Simple lies mask complex truths

The BBC has made one of its best documentary series ever: a profoundly dissident project
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British television is not as good as it thinks it is, but occasionally it is much, much better. BBC2 is about to broadcast a series of documentaries called The Living Dead - Three Films about the Power of the Past. They are among the best, most original and most difficult television programmes I have ever seen.

What is extraordinary about them is that they do well what television usually does worst - they deal with complexity. Indeed, complexity is the whole point. The message is that attempts to simplify the world - a peculiarly contemporary affliction - are invariably wrong-headed and frequently dangerous.

Adam Curtis, the producer - who was also responsible for the brilliant Pandora's Box series in 1992 - has three stories to tell. The first is about the way the West came to terms with the phenomenon of Nazism; the second concerns attempts, largely by the American military, artificially to control the human mind; the third is about the haunting of Margaret Thatcher by the ghost of Winston Churchill and his romantic vision of the history and greatness of Britain.

Each story involves an attempt at simplification. After the war Germany and the Allies agreed to define Nazism as a malign one-off, a unique conspiracy of evil men that would not happen again. This was necessary to justify the rhetoric of "the good war" that banished evil from the world. But it involved the denial of an obvious and ancient truth - that evil is a permanent part of human life.

Similarly, the CIA's chemical and psychological attempts to control the human mind were based on the supremely simple-minded idea that the brain was "like" a computer. All the attempts failed and, in the process, left behind a horrifying number of human casualties. Its primary exponent, the American psychiatrist Ewen Cameron, finally abandoned his efforts to control humans and concentrated instead on the less demanding mind of the flatworm. And Thatcher's adoption of Churchill's rhetoric involved a gross, simplifying, but for her therapeutic, distortion of British history. Encouraged by her mentor Airey Neave, at the height of the economic crises of the early Eighties, she would steel herself by muttering: "Churchill 1940, Churchill 1940."

Curtis's broad thesis is that these simplifications were the product of a mind-set that lasted from 1945 to 1989: the mind-set of the Cold War and of scientific and technological overconfidence. The Cold War inspired the conviction that the world was simple and the technology - this includes economics - encouraged the belief that it could be fixed. But when technology fails to deliver and starts to produce threatening, inhuman side-effects, and when the easy polarity of the Cold War collapses, we are left only with the complex, unfixable reality.

Look at Bosnia: a flagrantly complex example of still-flourishing evil in the heart of Europe. And the computer-mapping capabilities of cruise missiles are about the only fall-out from the inane attempts of the Fifties and Sixties to establish links between computers and the brain. And, finally, of course, the depraved nationalist fantasies of the hard Euro-sceptic right are the most vivid legacy of Thatcher's over-literal evocation of Churchillian history.

Each example proves that the human world resists simplification. Yet this does not seem to be a message the world wants to hear. Politics is becoming more, not less, obsessed with cheap, simplifying sloganising. In America, and increasingly in Britain, the public arena is being reduced to a moronic realm of competing sound bites. "Back to basics" was one of the most mindless in our recent history. Single-issue fanaticism is thriving because television finds it hard to think of two things at once. And, I am ashamed to say, newspaper columnists encourage the process by repeatedly adopting tight little postures in the deluded belief that vehement opinion is the same as passionate conviction.

In addition, faith in technology seems stronger than ever. As naive as any Fifties boffin, the technocrats of the digital age are forecasting a new world order based on the information superhighway. We are embarking, they believe, on a technological year zero in which the endless landscape of The Net will enable us to abandon history. Incredibly, a supine technological determinism is still being employed as a kind of bracing antidote to culture and civilisation.

I suspect - and so does Curtis - that people need such simplifications because they fear the only alternative is impotence. If we accept the limitless complexity of the world, it is difficult to know what is to be done. To do anything at all requires a degree of simplification. To be overcome by complexity is to be paralysed. Plus it makes you a lousy television performer. Nuance and subtlety are not required even by Newsnight or The Late Show, still less by Oprah or the hypnotic fatuity of "agenda- setting" American breakfast TV.

The truth is that the quick-fix legacy of the Cold War is proving hard to shake off. We are still in thrall to the cult of the expert. Like Edward Heath or Harold Wilson, we still see politics in terms of problem-solving, as progress rather than process. And we still fall for any scientist who appears to tell us that he can change our lives for the better. Most important, as far as Curtis's series is concerned, we are still prepared to accept false constructions of the past as a basis for our behaviour and expectations in the present. Churchill's romantic history was a necessary and effective tool for 1940, but it was not true and it can no longer be effective.

The importance of The Living Dead is that it is a hugely ambitious attempt to define historically a mind-set that most of its viewers will still possess. This makes it a profoundly dissident project. Although Curtis's stories may be set in the Forties, the Fifties and the Eighties, they are clearly a critique of the way we think now. He is delivering the difficult and elusive message that it is not what we think that is wrong, but the way we think. As Saul Bellow has put it, "the generally accepted account of the real world is not a true account".

Nevertheless, Curtis is nobly trying to be an optimist. He tells me, for example, that he believes a new post-Cold War politics must evolve to take on the real complexity of the world. I have my doubts. Think what this would require of politicians - cultivation, wisdom, self-awareness - and think what we currently have - ignorance, slogans and the celebration of a homely but sinister mediocrity.

And in any case politics is only one small part of the problem. The impulse to simplify is deeply embedded in the culture. It seems that however often we are proved simply wrong, we still cling to the hope that we are capable of being simply right. This means there will be more Ewen Camerons and Airey Neaves, more gurus of reduction, banality and delusion. For we devotees of subtle, human complexity, the future looks no brighter than it did in 1945.

'The Living Dead - Three Films about the Power of the Past' starts on BBC2 next Tuesday at 9.30pm.