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Adam Curtis: Another Manager of Perceptions

Adam Curtis’ new, near three-hour documentary HyperNormalisation, showing on BBC iplayer, is being garlanded with predictable praise from liberal commentators. As ever, Curtis joins the dots in interesting, and sometimes compelling, ways. But HyperNormalisation also continues a trend by Curtis of using his insights to present a deeply conservative, disempowering and ultimately false impression of the world.

His recent films have been premised on the notion that our societies are driven almost exclusively by a struggle of ever-more complex ideas, often dangerous ones, and only marginally by economic forces. As it has become ever harder to find plausible solutions to an increasingly interconnected world, and as western leaders have become ever more lost in the moral and ideological darkness of modern life, those who have excelled are the usual suspects – from Syria’s Assad and Putin’s Russia to Donald Trump.

HyperNormalisation is best when it deals with “perception management”. The west’s repeated reinventions of Libya’s Col Gaddafi – first as a bogeyman, then as a hero, then as a bogeyman again, depending on the needs of the day, and always at odds with the reality – is an incisive rebuttal to those who believe the media are committed to telling us meaningful things about the world. Though Curtis does not explicitly draw this conclusion, much of his film suggests correctly that the corporate media are the chief managers of our perceptions.

But much else is weak and unconvincing. The idea, for example, that the Occupy movement in the west and the Tahrir Square revolution in Egypt failed for the same simple reason – that they had no vision of what came next – concisely illustrates much of what is wrong with Curtis’ thinking.

In Egypt, the revolution failed primarily because the secularists had little organisational structure behind them, after decades of repression, and because the forces of reaction – Egypt’s military-industrial complex – were too well-entrenched and sophisticated to be so easily ousted. The Islamists under Mohammed Morsi were allowed temporary and very limited access to the levers of government power by the military in a move to divide the opposition. Morsi’s rule inevitably pitted the Islamists against the liberal secularists. Morsi was given enough rope to hang himself, antagonising the secular opposition so that they would welcome the military’s return. But in truth, the military never went away. There was never a vacuum in Egypt, of ideas or anything else. The army was just sophisticated at perception management – so good at it, in fact, that Curtis himself seems incapable of seeing behind the curtain.

The other major disappointment is his choice of easy villains. So the exemplars of perception management become Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, rather than Tony Blair and Hillary Clinton. But the idea that Putin and Trump somehow took perception management to a whole new level is preposterous. It again signals that Curtis is falling for the very “perception management” he claims to be exposing.

Curtis tells us how in the 1950s the US military fed to Americans who had seen UFOs fake documents to encourage them to believe they had witnessed visitations by aliens. It was a way to deflect attention from the more problematic reality: that they had seen the US military experimenting with new weapons systems.

Perception management is now rife in everything we are told. Little of the coverage that matters most in our media, itself part of the corporate power structures Curtis occasionally alludes to, can be trusted. Gaddafi’s treatment should remind us of this. Support for Trump – and for Bernie Sanders, and for Jeremy Corbyn in the UK – is a symptom of the public’s disillusionment with western leaders. Trump taps into this disllusionment, too often with brutally ugly – but satisfyingly concrete – answers. Walls against Mexicans!

Sanders and Corbyn, on the other hand, have tried to find real answers to questions other politicians and the media barely acknowledge. Because they are searching for solutions to problems that have been intentionally obscured, their political struggle is much harder and their voices more easily marginalised. Sadly, Curtis adds to this mystification of western politics rather than exposing it. He mentions neither Sanders nor Corbyn.

Curtis is similarly misleading in attributing to Putin what he describes as new moves to create a hollow, diversionary politics of false-flag democracy movements, youth organisations, human rights groups and opposition political parties. But anyone who has been following the US state department’s colour revolutions of the past two decades will know that Putin did not invent the wheel here. He is playing a dirty politics in which Washington has long excelled.

Instead, Curtis repeats his by-now common refrain: that western leaders have no solutions to the world’s complex problems. So in Afghanistan and Iraq, George Bush and Tony Blair followed predecessors like Ronald Reagan in casting the world simplistically as a fight between good and evil. Their opponents were portrayed as demonic genuises.

In this way, Curtis effectively lets Bush and Blair off the hook. They fell for an idea, a mistaken and lazy one. They wanted the best for us, to protect us from these evil masterminds, to rebuild a reassuring world for us. They may have been wrong, but their intentions were good.

It is no surprise that Curtis only briefly deals with the US-UK attack on Iraq and even then does not mention oil as a factor, or the fact that Cheney and others made huge financial gains from the dissolution of the Iraqi state, or that the Iraq war generated a weapons sales bonanza for the military-industrial complex, or that there were geo-strategic interests for the US and Israel in weakening Arab nationalism. These issues are off Curtis’ radar, so well has his own perception of events been managed.

Similarly, the section on Curveball entirely misses the significance of this Iraqi defector. Curtis notes that Curveball, whose real name was Rafeed al-Janabi, took a dubious scenario from a Hollywood thriller – about nerve agents contained in glass spheres – to bolster his claims that he could verify Saddam Husein’s WMD programme. Curtis presents this as further proof that all of us, even security services like the CIA, are losing our connection to reality, so blurred has the line between fiction and fact become.

But that is not the lesson of Curveball. German security services who originally interviewed him pointed out the improbability of his testimony from the outset. Britain’s MI6 did not believe Curveball either. But their warnings were ignored by the CIA and the White House. Curveball did not manage anyone’s perceptions. He was simply another illusion by which the US could manage our perceptions, our resistance to a country being cynically destroyed for its resources and to reconfigure the Middle East.

Conversely, Curtis concludes with an assertion of such stunning political puerility that it undermines almost everything that has gone before. He argues of Putin’s involvement in Syria: “The Russians are still there – and no one really knows what they want.” Curtis does not know what “the Russians want” only because his preceptions have been carefully managed by the western media. Russia has very obvious strategic interests in being there. Among other things, it is trying to prevent the takeover of another country on its doorstep by Islamic jihadists, to halt the further destabilisation of the Middle East, and to prop up a key ally in Russia’s front against US expansionism.

“Great Games” of this kind between global superpowers have been going on for all of modern history. There is precisely nothing new about them, or mysterious.

The complexity Curtis luxuriates in is really not so complex. The world is divided between those who have power and wealth, and those who do not. The battle for the powerful is to keep their power, as it always has been. And that requires keeping the rest of us docile, misinformed and filled with a sense of hopelessness. Curtis is simply playing his part in managing our perceptions – and doing so in great style.

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Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His website is http://www.jonathan-cook.net/

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