"Pavlov's Dogs" and Race?


Perhaps she was a bit overdue on her racism-as-punditry-excellence project, so Merlene Davis, Lexington Herald-Leader columnist, Lexington, Ky., weighed in on September 03 to remind everyone that racism is alive and well and that something must be done about it. She even explained the method: “There has to be an open and honest dialogue in this country about race, and it must be soon.” Dialogue is defined as “a conversation between two or more persons” (Merriam-Webster Collegiate, 11th edition). Ms. Davis didn’t mention who the persons are who should be having that dialogue, as well as when and where it should take place, but perhaps that information will come later.

Ms. Davis was driven to her claim by the recent statements of a drunk, a politician, and a former ambassador to the United Nations, all of whom said racist things – she said – about Jews, Indians, Koreans, and Arabs. She reasserted her position that this country is a salad rather than a melting pot, but probably did not see the irony of that statement with regard to race. A salad, of course, is a hopelessly non-integrated, divided piece of menu marked by the tension each part exerts upon the other parts, the resolution of which is achieved when the whole mess is destroyed in somebody’s alimentary canal and winds up as…well, never mind. A melting pot, however, holds its amalgamated contents forever, in spite of their diversities. It’s always – well, nearly always – been the perfect antidote to multicultural indigestion.

Ms. Davis, of course, rises above the dialogue level. That’s why she can pontificate about the need for it, having already arrived at non-racism Nirvana. In a column of July 25, she had this to say about President Bush upon the occasion of his speechifying date at the annual NAACP clambake: “Instead of the strutting cowboy, sidearms shiny with notched handles, Bush portrayed a man sincerely seeking to make amends. And he needed to.” Some folk might consider a statement like that a bit racist, but it can’t be because Ms. Davis would never make a racist statement – even if she “needed to.” She merely pointed out that the prez sought to make amends but was kind enough not to mention his sins that called for amends. She rose above the fray by not accusing him of being a strutting cowboy who has wasted many a good man…all those notched handles. One can only guess at the miracles she could wreak if she were to join the “dialogue,” favoring it with her noticeable gravitas.

She elaborated some more about the prexy in that article: “It was Bush's first appearance as president before the civil rights group. He had turned down five other invitations, letting it be known he didn't really like how the group's leadership portrayed him.” Notice how Ms. Davis didn’t accuse Bush of being “uppity” because he was a no-show for five years or how she didn’t accuse him of being “snobbish” because he didn’t like what NAACP Chairman Julian Bond said in July 2001: "[Bush] has selected nominees from the Taliban wing of American politics, appeased the wretched appetites of the extreme right wing, and chosen Cabinet officials whose devotion to the Confederacy is nearly canine in its uncritical affection." Folk might accuse Bond of being racist, but not Ms. Davis. She didn’t even call Bush a cowboy or gunslinger…with those notched handles.

Ms. Davis further complimented the prez on July 25: “We've heard promises before that disappear off political radar right after votes are counted.” Well…okay, that was a sort of backhanded compliment, since she actually did sound a bit racist in suggesting that the non-strutting, non-gunslinging non-cowboy had been a liar up to that point. Cut her some slack, though, and just mark that slip-up to a bit of unexpectedly ripe rutabega in the potato salad.

There was a puzzlement, however, in that July 25 column. Concerning the voting habits of African Americans, she said, “It's a Pavlovian reaction, a learned thing, a conditioned response, a reason a majority of black folks -- who are by and large conservative -- don't vote Republican.” Her reason for that statement accrued to the actions of a handful of republicans who didn’t vote to suit her on the recent Civil-Rights renewal bill that passed both houses of a republican-managed Congress. The Senate vote was 98-0 and the House vote came in at 390-33, so the Pavlovian reaction naturally beset the black community on such a close vote as that, actually a combined 480-33.

Ivan Petrovich Pavlov, Russian physiologist/psychologist/physician (1849-1936), performed experiments on dogs, causing them to salivate under certain programmed circumstances. The phrase "Pavlov's dog" is often used to describe someone who merely reacts to a situation rather than uses critical thinking. So…Ms. Davis seemed to say that blacks are “Pavlov’s Dogs,” too dumb to recognize the scope of a super-landslide plurality like that. That would have been a racist remark, except that Ms. Davis is African-American and has every right in the world to talk about her own folk in any way she pleases. That makes the salad all lettuce! But…what if some white Anglo-Saxon Protestant male had said that? Whew…back to the old “melting pot,” and soon!