The Power of Nightmares 1: The Rise of the Politics of Fear (BBC-2004)

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

Here’s a little something to rouse you from your post-Thanksgiving torpor; the first part of a three-part 2004 series by Adam Curtis called “The Power of Nightmares.” The title seems strangely a propos, what? Here’s the WikiPedia summary:

The film compares the rise of the neoconservative movement in the United States and the radical Islamist movement, drawing comparisons between their origins, and remarking on similarities between the two groups. More controversially, it argues that radical Islamism as a massive, sinister organisation, specifically in the form of al-Qaeda, is a myth, or noble lie, perpetuated by leaders of many countries—and particularly neoconservatives in the U.S.—in a renewed attempt to unite and inspire their people after the ultimate failure of more utopian ideas.

(The Wikipedia article also includes detailed summaries of each part.)

And here it is:

The Power of Nightmares 1: The Rise of the… by GalaVentura

I’m not going to attempt to tease out any systematic implications from listening to the series right now, but well worth the listen it is. So many old friends from back in 2003, when those whackjobs in the Bush administration were only starting to lose the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan! Random thoughts:

1) Leo Strauss is a horrible human being, who has a lot to answer for.

2) Douglas Feith really is “the f2cking stupidest guy on the face of the Earth.”

3) The neocons make Henry Kissinger look like a Boy Scout.

4) Best quote: “The Soviets had developed systems that were so sophisticated that they were undetectable.”

5) Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian Islamic theorist counterpoised by Curtis to Strauss, sees the United States “as obsessed with materialism, violence, and sexual pleasures.” What a nut job! To be fair, if the Egyptian government hadn’t tortured him, Qutb might never have come up with the Jahiliyyah concept, which, at least as I hear Curtis tell it, means that you’re so corrupt that you can’t even know you’re corrupt.

* * *

Nightmares is mostly archive footage plus a soundtrack, with Curtis narrating. So if you want to listen to it with your morning coffee, the way one listened to NPR before it became evident how horrid NPR is, that will work; you don’t have to sit in front of the screen.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. James Levy

    It’s never politic to point out, but the Holocaust was interpreted by a certain segment of Jewish intellectuals as exposing three “truths” that did much to feed neoconservatism: 1) the price of weakness is extermination; 2) anything is justified to prevent the weakness that only leads to extermination; 3) the post-war American liberal consensus was an invitation to extermination. These beliefs undelay much of the neoconservative project.

    1. L.M. Dorsey

      The “truths” you quote sound suspiciously like a combination of, er, a certain racial theory of politics and an aligned critique of Liberalism. Which makes me curious. Who are you talking about, exactly, this “segment of Jewish intellectuals”? Or does your daring impolity reach so far?

      Btw, M.F. Burnyeat’s 1985 essay on Strauss and the Straussians still sparks. “A fox among the chickens” as someone once put it.

      1. StephenKMackSD

        You maladroitly hint in your comment at Antisemitism: “segment of Jewish intellectuals”. Please do your homework! Here is a ‘friendly history’ of the Neo-Cons that takes as fact the Jewish origins of a coterie of young radicals at City College, and their political evolution, over time, toward Neo-Conservatism.
        The Neoconservative Revolution
        Jewish Intellectuals and the Shaping of Public Policy by Murray Friedman


  2. Skippy

    Chapter 2: The Neoconservative Legacy

    Much of the facts are wrong and distorted…Neocons made out to be some kind of conspiratorial base in Bush administration.

    Its roots lie in a group of Jewish intellectuals from City College New York. Common bond was hatred for communism. Thus we get the opposition to social engineering which runs through the movement. A formative battle that shaped neoconservatism was the fight w/ Stalinists in the 30s and 40s and a second fight with the New Left and Counterculture it spawned in the 1960s. Second battle had foreign (oppo to Vietnam) and domestic policy dimensions. Vietnam bred a generation of American leftists who were sympathetic to communist regimes and wanted the U.S. to emulate European welfare state.

    Public Interest founded by Kristol and Bell cast critical eye on domestic part of this agenda. Main theme of this influential journal was skepticism of social engineering projects. These projects, they argued, “often left societies worse off than before because either they required massive state intervention that disrupted organic social relations (e.g. forced busing) or else produced unanticipated consequences (such as increase in single parent families due to welfare).

