Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 10: Adam Ruins the Suburbs): exposing a dark racist underbelly of US suburban living

Jeff Chan, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 10: Adam Ruins the Suburbs)” (2017)

Dedicated as it is to overturning comfortable assumptions and stereotypes about everyday life, the comedy documentary series “Adam Ruins Everything” turns its attention to that most American cultural institution – the suburbs – and mows down three ideals upholding suburbia and the beliefs and values associated with them. Comedian host Adam Conover confronts a homeowner trying to start his lawnmower on Sunday morning to explain how lawns came to be part of the housing package, how their inclusion reflects and upholds the values of elitism, social competition and conformity, and the threat they actually pose (through water consumption and the use of herbicides and pesticides) to local environments and ecosystems. Conover then explains how cul-de-sacs and (by extension) the design and planning of American-styled suburbs harm people’s physical health and mental well-being by discouraging physical activities like walking and forcing them to use cars, and by separating homes from local shops and businesses, schools, parks and other community facilities. Children face traffic hazards so their parents bundle them into the home where they spend hours playing computer games. Elderly people who can no longer drive end up imprisoned in homes they can no longer maintain.

If all this weren’t bad enough – and Conover doesn’t have the time to explain how the phenomenon of suburbia (and even exurbia) arose as a result of deliberate decisions on the part of past US government policies, often in collusion with private companies, to privilege the use of cars over public transport – the episode then explores the dark racist side of suburban planning and how it and bank home loan policies discriminating against African Americans and other minorities led to institutional segregation (in which African Americans and minorities ended up stuck in inner cities while white people fled to the suburbs) and created two urban Americas existing in parallel, in which white children go to well-funded schools with good teachers and facilities, and non-white children attend schools with inadequate or broken facilities and mediocre levels of instruction from poorly paid teachers in insecure jobs. Over time, black people and other minority groups were unable to build up family and personal wealth that would enable them to escape the problems, crime and violence of inner city living, and this condemned them to continued institutional poverty. In part, the discrimination also led to the other extreme of governments over-compensating these disadvantaged groups by encouraging profligate borrowing that in turn precipitated the subprime mortgage loan crisis and the 2008 Global Financial Crisis.

While the episode is entertaining and informative, it really does not go far enough to explore how US suburbia and the attitudes and values underpinning this phenomenon have been generated by government and corporate collusion and how they continue to survive and flourish through a combination of ignorance, reliance on a biased news media that encourages fear of other people, especially if they are of different skin tone or religion, and collusion between governments at all levels (national, state, local) and corporations to keep people divided and separate along racial lines, all the better to exploit them for profit. Any faults with the model of suburbia resulting in health problems like obesity or depression, public health issues like drug addiction, or high rates of traffic accidents, are usually blamed on the victims or just ignored. The notion that owning a house in the suburbs with two huge gas-guzzling cars equates to self-reliance and freedom is chopped at in the episode but otherwise the myth’s origin and how it is sustained by the media go unexplored.

The episode happily closes with suggestions as to how suburban dwellers can try to improve their communities by adopting new models of suburban design that encourage physical activity and interaction with others.

The Haircut: a quirky quest reveals the nature and extent of the Western media propaganda machine against North Korea

Alex Apollonov and Aleksa Vulovic, “The Haircut” (2017)

Two Sydney undergraduate students’ desire to travel to North Korea to see if they can get hipster-style haircuts in defiance of supposed North Korean laws that all men there must have their hair styled in the manner of DPRK leader Kim Jong-un is a cover for an examination of Western media representations of that country as a rogue police state led by a deranged dictator and how those portrayals actually stand up in reality. What the two students find in the DPRK is very different from what Western audiences around the world are exposed to and told. For one thing, Aleksa actually gets the hipster haircut – and a twirly moustache into the bargain – he asks for; moreover the job the stylist does is far better than what he’s had in Australia. More importantly, the students discover that much of the media reports about North Korea are deliberately exaggerated in a negative way, and that what the DPRK has done, or might have done, to its citizens is no worse than, and often far less worse, than what Western countries (and the United States in particular) have done to their own citizens and to other countries as well.

