Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 #20 The Power of Nightmares (2004)
Welcome, friends, to the latest entry in Control Nathan Rabin 4.0. It’s the column where I give you, the unsung, everyday hero, an opportunity to choose a movie that I must watch, and then write about, or be publicly executed for dereliction of duty. I added that last part to make the whole thing a little dramatic and to emphasize that even if it takes a while to get to, I will eventually watch and write about your movie or commit ritualistic self-sacrifice like the poet and writer Yukio Mishima whom, I think we can all agree, would have been a Belieber had he not committed suicide in 1970.
This most recent subject is a little different, in the sense that, technically speaking, it does not fit the purview of the feature at all and is consequently something that, if I were more more narrow-minded, I would reject: a three-part 2004 BBC documentary series by Adam Curtis on the striking parallels between the rise of the Neoconservatism in the United States and radical Islam abroad entitled The Power of Nightmares.
There are at least three good reasons to not cover The Power of Nightmares for Control Nathan Rabin 4.0. For starters, I created this column specifically with movies in mind rather than TV shows, books, epic poems, haikus and what have you and The Power of Nightmares is most assuredly not a motion picture but rather a documentary series that ran on British television fourteen years ago yet roars with contemporary resonance .
Secondly, since the series consists of three hour-long chapters, the whole kit and caboodle runs an obscene one hundred and eighty minutes and since I’m a new dad with a small business to run and also I’m taking the day off for Yom Kippur, time management is of supreme importance so it makes no sense to prioritize something that runs three hours instead of something half as long.
Finally, since I don’t think I’d even heard of The Power of Nightmares and I like to think of myself as being as intellectual and plugged into American politics as Joe Rogan on some killer mushrooms, it seems inevitable that an entry on The Power of Nightmares would be, almost without a doubt, the single least read entry in this entire series.
I rolled up an Elon Musk-level doobie in my man-cave, marinated on the whole situation for a minute, then decided, “Eh, fuck it” and decided to watch it and write about it anyway. Why? Well, I suppose I liked the challenge. It’s always invigorating learning about something you know nothing, or little about, and I have to admit that despite the many, many anti-war and anti-Bush documentaries I watched during the stretch between 2000 and 2008 when the field was dominated by poorly made, strident and over the top that I was intermittently tempted to become a Conservative purely in protest, I don’t actually know much about what Osama Bin Laden’s deal was. Who were his guys? Did he experience Depression? What were his experiences, if any, with Lorne Michaels or Mitzi Shore? Couldn’t Marc Maron have done a WTF with him before he was assassinated? I think we all could have learned something.
The Power of Nightmares is a fascinating expose to watch in our age of fear and hatred, when the most powerful man in the world regularly takes to social media to tell his followers who to hate and who to fear: Mueller! Colin Kaepernick! The fabled “17 Angry Democrats!” The people behind the illegal and immoral “witch hunt.” Crooked Hillary! Jeff Sessions! Anyone and everyone!
“Less evil than Trump” should not pass for good in our society. We cannot let our standards fall that appallingly low. Yet we have lowered the bar to the point where George W. Bush can credibly reinvent himself (or be reinvented) as a cuddly, Trump-hating, Michelle Obama-befriending, painting grandpa despite the many atrocities he and his administration committed and the blood on their hands.
If nothing else, The Power of Nightmares is a refreshing and much-needed reminder of what a deeply appalling and enraging human being W. was and remains. My much greater, much more personal hatred of Donald Trump cast Bush’s faults in a deceptively flattering light, as the failures of a fundamentally good man being manipulated by the evil cabal neocon schemers making his decisions for him.
Fuck that noise. Watching The Power of Nightmares I once again realized the many, many reasons I despise Bush, from the reductive, black and white nature of his worldview to the cowboy cockiness with which he taunted “evildoers” as if he was Dirty Harry and not the Ivy League-educated doofus son of a CIA Chief and goddamn AMERICAN PRESIDENT.
