06w36:2 The Luxury of Terrorism and Adam Curtis

by timothy. 0 Comments

The Facts & Arguments section of last Thursday’s (Sept 7th) Globe & Mail brought this article by Geoffrey Lean to my attention, where it is noted that ‘food supplies are shrinking alarmingly around the globe, plunging the world into its greatest crisis for more than 30 years. New figures show that this year’s harvest will fail to produce enough to feed everyone on Earth, for the sixth time in the past seven years. Humanity has so far managed by eating its way through stockpiles built up in better times – but these have now fallen below the danger level’.

Earlier in the week I picked up Thomas Homer-Dixon’s The Ingenuity Gap at a used bookstore. This particular copy seems to have been someone else’s review-copy, since I found tucked inside the cover the photocopied blurb for his upcoming title The Upside of Down; Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization (to be published October 31st). The blurb offers as a teaser the Prologue, which sets the stage with a reminder of Ancient Rome, which grew too complex and fell because its citizens couldn’t maintain its late stages. Homer-Dixon writes, ‘In this book we’ll discover that our circumstances today are like Rome’s in key ways. Our societies are becoming steadily more complex and often more rigid…Eventually, as occurred in Rome, the stresses will become too extreme, and our societies too inflexible to respond, and some kind of economic or political breakdown is likely to occur. I’m not alone in this view. These days, lots of people have the intuition that the world is going haywire and an extraordinary crisis is coming’.

We are indeed lucky to be thus living in such a time, before the extraordinary crisis. Because it seems to me that when we find ourselves there – maybe in another ten years or so? – won’t we look back with nostalgia to the simpler time of this decade, and pine for the days when old Papa Bush was on TV everynight, making us laugh with his goofy phrasings, and miss the simple-minded certainty offered by the idea that Muslim fanatics want to kill us?

Which is to say that only in a society which has enough food, whose cities aren’t being destroyed by storms, whose children are well-sheltered and well-fed, can we afford the time and resources to let our politicians play boys-with-toys war games. We truly must be living in a utopia, to have the luxury to use our time and money so productively in being afraid of one another.

Because we don’t have an extraordinary crisis to unite us and to force us to work together. Our cities are not being destroyed by storms. There isn’t a plague ravaging continents. We aren’t living with a lead-pipe infrastructure based on an finite resource that we are squandering. There is no asteroid headed our way to force Bruce Willis and Steve Buscemi to become astronauts, nor are there aliens coming to blow up the White House and force President Bush to brush up on his fighter-pilot skills, last used protecting Texan airspace during the Vietnam War (if we don’t count the air-craft carrier thing from a few years back). At the end of the day we can sit back and watch the war-show and the comedic commentaries and look forward to going back to our soul-nurturing jobs in the morning and think, today was a good day. Because the extraordinary crisis is coming, but not already here. We have the luxury of war and terrorism in this decade, and we’d better enjoy it while it lasts.

Meanwhile, commentators like Homer-Dixon, Ronald Wright, and Jared Diamond warn us that things are shaky. This civilization may not survive the 21st Century. Homer-Dixon, in his prologue, writes, ‘Rome’s story reveals that civilizations, including our own, can change catastrophically. It also suggest the dark possibility that the human project is so evanescent that it’s essentially meaningless. Most sensible adults avoid such thoughts. Instead, we invest enormous energy in our families, friends, jobs, and day-to-day activities. And we yearn to leave some enduring evidence of our brief moment on Earth, some lasting sign of our individual or collective being. So we construct a building, perhaps, or found a company, write a book, or raise a family. We seldom acknowledge this deep desire for meaning and longevity, but it’s surely one source of our endless fascination with Rome’s fall: if we could just understand Rome’s fatal weakness, maybe our societies could avoid a similar fate and preserve their accomplishments for eternity.”

Let us then consider this American-centric civilization’s accomplishments: paranoid parents who think their fat video-game playing moronic children will be raped by pudgy balding men. Paris Hilton and Tom Cruise. The American news-media. Cellophane packaged food. Chemicals with unpronounceable names. Industrialized slaughter houses for our domesticated animals, one of which (the cow) now has to be treated as potential toxic waste. Oprah Winfrey’s book club, to industrialize fiction consumption. A tourism industry. An art industry. Designers working away designing the knobs for the ends of curtain rods. Marketing agencies. Billboards. Short films conceptually contrived to promote things.

