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THE POWER OF THE CULTURE OF FEAR


Adam Curtis


In October 2004 I witnessed a life-changing TV event: the first broadcast of the Adam Curtis documentary series The Power of Nightmares: the Rise of the Politics of Fear. I was blown away by the scope, ambition, clarity and directness of these three short films. Curtis took on the history of the preceding sixty years — the parallel rise of neo-conservatism and Islamic fundamentalism, the collapse of the USSR, the 9/11 attacks, the "War on Terror" — and somehow made it all seem to snap together and make sense. With eloquence, wit and artistic flair, he laid bare the neocon agenda that was unravelling Western society and unleashing war upon the Middle East.

Self-identified "radical" dudes like me ran to Curtis with open arms. This was the height of the "War on Terror", and in the midst of all the warmongering and scaremongering and Islamophobic propaganda in the mass media, Curtis seemed to be the inspirational voice that we were waiting for. Finally we had an avatar to project our hopes on: someone who could stand up to The Man and tell it like it was, so that we didn't have to. Somehow he had smuggled onto the BBC a film which acknowledged not only that the threat of terrorism was blown out of all proportion, but that the rise of Islamic fundamentalism was linked to the rise of neoconservative US policies. Here was a heroic act almost on a par with throwing a brick through a Starbucks' window.

Curtis was also an aspirational figure in other ways: The Power of Nightmares had that spark of genius which elevated it above mere leftist pamphleteering. Curtis mesmerised us and flattered our intelligence. We were smart enough to spot all his parallels and ironies and symmetries and callbacks. We got all of his clever visual gags and half of his hip musical cues. Best of all, his explanation for the neocon wars seemed a whole lot more sophisticated than "it's the oil, stupid". The American neocons, it turned out, were making war not for economic gain, but to unite society behind the terror of a trumped-up enemy. It was all a fatally misguided attempt to give purpose and meaning to American lives.

Deep stuff, which Curtis embedded in a deeper analysis still: a penetrating insight into the workings of the modern world, a comprehensive view of the wider "culture of fear". This analysis is neatly summarised, at the end of the last film, by one of Curtis's interviewees: a guy called Bill Durodie, who is listed as the director of the "International Centre for Security Analysis, King's College". Here are Durodie's closing remarks:

"In a society that believes in nothing, fear becomes the only agenda. Whilst the 20th century was dominated by a conflict between a free-market Right and a socialist Left, even though both of those outlooks had their limitations and their problems, at least they believed in something, whereas what we are seeing now is a society that believes in nothing. And a society that believes in nothing is particularly frightened by people who believe in anything, and, therefore, we label those people as fundamentalists or fanatics, and they have much greater purchase in terms of the fear that they instill in society than they truly deserve. But that's a measure of how much we have become isolated and atomised rather than of their inherent strength."

Something about this analysis spoke to me. It didn't just explain the neocon wars; it explained everything. It certainly explained me and my personal situation. Isolated — check; atomised — yeah, there wasn't a whole lot of chemical bonding going on at that time, truth be told. And it also played into a little boy's sense of martyrdom: I was one of those people who believed in things, the people passionate about things, the last romantics, the ones our society marginalised and misunderstood — what nerd doesn't want to think that? It turned out that by simply believing in things, people like me were radically opposed to the status quo, atomised revolutionaries in our own PJs. No wonder that I thoroughly absorbed this worldview and cherished it as my own. It even became my sole evidence for being radical; I certainly had nothing else to vouch for me.

These days, I find it hard to believe I ever confused that kind of unhistorical crap for a "leftist" analysis of world events; but then again, I was never really as "leftist" as I thought. If I had been, I'd have realised that "it's the oil, stupid", inadequate as it is, is a better anaylsis of the "War on Terror" than anything The Power of Nightmares has to offer. One or two moments of interest aside, what Curtis has to say in these films is a waste of time. To an understanding of 20th century history, he contributes nothing but noise and confusion.

