Private Language and the Public Sphere


After the 1980 Republican convention, Ronald Reagan headed for Philadelphia, Mississippi where he affirmed his commitment to states’ rights. There was nothing overtly racial about his speech, but the “dog whistle” was heard: It was near Philadelphia that three civil-rights workers had been murdered in 1964 at the height of a movement whose success came through federal insistence and enforcement. Just by mentioning states’ rights in Philadelphia, Reagan could reach the strongly racist core of much of white America through a private language whose public expression contained built-in deniability. Since that time, American politics has been dominated by language intended to do two things at once, to provide coded, private messages to core supporters and to supply bland soporifics to the rest of us.

I thought about this as I read Bard College president Leon Botstein’s new essay “Are We Still Making Citizens?” for Democracy: A Journal of Ideas

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