The Tradition of Code Talkers In the Politics of Race

4 years ago

This week I continue my weekly post, along with a group of bloggers around the country, on the impact of race on this year's political election leading up to a PBS documentary that will air on October 16th.  You know that I am a boomer and I fortunately have a few lifelong friends. Every now and then I find myself with a childhood friend with whom I have a shorthand way of communicating.  We can look at each other and have a full conversation with only our eyes.  When we sneak and try to talk about someone in the presence of that person,  we try to code our intent by flipping the verbal script.

But because we do not have the benefit of an unwritten language of extreme complexity like the Navajo or Choctaw Code Talkers who were responsible for saving American lives in WWII, talking above someone's head does not generally work. Yet we find this happening regularly during this political season requiring that one be ever vigilant that the Code Talkers and Wind Talkers AKA politicians, not get us confused about what is truth and what is hot air.

Navajo Code Talker, Image Credit: US Airforce, Wikimedia Commons

Consider this code-speak of Newt Gingrich, former Republican Party presidential candidate, speaking on Fox News, the week of Sept 30, 2012. Ask yourself what was he actually saying with the following comments.

“I’m assuming there’s some rhythmto Barack Obama that the rest of us don’t understand. Whether he needs large amounts of rest, whether he needs to play basketballfor a while. I don’t watch ESPN. I don’t know quite what his rhythms are. But this is a guy who’s a brilliant performer as an orator, who may get reelected at the present date, and who frankly, he happens to be a partial, part-time president. He really is a lot like the substitute referees in the sense that he’s not a real president. He doesn’t do any of the things presidents do. He doesn’t worry about anything that presidents do. But he has enormous power in the White House and he’ll go down in history as president, and I suspect he’s pretty contemptuous of the rest of us.”


Now I ask myself WHAT DOES HE MEAN. We know what he said, but what does he mean? His words do not make sense to me and maybe that is because he is talking in code to someone I can't see.


Why would he describe the President of the US in terms of rhythm and basketball.   To say "I don't watch ESPN," as opposed to say National Geographic  or NPR could be interpreted as disparaging.  IF that's not enough, he goes on to claim the sitting president is not a real president because he doesn't DO what presidents do.  Is this madness or real talk? Gingrich has always wanted to be president himself.  Given this,  are we supposed to value his assessment of what a president is supposed to do when we know he covets this job?  To even answer this question (Gingrich is a professor somewhere) presumes its legitimacy.  Gingrich concludes this rant by saying, Obama will go down in history as president (yes because that is what he is) but he doesn't think President Obama thinks much of Americans. And how could Gingrich know this?  On what basis does he make this claim  that the President doesn't think much of people like "us, we Americans." Look carefully at this as a coded message. Racists talk like this although I do not know if Gingrich would describe himself as such.


I consider this a coded message. Umm, my point is that this is a racial message, something Gingrich would never admit:  clandestine talk coded to cover what Gingrich actually thinks.   To me, even the sequence and syntax of these statements that don't seem to flow with each other affirms this.

Unfortunately, many people have come to accept this type of Code Talk as a legitimate expression of universal truths rather than what it is.  Unlike the Navajo and Choctaw who put a undeciperable code of their native tongue in the service of the American military,  this type of Code Talk is being put in the search for power at any expense.

As we listen to debates, news, pundits and even our friends, it is important to be aware of this and to not buy into it when it takes place in our presence.  I encourage you to take a look at the Race 2012 on Facebook and  to follow on Twitter @PBSRace2012 as this discussion takes place online among bloggers and their audiences, all of whom are coming from different persuasions.

PBS will air its documentary on race and politics on October 16th. Please check your local listings since stations may air the program at different times. And please, share your opinion with me. Let me know how much you think code talk gets in the way of substantive change.
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