When I started this blog in the Spring of 2009, I had it in mind to write about a weighty subject that had bothered me for some time – our ability to trust those in authority.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m no flag-waving anarchist – in fact, probably quite the reverse. I come from a comfortable background: my childhood was happy and stable, my parents have lived in the same house since 1974, I went to a small boarding school on a scholarship from 11-18. All very conformist and middle-class.
However, in 1982 I first became really aware of the need to question what we are told, when Diane Gould (the wife of my primary school head-teacher) challenged Margaret Thatcher, then almost unassailable as the ‘Iron Lady’ Prime Minister of the UK, who had taken on the Trade Unions at home and was now taking on the Argentinian Military Junta following their invasion of The Falkland Islands. This was my first exposure to real scrutiny of our political leaders, and it has stayed with me.
I studied Economics and Politics at university because I had wanted to learn about how the world worked. In fact, I learned more about why it didn’t work according to the fine theories propounded by generations of noble scholars. After 9/11 I was alarmed at the speed and the ways in which civil liberties were eroded in the name of patriotism and national security, and dissent of almost any kind became unacceptable. Just 9 days after those appalling crimes against civilians in Washington and New York, President Bush declared
All of which is a long preamble to my next few posts, where I hope to cover (at least in brief…)
- The Politics of Fear
- The role of the media
- Social Media
- A review of one of my favourite films of all-time, Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others)
A few years ago I first saw Adam Curtis’ provocative documentary series ‘The Power of Nightmares‘, which reawakened a number of questions for me. Curtis’ broader thesis is that Governments, armies (indeed political institutions of many different kinds) need an enemy, need threats (real, potential or perceived) to their people, need uncertainty to build their own position. This has led to negative public debate and reactionary, short-term policy-making. Antagonistic political debates reinforce prejudices rather than explore the depth or complexity of an issue.
The Power of Nightmares is available to watch on Youtube. I don’t believe it has ever been shown on American network television, which to my mind says quite a bit about the state of fear among TV executives there.
One of the most remarkable sections from Part 1 for me starts at around 25 minutes. During the 1970s Donald Rumsfeld was US Defence Secretary, and gave a series of speeches about The Soviet Union’s imminent new weapons systems. Apparently the fact that he couldn’t provide any evidence for their existence was merely proof that their systems were too advanced for American technology to detect. Scroll forward to 2002, replace the words ‘Soviet Union’ and ‘weapons systems’ with ‘Iraq’ and ‘WMDs’, and it’s the same press conference. He depicted an enemy so cunning we couldn’t even see how cunning they were. This threat was real and immediate. It demanded action.
In October 2010, just days before the UK Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review, the media was alive with stories from every department about what services would be cut and how many jobs would be scrapped. Suddenly (at least it seemed sudden to me) defence spokesmen came out of the woodwork citing the threats from cyberterrorism as a reason not to cut back on defence spending (although The Daily Mail used the same story to criticise defence cuts to ‘real’ soldiers and equipment). Experts were wheeled out into the media talking about hypothetical threats, the terrible impact of what MIGHT happen IF something bad kicked off. This was a threat we couldn’t even begin to contemplate, because its only constraints were our imagination.
Days later, two real bombs were actually found on board real cargo planes from Yemen to the US. A real terrorist plot had been averted. Quietly, without fuss or concern, the cyberterrorism threat seemed to disappear from newspapers and TV news virtually overnight. Now there were real bombs to worry about. This was a real threat posing an immediate danger.
These threats seem to be either personified, literally brought to life by an individual (Fidel Castro, Muammar al-Gadaffi, Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong-il, Osama Bin-Laden), who is real and tangible, or by a more amorphous, intangible conceptual threat (Communism, The Taliban, Radical Political Islam, al-Qaeda). These are less immediate but more profound, as they often represent a threat to our way of life, to everything we hold dear. The crucial thing for Governments is that the threats are seen to exist, to provide a focus, an enemy. If for some reason the threats recede, it seems important that the danger is reignited.
The media has taken up on these conceptual threats and started producing dramas, of which perhaps the biggest was the awful Die Hard 4, whose original title mirrored Bush’s challenge to Live Free or Die Hard. On television there were 8 series / 192 hours of 24, in which Jack Bauer and the fictional Counter Terrorism Unit battle to overcome conspiracies and terrorist threats of all kinds, using whatever means necessary. In the UK the only-slightly-less-fantastic Spooks portrayed the work of MI5 against any number of foes has run for 80 episodes over 8 years. The fact that these series have seemingly limitless plotlines is testament to the ease with which threats can be made credible and the willingness with which we viewers are prepared to accept them – even for TV entertainment.
More recently, TV has turned itself to the ‘what if?’ fictional drama, featuring natural disasters, viruses (real and virtual), and other doom-laden scenarios about the breakdown of civil society and life as we know it. Charlie Brooker is one of my favourite commentators of recent years, and made this terrific spoof for his series How TV Ruined Your Life.
Next, how 24-hour news channels, ‘Flat-Earth‘ reporting and media ‘churnalism’ contributes to a climate of fear and uncertainty, especially when stories go uncorrected and unscrutinised…