Dog Whistles

First of all, Hollywood is not the center of anything important – it’s essentially a silly place. The center of political life is back east in Washington, and the financial center of everything is New York, specially the borough of Manhattan, and more specifically lower Manhattan. Chicago may still be Hog Butcher to the World, but that’s probably Omaha these days – much of Chicago got all white-collar and thus full of guys with those Blackberry things and spreadsheets, not bloody aprons. But Hollywood remains as it always was – the place that churns out mass-market entertainment for the whole world. Life here centers on trying to figure out what key demographic groups will shell out to see this or hear that. That’s what we do here.


Secondly, Britney Spears and Paris Hilton are yesterday’s news. See this:


To the mortgage crisis and the energy crunch and the devalued dollar, add this: a recession in the Britney market.


The young woman who rose and fell (and fell and fell) in the paparazzi’s strobe lights seems to have put bizarre public displays behind her, and the photographers who made hundreds and thousands – and in some cases, hundreds of thousands – capturing her missteps must look elsewhere for celebrities more predictably unpredictable.


“She’s boring. She doesn’t even have a boyfriend,” said Francois Navarre, the co-owner of X17, the photo agency that set the standard for aggressive 24/7 coverage of Britney Spears.


The consensus seems to be that she’s tiresome – her time has passed. That single candid photo that would once get you ten or fifteen grand may now net you fifteen hundred bucks, at best, and that photo agency cut the number of people sent out to follow her by two-thirds. It’s over. It’s been over for some time. And if you find yourself stuck in traffic on that scruffy part of Sunset Boulevard at La Brea – ironically now named Billy Wilder Square – look up. There are billboards for a new shoe line from Paris Hilton. She’s no longer outrageous and beyond hip – she’s turning into Martha Stewart.


So, if you think Britney Spears and Paris Hilton are big celebrities, you’ve fallen far behind. Heck, even white-hot Hannah Montana is about to disappear in a puff of smoke. Nothing lasts forever. Hollywood is like that – at Sunset Boulevard at La Brea glance south. Fifty feet down La Brea the old Charlie Chapin Studios, that became Herb Alpert’s A&M Studios, is now Jim Henson’s operation – you know, Muppets and all that – and there’s a damned frog on the roof.


Keeping up on what’s hot, and what’s not, demands attention – and also requires you have pre-teen children, or alternatively, no life of your own. It’s hard to get it right, if that’s what you choose to do. Why you would choose to do that is another question entirely – and probably best left to you and your therapist, or out here, you and your marketing department.


So that is why many were amused (Democrats) or appalled (Republicans) by John McCain’s new campaign ad, blanketing the airwaves on Wednesday, July 30 – a television spot featuring images of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton in an implicit comparison with Obama. The narrator, his voice dripping with derision, calls Obama “the biggest celebrity in the world” before asking, “But is he ready to lead?” The spot also says that Obama “says he’ll raise taxes on electricity” and a few other things. It ends with a profile of John McCain and his voice – “I’m John McCain and I approve this message.” But most of the ad is images of Obama smiling, looking cool – and adoring crowds, particularly the two hundred thousand folks in Berlin. Those images may be counterproductive.


One thinks back to the primaries, and Hillary Clinton’s sarcastic mocking of Obama – and other times when she said enough with Obama’s inspiring speeches and his big enthusiastic crowds and all the people flocking to him, as that meant nothing. It just wasn’t serious leadership – the nuts and bolts of getting things done – and all those people had been duped (unfortunately also implying that they were all awfully stupid and deserved to be insulted).


So the McCain strategists decided to go down the same road – and they kicked it up one notch by adding the images of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. This strategy didn’t work for Hillary Clinton and may have caused a backlash when she seemed frustrated and angry at Obama’s success, and petty – she lost after all – but then Clinton didn’t use images of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. The McCain strategists must have thought adding those two to the mix would fix the problem.


That didn’t fix the problem – it just seemed odd, and out of touch. They used the wrong celebrities, perhaps.


Perhaps they were just trying to counter the major drubbing they took in Wednesday’s Washington Post over the previous “factually challenged” ad about Obama not visiting the wounded troops – and others, like NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, pretty much calling that ad outright lying. So they had to get something else out there, quick. But as Alex Koppelman notes here, the second ad misrepresented Obama on the tax on electricity thing. Obama never proposed such a tax – Koppelman has the goods.


