COULROPHOBIA:Reality TV Roadshow

clown king fans

I posted this image on Flickr, and called it COULROPHOBIA: Reality TV Roadshow.  The first comment appeared almost at once:

Not funny. No place for hatred and intolerance on Flickr. This is an art and photography community, Not a political platform.

At first I was aghast. A complex mixed reaction swept over me, compounded of anger at accusation of hate, and regret for having caused her distress, tinged with feelings that were admittedly political and inappropriate.  It unsettled me.  Here is my response:

I agree with you that this is not funny. That is why I called it coulrophobia, fear of clowns. I disagree that it is not art.

Art and politics are not self-exclusive. Consider Picasso’s Guernica or Brecht’s Threepenny Opera.

 I am distressed with some of the ways our democracy is trending, and that distress finds its way into some of my images. It may not be politically correct, but it is honest and straight from the heart, as art must be,

In the cool light of morning, I have had time to think about this.  The issues I have struggled with are threefold.  Is this image hateful?  What is the relationship between art and politics?  What is the relationship between truth, free expression, and art?

enchanted forest 72dpi**

I do not like to think of myself as hateful, but I admit there is hate in me.  In general, I hate acts, not people.  I do not care about a person’s skin color, ethnicity, of gender identity. When a shooting occurs in the inner city I don’t need to know if it was black-on-black or white on black to deplore the shooting itself.  I respect the Muslim faith, but I hate murder in the name of Allah.  I am incorrigibly straight, but I hate the idea that anyone else can tell me, or any other human being, whom to love.

children's jail1I do not hate Donald Trump.  I do not even hate his policies, although I disagree with most of them.  I do hate the separation of children from their parents for political gain.  I hat the imprisonment of children without due process, for the crime of wanting to stay with their parents when they tried to cross the border into America.  I hate the kissing up to vile autocrats in Russia, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia for the sake of American (and personal) business interests.  I hate to see my country putting the interests of dying industries, like fossil fuels and steel, above the interests of a dying planet.  I hate the nepotism.  I hate the lies.  I do not hate Donald Trump.

It fact, there are parts of the Trump agenda I agree with, in principle if not in implementation. The tangle of red tape that has resulted from Congress’ abdication of its legislative function to the Executive branch, and the jungle of expensive administrative agencies that has engendered, desperately needs to be cut back.  Previous administrations have tried to do this, and largely failed.  Trump is succeeding, but without any finesse, or heed to the damage he is doing.  I like the end, but I hate the means.  When you hire the bull to clean out the china closet, you may not be happy with the results.

detention layer lo resMy Trump images try to cleave to real events.  When Trump steps up to the podium at one of his rallies, he reverts in my perception to a clownish constructed persona.  When he slides into one of his cute but slanderous little skits attacking journalists and women, an adoring crowd cheers his performance and warm to the affirmation of their own beliefs.  This is performance art, not leadership.

No, this image was not born of hate, but of dread.  Coulrophobia.

***

Does art have a place for politics?  Of course it does. 

delacroix

Delacroix-Liberty Leading the People

Aristophanes comedy Lysistrata, in which the women of Greece try to end the Peloponnesian War by withholding sex from all Greek men until they end it, appeared in 411 BCE.  Much art of the Renaissance was an extended paean to the Church, which at the time was as political as it was theologically. In 1830, French master Eugene Delacroix presented Liberty Leading the People to the Paris Salon.   At the turn of the 20th century, the fierce battle between the Salonists and the Refusés was settled by Napoléon III—modern art began with an Imperial decree.  As the 20ty century wore on, Lenin, Goebbels, and their ilk, made propaganda science.  Art entered the service of the state, though one can argue whether Social Realism is really art.

G.W.Bellows-Ashcan School

G.W.Bellows-Ashcan School

In America, newly minted Impressionist began to turn their attention to urban themes, with a gritty reality that became as the Ashcan school.   Franklin Roosevelt experimented with state sponsored art with the Public Works Art Project (PWAP) and its well-known successor, the Works Progress Administration (WPA)  Norman Rockwell shifted during World War II from homey Americana to strongly felt political imagery, beginning with Four Freedoms and processing through The Problem We All Live With, which portrays a young black girl in a fine white dress and carrying schoolbooks, flanked by federal marshals as she walks by a wall marred with racist graffiti  and stained with thrown tomatoes, as she walks to her first day at a newly integrated school in New Orleans. For many (including me), that was when Rockwell rose from being a clever illustrator to being a profound artist.

