As culture’s foremost chronicler on good boys, today I’m sending out an emergency missive / re-release of a newsletter about politics and dogs. Some brief housekeeping: If you want to hear more about why I’m not online anymore and instead yelling into my Substack void, here you go. If you want hot takes and more intimate investigations of things, feel free to subscribe to this newsletter, and lemme know if you need a sliding scale. “Important” ones and resources will always be free, the paywall goes around my messy thoughts and pop culture deep dives. Xox.
First, things you should read and see and listen to:
Listen / read this thread:
If you’ve been following me for a bit, you perhaps know I have been obsessed with Mayor Max, the dog mayor of Idyllwild, California, for quite some time. (In fact, one follower reported a scandal to me, which was that Mayor Max humped their leg. You didn’t hear it from me.)
To me it is the perfect combination of contemporary surreality and a desperate need to locate both the problems and solutions of our crumbling world in anything—anything—other than human beings.
And it’s with Mayor Max in mind that I watched the presidential hopefuls trot out their dogs for attention, from Warren to Biden and back again. Unfortunately for all of us, Biden’s dogs have their own Twitter account—“The Oval Pawffice” so I am legally required to republish an essay I wrote about politics and dogs last year.
Healthcare? No. But why don’t we dip into wholesomeness to make the lack of action in the midst of a murderous pandemic be rendered as mindless content that we all “really needed today.” It’s not cute, it’s not a fun distraction. IT’S SINISTER I AM TELLING YOU. THE DOGS MUST PUT US OUT OF OUR MISERY AT ONCE. This is weaponized dog ownership. I’m going to make an infographic and then you’ll believe me.
Okay aside from how horrible and embarrassing this is, at the same time, I just can’t stop thinking about someone being forced to write this. Someone wrote this. Someone sat down with their fancy education and wrote “Woof” a dozen times. Anyways, here’s what I wrote in November with some added thoughts / edits for length. Enjoy.
I’d be remiss not to note the uncanny overlap between “good boys” as I’ve defined them (people, mostly cis-het white men, who are awarded for doing the least, the least as in not being outwardly horrific) and “good boys” as in dogs. This is not an accident, from my side of things—I took the “good boy” phrase from hearing it half-heartedly slung at our ill-behaved childhood dogs for years.
But it is incredible when you think about it — how the meanings work in multiple directions. How “good boy” said to a human man is, in my opinion, a loving insult or tongue-in-cheek flirt, or perhaps a rare bit of praise for a loyal submissive. Depends. And at the same time, it is unironic behavior reinforcement for dogs. I’m obsessed.
I love how dog ownership is rendered “good” too, similarly elevated to the strange pedestal non-violent men are launched unto, as if the ability to keep a living thing alive (dogs, children) means you are inherently good. Capable, worthy, empathetic, warm, loving. Never do we talk about access, about means, about the sheer absurdity of linking ownership of something to morality. Because, as we all know, no one bad has ever had a child, has ever owned a dog, has ever expressed love towards anything. Bad people? They are all uniform and easy to spot, like blocks of marble, incapable of human emotion, which makes us good ones so nice, so sweet, so malleable.
An interesting thing happens, to public figures and politicians or celebrities who are so far away that we can’t feel the texture of their presence. We look at the “good” things even vaguely associated with them, dogs for instance, and decide that will do as a character judgement, in apparent place of critique or further thought. It feels to me a similar way of coping with unchecked power / obscene fame as when we do “stars! They’re just like us. Here is Dakota Johnson eating!” Unable to relate, to grasp the magnitude of these people who are made to be so much more than people (like staring into the Grand Canyon, I feel) we center on whatever makes a sort of sense to us, whatever is sort of understandable in the context of our very different lives.
Take for instance:
Why is it important that there are dogs in the White House again? Well, it’s not. But visually, symbolically, I think it means something to a lot of people. I think it harkens a return to “normalcy” which many foolishly ascribe to Biden anyways, as though this moment is not setting the stage for a much more organized, competent dictator in 2024.
It’s ironically humanizing to own a dog, to express love towards a non-human entity. So regardless of where you’re dropping bombs today, if you can get a quick pic frolicking across the White House front lawn with your four-legged companion, you should be good.
Biden’s campaign took advantage of this too, gauging that most white Americans would likely be more swayed by the idea of putting dogs back in the White House than getting the fascist out.
But more so, are we so naive as to think that the presence of animal companions means everything is fine? (Also, do we not remember police dogs, or other animals trained specifically to inflict harm?)
I do not think people are so naive, I think dogs become/became shorthand for a certain sort of morality. Trump’s lack of dogs: obviously proof of his ineptitude, his callousness, his immorality. Is it really easier to look at the absence of pets as an indictment on his self than his unrelenting war on the poor, on people of color, of immigrants, on the unhoused and uninsured?
I think for many, yes. Which is extremely grim. But also, we live inside a propaganda machine. I’m trying to be flexible to the realities that for many of us, gauging what is going on at any given time is increasingly difficult, and resting on heuristics—even if reductionist and oversimplified—makes a sort of sense.
But it is, notably, not unique to now. A brief tour of some of my favorite absurd dog projection moments in politics:
George W. and his dog paintings:
TFW the war criminal gets loads of fawning articles written about his “pivot to art” — a heady combination of both the painting and the content, most of which are dogs. Good boys! In the other direction, if there are negative dog interactions? NOT GOOD OPTICS. WORSE THAN ANYTHING YOU MIGHT BE CAUGHT ON TAPE SAYIN. See: Mitt Romney putting his dog on the roof of his car. See a protestor below:
Take this from an article about the Romney dog incident: "Anyone who would strap their dog to the top of a moving car has neither a soul nor a brain," SC Forward Progress said in a statement provided to BuzzFeed. Mitt Romney obviously does not share our South Carolina values. South Carolinians deserve to know about Mitt Romney's history of animal cruelty. We do not strap our dogs to the tops of cars in this state. Not only is it illegal, it's downright cruel."
More recently, remember how a bunch of Democratic nominees were like, very dog centric? (No need to read these lol, just linking to show where they are from // the sheer absurdity.) Who needs to look closely at policy when a dog is in the picture. I suspect, sinisterly, that’s perhaps the very point.
Even if the dog seems objectively miserable (see above) — it’s still treated as this fun fact, this humanizing fact. NO! Politicians are not like us because they have dogs! They have access to power! No dog can dampen that reality! Stop this at once!
Okay but, for real, I still think about Michael Bloomberg shaking a dog’s mouth like it was a hand to shake all the time. I’m trying to do better. I promise.
Anyways, food for thought I hope — in terms of dog ownership, the role they play in popular culture and politics, the projections we make unto the people who own them, the “bad optics” of not being liked by a dog or, uh, tying the dog to your car roof. There’s a lot to unpack!
And as promised, the reason I am good, the reason anything I do matters, the reason anyone likes me at all, the reason I seem sometimes like a warm person: here is my dog in her hole.
Shelby + Clem