I’ve been thinking a lot about humiliation and the risks that are taken to avoid it. In the West, we certainly live in a culture that prides itself on a politics of humiliation. On TV there are a parade of humiliation shows, such as The Apprentice, Average Joe, Big Brother, where the goal of the show is to exalt a winner by humiliating the losers; “judging [others] dismissively is the name of the game.”
The role of humiliation in politics is fast becoming paid attention to, and many thinkers are beginning to try and understand how the fear of public and national humiliation, and the perception of a loss of dignity might be a motivator for militant violence in the U.S. and Middle East. For instance, post-911, 2001, Osama Bin Laden clearly stated: “What America is tasting now is something insignificant compared to what we have tasted for scores of years. Our nation (the Islamic world) has been tasting this humiliation and this degradation for more than 80 years. Its sons are killed, its blood is shed, its sanctuaries are attacked, and no one hears and no one heeds.” Here Bin Laden gestures to the narrative of nationhood– one nation fighting another nation to avenge a feeling of shame, disrespect, and injustice.
I’m interested, however, in exploring how the fear of personal humiliation in the West has prompted our political leaders to fall into a dangerously unethical pattern of deflecting their own self-shame by creating cultural, economic, and social chaos elsewhere.
Do you remember the movie Wag The Dog? If not, please see it. You’ll laugh and think it’s brilliantly acted, written, shot. But afterwards, see if it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. See if you, like me, feel a bit sick in your guts because the premise, although so far-fetched it seems hilariously improbable, has already happened and continues to happen today.
The phrase to “wag the dog” describes a moment when something of secondary, or WAY lesser importance is so hyped up that it overshadows the issue that should be of primary importance. We’ve all wagged the dog. Like when I was 13 and stole my dad’s car to go to my hot friend’s house during a snow storm. My father was like, “I told you to stay on the driveway and just pretend to drive,” and I said immediately: “hey, you know what’s really crazy? I think the neighbor is watching me dress at night through the window.” Ok, that never happened. I did steal the car, but I wagged the dog far less effectively and maliciously. I think I said something like: “I love you daddy. Let me buy you a doughnut. I’ll drive.” But the point remains. To wag the dog is to purposely and mindfully overshadow an important occurrence so as to draw less attention to it.
I do have a point here I promise. Here’s the premise of Wag the Dog. In this eery film (based on the novel American Hero by Larry Beinhart) the president, Michael Belson, makes scandalous sexual advances in his office on a “firefly Girl” (a Girl Scout without copyright issues) a coupla weeks before his reelection. A spin-doctor, Robert DiNero, and Hollywood Producer, Dustin Hoffman, are then hired to help the president win back the voter’s trust. In doing so, these two men create a fake war with Albania to get the attention from the sex scandal off of the president’s shoulders.
Renting a warehouse that they use as a movie set they actually craft a theme song, hire a child to play a melancholic Albanian orphan, and get actors to update the US daily on the state of the fake “war” effort in Albania all in a bid to get Americans to trust their president one more time. This fictional war spins out of control but eventually works and the President is reelected.
Now, the film came out in 1997. In 1998 Bill Clinton, president of the US at the time, too had a sexual misstep (or a really good time depending on who you ask.) He had “sexual relations” with a young-intern, Monica something or other, that landed him in some pretty hot water, while getting her a book deal and handbag line. Note, she did not go into the dry cleaning business.
In 98′ everyone was talking about how Clinton could no longer serve as President because of his shoddy morals–a reproach heralded by our angelic Newt Gingrich who left his dying wife in her hospital bed while he married another woman. So what happened next? Follow the script: In August 1998, amidst a major impeachment scandal, Bill Clinton all of a sudden thought Al Queda was an immediate threat to the US and neighboring countries and so he launched US cruise missiles on 6 presumed chemical warfare compounds in Afghanistan and Sudan. Turns out, they were actually pharmacies.
His determination to defend the US from imminent attack, even if fabricated, worked and the public (who had days earlier wanted him gone from public office) was now warming up to their heroic, take-them-by-the-balls president. Bill Clinton, of course, swears he was reacting to a real threat from Al Queda and not creating a diversion. The folks in the countries and cities he bombed might disagree. Regardless, if he wagged the dog, he’d wagged it well. The Republicans and Democrats stood behind Clinton’s militant decision, commending him for, as Pat Buchanan argues, “finally responding appropriately to a terrorist attack.” Even the ever morally astute Newt Gingrich had a change of heart for Clinton, stating: “I think the President did exactly the right thing. By doing this we’re sending the signal that there are no sanctuaries for terrorists.” Shocker.
The mainstream media, however, were less convinced, claiming the so-called chemical warfare plants were actually manufacturing much needed medicines for their perspective countries. Clinton had murdered innocents. But it wasn’t until Clinton, in the middle of the impeachment trial in December 1998 that the Republicans were leading, decided to attack Iraq that Republicans became suspicious. Clinton claimed Saddam Hussein had refused to comply with the US’s weapons inspection techniques which were to predetermine Iraq’s chances of using chemical warfare to attack others. With little evidence and a lot to lose if there was not a shift in focus off of Clinton’s penis, the same Republicans who months earlier celebrated Clinton’s military swagger, clued into the possibility that Clinton was wagging his dog around like a tiny puppy. No one in public office seemed to care that his wagging was coming at the expense of the people living in Sudan, Iraq, or Afghanistan, like Afik Ohayon-Zehav, 3 years old, when he died in the attacks.