To their credit, Apollonov and Vulovic set the context for North Korea’s paranoia and suspicion of Western intentions towards it: after 50 years of being under the brutal domination of Japan, the Korean peninsula enjoyed a few brief months of independence before the territory was carved up into two by triumphant World War II victors the Soviet Union and the US and their allies. While North Korea hung onto its socialist government, the US moved Japanese administrators back into South Korea and not long after began strafing North Korea with waves of warplanes dropping bombs. The result was that all of North Korea’s cities were destroyed and 1.5 million civilians (apparently about 20% of the country’s population) were killed. Even after the Korean War ceased (with no peace treaty signed), the US and South Korea continue to menace the DPRK with massive military exercises (Operation Foal Eagle) held twice a year, apparently during the rice-sowing and rice-harvesting seasons in North Korea, when army conscripts are most needed in the fields. In March – April 2016, the exercises involved nearly 300,000 South Korean soldiers and over 15,000 US soldiers carrying out beach invasions and other large scale assaults that could have turned into the real thing if the DPRK were not vigilant.

While the two presenters present their material in a familiar news-comedy format and sometimes mug for the camera, much of what they deliver is intriguing and ought to encourage people to question how much so-called “serious” or “quality” news can be taken … well, seriously. The funniest moments come when the two take to the streets in the bohemian Sydney suburb of Newtown to interview young people on what they think of North Korea and its society: invariably the respondents say the country lacks freedom, is repressive and its people are brainwashed by propaganda while they themselves are proud of the freedom and democracy offered in Australia. One such interviewee is then asked about how he got his long and luxuriant hair and his girlfriend promptly tells the presenters that she advised him on his hairstyle. The boyfriend unhesitatingly replies that he follows her advice!

The film does drag a bit in its second half when the presenters compare North Korean and US aggression, and discover the DPRK has nothing on the Americans when it comes to military adventures and invasions abroad. North Korea itself, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala (1954), Iran (1953), Panama (1989), Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines … you name it, at some stage in the past a foreign country has been invaded by the United States. The pace of the film though is fairly brisk and for a 20-minute documentary says a great deal about the nature of Western propaganda against North Korea, with much of that propaganda being a projection of Western built upon that country, and the reality behind it. The film concludes with secret film footage of the two students visiting an amusement park, a circus and various other entertainments in North Korea, meeting the local people and seeing how happy they actually are.

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 8: Emily Ruins Adam): featuring a good demolition job on IQ tests

Laura Murphy, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 8: Emily Ruins Adam)” (2017)

At long last, for those who always wanted to get their back on comedian Adam Conover for gatecrashing everyone’s parties to tell people that everything they thought they knew was right about everyday facts is actually wrong … here comes an episode of “Adam Ruins Everything” in which one of Adam’s past companions Emily sets about demolishing IQ tests and a few investigations from previous episodes that the TV show either got wrong or didn’t make clear to viewers. The segment on IQ testing and how IQ tests have been abused by US federal government agencies in often sinister ways – for example, to select people judged mentally defective or racially inferior for sterilisation as part of a wider but hidden eugenics program – is the most interesting part of the episode. The segments that follow are less informative and more slapstick as Emily and Adam overdo their comedy routine, particularly in the boxing ring segment where Emily tells Adam that simply telling people that what they believe is right is actually wrong isn’t enough to change their minds … what also should be done is to replace the incorrect narrative with a narrative that is as close to the truth as possible.

Even so, the episode as a whole is worthwhile mainly to show that even a television show with the resources to hire the best experts and to do thorough research doesn’t always get its facts right, or needs to do more work to convince or persuade viewers that its viewpoint is more valid than others. It’s a reminder that we should be humble about what we know or think we know, and there are going to be times when we ourselves need to review our own narratives about how the world works or what makes it go round.

The segment on IQ tests is very informative though perhaps it does not go deeply enough to encompass a whole sordid history of how the US government over past decades targeted racial minorities and immigrants and shunted them into the lowest socio-economic layers by subjecting them to biased intelligence testing, or subjected them to unethical medical experiments and sterilisation programs. That awaits a much fuller treatment by a television program with even more resources and access to experts and historians.

