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The Nation’s Powerful Nightmares


When it comes to the game of respectability, how to play it, and how best to win it, I’ve always been impressed by the deftness of Nation-Left types.

With one significant counter-instance over the years—beginning, let us say, with the instauration of the end-of-history Right in Washington some 25 years ago, now a force so militantly entrenched in the States that you can’t squeeze the edge of a poker card in the seams between the two parties—Nation-leftists have reminded me of some kind of religious order or, depending on your inclination, card-carrying members of a commissar class. This was true long before the Hitchens fiasco (“once you have done it, there’s no going back“), and would remain just as true without any reference to him. If I had to sum it up, I’d say that a Nation-leftist’s defining characteristic lies in his being able to forge ahead, without tripping, while always keeping one eye looking back over his shoulder. Because somebody back there—mama or some other power that really matters—holds the reins of respectability. Without such approval and validation he dare not venture forth. No matter what.

Now. I have no doubt that the documentary, The Power of Nightmares – The Rise of the Politics of Fear, written and produced by Adam Curtis in the U.K. and first broadcast over the BBC-2 on three consecutive Wednesdays around the time of the U.S. presidential election last fall, is “arguably the most important film about the ‘war on terrorism’ since the events of September 11,” and a “helluva lot more interesting than what Michael Moore had to say [in Fahrenheit 9/11],” precisely as Peter Bergen writes in a recent review for The Nation (June 20).

Nevertheless. Acknowledging that my only exposure to Curtis’ critique of the “politics of fear” comes from a reading of Mike Conley’s transcript of this powerful documentary, rather than a viewing of the documentary itself, might it not be the case that, even more than al Qaeda, American Power is a “fierce and determined organization that has spawned a global ideological movement led by [fill in the blank], whose influence and plans we have every reason to be deeply concerned about,” here rewriting a passage that Bergen himself had devoted to al Qaeda instead?

I mean, rather than taking issue at length with Curtis over what Bergen alleges to be Curtis’ minimization of the scope of the al Qaeda leadership, organization, and global infrastructure—at one point, Bergen contends that “The 9/11 plot itself amply demonstrates the fact that Al Qaeda was an organization of global reach led by bin Laden”—might not a more reasonable, less Nationistic reviewer of Curtis’ exegesis of the “politics of fear” find something else to which draw the readers’ attention besides the threats, real or imaginary, stemming from so-called militant Islam, so-called Islamist terrorists, so-called militant jihadist ideological movements—and just plain old militant thises and militant thats?

That is to say, as long as they are sufficiently militant, and claim allegiance to that other religion?

And get a load of this throwaway line from the very last paragraph of Bergen’s review: “The Power of Nightmares,” he blurts, “sometimes has the feel of a Noam Chomsky lecture channeled by Monty Python….” A lecture by Chomsky, as channeled by Monty Python? Now that, as the saying goes, is a real knee-slapper. Yet another betrayal of the nature of the Nation-Left as it exists in the modern world. For a second there, I thought I had entirely mixed up my media, and tuned-in to Penn & Teller’s series Bullshit! on the American cable TV channel, Showtime. My mistake. Silly me.

Reading Peter Bergen’s review of Adam Curtis’ documentary, I could not escape the impression that Bergen had missed the “politics of fear” for the series of terrorist atrocities he is able to rattle off by rote. (Though not every incident Bergen cites deserves the title, either. For example, the case of Richard C. Reid, a.k.a. Abdel Rahim, the mentally-ill British shoe-bomber nabbed on an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami back in December, 2001.)

The question is, Why would The Nation foist Bergen’s review on its readers?

The answer, I believe, is nestled within the “politics of fear”—about which we owe Adam Curtis a considerable debt for challenging. And within the ultra-respectable politics of thinking and writing about such unseemly topics as the “politics of fear” at The Nation.

