The Silver Eel

"A gape-jawed serpentine shape of pale metal crested with soot hung high for a sign."

Monday, March 19, 2007


Second part of Adam Curtis's The Trap broadcast this evening. As before, a lot of ideas and information being flung at you thick and fast, so you don't really get time to stop and analyse what the flaws or missing links might be. However, as this presents such a total change from most documentaries and news programmes, which seem to assume a mental age of about 12 on the part of the audience, one can hardly complain, even if one does feel on the receiving end of a polemic.

One of the reasons for being thrown a little off-kilter is that he's telling a familiar story - the breakdown of the post-war consensus and its replacement with what, in the 1980s, we used to call Thatcherism - from the perspective of the meme of individualism. Specifically, individualism in a free-market economy, with the same principles increasingly applied to all areas of social provision and political interaction.

This episode hung together rather better than last week's - either that, or I'm being converted against my judgement to Curtis's argument by subliminal messages hidden in his jump cuts - though the flaw in the Thatcherite argument (no such thing as society, only families and individuals, market forces rule) is rather obvious, has already been hinted at, and presumably will be dealt with in the final episode. Against the models presented by game theory (and there was a rather extended debate taking place on Blairwatch over whether game theory really is as pernicious as Curtis is making out) and pointy-headed bean counters, people do actually care for one another quite a lot of the time and will often act altruistically when given the opportunity.

Or, as G'Kar said in a recently-viewed episode of Babylon 5, "We are fighting to save one another."


Regarding freedom, I heard about a van being stopped by the polis on a Scottish road last week. The van had been loaded to such an extent that the front wheels were barely touching the ground, and none of the three Chinese gentlemen inside had a driving licence.

Now one - OK, I - am inclined to snort at this point, in a manner which becomes more and more like George Macdonald Fraser the older I get (see The Light's on at Signpost), and utter a few disparaging remarks on the lack of scruples and common sense displayed by...well, anyone who isn't me, come to it. But then I remember a moment, personally witnessed, from Hanoi: one scooter, one driver, one pillion passenger carrying upright on his knees a sheet of glass, say five foot by four, no seat belts, going the wrong way through rush-hour traffic, which in Hanoi has to be seen to be believed. Now that's freedom.

I mean, of course you transport sheets of glass this way. Of course you load a van to breaking point and beyond. Hell, it's our van. Licence - what licence? Back home you just have to keep your mouth shut and vote the right way once every four years. Other than that you can do what you like.


Orwell complains about the shallowly optimistic repetition of
'the abolition of distance' and 'the disappearance of frontiers'. [...]

Take simply the instance of travel. In the nineteenth century some parts of the world were unexplored, but there was almost no restriction on travel. Up to 1914 you did not need a passport for any country except Russia. The European emigrant, if he could scrape together a few pounds for the passage, simply set sail for America or Australia, and when he got there no questions were asked. In the eighteenth century it had been quite normal and safe to travel in a country with which your own country was at war.
He goes on to note a decline in immigration, and state interference in non-national radio, as well as bars and censorship of foreign post, newspapers and books by the totalitarian countries, which of course were numerous in the 1940s.


Orwell is here criticising restrictions on travel, but I suppose they have the virtue of being obvious. Curtis is warning us about restrictions on thought itself - as good a recommendation for reading widely, curiously and imaginatively as any you might wish for. I'm sure this used to be encouraged, through the pursuit of what used to be called a liberal education.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home