When you listen to Barack Obama and Tony Blair speak, you often feel that you are hearing something profound, but when you read their speeches, you realize there is no there there. So too with filmmaker Adam Curtis. There’s nothing there. The visual and aural tracks of Adam Curtis’s documentaries are compelling, but when you look at his ideas in black and white, do they stand up? Not so much. There’s no sin in loving entertainment but confusing that which looks good for that which is good is a mistake.
Also, many Americans think that because something is said in an English accent, it must be deep. Not really. Kerwin tweets: “I’m going to re-dub all of Adam Curtis’s documentaries, swapping his voice out with a guy who has an Appalachian hillbilly accent. We’ll see how intellectually insightful and mature he really is…”
Obama and Blair can write lyrical passages, but beneath the surface shimmer, there’s nothing. Curtis makes stunning films, but the arguments he presents are nothing but unverifiable assertions.
He is best known as the pioneer of a radical and unique style of filmmaking, combining reels of unseen archive footage, evocative music, and winding narratives to tell sweeping stories of 20th and 21st century history that challenge the conventional wisdom. “I’ve never thought of myself as a documentary maker,” he says. “I’m a journalist.”
On Feb. 11, Curtis dropped his latest epic: Can’t Get You Out of My Head, an eight hour history of individualism, split up over six episodes. Subtitled “An emotional history of the modern world,” the goal of the series, Curtis says, was to unpack how we came to live in a society designed around the individual, but where people increasingly feel anxious and uncertain.
The reason that some of us live in societies designed around the individual is primarily biological. Individualism is not something constructed by society. Rather, states filled with people who have an individualist orientation (they are usually Northern European in origin) tend to be individualist. Nicholas Wade wrote in his 2014 book Our Troublesome Inheritance:
Contrary to the central belief of multiculturalists, Western culture has achieved far more than other cultures in many significant spheres and has done so because Europeans, probably for reasons of both evolution and history, have been able to create open and innovative societies, starkly different from the default human arrangements of tribalism or autocracy…
Tribal societies, for instance, are organized on the basis of kinship and differ from modern states chiefly in that people’s radius of trust does not extend too far beyond the family and tribe. But in this small variation is rooted the vast difference in political and economic structures between tribal and modern societies. Variations in another genetically based behavior, the readiness to punish those who violate social rules, may explain why some societies are more conformist than others.
The entry to the modern industrial world has two principal requirements. The first is to develop institutions that enable a society to break away, at least to some substantial extent, from the default human institution of tribalism. Tribalism, being built around kinship ties, is incompatible with the institutions of a modern state. The break from tribalism probably requires a population to evolve such behaviors as higher levels of trust toward those outside the family or tribe. A second required evolutionary change is the transformation of a population’s social traits from the violent, short-term, impulsive behavior typical of many hunter-gatherer and tribal societies into the more disciplined, future-oriented behavior seen in East Asian societies and documented by Clark for English workers at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.
Looking at the three principal races, one can see that each has followed a different evolutionary path as it adapted to its local circumstances… Consider first Caucasians, the grouping of populations that includes Europeans, Middle Easterners and people of the Indian subcontinent (Indians and Pakistanis). Most European countries followed England almost immediately in transitioning to modern economies. Their populations, like that of England, had abandoned tribalism in the early Middle Ages.
As Samuel Francis noted: “The civilization that we as whites created in Europe and America could not have developed apart from the genetic endowments of the creating people, nor is there any reason to believe that the civilization can be successfully transmitted to a different people.”
If a different people than the English had settled North America, the United States today would be less individualist. As a declining proportion of the American people can trace their genetic heritage to England, individualism retreats and collectivism increases.
The high side of this dimension, called Individualism, can be defined as a preference for a loosely-knit social framework in which individuals are expected to take care of only themselves and their immediate families.
Its opposite, Collectivism, represents a preference for a tightly-knit framework in society in which individuals can expect their relatives or members of a particular ingroup to look after them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty. A society’s position on this dimension is reflected in whether people’s self-image is defined in terms of “I” or “we.”
The most individualist countries according to Hofstede’s index are in order: United States, Australia, United Kingdom, Netherlands, and New Zealand. These are all states developed by northern Europeans, who also orient towards individualist religions such as Protestantism. DNA is upstream of religion, culture and politics.
Adam Curtis tells Time magazine: “I have no problem with identity politics. The left retreated from economics in the 1980s, because the right got into power everywhere. And in response to that, the left did some extraordinary things with identity politics, which actually did liberate lots and lots of people. I think it’s an amazing achievement. I think my criticism, which I think is clear in the films, is that they lost control of economics, and it ran out of control, and money took control.”
Well, only some groups are allowed to play the identity politics games. Whites, for example, are not. For all the people the left liberated with its civil rights law, there were as many people enslaved. As Christopher Caldwell pointed out, the founding American constitution has been superceded by the new constitution of civil rights, which has diminished freedom of association.
Adam: “But you voted for the wrong person. He’s going to con you, which Trump did. Because actually the truth of the last four years is that Trump completely failed. He didn’t do any of what he said he was going to do domestically. He said he was going to get rid of the corruption in Washington. It spread. He said he was going to rebuild the infrastructure of America. He did nothing and it is still falling apart. He said he was going to bring the factories back home. He didn’t. And the opioid crisis increased. He said he was going to end the futile wars abroad. He didn’t. By any measure, he was a total failure. And in a way, he’s another of these examples of these people coming up with this great wave of anger behind them. Because there are a lot of people who are very angry. And you can still see from the voting patterns in the most recent presidential election, in 2020, that they’re still there. Yet, nothing actually changed. What I was astonished by was that there was this sound and fury. But actually, no one was doing anything.”
Martin Gurri has a more coherent explanation — the explosion of information has reduced the power of the elites and fueled anger by raising unrealistic expectations. The notion that Trump was a total failure is purely polemical. It might sound great to Adam’s friends but it does not accord with reality (real wages started rising in America for the working class, immigration was slashed, etc).
Adam: “The readership for newspapers began to collapse in the early ‘90s. Which is the point at which journalism became very boring, because it had nothing else to say. It didn’t have any dramatic narratives.”
Journalism is a business. The business collapsed, not because of a lack of dramatic narratives, but because its business model of packaging news to assemble eyeballs to sell advertising to could not compete with the age of increasing information.
Adam: “Individualism is born out of mass democracy. It’s a natural consequence of it.”
No. Japan and South Korea are democracies but they are not individualist. There’s no evidence for the assertion that mass democracy promotes individualism.
Adam: “Black Lives Matter is great because it’s the first movement that comes along and says, this is structural, this is about power. Because in the age of individualism, the word power has disappeared. You’re supposed to be empowered, yourself. What is reemerging is that old idea that actually, it’s about changing the structure. That’s what Black Lives Matter is saying, and it won’t go away. And it’s very interesting that it took a group which has been excluded from that system to come smashing through to the mainstream, and bring that debate into the mainstream. I think it’s great. I think, in boring terms, it’s the return of sociology. It says that actually, the reason you feel shit doesn’t just come from inside you, it isn’t your failure, which is what a lot of modern positive psychology says. What Black Lives Matter says, and the wider movement which they’re part of says, is no: a lot of the reason you feel shit is because you live in a shit society, or where you are in the power structure is horrible and unequal, and it’s not your fault.”
BLM is the first movement to says that the problem is structural? That’s absurd. Marx and Marxist critiques for over a century have argued that our principle problems are structural. If life is so bad for BLM activists, why don’t they move to where things are much much better? The notion that your problem are not your fault has long been a popular one. It is not new to BLM.
Adam: “I think the COVID pandemic has shown, brutally, that the further you are away from the system of power, the more likely you are to fall ill and die. Whereas the higher you are up the hierarchy of power, the safer you are.”
Covid has shown that the stupider and fatter you are, the more likely you are to die. Covid does not kill on the basis of how close you are to power. It kills people with comorbidities such as obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, etc. It has always been thus. Stupid fat people near the center of power die quicker than smart healthy people away from the center of power. The center of power has next to nothing to do with whether you live or die. Medical care makes very little difference for most people’s quality of life and life expectancy. Genetics matter for your quality and length of life much more than medical care.
Adam: “The reason you got Brexit and the reason you got Trump was because of the response to the banking crisis in 2008. And in both America and Britain, people realized that those lower down the chain were being asked to pay for the rich’s corruption and criminality.”
Do you know why virtually no bankers went to prison for the Global Financial Crash of 2008? Because, by and large, they obeyed the laws of the game established by the U.S. government which forced banks to lend to people who were unlikely to pay back their loans. Countries that did not require affirmative action in lending did not have banking crises unless they had significant exposure to the American mess.
Adam: “The people who have to drive a bus in order to make society work are more likely to die than those who run a hedge fund. I think that’s going to go very deep, I really do. So there are good things to this pandemic. It’s shone a very powerful searchlight on exactly what we’re talking about: social class and power.”
