in “Zoo”.

The film also suffers from subjectivity and could have done with a more objective view of its subject. Interviews with psychologists and psychiatrists on zoophilia and perhaps other conditions such as lycanthropy (identifying oneself as an animal rather than as a human) might have shed light on why some people are sexually attracted to animals and to some kinds of animals in particular. The goals of the project would still be met: the issue would not be sensationalised and viewers might come away with a greater understanding of zoophilia and other bizarre philias. Instead the film can only concentrate on the horse-trainer, Jenny Edwards, who took charge of the horses after the incident became public: she admits that after having followed the case in its detail and ordering a horse gelded (gee, why punish the horse for that? – it’s reminiscent of what people did in mediaeval times, when animals involved in bestiality were put on trial and given the same sentence as the perpetators), that she’s “on the edge” of understanding the zoophiles’ obsession. It appears also that the director and film-crew were as much in the dark as Edwards was while making the film; even after its completion, the film-makers still were scratching their heads trying to make sense of what they’d done. Not a good portent for a film.

Yes, zoophilia is a difficult subject to talk about, let alone film, without making it look disgusting, degraded or ridiculous and pathetic. “Zoo” tries hard not to take one side or the other but with a subject like this, the attempt to be “balanced” is a tough act indeed to pull off. Some viewers will be irate that the film advocates no position at all, as if it’s the film-makers’ duty to tell them what they must believe. I think though that to achieve the “balance” that “Zoo” strives for, the film-makers should have pulled back from their subjects and taken a more generalised view of the issue of zoophilia; the police officers, the courts, psychologists and medical staff who dealt with the dead man and his friends should have been consulted for their opinions about zoophilia.

Until Daniel Radcliffe (the Harry Potter star) agrees to make a film version of “Equus” – he has already done the stage play – “Zoo” remains the only film to seriously tackle a difficult subject minefield.

All Watched Over … (Episode 3: The Monkey in the Machine and the Machine in the Monkey): falling apart under its own shaky premise

Adam Curtis, “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (Episode 3: The Monkey in the Machine and the Machine in the Monkey)” (2011)

Final installation in the documentary trilogy sees Curtis pick up a few very disparate strands of African colonial history, the rise of biological determinism and the marriage of cybernetics and mechanistic systems of organisation to sociology, and weave these into a shaky essay about how humans have become no more than machines themselves. As with previous episodes in the series, Curtis selectively picks facts linked more by coincidence than by intent to justify his premise; this latest attempt not only stretches credibility but doesn’t even acknowledge and / or blend ideas and statements made in previous episodes of the series to justify itself.

The episode develops against a background of Belgian colonial domination of the central African countries that became Burundi, Rwanda and Congo (Kinshasa) which later became Zaire and then the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Belgian rule was harsh and the colonies were virtual slave-states from the late 1800s on. Independence in the early 1960s proved no solution; the new countries were woefully unprepared to go it alone and promising politicians like Patrice Lumumba were killed or exiled with the secret connivance of the United States, Belgium or France. Under President Mobutu Sese Seko, the thrice-named Congo state became his personal fiefdom just as it once had been King Leopold II’s, to be looted and his people abused as he pleased. Rwanda and Burundi themselves fell captive to an ideology created by a former leader (King Kigeli IV according to Wikipedia) and enforced by the Belgian rulers that the Tutsi and Hutu peoples were separate races (even though they both speak Kinyarwanda and share kinship networks) and natural enemies; the result was ongoing war between the two “ethnic groups” over decades.

Into all this mess comes British biologist William D Hamilton, come to investigate a pet theory about the origin of the HIV virus in central Africa, and responsible for developing the “selfish gene” theory in which the gene is the basis of all human behaviour and genes act like self-interested, self-organised machines. This theory was elaborated by others to explain phenomena such as murder, suicide bombers and genocide, and applied to developing computer technology reliant on coltan, lithium and other so-called “rare earth” minerals mined in … yes, you guessed it, the modern DRC and nearby Rwanda and Burundi!

The “selfish gene” theory may have come from Bill Hamilton and a close friend and fellow biologist George Price may have helped refined it; there’s no mention though of other scientists like John Maynard Smith and E O Wilson who also contributed original insights of their own, such as introducing game theory into evolutionary studies and the development of sociobiology with which Hamilton became strongly associated. If anything, sociobiology should have been under the spotlight in this essay as a major influence on biological science and potential support for the idea of humans as machines shaped by evolution acting on genes. Funny how Curtis missed this opportunity to explore the field.

Curtis’s contention that accepting and believing the notion of humans as helpless machines as a way of explaining our failure to stop civil wars and genocide in Rwanda, Burundi and the DRC – and, while we’re at it, most other parts of Africa – is too far-fetched and glib to explain that continent’s problems and ignores the role of Western governments (and more recently China) in creating and maintaining weak political, economic and social systems in African countries for their own interests. Former African colonies of France are bound to that country by the Central African franc whose value is determined by the French government. Inheriting a Westminster style of government and British law hasn’t prevented corruption, poverty, warfare and repressive rule in many ex-British colonies like Kenya, Zimbabwe and Nigeria. Even Liberia, a country founded by former slaves from the United States, has seen its excessive share of civil war and atrocities committed by both government and rebel forces. At the risk of sounding boring, I’d like to mention that Angola and Mozambique endured years and years of civil war partly as a result of South African destabilisation efforts, secretly aided by Israel. The point is that if we Western countries left Africa alone, agreed to trade fair and square with them on equal terms, and helped them with no-strings-attached aid and loans, they wouldn’t be in the hell they are now while we wring our hands helplessly. The recent NATO invasion of Libya under a supposed “Responsibility to Protect” humanitarian charade to kick out Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, who had called for African unity and an African version of the European Community, invested in projects in Chad and Niger, and among other domestic achievements built the world’s largest irrigation project in Libya to bring sub-Saharan water to coastal Libyan cities (and the project being funded entirely by Libyan banks), shows the extent to which the West is committed to greed and selfishness and continuing a form of racism in which Africans are always helpless and can’t fix their own problems and outsiders have to “step in”.

I intuit a distaste for progressive, social-democratic politics in Curtis’s narration which becomes more and more resigned in the course of the program. It adopts an anti-liberal tone when he claims that “liberals” in the Belgian colonial administration encouraged the Hutus to rise up against the Tutsis when Rwanda achieved independence as a way of atoning for their abysmal performance as administrators. At the end of the program, he does not draw the conclusion staring viewers in the face which is that the notion of genes and evolution affecting social behaviour entirely can easily lead to a new kind of racism in which the political, social and economic problems of African peoples are attributed indirectly to their genetic standing and Africa must be ruled once again by benevolent foreigners.

Generally for me the trilogy has been a disappointment though some interesting ideas and history have been put forward. Curtis’s documentaries suggest human societies as they are now are too far gone in their love affair with computers and technology to change and to manage the planet and its resources more responsibly. The hidden elephant in the room, as always, turns out to be modern corporate fascism in which corporations, governments, academia, the news media and the military co-operate and form networks with the aim of self-enrichment while everyone and everything else can go fuck themselves.