Wednesday, January 18, 2012

An Air Raid Siren: Chris Matthews was Right About Republican Racism in South Carolina, But Wrong About "Dog Whistle" Politics

On his MSNBC show Hardball, Chris Matthews called out Newt Gingrich and other Republicans for what he described as their "dog whistle" appeals to white racism during the South Carolina debate on Monday night.

He was correct in identifying the work that racism does for the Tea Party GOP and its candidates in their efforts to win over white conservative voters. However, Chris Matthews was too generous and kind. Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry and other Republican candidates are not engaging in subtle dog whistles to their faithful, where racism and white racial anxiety hides in the background, masked and hidden by other language.

Definitions matter: dog whistle politics are based on a signal or cue to the in-group, and one so subtle that those not in the know will overlook it as no more than quixotic background noise, a blip, a comment without context or meaning.

For example, during the 2004 election, President Bush's mention of the infamous Dredd Scott Supreme Court decision had nothing to do with African Americans and slavery. Rather, it was a wink to a rabidly anti-choice conservative Right-wing audience that Roe vs. Wade would be overturned by his administration.

In 2008, McCain-Palin featured a negative campaign ad which borrowed from the movie The Ten Commandments and suggested that Barack Obama was the Anti-Christ. If one was not part of the Left Behind Jesus Camp Christian Nationalist Dominionist crowd, the visuals and narrative of the commercial were odd, bizarre, utterly strange, and devoid of context. The ugliness of these symbols and metaphors were so covert, that they made sense for those outside of the targeted audience only after Time magazine thoroughly deconstructed the campaign ad and its malicious intent.

In 2012, Republican candidates are using overt signals, what are for all intents and purposes blaring air raid sirens and signal flares that race, whiteness, and American identity are deeply intertwined. The appeals to white racism by the Tea Party GOP during the primaries are not background rhythms or subdued choruses. They are the driving guitars of Blue Oyster Cult's "Godzilla," the chorus of Jay-Z's "99 Problems," the opening moments of the Notorious B.I.G's "Kick in the Door," or the flipped samples of Justice's "Stress". You feel it. You know it. To deny the obvious is to close one's ears to a driving drum line and cadence that travels up through your shoes...and to your bones.

How else can a fair observer excuse away Republican arguments that blacks are lazy parasites, whose children should live in work houses and pick up mops and brooms to learn a work ethic, that "illegal" immigrants should be killed by electric fences, or Muslim Americans should be subject to racial profiling, marked like the "Juden" of Nazi Germany?

In all, the Tea Party GOP's campaign for the presidency rests upon marshaling white anger and rage at The Usurper, a perpetual Other, and one not fit for the presidency by virtue of his birth and skin color--he who we know as President Barack Obama. If Birtherism is not based on this calculation, on what else does it rest?

Race matters to the Tea Party GOP. It matters overtly. And it matters to the white populists of the Republican Party without apology or subtlety. This leads to the following practical question: how do we separate the subtle dog whistle from blaring conservative racism? What are the elements of the racial appeal? How can we identify it so that reasonable folk can neuter and castrate it? Is this even possible?

Knowing is half the battle. As such, I highlight the following elements to the puzzle:

The speaker effect. Using one of the most gross examples, when Newt Gingrich talks about lazy blacks on welfare and food stamps who do not know the meaning of hard work he is mindful of his audience. Remember, politics is ultimately about the creation and reinforcement of imagined communities. Gingrich, Santorum, Perry, and Paul know exactly how to talk to their respective audiences in order to get a response. To point: white conservative populists have disdain for non-whites, see them as lazy, outside of the polity, and as rightful targets for appeals based on symbolic racism. In the eyes of the Right, "those people" are not "real Americans." They never can be.

The audience as a public who receives, internalizes, and circulates the Tea Party GOP message about race, white racial resentment, white oppression, and hostility to people of color. The folks in the audience and on the stage during the Republican primary debates "get" the terms of the conversation. In fact, they are deeply attuned to the language and rhetoric of the New Right, as anyone who either goes to one of these events, or votes in a primary election, are deeply invested in its outcome, and a return to white American normality. In all, they are chasing nostalgia and a Leave it to Beaver vision and lie of America. This audience is also "tuned in" to politics. Gingrich and his peers are sending signals to a group primed and ready for his racial appeals...without a need for explanation.

This reality speaks to why there should be no surprise when Republican audiences cheer the death penalty, dying people without insurance, or heckle soldiers who happen to be gay. There are unstated rules, a script, which govern social norms and behavior. The outliers who go to political debates are intimately familiar with this language. Like marks at a professional wrestling event they know when to boo and when to cheer.

