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Adam Curtis | 22:09 UK time, Monday, 28 March 2011

The idea of "humanitarian intervention" which is behind the decision to attack in Libya is one of the central beliefs of our age.

It divides people. Some see it as a noble, disinterested use of Western power. Others see it as a smokescreen for a latter-day liberal imperialism.

I want to tell the story of how this idea originated and how it has grown up to possess the minds of a generation of liberal men and women in Europe and America.

It is the story of a generation who became disenchanted with traditional power politics. They thought they could leap over the old corrupt structures of power and connect directly with the innocent victims of war around the world.

It was a grand utopian project that began in the mid-60s in Africa and flourished and spread across the world. But in the 1990s it became corrupted by the very thing it was supposed to have transcended - western power politics.

And the idea seemed to have died in horror in a bombing of a hotel in Baghdad in 2003.

What we now see is the return of that dream in a ghostly, half-hearted form - where the confidence and hopes have been replaced by a nervous anxiety.

 

This modern phase of humanitarian intervention begins in 1968 with the Biafran war. It is a fascinating moment because it is where the framework - the contemporary filter through which we now perceive all humanitarian tragedies - was first constructed.

The Eastern part of Nigeria had declared independence and called their new state Biafra. In response the Nigerian army attacked the rebel government. Things went very badly for the Biafrans, but no-one in the West cared. While the British government happily sold lots of arms to the Nigerians.

But then the Biafran government found a very odd Public Relations firm in Geneva, called MarkPress who set out to change the way people in Europe saw the war.

I have discovered a great documentary in the BBC archive which tells what then happened. It is shot inside the PR company's offices and interviews the men running the campaign.

It shows how they turned a war that people saw simply as a political conflict in a faraway land into something heart-wrenching and dramatic.

It became a moral battle between evil politicians in Nigeria - aided by cynical and corrupt politicians in London who were selling the arms - and the innocent victims of the starvation caused by the war.

Here is an extract.

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The British newspapers went for it in a big way. And a new movement grew up. It was driven by moral outrage, fuelled by a disgust with the old British political class who were prolonging the suffering through arms sales.

Celebrities joined in. They held a 48 hour fast in Piccadilly Circus over Christmas. Here are some frame grabs from the news report. The one that shows what was really happening is the placard that says BATTLE OF BRITAIN 1940 - BIAFRA '69.

The conflict was being fitted to the template that was going to define the whole movement. It was the Good War. A justified resistance against evil to protect the innocent wherever they were being threatened in the world.

Just like the struggle against fascism in the Second World War.

 

But Biafra also revealed the terrible dangers of this simplified view of wars - dangers that would always haunt the humanitarian movement.

Here is an extract from a very good Timewatch programme about Biafra made in the early 90s. It has journalists telling how they took what Biafra's PR agency had started - and went much further. They created the new image that was going to define the future coverage of all these humanitarian crises - the starving child.

But the programme also makes a strong case that the aid that resulted from the wave of sympathy that these images created had a terrible unforeseen consequence. It prolonged a futile war for a further 18 months - and thus contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.

Many in the aid agencies have denied this. But the programme includes the rebel Biafran leader, Colonel Ojukwu, saying clearly that he used the hard currency he got from the agencies to buy the weapons he needed to continue fighting.

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Out of Biafra was going to come a new idea of how to save the world. And the man who would create it was a young French doctor called Bernard Kouchner.

Kouchner had worked for the Red Cross in Biafra, but he had become disgusted by the Red Cross' refusal to publicise the genocide created by the Nigerian government.

Just as the Red Cross hadn't revealed the horrors they saw in World War Two in the Nazi concentration camps because they insisted on being "neutral"

Kouchner resigned and went back to Paris where he founded a new humanitarian organisation called Medecins Sans Frontieres. Being neutral, Kouchner said, really meant being complicit in the horror. And MSF would never be complicit. It was on the side of the innocent victims.

Here is Kouchner explaining what he did

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Kouchner - and many of the others who founded MSF - had been Marxist or Maoist revolutionaries, but they had become disenchanted with those utopian visions. And what they were doing was reworking the politics of third world liberation into a new form.

It was a type of liberation that they believed went beyond the politics of left and right and instead was about saving individuals from the horrors of totalitarianism whether that came from the right or the left.

They weren't going to be neutral. They were going to take sides. But it was the side of the victims - because they were neutral.

Their first slogan was "There are no good and bad victims". 

And in 1979 Kouchner dramatically demonstrated this belief. He hired a ship to go and rescue the Vietnamese boat people who were fleeing the communist regime who now ruled Vietnam.

The left - and many liberals - were shocked. Because these were "bad victims". Victims of the noble anti-imperialists who had defeated America.

But Joan Baez supported him.

Here is part of a film made in the early 1980 that tells the story of his rescue of the boat people. It was filmed on the ship Kouchner hired. You also get a very good sense of Kouchner's drive and his beliefs.

There is a great scene as the MSF ship arrives on a tiny Island. The Europeans stride weeping onto the jetty as they are applauded as heroes by the thousands of boat people stranded on the island.

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At the same time as the humanitarian movement was rising up, so too were the new despots that were going to become some of the main targets for this new idealism.

Many of them - like Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, and Muammar Gadaffi - were also, in a strange way, products of the failure of the Communist dream. Like Kouchner they too were trying to rework revolutionary theory - but in their case with horrific results.

I have found a sort of fly-on-the-wall documentary made in 1976 which follows Muammar Gadaffi around as he goes about ruling Libya.

One highlight is a section with his mother and father who still live in a tent out in the desert. Mrs Gadaffi explains how her son has insisted that they must remain living in their old tent until every other Libyan is properly housed in a modern apartment.

I wonder if they ever got out.

The documentary makes it clear how repressive and brutal Gadaffi's regime is. How he has locked up and tortured thousands of his opponents.

But then it takes a fascinating turn. The interviewer asks Gadaffi to explain why he has sent Libyan troops to fight with the Palestinians against Israel, and why he has sent in Libyan agents to try and overthrow President Sadat of Egypt.

In response Gadaffi launches into an explanation that countries like Libya have a duty to intervene in other nations where the ordinary people are being oppressed by autocrats or oppressive governments - and help free them. That includes helping to liberate Egypt and Tunisia.

But it also means, he says, that politicians like him are justified in intervening in Northern Ireland to help the Provisional IRA. Because they are oppressed by the British government

They too are victims.

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What Gadaffi was arguing was a strange mirror image of the theory that Kouchner and the other ex-leftists in Europe were developing.

For they too were heading towards the idea of "armed intervention".

In the 1980s the humanitarian movement was flourishing - above all in Afghanistan. But in Afghanistan the movement also came up against a big political problem.

Men and women from what was now called "the doctors' movement" went in over the mountains to help the victims of the Soviet attacks. They were brave and daring and they saved the lives of many Afghan civilians.

But they also helped the Mujaheddin. Under the theory of the humanitarian movement this was fine. The Mujaheddin were resisting the Soviet totalitarianism. They were victims fighting back so it was morally right to help them.

But others didn't see it that way.

Here is video of the trial in Kabul in 1983 of a French doctor who had been captured by the Afghan army.

He is called Philippe Augoyard. He worked for Aide Medicale Internationale - which was another version of MSF. The trial is absurd - and in the tradition of all communist show trials the doctor reads out a "confession" and admits to "working with the counter-revolutionary bandits".

But there is also another part of his confession that was both true and embarrassing for all the ex-Marxists and Maoists in the humanitarian movement. The mujaheddin they were helping were backed, funded and armed by the Americans.

Which meant they were helping American global imperialism.

Incidentally, the video is shot by my hero. He is a cameraman called Erik Durschmied. He is the best cameraman who has ever worked for the BBC - and I am constantly using his stuff in my films.