    Leo Strauss – a lot of nonsense written about him and his relation to Iraq war. Silly to think his thinking had influence on Bush admin. Only way this came to be is b/c Wolfowitz studied briefly with Strauss. He was a U of Chicago professor, German Jewish political theorist. Most of his writing is dense and long interpretive essays on philosophy. Very hard to extract any public policy analysis from his writings. Two of his students, though, transitioned his thinking to more public policy prescriptions. Harry Jaffa of Claremont (Sousa wing) and late Allan Bloom (Wagnerian wing) of Straussianism.

    Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind touched on “the contemporary crisis of the American university, as well as with sex, drugs, music, and other trends in popular culture. It identified a real problem. Cultural relativism – the belief that reason was incapable of rising above the cultural horizons that people inherited – had in fact become ensconced in contemporary intellectual life. It was legitimated at a high level by serious thinkers like Nietzsche and Heidegger, transmitted through intellectual fads like postmodernism and deconstructionism, and translated into practice by cultural anthropology and other parts of the contemporary academy. These ideas found fertile ground in the egalitarianism of American political culture, whose participants objected to having their “lifestyle” choices criticized.”

    Straussain does talk about “regime,” but this ultimately comes from Plato and Aristotle. They understand a regime not in the modern way (set of formal institutions) but rather as a way of life in which political institutions and informal habits constantly shape one another. A democratic regime produces a certain kind of citizen. Hence Socrates’ famous description book 8 of the Republic: “Then, I said, he also lives along day by day, gratifying the desire that occurs to him, at one time drinking and listening to the flute, at another downing water and reducing; now practicing gymnastic, and again idling and neglecting everything; and sometimes spending his time as though he were occupied with philosophy. Often he engages in politics and, jumping up, says and does whatever chances to come to him; and if he ever admires any soldiers, he turns in that direction; and if it’s money-makers, in that one. And there is neither order nor necessity in his life, but calling this life sweet, free, and blessed he follows it throughout.”

    So, the instituations and culture and habits played a key role in shaping American character. Strauss, and Tocqueville, and Plato and Aristotle all believed in the centrality of politics. “Strauss like Aristotle believed that humans were political by nature and reached their full flourishing only by participating in the life of the city.”

    This is why Straussian wing of neocon movement has always had a problem w/ libertarian conservatives. “Libertarians understand freedom only negatively, as freedom from government power. In the words of Adam Wolfson, ‘Libertarians rise to the defense of every conceivable freedom but that of self-government…To the neoconservative, the true road to serfdom lies in the efforts of libertarian and left-wing elites to mandate an anti-democratic social policy all in the name of liberty. But it is a narrow, privatized liberty that is secured. An active and lively interest in public affairs is discouraged as a result. Everything is permitted except a say in the shaping of the public ethos.’”

    In sum, Strauss believed some political change could be achieved through regime change to the extent regimes constitute a way of life. Can’t just provide external rewards and punishments; need internal change. Poland, Hungary, Czecho in 1989, for example. But Straussian also clearly defined regimes as more than just formal institutions but rather as unwritten rules by which people operate (habits, religion, kinships, etc). “A central theme to Strauss’s skepticism of modern Enlightenment is the idea that reason alone is sufficient to establish a durable political order or that nonrational claims of revelation can be banished from politics.”

    Military “transformation” from Rumsfeld promotes lean, swift operation w/ precision missiles etc. Can defeat any conventional enemy with this approach, but not a prolonged insurgency.

    Given origins of neocons in left wing anticommunism, not surprisingly that neocons would oppose Kissinger realist foreign policy in 1970s. “Realism begins w/ premise that all nations, regardless of regime, struggle for power. Realism can at times become relativistic and agnostic about regimes; they by and large do not believe that liberal democracy is a potentially universal form of government or that the human values underlying it are necessarily superior to those underlying nondemocratic societies.” Kissinger thought U.S. should seek détente (peace) with Soviet Union and accept it as a reality. Neocons supported Reagan’s re-moralizing of the struggle btwn Soviet communism and liberal democracy.

