Friday, July 4, 2008

Pavlov's Politics

Ivan Petrovich Pavlov was a Russian physiologist, psychologist and physician who lived from 1849 to 1936. He is famous for his investigations of conditioned reflexes in animals, which arose from his observation that dogs who were habitually given food coated with chili powder tended to salivate when they saw the food coming, before it actually entered their mouths. Through a series of experiments he learned to induce salivation in dogs by presenting various signals that accompanied the feeding of the dogs. Thus he was able to “train” dogs to salivate by doing such things as ringing a bell or blowing a whistle. Other scientists applied his research to human psychology, deducing that humans could be trained to produce conditional reflexes or responses to events or triggers that often had nothing to do with the response produced. One such scientist, William Sargant, was part of a CIA research program in brainwashing and mind control that was carried out in the 1950's and 1960's. And the dogs originally used by Pavlov in his experiments became famous in a wry sort of way. To call someone a “Pavlov's dog” is to accuse that person of merely reacting to a situation rather than using critical thinking.

The American political process has largely become Pavlovian. Average Americans are being treated like Pavlov's dogs by the powers that be, from the corporate interests who really run things to the leaders of both major parties and the media outlets who provide us with “news.” There was a time, not very long ago, when the two parties actually stood on two sides of many important issues, and the media sympathetic to one side presented a message that was clearly different from the media voice of the other side. On the Right were Nixon, Jesse Helms, big business, defenders of the status quo, and those who were intolerant of people of other cultures and races. On the other hand were the Kennedy and post-Kennedy Democrats, the environmentalists, the radicals, the challengers of big business injustice and those rock musicians who were politically outspoken.

But the dangerous voices of the 1960's that threatened the status quo of corporate America were gradually co-opted and corporatized. And the very definitions of “Left” and “Right” were subtly changed to remove any threat to the major corporate interests. This re-definition was carried out in earnest during the 1980's and 1990's, and it involved two things: first, changing the meaning of “Left” and “Right” to meanings that posed no threat to the entrenched corporate interests controlling the largest sectors of the global economy; and secondly, the use of the media to heavily and constantly push this new “Left” and new “Right” on the American public until they accepted these as the actual and legitimate “Left” and “Right.”

This is clearly seen in the case of the Right. Those who preach Biblical morality, otherworldliness, simple living and the Sermon on the Mount have always posed a threat to established interests, from the days of the Civil War to the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960's. Therefore spokesmen such as James Dobson, the Moral Majority and the Family Research Council have worked to define Christianity and the Religious Right solely in terms of opposing sexual immorality, voting Republican and being patriotic – a much safer definition which does not threaten big business. Dobson and his associates have also attacked any Christians who suggest that perhaps we should widen our focus beyond sexual morality to include opposition to big business practices which harm the environment or poor people. This has led many on the Left to say, rather accurately, that the only issue about which the Right cares is sex.

But this accusation can also be leveled at the Left. Leftism used to mean advocacy of equal rights for all peoples of all ethnic groups; protection of the environment even if the price of such protection is that we must live more simply; restricting the power of corporations to prevent them from turning into monopolies or oligarchies; restricting the power and reach of the government; guaranteeing every citizen access to a free, participatory democracy, including the right to have one's voice heard by a free and independent press; and protecting the poor of the world from becoming victims of the rich.

But the corporate masters of American society noticed that many on the Left had become turned off to the religion and mores of the Right. So they began pushing a definition of Leftism solely as opposition to the religion and sexual morality preached by the Right. Thus, while actual progress in civil rights for minorities has stalled from the time of Reagan onward, the Left still insists that great progress in civil rights is being made, because of the fact that movies like Brokeback Mountain are now being made. Unfortunately, Brokeback Mountain isn't doing a lot of good for a number of black men now on death row or serving harsh sentences in various American prisons for crimes they didn't commit. Brokeback Mountain won't bring back any of the unarmed young black men gunned down by the NYPD over the last several years. Leftism has been redefined as the rejection of all sexual mores, the granting of permission to indulge in any sort of sexual desire, the bad-mouthing of biblical Christianity, and the abandonment of all standards of public decency, especially in the media. As with the re-definition of the Right, this re-definition of the Left does not threaten big business.

The final strategy used by these corporate masters has been to turn both the Democrats and the Republicans into mere empty symbols. The symbols may look different, but that means almost nothing, since both parties promote mostly the same policies. The Republican symbol is constructed on a foundation of memories of the Cold War and the struggle against “godless communism,” and it consists of a decorated war hero wrapped in an American flag, chewing tobacco and spitting while flexing a bicep tattooed with a cross or fish sign and declaring that he will “keep America strong!” This symbol is designed to produce a Pavlovian response at the voting booth among NASCAR-watching, Ford or Chevy truck-driving, beer-drinking high school dropout good ole' boys.

