Posts Tagged ‘Adam Curtis’

Adam Curtis on image, reality & suicide bombing

November 10, 2016

Adam Curtis is a documentary filmmaker for the BBC who uses archival footage to remind viewers of forgotten facts and to make connections that others wouldn’t see.

This documentary does not quite add up to a connected whole, but within it is a fascinating history of the evolution of suicide bombing, starting with the attack on the U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1982, the Iran-Iraq war, Palestinian terrorism, the 9-11 attacks and Islamic State (ISIS) terrorism.

Along with it is a history of American and British deception and self-deception in their policies toward Syria and Libya.

Suicide bombing, according to Curtis, as a military tactic by Syria’s ruler Hafiz al-Assad to offset American military power in his region.  Now it is used by ISIS to sow sectarian strife in Iraq and Syria, and bring down Assad’s son, Bashir al-Assad.

He documents how Muammar Qaddafi was set up by American policy-makers as a scapegoat for the crimes of Hafiz al-Assad because he was a more vulnerable foe.

This film is not the whole story of recent Middle Eastern history.  Curtis appears to think that the American and British governments seriously intended to bring democracy to the Middle East, for example.  But he brings out many fascinating facts, some forgotten and some new (at least to me).

I recommend viewing just those parts of the documentary dealing with Syria, suicide bombing and the Middle East, and fast-forwarding through the rest, which consists of disconnected material about Curtis’s long-term concerns about technological manipulation, technological utopianism and the decline of the democratic process.

Click on HyperNormalization if the YouTube version doesn’t work.  Click on The Century of the Self and All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace for Curtis’s best documentaries about his meta concerns.

What went wrong in Afghanistan

May 19, 2015

Adam Curtis is a documentary filmmaker for the BBC who makes connections that other people don’t see.

In his new documentary, Bitter Lake, he shows how Afghanistan has been a focal point of a three-way struggle among Anglo-American capitalism, Soviet Communism and Saudi Arabia’s radical extremist Wahhabist Islam.

While Soviet Communism has collapsed and Anglo-American capitalism is in crisis, Wahhabism is spreading and growing stronger.

Curtis doesn’t offer a policy for dealing with Wahhabism, but his documentary shows that mere firepower is not the answer, nor is providing money and weapons to prop up corrupt warlords and governments.   The First Rule of Holes applies: When you’re in one, stop digging.

The embedded YouTube video above is a history teacher’s abridgment of Bitter Lake which covers all the main points.  Click on Bitter Lake if you want to see the full version or if the embedded video doesn’t work.

What happened to our dreams of freedom?

April 24, 2015

The Trap: F*** You, Buddy

Adam Curtis makes documentaries for the British Broadcasting Corporation that are remarkable for revealing hidden connections and bringing out the unexpected consequences of ideas.  His weakness is that he sometimes connects dots that, in my opinion, are not connected in actuality.  His strengths and weaknesses are apparent in his three-part series, “The Trap.”

The first two parts of the series show the working out of the ideas of three brilliant economists.

Friedrich A. Hayek believed that governmental power is dangerous and counterproductive.  It is better, he thought, to allow the economy to be regulated by an automatic system, the free market.

John Nash of the RAND Corporation saw human beings as selfish and suspicious, but, for that very reason, predictable.  He worked out the implications of “prisoner’s dilemma” situations, in which rational people are unable to cooperate for their mutual benefit because they cannot trust each other.

The USA and USSR could not give up atomic weapons because neither could trust the other not to cheat.  Instead the road to peace supposedly was for each to be armed to the teeth and ready at retaliate as soon as they were attacked.  Because each could predict the other’s behavior, the situation supposedly was stable.

James Buchanan, who won the Nobel Memorial Prize in economics, was the creator of “public choice” theory.  He asserted that politicians and administrators are selfish beings who worked to their own advantage and not the public whom they supposedly served.  Idealistic politicians and officials are the most dangerous, in this view, because they could not be controlled.

Curtis documented how these ideas played out under Britain’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her successors.  Many governmental functions were sub-contracted to private companies.  Since government employees, according to public choice theory, could not be trusted to exercise their own judgment, they were given incentives to meet measurable targets.

The idea was that this is liberating because people are not subjected to the arbitrary personal judgments of people over them, but to objective and neutral measurements.

This kind of thinking is also playing out today in U.S. corporate and government administration.  The result is a micro-management that diminishes individual freedom.  And it doesn’t work.   The incentive is to figure out ways of meeting the target which is a different thing from doing your job well.

Curtis asserted that psychological studies show that the only people who behave according to the Nash-Buchanan theory are economists and psychopaths.  That is an exaggeration.

