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The trouble with dog-whistles

Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

April 12, 2019   4 mins

One of the strange habits of our time is the one in which a self-appointed class roams the land, hands cupped to their ear, hoping to discern something they can identify as a ‘dog-whistle’. I wrote about this habit after Conservative MP Suella Braverman came in for a scolding for using the phrase ‘cultural Marxism’ in a speech.

In the aftermath of that outrage, the Board of Deputies of British Jews – among others – expressed their concern that the phrase was in and of itself anti-Semitic. Since then, the Board has met with Ms Braverman and announced that it has discerned that there was in fact nothing “intentionally anti-Semitic” about her comments, and expressed sorrow about any hurt having been caused to the MP (who happens to have a Jewish husband).

It is unlikely that any lesson will be learned about claiming to hear things beneath or above the pitch of normal words. Not least because there is now a phalanx of self-appointed bodies and individuals dedicated to this peculiar form of voluntary service.

One oddity of the whole business of trying to hear dog-whistles is very basic: if you can hear the whistle, you must surely be the dog. It is the nature of the analogy that a non-canid cannot hear what the dog hears.  So to be able to hear on a whole different aural wave-length to everyone else – to be peculiarly attuned to the tones of the time and to be able to explain to everyone else – is one heck of a power to bestow upon yourself.

Which brings me to Paul Embery. I suppose I should state first – since journalism is a trade rightly under suspicion from the reading public – that Embery is not a friend of mine. I do not believe I have ever met him, though I may have once stood in the same room as him.

Nevertheless, we write for the same publication and that is the sort of thing that raises eyebrows if one rushes to another’s defence. So, I should probably add that Embery is generally regarded as being of the Left. Whereas close readers will have noticed that I am not always seen as being of that throng. Embery is a trade union man, which I am not. I suppose we have other differences.

But I have read him ever since he began publishing at UnHerd because I think he is one of the most interesting, insightful and original voices to have emerged in British journalism for some time. British journalism is not always an open race. In the talent stakes the best talent does not always rise (apologies if this sounds chippy). Often it gets nowhere near the starting blocs. Outside of the hereditary bloc in the House of Lords, journalism in Britain may be one of the most hereditary professions in the land. So as well as giving a cheer whenever any talented voice breaks through, I have to admit that I give an added cheer whenever somebody who was not themselves born into a family of journos breaks through.

Which is quite enough throat-clearing before pointing out the unfairness of the treatment allotted to Embery this week. It was meted out after he tweeted a response to a folk singer called Mike Harding who had said ‘A nation is not a home’. To this Embery replied, “I fear this encapsulates the divide in our society – between a rootless, cosmopolitan, bohemian middle-class… a rooted, communitarian, patriotic working-class.”

It’s a point with which one may agree or disagree, but of course we live in an age where disagreement is not enough. Character assassination must stand in for debate, and so it was with Embery, with the charge being led by people who claim to hear things with the aural capabilities of a dog.

For example Labour MP Alex Sobel immediately responded, “Literally an anti-semitic trope used by Stalin the culmination of which saw many good bundists imprisoned by East European Communist regimes (including my grandfather) just what I needed to see after the @JewishLabour AGM.  Stop othering Jews.”

Since Mr Sobel is so sensitive to echoes of anti-Semitism that he can find it in two words separated by a comma, then you would have thought he would long ago have heard them in the political party of which he remains a member. Other Labour MPs have described Labour as so “institutionally racist” that they have had to leave the party. Yet Sobel stays. How you can detect anti-Semitism in adjectives online and bypass the klaxon of it on the benches is a matter for serious amazement.

David Aaronovitch of The Times also decided to join in the lambasting of Embery. He did so by implying that Embery must lurk in very dark places if he can so easily regurgitate these particular two words and separate them with a comma. To which Embery rather smartly replied that of course not all of us spend our lives suffering from the same problems as recovering Stalinists.

Aside from being a neat rejoinder, there is a serious truth underneath this. Everybody knows that people can be extra-sensitive – sometimes over-sensitive – about characteristics which they have which they have at some point in the past had used against them.

A similar dynamic inevitably exists among those who were once devotees of totalitarian movements. Although some people who were once fascists or communists are genuinely able to slip the mindset, not all are. Many slip from the central beliefs but have to spend the rest of their lives assuming that everybody is as vulnerable to the most crazed and dangerous ideas as they once were. A more sensible interpretation would be that it requires a rather special set of character defects – to put it no more rudely – to find oneself in the grip of such ideologies in these times. Most people manage to avoid it.

Anyhow – the censorship mob have had their way. The trade union of which Embery is a part – the Fire Brigades Union – has ordered him to dial back his online activities. Presumably there is now less chance of him using the wrong adjectives or punctuation and more chance of global peace and harmony.

But this constitutes yet another victory for a contrived hyper-sensitivity and that must surely at some stage reach its limit? If people honestly believed that Embery was an anti-Semite then they should have come out with it and said so. The fact that they did not is because they knew that to do so would be wrong, and that it would make them look ridiculous.

Perhaps it is time to mention how ridiculous they also look seeing phantoms where they do not exist. Perhaps they might also reconsider their determined distortion of the nation’s ability to hear things which certainly do exist but which normal human ears are perfectly able to discern.

Douglas Murray is an author and journalist.


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