What the Media Won’t Tell You about Syria: concentrating on one part of Syria and its geopolitical and economic importance gives way to an oil blowout

ReallyGraceful, “What the Media Won’t Tell You about Syria” (2017)

Among other news and facts that the Western mainstream news media ignores about Syria and its war against terrorists and their foreign backers that has raged since 2011, is one juicy piece about the Golan Heights which have been contested territory between Syria and Israel since 1967 when the Israelis seized a large part of that region from Damascus: in 2013, a subsidiary of Genie Energy, an energy company based in Newark, New Jersey, secretly acquired a licence from an Israeli court to drill for oil and natural gas in an area covering half the Golan Heights. Now that fact alone might not seem important in the context of the Syrian War, were it not for who sits on the Board of Directors of Genie Energy: gosh, the directors include US media mogul Rupert Murdoch, former US vice-president Richard Cheney and former CIA head James Woolsey. Could the fact that those luminaries happen to be Genie Energy directors partly explain the slanted Western media reporting on the Syrian War which repeatedly paints the Syrian government as a brutal, repressive dictatorship that attacks its own people with chemical weapons or arrests them by the hundreds if not by the thousands and throws them into the supposedly notorious Saydnaya Prison to be tortured, killed and cremated?

Narrator Grace at ReallyGraceful can’t cover every lie and propaganda smear about Syria and its government so she sensibly concentrates on the Golan Heights and the hydrocarbon wealth there that attracted the attention of Israel and Genie Energy initially. She notes that Israel’s action in awarding a drilling licence to Genie Energy is clearly illegal under international law. She points out also that the war in Syria and the chaos there benefit Israeli interests and Western corporate energy interests: the war drives out refugees from their lands which can be seized by companies of the countries waging war in Syria. Grace also fingers Rex Tillerson, US State Secretary under US President Donald Trump, as having an interest in shutting out Syria and its allies Russia and Iran out of global collective actions against ISIS in Syria: Tillerson’s background is as a former executive of energy giant Exxon Mobil and might greatly influence the kinds of decisions he makes, especially in a context where Qatar and Iran are rivals to build natural gas pipelines across land from the Persian Gulf to the eastern Mediterranean – land that also includes a sizeable chunk of Syria.

In just seven minutes, Grace elegantly and languidly provides more information about Western energy and geopolitical interests in Syria than the Western news media has so far done. The collage of newsreel stills and photographs of Murdoch and others is put together well and visually arresting but the voice-over narration actually stands on its own very well. Grace’s conversational style may be very rambling and it hardly pauses for breath but at the same time it feels very intimate. The film can be seen at this link.

What the Media Won’t Tell You About North Korea: packing punches galore in 10 minutes about US designs on North Korea

ReallyGraceful,”What the Media Won’t Tell You About North Korea” (2017)

ReallyGraceful is quickly becoming a useful source of alternative information on topics the Western mainstream news media refuse to touch – like the real reasons that the US is threatening North Korea with invasion and war, and why North Korea seems to act in such a paranoid way vis-a-vis the US and South Korea. Narrator Grace tunnels back into the 20th century to show viewers that the Korean peninsula was for the first 40 years of that period a colony of Japan – and like most colonies, once its overlord was vanquished in World War II, Korea was up for grabs by the victors. The peninsula became divided into a Communist north and a US-dominated capitalist south, and a vicious war soon followed. The Korean War claimed over a million lives in North Korea – in those days, that was nearly 20% of the country’s population – and every city including the capital Pyongyang was razed to the ground. Grace disabuses her audiences of the view (which she admits she also once held) that the war was a result of the conflict of ideologies: the real reason for the war was geopolitical – the Korean peninsula represented (and still does represent) a beach-head for the US to penetrate and eventually undermine China and the Soviet Union in their far frontier regions.

