Adam Curtis

[BRITISH DOCUMENTARY FILMMAKER]

talks with

Errol Morris

[AMERICAN DOCUMENTARY FILMMAKER]

“ONCE YOU GET TRAPPED BY YOUR IMAGINATION, YOU THINK THE WORST, AND THEREFORE YOU HAVE TO PLAN FOR THE WORST. IT BECOMES A SELF-FULFILLING THING. ”
Reasons against conspiracy theories:
People are too self-absorbed to effectively conspire to do anything
Someone, somewhere would need to be in control of what’s going on

On October 31, 2005, Errol Morris, Academy Award–winning director of The Fog of War, interviewed Adam Curtis, director of The Power of Nightmares, the documentary film which asks the question “Did Johnny Mercer bring down the World Trade Center?” Originally broadcast on the BBC, a film version was shown at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival, where it was widely praised. Drawing extensively on archival footage from the BBC Library, the film has encountered difficulties in finding distribution in the U.S.

Morris and Curtis discuss conspiracy theories, unintended consequences, and notional moles.

*

ERROL MORRIS: The New York Times, today on the front page, had an article about new evidence concerning incidents in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964. The incidents, which are discussed in The Fog of War, have been disputed for over forty years. There are those that believe that they were part of a conspiracy to escalate the Vietnam War. Here’s a question: are they right? And, in an even more general sense, is history primarily a history of conspiracy? Or is it just a series of blunders, one after the other? Confusions, self-deceptions, idiocies of one kind or another?

ADAM CURTIS: It’s the latter. Where people do set out to have conspiracies, they don’t ever end up like they’re supposed to. History is a series of unintended consequences resulting from confused actions, some of which are committed by people who may think they’re taking part in a conspiracy, but it never works out the way they intended. For example, you could say the Gulf of Tonkin was a conspiratorial action to accelerate entry into war, yes?

EM: Here’s the conspiracy argument. The Johnson administration wanted to escalate the war in Vietnam. But they needed a pretext. And so they provoked these two incidents in the Gulf of Tonkin in order to get Congressional approval for escalation. The claim is: they had a grand plan. And the plan was war. I’ve never had much of an appetite for conspiracy theories. Here’s my argument in a nutshell: people are too much at cross-purposes with each other, too stupid, too self-absorbed to ever effectively conspire to do anything.

AC: “Just too self-absorbed” is the key element. To make a conspiracy work, you have to see it from all different angles to make sure the plan works. They don’t. Every time you ever read transcripts or detailed descriptions of what goes on at high-level policy decisions—I’m sure it’s true of the Kennedy administration, I’m sure it’s true today in the Bush administration—the arguments, the self-absorption, the disagreements and the narcissism are incredible. And I’m sure the Gulf of Tonkin thing probably emerged as a compromise between lots of different people arguing as much as from a single, clear principle.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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