It was a routine e-mail from the boss sent to congratulate a junior prosecutor in Houston, Tex., who had won manslaughter convictions against an intoxicated driver.
“He convicted Mr. Sosa of a double intoxication manslaughter, got a weak jury to give him 12 years in each, and then convinced Judge Wallace to stack the sentences,” Harris County assistant district attorney Mike Trent wrote in an office-wide memo. Then came the odd part: “He overcame a subversively good defence by Matt Hennessey that had some Canadians on the jury feeling sorry for the defendant and forced them to do the right thing.”
The e-mail was sent in 2003 but came to light only this month as part of an unrelated controversy with his office, forcing Mr. Trent to defend himself against accusations of bigotry — not because he offended the people of Canada, but because “Canadian” has apparently become a code word for blacks among American racists.
Yassuh, we all be niggers now up here in the Great North. Even us white folks be niggers.
Speaking as a Canadian, I’m not insulted to be lumped in with black folks, any more than they’d be insulted to be lumped in with Canadians (who, after all, inhabit the coolest country on Earth–and the last stop on the Underground Railroad). It’s the racist cowards who can’t call a spade a spade that I’m ashamed to share a race with:
The key to the argument is that Reagan’s success hinged on forging messages to Americans—not just Southern whites, incidentally, but also Catholic blue-collar workers and neoconservative intellectuals—that eschewed explicit racism while still tapping into sublimated resentments of blacks or anger at racially fraught policies like busing, welfare, and crime.
In its simplest form, this multitiered message relied on code words. No one who used the phrase “states’ rights” in living memory of the massive resistance movement against forced desegregation could be unaware of the message of solidarity it sent to Southern whites about civil rights. (The phrase, of course, had been bound up with racism at least since John Calhoun championed it in his defense of slavery in the 1830s.) But because the term also connoted a general opposition to the growth of the federal government’s role in economic life, nonracist whites could comfort themselves that politicians like Nixon and Reagan were using it innocently—and thus shrug off any guilt they might feel for being complicit in racist campaigning. It was a dog whistle to segregationists. In the same vein, Reagan’s use of phrases linked to insidious racial stereotypes—his talk of Cadillac-driving welfare queens, or “young bucks” buying T-bone steaks with food stamps—pandered to bigots while making sure not to alienate voters whom starker language would have scared away.
I dunno ’bout you, but I prefer “starker language”. It lets me know right away where a dickweed really stands, which is important…because you gotta know where they stand in order to be able to kick their kneecaps right out from under them.
Dog-whistle politics is the art of sending coded or implicit messages to a select group of voters while keeping others in the dark. Just as a dog whistle can be heard by dogs but not humans, a dog whistle in politics can be heard by some members of the electorate but not others. Its key feature is plausible deniability: the dog whistler can say “I didn’t mean that, I meant this instead”. And it is usually a divisive or reactionary message that it conceals, one that would risk offending or scandalizing more tolerant voters.
And dog-whistling is a way of life in conservative politics, both in Canada and the States. When Dubya used the bizarre Dred Scott meme in a reference to abortion, he was dog-whistling to his fundie followers. So was Mike Huckabee when he babbled on about a “living god”. Barack Obama’s touring with an anti-gay preacher sure sounds like a dog whistle of some sort to me–one calling the right-wing “moderates” out to play. Ditto his laudatory references to Ronald Reagan (which could also be read as an incredibly tone-deaf tune-out of what ol’ Ronnie was really about).
Of course, dog-whistling is nothing new, even if the term has only been around since ’05. Whenever you heard reference to “states’ rights” in the 1860s, you could be sure that the speaker was a pro-slavery Southerner, sure’s shootin’. In the 1960s under Barry Goldwater, that phrase became code for “nigger, nigger, nigger”–in short, an anti-civil-rights platform. (Coming from Mitt Romney in ’08, though, it means he’s all for reproductive slavery, of black and white women alike.) Likewise, a reference to “political correctness” has long been a dog-whistle from the right, attempting to silence the left when it points out another dog-whistle coming clear out of right field. (This is usually followed by the “free speech” dog-whistle, defending the “right” to be a covert racist, sexist, bigoted, homophobic asshole farting in code.)
Of course, it’s worth pointing out that those who react as the whistler desires to dog whistles…are dogs.
Honestly, y’all, do you want to be lumped in with another race that, unlike black folks, is easy to Pavlovian-condition to drool when a bell rings (or come trotting with a foolish look on the face, tongue hanging out, when a “silent” whistle blows)…and above all, not human?