The extreme power of manipulation, in terms of public opinion and imagology, and its political and moral implications are well 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. The film tells us the story of Hollywood producer Stanley Motss and Washington’s spin doctor Conrad Brean, who are supposed to save the White House due to 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 instrumental mind and instrumental morality are not the only merits of this great film. This film, created in 1997, 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 means of smothering the scandal. “Pacifist” Western Europe wanted this war perhaps even more than “militaristic” America. The U.S. was the wand that was used to solve the problem.
But this 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. In short, something similar to being beyond good and evil.
In fact, the film in question predicted something even more dangerous and sinister than it was able to articulate and address along the lines of its characters’ monologues and dialogues. 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 and success stories. 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.
Yet the question remains whether these forms and methods of manipulations, brainwashing and conditioning can be used by dictatorships, thuggish regimes, and rogue-states more successfully than by democracies with all their marketing techniques and paraphernalia. Wag the Dog, like other similar productions of cinematography, rests on the assumption of infinite manipulations as an offshoot or a side effect of mass democracy. In so doing, it missed the point that military regimes can have much more success in this than their democratic adversaries. In fact, this is high time for the West to wake up and see the world around us for what it is. We are witnessing the resurgence of real rather than velvet or imagined totalitarianism in Russia. Public opinion was made and remade there as many times as the regime wanted it to be, and hatred for Ukraine was manufactured in accordance with the need for an enemy. Ukrainian “fascists” become the appropriation of the term that best describes its user, for the more Russian propaganda speaks about the Ukrainian fascism, the more family resemblance Russia itself bears to Nazi Germany with all its hatred as a method to approach reality, Goebbels-type propaganda, and toxic lies.
Never before has George Orwell’s 1984 and its vocabulary been as relevant as it is now, due to the sliding of Russia into barbarity and fascism with incredible speed and intensity. A series of interrogation scenes between O’Brien and Winston Smith with all allusions to the Communists and the Nazis as the naïve predecessors of Oceania, who had an ideology and who allowed their victims to become martyrs, sound now as the best eye-opener since Putinism entered the phase of war and terror: the Newspeak, two minute hate, and the jackboot trampling on the human face for the sake of unlimited power have finally acquired the points of reference.
It is a fascism with no real ideology, for a set of tools to boost the morale of its thugs and terrorists consists of the worn-out clichés and recycled slogans largely borrowed from the Italian and Hungarian fascisms with some Serbian additions from the times of Slobodan Milosevic, and with Nazi cherries on top. Irredentism, the need to reunite the disunited nation, the world turned against the righteous people, the necessity to defend history for the sake of its reenactment – these are all ghosts and specters of twentieth century fascism.
The tragedy of Russia is that its population falls prey to the Kremlin’s spin doctors with their ability to create virtual and TV hyper-reality that had hidden reality from the masses. Ukraine for the Russian incarnations and successors of Goebbels, such as Vladislav Surkov, has become exactly what Albania was for Barry Levinson and his film – a piece of virtual reality fabricated for the sake of domestic policies. The funny thing is that the excessive and obsessive use of the term “fascism” appears as a form of cognitive dissonance of Russian fascism: be quick to apply your own name or title portraying your enemy – then you will appropriate the name and will absolve yourself from it.