Thursday, July 23, 2015

What If the Dog Misses the Whistle?

Lee Smith has an utterly dreadful piece in Tablet claiming that Barack Obama employed anti-Semitic "dog whistles" in his interview with Jon Stewart. Now, I'm Jewish and pretty attuned to anti-Semitism to boot, and I watched the Stewart interview without anything setting my ears a-prick. Indeed, I thought back on the interview and couldn't even recall anything that might be a contender for an anti-Semitic dog whistle. Perhaps that's because I'm part of the strong plurality of Jews who supports the deal. But it says something meaningful when those who should be most attuned to the whistle apparently fail to hear it.

So what was the part of the interview that Smith contends is Obama's lapse into anti-Semitism? The apparent answer is that Obama urged Congress to not be influenced by "lobbyists" in voting yay or nay on the deal. Smith's line of reasoning is that attacking "lobbyists" inherently conjures up images of illicit Jewish financial influence and dual loyalties. It's more than a bit of a stretch, particularly since Smith manages to refute it in his own column: Attacking "lobbyists" is a standard-issue, borderline cliche invocation in American politics that is employed by all politicians of all backgrounds on all issues. Smith is actually right that it is essentially a meaningless statement -- all politics is lobbying of one form or another; it's just a question of which lobbyists one prefers -- but that further emphasizes that this is meaningless rhetoric, not a dog whistle of any variety.

That's not to say that "lobby" rhetoric cannot be used in an anti-Semitic fashion. When politicians suggests that there is something inherently suspect about Jewish groups engaging in lobbying, or contends that Jews winning the political game is proof of a political malfunction, or asserts that we lack a democratic system due to outsized Jewish control, those are all anti-Semitic tropes without question. But boilerplate rhetoric against opposing lobbyists is a far cry from that. Smith needs to learn to distinguish a dog whistle from a voice inside his own head.

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