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But then a group of French philosophers came to the rescue. They came up with a theory that said it wasn't bad to work with American military power. In fact, if the humanitarians could harness America's armed might, they could use it to change the world in a revolutionary way.

The philosophers were led by another ex-Maoist called Andre Glucksmann. He had turned against the left and had developed his own theory which he called "anti-totalitariansm". Here is a picture of Glucksmann relaxing in 1978.

Getty Images/Roger Viollet

But he wasn't alone. Glucksmann was part of a group of intellectuals that rose up in France in the late 1970s called the New Philosophers. They saw Bernard Kouchner as an action hero putting their ideas into practice. Another prominent one was the glamorous Bernard-Henri Levy. Here he is with an interesting haircut.

Corbis/Richard Melloul

Glucksmann put it in stark terms. Everything that oppressed people around the world he called "Auschwitz". Even famines were called "Auschwitz".

It was the ghost of the Second World War again.

Glucksmann then said that people with power had a right to intervene in other societies to prevent "Auschwitzes". And that included using American power.

Maybe, he said, power exercised by the strong was not always oppression. If it was used decently it could liberate the oppressed.

And - Glucksmann said - this didn't just mean medical help. It included "armed resistance".

And then came the massacre at Srebrenica in July 1995 - which seemed to prove Glucksmann's theory in a dramatic way.

 

When the Bosnian crisis began in 1992 humanitarian groups and the UN came in to try and help the victims of Serb aggression.

But they quickly began to realise they were being used by western governments as a way of containing a crisis that the politicians did not want to get involved with.

The journalist David Rieff wrote

"The idea was simple, coarse and brutal. Instead of political action backed by the credible threat of military force, the Western powers would substitute a massive humanitarian effort to alleviate the worst consequences of a conflict they wanted to contain

'Containment through charity' was the way one UN official put it."

And then at Srebrenica thousands of civilians gathered together in the enclave - believing they were under international protection. But when the Serbian troops led by General Mladic marched in, the UN troops did nothing. The promise of protection had simply made it easier for the Serbs to kill over 8,000 people.

Here is an extract from a brilliant Panorama programme about the massacre. It includes notorious footage shot by a Serb cameraman on the day of the massacre. It is notorious because he allegedly edited out shots that show evidence of the killings.

But you get a sense from the footage of the impotence of the UN Dutch soldiers. It is the record of a terrible moment of moral failure.

It begins with thousands of Bosnians fleeing Srebrenica for what they think is the safety of the UN camp outside town.

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One of the UN's special envoys in Bosnia, Jose Maria Mendiluce realised that Glucksmann was right:

"You don't reply to fascism with relief supplies. Only if we stop being neutral  between murderers and victims, if we decide to back Bosnia's fight for life against the fascist horror of ethnic cleansing, shall we be able to contribute to the survival of the remnants of that country and of our own dignity."

And then a few months later American air power - under the command of NATO - was used to force the Serbs to negotiate a peace. Almost no-one disagreed. It was a Good War in which the left-wing humanitarians were now allied with their old imperialist enemy - America.

Out of Srebrenica came a strange new hybrid - a humanitarian militarism. And in the 1990s it rose up to capture the imagination of a generation on the left in Europe.

Ever since the collapse of the left in the early 1980s they had been searching for a new vision of how to change the world for the better. Now they found it - a humanitarianism that had the power to right wrongs around the world rather than just alleviate them.

It even had French philosophers behind it.

And one of that generation who was most entranced was Tony Blair, and in 1999 he took this humanitarianism to its moment of greatest triumph.

Here are the rushes of Tony Blair arriving to a hero's welcome in Kosovo in May 1999. Blair had persuaded a reluctant President Clinton to join in a NATO bombing campaign to stop Serbian atrocities in Kosovo and had stuck with it even when it seemed to be failing.

Blair's arrival and his speech at a Kosovan refugee camp on the Macedonian border is an extraordinary scene. It is also a very important moment in recent history. Watch Blair's face closely as he walks through the adoring crowd chanting "Tony, Tony, Tony" and you understand some of why he would take Britain to war in Iraq four years later.

It is also eerily reminiscent of Kouchner and the other doctors arriving on the South Sea Island to rescue the Vietnamese Boat people exactly twenty years before.

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It was also a moment of triumph for Bernard Kouchner. He became the head of the interim administration in Kosovo - and he set out to create a new democracy.

Many of his staff were leftist revolutionaries from 1968. Even one of the NATO commanders had fought on the streets of Paris.

But Kouchner quickly discovered that victims could be very bad. There was an extraordinary range of ethnic groups in Kosovo.

There were:
Muslim Albanians
Orthodox Serbs
Roman Catholic Serbs
Serbian-speaking Muslim Egyptians
Albanian-speaking Muslim Gypsies - Ashkalis
Albanian-speaking Christian Gypsies - Goranis
And even - Pro-Serbian Turkish-speaking Turks

They all had vendettas with each other - which meant that they were both victims and horrible victimizers at the same time.

It began to be obvious that getting rid of evil didn't always lead to the simple triumph of goodness.

Which became horribly clear in Iraq in 2003.

Kouchner and many of the other humanitarian interventionists were wary of backing the invasion. They distrusted the Bush administration and suspected they and their ideas were being used as cover. But they also believed in removing Saddam Hussein because it was a chance to liberate millions of people from the oppression of a "fascist" tyrant.

Following the invasion many of those who had worked under Kouchner in Kosovo went to Baghdad to set up the United Nations presence there. They were led by another humanitarian, a Brazilian ex-leftist from the 1960s, Sergio Viero de Mello.

They set up their operations in the Canal Street Hotel in Baghdad. But then on August 19th - in the middle of a press conference - this happened.

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A vast truck bomb had been driven right under the window of Sergio de Mello's office. He and 21 others were killed.

No one knows for sure who was behind the bombing but it was clear that de Mello and the humanitarians had been deliberately targeted.

Many in the humanitarian-intervention movement saw the Canal Hotel bombing as the beginning of the end of their dream. Because it dramatically illustrated how naive they had been.

The movement had begun back in Biafra because a group of young idealists wanted to escape from the old corrupt power politics. To do this they had simplified the world into a moral struggle between good and evil.

They believed that if they could destroy the evil - by liberating victims from oppression by despots - then what would result would be, automatically, good.

But the problem with this simple view was that it meant they had no critical framework by which to judge the "victims" they were helping. And the Baghdad bombing made it clear that some of the victims were very bad indeed - and that the humanitarians' actions might actually have helped unleash another kind of evil.

 

The same truth has become obvious in Kosovo too.

Last year a Swiss prosecutor produced a report for the Council of Europe which alleged that the Prime Minister of Kosovo, Hashim Thaci was not only a mafia boss, a murderer and a drug dealer, and alleged that he was also involved with a group that killed Serbian prisoners and then sold their organs for illegal transplants.

Hashim Thaci denies all the allegations

And it has also been alleged that Mr Thaci rigged the recent elections "on an industrial scale"

 


 
But quite a few people still believe in the dream.

Samantha Power was a journalist in Bosnia and a close friend of Sergio Viera de Mello. She is now a Special Assistant to President Obama. Power is a passionate advocate of humanitarian intervention - and by all accounts she is the person who most persuaded a reluctant President Obama to intervene in Libya.

Associated Press/Charles Dharapak

And Bernard Kouchner also supports the Libyan intervention.

But there is a general wariness and nervousness about the return of the old dream of armed intervention. Above all because we realise that humanitarian interventionism offers us no political way to judge who it is we are helping in Libya - and thus what the real consequences of our actions might be.

Even if one's instincts are to help those fighting Gadaffi, it is no longer enough just to see it as a struggle of goodies against baddies. For it is precisely that simplification that has led to unreal fantasies about who we are fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Fantasies that persist today, and which our leaders still cling to - because they give the illusion that we are in control.

