Friday, August 8, 2008

McCain, Britney, Paris and The Problem with the Dog Whistle Theory

There has been much talk about the "dog whistle" theory of political advertisements with regard to the now infamous McCain ad showing Obama along with images of Paris Hilton and Brittney Spears. The theory is that, like a dog whistle, a message can be embedded in political ads, through certain imagery or words, that will send a message to a certain target group without being noticed by everyone else. Thus, so says the theory, to appeal to racists, one need only juxtapose the black candidate against white girls. The racists will hear the message, even if no one else does. It's basically the same argument that was made years ago about "code words". When someone said "people in the inner city", or "gangs", what they really meant, we were told, was "blacks".

The problem then, as it is now, is that the theory is essentially nonfalsifiable. What if someone really meant "gangs", regardless of color? How are they to express themselves to avoid the "code word" charge? Likewise, if John McCain really meant to represent Barak Obama as all celebrity and no substance, who else comes more quickly to mind than Brittney and Paris? It's not John McCain's fault that the biggest bimbos in our society are white.

Accusing someone of meaning something other than what they say is always risky business, and it is not a charge that should be accepted without considerably evidence, such as The Wedge Document with regard to intelligent design. Without such evidence, it is simply too easy to make baseless accusations and ignore clearly stated positions.

I do not see that evidence here. The images of Britney and Paris were fleeting, and there was no direct sexual innuendo. If McCain deserves criticism, it is for political incompetence in thinking he could put these images together and not elicit this reaction from the more sensitive members of the populace re racial issues. After the Harold Ford Playboy incident, McCain should have made sure his overpaid advisers found a black bimbo to put in the ad, for no other reason than insurance against the charges he faces now.

Enough of this fluff. Can the candidates get to discussing the issues now?


Anonymous said...

I suspect that finding the black equivalent of Paris Hilton and putting her in the ad would have been more offensive to more people.

The only thing he has in common with Paris Hilton is his supposedly undeserved celebrity status. The tie-in is legitimate (although stupid and factually wrong). If it had been a black woman, the claim would have been, "You're comparing him to her because they're both black! You think that being black makes you a bimbo!"

Honestly, I would be surprised if the advertising strategy people didn't carefully plan all of this out and take into account everything that both you and I are talking about. I don't think that it serves any purpose to whine about it, though. Even if it is a nefarious racist smear (my guess is that it was just the path of least racial resistance in a minefield of potential screw-ups), it just makes Obama supporters look like whiners to bitch about it.

Complaining about anything other than the overt message just gives your opponent the ability to deny it and make it sound like you're crazy and he's the victim of your paranoia. Which is exactly what's happening now.

Peter L. Winkler said...

Good post. The imputation of racist intent and, even silier, the phallic images charge, are ludicrous. I'm afraid that this is really the product of the existence of far too many op-ed writers and TV pundits who have to fill up column space and airtime and have nothing intelligent or substantive to add to the discussion. I call it the trivia bias.