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After 35 years in public education as a high school English teacher and university administrator, I began my second life as a freelance writer, winning San Diego Society of Professional Journalist awards for my opinion columns in the former San Diego daily North County Times and the San Diego Free Press.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Of Cowbells and Dog Whistles

A famous Saturday Night Live skit, "More Cowbell," features a rock group with three guitars, a drum set and a cowbell in a recording studio operated by an egomaniac producer. Will Ferrell is cowbell player Gene Frenkle. The producer, Bruce Dickinson, is played by Christopher Walken. As the group tries to lay down its first track, Dickinson repeatedly interrupts them, emerging from the sound booth to tell Frenkle politely, "I could use more cowbell." Exasperated, he finally explains there's only one cure to his mysterious fever. "I gotta have more cowbell!"
The phrase has lingered with me through the years. It can describe those occasions when more of something leads to its destruction. The clamor of Sunday morning talk shows is a case in point. Panelists often interrupt each other, increasing their volume to support their argument. Politicians employ the strategy in quieter, more subtle ways.

Cowbell Politics involves the creation of distractions that drown out the harmony of civil discourse. Raised voices are not needed to do that. Slogans, truisms, accusations, platitudes and irrelevancies serve nicely. When I hear talk show panelists and politicians resort to it I want to shout, "You gotta have more cowbell!" 

A dog whistle operates at frequencies heard only by dogs. Dog whistle politics simply uses a more personalized cowbell. It targets a potentially controversial message to specific voters while avoiding offending those who may disagree with it. Political cowbells and dog whistles have the same intent: distract the listener from an underlying message.

I thought of cowbells and dog whistles when I watched Indiana Gov. Mike Pence interviewed by George Stephanopoulos last Sunday morning. A few days earlier Pence had signed the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The title alone suggests a dog whistle. The First Amendment declares government shall not "prohibit the free exercise of religion." Had Indiana residents lost that right?

When Stephanopoulos repeatedly asked Pence if the law would allow a business to deny service to gays and lesbians based on the owner's personal religious beliefs, Pence began ringing his cowbell, declaring many other states had passed similar laws, President Clinton had signed a federal version of it in 1993 and Barack Obama voted for one.  

Pence refused to answer whether he, personally, agreed business owners should be allowed to deny service based on their religious beliefs, ringing in the trusty, "I'm for religious freedom and against discrimination" tune.

The following day Pence doubled down in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece. But he wanted to make it clear he wasn't a bigot. "If I saw a restaurant owner refuse to serve a gay couple, I wouldn't eat there anymore." He didn't say if he'd stay for dessert. He also declared, "As governor of Indiana, if I were presented a bill that legalized discrimination against any person or group, I would veto it."

Two days later, only after facing enormous economic and political backlash, did Gov. Pence agree to sign an amended bill prohibiting businesses from denying service to gays and lesbians. In this case it appears even more cowbell couldn't cure the fever of political self-interest.     

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