A Study of American Power by BBC Documentary Filmmaker Adam Curtis

“Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.”

                                                        — Hassan-i Sabbah

Henry Kissinger called power the ultimate aphrodisiac. We can see how power attracts all sorts of people toward it, but how is it grasped and how is it wielded? Since the end of World War II the United States of America has wielded power in the manner of a clumsy, yet mostly beneficent, oaf, rewarding her allies and punishing, overtly or discreetly, her enemies, mostly economically (Cuba, Indonesia), but also bombastically (Laos, Cambodia, Iraq) as well as covertly (Iran, Latin America). The emergence of the U.S. as the sole dominant world power is an unrivaled precedent in human history overshadowed by the shifting alliances of the European continent for the better part of the last millennium. But different than the British power center which emerged as the dominant force of geo-political influence during the last 500 years, current U.S. hegemony is based upon economics rather than politics. Since the late 40s the U.S. has set the bar for everything from education to manufacturing, establishing an assembly-line economic infrastructure unrivaled in the modern world. The power that came with economic largesse was wielded by men who gradually came to operate within a system that can no longer come to terms with its own eventual demise: the U.S. Congress. Like Narcissus in love with his own reflection, the policy-makers worked mostly under the assumption that American influence was drawn from a never-ending pool of resources, and rather than adapt to changing environments, they not only endanger the authority of the U.S., but threaten the very survival of the modern world as we know it. How did these Politics of Fear come to be? Backed by the BBC, at least one man has been investigating this very subject for years. Through a series of multi-part documentaries employing streamlined techniques of film-making by combining newsreel footage, pop songs and personal interviews, Adam Curtis is using the state’s own propaganda against itself.

David Hume Kennerly-Gerald R. Ford Library

Alan Greenspan, center, was a follower of Ayn Rand, right with her husband, Frank O’Connor. With them in 1974 were Mr. Greenspan’s mother, Rose Goldsmith, and President Gerald R. Ford.

In his latest film, All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, BBC documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis examines the connections between the “rise of machines and how they made us believe we could create a stable world that would last forever” or so goes the superscripts on the intro. Part one: Love and Power delves into the creepy and mysterious world of Ayn Rand and the Objectivist Skull & Bones-style club called the Collective she surrounded herself with that hard-coded itself into modern day politics, business and culture. Curtis alludes to the point in time when a young economist by the name of Alan Greenspan, a believer of Logical Positivism, met Ayn Rand, and fell in love with her work-in-progress, Atlas Shrugged, which debunks altruism as the guiding light of modern society for a more personal oriented life where people are free from politics to follow their own desires.

Fast forward to the mid-90s where Greenspan–now Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board–advises President Clinton against expensive social reform and instead to cut the growing deficit, which would theoretically decrease interest rates and allow the market to regulate itself. But how could the market regulate itself if it was being controlled by Greenspan’s interest rates, i.e. government intervention in the free market? Not a move Ayn’s John Galt would support, to be sure. As the expected boom came and the market rose the investors hailed it as a never-ending updraft, thanks to the precision risk forecasting of the machines doing the trading. With the banks subsequently hedging against those risks, allowing for unprecedented loans to millions more people, many of whom were clearly not qualified lendees under the previous system, we bear witness to the birth of sub-prime lending. This perceived increase in stability was thought to be a permanent facet of the New Economy, an idea espoused by Silicon Valley magnates and Wall Street executives alike, which said that the potential for growth was unlimited. As a favorite saying of former U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin goes, “a rising tide lifts all boats.”

When that high tide of investment that had flowed freely into the economies of the Asian countries western speculators were funneling money into finally ebbed, the tidal wave of growth eventually crested and capsized whatever craft the Koreans, Thai, Malaysians and Indonesians were holding on to for dear life. Enter the IMF and a grand scheme to bailout–not the foundering Asian economies–but rather the investors, who were paid off as soon as the austere loan agreements were begrudgingly signed by the various countries’ naive leaders. This was all taking place around the same time as the Bill Clinton scandal involving a dress, a stain, a cigar and Monica Lewinsky, turning the sitting President into a lame duck, and paving the way for Wall Street financiers to take over the world and the rise of the Neo-Conservative nightmare.

