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The BBC's 'The Century of the Self'

On June 18, 2002, Media Lens published a Media Alert Update: The BBC's 'The Century of the Self'.

In response, also on June 18, we received this reply from Adam Curtis, writer and producer of the BBC series The Century of the Self:

"I don't know whether it occurred to you that I might have been away - instead of stamping your little feet and trying to whip up an attack of the clones. I've just read your piece - thanks and I'll reply to it on thursday if that's ok? I've got to be filming before then.
Yrs
Adam Curtis" (Email to Editors, June 18, 2002)

Curtis' reply came two months after we published our initial Media Alert (sent to him via the BBC), and two weeks after he had initiated contact with us. The tone of his reply will be familiar to readers of Media Lens' earlier Media Alerts - journalists do not take kindly to even polite and honest challenges from the public.

Recall that Curtis' series, The Century of the Self, focused heavily on the work of PR guru, Edward Bernays. In 1923, Bernays wrote:

"It is certain that the power of public opinion is constantly increasing and will keep on increasing. It is equally certain that it is more and more being influenced, changed, stirred by impulses from below. The danger which this development contains for a progressive ennobling of human society and a progressive heightening of human culture is apparent. The duty of the higher strata of society - the cultivated, the learned, the expert, the intellectual - is therefore clear. They must inject moral and spiritual motives into public opinion." (Bernays, Crystallising Public Opinion. Quoted Stuart Ewen, PR! A Social History of Spin, Basic Books, 1996, p.35)

Bernays would surely have appreciated Curtis' response to the little people and their clones - "the impulses from below" - who have the gall to stamp their little feet before the "higher strata of society - the cultivated, the learned, the expert, the intellectual".

Following the response above, Adam Curtis sent a second response on June 19, 2002 below:

Dear David,

I'll answer the points you made in your letter to me. But first I just wanted to make a general point about your criticism.

I think what you are doing is re-defining the basic editorial aim of my series to fit with your own concerns - and then complaining that I have failed to fulfil that aim, when in fact it was never my aim in the first place.

The basic aim of The Century of the Self, as I stated again and again in the series, was to look at how Freud's ideas about human beings have been used socially and politically. It wasn't what you seem to want - a more general history of how business and political elites have repeatedly usurped the development of democracy - although, of course, it touched on that a lot (plus a lot of other things). This means that things you complain about in your critique like - "Freud's theories were incidental, useful in refining traditional methods of popular control perhaps, but a sideshow" may be right in the great scheme of things, but are just wrong in terms of what I was setting out to do. It was a series about Freud's ideas - and given that stated aim they were not a sideshow.

To be Freudian - you are projecting your own desires onto me and then getting grumpy when I don't do what you yourself want to do.

But to answer your points.

It is a matter of historical record that politicians and planners in immediate post-war America were shocked by the evidence of violent mass behaviour revealed by the holocaust - and by the evidence of irrationality and emotional desperation in the mass psychology studies done on their soldiers. Under pressure from powerful lobbyists in the psychological community this was generally interpreted in Freudian terms as being evidence of innate, dangerous drives.

Now, I would probably agree with you - the anti-Freudian view - that this irrationality was actually a distorted result of social and political pressures including inequality and poverty - that people were not inherently irrational. This was something I looked at in detail in the following film. But the Freudian view was a very powerful one at the time and it led to things like the 1946 Mental Health Act. Underlying the act was an elitist idea of managing democracy based on a pessimistic view of human nature.

I never said "big business was motivated to avoid a repetition of the barbarism of nazi Germany". I very clearly separated the early, naïve reaction of politicians and social planners to psychological evidence and the lobbying of ambitious psychologists, from the cynical and corrupt use of those ideas by big business and later cold-war politicians which then followed.

What I was trying to show was how those ideas were distorted, simplified and corrupted as the pressures of the cold war intensified from 1947 onwards. Until they became a cynical exercise in manipulating the American people. In the process those involved began to destroy the very idea of democracy - both in the US and abroad. Bernays being a good example.

I explicitly used the Guatemala story as an example of that form of corruption. In answer to your two points about Guatemala.