    Skippy…. Check Please…… waves arms””””””

    1. L.M. Dorsey

      Umm, Skippy dear, look, if you are going to give us a slab of thickly-marbled prose-like material from a spawn of the American Enterprise Institute, you might want to put it in block quotes or something. Otherwise said spawn’s leading pronouns might seem to have antecedents in the OP or something. Which, of course, they don’t.

      1. Skippy

        The fact that it comes from the AEI-ish blog is the most relevant point imo…. the kaleidoscopic backdrop that sets the ideological barfly scene…. where drinks are on the house ™….

        Per your concern about proforma, back handed non engagement… +

        Because I must –

        Skippy… those operating with out a coherent methodology of time should hold a modicum of reserve…

      2. Skippy

        L.M. Dorsey…

        Until other comment is unlocked [hides under bed] would it suffice to say…. don’t complain about references to chalk… when white washing…

      3. digi_owl

        Well that explains it. Until i checked the link, i thought dear Skippy had “skipped” the rails…

      4. Skippy

        Sans the blockage..

        The fact that it comes from the AEI-ish blog is the most relevant point imo…. the kaleidoscopic backdrop that sets the ideological barfly scene…. where drinks are on the house ™….

        Per your concern about proforma, back handed non engagement… +

        Skippy… those operating with out a coherent methodology of time should hold a modicum of reserve…

    2. Steve H.

      May I present for your amusement and entanglement the argument that western hedonism was a plan by the Frankfurt School as fallout from Stalinism. I do enjoy it when both sides of the coin agree on the facts but not on the value of the outcome.

      Favorite quote:
      What Critical Theory is about is simply criticizing. It calls for the most destructive criticism possible, in every possible way, designed to bring the current order down.

      And to check that the author carries weight, search for him AND Pierre Sprey.

      Bill Lind: The Origins of Political Correctness.

    3. Oregoncharles

      @ Skippy: Interesting implication that Straussians support “liberal democracy.” Isn’t that the opposite of the usual interpretation?

      So “regime” = “political culture.” Pretty important, actually; for instance, democracy depends heavily, in practice, on tradition. Why else does a president who loses an election or terms out actually leave office? It’s because of expectations, their own and the military’s. And of course, in countries with a weak tradition of democracy, he doesn’t.

      The current relevance is that Russia has essentially no tradition of democracy. Granted that the Russian history I took was probably biased, the basic facts are straight out of Hollywood – and indeed, Russians have made some spectacular movies based on it. There is one strong commonality with the US: both are expansionist continental empires (so is China). Russia incorporates a lot more conquered peoples than the US, even after the Soviet Union disintegrated.

      Granted, also, at this point our own democratic tradition is looking very shaky, to say the least, and Putin is doing a good job of at least following the forms. Nothing is forever.

    1. L.M. Dorsey

      Ah, no. The protocols aren’t a true anything — except, perhaps, a burlesque of what they purport to expose. (See Eco, Umberto. The Prague Cemetery)

      1. Skippy

        Sadly romanticism is a poor substitute for anthropology… insert meme…

        Skippy…. one has to contextualize all history and not just ethnic frictions….

          1. Skippy

            “You have been misinformed, I think.”

            When the time period of Eco is overlapped on the epochs before and contextualized with the totality of our species experiences, I disagree…

        1. tegnost

          if you mix the two and take a mind altering substance you wind up with eco’s “baudolino”
          Thanks skippy,
          More interested in the story than the ideological posture except as it applies to events

      1. Oregoncharles

        Not clear whether they think that, or are accusing someone else of thinking that.

        The neocon infatuation with Israel does make the whole discussion very awkward.

    2. Massinissa

      Even if it WAS a blueprint, it was from OVER A HUNDRED YEARS AGO.

      And anyway it was also thoroughly debunked almost a hundred years ago.

      Maybe you should stop talking about Hitler’s favorite books…

      1. Oregoncharles

        I figured you deserved a break. It’s a holiday weekend, so chill.

        Thanks for feeding our addiction, anyway.

        1. Skippy

          Where I live its called bush fire season…. so crispy is apropos…

          Skippy… but back to the OP… ridged Kantian derived from a crack in the ground… tho even the author had backed down after mates pulled him up…. everyone gets old thingy…..

      1. sfd

        The PC crowd has betrayed the Left. When they are supporting the same bedfellows (Muslims) as the Neocons, it’s over.