Beware the Holy War: The Power of Nightmares,” Peter Bergen, The Nation, June 20, 2005

The Power of Nightmares – The Rise of the Politics of Fear, Written and Produced by Adam Curtis, BBC-2, 2004

Part I: Baby It’s Cold Outside, BBC-2, October 20, 2004
Part II: The Phantom Victory, BBC-2, October 27, 2004
Part III: The Shadows In The Cave, BBC-2, November 3, 2004

The Making of the Terror Myth,” Andy Beckett, The Guardian, October 15, 2004

Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror, Jason Burke, Palgrave, 2003
What is al-Qaeda?” Jason Burke, The Observer, July 13, 2003
The Jason Burke Webpage at the Guardian Unlimited

The Problem Is Bigger than the Bushes,” Stephen Rosenthal and Junaid Ahmad, ZNet, July 1, 2004
Fahrenheit 9/11 is a Stupid White Movie: What Michael Moore Misses About the Empire,” Robert Jensen, ZNet, July 5, 2004

Postscript (June 9): Readers have called to everyone’s attention two superb analyses of Adam Curtis’ documentary, The Power of Nightmares, by the U.K.-based Media Lens group. Thanks. Here are the links to the analyses, as well as a link to Media Lens’s exchange with Adam Curtis about them:

The Power of Nightmares and the Real Politics of Fear – Part 1,” Media Lens, November 18, 2004
The Power of Nightmares and the Real Politics of Fear – Part 2,” Media Lens, November 19, 2004
The Power of Nightmares – Adam Curtis Responds,” Media Lens, December 7, 2004

As the folk at Media Lens made clear, they believe Curtis’ documentary to be superficially interesting, but fundamentally out of whack, in that it locates the origins of the fear-generating dynamic within the rise of the so-called “Neoconservatives” in American political life.

Media Lens’s David Edwards writes (personal communication) that he found the Curtis documentary to be a “good example of what we call a ‘liberal herring’ – it led viewers in safe, unthreatening directions while allowing the ‘liberal’ media to feel great about its commitment to ‘challenging’ power. A key indication was the media response – they simply adored it.”

On this elemental level, I couldn’t agree more. If anything, critical thought in the States is even more compromised by the “Neocon” con than Media Lens’s comments indicate about the U.K. As if the American Government started waging wars of foreign aggression, or illegally repressing domestic dissent, or driving the nuclear arms race, or driving the military-Keynesian sectors of the global economy, or subverting multilateral institutions for international peace and security, and the like, with the rise of the top policymakers within the current regime and its predecessors. What nonsense. (For a very American example of this “liberal herring”: “The Neoconservative Plan for Global Dominance,” Project Censored, 2004.)

Actually, “liberal herring” would be a pretty good description of the product that The Nation cans in the States. As well as the gist of what the more intelligent reviews of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 had to say about it. (Another, uglier feature of Moore’s documentary was the way it depicted certain people who go around this world wearing funny-looking clothes.)

I should add that I think Adam Curtis’ The Power of Nightmares was simply and unproductively reaching for the stars wherever he tried to develop parallels between the rise of so-called “militant Islam” (Sayyid Qutb and the like), on the one hand, and, on the other, the rise of so-called “Neoconservatism” in the States and elsewhere (Leo Strauss, the University of Chicago nexus, and the like). And I can’t help but wonder which of the two is the greater red herring?

Of special interest to me is the dynamic (dealt with in Part III of Curtis’ documentary) between the institutions of American Power (hardly definable according to something as limited as the territorial United States—as the British Government of Tony Blair shows) and their interaction with the world, in thought no less than in action.

Leaving Adam Curtis aside, the notion that the material and ideological interests of American Power construct an array of enemies, and that there is a decided continuity between the system of Cold War propaganda (or Red Menace propaganda dating all the way back to the 1910s and 1920s—a period of “Wilsonian idealism” throughout) and its successors, the “Global War on Terror” in particular, is a pretty good approximation of the truth of the present day, in my opinion. For a case in point, take a look at how many resources this American agenda has managed to commandeer at the United Nations–including the section of the Secretary-General’s In Larger Freedom document that touches on the definition of ‘terrorism’.

Or, better yet, if you don’t think the Red Menace rhetoric reaches back far enough, how about the rhetoric about the fledgling United States of America of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, surrounded by the hostile British, French, Spanish, and literally scores of Indian tribes, the young nation divinely positioned in history to redeem the vast frontiers?

Frontiers so vast that, these days, they reach all the way around the world. And even into outer space.

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