Monday, November 5, 2007

Commentary: Pavlov and Patriotism


by Joey King
Somewhere back in high school all of us studied about Pavlov’s dog. Just a brief refresher for those who may not remember: dogs naturally salivate when they know their about to eat. Pavlov called this an unconditioned response. A ringing bell by itself means nothing to a dog. He called this a neutral condition. But if you ring a bell before feeding a dog, in time, he will associated the neutral condition (bell) with food and salivate even if there is no food.

The same thing happens in marketing to humans. Take diamonds for instance. Eighty-five percent of women in the US own one although they are quite useless. You can not eat diamonds for instance. Using Pavlov’s research, the diamond industry has conducted a successful 80-year marketing campaign to sell a useless product. Sadly, wars are financed all over Africa with the proceeds of the “blood diamond” trade. Let that sink in for a minute. The demand for useless diamonds is financing the death of human beings in African wars. I am certain that this is an unintended consequence of the diamond trade.

Isn’t patriotism the same thing? Let’s look at a flag for example. Can you eat a flag? It is a piece of cloth. I suppose it would be good as a blanket or a piece of clothing. It might make a good floor mat for my truck, or I might put it at the entrance to my house to wipe my muddy shoes; but that is about it. Why should a red, white, and blue piece of cloth that supposedly “represents” a country called the US evoke a different response than a similar looking red white and blue cloth that is supposed to represent the island of Cuba? At one time flags served a purpose in combat. Battle flags were hoisted high so that the troops could easily see where their unit was. I do not wish to be associated with militarism myself.

The first line of the Pledge of Allegiance says:

“I pledge allegiance to the flag”

Why should I, or anyone else, pledge allegiance to a piece of cloth? I do not say the pledge; it is merely another neutral condition (in Pavlov’s terminology) designed to instill pride in my country. The last time I checked, pride is one of the 7 deadly sins; not that I am a Christian or anything, but they have that one right.

Alexander Pope said, "A patriot is a fool in ev’ry age,” and Samuel Johnson said, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” I agree with both these wise men. It sickens me when I see someone like General Petraeus testifying before Congress. They seem to be in some kind of homo-erotic patriotism love affair with the uniform (another neutral condition) and his medals (yet another neutral condition) All of these symbols are designed to elicit a patriotic response in you. How many times will the Congress (usually, but not always Republican) bring up the flag-burning amendment? Since 9/11, I can’t tell you how many times have heard a talk show host, or a congress-critter say something like “I don’t want to question his patriotism but….” Senator John Kerry’s patriotism was questioned in the 2004 presidential campaign. Karl Rove, who did not serve a goddamned day in the military, stooped so low as to successfully question the patriotism of former Georgia Representative Max Cleland. That’s low, but it worked. As unbelievable as that sounds, it worked. Cleland lost his re-election bid

I have been three tombstone dedications for my Revolutionary War ancestors in the last year. The nice ladies from the Daughters of the American Revolution show up and say things like Andrew’s unit “subdued” the Chickamauga Indians; he was a real patriot. No, he was a war criminal. I am quite certain that the Chickamauga Indians of present-day Chattanooga did not like being “subdued” in their own homeland.

Why does every country want to instill patriotism in their people? Is it so that the people will kill for the leaders in a time of war? That is at least one reason I would think. There are 192 countries on planet earth; 180 of them have militaries. To my knowledge (with the possible exception of Bhutan in Himalayas) no country has a department of peace. In October 1935, MK Gandhi wrote, “The individual has a soul, but as the State is a soulless machine, it can never be weaned from violence to which it owes its very existence” Since 180 out of 192 countries have a military, it is hard to argue with Gandhi on that one.

I used to be a fool. For 7 years, I was in ROTC or was serving as a US Army officer for the empire. I am no longer a fool, or a scoundrel; I am a pacifist in the Gandhian tradition. I am at least smart enough to recognize Pavlov’s theory at work when I see it. I hope you are too.

-Joey King is a Peace Activist and former Army Ranger who resides in Middle Tennessee

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