Must see doc: The Century of the Self


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

January 10th, 2007
Must see Brit doc: The Century of the Self
Posted in These United States, Arts & Private Life by ed

The Century of the Self is a brilliant history of how professional psychology 
impregnated corporate and then political advertising in the 20th century, and 
how America was caught and sickened by its gaze. Written and produced for the 
BBC by Adam Curtis.

Advertising as we know it seems to have been invented by one man in New York in 
the 1920s: Sigmund Freud¹s nephew, Edward Bernays, who began as Enrico Caruso¹s 
press agent. Beguiled by his uncle¹s ideas about primal irrational desire, 
Bernays began to sell to such desires with images, rather than to reason with 
words. He was the first professional media consultant and perhaps the most 
influential ever, advising Presidents Wilson, Coolidge, Hoover and Eisenhower, 
and later in life working for the CIA.

During the Depression the corporations hired Bernays to battle FDR¹s efforts to 
banish fear and restore (?) reason to politics. Bernays responded with the 1939 
World¹s Fair, where the radiant Futurama and DemocraCity were brought to you by 
General Motors and Westinghouse, not Congress. The battle for the soul of the 
American people was on: would they be citizens, or would they be consumers? 
Josef Goebbels, the Nazi ad man, read and publicly praised Bernays¹ books.

The four episodes are The Happiness Machine (about Freud and Bernays post World 
War I), The Engineering of Consent (into the 1960s), There is a Policeman Inside
Our Heads (post 60s reactions, into the Reagantime) and Eight People Sipping 
Wine in Kettering (the 90s). All four (on small screen) are gathered with some 
commentary here. (See also for video the Info Clearinghouse link atop this 

Mr Curtis & co. (hats off) have also produced The Power of Nightmares (2004), 
about the parallel lives in the postwar era of American so-called 
Neo-conservatism and the anti-Americanism of the Muslim Brotherhood. Paramount 
perhaps is the well-made argument that Al Qaeda is not a network or even worthy 
of organization but rather a disjointed collection of activists who, when in 
need of funding for their projects, asked Osama (until he died). To quote 

although there is a serious threat of terrorism from some radical Islamists, the
nightmare vision of a uniquely powerful hidden organisation waiting to strike 
our societies is an illusion.

As an explanation of American foreign policy it falls short for failing to speak
of the oil mafia (without whose consent the Likud lobby¹s dreamwar of 
pacification in the mideast would never have been realized). But one can¹t say 
everything in three 60-minute episodes. Don¹t expect to watch just one.

The Power of Nightmares had a limited theatrical release but neither it nor 
Century of the Self has been released on DVD or broadcast in the US. Thank 
goodness for the free press and public life of the mind. In Britain.

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