      1. jrs

        Yes when you read about someone being crushed to death by a Walmart stampede.

        But maybe not this year, Black Friday itself seems to be a dying “tradition”. That’s good. At least noone gets killed shopping online.

  3. flora

    Thanks for this post. I have one quibble with Curtis’ opening statement:
    “In the past politicians promised to create a better world. …their power and authority came from the optimistic visions they offered their people. Those dreams failed, and today people have lost faith in ideologies.”

    Those dreams failed only in the sense that they were deliberately throttled by conservative politicians. The means of achieving those dreams – good jobs – were outsourced and offshored. People have not lost faith in ideologies but have had new ideologies, social identity ideologies, handed to them. The new ideologies say nothing about better material wellbeing for the 99%.

    1. flora

      adding: the neo-cons hate us for our freedoms. Richard Pipes saying the Soviet Union had weapons that we couldn’t detect was reprized by W. Bush in the “Saddam has weapons of mass distruction, we just can’t find them” statements.

    2. Jagger

      Those dreams failed only in the sense that they were deliberately throttled by conservative politicians.The means of achieving those dreams – good jobs – were outsourced and offshored

      IIRC, NAFTA was passed under Clinton’s leadership. TPP is being pushed by Obama. So pointing fingers at conservatives while ignoring democrats doesn’t quite pass the smell test.

      1. flora

        I did not say Republicans, but almost added in my quote ‘conservatives – both Democrat and Republican.’
        You are quite right about Clinton and many other Democrats. Clinton was great for passing GOP legislation. And it’s interesting to see David Brooks laud Hillary’s campaign.

    1. Oregoncharles

      Thanks for that one – I think; you’re right, it is another nightmare. But a model dissection of the DOD coverup. A footnote: Cambell, the guy in charge of the investigation, is also the person ultimately responsible for the war crime. No wonder he left the room before the questions started.

      And a further note: the OFFICIAL description is of a level of incompetence and technical decrepitude that’s pretty alarming all by itself – and also lands on Campbell’s desk. I’m guessing he won’t be in charge much longer. Time to shuffle off to Buffalo.

  4. Massinissa

    The comments above are really weird today. Like something I would see on other sites. Weird to see that kind of stuff here…

    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      Nirvana is the liberation from the cycle of birth and re-birth.

      It applies to ideas as well (ideas exit in the Realm of Ideas, separate from ours, but that’s for another post)

      Nirvana here can be achieved by liberating oneself from the numerous iterations of the neoliberal ideas.

      And go to a completely different cycle of confusing ideas (never to the good guys), inside the horizons.

  5. Watt4Bob

    So far, I suspect the presentation of a false equivalence.

    Neoconservatism appears to me a reactionary effort to shore up a rapacious status quo, whereas Islamism is born of local frustration with generations-long occupation by the forces of that same rapacious status quo.

    Neocons, whether they understand it or not, are busy rationalizing America’s tawdry history of violent hegemony, and stifling any sources of opposition, foreign, or domestic to that status quo.

    The portrayal of Henry Kissinger as being somehow inimical to the essential aims of the neocons is laughable.

    Ask the Cambodians, or Chileans about Kissinger’s political ‘realism’ or his ability to overlook the ‘internal’ politics of a country.

    Neocons are a fearful reaction to the growing realization on the part of the American people, spawned in resistance to the Viet Nam war, that America’s place in the world is not that of benign sower of liberty and justice for all, but closer to greedy, out-of-control bullies.

    The world has been slowly coming to the conclusion that they’d really be better off if America would leave them alone.

    The Islamists are simply the most determined, and committed, at this point in time, to seeing America leave them to determine their own future.

    The neocons don’t care a bit whether Strauss is right, his ideas are ‘useful, whereas most Islamist Nationalists truly believe and follow the opinions, if not the teachings of Iman Zawahry.

    The neocons are faced with two very fundamental problems, one is convincing skeptical Americans of an obvious lie, and the other is the growing realization on the part of the people living in the worlds Islamic countries that ‘westernization’ has been mostly a cover-story for looting.

    My most ardent hope is that conservative religious Americans will come to understand that they’ve been used by neocons who don’t give fig about their beliefs, and are as responsible as anyone for destroying their quality of life.