Context matters. In isolation, perhaps it would be a more difficult case to suggest that Gingrich's appeals to white audiences about lazy blacks are predominantly and clearly about white racism. However, given that communities are created through speech, and that "discourse" is about a sense of shared meaning with unstated assumptions, any argument for conservative colorblindness is judged to be insincere.

In South Carolina, where the Confederate flag still flies, there was Rick Perry (a neo-Secessionist that wants a Civil War 2.0 and a renewed fight for states' rights); Ron Paul (a bigot whose newsletters continue to suggest that African Americans are ravenous, craven, criminal, stupid beasts); Rick Santorum (a man fascinated by bestiality and the idea that blacks are parasites who only want to live off of white people); and Newt Gingrich who sees all African-Americans and Latinos as being on welfare and the public dole until proven otherwise. In total, these candidates are a rogues gallery where white supremacist attitudes towards non-whites is a standing rule, one only to be disputed after the fact.

Juan Williams is an object of abuse, a means to prove a point. Juan Williams is a paid pinata for white conservatives. I do not know if he was legitimately hurt and surprised by their reaction to him, or if his pain was not feigned, and rather sincere and real. In understanding the logic of Republican racism and naked appeals beyond the dog whistle, Williams was the stand-in, the object of abuse through which to actualize rage and hostility. Barack Obama was not available. Any black body would do. The cheering, snide glee of Newt Gingrich dressing down uppity "Juan," and the audience's cheering of a "boy" being put in his place, would be missed by only the most in denial observer.

Juan Williams is/was a repository for the fecal matter of white conservative bigotry, and a need to maintain superiority over negroes who dare not to step off of the sidewalk when white folks pass. That in another life Juan Williams would be a critic of "negro agitators" during the Civil Rights movement is coincidental to his designated role on Fox News: he is exemplary of Joel Kovel's theories about white supremacy, and how it manifests as a White society which is collectively (and individually) stuck in the fecal phase of human psychological development--it is all over his face. Juan Williams smiles while cashing his checks at the prospect of his political coprophagia at the ass end of conservative politics. He revels in playing the role of the human centipede.

The excuse of ignorance and a lack of memory. One does not need to understand the root of a thing in order to buy into its power. White conservatives (and others) who traffic in racism do not necessarily need to be able to explain how blacks came to be associated in the White racist mind with apes. Likewise, those who hate Jews do not need to be able to give an exegesis on Nazi propaganda in order to be expert anti-Semites.

This is one of the greatest tools and defenses of the contemporary white racist--I didn't know that, you are being unfair!; You are "playing the race card" for calling out my association of the Obama with watermelons and apes as "racist"; I never associated blacks with welfare or crime, people like you are the real bigots for calling attention to how Republicans talk about such things, we are really all Americans!; stop talking about slavery, my family never owned black people!; (and of course) whites are oppressed in America by Barack Obama!

There is a collective reservoir of symbols, assumptions, and narratives that individuals borrow from in a given society in order to make sense of their world. Knowing the wellspring helps; it is not a requirement to perpetuate common sense understanding(s) of the world.

Ultimately, Chris Matthews was correct in the spirit of the law versus the letter of the law. To defeat President Obama, the Republican Party is wallowing in white racism in order to win over racially and economically insecure white voters. However, Gingrich and company are doing this overtly. There is little subtlety. Looking forward, the 2012 Presidential season will make the infamous Willie Horton ad of the 1988 presidential election look like a celebration of Dr. King's birthday. The challenge for liberals, progressives, and reasonable conservatives, is how to make the Republican Party pay for their race baiting, and desperate reaching back to the Civil War, Redemption, and Birth of a Nation as playbooks in order to defeat the United States' first Black President.

Sadly, matters may be so dire that the white identity politics of years past are now "new school" rather than "old school." To marshal that fear, insecurity, and anger one does not need nuance, sophistication, or dog whistles. White conservatives can put such feelings on blast and gin up the psychological wages of white fear, white anxiety, and white rage to try to defeat Barack Obama.

As always, the past isn't even past. It is yesterday. Get ready folks. What occurred in South Carolina is only a warm up for what the Tea Party GOP is preparing to unleash in the months to come. What is coming to pass will be an ugly, wild ride.


Jim in St Louis said...

Oh sweet Jesus, Please take a moment and re-read your posting. I dig the passion, and I think lively and intelligent debate is so very vital to our form of democracy. But I question letting the passion get the upper hand over the reason. We all balance our smart brain power vs. our irrational emotional feelings. And there are so many points in your post that just sound so....(forgive me) crazy-wild-eyed-nutsy.

I really enjoy your writing style, but please- take a breath and let it out slow. Its OK.

chaunceydevega said...

