Monday, March 26, 2007

TV REVIEW: The Trap: Whatever Happened To Our Dream Of Freedom

BBC2, 25/03/2007, 21.00

I met Isaiah Berlin once. He was a very little man. A wizened old tea-cosy of a human, near death, he was being helped into the Classic FM offices to choose his favourite pap. I was there to see the station's boss, who referred dismissively to the aged philosopher as 'that senile old fart'.

Berlin often was a guff-merchant whose tower was of purest ivory, it's true, but whether or not someone obviously quite so stupendously clever deserved this epithet from one of the epicene architects of British broadcasting's greatest-ever insult to serious music is moot. But maybe the old boy would have approved; after all, he was an inveterate apostle of freedom at all costs, including, presumably, the right to make rubbish radio to enlarge an already porcine waist for large sums of money. The last part of Adam Curtis's maddening, brainiacal three-part essay on modern political economy used Berlin as a base upon which to build a creaky superstructure for the way in which the unfettered freedom he puffed has itself become a tyranny that enslaves us all.

Little man - big ideas. Berlin's showstopper was that 'positive freedom' was imposed by supposed liberators who became tyrants ('freedom is so valuable it must be rationed' - V.I. Lenin (attrib.)) 'Negative freedom' meant we could all rub along if we are allowed to be free to rub along. What Curtis did not seem to address - initiallly - was the possibility that this apparent utopia of the collective and individual wills rearranges itself into new tyrannies. For example, what the neo-Berlinite freedom merchants never explain are phenomena like (I am paraphrasing) - why and how did the sluggish, dull, badly-written libertarianism of Francis 'End of History' Fukuyama get a deal instead of the sluggish, dull, badly-written collected thoughts of a forklift driver from Skokie, Illinois? How come Curtis made this instead of 1000 or so other capable film-makers? Or you? Or me? Or Alan Curbishley, or that cute chick from the chemists who looks a bit like Francoise Hardy? You, I, he and she are not realistically by most imaginable scientific means free to do this. How and why is an issue the libertarians never address. Neither does Curtis.

Jean Baudrillard (stick with me. This gets better) had his own take. It's that information overload has made the world one of mirrors, of meta-reality, in which nothing is actual and absolute and everything is relative and unreal. Curtis and crew's blizzard of sound and vision (no shot more than five seconds in length) seemed to have old Jean's hand on the directorial tiller. Synapse mock-up, time-lapse pupil dilation, the Blade Runner blush response syndrome; communism was signified by stock footage of prancing Sokol gymnasts, rumbling missile launchers, big shiny biceps; capitalism by stock footage of whizzing computer spools, white-walled Oldsmobile commercials, smirking Debbie Reynolds clones.

All it did was obscure a reality in a manner that the neo-cons love, because upon a meaning-free tabula rasa those with the biggest pencil can make the biggest marks; can have the greatest power. But there were some clunkers delivered as historical fact, as absolutes, fundamentals, but whose dodginess was too occluded to be avoidable; was Che Guevara really such a disciple of the celebrated Left Bank psychopath Franz Fanon whose idiotic neo-Nietzschean theories have probably caused as many Third World funerals as Aids? To mention him in the same breath as Fanonitism's cause célebre, Pol Pot (again one could hear the twang of an overextended argument's withered elastic). The utterly ludicrous assertion that the rise of neo-conservatism in Washington was driven by a desire to combat totalitarianism in all forms was so historically potty that one spent too long waiting for a refutation. It came, as it obviously had to, with the inevitable example of Reaganite support for Nicaragua's Contra murderers- but with a dodgy time-delay; all one remembered was the bizarre assertion and a counter-assertion appearing out of nowhere, and losing its power because of that. Other postulates, such as that which equated Blair's intervention in Kosovo as consonant with a global discourse of political economy (rather than the missionary nuttiness of incidental good intentions it actually was) were just very lazy. The hasty and over-busy attempt to fit the Iranian Revolution of 1979 into a convenient historical continuum and not an ahistorical uprising of neo-Wahhabite Islamic separatism at all was again simply playing too fast, too loose.

Curtis's overarching logic, when it eventually emerged, had an appeal; that Isaiah Berlin was wrong, and that attempts by crusaders to reform the world are not necessarily connotive of terror and severed heads and show trials. That those who are determined to let a thousand flowers bloom usually end up pissing on the daisies (Blair, Bush, even the original garden-trampler, Mao). But in getting there, his arguments are cack-handed, of a freshman naivety. Here is a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed student, whose essays are always calligraphically beautified with a brand-new Osmiroid, obsessed with style rather than substance.

Me, I made notes with a chewed-up Bic. But the very fact I did - the very fact that I noted Nietzsche, Baudrillard (and Alan Curbishley) proves at least that Curtis is doing something right. Give him a camera, give him the time - but make the subject tiny. And then make him free. He will do the dream of freedom proud.

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