Monday, May 31, 2010

The Hermeneutics of Suspicion - The Adam Curtis Edition

Adam Curtis is spoken of in hushed tones as some kind of prophet or seer dispensing truth to a few wise acolytes from a windswept, er, studio in the BBC . He makes documentaries and this one in particular, The Trap, has been recommended to me by several people. The uploader on YouTube feels that its contents are so dangerous that it is bound to be taken down soon by Google, the CIA, the US Government and possibly David Icke's lizard beings who run the universe. It is an "analysis" of Isaiah Berlin's essay "Two Concepts of Liberty" and explains how Berlin's idea of "negative freedom" now shapes the modern world.
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Its certainly a visually arresting TV show but my God it is shallow undergraduate stuff and it is quite amazing to me that anyone can regard this as somehow "news". You study Isaiah Berlin's Two Concepts of Liberty in your very first week in a contemporary political philosophy course and then you spend the next year or so reading all the detailed criticisms of Berlin's view. Berlin was wrong Curtis says in the dramatic big reveal at the end of his show. Oh yeah, which way wrong? The way Ronald Dworkin says he was wrong or the way Robert Nozick says he was wrong or the way Alasdair MacIntyre says he was wrong or the way Charles Taylor says he was wrong? Berlin is merely a starting point for the whole communitarian/liberal debate that has been raging in philosophy since the late 60's. It's staggering that Curtis seems to be unaware of all of this. It gets him into embarrassing trouble: for Curtis to say that the idea of "positive liberty" has been "hidden and forgotten" (or perhaps, duh, duh, duh, suppressed) is absolute rubbish. Has he had read any philosophy book or paper written in the last 40 years? Now that Marxism is toast this is all that political philosophy departments ever argue about. Entire conferences, books, etc. etc. have raged on the idea of positive versus negative liberty. The very first philosophy tutorial I ever had was on Michael Sandel's criticisms of John Rawls's book length treatment of Berlin.
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Ironically Curtis is part of the problem that he claims to be worried about in his other documentaries - i.e. the dumbing down of TV. He's clearly spent a lot of time in the BBC archives finding footage and music for his programmes, but that time might more profitably have been spent in a library. The Trap is very thin gruel indeed, containing big exaggerated theses, no counter examples and no nuance; it proves what Neil Postman said two decades ago: TV is a medium for communicating images not ideas.
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If you are interested in the whole concept of positive and negative liberty and the role of freedom in a democracy (from the left and right and from all places in between) check out these books as a starting point:

Friedrich Hayek - The Road To Serfdom
Karl Popper - The Open Society and its Enemies
Two Concepts of Liberty - Isaiah Berlin
A Theory of Justice - John Rawls
Taking Rights Seriously - Ronald Dworkin
Anarchy, State and Utopia - Robert Nozick
Sources of the Self - Charles Taylor
After Virtue - Alasdair MacIntyre

Incidentally I'm going to pitch an idea to the BBC for a TV show called Charles Darwin The Hidden Prophet which will be an analysis of this unknown nineteenth century biologist and the conspiracy of silence about him and his controversial ideas.