But the French philosophers are still very vocal. Here is Bernard-Henri Levy on Newsnight claiming he helped persuade President Sarkozy to intervene in Libya.

As you watch him - you get a sense that you are looking at something rather odd, a simplification of the world that was very much a product of a strange moment in history.

Rather like Mr Levy's hair-style.

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Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Some of the video excerpts aren't working for me. I hope they weren't removed. This blog is brilliant. Throw away your tv.

  • Comment number 2.

    once you identify what false beliefs people have taken as the highest idea of the mind then you can map it out. The false beliefs are seductive. They have names such as freedom, equality, etc. These are false idols that require [very real] human sacrifice to perpetuate them.

    All these words like freedom etc have good in them but they are not the good. Good is objectively defined in the dictionary [although its one word everyone seems to invent for themselves]. That which has more of certain qualities has more good than those that don't and thus things can be ranked as to how much good they participate in. A rational person then chooses that which has more good. This requires discrimination which is today labelled a term of abuse. People who discriminate and say one thing is better than another because they have more good are called monsters by the moral relativists. In this way the narrative becomes there is no such thing as the good because all things are relative. Moral relativism is a pig philosophy [because it does not discriminate in favour of the good] and results in a pig society [with very little good in it].

    The first question to avoid being trapped by idols and false beliefs is 'If the good is the highest idea of the mind what follows?'.

  • Comment number 3.

    @jauntycyclist

    Agreed with your analysis. Brings to mind two Cicero quotes:

    (i) "There is nothing so stupid, that a philosopher has not said it."

    (ii) "Let the punishment match the offence."

    A problem that is regular in these humanitarian interventions, is the failure to distinguish between the Tyrants and tyranny. By opposing the Tyrant exclusively, the tyranny merely moves to another willing host; leaving the delusion that all is well in OZ, because the wicket witch is dead.

    Tyrants can be targeted with smart bombs, but tyranny grows from the people's willingness to take sides; there are no lonely tyrants.

    Therefore mere humanitarian military action, without imposing conditions, is no more than a temporary catharsis, that makes room for the next power group. Hence there are more ways to create strife through military intervention, than to solve tyranny.

    Military action is reckless and immoral, when there is no objective to achieve. Targeting tyrants is only temporary, therefore only temporarily good; and targeting tyranny with armed intervention is too complex.

    So applying Cicero's second quote, the world must develop a single legal protocol, that allows all to entreat any act of tyranny, with tyranny. But what protects tyrants is their laws; therefore, it is their laws that must be destroyed and replaced.

    JimmyGiro

  • Comment number 4.

    I've nothing substantive to add, but after lurking for a long time I just registered to say how much I love reading this blog.

  • Comment number 5.

    Yo Adam! Remember me from Oxford? Love your work btw. Becama Grandpa a week back which reminded me - you took the first photo of my firstborn, back in Hart Street in 1975.

    Salut!

    Jeremy

  • Comment number 6.

  • Comment number 7.

    This is fascinating stuff, but I don't see the argument for this:

    The movement had begun back in Biafra because a group of young idealists wanted to escape from the old corrupt power politics. To do this they had simplified the world into a moral struggle between good and evil. They believed that if they could destroy the evil - by liberating victims from oppression by despots - then what would result would be, automatically, good.


    Sure, some supporters of humanitarian intervention are probably that naive - and you make things pretty easy for yourself by picking out Bernard Henry Levi, who's a narcissistic fool - but plenty of others are struggling intelligently with the genuinely difficult question of what to do about hideous, complex situations.

  • Comment number 8.

    "Some see it as a noble, disinterested use of Western power. Others see it as a smokescreen for a latter-day liberal imperialism."

    Just been reading about Richard I and the crusades and something that comes across very strongly is that there can be a Great Project (capturing the Holy Lands, protecting innocents, whatever) which The People believe in completely sincerely and which becomes an opportunity for their leaders. Those leaders can make great mileage by openly espousing the Great Project while using it to pursue their own ends. In the Crusades, many leaders had no interest in freeing the Holy Lands but had a strong interest in getting a military foothold there - some arrived and promptly allied with the Muslims. Likewise, many Muslims had not a jot of interest in who owned Jerusalem but fighting the infidel was a good route to political influence. So, the Great Project gets backing, and by and large most leaders try to at least make some effort in its direction (if they care nothing about it, they probably care about grandstanding to The People) and things get done.

    The point is that the Project can be a positive, sincere thing while at the same time the execution of that Project can be for deeply cynical and negative reasons. As long as armies are led by a small number of people this is probably unavoidable. The Project can be a noble disinterested use of Western power AND a smokescreen for imperialism. That's just life, I'm afraid.

    At the end of the day, the ends justify the motive and if Good comes out of it, we'll just have to live with the backroom deals and landgrabs that ride on its coattails. It's not sufficient to say that we can never have unalloyed Good and therefore should demand that our leaders never lift a finger to help anyone ever again.

  • Comment number 9.

    No one can really say what will happen now in Libya, the only thing that we knew was that if certain western powers didn't act, and hadn't gotten most other powerful nations on board with the action, then many thousands would have been killed and there would be a refugee crisis in Tunisia and Egypt. It's only right that we should all feel anxiety about this -- that is the correct way to feel. To have done nothing would have been shameful and would have done enormous damage to the very idea of freedom of individuals from oppressive state entities that do not follow their own laws. Progressive ideals have been taking a major pounding in recent years, and perhaps we should all be quite cynical and not believe in them anymore. But if you value the idea of human rights, then I believe you can't be logically consistent by never taking military action, whether that means rolling into a ball when attacked, or ignoring when others are no matter what the circumstances.

    And of course we should be haunted by the ghosts of World War 2. There were things the Allied powers could have done, such as bombing the tracks to the death camps, rather than exclusively bombing heavily populated German cities to smithereens. And of course it all gets back to the problems with appeasing a megalomaniac in the hopes that the problems will not escalate.

    Democracy in Libya is very unlikely, they have no real institutions or cohesion. All sorts of unforseen consequences will result from this intervention, just as there would be if there was no intervention. That's life. What's important is that we try to do our best and keep our ideals intact. We're all blind to future consequences no matter what we do. But people shouldn't think that letting a crime happen when you could prevent it means you are not complicit in that murder. Even when it's not practical to prevent it, you are complicit, and that hurts because we can't always live up to our ideals. But rarely is there such a clear mandate for action as in this case.

    Anyway, I love the blog, the clips (still watching them) and the insights, as always.

  • Comment number 10.

    Thank you for the lucidity and intelligence of your blog - how do we get this calliber of America - it is a wistful dream. Your work is superb.

  • Comment number 11.

    There is an article that came out last October called Serbia: Fake Revolutions, Real Struggles. http://www.crimethinc.com/blog/2010/10/14/serbia-fake-revolutions-real-struggles/ It's an account of the toppling of Milošević by the US-funded Otpor, and how many of the people like Ljubisav Đokić who drove his bulldozer into the state TV HQ, came to the realization that it made no difference.

    While watching the Egyptian uprising unfold, I had this article in the back of my head. Later I learned that leaders of the April 6 Youth Movement went to Serbia to get training from the head of Otpor.

    Being involved in radical politics, there is a certain script that plays out when activists start following an uprising in a faraway land. First off, the further from home the events pictured, the more uncritically they are endorsed. Secondly, after the smoke clears and it becomes clear that only the state is transformed and that "The Revolution" didn't happen there is a rush blame the failure on betrayal either by union leaders trying to get a better seat at the table, parties trying to channel popular rage into votes, or in the case of the Paris Commune the failure of the people to empty the national bank.

  • Comment number 12.

    Thanks for this brilliant piece.

  • Comment number 13.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 14.

