Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Pavolvian Christmas Award

One of the first things you learn in Psychology 101 is the "Pavlovian response mechanism," or the "Pavlovian conditioning response." Most of us have heard of this phenomenon whether we've taken a class in psychology or not.

Just to refresh your memory--and mine as well--let's go over Pavlov's findings, and how he came to discover that certain behavior can be conditioned in dogs (and by extension humans) by manipulating actions and the environment.

"Ivan Petrovich Pavlov studied medicine in Russia and Germany, accepting posts in St. Petersburg as a professor in pharmacology and physiology. In 1889 Pavlov began experiments with dogs that proved their reflexes could be conditioned by external stimuli. Specifically, after they were conditioned by the ringing of a bell at feeding time, they would reflexively salivate upon hearing the bell, whether or not food was present. In 1904 Pavlov won the Nobel Prize for his work on digestive physiology, but he is most widely known today as an early influence on behavioral psychology."

In my own life, I've seen the power of "conditioned reflex," but this reflex wasn't induced directly but indirectly. We say people "push our buttons," but what we're actually saying is this: At various times in our life, we have--directly or indirectly--allowed the actions, behaviors, words, or attitudes of others, to trigger certain prescribed responses.

When the environment is suitable for such responses (certain stimuli is present), a prescribed behavior follows as certainly as night follows day.

For most of us, these responses go unchallenged, and unexamined. Were we to scrutinize them we'd fine that many of what we call normal or natural responses to stimuli in our environment are really nothing more than "conditioned responses," prescribed, almost automatic, reactions that come to the fore when certain things, or events occur in our environment. We're a great deal like the salivating dog in Pavlov's experiment--reacting to the "ringing bell" of our own making, whether the bell is heard as words, behaviors, or other stimuli in our environment.

But what does all of this have to do with Christmas? Believe it or not, this is a Christmas story, despite our delving into the mysteries of human and animal behavior, and our departure into the realm of human psychology.

Just to prove it, let me make a casual observation. The lovely Christmas card that's appended to the top of this blog entry is the Obama family official White House Christmas card, featuring the beloved First Dog Bo. Would you believe over at Fox News the card has become the subject of some controversy, nothing short of a "Pavlovian conditioned reflex response"?

In an article entitled, "No Christmas in White House Card," [1] the author--referencing the card--writes facetiously and humorously:

"It's all pretty non-controversial. Boring, even. Unless, of course, you're Fox News—in which case the bookshelf is filled with Lenin's B-sides, the Constitution is burning in the fireplace, Winston Churchill's bust is conspicuously absent, Bo has become dependent on the federal government for handouts, and the empty seat is a stirring reminder of President Obama's nonexistent leadership. I'm exaggerating, but only slightly."

Several of Fox News' talking heads--even one as neatly coiffed as Sarah Palin's--weighed in on the Christmas card:

Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin told Fox News & Commentary that she found the card to be a bit unusual.

"It's odd," she said, wondering why the president's Christmas card highlights his dog instead of traditions like "family, faith and freedom."
Palin said the majority of Americans can appreciate the more traditional, "American foundational values illustrated and displayed on Christmas cards and on a Christmas tree."

As for the Obama card, she replied, "It's just a different way of thinking coming out of the White House."

As Pavlovian conditioning responses go, the Fox News one is comparatively a light-weight one, and not deserving of much attention other than to say that Fox and Company are in the GOP spirit this year--that is, Grinches On Parade.

The response that won my Pavlovian Christmas Award this year is not the Fox News Pavlovian attack on Obama, but the public response to the new Air Jordans that went on sale just days before Christmas, creating some troubling scenes from coast to coast, as anxious shoppers do whatever it takes to buy this pricey footwear.

You can watch some of it here", but videos aren't in short supply if you have the time to Bing or Google them.

In this season that celebrates the birth of Jesus, Joy, Peace on Earth, and goodwill toward men, we find our perennial villain, "conditioned response," lurking among Christmas decorations, scores of presents, festive colors, fake Santas, and merry carolers ready to pounce upon unsuspecting Christmas shoppers at the first sign that something they've been conditioned to do--"shop till they drop, and buy till they die"--reaches a fever pitch when items, as generally desirable as a pair of new Air Jordans, are placed within their immediate reach.

We have seen this buying craze with other items, and we have become witness to yet another soul-numbing impulse compliments of capitalism and the crass commercialism that undergirds it. And--can we say honestly--we want to share this "blessing" of the American Way with the rest of the world?

Are we sure?


Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Kingsize Rhetoric and New Government

On Sunday night, in almost the same timeslot as Sunday Night Football, Larry King aired a Special on CNN. It was called "A Dinner with the Kings". Larry King and his wife hosted the event, and Wolfgang Puck plied his culinary skills in the creation a multi-course meal fit for Kings.