This video isn’t so much about North Korea as it is about the threat its neighbours in China and the Russian Federation pose to the US domination of the world through the US dollar as the international reserve currency and the currency in which oil is sold and bought. The fact that Russia and China are moving away from trade in US dollars threatens US global financial and economic leadership, with potential dire consequences for the American economy and the wealth of American elites: a situation Washington will not tolerate. On top of that comes news that North Korea is sitting on a treasure trove of rare earth minerals worth trillions of dollars and may have the largest deposit of particular rare earths, and if there’s a possibility of killing two birds (attacking China through attacking North Korea, and claiming North Korea’s mineral wealth) with the one stone, the US will not hesitate to seize it.

As for North Korea itself, Grace doesn’t have much to say about the country that’s not been said before: there’s not a great deal about the ruling Kim family (other than current leader Kim Jong-un’s friendship with basketball celebrity Dennis Rodman) or the political and economic context of the unstable and uncertain 1990s after the downfall of the Soviet Union that led North Korea to invest in developing a nuclear bomb that would deter US-South Korean invasion. After seeing countries like Iraq and Libya attempt to appease the West, only to suffer invasion and the overthrow of their leaders (and those leaders’ abject deaths), North Korea’s leaders decided to take no chances with their country’s future. Having a nuclear bomb makes eminent sense: not only does that policy have a deterrent effect, it also makes possible space for diplomacy, and is better use of scarce money than equipping an army made up of conscripted farm labour with weapons that would be useless against US and South Korean fire-power.

Grace could have mentioned the fact that every year the US and South Korea hold large military exercises in which tens of thousands of soldiers participate – in 2016, some 15,000 US soldiers and 290,000 South Korean soldiers participated in exercises that included beach invasions and assassinating North Korean leaders – and which spook the North Korean leadership. Any sane country, no matter how wealthy or technologically advanced its military is, would be paranoid at seeing two strong enemies practising invasion strategies and assassination tactics in military drills every year.

As it is though, the video is very informative and packs a lot of information and some eye-opening visual montages in its 10-minute running time.

How Haiti Became the Epicenter of Crime Through Exploitation of Death and Destruction: quick history lesson and documentary on Western exploitation of Haiti

ReallyGraceful, “How Haiti Became the Epicenter of Crime Through Exploitation of Death and Destruction” (1 April 2017)

For a quick lesson on how Haiti came to be one of the poorest and most exploited countries in the Western Hemisphere since its founding in the early 1800s after slaves there revolted against their French colonial slave-masters. For that, France imposed a huge reparations bill on independent Haiti which the country has had to pay off for at least 150 years. While the collage of video news reels is important and informative, the narrative supplied by ReallyGraceful’s head honcho Grace is much more so – in her laid-back southern US accent, Grace informs us that Haiti was at the mercy of the Rothschild’s Bank for much of the 19th century, German business during the early years of the 20th century and then for the rest of that century the United States whose troops occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934. Grace brings us up to the present day in a couple of minutes with the January 2010 earthquake after quickly glossing over the period of the Duvalier father-and-son dictatorship.

The rest of the short video investigates the links between US politicians and ex-politicians, the CIA and its private contractor supplier DynCorp on the one hand, the Clinton Foundation and the American Red Cross on the one hand, and on the other hand the corruption, the rampant crime and in particular child and organ trafficking in Haiti. Israel is also cited as being active in trafficking organs – the country happens to be prominent in medical tourism so demand for fresh organs for transplant would be strong there. The video’s pace is constant and at times probably a little too fast for viewers not familiar with Haitian politics and the current situation there. There’s a lot to take in, not to mention a lot of name-dropping – and the names of various members of the Bush political family dynasty, the Clintons and their friends and allies, among others are repeated quite a bit – so viewers may need to watch this video a few times to digest its most salient points.

I wish Grace had been a little bit slower and maybe not quite so machine-like in her delivery, with a few pauses here and there, though her blase tone does an excellent job of highlighting the depth of the exploitation of Haiti by US political elites and agencies.

The video can be viewed on Youtube at this link or on ReallyGraceful‘s Youtube channel.

