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Code words

The following dialog was recorded in eastern Idaho recently…

Zeke: It shore is peaceful out here in the mountains a’huntin’  deer with these sweet assault rifles. It almost let’s you forget what the government is tryin’ to do to us.

Zeb: Yeah. You know what’s been buggin’ me a lot lately? More’n em tryin’ to take away our guns. They’ve takin’ away our WORDS! Now you gotta say “the N word.” What kinda’ stupid crap way is that to talk? But you gotta do it or you get shunned by people, and your kids pick it up and get in trouble at school.

Zeke: Damn it to hell. Be careful about sayin’t that! Don’t you know that the NSA has satellites all over ever’where listening to ever’thing you say? That can trigger them computers to start detailing you. Abbreviations don’t cut it. Now you gotta use “code words.”

Zeb: What, you mean like secret codes’n substituting letters’n, stuff?

Zeke: Nah. You just use one word fer another. Like instead of that thing you were tryin’ to say, use “Muslim.” See you cain’t be a racist no more, but you can still hate Muslims.

Zeb: But that sorry Obama ain’t no damned Muslim. He’s a damned Communist atheist libtard.

Zeke: It don’t matter. It’s just a code word. See the Jews that run everything hate Muslims too, so you can get away with using Muslim. And a’course you don’t say “Jew” neither. You say “international financier” or “New World Order.” You can’t say “White people should run stuff,” but you can say “we support the founders of our country” because the founders were all white! See?

Zeb: I think I get it. I can say “Obama is a usurper” instead of “only white people can be President”, and not sound racist. I can say he was born in Kenya instead instead of  him being a nigge* DAMMIT, I mean a Muslim.  It’ll take some practice before I get the hang of it, but I see how’ta do it. Hell, makin’ up your own code words is sorta like sawing off your own shotgun! Well Zeke, I think this is the place on the trail where we part company. Have a nice day!

At this point Zeke takes his rifle and puts 14 rounds into Zeb, “have a nice day” being a code word for one of the vilest of all insults in his group: “your mother carries a sissy gun.”

Our fanciful dialog points to one of the problems with code words, knowing when someone is using a code word and when they’re not. In practice things regarded as code words are much more subtle than the rather obvious examples I used in my fictional dialog. For an example that went right over my head, see the Portland Public Schools article in the Learn More section below. If one is not careful one can fall into conspiracy thinking by “finding” patterns in text, connecting dots that don’t belong together. By taking what someone says, and changing the words according to a code, an irresponsible investigator can basically make anyone say anything, and what is the value of that?

There is a chicken and egg problem. We might say, so-and-so is a racist, so when they use such-and-such words, they are code words for racism. So how do we know that so-and-so is racist? Just look at the code words they use!

Exactly what does Michele Bachmann really mean when she says discussing economic policy:

Do we really want to tie our fortunes to Venezuela or Zimbabwe?

Some have called these racist code words. When she says “take back our country” is this code for Christian hegemony?  Alan Dershowitz is quoted as saying, “whenever I hear the words ‘real American’, that sounds to me like a code word for racism, a code word for bigotry, a code word for anti-Semitism.”

A further problem with code word analysis is that even if the person who initiates a statement intends to use code words, that doesn’t mean that some who repeats the statement (or paraphrases it) understands that code words are being used.

In statistics, we talk about Type I and Type II errors. With a hypothesis like “that statement uses racist code words” a Type I error (“false positive’),  would be identifying code words that aren’t there. A Type II error (‘false negative”) would be miss racist code words that are there.  I’m always biased towards the Type II error,  reserving judgment until the probabilities of error become small.

Still, code words are real and one has to be on the lookout for them.

What are some of your favorite examples of Obama conspiracy code words?

Learn more:

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23 Responses to Code words

  1. avatar
    Benji Franklin July 18, 2011 at 8:32 pm #

    Good topic Doc!

    I’m considering the possibility that I’ve carelessly allowed a Type II error to let me think that the code words “Usurping Socialist Kenyan Hut Crawler”, mean something other than, “The President of the United States.”

    Benji Franklin

  2. avatar
    Lucas D. Smith July 18, 2011 at 10:54 pm #

    Thank you Dr Conspiracy for publishing this interesting blog report on code words. I enjoyed the interesting read!

    I too also have a new 07.18.2011 blog report:

    “Mombasa, Kenya Protectorate. 1944.”

    http://www.wasobamaborninkenya-.com/blog

    Feel free to make fun of me! I support and advocate freedom of speech!

    Thanks.

