Foundational Media: Wag the Dog

(Did you know that when Comcast suspends your services, all attempts to access the internet will take you to https://customer.comcast.com/walledgarden? Walled garden. How terribly poetic. Comcast, for once, I’m actually a little impressed.)

Foundational media! A new series wherein I discuss books, films, and other media types that had a deep impact on my psyche at what were probably impressionable ages.

In honor of all the current talk about Iraq, I thought I’d reach back to November 2001, when I was a wee thirteen-year-old visiting my aunt and uncle who were noticeably more lax about such things as “caffeine intake” and “movie ratings” than my own parents. I remember sitting in my aunt’s father’s living room with my cousin and my aunt popping in a movie for us to watch. I remember protesting mightily at being shown an R-rated movie, and doing my best not to pay attention, but of course I was sucked into it anyway. I honestly have no idea how my aunt came to have this movie on VHS, or why she thought sticking it in was a good life decision—I’m ninety-nine percent sure we were visiting because her father had just passed away, and so I’m sure she had more important things on her mind than how terribly she was about to affect her niece’s view of the world.

(This being the aunt whose husband handed me over to George H.W. Bush for a hug during a campaign rally in 1992, I’m also ninety-nine percent sure she would shake her head at how this all turned out. Love you, Aunt Pam!)

(Seriously her house was the best video games and TV and real Coke and cookies whenever you wanted them and cousins to play with and one time the house was under construction so there were secret passages and then later she had a pool and anyway, best house.)

Wag the Dog, loosely based on the novel American Hero (which I’ve never read), came out in 1997 and tells the story of Connie (Robert de Niro), a man of unclear occupation who is brought in by Winifred (Anne Heche) to save the president’s re-election campaign when a tawdry news story threatens to affect his chances. Connie’s solution? Bring in a Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman) to manufacture a war. The film follows their attempts to stage (pun intended) the war and stay one step ahead of the president’s opponent in the polls. Memorable scenes include a young Kirsten Dunst as an “Albania refugee” with a kitten, and the bringing in of Willie Nelson to pen a folksy tune to garner sympathy for a “soldier left behind enemy lines.” It’s about politics, yes, and media manipulation (“before the age of the Internet”), and also fame, and art, and loyalty, and is mostly rated R for lots and lots of language.

This brings up a side discussion about another foundational part of my childhood and adolescence: the concept of age-appropriate material. I could handle the language fairly well—I’d heard most of it at school, though never so much at one time (I was, shall we say, sheltered)—but I was thirteen years old, and the twelve-to-thirteen-year-old age range is one of renewed discovery about the surrounding world, of a new awareness of not only other people but of more abstract ability to being to understand the intangible systems surrounding us. My eighth-grade science teacher insisted on giving us the basics of quantum mechanics because, as he put it, “your brains are ready to start thinking outside the concrete box.” And it was hard, and I think he spent about a month explaining it in as many ways as you can imagine, but for most of us it eventually clicked and suddenly we could describe the way electrons jump between energy levels despite having never seen it happen (despite, in some ways, my incredibly limited ability to even picture it happening). At the same time, at thirteen I hadn’t quite begun pushing the limits of the abstract boxes around me; I generally still took things on faith, didn’t quite understand that not everyone saw the world in the same way I did, and still had a lot of the very literal streak that defined my childhood.

(And isn’t that a wild thing? Children have such wild active imaginations—are able to fully immerse themselves in their imaginary world and roles, acting them out in a way that we adults tend to keep only in our heads—and yet at the same time those roles are real to them. The world is exactly how it is, whether you’re being a five-year-old girl or a mermaid. If you’re a mermaid, you’re going to act as a mermaid does, and even as you’re making it up as you go it’s still—definite. You might change your mind, but—it is, you know?)