There is a measure of truth in what Nash, Buchanan and also Hayek say.  The problem is that human beings are diverse and complex, neither altruists nor selfish calculating machines, and no one-dimensional theory can sum them up.

The Trap: The Lonely Robot

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Adam Curtis and machines of loving grace

April 17, 2015

All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace is a remarkable three-part documentary film series made by Adam Curtis for the BBC.

He explores the consequences of looking at the economy, at nature and at human nature as an self-regulating cybernetic-like system, governed by automatic feedback, without the need for human thought.

Thinking this way make people assume that political action is futile and it is better to stand aside and let things come into adjustment automatically.  This is profoundly anti-democratic.  Also, it doesn’t work.

Love and Power is about the idea that the economic system will come to a desirable equilibrium based on individual self-interest without outside regulation.

He reports on Ayn Rand and her attempt to set up a utopian community based on the virtue of selfishness, and on Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who internalized the values of Ayn Rand.

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The Century of the Self by Adam Curtis

April 2, 2015

Update 9/16/2016.  Sorry if the older links don’t work.  Try thisOr thisOr this.

Some years ago I posted videos of “The Century of the Self,” the great four-part documentary by Adam Curtis about “how those in power have used Freud’s theories to try and control the dangerous crowd in an age of mass democracy.”

The videos were taken down from the Internet, but Jason Kottke found new iterations and linked to them on kottke.org.  Here they are.  If you haven’t seen them before, I highly recommend watching them.  Each one is a little less than an hour long.

Part One, Happiness Machines, is about how Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, created the profession of public relations in the 1920s and taught American advertisers how to link products with consumers’ unconscious desires, and how these ideas influenced politics in the 1930s.

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Cybernetic utopianism and political failure

June 11, 2011

[Note 4/15/2015]  Here is a new link to these videos.

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

[Note 12/1/11] The original English-language versions of these videos were taken down.  The versions I have substituted are the same except for having English subtitles.

[Links updated 9/17/2016.] 

The BBC documentaries of Adam Curtis are remarkable.  They tell me things I hadn’t known before, show me astonishing material I’ve never seen before and connects the dots in ways nobody else does, all with a mind-blowing blend of archival video footage and background music.  I find some of Curtis’s connections far-fetched, some of his generalizations overly sweeping and a few of his assertions incorrect, but overall his work is as fascinating as anything I’ve seen in the Internet.  I view it on the Internet because his work is aired on TV all over the world, but not in the United States.

His three-part series, “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace,” is about using the computer as a model to organize human life and society.  The first part in the series, above, is about the fallacy of thinking of the economic system as a computer-like self-regulating system, and links Ayn Rand, Alan Greenspan and Bill Clinton.  The second part in the series, below, is about the fallacy of thinking of the eco-system as a computer-like, self-regulating system, and links 1970s hippie communes, Buckminster Fuller, Jay Forrester and the Club of Rome.

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A century of psychology and social control

May 18, 2011

Links updated 9/17/2016:  Click on this if the links don’t work.

Recently I came across this four-part BBC series on how the corporate and governmental elites use the ideas of Sigmund Freud to manipulate and control the public.  It is full of fascinating facts I never knew.

Freud taught that human beings are at the mercy of powerful desires and emotions arising out of the subconscious mind.  The theme of this series is how corporations and governments in the 20th century sought to bypass critical thinking and manipulate the public by tapping into these desires and emotions.

The first program in the series is above.  It describes the early career of Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays, founder of the profession of public relations.  Born in 1891, Bernays was brought to the United States as a boy, and he served during World War One in the Wilson administration disseminating war propaganda.

During the 1920s, Bernays pioneered the use of advertising based not on the objective merits of a product, but on the consumer’s desires and anxieties.  He broke the taboo against women smoking cigarettes in public, for example, by making cigarette smoking a symbol of women’s liberation.

Bernays believed that the average human being was too stupid to be an intelligent decision-maker in a democracy.  If American business could find out what people wanted on a deep level and provide it, then traditional democracy would be unnecessary, he thought; if people could express themselves through focus groups, traditional political participation would be unnecessary.

Producer Adam Curtis follows Bernays into the 1930s, when he advised the National Association of Manufacturers on its propaganda offensive against the New Deal, and helped organize the 1939 World’s Fair, a tribute to the ability of the free enterprise system to satisfy the public’s needs and wants.  He touches on now Nazi propagandist  Joseph Goebbels openly rejected rational argument, and appealed to deep emotions and instincts.  It would have been interesting to compare Nazi and Soviet propaganda, inasmuch as both ideologies rejected the ideas of Sigmund Freud, but you can’t get everything into a one-hour program.

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