MARCH 27th 2007

There may be many who will have been somewhat confused by the recent BBC 2 film The Trap. It was well worth watching but it chucked a lot of history at us in condensed form and drew some conclusions. I will endeavour to elucidate, though I cannot guarantee that my conclusions are the same as that of the author.

Here is the introduction from the BBC web site
Just how free are we? According to Adam Curtis - we're not. In fact, he says that in an attempt to liberate us, Western governments have simply narrowed our choices and created a system where class and money means everything. In a series of three films, Curtis finds out how we got where we are today, and how our system of governance has led to chaos abroad. Be warned. These films may well change your life.

The Trap –
What Happened To Our Dream Of Freedom?

Individual freedom is the dream of our age. It's what our leaders promise to give us, it defines how we think of ourselves and, repeatedly, we have gone to war to impose freedom around the world. But if you step back and look at what freedom actually means for us today, it's a strange and limited kind of freedom.

Politicians promised to liberate us from the old dead hand of bureaucracy, but they have created an evermore controlling system of social management, driven by targets and numbers. Governments committed to freedom of choice have presided over a rise in inequality and a dramatic collapse in social mobility. And abroad, in Iraq and Afghanistan, the attempt to enforce freedom has led to bloody mayhem and the rise of an authoritarian anti-democratic Islamism. This, in turn, has helped inspire terrorist attacks in Britain. In response, the Government has dismantled long-standing laws designed to protect our freedom.

The Trap is a series of three films by Bafta-winning producer Adam Curtis that explains the origins of our contemporary, narrow idea of freedom.

It shows how a simplistic model of human beings as self-seeking, almost robotic, creatures led to today's idea of freedom. This model was derived from ideas and techniques developed by nuclear strategists during the Cold War to control the behaviour of the Soviet enemy.

Mathematicians such as John Nash developed paranoid game theories whose equations required people to be seen as selfish and isolated creatures, constantly monitoring each other suspiciously – always intent on their own advantage.

This model was then developed by genetic biologists, anthropologists, radical psychiatrists and free market economists, and has come to dominate both political thinking since the Seventies and the way people think about themselves as human beings.

However, within this simplistic idea lay the seeds of new forms of control. And what people have forgotten is that there are other ideas of freedom. We are, says Curtis, in a trap of our own making that controls us, deprives us of meaning and causes death and chaos abroad.

The fundamental issue examined in The Trap concerns the need to advance from the basic Game-Theory of John Nash and the Selfish-Gene theories of Dawkins and others.  Nash is alive and well and in a state of enlightenment, realising his theory is (a) inadequate in relation to the complex human beings it aims to include in its behavioural models and (b) subject to the universal law of all theories of this kind: they contain the seeds of their own destruction which will germinate if application is taken toward the extreme. Dawkins, although he still fails to understand his selfish gene theory has no effect whatsoever on arguments for or against atheism, has learned a lot more than he knew when he first got so excited about it. It's extraordinary how people burst into print and lecturing before finding out what others have already discovered many times over the past few thousand years, but there you go..

The Trap is not without a few misperceptions of its own. In its effort to show that the chasing of numerical targets by hospital managers, targets set according to game-theory rules to incentivise those responsible, it found fault with classifying a trolley with wheels removed as a bed, or a corridor converted into a ward as a ward. Why? A bed is a trolley without wheels and a large corridor full of beds is a ward. If beds and wards were needed, that was how to add them quickly and speed was what was requested. In fact the NHS spent far too much as it is, which is why it spent locally beyond its means and is now locally in trouble because. Putting off complicated operations to get the quick ones off the waiting list may or may not be cheating with harmful side effects but more detail needs to be shown to establish that. Nevertheless on the whole The Trap is intelligent and thought provoking.

The third episode of The Trap finished with an indicated conclusion: that Isaiah Berlin was wrong when he said that liberty had to be limited to what he defined as 'Negative Liberty' (because, if it were given a collective aim or vision, this would end as tyranny). If that is indeed the conclusion of the author I can confirm without doubt that this conclusion is correct, and that a philosophy of liberty such as Berlin's, necessary and valid as it was to enable us to defeat that of Marx, is nevertheless useless as a formula for existence, just as was the mathematical basis for it proposed by Nash.

So what, you may ask, is the positive aim that we should encourage the world's citizens to strive for in both their own and the collective interest, not because they are forced to but willingly?.Very simple: it is the one that Nature shows us - the management of this planet. That means managing our immediate personal environment and relationships, our local and our global environment and relationships. By facing us with a crisis, Nature has supplied us with the answer. Now that we know that the negative freedom of Isaiah Berlin or the Positive Freedom of Marx will both lead to disaster, we can perhaps begin to see that we can serve ourselves best by serving others.  Neither formulae from Nash or Philosophy from Berlin or Marx can absolve us each and every one from our personal responsibility. That is to inform ourselves and educate our children. We have millennia of works to choose from, so I suggest a sensible way to proceed is to look first at what informed some of those whose lives we most admire. A lot of stuff is free on the web and we have an Open University and the Bible (Authorized version) and Shakespeare, and all the works of philosophy and science; but first of all we much teach people to listen, speak, read and write in at least one or two established modern languages. English is a good one.

The political jouralist Peter Hitchens has just completed a televised thesis concerning David Cameron, who he describes as an opportunist 'toff' with no belief in anything. It is probably true that any modern politician has to be opportunist in the sense of being pragmatic in policy and seizing the opportunties on offer. But it is also evident that while political beliefs may be required to assemble and hold together a political party, they are rarely worthy of what we might call belief. All their dogmas and doctrines are subject to a reality check with the prevailing circumstances. Civilisation, it seems, depends far more on standards of behaviour and the trust we have in our fellow humans than any political or economic theory, and therefore far more in the perception of the world that is absorbed by every individual in their formative years. Unfortunately today's youth is surrounded by the ill digested content of the media, including the Internet, that is likely to beneficial only in a home and school and neigbourhood that can provide proper support.

Today, people are expressing surprise that Bob Woolmer was murdered, yet a few days ago it was reported that crowds of many thousands in Pakistan were demonstrating in the streets shouting "Death to Inzimam, Death to Woolmer". Is it not probable that one of their mentality, regardless of nationality, would believe himself a hero if he performed the deed? Or are we  to conclude it is right to classify all these demonstrators as primitive savages? We can't have it both ways. Apparently many nations now consider it humiliating to lose an international sporting fixture! Why? It would seem increasingly obvious that there are masses of people on this planet who are not yet ready for the interconnected world of information and social intercourse that we have made available to all.