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Jakob Riis-Bandits’ Roost

Flickr, especially in the Smug Mug era, is devoted to photography.  Because of its inherent documentary property, photography has always welcomed political art.  Matthew Brady’s battlefield images affected Lincoln, and the course of the Civil War.  Jakob Riis’ pictures in The Way the Other Half Lives profoundly affected Theodore Roosevelt, helping to usher in the Progressive Era.  The Depression portfolio of Dorothea Lange and Gordon Parks’ documentary work in the black ghetto of the 50s through the 70s carry potent political power.

My art does not rise to the level of these greats. It is not disqualified as being art, however, simply because it has political content.

*** 

“Beauty is truth, and truth beauty,“—that is all

ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.”

John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn

This is a quaint Victorian conceit, comfortable in its naiveté, but it is not true.  Truth is not always beautiful.  It is true, though, that what is not true is seldom art.

This does not mean that art must cleave to the laws of physics or the universe of facts.  The truth of art is more profound than that. No one believes that The Wizard of Oz is an historical document.  The truths that it tells about courage, intelligence, and heart, about the powers of persistence and love, and the battle between good and evil, all resonate with us.  These deeper truths are the basis of its art.

off to see the wizard st basils

My picture is not factual, but it is true to the feeling I get when I see clips of a Trump rally.  I do not believe that I am the only one who sees it this way.  It is not a beautiful image, but it is earnest and honest.  The picture is not funny.  It evokes a pang of truth that is unsettling.  If it draws out a chuckle, it is not from amusement but from that most dissonant of feelings: irony.

dangerous toyI regret any distress I have provoked.  I regret the loss of comity in our shared country, making it difficult today to hold sharply differing opinions without harboring ill feeling, and digging in.  I regret that we cannot move our country out of the terrible mire we have driven into, because we have lost track of the highway of facts that could lead us through the jungle of unproven assertions.  We have allowed our ability to compromise to atrophy to near uselessness.  We have allowed our need to win no matter what to outstrip our need to do the right thing for our country.

I do not regret my image.  It is not great art, but it is art nonetheless.

Lord What Fools These Mortals Be

shark tee

People never cease to amaze me.

When I first arrived on Cape Cod, I went for a walk on the beach despite a brewing storm. There I watched a man bring his young family out to the end of a stone jetty, dragging beach chairs. They wanted the best view of the storm surge as it rolled in on the high tide, ahead of Hurricane Floyd. They appeared to have no awareness of the risks they were taking. Floyd fizzled here; I believe they survived, but I can’t be sure. God looks after idiots and drunks.

Recently the presence of great white sharks off Cape Cod has grown in the public’s awareness. The sharks are drawn here, perhaps by warmer summer ocean temperatures, and certainly by the smorgasbord of seals laid out on the beaches and sandbars from Monomoy to Race Point.

Tourists are drawn to these very beaches, in the hopes of sighting a shark. While they wait for a dorsal fin to appear (with the brain-worm shark theme from Jaws doubtless harmonizing with the sounds of the surf in their benumbed brains), they swim, surf and splash in the very waters where giant, unseen predators prowl for their pinneped prey.

Shark attacks of humans on Cape Cod have been rare. Between 1965 and 2014, only four such attacks were reported, none of them fatal. The last fatal shark attack on the Cape occurred in 1936.

Entertainments like the Jaws and Sharknado franchises trivialize a real peril, and titillate with a faux fear that is fun to feel. On Cape Cod, the thrill is so much more fun for being real. Tourism at the Cape Cod National Seashore spikes during Discovery Channel’s Shark Week.

This year, there have been two horrific shark attacks here. A New York man was maimed in Truro, but survived. A Revere man died of shark-inflicted injuries in Wellfleet.

