That wasn’t a whistle (and everyone knows it wasn’t the dog)

That wasn’t a whistle (and everyone knows it wasn’t the dog) March 10, 2016

Back when Michael Gerson was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush, he used to sprinkle little bits of evangelicalese into the president’s remarks. These mostly went unnoticed by others, but evangelical Christians picked up on the subtle nods in their direction. This strengthened Bush’s appeal with evangelical voters while avoiding more explicitly sectarian language that might have been off-putting to others.

In his 2003 State of the Union address, for example, Bush said: “There is power — wonder-working power — in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people.” Evangelicals recognized that allusion to a favorite gospel hymn* and responded with the same kind of delight comic-book fans have when their subculture is acknowledged with a passing hat-tip or Easter egg in big-budget superhero movie. Fan-service like this makes the fans feel included, and it makes them feel like the speaker is one of them.

This use of subcultural language that might go unnoticed by the rest of the population came to be called “dog-whistling.” It was an apt analogy. Dog whistles produce a high-frequency noise that’s beyond the range of human hearing. We humans can’t hear it, but dogs can. You can blow a dog whistle in a crowded park and none of the humans there will notice a thing, but you’ll have the attention of every dog in the area.

Over time, this “dog-whistling” metaphor came to be applied to any use of coded political language intended to appeal to a particular sub-culture. Thus where Bush’s “wonder-working power” was a form of dog-whistling to evangelical voters, another politician’s references to “states’ rights” or “law and order” was referred to as a form of dog-whistling to white racist voters.

But here the analogy with an actual dog whistle doesn’t work. A dog whistle sends a clear signal to one group — the “dogs” who alone are capable of hearing it — but to everyone else it makes no noise and goes unnoticed. Bush’s dog-whistling to evangelical voters included signals that only they would pick up on, but those little snippets of churchy-talk didn’t change the meaning of what he was otherwise saying. His little allusions gave his words additional resonance for evangelical listeners, but apart from that little pat on the head, they weren’t being told anything different from what the rest of the electorate heard.

But the so-called dog-whistling to white racists doesn’t work like that. This kind of coded language is nothing like a dog whistle, because everyone can hear it and everyone can understand it. Everyone knows exactly what it means. When former Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo appealed to segregationist white voters with talk of “law and order” and getting “tough” on crime, everybody knew he was talking about keeping black people subordinate and marginalized. When President Ronald Reagan spoke of “states’ rights” or railed against “welfare queens” and “strapping young bucks” buying “T-bone steaks” with food stamps, no one was left scratching their heads trying to puzzle out what he meant by that.

These aren’t dog whistles. They’re dog farts. Which is to say they’re attempts to blame a fart on the dog when everyone knows it was you who just broke wind.

That ploy never really fools anybody, but it provides a thin buffer of semi-plausible deniability. We all know it wasn’t the dog, but when you loudly say, “Good Lord, pooch, what did you just do?” and direct everyone’s attention to the innocent creature, the dog will respond in some doggy fashion, doing something with its eyes, ears and tail that might be interpreted as indicating guilt, or relief, or shameless pleasure. (Like the bit with Crab in Two Gentlemen of Verona, it doesn’t really matter what the dog does — the scene works regardless.)

K.T. Vogt as Launce and Picasso as Crab the dog in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's 2014 production of "The Two Gentlemen of Verona." (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)
K.T. Vogt as Launce and Picasso as Crab the dog in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2014 production of “The Two Gentlemen of Verona.” (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Bush’s evangelical dog whistles were coded language in the sense that his allusions were only perceptible to a particular sectarian audience. But the coded language of racist dog-farting can be heard — and smelled — by everyone alike. It’s “coding” has nothing to do with perceptibility, but with a pretense of deniability.

In other words, unlike dog-whistling, dog-farting is not about signaling only one particular group. It’s about signaling everyone — a promise to some, a threat to others — while still being able to semi-plausibly claim that you’re innocent of saying the awful thing you just deliberately said.

Part of that deniability, oddly, includes an effort to deny the evident meaning of those awful promises and threats even to yourself. This is the really tricky bit, because you know better than anyone else that the dog is not to blame, and so it requires terrific mental gymnastics for part of your brain to semi-convince the rest of it to ignore what it knows with first-person certainty. But this is also the really essential bit — the most important reason that this dog-farting language has to be coded and the slender pretense of innocence needs to be maintained.

