Monday, March 26, 2007


Rogue Male in The Trap

Did you see the final part of Adam Curtis’ “documentary” The Trap? I fear I was shouting at the screen so much last night that I didn’t make the detailed notes needed for a full rebuttal, so hopefully Tom Papworth will give it a thorough fisking while I just hit it with a hammer. Meanwhile, I’ve caught the far more satisfying first episode of BBC7’s thriller serial Rogue Male (listen again tonight). I’ve never read Geoffrey Household’s original book, but after discovering Michael Jayston’s superb reading last time BBC7 broadcast it, I’ve tuned in promptly now it’s come round again…

Rogue Male

First, the dark side of Boys’ Own. I tuned in part-way through this story when it was last on BBC7 a year or two ago, and to my surprise I found it gripping. I suspect I listened initially because my favourite radio show of the 1980s – sadly not yet come to BBC7, nor to any commercial release, and my tapes are rather rickety – was Brogue Male, a terrific spoof of heroic British 1930s adventure tales starring Richard Johnson as dashing gentleman adventurer Sir Digby Spode, Royce Mills as his faithful friend Hubert Carstairs and, in especially large letters at the end, Stephen Greif as the villainous Count Lazlo Stroganoff. This absolutely fantastic but short-lived series evidently borrowed its name from Geoffrey Household’s 1939 novel, but at the time I’d never heard of it (and I’ve still not read it, and seen neither Fritz Lang’s nor Clive Donner’s film versions). After a couple of episodes of Rogue Male, though, I was listening to it on its own merits and not just thanks to Sir Digby.

The story is being broadcast from today in 15 half-hour episodes every weekday at 9.30 am, with repeats at 8.30 pm and 1.30 in the morning (I think I’ll give that one a miss), as well as the BBC7 website’s week-long ‘Listen Again’ function, so it’s not difficult to catch. What I think caught me about it is in part the tension of the thriller itself, but perhaps foremost Michael Jayston’s brilliantly sardonic reading style. Written in the first person, it’s ideal to be read, with Mr Jayston lending it a huge amount of character: he comes across as slightly dispassionate and distanced from events, but also as if he’s constantly taking you into his confidence. With so many episodes of such constant tension, it could have been disastrous if it had been read in an over-emotional style – with the unnamed, but far from ‘anonymous’ anti-hero undergoing gruesome torture and near death even from the first, if he had started off sounding on the edge, it’s difficult to know where he could gone from there. The story dares you to side with its protagonist, an affluent, conventionally amoral gentleman who actually has his own keen sense of morality, though as the story unfolds you feel how his honour and individualism both bind and distance him from his establishment background and politics (he claims none, though thinks he could easily have sat for an agricultural constituency in the South of England). I’m not instinctively on the side of a well-off member of the establishment with a misanthropic streak and whose fame lies in shooting animals for fun, but it worked remarkably well on me. Most of all, his survival instinct comes to the fore as, you’ll not be surprised to hear, the hunter becomes the hunted.

I generally prefer my old-fashioned heroic adventures more tongue-in-cheek, but this – though with quite an arch voice to it at times – seems to go rather the other way in making them darker, more realistic, and not a little macho. The anti-hero’s self-reliance and gritty manhood is tested to the limit as he undergoes torture, pursuit and horrible enclosure, turning by turns philosophically introspective and near-feral. But what’s he done to get himself in this situation? On holiday in an unspecified European country, the big game hunter used to stalking beasts becomes fascinated by the idea of hunting the biggest beast. If this was The Avengers, he’d be the villain; in that series, a more wholesome but not entirely dissimilar fantasy of Britain, any hunter who’s serious about their ‘sport’ inevitably turns to human quarry, and our heroes rather frown on that sort of thing. Rogue Male plays with rather more moral shades. His quarry is not a defenceless victim he’s chasing down in bullying fun – instead, he gets himself into the position where he could kill a dictator (and in early 1939, with a ruthless secret police set after him, you can guess which one would have been the biggest). He tracks the man, and aims his hunting rifle through telescopic sights… Then he’s arrested just before he could shoot, but that raises two complex questions from the start. Would he have shot? He tells himself he was just play-acting the possibility merely to see if it could be done, but is that true? And, given the target, might you have wanted him to shoot? So, though it draws on stiff-upper-lipped adventure fiction (and rogue elephants, but household sensibilities forbid me from examining that angle), it anticipates The Day of the Jackal, with just as much tension but in many more shades of grey. And all the ‘trial assassination’ business, first capture and escape is in just today’s first episode, so his ‘big game hunter’ moment is pretty much just a prologue to the role-reversal of his becoming the quarry throughout the rest of the book. I seem to remember it goes on quite a bit (well, it is unabridged) as he’s pursued by the ruthless ‘Quive-Smith’ – the only significant character with a name, but I’m sure it’s not his own – and driven to earth, but as in many ways it’s much more a ‘mood’ piece than a ‘plot’ piece, I also remember that not seeming to matter very much. I suspect I’ll keep listening to the end the second time around too…