  3. avatar
    Arthur July 18, 2011 at 11:08 pm #

    I agree with Benji, this is an interesting topic. I’m reminded of Sharon Angle’s use of “Second Amendment remedies” as a code word for armed rebellion. I wondering if there is a concise way to describe the difference a euphemism and a code word? Could a phrase like “extraordinary rendition” (i.e., kidnapping) also be a code word?

  4. avatar
    US Citizen July 19, 2011 at 1:03 am #

    Of course “spreading the wealth around” is code for socialism.
    Because when a presidential candidate says something *once* in a TV interview, it means their entire philosophy and personal doctrine can be extracted from one sentence.

  5. avatar
    Dr. Conspiracy July 19, 2011 at 1:42 am #

    The term “code word” as described in the Wikipedia is broader than what I discussed.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Code_word_%28figure_of_speech%29

    Arthur: Could a phrase like “extraordinary rendition” (i.e., kidnapping) also be a code word?

  6. avatar
    J. Potter July 19, 2011 at 4:05 am #

    The use/misuse of language in politics is a time honored tradition. Due to my own bias, I notice it most as employed by the Right, but also note they freely acknowledge their organized approach to it (most notably the work of Frank Luntz). I wonder what I am missing from the Left? Am I deaf on their frequencies?

    Of course, that mere propaganda, attempts to influence perceptions by controlling the terms used in a debate. Actual “codes” are more insidious, attempts to spread commonly held private or secret ideas in a subtle manner. Using language that has one meaning, or no meaning, to the unitiated, but a definite agreed upon meaning to the intended, like-minded target.

    But it seems that the code words in the Obama Conspiracy sense are somewhere in between. Meanings not a obvious as the propaganda language, but not completely obfuscated as in a literal code. A complete outsider to the topic wouldn’t get the precise intended meaning of “socialist Muslim usurper”, but they certainly pick up on the negativity. It seems designed to preach to the faithful while simultaneously muddying the waters for any on the sidelines.

    I’d also note that the birther lingo isn’t anywhere near as creative, or effective, as the propaganda lingo. The propaganda is so subtle, it slips into the discourse and becomes a common term among non-adherents (“death tax” and “death panels” being great recent examples, there are soooo many more), because it is hyperbolic and even humorous in a way. Birtherspeak is hyperbolic all right, but too blatantly offensive to be accepted. And that’s a good thing. I’d put some effort into some Birther propaganda suggestions, but I don’t want them catching on. I’d probably fail anyway; propaganda is an interpretation of reality, a certain perspective, a twist on logic. Birther’s positions and conspiracies are far more extreme than that, not just twists, but denials; not little lies but outright fabrications; not just tortured logic, but the abandonment of logic for lunacy. Effective birther propaganda would require several layers, a series of steps. A prolonged campaign rather than a quicksell.

  7. avatar
    The Magic M July 19, 2011 at 4:11 am #

    > I wondering if there is a concise way to describe the difference a euphemism and a code word?

    A euphemism usually is directly intended to make something bad appear not so bad.
    My favourite political euphemism, from my own country, is “Restsondervermögen” (remaining special assets) for “debt”.

    A code word usually uses something completely different (such as your example of “international financier”, or “Zionist”, for “Jew”) which still carries the original connotation without being politically incorrect.

    So for example, if you wanted to mask the N-word, you wouldn’t say “heavily pigmented” (euphemism, PC-speak) because that would still immediately translate back to “black”. You’d rather mask it as “un-American” or “not like us”.

  8. avatar
    aarrgghh July 19, 2011 at 4:20 am #

    “extraordinary rendition” is clearly propaganda; it is an attempt to characterize one’s own clearly illegal acts (in this case, kidnapping) as not illegal. (we’re “the good guys”, remember?)

    likewise, term “extrajudicial”, often invoked whenever “the good guys” want to do something illegal, is also propagandistic.

    Arthur: Could a phrase like “extraordinary rendition” (i.e., kidnapping) also be a code word?

  9. avatar
    Arthur July 19, 2011 at 5:12 am #

    I was thinking that a code word is something like a secret handshake, that once given, alerts one person that the other person is on his side.

    Speaking of handshakes, remember the fuss generated during the 08 election when then Senator Obama exchanged a fist-bump with his wife, which a Fox News commentator described as a possible “terrorist fist-jab.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G_vmQrTi3aM

    Even John McCain’s handshakes were scrutinized, although not on Fox: http://www.abovetopsecret.com/forum/thread363077/pg1

  10. avatar
    Dr. Conspiracy July 19, 2011 at 8:03 am #

    There have been a number of interesting coincidences this summer, including my reading last night the chapter in Jon Ronson’s book, THEM: Adventures with Extremists, on the Ku Klux Klan trying to improve it’s image by not using the N word. That was after I wrote this article.