In The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear Adam Curtis examines how the Neo-Conservatives rose to power in the post-Nixon/Kissinger administration of Gerald Ford with Alan Greenspan as the Chairman of the President’s Economic Council of Advisors. Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld had been making wild assertions about secret Soviet weapons and their overwhelming desire to use them against the United States (sound familiar?). According to Curtis these accusations were machinated by a team led by Paul Wolfowitz, which had also created a lobby group (with Ronald Reagan as a member) called Committee on the Present Danger in order to produce a number of films, the title one of which was, The Price of Peace & Freedom. Curtis’ look at a Nixon speech to the Senate, after signing SALT I–a nuclear limitation treaty–, in which he and Brezhnev welcomed the détente of the era of peaceful coexistence, by reducing the “levels of fear by reducing the causes of fear”, makes the President appear positively left-wing by comparison to the rising tide of neo-conservatives current fear-mongering.

The Power of Nightmares by Adam Curtis (HESO Magazine)

Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian political theorist who believed the rise of individualism in post-World War II American culture was destroying the moral fabric of society. His conservative ideas took root in Egypt and inspired many of the most radical Islamists, including Osama bin Laden. He was executed by the Egyptian government in 1966. From the documentary "The Power of Nightmares," by Adam Curtis

Sayyid Qutb was an Egyptian author and one of the leading intellectuals of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s and ’60s. He was a conservative Islamist who disdained anything that was materialistic and violent, which after spending time in the U.S. during the 1950s he quickly came to associate with anything American. Before he was tortured by Egyptian president Nassar’s CIA-trained henchmen, and eventually executed, he had written over 20 books and, like Leo Strauss, influenced members of the future group of radical Islamists who were to shape the world, one of them being Ayman al-Zawahiri, the founder of Islamic Jihad, and current de facto leader of Al-Qaeda. Here you have the impetus for two of the most influential groups of the last thirty years: the American Neo-Conservatives and the radical Islamists. Curtis maintains that both groups are similar in their origins, in that they grew out of the failure of the liberal dream of a utopian society and that both needed to inflate a myth of a dangerous enemy in order to draw people to support them, be they fellow Neo-cons or radical Islamists. Led by Leo Strauss’ philosophy of failed liberal politics, the Neo-Conservatives main objective was to “perpetuate the myth of America as a unique nation whose destiny was to battle evil in the world” while the Islamists goal was to unite the Muslim world in Jihad against the invading infidels. You can see where this is going.

The chief impetus for both groups turned out to be largely the same: the ends justify the means. More specifically, if your ends are noble, any path you take to reach them is justified. In the case of the Neo-Conservatives, Bush Jr. sums it up, “…Good and evil are present in the world and between the two there can be no compromise.” Whereas al-Zawahiri’s cause reads as defending the Nation of Islam from infidels and those who have been turned against the will of Allah, including Muslims themselves, such as Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated by Zawahiri’s group in 1981. In an almost identical situation to Qutb’s prison sentence, al-Zawahiri too was tortured, and when he emerged in 1984 was a severely changed man, one who realized that it was not only politicians that were corrupting Islam, but all citizens of the world themselves who allowed the “evil of materialism” to define their lives by their mere inaction. Much like the Straussian Neo-cons plan to target small town Americans with cultural propaganda and fear-mongering, the al-Zawahiri led radical Islamists too would point their aggressions at those innocents in a more direct way: violence.