    Excellent, but does this understate the explosion of humanitarian interventionist sentiment that occurred in the late 1990s, just a decade ago? See "A Solution from Hell" at: http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/854093986-31541714/content~db=all~content=a930690270

  • Comment number 15.

    Thanks once again Adam for a fantastic blog post. I really have enjoyed reading/watching this blog since i discovered it around a year ago; and I eagerly await your upcoming BBC 2 series.

    The video of the Canal Street Hotel bombing is incredibly moving. I found I had tears in my eyes watching the distraught woman being held back by the American soldiers.

  • Comment number 16.

    I was worried about Dr Philippe Augoyard, but it appears he was released after 6 months.

  • Comment number 17.

    Hi there, is there anyway to download these films to watch - I travel fairly regularly and it would fantastic to be able to access them on the move.

    Many thanks and keep up the great work - totally thought provoking and enriching.

  • Comment number 18.

    Having never posted before I hope this doesn't break house rules,but could Adam or anyone else recommend a book on this subject ?

  • Comment number 19.

    Hi Adam,

    I Like your attitude but people reading this blog must take note that it is the media who decide who are the goodies and who are the baddies. The majority of the public will lap up what the media tells them. You only have to look at the Biafra situation to get an idea of the power of the media.

    Every civilisation that has ever existed has ultimately collapsed. Not by means of intervention from foreign powers, but by way of true revolution.

  • Comment number 20.

    Adam, you've indulged in a few simplifications yourself in order to smooth out the narrative arc. Bernard Kouchner did not support the Iraq invasion. His position was nuanced, but he most certainly did not endorse military action. Read here:

    http://3quarksdaily.blogs.com/3quarksdaily/2007/06/did-bernard-kou.html


    I'm not sure what you've purported to show here. You've appropriated the old Animal Farm narrative of the corruption of the do-gooders. It's an emotionally satisfying narrative but is in itself a gross simplification. Yes, humanitarian action can have bad, unforeseen consequences. Yes, like any idea it can be taken too far, particularly when it involves mass-scale military invasion and occupation. But the absence of humanitarian action can also have bad, although more obviously foreseen, consequences, such as 700,000 dead in Rwanda. Do you think humanitarian intervention is always a bad idea, even if, for example, it could prevent genocide? If not, then why don't you analyse what separates good intervention from bad rather than just tell the old "power corrupts" story?

    By the way, there is no such person as Mr Henri-Levy. The philosopher's name is Bernard-Henri Levy, and therefore he is Mr Levy.

  • Comment number 21.

    'Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
    Thou art thyself, though not a philosopher.
    What's philosopher? it is nor hand, nor foot,
    Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
    Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
    What's in a name? that which we call a hair-do
    By any other name would smell as sweet;
    So Levi would, were he not Levi call'd,
    Retain that dear perfection which he owes
    Without that title. Levi, doff thy name,
    And for that name which is no part of thee
    Take all myself.

  • Comment number 22.

    Sometimes is carrot,sometimes is stick,we will never understand "ultimate power" cause we are not powerfull and dont know what it can do to our brain.
    Scientists discovered that when person earn\gain a lot of money it charges same parts of brain witch turns on after snorting cocaine.

    We all probably know what is bad,but after reading and watching those horrors from Biafra,Srebrenica,Iraq...i just wanted to see something good. Real "Good".

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pRVzdwDgegQ&playnext=1&list=PLB2602EFB15E27733


  • Comment number 23.

    Many in the humanitarian-intervention movement saw the Canal Hotel bombing as the beginning of the end of their dream. Because it dramatically illustrated how naive they had been.

    I don't understand this.

    By the time the UN went into Iraq, it was clear that there were 'baddies' - people fighting against the 'humanitarian' occupation - in Iraq. Why would the bombing be a surprise?

  • Comment number 24.

    There are two books that are very good on this subject and which I have drawn on for this piece. They come at it from different perspectives but they are both really good. One is David Rieff - A Bed for the Night, the other is Paul Berman - Power and the Idealists.

    Berman is much more sympathetic, but he also sees how it is at heart the story of a generation in Europe who wanted above all to be good. He describes how they were haunted by the failure of their parents' generation to resist the Nazis and the Holocaust. Rieff takes you into the heart of the problems and contradictions that emerged as the humanitarian movement developed. Another person who does that is the writer Alex de Waal. I think he is great - although he focusses on the wider area of disaster relief and the unforeseen consequences that has had since the 1960s.

    It is a fascinating subject - worthy of a drama which would tell the story of that generation and what happened to them. It is the story of our age - the disenchantment with politics and the liberal globalist dream as an alternative. I have only scratched the surface. It is worth noting that one of the other people involved in the Biafra story was Jonathan Aitken who became a heroic journalist exposing how the British government were supplying arms to the Nigerian government. And look what happened to him.

  • Comment number 25.

    thought you might be interested to know that glucksman's son is currently a senior advisor to president saakashvili of georgia

  • Comment number 26.

    "glucksman's son is currently a senior advisor to president saakashvili of georgia"

    Fits into the whole goodie-baddie-mush perfectly. Thanks Adam Curtis for the update there and for this great article.

    I'm Dutch and I was in my teens during the conflict in Bosnia. I followed the war closely on TV, though I couldn't understand most of it during the time. That said, the Srebenica-affair tore me up and still makes me a little ashamed of my country.

    Journalists and news presenters appeared very much in the dark about what was actually going on during that particular conflict. I suppose they had to simplify things, not only for their audience, but also for themselves. Perhaps in much the same way Bernard-Henri Lévy was doing in that Newsnight-piece. Maybe the division between good and evil was also motivated by the need for easier news and thus higher viewer ratings.

    In any case, the Bosnian conflict remained somewhat of a mystery to me, perhaps until I worked closely together with a man from Bosnia, who told me his war experiences in detail and his memories of the Yugoslavia from before the war. It was only then that I sensed how the war had probably worked, but understanding I still do not. During the conflict, TV couldn't have conveyed anything of the conflict really; there are only press conferences, shooting, suffering and slightly baffled journalists. I suppose that still goes for Lybia.

  • Comment number 27.

    Maybe the Libya intervention will prove the end of 'the End of History', that is, the world of the French Revolution that brought the idea of freedom to the masses. Fukuyama's book, though now seemingly discredited as a founding text of neo-conservatism, has insights into those ideals and why he thought that over time they would likely spread across the world in the form of democratic governments. Everyone seeks 'recognition' (can take political, social or economic forms), and the ideas of democracy do spread quite naturally with the proliferation of mass media. Because a window was opened to suffering and conflicts around the world, it makes us want to do something, just as it makes the people aware of their own desires for recognition and to fight for it. That remains true, even if the result is not really destined to result in democratic governments worldwide, as he'd thought.

    On the other hand, if you take the long view, even Iraq may in the end be better off in the end without it's ruthless dictator, and after the ethnic conflicts are resolved after years of bloodshed. And maybe a place like Libya will be a freer place in the end, even if it takes decades to get there. But we don't know that yet.

    In Rwanda, if foreign governments had gotten involved, they might have prevented the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people. But should the world have gotten involved? I think so. The new evils that would have come out of foreign intervention, would they have been worse that what we saw and continue to see (in the Congo) by non-intervention? But again we don't know.

    The real source of disruption in the world today is mass media and how it is 'free' in liberal democratic societies. If China's way prevails over social liberalism, then will we have a more peaceful world? But state control will limit what we see, and we'll leave other governments alone, as long as they don't threaten us. Personal freedom will be limited, but we'll live in peace, right? Somehow, I don't think so, we'll still have wars over resources, and technology will always change in new ways to ensure further disruption and striving for Recognition.

  • Comment number 28.

