Thursday, May 05, 2011

Cons And Conspiraloons

 "Wondering which hack will be the first to 'Booyah!' tha Librulz by pretending Adam Curtis said Al Qaeda didn't exist. My money's on Aaro." - Your humble author, approx. 5 hours after Osama Bin Laden was killed.

"Curtis does make fabulous films. He is the Leni Riefenstahl of comfortable leftism".   David Aaronovitch, approx. 2 days after Osama Bin Laden was killed.

To be fair, Aaro was merely the first person that I saw putting the boot into film-maker Adam Curtis after my  Tweet, and rather than accuse Curtis of being a wacko conspiracy theorist - which Aaro has done in the past [1] - the charge was one of "simplifying" complex issues.

Curtis outlines his take on the War on Terror here, in a piece that's essentially a shortened version of his film The Power Of Nightmares.   If I can shorterise him further - the epic Clash of the Titans between the United States and al Qaeda was notably characterised by serious misconceptions and wacky ideological assumptions on both sides.

While others have had a go at Curtis [2], it's Alex Massie at the Spectator who has had the best crack at meeting him head-on.  I often agree with Alex on foreign policy issues, but I think he's fallen into the same trap that pretty much everyone who's had a go at refuting Curtis has, i.e. flailing at arguments Curtis doesn't make.

As I recall, The Power of Nightmares was routinely criticised on the grounds that it was paranoid, anti-American and even pro-terror.  The most common - and incorrect - criticism was that it claimed that Al Qaeda didn't exist.  Alex goes at it from a slightly different angle...

From the off we're supposed to appreciate, I think, that bad as bin Laden certainly was, he was never as bad as you were led to believe and, gosh, certainly not as bad as the people for whom he was a useful, even necessary, enemy. The world, you see, is complicated and if you think al-Qaeda are the bad guys you've been duped my friend. Seriously. 

Or, not very seriously.   Unless I badly misunderstand the man, Curtis has always accepted that al Qaeda exists and that it is composed of extremely violent and ideologically deranged individuals.  He entirely accepts that al Qaeda are horrible, evil shits.  His main point has always been that, while al Qaeda is a highly dangerous and murderous adversary, it's not a globe-spanning, multi-tentacled, civilisation-destroying colossus, replete with ninja-training James Bond mountain retreats [3].

The contention is that the Terrorwarriors of the west mistook a small but fanatical gang of terrorists for a freedom-crushing Empire of Death - a label that al Qaeda were more than happy to appropriate and wear with pride. This has never struck me as a particularly controversial thesis, given that it raises few hackles when variations on it come from AQ specialists like Jason Burke.

Alex also grumbles that Curtis refers to al Qaeda in the passive voice; that they somehow became America's Enemy Number One, rather than being the aggressors via the September 11th attacks.  I suspect this may be because, you know, the former were small in number, seeking to commit spectacularly vicious atrocities as an example to angry, gullible idiots across the Middle East and Europe, and the latter were a damn superpower with history's most terrifyingly powerful military machine at their command.  The US government most certainly had war with al Qaeda thrust upon it, but it was entirely their decision to rhetorically elevate September 12th from a mismatched search-and-destroy mission into a planet-wide battle for civilisation itself.

I think it's fair to say that, outside of a few internet boobyhatches, few would dispute that the War on Terror has been a horrific balls-up from start to finish.  How do we think that an enterprise that has consumed so many resources and billions of man-hours in planning, strategising and execution came to be such a stark-staring disaster zone?

From my reading of neo-Conservative and humanitarian interventionist post-mortems, I can tell you that those who planned and prosecuted our wars believe they made some understandable yet elementary goofs, and that's more or less their entire explanation.   Given the chance to alter history, they'd take a trip in a TARDIS to advise Paul Bremer not to disband the Iraqi army and would recommend even more school-painting and culturally-sensitive hand-shaking, and then return to the modern day in the full expectation that our wars would've worked out perfectly.

Curtis suggests that tWoT was such a travesty because the premises upon which it was based were fundamentally fucked-up from the very start - that its leaders misidentified not only the mindset and intent of the enemy, but also failed to even understand who the enemy was in the first place.  By envisaging our foes through their own excitable Cold War mindsets, with the Jihadists as the Soviets and ourselves as Good Guys who needed only the will and the daring to strike a blow for freedom, we wound up baby-sitting a series of uncontrollable bloodbaths.

