Are the words "Obama isn't working," hung on a grey banner behind Mitt Romney's head at a campaign appearance in Ohio some sort of secret, racist dog-whistle? Over at Mediaite, Tommy Christopher says yes. I say something that sounds like, "Huhhhhheeehhhhghhhh," and ends in gurgling sounds and an eye-roll. Let's unpack, I guess?
Christopher writes that upon seeing the banner, certain "multiple meanings" were clear.
President Obama‘s policies aren’t working, the Obama presidency isn’t working, President Obama…isn’t working, as in, doing any work. That’s not a nice thing to say about any president, but like it or not, it becomes a more loaded accusation when leveled at our first black president.
Just to be sure it wasn’t just me, though, I asked several friends about the banner, and four out of four pointed out, unprompted, the stereotype of the “lazy,” “shiftless” black man. One of the people I called was cable news fixture Goldie Taylor, who, upon hearing my description of the banner, said “Are you kidding me? You have got to be kidding me.”
She also noted the multiple meanings, and the unmistakable stereotype it evokes, but didn’t think it was intentional.
I mean...I sort of get it? But at the same time, I also know that this phrase is directly borrowed from an age-old political advertisement from late 1970s England. And the Romney campaign borrowed it a long time ago. Back in June of 2011, it introduced this phrase, and Slate's Dave Weigel -- who is pretty Arlen Spectery in his capacity to identify political obscuranta -- immediately recognized it as a Conservative Party slogan from the Thatcher era. Now Christopher is aware of this as well, but for some reason, it hasn't convinced him that some sort of sub-rosa racism isn't in play.
A side-by-side comparison of how the Romney team initially deployed the slogan is perhaps what's needed here to clarify things:
The original use didn't just borrow the Conservative Party slogan, it borrowed the image of long unemployment lines as well. That pretty clearly ties the concept to high unemployment rates. If you're wondering why it's been a while since you've seen it, consider the fact that for the past few months, as employment has gone up, it's been harder to make the argument.
As Weigel reported last year: "Romney adman Stuart Stevens tells me the tribute was intentional, and that there are parallels between Thatcher's 1979 victory and today." Well, as you can see from the above, the intentional tribute was not just alluded to, it was literally copied wholesale. The only change here is that "Labour" has been swapped out for "Obama." (And yes, as is all too often the case, when Americans try to adapt from the British, they leaden the wit.)
So this is definitively a nostalgic tribute, the sole intention being to call to mind the economic conditions of the United Kingdom circa 1979. Does the symbolic comparison lose something when the lines of the unemployed are deleted and the phrase slapped on a black background? Sure. But that's called "branding."
Now, without a perfect awareness of the phrase and its origins and how Romney's campaign team originally deployed it, could one make all sorts of dark inferences? Sure, why not? But these inferences were clearly unintended. Logic this out with me: if a campaign wants to use a racist dog-whistle, they're going to go with something that's instantly recognizable. Dog-whistles are shibboleths -- they work because of shared signifiers that are rooted in a tradition. They don't work when you invent a new one, based on an obscure ad from 1970s England. You don't activate right-wing racial resentment by confusing right-wing racial resenters with signals they neither recognize or understand.
Now, in his attempt to point out what he believes he is seeing, is Mediaite's Tommy Christopher, in fact, the real racist, as this blogger argues? Sweet fancy Moses, no! This line of nontroversy escalation is what I call the "Schrödinger's catfight" -- "You're the one who noticed all of these bad things, therefore, you are yourself the bad thing!" When presented with this argument, eyeroll even harder, because you're arguing with a bum.
Whatever happened to just saying, "I think you're wrong about this?" That works just fine! When you inevitably disagree with my assessment, just try saying that.
UPDATE: Now, Romney appearing with this sign? THAT'S a dog-whistle.
MORE UPDATE: Christopher writes, "Just for the record, I did not call that banner racist." O-kay! So, we're all in agreement, then?
[Would you like to follow me on Twitter? Because why not?]