January 05, 2008


Josh Marshall, "WTF?", Talking Points Memo 1/5/2008:

TPMer Eric Kleefeld and I were chatting this evening about whether everyone's underestimating Huckabee's chances in this race. And I think Eric may be on to something. But then I go over to Huck's site and I see his pitch to supporters, which you can see in this screen capture.

Can anyone explain what the hell that means? Vertical? I guess if you're main opponent was Fred Thompson you might push the fact that you spend most of your time standing up. But seriously, is there something I'm missing here? Or is this the weirdest campaign I've ever heard?

Josh's readers clued him in: "Apparently this is a big buzzword for Huckabee. He wants to end the horizontal politics and get back to vertical politics." A YouTube clip of Governor Huckabee talking about horizontal and vertical politics on Meet the Press is here.

Other readers suggested to Josh that "there's some crypto-evangelical code wording going on with it too". The evidence includes a page entitled "Vertical vs. Horizontal Thinking", which contrasts the "vertical logic" of the "devout Christian" for whom "everything emanates from God", with the "horizontal logic of the freethinker". And then there's vertical thought ("a magazine of understanding for tomorrow's leaders"), with this table of contents for its January-March 2008 issue:

- Editorial: Vive la Différence!
- Did God Intend a Difference?
- The Honorable Role of Men
- The Honorable Role of Women
- Where Have All the Young Men Gone?
- Feminism's Fatal Flaw
- Careers and Motherhood: Maximizing Your Options
- What Guys Need to Know Before Marriage
- What Girls Need to Know Before Marriage
- Are You Up for the Challenge?
- Where Do the Dinosaurs Fit?

(If you're curious to learn where dinosaurs in fact do fit into the divine plan for modern marriage, you may be as disappointed as I was to find that the last article is not actually connected to the sex-role theme of the rest of the issue. Instead it describes the Reese Chronological Bible, in which the Genesis six-day creation story is reinterpreted as a re-creation story. "Satan's rebellion apparently happened after the earth had passed through the dinosaur age", and made everything "chaotic and in confusion", so that God needed to undertake a "six-day renewal of the earth" that included the creation of Adam and Eve. The challenges of marriage are not mentioned.)

Anyhow, Josh concludes that

The more I look at this I don't think there's any question this is a clever dog whistle call out to Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals that his politics are God's politics.

The verticalthought magazine is published by the United Church of God, not Huckabee's denomination, the Southern Baptists, and it's not clear to me how widely among evangelicals "vertical" is used to mean "God-oriented" -- but the connection is certainly out there, and it seems plausible that it's at least part of the background for Huckabee's decision to choose this metaphor.

Josh's phrase dog whistle is itself a piece of political-operative jargon, discussed at some length in an earlier Language Log post ("The comma really was a dog whistle", 9/26/2006). The first place that I ever saw this phrase was in a weblog post by Ian Welch ("Just a Comma: Dog Whistle Politics",  The Agonist, 9/25/2006):

The other name for this is dog whistle politics. When you blow a dog whistle humans can't hear it, but the dogs sure can. It's a pitch higher than humans can hear. When you speak in code like this, most of the time the only people who hear and understand what you just said are the intended group, who have an understanding of the world and a use of words that is not shared by the majority of the population. So it allows you to send out two messages at once - one pitched for the majority of Americans, the other pitched for a subgroup. This goes on all the time, and usually it isn't caught - most people don't hear it, and the media is made up of people who can't make the connections because they don't belong to these subgroups. So they can't point out the subtext either.

It's very effective, and it's one reason why Bush still has his hard core of support - he's constantly reassuring them, at a pitch the rest of us can't hear.

The "dog whistle" in that case was supposed to be President Bush's comment that the Iraq war is "just a comma". As discussed in the cited Language Log post, that particular argument turned out to be an extremely weak one, since the relevant use of comma was found mainly in the (left-wing) United Church of Christ, and was apparently unknown to the conservative evangelicals who were the alleged dog-whistle target.

The argument for vertical may be stronger -- it does seem plausible that Governor Huckabee's use of this word comes from his evangelical roots. But I would still question whether this case fits the definition of a "political dog whistle", since Huckabee's use of the word is not unheard by non-evangelicals like Josh Marshall, but rather strikes them as so weird that they conclude that Huckabee is presenting an inept and incoherent message, or look into the matter further and discover the underlying religious metaphor. So it's less like a dog whistle and more like a buffet table furnished with platters of dog food.

Meanwhile, what linguists want to know is whether the ADS Word Of The Year for 2008 will be vertical. Only time will tell: stay tuned.

[Although I first saw "dog whistle politics" in Ian Welch's weblog post in 2006, this use of dog whistle was featured in a 10/17/2004 NYT Week in Review piece:

The potential double meaning rekindled speculation among Mr. Bush's critics that he communicates with his conservative Christian base with a dog-whistle of code words and symbols, deliberately incomprehensible to secular liberals.

The phrase was used, in a slightly different sense, with reference to British politics by Alan Cowell, "Britian's Tory Candidate Running as Mr. Congeniality", NYT 4/18/2005:

Mr. Howard has reached for simplicity, possibly at the urging of Lynton Crosby, a publicity-shy Australian adviser who is credited with introducing to Britain what is called dog-whistle politics - the notion that elections can be won on the handful of emotive issues that will hit voters like a high-pitched whistle. Mr. Howard's slender party manifesto listed cleaner hospitals, safer schools, lower taxes, more police and controlled immigration among the party's targets.

