...a blog by Richard Flowers

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Day 2275: Shut Your Trap


This was RUBBISH.

What, you want MORE?

OK: Mr Charlie Brooker does not often make mistakes, but when he advised us to watch a TV series by Mr Madam Adam Curtis called "The Trap: How We Learned to Stop Worrying About Freedom and Love the no that's not right…" it was a STINKER.

Madam Adam's technique is to tell you what to think whilst playing a MONTAGE of clips and LOTS of SCARY music so that you know that it is all REALLY TERRIFYING STUFF. And then say: "It's all true – now you have to do what I say!"

So it was a sort of HORROR ANTHOLOGY in three parts, a series of MADE UP STORIES to frighten you! Goodness knows why it was billed as a DOCUMENTARY though; probably some sort of mix up at the RadioTimes!

The first part was called "BAD WORD you, Buddy!", though it might as well have been called "The Ghost of Freedom Past".

It was set in the Nineteen Seventies, and it told two stories about two DUMB ideas and how they took hold of two institutions.

The first idea was GAME THEORY: the idea that you can fight a war by treating it like a game of BATTLESHIPS. This idea so impressed the Pentagon that they used it extensively in order to LOSE the VIETNAM WAR. The problem with Game Theory being that you have to ASSUME what the other side's winning conditions actually are. If you measure winning by "how many body bags we have filled" and the other side measures winning by "are the American public so SICKENED by this slaughter that they make the army give up and go home" you may find that your sums do not add up. Computer says "No", as they say.

On the DOWN SIDE, it turned out that Game Theory was invented by a man called Mr John Nash who was unfortunately MAD.

This, however, segued nicely into the second story!

The second idea was that you could measure whether someone was BONKERS or not by getting them to fill in a questionnaire.

Here is an example of one such questionnaire:

"Question One: Are you Lord Blairimort?"

If you answer "yes" then it is off to the Soft-Wall Hilton for you, you LOONY!

Now, to be fair to the head-shrinkers that came up with this idea, psychology had gone a bit WRONG, because psychologists could not tell the difference between people who were mad and people who just SAID that they were mad. This was PROVED by Mr R D Laing and his Rosenhan Experiment where he successfully got himself and a dozen other people incarcerated in a MENTAL INSTITUTION and then found he could not get out again. What a NUTTER. Which is what the people running the mental institution had said.

So at least they were at least tying to make things BETTER, which is more than can be said of the pinheads and the Pentagon, who already had a pretty successful technique for EXPLODING PEOPLE.

Of course, the problem should have been obvious. And certainly, SOMEONE should have spotted it the moment that they tested the whole of America and found that 51% of Americans were clinically CRACKERS.

The tests did not test whether you were mentally ill or not – they only tested whether you conformed to a pre-determined definition of "normal" or not. And all abnormals were declared "ill".

(Funnily enough, we say that the SOVIET UNION was BAD for saying that people who didn't fit in were mental cases.)

It should not take a fluffy elephant to point out that the attempt to take the FALLIBLE human psychologist out of the diagnosis process was DOOMED to failure. Because OBVIOUSLY the tests were still being written by FALLIBLE human psychologists. Mechanising the process did not AVOID misdiagnosis; it merely enabled the person writing the test to misdiagnose THOUSANDS of people ALL AT ONCE!

So what linked these two ideas and their TERRIFYING consequences?

Well, says Madam Curtis, it is the idea that you can stop thinking about people AS people and reduce their behaviour to simple, easy to predict, numerical models, based on the assumption that everyone will behave in the way that is best for themselves.

Or, to put it bluntly, everyone is totally SELFISH.

The title for the second part was "The Ghost of Christmas Prozac". In this episode, Madam Adam told us that all the SCARY things that he had told us about in part one were now being applied to the way that the government ran the country.

This started with another idea, called "Public Choice Theory" or "Yes, Prime Minister," when it was made for television. This was the idea that there is no such thing as the PUBLIC INTEREST. No wonder it was Lady Thatcher's favourite TV show!

This idea, said Madam Curtis, came out of the OTHER ideas of Game Theory and treating people as checklists of behaviours. The Game Theory idea says that civil servants do not try to do good things for other people but instead act in their own interests, building little empires, defending their right to count the paper-clips, that sort of thing.

It is not a very NICE view of people, but it appeared to explain the almighty bureaucratic cock-up that we had made of government since the end of World War Part Two.

Of course, another explanation would be that bureaucracies tend to get bigger – it is always easier to hire new people to try and get a job done than to fire the existing people who are not doing it.

And the larger an organisation gets, the more BYZANTINE (isn't THAT a good word!) the more BYZANTINE its internal processes become. People still JOIN the civil service because they want to do GOOD, but they get trapped in the labyrinth of PROCEDURE and CUSTOM.