Curtis's view of history is old-fashioned, conspiratorial, and idealistic in the worst sense of the word. In The Power of Nightmares, history is simply the playing out of ideologies dreamt up by Great Men. Curtis deliberately ignores the material interests that might lie behind his "politics of fear": in interviews, he has been explicit in his rejection of a materialist view of history. Instead, he sees himself in the "Weberian" tradition of

"challenging what I see as that crude left-wing vulgar Marxism that says that everything happens because of economic forces within society, that we are just surfing, our ideas are just expressions — froth on the deep currents of history, which is really driven by economics."

While his courage in challenging the all-prevailing "vulgar Marxism" surely can't be doubted, the idealism he offers in its place is equally vulgar and in all other respects worse. It doesn't consider economic forces or political realities or ordinary people much at all. Curtis is only interested in the Great Ideas of Great Men:

"I spend my whole time just looking at how ideas have consequences, not necessarily what the promoters of them intended, because I think that's a really big thing in our time."

He certainly won't allow economic forces or political realities or ordinary people get in the way of telling a good story. The Power of Nightmares self-consciously takes the structure of a 19th-century novel: it introduces us at the beginning to the characters of Leo Strauss and Sayyid al-Qutb, and then shows us over the course of three installments how their influence is played out on a grand stage, all the while drawing parallels between them and evoking resonances and teasing out delicious ironies. The trouble is, Curtis is so keen to maintain an artistic balance between neoconservatism and Islamic fundamentalism that he obscures the grotesque economic imbalance between their followers. Along the way he resorts to pure fiction, portraying scaremongering propaganda as a recent development (when it's been a constant of established power for hundreds if not thousands of years), and US foreign policy as being about "spreading the good of democracy around the world" (when it patently isn't). And whatever your political views, you've got to acknowledge that any history purporting to document the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the 20th century without ever mentioning "Palestine", and giving only the briefest passing mention to "Israel", is not based on the history of planet Earth.

But that's Curtis's historical method: when charting the rise of Islamism, he ignores the political and economic grievances repeatedly voiced by Muslims, and when charting the rise of neoconservatism, he ignores the economic interests of neocons like Dick Cheney and the people around him. If anything, he depicts the rise of Islamism on neocon terms: according to Curtis, Islamism is solely rooted in disgust at Western individualism, and while he doesn't explicitly say "they hate our freedoms", he might as well. He even depicts the rise of the neocons on neocon terms, taking at face value their supposed goals of uniting society and spreading democracy and resisting selfish individualism. Despite its antiwar message, The Power of Nightmares displays a surprising amount of sympathy and admiration for the neocons. Curtis has repeatedly spoken of this admiration:

"I'll tell you what I think about the neo-conservatives. In a way, I admire them for nostalgic reasons. They are the last revolutionaries - and some of them actually came out of a Trotskyite revolutionary tradition. They are making an awesome attempt to remake and reshape the world, much as Trotsky tried to do in the Russian Revolution, using military power. It's amazing. It has an epic-ness to it. I feel nostalgic for it, in the face of a managerial politics that just seem to want to tweak and adjust its policies to those of the focus groups and the soccer moms."

In a way, neoconservatives are not so much the bad guys of The Power of Nightmares as the tragic heroes; their tragedy is that their noble ideas were doomed to work against them, undermining their great cause:

"The neoconservatives' real gift to us is that they are unpacking the threads of certainty that held together society during the years of the Cold War and leaving us bereft of a sense of purpose, the very opposite of what they wanted to do. They came to power to rekindle a sense of unification and purpose throughout the world. Ultimately, what they are doing is picking apart the glue that holds certainty together, leaving us in a world where we don't know who to trust."

Where is Curtis coming from with statements like these? Is he himself a neocon of sorts? In his films and interviews and blog entries, Curtis is deliberately vague about his political views. It seems he'd prefer we didn't know them:

"In this series, The Power of Nightmares, I am critical of the neoconservatives, I'm critical of the Islamists, I'm critical of the ways politicians from different parties have chosen to use the fear that emerged out of these actions. You couldn't tell what I actually think. My personal politics have nothing to do with this."