The Trap: Whatever Happened To Our Dreams of a Political “Documentary” With a Brain?

Oh well, time for a swipe, then, and though I didn’t stop shouting long enough to get any of his lines down, never fear, I’ve found another source with similar logic to quote instead. I thought The Power of Nightmares (Adam Curtis’ last polemical “documentary” series for BBC2, covering the neo-cons and Al-Qaeda) was rather good, and was looking forward to the heavily-trailed follow-up. I wasn’t expecting such an incoherent mess. When Tom Papworth’s Liberal Polemic took the first two episodes apart, I thought he was a little harsh. I’d found Mr Curtis’ first two episodes more of a mixed bag than Tom’s critique suggested, and could see decent points in what each of them had to say. As far as the third goes, though, it was the most absurd critique of freedom I’ve ever seen and I hope Tom tears it to pieces and stamps on them. In his impeccably intellectual way. Could this just be because last time Mr Curtis was having a go at political beliefs I despise, but this time he was dissing liberty (though rarely ‘Liberals’, as it happened, because we’d have mucked up his paper-thin thesis)? There’s probably a bit of that. I get less animated if someone else is grievously misrepresented, true, but in part because I don’t know their arguments so well. Mr Curtis clearly doesn’t know his own terribly well.

To go back a little, one problem with the ‘series’ was that the three episodes didn’t follow on from each other with any kind of logic and felt instead like separate programmes. This would have mattered less if he didn’t treat unconnected ‘facts’ as if they were proofs of each other, presenting us with an entirely false syllogism. Using misleading phrases like “We have shown…” to give the illusion of having established a link, when he’s done nothing of the kind, merely got my back up. ‘There are some bad things in the world,’ would have been his starting point. ‘I believe they’re all the fault of people being encouraged to make up their own minds about things instead of accepting the wise instructions of left-wing intellectuals, so I’m going to make a wisely left-wing and intellectual programme with lots of scary clips and music to make people go “ooh”. Oh, and some evidence if there is any, but knowing The Truth is more important than any bourgeois so-called “facts” that might get in the way of belief.’ At least if he’d been on Tedious Platitude For the Day like most evidence-free authoritarians who want their beliefs imposed on everyone else, he’d have been two hours and fifty-seven minutes shorter.