The summer I was thirteen, I was aware of the news for the first time, and the news was dominated by shark attacks and the missing Chandra Levy. (Is that name a blast from the past to you?) I remember watching Connie Chung interview Gary Condit and being very frustrated that this allegedly great journalist simply asked the same question over and over and over again while Condit gave the same non-response every time. I remember being vaguely aware that these stories were getting talked into oblivion, that we weren’t finding anything out about them and yet coverage continued, and I remember being bored with it.

And then 9/11 happened and suddenly the sharks and Chandry Levy disappeared (again, in Ms. Levy’s case) under a maelstrom of media hellfire from which I was largely shielded. (I had two younger sisters at home, and so my parents turned off all footage of the towers falling and the rescue efforts. I didn’t actually see the footage until I was…heck, about to go to college, I think upon further reflection, I had graduated from college–it was 2011, the tenth anniversary of the attacks.) The news stories that I had been trying to follow vanished completely—I don’t remember anyone reporting when they finally found Chandra Levy, had to ask my mom months or maybe years later just to get a vague “I think they found her body in the woods”—and all anyone was talking about was war and war and war—

and in this climate, in my burgeoning awareness of the media and how it behaves, I saw a movie about the president manipulating the media in order to spark public support for a non-existent war in order to win reelection.

To say it scarred me would, I think, be a bit of an understatement. A tiny part of me was suddenly unconvinced 9/11 had even happened, and remained that way for two months until a friend of mine came back from Christmas break and reported having gone to Ground Zero himself. (It was a relief not to have the doubt anymore, not in the least because I felt horribly guilty about it, but also to know the government wasn’t that evil.) These feelings were exacerbated when, during a musical telethon to raise money for the victims, Willie Nelson got up to sing a song and my dad made a joke to my mom about “Good Ol’ Shoe” without realizing that I would get the reference. (I don’t know when I finally told them I’d seen the movie. I didn’t want to get in trouble for having watched it. But I think this goes to show too how even a kid as reliant on their parents and I was [and am] [love you guys] can be impacted by one movie beyond their control; how the books and movies and TV shows and websites we consume matter.)

I gave up on the news (especially TV news) as being worth any attention. I was suspicious of any and all war-mongering (before it was cool /hipster glasses), and as the months went on and the invasion of Iraq happened, I lost all faith in politicians. This sounds dramatic—and to me it was, because I was thirteen—but it’s also been sadly reinforced by the time between then and now.

I mean, you have to understand, I was the kid who, at the age of five, lost all faith in the banking system because when I gave them my five dollars to start my bank account, it went into a drawer with everyone else’s money. I think I’d seen my parents’ lockbox and assumed that that was what bank accounts were (see what I mean about kids being concrete?); I didn’t understand how the money could be all mixed together and still be mine. (Insert jokes about how banks don’t view your money as yours.) I understood that money and wealth was nothing more than a bunch of numbers in a computer long before I understood the idea of the abstract contracts we humans make in order to keep our societies functioning. I learned to play along, but that fundamental disappointment is a part of me even now.

Wag the Dog sparked a similar disappointment in me, just in a way that I was not at all prepared for. I mean, being media critical is one thing—a thing that has been reinforced throughout my education by both parents and teachers, a thing for which I am profoundly grateful—but having a part of you think 9/11 was nothing but a media shitstorm for political gain is something completely different. (I mean, yes, that’s what it turned into, but I repeat that part of me became not entirely convinced that it had actually happened and spent a month and a half quietly doubting. That’s the extremity of youth. You can argue that my parents should’ve let me watch the footage, but especially given how little my sisters were I respect their decision not to do so.) I’d had what tenuous footing I’d found for myself in the big adult world around me completely shaken, and it took me a while to rebuild, though I think the end result has been good for me, given again the fact that just about everything that’s happened since then has turned out to reinforce everything the movie taught me.

I showed it to my husband recently, and we got into a discussion of whether or not the story would still work if you set it nowadays, what with Wikipedia and Google. But that’s another, even more depressingly cynical post. But if you want to get an inkling for how my views of politics and the media were formed—and if you want to laugh (mostly in horror, but it’s still funny) in the process—find yourself a copy of Wag the Dog, and enjoy.

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