“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the public alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” (H.L. Mencken, 1923)

Introduction – Pyrrhic Applause

“Every so often a programme comes along that makes watching television not only a duty but a pleasure.” So wrote Guardian TV critic Rupert Smith of the BBC2 series The Power of Nightmares by Adam Curtis. Smith’s conclusion: “Documentary of the year, without a shadow of a doubt.” (October 21, 2004) Writing in the same paper, Madeleine Bunting described the series as “hugely important”. (October 25)

In the Times, David Chater observed: “If Curtis is even half right, The Power of Nightmares is not just the programme of the week, it is the documentary series of the year.” (The Times, October 30) Chater’s conclusion: “Unmissable”. (The Times, October 23)

“Unmissable”, agreed Kathryn Flett in The Observer (October 31, 2004) “Simply unmissable”, was Thomas Sutcliffe’s verdict in The Independent (October 21). For the Financial Times it was “a brilliant television essay”. (Robert Shrimsley, October 22) The Evening Standard considered it “seriously brilliant”. (Jim Shelley, October 26)

The adulation was all but unrelenting. We wonder if Adam Curtis felt just a little uneasy. Noam Chomsky once remarked:

“If you are not offending people who ought to be offended, you’re doing something wrong.”

Curtis, who wrote and directed the series, summed up his thesis at the start of each programme:

“In the past, politicians promised to create a better world. They had different ways of achieving this. But their power and authority came from the optimistic visions they offered to their people. Those dreams failed. And today, people have lost faith in ideologies. Increasingly, politicians are seen simply as managers of public life. But now, they have discovered a new role that restores their power and authority. Instead of delivering dreams, politicians now promise to protect us from nightmares. They say that they will rescue us from dreadful dangers that we cannot see and do not understand. And the greatest danger of all is international terrorism… But much of this threat is a fantasy, which has been exaggerated and distorted by politicians.” (Curtis, ‘The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear’, BBC2, 3-part series broadcast on October 20, 27 & November 3, 2004)

This was a superficially interesting analysis of our current predicament. But Curtis was careful not to identify exactly when politicians’ power ceased to come “from the optimistic visions they offered to their people”. In fact, however fraudulently, politicians do still offer optimistic visions: improved public services, enhanced employment opportunities, greater equality of opportunity and justice, and so on. And our society is still deeply in love with the idea and promise of ‘progress’, as exemplified by the IT and telecoms revolutions. Many people’s sense of the ‘manifest destiny’ of the human race is such that they believe high-tech wizardry will somehow avert even the threat posed by climate change and other horrors.

The idea that past dreams “have failed” so that people “have lost faith in ideologies” is Blairite nonsense. In reality, corporate globalisation has sought to crush meaningful politics – dismissed as “ideological politics” – regardless of the wishes of the public. Opinion polls and global mass protest movements show that vast numbers of people are frustrated that politicians are little more than “managers of public life”, in fact servants of corporate power. The greatest, much-reviled, political coup of recent times involved Tony Blair’s demolition of British party politics, by which the Labour Party was transformed into a Tory Party with a smiley face also serving big business.

Modern mainstream political discourse in Britain has been largely reduced to a meditation on the ancient Zen koan: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” The sound was silence last year, for example, after 2 million anti-war protestors marched in London only to be ignored by the two leading parties, which were seamlessly united in supporting a breathtakingly cynical war.

The Story Begins When?!

With regard to the series’ main theme, Curtis declared: “The story begins in the summer of 1949” when Sayyed Qutb, an Egyptian living in Colorado, came to a grim judgement on the United States:

“American society was not going forwards; it was taking people backwards. They were becoming isolated beings, driven by primitive animal forces. Such creatures, Qutb believed, could corrode the very bonds that held society together. And he became determined that night to prevent this culture of selfish individualism taking over his own country.”