    There are some acts that can never be listed under humanitarian concern; these include
    - bombing with depleted uranium warheads or white phosphorous,
    - taking sides in what is a strictly internal action within another soverign country, as though you (an external party) know what is best for that country. I call this imperial arrogance, and it mostly use to bring about resourse exploitation.
    - killing or wounding civilians and allowing it to rest as collateral damage, as though not all people suffer, bleed, die and become missed by those that loved them
    - allow the destruction, multilation, etc of any other country's holy books, which can inflame religious passion and incite violence. It's better to burn the flag - if you must burn something. After the recent burning of the Koran, nine men died and scores were injured during bloody protests. Saturday's bloodshed in the city, regarded as the spiritual home of the Taliban was followed by 24 hours the deaths of 12 United Nations workers and Afghan civilians during the sacking of the UN compound in the normally peaceful northern city of Mazir-i-Sharif.
    So, will the person who burned this holy book - very publically - be brought to justice -very publically - for inciting rage and violence, resulting in death.

  • Comment number 29.

    Some things I've observed today: NATO forces attacked anti-Gaddafi rebels, because they were 'celebrating' with gunfire. Several UN staff were executed, including two beheadings from an angry mob stirred up by Mullahs and the not so innocent words of their puppet president Hamid Karzai. This is blamed on an obscure and eccentric village idiot who found that he could empower himself by creating a kangeroo court for a book, complete with jury and execution.

    What troubles me most, is that almost half the people who are supposed to be rational and free, those in western cultures, seem to think that Pastor Terry Jones act of executing a book, is no different to terrorism and beheading. This is not from Muslims, but our very own secular and 'Christian' west. See http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/poll/2011/apr/01/christianity-islam

    Thankyou Mr Curtis for those book recommendations and your continuing blog articles, which are a constant source of inspiration.

  • Comment number 30.

    "Sure, some supporters of humanitarian intervention are probably that naive - and you make things pretty easy for yourself by picking out Bernard Henry Levi, who's a narcissistic fool - but plenty of others are struggling intelligently with the genuinely difficult question of what to do about hideous, complex situations."

    Sam, the interventionists-as-thinkers aren't necessarily all naive but the interventionists-as-actors - the ones with power and influence - have as a class been naive, because they thought that they could delve into the complexities of power and politics, make all kinds of deals and sacrifices, bend a few receptive ears, and have more good than bad to show for it all at the end. They were wrong.

    They have made simplified arguments to the public and to politicians in order to 'get things done', kind of like how the Liberal Democrats broke all their promises in order to achieve nominal power. It would have been better if they had continued to mull over their thwarted quest for a leftist paradise and offered more subtle and reality-based advice. I think the world needs more Adam Curtises and Noam Chomskys rather than tub-thumping propagandists, of which there are never any shortages, unfortunately.

    It is not difficult to argue for the ideal of military intervention when you reduce it to its essentials - it's just like defending an individual innocent from a villain, yeah, fine - but as that poor, reasonable man from Al-Quds was trying to say, life is never a controlled experiment and I never do hear any Western pro-interventionists ever tackle this question of 'selectivity'... It's just not good enough to say "we might as well use Western imperialism to humanitarian advantage when we can" - it should be obvious that the impure motives will corrupt the result. What's wanted in countries like Libya is not just the death of the old but the construction of something new and good, and the West - broadly speaking - is neither expert in this nor demostrably interested in bringing it about. Power and profit remain fairly good predictors of national behaviour - fashions in ideals don't stop people from playing the Great Game; they just change the rules a little.

  • Comment number 31.

    For me, one of the biggest barriers to deciding what to feel about the Middle-Eastern revolutions is the lack of profiles of the revolutionaries in the media. They are presented as simply 'the people' and 'Facebook campaigners'; in fact there are intellectuals in the mix whose ideas could potentially set the agenda for what comes after.

    Even if, say, the Egyptian uprising was vague in intent beyond ousting Mubarak, it is certain that intellectuals will have latched on to the revolution in order to guide its future. And what do the Libyan rebels want besides 'not Gadaffi'? We don't know, do we? I keep seeing journalists ask demonstrators who only have vague answers, but somewhere in the mix there will be influential people who know exactly what they're aiming for.

  • Comment number 32.

    Adam Curtis: "Berman is much more sympathetic, but he also sees how it is at heart the story of a generation in Europe who wanted above all to be good. He describes how they were haunted by the failure of their parents' generation to resist the Nazis and the Holocaust."

    Who is "haunted" by their parents "failure"? Jews, like Mr. Berman? European Jews? Perhaps. Survivor guilt, maybe. Did Gentile Europeans wallow in guilt for Hitler in the 1950s? 1960s? The Belgians, who were overrun? The French under Vichy? The English for Dunkirk and the Blitz? No, this supposed guilt did not exist after WWII. It has been carefully cultivated since the 1960s. Cultivated and projected in large part from America.

    There is an unusual dynamic in America. Many members of the Jewish Nation in America feel guilty since they escaped Europe, lived so well, and were never at risk. The vast majority of the Jewish Nation living in America know they never spoke out in the 1930s, never put their lives on the line, never sponsored Jewish refugee families. Never did much at all that would save lives. There is a great deal of guilt for this.

    Since the 1960s, however, that guilt has been displaced and projected upon the American Nation and has spread to the nations of Europe. We can see this projected race guilt not just in the "wars for humantiy" your article speaks of but in several other ways as well.

    First, Gentile children across America do race penance by attending annual mandatory Holocaust education classes taught by approve lists of Holocaust educators many of whom have received special Holocaust studies training to teach these gentile students.

    Second, Gentile communities across America are forced to take tens of thousands of "victim" refugees every year and support them (seemingly in perpetuity) as further atonement.

    I don't know what can be done to alleviate Jewish national guilt for WWII. But the two-pronged, guilt-ridden "invade the world/invite the world" modus now in operation will surely genocide the American nation if it progresses another couple decades.

    Is there no way that white gentiles can atone for Hitler, shy of self-extinction? Is there no way to deflect the projection of Jewish guilt upon Gentiles?

  • Comment number 33.

    Great piece -really interesting and nice use of video. It was spoiled for me by the throwaway comment towards the end about the KLA leader and Kosovan PM Thaci. Very few people set much store by the Swiss prosecutor's report. Was Thaci and his KLA responsible for killings? Of course - they were fighting a fairly brutal assortment of Serb paramilitaries,special police and army. Was he head of a mafia? What does this mean? Its perilously close to the Serb slur about Albanians -that they are all thieves and Mafia. Did he try to procure weapons by whatever means he could ? Of course. He was fighting a war. As for the organs allegations. They remain completely unproven. The Swiss report had no hard evidence of it at all. Is it possible? Yes. Is Mr. Thaci therefore responsible for it? That's really pushing the chain of responsibility. So, a poor end to a great piece that's otherwise intellectually sound. And Levi's hair is quite something. Bravo.

  • Comment number 34.

    I wasn't quite sure about the relevance of bigbill60's comments on Holocaust guilt and the US Jewish lobby. I should, of course, state at the outset that I am of Jewish background myself, and it is not exactly that I disagree with the questions being posed by the poster, more that I think that laying an emphasis on US attitudes, however they may have been conditioned by Holocaust guilt or otherwise, appears to miss much of the point of the orginal post!

    Certainly, there is a *direct* influence of Holocaust revulsion implicit in the actions and attitudes taken by the UN in its formative years - not least in UNESCO's definition of the essential unity of mankind, irrespective of nationality and race, and, arguably, whatever the pros and cons of specific claims to the territory, of UN support for the foundation of Israel in 1948.

    However, Adam's article appears far more concerned with an essentially European led, rather than American, series of responses to humanitarian intervention. I note that he begins analysing a post colonial conflict directly germane to British interests and considers the quality of the promotional campaign waged on the rebels' behalf by a Dutchman ('mid Atlantic' accent notwithstanding), and that the vast majority of his later examples of spokespeople for the humanitarian effort are French. Indeed, even the material on the Serbian atrocities is concerned with European issues, and the responses (or lack of them) of Dutch UN Peacekeepers.