Ah, but I am getting ahead of myself, as Bush doesn’t rise to power and ignominy until deep into the mini-series, which begins by charting the parallel trajectories of two men whose teachings would go on to prove enormously successful with, respectively, the sinister cabal of largely Jewish intellectuals and former academics that overwhelmingly made up the neocon movement and jihadists: University of Chicago professor Leo Strauss and Egyptian philosopher and political thinker Sayyid Qutb.
These seemingly antithetical but semi-secretly simpatico figures were horrified by what they saw as the decadence and amorality inspired by the personal and political freedoms of Liberal democracy. For Qutb, that ungodly, profoundly and destructive secular celebration of freedom took forms that to us would seem quaint, or even wholesome, like the obsessiveness with which suburban Americans meticulously maintained their lawns or a dance where revelers slow-danced to a recording of “It’s Cold, Outside” which Qutb saw as a ghoulish display of bourgeoisie depravity during his time visiting our country.
Qutb, who was taken seriously despite having an extremely distracting Hitler mustache, envisioned a future where Muslim countries enjoyed the economic and technological luxuries and advantages of the west, but the move towards amoral modernism would be curbed by an increasingly militant Muslim governments.
Strauss was similarly horrified by what he saw as an amoral emphasis on personal freedom that was challenging to overturn the moral foundations of American democracy. Strauss feared that the post-war generation believed in nothing beyond its own freedom and pleasure.
Strauss felt the American people needed to be united by belief in a core set of values, values that stood against the nihilism and selfishness of liberated society, so his acolytes venerated the nation-state and religion, most notably Evangelical Christianity. But it went beyond that. Strauss knew Americans needed something to believe in, something to unite them but he knew it was even more important that the people have something to fear, something to hate, something so monstrous and seemingly insurmountable and unconquerable that the public will have no choice but to band together in opposition of it, even if that means throwing our decadent civil liberties out the window. After all, why get squeamish about a little torture when there’s no saying how powerful our enemies might be?
For neocons, an evil Soviet empire out to crush Democracy under the heel of its boot gave the masses something to focus their wonderful, wonderful hate and fear on. The United States knew damn well that the Soviet Union was crumbling, a victim of bad management and an unpalatable economic system. It was a drunken, cranky, arthritic old bear that just wanted to lie down and experience the sweet release of eternal sleep. Yet it behooved neocons to aggressively promote the fiction that the Soviet Union was instead the nation version of Ivan Drago, a relentless, finely honed machine created to destroy the decadent Western world at all costs, even if it means murdering our finest athletes with their evil, evil Soviet fists.
Qutb and his disciples, meanwhile, saw the Westernization of Islamic countries like Egypt under Western-friendly leaders like Anwar El-Sadat as a great, insidious evil that would unite his followers in a righteous holy war against a poison destroying the Muslim world from the inside.
The Power of Nightmares emphasizes, almost to a fault, that neocons relentlessly over-stated the size, impact and danger posed by first the Soviet Union, which it depicted as the semi-secret power behind all anti-American activities over the globe, and then Radical Islamism, to suit their purposes and their vision of a world where the United States has a special destiny to fight evil and make the world safe for Democracy.
In one of the many wonderful little details that make history come alive here, the wry filmmaker points out that Leo Strauss’ favorite television shows were Gunsmoke and Perry Mason, two pop culture institutions where good was rewarded, evil was punished and moral ambiguity and complexity were soundly rejected.
Perhaps it’s not coincidental that three post-neocon Republican Presidents—Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Donald Trump—all communicate with the sagebrush swagger of a TV cowboy issuing stern warnings to, respectively, the “evil empire”, “evildoers” and “bad hombres” about what will happen if they do not respect Sheriff America’s ultimate authority.
In The Power of Nightmares, Osama Bin Laden and his minions are less a terrifying threat to Democracy and the survival of the Western world than the terrorist band that couldn’t shoot straight. The film argues persuasively that what we think of as “Al-Qaeda” is largely an inept tangle of loosely related, disorganized groups with no real central command or established hierarchy.
