This is a lesson in how dog whistles work.
If you're not familiar with the term "dog whistle" in politics, here's a quick primer: As a literal dog whistle emits a pitch that only dogs can hear, a political dog whistle sends a message that only a particular constituency will hear or intuitively understand.
Thanks to his speechwriters, Bush has been dog whistling to his evangelicals for the past eight years; often, when we heathens think he sounds most nonsensical, it's because he's sending a coded message to his Jesus freak friends.
Often, dog whistles are merely a covert shout-out to a particular constituency – but sometimes, they're meant to be provocative, to quietly speak to subconscious (or conscious) biases and evoke a particular visceral reaction.
Such is the case with John McCain's campaign TV spot linking Barack Obama with Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. On its face, it's an obvious editorial on Obama's intelligence and competency, as his image is juxtaposed with two women alleged to be airheads while the voiceover somberly intones: "Is he ready to lead?" And thus there is an element of commentary on whether he is undeserving and entitled, with which Hilton and Spears are routinely charged. Famous for no reason, just a pretty face, the ad implies.
But loitering below the ostensibly substantive critique is something more nefarious. It's no coincidence that it wasn't vacuous tabloid fixtures such as American Idol punchline Sanjaya Malakar who appears in the advert – and it's not because he’s not famous enough. Nor was Scarlett Johannson chosen to be in the spot; she famously supports him, has campaigned with him and whose twin brother works for him despite her being arguably as recognisable as Hilton and Spears – and it's not because she's not young, blonde or beautiful enough.
It because neither Malakar nor Johansson have personas that are the perfect combination of no brains, no talent and all slut.
Obama, dog whistles the ad and hitting old racists in the sweet spot, could fuck these white girls – it's practically a Democratic tradition: JFK, Clinton, heck even Carter lusted in his heart, and we sure as hell don't want that, now, do we?
Dick Nixon first used the dog whistle in 1968, Reagan refined it and Karl Rove perfected it for Bush the Younger. Not coincidentally, a key Rove protégé is now a key McCain strategist.
It recalls the despicable “bimbo ad” used against black senate candidate Harold Ford in Tennessee in 2006, in which a white actress was hired to claim she'd met Ford at a Playboy party and asked the candidate to "call me," playing on deeply-ingrained and ancient biases about interracial sex. But the difference between the "bimbo ad," also a Republican production, and the McCain ad is that the former was explicit in its miscegenation message whereas the latter is more, well, dog-whistly. And its deliberate obliqueness has set in motion a series of events all too familiar to civil rights activists, feminists, LGBT activists and various other social justice advocates.
The dog whistle piques them with something the average person won't see as bigoted, but that the constituency for which they advocate (and which they're a part) will expect them to call out because they instantly spy it and recognize it for what it is; they've heard the tune of that particular string being plucked their whole lives. Then whoever calls it out is marginalised as a hysteric, over-reactionary, looking to get offended and so on ad naseum.
And that's exactly how the game played out. McCain piques Obama and his constituency, Obama responds, McCain and the rightwing accuse Obama of playing the race card, his opponents unleash their new favourite battle cry: "You can't criticize Obama without being called a racist." Clockwork.
See how that works? Wheeeee!
And well-meaning people who miss the low-flying racial message (which will be intuited precisely as designed by old racists) will insist it's just about Obama being ninny-brained and uppity, making the complex deconstruction so easy to dismiss – or, rather, making the people who do the deconstruction easy to dismiss.
Meanwhile, since when did implying a black man is uppity stop being examined for racist undertones? In America, African-Americans have been lynched for a lot less.
*When I was young, oh so much younger than today, I believed that the United States would become completely unhinged at some point in my lifetime. This...