    The point it seems Adam makes to me is that the initiatives he is interested in documenting emerged from a European generation whose attitudes had been born in the crucible of the student revolutionary movement of the late 60's. This is, perhaps, where a more relevant Jewish perspective, and the question of Holocaust guilt, kicks in. It is a well documented fact that many of the key leaders of the revolutionaries of '68 were Jewish, but came from essentially irreligious, often Marxist backgrounds. Important luminaries of the time of Jewish origin included Mark Rudd, Abby Hoffman, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Adam Michnik, Jerry Rubin. There were significant recognitions of this fact amongst the reactionary elements within state governments in the USA, Poland (which initiated a deliberately anti-Semitic policy of arresting radicals on suspicion of their Jewishness) Germany (which retained many of its Nazi era administrators in the years post Nuremberg), and the USSR. It is known that many of them saw it as their duty to protest against what they saw as 'renascent fascism' and state 'tyranny' because they wished to extirpate the memory of race hate, and prevent any threatened recurrence of Holocaust.

    Over the long run, the attitudes of this generation became the received wisdom of those humanitarian ideologists whose cause Adam is chronicling. It is notable that of the three French New Philosophers he cites, Henri-Levy and Glucksman are both Jewish, and Kouchner, who is technically not, nonetheless had a Jewish father. To my mind, their possibly naive, but essentially idealised, attempt to aid the cause of all peoples, regardless of colour or creed, to see the whole world as a 'brotherhood' of nations, is, indeed, a direct continuation of the notions of burying the divisions that led to the Holocaust. Significantly, for example, Glucksman is actually the son of an Auschwitz survivor.

    Perhaps, then, it is true to say that a form of 'survivor guilt' has, indeed, had a disproportionate effect on the humanitarian missionising that has been such a feature of Western ideology since the late 60's. But this seems, at least in the cases Adam is chronicling, to be more of an influence upon the European scene, rather than the American.

    And it is still open to question as to whether the resultant initiatives should be regretted or not.

  • Comment number 35.

    Finally a Journalist still alive...

    also note, that Blair in his speech at the Kosovan refugee camp, is always talking about "them", "these people", and not talking to his audience on the ground in front of him (that would rather be "you"), but to a virtual audience in a mere MarkPress PR stunt for media outlets to broadcast to the "oh dear" spectator quarks...

    and it would also be only fair to mention, that Sergio Viero de Mello's "green zone" compound was not merely a UN humanitarian HQ ...but also enough of a cover to be a public reason for the chief weapons inspector to resign.
    (same for white UN landrovers in Serbia, Kosovo)

  • Comment number 36.

    It's another fantastic blog. But I wonder if the next one could be about what actually happened in Biafra? Or maybe in Rwanda? And then perhaps we can be enlightened to what would have happened without the interventions in Kosovo? Of course it works both ways, historical revisionism is usually a bit silly.

    It feels to me that if we give up on humanitarian action that then in some way we give up the idea that we can make the world a better place generally. It's a bind, because emotions can distort the reading of situations, and jeopardise our ability to try and anticipate the consequences of our actions. But I think our emotional response is at the heart of why we feel the need to intervene, it's grounded in empathy and I'm not sure 'All individual passion leads to the suppression of all critical judgment with regard to the object of that passion' (yes, I had to look that quote up). I just think that's what happens at the moment. In a time where most 'interventions' thus far have been perpetrated in pursuit of less noble interests, and enabled here in the UK an affluent but strange way of life to be adopted, genuine humanitarian aid and intervention seems like a target some way down the list.

    It's difficult to agree on anything other than fundamental material requirements, but the rights that enable basic freedom are more likely to be undermined where power between individuals is wildly disproportionate. And this is true in both recognisable tyrannies where overtly power is centralised, to the nominal democracies that most of us that post on here tend to be from, where only tacitly people tend to be aware of structures of control and influence. This will not always be true, but if we have a chance of protecting the existence of people, that after serious consideration and analysis we feel are fighting for genuine democratic ideas and that have a significantly greater chance of enhancing people's well-being, then I think there becomes an obligation to act. Inaction, as everyone knows, is a form of action and if we didn't intervene we were quite certain what would happen.

    Why is it so difficult, why are we unable to "judge who it is we are helping in Libya - and thus what the real consequences of our actions might be"?. From the outset we have to recognise there are distinct limits to the extent which we really understand the world, even to the most insightful individual, because the world is so complex and we are so inherently limited in capacity and by biases. The actions we take may turn out for the worse. Simplification in all fields of knowledge is the necessity of control, be it goodies/baddies, taxonomy of human beings, models of human nature, market behaviour, nature - all the Curtis favourites. I love that quote from the Ascent of Man, about curing ourselves of 'the itch'.

    I think it's a question of education and how we frame the world, and whether we can overcome biases that are arguably inherent to human psychology, or have manifested to such devastating consequences that it seems that way. We are it seems increasingly ill equipped to understand the world. There's too much reliance on narrow facts and figures, history taught as a timeline etc. Again it's simplification and rationalisation. Greater respect needs to be given to qualitative analysis in education, formally and in the broader sources of information people use in trying to understand the world, broader ideas that might lead to broader understanding. There's a lot of quantification in education today, but the historical study of natural sciences themselves does not have a record of being completely and inherently dogmatic. Much of scientific tradition has a fine relationship with uncertainty. Certainty is unachievable, so it's a question of how we mitigate and to some extent how we accept uncertainty. I'm interested in the ideas you find in Taoism of Wu Wei/action without action, and of freedom from desire (which runs through a lot of theology). Perhaps free individuals, in this sense, and best able to recognise shared needs and values. Don't worry, I'm not getting the incense out.

    I don't want us to give up on the idea that through reason and consideration we can makes things better for people. I don't know if there are particular interests other than those explicitly stated in our getting involved out there. I'd be concerned that this 'revolutionary' group seem to be referencing King Idris, which if they are concerned with democracy again might be contradictory - idols are simplifying too. He conducted purges and was ousted in, apparently, a bloodless coup (by Gaddafi) which at the time probably looked like a humanitarian success - and may have been. This the kind of the figurehead for Libya that the US/UK, based on past form, might welcome for a variety of reasons, as opposed to the multi-party democracy that we're seemingly supporting. Some of the key 'transitional' figures are western educated and have represented US/UK interests so I'm scared this is business as usual in foreign policy terms. Perhaps we should be concerned at the attempt at creation/imposition of a certain type of society, one like we have in the UK/US, without regard for Libya's cultural or historical complexities. Moreover, we seem ignorant to the host of inherent flaws in our own democratic system, which is increasingly unequal and inhibiting, creates too many "losers", atomises and alienates people etc.

    There's a question again of how the public acquire knowledge on issues. The idea of the "propaganda model" is pretty widely pervading whenever you talk to left leaning people about the media. But it's not just coercion in the psychological sense; inherently the structure of most modern media, and modern journalism is to achieve a certain type of efficiency. And as with many structures of efficiency its basis is again in simplification. We've talked about this on here a load before, neoliberalism/radical individualism and simplicity, and not only of the models of human nature and motivation, but in that the telos, the end purpose permeates everything before. Kinda like Curtis' "Trap" meet Weber's "Iron Cage". Journalism is now constrained to an extent by simple and unachieavable ethics of impartiality and teleological concerns like "efficiency", but doesn't enquire as to in what way efficient and to what broader consequence? What is the purpose of journalism? It will be different for different interests, but the dual compatible interests and conseqeunces of mass media ownership today is that 1. it makes a load of money and 2. it undermines the potential for the type of critical analysis of how power works in the world.

    I've just realised this might be an incomprehensible rant. Sorry about that.