Still, if you have an authoritarian viewpoint and do not really trust people, it would be easy to see MUDDLE and CONFUSION as deliberate obfuscation and selfishness.

Did I mention it was Lady Thatcher's favourite TV show?

The governments of Britain and America came up with two different policy approaches in response to this idea. In Britain, Mr Minor, the caretaker Prime Monster while Lady Thatcher was REGENERATING into Lord Blairimort, came up with the Citizens' Charter, the Internal Market for the NHS and the Cones Hotline. In America, President Billary-Hillary came up with the idea of doing NOTHING and letting the market sort itself out.

Obviously Mr Minor's idea of coming up with a whole load of completely arbitrary targets completely failed to deliver what people WANTED. Instead it rewarded the service providers for ticking the right boxes. Just like the psychologists' checklists, the targets set were not based on any real measure of anything, and so only multiplied the random errors of the people in the centre setting them. And meanwhile, those psychologists' checklists that had proved half the world was potty, led the psychologists to dose half of everyone with Prozac and blitz them into blissed-out zombiedom.

America, on the other fluffy foot, had the biggest economic boom in history.

Obviously, said Madam Curtis, something was going wrong… in America.

Stepping back a moment, in order to provide evidence, the advocates of the idea looked to the work of an ANTHROPOLOGIST who had studied the BIG FIGHTS of the Yanomamo tribes-people. He said that if you looked carefully, the people in the fights always worked with the other tribes-people that they were closest related to. This, he said, proved that people always behave selfishly.

Madam Curtis even linked this to the work of my FAVOURITE time travelling scientist, Professor Richard Dawkins. Or possibly Madam Curtis said that the psychologists OF THE TIME linked their idea to the work of Professor Richard. It was not clear when he was making an argument and when he was reporting someone else's.

In either case, I think that this is UNFAIR. The title of Professor Richard's book "The Selfish Gene" does NOT mean that the gene makes PEOPLE be selfish! In fact it does not even mean that the genes themselves behave SELFISHLY; it is about looking at the process that selects genes on the basis of the gene acting in its own SELF-INTEREST because they cause animals to have the best strategies for survival. In fact cooperation is often the BEST STRATEGY so that is the strategy that promotes survival in the great game of Darwinian Evolution for the genes that cause it.

Anyway, some OTHER anthropologist then said, if you look at the fight EVEN MORE CLOSELY you will see that the fight is ACTUALLY between the tribes-people that the first anthropologist has given axes to and the ones that he hasn't who are trying to get some. The first anthropologist was asked about this in an interview… at which point he stormed out.


Back in the REAL WORLD – or rather, the bit of CRAZY-TOWN inhabited by Lord Blairimort – 1997 came around and Mr Minor was dumped out of Number Ten in favour of the Labour. Things could only get better. At least if you were an out-of-control meme with a plan to ruin the world.

The Labour's obsession with DELIVERY, said Madam Adam, led to them setting EVEN MORE TARGETS – targets for everything from achieving Wold Peace 5% sooner to increasing the joy of birdsong by ten points on a scale of Dawn Chorus to Dawn Primarolo.

Guess how THIS worked out!

In fact, rather than spreading good things to everybody, the Labour made it easier for people who already had good things – or at least lots of money – to make sure that they got all the better things: school league tables made it easier to find the good schools so rich parents could move there and ensure that their children had the best education; poor people were squeezed out so less of a chance for their kids to escape poverty. Social mobility in Britain ground to a halt under EGALITARIAN Lord Blairimort.

Meanwhile, in America, the Monkey-in-Chief was elected and decided to blow the whole of Billary-Hillary's budget surplus on CRAZY ARMS SPENDING. And the value of shares on Wall Street was blown to bits by the collapse of the Dot-Com bubble and a series of SCANDALS from Enron to WorldCom that the accountants had been covering up for years.

Look, cried Madam Adam, look: the free market it’s SOOOOO evil.

Now, my daddies had been becoming increasingly SUSPICIOUS of this series already, mostly because it was using so much INCIDENTAL MUSIC to MANIPULATE the emotions that they were feeling. An HONEST documentary should not need SINISTER music to make you feel that certain events are SINISTER. Nor should it need to JUXTAPOSE disparate events from around the world in order to try and present them as a pattern of BADNESS.

My daddies' suspicions were that Madam Adam may have AN AGENDA.

But it took Mr Tom Papworth – who has taken this series to pieces in some considerable detail – to be first to point out the CON TRICK that Madam Curtis is perpetrating here.

The American ECONOMY, vigorously free market, bounced back even when the STOCK MARKET was taking a pummelling.

And the Labour's insane target culture of total control from the centre has NOTHING TO DO with a Free Market Economy.

In fact, what Madam Adam is doing is TURNING LOGIC on its head.

