'BP And The Axis Of Evil'
June 23, 2010 11:52 AM   Subscribe

'BP And The Axis of Evil': Adam Curtis provides some historic information on the Anglo-Perisan Oil Company, later the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, later BP.

Since last time I brought up Mr. Curtis' blog (apologies for the repetition), I believe more of the embedded video footage is available to our international brethren, and he has been rather busy on the content front: 'Kabul: City Number One' Parts Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven, Eight, and Nine are now up, along with 'Kinshasa: City Number Two', Part One, 'How Much Do You Know?' - Part One: Democracy on Trial, as well as Yemen - The Return of Old Ghosts, The Economist's New Clothes, and plenty more besides.
posted by robself (15 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Fans of Adam Curtis may be pleased to know that many of his series are available via Archive.org.
posted by hippybear at 12:01 PM on June 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

I really like Adam Curtis, and I've watched almost all of his documentaries (stretching back into the 80s) because I found them compelling and interesting. However, there are times when I start to feel as though he's really simplifying complex realities in the world; his treatment of Leo Strauss in the generally brilliant "The Power of Nightmares" was pretty disappointing to me, and I've found myself becoming skeptical ever since.

I'm feeling that feeling now. I've spent some time studying Iran, and it's always seemed to me that the US and British roles in the 1953 coup have been vastly exaggerated. This is not to say they didn't act irresponsibly – they were sheerly idiotic – but I think a balanced historical review of the situation reveals that the so-called "Operation Ajax" was not the game-changing "success" people like to paint it as; the US and Britain spent money and sent people in, but neither country had any infrastructure for setting up actual intelligence or operative bases there in that time, and neither country had agents it could rely on that operated in Iran.

What's interesting is that the pervasive and enduring myth of a grand US/British power in Iran in the 50's apparently stems from the book Countercoup, a tell-all tabloid thriller by former CIA officer Kermit Roosevelt, Jr. It's a broad and arrogant book, which tells badly a story which the author clearly little understands. Roosevelt is absolutely full of himself, and proudly tells of how he shifted the entire course of Middle Eastern history through his wit and intrigue – and, of course, such romantic props as a suitcase with a million dollars in it just for him to use. And Roosevelt seems convinced that he was fully justified, so people tend unfortunately to take his story to be generally true.

The truth, I think, is the Roosevelt was a bumbling idiot who might have been given a budget and some objectives, but who muddled through a lot of things and happened to be in the right place at the right time. The coup was largely down to Shah Pahlavi, who had the blessing of being both indecisive and immoral; he had to be convinced to oust Mossadegh, but once he decided to, he really did it.

Again, this isn't to say that the US and Britain weren't involved in the coup, or that the future BP didn't care about the outcome. And both had a long and unfortunate partnership with the Shah after the coup. However, it's my opinion that "Operation Ajax" should be seen as a bumbling failure that turned into success because it happened at the right place and the right time. Kermit Roosevelt was always a fool; note please that he published Countercoup, which purports to reveal that the US had intentionally imposed the Shah on Iran, in 1979, during the Ayatollah's revolution there. Anyone who had any idea of the impact that move might have would never have done anything so stupid; I think it's fair to say that that book alone was responsible for at least half of the painful troubles between the US and Iran that happened just a few years later.

Anyhow, it's disappointing to me that Adam Curtis seems to have taken Kermit Roosevelt's story at face value. BP didn't give the world Ayatollah Khomeini; Iran gave the world Ayatollah Khomeini, and anybody who's ever read Khomeini's writings or knows anything about him as a man knows that he was brilliant, thoughtful, just, and a fine thinker. This is why he was the inspiration for a great revolution, one that was supported by everyone from the conservative clerics to the communists. That he turned out to be such an inept leader is one of the unfortunate paradoxes in Iranian history, but to blame him on BP is to miss the point of his significance.
posted by koeselitz at 12:34 PM on June 23, 2010 [13 favorites]

"...was a bumbling idiot who might have been given a budget and some objectives, but who muddled through a lot of things and happened to be in the right place at the right time."

Isn't that the modern definition of a good leader? We understand so little ourselves that we relate to their lack of understanding and foresight; at best we ask for "well-meaning"; at worst, just "good for me".

(What's scary is how many of our present ones fail even that test. And that we really need Obama to somehow rise above it. I wonder how future generations will remember him.)

So, in keeping with Curtis' simplifications: in this case we have the well-meaning / lucky idiots on the one side (West) and the brilliant inepts (Khomeini, but also Gandhi) on the other.

Oh, the horror.
posted by mondaygreens at 12:51 PM on June 23, 2010

It was British Petreoleum next, and only recently did it become just BP. I'm so outraged at this! Help me contain my outrage at your error regarding a giant international energy conglomerate's brand history!
posted by raysmj at 1:17 PM on June 23, 2010

bp is the new lady gaga
posted by nathancaswell at 1:23 PM on June 23, 2010

Always enjoy seeing new Adam Curtis stuff, but he's more formulaic than a Family Guy episode.
posted by empath at 1:27 PM on June 23, 2010

It was British Petreoleum next

Ah, well I thought we'd all agreed we wouldn't mention that.
posted by robself at 1:54 PM on June 23, 2010

I've watched everything of his that I could find on youtube and his work is a kind of drug. I spend the whole movie getting progressively more shocked and my hair turns white as I come to understand EVERYTHING - the unspeakable TRUTH of human history... and then after, when I try to think about it, I can't remember anything.
posted by moxiedoll at 7:48 PM on June 23, 2010 [4 favorites]

moxiedoll, it's all rather simple:

"A group of elites thought they could control people using newly discovered methods, but the consequences were not what they expected."

I'm pretty sure that covers every one of his documentaries.
posted by empath at 9:20 PM on June 23, 2010 [3 favorites]

For example:

In 1999, a young web designer invented a new concept -- the community weblog. Little did he know the forces of grar and shmoopy that he would unleash. This is the story of three moderators and their increasingly ambitious and ultimately futile attempts to direct this new technology to bring people the best of the web, and it's ultimate collapse, in a garbage heap of photos of pissing elephants and treaties of westphalia.

Tonight: Adam Curtis's "We Have Cameras: The Metafilter Story: Part 1: Hurf Durf Butter Eater"
posted by empath at 9:27 PM on June 23, 2010 [3 favorites]

empath: "I'm pretty sure that covers every one of his documentaries."

Curtis himself is not without ironic self-referential deprecation.
posted by meehawl at 9:52 AM on June 24, 2010

I think Curtis's work shows the fault lines within the ruling classes, and how different cliques - like the investors of the Mayfair set - gain the upper hand against other cliques - in that case, the family compacts and peers who ran British industry in the first half of the 20th century - only in turn to be out-maneuvered when their time runs out. Sometimes this is a consequence of their actions, other times its just the wheel of history turning, the motion of which Curtis does a rather decent job of outlining.
posted by fellorwaspushed at 11:49 AM on June 24, 2010

Curtis has found 18 TB of uncut Afghan footage from the last 40 years, and is showing some of it.
posted by meehawl at 8:48 PM on July 17, 2010

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