02 Jun Episode 137: Thought-Terminating Enemy Epithets (Part I)
Citations Needed | June 2, 2021 | Transcript
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Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
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Adam: Before we do our episode today, I’m going to do a shameless promotion as some of you may have seen on Twitter, within the next coming months, I’m going to be a wife-guy, big-time wife-guy, I’m going to be promoting Sarah Lazare’s book, contributor to the show, she wrote a novel with her late father who passed in 2018. For over 20 years, he was in the Illinois Commerce Commission, he wrote a political thriller, the manuscript was incomplete when he passed in 2018, Sarah finished the book over the next couple years and it is now published with Strong Arm Press. It can be pre-ordered now, comes out July 20. If you could please buy the book, support the book, we’d really be very much appreciative of it. I’m now using this podcast to shamelessly promote our side projects. It’s very personal, very, very meaningful to us. So you can find the book, it’s called Testimony. You can find it on BarnesandNoble.com or Amazon.com. Sorry, we don’t have something more obscure and indie. Those are just the ones that scale so it’s only ones that her publisher allowed her to use. Just to give a quick overview, it’s a political thriller that takes place in 2002 during the build up to the war in Iraq. It deals with many themes, corporate capture of utilities regulators, the way security theater is used to hide corporate mis-dealings and the way public private partnerships are used to enrich the powerful. So, somewhat similar themes to the show, but of course it’s fiction. So definitely go check it out if you can, I’d be very, very grateful. Writing a book, of course, is a nerve wracking exercise for anyone and so we’re trying to get as many people to read it as possible. The book is called Testimony by Sarah Lazare and Peter Lazare. You can find it on Amazon and BarnesandNoble.com. Thank you again for your support.
Nima: “Venezuela Elects Chávez’s Handpicked Successor Nicolás Maduro,” announced ABC News. “Firebrand North Korean Leader Orders Destruction Of South Korean Hotels In Kumgang,” reported the International Business Times. “Iran’s Proxy Threat Is the Real Problem Now,” warned Foreign Policy.
“Hand-picked successor” “firebrand”, “proxy” — In Anglo-American media, there are certain Enemy Epithets that are reserved only for Official Enemy States of the good ol’ US of A and their leaders, which are rarely, if ever, used to refer to the United States itself or its allies, despite these countries featuring many of the same qualities being described.
Adam: Over two years ago, in a two-part episode entitled “Laundering Imperial Violence Through Anodyne Foreign Policy-Speak,” Episodes 70 and 71, we explored the euphemistic way American media discusses manifestly violent or coercive US policy and military action. Words like “engagement”, “surgical strikes”, “muscular foreign policy”, “crippling sanctions” obscure the damage being unleashed by our military and economic extortion regime.
Nima: Just as pleasant sounding, sanitized foreign policy speak masks the violence of US empire, highly loaded pejorative labels are used to describe otherwise banal doings of government or are employed selectively to make enemies seem uniquely sinister, while American allies who exhibit similar features are given a far more pleasant descriptor.
Adam: On this week and next week’s episode, we’re going to do a sequel of sorts to Episodes 70 and 71 and lay out the Top 10 Enemies Epithets — derisive descriptors that are inconsistently applied to smear enemies without any symmetrical usage stateside, designed to conjure up nasty images of despotism and oppression, often pandering to racialized and Oriential prejudice and, above all, asking people to shut off our brains and have the label do the thinking for them.
Nima: Our guests for this two-parter are Janine Jackson and Jim Naureckas of the media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. Janine Jackson is FAIR’s Program Director, and the Producer and host of FAIR’s syndicated weekly radio show CounterSpin. Jim Naureckas is the editor of FAIR.org and, since 1990, has edited Extra!, FAIR’s monthly magazine.
Janine Jackson: That bias is so incorporated into the very language of reporting that even when you think you’re sorting out the information, you still have to do some work to unpack the framing.
Jim Naureckas: The fundamental myth of the media is that it is providing a window on the world. You’re looking through them and seeing reality and the beginning of understanding what’s really going on is when you realize that you are not actually seeing these other countries through The New York Times, that you’re seeing a picture made of words, then you begin to understand the beginnings of how they’re manipulating you.
Adam: So this episode is going to be about a topic we’ve touched on, but never really have given the full treatment, which is suspiciously asymmetrical terms that exist only for foreign enemies and those foreign enemies that are used to sort of prejudice the mind and do our thinking for us, which is something that we’re interested in on the show in general, and what better way to do this Nima than a listicle because we are not above listicles on this show, we’ve done them before.
Nima: We love listicles.
Adam: Some people consider them gauche, we don’t.
Nima: No, absolutely not.
Adam: Maybe they are gauche, but who cares? Let’s be honest —
Nima: It’s our prerogative.
Adam: We’re glorified shock jocks anyway, we may as well just do it.
Nima: We just like putting together Foreign Policy magazine bingo card episodes and I think these epithets really, really do that, you can see them all in any given article.
Adam: And like we mentioned in the last one, you know, when you were a kid and you had the Nintendo game that had like 10 games in one, this is like that, it’s basically 10 episodes in two episodes, five episodes in one.
