December 20th, 2005


Syriana, or How the world works

You know once you've seen things you're not supposed to see, that part of you is alone. -- layo


The United States, and to some extent the world, is in one of those periods of intense political thought and debate; and having spent much of my personal and professional life around players in the political game -- the folks who make the decisions, and the folks you see on teevee fronting for them -- such debate tends to drive me quietly (sometimes not so quietly) nuts. senryu's favorite quotation is The Firesign Theatre's "Everything You Know is Wrong," not least because, alas, it's pretty much true...and never more so than in politics. The simple fact is that almost the entire content of public political debate is, and indeed has to be, based on fiction: both polite fictions of the kind one uses to comfort children, and the less benign sort that we tend to abhor as "lies." Recognizing this, you'll note that my own political posts don't tend to criticize public untruths, but what strike me as unwise policies: I don't, that is, object so much to "opinion management" itself, as to the growing heap of disasters the current political climate tends to obscure.

Still, I've been trying for months, without success, to find a way to do a sort of omnibus "Here's how things really work" post. This will probably be my only posted attempt, and let me begin it this way: if you care about such matters, go see the Stephen Gaghan film Syriana.

I probably ought to end it right there, too, but a few more words.

Suppose you had trillions of dollars and control of the world's limited resources at stake. Would you, (1) put all of the facts of life as clearly as possible before the general public, country by country, and then act on their collective whims, however ill-informed, smallminded, delusional, shortsighted and dangerous they might be; or (2) engage in sustained efforts to shape public opinion in order to achieve the goals you already have in mind? Can't say what you'd do, but I can tell you that every powerful group in history, bar none, has settled on (2). This fact has a lot of effects, some good, some perfectly dreadful; but it is a fact.

One of those (sometimes unintended) effects is that aforementioned high fictional content in political debates: by definition, if we're managing the public mind by manipulating illusions, most political debate will skew pretty far from "the truth" in any sense. That this is undemocratic does not, I confess, bother me very much. Indeed, the current world crisis is arguably a crisis of too much democracy: people are finally getting to act on their benighted beliefs, and thereby endangering not only a carefully-constructed world political system, but human survival itself. I should add that I don't think this is because people are stupid, so much as ill-informed: they tend to act intelligently, and even bravely, on what are, unfortunately, false premises. There isn't time to educate enough of them in the realities of life, and if we act on their errors in the meantime, even they will end up suffering for it.*

Anyway, writer-director Stephen Gaghan has taken a specific issue -- control of dwindling oil deposits -- and tried to give us a kaleidoscopic snapshot of the realities behind that issue. He has succeeded beyond anything I would have thought possible. Contrary to what you might expect, this isn't a "liberal" (or "conservative") film: it's entirely outside the polite fictions we tend to mistake for genuine political debate. It is an attempt to tell the truth, in a way films very rarely do.

If you care about such matters, then, go see Syriana.

93 93/93 -- AJ

* Case in point: the recent elections in Iraq. Horrible as Saddam Hussein was, I, for one, am uncertain that Iraq will be better off under Islamic law (much less control by Iran), even were the majority to think (at first!) that they want it. Time will tell.