I’m just playing the USA=Western Civilization game, since, that’s the PR, the marketing, the televised ads, and the billboards have told me my whole life. England would seem to be the Mini-me side-kick, while Canada is USA’s nerdy brother, perhaps austistic, perhaps a good reader. Canada has an inferiority complex and isn’t as glamourous as the more famous brother. Canada is Napoleon Dynamite’s brother chatting up hot babes on the internet. Canada is Western Civilization’s art movie compared to the USA’s Schawrzenegger action flick.

It seems like France, Russia, Poland, Italy – they’re civilizations unto themselves and are thus somewhat divorced from the Anglo-American Empire’s sphere of influence. I’m not sure where Australia fits in since they’re more Anglo than American. Nevertheless, the United States has over 700 military bases in 130 countries in the world. Whatever we think we’re doing when we call ourselves democracies, and whatever we think of our political situation, that reality alone makes the USA Rome. And while Rome left a legacy which can still inspire sixteen hundred years after the fact, a legacy of art, architecture and law, the American Empire’s legacy so far seems to be highways and chemically processed stuff, its art made largely without archival concerns, its documents increasingly becoming subject to digital fragility.

Rome’s reputation for wickedness – brilliantly captured in I Claudius – is usually taught to us via Christian exegesis with gladiatorial reference but I think USA is well on her way to matching Rome’s record given that in July, the Internet Watch Foundation (a UK ‘child porn hotline’ site, which prefers to refer to such images as simply ‘child abuse’) reported that servers in the United States host 50% of the world’s ‘child abuse content’ while the wild-west of Russia (where your last phishing attempt may have come from) is only responsible for 15%. If we take as a measure how we treat our children as a sign of civilization, one has a rather perverse way of judging the winner of the Cold War. This rather abysmal accomplishment of American/Western Civilization – the sexualization of children (I can’t even watch anything on Jon Benet Ramsay, nevermind August’s weirdo) is something I can’t even be sarcastic about here and want to triumph as another grand accomplishment of our globalized society worth preserving.

Homer-Dixon’s thoughts can be answered: yes our society is haywire, and yes, this can only lead to a greater crisis down the road. But if we agree that current living conditions are inhumane and not worth preserving, what then is the better way? It is a moral question – that is, it calls us to envision and articulate a vision of a good life which is currently being articulated for us by Hollywood and advertising. We are not choosing to live lives with meaning or with purpose. We are choosing to fit ourselves into someone else’s image of the world, striving to buy stuff we don’t need and tempted to envy by by Robin Leach’s fucking voiceovers. This decade’s terrorist nonsense is nothing more than another example of the resources squandered by the rich and famous. Because, once again, it’s not like we don’t have enough food. So, if kids screaming at their computers while others lip-sync ‘Numa Numa’; racism and intolerance; cold-heartedness; celebrity waste and stupidity isn’t this civilization’s vision of utopia, then what is?

Is our real crime, not that we have achieved these things, but that we jumped ahead and achieved them without a sustainable framework? Would we all want SUV’s if they contributed to the health of the planet? Would we all want to be obese if there were a pill that could make us Hollywood lean overnight? (Thereby making us procrastinate about taking it, saying, ‘oh, I just don’t feel like being thin today’ while we order the super-size fries). Isn’t the real horror about some of this (excluding the child-sex abomination) based on the fact that we’re indebting our children to a life more poor than our own? Because, evidently, our economy of supplying need-and-greed has made us happy to have cluttered homes and it’s obvious that this hoarding is in part due to a fuck-the-future selfishness.

Here, I’m reminded of the German historian Götz Aly, who wrote of Hitler: ‘Hitler gained overwhelming support with his policy of running up debts and explaining that it would be others that paid the price. He promised the Germans everything and asked little of them in return. The constant talk of “a people without living space”, “international standing”, “complementary economic areas” and “Jew purging” served a single purpose: to increase German prosperity without making Germans work for it themselves. This was the driving force behind his criminal politics: not the interests of industrialists and bankers such as Flick, Krupp and Abs. Economically, the Nazi state was a snowballing system of fraud. Politically, it was a monstrous bubble of speculation, inflated by the common party members”.