    And finally it should be noted that Bernard Henri Levy's hair is, infact, amazing.

  • Comment number 37.

    @the art teacher: I am inclined to think, that "Bernard Henri Levy's hair is, infact" a punch-line: the froggies paid as much attention to the hair style as to their detailing of the deployment of Raffales*.

    Germains would say, that it was a rushed... The Paxman crew left it as is, just to have fun of the chaps.

    * note: not those Typhoons by the limies, admittedly minimal Concordial Eurofigher traits

  • Comment number 38.

    @theArtTeacher
    Have you ever read a book called Emergency Sex And Other Desperate Measures?
    It details the lives of three people involved with the UN through the 1990s, from the high point of introducing democracy to Cambodia, through the lows of Serbia, Somalia and Rwanda.
    They highlight a lot of the hypocrisy prevalent in the aid sector at the time, and the real effect that the Mogadishu incidents had on US (and subsequently UN) policy throughout Africa that almost ensured the massacres in Rwanda would go ahead.
    I suspect the rapid reaction to Libya today is in response to the accusations that the UN effectively sanctioned Rwanda's massacre by refusing to act when it could.

    It is also noticeable from Adam's posts over time, that our political leaders are determined to repeat every mistake made by their forebears. I wonder if the changes from a landed aristocracy to an elected popularity contest has meant our potential leaders are ignorant of the real political costs of their actions until it becomes too late. Not that I think aristocrats are any better than normal people, but rather I think the focus has changed for the scions of the wealthy to be educated to control the intangible reins of power, than to attain power directly, leaving the elected officials as relatively impotent figureheads in many western societies. See Belgium, Japan and the US as examples, where the governments either could not form, or are so partisan as to be unable to operate.
    More moderate societies such as in Scandanavia or Australasia don't show the same levels of obvious corruption, but I suspect that all have issues with vested interests controlling their actions.

  • Comment number 39.

    I keep recalling from a few years ago that when the Russians put down a *revolution* in Georgia or some other faraway place, the do-good politicians were bleating about Putin's use of an *inappropriate* amount of force. The revolution was put down within 48 hours and their *war* was over. I've no idea who was right and who was wrong but the war was short and that's the only thing about war that can be good.

  • Comment number 40.

    Excellent blog.

  • Comment number 41.

    For your consideration. A limited engagement: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-2808726764494097933#

  • Comment number 42.

    @Dorrin - thanks for the tip, it looks really interesting.

    For anyone who hasn't heard by now, Charlie Brooker 'tweeted' that Adam's new series will be along some time soonish. And as if that wasn't exciting enough, he said the current title for it is -

    All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace

    I can't wait.

  • Comment number 43.

    There's a really nice new TED talk by Morgan Spurlock that may be of interest to your clan here :

    http://www.ted.com/talks/morgan_spurlock_the_greatest_ted_talk_ever_sold.html

    Although I have many many issues and problems with your perceptions Adam there is a lot of mileage to be gained from your choice of subject matter and the importance of bringing this stuff out to a wide audience. For that I salute you.

    From a pedantic point of view, as a comment on this blog posting, I would like to shove in the importance of the 35mm SLR camera as a powerful tool for helping in a large way to brand the 'humanitarian' thing. One can talk about the semantics of human suffering and better this and better that but actually a ' real cause ' does tend or seem to be dependent on a ' seeing is believing ' visual truth. And of course this can be manipulated.

    My tongue in cheek comment would be don't go to Oxford University.

  • Comment number 44.

    I apologise for any indiscretions that may have offended anyone or be inappropriate or ill considered or linked to any other website that may be considered inappropriate to this blog and the blog rules.

    I have found Adam Curtis' work over the years very inspired and delivered with great clarity and humour. I have been a fan for many years . But that should not preclude anyone from making reasonably judged comment as I felt I had done.

    I don't pass comments very often but when I do I am usually very careful to weigh how my comments might be received- clearly not enough this time....


  • Comment number 45.

    Relating to the new AC doc - I'm just come across an old documentary that was shown on the BBC in the 80's. I think some people might find it interesting as it seems to share a theme with what (I think) Adam's forthcoming series might be about. What with the title, and the 'machines' at the end of Kiss, parts of the Trap....might be relevant.

    The series has the unpromising title Secret Society and it's by Duncan Campbell. But this episode is called We're All Data Now, which I like. Apparently some people went divvy over the series and it caused some trouble. Anyway, it's easy enough to find it, thought I'd give y'all a heads up.

  • Comment number 46.

    @The Art Teacher: 'wei wu wei' - 'doing non-doing'. This kind of philosophy, when actualised in the human personality, can help to stop people from clinging to dogma in the face of contradictory evidence. However, although egotism makes people cling fiercely out of insecurity, the basic problem of ignorance about the world is cognitive and inevitable. We'll always be shooting in the dark to some extent and doing nothing is not an option.

    Wise people can do amazing things spontaneously, with what appear to be great leaps of judgement, yet if you talk to them you'll often find them reluctant to commit to any point of view or cause. So they're receptive enough to have deep insight but are still aware of their limits.

    A lot of tragic narratives are presentations of people with 'good intentions' who do bad things, but I view these a little differently - I disbelieve that the intententions are truly pure; humility for one thing is lacking. I think civilisation itself is just a calcification of egotism and self-improvers are a particularly desperate and unsexy bunch. I think it's something to be understood and dropped, not improved.

  • Comment number 47.

    On my own Blog I had to cause to quote RD Laing from 1969:
    “As long as we cannot up-level our thinking beyond US and THEM, the goodies and the baddies. It will go on and on. The only possible end will be when all the goodies have killed all the baddies…… which does not seem so difficult……since to us…. WE are the goodies.”
    What goes around seems to always return.

  • Comment number 48.

    Adam, you say:

    "Above all because we realise that humanitarian interventionism offers us no political way to judge who it is we are helping in Libya - and thus what the real consequences of our actions might be."

    That may well be true, but I think you're missing something here. The "critical framework" we need to develop doesn't just need to distinguish friend from foe; it also needs to tell whether the war we are going is legally just in the first place. This is the difference between the war in Iraq and the ongoing intervention in Lybia, and what you miss is this:

    - Is there a humanitarian crisis which requires our intervention? That means that the regime we would supposedly want to topple has to indicate it would commence hostilities against innocent people within its own borders. That condition seems to have been met in Lybia, where Gaddafi threatened to attack with his army a heavily populated area, Benghazi. In Iraq however, this wasn't the case; Saddam was horrible dictator, but around the time of the invasion he have no indication he would punish his own people in the same way he did in the early 90's with the gassing of the Kurds, and I'm not aware of any pro-war arguments where they give evidence of such an occurence. The fact that Saddam was a war criminal is not enough justification, because that would mean we could invade a whole host of other countries and possibly even open ourselves to attack (if your dinstinctions of what constitues war crimes are fine grained enough.

    - The threat of attack. Does x country pose an imminent and clear danger to us? It is not enough that it possesses WMDs because, like war crimes, it would make democracies like the UK and the USA justifiably open to attack. No, it has to be shown that x country has them AND is willing to use them in a near future attack. Neither condition was met in Iraq, and I'm surprised that neo-conservative hawks would find that possible existence of WMD in Iraq enough reason for intervention without following the absurd places such logic would take you.

    No discussion of goodies and baddies can be truly complete without discussion of these facts. Maybe the Platonic idea of liberal interventionism you depict has obscured them, but I think you need to do a rigorous case by case study before you can say which war is just and which war is not. Everything else, "critical framework" included, flows from that. If the conditions I've described have been met in Lybia, which I think they have, does that mean we are nevertheless not obliged to interven b

  • Comment number 49.