The first programme had, I thought, some fair points against practises in psychology and economics, and though it gave no notion of what he was actually in favour of, his revelations about Game Theory (satirised by Doctor Who as far back as 1979, if you’ve fallen for Mr Curtis’ ‘I’ve got a uniquely brilliant insight!’ shtick) or political groups that argue there’s no such thing as altruism, the public interest or public service, and that people can only act selfishly, all seemed at least intriguing. His second programme, dealing with the failure of central targets and ‘marketising’ seemed good in the round, shaky in the detail and highly questionable in his claims about what the philosophies behind it were, but I wasn’t prepared for just how self-contradictory the final piece would be. The biggest trap that Mr Curtis appeared to fall into was the notion that anyone who uses a particular word subscribes to exactly the same world-view as anyone else who uses it. When it comes to a ‘hurrah-word’ like “freedom” that everyone wishes to stake a claim on, basing your programme on the idea that all rhetoric around freedom reflects the same ideology goes beyond ‘foolish’ and into ‘absolutely bloody stupid’.
“When I use a word,” Tony Blair said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alex, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Tony Blair, “which is to be master – that’s all.”
Mr Curtis appears to be the last credulous buffoon in the world who takes every word from Mr Blair at face value. In the Looking-Glass world of Mr Curtis, a Labour government with an unprecedented record of removing individual freedoms and grabbing control to the centre is proof that governments that are in favour of freedom don’t work. The thing is, while Mr Blair’s rhetoric may occasionally mention freedom – though usually just in international speeches – his philosophy and his policy record is entirely different, and most people with a brain would realise that someone hailing “freedom” who stamps down on it at every opportunity does not, in fact, believe in it, rather than taking it as evidence that all believers in freedom must turn to the dark side. Yes, Mr Blair’s tried to co-opt “freedom” into his ‘big tent’, but he’s tried to do the same for every political buzz-word. Back in 1997, that meant an awful lot of people heard what they wanted to hear. Ten years later, everyone has something a bit sturdier to go on. Mr Curtis, on the other hand, thinks that anyone who’s once said they believe in freedom – even if they’ve also professed to believe in a dozen contradictory things – is part of the same philosophical team. So, if you were watching last night, you’d have been told that people inspired by classical Liberals like Isaiah Berlin inevitably do the reverse of what he said, and so what he advocated becomes inseparable from shiftless authoritarians like Mr Blair, American neo-conservatives, ’60s European drop-out terrorists, Marxist revolutionaries in Africa, the Iranian theocratic revolution, the Khmer Rouge and George Michael, who all believe in exactly the same idea of freedom, and any failures for any of them are the fault of all. And of you and me, for liking the sound of “liberty”. If you think that’s an absurd caricature, it is; but by Mr Curtis, not of Mr Curtis. The only reference I made up there was George Michael. Yes, Mr Curtis admits that Mr Berlin argued positive liberty is dangerous, but claims that anyone proposing negative liberty enforces it by positive liberty and is therefore bad, so the solution is to have more nice positive liberty with which to inspire people (despite terror, Cambodia, Iran and Marxism, telling people what they should be inspired by is worth giving up the negative liberty of not killing them if they aren’t suitably inspired. I’ve never been sold on the idea that “negative liberty” is the only worthwhile sort, but another dose of Mr Curtis’ rubbish and I might convert). He repeated the terms constantly, but they may as well have been sheer noise for all the meaning he invested them with. When he railed against the way neo-conservatives reduce the idea of freedom to a very carefully circumscribed ‘economic freedom’ so that the state serves big business, telling people what to think and do for the advantage of big business, I could easily agree. When his woolly antidote was that the state should serve itself, and so tell people what to think and do for their own good, and that that would be lovely… Somehow, I didn’t find either option very attractive.

Isaiah Berlin was constantly referred to throughout – “negative liberty” was attacked at least once a minute – despite the fact that in a clip played of him within the first few minutes, he pointed out that one of the keys to freedom from being bossed around is that the state can’t therefore impose a utopian ideal into which you don’t fit. Like Mr Berlin, perhaps in part from having read his famous essays about concepts of liberty many years ago, I’m deeply suspicious of utopianism, and believe it leads to terrible things in the name of the ‘perfect’ ends justifying the means (my most recent piece about it is here, though as even for me it’s rather long, you might scroll down to the section headed ‘Free Will and Utopia’). I don’t claim to know best for everyone, because everyone’s idea of ‘best’ is different. Mr Curtis doesn’t think people should decide their ‘best’ for themselves, so he quotes all this without understanding a word of it. He says anyone going out to clobber other countries while using the rhetoric of “freedom” – even when they’re doing exactly what Isaiah Berlin warned against – is fulfilling Mr Berlin’s prescriptions. And he also claims that making sure people have freedom to find their own way of life leaves them with nothing to live for. What?! If you need the state to provide your aim in life, what’s the point in having one? Having the freedom to decide your own way of life is not a way of life in itself – it just makes sure that, when you make your own decisions on your own ideals, you don’t clobber everyone else’s ideals along the way.