At an early stage in the cut of the programme I did try and go into the killings that followed in Guatemala. The problem I found was that to allow viewers to fully understand what happened it was necessary to explain in some detail the following history of reaction to the coup, further overthrows and violent repression. At that point it became an extended history of the relationship between the US government, business and Central America. That was not the editorial focus of my film. Again you are criticising me for not making the film that you want to see - and ignoring what I was trying to do.

My omission of the killings may have lessened the emotional impact of what I was saying, but its inclusion would not have altered what I was saying - that the American public were emotionally manipulated to believe that this was a battle of democracy against communism when, in reality, what was happening was that democracy was being overthrown.

Secondly - your quote of mine about Bernays' attitude to the American people, and critique of it, ignores everything else I said about Bernays in the film, and the series. Bernays believed that the interests of business and America were indivisible because privately he was convinced that business and consumerism were the key to a modern way of managing the stupid, irrational masses.

In public he promoted another idea - that the interests of business and America were indivisible because business responds truly to the peoples' desires in a way that politicians fail to do. This meant that capitalism gave you a higher, better form of democracy.

Same words, not-so-subtle difference which I banged on and on about in the series.

Your final point - about the last programme - I can't really respond to. You are describing a completely different programme which has nothing to do with what I was trying to do. I'm not criticising you at all - but the fact that you feel what I concentrated on was tangential to your theme is not my fault. You have just completely misinterpreted what I set out to do - and stated clearly throughout the series.

But finally - thanks for your criticism - it is rare and invigorating to get such detailed and concerned readings of films. And - as you say - it is very good that programme makers debate what they have done.
Yours,
Adam Curtis

RESPONSE FROM MEDIA LENS

Dear Adam Curtis,

Thanks for your response. You argue that the problem with our criticism is that we are "re-defining the basic editorial aim" of your series to fit our own concerns, which you interpret as a desire to see a presentation of the "general history of how business and political elites have repeatedly usurped the development of democracy".

Instead, you say your intention was "to look at how Freud's ideas about human beings have been used socially and politically". This you describe as "a series about Freud's ideas". But a series describing how Freud's ideas were used socially and politically necessarily involves an accurate depiction, not only of Freud's ideas, but also of the society and politics using them - it is your description of society and politics with which we are taking issue. This clearly does not require the redefining of your editorial aim; it merely requires challenging your performance in achieving your own aims. Your series stated clearly:

"Politicians and planners came to believe that Freud was right to suggest that hidden deep within all human beings were dangerous and irrational desires and fears. They were convinced that it was the unleashing of these instincts that had lead to the barbarism of Nazi Germany. To stop it ever happening again, they set out to find ways to control the hidden enemy within the human mind." (The Century of the Self - The Engineering of Consent, BBC2, March 24, 2002)

This was your framing statement, used in several parts of the series to both summarise what had come before and to introduce what was to come. It was a broad statement which, spoken over dramatic footage of Nazi goose-stepping, mass rallies and mass violence, clearly presented post-war elite strategy as being motivated by the benign desire to prevent mass irrationality from leading to a repeat of this kind of barbarism.

It is this benevolent framing of the motivations and actions of post-war "politicians and planners" that we are challenging. These repeated statements do +not+ "clearly" separate "the early, naïve reaction of politicians and social planners to psychological evidence" from "the cynical and corrupt use of those ideas by big business and later cold-war politicians which then followed."

You write:

"It is a matter of historical record that politicians and planners in immediate post-war America were shocked by the evidence of violent mass behaviour revealed by the holocaust - and by the evidence of irrationality and emotional desperation in the mass psychology studies done on their soldiers. Under pressure from powerful lobbyists in the psychological community this was generally interpreted in Freudian terms as being evidence of innate, dangerous drives."

It goes without saying that politicians and planners were shocked by the mass violence of the Holocaust - who wasn't shocked? But acknowledging this obvious fact is very different from using it as a framing explanation for the objectives and motivations of politicians and planners post-1945. It would be far more accurate to present other evidence that suggests that many politicians and planners, while shocked by the Holocaust, were busy planning their own version in the Third World. We gave some indications of the real priorities on the domestic front in an earlier Media Alert, so let's take a look at post-war foreign policy objectives.