This is to say that our superficial wealth today, founded on the infrastructure of non-renewable oil, means poverty for our children’s children. Governments have given up passing laws – making intentional decisions – in favor of passing tax-cuts or tax-breaks, reserving attempts at law-making for such retrogressive ends as rebutting gay marriage or trying to legitimize torture. (Which implies that they can’t imagine how to control people in those ways through tax-breaks).

People have come to equate wealth with volumes of money and not with the cultural riches which make a place worth visiting and living in and treating as an heirloom. So we’ve built ugly office towers all over the world because they’re utilitarian function is to warehouse human capital for 8 or more hours a day and left to execute their inane tasks so that the minority in control of the organization can benefit from their expertise, skill and time, to play golf all day. This means that the cultural riches of our civilization, that which we hope to leave for our children to enjoy are not the maginficant cathedrals of yesteryear, but the landscaped greens of the 18-hole golf course to be found wherever there’s room to put one (even in the deserts of Saudi Arabia). But it’s not like we don’t have enough fresh water or anything.

If the sustainability issue were to be fixed in the next 25 years so that in 2031 we could indulge in guilt free celebrity watching at the Toronto Film Fest, would we still be miserable when superficially nothing had changed? Would we then be happy with a civilization of kiddie-porn perverts, fat and stupid kids, congested highways, fear-mongering news-media, thoughtless politicians?

If this consumerist utopia would not be acceptable then, why is it acceptable now? Again, what kind of world would we like to live in? What kind of life would we like to live? Because, with reference to Homer Dixon’s ‘extraordinary crisis’ those will be the questions that will need answering. And if we can’t answer it now, when we have all time time in the world, how much more difficult will it be to answer when our cities have begun to be destroyed by storms?

Adam Curtis
It may help if we were familiar with how we got here. An excellent summary can be found in the films of Adam Curtis.

I first came across the documentaries of Adam Curtis when The Power of Nightmares was broadcast on CBC Newsworld in the spring of 2005. I soon found copies online and linked to them on Goodreads (issue 05w17:1). In the 18 months since, we’ve had Google Video show up where you can now find the Nightmares series in better quality than what was then available and where you can also find his 2002 documentary The Century of the Self.

The Century of the Self is as remarkable as Nightmares in that it traces the influence of Sigmund Freud over the course of 20th Century Western soceity through, not only his theories, but his family. I was very surprised to learn that Freud’s nephew Edmund Bernays was the fellow who invented ‘public relations’ as an alternative form of propaganda, and who is thus responsible for the past century’s advertising industry. Basically, the story told in Century of the Self is how the marketing and advertising industry grew up around the idea that we were motivated by unconscious desires which could only be placated through products. We were turned into consumers by an application of Freud’s psychoanalysis; to such and extant that by the end of the century governments were treating us as customers and politcians saw themselves as managers in the retail sector of public services. Not only that, but the whole ‘selfish-baby-boomer’ / lifestyle politics / yuppie-thing’ of the 1980s has its roots in this combination of psychology and marketing.

(It should be noted that this documentary dates from 2002, the same year when John Ralston Saul mocked this point of view in a presentation for his then recently released book On Equilibrium recorded in Toronto and later broadcast on CBC’s Ideas. I raise this to suggest that in the years since things have changed so that this type of talk can now seem a little old-fashioned (as is Saul’s thesis in his most recent book, The Collaspe of Globalism). Instead of being treated as customers with regard to public services, we now have to deal with two-bit explanations of the world’s pseudo-problems caused by conservative men trying to fit everything into their god-box).

Curtis’s narratives, while profound, are also weak in the sense that they are too simplistic: the reality of our Western society since 1950 is a complex weave and while we can analyze a thread here and there, a larger pattern is meanwhile being expressed. The plot of the 20th century as presented in Century of the Self was that people were understood to be irrational and so it was thought democracy could never work; they were thus lulled into docility by bought dreams of happiness; dreams woven by Public Relations people.

