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The Power of Nightmares & Century of the Self

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Mr S
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The Power of Nightmares & Century of the Self

Post by Mr S » April 28th, 2009, 3:53 pm

These are both awesome documentaries, don't pass them up!

The Century of the Self: ... es.review7

The Exorcist

Adam Curtis is the man behind acclaimed TV documentaries such as The Century of the Self and now The Power of Nightmares, which debunks the 'war on terror'. But who would have thought he got his first job on Esther Rantzen's That's Life, combing the country for singing dogs?

Adam Curtis likes a challenge. Eighteen months ago he proposed a new series of documentary films for the BBC. The films, he explained to his bosses, would be about the philosophical ideas behind conservatism. As a pitch, he concedes, it was 'about the dullest of all subjects you can imagine'. In these days of docusoaps and reality stunts it says just about everything you need to know about Curtis's brilliance as a filmmaker that he was commissioned to make the series at all. The BBC's faith has been more than rewarded, however, by The Power of Nightmares , the first part of which went out on Wednesday.

Curtis's original idea led him in typically unexpected directions. In particular, to developing a fearful symmetry between American neoconservative thought and Islamic fundamentalism. In looking back he discovered that the progenitors of each of these movements - the American political philosopher Leo Strauss, and the Egyptian revolutionary Sayyid Qutb - had been responding to similar observations. They had both been at American universities just after the Second World War - Strauss as a professor, Qutb as a student - and what they had seen there had convinced them that within American prosperity lay the seeds of its moral destruction.

'Everyone was thinking Truman's America is great and these two completely obscure figures were looking at it, in 1949, and thinking no, there is something wrong with this; they were both pessimists. We now live in a world that is shaped partly by the results of their thinking.'

From this beginning, Curtis went on to deconstruct the ways in which the governments of America and Britain in particular had seized upon fear as a way of connecting with their population, and presents the war on terror as a product of this thinking. 'What I am saying,' he says, 'is that I don't think al-Qaeda exists in the way that we have been asked to understand it. There are awful atrocities, of course, and there is militant Islamic fundamentalism. But the idea of a global network of terror run by Osama bin Laden, unique in its threat, which we have been told about for three years now is, I believe, a myth. I have backed this belief up with ideas that I think show the reasons why this myth has been created.'

To understand Curtis's methods in presenting these arguments you have to understand a little of his background. Now 50, he set out teaching politics at Oxford, but got bored with the isolation of that. He decided to work instead in TV and got his first job on Esther Rantzen's That's Life . He found dogs that could sing, researched investigative segments. Along the way he learned a lot about comic timing and the ways an audience might be engaged by issues. 'The best lesson that Esther taught me was that people who think they are funny rarely are,' he says.

When he got to make his own documentaries on more serious subjects, he attempted to integrate some of this training with the BBC tradition of documentary-making inspired by his hero James Mossman. His first successful attempt at this was The Road to Terror, a film which intercut footage from the Iranian revolution with material from movies about the French revolution, and with incongruous music. Alan Yentob, who had just become BBC2 controller, loved the playfulness of this, and encouraged Curtis to apply his sense of mischief to the weightiest of subjects, mixing high seriousness and impeccable journalism with an extreme lightness of touch.

If there has been a theme in Curtis's work since, it has been to look at how different elites have tried to impose an ideology on their times, and the tragi-comic consequences of those attempts. In his series Pandora's Box he examined the apocalyptic political fallout of nuclear science. In The Mayfair Set , he looked at how buccaneer capitalists were allowed to shape the climate of the Thatcher years. And in The Century of the Self he traced the ways in which Freud had been used to generate the triumph of Western consumerism.

The fun and surprise of his films is the footage that he uncovers to support his mesmerising essays. The first part of the current series featured not only pertinent clips from Gunsmoke, but also bravura material from Donald Rumsfeld's days as Defence Secretary in the Seventies, talking up the Soviet threat, just as he now talks up the unprecedented danger of bin Laden's terror networks. Curtis has a remarkable feel for the serendipity of such moments, and an obsessive skill in locating them. 'That kind of footage shows just how dull I can be,' he admits, a little glumly. 'The BBC has an archive of all these tapes where they have just dumped all the news items they have ever shown. One tape for every three months. So what you get is this odd collage, an accidental treasure trove. You sit in a darkened room, watch all these little news moments, and look for connections.'

He likes to think his approach to documentary shares something with the method of a 19th-century novelist. 'You look at Bleak House, say, and Dickens throws 10 strands of news stories together and sees where they lead him. I love the idea of that.'

In this way, led partly by curiosity and chance, Curtis leaves his films open to possibility. 'Journalism traditionally is done in specialisms,' he says, 'but the interesting thing in the modern world is that different things impinge on each other in unexpected ways.' By cutting at almost subliminal speed between news footage and pop cultural references, academic interviews and fragments of film noir, Curtis's films recreate exactly that sense of juxtaposition and seem close to the way we experience the world.

Thus his history of Islamic fundamentalism begins with an observation Sayyid Qutb made while at a dance in America in 1949, watching 'decadent' young Americans smooch. The song that was playing was 'Baby, it's Cold Outside'. 'That song,' says Curtis, 'was really what made me want to make the film. It was a tune which in itself was responding to postwar anxieties. And Qutb watches people dance to that song and he has these thoughts about the moral emptiness of capitalism. The beginning of thoughts about how he might change the world.' That, Curtis thought, is like the start of a novel.

His own journey from that point was based on two specific kinds of faith. First in the power of narrative, of one extraordinary thing leading to another. And second in the intellectual curiosity of his viewers. 'If you can get from a church dance in 1949, to the assassination of President Sadat within an hour, and you fill in a lot of the gaps between, then I think people will watch that.'