    Fear of Islam is a situation contrived by neocons, fear of neocon rule is a demonstrably rational result of understanding American politics.

    I’m more than a little bothered by any story line that seems to say that Strauss and Iman Zawahry are sort of equivalent crazies on either side of some vague divide.

    1. hemeantwell

      The Islamists are simply the most determined, and committed, at this point in time, to seeing America leave them to determine their own future.

      You need a bunch of qualifiers here. Sure, self-determination. But to boil “America” down to an imperialism that Salafist self-determination responds to misses much. “America” to the Salafists is rife with democratic/feminist/queer impulses that threaten their local domination of others and, to add on a psychological component, themselves. You don’t need to be a follower of Wilhelm Reich to see Salafists as preoccupied with maintaining character structures that are rigid and thus fragile. They want to be free to determine a future that is already determined dogmatically, one that’s great for neo-feudal men.

      My reading of Strauss was that he was the most vile sort of retrograde elitist, very self-consciously basing his politics on mass deceit and thus fundamentally anti-democratic. I don’t see much, in terms of core organizing principles, that distinguishes him from a fascist, or rather prevents him from becoming one, and certainly not relying on the services of fascists.

      1. Watt4Bob

        “America” to the Salafists is rife with democratic/feminist/queer impulses that threaten their local domination of others and, to add on a psychological component, themselves.

        So, they hate us for our freedom?

        It’s actually much more simple than that;

        People in the ME are tired of our impact on their everyday life, our impact in their country, not so much what we do at home.

        Salafists may care about our lack of morals, but to the average person, it’s our imposition of, and support for repressive, dictatorial governments.

        1. Oregoncharles

          You’re suppressing the reality of Islamists/Salafists relation to their own, mostly Muslim neighbors: dictatorial rule. They don’t just wish to assert themselves vs. “America,” they also assert themselves vs. all their less-fanatical neighbors. It’s a more or less explicitly imperial ideology on its own side, very, very similar to our own Dominionists.

        2. P Walker

          Also, given the fact that Islamists are outsiders, they have a special vantage point as observers of our society as much as we are of theirs.

          The problem? Critics of the core of Western society are very unwelcome. Most people in our society really don’t want to know how the sausage is made and want to continue living in ignorant bliss.

  6. optimader

    1) Leo Strauss is a horrible human being, who has a lot to answer for. —> past tense, fortunately

    2) Douglas Feith really is “the f2cking stupidest guy on the face of the Earth.”—>
    its a tough runoff, surely Paul Wolfowitz is on that short list. His being 71 and Feith 62, integrating Stupid overt time, Wolfowitz does capture more shaded area under the curve.

    3) The neocons make Henry Kissinger look like a Boy Scout.—> Again, integrating evilness over time, Henry’s has had a dead hand on a lot of negative policy influence…. Then again the Boy Scouts do like wearing uniforms and marching?..

    4) Best quote: “The Soviets had developed systems that were so sophisticated that they were undetectable.” Analogy to the tension between Physics experimentalists vs theorists. The former tells the latter it ain’t real if you cant demonstrate it, and the latter tosses it out to see if it will stick to the funding wall.

    “Happy Go’in-Back-for-More-Tryptophan Day”, or for the politically correct “Happy Emissivity=1.0 Friday”

    1. optimader

      I think also, rewinding the tape we have to give the good electorate of the State of Washington who kept reelecting Scoop Jackson six fcking times honorable mention. Scoop of course was the Prince of Darkness who can be credited with giving host to evil spawn like Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, Elliott Abrams…

      Scoop Jackson is a special example of why I don’t understand the urgency to encourage uninformed people to vote.

      1. flora

        Scoop Jackson – Washington State – Boeing aircraft – defense contracts – bringing home the bacon. Opponents called him “The Senator from Boeing.” In 1965 80% of Boeing’s contracts were military.

  7. James McFadden

    For those interested in reading more about the Straussians, I suggest the Harper’s article by Earl Shorris titled “Ignoble Liars” (see link is below).