The Democrat symbol is constructed on memories of the 1960's and early 1970's, on memories of the Kennedy influence and the times when the Democrats were actually advocates of the little guy. It consists of a black man or a white woman, defined as “progressive” because they believe in “alternative spirituality,” they are “empathetic,” they are not perceived as evangelical conservatives, they support a “woman's right to choose,” they are vegetarian (maybe!) and they are the first of their kind to achieve high office. This symbol is also designed to produce a Pavlovian response at the voting booth. It worked quite well in 2006, when the Republicans showed themselves for what they really were – nothing more than the greedy, corrupt servants of a corporatocracy. We Americans knew we had been hoodwinked into an unjust war, and that we had been made into victims of a big business feeding frenzy, and many of us actually believed in the symbol of the Democrats as agents of change. This is what enabled the Democratic takeover of both houses of Congress. The only trouble is that events since then have proven that the Democrats are much bigger on talk than action.

The 2008 presidential election has degenerated into a battle between symbols, and “news” analysis and coverage of the campaigns has focused only on the effectiveness of these symbols. In the Democratic primary, one symbol (the one with the blond hair) tried to tear the other symbol apart (the one with the dark skin). It was fairly obvious to many that Hillary Clinton was really only a symbol, and that her entire campaign was a gamble that she would be an effective Pavlovian symbol (“Vote for me because I am a woman! A vote for me is a vote for progress, for that very reason!). John McCain is also nothing more than a symbol (Vote for me because I am a decorated Vietnam vet! The world is a dangerous place, and you need a tough guy in office!). I had begun to hope that Obama would be something more than a symbol, but recent news coverage of his shift to the “middle” on key policy issues has begun to erode my hopes.

The problem is, as I have stated before, that the global “official” economy which dominates the world is an unjust system which is now in the process of breaking due to the worldwide end of cheap oil. Yet while that system still exists and is in any way viable, its masters actively fight against anyone who seeks to create a safety net of alternative systems. Examples of this include automobile-based transportation, which for decades was pushed by rich corporations such as the Big Three automakers and the American oil companies. Now this system is breaking down, and the evidence is that more and more people cannot afford the money to use it. But there are few alternatives and they are difficult or dangerous to use, thanks to long-standing opposition to these alternatives from the auto and oil industries and by such people as former Republican congressman Tom DeLay, who fought against a light rail system for the city of Houston, Texas.

Other alternatives which are being opposed by vested corporate interests include small farms, which provide a viable option to factory-farm food which is becoming more expensive due to increasing energy costs, and is increasingly being recalled due to dangerous disease outbreaks. Urban self-sufficiency is under attack, as large agribusinesses persuade Federal and state departments of agriculture to oppose allowing people to keep backyard animals such as chickens, forcing them to rely on the factory food/supermarket distribution chain instead. NAFTA is yet another attack on our ability to take care of ourselves, yet another means of enabling large corporations to virtually enslave people in low-wage jobs without an adequate safety net of small businesses to which these people could turn.

I could go on and on with examples. The point is that what we need now in a President is someone who will protect us from the corporatocracy and who will not get in the way when local citizens try to disentangle themselves from this breaking system. I knew that Hillary Clinton and John McCain support the evil status quo, no matter how they try as symbols to portray themselves. The viciousness of their attacks on Obama made me think that perhaps he was someone who would actually upset the status quo and protect small Americans from big business.

But now he is reconsidering his earlier opposition to NAFTA; now he is willing to grant prosecution immunity to telecom companies who spied on Americans as part of the “War on Terror”; he has supported a Congressional bill that would give expanded wiretapping powers to the government; and he seems to be backing away from an immediate, swift withdrawal of troops from Iraq. In short, he is starting to look like the sort of candidate who would pose no danger to corporate interests.

If he's trying to get my vote, this is a dangerous strategy. I am black and I am an evangelical Christian; yet when I need an airline pilot, an optometrist or a surgeon, I care far less about his religion or skin color than I care about his qualifications. I'm not really thrilled about voting for Obama just because he's black. After all, Robert Mugabe is also black, as was Idi Amin. I'm not saying that Obama is as bad as these two; I'm just making a point. I can't understand the women who rabidly supported Hillary just because she was a woman (maybe the fact that I'm a guy has something to do with my lack of understanding.) Don't these women remember Jezebel? (1 Kings 21:23; 2 Kings 9:35-37)

At this dangerous and dicey juncture in American history, I care far less about a candidate's value as a symbol than I care about whether the candidate understands what needs to be done, and what that candidate will or will not do. I have been fooled too many times by people who sold themselves to me as symbols; I'm tired of people trying to fool me yet again. In 2004, this was also the view of 83 million people who were eligible to vote, yet who chose not to because they were tired of being treated like Pavlov's dogs.


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