Dog whistle

This weekend I mentioned in passing that “everyone knows the phrase States’ Rights is a dog whistle.” And one of my friends replied “I didn’t know that.”

I guess that’s the point of a dog whistle. Not everyone knows the whole story. It’s a sign only to the initiates. As an anonymous right-wing messageboard strategist explains: “Leftists will recognize dog whistles and know we’re crypto, but normies won’t listen to them.”

But I was still surprised to hear someone say they didn’t recognize that one. Look up Dog-Whistle Politics on Wikipedia: “States’ Rights” is the canonical example.

In 1980, Reagan kicked off his presidential campaign at the Neshoba County Fair, near Philadelphia Mississippi, a town famous as the site of several civil-rights-related murders in 1964. So, how did he open his campaign? Praise of states’ rights. This was as clear a signal as possible to anyone who knew anything. Newspapers condemned it. I mean, sure, liberal out of touch coastal elite newspapers, but the New York Times is still a national newspaper. This was a longstanding pro-segregation slogan, used in a major political speech, in a town known for bloody battles over segregation and civil rights.

The use of racist dog-whistles is a deliberate Republican strategy, famously described by Reagan adviser Lee Atwater:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “N*****, n*****, n*****.” By 1968, you can’t say “n*****” — 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 “N*****, n*****.”

I thought people knew this. I thought it was obvious. But I think I have just been blind to how effective that dog-whistle really is. Because somehow, after all that, people think the Republican party doesn’t have anything to do with racism, even though Nixon, Reagan, George H. W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Trump all swept to office on tides of racism. It was most explicit for Nixon, Reagan, and Trump, and somewhat less so for the Bush boys. But not that much less.

If you think David Brooks is right, check again

David Brooks has a pretty decent column, for once, in the Times today. He discusses Trump’s strange lack of “theory of mind” and notes that the world is over-analyzing his work.

But Trump seems to have not yet developed a theory of mind. Other people are black boxes that supply either affirmation or disapproval. As a result, he is weirdly transparent. He wants people to love him, so he is constantly telling interviewers that he is widely loved. In Trump’s telling, every meeting was scheduled for 15 minutes but his guests stayed two hours because they liked him so much.

We’ve got this perverse situation in which the vast analytic powers of the entire world are being spent trying to understand a guy whose thoughts are often just six fireflies beeping randomly in a jar.

This seems pretty insightful! And it would seem more insightful if I had not read a nearly identical piece from David Roberts, writing in Vox, four days ago:

On Twitter I talked about “theory of mind,” a basic capacity humans develop around the age of 2 or 3 to recognize that other people are independent agents, distinct minds, with their own beliefs, desires, fears, etc. We learn to “read” behaviors as evidence of those internal states.

Much of the dialogue around him, the journalism and analysis, even the statements of his own surrogates, amounts to a desperate attempt to construct a Theory of Trump, to explain what he does and says through some story about his long-term goals and beliefs.

But what if there’s nothing to understand? What if there’s no there there? What if our attempts to explain Trump have failed not because we haven’t hit on the right one, but because we are, theory-of-mind-wise, overinterpreting the text?

In Which I Am Enraged By Lazy Beverage Journalism

It's hard to remember now, but in the 70s and 80s, whiskey was the outdated old man drink, the sort of thing squares and hillbillies drank. It started to come back a little in the 90s with the single-malt Scotch trend, but it wasn't really until the 2000s that American whiskeys became fashionable again. It's only in this decade that rye has come into its own; it hadn't really been a major factor in the industry since before Prohibition.

Which is something of a long-winded introduction to the fact that Southern Comfort is returning whiskey as an ingredient to its liqueur, instead of "grain neutral spirit." The New York Times covers this marketing update as though it's an interesting development in the product. 

It's not.

First off, the definition of whiskey is flexible enough that there's precious little difference between the two. It's not "straight bourbon" they're adding to the mix – it's just unaged white dog whiskey, grain spirits that are only slightly less purified than what they'd been using before. The new SoCo will be essentially the same product, but with whiskey-soaked brand appeal.

Not only is this just a brand update, it's actually way behind the trend. Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey, following a 2007 rebranding that moved it out of the lineup of Dr. McGillicuddy's schnapps, has completely supplanted Southern Comfort as the leader in the "underage binge-drinking vomit instigator" product category. They're playing catch-up a decade late with this product.

The Times article is by Robert Simonson, filling in for Eric Asimov's usual wine column this week. That may explain why it's such a low-effort regurgitation of a press release. It's basically written by the only person quoted – Kevin Richards, Senior Marketing Director for Southern Comfort. Did Simonson talk to a bartender anywhere? Did he taste both versions of the liqueur? No. This is lazy, lazy writing. 

That doesn't exactly matter for something as trivial as a beverage marketed primarily at undergraduates.

But if I can't trust the Times to do a decent job reporting on a trivial subject I happen to know about, how do I know they're doing a good job on important things?

They've certainly been dropping the ball in the opinion section. They published two op-eds by people from one of those bogus "Crisis Pregnancy Centers" without disclosing that they are, in fact, paid employees of an operation that tricks women into thinking they're getting healthcare when they're actually getting some prayers and condescension. I mean, the fact that Ross Douthat still has a job is appalling.