The Power of Nightmares

by: Jim McGuigan / Loughborough University

A recent TV documentary series prompted me to reflect upon the intellectual capacities of television, which are more often than not considered fairly limited. The three parts of The Power of Nightmares were shown on BBC2 last October and November. Because it had been so well received, the programme was repeated very quickly in January. The Power of Nightmares was written, produced and narrated by Adam Curtis, whose other work includes the excellent The Century of the Self, a series also made for the BBC. Unusually for such a programme, The Power of Nightmares was not derived from an already published book, like the recent series based on Yergin and Stanislaw’s The Commanding Heights, nor is there a spin-off book to accompany the series. Curtis insisted that the programme itself was sufficient. This is interesting since The Power of Nightmares puts forward a sophisticated and challenging thesis based on wide-ranging research.

It is often said that television is a poor medium for the exposition of complex argument. Print media — and especially the book — are held to be superior in this regard. Such a commonplace assumption needs to be interrogated. Is television supposed to be inherently lacking in intellectual substance for technical or social reasons? Surely, it must be social, since television is a hybrid medium with the advantage of combining spoken words, music and moving images. Electronic recording for domestic use, moreover, has made it possible to flick to and fro through the audio-visual text, like reading a book. Web-based texts, of course, have these properties plus lengthy written elements and potentially endless link options, but that is beside the point for the present purpose, which is to discuss argumentation in an exceptional television programme. This programme deserves the kind of serious response that a book with an intellectually demanding thesis might merit. It is normally thought impractical for a television programme to carry much writing on screen, quite sensibly so and not at issue here. Such impracticality, however, is social rather than strictly technical. Nobody watches television in order to read lots of words; books are deemed better for that. Anyway, it is a deeply ingrained assumption that television should convey meaning in pictures. The Power of Nightmares uses moving images very well and is accompanied, of necessity, by complex argument that is spoken at length, not written.

Each of The Power of Nightmares’ three episodes begins with a summary of the general argument. According to Curtis, politicians no longer promise to create a better world. Instead, they offer us protection against terrible threats to our safety and well being. This is a post-ideological politics of security management in a terrifying world. Power is established by frightening the wits out of people, telling them stories about dangers that may not actually exist. So far, a fairly routine sound bite: ‘be afraid, be very afraid’.

Politics has become nightmarish due to the efforts of two strangely similar ideological forces, Radical Islam and Neo-Conservatism. The Power of Nightmares traces both of them back to the late-1940s and their original gurus: Saeed Qutb for the Radical Islamists and Leo Strauss for the Neo-Cons. The Egyptian Qutb studied for a brief period in the USA where he became appalled by its liberal culture. To him, the land of the free was crass, corrupt and vulgar. In 1949, Qutb went to a dance and saw the licentious behaviour of young American men and women, dancing cheek to cheek. Here we see black and white footage of such outrageous conduct accompanied by ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’, which is also the title of the first episode. At the end of that episode, the number is reprised to accompany young Afghan warriors — exclusively men, of course — dancing. This is just one of several witty juxtapositions throughout the series. Qutb returned to Egypt determined to build an Islamic opposition to American immorality and selfish individualism in the world. Later Qutb fell fowl of Gamel Abdul Nasser, whom Qutb regarded as a corrupt leader and inauthentic Muslim. In 1966, Qutb was tried for treason and executed. He thus became a martyr for Radical Islam.

Leo Strauss, the American political philosopher, led a much quieter life than Qutb. His favourite television programme in the 1950s was Gunsmoke and his hero the strong and relatively silent Marshall Dillon, who stood up for Good against Evil, symbolized by the white hats against the black hats. Strauss also liked Perry Mason with its cunning hero prepared to use what were sometimes questionable means to accomplish good ends. Since the late-’40s, Strauss had, like Qutb, also been complaining about the corrosive effects of liberalism on American culture with its permissiveness and encouragement of selfish desires. He believed it led to nihilism. What was needed was a moral rearmament campaign, the fashioning of political myths with the power of religion to cement the heroic nation together. Strauss influenced a generation of students, including Francis Fukuyama, William Kristol and Paul Wolfowitz.

