Several months ago, a liberal Facebook friend started criticizing politicians for communicating with a dog whistle. Although the term first came into use in 1988 in the context of political polling, it only recently came to be oft used by liberals to disparage conservative messages as racist or homophobic. A couple of definitions from two of my favorite resources:
- The Urban Dictionary defines this term as “a type of strategy of communication that sends a message that the general population will take a certain meaning from, but a certain group that is ‘in the know’ will take away the secret, intended message.”
- Wikipedia describes dog-whistle politics as “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. The phrase is only used as a pejorative, because of the inherently deceptive nature of the practice and because the dog-whistle messages are frequently themselves distasteful, for example by empathizing with racist or revolutionary attitudes. It is an analogy to dog whistles, which are built in such a way that their high-frequency whistle is heard by dogs, but is inaudible to humans.”
An article in Politico today provides a perfect example of a conservative politician being attacked by liberals for being racist based on comments that seem unassailable. Former Vice-Presidential candidate Paul Ryan said the following about one of America’s greatest problems:
- “The Wisconsin Republican and self-styled budget wonk linked poverty to ‘this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.’”
But Politico does not think the statement is unassailable:
- “Setting aside the factual claim—the notion that poverty is especially concentrated in America’s inner cities is an increasingly antiquated one—these comments elicited a quick and forceful rebuke from Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who decried them as ‘a thinly veiled racial attack.’ She explained: ‘[W]hen Mr. Ryan says ‘inner city,’ when he says, ‘culture,’ these are simply code words for what he really means: ‘black.’”
Let’s not set aside the factual claim. Politico provides a link to a NY Times article that ostensibly refutes the factual claim, but for readers those who take the time to go to the link, they will find an article that states the following:
- “Few topics in American society have more myths and stereotypes surrounding them than poverty, misconceptions that distort both our politics and our domestic policy making. They include the notion that poverty affects a relatively small number of Americans, that the poor are impoverished for years at a time, that most of those in poverty live in inner cities, that too much welfare assistance is provided and that poverty is ultimately a result of not working hard enough. Although pervasive, each assumption is flat-out wrong.”
If you read closely, you will see that the Times says nothing contrary to poverty being especially concentrated in America’s inner cities. This is the same sort of argument made about the food-stamp president. Just as there are more whites than blacks on food stamps, there is more white poverty than black poverty. But food stamps and poverty are clearly more concentrated with minorities.
When the critics say that “inner city” is a code word for “black,” I admit that most people think that most inner cities are populated by mostly minorities. So? Most people don’t think most black people live in inner cities.
Ryan is talking about something different than poverty alone. Rather, he is talking about a subset of impoverished people who are surrounded by or immersed in a hopeless culture where men generally do not work. Ryan suggests that this problem is especially bad in the inner cities, and if the critics can provide any other segment of society that is similarly afflicted, then I will listen.