Manufacturing The Myth Of ‘America’

American elites have long sought to manufacture and promote a shared myth of ‘America’ based on “symbols by which Americans defined their dream and pictured social reality.” (Alex Carey, Taking The Risk Out Of Democracy, UNSW Press, 1995, p.75)

Adam Curtis alluded to this myth-making in his BBC series The Power of Nightmares, but he portrayed it as a process initiated and pursued by neoconservatives from the 1940s onwards, inspired by the teachings of Leo Strauss.

There was no hint that these myths were small elements of a vast programme of social engineering carried out by US governments, both Democrat and Republican, and by powerful business associations, from the first days of the 20th century and earlier.

Indeed Curtis had nothing to say about the key issue of business control of American society – the words ‘corporate’, ‘corporation’ and ‘business’ were not mentioned in the series. The neocons were depicted as fanatical ideologues, with literally zero mention of their roots in the business community. In April 2001, the Guardian’s Julian Borger reported:

“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.” (Borger, ‘All the president’s businessmen’, The Guardian, April 27, 2001)

Robert Reich, Clinton’s former labour secretary added: “There’s no longer any countervailing power in Washington. Business is in complete control of the machinery of government.” (Ibid)

The reality that the neocon project is profit-driven rather than ideology-driven makes a nonsense of the idea that it aims to “spread the good of democracy around the world”. As the US historian Sidney Lens noted recently:

“Even a cursory look suggests that American policy has been motivated not by lofty regard for the needs of other peoples but by America’s own desire for land, commerce, markets, spheres of influence, investments, as well as strategic impregnability to protect such prerogatives. The primary focus has not been moral, but imperial.” (Lens, ‘The Forging of the American Empire’, Pluto Press, London, 2003, p.14)

Curtis, by contrast, uncritically accepted neocon rhetoric. On the election of Reagan as president in 1980, Curtis said:

“The neoconservatives believed that they now had the chance to implement their vision of America’s revolutionary destiny, to use the country’s power aggressively as a force for good in an epic battle to defeat the Soviet Union. It was a vision that they shared with millions of their new religious allies.” (‘The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear. Part 1: “Baby, it’s cold outside”‘, BBC2, October 20, 2004)

Curtis reiterated the point: “A small group in the Reagan White House saw… a way of achieving their vision of transforming the world.” They would “bring down the Soviet Union and help spread democracy around the world. It was called the Reagan Doctrine.” (Part 2, ‘The Phantom Victory’, October 27, 2004)

This is deeply misleading. In her seminal account of the business brainwashing of America from 1945-1960, Selling Free Enterprise, Elizabeth Fones-Wolf wrote:

“All this effort helped create a major political shift that would culminate in the election of Ronald Reagan, the subsequent tax cuts benefiting the wealthy, the elimination of regulation, and the severe cutbacks in social services.” (Selling Free Enterprise – The Business Assault on Labour and Liberalism, 1945-60, University of Illinois Press, 1994, p.289)

Directly contradicting Curtis’ thesis, Fones-Wolf noted that “the business community laid the ideological and institutional foundations for the nation’s movement +toward+ a more individualistic ethos.” (Ibid, p.289, our emphasis)

But there was nothing new in the neocon propaganda campaign:

“Indeed, perhaps Ronald Reagan best symbolises the continuity. Beginning in 1954, the future president of the United States spent eight years in the employment of General Electric, hosting a television programme and speaking to employee and local civic group audiences as part of the company’s public relations and economic education programme. During that time, Reagan fine-tuned a message that he would repeat in the late seventies, warning of the threat that labour and the state pose to our ‘free economy’.”(Ibid)

Demolishing Democracy

Similarly, the Reaganite neocons (many still in power, now, as part of the Bush cabal) engaged in the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people in Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador and elsewhere. The concern was not to spread but to restrict democracy to protect US control of human and natural resources. Robert Pastor, director of Latin American and Caribbean Affairs on the National Security Council through the Carter years, explained:

“The United States… wanted Nicaraguans to act independently, except when doing so would affect US interests adversely.” (Quoted, Noam Chomsky, ‘Deterring Democracy’, Hill And Wang, 1992, p.261)

