The Corner


Dog-Whistle Expert Falls Prey to Dog-Whistle Experts

Marc Lamont Hill on VH1 Live (Build Series via YouTube )

As has been widely reported, Marc Lamont Hill has been fired from CNN:

CNN fired liberal pundit Marc Lamont Hill on Thursday, following controversial statements he made about Israel at the United Nations.“Marc Lamont Hill is no longer under contract with CNN,” a network spokesperson said in an email.

Speaking at a pro-Palestine meeting at the U.N. on Wednesday, Hill called for a “free Palestine from the river to the sea.”

The statement — which is sometimes said by the militant group Hamas and refers to extending Palestine’s borders from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea — is viewed by some as advocating for the destruction of the Jewish state.

“Those calling for ‘from the river to the sea’ are calling for an end to the State of Israel,” Sharon Nazarian, the Anti-Defamation League’s senior vice president for international affairs, told the Jewish Journal.

The argument against Lamont Hill seems to be that he deployed a “dog whistle” — that is, that by using the phrase “from the river to the sea,” he signaled to the more clued-in and pernicious members of his audience that what he really covets is the destruction of Israel. Hill vehemently denies this: “My reference to ‘river to the sea’ was not a call to destroy anything or anyone,” he wrote yesterday on Twitter. “It was a call for justice, both in Israel and in the West Bank/Gaza. The speech very clearly and specifically said those things. No amount of debate will change what I actually said or what I meant.”

I don’t know Marc Lamont Hill, and have no idea what is in his heart, what is in his mind, or what he “really” meant to say during that panel. It certainly seems possible that he did not mean anything untoward, and, as someone who wants a robust culture of speech, I think there is an argument to be made that, in the absence of special knowledge, we should presume as a matter of habit that people who inspire outrage are innocent. What I do know, however, is that this incident should serve as a dramatic wake-up call for figures such as . . . well, such as Marc Lamont Hill — a man who, if you hadn’t noticed, is one of the worst practitioners of the smear-by-dog-whistle-accusation in America. Just three weeks ago, Lamont Hill accused Representative Ron DeSantis of having won the Florida governor’s race by “playing on the same racist and divisive tactics that too often decide American elections.” Specifically, Lamont Hill charged that:

On the first official day of the general election race, DeSantis and his cronies jumped right into the fray of racism through the use of racial dog whistles. DeSantis, who was a congressman at the time, appeared on Fox News to essentially warn voters about Gillum’s candidacy. In a live interview, he urged voters not to “monkey this up” by voting for his opponent, undoubtedly drawing on a long history of animalistic anti-black tropes.

That word “undoubtedly” is an interesting one, isn’t it? Why, exactly, is it “undoubted”? Because Marc Lamont Hill said so? DeSantis, like Lamont Hill, vigorously denied having meant anything ugly by his words. If we are to believe Lamont Hill, why shouldn’t we believe DeSantis — especially given that, unlike “from the river to the sea,” the phrase that DeSantis used is not a commonly used phrase and was not aimed at his opponent but at socialism? In the last couple of days I have learned the following:

  1. That Marc Lamont Hill insists that he was not in any way arguing for the destruction of Israel, and that he wants us to believe him when he says as much.
  2. That Marc Lamont Hill is neither stupid nor ignorant, and, in the words of the Atlantic’s Peter Beinart, that he “knows more about Israeli policy towards Palestinians than you do,” and would win any debate on that topic.

From this we can conclude that there are three options here:

  1. That people who are neither stupid nor ignorant can from time to time say things that they in no way meant to be offensive and that were in no way meant to be a “dog whistle,” and that, instead of jumping straight to conclusions, we ought to give them the benefit of the doubt.
  2. That Marc Lamont Hill is stupid or ignorant and had no business speaking on this topic as a subject matter expert.
  3. That Marc Lamont Hill is lying.

Given that Lamont Hill has ruled out the lattermost option, and presumably won’t cop to being a moron, we have no choice but to select the first option. And given that, we have no choice but to insist that Lamont Hill — and those who boost him — are more charitable to others in the future.

As a general matter, there is something extremely pernicious about the way that the concept of the “dog whistle” is used in our politics. Throughout American history there have indeed been figures who used secret code as a means by which to communicate with unsavory types, and there have indeed been people who passed ostensibly generalized laws as a means by which to target particular, disfavored groups. But, in 2018, cries of “dog whistle!” tend not to serve as salutary light-shining exercises that bring such behavior to a close, but as attempts to excommunicate one’s political enemies by insisting that we ignore what those enemies actually said — or what any reasonable observers would actually have heard — and accept instead what a given dissenter believes was secretly “meant.” Marc Lamont Hill insists that he has fallen foul of this tendency. Perhaps he should cut it from his repertoire in consequence.


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