Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Dog-Whistling Down the Wind

So a friend used this term, dog-whistle, the other day.  It’s been around for some time, but I evidently missed it.  If you missed it too, check this out:
(Government, Politics & Diplomacy) relating to the targeting of potentially controversial messages to specific voters while avoiding offending those voters with whom the message will not be popular: dog-whistle politics.
(Government, Politics & Diplomacy) (intr) to employ this kind of political strategy
[C21: from the fact that a dog whistle operates at frequencies that can be heard only by dogs]

Donald Trump (Tom Pennington/Getty)
Here’s an excerpt from a 2012 article by G. Murphy Donovan:

“A dog whistle makes a sound or sends a command that only a canine can hear. A rhetorical dog whistle is a coded message for select listeners, usually the politically correct. Euphemism is the breath that blows rhetorical dog whistles. A few examples suffice to make the point.

"Affirmative action" usually means racial or gender quotas. "Revenue" usually means taxes. Calling "addiction" sickness is a dog whistle that allows drunks and addicts to think they are ill, not irresponsible. Glaucoma treatment has become a dog whistle for legalizing pot. "Title IX" is a dog whistle that signals football and basketball to carry all those sports that don't pay their own way -- or subsidize sports that nobody wants to watch anyway. "Nation building" is a dog whistle that summons Soldiers and Marines to do social work. And goals like "stability" or "transition," in their strategic incarnations, usually signal retreat or defeat. You get the idea! 

Dog whistles are a way of life in politics. Plain speaking is dangerous, not the way to get reelected in a democracy. The most pernicious political dog whistles are used for national security and economic matters.

In the Mid-East, the "two-state solution" is a dog whistle. Those trills call the West to pander to, or appease; Arabs in particular and Muslims in general. We are led to believe that the UN actually needs more members; especially a Palestinian state, another Muslim basket case. Never mind that there are in fact three Arab claimants; Hezb'allah, Hamas, and Fatah.  None of these represent all Palestinians, or are reconciled to each other, to say nothing of Israel. With which of the three Arab border thugs is Israel supposed to make a suicide pact? Real arithmetic is inaudible in the "two" state whistle.

And speaking of bad numbers, international economic dog whistles are perennials.   Karl Marx and Maynard Keynes are still blowing from the grave. The socialist dog whistle calls for justice, but really signals an attack on success and wealth -- as if economic equality were not an affront to history and common sense anyway.  And the Keynesian whistle would have government provide what the market will not; subsidies, bailouts, stimuli, and deficit spending. Where Marx and Keynes merge, the whistles might even hurt a dog's ears.”

"Say What!?" source
So, dog whistles…  This is a new concept for me; I am generally speaking, not a political animal.  But that is changing.  For instance I want to know more about this topic of dog whistles.  Unless I learn this stuff, how can I have a chance of understanding what these politicians are actually saying?

"The nature of lies is to please.... Truth has no concern for anyone's comfort." -- Catherine Dunn

True.  And that’s just sad.  I suppose there are those who feel that being hip to all these coded messages and double-talk make them smarter, cooler, better.  But I prefer plain speaking.  Language that means exactly what it says. 

Too bad for me…  As one of my friends keeps insisting, “That’s not the way it’s done.” 

Hillary Clinton  source

So chew on this article for awhile:
Political Dog-whistles Don’t Have an Off-Switch for the Dog-whistle Part

crookedtimber.org  by John Holbo on December 2, 2012
Jonah Goldberg : “If the GOP wants to win more black votes, it will need to get a lot more ‘racist.’” 

Yes, if there’s one thing black voters are waiting for, that might bring them back into the warm embrace of the GOP, it’s the enticing prospect of attending an endless pity party with a ‘liberals – and blacks! – have wrongly accused the GOP of racism’ theme. 

 (Because, after all, the Davis-Bacon Act was totally racist!) But Charles Murray gave Goldberg a run for his money, in the anti-Dale Carnegie sweepstakes, with his hypothesis that the reason Asians don’t flock to the Republican Party is that, as a group, they have a ‘ludicrously inaccurate’ view of … well, of political reality.

Goldberg and Murray – and others I could mention – are casting about for a way for the GOP to win over minorities without saying ‘sorry’. Indeed, they are looking for a way to win over minorities while saying ‘you’re welcome!’ in an aggrieved, long-suffering sort of way (this white man’s burden hasn’t been lifting itself, y’know!) 

Lee Atwater  source
Let’s take it back to Lee Atwater, since the audio of his most famous interview was recently unearthed, in full. We’ve all read this bit, because it gets quoted a lot:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
Listening to the full audio, it’s striking the degree to which Atwater clearly thinks he is showing how the race problem is going, going, gone. He thinks the fact that ‘we want to cut this’ is highly abstract, and ‘blacks get hurt more than whites’ is only a by-product, is enough to establish that the race stuff has really been left behind in favor of color-blind economic self-interest. The idea seems to be that you can scrub racism with a compound of plausible deniability and the doctrine of double-effect. Or it’s an exhausted initial booster stage for the rocket of free market economics. Or some such immaculate conception.

