The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom is a BBC documentary series by English filmmaker Adam Curtis, well known for other documentaries including The Century of the Self and The Power of Nightmares. It began airing in the United Kingdom on BBC Two on 11 March 2007.
The series consists of three one-hour programmes which explore the concept and definition of freedom, specifically, “how a simplistic model of human beings as self-seeking, almost robotic, creatures led to today’s idea of freedom.”
1. “Fuck You Buddy”
In this episode, Curtis examines the rise of game theory during the Cold War and the way in which its mathematical models of human behaviour filtered into economic thought. The programme traces the development of game theory with particular reference to the work of John Nash, who believed that all humans were inherently suspicious and selfish creatures that strategised constantly. Using this as his first premise, Nash constructed logically consistent and mathematically verifiable models, for which he won the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences, commonly referred to as the Nobel Prize in Economics. He invented system games reflecting his beliefs about human behaviour, including one he called “Fuck You Buddy” (later published as “So Long Sucker”), in which the only way to win was to betray your playing partner, and it is from this game that the episode’s title is taken. These games were internally coherent and worked correctly as long as the players obeyed the ground rules that they should behave selfishly and try to outwit their opponents, but when RAND’s analysts tried the games on their own secretaries, they instead chose not to betray each other, but to cooperate every time. This did not, in the eyes of the analysts, discredit the models, but instead proved that the secretaries were unfit subjects.
What was not known at the time was that Nash was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, and, as a result, was deeply suspicious of everyone around him—including his colleagues—and was convinced that many were involved in conspiracies against him. It was this mistaken belief that led to his view of people as a whole that formed the basis for his theories. Footage of an older and wiser Nash was shown in which he acknowledges that his paranoid views of other people at the time were false.
Curtis examines how game theory was used to create the USA’s nuclear strategy during the Cold War. Because no nuclear war occurred, it was believed that game theory had been correct in dictating the creation and maintenance of a massive American nuclear arsenal—because the Soviet Union had not attacked America with its nuclear weapons, the supposed deterrent must have worked. Game theory during the Cold War is a subject Curtis examined in more detail in the To The Brink of Eternity part of his first series, Pandora’s Box, and he reuses much of the same archive material in doing so.
2. “The Lonely Robot”
The second episode reiterated many of the ideas of the first, but developed the theme that drugs such as Prozac and lists of psychological symptoms which might indicate anxiety or depression were being used to normalise behaviour and make humans behave more predictably, like machines.
This was not presented as a conspiracy theory, but as a logical (although unpredicted) outcome of market-driven self-diagnosis by checklist based on symptoms, but not actual causes, discussed in the previous programme.
People with standard mood fluctuations diagnosed themselves as abnormal. They then presented themselves at psychiatrist’s offices, fulfilled the diagnostic criteria without offering personal histories, and were medicated. The alleged result was that vast numbers of Western people have had their behaviour and mentation modified by SSRI drugs without any strict medical necessity.
The Ax Fight—a famous anthropological study of the Yanomamo people of Venezuela by Tim Asch and Napoleon Chagnon—was re-examined and its strictly genetic-determinist interpretation called into question. Other researchers were called upon to verify Chagnon’s conclusions and arrived at totally opposed opinions. The suggestion was raised that the presence of a film crew and the handing out of machetes to some, but not all, tribesmen might have caused them to ‘perform’ as they did. While being questioned by Curtis, Chagnon was so annoyed by this suggestion that he terminated the interview and walked out of shot, protesting under his breath.
Film of Richard Dawkins propounding his ultra-strict “selfish gene” analogy of life was shown, with the archive clips spanning two decades to emphasise how the severely reductionist ideas of programmed behaviour have been absorbed by mainstream culture. (Later, however, the documentary gives evidence that cells are able to selectively replicate parts of DNA dependent on current needs. According to Curtis such evidence detracts from the simplified economic models of human beings). This brought Curtis back to the economic models of Hayek and the game theories of Cold War. Curtis explains how, with the “robotic” description of humankind apparently validated by geneticists, the game theory systems gained even more hold over society’s engineers.
3. “We Will Force You To Be Free”
The final programme focussed on the concepts of positive and negative liberty introduced in the 1950s by Isaiah Berlin. Curtis briefly explained how negative liberty could be defined as freedom from coercion and positive liberty as the opportunity to strive to fulfill one’s potential. Tony Blair had read Berlin’s essays on the topic and wrote to him in the late 1990s, arguing that positive and negative liberty could be mutually compatible. He never received a reply, as Berlin was on his death bed.
The programme began with a description of the Two Concepts of Liberty, claiming that it was Berlin’s opinion that, since it lacked coercion, negative liberty was the ’safer’ of the two. Curtis then explained how many political groups who sought their vision of freedom ended up using violence to achieve it.
For example the French revolutionaries wished to overthrow a monarchical system which they viewed as antithetical to freedom, but in so doing ended up with the Reign of Terror. Similarly, the Bolshevik revolutionaries in Russia, who sought to overthrow the old order and replace it with a society in which everyone was equal, ended up creating a totalitarian regime which used violence to achieve its ends.
Using violence, not simply as a means to achieve one’s goals, but also as an expression of freedom from Western bourgeois norms, was an idea developed by African revolutionary Frantz Fanon. He developed it from the Existentialist ideology of Jean-Paul Sartre, who argued that terrorism was a “terrible weapon but the oppressed poor have no others.”. These views were expressed, for example, in the revolutionary film The Battle of Algiers.