Wednesday, July 05, 2006

A Sheltered America: The Broader Importance of the Kevin Barrett Controversy

Kevin Barrett has become an infamous name for many in Wisconsin over the course of the past week.

Barrett is hired as an adjunct instructor of an "Introduction to Islam" course at UW-Madison this coming fall, the institution where he earned his doctorate in 2004. Barrett also co-founded a group that theorizes an alternative cause for the attacks of September 11: the Bush Administration.

While other groups have argued that American foreign policy is the indirect cause for the attacks, Barrett’s group goes a giant step further by asserting that the White House was directly complicit in the attacks.

Mark Green and others have argued that Barrett should be fired on the spot for the fact that his personal views have made an appearance in the classroom and could do so again.

While I don’t agree with Barrett’s conclusions about September 11, I don’t think he should be removed from his position at UW-Madison this fall without due process. The UW is taking the right steps by conducting a full investigation of the matter and withholding a final decision until after the investigation is complete.

But the Barrett controversy has raised an interesting issue regarding the freedom of ideas in the United States today.

In taking a look at Barrett’s syllabus for the "Intro to Islam" course, which is posted at Jessica McBride’s blog, I ran across the title of a documentary that takes a position on September 11 that mirrors the position held by Barrett. The documentary is culled together from an in-depth three-part series that originally aired on BBC-TV in late 2004.

The documentary, titled The Power of Nightmares, traces the history of radical Islam and American neoconservativism over the course of the last 60 years, culminating in the contemporary war against terrorism.

In its broadest sense, the documentary serves as a case study for how fear plays a prominent role in cultural politics today. More narrowly, the film attempts to re-frame the war on terrorism as a largely exaggerated concoction developed for the purpose of political control.

In addition to airing on BBC-TV in late 2004 and again in early 2005, the documentary also aired on Canada’s public television provider – CBC-TV – in April 2005 and on Australia’s public television provider – SBS – in December 2005.

The documentary also received a spot at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in May 2005 and the film’s director, Adam Curtis, just won a BAFTA award (the UK’s version of the Emmys) last month for outstanding creative contribution to television.

In spite of this respect for the documentary in other countries, The Power of Nightmares has yet to air on an American TV station or even find an American company willing to distribute it commercially. You can’t even find it for sale on Amazon.com (although one used copy is currently on the market).

I’m certainly not arguing that every documentary ever made should necessarily get an airing in the US, but certainly a film that has received the accolades of this one deserves an American release of some kind. And the result of such a release could actually benefit those who deplore the ideas presented in the documentary.

As long as The Power of Nightmares -- along with other productions like it -- remains underground in the US, it carries with it the power of being largely un-vetted in this country. As a result, the ideas it presents are obscure, but remain essentially unchallenged. By simply dismissing the documentary as ridiculous and completely out of the mainstream, that power gets fed.

As it happens, a US review was done on the documentary and printed in The Nation. The review shows great respect for the film, particularly its painstaking detail, and it agrees with certain aspects portrayed – but, in the end, the reviewer successfully dulls the sharper controversial edges put forward in the documentary.

In short, the review is successful at bringing the documentary down to earth. In doing so, the review seriously questions the film and simultaneously allows it a spot in the ongoing debate in the US over the direction of the war on terrorism.

As the review concludes:

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Still, despite my many disagreements with The Power of Nightmares, which sometimes has the feel of a Noam Chomsky lecture channeled by Monty Python, it is a richly rewarding film because it treats its audience as adults capable of following complex arguments. This is a vision of the audience that has been almost entirely abandoned in the executive suites of American television networks. It would be refreshing if one of those executives took a chance on The Power of Nightmares. After all, its American counterpart, Fahrenheit 9/11, earned more money than any documentary in history. And what Curtis has to say is a helluva lot more interesting than what Michael Moore had to say.

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It can be argued that when controversial ideas come from a professor to a group of students they should face heightened scrutiny because of the power dynamics inherent in the classroom. But there’s little room to adequately argue that a documentary such as this should not get an airing in the country that likely has the most at stake in terms of the topic of the film.

Kevin Barrett should perhaps be the start of the discussion, but he hardly represents the most important aspect of it.

UPDATE: A link to where you can download The Power of Nightmares is provided in the comments.

8 Comments:

Blogger Sven said...

Thank Jeebus for the Internets.

July 05, 2006  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...

Thanks for the link.

Online is certainly better than nothing, but I wish the distribution could be broader.

July 05, 2006  
Blogger Daithí said...

The "Power of Nightmares" presents a very good exposition of contemporary Islamic fundamentalism and its roots.

Given the attention given to this movement today, Dr. Bennett would be negligent not to make it known to his students.

It just happens to present facts that make people like Jessica McBride and Steven Nass VERY uncomfortable...

Well, the world is FULL of facts!

Nice entry.

July 05, 2006  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...

Thanks for your comment, Daithi.

The reviews of the film all say its history is solid. I'm looking forward to the chance to watch it all online -- although it sure would be easier to just be able to pick it up at the library.

July 05, 2006  
Blogger krshorewood said...

When you are in higher education in persuit of your 120 credits you sit through roughly 30 to 40 professors and a bunch of TA's.

It is amazing that these big bold conservatives are so frightened that their little darlings will be exposed to a mean profressor who counters all the cherished myths they were taqught at home.

Higher education means developing your critical thinking, and that especially includes listening to and evaluation people who might be peddling BS.

July 06, 2006  
Blogger proletariat said...

Seth, I made two DVD's. I watched part 1 and it was very good. I thought the Neo Con and Islamo connection was rather solid.

Got any connections. Maybe watching the film and an essay to follow could be part of the admissions process at the UW.

If PBS put it on I'd start sending them money again.

July 06, 2006  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...

I'm sure there are some people at PBS who would love to show it -- it's unfortunate it's unlikely to happen, at least under the current administration. I imagine it'll get an airing some time down the road, just as many critical pieces did toward the end of the Cold War.

I wish I had those kind of connections at the UW -- the uproar it would cause would be priceless. When UNC-Chapel Hill required incoming freshmen to read parts of the Koran along with a selection of commentaries by a religious scholar in 2002, a conservative group in the state sued the university. I can only imagine the tizzy McBride and Sykes would send themselves into over anything close to that at the UW -- WTMJ might just explode.

July 06, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are yall High!!,

July 12, 2006  

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