Monday, November 24, 2008

Racist dog-whistles

The past election campaign helped restore the concept of the "racist dog-whistle" to the public debate, for better or worse. Some comments by David Gergen some months ago touched on the issue, for example.
"There has been a very intentional effort to paint him as somebody outside the mainstream, other, 'he's not one of us,'" said Gergen, who has worked with White Houses, both Republican and Democrat, from Nixon to Clinton. "I think the McCain campaign has been scrupulous about not directly saying it, but it's the subtext of this campaign. Everybody knows that. There are certain kinds of signals. As a native of the south, I can tell you, when you see this Charlton Heston ad, 'The One,' that's code for, 'he's uppity, he ought to stay in his place.' Everybody gets that who is from a southern background. We all understand that. When McCain comes out and starts talking about affirmative action, 'I'm against quotas,' we get what that's about."
As a fellow native of the South and a Republican, I completely missed the coded message, except for the part about Obama not being "one of us" in the sense that his history and rhetoric are well left of the political mainstream in the United States.

Am I a freak or something? Am I unusually hard of hearing?

I don't think so. Over the course of the year I've seen plenty of buzz about the racist dog-whistles from the left and combined scoffing and perplexity from the right.

Note the commentary from the left and Melissa McEwan:
The dog whistle piques them with something the average person won't see as bigoted, but that the constituency for which they advocate (and/or of which they're a part) will expect them to call out, because they instantly spy it and recognize it for what it is; they've heard the tune of that particular string being plucked their whole lives. Then whoever calls it out is marginalized as a hysteric, over-reactionary, looking to get offended, etc.
The average person doesn't see it as bigoted.

The constituency for which they advocate (and/or of which they're a part) will expect them to call out because they instantly spy it and recognize it for what it is.

If I'm interpreting McEwan correctly, I'm the constituency for which the McCain campaign advocated. But I missed the message and so did the rest of the conservatives to whom I pay attention--unless we're just a bunch of liars (I'm willing to give us the benefit of the doubt). And the average person doesn't get the message anyway. And if the average person doesn't get it then who does?

In McEwan's mind, I'd guess that racist Republicans get the message. Perhaps McEwan thinks a large percentage of Republicans are racist. I don't happen to think so, simply because that is not my experience. But more importantly, I have no evidence that racist Republicans received any such message. The only people that received the message, as far as I can tell, are David Gergen and other people on the left. But for McEwan, I might have thought they were average people in spite of their leftward tilt.

Now an example that hits closer to home.

I've written before about how I like to visit other blogs as well as message boards. Lately I've been having discussions on the Center for Inquiry's message board. The dog-whistle issue recently came up over there, using Rush Limbaugh as an example:
But, did these local guys say anything more tacitly racist than their idol - Rush Limbaugh said when comparing the “backbone of America” Iowa farmers response to their flood with the disaster after the flood in largely black New Orleans? (worth noting that the flood waters in Iowa didn’t leave a city under water):

Limbaugh: I want to know. I look at Iowa, I look at Illinois---I want to see the murders. I want to see the looting. I want to see all the stuff that happened in New Orleans. I see devastation in Iowa and Illinois that dwarfs what happened in New Orleans. I see people working together. I see people trying to save their property...I don’t see a bunch of people running around waving guns at helicopters, I don’t see a bunch of people running shooting cops. I don’t see a bunch of people raping people on the street. I don’t see a bunch of people doing everything they can...whining and moaning---where’s FEMA, where’s BUSH. I see the heartland of America. When I look at Iowa and when I look at Illinois, I see the backbone of America.

Am I not supposed to be one of the ones who hears the dog-whistle? I frankly didn't get it. If New Orleans is the independent/cooperative region and Iowa and Illinois are the source of nanny-state dysfunction then is the example therefore anti-white racism? Is that a useful way to detect racism?

Or perhaps I should say, is that an accurate way to detect racism?

So to that portion of the post, I responded:
Eh? What’s racist about that? Try to be specific.
The far-left Balak stepped in to help:
Jesus made the deaf to hear, but apparently forgot to include dogwhistles.
Miracles aside, how does one rationally detect a dog-whistle communication, I wondered?


You perfectly illustrate the bankruptcy the racial thinking of many.

In Limbaugh’s statement, there is no mention of race at all.

By analogy, let’s suppose that I interview two job candidates. Candidate A has an excellent resume and references and interviews well. Candidate B has a poor resume and lacks critical skills required for the position for which he applied. Plus candidate B interviewed horribly.

I hire candidate A and not candidate B.

If candidate B is black, then apparently I am a racist.
Am I also a racist if I hire candidate B instead of candidate A?

Limbaugh’s comparison concerned patterns of behavior, not race. The comparison to job qualifications is apt.

Back to workingprogress:
This is why you don’t want to discuss the previous article exposing the rabble-rousing techniques of talkradio hosts - the refugees in New Orleans were mostly black, and every listener to his show can make the comparison between the response of blacks and whites to flooding! Since Limbaugh didn’t bother to point out the extenuating circumstances such as the numbers of people trapped on their rooftops for days on end in New Orleans, or crammed into the Superdome for several days, it doesn’t take a codebreaker to follow the trail of breadcrumbs to his implicit conclusion that blacks are naturally lazy, immoral and violent!.........and it’s worth pointing out that this is an example of how hate-speech can discreetly dodge any rules as long as the host uses careful language and doesn’t shoot off his mouth like an idiot, such as Michael Savage or Don Imus!
Comparing the response to flooding in the two regions is racist unless you point out the supposed extenuating circumstances. I thought the extenuating circumstance was dependence on the government.

Balak returned to the fray:


I should apologize for using the term ‘dog whistle’, as Bryan is evidently unfamiliar with it.

Perhaps we can improve his understanding using the famous words of Lee Atwater. Atwater was the political architect of Nixon’s racist ‘Southern Strategy’ during the late 1960s… (The technique has been effectively used by both wings of the Property Party ever since, and is a staple fare for Limbaugh and all the other right-wing talkers).

ATWATER: “You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘N-----r, n-----r, n-----r,’ ”By 1968, you can’t say ‘n-----r’ — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things, and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.”

I'm customarily drawn to the use of quotations in argument, since I see them so often taken out of context. This one was no exception, as Atwater went on to say that the latter issues were so abstract that they do away with racism. It ends up sounding like a sound and ethical political strategy used to lure Southern Democrats (the party of slavery). I should note that the strategy does not do away with the racism of voters. Rather the message dispenses with racism. Balak had used Atwater's words to argue the opposite, that the message itself carries that altered-frequency message of racism.

The discussion thread devolved from there into personal attacks after I quoted Atwater without editing out the offensive "n" word.

The dog-whistle. The average person doesn't hear it. Atwater argued that "racist" issues, once abstracted down to taxes and state rights and the like, emptied the message of racism. So what of the supposedly racist messages? Some people, such as Gergen, apparently hear the messages. If Atwater is correct, then how does that work?

Melissa McEwan offered a clue during her discussion of McCain's Spears/Hilton ad, even if in a rather clueless way:
Obama, dog whistles the ad, hitting old racists in the sweet spot, could (have sex with) these white girls – it's practically a Democratic tradition … JFK, Clinton, heck even Carter lusted in his heart – and we don't want that, now, do we?
If the ad communicates the idea that Obama could have sex with Britney Spears and/or Paris Hilton, then that thought cannot have been far from the viewer's mind in the first place, from what I can tell. Perhaps some enterprising scientist should devise an experiment to see whether the ad was capable of eliciting that type of response.

But let's suppose that the message could occur on some like basis. "Mr. Davis," an old racist, thinks he doesn't want Obama sleeping with white chicks after he sees the ad, leaving alone for now that ads aired by Obama featuring the candidate in the company of white women might well have the same effect.

Where the message is abstract, as Atwater noted, the supposedly racist message depends entirely on the subjective impression of the recipient.

For me, this explains the dog-whistle phenomenon with elegant simplicity. The "coded" message isn't really there at all. But subjectively inclined persons can receive the message anyway. Mr Davis gets it because he's always thinking that he doesn't want black dudes with white chicks anyway. Melissa McEwan gets it because of course Republicans are racists and of course they campaign like this.

Don't they?

It's just another front in the battle over words. If people like McEwan get can you believing that McCain ads juxtaposing images of Spears and Obama are racist, then you're just hearing a different note on the dog whistle.

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