Both Qutb and Strauss sought to form elite cadres to fight the battle of ideas and win over the benighted masses. While the Radical Islamists believed in what they said, however fanatical, the attachment of Neo-Cons to ‘the truth’ was somewhat less than sincere. The Neo-Cons — including the likes of Dick Cheney, Richard Perle and Donald Rumsfeld in various governmental incarnations — cooked up all sorts of inaccurate horror stories with their backroom boys. They created the ‘Evil Empire’ myth of the Soviet Union tooled up to take over the world when, in fact, it was falling apart internally. Even Ronald Reagan was sceptical at first. Henry Kissinger was a wishy-washy liberal in comparison with the Neo-Cons. Once the Soviet Union had been beaten, it was necessary to find a new and equally terrifying enemy. Radical Islam was standing in the wings, though it became difficult, at a much later stage, to draw links between it and the far from fundamentalist dictatorship of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The project – which was to become the Project for the New American Century – did not unfold smoothly. There were ups and downs and setbacks. George Bush the elder, for instance, was reluctant to hunt down Saddam at the end of the first Gulf War; it took another war and his more biddable son in the White House to do so, to complete that part of the grand mission.

The second episode of The Power of Nightmares, ‘The Phantom Victory’, looks at the struggle in Afghanistan to repel the Soviet Union; and, for which both the Neo-Cons and the Radical Islamists claimed the victory, finally ridding the world of communist imperialism. Closely involved, according to the series, was Ayman al-Zawahari, an Egyptian doctor turned leading ideologue for Islamic Jihad in a violent form and mentor to moneybags Osama bin Laden. America supported these ‘freedom fighters’ with military equipment and training when the enemy was mutual and before they turned on the USA itself. Radical Islam became increasingly extreme and indeed terroristic after sending the Russians packing from Afghanistan, in fact, due to the lack of popular support for it in the Middle East. In America in the meantime, the Neo-Cons’ demonization of Bill Clinton and, hence, of ‘liberalism’ went hand-in-hand with the rise of the religious Right, a key feature of the second Bush regime and Dubya’s re-election in 2004.

The third and final episode, ‘The Shadows in the Cave’, deals with 9/11 and all that. Like the other episodes, it uses archive footage and expert interviews, clips from horror and fantasy movies, to drive home the points that make up the series’ thesis. Politics has become thoroughly Bismarckian, dependent upon generating fear and anxiety in the population about external peril in order to legitimize rule in the USA and Britain especially, according to The Power of Nightmares. The series is intellectually impressive and succeeded in attracting larger audiences than is normal for a ‘difficult’ documentary. However, there are problems with it that require critical scrutiny, three in particular to mention briefly: its re-run of the end of ideology thesis; its faulty understanding of modern networks; and, its improper use of the precautionary principle.

First, a politics of fear is said to arise from the end of ideology, in the sense of belief in utopian political dreams. Yet, Neo-Conservatism and Radical Islam are manifestly ideological and both in their scary ways promise a better world for their followers. There is a contradiction in the argument here: either ideology has ceased to be a powerful force or it has not.

Second, the final episode does a very good job in demolishing the myth of Al-Qaeda as a gigantic organized network hostile to and undermining Western civilization as we know it; therefore, requiring authoritarian restrictions on civil liberties at home and maximum violence abroad. The British journalist Jason Burke, author of Al-Qaeda – The True Story of Radical Islam, is the expert witness on mistaken belief in bin Laden’s command over the world’s terror networks, paralleling the old myth of the Soviet Union’s direction of such networks in the past. Burke argues with considerable justification that there is no central authority co-ordinating a bureaucratic organization of international terrorism run like the Mafia, its headquarters once believed to be located in a James Bond-style villain’s lair in Bora Bora. ‘Shadows in the Cave’ documents several fanciful stories of ‘sleeper cells’ in the USA. For one of which the sole evidence was a tourist video of Disneyland, interpreted ludicrously as casing the joint for blowing it up. Furthermore, bin Laden did not even call his outfit Al-Qaeda until after 9/11 when the Americans did so, which was a shrewd ruse to exploit American hyper anxiety. However, as Manuel Castells has argued, modern networks are distinctively de-centred, not controlled by a central authority. It would be better to conceive of them as rhizomatic, characterized by random eruptions of terrorism, rather than simply noting the absence of old-fashioned bureaucratic and centralized authority.