If you didn't have the good fortune of watching the special, you can sample some of the fare here.

Many of the invited guests are arguably kings in their own right, having achieved crowning successes in their respective fields, from sports to television, from the world of fashion, music, and the Internet, to television host.

Tyra Banks, Shaquille O'Neal, Quincy Jones, Russell Brand, Seth MacFarlane, Jack Dorsey, Conan O'Brien--all royal standouts in their various industries, were seated, not around a Round Table, but an oblong one.

The guests responded to questions that Larry passed to them, first to one, and then to another, as one would pass a dish laden with food--after helping oneself--from one person to another.

Of the several questions that were passed from guest to guest, one, perhaps more than others, left a bitter taste in the mouth, and contributed to a likely case of indigestion.

Larry asked one guest: "What gets you angry?"

It was Conan O'Brien's answer to the question that would have had me reaching for a handful of Tums, or an Alka-Seltzer, had I been there:

"I think entitlements is my least favorite. I can't stand it when people think that they're entitled to something. I think our culture is very entitled. I honestly don't think I'm entitled to anything. I come from a culture where you get what you can...and you're grateful for it--but I don't think I deserve anything...we [his family] didn't feel any entitlement. I think in America there's a lot of I'm owed this and this."

O'Brien's statement came from a classic Republican/conservative recipe, a potluck dish secreted in to compete with a dish from one of the world's greatest chefs, Wolfgang Puck.

After the "entitlement" statement, O'Brien revealed: His mother became a lawyer, and his father was successful in his own right. It's easy to slam "entitlements" when your life has had the auspicious beginning that a upper-class upbringing can afford.

Larry King with a followup question asked: "Where does this come from [this sense of entitlement]?"

O'Brien responded: "I don't know where that comes from."

As the camera panned them, Tyra Banks and Shaquille O'Neal appeared visibly uncomfortable with the subject, perhaps prompting Larry King, after a couple of more responses from his dinner guests, to quickly changed the subject.

But not before Russell Brand garnished the topic with a biting remark of his own, interpreting "entitlements" as it may relate to consumerism, and not as it may relate to people's expectations from the government and others in society. Harking back to the question, "Where does this come from [this sense of entitlement]? he said:

"I don't know where that comes from...because you're told that you're nothing unless you can consume, unless you can purchase. People see these products and they want them. People are being accidentally marketed to who can't afford the products that they're being sold, they're being told they should have, that they deserve, because you're working, just do it....And there's been a void created, a spiritual void."

Not to be outdone, Seth MacFarlane added a pungent spice of his own to the evening's meal: It comes from "every politician on the planet saying, 'You know what, you're getting screwed, you deserve more, how are you, why are you, tolerating this.'"

Now, I'm willing to admit: O'Brien and MacFarlane may not have had the Arab Spring or the various Occupy Movements and their foreign supporters in mind when they made these statements, perhaps sprinkling a bit too much hot sauce on them, but neither did they answer the question that the host posed:

"Where does this come from [this sense of entitlement]?"

The term, "entitlement," has various definitions:

1. The act or process of entitling.
2. The state of being entitled.
3. A government program that guarantees and provides benefits to a particular group: "fights . . . to preserve victories won a generation ago, like the Medicaid entitlement for the poor" (Jason DeParle).
The last definition Red Eye would refer to as "earned benefits," and rightfully so, as the term "entitlement" has been muddied by the likes of Frank Luntz.

Rather than argue whether a "sense of entitlement" is prevalent throughout the world (which is absurd), or whether the Occupy Movement or the Arab Spring, or the unrest we see in England, or Greece, is symptomatic of this (which it's not), let me answer the question that the host, Larry King, or his several guests failed to answer to my satisfaction.

My answer will focus on "entitlement" as it pertains to this country, and not as it may be considered in other parts of the world.

To the question--"Where does this come from [this sense of entitlement]?"--I have this answer: It comes from our Declaration of Independence and our U.S. Constitution. Entitlements, loosely defined, are Rights, pure and simple. Entitlements are what one has a right to expect from a government that has established itself as sovereign over the lives of those that fall within the sphere of its governance.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."

Over the past several decades, our federal and state governments have become "destructive of these ends," and a growing number of the people (especially those in the Occupy Movement) are exercising their rights--entitlements afforded them by their Constitution--"the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government," one that hasn't been corrupted by special-interest money.

And there are other Rights, entitlements, at the people's disposal. They're called the Bill of Rights:

Freedom of Speech, Press, Religion and Petition
Right to keep and bear arms
Conditions for quarters of soldiers
Right of search and seizure regulated
Provisions concerning prosecution
Right to a speedy trial, witnesses, etc.
Right to a trial by jury
Excessive bail, cruel punishment
Rule of construction of Constitution
Rights of the States under Constitution [1]
Over a Wolfgang Puck meal, Conan O'Brien assured us that he didn't feel entitled: "I honestly don't think I'm entitled to anything."