For those tourists who insist on unrestricted ocean swimming here still, I have designed the tee shirt graphic above. I mean no disrespect for those who have already suffered grievous harm. I do mean disrespect the the hoards of those who willfully ignore their sacrifice, and especially to those in the entertainment and tourist trades who have commercialized it.

The shirt is specifically designed to be used as a tourniquet, if necessary.

LeCount Hollow shark short header

Homeland Security?

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“I didn’t like the sight or the feeling of families being separated,” Trump told reporters, with Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Vice-President Mike Pence standing by his side. “I think anybody with a heart would feel strongly about it. We don’t like to see families separated.”

It’s not that he doesn’t like the fact of the child abductions he has ordered, mind you.  It’s that he doesn’t like “the sight or the feel” of it.  He doesn’t like seeing it on TV. 

Sometimes the language Trump uses, inadvertently or not, shows a flickering glimpse into that dark vacuum where his soul should be.

His use here of the passive voice, and the conditional perfect form of the verb ‘to feel’, is interesting.  It allows him to invoke the warm and fuzzy feelings associated with people with hearts and caring about children, without actually committing himself to either one.  Then there’s his use of the Imperial We…

Consider this sentence instead: “I don’t like separating families.” It is a strong sentence, clear and declarative, but it has two major problems for Trump.  With its active voice and simple present tense, it takes ownership of the worst aspect of the policy, and it renders the lie transparent–his glee with the chaos he produces shines through his habitual melancholy bluster.  He would prefer us to admire the strength of his border policies, once again conflating cruelty with strength at the expense of empathy.  That is the core of the Trump political brand.

Secretary Nielsen displays a similar lack commitment to empathy in her remarks:

“… the children in D.H.S. and H.H.S. custody are being well taken care of.”  she insisted.  “The Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement provides meals, medical care and educational services to these children. They are provided temporary shelter, and H.H.S. works hard to find a parent, relative or foster home to care for these children.”

She clearly has a better command of the organizational chart of the Executive Branch than of the urgent needs of a traumatized child, or even how to comfort a crying baby.  She knows who the boss is.  She can be lawyerly, but can she be motherly?

Apparently the Secretary believes that providing pizza and indoor cages with Mylar blankets, along with medical care for physical problems (which probably doesn’t even satisfy the Geneva Convention for adult prisoners of war) constitutes good care for child political prisoners.  Does she seriously think that children, after a strenuous trek through tropical jungles, arid deserts, and hostile countryside, witnessing violence and death, and then, with the goal in sight, being snatched from their parents in a strange land whose language and customs they do not understand, and held like animals in locked cages, are ready for packaged “educational services’, or won’t act out their anger when they are placed, all alone, in the homes of strangers who speak a language foreign to them?

The last months have provided even the youngest of them with an education beyond what their keepers can even comprehend, bilingual or not. 

Still, taken out of contest, it all sounds so humane

POTUS hates immigrants whenever they come;
They are dirty and violent, worthless and dumb.
He hates South Americans most for their treasons.
Now please don’t ask why. He won't give us his reasons.
It could be his head isn’t screwed on just right.
It could be, perhaps, that his shoes are too tight.
But I think that the most likely reason of all
May just be that his heart is two sizes too small.

(Forgive me, Dr, Seuss!  I got carried away.
And I still don’t feel  better, I’m sorry to say.)

** *** **

FULL DISCLOSURE:

The photo underlying this was taken by Gerald L. Nino (irony, anyone?) of the US Border Patrol.  It shows Mexicans awaiting deportation.  DHS released it in 2011, when Barak Obama was president.  Donald Trump did not invent this problem, but he seems to be perfecting it.

A Great Fall

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All the King’s horses and all the King’s men could not put Humpty together again. 

Humpty Dumpty has been used to demonstrate the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The law describes a property of things known as entropy, which is a measure of the number of specific ways in which a system may be arranged. Entropy represents the energy in a thermodynamic system which is not available to do work. It is often taken to be a measure of  randomness or disorder:  the higher the entropy, the more chaotic is the system, and the less useful energy it contains. 

