Demystifying dog whistle racism

I found the following post really interesting. I think it is very important that we use statistics and empirical research, rather than prescriptive theories, dictionaries and grammar books, to explore the true functions and meanings of words and their fluctuation over time.

linguistic pulse

Recently, I’ve noticed people using the term “dog whistle” before things like racism and classism. Although not the originator of the term, Ian Haney López (Professor of Law, University of California-Berkeley) has recently written a great deal about the concept as it relates to racial politics in the United States in his book Dog Whistle Politics (some of which is excerpted on Salon, herehere, and here).

Haney López’s argument goes something like this. As overt or explicit racism has become increasingly seen as distasteful by White voters in the United States, politicians have had to eliminate it from their discourse. However, the potential benefits of appealing to racism have not necessarily subsided especially for a subset of White conservatives. As a result, conservative politicians use “coded” language to avoid explicitly mentioning race while still sending White supremacist messages to a conservative base. As a result, Haney López…

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Ten Differences between Britain and Brazil

I am posting this text about my personal experience of diferences between Brazil and the UK in response to the WordPress day 7 Writing 101 Challenge

With the World Cup starting this week, I thought people might be interested in reading my thoughts on the differences between Britain, where I was born, and Brazil, where I have lived for the past 19 years. I can of course only speak from my own experience, which may diverge substantially from that of others and is largely restricted to the Northeast region of the country.

1. Poverty and Inequality
Although abject poverty has largely been eradicated in the past twelve years and it would be wrong to describe Brazil as a poor or underdeveloped country, there is still a yawning gulf between rich and poor. Britain is one of the most unequal of so-called developed nations, but the extent and everyday visibility of casually accepted inequality in Brazil will probably still shock a UK visitor.

2. The Cost of Living
The problem of inequality in Brazil is exacerbated by the relatively high cost of living. International visitors should not expect food, drink and accommodation to come cheap. Neither is the fact that something is expensive any guarantee of good quality. For good or ill, there is no real equivalent in Brazil of the kind of low-budget, but relatively high quality, supermarkets that are common in the UK. There is no single explanation for the phenomenon that economists and journalists call the custo Brasil, but one cause is certainly the high taxation and stringent labor laws, which hit businesses especially hard, without necessarily providing the benefits they should for the neediest members of society.

3. Corruption
Although Brazilians complain about it incessantly and there have been a number of high-profile cases recently, I do not think that Brazil is especially corrupt compared to other countries, even those that rank highly on transparency ratings. In many political systems, corruption has simply been institutionalized—and is thus subject to regulation—rather than eradicated. Think of MPs’ expenses in the UK or the extent of lobbying in the US political system. Likewise bribery, which is much rarer in today’s Brazil, tends to be institutionalized in the UK, where the police and civil servants are paid disproportionately high wages compared to, say, teachers and nurses. Influence-peddling is largely unnecessary in the UK, where the old boys network is still the norm: of the ten post-war UK Prime Ministers who attended university, only one (Gordon Brown—and what became of him?) did not go to Oxford.

4. Football
It is a cliché that Brazilians are football crazy and enthusiasm for the national team certainly runs high, especially during the World Cup. However, interest in football in general has recently been on the wane. I would say that football is much more of a national obsession in England. In Brazil, you will find none of the ill-tempered mass outpouring of grief that occurs among England fans when their team is knocked out of international competitions. When the Seleção loses, Brazilian fans quietly take down the bunting and go to bed…

5. Sexual Promiscuity
Contrary to the images of skimpily-clad sambistas that appear in the international media, Brazil is not an especially sexually permissive country. Carnival has traditionally provided some officially-sanctioned and brief outlet for the libido but, for the most part, Brazilians are a fairly socially-conservative people. Sex tourists will be mostly disappointed and are definitely not welcome.

6. Drugs and Alcohol
The kind of binge drinking that blights the weekends in the UK is severely frowned on in Brazil. Although there has been some relaxation in recent years, the possession and distribution of illegal drugs are still considered serious crimes. International guests would be well-advised to control themselves.

7. Punctuality
Every culture has a different idea of punctuality. In Brazil, a leeway of 45 minutes is totally acceptable in most circumstances…. Up to two hours for a social occasion…. And even longer for politicians or people who think they are important… However, the impression, widespread in Brazil, that the British are especially punctual, is largely a myth… In my experience, there is a leeway of about 15 minutes for business, a bit longer for pleasure, in the UK. Politicians and VIPs everywhere in the world seem to think that they are entitled to keep people waiting.

8. Work
Brazilians work extremely hard and take great pride in this. It is not uncommon for people to wake up at 5 in the morning to start work at 7 and stay at the office until 8 or 9 in the evening. You often hear men bragging about how little they sleep. In the UK, although austerity and growing inequality have taken their toll, a 9-5 working day is still regarded as the ideal norm and everyone complains about having to wake up early in the cold, dark, damp mornings…

9. Noise
Anyone coming to Brazil for a bit of peace and quiet should stay at home or try Finland. Brazilians abhor silence and are suspicious of anyone who is taciturn or reserved. People are expected to talk a lot and to talk loudly… and children are coached to do so from a very early age. Every minute of the day is filled with a comfort-blanket of music or the sound of the TV… Britons, by contrast, while not averse to a noisy pub, now and again, tend to value the silence of a rapidly receding natural environment and strive to recreate this in their homes. Voices are lowered and the volume of the television turned down, for fear of bothering the neighbors. Music is a private experience fed directly into the ear via an ipod.

10. Diversity
Brazil likes to portray itself as a ‘rainbow nation’ and its history of immigration and much greater tolerance of the melting pot even than the United States certainly justifies this. Brazil has received and welcomed a constant stream of immigrants, from Ashkenazi Jews fleeing persecution in 16th century Portugal to German and Italian dissidents seeking refuge from Hitler and Mussolini, and economic exiles from Lebanon and Japan. These individuals have contributed enormously to Brazil’s history. The current President, whose family hailed originally from Bulgaria, is one of them.

There is still, however, a certain coyness about asserting divergent racial and cultural identities. Only recently has the longstanding Jewish presence in Brazil begun proudly to declare itself as such rather than attempt to blend in. Although African culture has permeated Brazil to a far greater degree than in any other South American country, African-Brazilians still make up a hugely disproportionate portion of the poor and go almost entirely unrepresented in the higher echelons of society. Despite rising numbers and growing recognition of their rights, indigenous Brazilians are routinely ignored and abused.

Brazilians who visit the UK are surprised by the many languages that are now spoken on the streets of London… UK visitors to Brazil should not expect to hear anything but Portuguese and would be strongly advised to brush up a bit on the basics of the local language, before setting foot in the country, since few Brazilians speak English or any other foreign language or even aspire to.

Brazil is a vibrant melting-pot still dominated by a Lusophone monoculture… Britain is a newly (and thankfully) diversified nation, whose passion for multiculturalism is still driven and resisted, in equal measure, by an overwhelming sense of guilt.

Wherever we may be in the world, we are still a long way away from the kind of genuine tolerance and celebration of diversity that the vast majority desire. Let us all strive for that!

Death of a Clown

In response to the sixth WordPress 101 writing Project, I post this…

Rik Mayall, who died today, made a living out of mocking himself and the world around him… That is what comedians do…

Jesters and fools at once serve and undermine the power of their masters… Hamlet mourned the death of his childhood clown far more than that of his royally-blooded father or sister…

Dictator and fool alike are always pinned between the twin horns of the very serious and the seriously funny.

The best comedians mock and flirt with this game of power and death… This is how they gain immortality… They know how to get the last laugh, even from the grave…

“Alas, poor Yorick!”

Rest in Peace, Rik Mayall, but I kind of like the idea that you are still wriggling around…


Stuff Picked Up at the Supermarket

[In response to the Day Four challenge of the WordPress Writing 101 Project , I am, for the first time, posting some of my poetry… This is a little triptych of observational poems on the subject of loss which I put together a year or so ago and have since tried to touch up…]

Stuff Picked Up at the Supermarket

(A Triptych with a Kiss in the Middle)


Shop Girl Mopping up Eggs


The girl kneels dutifully in her uniform,

attempting with a single damp dish-cloth

to slop a whole half dozen broken eggs

back into their box. The sticky mess

of albumin, burst yolk and shards of shell

oozes around the chapped varnish of her

fingernails. She goes about it

with a clumsy, uncomplaining,

methodical sense of purpose. As if

omelets could be unmade,

accidents undone.




Boy Rescuing Beads

A kid of about six in the burger bar

outside the supermarket

has just had a necklace bought for him

by mom&dad.

He fingers the multi-colored beads

excitedly, eyes filled with glee,

as mom&dad munch on Big Macs,

fiddling so frenetically at the string

of fake jewels

that it explodes in a cascading

rainbow of variously-sized hailstones

all over the shop.

First fat tears well,

then his face bursts suddenly

into full-blown tempest of grief…

Everyone near rushes to their feet

to help… The boy clutches at his mother’s inner thighs.

Sobs ebb and flow,

sometimes surging up again in a sudden swell of remembrance

or thanks, as his father and nearby strangers crawl around

on all fours after the scattered beads,

scooping them from the gutters

into a plastic cup,

like votive offerings…


Touched by this act of grace, the boy

is soon skipping down the escalator,

hot on the tail of one stubborn fleeing bead,

smiling, laughingly, as if it were a game,


All ends well.

As mom&dad traipse off into the dark,

son skipping happily between their held hands,

I spot the large pink bauble that was the center-piece,

left behind, being crushed under a heavily-laden shopping cart,




The chubby girl who works on the cheese counter

is pleased that her paycheck has come through

this month & her debit card is good for lunch.

She gives it a triumphant little peck of a kiss.




The Contents of a Shopping Cart


The girl before me in the check-out queue

has crackers and coffee filters in her basket,

a single oven-ready meal, two bottles

of beer, cleaning fluid, juice,

and bread rolls. As if breakfast

were her main meal, or she were

preparing to wake up with someone

new and special for the first time tomorrow morning.


What would she do, I wonder, were these simple,

yet not so simple, pleasures to suddenly be snatched away?

Mount barricades? Storm Congress?

Fight riot police in the streets?

Take up arms—first bits of wood,

then Molotov cocktails, then Kalashnikovs,

then shoulder-held anti-aircraft missiles?

Take over the TV station?

Bark out demands?



Billy Bragg, The Smiths, and Eminem

[This post, like the last one, was written as an assignment for the WordPress Writing 101 Project

Music was not a big part of my childhood. I don’t know whether it was some puritanical family legacy, or the simple fact that we were poor and a record-player would have been a highly dispensable luxury. Until my teens, my exposure to music was thus restricted to Christmas carols and the theme tunes of TV shows.

From an early age I abhorred the inherent snobbery of classical music, but found most popular music of the time facile and its transatlantic twang disconnected from the reality of my everyday life. The first music I really liked was, therefore, punk.

But I cannot say that there is a single punk song that I would rank in my top three. I liked the do-it-yourself ethos, the celebration of the diversity and eccentricity of the ordinary, the thrilling rush of youthful rebellion, the gushing unashamed outburst of teenage angst.

Punk stirred me, at times amused me, but it did not move me.

The first artists who really moved me were the post-punk generation of the early 1980s. I think I heard Billy Bragg’s A New England the first time it was played on the radio. It was something different—sung stolidly in a vernacular accent, simply to the accompaniment of a single guitar, punk-like in its plucking of angry chords, but also wistful and folksy. Bragg sang of a less cynical world—at once nostalgic and utopian, in which love and politics blurred into one another and held equal importance—but firmly rooted in the real world in which I lived.

I felt something of the same frisson the first time I heard the Smiths, again, I think, the first time they were played on the radio. Morrissey’s voice was different—vernacular, like Bragg’s, but also self-deprecatory in its eccentricity—the lyrics told of something at once universal, peculiar, and earthily, eerily close to home… Marr’s guitar soars, flows and cascades in the background, moving like some new genetically-modified species of bird… clashing with yet somehow perfectly complementing Morrissey’s at once self-indulgent and self-effacing clumsy vocal acrobatics and the plaintive yet comical magic of the songs. The Smiths brought humor into pop for me, where Bragg had brought love.

Both of these experiences date from 1983. There was a brief period between say 1976 and 1986, when I could claim that I was ‘seriously into music’. But nothing I heard would truly impress or move me for the next twenty years. Until I first heard Eminem…

I do not know whether I first experienced Eminem’s work pumping out of a car stuck in a traffic-jam or on my then stepson’s computer, after we’d both had a row with his mum. The sound stunned me, the sharp unapologetically savage spite of the lyrics shocked me, the embittered wit of the outré rhymes amused me…

Eminem’s songs are personal in the way a grudge is. His heteronyms lay more layers of himself bare than is probably wise… Very different from Morrissey’s peek-a-boo masks, flirting with, but ultimately avoiding, intimacy, or Billy Bragg’s bleeding salt-of-the-earth heart.

I wonder what it is about these three singer-songwriters that has so specially touched me. Perhaps it is because they are all men who have shed the macho image of the rock-star to reveal something deeper about themselves, however shocking or simpering, without in the slightest relinquishing their masculinity… Perhaps it is because they all write and sing in an unabashedly vernacular style, clearly rooted in their local history and personal psycho-political battles… and for this they are somehow universal voices that speak to us all.


History and Psychology

“History,” James Joyce wrote in the voice of Stephen Daedalus, “is a nightmare, from which I am trying to awake.”

Although both Freud and Jung delved into an often imagined prehistory to justify their theories, their case histories tend to be rooted firmly in the here and now or recent genealogy. The modern psychology of response and stimulus and adaptation to an arguably dysfunctional world almost completely ignores any historical dimension.

History intersects with our psyches in two ways. First there is what we might call the weight of history: the way ideas and events from long, long ago still determine our behavior, often in unexpected, mysterious ways. Such regressions or reiterations can pop up quite suddenly, especially in collective behavior. History does tend to repeat itself in some way, even, or perhaps especially, if we are not consciously aware of it.

Second, there is the fact that the social world that surrounds us is historically determined. It is both the product of the past, bearing its scars and marks, and a context unique to this point in time and hence necessarily fleeting. The future, different from both present and past, is an important and oft-overlooked part of the flow of historical time. We have little, but a precious little, control over this future that is constantly being produced.

History never ends, we cannot wake up from it; but perhaps if we think about it and investigate it more, we can wake up to it, at once learn from it and liberate ourselves a little from its thrall.