John Ehrlichman — the former Eagle Scout who went to prison for Watergate — saw this. He urged President Richard Nixon to adapt the coded dog-farting language of “law and order” because it would appeal to a white racist voter while allowing him to “avoid admitting to himself that he was attracted by a racist appeal.”**

The misapplied “dog-whistling” metaphor has surfaced a lot lately from observers noting that Donald Trump is going beyond the coded language of earlier white conservatives like Rizzo or Reagan or Gingrich. Trump isn’t “dog-whistling,” they say — he’s just explicitly stating the promises and threats that the earlier coded language had conveyed implicitly.

Here I think the more accurate analogy of dog-farting presents a clearer picture. “That wasn’t me, that was the dog,” those earlier politicians said, providing a slippery toehold of deniability that allowed their audience to “avoid admitting to themselves that they were attracted by a racist appeal.” But Trump just proudly lets it rip. “Good one!” he says, smiling. “Pull my finger, let’s do it again!”

Yes, that makes him a repugnant gasbag, but that doesn’t distinguish or separate him from Gingrich, Reagan and the rest. Everybody already knew they were doing the same thing. We all knew it wasn’t the dog.

Trump’s willingness to dispense with polite propriety is part of what makes him appealing to those who find him appealing. He doesn’t much care about deniability, so he’s not as careful about maintaining the false pretenses that preserved it. That seems to work for a big chunk of his supporters, who seem giddily relieved and liberated to at last be able to make their promises and threats openly. This has been disturbing and frightening to behold.

But I think there’s probably another big chunk of white voters who needed that pretense of deniability. I think Ehrlichman was correct. A lot of white voters will happily go along with racist appeals and a racist agenda, but only if they’re allowed to blame it on the dog — only if they’re provided with some fig-leaf that allows them to “avoid admitting to themselves” that that’s what they’re doing. We can see these folks desperately lashing out with invocations of Andrew Johnson or Woodrow Wilson or a pre-Senate Robert Byrd because they need to convince themselves that they’re not doing what they’re doing. (In white evangelical circles, this is the function of all those legends about and misquotations of Margaret Sanger.) These folks are now rallying behind Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio — candidates who will allow them to support all the same policies Trump is advocating, but without disturbing the pretense of dog-farting deniability.

From a certain angle, there’s something hopeful in that. The desperate need for deniability is like the little blip on the cardiac monitor that tells us their conscience isn’t dead. And the more Trump tramples on the old pretense of deniability, the more that conscience will be exposed — leaving it vulnerable and more susceptible to challenge, appeal, pleading, plucking, and persuasion.

The coded language of racist dog-farting has deadlocked our politics for a generation. We’ve been stuck in this perpetual dance of deniability. That deniability has prevented us from having to honestly confront who we are, and thus has prevented us from forthrightly asking who it is that we want to be. Finally being able to ask that question, and to answer it honestly, might allow us to move forward. (Or, of course, to move backward. But I’m trying to be hopeful here.)

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* Some of us heard that and wondered if appropriating that language wasn’t also borderline blasphemy, equating “the goodness of the American people” with “the precious blood of the Lamb.”

If you aren’t familiar with the song, “Power in the Blood” was written by Lewis Edgar Jones in 1899. Here’s Dolly doing it justice. And here’s a nice version by Buddy Greene for a star-studded Nashville audience. (Neither of them does the fun bit where you try to squeeze in extra “pow’rs” with every verse — “There is pow’r, pow’r, pow’r, pow’r, pow’r, pow’r, pow’r, pow’r, wonder-working pow’r …” — which was part of why I loved this song as a kid and maybe still do even though, like most Southern Gospel, it offers a problematic theology.)

OK, a few more. Here’s Andrae Crouch in 1984, with a band that includes Alex Acuña. And here’s Shirley Caesar. And Ashley Cleveland. And hold up, Alexis Spight wanna do somethin’ different.

Since this footnote has already wandered far afield from the main point of this post, I’ll just throw this out there, too: the Statler Brothers start their rendition with a verse that Crouch, Caesar, Parton, et. al., left out, one that begins “Would you be whiter, much whiter than snow.” That’s a reference to Isaiah 1:18, but it takes on a certain … let’s say resonance in their Southern Gospel arrangement. The ancient prophet didn’t have any of the cultural constructs or racial referents for whiteness that we have today, but I think the past five centuries of European and American history may have ruined that once-lovely verse for the foreseeable future.

** That’s from Dan T. Carter’s From George Wallace to New Gingrich, which I have not read. I got it from the first draft of older daughter’s research paper exploring the racial politics of Frank Rizzo and Philadelphia public housing. It’s fascinating, sometimes jaw-droppingly appalling, stuff.

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