@Jim. Online together. How intimate. Nope. This is how we roll. Get on the train or airplane or get off. Watch the meme tomorrow and during the week. You still don't offer a cogent point of disagreement. Bring some facts or at the very least theory grounded in data and research to the table.


llama said...

But I question letting the passion get the upper hand over the reason. We all balance our smart brain power vs. our irrational emotional feelings. And there are so many points in your post that just sound so....(forgive me) crazy-wild-eyed-nutsy.

I'm watching this debacle from Canada and there is nothing wild-eyed or nuts about what was written here. To name one, Gingrich's statements were flat out toxic and racist. It's infuriating that a person can be so blatantly racist and yet never be held accountable and suffer no blow to their credibility.

I was discussing this with my family and I knew even though I'm not American, that the reason the candidates can get away with saying these things is because they have a sympathetic base.

It's not getting carried away by passion to call this out, it's called being clear sighted and honest. When confronted with obvious bigotry people will deny, deny, deny. WTF is up with that?

G Newman said...

Air raid siren? Brilliant metaphor!

But again, you've hit the problem on the head:
"...people like you are the real bigots for calling attention to how Republicans talk about such things."

How can you discuss something when your well-intentioned (white) listener believes that even bringing up the concept of white privilege is wrong? That's what the bigots in Arizona did, in their law prohibiting Latino ethnic studies (because Mexican-Americans are the historic minority there).

How can these topics be raised in large, diverse, public schools (both primary and university) when angry right-wing legislators always angling for a way to cut funding? Are there models from the experience at private schools, like Chicago and Depaul, that can be followed?

G Newman said...

One more thought: This racism is not from a "lack of memory." Far from it.

David Blight, in his book, Race and Reunion. documents how groups like the Daughters of the Confederacy created a heroic memory that justified white privilege. They argued that slave owners were on civilizing mission. Newt does the same thing, in his calls to make young people of color school janitors.

Batocchio said...

Spot on, and I've seen some other bloggers make similar points, about either the racial themes of the debate or the "air raid siren" nature of the comments (too blatant to be a dog whistle). I still need to see the complete debate (there have been so many!) but plenty of clips have been posted online. (G Newman's mention of Blight is also apt.)

Matthews actually impressed me a bit here, because he can be awfully clueless, but he picked up on the way Gingrich said "Juan." I do wish more mainstream commenters would pick up on/write on the "otherness" of Obama that Romney has made the central theme of his campaign. (Bloggers have; I've seen fewer TV talking heads broach this, although maybe I've missed them.)

(Extra points for referencing Blue Oyster Cult and Kanye and Biggie.)

I also liked the reader letter in the Fallows piece you linked: Everyone I know here in my home state of SC knows exactly what signal is being sent, and we all hear it--white and black, regardless of political allegiances. Perry is from Texas. Newt is from Georgia. They don't have to use dog whistles. Regular whistles work just fine...just like they do for most successful statewide politicians in SC.

Finally, if you missed it, Marie Stroughter was on KCRW's To the Point to defend Gingrich and her team from those scurrilous, horribly irresponsible charges of racism. (I want to give this one another listen myself, just because I like dissecting how the hack work is done.)

mary b said...



friendly white commentor that thinks you're being over the top, must not have anyone in his life who have experienced being a Minority.

Maybe if he picks up a few good books...
Na, that wouldn't do it. He HAS to live it! That is the problem with white Americans. They don't believe the FACTS because they were never exposed to them in an up, close, personal way.

CNu said...

Seen at Bro. Feed's spot; My main problem with the Race Doctrine camp's program is ... what's their program? We blame white folks for the historical situation, which, ok, no objection. Fine. But then what? What's the plan now? The goal of "dismantling whiteness" sounds great, but it remains some kind of distant emerald city that never comes closer.

Abstentus said...

I have been predicting how racist-bad election 2012 would be, since a certain day in November of 2008. I see your point, about how it's not particularly subtle communication. But the song style is different than it was pre CRA 1964.

I'm going to go for the literal kind of metaphor. We have gone from Steven Foster "Sho Tail Fly," to Gretchen Wilson's anthem about the glories of being a "Redneck Girl."

Granted, she's only a sideline, wing nut celebrity commenter this time around, but one of my favorite images of 2008 was seeing Sarah Palin singing along to "Redneck Woman." Totally oblivious of the irony in anyone self describing as redneck. Guess she missed reading Thomas Sowell's essay on Black Rednecks.

(As an aside, I have to say for those who don't know the theory, he says that when black folk behave badly they are behaving like rednecks. Oh hell. that's actually a whole nother level of twisted irony. White people being all scared of black folk who act like low rent, ill mannered, poor assed, white folk. I think I have gone further down the rabbit hole than I originally intended.)

chaunceydevega said...

@llama. great name btw. folks from outside of the usa are some of the keenest eyes on how racism is toxic to our politics. check out some of der spiegel's great essays on the tea party.