But I think his personal politics have everything to do with it. Curtis's films are an expression of a very particular political view. The Power of Nightmares alone has a distinctive list of ingredients: admiration for Trotskyists-turned-right-wingers, the rejection of historical materialism, nostalgia for an age of political idealism, concern at "the politics of fear", the presence of Bill Durodie, and even, in the final episode, a gratuitous swipe at environmentalism. (The people agitating for a preemptive strike on Iraq allegedly took their cue from the "precautionary principle" of the Green movement.) This list will already be ringing warning bells for anyone familiar with the history of "radical" politics in the UK. I don't like to say it, but the evidence seems to suggest that Curtis is under the influence of a radical right-wing ideologue so bizarre and manipulative that he truly belongs in his own Adam Curtis documentary.

FRANK FUREDI AND THE LM NETWORK


Dr. Evil


Frank Furedi is a professor of sociology at the University of Kent in southern England. For many years he was also the guru of his own tiny Trotskyist sect, which he called the "Revolutionary Communist Party" (RCP). He spent the 80s optimistically "Preparing for Power", but by the early 90s Trotsky was out of fashion on campus and the prospects for the RCP looked bleak. So Furedi decided to take the path of many a Trotskyist before him; like Burnham, Kristol, Hitchens and Larouche, he made an opportunistic jump from far left to far right, and took most of his sect with him.

His political trajectory can be determined by three vectors: his hatred of feminism, his hatred of identity politics and his hatred of environmentalism, the three radical movements which had eclipsed Trotskyism on campus at the time. While the better Marxists tried to incorporate these movements into their own, Furedi did exactly the opposite. He beat his chest about "masculine values", he championed the free speech of racists, and he crawled into bed with whatever toxic shit-spewing corporation would give him money. He threw "dogmatic" Marxist analysis overboard, and wanted to hear nothing of oppression or poverty or abuse or "victim culture". (Furedi really, really had it in for victims, it seems.) The only element of Marxism he retained was his fetish for "the forces of production", which in his mind were being held back by an unlikely alliance of green activists, the PC police, spineless policy wonks, the nanny state, and bet-hedging investors. In place of the "pessimistic" and "apocalyptic" values these people preached, Furedi wanted a world of "confident individualism" and "experiment, enterprise and risk-taking": the balls-out macho values that could unleash the forces of production and change history for the better.

Unsurprisingly, this new political orientation went down like a bomb on campus, and, with its membership haemorrhaging, Furedi quietly dissolved the formal RCP. But its hardcore members never went away or lost touch with each other. Over the next ten years, they reemerged to form a weird clandestine network of websites, industry-funded think tanks, PR front groups, lobbyist organisations and Daily Telegraph columns. Centred on the twin hubs of Spiked Online and The Institute of Ideas, this so-called LM Network looks rather like a cult: each node pretends to be independent, each member pretends not to know the other, but each follows an identically crazy party line almost to the letter.

The characteristic line of Furedi and his cultists is to put a "left" or "Marxist" spin on the kind of political causes that could only excite a Reddit shitlord: paedophile's rights, reducing the welfare state, cheerleading for Big Science (as long as it's not environmentalism), promoting economic growth at all costs. They pose as feminists when arguing the case against rape victims' rights; they pose as pro-tolerance when indulging in blatant transphobia. They are consistently against social welfare, environmental protection, civil rights legislation, and curbs on hate speech or child pornography. Their political agenda is hard to distinguish from that of far-right libertarians; the only obvious difference is that they're more likely to back up their arguments with Marx than von Mises.