Most of all he remains firm in his unfashionable belief that our world is shaped by big ideas. 'I found out that Sayyid Qutb and Leo Strauss had both deduced from Nietzsche the way that liberal society was heading: towards nihilism. The real basis of my films is that Nietzsche's ideas have shaped the world we live in, but in totally unpredictable ways.' Imagine trying to sell that to the marketing people.

At the heart of his argument is the proposal that Blair and Bush have, deliberately or not, exaggerated the current danger to give themselves a new connection to their voters. 'The war between good and evil gives them a purpose. Blair has a temperamental sense of imagining the worst. What the films begin to show, though, is that they are protecting us against a myth.'

His third film in particular, he acknowledges, may expose Curtis to similar charges of naivety, in its assertion that al-Qaeda, as a global terror network, is a convenient political illusion. He has a ready response to politicians and spooks who may suggest he does not know the half of it. 'If they want our trust, they should trust us in return. Stop whispering to friendly journalists about this unknown terror, tell us the basis of your fear. Because I have looked for it, and I can't find it. If you examine the figures, they have not found any evidence of a hidden network in three years. They have managed to convict three people by association with Islamist groups. The majority of people who have been arrested under the new laws in that period are Irish terrorists.'

In making this case, Curtis has produced the most provocative piece of television that the BBC has shown since the Hutton inquiry. He says that he sees at close quarters how 'BBC people are terrified often of doing politics'. But also how actually that seems to be flying in the face of what people want. 'Politics are actually "cool" right now; the trick is to try to do them in a new way. People come into TV at 25 or so, they are interested in politics, but they are told they have to do things like they were done 20 years ago, boring graphics, talking heads. It is as if nobody has ever seen The Day Today .'

Curtis gave a lecture to the BBC bosses once; Greg Dyke called him in to address his 'central command unit'. What he argued was that as a corporation they had stopped explaining things. 'Events come at us in emotional waves and we let that happen.' Worse, he believes, that method has also started to be applied to the past. 'You go back to the Brighton Bomb, and you make it a human interest story. You take away the fact that this is actually part of a dispute over particular ideas and the result of particular politics.'

News, he believes, must be run by people who can maintain a strict sense of questioning distance. 'If you report things emotionally it immediately depoliticises them. No one gets judged, little gets fully understood.'

Still Curtis is under no illusion that he is moving against a powerful prevailing culture. 'They pulled some of the trails for my series out of respect for the family of Kenneth Bigley,' he says. 'What kind of madness is that? If a bomb went off here tomorrow, I have no doubt they would pull the series itself. They have discussed that. My rational argument would be immediately that this does not defeat my point in any way. There are of course bad people in the world who have bombs. But that does not justify the scale of the fear that currently possesses people. We have been prepared by politicians and the media to expect nightmares, even to need them. If nothing else we need to get a grip.'

As good a place as any to start, in this respect, is with the second film in Curtis's series, on BBC2 this Wednesday.
"The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane." Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor and stoic philosopher, 121-180 A.D.

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Post by Falcon » March 9th, 2013, 10:42 am

Over 60 years ago, an Egyptian visitor to the U.S. saw it way before most Americans living in the matrix did.

Sayyid Qutb, a leading member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, visited the U.S. from 1948 to 1950. Upon returning to Egypt in 1951, he wrote
“The America I Have Seen.� It's a really outside-the-box view of the U.S.
On his return to Egypt, Qutb published an article entitled "The America that I Have Seen." He was critical of many things he had observed in the United States: its materialism, individual freedoms, economic system, racism, brutal boxing matches, "poor" haircuts, superficiality in conversations and friendships, restrictions on divorce, enthusiasm for sports, lack of artistic feeling, "animal-like" mixing of the sexes (which "went on even in churches"), and strong support for the new Israeli state. ... tb-PDF.pdf
Qutb argues that the West’s materialist philosophy has led it to a state of animalism. Western values are animal values because they fail to elevate man above the materialist level of the animals. Just as animals govern themselves by material impulse, so does the West. Qutb points to Western families, sexuality, capitalism, freedom, and natural law as evidence of its animalist values.

... However, the West has degraded the role of the family. The root cause of this degradation is in the way that women are treated in the West. Qutb claims that Western relationships revolve around lust, passion, and impulse. Women have disregarded their duty to rear children and have become objects of sexual pleasure. In the essay “The America I Have Seen�, Qutb describes the way women act in the United States:

“The American girl is well acquainted with her body’s seductive
capacity. She knows it lies in the face, and in expressive eyes, and
thirsty lips. She knows seductiveness lies in the round breasts, the full
buttocks, and in the shapely thighs, sleek legs and she knows all this and
does not hide it…Then she adds to all this the fetching laugh, the naked
looks, and the bold moves
, and she does not ignore this for one moment
or forget it!�

In this description it is clear that Qutb is disgusted that the female not only leaves her body uncovered, but that she also actively uses it as a weapon. By using their bodies in this manner, women are prone to be treated by men as sexual objects rather than dignified child-bearers. While Qutb has harsh words against the American woman’s seductiveness, he also criticizes the way that American men use their muscular build to woo women. He cites an article in a magazine which surveyed different women, coming to the conclusion that the majority were attracted to men with “ox muscles�. Such public discussion of sensuality is an example of what Qutb argues is the “sexual primitiveness� of the West.

... Qutb points to this concept as a manifestation of the backward materialist values of Western society, where “material production is regarded as more important, more valuable and more honorable than the development of human character.� When all these factors are meshed together, Qutb believes that it is no surprise that the high rates of divorce and illegitimate children are considered mainstream and acceptable in the West.

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