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 7: Adam Ruins College): how financially naive young adults end up in the grip of neoliberal economic ideology

Paul Briganti, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 7: Adam Ruins College)” (2017)

Aiming squarely at its target audience of US high school students and undergrads, this episode is nevertheless of interest to foreigners who coasted through undergraduate university and college courtesy of government-funded grants or scholarships, or even enjoyed free tuition, and might be mystified as to how and why Americans these days land themselves in life-long debt because of … student loans! Adam Conover takes prospective college student Cole (Lukas Gage) and the audience through what almost amounts to a labyrinth of why going to college these days is so necessary – because most jobs in the future will demand a college degree – yet how going to college can become an unnecessary financial millstone around young people’s necks.

Initially Cole thinks he can be like Bill Gates and become a drop-out tech billionaire. Not so fast, Adam points out – most people who have only a high school diploma will eventually end up, at every stage of their career, earning less than someone with a college degree. Quickly convinced by Adam’s argument, Cole decides to read the US News & World Report’s college rankings guide on what college to choose – only for Adam to explain how the guide is manipulated by college administrators and ultimately can’t advise on the best colleges to attend with respect to the quality of education offered. Moving into a noisy student party, Adam and Cole shout their way through a quick history of lending to college students: initially government funded and regulated, the institution known as Sallie Mae was privatised in the 1990s and almost immediately began to exploit naive 18-year-olds for profit in much the same way that banks began pushing subprime mortgages onto people with suspect credit histories who could not pay off their housing loans.

In spite of the happy atmosphere and Cole’s kooky, gullible nature, the episode does deliver a very grim message: to get ahead in life, people need college degrees but may risk acquiring a huge debt that only could take a life-time to pay off but which could also affect their eligibility for future social welfare, not to mention limiting their choices as to work, having shelter and even planning a family. Happily Adam suggests to Cole that he should see a financial advisor about the kind of loan that would suit him and that community college or a publicly funded college may be a better option than going to an expensive Ivy League university.

The action seems a lot more histrionic and the whackiness has a forced quality about it due to over-acting on Conover and Gage’s part. Oddly there’s none of the animation that enlivens other episodes in the “Adam Ruins Everything” series. As with other episodes I’ve seen of this series, there are no really great revelations that most members of the public, particularly college students and their families, wouldn’t already be familiar with. Still this is a very entertaining show that moves briskly and which ends on an upbeat note.

Ultimately though the show can only go so far as to demonstrate that privatising institutions that offer student loans can open the door to predatory profiteering on financially naive people, and cannot draw parallels between the nation-wide student loan manipulation rort and similar bubbles such as the subprime mortgage bubble that killed off Lehmann Brothers in 2008 and ushered in the Great Recession. Once again, neoliberal capitalism rears its ugly head to prey on the vulnerable. Is there an alternative? “Adam Ruins Everything” unfortunately cannot offer one: for one thing, suggesting that university tuition should be free might not go down well with a TV-viewing public brainwashed to believe that a social welfare state is too, er … socialist.

 

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 5: Adam Ruins Art): the hermetic world of fine art is dashed to pieces by loudmouth comic

Matthew Pollock, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 5: Adam Ruins Art)” (2017)

In this episode, Adam swipes the world of fine art, art galleries and art auctions by demonstrating that what is currently considered great art wasn’t necessarily so at the time it was made, and that the current fine art market in which certain artworks worth millions can exchange ownership is nothing more than a tax scam by which wealthy people can gain tax concessions by gifting or donating paintings. The episode gets off to a grand start by examining the worth ofLeonardo da Vinci’s famous “Mona Lisa” painting and how it originally became ubiquitous: someone stole the painting from the Louvre in 1911 as at the time the painting was considered a minor work and therefore didn’t merit around-the-clock guard. The publicity the painting gained after its theft and later (two years later in fact) return was enough to cement it in the public mind and its status rose accordingly.

With art student Persephone (Celesta de Astis) as his Frida Kahlo clone companion, Adam takes a grand tour of history and shows Persephone (and viewers) that originality in art is over-rated and what really matters is how artists adapt familiar themes, ideas and other people’s work and mould them into something different. He reveals that famous Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo began his career copying ancient Greek and Roman statues and was often able to pass his copies off as the real things. Of course, everyone should know that famous English playwright William Shakespeare took his subject matter for nearly all his plays from other people’s literary works.