After his fall and subsequent shattering, Humpty becomes a high entropy (disordered) system. The inability to put him together again illustrates the Second Law, as it would be extremely difficult (though not impossible) to return him to his earlier state of lower entropy (higher orderliness) without enormous effort. The entropy of an isolated system never decreases on its own. (A deck of cards cannot become a house of cards without inputs of energy.)

 Unlike that better known systems property, mass/energy, which cannot be created or destroyed, new entropy is constantly created. Perhaps to accommodate its growing chaos, the universe is eternally expanding.

…..

 

Doctor in Brooklyn: Why are you depressed, Alvy?

Alvy’s Mom: Tell Dr. Flickr. [turns to doctor]…its something he read.

Doctor in Brooklyn: Something he read, huh?

Alvy at 9: The universe is expanding.

Doctor in Brooklyn: The universe is expanding?

Alvy at 9: Well, the universe is everything, and if it’s expanding, someday it will break apart and that would be the end of everything!

Alvy’s Mom: Why is that your business? [turns to doctor] He stopped doing his homework!

Alvy at 9: What’s the point?

Alvy’s Mom: What has the universe got to do with it? You’re here in Brooklyn! Brooklyn is not expanding!

Doctor in Brooklyn: It won’t be expanding for billions of years yet, Alvy. And we’ve gotta try to enjoy ourselves while we’re here! 

–Woody Allen, Annie Hall

Despair

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judgement

Michaelangelo: detail of Judgement Day panel, Sistine Chapel

 

DESPAIR

In the short cold days each year

There is  a dark forbidding room

Where shades in darkness whisper fear

And only my discerning ear

Perceives the wail of coming doom

 

Wraiths about me natter on

About the lengthening of days

And all the myriad of ways

To knuckle down and battle on

Until the warmth of summer stays

 

Far away I hear birds singing

In the distance there is light

Time they say is surely bringing

White doves with a new beginning

That will end this bitter night

 

I cannot get from here to there

All that is too far away

Where I am there is just despair

I am no longer welcome where

The things I’ve loved have gone to stay

 

A true companion and old friend

Deeper in the darkness lies

Who’ll use the dark itself to send

A surer pathway the end

My final consolation prize

 

Slender Man: alternative realities

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enchanted forest 72dpi

By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes!

The enchanted world of Donald Trump. Unless you are a billionaire, you are paying dearly for it, no matter where in the world you live. Given his postures on science and war, the final cost may be our shared world itself, now that he is the boss.  Our children have the most to fear.

All that glitters is not gold. All movement is not forward. All change is not progress. In our world of relentless hyperpartisanship, manipulated social media, and aggressive commercial and financial exploitation of those not already obscenely wealthy, common sense grows increasingly rare.

“This is not okay,” says Jim Comey; here, at least, he is correct. If we let it become normal, we will have lost.

Whidah Maker

The Legend of Goody Hallett

goody hallett2

Mary (or Maria, or Mariah) Hallet lived in Eastham in the late 1600’s and early 1700’s. She went by the given name “Goody”. Records from 17th century America are sparse, so little is known about Goody Hallett from a historical perspective. The legend is emphatic on one point, though: young Mary was a very attractive blond.

She was just 15 or 16 when she met the pirate “Black Sam” Bellamy, who plundered the ships plying Cape Cod waters. Mary fell in love with Sam. For a time, it seemed like a classic story of forbidden love, the village beauty and the dashing privateer.

But Sam, the blackguard, sailed away, promising the maiden he would return to wed once his fortune had been made. Years passed. Bellamy, a brilliant naval tactician and charismatic leader of men, became the most successful of the Caribbean buccaners, but Black Sam never returned alive to Goody, or Cape Cod.

Sam had left Mary with child. She hid her pregnancy, and when the baby came, she smothered it.. When the villagers of Eastham learned of her foul deed, they shunned her. She was exiled to neighboring Wellfleet.

Mary Hallet became a recluse. She lived alone in a small shack in Wellfleet, hidden among the dunes in an area which is still known as Goody Hallet Meadow. Some say it was there that she sold her soul to the Devil.

The villagers believed she was a witch. God-fearing Puritans were forbidden to speak to her. She grew wan and haggard. Some say she was pining away for Sam Bellamy, while some say she was just biding her time, scheming her revenge.