Because the Labour CLAIM to be a Free Market party, when they do COMMAND ECONOMY things (and CALL it "market solutions") then Madam Adam BLAMES the Free Market.

More of this, and LESS SUBTLE, was to follow.

The third and final part was "The Ghost of Christmas Future, Back to the Past and Mostly the Present Again and Sideways into Bizarro World". In this, Madam Adam took and TOTALLY DISTORTED the ideas of famous LIBERAL PHILOSOPHER and MUSICAL COMPOSER Mr Irving Berlin (not to be confused with that OTHER famous Berlin – the capital of Germany).

Mr Berlin had looked at the concept of LIBERTY and decided that there were TWO sorts: he called them Positive Freedom and Negative Freedom.

Positive Freedom is the sort that espouses BIG IDEAS: let us overthrown the monarchy! Let us make all citizens equal! Let us have free sticky buns on Tuesdays!

The PROBLEM with Positive Freedom, saw Mr Berlin, is that it is about having ANSWERS. "TRUTH" with a capital "TRUTH"! Which means, if you have the absolute "TRUTH!", then you are justified in doing ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING to impose that Freedom on everybody else. Even if that means imposing that Freedom on them TO DEATH!

This is why, said Mr Berlin, revolutions like the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution that begin with such high-minded ideals end up in such a shoddy, bloody, corrupt, mess. If you think that the ends justify the means then you are wrong.

Madam Curtis calls this a PROPHECY that Positive Freedom WILL go wrong – but people who believe in ETERNAL TRUTHS tend to talk about stuff like PROPHECIES. Really it is a WARNING that it COULD go wrong, that you need to keep a beady eye on anyone who starts spouting Positive Freedom ideas and not let them start IMPOSING on people.

Instead, he said, there is ANOTHER kind of Freedom, which he called Negative Freedom, the freedom to do what you want without let or hindrance from the government or anybody else so long as you are not imposing on THEIR freedom either.

So if you WANT to have sticky buns on Tuesdays, NOBODY should stop you.

This idea is the basis of Western Democracy, and of our WAY OF LIFE here in the United Kingdom. It is a GOOD idea, and there is nothing wrong with ENCOURAGING other people to think so. If they decide to try it out for themselves then they might find that they enjoy it too.

But it is not an idea that you can EXPLODE people into adopting. Not least because then it becomes the OPPOSITE thing: you think that you have an absolute answer and it has become Positive Freedom.

Remember that for later.

Anyway, Madam Adam starts his last part by telling us about this, and by playing a clip of Mr Berlin warning against just such a possibility of imposing freedom.

Then he tells us all about the horror stories that can arise from Positive Freedom, starting with the French Philosopher and nutter Jean-Paul Sartre who thought it would be a good idea to have a violent revolution to IMPROVE people. His ideas were taken up by all sorts of baddies from all over the world, including Che Guevara in Latin American and Islamic Revolutionaries in Iran. They were taken to the extreme though by the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot who thoroughly trashed Cambodia with their evil ideas.

All of this revolutionary violence led to America taking action in return. Herald of the Death of Satire, Henry Kissinger instigated a policy of supporting anyone who was on "their side" even if they were horrible dictators. These were people like President Marcos of the Philippines, President Pinochet of Chile and President Saddam Hussein of Iraq. Remember him?

Unfortunately, in the end this just didn't work as was shown when America's man in Persia, the Shah of Iran, was toppled by the Islamic Revolution. This led to something of a RETHINK in the US and the result was "Project Democracy", led by – yes I was ASTONISHED TOO – the NEO-CONSERVATORIES!

They realised that DICTATORSHIPS were essentially a BAD idea. People would be better off if they could make up their own minds without being bossed around – have a bit of the negative freedom, Mr Berlin talked about.

So in the Philippines and in Chile, the old dictators were persuaded to give it a bit of a rest, retire and let the people have some democracy.

"Ah ah!" says Madam Adam, "but it was a LIMITED sort of democracy, an American sort of democracy, not the sort of democracy that I like AT ALL!"


Democracy is a thing that just keeps growing and improving. Once it's started, people keep refining it, trying to work it out, get it right, make it better. Britain did not get it right all at once. It took AGES! Just look at the House of Lords Club! Actually, better not.

Look it REALLY takes something for my Daddy Richard to start being sympathetic to President Ray-gun. And yes, this WAS that something!

Chile and the Philippines may not be perfect places – yet – but neither have they fallen back into dictatorships. They are making their own faltering way, but it is THEIR way to make!

But "Project Democracy" went A BIT WRONG. The Neo-Cons stopped just letting the old dictators retire, they started trying to REPLACE the "wrong" kind of democracy with the "right" kind of democracy. The right-WING kind, that is. And it all ended up with the sort of mess that has you selling GUNS to the fruitloops in Iran and giving the profits to the fascist rebels in Nicaragua. And then, if you are President, FORGETTING everything that happened.