  11. avatar
    red-diaper baby 1942 July 19, 2011 at 8:47 am #

    I offer “hardworking Americans” as code for white, middle- and working-class Americans. Hillary Clinton spoke of “hardworking Americans, white Americans” during the primaries in 2008, making the connection explicit. (Somewhat surprisingly, no-one called her on it; this was soon after Obama’s quite accurate comment on people “clinging to their guns and their religion.”)
    It’s of course akin to Palin’s “real Americans” (as opposed to us latte-drinking, arugula-eating, Ivy-league East Coast liberals), except that Palin’s ” real Americans” are probably slightly poorer, less educated, more religious and more rural than Clinton’s.

  12. avatar
    J.Potter July 19, 2011 at 10:04 am #

    Yep, by that time the Clintons had left Arkansas farrrrr behind. I had occasion to look up median household income last night, came across a color-coded map of the US by county … poor Arkansas. Literally! Poor, poor Arkansas.

    (Disclosure: have lived within 100 miles of Arkansas for the past 26 years).

  13. avatar
    James M July 19, 2011 at 2:27 pm #

    J.Potter:
    Yep, by that time the Clintons had left Arkansas farrrrr behind. I had occasion to look up median household income last night, came across a color-coded map of the US by county … poor Arkansas. Literally! Poor, poor Arkansas.

    (Disclosure: have lived within 100 miles of Arkansas for the past 26 years).

    Well, it also doesn’t cost much to live there. I could (maybe) get a job paying $250K/year in, let’s say Santa Clarita CA, and easily have nothing to show for it. I could see living in Fayetteville on maybe $35-40K, and end up owning real estate there.

  14. avatar
    Dr. Conspiracy July 19, 2011 at 3:16 pm #

    Sometimes implicit in code words are some questionable assumptions about those being coded. This from the Atlanta Post:

    8 Political Myths About Blacks That You Shouldn’t Believe

  15. avatar
    Dr. Conspiracy July 19, 2011 at 3:47 pm #

    Sorry. I got my Type I and II bassackwards. Fixed now.

  16. avatar
    G July 19, 2011 at 4:50 pm #

    Yeah, and somehow every rich person who doesn’t want to pay any taxes is now a “job producer” to the right & Tea Party types…*rolls eyes*

    red-diaper baby 1942: I offer “hardworking Americans” as code for white, middle- and working-class Americans. Hillary Clinton spoke of “hardworking Americans, white Americans” during the primaries in 2008, making the connection explicit. (Somewhat surprisingly, no-one called her on it; this was soon after Obama’s quite accurate comment on people “clinging to their guns and their religion.”)It’s of course akin to Palin’s “real Americans” (as opposed to us latte-drinking, arugula-eating, Ivy-league East Coast liberals), except that Palin’s ” real Americans” are probably slightly poorer, less educated, more religious and more rural than Clinton’s.

  17. avatar
    J.Potter July 19, 2011 at 5:14 pm #

    You just described my financial condition with disturbing accuracy. Are you spying on me?

    Yes, some things are cheaper here. But not so cheap it’s a benefit. Real estate is definitely more accessible (on $40K/year, I will have paid my mortgage by my 40th birthday), however, I am not typical. The first time I took unemployment, I was informed I was a “high earner” … at $35K/year, I was in the top bracket. Incomes are half, daily expenses are not. Believe me, the area is desperately impoverished. Most of the country is the same, but dotted with affluent bright spots. None of those spots are in or near Arkansas. One of the highest-paying employers in the region is a convenience store chain.

    The map I was referring to indicated higher median incomes with darker shades of green. Ironically, the lowest strata was pure white. Arkansas was the whitest state.

    James M: Well, it also doesn’t cost much to live there.I could (maybe) get a job paying $250K/year in, let’s say Santa Clarita CA, and easily have nothing to show for it.I could see living in Fayetteville on maybe $35-40K, and end up owning real estate there.

  18. avatar
    Nathanael July 20, 2011 at 2:31 am #

    Arthur:
    Could a phrase like “extraordinary rendition” (i.e., kidnapping) also be a code word?

    Ah, government-speak. Where “regime change”, “nation-building” and “Operation Freedom” are code words for “assassination by military”, “war of aggression” and “let’s take the oil for ourselves”.

