Apocalyptic Bedfellows

Over at The Medium and the Message, Adam Curtis is doing some of the best work on the web. His multimedia stories are part history and part journalism, spliced together with narrative that doubles as commentary. In his most recent piece, Adam explores the parallel lives of religious fundamentalists in American and Iran.

It is an under-appreciated fact that American fundamentalists and Iranian fundamentalists moved into politics at about the same time, and have often used one another as foils. Despite their doctrinal differences, the two groups have much in common, including an inability to recognize the irony of their shared societal visions. It may be that each needs the other to stoke the fear that justifies theocracies.

As is true of all Adam’s pieces (which include film clips from the BBC’s archives), this one takes some time. For those who can’t immediately get to it, here is a teaser from his open and close:

When you bring God into politics very strange things happen. You can see this now in both America and Iran –  in their elections and also in the growing confrontation between them. But it wasn’t always like this – in fact for most of the 20th century fundamentalist religion in both America and Iran had turned its back on the world of politics and power.

But in the 1970s everything changed. For that was the moment when religion was deliberately brought into politics in both countries with the aim of using it as a revolutionary force. And those who did this – Khomeini in Iran, and right-wing activists in America – were inspired by the revolutionary theories and organisations of the left and their ambition to transform society in a radical way.


But the religious right in America didn’t go away, instead – just like in Khomeini’s Iran – it has mutated since the late 1980s into a rigid moral police force that has become an iron cage that possesses American politics and stops it progressing.

Forty years ago, in both America and Iran, religion was brought into politics as a revolutionary force – fueled by a vision that it could be used to transform the world. But now, in both countries, that power has mutated into a backward-looking and hysterical conservatism that is doing its best to remove both countries from the dynamic force of history.

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6 thoughts on “Apocalyptic Bedfellows

  1. J. A. Le Fevre

    ‘When you bring God into politics …’ What Adam is reporting is naught but a simple rhetorical tool, significant only in its current social context.
    Rhetoric has been a focused study for influence and manipulation from before Socrates was a pup. It means no more than knowing what moves your target audience. There has never been, nor will there ever be a shortage of little Hitler’s and little Napoleon’s seeking allegiance. See: Orwell, ‘Animal Farm’. Ironic, yes, but nothing new and nothing to do with God – it is just a way to frame an argument. Many people feel safer staying at home and away from the world at large.
    Early in the 15th century (CE) China abandoned its trading fleets, leaving Europe to profit from international trade and colonize large sections of the world. China, today, seems anxious and prepared to turn those tables back.
    Do not credit a rhetorical tool for myopic agoraphobia. That is a personal problem, not one of theology, and it is only natural that someone will come along to take advantage of it. We may, of course, hope for all of them an early failure.

  2. Cris Post author

    I’m not following you at all. What little part I do follow doesn’t make much sense.

    What Adam is reporting has elements of rhetoric but is substantially more than rhetoric. The politics of rhetoric leads to the politics of action; they are inseparable. One can hardly dismiss either Hitler or Napoleon as mere rhetoricians. As for these fundamentalists, it has everything to do with God and theology.

  3. J. A. Le Fevre

    I see only Napoleons (et. all) manipulating their way to power – perhaps Machavellians a better generalization. God and religion used (shamlessly) as rhetorical tools.

  4. J. A. Le Fevre

    Alternately phrased, God and religion are being used in Adam’s examples as nothing more than tools of persuasion by ambitious people seeking power and influence. A basic technique common to virtually all leaders: Identify yourself to your audience through shared cultural assumptions, win their trust then lead them towards your goals – ‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen …’ being one of the best recognized intrductions. Every human has the potential to be similarly manipulated – else we would be like cats, unmanageable in groups.
    Nothing to do with God or theology, everything to do with leadership.

  5. Cris Post author

    So you are claiming that religious fundamentalists in America and Iran are nothing but cynics who are using God and theology for purposes of political power? That they really don’t believe what they say they believe? That their aims and goals for their respective societies aren’t driven by their beliefs in God and theologies? Right.

  6. J. A. Le Fevre

    I’m a cynic (as reflected in my prose), but this process is business as usual. It’s just the normal competition of life – people are constantly looking out for risks and opportunities, and they are talking about what they see and what they think. Leaders and potential leaders have a talent for framing their talk (their rhetoric) such that they attract and engage others to accept a common vision and become supporters and followers. Larger groups form (and gain prominence and power) proportional to the number of people who have a strong interest in the topic and the skill of the leaders in attracting allies and bringing multiple topics to the movement.
    As for theology, Shakespeare observed that any villainy could be justified with the right passage from the Bible. Any villainy, but any good by the same token, and the same could be said for many texts. Framing an argument in theology has nothing whatsoever to do with its merits or demerits – theology is simply the frame of choice for the rhetoric of many leaders. It says nothing for the points being argued.
    Adam, in flagging theology, is just waiving a red herring to attract anyone who mistrusts theists. Atheists have ideas every bit as bad as theists, and every bit as good. Theism is irrelevant (in this context) – it may drive their arguments, but their theism will support any aim and any goal.

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