Dog Whistles


The dog whistle. That term is used a lot these days in political punditry; sometimes, it’s way over-used. It usually references coded language “conservative” politicians use to denigrate minorities or the socially marginalized and rile up animosities among their typically white, conservative base. And while they’d loathe to admit it, white liberal politicians do it too. The dog whistle accusation is not always convincing, as was the case, this morning, in a opinion piece responding to comments by Chuck Todd and David Brooks last Sunday on “Meet the Press.” They were questioning the perception of President Obama’s “manhood” in the Middle East. The columnist – Paul Rosenberg –  went to great lengths to discuss how that discussion responded to a perception of “black male aggression” and Obama’s political instinct to counter that perception. But, while the “Meet the Press” conversation was over-the-top, trying to read into the discussion anything about a perception of “black male aggression” is an incredible leap of the imagination. In the end, Rosenberg was blowing the liberal version of a political dog whistle himself to rile up the liberal base, but without adding anything of substance to the conversation.

It would be absurd, of course, to deny that politicians and political pundits don’t use coded language to cover stirring up racial animosity, just like it would be absurd to think that they don’t use coded language to diminish women or demonize socially marginal sexual orientations, or blame the poor for their own poverty to assuage economic fears among the middle class. These things happen. But calling those dogs whistles out doesn’t involve trying to find them where they’re not. Rather, they need to be called out for what they are when they are being used and the their source identified. That would make for a more substantive conversation.

I say all that because I’d been thinking about the use of those dog whistles for awhile. It’s easy to point out when a politician or pundit is using one.  You can even energize your base by pointing out when your opponent is dead wrong. But the unspoken truth – at least in popular discourse – is that politicians and pundits wouldn’t use dog whistles if they didn’t work. That the dog whistles do work points to a deeper discussion about what kind of society we are. I read an interesting report on a recent study awhile back about the differences in how the brains of conservatives and liberals process information. It’s an interesting read; maybe more so if you’re a neuropsychologist. The scientists who did the study readily admits the study doesn’t establish causality, only a correlations between conservative beliefs and how conservatives process things like “fear” and “disgust.” Whatever the case, conservatives are more prone to recoil at things they fear or don’t like. So much for being “manly.”

But I think that study, as interesting as it is, isn’t thinking deeply enough about the social dynamics that are impacting our politics. As I mentioned, before, conservatives aren’t the only ones who can be racist. White liberals might be less inclined to fear the “angry black man”; but can be equally apt to embrace preconceptions about why black people are marginalized, preconceptions divorced from causal experiences black people, themselves, would identify. Liberals might not recoil at having a conversation with a gay man, but are equally good at forming strange notions of how a gay man is supposed to act. Liberals usually won’t be outright cruel to a poor person, but are just as likely as their conservative counterparts to try to analyze what it is about the poor person that is causing their poverty. And former-President Bill Clinton is ample evidence that conservative men don’t have a monopoly on objectifying women.

I think Pope Francis hit the nail on the head when he said we’ve lost our ability to empathize; that ability to see another human being as a personal subject with their own needs, ideas and aspirations. To be honest, though, I’m not sure we ever really did have that as an American culture. From very early on in our history, we put great stock into the myth of the “rugged individual”; that a person makes it or fails on their own based solely on their personal strength and will to succeed. We early on elevated that myth to the point where we concealed how we succeed together by working together and contributing collectively for the common benefit. From the beginning we owned slaves and we dispossessed others from their land. Later, we allowed robber barons to take absolute control over the our economy and political machines and treat their workers like property (even arguing as much in Supreme Court cases). Even when workers began coming together and pushing back, it’s not at all clear that theirs was an authentic solidarity that recognized the subjective dignity of the human person, so much as it was a solidarity of power moved by individual self-interest actualized in a movement. Unions formed, but union members were very jealous about who could join.

All of those things and more underpinned the social consciousness of our Democratic experiment in America. There has been this constant tension between trying to stabilize our own individual places in society, while imagining progressive development. It seems some of those tensions are coming to a head, today, in a way they haven’t before. In the meanwhile, we have a minority of the population willing to leverage the chaos to steal our democracy – or, at least, our economy – out from under us. We have to respond to that minority. But we also have to confront our socio-historical demons honestly if we’re going to really resolve America’s social and economic crises today.


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