This week I’ve be watching Hypernormalisation, a really interesting documentary about us and our world. Here’s my take on it, followed by some thoughts on critical thinking.

 

At almost three hours long Adam Curtis’s latest documentary Hypernormalisation is surprisingly riveting. It debuted on BBC iPlayer on 16 October, but you can find it on YouTube and elsewhere.

Curtis’s overall theme is that we’re living in a weird, fake over-simplified world and have given up our collective power to banks, social media and international political technologists from Nixon’s man Henry Kissinger to President Putin’s Vladislav Surkov, who specialises in ‘destabilising’ our perceptions.

Both of these men and, presumably, many shadowy figures in between them, have developed extremely sophisticated ways to blur our view of reality and keep the populace in a state of confusion.

The documentary begins in the 70’s with two events: the first, the bankruptcy of New York city, the other in Syria, where the elder President Assad [father of the current President], a man with a plan to unify the Arab world, is being shafted by Henry Kissinger.

Curtis then pulls these threads through to 2016, digressing along the way to include Patti Smith, Black Rock, the Arab Spring, Jane Fonda, Russian sci-fi literature, lonely girl 15, the Yakuza, and, it almost goes without saying, William Gibson.

Donald Trump shows up in the documentary as a kind of Forrest Gump figure, participating in key moments of history, as does Colonel Muamar Gaddafi. He was apparently was a fake villain, created to give us the impression we were winning the war on terror when we weren’t. Very 1984, the way they rehabilitated him, only to abandon him in the Arab Spring.

Curtis believes that banks and now also the large social media organisations have found it useful to encourage a docile, self-focused, somewhat confused populace that doesn’t rock the boat. We are an integral part of the system and everything depends on keeping us pliable and too busy to look up. It’s kind of The Matrix plot.

He seems to think that if we did stop and look we would discover how fake and weird the world is. But although watching this and some of his other documentaries has helped me to wise up, I still feel a little like an ant trapped in honey – I suppose I could try to escape, but it is quite nice here.

Meanwhile, I’ve Been Thinking About: Critical Thinking

After watching Hypernormalisation my first impulse was. . . . to question the source.

I agree with this comment in the Guardian:

“Above all I was left with the determination that no matter what I read or watch, I need to apply critical analysis: Who is telling me this? Why are they telling me this and not something else? What do they gain (or what does someone else lose) by telling me this? What is their publishing/broadcasting history? What do others think about what they have written/broadcast in the past? etc. etc. [MizzLizProbert October 18, 3:12]

Who is this guy Adam Curtis who speaks so authoritatively, even dogmatically, about what has shaped the world we live in? How does he know what we, the population, were thinking in the 80’s and 90’s? How true are the things he reveals? What do other people think of this?

So first stop Wikipedia where I learn that he’s basically the Michael Moore of Britain. He has the same commitment to film-making and understanding the underlying causes as Moore. But of course there are profound differences in personality as you’d expect of a Brit. I’d actually watched one of his other documentaries, Bitter Lake – without realising he was a ‘name’. Actually I only watched a few minutes before thinking yeah yeah, I know this already.

So onward to the Guardian to read the review. Not so much for the review itself – I’m a bit wary of the paper’s opinions. But the people who comment are some of the smartest people in the English-speaking world, and many have perspectives that either support or politely refute my own opinions.

So welcome to my echo chamber – where ashenfacedsupremo [not his/her real name], in a long and brilliant post that was really a review, said of Hypernormalisation:

“You may not believe the pattern the joined-up lines make but there is no denying they are fascinating dots. All perfect for our modern take on hyperlinked reality, ricocheting from one random search result to another. . . .Everything from UFOs to Prozac are coaxed to fit an overarching, sometimes over-reaching, theory. Is it all a conspiracy, or given the political chaos, corruption and incompetence it details – is it best explained by the cock-up theory of history – what seems like conspiracy is just cock-uppery? . . . Whether you drink or even drain the Curtis Kool-Aid doesn’t matter. I always think he helps on some touchy-feely profound sub-conscious level answer that relentless question: How did we get in this mess?. . .And through his power of nightmares, in our fitful dreams, some fragment of memory falls into place. [ashenfacedsupremo, 18 Oct 10:09]

I felt those fragments fall into place. Politically, I don’t think we’re in any worse mess than the world has ever been in, it’s just different now. But I can understand that my counterparts in the UK and the US might think it worse. I think we’re definitely more aware of the mess and that the older you are, the harder it is to believe that anyone can navigate their way through it. Curtis is 61.

But I’m also quite pessimistic that any of it can be solved by rational thought and discussion, especially when we are faced with Surkovian levels of crazy. All we can do is question the source.  Sorry – that’s not really good enough is it? Questioning the source is Part One. Clarifying our own position is Part Two. Joining with like-minded people comes next. But then what?

 

Thanks for reading! To get my Sunday newsletters delivered to your inbox, please enter your name and email address in the boxes below.