Monday, November 26, 2007

The Trap

Q: What do Sigmund Freud, Edward Bernays, the Central Intelligence Agency, Milton Friedman, game theory, the Cold War, R. D. Laing, Prozac, Margaret Thatcher, Bill Clinton, Isaiah Berlin, Henry Kissinger, al Qaeda, Michael Ledeen, economic models of human interactions, and shock therapy have in common?

A: They are all part of a remarkable series of B.B.C. documentaries on social engineering by filmmaker Adam Curtis: The Century of the Self,* The Power of Nightmares, and The Trap. Curtis examines the evolving theories of human motivation as they have been applied by admen, politicians, and intelligence agencies over the last 80 years. The result is a broad and disturbing view of the beliefs behind modern social control mechanisms.

From Sigmund Freud to market theories to fundamentalism, notions held by humans about humans have grown ever more abstract and therefore ever more removed from human experience. Furthermore, widely held beliefs have a certain Pygmalion effect** whether or not they are true. Therefore, they present the risk of incestuous influence — the tendency of institutions to believe their own propaganda or to craft stories to promote narrow interests. Organizational principles in one sphere of human activity do not necessarily carry over into other realms. For example, game theory used by the U.S. and Russia to reduce the threat of nuclear war was based on the assumption that an opponent will always cheat. (If the goal was to avoid war, I’m not sure the Russians were our “opponents”; but that is a question for another time.) Curtis shows how market models of control based on a similar assumption — that people are entirely motivated by self-interest — lead to atomization of society and denial of community.***

So, as the world hurtles backward to 1984, take some time to watch Curtis’s films. After all, if both the “good guys” and the “bad guys” knowingly benefit from the same belief system, maybe it’s time to rethink the system.

The Century of the Self:

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4

The Power of Nightmares:

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

The Trap is available at:


* See “Why Are We In Iraq,” The Chair-Herding Pictures, 3/21/2007
** In Greek mythology, Pygmalion was a prince of Cyprus and a sculptor. He fell in love with a statue of a woman he named Galatea. The goddess Aphrodite granted Pygmalion’s wish and brought the statue to life.
*** It also invites corruption. Consider Enron. Executives were rewarded for improving the company’s bottom line, but that did not lead to efficiency. It led to executives gaming the system to maximize personal profits. They made a killing by killing the company.


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