One of the most influential post-war politicians and planners was George Kennan, head of the State Department Policy Planning Staff. In 1948, Kennan wrote a key state paper (PPS 23) in which he secretly outlined post-war US goals. Chief among them, Kennan explained, was to maintain "the position of disparity" in wealth between the US and other nations.

"...We have 50% of the world's wealth, but only 6.3% of its population... In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction... We should cease to talk about vague and - for the Far East - unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards, and democratisation." (Quoted, John Pilger, Hidden Agendas, Vintage, 1998, p.59)

How does this fit in with your framing statement of post-war US goals? There is nothing here about Freud. There is nothing about the Holocaust, or the need to control the public mind to avert barbarism. This is simply about the pursuit of power and profits.

We accept that you were focusing on the impact of Freud's theories, but the problem is that you presented this impact as +central+ in post-war planning. Was it central to PPS 23? If it was not central to such a key document, then why did you not acknowledge this by recasting your framing statements to take account of the fact?

Freudian theories and the horror of the Holocaust did influence politicians and planners, but in a marginal way - the defining drive remained, as ever, the quest for power and profits. Certainly the shock of the Holocaust did not last long - by 1965, the US was eagerly supporting the slaughter of a million people in Indonesia, and of 3 million people in Vietnam (motivated by the quest for tin, rubber and oil, as the Pentagon Papers revealed). If you were concerned to focus on the impact of Freud on politics and society, then you should have placed that impact in a more realistic perspective, saying something like:

After 1945, politicians and planners continued the long-term pursuit of power and profits regardless of the cost in human suffering. In this ongoing war between people and profits, control of the public mind had always been recognised as central to ensuring the stability of elite control. To this end, Freud's theories were employed to fine tune the subversion of democracy. Horror at the barbarism of the Second World War, and of the Holocaust in particular, were used consciously, but also unconsciously, as powerful rationalisations to justify what was ostensibly being done 'for America', but which was actually being done for business elites. The irony, of course, was that this subversion of democracy - at home and abroad - was itself a lethal form of barbarism, as the people of the Third World quicklylearned.

This at least makes it clear that Freud's theories were +not+ central in shaping the understanding and goals of post-war politicians and planners.

Focusing on the reality of power and profits as central to post-1945 planning also allows us to put the importance of Freud in perspective in other ways. The post-1945 US stance outlined above was no mere cold war phenomenon. The ideas of planners - regardless of whether they were influenced by Freud - were +not+ "distorted, simplified and corrupted as the pressures of the cold war intensified from 1947 onwards", as you seem to believe. We know this because these cold war pressures were largely concocted. Subsequently released state documents make it clear that the "Communist threat" was never taken seriously by politicians and planners but was hyped by them for the same reason that enthusiasts of the lucrative National Missile Defence system are hyping the threat of North Korean and Iranian missiles now. Former Under-Secretary of State and future Deputy Secretary of Defence Robert Lovett pointed out (March 1950), referring to the 'threat' posed by "international communism":

"If we can sell every useless article known to man in large quantities, we should be able to sell our very fine story in larger quantities." (Mark Curtis, The Ambiguities of Power - British Foreign Policy Since 1945, Zed Books, 1995, p.44)

Instead we find that policy goals have remained remarkably consistent before, during and since the Cold War. US Secretary of State Robert Lansing commented to President Wilson that the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 was based on "selfishness alone":

"The United States considers its own interests. The integrity of other American nations is an incident, not an end." (Quoted, Noam Chomsky, World Orders, Old And New, Pluto Press, 1994, p.122)

Woodrow Wilson had himself explained exactly what was meant by the United States' "interests":

"Since trade ignores national boundaries and the manufacturer insists on having the world as a market, the flag of his nation must follow him, and the doors of the nations which are closed against him must be battered down... Colonies must be obtained or planted, in order that no useful corner of the world may be overlooked or left unused." (Quoted, Chomsky, On Power And Ideology - The Managua Lectures, South End Press, 1987, P.14).

Again, this was a defining statement of the motivation of US planners. It is all but identical to post-1945, and contemporary, policy statements, and of course came long before Freud, and had nothing to do with him or his theories. And of course there were no "pressures of the cold war" to blame for these callous views.

