The extreme power of manipulation, in terms of public opinion and image making, and its political and moral implications are masterfully revealed by one film that has contributed to the critique of today’s controlling political structures. This is Barry Levinson’s film Wag the Dog (1997). It tells us the story of Hollywood producer Stanley Motss and Washington spin doctor Conrad Brean, who are supposed to save the White House from the president’s scandalous romance.
The duet of Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro reveals with skill a world of people who are talented, but also amoral and value disoriented. At any rate, the revelations of an instrumental mind and instrumental morality are not the only merits of this great film. Created in 1997, the film foreshadowed a military campaign in Yugoslavia (the film mentions Albania) during the height of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky’s sex scandal. Of course, it would be silly to claim wearing a serious face that the war in Yugoslavia was required because of U.S. domestic politics, and as a way to smother the scandal. “Pacifist” Western Europe wanted this war perhaps even more than “militaristic” America. The U.S. was the wand waved to solve the problem.
But the film leaves an impression due to its emphasis on something else – it just so happens that a war can be fabricated. Just as, as it turns out, one might direct public opinion in such a way that a war would be wanted or even much desired. Create an artificial crisis, sacrifice a few dozen innocent lives to a political Moloch, increase people’s sense of insecurity – and, everyone, in a flash, almost overnight, will want both a firm controlling hand, tough rhetoric, and, perhaps, even war.
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In short, this is something similar to being beyond good and evil. It is not clear to what extent the scheme could be applied to actual foreign politics, but it is in part applicable, since right-wing hawks and militarists have made a living from conflicts and war, not burdening themselves with the puzzles of diplomatic and international relationships. However, if a part of the repertoire we see in the spin doctor’s and Hollywood producer’s inspired production is indeed used in the politics of democratic countries during times of war, or as a part for causing one, then we can readily state that the beginning of the end of public opinion is at hand.
In the contemporary world, manipulation by political advertisement is not only capable of creating people’s needs and their criteria of happiness, but also capable of fabricating the heroes of our time and controlling the imagination of the masses through successful biographies. These abilities make one pause for thought about a “velvet” totalitarianism – a controlled form of manipulating consciousness and imagination that is cloaked as liberal democracy, which allows the enslavement and control of even the critics.
But there is another side to the coin. The new scandal of the Edward Snowden story is a powerful reminder that manipulation of mass consciousness is just a tip of the iceberg. What remains deeply underneath is increasing social control and mass surveillance which reveals what has happened to politics outpaced by technology.
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Whether we like it or not, technology does not ask us if we desire it. Once you are able to use it, you must. Refusing to do so relegates you to the margins of society, unable able to pay your dues as a tenant or to participate in the public debate. The state which does not use mass surveillance becomes unable to justify its excessive use of secret services and spying techniques.
Technology will not allow one to remain on the sidelines. "I can" transmutes into "I must". "I can, therefore I must." No dilemmas are permitted here; we live in a reality of possibilities, not one of dilemmas.
This is something akin to the ethics of WikiLeaks, where there is no morality left. It is obligatory to spy and to leak, though it’s unclear for what reason or to what end. And furthermore, it works in both ways: both for and against the state. Yet it never assumes responsibility for a truly anguished individual.
It’s something that has to be done just because it’s technologically possible. And there is a moral vacuum here created by a technology that has overtaken politics. The problem for such a consciousness is not the form or legitimacy of power but its quantity. For evil (by the way, secretly adored) is where there is more financial and political power.
Two of the manifestations of the new evil: insensitivity to human suffering, and the desire to colonize privacy by taking away a person’s secrets, that something that should never be talked about or made public. The global use of others’ biographies, intimacies, lives and experiences is a symptom of insensitivity and lack of meaning.
Laughter as the most neutral and acceptable reaction of a cornered individual to his or her powerlessness, political entertainment and advertising has already become a perfect mask on the face of social and political control.
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