In April 1717 Black Sam Bellamy returned to Eastham with his newly stolen ship, the Whydah, a swift and heavily armored galley designed as a slaver. When he arrived at the Cape a great nor’easter arose without warning. The Whidah foundered off the coast of Wellfleet. The entire crew was lost, including Black Sam.

The night of the storm the villagers saw Mary Hallet standing on the bluffs, waving her hands, casting curses into the angry sky. Apparently she had summoned the storm to kill Sam.

Sam’s body was never recovered from the wreck. Some say he and Goody escaped the tempest, and lived together in anonymity, rich and happy, passing Black Sam’s mantle to his protogé, Edward “Blackbeard” Teach. Others say that Mary recovered Sam’s treasure from the wreck of the Whydah, and buried it somewhere in Wellfleet, where it remains undiscovered to this day.

The villagers were so horrified by what they had seen Mary doing in the storm that they chased her into White Cedar Swamp, where i they presumed she died. Perhaps she did.

Mary Hallet’s ghost is said still to wander the dunes overlooking Nantucket Sound, in areas known today by many dark names, like Lucifer’s Land and Devil’s Pasture.

When a nor’easter blows in today, listeners on the bluff can hear the plaintive and angry wails of Goody Hallett as the wind grows cold before the storm.

*** ** ***

UPDATE:

The wreck of the Whidah was discovered in 1984 by adventurer Barry Clifford, and artifacts from her, as well as from other pirates and the Caribbean slave trade, can be seen at the Whidah Pirate Museum in South Yarmouth, MA.

Nearby Clifford believes he has found the Whidah’s fabled treasure trove, concealed for centuries beneath shifting underwater sands.

Most extraordinary of all, from a concretion within the sunken galley Clifford’s team has extracted a human femur which may be the remains of Black Sam Bellamy himself. Descendants of Black Sam have been located in the UK, and DNA tests are pending.  Stay tuned.

Of Goody Hallett naught remains but the haunting legend, and the eerie, cold wail of the freshening northeasterly breeze that heralds stormy weather on Cape Cod.

Link to ColdBrook e-Gallery

The Yellow Mile

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The Green Mile, Stephen King has taught us, is the last hallway the condemned must walk, from Death Row to the electric chair.  For some, it is a place of despair, of anger, of desperate bargaining, and of failing hope. For some it is an opportunity for quiet reflection.  For a very few, it is the anteroom of reprieve.

This is the Yellow Mile.  It connects the Cancer Center, where doctors and patients huddle and scrum, with the Infusion Room, where toxic fluids are administered to the hopeful and the hopeless alike, while they wait for their pardons to come through.  The end is dark with doubt, and green with promise.  Though surrounded by family and friends, down this hallway patients walk alone.

The artwork, donated by well-meaning artists and meant to brighten it, is mercifully awful.  It provides no distraction to slow one’s passage, is seldom noticed, and it will not be missed.  Yet those who walk here must traverse the bustle of the lobby, pass the gift shop filled with colorful plush toys and shiny Mylar balloons, and skirt the lusty, fragrant florist. At the little bistro where lattes are served with sweet pastries, loved ones and caretakers lean in across glass tables, sharing ironies and intimacies too terrible to contemplate.  Along with the pools of warm sunshine that punctuate this dark hallway, these islands of vitality are cruel reminders to the stricken of what they may soon leave behind.

When I began my medical journey in the ‘70s, most who trod such hallways did not survive for long.  We often told them, trying to keep hope alive, that though our treatments were imperfect then, if they could just stay alive, much better ones would follow soon from research hospitals around the world.  Sometimes they believed us.  Sometimes they saw through our subterfuge, but were grateful that we offered them our faith in science as a source of hope.  Some railed at our solicitude, and died in a paroxysm of spiritual agony.  A few found inner peace.  In any case, fewer than 15% survived for long.

Today, so much has changed. That promise that once rang hollow is coming true.  Almost three quarters of those diagnosed with invasive cancers today continue their fruitful lives, their cancers subdued or vanquished. There are few of us whom cancer has not touched in one way or another.  The cancer survivor is no longer a rarity.