Third, Curtis claims that the precautionary principle of Green politics has been adopted to justify anti-terrorist measures that destroy civil liberties. This is a serious claim and one that needs to be treated with caution. The precautionary principle is defined in the final programme of the series as the assumption that there is no need for evidence in order to take preventative action. Clearly, that does accurately describe the anti-terrorist operations and pre-emptive military strategy of the Bush regime and its allies, but it is not strictly the Green principle of precaution. In Green politics, it is thought that actions should not be taken that are potentially harmful even if we do not have hard and fast evidence of certain harm. In actual fact, there is plenty of evidence that the actions of the Bush regime are certainly harmful, fuelling rather than assuaging the resentments articulated by Radical Islam.

BBC News
Information Clearing House
Guardian Unlimited

Please feel free to comment.


  • intellectual capacities of TV

    This article’s discussion of TV’s intellectual capacities is an interesting one. McGuigan’s makes the case that The Power of Nightmares (a made for TV documentary) is not just informative, but it is also a site of and for intellectual discussion. In reading this article I couldn’t help but think of other TV forms (outside of the documentary) that also promote this kind of intellectual discussion. While news programs, interview shows, and news magazine programs came to mind, I began to think of other formats that also promote discussions that may not be intellectual in the same sense, but clearly promote discussion–i.e. the moral dilemmas promoted be Made For TV Movies or melodramas, science shows, and perhaps even movies that promote discussion of art versus entertainment. While McGuigan makes a clear case for programs such as The Power of Nightmares, does the intellectual capacity of television end there?

  • TV and Elitism

    TV is often maligned as having no value other than to passively entertain and waste one’s time. While shows like Fox’s The Littlest Groom certainly don’t help those of us who think otherwise, I think those attitudes towards television have less to do with the actual content and more to do with an elitist attitude towards the medium itself. With the advent of motion pictures, films were priced and marketed to the lower class. Movies were seen as crass and it was only when they became more expensive and marketed towards the middle to upper class that they were considered art. Such is the attitude towards television today, for if Joe Trailer Park has access, then it surely couldn’t be considered intellectual art. The truth of the matter is that there is much enlightening content for those willing to look for it, but unfortunately we seldom do seek it out. The fault lies not with television, but with ourselves.

  • Susan (a different one)

    What happened?

    What started out as a promising treatment of the “intellectual capacities of television” to deal with intricate concepts degenerated into a thoughtful review of the series “The Power of Nightmares.” I was much more interested in Jim’s initial argument espousing television as “a uniquely fit medium to present complex thought and argument,” and his introduction of separate examinations of the technological and social issues involved. The choice of “Nightmares” was a good one for the thesis–as he points out, the series was neither “derived from an already published book” nor accompanied by “a spin-off book;” the filmmaker insisted “the programme itself was sufficient.” But by paragraph three, the reviewer took over, off and running, toppling down the rest of the piece…

  • intellectual capacities (or lack thereof)

    I think there are several contributing factors as to why American television is all but devoid of programming in the vein of “The Power of Nightmares”, but the main reason, at least in my mind has to do with the fact that there is no large demand for such programming in the US. I myself would like to see more programs that are so-called “intellectual”, and I can bet that the same could be said for the majority of individuals that have posted comments on this site. Having said that, middle America would never be able to handle such a show, and no major network would have the foresight to air it. Besides, it would get killed in the weekly ratings battle, and that’s what TV is all about, lest we forget. I think television is an unintelligent medium on the whole, judging by the level of its programming, even more so than film (which is heading in the same direction, sadly). It is not withou some intellectual capacity (HBO comes to mind as the saving grace of American TV), but I think that until a majority of Americans are willing to accept intelligent, challenging TV, and networks become gutsy enough to air it, we will continue to see more of the same, as television continues to waste its potential, doing a disservice to the public.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *