My Dog-Whistle Problem, and Yours

Rocky Yagoda

During an interview last September with CNN’s Soledad O’Brien, the Tea Party activist Amy Kremer said she doubted whether Barack Obama “loves America. … I think he is more about a global, being a, oh, what’s the word? Being more one-world, global, with, you know, other countries, and it’s not about the shining city on the hill, the greatness that has always been America, that our founding fathers were about.”

“I just never understand what any of that has to do with loving the nation,” O’Brien said. “Honestly, I just feel like that’s a code word for something else.”

“I just don’t believe that he loves America the way that we do,” Kremer responded.

The activist’s comments, O’Brien said later, seemed to her a “dog whistle.”

When an actual dog whistle is blown, dogs hear a loud, piercing sound, while humans hear only a faint hissing. Thus the extremely popular metaphor dog-whistle politics, invoked by O’Brien and many others in regard to the 2012 campaign. Wikipedia’s crowds have wrought a nice definition: “political messaging employing coded language that appears to mean one thing to the general population but has an additional, different or more specific resonance for a targeted subgroup.”

Back in 2005, the redoubtable William Safire did some detective work on the metaphor and determined that it originated in Australia in the 1990s. Interestingly, a 1997 article in The Australian incorrectly attributed it to us, referring to the Aussie “government’s social policies—dog-whistle politics, as the Americans have termed it.” Although there is evidence that the metaphor was used by American opinion-pollers in the 80s, it didn’t  make its name in U.S. politics until the 2004 presidential campaign. At one point, George W. Bush pledged not to appoint in his second term the kind of Supreme Court justice who made the (1857) Dred Scott decision, which was, of course, overturned. That was taken to be a signal to the base that he’d appoint justices ready and willing to overturn Roe v. Wade. David Kirkpatrick wrote in The New York Times: “The potential double meaning rekindled speculation among Mr. Bush’s critics that he communicates with his conservative Christian base with a dog-whistle of code words and symbols, deliberately incomprehensible to secular liberals.”

We get the metaphors we deserve, and dog whistle is used so much because there’s so much dog-whistling going on. But allow me some pedantic nit-picking granular analysis. I remember being at my mother’s knee in the 1960s and hearing her say that “states’ rights” was a “code word” for being anti-black and anti-Civil Rights. Soledad O’Brien herself used the older expression in the exchange quoted above, and the Wikipedia definition for dog whistle applies equally well to code word. Dog whistle has prevailed because it’s a really vivid metaphor, and thus fitter in the Darwinian pitch of linguistic evolution.

But I’ve found it fruitful, lately, to think about political dog-whistling of a different sort. I refer to non-code-word, noncynical—dare I say “sincere”?—dog whistling. In our current politics, the degree to which different sides truly can’t hear what the other side is saying is so profound that their opponents might as well be blowing through dog whistles.

For me, this is most evident in the gun-control debate. After the Newtown massacre, liberals like me had the immediate reaction that now is the time when we really, really have to pass strict gun-control laws, especially on assault rifles. The people on the other side had a very different reaction. They bought guns, especially assault rifles. The FBI reported a record number of background checks in both November—when Obama was re-elected—and December, when Newtown happened. In an article titled “Gun-buying binge is on,” an Albany newspaper reported one local dealer’s  sales volume increased tenfold “after Newtown,” and remains high.

When the buyers talk about their motivations, our side hears them clinging to their guns and religion, we hear fears about brown-skinned and other scary people encroaching on their world, and we hear a gun-centered pathology that is incomprehensible to us. But there is also a faint hissing sound. A dog whistle.

Here is where the metaphor breaks down. Because I am a human, when an actual dog whistle blows, I will never be able to hear what my dog, Rocky, is hearing. But also because I am a human, I can use evidence and induction to try to figure out why an individual, upon hearing about a gun massacre, would go out and buy an assault weapon. Yes yes, clinging; yes yes, fear. But (I learn by listening and observing) also the probably correct calculation that, since stricter gun control is a strong possibility, now is a good time to buy. And also—picking up a fainter signal now—a fear not just of brown-skinned people, but of Adam Lanza as well.

What these people are thinking, and saying, is that because of events like Newtown, they and their families will be safer to the extent they have the most powerful guns and ammo. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” in the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre’s formulation. I think that is profoundly shortsighted and wrong. But to the extent that I refuse to hear it, or dismiss it as crazy and/or evil, I will be dog-whistling to the other side, and this vexing matter will continue to go around and around like—another aural metaphor!—a broken record.



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