The rest of the episode is taken up by Adam’s shredding of the art market world and how the prices of paintings can be manipulated by insiders currying favour with a small clique of critics and buyers to exclude people wanting to join the clique. The result is that artists themselves end up as pawns of the art market and their careers as artists can be made or broken on the whims of people who know the price of everything but the value of nothing as the cliche goes. At this point Persephone despairs, her dreams of becoming a great artist having been dashed into smithereens, and considers going to business school; but Adam tells her she can still create great art if it comes from the heart and represents what she feels as a human being.

Most of what Conover covers about the hermetic world of the art market will be no big surprise for those who know something of its manipulative creepiness but will certainly be eye-opening for Conover’s target youth audience. Even the revelation that the CIA promoted abstract expressionism during the 1950s by sponsoring experimental art shows and gatherings (no matter how much Western publics actually preferred representational art to abstract art) as a way of combating the Soviet Union and its rival socialist realism movement in an artistic Cold War will be familiar to many people. Indeed, there’s not much in this episode that hasn’t been said before except perhaps the revelation about how the world’s most famous portrait actually became famous. What makes this latest report from “Adam Ruins Everything” notable is its colourful use of animation and live action to put its points across and Adam Conover’s own mouthy and comic encyclopaedic style topped with an amazing surf-wave haircut and a loud pink suit.

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 3: Adam Ruins the Hospital): challenging beliefs and misconceptions about hospitals and medical treatments

Tim Wilkime, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 3: Adam Ruins the Hospital)” (2017)

Hosted by eponymous comedian and writer Adam Conover, “Adam Ruins Everything” is a comedy / education TV series that aims to challenge commonly held beliefs and misconceptions about many aspects of everyday life, in particular the everyday goods and services that people take for granted. In this episode, Adam visits Rachel (Melissa Tang) who has arrived in a hospital to get treatment for a head cold and perhaps get her mammogram done. In a relentlessly cheery fashion, Adam helpfully informs Rachel (and the show’s intended US target audience) how and why inflated hospital costs have led to medical care being out of reach for the majority of Americans, with the poor being hit the hardest of course, why antibiotics are not as effective as they used to be and may in fact be worthless, and that mammograms have been oversold to women fearful about their health with consequences that may actually be as harmful (if not more harmful) than breast cancer itself.

Potentially the most interesting part of the episode is the chat about ascending hospital costs and how hospitals determine the cost of medical (including surgical) procedures to patients. Most US hospitals refer to chargemasters (often their own) which are lists of medical items billable to patients or their health insurance funds. The prices of items are usually inflated way beyond what their actual cost so that hospitals can offer “discounts” to patients who belong to certain health funds. In addition, wealthy patients or insured patients can bargain down the cost of an item with hospital administration staff while the poor or uninsured patients have to pay full prices. Disturbingly, in most US states (apart from Maryland) hospitals can set their own chargemasters and there is often no regulatory authority that would oversee chargemasters and force hospitals and other medical treatment centres to make these publicly available so that people can shop around and make price comparisons. Unfortunately the swift pace of the episode means that the issue of escalating hospital costs can lose viewers if they happen to look away for a few seconds, and the treatment of the issue looks a little superficial. I’m sure also most viewers would have wanted to know how this state of affairs came about and who was / were responsible for this shambles.

The issue of declining antibiotic effectiveness is crisply well done with animation demonstrating how bacteria can become resistant over time to antibiotics. Once again though, there’s not much on how people themselves can ensure antibiotics are not abused (by feeding them to farm animals whose meat ends up in butcher shops and delicatessans) at a personal level such as washing one’s hands thoroughly and not overusing anti-bacterial soaps and handwash, or at a community level by protesting the use of antibiotics meant for humans in commercial agriculture.

Finally the question of how effective mammograms really are in detecting breast cancer in women before they notice symptoms comes in with an interview with Dr Joann Elmore who explains that there’s not much statistical difference between the number of women who discover they have breast cancer through mammograms and the number who find their breast cancer without the help of mammograms. She also explains that breast cancer cells may behave very differently, some being more aggressive than others. There is the possibility that some women may be diagnosed with breast cancer via mammogram who do not actually have the disease or have a slow-growing cancer, and can end up subjected to major medical procedures that are completely unnecessary and which could jeopardise patients’ long-term health.

