Friday, February 10, 2006

A tip from pas au-delà led me to The Power of Nightmares, a fascinating three-part BBC documentary by Adam Curtis that traces the twin histories of the neo-conservatives and the radical Islamists from mid-century to the present. Curtis argues that the neo-cons (following Leo Strauss) and the Islamists (following Sayyid Qutb) engage in the fantasy-manufacturing business:

In the past, politicians promised to create a better world. They had different ways of achieving this, but their power and authority came from the optimistic visions they offered their people. Those dreams failed and today people have lost faith in ideologies. Increasingly, politicians are seen simply as managers of public life, but now they have discovered a new role that restores their power and authority. Instead of delivering dreams, politicians now promise to protect us: from nightmares.

They say that they will rescue us from dreadful dangers that we cannot see and do not understand. And the greatest danger of all is international terrorism, a powerful and sinister network with sleeper cells in countries across the world, a threat that needs to be fought by a War on Terror. But much of this threat is a fantasy, which has been exaggerated and distorted by politicians. It's a dark illusion that has spread unquestioned through governments around the world, the security services and the international media. This is a series of films about how and why that fantasy was created, and who it benefits.

At the heart of the story are two groups: the American neoconservatives and the radical Islamists. Both were idealists who were born out of the failure of the liberal dream to build a better world, and both had a very similar explanation of what caused that failure. These two groups have changed the world, but not in the way that either intended. Together, they created today's nightmare vision of a secret organised evil that threatens the world, a fantasy that politicians then found restored their power and authority in a disillusioned age. And those with the darkest fears became the most powerful. (From the opening narration to The Power of Nightmares).

The tone is conspiratorial, though I’m damned if I can find a real conspiracy; it all seems true enough. The supposedly daring contention is that al Qaeda is not a coherent organization but rather an idea (meme?) adopted by isolated terrorist groups, and that the threat of terrorism is largely a fantasy. (A portion of the program, which was produced in 2004, points out that despite the constant threat of terrorist attacks in London, no terrorism has yet happened. The London Underground bombings of 2005 undercut this argument just a little, don’t you think?). The only real criticism I have is that the documentary seems to create a narrative out of isolated truths, leaving other important factors by the wayside (for instance, according to Wikipedia, MediaLens accused Curtis of leaving out the narrative of neo-con and Islamist economic self-interest, to which Curtis answered, “Both the neoconservatives and the Islamists have become powerful and influential and I chose to make a series of films that explained the roots of their ideas and how they were taken up, simplified and distorted. You want me to have made a different series [about] a perfectly good and very important subject - but different”).

One other point: Curtis seems to have been influenced quite a bit by the Bay Area underground filmmaker (and “media archaeologist”) Craig Baldwin. Both use found pop-cultural imagery and offbeat soundtracks; but Baldwin, at least in part, means to show how such imagery (old commercials, propaganda films, forgotten musicals and foreign films) serves an ideological master. By creating fake histories out of real historical detritus, Baldwin highlights the constructed nature of historical narrative. This is the basic theme in The Power of Nightmares too, but the footage Curtis uses doesn’t strengthen his argument; the old movies and commercials seem to be there just for the sake of throwing a fun and quirky bone to the viewer. That is, I don’t really see Baldwin's critical distance in the work of Adam Curtis. In The Power of Nightmares a funny and outdated old newsreel is just a funny and outdated old newsreel.

Watch The Power of Nightmares online:

Part I: Baby It's Cold Outside

Part II: The Phantom Victory

Part III: The Shadows in the Cave


Aquaman said...

"Islamist" casts a rather wide net, and seems very nearly as projective a construction as 'islamofascist', and perhaps as clumsy as that early-20th century bugbear, 'the occult'. It certainly must suggest a larger and more various population than those imperial hobbyists, 'the neocons'. What is meant by it?

Joseph said...

It's the language the documentary uses, as you can see from the excerpt above. I think Adam Curtis uses it to refer to those who folowed the teachings of Sayyid Qutb -- and I may be mistaken but I think he does mean to infer that it is a small group of people, but that they managed to get their ideas accepted (or at least passively approved) by a larger group of people. So for the "radical Islamists" attacks against Western targets (and Muslim targets -- one of the points of the documentary is that the "radical Islamists" would attack other Muslims that had been deemed corrupted by Western influences, like Nasser in Egypt) were adopted as a method by other terrorist groups around the world, and likewise the "neo-cons" were able to get the Christian right and Presidents Reagan and Bush II behind their agenda.