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Posted by on Aug 17, 2011 in Guest Contributor, Politics, Society | 11 comments

I Knew a Guy Who Named His Dog ‘Cujo’

As we wait for the results from the last round of Wisconsin recall elections, something needs to be said about the fundamentally nutty state of our Narrative. Example the first: How did so many “Christians” end up marching under the sign of the Serpent?

And how come nobody’s noticed?

Symbols have a definite meaning and a powerful place in our national discourse. And they have definite and profound psychological effects.

Interesting thing is that the last two times the “Gadsden Flag” was flown were the Revolutionary War and by Southern regiments in the Civil War. Generally, the serpent’s effect (and intent) is death (invoking the fear of poisonous snakes) — which is implicit in the motto beneath the rattlesnake — although the venerable old flag’s actual won/loss ration stands at 50%. (66% if you add in the War of 1812,)

Here’s another one:

“Red States” and “Blue States.”

The trope CAME from the network’s need to put up a snazzy graphic, to color a state in a presidential election, and goes back to the 1960’s. Now, for many years, the colors were undefined, some networks choosing Red for Democrats (as they did in 1976, as we watched all the states West of the Mississippi turn Blue for Gerald Ford and then Hawaii turn Red for Carter, who was then elected).  Just a trope.

But sometime during the 2000 election, ALL Republican states became “red” and all Democratic states became “blue,” and, bizarrely enough, they began to follow the same general outlines as the blue and the gray (albeit with red highlights) of the first Civil War. Arguments arose about “red states” and “blue states” and the natural split-the-differencers were thence able to flog the meme into “we’re all purple states” — no doubt inspired by two bottles of tempera paint spilling, red and blue, to form purple on someone’s kitchen table.

2004 “Red and Blue” counties in the presidential election

One of the premier political blogs of the Right is the wholly-owned by Tom Phillips (Regnery Press, Eagle Publishing, Daily Spectator, etc.) called RedState. The best political blog in Oregon, unabashedly a Democratic blog, is BlueOregon. And so on and so forth.

The strange disconnect here is that back in the evil days of the Cold War and Communism, the commonly accepted trope of the right was “fighting REDS!” and we had the McCarthy/Nixon “Red Scare” and the investigations into Red and “pinko” — which meant, basically, “kinda red” — influences on Hollywood. Etcetera. The bumper sticker of choice of the Far Right was (along with “LOVE IT OR LEAVE IT” and “THEY’LL TAKE MY GUN WHEN THEY PRY IT FROM MY COLD, DEAD FINGERS”) the ever-popular “BETTER DEAD THAN RED.”

Neo-Red Scare

And no one humped the Anti-Commie Pony harder than the Grand Old Party’s Cold Warriors. Chief among these were Richard Nixon and, later, Ronald Reagan.

But suddenly Republican states are … Red States?

Symbolism is more than important. It creates realities, not because the symbols themselves have any intrinsic meaning, perhaps, but certainly because of the emotional response we have to a lifetime of conditioning.

This is important: we have been conditioned like lab rats for our entire lives. Children learn jingles at the earliest age, and in many cases, sing them as their first songs.

We no longer do the “you should buy product A because of its superiority to Brand X,” but, rather, we are shown an unending series of cartoons and emotional associations to sell us everything from the “little purple pill” (ask your Doctor!) to chewing gum that will cause you to be French-kissed by a smoking hot girl/guy and CGI particle effects will create a magical nimbus of your gummy mouth mojo. Or, drinking beer will obtain for you a large breasted beautiful woman.


actual ad/Pavlovian conditioning

One of the things I like to do in this Pavlovian Age is parse the language sent to the reptile brain, since this is the most important part of our advertising — and increasingly our political — messaging. Let me give you an example.

Three competitive swimmers crouch at  their start podii. They leap backwards and the camera jumps to an overhead shot of three guys full frontal in their Speedos® in what we are told by the liquid’s color and the “glorping” sounds is caramel.

The announcer says “pool full of caramel – bad idea.”

(or click here for a YouTube window)

Then “candy bar full of caramel – good idea.”

And they sell you — supposedly — the new Milky Way Super Caramel bar.

Except that is not what the reptile brain hears.

What it hears is this: These candy bars are filled with caramel that has been strained through those three guys’ Speedos® and you will vomit in a manner that sounds a lot like that glorping sound in the CGI pool.

Who0ps. (Somebody really ought to hire Amygdala Proofreaders to catch this stuff.)

Location of the Amygdala in the Human Brain
The figure shows the underside (ventral view)
of a semi-transparent human brain,
with the front of the brain at the top.

That is called “cognitive dissonance.” And, while we may aptly characterize most of the political and advertising Machaivellis who ladle this swill into our brains, non-stop from a pre-verbal age as “cognitive dissidents” who are against cognition in all but the most extreme emergencies, that is not our point, and we move on.

