Author: Blake Smith

Understanding and Misunderstanding ‘Dog-Whistling’

Accusations of ‘dog-whistling‘ are commonplace in contemporary politics. Politicians and pundits regularly accuse each other of using apparently benign words and phrases to conceal dreadful meanings. It is, however, chiefly the Left that accuses that Right of dog-whistling, and mostly to disclose and denounce the supposed racism lurking in conservative language. President Trump is a lightning rod for such accusations, which have, however, also struck politicans in Australia and the United Kingdom.  But in spite of the ubiquity of these accusations, it is not clear what dog-whistling is. We might understand dog-whistling as a form of coded communication, by which a political leader passes a secret message to a specific audience without the larger public picking up what he means. Or we might see it as a form of strategic ambiguity by which a speaker allows different constituencies to understand him in different ways. Considered yet another way, dog-whistling could appear as a kind of subliminal method of activating listeners’ unconscious prejudices. Philosopher Jennifer Saul is developing a fruitful analysis of dog-whistling, which she breaks …

Who’s Afraid of Tribalism?

It is not news to anyone that the United States is being torn apart by tribalism. Media commentators widely agree that American politics and society is increasingly polarized—divided into two mutually hostile camps which share ever-fewer references and values. While observers may assign a greater share of blame to the identity politics of the Left or the Right, they are nearly unanimous in their insistence that tribalism now characterizes both sides of the political spectrum. It may seem obvious that tribalism is a threat to American democracy. But when Andrew Sullivan, Thomas Friedman, and David Brooks agree on something, it should arouse suspicion. These three brought us the Iraq War. With different emphases, they embody the common sense of the political center. They imagine themselves as untainted by the prejudices of partisan tribalism; daring thinkers who defy the taboos of Right and Left alike. But their common fear of ‘tribalism’ reveals them to be members of a particular kind of ‘tribe,’ one that perpetuates its power by accusing opponents of tribalism. Tracing the history of …

Why We Say ‘Islamism’ and Why We Should Stop

‘Islamism’ is a word that refuses to die. Conceived by a group of French academics who have since disavowed their creation, it has been criticized by many on the Left and the Right. Yet it still appears in scholarship, the media, and political discussions, jostled alongside terms like ‘fundamentalism,’ ‘political Islam,’ ‘radicalism,’ etc., ‘Islamism’ seems to offer the possibility of distinguishing Islam, the religion of over a billion Muslims, from the actions and ideas of violent movements that act in its name. But this distinction, however desirable, is untenable. The scholars who invented the term decades ago are today the first to regret its use. The Iranian Revolution of 1979, greeted with optimism by intellectuals such as Michel Foucault, chilled more critical observers in France. A rising generation of anthropologists, sociologists, and other scholars noticed that the new regime in Tehran was not alone in its fusion of modern mass politics and Islam. Doctoral students and junior professors researching the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, revivalist groups in North Africa, and anti-Communist rebels in Afghanistan searched …

The Problems of “Privilege”: Lessons from the French Revolution

In recent years, ‘privilege’ has become an important concept in modern politics, academia, and popular culture. It appears in an increasing and disorienting number of forms, from male privilege and white privilege, to “gay privilege,” “black male privilege,” and “family privilege,” and these claims about privilege animate a wide array of political stances. Supporters of Hillary Clinton criticized voters for Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein as privileged radicals risking a Trump victory for the sake of inflexible principles. Supporters of the latter candidates returned fire, targeting Hillary voters as privileged centrists out of touch with America’s economic and racial inequalities. Donald Trump, of course, as countless media outlets insist, is (white, male) privilege personnifed; his supporters, meanwhile, are said to demonstrate the extent of their own privilege by denying that privilege exists. In the classroom and in the media, people are increasingly asked (or made) to measure, acknowledge, and strive to reduce their privilege. “Privilege studies” is a growing field, with more and more scholar-activists devoting themselves to its practice. In the midst of all …

Muslim Vikings and Abuses of History

Two weeks ago, Swedish researcher Annika Larsson of Upssala University announced that she had discovered a thousand year-old Viking textile with ‘Allah’ inscribed on its hem. Major international media outlets rushed to publish news of Larsson’s supposed discovery. Within a few days, the BBC, The Guardian, and The New York Times had run articles on the subject, all of which raised the possibility that the Viking wearer of this cloth might have been Muslim, or even a Muslim immigrant from the Middle East. Larsson, and the reporters who echoed her, argued that the Viking culture of medieval Sweden was therefore open to Islamic influence–an idea, they gleefully noted, bound to enrage right-wing opponents of mass immigration from majority-Muslim countries. The New York Times was insistent on the political meaning of the ‘Allah cloth,’ interviewing Swedish activists who try to disassociate their country’s Viking past from its appropriations by right-wing nativist groups. Archaeologists and historians immediately pointed out problems in Larsson’s interpretation, recalling similarly outlandish claims that she had made in the past. In response, Sigal …