Are we too paranoid? Or not paranoid enough?
The key to effective fear is knowing what's real -- who's really out to get you. In George W. Bush's case, it's the media culture that's on his case.
The just-released remake of "The Manchurian Candidate" spins the politics of the original. Whereas the 1962 film imagined that the Red Chinese were plotting to kill a president, in the new film the villainous would-be assassins are capitalists, not Communists.
The 2004 movie imagines "Manchurian Global" as a multinational company. Indeed, the filmmakers have imagined the company so well that Paramount Studios has even created a faux Web site, www.manchurianglobal.com. Cunningly, the site appears legit until one looks closely: the company's "CEO" says, "Creating one world under skilled management was the dream of Alexander the Great. Let's follow him."
Of course, Manchurian, in all its bloodthirsty ambition, is intended as a parody of two firms closely associated with the Bush-Cheney administration, The Carlyle Group and Halliburton. To drill the point home, one evildoer lays out the plot: to install "the first privately owned and operated vice president of the United States."
Director Jonathan Demme barely bothers to hide his political motivations. "The very notion that there are corporations that get obscenely rich off of war," he told National Public Radio, "there's something unpleasant about that in the extreme." Another hint to the filmgoer: the onscreen presence of comedian/liberal activist Al Franken.
The "Manchurian" message is, overwhelmingly, that the U.S. government is stoking fear at home -- and jacking up military spending -- by fighting wars abroad. An oft-heard slogan in the movie is "compassionate vigilance," an obvious play on Bushite "compassionate conservatism."
Highlighting the movie last month, The New York Times' Frank Rich, no conservative himself, wrote, "I cannot recall when Hollywood last released a big-budget mainstream feature film as partisan as this one at the height of a presidential campaign." Lofted by positive reviews -- 83 percent "fresh," according to the Web-compendium Rottentomatoes.com -- the film looks to be financially, as well as politically, satisfying to its makers.
So here's a question: Which is more real, the prospect that right-wing corporate warmongers will try to steal the 2004 election through murder, or the prospect that liberal-left activists will seek to influence the election using their preponderance in the news and entertainment media?
We might consider, for example, the opinion of Evan Thomas, assistant managing editor of Newsweek, a certifiable media insider. On the July 10 airing of "Inside Washington," a political chat show, Thomas said, "Let's talk a little media bias here. The media, I think, wants Kerry to win." He continued, "They're going to portray Kerry and Edwards as being young and dynamic and optimistic and there's going to be this glow about them, collective glow, the two of them, that's going to be worth maybe 15 points."
Gee, 15 points is a lot. Can the media really move a seventh of the electorate to vote against Bush?
It sure looks as if they'll try, and not just through the usual suspects, the big networks and the mainstream newspapers and magazines. And don't forget the documentary "Fahrenheit 9/11"; no Democratic ad ever bashed Bush as hard as that film. And there's the upcoming book by Kitty Kelley, she of the relentless poison pen, "The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty," due just two months before Election Day.
To be sure, people are watching and reading all this material voluntarily. But what's on the media agenda sets the scene for the national conversations. And the agenda setters, operating from the commanding corporate and cultural heights of Manhattan and Hollywood, are speaking loudly and acting determinedly.
So Bush should look around more. He really does have enemies.