Well I do! And I'm not reticent to say so.

I'm entitled to the social contract that was drawn before I was born, one that I didn't have a hand in writing, but which has governed my actions, and those of many of my fellow Americans since its inception--the United States Constitution.

Because I pay taxes, I'm entitled to a government that actually works for the people and not corporate special interests that have more legislators and judges on their payroll, and in their pocket, than did Al Capone at the height of his infamy.

Because I vote, as a civically-minded member of my city, state, and nation, I'm entitled to have my vote count and not suppressed; I'm entitled to representatives--those who I helped elect to office--who will do their utmost to represent me and other constituents to the best of their ability, putting in more time to carry out the people's business than their own.

Because I live in the country in which I pay taxes, I'm entitled to a livable environment--clean air and clean water--and regulatory agencies that actually take steps to make sure that my air is breathable, and my water potable, and a Congress that stands with me against corporate polluters, rather than with them, patiently waiting for just the perfect moment to dismantle them and scuttle their live-saving mission.

Because I worked to become a contributing member of my community, I'm entitled to a government that works to be a contributing force in the lives of its many constituents, by assuring "that We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal [by affirming equal rights for all, regardless of race, color, creed, or sexual preference], that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life [by making health-care universal, and available to all], Liberty [by insisting that no one is above the law, and that all participate in the defense of this country, and help pay for the cost, regardless of social status] and the pursuit of Happiness [by providing opportunities to all, using a criterion of inclusion, rather than exclusion]. [2]

We may never achieve the status of kingliness in this lifetime that would satisfy Larry King's criterion sufficiently to be invited to his home for a royal dinner, or partake of a seven-course dinner created by the incomparable chef, Wolfgang Puck, but we can all do our part to elevate our government so that it is self-correcting, continuously monitoring and rectifying an errant system which is more vested in promoting social, political, and income inequality, where a few arrogate to themselves through their wealth, the people's power, than standing with the 99 percent.

When government fails the people, we the people are entitled by history, and by duty, "to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to [what] shall seem most likely to effect [our] Safety and Happiness."

[1] Read more about your Bill of Rights.

[2] See GrannyStandingForTruth latest blog entry

Thursday, December 1, 2011

What's in a Name?

It's hard to admit, but I never really cared all that much for my name. I honor it because the one who named me is someone I dearly love and cherish. Over the years, I have taken on nicknames, and nom de plumes that I believe represent who I am more accurately than my given name.

I suspect that I'm not alone. I wouldn't be shocked to learn that there's been more legal name changes, more uses of substitute names, aliases, and sobriquets, than there are actual baby names in books designed to help you give your newborn the perfect name in combination with a given surname.

Shakespeare may have been the first to ask the question, using the voice of Juliet in his tragedy, Romeo and Juliet: "What's in a name? That which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet."

Nevertheless, there's one who may disagree with Shakespeare. One who has built a career on changing the names of things, guaranteeing that even the sweet smell of a rose may lose its attractive fragrance, if only an appropriate name may be found, and applied.

That someone is Frank Luntz, political consultant and pollster.

Wikipedia says in part the following about Luntz in a brief bio:

Luntz's specialty is “testing language and finding words that will help his clients sell their product or turn public opinion on an issue or a candidate.”...

Luntz frequently tests word and phrase choices using focus groups and interviews. His stated purpose in this is the goal of causing audiences to react based on emotion. "80 percent of our life is emotion, and only 20 percent is intellect. I am much more interested in how you feel than how you think." "If I respond to you quietly, the viewer at home is going to have a different reaction than if I respond to you with emotion and with passion and I wave my arms around. Somebody like this is an intellectual; somebody like this is a freak."

If you conclude from this that Luntz' goal is to shape the perception of others using the persuasive power of words that are charged with just the right emotions, and invoking just the right imagery, you'd be right. Just so that no one will mistake his aim, Luntz gives this description of his methodology:

Luntz discussed his use of the term, "energy exploration" (oil drilling). His research on the matter involved showing people a picture of current oil drilling and asking if in the picture it "looks like exploration or drilling." He said that 90 percent of the people he spoke to said it looked like exploring. "Therefore I'd argue that it is a more appropriate way to communicate." He went on to say "if the public says after looking at the pictures, that doesn't look like my definition of drilling—it looks like my definition of exploring—then don't you think we should be calling it what people see it to be, rather than adding a political aspect to it all?" Terry Gross responded: "Should we be calling it what it actually is, as opposed to what somebody thinks it might be? The difference between exploration and actually getting out the oil—they're two different things, aren't they?"

