NYT Finds Racist Dog Whistles in 'Death Panels,' 'All Lives Matter'

July 11th, 2016 9:37 AM

New York Times Midwest correspondent Julie Bosman learned an "alarming" new term from Kansas conservatives for Sunday’s edition: “The Right’s Wording for Public Education in Kansas: ‘Government Schools.’” Some other sneaky terms concocted by conservatives to pull the wool over voters eyes? “Tax relief.” “Pro-life.” “The Democrat Party.” “Death panels.”

And another Times writer revealed how Republicans stoke “racial resentments with subtle and not-so-subtle dog whistles” like (again) “Death panels,” “Knockout game,” and “All lives matter.” Meanwhile, the Times does its own quiet semantical leaps; "Illegal immigrant” is out, “undocumented” is in. “Gun control” is out, while “gun safety” is constantly used by the Times, without the scare quotes.

The text box to the article by the evidently sheltered journalist Julia Bosman: “A semantic switch sets off alarms even among Republicans.” Bosman was leery of the right’s “carefully contrived catch phrases,” and would issue them only under scare quotes, as warnings to innocent civilians who might hear them and be tempted over to the dark side of “pro-lifers” and “tax relief.”

Erica Massman, a moderate Kansas Republican, refers to the building where her daughter attends fourth grade as a public school.

Ms. Massman’s mother, whose politics tilt further to the right, calls it something else: a government school.


Kansas has for years been the stage for a messy school funding fight that has shaken the Legislature and reached the State Supreme Court. Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, and his political allies threatened to defy the court on education spending and slashed income taxes in their effort to make the state a model of conservatism.

Somewhere along the way, the term “government schools” entered the lexicon in place of references to the public school system.

Has Bosman, a veteran New York Times journalist, really never encountered the term “government school”?

The use of the term has set off alarms even among some Republicans, who fear that it signals still less support, financially and otherwise, for the public schools in a state that had long felt pride over the quality of its education system. The recent adoption of a school finance plan that was acceptable to Mr. Brownback, the Legislature and the Kansas Supreme Court has not entirely assuaged those concerns.

Bosman located a hero professor of the left to explain how conservatives deviously use such deceitful phrases as “pro-life” and “death panels” to their advantage.

It would not be the first time that conservatives have used semantics to sway public opinion, experts said.

George Lakoff, a linguistics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, has been tracking the trend for decades. He pointed out that the right has been more successful than the left at framing issues related to abortion, health care, labor unions and the concept of government itself, among other issues, with carefully contrived catchphrases: “Tax relief.” “Pro-life.” “The Democrat Party.” “Death panels.” (“Obamacare” was originally an attempt by the right to saddle President Obama with the repercussions of the Affordable Care Act, until he embraced the term himself.)

Besides coining phrases, Dr. Lakoff said, the right has co-opted certain words -- a practice that was demonstrated, he said, in President George W. Bush’s second inaugural address, which used “freedom,” “free” or “liberty” 49 times in 20 minutes. “The right has taken over the words ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty,’” Dr. Lakoff said.

Bosman briefly dabbled in reality:

The phrase “government schools,” a common reference overseas to national school systems, has been around for decades as a way to differentiate them from privately financed schools. It has also been a label for schools on Native American reservations, and long used to influence debate.

There’s some labeling bias.

But only recently -- and mostly in reliably conservative Kansas -- has the term been used regularly and clearly as a political wedge. Education advocates in Kansas said they had heard it in conversations with state legislators (though few use it in public statements), in discussions about public schools on Facebook and on some conservative news sites.

The use of the term “government schools” is part of a broad education agenda that includes restraining costs. The far-right and libertarian wings of the Republican Party are pushing the state to loosen its laws to allow more charter schools. They oppose programs that offer free or reduced-price breakfasts and lunches, believing that schools have become part of the “nanny state” -- another politically charged term -- and are usurping the role of parents.

Yet while fearfully drawing back the curtain on the “far right”’s use of language, the Times quietly employs its own special terminology flattering to liberals, without scare quotes. “Illegal immigrant” has been phased out, “undocumented” is in. “Gun control” is out, while “gun safety” is constantly used by the Times in a matter-of-fact manner, even in the story printed opposite Bosman’s in print.

Similarly, Emma Roller went way out on the language limb in a Sunday Review piece, “Everything I Learned From Professor Trump.” Here’s item 5.Did you know all these phrases were racist dog whistles?

Racism in presidential politics has a bipartisan history; George Wallace was a Democrat, after all. But for the past eight years, Republican leaders and right-leaning news outlets have repeatedly stoked voters’ racial resentments with subtle and not-so-subtle dog whistles: “Terrorist fist jab.” “Hip-hop barbecue.” “Food stamp president.” “Show us the birth certificate.” “Death panels.” “Race war.” “Knockout game.” “All lives matter.”

Online, each of those awful racist phrases link to a liberal website for confirmation of their awful racism.