Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Isidore of Seville and the Dog Whistle


I am an alleged expert in allegory—a literary genre that advances its fiction beneath a dark conceit.  There are some pretty famous examples, such as the Divine Comedy, the Faerie Queene, and Pilgrim’s Progress.  Some literary manuals define allegory as “an extended metaphor,” but I prefer the simplicity of the medieval definition of Isidore of Seville:  Allegoria, he writes, id est, alieniloquium.  Allegory is “saying one thing to mean another.”  It’s more compehensive, and, besides, Isidore is the patron saint of the Internet.  (Note the cool laptop, below.)   Internet users ought to give him a plug whenever possible.

            I like this expansive definition because it includes such useful speech acts as sarcasm, as well as literary irony of many kinds.  One so rarely meets in real life people called “Red Cross Knight” or “Mr. Worldly Wiseman” that one is likely to suspect them of being allegorical immediately when encountered in books.  And if Red Cross Knight goes on to slay (slay, note, not kill) the Foul Dragon—well, you can be nearly sure he did it with his trusty Sword of Faith.

Real life alieniloquium can be more interesting.  Say you run into someone, an old associate you don’t particularly like but fortunately also rarely see any more, in circumstances that require a few minutes conversation.  Vapid as it is, the conversation is sufficient to remind you why you don’t like this person and to demonstrate that the person feels exactly the same way about you.  Nonetheless the interview ends at the fifty-ninth street stop or wherever with mutual declarations of how good it has been to catch up and the suggestion by one or other that “we must get together for lunch”.  “We must get together for lunch” is alieniloquium for the unutterable “So long, and with any luck I won’t run into you for another seventeen years.”

Though I have written whole books about allegory and the difficulties of its interpretation, the current Republican primary contests, or at least the learned journalistic disquisitions thereon, have revealed what an allegorical piker I really am.  It appears that the Republican candidates have all been “telegraphing” in “coded language” certain “messages” interpretable only by hermeneutically adept hillbillies.  Very often their utterances have been “dog whistles”, presumably discernible only by the hillbillies’ hunting hounds.  Though varied in nature these alieniloquia meet in a single, simple certainty: all criticism of the current president and his policies is racist.

I had been wondering what it was, actually, that is so wrong about Mitt Romney.  Yes, he’s filthy rich and as phoney as a three-dollar bill; but cut him some slack.  The man is a presidential candidate.  After all, the words and deeds of his current rival, Newt Gingrich, threaten to give hypocrisy a bad name.  Yet Mitt Romney somehow makes Gingrich look good.  Then I saw a snippet from one of the talking head festivals, and the scales fell from my eyes.  George Will, the columnist and pundit, nailed it.  The trouble with Romney, he said, is “Romneyness”. So repellent is Romneyness from the political point of view that I ordinarily wouldn’t be inclined to defend its only begetter from attacks, even in the pages of the New York Times.  But a recent op ed essay there by Lee Siegel (“What’s Race Got To Do With It?”) goads me to draw my tropological sword from its anagogical sheath.

According to this essay what’s wrong with Romney is not his Romneyness but his whiteness.  “Mitt Romney is the whitest white man to run for president in recent memory.”  Like the probing literary critic he is, Siegel supports this sweeping generalization with concrete textual and iconographic details.  Romney invokes an America of “white picket fences”.  Furthermore, “He is nearly always in immaculate white shirt sleeves. He is implacably polite, tossing off phrases like ‘oh gosh’ with Stepford bonhomie.”  (I think Stepford Bonhomie is that rock band with white guitars, but I’m not sure.)  Siegel’s essay is accompanied by a devastating “visual”—one of those patriarchal family photos favored by rich people who can’t descend to ordinary Christmas cards.  You cannot deny the testimony of your own eyes.  The guy’s wife is white; so are all the kids, and the grandkids.  The black shirts are just to confuse the opposition.  Then, too, the guy is trying to get into the White House!

“I am sure that Mr. Romney is not a racist” writes Lee Siegel.  “But I am also sure that, for the many Americans who find the thought of a black president unbearable, he is an ideal candidate.”  There is no footnote citing the epistemological grounds for the author’s certainty on either point, but how can you footnote a dog whistle?  Only the most intelligent dogs can so much as construct a complete sentence, let alone give proper citations.

The first thing the student of allegory needs to learn is that not everything is one.  Sometimes a Red Cross Night is simply an evening spent at a fundraiser for a social service agency.  There are even times when an invitation to lunch is an invitation to lunch. Now and again the newspapers report that in New York or Los Angeles a police officer has shot an unarmed Hispanic youth in a dark alley.  The cop always thought the kid had a gun.  He almost always saw the “glint of metal” in the kid’s hand.  It almost always turns out to have been a cigarette lighter or a soda can.  We say that seeing is believing, but it often works the other way around.  Fixed expectation carefully edits our sensory experience.  We see what we already believe—or already fear.  But that’s no less true of newspaper columnists than of cops.