It Felt Like a Kiss (Adam Curtis, 2009)

It Felt Like a Kiss (Adam Curtis, 2009)

“Morality, it could be argued, represents the way that people would like the world to work–whereas economics represents how it actually does work…If you learn how to look at data in the right way, you can explain riddles that otherwise might have seemed impossible.”
- Freakonomics, Steven D. Levitt, Stephen J. Dubner (Penguin, 2005)

It Felt Like a Kiss is Adam Curtis’ ode to America, in which he explores the seemingly tenuous connections between Rock Hudson, Doris Day, the C.I.A., the Soviets, Saddam Hussein, and Chimpanzees in “the story of an enchanted world that was built by American power as it became supreme…and how those living in that dream world responded to it.” Using mixed media and highlighted by 60s era Motown hits—including Carol King’s “He Hit Me (& It Felt Like A Kiss)”—the 54 minute film delves into these disparate aspects of 50s Cold War America with a hot and soulful knife through butter. And without Curtis’ usual voice-over narration to guide us. The creeping paranoia that the CIA is conducting an experiment via the BBC Documentarist is overwhelming.

In 2007′s The Trap, Curtis looks at Freedom as the ultimate expression of political power and the nebulous desire of modern politicians to eliminate the old class distinctions and bureaucracies in an attempt to secure individual freedom. This can be widely viewed as the ostensible goal of the Iraq War: the liberation of the citizen and the elimination of tyranny. Yet this assumption has backfired. The Middle East has consistently rejected western style democracy and continues to resist Americanization despite the successes of the Arab Spring. At home, in the dismantling of western citizens’ safeguards, we find that much of the restrictions regulating the financial markets put in place after the Great Depression have been rolled back and that the so-called one percent have benefited more greatly than ever before. Partisan politics are stalling any kind of real progressive movement toward populist reform due to fears of reelection campaigns falling short of today’s requisite finance goals, which turn the people elected to run our country into zombie soundbites beholden to the corporate lobbyists who fund them.

All watched Over By Machines of Love and Grace film still

Film Still from "All watched Over By Machines of Love and Grace" (Adam Curtis, 2011)

One must eventually ask the question: are all of these deadly public gaffes (invading Iraq despite no WMD, elimination of financial regulation ala the Glass–Steagall Act) just a cleverly disguised ruse used to enact an agenda of quantifying, commodifying and consolidating every last resource for the very few who can afford it, while the rest of the world languishes in a suicide pact with itself, fighting for the scraps? Is the ostensible goal of modern society the advancement of knowledge toward an ending of suffering and an equality amongst humanity or merely to accumulate as many multi-colored rectangular pieces of numbered paper as possible? Are the distinctions between the Republicans and Democrats negligible when one considers their joint aims: to maintain control of all resources necessary to perpetuate the status quo of American domination in the world arena? Is it a dream to think that the 20-odd percent of the annual U.S. Budget going to defense spending could be used in a more productive way than funding a big jobs program whose sole goal is destroy…and then rebuild? We would have to figure out a way to detach it from its corollary corporate welfare program, Haliburton, as well as the private security industry that has spawned around it, but is it possible to think we might just stop making bombs someday? Or do we have to wait for the extraterrestrial invasion to come together as a species? Even then the anthem might be heard over the crack of the whips: Sing the song people…A base in every country on every planet and a drone flying overhead…

Is it Barry Goldwater famous utterance that “extremism in defense of liberty is not a vice.” or Daisy, the Lyndon Johnson 1964 presidential ad showing a picture of a small girl holding a flower as a nuclear bomb is detonated, saying you “can’t afford not to elect LBJ,” that inaugurated the politics of fear as a mainstay in American culture? Is fear the only way to use the power bestowed upon political leaders to guide or is there another way? Fareed Zakari notes that the “test for the United States is political — and it rests not just with the United States at large but with Washington in particular. Can Washington adjust and adapt to a world in which others have moved up? Can it respond to shifts in economic requirements and political power?” If the recent failure of the so-called Congressional Super Committee to reach an agreement on cutting government spending (Greenspan’s policies are still in effect then…) without touching the Defense Budget or raising taxes is any indication, then no, it would not seem as if it can adjust and adapt. It will be interesting to see what Curtis can cull from the eons of archive footage for his new work-in-progress entitled Every Day Is Like Sunday about the downfall of the newspaper mogul. I bet Rupert Murdoch won’t be tuning in. But you should.

“It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”

                                                        —Aung San Suu Kyi, “Freedom from Fear”

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