It’s hard to whip the public into a frenzy or fear and rage over a nameless group of Islamic extremists with often conflicting agendas so a phantom enemy was created in a terrifying, disciplined, well-oiled Al-Qaeda with Osama Bin Laden as the evil genius at the top calling the shots. The neocons and their allies essentially branded Al-Qaeda as the worst of the worst, as unstoppable monsters we should fear when we close our eyes and try to drift off to sleep.
The Power of Nightmares consists largely of stock footage, including an excerpt where W., in tough-talking mode, but at a pace and with a tone that suggests he thinks he’s talking to a classroom of small, slow children, W. insists “Al Qaeda is to terror what the Mafia is to crime.”
That’s true only in the sense that Bush and his neocons turned Al-Qaeda into a brand name for terrorism the same way the Mafia has long been the officially brand name of Italian organized crime. W. might as well have said that Al-Qaeda is to terror what the mafia is to crime and McDonald’s is to fast food. For Bush and the neocons, branding and image were infinitely more important than reality.
The Power of Nightmares has a very clear thesis about the fundamental nature of neocons and Islamic extremism and their fear-based appeal that it supports with evidence and arguments. That invariably involves cherry-picking facts and selective editing but in this context that’s less a harsh criticism than a statement about process: when you’re making this big and this broad of an argument about such an enormous subject of course you need to be reductive and manipulative at times. That’s just part of being a documentarian.
One of the things the writer, director and narrator emphasizes is how the politicians and leaders with the darkest, most nightmarish vision of the future tend to prevail. In that respect, Trump boasts a vision of America’s future so apocalyptic and grim that it makes Bush look less like a cocksure warmonger with a simplistic, third grade view of good and evil than a blissed-out hippie convinced everything would be groovy forever if people just came together and loved each other.
Hillary Clinton ran on hope. Donald Trump ran on fear. His campaign was so overflowing with fear-mongering and scapegoating and demonizing that it would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that Trump was fundamentally a one-issue candidate, that issue being fear.
In the Presidential elections of 2016 the American people, or at least the minority reflected in Trump’s electoral victory (he famously lost the popular vote by a large sum, one of many inconvenient truths he’ll clearly never acknowledge) voted for fear more than they voted for Donald Trump. Fear was the winner in 2016. Trump has governed on fear just as much as he ran on fear.
During the 2016 Presidential campaign the only time I genuinely feared that Trump would shock the world by getting elected President was immediately after a terrorist attack. I would get this sick, awful feeling in my stomach because I knew that people who are scared and desperate do desperate and extreme things and for a 2016 voter, nothing was more desperate or extreme than voting for Donald Trump.
Trump has made fear his brand as President. He exaggerates the power, size and effectiveness of a phantom Islamic terror threat with a relentlessness and predilection for shameless hyperbole that puts the fear-mongering of the comparatively sober and understated neocons to shame.
Curtis talks about how revolutions eat their own so perhaps it’s fitting that Trump and his administration have nakedly stolen lots of pages from the neocon playbook about fear-based leadership yet have depicted neocons not as allies or inspirations but as swamp creatures, ominous, Jewish members of the “Deep State” whose corruption and war-mongering must be strongly repudiated by a President who doesn’t seem to realize how many of their ideas he’s internalized and used to his advantage.
I’m glad I bent the rules of this column a little so that I could cover this three hour manifesto that helps explain how we got to where we are, politically, albeit in a way that doesn’t offer much in the way of optimism or hope as to how, or when, we’ll escape this awful, toxic political culture of fear and hatred in favor of something more human and less rooted in scapegoating, xenophobia and flat0out lies.
Want me to fucking watch Loose Change and then write about it? I’ll fucking do it (or any other film, within reason) for a one hundred dollar pledge over at http://patreon.com/nathanrabinshappyplace but you can also pledge any amount you’d like, even a dollar a month. Any level at all would be