Until the other day, a dog whistle to me was something that I used mostly in vain to try to persuade a wayward pet to return home.
Even though I’ve been around canines for much of my life, and presently serve as co-guardian of a yellow Lab in Boulder County, Colorado, where pet ownership is frowned upon, the more sinister meaning had just never caught my attention.
Dog-whistling is something that Congressman Paul Ryan has been accused of doing lately, in the not so grand tradition of Barry Goldwater, Dick Nixon, Ronald Reagan and—to be unreasonably fair, I’m sure—the occasional politician of other persuasions.
The dog-whistle metaphor has to do with the concept of messages that can be perceived or understood only by those who are inclined to perceive or understand them a certain way. As our canine companions react to sounds at frequencies that humans cannot detect, some humans react to certain words and phrases quite differently from others.
Dog-whistling is using code words or phrases such as “states’ rights” and “forced busing” and “inner city” to let like-minded members of your audience know what you are talking about without saying it straight out. In this example, of course, the message is about race.
So what’s my message?
Just this: Listen closely and decipher carefully the noises that our would-be leaders make. They clearly can’t be trusted to say what they really think.