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ONE SHOT LEARNING
Empty suit in the White House

By John Steinberg | RAW STORY COLUMNIST

I recently stumbled upon a website that pulled together a number of fascinating optical illusions and visual phenomena. Each is accompanied by a discussion of the physical and neurological reasons why, for example, observers are likely to see things that are not there, or not see things that are.

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As I watched with amazement the events in New Orleans and the President’s tanking polls, one of the examples there came back to me. When first looking at this image (go ahead, look now – nothing else about this piece will make much sense without it), most people see an abstract jumble of black and white areas. Even the hint that the image includes a Dalmatian may not help you to make sense of the picture. The site includes “help” buttons that show where the dog is and give some contextual clues about how to see it.

The interesting thing about this exercise is the one-way, binary nature of our ability to interpret the image. As best as this non-shrink can tell, the phenomenon is called “one-shot learning.” (It also seems to be closely related to the concept of Gestalt, which in this context means “The perceptual process of separating figure and ground to create an overall visual understanding of an image.”) The basic idea is that, although you might stare at the picture for quite some time without seeing it, once you do see the Dalmatian, you can’t not see it, and no matter how many times you go back and look at it, you’ll never not see it again. You can’t put the perceptual toothpaste back in the tube.

That, I submit, is precisely what is happening with the public’s perception of George W. Bush.

September 11 created a fluid, ambiguous situation in which Karl Rove was able to convince millions of Americans that their President was a strong and capable leader. For another four years, the Administration carefully protected Bush’s image by avoiding situations that might reveal his manifold shortcomings, especially his complete inability to think on his feet. His public appearances were carefully scripted and controlled. Press conferences were virtually eliminated, replaced by photo ops and leaks from “unidentified sources.” Similarly, plans such as the gutting of Social Security and the skewing of the tax code to favor the wealthy were carefully framed by the President’s handlers to obscure their effects and disguise their beneficiaries. And the “war President” meme was endlessly reinforced through constant display of the symbols of power and military might draped extensively behind him (think “Mission Accomplished” splashed across an aircraft carrier) and on him (think jump suit and Bush’s plethora of other pseudo-uniforms).

This largely visual phenomenon was amazingly effective, fooling most of the people most of the time. There were hints – tell-all books from high government officials such as Richard Clark and Paul O’Neill described the President as a “blind man in a room full of deaf people,” but millions of people dismissed these damning portraits as sour grapes, or took no notice at all. Rumors circulated about Bush’s disengaged, disinterested mind and his abrasive, belittling personal style, but gained no traction. There were abundant signs of the bubble Bush chose to live in, and the vacuum of objective information that became his aura, but millions of Americans stared, uncomprehending.

For some of us, of course, the Dalmatian snapped into view when Dubya sat in that Florida classroom reading “My Pet Goat.” For others, it was Bush’s clueless bike ride while an unidentified aircraft threatened the White House, or his tone-deaf handling of every aspect of the bloody quagmire in Iraq. For Cindy Sheehan, the one shot was the one that killed her son. But millions of Americans preserved their “if wishes were horses” worldview by resolutely avoiding solving the puzzle.

No more. Millions of Americans finally “got it” when they saw Bush’s utterly incompetent and empathy-free response to Katrina. The fact that Katrina has been a Gestalt moment for a whole new group of Americans is plain in the specifics of recent polls. Bush’s tanking poll numbers show little change among Democrats. But they do show a significant recent drop in support from what was once the conservative core of his constituency.

That even some right-wingers finally get it is evidenced by a comment made last week on HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher.” The token conservative on the panel was American Enterprise Institute guy James Glassman. (You may remember him from that prescient book, published only a few months before the beginning of the dot-bomb implosion, “Dow 36,000.”) In general, Glassman toed the party line, as you might expect. But he did make the offhand concession that President Bush was not very good in a crisis. He said it as if he was discussing a flaw in Dubya’s tennis game, but in his heart of hearts, he must understand the magnitude of that concession. Having someone who can take charge in a crisis is pretty much the most important reason to have a chief executive in the first place. Glassman will keep shilling for Bush because he likes his regressive, budget-busting tax cuts, but I’ll bet he sees the Dalmatian, and though he may not know it yet, he’s going to see it every time Bush stumbles, every time he butchers the English language, and every time he displays his breathtaking, arrogant ignorance.

If one-shot learning is indeed taking place, Bush’s poll numbers are not coming back. Once reality blocks the efficacy of Karl Rove’s pixie dust, you can no longer not see what an empty suit Bush is. Indeed, once the spell is broken, the artifice used to maintain the illusion is likely to offend where once it enthralled. And perhaps, if we are really lucky, people will grow a little more resistant to the cynical legerdemain of an optical illusion masquerading as President.

John Steinberg bloviates regularly @ www.bluememe.blogspot.com.

 



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