As vile as the views of Furedi and front groups are, it would be wrong to overstate their impact. They're just one in a throng of right-wing lobbyists, PR agencies and think tanks all scrabbling for corporate cash. They have relatively little cultural or political influence, and their few forays into mass media have been disasters. In the British media, Furedi and his goons are widely regarded as a weird libertarian cult. Their endless series of talks and debates and "salons", far from reviving a culture of "public intellectuals", only make public their Borg-like intellectual vapidity. Furedi himself is a true charisma void, a shallow, long-winded, repetitive, boring jerk only a cult could love, and he has moulded his followers in his own image. Their purported "leftism" is unlikely to confuse anyone or lure them over to the dark side; to find anything alluring about a turd like Brendan O'Neill, you'd have to be a five-star asshole to begin with.

These days not even Furedi confuses himself for a leftist. He openly describes himself as a libertarian, with the caveats that he's a "humanist" rather than a free-marketeer, and a mystical humanist rather than a Dawkins-style reductionist. Above all, he seeks the return of "Englightenment values"[1]; in other words, his values are patriarchal, nostalgic, and oriented towards the late 18th century. Furedi laments the "absence of an overarching moral purpose in British society", a void created because "the British establishment has effectively disowned its historical legacy". He pines for the days when the establishment could "demonstrate its moral virtues and consolidate its authority". In Furedi's view, it seems moral purpose and progress can only be granted from above, by great thinkers and inspirational leaders and adventurers, who give us utopian visions and grand voyages and vast engineering projects, all animated by the spirit of derring-do that made Britain great and everything Britain touched suffer. Furedi's utopia seems to be a kind of fully-realised steampunk London, with all that entails.

ALL WATCHED OVER BY FRANK FUREDI

What has Adam Curtis got to do with these crackpots? Quite a bit, unfortunately. Furedi's influence is visible all over The Power of Nightmares, and not just because the film rubberstamps the opinions of Bill Durodie, a long-time RCP hack. In The Power of Nightmares, Durodie and Curtis are only repeating an argument that Frank Furedi has made again and again, in his 1997 book The Culture of Fear, (which he rereleased in 2002 in an attempt to cash in on the 9/11 attacks), in his books The Politics of Fear from 2005 and Invitation to Terror from 2007, and in countless shorter articles. The powers that be, neither left nor right, lacking a coherent political message to tell us, have instilled a "culture of fear" as a means of social control. They exaggerate a terrorist threat, which because of our pessimism and isolation, we are all too willing to believe. (Curtis leaves the argument there, but Furedi goes on to develop it into a rant against soft surfaces in school playgrounds).

The connections between Curtis and the "LM Network" don't begin or end with The Power of Nightmares. As I've documented on this page, Curtis has a long history of collaboration with people associated with Furedi's group, and his documentaries at least as far back as The Century of the Self have been pushing distinctly Furediite positions. While I doubt Curtis is an actual member of Furedi's cult, I've looked in vain for where his stated political views differ from the Furediite party line. Curtis, like Furedi, pines for the days when politicians' "power and authority came from the optimistic visions they offered to their people". He has little hope in the revolutionary potential of the masses; his main political grievance is "the failure of confidence among the liberal middle classes in the West to believe in the idea of progress.". He seeks to revive the "old, unruly tradition of true independence and libertarian freedom" which has become cramped by a culture of "dark, pessimistic apocalypticism". This can be done by embracing the "the grand romantic visions of other worlds" offered by 19th century utopians: the "Enlightenment idea" that "humans have the capacity to bend the world to our will", which "drove progressive politics from the mid-19th century". So far, so Furedi. And while Curtis shies away from the topics on which Furedi's cult has the most offensive views, the few glancing allusions to race and feminism and the environment he makes in interviews and on his blog are not very promising.

