(Note: I wrote this last week, in the midst of misunderstandings, but decided to let it stew while I focussed on the horse race. Because there are only so many mammal-based political analogies one can deal with.)
The term "dog whistle politics" was coined a few years ago during the UK parliamentary races, and it's become the leitmotif of politics ever since. It means that a candidate is speaking in a way that appeals to a certain type of voter, possibly a racist, while using language that otherwise appears innocuous.
In the current primary races in the US, I'm not sure if there's any dog whistling going on or not. I can only conclude that either Barack Obama has been whistling a tune only I, and his other supporters can hear (a tune that goes something like "Liberal! Liberal! Lookie here, I'm a liberal!"), or else he's whistling a tune that only his detractors can hear (Lookie here, I'm Ronald Reagan's secret love child, and I want to take away every government program you ever loved!). It gets even more confusing when his appeal to Republicans and Independents is part of the picture. As a staunch liberal, I'm at a loss to explain why people who hate the government want to elect Barack Obama. Either their dog whistles are out of tune, or, like Reagan Democrats, they're ready to vote against their core beliefs and their well-lined pocketbooks, because the siren song of his dog whistle is too compelling to ignore.
But forget dog whistles; who actually uses them anyway?
If there's one thing I do know, it's dogs, and how they communicate and understand our language. Turns out they don't do a lot of whistling.
Dogs and humans communicate very differently, yet despite these differences, are able to understand each other quite well (with the bulk of the work being done by the dogs). Dogs are whole picture creatures. They comprehend language and meaning by using many different tools and clues, including body language, mannerisms, tone of voice, visual evidence and familiar words and sounds. They also probably use smells, and other subtle hints I'm not aware of, like the position of the sun, to parse meaning from the gibberish we utter at them.
For instance, if I sat down next to my sleeping dog on the couch and said, casually and plainly, "Do you want to go for a walk outside today" she'd likely do no more than open one eye and then go on sleeping. On the other hand, if I stood next to her, leash in hand, and said "Do you want to GO for a WALK OUTSIDE today?" she'd jump from the couch, tail wagging, knowing full well what was in store: a walk.
She's used the context of my words to understand what I'm saying, as much as the words themselves, three or four of which she recognizes: go, walk, outside, and today. The tone of my voice, the visual clue of the leash in my hand, the time of day, my body language—standing rather than sitting, and perhaps even the smell of my excitement, all come together to mean one thing for her.
Humans, on the other hand, are great at understanding the meaning of many words, but when it comes to sentences, we must first pull the words apart, analyze the meaning of each word, then put those meanings together to figure out what the sentence means. We're very good at this type of analysis, in fact our brains accomplish this feat almost instantaneously, but this method has its drawbacks. When we hear a foreign language spoken, we have difficulty separating the words, thus cannot understand the meaning of a sentence—or even where one sentence begins or ends—unless we're familiar with the language. Seeing a foreign language written, on the other hand, solves the problem of separating the words, and makes it easier for us to comprehend the meaning.
We often ignore context at our peril. I struggle to understand British accents, but when I ignore the individual words and concentrate on the context—the setting, the visual clues, the possible meaning, I'm fine. When I ignore context—during a discussion of St Paul's dome, for instance, I end up hearing "salsa" instead of "saucer". Uh oh.
This tendency to break down and parse statements, to only hear the
words themselves and ignore the context, I think explains Barack
Obama's inability to attract those who hear his statements as a string
of words, taken at face value. And the tendency some of us have to
instead focus on context—the whole picture—explains his appeal.
When I hear Barack Obama speak, I can't help but remember his life
story, his work as a civil rights attorney and community organizer, his
votes as a state senator and as a US senator, the two books he's
written. I notice the tone of his voice, the cadence of his speech. I
take into account the visual and aural evidence that leads me to
conclude a certain thing about what he says—the leash in his hand, so
to speak, that gives meaning to his words.
Someone else, however, hears the same thing I do (or reads it) and concludes that he must like Ronald Reagan, since he's said he wants to be a transformative president in the same way Reagan was. They conclude he must have been for the war, since he didn't condemn John Kerry and John Edwards for their votes. He must be against Social Security, since he says it's in trouble. None of these conclusions are possible if you look at his record and his life history, a life spent working against the policies of Reagan, a record of speaking out against the war, a record of working to achieve legislation that assists the dispossessed, including those condemned to death row.
A lot of his detractors want to dismiss his tone, his eloquence, his mannerisms, while those of us who support him do so precisely because of his tone and his eloquence. Just like my dog gets more excited when I speak to her in a hopeful voice, so do Barack Obama's supporters get jazzed by his hopeful tone.
Meanwhile, his detractors are busily breaking apart his words, and putting them back together in a way that he didn't mean at all.
Who's right? Well, of course I think we are—those of us who tend to think like dogs. As I've written before, my dog has an uncanny sense of who to trust. She sometimes strains at the leash to get to a human we pass on the street, a human who invariably turns out to be a dog lover looking for a nice dog to pet, and other times she completely ignores the humans we meet. She knows when it's time to pick up someone at the bus stop or train station, based on past behavior, rather than any spoken clues.
If I blathered on excitedly about going for a walk, at midnight, I doubt my dog would react positively. She takes in all the context, including clues to the contrary.
My tendency to think like a dog probably explains why I'm not too keen on the other candidates. John Edwards, despite the excited tone of his speech, hasn't presented much evidence he means what he says. When I look at his votes as a senator, I see a champion for the status quo. There's also a disconnect between a lifestyle that some would describe as lavish and the words he uses to describe a life of fighting poverty. And Hillary Clinton also fails the test of context: her votes, for the war, for the bankruptcy bill, as well as her past life—Goldwater Girl, champion of Nixon's cause against Kennedy—lead me to discount her commitment to the policies she says she supports now.
I've learned a lot about my dog, and I trust her instincts and abilities completely—I've followed her on our walks, when I didn't know where the hell I was, knowing she had a much better grasp of the whole picture than I did.
So I've learned to trust my own whole picture thinking also. We
Obama supporters hear a lot about our unfounded zeal, about drinking
the KoolAid—or is it Cabernet? The truth is, we're just
using a different set of tools to arrive at our conclusions, just as my
dog uses a different set of tools when she listens to humans
speak. Those links on the left (left!) will give you a peek into that toolbox, by the way.
There are, no doubt, flaws in this argument—I did, after all, come up with it while walking my dog.
But the point is, we all have different ways of judging the truth for ourselves, and different life experiences we bring to our decisions. "Gut instincts" are not really gut instincts; they're often better thought out than many laboriously analyzed arguments. I suspect a lot of Obama's supporters, who don't need me to explain their enthusiasm, are reacting just like my dog does when she hears my excited voice, and sees that leash in my hand.
It's not Kool-Aid, but cool, hard facts.