Fool us once….

We said we were done talking about the referenda and we are, for the most part, but the debate over C & D gives us a really great opportunity to talk about propaganda, which is after all one of our core themes. One of the more prominent terms in the debate is the “ratchet effect,” and it is a nearly perfect example of propaganda technique.

It is so close to perfect that we were blinded to some of the deeper implications. The “ratchet effect” became a central theme of the pro-C&D campaign. Judging by the comments, we did a pretty good job of explaining it, and why it was a “red-herring” issue. But we were fooled to the extent that we accepted the “ratchet effect” or “ratcheting down” of state earnings as a valid issue. In fact, it is a very clever “straw man” argument set up by some very skilled propagandists.

A rachet is a simple mechanical device which allows something to move in one direction only.
ratchet Looking at the drawing, when the ratchet wheel rotates counterclockwise, the end of the pawl slides over the tip of a tooth and drops into the notch behind it. The wheel is free to rotate counterclockwise, and you might hear or feel a clicking sound as the pawl drops into each slot. But try to rotate the wheel clockwise, and the tip of the pawl comes up against an obstruction, which stops the rotation.

One of the most familiar ratchets is a socket wrench. It is a reversible ratchet, allowing rotation in either direction, but only one way at a time.

Mechanical devices are often used as metaphors, in everyday English as well as in politics. Usually there is a direct relationship between function of the device and the activity that is being described. In business, for example, we might say that it is necessary to “ratchet our expenses down.” This is an excellent metaphor because we are going to reduce our expenses in relatively small steps, in ways that prevent or at least impede movement in the other direction.

The “ratcheting down” of state spending which “needs” to be countered by C&D is an invalid metaphor, because state spending can go up or down depending on the previous year. It is precisely because there is no ratchet effect that spending can go up or down. OK, here’s where it starts to get interesting (at least to a student of propaganda). The effect of C&D, if passed, will be to create a ratchet effect on state spending, not eliminate one! C&D would allow state spending to go up, and only up.

Historically, one of the most well-documented propaganda techniques is “projection.” You identify your own faults or weaknesses, and project them in exaggerated form onto your opponent. The technique can be identified in one form or another in most political campaigns, but sometimes it is pretty subtle. The subtlety in the “ratchet down” issue is in the positioning of the argument, and the emotional connotations. By the “positioning of the argument” we mean the way we jumped right into debate over whether C&D would “correct” the “ratcheting down,” which was itself taken as fact. The official voters’ guide (the Blue Book) even had a chart showing the “ratchet down” effect as part of the factual background of the issue.

The emotional subtext is equally interesting– the word “ratchet” has an extremely negative connotation in many usages. Who could forget Louise Fletcher’s portrayal of the tyrant Nurse Ratchet in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? Nurse Ratchet has become a metaphor for tyranny; if you google “Nurse Ratchet” you will find around 24 thousand hits. And she is fifth on the American Film Institute‘s list of the 50 all-time greatest movie villains, behind only Hannibal Lecter (Silence of the Lambs), Norman Bates (Psycho), Darth Vader (Star Wars) and the Wicked Witch of the West (Wizard of Oz). Only guess what– there was no Nurse Ratchet in either Kesey’s book or the movie. The character was Nurse Ratched, and for that matter, in the text she is almost always referred to as Miss Ratched. Miss Ratched, sounds like “ratchet,” sounds like “ratshit.” This might well have been deliberate, insofar as a ratchet is the primary mechanical component of a torture rack, and “ratshit” is often a synonym of “crazy” (the story takes place in an asylum).

In propaganda terms, the techniques used to promote this one particular viewpoint included the straw man, projection, obfuscation, association, dissimulation, and emotional blackmail. Hit an issue that hard and it’s not surprising that part of an argument escapes critical analysis. The “ratchet effect” is textbook propaganda, worthy of a Goebbels or a Rove.


What do you think? Please enter a comment below.

One Response to “Fool us once….”

  1. Roger D Says:

    I for one always thought it was Nurse Ratchet, but I checked and you are right, as usual. Very interesting. I read a while ago that some government office had decided that some administration stuff had violated the law against government propaganda, but I haven’t heard anything since. What is the law, and what is being done to enforce it? Does it just apply to the federal government or to state governments too?

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