Recently, Luntz made headlines again, this time before the Republican Governors Association, and on the subject of the Occupy Wall Street movement (OWS):

The Republican Governors Association met this week in Florida to give GOP state executives a chance to rejuvenate, strategize and team-build. But during a plenary session on Wednesday, one question kept coming up: How can Republicans do a better job of talking about Occupy Wall Street?

"I'm so scared of this anti-Wall Street effort. I'm frightened to death," said Frank Luntz, a Republican strategist and one of the nation's foremost experts on crafting the perfect political message. "They're having an impact on what the American people think of capitalism."

Luntz offered tips on how Republicans could discuss the grievances of the Occupiers, and help the governors better handle all these new questions from constituents about "income inequality" and "paying your fair share."

Yahoo News sat in on the session, and counted 10 do's and don'ts from Luntz covering how Republicans should fight back by changing the way they discuss the movement.

1. Don't say 'capitalism.'

"I'm trying to get that word removed and we're replacing it with either 'economic freedom' or 'free market,' " Luntz said. "The public . . . still prefers capitalism to socialism, but they think capitalism is immoral. And if we're seen as defenders of quote, Wall Street, end quote, we've got a problem."

2. Don't say that the government 'taxes the rich.'
Instead, tell them that the government 'takes from the rich.'
"If you talk about raising taxes on the rich," the public responds favorably, Luntz cautioned. But "if you talk about government taking the money from hardworking Americans, the public says no. Taxing, the public will say yes."

3. Republicans should forget about winning the battle over the 'middle class.'
Call them 'hardworking taxpayers.'
"They cannot win if the fight is on hardworking taxpayers. We can say we defend the 'middle class' and the public will say, I'm not sure about that. But defending 'hardworking taxpayers' and Republicans have the advantage."

4. Don't talk about 'jobs.' Talk about 'careers.'
"Everyone in this room talks about 'jobs,'" Luntz said. "Watch this."
He then asked everyone to raise their hand if they want a "job." Few hands went up. Then he asked who wants a "career." Almost every hand was raised.
"So why are we talking about jobs?"

5. Don't say 'government spending.' Call it 'waste.'
"It's not about 'government spending.' It's about 'waste.' That's what makes people angry."

6. Don't ever say you're willing to 'compromise.'
"If you talk about 'compromise,' they'll say you're selling out. Your side doesn't want you to 'compromise.' What you use in that to replace it with is 'cooperation.' It means the same thing. But cooperation means you stick to your principles but still get the job done. Compromise says that you're selling out those principles."

7. The three most important words you can say to an Occupier: 'I get it.'

"First off, here are three words for you all: 'I get it.' . . . 'I get that you're angry. I get that you've seen inequality. I get that you want to fix the system."
Then, he instructed, offer Republican solutions to the problem.

8. Out: 'Entrepreneur.' In: 'Job creator.'

Use the phrases "small business owners" and "job creators" instead of "entrepreneurs" and "innovators."

9. Don't ever ask anyone to 'sacrifice.'
"There isn't an American today in November of 2011 who doesn't think they've already sacrificed. If you tell them you want them to 'sacrifice,' they're going to be be pretty angry at you. You talk about how 'we're all in this together.' We either succeed together or we fail together."

10. Always blame Washington.

Tell them, "You shouldn't be occupying Wall Street, you should be occupying Washington. You should occupy the White House because it's the policies over the past few years that have created this problem."

Don't say 'bonus!'

Luntz advised that if they give their employees an income boost during the holiday season, they should never refer to it as a "bonus."
"If you give out a bonus at a time of financial hardship, you're going to make people angry. It's 'pay for performance.'"

Christians are told that the devil is always busy, but I suspect that the devil has nothing on Republicans. They never seem to rest, never seem to take a break from the battle, continually devising ways to defeat their mortal enemy--Democrats.

It could be that Democrats are strategizing to the same extent as Republicans, deploying some of the same undermining, deceptive practices, but I doubt it.

Republicans are a breed apart, calculating and devious to a flaw, not reticent to do whatever it takes to maintain a political edge--and no detail is too small to exploit, whether it's descending upon liberal blogs with a swarm of anonymous locusts to attack liberals and the president, coordinating their attacks with the use of ALEC, or attempting to enact voter suppression laws, "[s]weeping new laws — including an end to same-day registration and cuts to early voting — could disenfranchise millions of voters in 2012."[1]

If we're to defeat a Republican take over of this country, we need to know the party's methods, and work harder than they do to impose a political ideology that works for the 99 percent as well as the 1 percent.

You can be sure: Republicans are willing to use legislation, our language, and our emotions--and not so much our intellect--to achieve their ends. We don't have to operate in the same fashion as they do, but we do have to be willing to expose their tactics, and deploy a counterattack to their attacks, lest the whole nation ends up in an oversize body bag.