Binge Watching Great Movies about Real Conspiracies that Affect Us All

I was on a short business trip recently and had a chance to view three new movies about real conspiracies that affect us all. This prompted me to go back and re-watch some documentaries from the recent past. Talk about dark night of the soul! Here are my brief reviews in no particular order…

spotlight-2015Spotlight

I was aware of the ongoing scandal of pedophile priests but I had no idea how extensive the cover-up had/has been. This movie is almost pitch-perfect as it depicts the true story of reporters following leads ever deeper into a black hole of institutionalized criminality.

 

The Big Shortthe-big-short

This is a great film in all respects. The protagonists are quirky and imperfect, but each has a moral compass and limits on what he will do to make a buck. The basic premise is that everyone from the Fed Chairman on down to the home loan sharks in Miami could not or would not see the reality that was right in front of them. The rogues gallery of financial malefactors is both comical and repellent (see next). The main characters all confront the truth in different ways. I was struck by how sad this film is in spite of the heroes’ success.

inside-job-2010Inside Job

This documentary from 2010 is the logical compliment to the Big Short. The best parts are when they catch actual high-placed financiers and government officials telling lies on camera (amazing really!). The end of the film documents something I’ve felt since that time… In terms of effect on real people, the crimes were/are monstrous, and yet only a handful of the actual criminals have been punished! Blame for that outcome lies squarely with President Obama, who hired many of the same players for his administration rather than prosecute them. I still can’t get my head around it. We may never recover!

CitizenFourcitizenfour

Arch criminal or whistleblowing hero there is no doubt that Edward Snowden changed everything. In light of what has happened since released NSA secrets have mostly supported his whistleblower status. Watch it and make up your own mind.

 

united-states-of-secretsUnited States of Secrets

This PBS Frontline Series from 2014 is the logical companion to CitizenFour. Bulk Data Collection is now the norm, the FISA Court is nothing but a rubber-stamp and the Fourth Amendment is nowhere to be seen when it comes to electronic communication. I also recommend reading The Shadow Factory by James Bamford, where it becomes clear that with a little intelligence sharing between agencies and good police work we might have disrupted the 911 plot. Instead we let fear run away with us and gave our government free rein and an unlimited budget to spy on us. The dust-up over iPhone encryption is just the latest chapter.

merchants_of_doubtMerchants of Doubt

Also from 2014, this documentary reveals the techniques used to manipulate us by sowing fear, uncertainty and doubt. Hosted by a magician who is a self-described “honest liar”, the film shows how real lies are told and re-told on a massive scale. I was surprised that most of the techniques used today were all worked out by the Tobacco Industry decades ago! The art of telling a little lie to sell a big lie using deception, obfuscation & misdirection. The successful feint of big tobacco to get us focused on flame-retardant upholstery rather than the cigarette that actually caused the fire was a genius move. On the hopeful side, several past and current heroes are profiled including Stanton Glantz and James Hansen.

taxi_to_the_dark_sideTaxi to the Dark Side

I’m embarrassed to admit that I had forgotten most of the events covered by this 2007 documentary of our acts of brutality at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. The “Taxi” of the title belonged to an innocent Afghani man who was picked up by the US and died a few days later during interrogation. The basic point is that these atrocities where not the result of “a few bad apples” but rather a normalized fact accepted by the chain of command. See it! I can’t do it justice in words. The interviews with Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney are especially chilling.

the-fog-of-war The Fog of War

I was eligible for the draft near the end of the Vietnam War. (I “lost” the lottery.) I remember hearing Robert McNamara on TV explaining our intricate plans to “win” the war and prevent the dominos from falling. His regret and contrition are obvious in the film, but what is more important are his observations about the limits of power and intellect. Regrettably the lessons he had to teach were lost on the Bush Administration and a new generation has been forced to give up their lives in political wars.

Idiot America by Charles Pierce

Idiot America

How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free

Charles Pierce (2009)

This short confection of a book has a serious message… When “cranks” become mainstream and large segments of the population take them seriously, our entire society is at risk! He’s not against people with unconventional ideas, in fact he considers them to be an asset… a sort of check on the status quo. But an increasing number of cranks have won mainstream acceptance, and this is very alarming! Politics and religion are particularly vulnerable to exploitation.

The narrative begins at a “young earth” theme park depicting a time when dinosaurs and humans lived side by side. Silly on the face of it, but considered a real possibility by many in the US. He then proceeds to tell the story of Ignatius Donnelly (1831 – 1901), the man responsible for several persistent modern myths including Atlantis. Fascinating!

Pierce returns time and again to the Three Great Premises:

  1. Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units.
  2. Anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough. Fact is that which enough people believe.
  3. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it.

To premise #2 I would add the old standby: “Tell any lie often enough and it will be accepted as truth.” The “birther” and anti-vaccine movements come to mind, as does the statement made by John Kyl on the floor of the Senate that was “not intended to be a factual.” Too bad senators can’t be impeached for lying!

Number 3 is particularly disturbing because of what it implies for intellectual discourse. Individuals have no obligation to be skeptical or make reasoned arguments, they only need to believe something strongly enough until it “must be true.” Not a very good basis for informed discussion! No wonder we live in a world of information free voters.

And then there’s Bullshit, a topic laid bare in a delightful little book by Harry G. Frankfurt—On Bullshit (2005). He deftly explains the difference between BS and lying. When someone lies, they are making a conscious choice to deceive. They know the truth but wish to conceal it. The bullshitter on the other hand doesn’t know the truth and more importantly doesn’t care!

October 2013 Update: From Gail Collins at the NY Times, “Representative Ted Yoho was one of the very first members of Congress to verbalize the what-the-hey theory of global finance.” Putting the good faith and credit of the United States at risk? The very definition of a crank!

The Amazing Talks of RSAnimate

I’ve been a big fan of the RSA Podcast for several years now. All of these talks are worth listening too, and many are true gems! The best have been rendered in the brilliant “animated whiteboard” style of CognitiveMediaUK. I finally figured out how to create a “channel” for them on YouTube. Here is a sample by Daniel Pink, author of the book Drive.

It blew me away the first time I viewed it. Enjoy!