At the same time, in Chicago, Curtis informed us, “there was another man who shared the same fears about the destructive force of individualism in America.” This was philosopher Leo Strauss, who believed that the liberal idea of individual freedom “threatened to tear apart the shared values which held society together.”

Just as Qutb came to inspire al Qaeda, so Strauss came to inspire America’s neoconservatives, Curtis argued:

“The neoconservatives were idealists. Their aim was to try and stop the social disintegration they believed liberal freedoms had unleashed. They wanted to find a way of uniting the people by giving them a shared purpose.”

In response, they would target the Soviet Union in a mythical battle of Good against Evil: “And by doing this, they believed that they would not only give new meaning and purpose to people’s lives, but they would spread the good of democracy around the world.”

You have to admire Curtis’s filmmaking nous. This version of international politics was +guaranteed+ to appeal to critics’ liberal and artistic sensibilities. The idea that al Qaeda and the neocons closely mirror each other – with similar ideals, similar goals, and a similar need to demonise each other as terrible threats – is wonderfully ironic. It was certain to generate a delighted ‘You couldn’t make it up!’ response from journalists. Alas, in fact, Curtis largely +did+ make it up.

The series also contained the ‘subversive’ suggestion that politicians exploit non-existent threats to manipulate the public. This is obvious to anyone who has heard of “dodgy dossiers”, who noted pre-war attempts to link al Qaeda to Saddam Hussein, who witnessed the rash of pre-war terror alerts in Britain last year, and who knows anything about earlier Red Scares. But it is deemed a dangerously radical idea by liberal journalists who delight in believing that they are, if anything, +too+ willing to embrace radical ideas. By contrast, +genuinely+ dangerous ideas – ideas that threaten to have journalists labelled ‘crusading’ and ‘committed’ – are dismissed without a thought and never discussed.

Curtis’s message was mixed with suitably ‘balancing’ naivety – the neoconservatives “were idealists” who “would spread the good of democracy around the world”, they were intent on using American power “aggressively as a force for good”. The neocons, then, are bad apples, but well-meaning bad apples. And a focus on bad apples – Nixon, Clinton, Murdoch, Maxwell – is fine from the point of view of a propaganda system which, above all, fears exposure of institutional violence and corruption: the fact that party politics is a corporate sham, that the corporate media is a sham, that the Western promotion of human rights and democracy abroad is designed to camouflage the violent control and exploitation of defenceless people.

Above all, the series was isolated from meaningful political and economic context – key words like ‘business’ and ‘corporation’ were barely mentioned. This left the public in the dark about the real interests and goals shaping modern politics, economics and international affairs.

As a result, the series sailed through the filters of the liberal propaganda system to be greeted with rapturous applause. The BBC is thus able to claim to have lived up to perennial liberal hopes that it is a genuinely independent and subversive medium both able and willing to challenge established power.

But let’s take a look at just how much Curtis left out of his analysis.

‘Bludgeoning’ The Public With The ‘Communist Menace’

As discussed, Curtis located key goals of modern US foreign policy in the beliefs of a group of myth-making “idealists” who were said to be motivated by a perceived need to counter the destructive impacts of “selfish individualism”. Taking this seriously is no mean task. It requires that we ignore much political and economic reality, much recent history, and that we blindly accept state-corporate propaganda at face value.

In the real world, by the end of 1945, with the other Great Powers devastated by war, the United States had become the world’s premier economic and military power. It was a state of affairs US leaders were naturally keen to entrench. George Kennan, head of the State Department Policy Planning Staff, wrote in 1948:

“We have 50% of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3% of its population… 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.” (Kennan, PPS 23,

Maintaining this preferential “pattern of relationships” would require the ruthless and costly flexing of financial and military muscle. And, as ever, some justification other than the need to fatten corporate bank accounts would have to be provided for public consumption. US Secretary of State Dean Acheson warned that it would be necessary “to bludgeon the mass mind of ‘top government’ with the Communist threat in order to gain approval for the planned programs of rearmament and intervention.” (Chomsky, Deterring Democracy, Vintage, 1992, p.90)