This life expectancy difference has next to nothing to do with social class and power and almost everything to do with genetics. The genetics of the people who run hedge funds predict a longer life than the less intelligent people who run buses. Life is an IQ test and smart people live longer, on average, than dumb people.
Adam: “A lot of people in advertising are beginning to question whether Google’s magic ability to target people and predict how they as individuals behave may not be true.”
Spiked: “He portrays suburban life as detached from reality, as if this state of alienation was more a product of lifestyle or architecture and planning than politics. But the suburbs were once thriving hubs of popular participation (though as John Carey’s The Intellectuals and the Masses demonstrates, this participation was held in contempt by the elites).”
Has Adam Curtis ever lived in the suburbs? On what basis can one argue that life in the suburbs or life in any particular place is detached from reality? Life is not more real in the country or in the city.
Spiked: “Our rulers have persuaded themselves that free will is a sham and that ordinary people are easily manipulated.”
That’s nonsense. Read Not Born Yesterday: The Science of Who We Trust and What We Believe.
Spiked: “Brits and Americans withdrew from churches, sports clubs, book clubs, parent-teacher associations, the Boy Scouts, the Red Cross, rotary clubs, you name it.”
And why was that? Because the left’s civil rights legislation destroyed freedom of association. Men could no longer gather only with men except in certain religious settings or in a strip club.
New Statesman: “The commanding belief of humanity is individualism, the idea that the individual – their thoughts, actions and feelings – is superior to the societies in which they live.”
No. Individualism is not inherently superior to collectivism. It depends on people and circumstance. Collectivist solutions to Covid-19, for example, have generally approved far more effective than individualist ones.
New Statesman: “Just like the great 19th-century novelists such as Dostoevsky, Curtis is deeply concerned with how we came to hold such a pessimistic view of human nature.”
People on the right take for granted that the human is a dangerous animal. You’d have to be an idiot to think otherwise.
Adam: “What I’m asking in these films is why in the great age of individualism, which promised empowered individuals, have we ended up with entire societies that are uncertain, anxious and distrustful – not just of those in power, not just not just of each other, but of themselves? That is the fundamental thing that is stopping us from having the confidence to imagine different kinds of worlds.”
The lack of freedom of association has more to do with this than anything.
Adam: “The ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make and could just as easily make differently.”
No, the world is as it is, and our ability to change it is severely limited by biology and geology and genetics.
Adam: “This [conspiracy] theory was going to have a very powerful effect in the future because it would lead to a profound shift in how many people understood the world. Because what it said was that, in a dark world of hidden power, you couldn’t expect everything to make sense, that it was pointless to try and understand the meaning of why something happened, because that would always be concealed. What you looked for were the patterns.”
The problem is not that the world makes no sense, the problem is that the world does not make perfect sense.
The New Yorker describes Adam’s method as “a stream of unusual, evocative images from the past, richly scored with pop music, that are overlaid with his own, plainly delivered, often unverifiable analysis.”
Adam: “I’m fundamentally an emotional journalist. The mood my films create—and possibly the reason why people like that mood—is because it somehow feels real, even though it seems dreamy and odd. It actually gets at what’s going on in people’s heads, which is sort of what realism always is. People in the nineteenth century did not think and feel like we do today.”
Adam delivers feelz, whether they bear any resemblance to reality is debatable.
The New Yorker: “Curtis finds writing much harder than what he calls “cutting the archive,” which he does briskly and without particular effort.”
Of course he does. Writing is a mirror to the mind. When you read Adam’s writings, you realize there isn’t much there.
The New Yorker: “[W]e live in societies without narrative coherence.”
You can’t have narrative coherence shared by diverse peoples.
The New Yorker: “Each of his projects is anchored by a single, provocative idea, and the claim of his new series is that we have become unable to imagine the future—we are citizens of an eternal present stilled by dubious technology, hollow politicians, and catastrophic self-doubt.”
The future is not knowable. We are not stilled by dubious technology and hollow politicians and catastrophic self doubt. Talk for yourself, mate. Religious people, by and large, have an optimistic outlook on life. For example, within my Orthodox Jewish community, technology, politicians and self-doubt is not a widespread problem.
The New Yorker: “As a storyteller, Curtis is drawn either to revolutionaries, who want to change the world, or to engineers, who plan to stabilize and control human society with the help of machines. (He generally takes the side of the revolutionaries, even though he acknowledges that they are often wrong.)”
He likes to tell stories and to make unverifiable assertions. I don’t see any reason to believe that what he does has anything beyond an entertainment value.
Curtis’s story, as simplistic as anything told by ‘those in power’, is made to seem frightfully clever by his acid-trip filmmaking style, perfectly spoofed by Ben Woodham (watch below) as the ‘televisual equivalent of a drunken late night Wikipedia binge with pretension for narrative coherence’.