The association of some jock in Speedos® in the caramel creates an instantaneous association that is unappetizing to most people. And, in most people — as with most modern advertising — the association takes place beneath the layer of “conscious” or “aware” thought.  The whole trick of conditioning is to get you to see Double-Mint chewing gum in the Seven-Eleven® and that jingle pop into your head.

Double your pleasure. Double your fun. With Double Mint Double Mint Double Mint gum.

(No one ever seems to notice the triple-double at the end.)

Doublemint Twins, 1959

I knew a guy who named his dog ‘Cujo’ — after the killer dog of the eponymous horror novel by Stephen King.

He was a big quasi-Labrador retriever, and true to subconscious expectations, the dog had a biting problem that got his owner in trouble over and over. Be careful what you name your dog.

I bit my tongue for  a long time over that one, as the latest disaster with Cujo was lain out in gory detail. I couldn’t say “Well, what did you expect?”

And be careful what you name your child. Over and over, psychological studies from all angles show that “odd” and “peculiar” names directly impact the child’s life. Not only do other kids tease kids with “strange” names, but in double blind tests, with only the names changed, teachers graded papers differently based on the names attached.

The expectations that come with a name operate at a thousand culturally assumed levels, and while names like “Brian” and “Mike” are generally sure-fire winners for boys, perceived as  all round good guys, names like “Dexter” or “Percival,” are generally guaranteed E-ticket rides to a hellish childhood.

He has a weird name! Get ‘im, boys!

We are more the slaves of our language and symbols than their master, and this constant conditioning creates loyalties, fears, attractions and a thousand other effects that we are generally unaware of, but which are real nonetheless. Why else would they spend so much money seeing what “turns on” the amygdala if it didn’t work?

And there is a symbolic portion of our brains that refuses to vanish. We are powerfully affected by symbols and metaphor. Why else would so many angry letters pour in during any “flag burning” debate in which “patriots” would inveigh that they would DIE for the flag? Not the symbolism of the flag: the actual piece of cloth.

That’s a pretty hard-core response to an arbitrary symbol. And, it would be the same, had the Continental Congress chosen, instead, a Turkey Rampant in a field of Cerise, bearing lightning in one talon and white lightning in the other talon, and perhaps two angels blowing horns on either side. Wouldn’t matter. He would die for that piece of cloth, which is nothing more or less than a symbol.

Names and labels carry with them such a charge that many buildings are built without a “13th Floor.” Nobody suggests that 13 IS a bad and unlucky problem for a floor. But no one doubts that the belief is widespread enough that avoiding the number altogether is a really good idea, as a matter of practicality.

Consider CorelDraw. I got on the CorelDraw hot air balloon back at CorelDraw 3. And, I noticed an interesting thing happen. CorelDraw 12 was to be followed by CorelDraw Graphics Suite X3.


CorelDraw 13

[* Intel kind of painted themselves into that same corner when they moved from the 80486 chip to the “Pentium.” Next in line was, of course, the “Sexium” which put Intel into a quandary that they solved with the “Pentium II” the “Pentium III” and the Pentium 4 — having painted themselves into a Roman Numeral corner, as well. Or, the Five Version 2 (or six), the Five version 3 (or seven), and finally the Five, version Four, which is a Borg mathematics entirely above the pay grade of this blog.]

The Intel Sexium Chip

These subconscious games of expectation and self-fulfilling prophecy affect our thinking. And the amygdala doesn’t understand “irony” or sarcasm any more than it understands that nobody in the history of the world has ever filtered a swimming pool’s worth of caramel through three pairs of occupied Speedos®.

1930s German Anti-Communist, Anti-Semite propaganda poster

So, what happens to the reptile brain when you raise generations to fear, loathe and despise “Reds” and then turn the term “Red State” into something to be earnestly desired? And then what happens when you accuse the opposition of being “socialists” (e.g. “pinkos”) and “communists” (i.e. “reds”)? What contortions does that introduce into the convolutions of the gray matter of the brain?

What happens when you take a traditionalist, patriotic, religious set of followers and have them march under the sign of a poisonous serpent … with all the baggage of THE Serpent  … along for the ride? I don’t know.

But I did know a guy who named his dog ‘Cujo.’

And the Wisconsin recall election results are in. The Democrats retain both seats.



A writer, published author, novelist, literary critic and political observer for a quarter of a quarter-century more than a quarter-century, Hart Williams has lived in the American West for his entire life. Having grown up in Wyoming, Kansas and New Mexico, a survivor of Texas and a veteran of Hollywood, Mr. Williams currently lives in Oregon, along with an astonishing amount of pollen. He has a lively blog His Vorpal Sword. This is cross-posted from his blog.