Thursday, May 12, 2005

Inhabiting the Nightmare 

Adam Curtis's three-hour BBC-TV documentary The Power of Nightmares, which we have touted in the past, is still available for online viewing at the Information Clearing House. A shortened theatrical version premieres at Cannes on Saturday, and may eventually make its way to American theatres, although prospects of a U.S. TV deal remain fanciful:
[Curtis's] documentary took as its starting point the year 1949, when two men who would prove massively influential to the establishment of Islamic terror groups and to the neo-Conservative American tendency that now dominates Washington were both in the US. One was an Egyptian school inspector called Sayyid Qutb whose ideas would directly inspire those who flew the planes on the attacks of September 11. Qutb's summer visit to Colorado revolted him so much - he could see nothing there but decadent materialism - that he went home thinking that modern liberal freedoms were eroding society's bonds and that only a radical Islam could prevent its destruction. Meanwhile, in Chicago, an obscure political philosopher called Leo Strauss was developing a similar critique of western liberalism (though without the Islamic answer to individualism's purported ills). He called on conservative politicians to invent national myths to hold society together and stop America in particular from collapsing into degraded individualism. It was from such Straussian reflections that the idea that the US's national destiny was to tilt against seeming foreign evils - be they the Soviet bloc or, later, fundamentalist Islam - was born.

But the film is even more incendiary for its analysis of what Curtis controversially insists is the largely illusory fear of terrorism in the west since 9/11. Curtis argues that politicians such as Bush and Blair have stumbled on a new force that can restore their power and authority - the fear of a hidden and organised web of evil from which they can protect their people. In a still-traumatised US, those with the darkest nightmares have become the most powerful and Curtis's film castigates the media, security forces and the Bush administration for extending their power in this way. "It has really touched a nerve with people who realise something is not quite right with the way terrorism has been reported."

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