    For some reason the bloody server didn't post my coment in full. I think you will find crappy blog software is the best argument against the internet, Adam. ;)

    Anyway, I'm reporting the whole thing but with added corrections:

    Adam, you say:

    "Above all because we realise that humanitarian interventionism offers us no political way to judge who it is we are helping in Libya - and thus what the real consequences of our actions might be."

    That may well be true, but I think you're missing something here. The "critical framework" we need to develop doesn't just need to distinguish friend from foe; it also needs to tell us whether the war we are going into is legally just in the first place. This is the difference between the war in Iraq and the ongoing intervention in Lybia, and what you miss is this:

    - Is there a humanitarian crisis which requires our intervention? That means that the regime we would supposedly want to topple has to indicate it would commence hostilities against innocent people within its own borders. That condition seems to have been met in Lybia, where Gaddafi threatened to attack with his army a heavily populated area, Benghazi. In Iraq however, this wasn't the case; Saddam was a horrible dictator, but around the time of the invasion he gave no indication he would punish his own people in the same way he did in the early 90's with the gassing of the Kurds, and I'm not aware of any pro-war arguments where they give evidence of such an occurence. The fact that Saddam was a war criminal is not enough justification, because that would mean we could invade a whole host of other countries and possibly even open ourselves to attack if your distinctions of what constitutes a war crime are fine grained enough.

    - The threat of attack. Does x country pose an imminent and clear danger to us? It is not enough that it possesses WMDs because, like war crimes, it would make democracies like the UK and the USA justifiably open to attack. No, it has to be shown that x country has them AND is willing to use them in a near future attack. Neither condition was met in Iraq, and I'm surprised that neo-conservative hawks would find the possible existence of WMD in Iraq enough reason for intervention without following the absurd places such logic would take you.

    No discussion of goodies and baddies can be truly complete without discussion of these facts. Maybe the Platonic idea of liberal interventionism you depict has obscured them, but I think you need to do a rigorous case by case study before you can say which%2

  • Comment number 50.

  • Comment number 51.

    I just wanted to say I have loved all the documentaries you have ever made and I was thrilled to hear about your new documentary - "All Watched Over By Machines". I am a big fan and I just wish they would run your films repeatedly at 6 or 7pm on a Saturday night on all channels, I know you will understand what I mean by this. In relation to the title of your new series I think you should try looking at :-

    http://www.heaven-or-hell-its-your-choice.com/book/ADAM_CURTIS_VID_1.htm

    A good portion of it was inspired by you and celebrates some of your ideas and thinking. This was written by a person as described in your last film - The Trap - a lonely robot that in this case almost changed the world!

    The truth about the future impact machines will have on both global society and economic systems as a whole, will I believe be more far reaching than anybody can truly predict. I think I speak for all of your fans when I say it's great that you will soon be back on our screens enlightening us all once again, please keep up your good works you are an inspiration and a breath of fresh air to many.

  • Comment number 52.

    Ok, I'm posting the very last bit that was left out and that will be it, the blog kept rejecting my coment so I hope this works:

    "If the conditions I've described have been met in Libya, which I think they have, does that mean we are nevertheless not obliged to intervene because we don't know the motivations of our allies? Should we sit on our hands until we conduct a rigorous study, very scientific of course, of who the Goodies and the Baddies are? It's easy to wave your hands around and say "the world is a very complicated place blah blah blah", what's much harder is stating what you want to do about the situation and why. That last criticism, btw, is something I would level at some of the arguments made in your documentaries.
    Lastly, and building on what I just said, I think what you stated in the Guardian today about the Arab Revolutions has the whiff of "No True Scotsman" about it. Why do you think the rebels have no true vision of society? Do you know what they actually stand for? It could well be that they are, like everyone else with access in to the internet, stuck in a frozen world where the old progressive dream has been lost, etcetera etcetera, but it could also be that SOME of them do have an idea of where they want their country to go, it's just very hard to implement that vision in the chaos left behind by the revolutions. It reflects on your (and our) ignorance on the issue that we haven't identified the various forces that are jostling for power in places like Tunisia and Egypt. Some groups, like the unions and the far left parties, probably want something similar to what you want; others, like the military and the Islamists, don't and I think everyone is a victim of circumstances in those situations, and always have limited control over events."
    Btw Jeff Mcmahan, a philosopher, is really good on the pros and cons of liberal intervention and the concept of "Just War". You can download an article he made about the Iraq war from this blog post:
    http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2004/09/the_moral_case_.html

  • Comment number 53.

    I've been obsessively going through this blog over the last few days, sometimes at the expense of work I should have been doing. Of all the fascinating posts on it, this, so far, for me, has been the most enlightening.

    Overall, this blog and your documentaries scratches intellectual itches I've felt and felt were almost unreachable for most of my sentient life. In particular, it explains a lot of the strangeness I sensed around me growing up in the seventies and helps me navigate the troubling and ambiguous legacy of the historical watershed that the sixties seem to have been.

    It seems astonishing once one becomes immersed in this type of stuff that other journalists and documentarists do so little by way of explaining the historical context of what they talk about. The all-too aptly named Unreported World on Friday was about Eritrean refugees attempting to escape to Israel. It told us absolutely nothing about how Eritrea became the difficult and dangerous place it is, leaving only the usual earnest portrayal of the blunt fact of yet another unintelligible humanitarian crisis.

    On the subject of 'humanitarian intervention', Blair's actions in Sierra Leone are surely very relevant too. In attempting to refresh my own memory of what happened, I came across this rather bizarre blog: http://keeptonyblairforpm.wordpress.com/2009/07/18/tony-blairs-sierra-leone-legacy-reminder/

    The difficult question raised by the work of Glucksmann, as described here (I've never encountered him before), with its talk of Auschwitzes is, what should have been the attitude to the original Auschwitz? It's no wonder his argument had power since it's such an article of faith that the Holocaust had to be stopped. But isn't it also troublingly clear that the allied effort in WWII was much more a matter of self-interest than altruistic humanitarian sentiment? What would have been done if the Nazis had confined themselves to their Austro-Hungarian patch and carried out their murderous exploits without disturbing the western powers? And more discomfittingly, what should have been done? The reductio ad absurdum implication of this blog post might almost be that the Nazis SHOULD have been left to get on with it. Please understand, I'm not accusing you of some weird, implied Nazi apologism, I just don't really know how to resolve this one. I guess it might be a start to say that the consciousness of the late twentieth century has been profoundly moulded by having the Nazis to point at as such obvious bad guys that it's set up an expectation of being able to discern such clear divisions in other conflicts. However, the other great difficulty is that, as per your remarks on how the victims in a conflict can never be relied upon to be simply the good guys, this holds true even for the victims of the Holocaust – and it's the myth of the these victims as unimpeachable good guys that is a key component of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Do we simply say, yes, of course one does what one can to save the victims in any conflict, but never allow that effort to be elided with an a priori assumption that those victims are the good guys?

    Finally, what's the intriguing and rather beautiful photo of the man with the blue rectangle over his face? I may be being dense, but I couldn't see that it was explained anywhere.

  • Comment number 54.

    By the way, just wanted to add, I agree with Charles re Blair's repeated references to 'these people'. Sat very wrong.

  • Comment number 55.

    Oh, sorry, and one other thing, regarding the idea of the Holocaust as repository of all the evil in the world, are you familiar with the work of the historian Sven Lindqvist? His book Exterminate all the Brutes, taking a cue from Heart of Darkness (and Conrad's short story An Outpost of Progress) argues that Nazi racism was an outgrowth of a belief in European racial superiority that was used to justify colonialism and its attendant large-scale atrocities in the nineteenth century.

  • Comment number 56.

    Excellent discussion on GOODIES AND BADDIES stories. Also, nice video's you have got here. I must say that overall I am really impressed with this blog.It is easy to see that you are impassioned about your writing. I wish I had got your ability to write. I look forward to more updates and will be returning. [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]

 

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