    For a more in depth analysis of Strauss and the Straussian cult, I suggest Anne Norton’s book “Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire”

    The Straussian’s origins as disillusioned socialists who later became fervent anti-communists is by itself an interesting study in group psychology. The neocon ideology includes “the ends justify the means” and “power must be wielded” – hence the justification for the “noble lie.” Straussians think American power should be used for moral purposes, but distrust social engineering projects, and can’t see the contradiction in this logic. When events unfold badly (as in Iraq), they either blame someone else (the intelligence was wrong), or have some lame excuse that “the cause was just” but the leaders failed to consider all the consequences. What is clear among the Neocons (or Straussians) is their tunnel-vision understanding of history. They read half a dozen great books — their canon — and think they know it all. Their arrogant belief in moral superiority is typical of a self-reinforcing cult of insiders. Their justifications for monstrous decisions and horrific consequences can generally be reduced to claims that it was “an error in judgment”, but that their “intentions were good” — as when they decided to invade Iraq and kill a half million people. The way these guys spin the words you would think they were talking about predicting the weather incorrectly rather than decisions where hundreds of thousands died for their mistaken ideology.

    1. optimader

      The Straussian’s origins as disillusioned socialists Trotskyists.. perpetual revolution (war in this case)

        1. optimader

          Of course you’re correct, thanks for pointing it out, I was thinking of Irving Kristol in my turkey/ beverage infested haze.. Now fading into round 2

    2. knowbuddhau

      Thanks for that, thanks to Lambert for the OP, and thanks to all (looking at you, Skippy) for the comments. It’s exactly this kind of dialogue that I love so much about NC.

      I’ve long been curious about Straussians, especially the “noble lie.”

      The Wikipedia biography casts doubt on his purported contribution to the rise of the neocons. Is it the case that the neocons have taken from Strauss only what they wanted? Namely, a tool (the noble lie) to achieve their ends?

      The first half of the 20th century saw many major developments in the understanding of human nature. It was learned that we’re not as different from other animals as had been assumed. Although not subject to imprinting, we nevertheless have inherited lessons from our immense past.

      Think about it. We spent literally hundreds of thousands of years as hunter-gatherers; we’ve only been living in cities for at most maybe 10,000. We can’t escape our history. Yet Strauss was all about the city and how it’s the only place where we can express our true potential.

      I’m thinking in particular of one aspect of our deep history, and its utility for propagating “noble” lies, which I think are better understood as myths. These days, we bust myths, right? Myths have become equated with lies, false and irrational beliefs that no real modern takes seriously.

      But I wonder, do Straussians? There’s a group of neocons collectively called “The Crazies.” The most prominent among them are Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz. How did they get that epithet? Was it because of their willingness to deploy “noble” lies, however outrageous? (Colin Powell is said to have referred to them as “the fucking crazies” during the run-up to the Iraq war crime.)

      The early 20th-century development I’m concerned with here is the revelation of the power of myth over human behavior by Joseph Campbell. In The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, there’s a treatment of certain features of our psychology that the Crazies would just love.

      They’re called “innate releasing mechanisms.” To use a computer metaphor, they’re the icons on the control panels of our minds.

      In sum, then: Within the field of the study of animal behavior— which is the only area in which controlled experiments have made it possible to arrive at dependable conclusions in the observation of instinct—two orders of innate releasing mechanisms have been identified, namely, the stereotyped, and the open, subject to imprint. In the case of the first, a precise lock-key relationship exists between the inner readiness of the nervous system and the external sign stimulus triggering response; so that, if there exist in the human inheritance many—or even any—IRMs of this order, we may justly speak of “inherited images” in the psyche. The mere fact that no one can yet explain how such lock-key relationships are established does not invalidate the observation of their existence: no one knows how the hawk got into the nervous system of our barnyard fowl, yet numerous tests have shown it to be, de facto, there. However, the human psyche has not yet been, to any great extent, satisfactorily tested for such stereotypes, and so, I am afraid, pending further study, we must simply admit that we do not know how far the principle of the inherited image can


      be carried when interpreting mythological universals. It is no less premature to deny its possibility than to announce it as anything more than a considered opinion.

      Have Straussians (whether actual or nominal) taken these lessons as methods for hacking human minds?

      I’m going to quote a section I’ve already posted, but I think it bears repeating.

