I’ve just finished People’s Century*, 1995, an amazing 26 part BBC series, 54 minutes each, that chronicles our entire 20th Century. It is definitely the most impressive documentary series I’ve seen yet.
I hope that you will consider watching all 26 episodes for yourself at some point in your life, and showing it to and discussing it with your children. It is a singular experience. It should be part of the core curriculum in every enlightened high school or college. Documentaries with this kind of scope in time (100 years), and breadth in subject (the whole world) give us what David Gelernter calls topsight, the ability to see and understand the whole of a system in its essentials. People’s Century gives you unparalleled topsight into the nature of human life, the perennial trends, cycles, opportunities, and challenges of civilization, and in particular our relentless and uplifting history of accelerating scientific, technical, and social complexification.
Of the 26 episodes, I found Episode 24, God Fights Back (see links for a great PBS site with program descriptions and teacher resources), the most personally enlightening by a narrow margin, though several others, particularly Killing Fields, Lost Peace, On the Line, Breadline, Total War, Freedom Now, Asia Rising, Endangered Planet, Great Leap and Half the People are also particularly great, to pick a personal top 11 (sometimes 10 isn’t enough!). They all tell amazing, inspiring stories of cultural, political and technological change, in a format short enough for dinner viewing. Unfortunately, aside from a few random episodes (see bottom of this post), the interwebs are the only place you can find this incredible series online at present. Let’s hope the BBC releases it digitally for a reasonable price soon. In the meantime, check the torrent sites, and caveat emptor.
God Fights Back, after a brief nod to the rapid civil rights and modernization disruptions occurring round the world in the 1960’s (covered beautifully in earlier episodes), considers the inevitable and equally rapid fundamentalist backlash against modernization that occurred in Iran, Egypt, Sudan, Algeria, Turkey, Israel, Pakistan, India, the USA, and several other countries beginning in the late 1970’s to the early 80’s. For the US version, recall the fundamentalist Christians who marched on Washington for Jesus in 1980, the Reagan Revolution, and the rise of the Christian Right and its neoconsequences. All of these backlashes were triggered largely by too-fast and too-insensitive modernization, from the filmmaker’s perspective. Although I’d like to see more data to back that hypothesis, I find it quite plausible. Also, the film is rich with ideas for how things could have been handled better, ideas which continue to be useful today.
For example, there’s an awesome bit in the film on the way sexual objectification of women used by growth-oriented Western corporations to sell products in Iran was seen as particularly offensive and corrupting by some Islamic women. If only the Shah had been smart enough to be listening to his people, and sharply restricted this kind of advertising (basically pornography, from the Islamic perspective) and other bits of unthinking cultural warfare by the newly monied class on the rest of society. He could have set some smart standards, requiring social referenda before the “pornography” laws would be relaxed in various classes (it will clearly be a few more decades before anti-Mohammed cartoons will be allowed in most Islamic societies, for example) that other modernizing Islamic nations could have emulated. Every society regulates speech and has pornography standards, which reform on their own internal pace, and if you ignore them, you pay a steep price for your ignorance and arrogance. Some errors turn out to be critically important, in the end.
There was certainly a lot of gambling and prostitution and other corrosions of traditional values going under the Shah, just as in Cuba under Batista, which JFK, in 1963, said was the worst he knew of in any colonial country (see Cuban Revolution on Wikipedia for the surprising quote). When the Shah didn’t realize he needed the continual blessing of a significant portion of clerics and ministers to the poor, and wasn’t willing to engage in a brutal and damning de-religification of his society the way Mao and Castro and other extreme autocrats did, a Pyrrhic victory not worth the cost, he sealed his fate.
This series shows the folly of pushing modernization too fast, of letting unrestrained commercialism disrupt social fabric, of not honoring the ideas and beliefs of the majority, of not engaging the religious community in inevitable reforms, and of not staying at the pace of the most rapid religious reformers in your community. In this episode we see modernization driven at the unsustainable speeds of technocratic visionaries in Iran, Egypt, and Turkey. Some of them, like the Shah, had their modernization fueled by massive new oil wealth, and the changes went insanely fast. Anyone with sense could see the train wreck coming.
The story of Iran’s incredible modernization under Shah Reza Pahlavi from 1936 to 1979, when women lost the veil and got modern educations and freedoms, and when commerce and technology ruled the day, then the even more rapid and brutal loss of women’s and civil rights under the fundamentalist Khomeini in the 1980’s, and Iran’s isolation and extremism since, is one of the most dramatic tales of the 20th century. I’ve recently heard that The Queen and I, 2008 (IMDB 7.2), by an Iranian filmmaker who talks with the widow of the Shah, is a compelling and very personal retelling of Iran’s late 20th century story. It’s on my watchlist now. This history is critical not only to understanding modern Iran, but to understanding modernization in general.
The only thing People’s Century has underplayed so far is the impact of the massive rise of the corporations since 1950. We’ve let our global corporations get bigger than most of our governments in the last 60 years, so we shouldn’t be surprised when they take over our political systems, remove choice and competition at the top, and corruption and crony capitalism and corporate welfare result. I’m confident we’ll fix this imbalance in the future, but the first step is seeing the problem. People’s Century gets close in several of its episodes, but ultimately it misses on this critical point. I’m giving the series an 8.8 however. Ultimately it’s must-watch material.
*Finding People’s Century online isn’t easy at present. Episode 2, Killing Fields (WW I) is on Amazon Instant Video. A few more are online here. For now, to see all 26 you will have to go to the torrent or usenet sites (use an anonymizer of some type if you torrent, so your ISP doesn’t throttle your connection), or buy a creaky old VHS copy ($99 for the series) off Amazon or eBay. DVDs don’t appear to be available at any price. As I’ve written in How the Television Will be Revolutionized, until reasonably priced digital educational video emerges (and we all know what reasonable is), you should have no qualms going to the internets for this, as long as you are willing to pay the price, as in all conflict. Be a soldier in the war for global access to affordable quality educational video!
Objections? Additions? Omissions? Let me know. I hope you can find time to watch the series, it’s amazing.