And Koppelman adds the Obama campaign’s response, from Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor:


On a day when major news organizations across the country are taking Senator McCain to task for a steady stream of false, negative attacks, his campaign has launched yet another. Or, as some might say – “Oops! He did it again.”


That’s a bit of an inside joke. If you know the reference, get a life.


But as Michael Cooper notes in the New York Times, major McCain allies are getting worried:


Mr. McCain is clearly trying to sow doubts about his younger opponent, and bring him down a peg or two. But some Republicans worry that by going negative so early, and initiating so many of the attacks himself rather than leaving them to others, Mr. McCain risks coming across as angry or partisan in a way that could turn off some independents who have been attracted by his calls for respectful campaigning.


The drumbeat of attacks could also undermine his argument that he will champion a new brand of politics.


“The McCain campaign, I think, is being pulled in two directions,” said Todd Harris, a Republican strategist who worked for Mr. McCain in 2000. “On the one hand, this race is largely a referendum on Obama, and whether or not he’s going to pass the leadership threshold in the eyes of voters. So being aggressive against Obama on questions of leadership and trust and risk are important, but at the same time I think they need to be very careful because McCain is not at his best when he is being overly partisan and negative.”


And there’s the matter of getting the facts right:


Some of his lines of attack have been accused of being misleading. Mr. McCain, for instance, said Mr. Obama had voted in the Senate “for tax hikes that would have impacted those making $32,000 a year.”, a nonpartisan Web site, said the vote was on a budget resolution to raise taxes on people making $41,500 a year; the $32,000 figure, it said, was the amount of taxable income those people had.


An advertisement criticized Mr. Obama for the high price of gas. “Who can you thank for rising prices at the pump?” an announcer intoned, as chants of “Obama, Obama” were heard.


And so on and so forth – the tone bothers many of them, as does the whole strategy. This did not work at all for Hillary Clinton.


And from the Reuters summary:


“What they’re going to do is make you scared – of me,” Obama told voters in Springfield, Missouri, as he pushed his message of middle-class economic relief in a Republican part of a key battleground state in November’s presidential election.


Obama, launching a four-day tour of swing states to promote his economic policies, mocked the arguments he said McCain, a Republican Arizona senator, and his supporters make.


“‘He’s not patriotic enough. He’s got a funny name. He doesn’t look like all the presidents on the dollar bills,”‘ said Obama, who would be the first black U.S. president.


“That’s their argument – ‘We don’t have much to offer, but he’s risky,”‘ he said. “We are in a time right now where it is too risky not to change. It is risky to keep doing what we are doing.”


But the McCain folks will not abandon the argument:


McCain campaign manager Rick Davis told reporters Obama’s overseas swing was “much more something you would expect from someone releasing a new movie than running for president.”


He said the Obama strategy was to develop a fan base “that allows him to get a lot of media attention and avoids him having to address the important issues of our time.”


The counterargument:


“I don’t pay attention to John McCain’s ads, although I do notice he doesn’t seem to have anything very positive to say about himself,” Obama told reporters after visiting a diner in Lebanon, Missouri.


“He seems to only be talking about me,” Obama said. “You need to ask John McCain what he’s for, not just what he’s against.”


The message is clear. If you want to look like a resentful fool, like a whiney high school kid, be my guest.


The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder here reports some really harsh criticism of the McCain campaign’s tactics from John Weaver, who, until he resigned from the campaign last year, had been quite close to McCain. Weaver really believes in McCain, and in his image, and is just frustrated. What’s going on now “diminishes John McCain.” He calls the Spears-Hilton ad “childish,” and told Ambinder that ad was what moved him to speak out – he says he’s had “enough.” Weaver is clear enough –


There is legitimate mockery of a political campaign now, and it isn’t at Obama’s. For McCain’s sake, this tomfoolery needs to stop. For McCain to win in such troubled times, he needs to begin telling the American people how he intends to lead us. That McCain exists. He can inspire the country to greatness.


That McCain seems to be elsewhere. As in this:


Staying very personal, the McCain campaign responds to Obama’s suggestion that Republicans will attack his unusual name and his race: “This is a typically superfluous response from Barack Obama. Like most celebrities, he reacts to fair criticism with a mix of fussiness and hysteria,” says McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds, before trying to link the attack back to offshore drilling.


That’s the new line – he’s a celebrity. He’s nothing – sure he is a brilliant speaker, and inspiring, and is in the lead, and people seem to trust him, and he’s raised a phenomenal amount of money from millions of small donors, and he seems smart as a whip and personable, and world leaders respect him and want to work with him, but you see, that’s the problem.