Maybe they got impatient. Maybe they weren't REALLY interested in democracy so much as what they are USUALLY interested in: American economic self-interest. American foreign policy hasn't changed in two hundred years – whatever is good for business is good for America.

Of course, Madam Curtis reads it ANOTHER WAY – he claims that giving people choice and freedom is JUST THE SAME as imposing your own ideas on them. He CONFLATES spreading the Negative Freedom with the new mutant form of Positive Freedom. Which is handy for his argument, but only if no one notices that it is NOT TRUE.

Rather fortunately – from almost everyone's point of view – at that point Communism IMPLODED and lots of people all across Eastern Europe discovered a whole lot of Negative Freedom all at once. People in the West started talking about the END OF HISTORY like they meant it and then – says Madam Curtis – a bunch of wunderkind rode in with all the same ideas of market reform.

Russia's new revolution involved giving away the entire Russian economy to the people, only doing it at JUST the point where they were all starving and would sell it on to some DODGY GEEZERS for a shot of vodka and some stale battenburg. This is what the advisors called shock tactics. And the DODGY GEEZERS were quickly rich enough to be called posh names like OLIGARCHS instead. Reacting against this, the Russian people elected scary Vladimir Putin who promised to bring back ORDER to the country.

Now what Madam Curtis FAILS to point out here is that Mr Putin's vision of order is yet another Positive Freedom: he will free the people from hunger and chaos… so long as they do EXACTLY what he says.

Where Madam Adam portrays this as a CONSEQUENCE of Negative Freedom, in fact it is a FAILURE to avoid the drift into Positive Freedom.

And, of course, he does ever so slightly OVERLOOK all of the OTHER countries from Eastern Europe that used to be Communist Satellites, but are now being welcomed into the European Union where they are pleased to enjoy as much Negative Freedom as they can get.

The FINAL FOLLY of America – so far, I am sorry to have to say – is Iraq. By now, the Monkey-in-Chief was convinced that GOD was talking to him. (Or "the Intercom" as most people today call it.) And what did GOD say? He said: "George? Dick here. Let's us try and spread some freedom and democracy to a Middle Eastern country by bombing it flat." Oddly enough this MAY not have worked. Oddly enough, the "voice of GOD" may not entirely CARE! Madam Curtis said that after the invasion, the same wunderkind arrived in Iraq with the same plan: shock tactics too, you might say. On the other fluffy foot, giving the entire county to Darth Cheney's old pals in HALLIBURTON was not ENTIRELY the same plan as happened in Russia. Still, it was SHOCKING, I will give you that.

How were the governments of America able to get away with all of these schemes to IMPOSE their will on innocent countries over the years? Well, Madam Curtis explains – playing some SCARY MUSIC – they did it by SCARING PEOPLE.

Oooh, PROPAGANDA. Like THAT'S never been used before! In fact, I can remember quite a few Positive Freedom people who were REALLY into the INSPIRATIONAL POSTER or the GOVERNMENT SPONSORED MOVIE.

Iraq, of course, reminds us of our very own SUPREME POODLE, Lord Blairimort. Finally, Madam Curtis turned his myopia on the New Labour project.

This was all the fault of Negative Freedom, he kept reminding us, Lord Blairimort's promises that he could free us from the fear of terrorism by imposing his new anti-elephant Glorification of Terrorism laws, detention without trial and without end, I.Diot cards and Big Brother surveillance on us.

Lord Blairimort is, in many ways, the End of Freedom altogether.

Hang on; I think I see a FLAW here.

Freedom from something by imposing something else, knowing all the answers… this is NOT Negative Freedom! This is not ANY kind of Freedom AT ALL! This is just another believer in POSITIVE FREEDOM gone BAD.

We should be LISTENING to Mr Berlin's warnings, not DISSING them!

This whole show is a FRAUD!

"No," cried Madman Curtis, "No, it is Negative Freedom, I tell you. Negative Freedom is the Evil! There are NO SUCH THING AS MACRA! Negative Freedom has failed! Crush the WRONG THINKERS! It is time to try positive freedom again. Obey me! Obey me! Obey MEEEEEEEEEeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!"

And with that, the programme ended.

Goodnight children, everywhere.


As I am only a FLUFFY ELEPHANT, it turns out that I am NOT the first person to spot that this was HOKUM.

Those who got there first include:

My Daddy Alex

Mr Tom of Liberal Polemic who has done an IN DEPTH look at Part One, Part Two and Part Three and done a Conclusion overall too

Mr Cicero of Ancient Greece

Mr Joe of the Extra Bold Political Blog

and Mr Jonathan of Liberal England

It turns out that you cannot fool ANY of the people ALL of the time, Madam Adam!


Six days to go!

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