The information is delivered in a fun way with slapstick and serious medical advice given equal time. With his surf-wave haircut, guileless manner and a mouth that never stops moving, Adam ploughs through three quite meaty medical issues with a raging and sneezing Rachel in tow. I’d have liked the episode to be a bit longer – another 15 minutes please? – with more information on how the US has ended up spending more on per capita healthcare costs than any other First World country. Yet Americans seem no healthier than other First World nations and could possibly be some of the least healthy people on Earth. The connection between excessive per capital healthcare costs and American’s decreasing well-being certainly merits attention.

Treasures Decoded (Season 4, Episode 6: Shrunken Heads): phenomenon of shrunken heads hides a history of cultural exploitation and degradation

Peter Crystal, “Treasures Decoded (Season 4, Episode 6: Shrunken Heads)” (2017)

Shrunken human heads are the kind of macabre curio objects, beloved of museums and oddball collectors, sure to arouse curiosity and revulsion alike – but the history of how shrunken human heads came to the attention of 19th-century European explorers in South American and sparked a collection mania among museums, private organisations and individual collectors throughout the world masks a sordid history of Western capitalist exploitation and undermining of a culture and its worldview. The episode begins innocently if breathlessly with a supposedly impartial team of anthropologists, archaeologists and historians using the latest methods including DNA analysis to examine and discover the origins of various shrunken heads found in museum collections in places as far apart as Philadelphia and Warsaw – and what they discover leads narrator Mark Bazeley and his audience into a shocking underworld of bodysnatching, cold-blooded murder, fakery and near-genocide.

To its credit, the episode spends time explaining the role of shrunken heads in the worldview of the Shuar people in Ecuador: the Shuar decapitate their enemies in warfare and shrink their heads so that the spirits within are trapped and cannot wreak revenge on the Shuar for killing them. (To be on the safe side, the head’s eyes, nostrils and mouth are sewn shut.) Over time, the spirit’s power is used by the Shuar people for peaceful and beneficial purposes. Once Europeans contacted the Shuar and began demanding – and paying for – shrunken heads to furnish their museums, the Shuar were drawn into economic and trading networks in which an aspect of their culture became commodified, and the Western demand for shrunken heads led the Shuar down a dangerous path in which they became increasingly violent and any traditions and customs that they had which had preached peace were forgotten. In time, the Shuar were not only killing their warrior enemies for the head-hunting trade, they were killing their own – men, women, even children – and raiding graves for heads. Over time, the Shuar’s own culture and traditions became degraded and the people acquired an unjustified reputation as being bloodthirsty and violent.

At the same time, the episode does titillate Western curiosity by devoting considerable time to an anthropologist’s attempt in recreating the process by which heads were shrunk by the Shuar with a pig’s head. The fellow then tries through digital means to reverse the shrinking process and to reveal what the face of a man whose head was shrunk might have looked like in real life.

The novelty of seeing shrunken heads wears off very quickly and the really fascinating aspect of this phenomenon is how a cultural tradition originally aiming to mitigate violence and restore peace came to be corrupted through Western contact and co-opted into providing a commodity in capitalist society, in the process being stripped of its benevolent intentions and turning into a sick, twisted and degraded parody spreading fear and violence. Viewers will be heartened to discover that head-hunting was made illegal in Ecuador in the 1960s but only after Christian missionaries contacted the Shuar and persuaded them to give up this violence. It seems a shame that the Shuar could only give up head-hunting by being herded into accepting a foreign religion rather than be allowed to turn back to their traditions to find a remedy to end the violence and instability created by head-hunting. We learn nothing about how the Shuar have since tried to rebuild their culture and communities, and regain the peace and stability they once had.

If there is something valuable to take away from this story about shrunken heads, then the narrative of how the Shuar nearly killed themselves off but instead recovered to reclaim their society and reputation and by doing so saved themselves and survived should have been at least as important as the phenomenon of the shrunken heads themselves.