      Let us consider, now, what can happen to a poet. The following statement, by the British poet and critic A. E. Housman, supplies the most satisfactory definition I know of a certain triggering principle that is effective in the poetic impact:

      Poetry seems to me more physical than intellectual. A year or two ago, in common with others, I received from America


      a request that I would define poetry. I replied that I could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat, but that I thought we both recognized the object by the symptoms which it provokes in us. One of these symptoms was described in connection with another object by Eliphaz the Temanite: “A spirit passed before my face: the hair of my flesh stood up.” Experience has taught me, when I am shaving of a morning, to keep watch over my thoughts, because if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act. This particular symptom is accompanied by a shiver down the spine; there is another which consists in a constriction of the throat and a precipitation of water to the eyes; and there is a third which I can only describe by borrowing a phrase from one of Keats’s last letters, where he says, speaking of Fanny Brawne, “everything that reminds me of her goes through me like a spear.” The seat of this sensation is the pit of the stomach.8

      The reader hardly need be reminded that the images not only of poetry and love but also of religion and patriotism, when effective, are apprehended with actual physical responses: tears, sighs, interior aches, spontaneous groans, cries, bursts of laughter, wrath, and impulsive deeds. Human experience and human art, that is to say, have succeeded in creating for the human species an environment of sign stimuli that release physical responses and direct them to ends no less effectively than do the signs of nature the instincts of the beasts. The biology, psychology, sociology, and history of these sign stimuli may be said to constitute the field of our subject, the science of Comparative Mythology. And although no one has yet devised an effective method for distinguishing between the innate and the acquired, the natural and the culturally conditioned, the “elementary” and the “ethnic” aspects of such human-cultural catalysts and their evoked responses, the radical distinction here made by the poet Housman between images that act upon our nervous structure as energy releasers and those that serve, rather, for the transmission of thought, supplies an excellent criterion for the testing of our themes.

      “I cannot satisfy myself,” he writes, “that there are any such things as poetical ideas. No truth, it seems to me, is too precious, no observation too profound, and no sentiment too exalted to be


      expressed in prose. The utmost that I could admit is that some ideas do, while others do not, lend themselves kindly to poetical expression; and that these receive from poetry an enhancement which glorifies and almost transfigures them, and which is not perceived to be a separate thing except by analysis.” 9

      When Housman writes that “poetry is not the thing said but a way of saying it,” and when he states again “that the intellect is not the fount of poetry, that it may actually hinder its production, and that it cannot even be trusted to recognize poetry when it is produced,” 10 he is no more than reaffirming and lucidly formulating the first axiom of all creative art—whether it be in poetry, music, dance, architecture, painting, or sculpture—which is, namely, that art is not, like science, a logic of references but a release from reference and rendition of immediate experience: a presentation of forms, images, or ideas in such a way that they will communicate, not primarily a thought or even a feeling, but an impact. (Both quotes from The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, Joseph Campbell. London: Strecker and Warburg. 1960. Emphasis original.)

      Consider the appeal of innate releasing mechanisms (IRMs) to “noble” liars aka propagandists. Facts don’t matter; what matters is the impact. It wasn’t real WMDs, and the necessity of our prudent destruction thereof, that got us to commit the Iraq War crime. It was myths about them that provoked the response intended by the Crazies.

      For a more recent example, look at Trump’s fact-flaunting popularity. Is his otherwise inexplicable rise due to his natural ability to “dog-whistle”? He doesn’t make sense to those of us in “the reality-based community,” but you can’t deny his impact. I’m not saying he’s Straussian, just a natural-born ignoble liar.

      It’s interesting to note that Campbell’s lessons were so well regarded by the State Department that he was invited to lecture at the Foreign Service Institute annually for 17 years, from 1956-1973.

      And it’s likewise interesting to note that another neocon whom I count among the Crazies, Karl Rove, “calls himself ‘Grendel,’ ‘Moby Dick,’ and ‘Lord Voldemort,'” according to Scott Horton (Rove’s Monday Whoppers).

      Have Straussians learned Campbell’s lessons only too well? Is that why Rove meant by his distinction between history’s real agents and “the reality-based community”?

      (Wow, didn’t think I was going to write an essay. Apologies for the length. But it’s a holiday and I’ve nothing better to do while my truck gets a brake job. And now, dear beleaguered readers, you’re in luck, it’s ready.)

