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The Power of Nightmares

If you're going to see one documentary this year, the three part BBC series "The Power of Nightmares" should be it. Its tone is less propagandistic than Michael Moore's 2004 documentary "Fahrenheit 9/11" and it explains how the political climate that spawned 9/11 was created. And, as the series is available free for download from The Internet Archive project, you don't even have to go to a video store to rent it! Ho ho ho!


"The Power of Nightmares" documents the history of the rise of two major political ideologies in the latter half of the twentieth century: radical Islam and neo-conservatism. The series points out that the two ideologies have much in common. Both ideologies have contempt for liberal democracy. Both ideologies use fear and mythmaking to motivate their supporters. And both have as a goal the control of government and organized religion so they can be used as ideological vehicles.

The documentary explains the strategy of the neo-conservatives and the political philosophy of their mentor, Leo Strauss. Strauss was, in essence, an elitist: he taught his students that it is necessary for social stability that the masses be energized and given a collective purpose through the use of myths. The myths are to be promoted and maintained by an elite. Individualism is to be discouraged in the masses, as it can lead them to challenge the myths and lessen their sense of purpose. Without a sense of purpose, the masses might not be comfortable with their place in the hierarchy. This would decrease social stability and endanger the long-term interests of the society as a whole.


According to the series, a number of Stauss's followers attempted to establish themselves in academic circles, but found the entrenchment of liberalism blocked them. They then turned to the political arena, becoming involved in the Republican party. A number of them rose fairly quickly to prominent government positions under Republican presidencies.

The first major myth the Straussians successfully promoted was the myth of a great Soviet threat to America. They did this by distorting, fabricating, and misrepresenting intelligence during Reagan's presidency. To seed the myth, they first sold it to the nation's leaders, then to the public at large. The myth gave both the nation's leaders and the masses a sense of purpose, of being involved in an epic struggle between good and evil. When the Soviet Union finally collapsed economically, they claimed victory.

Many of the same individuals that sold this myth found themselves once again in the driver's seat under the presidency of George Bush Junior. Seeing Iraq as a foothold in the middle east, they have used the power of myth to transform Iraq, a contained enemy, into a dire threat.

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