Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Trap

I thought the first two parts of the telly series 'The Trap' by Adam Curtis were quite good. Tonight's episode, though, appeared to have been put together by Chris Morris sending up the whole genre of documentary and hence was very very silly, with much too much of the random bits of newsreel and music (though playing scary music when Dick Cheney is speaking is a practice which should be adopted more widely).

Most of it was a helter skelter race through the last fifty years of history, which spent ten minutes explaining what propaganda was, but missed out the Vietnam War and Chairman Mao entirely (an unfortunate omission given that the programme was largely about the evolution of American foreign policy on the one hand and the failure of utopian Commie projects on the other).

In this as in previous episodes, there was a version of Great Man theory going on, in which particular people were fingered as the originators of the bad ideas that cause today's problems - this week, Isaiah Berlin. A lot of time was wasted on attempting to demonstrate how the main events of the last fifty years were caused by the corruption of the idea of negative liberty, an extremely ambitious argument which was very clearly lacking in explanatory force. This time could have been better spent on developing the critique of subjects which Curtis actually seemed to have more of a grip on, which is basically the limitations of Blairite managerialism, foreign policy and neo-conservatism. It all ended with a bit of an anti-climax, with the narrator speaking of the need to rediscover the idea and value of revolutionary change and more expansive notions of human freedom, but purely as a theoretical point, with no suggestion that there are any people in the world today striving to achieve exactly this.

In its scattergun choice of targets, it was quite like a mirror image of something by Nick Cohen, who uses a similar technique of extrapolating from the thoughts or writings of particular individuals to sweeping denunciations of anyone and everyone who doesn't agree with him. Both Adam Curtis and Nick Cohen produce entertaining polemics, but neither seem to believe that there is currently any political alternative capable of addressing the problems that they identify. At least Curtis didn't end, as Nick Cohen does bathetically in 'What's Left?', with the notion that if there is hope, it lies in the Euston Manifesto.

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