Of course, business was complicit in this conspiracy, because they’d always feared a time when industrial supply would overwhelm demand and thus lead to a failure to sell. Lifestyle marketing eliminated that worry and in the process created Individualism. (John Ralston Saul’s brilliant analysis of Individualism is to be found as Chapter 19 of Voltaire’s Bastards). Politicians, in turn, used focus-group techniques to get themselves elected and then cater to the self-interested civilians/subjects-of-lifestyle-marketing (Individuals) with the added benefit that a docile population is democratically ineffective allowing those in charge to do whatever they want.

The population of the United States in 1790 was a little less than 4 million. That of the UK at the time was a little over 16 million. And so a Continental Congress from a population of less than the Greater Toronto Area declared independence from the Parliament representing half of the current Canadian population. These numbers, in today’s context, make history seem like the story of people who had nothing else better to do. And it shows just how docile our world is given our enormous numbers. We live within a remarkable feet of social-structuring brought about by educational conditioning.

This describes what John Ralston Saul constantly refers to as a corporatist society, which is fragmented into interest-groups; where the population is obedient and docile and feels incompetent beyond their area of expertise. Democracy has become a sham because we’ve given up control over our lives so that it can be scheduled by our bosses. But if we believe life is about ‘expressing our selves’ then we can buy a fast-food version: our identities come through products which saves time thinking about anything and we can thus focus on getting our jobs done in our machine-world. We live in a time were we routinely refer to people as ‘human capital’ and expect them to behave as smoothly in a role as any other machined, interchangeable part. This basic everyday dehumanization has stripped us of a sense of dignity which leads to weak backs and slumped shoulders and thus a new market for Dr. Ho’s pillows.

Curtis’s Wikipedia page states that he is working on a new series to air later this year, called Cold Cold Heart about the ‘the death of altruism and the collapse of trust – trust in politicians, trust in institutions and trust in ourselves, both in our minds and our bodies.’ I am looking forward to seeing this, since it is this quality of distrust, mean-spirtedness, and lack of trust in our selves by which I’ll forever remember this decade with the same amount of disgust I’ve so far had only for the 1980s. This series would seem to be an extension of Part 4 of Self because it was in this episode that Curtis traced the development of consumerist politics, and showed an excerpt for Mario Cuomo’s 1984 Democratic convention speech, followed by an interview conducted for the series where Cuomo says, (at about the 20 minute mark) ‘The worst thing Ronald Reagan did was to make the denial of compassion respectable’.

It is this quality of distrust and hard-heartedness that I’d like to better understand because our current society is nothing more than the expression of our own dehumanized inhumanity. But I’m not so caught up in Western-centrism to think there’s no alternative. The history of many civilizations teaches us that things have gotten really bad many times; each time the horrors pass and something simpler comes in its place. This is the thesis of Homer Dixon’s upcoming book. His point will be that we can control our future. We shouldn’t get caught up in dooming-and-glooming the present which doesn’t deserve to survive. I think we should instead begin brainstorming about what kind of society we’d like to live in, and then try to make it happen somehow.

The current Canadian population is about 32 million. In January, Apple Computers announced it had sold 42 million iPods around the world. This means that Apple’s infrastructure – to handle the registration requirements – is greater than that needed by the 1st world nation of Canada. It would seem to follow that if 32 million people can give themselves health-care, so could the 43 million uninsured Americans. Of course, this isn’t likely to happen, precisely due to the fractured nature of the common good brought about by the rise of Individualism.

While Individualism can be seen as having broken society, I’d like to think this is only temporary. The Individual rose up in a century dominated by dictatorships – not only political, but also cultural. The greatest art form of the 20th Century is undoubtedly the movie, which consists of a passive audience watching someone’s else’s artistic vision. At a basic level it is a dictatorial relationship. The Individual is now driving a cultural paradigm shift that makes the iPod the primary symbol of current cultural relationships – people want control over their cultural products, which is vastly different than the passive acceptance of media which existed throughout the 20th Century. The internet has empowered people away from the illusion of community and participation brought about through consumerism, and begun instead to interconnect them with other like minded people which can only in turn build bridges to new communities. Individualism now operates in such a way that someone like myself can watch these Curtis videos and feel educated and enlightened and informed, not only because MSM had originally served it to me through a scheduled broadcast, but because I downloaded it from a website, as can you. – Timothy

The Century of the Self & The Power of Nightmares | Adam Curtis

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emailed by Timothy on Saturday 09 September 2006 @ 2:49 PM

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