And the phrase was featured in a William Safire column "Dog Whistle", 4/24/2005:

Issue-ism has a new entry: the dog-whistle issue is upon us, brought about -- possibly from Down Under -- by the rise of dog-whistle politics.

The general dog-whistle metaphor -- a way of talking about signals that summon some and are ignored by others -- is much older. I expect that it's been around roughly as long as the use of whistles above the range of human hearing to signal dogs, though I don't know when that practice was invented. Thus Julie V. Iovine in the NYT 6/10/1999:

... William Wegman, the conceptual artist and dog-theme merchandiser, whose fans respond to his outpouring of videos, PBS programs, books, commercials, posters and kitchen magnets as if answering the siren call of a high-pitched dog whistle.

There have been some very different uses of the dog-whistle metaphor in political discourse, e.g. C. L. Sulzberger, "Two Letters That Marshal Tito Didn't Like", 10/20/1956:

In Yugoslav eyes long incubation in despotism has induced in the Russians habits of thought and action unsuited to the European mind. It is, they say, sometimes as if Moscow sought to play a Wagner melody upon the sonic range of a dog whistle.


[David Barry writes:

The Internet doesn't seem to have a clear idea of the origin of "dog-whistle politics". Wikipedia says that it originated in Australia in the mid-1990's. I am Australian, and I certainly thought it was here well before your examples from 2004 and 2005. I think the mid-90's is too early, and the Factiva database's earliest result is an article in The Age from 8 April 2000. But the journalist (Tony Wright) says that it was an American term!

One of Howard's Liberal colleagues says the Prime Minister is clever in his ability to sound reasonable on most subjects, and has such mastery of the language that he can frame sentences that appear to say one thing while allowing the listener to interpret the words in
another way.

"It is often very difficult to nail him because of his ability to sound reasonable,'' the MP says. ``He is so very persuasive.''

The Americans call this "dog-whistle politics''. Blow a dog whistle, and you won't hear much to get excited about. But the target of the whistle -the dogs - will detect a sound beyond the audible range of the rest of us, and will react to it. Two quite different messages are contained within the one action of blowing the whistle: the one benign, the other designed to be heard and heeded only by the ears tuned to it.

The beauty of this approach is that if your critics claim they have detected a secret message, you can deny it, and accuse your accusers of deliberately and mischievously seeking the non-existent.

Anyway, it's a bit strange for me to read explanations of dog whistles on the Language Log, since I've been hearing the term for years. It is reasonably common in newspapers and in political blogs in Australia, mostly from critics of the now former Howard government.

Well, the phrase was apparently both common enough and new enough in the U.S. for William Safire to write a column about it in 2005 -- though I obviously wasn't paying attention -- but it might well have been common political-operative jargon in the 1990s, I don't know. As I said, I'd expect to see the "summoning some, silent to others" metaphor arising soon after the introduction of the silent dog whistle itself. The OED's first citation for "silent dog whistle" is 1961, but the object is clearly quite a bit older, as indicated by the Sulzberger quote above.

The Wikipedia entry says that the kind of whistle in question was invented by Francis Galton, who died in 1911. There's a picture of one here, and this page dates the invention to 1876. However, Galton's goal was to find the upper frequency limit of human hearing, not to train or call dogs, and I don't know (yet) when such whistles were first used in dog-training. ]

[Mike McMahon writes:

US Patent 2,245,484, filed Nov 1, 1940, quite surprisingly late, looks like the one we’re used to.

The inventor was Theodore Leavens, who seems also to have been the inventor of Captain Midnight's code ring and the like, according to "Frenzied Flashes", Time Magazine, 6/9/1947. The same article also mentions "the Orphan Annie dog whistle" (shown here) as one of the offerings of Leavens' company. According to Jim Harmon, "Radio Mystery and Adventure, p. 102, this was indeed a "silent dog whistle".]

[John Brewer writes:

I have no idea whether or not "vertical" really has a special connotation in some Evangelical circles, but I saw a news story a few days ago in which Gov. Huckabee was making this pitch and it was, in context, a perfectly transparent and secular metaphor. Visualize a cartesian grid. The old, tired zero-sum politics of left v. right is movement back and forth along the x-axis that never really gets anywhere. Let's transcend that unproductive back and forth and move up the y-axis to a brighter future instead. (Implicit minor premise: the relative preferability of left v. right may be an intractable dispute, but pretty much everyone prefers "up" to "down".)

Of course, talking about traditional left v. right distinctions as something to be transcended is one of the things that makes many conservative Republicans nervous about Huckabee.

There's a separate religious use of vertical/horizontal metaphors I'm more familiar with that are current in some circles to discuss liturgy and worship. For example, those Roman Catholics unhappy with aspects of the post-Vatican 2 Mass as commonly celebrated might say that the status quo has overemphasized the "horizontal" dimension at the expense of the "vertical" (whereas those pleased with the current status quo might say it has simply struck the right balance between the dimensions). But the marriage-and-the-dinosaurs stuff seems at first glance to be probably unrelated (except in the sense that both usages treat God as being located "up" from where we are), rather than an extension of that usage.


Posted by Mark Liberman at January 5, 2008 09:47 AM