The cover story for US intervention throughout the postwar period, until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, was indeed the ‘Soviet threat’. But as Harvard academic Samuel Huntington advised government planners in 1981:

“You may have to sell [US intervention] in such a way as to create the misimpression that it is the Soviet Union that you are fighting. That is what the United States has done ever since the Truman Doctrine [of 1947]”. (Ibid, p.90)

The real enemy was independent nationalism, the risk that Third World resources might fall out of US control. To select at random, a US State Department official warned prior to the 1954 US coup in Guatemala:

“Guatemala has become an increasing threat to the stability of Honduras and El Salvador. Its agrarian reform is a powerful propaganda weapon; its broad social program of aiding the workers and peasants in a victorious struggle against the upper classes and large foreign enterprises has a strong appeal to the populations of Central American neighbors where similar conditions prevail.” (Quoted, Piero Gleijeses, Shattered Hope: The Guatemalan Revolution and the United States, Princeton University Press, 1991, p.365)

The CIA told the White House in April 1964:

“Cuba’s experiment with almost total state socialism is being watched closely by other nations in the hemisphere, and any appearance of success there could have an extensive impact on the statist trend elsewhere in the area.” (Quoted, Walter LaFeber, Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America, New York: Norton, 1993, p.157)

Curtis ignored this documented historical reality. This is particularly significant as we know that Curtis +is+ aware of it. Two years ago, Media Lens challenged him following the broadcast of his BBC TV series, The Century of the Self, which purported to chart the rise of propaganda in the 20th century. In this series Curtis argued:

“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)

We suggested to Curtis that the real fear of politicians and planners was the existence of dangerous +rational+ desires and fears – popular desires for equity, justice and functioning democracy; popular fears that unbridled capitalism and militarism would once again lead to horrors on the scale of the two world wars. We asked him: “Do you really believe that big business was fundamentally motivated to avoid a repetition of the barbarism of Nazi Germany?” (Media Lens to Curtis, June 5, 2002)

We also asked Curtis why he had given detailed attention to Guatemalan history in that series, while failing to mention US responsibility for the 150,000 civilians killed as a result of its attack on Guatemala. On June 19, 2002, Curtis responded:

“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.”

Curtis continued: “I explicitly used the Guatemala story as an example of that form of corruption.”

Remarkably, of this “cynical and corrupt use” of ideas by big business there was not one word in The Power Of Nightmares.

Understanding Bin Laden – Motives Behind September 11

As part of his idea of parallels linking Islamic jihadists and the US neocons, Curtis argued that both are motivated by a fear and hatred of “selfish individualism”:

“The attacks on America had been planned by a small group that had come together around bin Laden in the late 90s. What united them was an idea: an extreme interpretation of Islamism developed by Ayman Zawahiri.” (Part 3, ‘The Shadows in the Cave’, November 3, 2004)

Inspired by Sayyed Qutb, Zawahiri, who was bin Laden’s mentor, came to believe that “the infection of [Western] selfish individualism had gone so deep into people’s minds that they were now as corrupted as their leaders… It wasn’t just leaders like Sadat who were no longer real Muslims, it was the people themselves. And Zawahiri believed that this meant that they too could legitimately be killed. But such killing, Zawahiri believed, would have a noble purpose, because of the fear and the terror that it would create in the minds of ordinary Muslims. It would shock them into seeing reality in a different way. They would then see the truth.” (Part 1, ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’,  October 20, 2004)

But in interviews, Osama bin Laden has clearly listed three political grievances as primary motives for the September 11, 2001 attacks: the oppression of Palestinians, the devastating effect of US-UK sanctions and war on Iraqi civilians, and US military bases in Saudi Arabia. The Independent’s Robert Fisk wrote in 2001:

“Why do we always play politics on the hoof, making quick-fix promises to vulnerable allies of convenience after years of accepting, even creating, the injustices of the Middle East and South-west Asia? How soon before we decide – and not before time – to lift sanctions against Iraq, and allow tens of thousands of Iraqi children to live instead of die? Or promise (in return for the overthrow of Saddam) to withdraw our forces from the Arabian peninsula? After all – say this not too loudly – if we promised and fulfilled all that, every one of Osama bin Laden’s demands will have been met.” (Fisk, ‘Promises, Promises’, The Independent, October 17, 2001)

To ignore these serious political grievances and to focus instead on a fanatical hatred of Western “selfish individualism” is absurd.