Well, that is the problem, but it’s McCain’s problem – arguing what we really need, if we’d only smarten up and realize it, is a sometimes befuddled and often angry old man, willing to strike out at others.


The problem also comes down to something else, underlying the McCain attacks – a word heard in the news all the time now. Obama is simply “presumptuous” – basically reporter after reporter asking if that isn’t the real issue now. Bob Cesca at Huffington Post documents that here. That’s the crux of the matter.


And at Hullabaloo, Digby suggests there’s also something racial going on here:


I think we need to have a little discussion of what “racist dogwhistle” means. It is a word or phrase that conjures up certain subliminal images in those who are predisposed to see things in racial terms. It doesn’t mean that everyone who hears the word as a criticism sees it in that way – only those who get “the code.” So, when Karl Rove sends out McCain’s minions to spread the word “presumptuous” all over the place, the idea is to signal to the racists among us that Obama is “uppity.” It doesn’t mean that if you think Obama is presumptuous that you are a racist. You might just think, “yeah, he’s acting like it’s in the bag already.” But racists hear that Obama is an uppity black man.


See, it works on two levels. That’s why it’s called a dogwhistle – only the racists can hear the racism in it.


This is a complicated mode of communication that’s been developed on the right for many decades. It’s not something I just made up. There are dozens of examples: “welfare queen” and “Willie Horton,” the “Hands” ad by Jesse Helms and most recently, the Harold Ford “Call Me” ad in 2006. The most famous of all was Ronald Reagan slyly beginning his campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where one of the worst atrocities of the civil rights movement happened. Over the years it’s gotten more subtle as the nation becomes less tolerant of overt racism, but it’s never completely gone.


And she quotes the famous Lee Atwater on how that works:


You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger” – that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.


And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me – because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”


Digby then discusses recent polling in detail – racism is not dead in this country – and says this:


This certainly doesn’t mean that everyone who dislikes Obama is a racist. But it does suggest that some people dislike him because of his race and can be persuaded with some subliminal racialized massaging that McCain agrees with them. Republicans have been winning with this formula for many, many years so this shouldn’t exactly be news to anyone.


As anyone who has ever seen Gone with the Wind knows, the “uppity” theme goes all the way back to Reconstruction where it especially applied to northern black carpetbaggers who allegedly lorded over the vanquished south. (It also, of course, applied to those former slaves who behaved like they were actually, you know, free.)


… The idea that racism doesn’t exist and that the right wing isn’t trying to stoke it with the first nomination of black candidate is naive. (They would have used all the overt sexist smears that were previewed in the primaries if Clinton had won, as well.) It’s the way the right wins elections – by stoking tribal resentment and tickling the ids of Americans who are hostile to any kind of progress because they are afraid they will lose out.


That may be reading too much into the new ad – it’s just about celebrity – or maybe there’s more.
Josh Marshall hints at that: 

I note with interest today, John McCain’s new tactic of associating Barack Obama with oversexed and/or promiscuous young white women. … Presumably, a la Harold Ford 2006, this will be one of those strategies that will be a matter of deep dispute during the campaign and later treated as transparent and obvious once the campaign is concluded.


… here we have a candidate, John McCain, who is running on a record of straight talk and honorable campaigning running a campaign made up mainly of charges reporters are now more or less acknowledging are lies. But there’s precious little drawing together of the contradiction. What’s more, as everyone will acknowledge after the campaign, the McCain campaign is now pushing the caricature of Obama as a uppity young black man whose presumptuousness is displayed not only in taking on airs above his station but also in a taste for young white women.


Ah, the strapping young black man and those two young white women – that’s pretty clever coding, if it’s that.


Also at Hullabaloo, “dday” runs with that:


This is very, very obvious. McCain’s ads have overall been more negative and the press occasionally does push back on their falsehoods on a case-by-case basis. Let’s see how they handle this one. Because right now we have a press narrative entirely focused on Obama, whether or not he’s “ready,” whether or not he’s “presumptuous,” whether or not he’s “equipped to lead.”


It is high time there was a bit of focus on McCain, and the truly nasty, racially-coded campaign he is now running.


Is that over the top? Why else would that ad use those two young blonds who have passed into yesterday’s news?


You do know about viral young black men. They’re coming after your sister, or something. And these two particular has-beens are so helpless now.