    I’m attempting at the moment to engage in dialogue over at Tea Party Nation (not> an easy task), where phrases like “liberal troll” are TP shortcode for “LA-LA-LA-LA-LA we can’t H-E-E-E-E-A-R you!”

    But perhaps that’s not so much a code word as it is simply the politics of division, where ALL CAPS!!! and childish pejoratives substitute for intellectual debate, and where one’s credulity and authority are built less on reason and intellectual honesty than on one’s deftness and creativity in confirmation bias.

    One of my favorite TP code words is “Party of Treason”.

    But of course, such things are not merely code words, they’re shibboleths. Anyone who doesn’t speak the lingua natively, and without the slightest trace of accent, is set upon as a liberal troll.

    Just a few minutes ago I nearly laughed out loud at one TPer who lit into another, calling him a liberal obummanut for the apparent crime of trying to divide TP loyalties by failing to speak in sufficient harsh terms about some RINO. Just a few posts later this self-same door warden lamented the fact that there were so few true loyalists in the TP movement. Well, when you keep the door closed and tightly bolted, you shouldn’t be surprised to find so few inside.

  19. avatar
    J. Potter July 20, 2011 at 5:08 am #

    Reason over emotion (scientific rationality) or emotion over reason (reactionary faith/belief-based symbolism/storytelling). That’s the two poles our public conversations, politics, and parties, gravitate toward. I go with the reason first crowd. It’s so shocking when someone pops into a calm discussion on fiscal policy with “WHY IS THE GUBMINT A-TAKIN’ 70% OF MY HARD-EARNED CASH TO BUY LIMOZINES FER BURROCRATIC PARASITES??!?” which generates a collective “someone say something?” and a sincere attempt to understand the person. New information is welcomed, considered, assimilated. If new, sound data and interpretation is found, it’s prized (so long as the participants are honest).

    When a reason person ventures into emotion territory, it’s equally shocking to the locals, very upsetting that an interloper isn’t playing long and upsetting the consensus by insisting on rationality. There, dissent must be discredited, instantly, in order to protect the hierarchy and reputation of the thought leaders. Change from external causes is unacceptable. And if any member dissents, it better be a well-planned coup, or it gets ugly. The hierarchy and status quo must be maintained, granted authority unchallenged, or the whole storyline, based on consent rather than evidence, collapses.

    I read Animal Farm over the weekend (had been awhile) and was struck by the use of collective storytelling and coerced consensus, and the violent ostracism of naysayers as a parody of the Russian revolution. Of course I’m biased, but if I had to associate this behavior with our right or left … it’d be the right.

    I couldn’t stand to be limited by such a thought system (again), in which acceptance depends on agreement. And the “truth” being agreed on depends on shifting mutual consensus … the group can literally change your mind, if you want to continue to enjoy its acceptance. Two completely different approaches to interpreting reality that will always frustrate each other. Pick what works. I like my results reproducible and verifiable, and that’s my choice.

  20. avatar
    Majority Will July 20, 2011 at 7:24 am #

    Nathanael: Well, when you keep the door closed and tightly bolted, you shouldn’t be surprised to find so few inside.

    Nice metaphor.

  21. avatar
    Arthur July 20, 2011 at 10:33 am #

    One set of code words used by birthers and tea-partiers is built around the city of Chicago. Orly Taitz, for example, complained of being a victim of “Chicago-style politics,” or “Chicago-gangster politics,” or “Chicago-thugs.”

    I grew up about 100 miles from Chicago, and when I see those phrases about Chicago, I think of two things: 1) Al Capone and the Chicago of the Prohibition era, or 2) Mayor Richard J. Daley who held office from 1955-1976 and whose tenure was known for heavy-handed policies in the police dept. and for political corruption. But my guess is that Orly uses “Chicago” as a code for Barack Obama, and the word “thug” to conjure up images of gangsta rappers.

    Anyone else familiar with Chicago politics have some insight about this?

  22. avatar
    Joey July 20, 2011 at 5:29 pm #

    I wonder if Dennis Hastert, the former Republican Speaker of the House qualifies for “Chicago-style politician” or “gangsta politics” status?

  23. avatar
    J.Potter July 20, 2011 at 6:16 pm #

    Chicago has a long colorful history of political shenanigans, going back to the 19th century. And it seems like Chicago has always wanted to differentiate itself from New York. Obama and his team being from Chicago, made some of those references, and it’s naturally been picked up on by his opponents. Especially the most virulent, dogmatic opposition, the birthers. The stew of disparate influences they attribute to Obama is stupefying: a muslim socialist Kenyan privileged Chicago corporate thug. No wonder he can’t remember his birthday! 😉