@gnewman. great book suggestion. a classic. the racism denial and deflection is colorblind 21st c. racism 101. Racism Without Racists does a great job of laying out the elements.

@bat. do you think the msm are afraid to be too direct and honest lest Gingrich and company can play the victim?

@mary b. facts? what are those?

@abstentus. sowell's black rednecks?

Abstentus said...

"Black Rednecks and White Liberals." That's both the name of the one essay, and the title of the collection of essays published as a book.

Admittedly, my spin on his thesis is harsher than he intended, on white America. I see much more evidence of redneckism persisting among the whites than he does. And I do mean to say it is not limited to po' whites living in Trailer Parks or the wrong side of the tracks. On my harsher days, I would call the Bush family rednecks with inhereted wealth.
But I bet Sowell never shops at WalMart. (Ya. I went there.)

But my thesis is that the current GOP is the white redneck party. They might not all go shopping at WalMart wearing pajamas. But let's be honest. Most of these descendants of Scots Irish brigands and convitcts who were sent here to America by various English Kings named George, really are not all that different from their ancestors. They formed the real day to day culture of America. Not the Thomas Jeffersons and the Alexander Hamiltons. And that outlander, law breaker, cut purse, highwayman and bawdy tart, and cutthroat land pirate stamp on the culture is still very deep, and still very visible. You don't have to look hard to see:

Oh. I discovered the book/essay doing my free style scholarship on "Redneck Theory." And I was not too surprised to find some scholarship on the (call it related) issues.

Abstentus said...

Just to be clear. I don't totally agree with Sowell. But there's some overlap. I think redneckism is the social disease the keeps America as a whole from being all it could be. Not that everyone should love opera, and not speak with food in their mouths. But at least, no one should speak with food in their mouths. Or wear pajamas in public, for that matter

CNu said...

Redneckism is the steel-toed boot-on-the-ground that feeds the globe-spanning criminal enterprise of the American warsocialist state.

That 20% minority of intractables is indispensable to operational capability.

Whiny, feminized jiggaboos?

Not so much...,

Conjecture? {just watch who gets cut and cut hardest by the Hon.Bro.Preznit}

StewartIII said...

NewsBusters| Daily Kos: Juan Williams Is a Toilet

Batocchio said...

Hmm, CdV, I sorta understand (but lament) the reluctance to call out Romney, but less so Gingrich on those occasions when he's been blatantly racist. I have heard mainstream outlets pose the question, 'Was Gingrich being racist here?' but there's often fierce pushback to the question.

I think it's related to the corporate media's extreme reluctance to call out lies, and especially to use the words "lie" and "lying." Some of this may be due to fear of libel or slander charges, and definitely because of the inevitable outraged responses, even when the charge is completely accurate. A more charitable interpretation is that in some cases "lying" can be hard to prove, since it speaks to intent, and the reporters can't look into the speaker's mind or heart.

Similarly, pointing out a dog whistle speaks (at least somewhat) to the speaker's intent, and where the matter is at all muddy, reporters will hold back. Even when the statement is an air raid siren, some will hold back. Calling someone or something racist is seen as a serious charge, and that's a sign of progress in some ways. Unfortunately, it can also shut down discussion in certain (mostly paler) circles because the subject makes some people uncomfortable. Take that further; in socially conservative circles, it is a fiercely-held tenet that racism largely doesn't exist anymore; the real problem is those uppity folks talking about it all the time (if only they didn't point it out, it would cease to exist). The entire point of a dog whistle is to speak to a specific group while maintaining deniability to outsiders. Similarly, some moderate voters really don't know about or want to acknowledge the Southern Strategy and how it's played a major role in every Republican presidential run since Nixon (with the possible exception of Ford).

All that said, I don't think it's hard to call out Gingrich, nor to point out that Romney is continually painting Obama as an outsider and un-American. That doesn't mean that Romney (or Gingrich) are only appealing to social conservatives uncomfortable with Obama's race, but those voters are unquestionably part of their target audience. I understand (but lament) that a corporate media person might not spell it all out with Romney's shtick, and that some people react to the subject being raised at all by incorrectly saying "You're saying all conservatives/Republicans are racists!" No, of course not - but we need to have an honest discussion somewhere, and that generally doesn't happen on the Sunday talk shows. It happens on the blogs and on The Daily Show, which had a great segment calling out Gingrich's racism. (Good comedy depends on the truth and calling bullshit; too much political coverage consists of selling bullshit.)

I imagine most readers are familiar with Lee Atwater's thoughts on these dynamics, which Digby recently highlighted again. (Anyway, that's my take.)

Tom said...

They do have to get rid of the damn pajamas. Jesus Christ.