In fact, of course, such bludgeoning would have to be directed at the entire population, if it was to be convinced of the righteousness of massive military budgets funding violent intervention. The Australian social scientist Alex Carey explained how this could best be done:

“A society or culture which is disposed to view the world in Manichean terms [i.e. good versus evil] will be more vulnerable to control by propaganda. Conversely, a society where propaganda is extensively employed as a means of social control will tend to retain a Manichean world-view, a world-view dominated by symbols and visions of the Sacred and the Satanic.” (Alex Carey, Taking The Risk Out Of Democracy, UNSW Press, 1995, p.15)

The postwar assault on public opinion that followed was itself a version of earlier, business-driven propaganda campaigns. These focused on “identification of the traditional American free-enterprise system with social harmony, freedom, democracy, the family, the church, and patriotism; and identification of all government regulation of the affairs of business, and all liberals who supported such ‘interference’, with communism and subversion.” (Carey, ibid, p.27)

Notice that this did indeed involve an attack on “selfish individualism” as a threat to the moral fabric of American society, as Curtis claims. But this was a concocted rhetorical cover for the real goal – business control of domestic society and foreign resources for the maximisation of power and profit – and was not, in itself, a genuine or motivating concern. To believe otherwise is simply to be deceived.

Noam Chomsky comments:

“Woodrow Wilson’s Red Scare was the earliest and most extreme resort to state power in twentieth-century America to suppress labour, political dissidence, and independent thought.” (Chomsky, Necessary Illusions, Pluto Press, 1991, p.185)

“Selfish individualism” was not the problem. Carey fills in some of the detail:

“During 1918 business’s most effective weapon for the ensuing confrontation with the unions was public apprehension about the threat to American society and institutions from ‘un-American’ sentiment and ‘un-American’ radicalism among the foreign-born… In January 1920 the Great Steel Strike collapsed, with disastrous consequences for the entire labour movement. It had predictably been represented by government and business interests as a Bolshevist revolutionary challenge to American society by un-American foreign-born workers. […] Thereafter the business leaders of the Americanisation movement could permit a level of public indifference, for they had gained control over the presidency as well as public opinion and had begun the long process of closing the American mind to critical thought.” (Carey, op.cit., pp.62-63)

This closing of the American mind continued through the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. In a December 1948 speech, for example, J. Warren Kinsmann, chairman of the National Association of Manufacturers’ Public Relations Advisory Committee and vice president of Du Pont, reminded businessmen that “in the everlasting battle for the minds of men” the tools of public relations were the only weapons “powerful enough to arouse public opinion sufficiently to check the steady, insidious and current drift toward Socialism.” (Quoted, Elizabeth Fones-Wolf, Selling Free Enterprise, University of Illinois Press, 1992, p.52)

But the demonising of foreign enemies did not begin with anti-communism. In 1816, echoing Curtis on al Qaeda, Thomas Jefferson wrote that Great Britain “hated and despised us beyond every earthly object.” Britain was not just the enemy of the United States, but was “truly hostis humani generis,” an enemy of the entire human race, in classic al Qaeda style. John Adams wrote that Britons were, “Taught from the cradles to scorn, insult and abuse” Americans, such that “Britain will never be our friend till we are her master.” (Quoted, Noam Chomsky, Year 501, Verso, 1993, p.25)

Similar propaganda has been used to demonise the menacing Spaniard, the Hun, the native Indian, international drug traffickers, single mothers – whoever happens to be the latest target for vilification. It is a very old and obvious theme of state propaganda, not a relatively recent neocon development, as Curtis claims.

Part 2 will follow shortly…


The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

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Ask him why failed to address the promotion of fear and nightmares by +all+ US and UK governments in the past century. Why did he not locate the roots of neocon policies in business control of domestic and foreign societies for profit?


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