What is the Sound of a Tail Wagging a Dog?

Last night, Lime and I watched a film I’d requested last semester for my Anglophone Popular Culture course, Wag the Dog (1997), and a couple of things hit me.

See, the thing is, all this watching Korean SF movies and thinking in terms of the Korean adaptation of foreign genres or narratives to a Korean context has impacted how I watch American and other foreign films now, and I was asking myself how or even whether Wag the Dog could be retold in a Korean context.

I haven’t seen many political films here, I’ll admit; The Host (2006) doesn’t feature any explicit depictions of the mechanisms within the Blue House — “The White House of Korea” — and The President’s Last Bang (2004) and The Barber of Hyoja Dong (2004) both deal with politics during (or at the end of) the rule of President Dictator Park Chung Hee.

(Although I don’t think Presidency is necessarily a sign of honor — I would imagine a degree of dishonor is necessary to worm one’s way to the helm of any nation in the world — I still think Park should be called what he was, which was a Dictator. Same for all the other dictators who get called President.)

Much as I enjoyed all of those films, I can’t help but wonder what a satirical look at the Blue House would look like, if anyone actually had the courage to make that sort of film.

So anyway, when it came out that the American President in Wag The Dog may or may not have had a sexual liason with a Girl Scout in (or, rather, just outside of) the OVal Office, because the girl leaks the allgation to a reporter, I suddenly started wondering what would happen if that happened in the Blue House. The President’s Last Bang, after all, depicts Park getting pretty touchy-feely with a couple of girls clearly hired for the occasion, after all, so it’s not like it’s unprecedented. (They weren’t Girl Scouts, of course, but it could as easily have been a regular old sex scandal in Wag the Dog.)

I said to Yae Rim, “If some middle school or high school girl accused the President of Korea of that kind of thing, it would never even get into the newspapers, would it?”

She smiled with disgust — yes, smiled with disgust — and said, “Never. No newspaper would print it. And if they did, the Blue House would just sue the girl and the newspaper. And win.” I’m not sure whether Hankyoreh would even dare, really… after all, I’m reminded of the recent (sometime last year, or earlier this year) publication in Sisa In, a news magazine, of the testimony of a whistleblower against one of the major Korean corporations he used to do be involved in doing the books for — about their countless improprieties and so on. No other publication would even consider his allegations, and I’m guessing he tried the Hankyoreh as ardently as he tried the Chosun and Joongang and Donga Dailies.

Still, I was left wondering what would happen if said girl scout, or high school or middle schooler, went online and posted about it, starting a netizen firestorm and (is it too much to hope that this would be possible?) a series of protests comparable to this summer’s, protests so big that the media couldn’t just ignore it. (Surely the Ministry of Internet Communications would erect a blog ban and issue takedown orders for a lot of sites, but would it be soon enough? Wouldn’t anti-President sites simply spread like mold, flowering all over the Korean net? Last summer, during the wave of protests I discussed in this series, even in discussion cafes populated with housewives who normally posted about their recent furniture acquisitions, political discussions exploded.) And I hate to say it, but one has to wonder whether the solution wouldn’t end up being the same one that De Niro’s character ends up using on Hoffman’s when the fella looks like he’s not going to keep his involvement a secret? (Hint: Hoffman’s character suddenly dies “of a heart attack,” wink, wink.) That seems a bit much, but what other recourse would the President have? The standard self-punishment for a major offense here — jumping off a bridge in the Han River — would be unthinkable, as it would destabilize the whole country, and letting the cat out of the bag would shame the nation entire, or at least one imagines that this is the thought process that would emerge. So if the kid refused to be intimidated into silence, and the lawsuit couldn’t stop her — I mean, she can’t be jailed for being sued for such allegations, can she? — then one wonders what recourse the Blue House would see for itself. Or, rather, one has to wonder whether the fear of such an outcome would keep the girl scout from saying anything at all in a public forum.

But really, all of that is aside to my real post, which I think is more of a question: how does the political use of “spin” differ between South Korea and, say, the USA? How do the styles of spin differ? I remember seeing Roh Mu Hyun wearing hanbok and looking wistfully out his window during the whole impeachment thing, for example. (There’s a copy of the photo here, where I discuss Roh’s apparent references to The West Wing during his tenure — interestingly, since several of the students who studied The West Wing with me said, point blank, “A show like The West Wing could never be made in Korea.”) I’ve noticed sometimes media synergy gets sapped from damaging stories by the leak of other stories, and so on.

But I also remember a lot of things that would have looked terribly embarrassing — actually, mortifying, if not utterly doom-spelling–in American politics,  which here seem to get shrugged off, or shallowly apologized-for, and then just end up irrelevant. (Like, for example, the This, in turn, makes me wonder about how spin developed, historically — after all, most really old literature we have is some kind of spin: ancient histories and poems and the Bible shamelessly spin events (real or imagined, it’s all effectively the same, as Wag the Dog argues: “Of course it happened, I saw it on TV!”), and we see it everywhere in later literature, too.

The model we all know intuitively — that binary of “free societies” and “unfree societies” is pretty questionable in a lot of ways. I wonder if someone out there has tracked the degree of freedom in a society in terms of a factor like how their governments attempt to suppress unflattering news, with forceful censorship or implicit threat of force on one end of the spectrum, increasingly convoluted and  spin on the other, and varying degrees of admixture, combined with bluster and empty apology at various points along the space between those two poles.

I don’t know enough to say more about it, but it sounds like a fascinating PhD thesis for someone out there… unless, of course, it’s been done to death. In which case, hey, someone? Remake Wage the Dog for the Korean context. I imagine it’d be a fascinating couple of hours, and really fit the mood these days… since even the people I know who voted for Lee seem to despise him, and did so even before he was elected!

(Note: the spectrum here is tentative and very much based on the present standards, not some enternal absolutes; surely other societies in the future will find other extremes to push both ends toward! And maybe I’m just looking at one characteristic axis when I should be looking at two or three…)

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