Which of these two analyses sounds more credible to you?

On the dramatis personae of tWoT, I have to bow to Massie's superior knowledge of Yankee conservatism.  He's absolutely correct that the incoming Bush administration didn't seek to throw its weight about on the international stage.  I think he forgets that after the WTC attacks, the White House turned immediately to its neo-Conservative allies for aid in retaliating, and that the neo-Cons were only too happy to seize their big opportunity with both hands.

And here we find Alex's principal objection - that Curtis claims that America is always looking for a new Baddie to fight, so that they can play the role of Good Guy. 
This, I suggest, is the road that eventually leads to wars being fought for Halliburton and other corporate interests. A world in which nothing is ever as it seems except, of course, for the enduring constant that the Americans are simultaneously gauche and conniving, simpletons who yet contrive to hoodwink everyone except the brave truth-seekers who can perceive through a glass wrongly and courageously reveal that Osama bin Laden is America's useful enemy, implying in the end that he's been so useful he'd have had to be created had he not in fact actually existed. And, lo, perhaps he was. Thinking otherwise is just too simple, you see.

Which is pretty much the same as saying Oh LOL, pass the tinfoil, lizardman, before the satellites attune to our brainwaves!

And yet, what's Curtis actually suggesting here?  That American foreign policy has recently been dominated by academic types with fundamentally flawed frameworks for understanding the world; men and women who believed that America had a duty to spread the nation's unique message of freedom and liberty for all, through violent means if necessary; and that these were people who were incapable of interpreting the consequences as they were, rather than how they expected them to be.  Further, they faced a foe that was only too willing to step into the shoes of the evil, aggressive, heavily-accented antagonist with world-wide ambitions that they expected to find.

On the conspiracy scale, I'd say that's pretty much near-zero, or bang on the money...  A damn sight less off-the-wall than Eisenhower's final address, and that crazy moonbat nutter was twice elected President of the United States.

And here's what I'm getting at - I agree that Adam Curtis over-simplifies complex issues, whether for convenience or some baleful desire to hoodwink.  I agree that his work has flaws; that he sometimes overstates and elides when it suits him to do so.  I think he's entirely correct on the broad brushstrokes, but I think there's plenty of room to attack him on the fine detail.

What I don't get is why he seems to wind people up so much that they start attacking statements he hasn't made, positions he doesn't take and deranged conspiraloon matrices that he never describes.  One common criticism of Curtis that Alex Massie doesn't pick up on is that he portrays the neo-Conservatives and al-Qaeda as being equally evil, and yet... Where is that coming from?  He implies that they're both wrong, as in, incorrect and mistaken about reality.  The Americans' War on Terror was no conspiracy.  It was only human beings making grievous errors in plain view. [4]

Who knows, maybe it's the doomy soundtracks.  They are pretty intimidating... That, or they're talking about Richard Curtis.

1. "Curtis's is a one-stop conspiracy theory to stand alongside those fingering the Illuminati, the Bilderberg group and (vide the Da Vinci Code) Opus Dei"Aaronovitch, "Al Qaeda is no dark illusion", Guardian, 19/10/04

2. Predictably, Professor Norm steps in with a howling non-sequitur, this time along the lines that a) the War on Terror can't have been misconceived; western leaders can't have been deluded about its nature and Curtis must be a bastard, because b) the Soviet Union was horrible and the people of the Middle East hate living under tyrannies.  I tried and failed to see how a) refuted b), until I realised that Norm was - yet again - confusing "the motives and deeds of the Bush administration" with "the motives of Professor Emeritus Norman Geras".  This is a regular occurrance.

3. See The Power of Nightmares, episode 3 from 20:30 onwards here for an excellent example - Don Rumsfeld and Tim Russert discussing al Qaeda's futuristic Goldfinger lair, with its sophisticated computers, communications equipment, ventilation systems, armories and tank-sized storage bays.  Needless to say, the actual al Qaeda hideaways turned out to be... just some caves, filled with non-futuristic dirt and rocks.

4. Don't take this to mean that I think al Qaeda are just "a bit misguided".  They're evil fucks.  They're also evil fucks who are seriously wrong and misguided, and the one doesn't preclude the other.

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