To read Curtis as a leftist, you have to assume he spends much of his time being ironic or provocative — like when he's singing the praises of Henry Kissinger or Enoch Powell, taking at face value that the neocons wanted to spread democracy, saying "today it is possible to argue that we have all become gay white negroes", or insisting that he's not a leftist. [2] But even read as irony or provocation, there's something off about his films from a leftist perspective, like the way they eschew economic relations, deny the agency of the mass of ordinary people in deciding their own fate, and display zero interest in the welfare of capitalism's victims. I'd argue that they only truly make sense when viewed as warmed-over bits of Frank Furedi packaged in archive clips and Brian Eno samples. Watch them with that in mind, and suddenly everything slots into place. (AWOBMOLG in particular is almost incomprehensible unless viewed as Furediite propaganda.)

Curtis is a more effective and dangerous propagandist for Furedi's views than anyone in Furedi's cult. The concern troll act of Furedi and his goons would send anyone to sleep, but Curtis, even at his most incoherent, is always stimulating and charismatic. He does a convincing job of selling himself as a voice in the wilderness, the lone voice speaking a message of hope for a more vibrant, engaged, interconnected society. Spiked Online only attracts stray Internet shit, but Curtis has reached an audience Spiked can only dream of.

A CONSTITUENCY OF DUDEBROS

What kind of person is in this audience? Curtis himself describes it best:

"Basically, whenever I do something I try and do it for someone who I imagine is a bit like me — quite clever, quite well educated, confident but not super-confident, and above all not posh."

It's striking that this privately-schooled, Oxbridge-educated guy who speaks perfect BBC English considers himself "not posh". But that's typical of Curtis's target audience: privileged guys who deny their privilege, guys who think they're awfully clever, educated guys with educated tastes, guys painfully aware of the gap between their ego and its realisation. An elite just outside the real elite, but close enough to look in and see what it's missing. A frustrated puritan sidekick of the real elite, which prides itself in taking the values of the elite more seriously than the elite ever did. A sub-elite impotently resentful of its superiors, but most of all concerned with guarding its own place in the hierarchy.

Historically, this has been a dangerous and volatile constituency, and it's no less so today. Sometimes its members find harmless outlets like Trotskyism or music journalism or stand-up comedy, where they can pretend their resentment has something to do with art or truth or liberation, and no one will really notice. But other times they become trolls or libertarians or worse. They direct their resentment at those below them in the hierarchy: women, minorities, the poor, the vulnerable. They lash out because they think they're not given due respect, or because they feel a threat to their own status, or simply because they can get away with it. Sometimes — and this is when they're most dangerous of all — they group together and lash out in a coordinated and systematic way. They become a force that can be channeled by the real elite to do their dirty work in times of crisis, when a genuine threat needs to be put down; or a force that can become a new elite itself, more terrible still than the one it supplants.

Curtis is speaking to a volatile constituency, and I think people should be concerned at his message. The way he presents this message is fundamentally dishonest — his target audience would pay him far less attention if they knew he was recycling the views of a libertarian cult. Shorn of their Furediite context, Curtis's political views are truly disorienting. He styles himself as anti-capitalist but denies being "left". He sticks it to Ayn Rand and Friedrich Hayek, but champions "confident individualism". He criticises imperialist wars, but speaks in praise of neocons. He flatters his audience's radical credentials, while sneaking in some the most reactionary opinions imaginable.

When Curtis admits he is "more fond of a libertarian view", I think he's selling himself short; he's more right-wing than he gives himself credit for. Curtis's political outlook is oriented towards the right; as he says himself, "the arguments within the right [...] are in fact much more interesting than the arguments between the rather desiccated and unconfident Left ruling elites". His films and blog entries are primarily concerned with ideological disputes among right-wingers. When "left" figures appear — Frankfurt-school Marxists, hippies, conservationists, left-liberals — they're invariably held up to ridicule. Curtis appears to have no time for anything about the postwar left; the only recognisably "left" figure he champions in his blog is the conveniently remote and irrelevant early-19th century utopian socialist crackpot, Charles Fourier, whom no one alive could take seriously. Otherwise, he reserves his admiration for right-wingers like the following:

Curtis's admiration for these figures is tempered by the necessary checks and qualifactions, and is always coated in the necessary veneer of sophistication, but why should anyone be satisfied with that? When you consistently denigrate the "left" and consistently reserve your praise for the far right, all the sophistication in the world shouldn't let you off the hook. But time and again, it seems it does. "Radical" sub-elites love a bit of high-fibre sophistication: it lets them consume greasy right-wing opinions with a clear conscience, and adds a soothing layer of bulk when they shit them out again.

When I consider his praise of extreme right-wingers, and consider the audience he is praising them to, I get much more skeptical of Curtis's utopian dreams. His dream of breaking out of our isolated individual shells and embracing some transcendent, empowering, interconnected experience, which I once found so inspiring, I now find rather sinister. In the following section I want to look in more detail at the utopia he describes in an interview from 2011.

ONE COLLECTIVE, ONE UTOPIA, NO VICTIMS

Curtis explains how the "sensibility of our age" necessitates a turn towards the collective:

"[...] we're beginning to realize two things: first, that [...] individualism is limited, and second, that when things get tough economically, socially, and politically, and you are on your own, you feel isolated, and you feel weak. And actually, there are other collective ways of experiencing things, and thus acting, which need to be recaptured. [...] But this other way of being, this sense of being part of something, of losing yourself in something grander than you — we're frightened of that, because the last time we did this collective thing, in the 1930s, it led to horror and disaster.

Who is this "we" Curtis speaks of, the "we" who did that collective thing (i.e. fascism) in the 1930s? It can't be "we" the people of the world, since the majority of people in the world had and wanted nothing to do with it, and millions of people in the world were hounded and terrorised and rounded up and tortured and murdered by it. This is an important question, because if "we" make another attempt at a collective thing, "we" will almost certainly exclude millions or even billions of people. Who will get excluded, and why, and what will happen to them? Curtis never seems interested in that question.

"I think the way forward is somehow to make it emotional, to rediscover the idea of transcending yourself and joining together with other people. [...] I think the mood of the moment has to do with a sense that if you're going to the woods on your own, it's scary, and you feel weak. But if you go with your friends, it's fun."

Again, I have to ask: when we walk into the woods of utopia, do we only go with our friends, or do we have to tolerate the presence of others, too? Will all the oppression in the world be magically overcome? Will we all walk in as equals, and if not, why should we go there at all? Curtis doesn't say, but he does acknowledge that there are grave dangers in bringing about his utopia:

"A lot of politics hasn't understood this. And the trouble with it is that it actually leaves a gap for the return of totalitarian politicians [...]. So there is this great gap for a politician to come in and start talking about how people are afraid and need to come together and protect themselves."

But rest assured, this totalitarian politician won't be another Hitler:

"[...] you can get a new populism emerging. You're not going to get fascism in the sense of the 1930s. [...] I can see a populist demagogue emerging from this, not so much like Hitler, but like in the 1930s they also had people like Huey Long and Father Coughlin, who used radio to gather masses of people together — and both blended left and right-wing ideas. I'm not saying that it's like fascism."

Curtis doesn't spell it out, but I think it should be mentioned here that Father Coughlin "gathered masses of people together" by pumping out anti-semitic hate speech and spreading Nazi propaganda on his radio show. He recruited thousands of thugs to his "Christian Front" organisation, which began a campaign of violent attacks on Jewish people in the US northeast in the late 30s and early 40s. If he had had Hitler's resources at his disposal, it's not at all evident that Coughlin would have been any better (and besides, Hitler also "blended left and right-wing ideas", so that's no defence).

Of course, I'm probably being redundant in pointing all that out, since I'm sure it's Curtis's point that Coughlin was a monster and that jumping headlong into this great transcendent collective experience with someone like him at the helm would be a really, really, unequivocally bad idea, — but maybe I should let Curtis speak for himself:

"What I'm saying is that the things we've forgotten will reemerge. And there will be a tension between that, but also, that idea is also highly romantic. I mean, I thought Lars von Trier was very unfairly criticized for saying he understood Hitler with his last film, Melancholia, because it's basically an exploration of German Romanticism. It's really, really interesting. And what he was saying — well, I think what he meant when he said he understood Hitler — was that he understood the roots of where fascism came from — that deep romanticism. The film is about depression. It's about the end of the world in your head, but coinciding with the actual end of the world, but also the relationship between individual experience and being part of something greater. In a way, he's ahead of the game — that's what novelists should be writing about."

