Setting the Record Straight

August 22, 2008

Pavlov & Presidents

How Would Pavlov’s Dogs Vote?

     Feel like salivating when you hear a campaign speech? Whether the response is drooling, anger, joy, whatever, the response is no accident, because as far as the two presidential campaigns are concerned, you are little more than one of Pavlov’s dogs.
     Just over a century ago, Ivan Pavlov, a Russian scientist whose biggest achievements were in the fields of medicine, became eponymus for conditioned reflexes when he conducted experiments on training a dog to salivate at the ringing of a bell.
     Pavlov won the Nobel Prize for showing that a dog, conditioned to expect a treat whenever a bell rang, actually salivated at the ring of a bell in anticipation of a treat, regardless of whether the treat was proferred.
     The Pavlovian bells in a presidential campaign are certain phrases, known as propaganda techniques. We’ve already heard many, we are about to be inundated the rest of them. Some lists have up to a dozen items, but the major ones we’ll see in the campaign are: glittering generalities, assertion, lesser of two evils, plain folks and transfer.
     To be a responsible voter, one needs to be able to recognize those and other lures in the candidates’ speeches and statements intended to ring whatever bell they believe you want rung, and make you salivate for their election.
     Thanks to the early primaries, we have been inundated already with a plethora of propaganda techniques that can be classified as Pavlovian bells. More are coming. We are not talking here about the moronic tabloid-cable gotcha quotes, mostly taken out of context.
     Most of the moronic stuff you have heard so far comprises the “transfer” propaganda technique. It includes tying the statements of Barack Obama’s former minister to Obama himself; tying the incumbent president to John McCain, even the positions of the president with which McCain disagrees.  
     The serious Pavlovian statements are the ones candidates, both McCain and Obama, make to tweak your patriotism, prejudices and similar feelings, but mostly to take advantage of your ignorance.
     You have McCain saying early on, “I would rather lose a political campaign than lose a war. It seems to me that Obama would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign.”
         First, let it be known Obama did not say he would rather “lose a war in order to win a political campaign,” this is a phrase inserted into Obama’s mouth by McCain (assertion). But McCain did say he would rather lose a campaign than lose a war (lesser of two evils).
         This is a rah, rah statement (glittering generalities), meant to appeal to your patriotism, a false patriotism. The United States has not won a significant war since World War II. The best it has done is fight to a draw in Korea. In making the statement, McCain may feel it in his heart, or he is simply counting on the outcome of the Iraq war not being decided by Nov. 4.
     Do we really want a president so gung ho he would have had us fight on and on and on in Vietnam, far beyond the 58,000 American dead? If a president had had the guts to admit defeat and leave Vietnam (as we eventually did) years earlier, tens of thousands of American lives would have been saved.
     You have Barack Obama saying, “We meet at a moment when this country is facing a set of challenges unlike any we’ve ever known. Right now, our brave men and women in uniform are fighting two different wars while terrorists plot their next attack.”
         Today’s situation is bad, but we have faced worse times, and recently (card stacking). Candidates never talk about the military, whether it is engaged in a dust-up or all-out war calling them “brave,” (glittering generalities) even though they have not had a choice but to follow orders once they’ve signed up.
         And Obama is counting on a Pavlovian response to the fear of terrorists plotting a new attack as evidence the United States needs a new way to deal with threats (pinpointing the enemy).
         Finally, in most of his speeches, Obama attempts to characterize himself as an outsider who wants to bring about change (plain folks). He is a U.S. senators and that makes him an insider, but talking against “Washington,” of which he is an elite part, elicits a Pavlovian response from the voters.
     Not that more than a few dozen wise voters will ever get the chance between now and November to ask a candidate a question, much less challenge him on his statements, but these statement carefully intended to elicit Pavlovian responses are the very ones that need to be challenged.
     It is the news media, which has its access as representatives of the public, that must ask these questions, challenge these statements and, force responsible answers to the real issues of the day.
     Don’t bet on it. This is the age of tabloid-cable and blogging—the campaign will be about little more than how many houses a candidate knows his rich wife owns (name calling) or whether the other candidate is enough of a Christian to lead this supposedly secular nation (name calling).
     Other propaganda techniques, already professionally massaged in the commercials and programming that floods the airwaves, include bandwagon and stereotyping. There is one other.
    Where did both candidates plan to be on September 11? Of course, in New York City as each attempted to elicit the same Pavlovian response by the voters (testimonials).



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