Wednesday, 28 March 2007

The Trap

A very interesting three part series looking at how politicians have taken us down the road to a more authoritarian society in the name of giving us freedom. I'm not sure that the arguments held up as well in this series as in 'The Power of Nightmares' whose narrative was drived by a much stronger and more coherent argument. It was however full of fascinating insights even if it felt, at times, like a series of introductory academic courses in sociology, number theorey, psychology, political philosophy and the like - the final episode revolving around the work of Isaiah Berlin underlined this for me even more.

My favourite piece was the story about the psychology experiment where eight people turned up at psychiatric hospitals in the US in the 60s and said there was a voice in the head saying 'Thump' but were otherwise quite sane. All eight were declared insane, admitted to hospital and had to undergo therapy including strong drugs. Eventually, after a month or so they all got out but only when each had admitted that they were insane and that the treatment was helping them! A fascinating story but I'm not sure how it fitted into the narrative of freedom. The whole area of how sanity became a load of tickboxes seemed a bit flaky to me and a distraction from the basic point of the series - that whenever governments enforce an ideology, illiberal or liberal, they invariably end up becoming intolerant and reducing our freedoms. The shopping list of the current government - ID cards, bio this and that, CCTV everywhere - makes this point in spades.

Adam Curtis' finishing point that Isaiah Berlin was wrong was well made but I don't know enough about his theories to know if his portrayal of them was fair. In a number of areas he skewered his intended targets: the New labour obsession with targets and how easily these were 'gamed'; the US and UK governments' love affair with the free market, since Clinton's conversion on ascending to the US presidency, and the rampant inequality that has become the legacy of that policy. Curtis' assertion that the crisis in Iraq was also the fault of the free market was unconvincing as total incompetence and lack of planning seems the more likely reason to me.

All in all, a thoughtful, interesting and rewarding programme and the BBC has to be commended for producing work of this quality. Being led through a series of disparate and interesting subject areas, I found myself being drawn into things I knew nothing about which in itself is a pleasure. three hours well spent. I hear that The Power of Nightmares will soon be out on DVD too.

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