In reality, the idea that the neocons and al Qaeda “shared the same fears” is a satisfyingly ironic fiction rooted in selective inattention to the facts. Both, in reality, are highly motivated by pragmatic concerns to do with the wielding and abuse of power.

Curtis’s thesis is not entirely without merit. As he says, “much of this threat [of Islamic terrorism] is a fantasy, which has been exaggerated and distorted by politicians. It’s a dark illusion that has spread unquestioned through governments around the world, the security services, and the international media.”

The ‘threat’ of al Qaeda clearly has been overblown by western politicians and a compliant media.

But the manufactured ‘threat’ of international terrorism is a fiction that distracts from a far more important truth: that Western governments are by far the most powerful and, in terms of numbers killed, most deadly agents of terrorism. This unpalatable truth was not even acknowledged by Curtis. Indeed it is hard to imagine that such a genuinely heretical and honest point could ever be made in a major BBC series.

In Hope Of Another “Crisis Of Democracy”

Curtis also claimed that, like the jihadists, the neocons despised the “selfish individualism” of the 1960s, and the ‘threat’ to American morals it represented. But in reality this was a rhetorical cover for an attack on a different, very real enemy – the rise of civil rights, anti-war, environmental, feminist and other grassroots movements.

A 1975 study on the “governability of democracies” by the influential Trilateral Commission warned of an “excess of democracy” in the United States that was contributing to “the reduction of governmental authority” at home and a consequent “decline in the influence of democracy abroad.” This general “crisis of democracy” resulted from the efforts of previously marginalised sectors of the population attempting to involve themselves in the political process. The study urged more “moderation in democracy” to overcome the crisis. (Quoted, Noam Chomsky, Necessary Illusions, Pluto Press, 1991, pp.2-3)

A top secret US Defense Department memorandum in March 1968 had earlier warned that escalating the war in Vietnam ran “great risks of provoking a domestic crisis of unprecedented proportions”, including “increased defiance of the draft and growing unrest in the cities”. These threats were very much on the minds of military planners as they decided whether to massively escalate the assault on Vietnam, or back off, after the Tet offensive. This naturally represented an intolerable interference in policy from the point of elites. (The Pentagon Papers, Vol. IV, p. 564, Senator Gravel Edition, Beacon, 1972)

The danger for the state is always that the public will see through the Machiavellian intrigues of political power, and refuse to acquiesce any longer in state-sponsored slaughter and corporate exploitation of the planet. Once again, the targeted enemy was not “selfish individualism” but cooperative altruism that threatened to precisely +challenge+ selfish vested interests.

By portraying the manipulation of fear as a recent  development of neocon politicians, and by blanking the institutional realities of modern politics, The Power Of Nightmares contributed to the media deluge obstructing the re-emergence of another “crisis of democracy”.


In his 2002 series, The Century Of The Self, Curtis claimed that politicians and planners had “set out to find ways to control the hidden enemy within the human mind” to ensure that “the unleashing of these instincts that had lead to the barbarism of Nazi Germany” could never surface again. In The Power Of Nightmares, Curtis spins more tall tales, claiming that the neocons are intent on using America’s power aggressively “as a force for good” in order to “help spread democracy around the world.”

The well-documented reality, of which Curtis is himself aware – that US leaders have long projected massive economic and military force in a conscious attempt to maximise profits and power, often regardless of the untold cost in human suffering – was nowhere to be seen.

Is it really such a surprise that Curtis’s work is so well-received by the elite corporate media?


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.

Write to Adam Curtis, the writer and director of ‘The Power of Nightmares’:

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? Why did he almost entirely overlook the effects of this profit-drive in mass slaughters in Latin America and the Third World more generally? Is this very real “politics of fear” not central to an understanding of international affairs in the 20th and 21st centuries?

Email: [email protected]

Email: [email protected]


Email: [email protected]