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A silent whistle

Paranoia about rhetoric does more harm than good

Artillery Row

Disraeli liked to write; Churchill liked to paint. The great hobby of today’s Conservative Prime Ministers is North-London-bashing. David Cameron’s bogeyman was the “Hampstead socialist”. Boris Johnson’s preferred punching-bag was Islington (perhaps forgetting that he used to live there). Then, it seems, the eggheads at CCHQ focus-grouped, crunched the numbers and settled on “North London”, rather than particular stops on the Northern Line, as the PMQs insult most likely to Cut Through to the Red Wall. Fresh from kissing hands with Her Majesty, in one of the highlights of their two-day overlap, even Liz Truss managed to squeeze in a swipe. Her successor took no delay in doing the same: Sir Keir is out of touch, says Rishi Sunak, because he “rarely leaves North London”.

For a criminal to be convicted, there does need to be a dead person

A few months ago, Janan Ganesh wrote an article in the Financial Times decrying the “foul overtone” of these attacks. North London, you see, is the Jewish part of town. Bashing it, Ganesh argued, might therefore be a “dogwhistle” for antisemites. Such a “dogwhistle”, even if blown “accidentally”, is “no safer than the wilful kind”. 

Now, I grew up in North London. It so happens that I am a Jew, and that I grew up in a very Jewish area. It so happens, as well, that from my house I can walk for no more than an hour or so and end up in Jeremy Corbyn’s constituency, or Diane Abbott’s, or David Lammy’s, or Emily Thornberry’s, or Keir Starmer’s. I can also walk to the council ward where Tony Blair cut his teeth, and Peter Mandelson’s primary school and the childhood home of the Milibands — not to mention the tomb of Karl Marx. So, we have a conundrum. Which is more likely: do the Tories invoke North London in their attacks on Labour because of the obvious fact that the British left is dominated by North Londoners? Or do they attack North London to encode (perhaps even subconsciously) secret antisemitic messages that might appeal to certain sectors of the population? 

I can understand why one might opt for the latter. Ganesh describes how Tories indulge in anti-North-Londonism in part to project their own elite status: “to delineate one swish part of the capital from others requires inside knowledge of the geo-cultural gradations within the top tier of society”. Crying “dogwhistle”, as Ganesh does, is the same kind of thing: you might think “North London” is an innocuous attack-line, poking fun at Labour’s North-Circular-bound parochialism, but I, being intelligent, know it to be something more sinister. The locus classicus of anti-dogwhistlism, a 2016 article by Scott Alexander, hit on this point. During the Republican primaries that year, Ted Cruz accused Donald Trump of having “New York values” (“New York”, I am led to believe, is American for “North London”). A chump might think this was just a Texan’s run-of-the-mill jab at a New Yorker, but we sophisticated people know what Cruz really meant.

In the New Yorker, Rebecca Mead, like Ganesh, contended that even if the North London “dogwhistle” isn’t blown intentionally, “intentions aren’t the only things that matter: whether a criminal is convicted of murder or manslaughter, the victim is just as dead”. Granted — but for this criminal to be convicted at all, there does need to be a dead person. Generally speaking, if something bad isn’t bad in its intention, it must be bad in its consequences. Yet there does not seem to be a commensurate spike in antisemitic sentiments in Britain traceable to Tory “North London” rhetoric. If it really is a dogwhistle, then, it isn’t a very effective one. Indeed, the only people who seem to have picked up on it are members of the liberal commentariat. They’re the “dogs”

The dogwhistle provides handy cover for accusations without evidence

If a tree falls in the woods and nobody’s there to hear it, does it make a sound? If a dogwhistle is “blown accidentally” without malice, if the message it supposedly conveys is otherwise undetectable, and if in the end it isn’t heard by any “dogs”, is it really a dogwhistle? There is, as you can see, something pseudoscientific to this peculiar species of woke-Straussianism, something even of the warped mentality of the conspiracy-theorist. “There’s a gas in the room, says the sophisticated person to the chump. “It’s colourless and odourless and entirely unreactive; it leaves no trace; it has no effect; we have no corroborative evidence for it being there at all. But trust me: it is. And trust me: it’s dangerous.”

Being so flimsy — and flimsy by definition — the dogwhistle can provide handy cover for those who wish to throw about accusations of bigotry without supplying them with actual evidence. Last week Billy Bragg accused Julie Bindel of “smear[ing] the trans community with the same trope that was used against gay men in the 1980s — that they are all paedophiles”. Bindel replied that Bragg’s allegations were defamatory; she had, after all, said or done nothing of the sort. Anxious not to get himself into a legal spot of bother, and presumably knowing that he was on thin ice, Bragg had just the plan to wriggle out. “It was a classic dog whistle, Julie,” he retorted, pointing at nothing. “Subtle, I’ll give you that. 

You can now understand why, like Hagrid’s Fluffy at the sound of music, I tend to switch off when I hear the word “dogwhistle”. Most of the time, the “dogwhistle” turns out to simply be made up, whether out of well-intentioned hypersensitivity, vain status-projection or, as in Bragg’s case, cynicism and dishonesty. In the few remaining cases, where the dogwhistle may have some meat to it, I suspect one would still do well to dispense with that word and concept altogether. One will almost always be able to find a sturdier foundation for the charge of bigotry (and such a charge, I think, warrants a sturdy foundation), if only one is willing to look for it. 

The rise of dogwhistlism could only occur in a society which gives more status-points for fancifully finding examples of bigotry in quotidian life and “calling them out”, than it does for saying things like “relax”, “calm down”, “sober up or “false alarm”. “False alarm” might in some circumstances be the kindest, as well as the most rational, thing to say — if, that is, one really does care about the communities which dogwhistlism purports to protect. How does it help us Jews to be whipped into a state of paranoid frenzy whenever a Tory takes a jibe at North London? Why promote a narrative that the Prime Minister would chuck us under the bus to win some votes — that doing so even would win him votes in the first place — if the evidence for such a narrative is so threadbare? Why should we be coaxed into finding signs of danger even in the most mundane of utterances? A dog who is disturbed all the time by high-frequency whistling, who comes to imagine that sound even when it’s not there, will be constantly anxious and frightened, unable to feel at ease. To incessantly cry “dogwhistle” may seem vigilant and noble to some. To me, it seems cruel. 

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