Back off the dog whistles, Bernie, or we won't take you seriously any more, if we ever did

Becky O'Malley
Friday April 08, 2016 - 01:49:00 PM

Hey, Bernie, ever heard of “dog whistles”? Evidently not, or you wouldn’t be using dog whistles so eagerly in your revved-up attacks on Hillary Clinton in the last couple of days, or at least I hope you wouldn’t.

I see that my pagemate Bob Burnett has already done an excellent job of debunking the myths about Clinton which have been spread by the rightwing and unfortunately adopted by some of Bernie Sanders’ friends. (I can’t resist an apt cliché: “With friends like that, he doesn’t need enemies!”)

So I won’t have to go into the substance of these phony charges, but can concentrate on their tone, including Bernie’s own words, his own choice of dogwhistle vocabulary. 

First, for those of you who have missed the last 20 years of political discourse, what’s a dog whistle? It’s a metaphor, based on the fact that dogs are able to hear higher frequencies than humans, so it’s possible to call them with a high-pitched whistle that only dogs can hear.

By association, the term means derogatory comments which only some listeners, often the targets of the comments, can perceive.

Let’s take first, e.g., as a minor example, this report on Politico.com of what Bernie said:

"…I will not be hustling money from the wealthy and the powerful.”

No one should have to explain to a 74-year-old man that “hustler” is a term often used for female prostitutes, and is therefore an unfortunate choice of words to describe the behavior of a female opponent. You may disagree with Hillary Clinton, Bernie, but she’s not a whore.

Then there’s that even more loaded word, “qualified”. That’s a term that’s all too familiar to any American woman of a certain age or any non-white American. It might not resonate the same way with an old white guy like Bernie, of course. 

Don’t get me wrong. Some of my best friends—perhaps many of my best friends—are Old White Guys like Bernie. They’re just not in a position to understand what it’s been like for women and minorities to challenge the gatekeepers on the road to achievement. 

For most of my adult life, “qualified” has actually meant “over-qualified”. When I applied to college in the late 50s, Stanford as a matter of policy admitted five men for every woman in their student body. Even though I got into Stanford and was offered a scholarship, I went to a women’s college, partly because studying some place where five out of six of my classmates were less “qualified” than me seemed boring. Young Hillary Rodham made the same choice a few years later. 

When I was living in Ann Arbor around 1970, I applied to the University of Michigan Law School. I was told by a dean that they’d never admitted a woman with small children and weren’t about to start then. Luckily I moved back to California and could go to law school here. 

In the 1980s and 1990s I partnered in a family enterprise, a high tech start-up in the speech technology market, with my computer scientist husband and adult daughter. This was not long after the big kahuna in the speech technology world, AT&T, signed a landmark consent decree to eliminate discriminatory recruiting, hiring and promotion practices against women and minorities. 

I soon learned that the best way of avoiding the mind-numbing banalities of the speech industry trade shows was to talk to the few black people who were there, because inevitably they were much smarter and more interesting that their white colleagues, because they had to be over-qualified to get their jobs, even when backed by the consent decree. Many had originally been hired at AT&T only because of the legal pressure. 

At the time I’d been admitted to the California Bar, and I’d been an award-winning investigative reporter while I was in law school. My daughter, who did most of our business in Asia, had a degree from Columbia in Asian studies and spoke Japanese. We were both very good at what we did, and the business was eventually a success, but I’m sure that if it hadn’t been a family enterprise our opportunities as women would have been much more limited. 

In the same way, Hillary Rodham Clinton has benefited from her partnership with an equally “qualified” man, but she’s gotten where she is today based on her own qualifications, which frankly on paper look a lot more impressive than Bernie Sanders’. 

Just a quick Wikipedia look with the eye of an experienced employer tells me that he’s never had a “real job.” He had the usual assortment of 60s and 70s pickup careers (carpenter, filmmaker….) consistent with his age and class. He was the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, for a few years (~42,000 population, maybe a third the size of Berkeley) and has been a senator from his cute little adopted state (population about 650,000, cf. San Francisco, ~ 850,000). But he has had no substantial executive experience. 

Education? A year at CCNY, followed by an indifferent B.A. in Poli-Sci from the U. of Chicago and a bit of something-or-other at the New School. Wikipedia tells us he didn’t much like school. That’s it. 

Hillary’s “qualifications”, on paper? Too numerous and well-known to detail here, but let’s just say a much better education and several more responsible and demanding jobs. Look it up yourself if you don’t know. 

It was Bernie Sanders who brought up “qualifications”, perhaps because he was stung by Clinton’s admittedly Mom-ish observation that “he hadn't done his homework”. No one likes Mom to say that, even if it’s true. But to the country’s legion of women and non-whites who have been over-qualified all their lives yet excluded from almost anything they wanted to do, it’s a dog whistle, especially if comes from an Old White Guy like Sanders. 

Hillary is bolstered by the support of African-American voters, especially the over-qualified older ones who know that they could have achieved more on a level playing field. One of my closest friends, an African-American woman of a certain age (close to Bernie’s) made the front page of the New York Times because she drove a car full of her peers from Ohio to South Carolina to put Clinton over the top in that primary, and there are many more like her. 

So Bernie, don’t try to tell us about what it means to be “qualified.” You started it, and you’re on the wrong track. 

My local friends, many but not all Old White Guys, tend to like Bernie Sanders because he’s One of Us. Certainly no one in my circle would disagree with his goals—he’s a great salesman for good ideas whose time has come. A friend who lives in a college town in the enlightened part of the South (yes, there are such places) says that Bernie supporters there, both men and women of all ages, now describe themselves as radicals, but they actually missed out on the action in the 60s, as, of course, did his legion of youthful fans. I see the same thing among well-meaning Berkeleyans. 

And he’s cute, in that cuddly way that many Old White Guys, including some of my best friends, are. But it’s not all about cute now, if it ever was. Whatever Sanders’ qualifications are or were, he’s not going to win the nomination, and he needs to face that fact and adjust his course appropriately. 

The “qualified” category is not just binary, it’s a spectrum. It starts as “unqualified”, which includes all the Republicans in the race. Then there’s “qualified”, which both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton should have the good sense to concede applies to their opponent in the Democratic nomination race. After that, it’s reasonable to judge that Hillary is actually “over-qualified” for historical reasons, with a much better resume than anyone else in the race and a demonstrated capacity to learn and change when the situation requires it. 

Finally, there’s “disqualified”, which is the one that Bernie Sanders needs to watch out for, and quickly. He’s right on the edge of disqualifying himself from serious consideration as a contributor to the public forum at the moment. 

Bernie, if you can’t remember to play hard but play fair (sorry to sound Mom-ish) you don't belong in the game.