But even if whites at some point, in their sincerest hearts of hearts, want ‘we want to cut this’ to not serve any longer as an in-group/out-group marker (to use the nicest possible term for it) because 1) they have sincerely become less racist and 2) it hurts them at the ballot box, it’s totally unreasonable to expect that out-group members will stop hearing this as dog-whistle ethnocentric signaling, at precisely the convenient moment when it no longer serves the interests of white folks to have it be heard that way. The dog-whistle part doesn’t have an off-switch, so if ‘we want to cut this’ is a dog-whistle, you can’t proposing cutting without dog-whistling.

Be it noted: dog-whistle isn’t a good term for it, although this is the term people tend to use in these cases. There are cases of real dog whistles in politics. I remember reading something about certain turns of phrase Bush used in a speech that were, plausibly, intended to be picked up on by evangelicals, who would associate them with scriptural passages, and with certain interpretations of those passages. All that went over my liberal head. A dog whistle, then. Mostly the stuff I’m talking about – the Lee Atwater stuff – is more like impolite fictions. ‘I know what I mean by ‘let’s cut this’, and you know what I mean, and I know that you know what I mean,’ and so forth. Unstated but mutually recognized in-group/out-group stuff. It actually wouldn’t work if it wasn’t recognized by both sides, because it’s no fun keeping the out-group down if they don’t know you are keeping them down. ‘Dog-whistles’ is the term that gets used for this stuff, however, and the likes of Atwater really do seem to think it works that way: if whites stop intending to message each other in this way, and stop wanting to hear it that way, themselves, no one else will hear it that way, either.

Which is empirically unrealistic. If you have earned people’s distrust, by not saying what you mean, you have extra work to do, convincing people you mean only what you say. If white people have found tribalism an attractive value, for so long, why shouldn’t non-whites find white tribalism to be off-putting, to a comparable degree?

Let’s turn back to the Goldberg piece. I can almost feel sorry for the guy.

And, because Rice is a black woman, well, bla, bla, bla. Racism! Sexism!

Never mind that Republicans haven’t had a white secretary of state since Lawrence Eagleburger concluded his term two decades ago. Never mind that Republicans appointed the first black secretary of state ever (Colin Powell) and the first black female secretary of state ever (Condoleezza Rice, arguably the star of the GOP convention in August). Also, never mind that Rice’s handling of Benghazi — and several other matters — can quite defensibly be dubbed incompetent.

Jonah Goldberg source
Let’s grant, for the sake of argument, that Rice’s handling of Benghazi was plausibly incompetent (I don’t buy it, but suppose.) Problem is: if you have a history of saying abstract things, signaling something else, you have painted yourself into a rhetorical corner when it comes to saying abstractly negative things about Susan Rice and not having black people suspect you are really saying something else. It’s also obvious why Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, etc. do not remove the suspicion that you are trying to paper over your race problem without addressing it.

It might seem unfair that you can’t just be taken at your word, that you get accused of tokenism when you hope appointments of prominent blacks will betoken your good intentions. But, if you don’t like it, build a time machine, go back in time and kill Lee Atwater as a child or something. It’s a bit like whites who complain about the unfairness of being unable to say the n-word – even though every black rapper can! It’s not exactly mysterious how and why this admittedly superficially unfair state of affairs arose, so it’s a bit hard to see who you could complain against, unless it is your own ancestors. (And it’s not as though centuries of chattel slavery, and the lingering effects of all that, have been easy on blacks. So times are tough all over.)

It’s tempting to respond to Murray’s piece by saying, as Dave Weigel does: “Murray treats whites as the logic-based control group, and asks why non-whites don’t approach the vote quite as logically.” 

Indeed, it’s tempting to go further. Asians are, as Murray says, “conspicuously entrepreneurial, industrious, family-oriented, and self-reliant.” So now we can see the degree to which all that leads to Republicanism, when it is separated off from white ethnocentrism. Conclusion: not so much. “If you’re looking for a natural Republican constituency, Asians should define ‘natural.’” Ergo, Republicanism does not have a natural constituency – except insofar as it is a regional ethnocentric party. But, to be fair, it’s reasonable to suppose that if there were a party exactly like the Republican Party, but without all the race baggage – if it were just the party of ‘let’s cut this’ – it would win more minority votes. But how many white votes would it have to lose, to do that?

What would it take for minorities to stop hearing Republican talking points as ethnocentric dog-whistles? Obviously plausible deniability isn’t going to cut it. You can’t just dog-whistle more loudly and hope to drown out the dog-whistling. This is what makes Goldberg and Murray’s lines so manifestly hopeless. Stage a national apology tour, in which Republicans beat their breasts about their bad behavior in the past, beg forgiveness, let bygones be bygones. If Republicans did all that it would probably actually work with minorities. They could wipe the slate clean with tears of regret about all that stuff Lee Atwater talks about.

But obviously nothing of the sort is actually going to happen. The Republican Party would lose the South for a generation. Then gradually the party would grow back into a kind of moderate, New England-style Rockefeller Republicanism, minus the New England flintiness. More of an Asian-Latino fusion thing, maybe. For most Republicans that probably sounds like injury added to the insult of having to say ‘I’m sorry’. But what’s the alternative?

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