You might ask what all this has to do with Freud's impact on society. To repeat, the answer is simply that we cannot hope to understand the significance of the impact of Freud's theories unless we understand the society under discussion, which means recognising these long-standing truths, policies, plans and motivations.

Bernays' attempt to manipulate the public mind may have drawn on Freud's theories but it was merely the latest refinement of elite control practised over hundreds of years. In 1834, twenty years before Freud was born, our own Lord Chancellor put it succinctly:

"The only question to answer, and the only problem to solve, is how they [the people] shall read in the best manner; how they shall be instructed politically, and have political habits formed the most safe for the constitution of the country." (Quoted, James Curran and Jean Seaton - Power Without Responsibility: The Press and Broadcasting in Britain, Routledge, 1991, p.7)

No sign of Freud here, and no possibility of presenting the desire for 'safety' as a well-intentioned response to the horrors of the Holocaust, or of the Cold War.

Why does none of this make it into your framing explanation?

You write "I never said 'big business was motivated to avoid a repetition of the barbarism of nazi Germany'".

But you did write that politicians and planners believed Freud's explanation of the causes of barbarism and were motivated "To stop it ever happening again".

Do you believe that politicians and planners in the US are separate from big business? A World Policy Institute review of important George W. Bush appointees published last month, found that 32 major policy makers had significant financial ties to the arms industry prior to joining the administration, as compared with 21 appointees with ties to the energy industry. In the Guardian Julian Borger wrote:

"In the Bush administration, business is the only voice... This is as close as it is possible to get in a democracy to a government of business, by business and for business." Robert Reich, Clinton's former labour secretary adds, 'There's no longer any countervailing power in Washington. Business is in complete control of the machinery of government.'" (Borger, 'All the president's businessmen', The Guardian, April 27, 2001)

It was ever thus!

Your explanation for your failure to mention the 150,000 dead following the US intervention in Guatemala in 1954 is remarkable. You had no compunction in declaring that Arbenz had no links to Moscow, although this was a controversial issue at the time and is still disputed by US politicians. Why then did you not similarly quote uncontroversial accounts of the slaughter in Guatemala by credible, independent organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch? It would have been a simple matter to quote Amnesty describing "a government programme of political murder" with signs "of torture or mutilation along roadsides or in ravines, floating in plastic bags in lakes or rivers, or buried in mass graves in the countryside", many of them being from the peasantry and urban poor. (Amnesty International Briefing on Guatemala, London, 1976)

Mentioning these facts does not at all require the presentation of "an extended history of the relationship between the US government, business and Central America". What it does require is the revelation of truths that would make you extremely unpopular with elite mainstream media and allied political interests.

We are concerned that, yet again, a mainstream documentary has failed to communicate the true horror of Western actions in the Third World, here by even failing to mention the numbers of people who were killed as a result of US intervention. Your performance has to been seen in the wider context of media performance. Historian Mark Curtis summarises the basic rule:

"The main argument in this study is that the systematic link between the basic priorities and goals of British foreign policy on the one hand and the horrors of large-scale human rights violations on the other is unmentionable in the propaganda system, even though that link is clearly recognisable in an analysis of the historical and contemporary record." (Mark Curtis Op., cit, p.117)

Finally, you write, "To be Freudian - you are projecting your own desires onto me and then getting grumpy when I don't do what you yourself want to do."

Is it we who are angry? Or are you projecting your own anger at the people you see as stamping their little feet, and at the mindless "clones" attacking you?

What we seek is a society willing to tell the truth about the goals and motivations of politicians and planners who have killed and tortured their way through the last century and this to a position of vast power and wealth. Our motivation is not anger, but a belief that unless these truths are made public, the public will not be in a position to prevent vast numbers of other people being killed and tortured by our government for crudely selfish reasons. Our motivation is rooted in compassion for these people, not in anger at you, or anyone else.

Yours sincerely

David Edwards and David Cromwell The Editors - Media Lens

SUGGESTED ACTION

Write to Adam Curtis, the writer of The Century of the Self:

Email: Adam.Curtis@RDFMedia.com

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