What Happened To Our Dream Of Freedom
Documentary by Adam Curtis
first aired on BBC Two in March 2007
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.
please scroll down for parts 2 and 3,
click play to start each video
Part I: F**k You Buddy
Under The Microscope
1920: Little Albert
In an experiment that wouldn't make it past any university ethics committee today, researcher
John Watson tried to show how early experiences affect the kinds of people we become.
The nine-month-old experimental subject, Albert B, was introduced to a white rat, and a rabbit; he showed no fear. Then
he was presented with the white rat while Watson hit a metal bar with a hammer behind his back.
After this happened several times, the baby became afraid of the rat - and of the rabbit, and of other furry animals
and objects. Albert's mother never gave her consent for the experiment, and the baby left the hospital before any attempt
could be made to eliminate his new fears.
1960s: The Yanomami
The anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon made headlines with his studies of violence among
the Yanomami people of Venezuela and Brazil.
What looked like orgies of aggression, he concluded, actually followed a strict logic: tribe members defended those to
whom they were more closely genetically linked, protecting them from those who were genetically more distant.
Doubters had another theory: that the violence was influenced by the presence of the Western anthropologists. The
fighting, they said, was between village members to whom Chagnon's team had given machetes, and visiting tribespeople, who
wanted machetes too.
1961: The Milgram Experiments
These notorious studies on obedience to authority, by the Yale psychologist
Stanley Milgram, revealed what seemed to be a horrific dark side to humanity: if told to do unconscionable things by someone
who presents themselves as an authority, we will.
Milgram's subjects were told they were helping to study the effects of punishment on learning, and would have to administer
electric shocks to another so-called "subject", in another room, who was actually an actor.
The subjects proved willing to administer what they believed were electric shocks to the actors, up to and including fatal
levels, because the person running the experiment told them that they must.
1971: Stanford Prison Experiment
Philip Zimbardo, at Stanford university, divided undergraduate volunteers into
prisoners and guards, confining them to a mocked-up prison.
Even though everyone understood they were part of a simulation, chaos resulted as the subjects adapted with alarming speed
to their assigned personas. Guards became genuinely violent and sadistic; the prisoners rioted, and showed signs of
Alarmed researchers called off the experiment early - reportedly to the consternation of some of the guards, who
had come to relish their roles.