Curtis isn't at his most coherent here — in fairness, it's probably just a transcript of an off-the-cuff interview — but I've got to say, this looks like fascist-enabling talk. (And I've also got to say, it's cowardly of Curtis to hide behind Lars von Trier's understanding of Hitler when he really wanted to express his own.) It's one thing to talk about how the Nazis exploited the Romantic desire to be part of something greater than the self; but it's quite another to cite that as a mitigating factor in the context of a hypothetical utopia led by a Father Coughlin clone. And it's in poor taste for Curtis to talk up the positives of Nazism when the only counterbalance he has offered is some vague allusion to "horror and disaster" and "political mayhem" much earlier in the conversation. And even then, his main issue with the "horror and disaster" of Nazism was not so much the horror and disaster itself, but that it made us afraid of "losing ourselves in something grander".

Curtis doesn't like to dwell on the "horror and disaster" of Nazism, and he doesn't like anyone else to, either — not even the people of Israel in the 1960s. The best Israelis at the time, according to Curtis on one of his blog entries, "didn't want to be seen as victims in an optimistic age" and didn't think about the Holocaust. But the trial of the Nazi mass-murderer Adolf Eichmann in 1961 had a "terrible corrosive effect [...] on Israeli optimism about their society" and "began to undermine the very underpinnings of the optimistic progressivism at the heart of Israeli society". In bringing the butcher of millions of their people to justice for his crimes, the people of Israel forced themselves to confront the great suffering of the Holocaust, and in so doing, Curtis implies, forfeited their hopes of utopia.

Here we come to a cardinal rule of Furedi and his fellow-travellers: one must never mention the suffering of victims. To do so would be to fall prey to "victim culture" (in the words of Furedi) or "Oh Dearism" (in the words of Curtis). Looking into the face of suffering just makes people feel weak and depressed and resigned and pessimistic; they withdraw into themselves and lose the will to change the world. Identifying with the fate of victims leads directly to the "failure of confidence among the liberal middle classes". A society that keeps the welfare of victims in mind is stagnant, conservative, afraid of change — or so the argument goes. This argument is just self-serving right-wing bullshit, of course. The same argument could be used to ignore or cover up all sorts of abuses by people in power — and who knows, in certain crazy sects, maybe it has even served that purpose already.

Some poor leftists still think "leftism" is about acting in solidarity with the victims of society, and not about realising the fantasies of privileged little boys. Some people think "progress" isn't worthy of the name unless it puts the needs of the powerless, the vulnerable, the marginalised, the persecuted — admittedly, the people who never feature in those little boys' utopias — before all others. Some people think any "progress" which tramples on the downtrodden or pours hate on the despised is no progress at all. Some people think the suffering of victims needs to be understood, and when they hear a privileged white guy say "hey, why don't we try something not-entirely-like fascism again — trust me, it'll be much better this time", they know they're talking to a piece of human garbage.

But there I go, getting all "pessimistic" and "apocalyptic" about the prospect of a utopia ushered in by the next Father Coughlin. That's "Oh Dearism" in a nutshell! Curtis, by contrast, ends his utopian dream on a much more optimistic note:

"Yet there's something else waiting to be rediscovered, some new thing that will fuse with that individualism — that will empower individuals and make them stronger collectively, yet not mean that they have to surrender their feelings of uniqueness as individuals. [...] it won't be fascism. But it's going to be something else, beyond the individual. It's going to borrow from religion. But it won't be religion again."