Anyone really interested in the complexity behind the ‘lost war’ story might remind themselves that the US and its allies easily secured their basic military aims in 2001, swiftly destroying al-Qaida’s operational base in Afghanistan and ousting their Taliban landlords.
Nor have the west’s subsidiary ‘nation building’ efforts been completely disastrous. Curtis has much to choose from on this front: the reconstruction of a national infrastructure destroyed by civil war, the revival of vast tracts of farmland by landmine clearing charities, the giant leaps in health and education.
Or how about just one interview with any of the 5.7m refugees who have returned to the country since 2001? Dwell on that a moment. Nearly 20 per cent of Afghans have escaped the indignity of wasted lives in refugee camps because of a supposedly failed war. They are still coming back, by the way, despite all those psychotic Americans: 39,665 in 2013, the last year for which UNHCR have published statistics…
But it’s pretty clear Curtis is as uninterested in such ‘complexity’ as he is in Afghans, a people he really doesn’t seem to like very much. His most insidious story is that they are irredeemable savages who will always reject, steal or subvert the help of the most well-meaning of outsiders.
Curtis is conscious of what even his admirers call his “wild leaps.” He says that his interpretations stick out only because they are recognizable as his own. “As a critique, I’m aware of that, but I’m also aware that that’s what all journalists do,” he said.
That’s why I prefer academic analysis.
He accuses media organizations, including the Times and magazines like this one, of profiting from the frenzy and uncertainty of the past four years, obsessing over Trump’s personal corruption and mendacity rather than the alienation and anger that brought about his Presidency in the first place. “The link between journalism and democracy has been sort of broken because of what actually has happened with journalism,” Curtis told me. “It mythologizes the world into a darkness around us, full of shady figures who are completely beyond our control to do anything about, so we feel more helpless, more disempowered to do anything about. . . . It’s the frozen world.”
Yes, there’s no inherent connection between journalism and truth and there never has been. “Journalism” is just another business. The frozen world might be what Adam feels inside but it is not true to the lived experience of the people I love.
I first met Curtis on the morning after the Brexit vote, when I was interviewing him for another story. It was the biggest political shock of my lifetime. The country had taken a nationalist, inward turn. I had been up since five o’clock in the morning, watching the results come in. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, had just resigned. You could feel the ground shifting uneasily. Curtis and I met in a café around the corner from the BBC. He seemed entirely unmoved. I remember him saying, “It’s just a pantomime, isn’t it?”
No. There’s a middle ground between regarding politics that does not go your way as the end of the world, and understanding that politics has some significance. The election of Joe Biden, for example, did not mark the end of the United States of America (contrary to what Michael Anton claimed). It was not the last presidential election where a Republican had a chance to win.
Wired: “He wanted to know why the progressive ideas of our time seem to manifest in doom mongering and inaction.”
Because it is harder to get things done in less intelligent and more diverse societies.
Wired: “His fans commend his prescience and his global perspective; his detractors – “the rationalists who hate me” – say that he makes connections that aren’t there: that his work can be a bit ‘galaxy brain’. Everyone agrees his films are beautiful – Curtis has a sixth sense for combining image and sound in a way that heightens both.”
Followers of Curtis’s work will recognise one theme – he tries again to square the circle of the individual and the collective. In Curtis’s eyes, this is pretty much the definitive theme of the 20th century. Individualism, he argues, began as a utopian ideal: freedom through self-expression. Then it morphed into consumerist enslavement. In other words, Curtis hates hippies. “The great big shift, which is the root of our age, is that somewhere in the late 1960s, the radical left who talked in terms of power, society, overthrowing the power structure – all that rhetoric – gave up. And instead, encouraged by radical psychotherapy, they went for an alternative idea which said, ‘Okay, if you can’t change the world, in terms of power structure, what you do is change yourself.’”
When this culture of narcissism didn’t bring the Me Generation the nirvana they hoped for, corporations stepped into this emotional void. They offered these people other ways of pacifying their emptiness, like products to buy and pills to swallow – Robert Sackler, the developer of OxyContin, enters stage left – while the ideology that was actually generating this pain mushroomed. Fast forward to now, narcissism remains a generational diagnosis and the enemy of collective action.
From AnotherMag.com: “Curtis is right about our current predicament – society is breaking, people feel helpless, and despite the emotional and social closeness theoretically made possible by technology, there is an unshakeable aura of disconnect lingering like smoke on the walls.”
Yes, as we get more diversity, we get less social trust.