To be fair to Bill Clinton I think he was probably one of the smarter presidents. And I don’t give a flying monkey’s arse if he was sleeping with an intern. That’s an issue that Hilary Clinton and he should have been able to deal with on their own. He is now taking a lot of the hypocrisy he saw and participated in as the President to the table in fantastic ways, including completely losing his shit on FOX News, calling the Republicans to task for their blatant idiocy surrounding 911, and their hypo-masculine pride. What bothers me about Bill Clinton though is that while he’s more than willing to play the game of attacking Republicans for not doing their jobs post-911, he still cannot seem to question the possibility that it is the militant discourses the US turns to in moments of humiliation or fear that are completely problematic. He can’t seem to see that affects and our personal reactions to attack, rage, and humiliation, can be incredibly dangerous, especially when we’re in a position of power with our hand always poised on a trigger.
About humiliation cultural theorist Zigmunt Bauman says: “Humiliation is a powerful weapon; in addition, it is a boomerang-style weapon. It may be resorted to in order to demonstrate or prove the fundamental and irreconcilable inequality between the humiliating and the humiliated sides; but contrary to such intention, it in fact authenticates, veri-fies their symmetry, sameness parity.” When the humiliated person reacts to their humiliation by disempowering others the exercise only works if an “adversary” is created that is so terrifying and threatening that the public believes this enemy must be immediately “disarmed beyond hope of recovery” in order for safety to return. In the meanwhile, the original humiliated party who has waged a war to detract eyes from their humiliating circumstances is hailed as a hero for locating that perceived threat and scorching it out.
During his own scandal, Clinton was too proud to be humiliated and his pride may have caused him to react in militant ways that have given way to domino effects of war and militancy ever since. He was not the first to do this of course, and he won’t be the last.
The real problem with wagging the dog is that there are killer consequences.
In 2000, George W. Bush’s popularity was waning. He had a 50% likability rate and was often being humiliated in the press. He was the subject of ridicule because of his less than stellar smarts, was parodied on SNL, and accused of being on a war path against Iraq when no one really understood what he was talking about (even he didn’t I’m sure). And then the attacks on the Twin Towers happened. The mighty US had been shaken and stirred. By October 2001, right after the 911 attacks, Bush had skyrocketed to a 92% approval rating.
In Michael Kimmel’s Manhood in America he argues that the choice to elect G. W. Bush was a strategic one helped by his spin-doctors. The US, like they did with Clinton, needed a man who could take care of threats, even if these threats didn’t actually exist (cue the weapons of mass destruction). Bush’s “advisors clearly understood how masculinity is a ‘social construction’” and they created an “action-figure” for the U.S. “‘Republican’ became known as the party of ‘moral values,’ with a no-nonsense approach to dealing with “terrorists,” leading the way to the current era of “recharged militarized masculinity” (252). Was 911 an elaborate wag the dog scheme? I sure hope not.
Let’s fast forward to 2011-2012. Do you remember when Toronto Mayor Rob Ford met Mary Walsh from This Hour Has 22 Minutes and he called 911? He was verbally abusive to the 911 dispatcher then, and was called an arrogant coward by many media folks. Weeks later, on Christmas Day, 911 was called again, this time from Ford’s mother-in-law who claimed Ford was drunk and violent and threatening to take his children to Florida against the wishes of his wife. Ok. The reason I am mentioning these recent scenarios is to highlight what I see as Ford’s downhill humiliation spiral and the reactionary politics that have resulted. Although Stefan Baranski, a Toronto PR consultant, argues “voters in Toronto, particularly, have proven that they’re willing to divorce what happens personally, or personal controversy, from a politicians perceived ability to do their job,” he seems to overlook the point. Baranski should be less concerned with how we, the public “tax payers” as Ford so awfully calls us, perceive Ford’s personal life, and pay more attention to how Ford negotiates his personal humiliation while doing his public job.
Rob Ford is human, yes, and makes mistakes, yes, but it is not easily forgiven when a person in power–one who reminds us: “I’m Rob Fucking Ford, the Mayor of This City”– takes a hissy fit after being publicly humiliated and then takes it out on the very people he is supposed to be supporting. So perhaps when Ford, after his 2011 911 calls, decides to close homeless shelters, evict tenting occupiers who have the right to protest, uses fake twitter accounts to deceive voters, attempts to close libraries, cuts social finding for single mothers, cuts grants to community-led organizations, cuts daycare funding, closes pools and rinks, cuts AIDS funding, and dismisses anyone who protests his mayoring as “the same 500 people” that show up for every demonstration, we might all start paying attention to how this man reacts to personal humiliation.
I would argue Ford has been wagging the dog a lot lately and it’s working.
The social media has been reporting on Ford’s weight-loss challenge as if it’s actually newsworthy. One report spends an entire article pondering whether Ford’s weight-loss goal is realistic? No offense, but who the fuck cares if Ford is overweight? I just want him to stop ruining the city. He’s also been wagging his dog by making stage appearances in art shows in the city; he’s the subject of a new opera, and was featured twice onstage in performances of Thomas the Tank Engine and The Nutcracker and the media is eating it up calling him the “misunderstood mayor”. Have his conservative and out-of-nowhere policies changed on the environment, bike lanes, social policy, the Arts, cultural politics, or ethics? Nope. But he sure does look cute in a cannon solider outfit.
While Ford does not have the power, thank fuck, to wage a war against countries whenever he personally gets caught and publicly humiliated for making some pretty awful decisions, his position of power has omega effects on the people of Toronto. And as Hamutal Dotan says, no matter how wrong Ford is, he will not listen to analysis or evidence to suggest this. He listens to the “voters in his head” and to “his gut.” Which leaves us all in Toronto in trouble.
Thanks for your insight into the political import of humiliation. Really fantastic.
Thanks for the note and for reading!