  8. James McFadden

    Just out of curiosity, I’m wondering if any of the two dozen people who commented on this “Power of Nightmares” recommendation actually watched the three hour documentary — all three parts?

    1. Optimader

      Ive watched all of his documentaries. Fun to watch wether or not you agree w his take on everything, he is a good editor.

      1. James McFadden

        Thanks – good to know. I was made aware of the documentary a couple weeks ago and watched all three – and passed a recommendation on to Yves about it – though its appearance here may just be a coincidence. It just seemed that these comments appeared rather fast – not enough time had actually passed to watch the documentary. So either the two dozen commenters were all commenting out of ignorance about the documentary, or this group is remarkably well informed about a rather obscure old documentary, or some combination of the two. I was just curious.

    2. JustAnObserver

      Caught the first part by chance the evening it was broadcast. Was so riveted, I’d never heard of Adam Curtis before, that I cleared my extensive social calendar for the next 2 weeks. I think I could credit it with the beginnings of some – lets say – skepticism towards the official neocon/neolib “narratives”.

  9. JEHR

    Off topic:

    When I can’t sleep at night, I often turn the radio on. Last night the BBC presented a program on Greece where I learned that Greeks pay “rent” for the burial plots of their loved ones. As time goes on, the rent goes up and in this time of austerity, many Greek families can no longer afford to pay for the burial plots, in which case there are two alternatives: cremation or digging up the corpse and its coffin, washing the bones and placing them in an ossuary where the family can go to grieve. Only the Greek government can build crematoriums and so far there have been none built. Some Greeks will send the disinterred remains of their family members to Bulgaria which has a crematorium that can cremate those remains which then can be sent back to Greece and reburied.

    I have heard of death insurance held by companies on their employees, but this is the first time I have ever heard of “burial rent.” Don’t tell GS!

    1. Massinissa

      To be fair burial rent might make sense in a place that has almost no land but wants to have a cemetery anyway. Like, I don’t know, Malta or something. But in Greece? The mind boggles.

      It would be nice if at least the Greeks had the option to have a crematorium… That in my mind is even more ridiculous than burial rent…

      1. Lambert Strether Post author

        I believe that the issue of being able to pay for one’s burial was one reason for the creation of “friendly societies” in the early days of the industrial revolution. E.P. Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class:

        In the catastrophic years of the 1830S and 1840S, when the power-loom, the Irish influx, and the new
        Poor Law, finished off what wage-cutting had begun, there were–alongside the insurrectionary hopes of Chartist weavers–the more gruesome stories : the children’s burial clubs (where each Sunday-school pupil contributed 1d. per week towards his own or a fellow-pupil’s funeral)…

        So we see that austerity is able to move entire populations back, past even the Gilded Age, to the 1830s. Quite an accomplishment for Europe’s leadership.

    2. MRW

      I remember hearing that some countries–or was it municipalities within certain countries–have a max 25-year limit on burial plots, then they are re-used for the upcoming dead.

  10. MRW

    What the Power of Nightmares does not address is Menachem Begin’s role in this. Was Curtis afraid to address this directly? Begin was angry about being forced into the Camp David Accords. So he decided to shaft Carter.

    In 1977/1978, or thereabouts, Begin and Shamir approached Jerry Falwell, de facto leader of the Christian Right, which as Curtis correctly points out did not vote. Begin and Shamir said they knew their religions did not agree on fundamental issues but they they did agree on the evils of homosexuality and abortion in society, cultural scourges they could agree upon.

    Begin said he would not talk to the new incoming president, Ronald Reagan, unless it was through Jerry Falwell. Falwell gained immense political power as a result. (Francis Schaeffer’s son, who left the movement, confirmed this years ago.) This continued for at least three years after Reagan came to power.

    It formed the political power of the Christian Right, and Falwell wallowed in it. Falwell essentially had a red phone to Reagan’s desk, and he cemented Israel’s political wishes–whatever Israel wanted–while he was at it. Political fixer and operative, and chairman of the Republican National Committee, Lee Atwater picked up on this and cemented this political connection as a new powerful voting bloc, and used it to secure Reagan’s overwhelming reelection by getting all the fundies to vote. Natch, the new love of Israel was added to the Christian Right religious views, which you can still hear echoed in AIPAC meetings today.

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