Monday, April 03, 2006

The Century of the Self

The Century of the Self (2002, 4 hours, BBC)
Seen at The Avalon, Washington DC, April 2004, DC International Film Festival

Adam Curtis prepared this four part documentary for BBC television in the Spring of 2002, and the Washington DC International Film Festival presented it in 2004. The project is interesting to me because it presents the history of the gradual growth of individualism in the 20th Century through several political stages. Curtis’s historical thesis, like an history final essay exam, is to trace all of this back to Sigmund Freud. But it is the stages that interest me, rather like the six chapters of my own Do Ask, Do Tell book.

Part 1 is called “Happiness Machines.” The story starts with the influence of Sigmund Freud on his nephew Edward Bernays, who would invent the modern career of public relations, and mass consumer persuasion, in the 1920s. Companies used to market to consumers on the basis of need but were transformed into manipulating desire during the 20s. The consumer could see ownership of goods as a kind of self-expression. The world would crash down with the 1929 crash and succeeding depression, and that would bring discredit on ideas like freedom, capitalism, and democracy. FDR would try to save things with the New Deal while Goebels and then Hitler would promote national socialism, the idea that the state should manipulate the individual according to a folkish aesthetic meritocracy. All of that would crash, of course, with the extremes of the Third Reich and the Holocaust. The film pays little attention to communism and Stalin.

Part 2 is called “The Engineering of Consent.” Immediately following WWII, our own government would try to save “democratic capitalism” by using psychology and the “mental health” field (starting with a Mental Health Act of 1946) to channel people into cultural conformity, especially with regard to family values. The mental health field (based on Freud) saw conformity as necessary to repress irrationality and emotional wildness. This would fit into the Cold War and McCarthysm, but it was also partly a reaction to what had caused the rise of Nazi Germany. Individuals, if left to their own devices, might truly become dangerous in pursuing their private aesthetic fantasies. Conformity was thought to socialize people into the family so that the needy could be cared for efficiently, so gradually government welfare programs might become less a burden on business. Conformity also meant, to put it bluntly, that you outgrow adolescence and prove yourself as an adult by raising a family before any other claims to fame. Of course, this did not work that way, as “family values” in the 50s tended to promote segregation and the transfer of unearned wealth. And doesn’t forced conformity defeat the whole idea of democracy? This movement provided the scenario for my expulsion from William and Mary and subsequent psychiatric confinement in a government hospital after telling the Dean of Men that I was a latent homosexual. Quite an irony.

Part 3 is called “There Is a Policeman Inside All our Head: He Must Be Destroyed.” In the 1960s there were radical changes in psychotherapy, and one of the leading figures, William Reich (not to be confused with Theodore Reich who wrote a spirited book The Greening of America), turned against Freud and began to advocate the idea that individual self-expression is a good thing. Companies in time would catch on, and realize that marketing to self-promotion and vanity could make money. Ronald Reagan (to get government off our backs) as presented as promoting the libertarian brand of individualism, although many of us know of his receptive ties to the “Moral Majority” during the 1980s. The theory of polarity by Paul Rosenfels (see book reference below) fits into the idea that adult relationships should exist for a person’s happiness, not for social utility.

Part 4 is called “Eight People Sipping Wine in Kettering.” The old Left, with its expansive programs for the poor and disenfranchised, would meet a new attitude in the 1990s, as Bill Clinton and Tony Blair would become “Republicrats” after the pressure from polarizing figures like Newt Gingrich and the Contract with America. “A hand up, not a hand out,” was the phrase as Clinton and Blair sold welfare reform. To get elected, both the Democrats in the US and the Labour Party in Britain would have to see “progressivism” as an assembly of individual consumer wants, as politics learned from business.

So all of this about the new Self leaves us wondering about morality. You can’t take freedom for granted, and you can’t abuse the planet forever, or take care of an increasing elderly population with working-age professionals who feel a disincentive to reproduce. You can’t just drop the poor on the tracks with a “rank and yank” meritocracy. Some of this explains the cheating culture leading to our financial scandals, as well as the hatred of America around the world. But I don’t want to see big government come back either.

This gets painful. A bit of a nerd myself, I played the system during the Cold War, and again during the age of the Internet to promote myself. It seems like I could have been required to pay my dues more and prove that I could take care of others as a condition for self-promotion. The example such a paradigm sets would help take care of the poor or less able. But can you do this without corrupting the system as during the age of conformity? Well, the outsourcing phenomenon gives pause for thought: content-based jobs are more easily shipped overseas, and jobs that require you to be a convincing, persuasive person regardless of your “content” stay here. I have shown up short in this kind of market so far.

Compare this to the CNN 1999 series “Millennium.”

No comments: