Fred Klonsky writes here about “cancel culture” and about opinion columnist John Kass, who lost his prominent spot in the Chicago Tribune after his references to George Soros as a bad guy. Kass did not get fired, but his column did lose its highly desirable spot on page 2 of the paper.

Here is what you need to know about George Soros. He was born in Hungary, survived the Holocaust, and became a billionaire. He has used his fortune to promote democracy and civil society in eastern Europe and elsewhere. He is Jewish. When rightwing fringe elements invoke his name, they are using his name, irrespective of facts, as an anti-Semitic slur, to imply that his money (Jewish money) is supporting whatever they oppose. This is a “dog whistle” in the new lingo of our day.

I have been interested in “political correctness” and censorship for many years. In 2006, I published a book called “The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn.” The book has a list of hundreds of words, phrases, and images that will never appear in a textbook or on a test because someone finds them objectionable. So, for example, students will never encounter references to owls or witches or Halloween or death on a test. They will never see an image of an elderly person using a cane or a walker. They will never see a rainbow or a picture of a man with his hands in his pockets. The list is hilarious and at the same time sad. The book contains many examples of books that were banned from school libraries and from classroom use, decades ago. It also goes back in history to demonstrate that censors bowdlerized Shakespeare to remove references to sex that the censors found objectionable.

“Cancel culture” (another new term, but not a new practice) has a long history, rooted in Puritanism and prudishness.

I only recently became aware of “dog whistle” and figured out its meaning from the context.

Here is the online definition:

dog whis·tle
noun
noun: dog whistle; plural noun: dog whistles
a high-pitched whistle used to train dogs, typically having a sound inaudible to humans.
a subtly aimed political message which is intended for, and can only be understood by, a particular group.
“dog-whistle issues such as immigration and crime”

Merriam-Webster added the word to its dictionary in April 2017:

The earliest, and still most common, meaning of dog whistle is the obvious one: it is a whistle for dogs. Dog ears can detect much higher frequencies than our puny human ears can, so a dog whistle is nothing more than an exceedingly high-pitched whistle that canines can hear, but that we cannot.

dog whistle
Figuratively, a ‘dog whistle’ is a coded message communicated through words or phrases commonly understood by a particular group of people, but not by others.

Yet there’s another dog whistle we’ve been hearing about lately: a coded message communicated through words or phrases commonly understood by a particular group of people, but not by others.

Given that the term dog whistle has been around for over 200 years, it seems odd that it only developed a figurative sense recently. After all, it’s the perfect word to use to describe something that some people can hear, but others cannot. Yet it is only within the past 20 years or so that it has seen this figurative sense take hold. And it is primarily used to describe political speech.

If you want to cast him as just a nativist, his slogan “Make America Great Again” can be read as a dog-whistle to some whiter and more Anglo-Saxon past.
—Ross Douthat, The New York Times, 10 August 2015

Saul introduces the concept of the “figleaf,” which differs from the more familiar dog whistle: while the dog whistle targets specific listeners with coded messages that bypass the broader population, the figleaf adds a moderating element of decency to cover the worst of what’s on display, but nevertheless changes the boundaries of acceptability.
—Ray Drainville, Hyperallergic, 12 July 2016

Dog whistle appears to have taken on this political sense in the mid-1990s; the Oxford English Dictionary currently has a citation from a Canadian newspaper, The Ottawa Citizen, in October of 1995, as their earliest recorded figurative use: “It’s an all-purpose dog-whistle that those fed up with feminists, minorities, the undeserving poor hear loud and clear.”

The recent appearance of the figurative use does not mean that dog whistle has not been used previously to describe the habit that politicians occasionally have of sending coded messages to a certain group of constituents. In 1947, a book titled American Economic History referred to a speech by Franklin Delano Roosevelt as being “designed to be like a modern dog-whistle, with a note so high that the sensitive farm ear would catch it perfectly while the unsympathetic East would hear nothing.” However, saying that speech is like a dog-whistle (which is a simile) is not quite the same as saying that it is a dog whistle (which is a metaphor), and this subtle distinction is what causes us to judge the phrase as having originated in the 1990s, rather than the 1940s.

Trump is the master of the dog whistle. Every time he talks about his reverence for Confederate monuments and the Confederate flag as “our heritage” and “our history,” that’s a dog whistle, which racists hear clearly. It is such a loud dog whistle that even non-racists and anti-racists can hear it.