A better understanding of our bodies’ own tumor defenses have given rise to immunotherapies, like the checkpoint blockade techniques, that have brought many back from the brink.  Vaccines are under development that will enable the immune system to recognize proteins occurring only in the tumor, allowing it to attack the cancer preferentially, while leaving healthy cells alone. 

The rapid advances in genetic chemistry, from gene knockout techniques to CRISPR, have opened the possibilities of treatments that attack specific tumor cells directly, minimizing collateral damage to healthy cells.  Some of these, like the remarkable CAR-T techniques, may leave clones of immune cells behind that seek out and destroy recurrent tumor for years, even a lifetime.

Each year now brings surprising revelations, just as we hoped it would.  Discoveries break faster than the ways of traditional medicine can accommodate them.  Who can guess what the future will bring?

The gloom at the end of the Yellow Mile is beginning to dissipate.  There is light at the end of the tunnel.

 

 

DONALD: who played with a dangerous toy, and suffered a catastrophe of considerable dimensions

(with my apologies, profuse and profound, to Hilaire Belloc, whose immortal words are used here in a context he never intended for them.)



dangerous toy

When Donald's Chief of Staff was told
That Don had been as good as gold,
He promised in the afternoon
To buy him an Immense BALLOON,
And so he did; but when he got it
Immediately he quite forgot it.
It drifted till a T-man shot it,
When, being of the dangerous sort,
It thundered such a loud report

That lights went out and windows broke.
The Oval Office filled with smoke!
The West Wing swelled with frightened yells
That mingled with electric bells,
and falling masonry, and whines,
and crunching (as if sycophants had spines), 
and dreadful shrieks, when, worst of all,
The White House then began to fall.
It shook, as older houses do,
Before it met its Waterloo
In Pennsylvania Avenue.

When help arrived among the dead
Were fair Ivanka and Jared,
The T-men (both of them), the fools
Who guard the money laundry tools, 
Poor Stormy, the new "upstairs maid",
And I am dreadfully afraid
That Signore Boy-ar-Dee, the chef
Has lost his cousin, Little Chef.
Melania has come up lame,
And Don, who won't accept the blame,
Receives, as everybody knows,
Kudos everywhere he goes.

Moral:
The moral is that little boys
Should not be given dangerous toys.

The Wonk and the Wild Man

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sell the sizzleStudents of marketing have known this for years: you sell the sizzle, not the steak.  At the point of sale, though, you had better be able to deliver the beef.

When you make the decision to buy something, there are many facts to consider.  Is it a quality product?  Will it last?  Will its maker be there to fix problems if they arise?  Will I like it after I have bought it, or regret the purchase?  If we each had a personal research staff, we could keep it busy for a week before we bought a cup of coffee.

brand 1That is where branding comes in.  Consider that cup of coffee: it might be yesterday’s leftover thin, oily swill, or it may be the rich, creamy latte we hoped it would be.  If we buy it from an unfamiliar corner kiosk, we take our chances.  If we buy it from Starbuck’s, we know what to expect.  We trust in the effort that has gone into making that coffee for us.  We know that Starbuck’s has taken the time and expense to resolve all those quality questions for us before we buy from them.  Without thinking about all that, we will pay extra for the Starbuck’s brand, and feel good about it.

Feeling good is what branding is all about.  We don’t have to worry about the facts that lie behind our coffee—the violence in Colombia, the tariffs on coffee imports, the wages paid our barista—because Starbucks has taken care of all this behind the scenes.  We see that green and white logo, and feel good about the coffee.  That good feeling, not the facts, sells us on the coffee.

pavlovNear the turn of the 20th century, Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov was studying the digestive process in dogs.  He diverted the flow of saliva to an external pouch so that he could measure its volume.  He noticed that the volume of saliva produced by the dogs in his lab increased when the technician who usually fed them came into the room.  To see whether this was a psychological phenomenon, Pavlov chose a more neutral stimulus (the sound of a metronome) to precede the dog’s feedings before the technician entered the room.  Soon the steady tick if the metronome was sufficient to make the dogs’ mouths water in anticipation of food.