What if that "something else" was race hate? That would empower some individuals and make them stronger collectively, but presumably Curtis would be appalled at such a gathering. And what if that "something else" was hatred of feminists and environmentalists? Some of his fans could certainly gather behind that one, but I doubt Curtis would want to be seen in such uncouth company. I've a better idea: what about unifying people behind hatred of "victim culture"? A strong, empowered, transcendent collective that mobilises itself against the victimised, the pathetic, the distraught, the pessimistic, the depressed, the compassionate, the abused, the mentally ill, all those fucking malingerers holding back human progress — perhaps Curtis and Furedi could absorb themselves into that greater cause? Who would miss any of those moping losers? As Curtis says himself:

"I mean, cry me a river about those poor people with obsessive compulsive disorders! That is such a low horizon of what human beings can achieve." [3]

JUST BECAUSE IT SAYS IT'S ANTI-CAPITALIST, DOESN'T MEAN IT'S GOOD, KIDS

I don't seriously think Curtis wants to purge the world of its victims. But when I listen to his dreams of utopia and his desire to "harness a force that appeals to the great mass of people", and then bear in mind his links to a clandestine right-wing network funded by such scummy corporations as Pfizer and the notorious PR firm Hill and Knowlton, I hear disturbing echoes of a warning issued by Chris Hedges:

Any mass movement that arises — and I believe one is coming — will be fueled, like the Occupy movement, by radicals who have as deep a revulsion for Democrats as they do for Republicans. The radicals who triumph, however, may not be progressive. [...] A protofascist movement that coalesces around a mystical nationalism, that fuses the symbols of the country with those of Christianity, that denigrates reason and elevates mass emotions will have broad appeal. It will offer to followers a leap from the deep pit of despair and frustration to the heights of utopia. It will speak in the language of violence and demonize the vulnerable, from undocumented workers to homosexuals to people of color to liberals to the poor. And this force, financed by the most retrograde elements of corporate capitalism, could usher in a species of corporate fascism in a period of economic or environmental instability.

I wouldn't share Curtis's confidence that the mass movement he dreams of would not be fascism. If a fascist movement ever gains a realistic prospect of power, you can be sure as hell it will want to distance itself from its ancestors. It will present itself as something positive and collective and freedom-embracing, it will "harness a force that appeals to the mass of people", it will be united under an inspirational leader, and will have nothing but contempt for the weakest and poorest and most vulnerable — the victims — in society. Don't get me wrong, I don't think Curtis is a fascist; I just think he's a fucking idiot. I'm sure that both he and Furedi regard themselves as profoundly anti-fascist, and it's quite possible that in person they are two of the nicest and most charming guys you could ever meet. But whether they know it or not, they are both making tidy careers out of speaking fascist-enabling language to the people most receptive to it.

That alone completely overwhelms whatever positives can be gleaned from Curtis's documentaries. I still admire Curtis's insistence on taking a clear, critical look at ideas academics would prefer to keep swamped in jargon, and his attempts to present them in an accessible way and examine their political implications to the end. But now that I know more of his political connections, I couldn't recommend his films. I'd recommend anyone to stay the fuck away from them — all they ever did was peddle right-wing trash in a left-wing guise.

(Comments)

\ [1] I've had it up to here with "Enlightenment values". When people say "Enlightenment values", they really mean "dicks": hard, white, straight dicks. If you want a picture of "Enlightenment values", imagine a dick jizzing on a human face forever.\ \ [2] Indeed, Curtis is only able to get away with this shit because his fanboys fancy themselves way too clever to read things on their surface; they have to be part of the exclusive in-group that always gets the deeper meaning, and Curtis flatters them and leads them on.\ \ [3] I made some similarly offensive comments about Social Anxiety Disorder in my 2008 review of the IFComp game "Freedom." I now realise these comments were totally ignorant and unacceptable and befitting of a complete asshole. I apologise for any distress my review may have caused to its anonymous author or other people with the same or related conditions.\



last updated august 2016