Ah no – it’s just a dumb ad, asking you to share McCain’s resentment at Obama’s success. Do so if you wish.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Attack Politics, Attacks on Obama, Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, Exploiting Resentment, Life in Hollywood, McCain versus the Facts, Obama, Obama Disses the Troops, Political Pandering, Pop Culture, Presumptuous Obama, Race and Politics, Racial Dogwhistles, Racism Lives On, The Race Card. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Dog Whistles

  1. Rick (from Atlanta) says:

    For all practical purposes, I don’t believe in God, despite the argument I’ve heard from all my true-believer friends over the years, that just because I can’t see something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

    Nor do I believe in pixies, mysterious black helicopters, welfare queens, and maybe even the tooth fairy (although I’ll hold off saying more about that until after my youngest is grown.) And yes, although I can’t hear them, I do believe in dog whistles, but not in this context, since I don’t really believe in “codewords,” or at least not enough to give them this much weight.

    Yes, I know, just because I don’t hear them myself doesn’t mean nobody does. It’s just that I think they are mostly figments of the collective imagination of people who spend too much time thinking about things that don’t matter all that much.

    The reason I added the words “all that much” is because I’m sure there were people who did, for example, dwell on the racial aspect of the term “forced bussing” back when that was a huge issue, but I also think lots of non-racists just didn’t think bussing kids to schools out of their neighborhoods was a good solution to school segregation.

    In other words, the discussion of bussing was too often overwhelmed by the charge that those who were against it were racists, and whether or not bussing was the right answer, it’s still hard to live in a democracy in which honest public discourse in discouraged.

    Although yes, I am a diehard Obama supporter, I still think the McCain campaign is at least a little bit closer to the truth in its claim today that Obama was “playing the race card” when he claimed the folks on the other side are trying to get us to “fear” him by implying that he doesn’t look like all the other presidents on paper money. Maybe both sides need to pretend that Obama is a white guy for awhile, in which case, there would be no race card to play and no accusations to be made that others are playing it.

    Okay, yeah, that won’t work, but the next best thing might be for everyone on both sides to pretend that there are no racists in this country worth talking about anymore, or at least that they really don’t carry as much weight as we seem to want them to. That won’t happen either, of course, but it’s closer to being doable. Lee Atwater may have been a political genius in his way, but I do think he was one of those people who tended to over-think things — and ironically, doing it to promote the case of Republicans, people who are famous for refusing to be caught dead looking like they even know how to think.

    I’m not saying that code-words are totally powerless, I’m just thinking that they don’t come into play as much as some people claim they do. I suspect the sort of voter they would persuade don’t need codewords to get them to vote how they would have voted anyway, just as those of us who don’t even hear them wouldn’t be swayed by them even if we did.

    And the voters in between? Those people, for all practical purposes, in my opinion, don’t even exist. Or at least I’ve neither ever seen nor heard them. Which, I guess, might make them either pixies, welfare queens, or maybe even God.

    * * * * *

    And as for Digby saying this:

    “The idea that racism doesn’t exist and that the right wing isn’t trying to stoke it with the first nomination of black candidate is naive. (They would have used all the overt sexist smears that were previewed in the primaries if Clinton had won, as well.)”

    Although there are, or so I’ve heard, no documented cases of investors jumping out of buildings during the crash of 1929, nor of Vietnam vets being spit upon on their return home, these urban legends continue to live on in American folklore.

    And you can call me “naive,” but I think anyone who really thinks there was a measurable number of “overt sexist smears” that the rest of us couldn’t hear, used against Hillary in the primaries — especially any coming from the Obama campaign — probably also believes there are tribes of pixies living in the woods. If anybody has specific examples of either of these things, I’d like to hear them.

    In fact, the only case I heard of was two guys in the crowd at one of her rallies shouting “Iron my shirt!” Although the shouters were tracked down and turned out to be part of some publicity stunt staged by a local radio shock-jock, the belief that Hillary Clinton was being stalked by men demanding she iron their shirts became widespread.

    Instead of imagining all this racism and sexism, coded or overt, maybe what all these people really need to spend their time doing is finding out whether or not increased off-shore drilling really helps make us more independent of “foreign oil.” My guess is that, if we were really to look into it, the answer would be “not very much,” but we seem to have neither the time nor inclination to find that out right now.

    Maybe we can get to it later, after we wear ourselves out trying to send and receive all these “coded messages” to and from each other.

    (And no, Alan, I’m not talking about you. Whatever your personal beliefs about these matters are, you’ve disguised them quite well, as I think is proper. I’m talking about all those other people you quote in here.)


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