conditioned responsePavlov (and Edwin Twitmyer, working independently at the University of Pennsylvania using the knee-jerk reflex) had discovered the conditioned reflex.  We have added much hard science since their pioneering work.  Classical conditioning applies a stimulus before the desired reflex, in order to provoke it.  Operant conditioning, researched by American psychologist B.F.Skinner, applies a stimulus, either pleasant or noxious, after a behavior has occurred in order to create an association that will reward, modify, or extinguish it.  In humans, simply imagining the conditioned stimulus can evoke the response.  Just thinking about the sizzle can make you want the steak.  That principle lies at the heart of the branding phenomenon.

Increasingly, emotional conditioning lies at the heart of American electoral politics, especially at the national level.  In today’s politics, the term “dog whistles” reverberates with echoes of Pavlov’s lab.

Sound bites” on television news were goals before the ascendance of social media.  Simple phrases such as “I like Ike” and “We Shall Overcome” carried practically no cognitive information, but evoked huge affective responses.  One could like Ike without going to the trouble of learning his positions.  Overcoming adversity just sounds good, no matter what it is you are overcoming.  Attaching positive operant stimuli to your candidate’s name wins votes.

lbj ad

not a crookNegative operant stimuli work at least as well.  LBJ’s powerful campaign video, of an innocent little girl counting daisy petals, juxtaposed  with a mushroom cloud, tanked Barry Goldwater’s campaign, though hardly anyone could articulate his positions on childcare or nuclear war.  When a haggard Richard Nixon cried “I am not a crook!” on national TV from the White House, the very perception of crookedness became the quicksand that sank his presidency; the more he wriggled, the faster he went down.  As candidates realized this, negative campaigning became the underpinning of American politics.  It remains so today.

twitter button 2Great as the sound bite is, the tweet is greater.  Its limited length precludes filling it with cognitive content, but its immediacy makes it a powerful emotional platform.  A Congressional budget proposal may run to thousands of pages of arcane detail that no tweet thread could hope to contain, and few would ever read, but tweets (“Dems rap GOP budget as Welfare for the Rich!” or “GOP budget is the last hope for the middle class!”) do the job efficiently, are cheap, reach a wide audience, and are read in their entirety. 

facebook buttonFacebook posts allow for more cognitive content and less often read to the end, but they can contain pictures that can be absorbed at a glance.  Pictures can be a more visceral stimulus that text, and Instagram is nearly all images.  Taken as a whole, the social media comprise a powerful political platform whose influence is primarily in the affective, rather than the cognitive, domain.

The social media have a feature that broadcast media did not have before the advent of mass computation: they are curated.  Sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Google record and analyze your online preferences, and send you only the content that is likely to please you, and increase the chances that you will return and eyeball their ads again.  .  If your browsing history tends towards civil rights and economic opportunity, the material you see will be quite different from if you favored gun rights and Christian values.  Your profile is then sold to advertisers who want to sell to someone who thinks ad you do, or to politicians who advocate for your causes.  

 You only hear from people and groups who already agree with you.   This tends to reinforce your pre-existing reflex conditioning (yes, we all have it), amplifying the polarization that is shattering American society today.

Now consider the 2016 presidential campaign: the wonk and the wild man.

clinton announcesHillary Clinton began her candidacy in a flurry of emails and a video, projecting herself as a high achieving policy wonk with a common touch, and with a grand political history.  She presented what she considered to be the most positive facts from that history: her achievements as a Senator from New York and as Obama’s Secretary of State, her knowledge with the process of government in Washington and the officials who run it, and a very detailed set of policy proposals that gradually developed on her campaign website during the run-up to the election.  She suppressed the facts she considered unflattering: her closeness with the New York investment banks that filled her war chest, her remoteness from the working class that propelled her rival, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, and the dynastic appearance of a former First Lady (and the wife of an impeached president, to boot) running for President.

