September 28, 2006

If it's a whistle, the dogs aren't hearing it

A couple of days ago, in response to my post "The comma was really a dog whistle" (9/26/2006), Josh Jensen wrote:

A very conservative evangelical, I would never have associated Bush's 'comma' reference with the period/comma saying, though I don't doubt that one of his speech writers got the idea there. Perhaps I'll take the quotation to a seminary class tomorrow (a Greek class, likely to have generally well-educated Evangelicals in it) and then to work (a Christian adoption agency) to find out whether anyone hears the whistle. (The experiment may only prove that we're all the wrong kind of Evangelical, though I suspect that we all voted for Bush.)

(Look at the bottom of the earlier dog-whistle post to see the rest of Josh's comments, including a link to an interesting G.K. Chesterton essay "On the Cryptic and the Elliptic".)

Today, Josh wrote back with a report on what he found.

I talked with 12 people today, all conservative Evangelical (Presbyterian, Southern Baptist, and independent Baptist).

I read Bush's statement and made sure that the person understood the context. Then I asked, "Does the comma reference bring to mind any well-known sayings or images?"

No one came up with any version of "Our periods are God's commas," and no one felt that they would have come up with that on their own.

Some other numbers:

The group was evenly divided by sex (6 female, 6 male).
3 have Ph.D.s (O.T. Interpretation, N.T. Interpretation, Psychology).
1 has a master's degree (MPH).
3 are working on master's degrees.
2 never graduated from college but work as professionals.

Half indicated that they recognized the saying once I revealed the secret code.

Three listened to the Bush quotation and then said, "Like a blip [on the screen]?" (Perhaps Bush is sending coded messages to radar operators.)

A bit later, Josh sent in some additional results:

Perhaps I've run this into the ground, but a few more observations from the very conservative:

One person said that Bush's comment was the most idiotic thing she'd ever heard (she wasn't objecting to using a comma as a metaphor, but to Bush's minimizing the current situation in Iraq<

One person called Wolf Blitzer a bully and suggested that Bush needs a speaking coach.

One person objected to Bush's goal of spreading democracy.

At least three people thought it would be cool if Bush were sending them secret messages, but they didn't indicate that they'd ever received any.

By occupation: two work for a Christian mission board; three are students in seminary classes; two are seminary professors; four are adoption professionals; and one is an accountant.

The fact that President Bush said

I like to tell people when the final history is written on Iraq, it will look like just a comma... [emphasis added]

suggests that the "comma" metaphor was (perhaps a slightly garbled version of) one of the president's talking points on Iraq. And whether he came up with it himself, or got it from a speechwriter or other spinmeister, there's a good chance that Gracie Allen's proverb and its spread by the UCC played some role in evoking the idea. But the "political dog whistle" theory is looking about as plausible as Leonard Sax's story about why girls think their fathers are yelling.

Posted by Mark Liberman at September 28, 2006 01:05 AM