The number of times Mr Curtis flatly contradicted his own argument made me wonder if, like the odd blog piece I write in a strop, he’d actually read what he’d written before publishing it. The Trap was very like a blog post - a post many, many times longer even than mine, but with lots of pictures and music to make it exciting and cover up that he wasn’t saying anything meaningful. It’s a relief these days to find someone even attempting to make a “documentary” on politics, so I’ll give points for that even when the result was such inept, ill-thought-out, sensationalist drivel. It’s just a shame that the producer didn’t say at any point, ‘Here, Adam, you say these things are connected, but you’ve not brought in any evidence for that,’ and that there’s no fourth programme in which people who know what they’re talking about – or even that don’t – can bung questions at Mr Curtis and show up just what nonsense he was talking. Because three weeks of unchallenged portentous polemic pretending to be the objective word of God was just nonsense.

To paraphrase last night’s edition, Mr Curtis claimed that because people whose rhetoric has a tenuous link to other people who’ve said ‘people should be able to make their own choices without the government pushing them around’ are going around pushing everyone around and making everyone’s choices for them, it proves that letting people make their own choices is a bad idea and we should go back to finding a grand vision, whatever it might be – any one will do, he didn’t say what – and in the name of that, we can then push people around and make their choices for them, for which they’ll thank us because they have something to believe in again (and, presumably, new ‘witches’ to burn who disagree). At the end, Mr Curtis’ inspiring call to arms appeared to be this: authoritarians use the name “freedom” in vain, so freedom has failed and we should give people something to believe in from the top down, because only the government telling them what to think will make them truly free. For the life of me, I can’t see the difference between the “freedom” he was proposing and the “freedom” he was criticising.
“That’s a great deal to make one word mean,” Alice said in a thoughtful tone.
Update: while I was writing this, Tom Papworth did indeed post his own piece on the final part of The Trap, followed by his concluding views on the series as a whole. Joe Otten also has a thoughtful piece. But neither of them shouted as loudly as I did: I can tell.

Update 27.03.07: The Trap’s concluding programme has inspired still more critical blog posts… Look out for Liberal England’s crisp note on Isaiah Berlin and, courtesy of Jonathan there, Not Saussure’s detailed analysis.

And another update on the 28th: Millennium has now trampled down all three episodes.

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Delivered as promised. And in two parts, this time!

There were three choice bits for me:

1) Redistribution of land and wealth are a integral part of democracy

2) The Iraq war turned into a bloodbath because of blunders in the economic reconstruction

3) Curtis's final sentence about creating a new positive/ progressive liberty, despite having spent twenty minutes reminding us about the Algerian Revolution and Pol Pot.

Full details at the usual address.
Oh, and I was shouting on the inside, believe me! :oD
Thanks, Tom. In-depth and thought-provoking as ever. Links to your articles provided above in an update yesterday afternoon ;-)

And his final sentence that having any sort of crusade is better than risking people not being told what to think – I paraphrase harshly, but not unjustly – was what really set me off, too. It was less that he wanted a new form of positive liberty, as I thought his linking of Pol Pot et al was rather tendentious, than that rather than coming up with any substance or direction to his new ideal state, after all his warnings he just wanted ‘something’ in the abstract and so (he implied, doubtless without thinking) Pol Pot would do. Though Richard started shouting as early as the introduction, which may be a new record.
Perhaps his argument was that anything any state ever does will end up oppressing somebody, so better to oppress people in the name of something stirring that will get people excited than just do it by accident?

It’s about as convincing a case as the one he made throughout that every single political movement in the world – from Marxism to Islamic fundamentalism – is an offshoot of Liberalism, so people who believe in freedom are to blame. A bit like the character in Goodness Gracious Me who identifies everything he sees as “Indian,” but evil. As I expressed above (with a little help from Mr Dodgson), if “freedom” is used to mean “every idea you can possibly think of,” surely it just loses all meaning.
er Does anyone know where i can get a copy of the radio version of 'Rogue Male' read by Michael Jayston? its the best radio program i've ever heard and you just cant find it anywhere!!!
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