trump de-escalatesDonald Trump launched his campaign as a blonde deity, in the world he had created (Trump Tower), descending a golden escalator accompanied by his impossibly beautiful wife, into the roar of an adoring crowd.  It was very long on show, without facts or analytical thinking to get in the way of our feelings of awe.  In the campaign that followed, he promised us policies that would be beautiful, unprecedented, the best ever.  He offered an economic plan, but when actual economists weighed in against it, he stopped touting it.  He never sullied his rhetoric with actual details after that.  He sold himself as a champion of the working man, too rich to be corrupted, but he refused to offer details of his wealth.  He piggybacked on the ideas of others—the NRA, the Christian right, Breitbart—for the passions they aroused rather than the ideas themselves, which he appeared to only dimly understand.  He openly defied ‘political correctness’ without defining what it was, and courted those who did not require ideas or facts.  “I love the poorly educated!” he crowed.

When dealing with a wonk, fact-checking is pre-eminent; statistics, facts, data are what drive him.  When dealing with a demagogue it is a waste of time.  Facts concern him only for the feelings they invoke, and can be spun to suit his pre-determined purpose.  “Fake News!” merely makes you cleave tighter to his cause, regardless of the truth of it.  Fistfights in the aisle only added to the

The sound of a Hillary rally was the drone of ennui, punctuated occasionally by a shrill hiss like escaping steam, the last gasp of an outmoded, pre-millennial form of feminism.  The sound of a Trump rally was the thunder of a demagogue, and the pulse of the crowd shouting back “Lock her Up!” without offering any reason why.

Operant conditioning works both ways, though.  It can extinguish behavior as well as incite it.  As the crown responds positively to an affective reward, so can it respond adversely to negative reinforcement.  A child burnt by a hot stove will not touch it again.  A cat punished for soiling the floor will learn to use the litter box.  A dog conditioned to salivate at the sound of a bell in anticipation of food will soon stop doing so if the reward regularly fails to appear.  The branding effect may be a mile wide, but it is only inches deep.

This is especially true in politics.  If you promise specifics—universal health care, say, or affordable prescription drugs—at the end of your term the voter can look around and see if you have delivered on your promise; if you haven’t, your office is in jeopardy.  When the voter actually feels worse rather than better, look out!

If you have been promised only emotional goals—pride in America, reinforcement of your own racial, ethnic, gender or consumer identity—when the time comes to vote again the voter who was swayed by an appeal to emotion must  look within to see if he has been rewarded or disappointed.

This is actually a fairly complicated proposition, since external facts do not apply.  If you were promised economic prosperity and then you lost your job, you might feel abandoned and vote no:  Oh, no, I’m not going there again!  If your vote grew from anger at the political establishment, and now find yourself angrier still, you might vote yes.  Hell yes!  If you find yourself both economically diminished and politically betrayed, who knows what roiled emotions you will carry into the voting booth, or where they will lead you.  A third party seems increasingly possible

The best campaigns, of course, balance the affective with the cognitive.  No one did this better than the Great Communicator, Ronald Reagan, who was both a savvy showman and seasoned politician.  Consider this opening narration from a TV commercial  that ran during 1984 campaign:

“It’s morning again in America. Today more men and women will go to work than ever before in our country’s history. With interest rates at about half the record highs of 1980, nearly 2,000 families today will buy new homes, more than at any time in the past four years. This afternoon 6,500 young men and women will be married, and with inflation at less than half of what it was just four years ago, they can look forward with confidence to the future. It’s morning again in America, and under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is prouder and stronger and better. Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?

There is an easy to assimilate, uplifting tag line: Morning in America.  Dull statistics are made buoyant by an exhortation to feel-good optimism.  Why should we care about interest rates, employment statistics or inflation?  Because it’s Morning Again in America!  Because we are Stronger! and Prouder! and Better!   Who is tending to those dull, wonky things that are making us feel so good?  Ronald Reagan, that’s who!

morning in america

What followed were popular and Electoral College landslides, of historic proportions.  (Actually historic, not Trumpian histrionic.)  Sixty percent of votes cast nationwide were for Reagan.  In the Electoral College he lost only a single state, Minnesota, which was the home state of his Democratic opponent, Walter Mondale.

The take home it this: a demagogue usually beats a wonk, and a demagogue who is also a wonk trumps everybody.

2020, Here we come!