Nima: It’s true. So you’re welcome, this is the Duck Hunt of Citations Needed.
Adam: Yeah because these are so pervasive, we thought we’d knock them all out in a one-two parter and I’m excited to get into it.
Nima: I am super duper excited about this, the 10 choices, and even some honorable mentions maybe along the way, are really good. I think the idea of the epithet, which is consistently seen across US and British media, certainly, harkens back to — this is me as a erstwhile classicist, I guess — but harkens back to like the epithets, the descriptors that are often repeated as they’re ascribed to the gods and heroes in Homeric epic poetry, you know, so the epithets like swift-footed Achilles or Lord of Men Agamemnon, or, you know, red-haired Menelaus, Odysseus the man of twists and turns. They’re these descriptors that you hear time and again, and they fill space, but they also really serve to ground the character in a certain kind of description. They act almost like a mnemonic device, right? Like an easily recognizable shortcut for, I think, the reporter and the reader alike when it comes to news media and commentary, to remember how to think about the subject at hand. These descriptors are existential in a way. So, much like in The Iliad, when you hear Hector Breaker of Horses, it’s not only when the character of Hector is taming steeds that you hear that, it’s used all the time, and so these kinds of epithets, as we’ll talk about things like, you know, handpicked successor, things like hardliner, you hear them all the time, regardless of what the articles are actually about, because we’re meant to remember what we are supposed to think about who they’re reporting on, and what better way to start, I think Adam, then our number one on the list, the term: “proxy.”
Man #1: Lebanon, much of the government run by Hezbollah, which is an Iranian proxy in Israel, the, in Gaza. There are groups that are Iranian proxies.
Man #2: A recent rocket attack by Iranian-linked proxy group.
Man #3: Some of them by pro-Iranian proxy forces that they’ve often used to attack Americans with his proxy allies, with Iran’s proxy allies, and —
Man #4: By and large in Lebanon. And they are the largest proxy force that that the Iranians have.
Man #5: During the period of implementation of the JCPOA. There were no Iranian or proxy missile strikes on US-used bases in Iraq.
Adam: Yes, “proxy” is a sort of classic example, we’ve talked about it before when we discussed Iran, but basically proxy is only used in the context of Iran and contemporary standards. Greg Shupak, a writer from FAIR we’ve had on the show before, in April 2021 he wrote, quote:
When I searched the databases of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post for the last ten years, I found that variations on the terms ‘America’s proxy,’ ‘American proxy,’ ‘United States’ proxy’ and ‘US proxy’ appeared a total of 183 times. In contrast, all forms of the term ‘Iranian proxy’ were used a total of 798 times. In other words, Iran is said to use ‘proxies’ more than four times as often as the United States, even though the US has a vastly larger global footprint than Iran. Thus, these outlets are downplaying the extent of US interference in other countries, while frequently portraying Iran as undercutting other peoples’ independence.
“Iranian proxy” first appeared in the NYT in an especially hawkish context, in a 1993 opinion piece headlined “Bombing Baghdad Was Not Enough.” Published after the US bombed the Iraqi Intelligence Service, the piece was authored by Anthony Cordesman, a military and NATO consultant and chairperson at CSIS, the think tank that keeps coming up. The article read, quote:
The U.S. should accept the fact that a no-fly zone does nothing to protect the Shiites in southern Iraq, who already are firmly under the control of Saddam Hussein’s army and internal-security forces. It should acknowledge that the 3,000- to 5,000-man rebel force is no more than an Iranian proxy and cannot overthrow Saddam Hussein.
So basically, one of the things you’ll see time and time again, is that if any armed group happens to not be Sunni, happens to be Shia, they are said to be an Iranian proxy by definition.
Nima: Oh, yes, the “Shia Crescent.” Let’s not forget the so-called Shia Crescent, which is a stepchild to the proxy term. You hear that a lot, right? Extending from Tehran to Baghdad to Damascus to Beirut, that there is this crescent and that it all has to do with Iranian hegemony, which is, you know, this kind of fear mongering idea that completely omits actual, let’s say, realistic influence but mostly is meant to deflect all the attention away from American empire. I think it’s important to note here that The New York Times has been doing this for more than four decades now, especially when it comes to Iran. The late Edward Said actually perceptively noted media coverage about Iran pertaining to the Iranian Revolution in 1979, in the media coverage then, but also following, and he noted that specifically, The New York Times reporting formed, quote, “A collection of attitudes displayed for the benefit of suspicious and frightened readers. When you think about how the term proxy is used and that first appearance in 1993 in The Times, “Bombing Baghdad Was Not Enough,” and it’s that, you know, CSIS piece about how Iran is now going to wield influence, you see this and it is meant to stir up the fear, it is meant to keep the fear top of mind for American readers for sure.
Adam: Well, because the US and Israel effectively have a, it’s not this crudely sectarian but they at least extensively have an alliance with all the Sunni Gulf states, the dictatorships and monarchies, for the most part, that obviously sort of changes here and there, but that’s what that’s the general contours of the Middle East Policy so logically follows that if anyone doesn’t meet that sectarian criteria, they therefore become a proxy of Iran, which is why the term is used four or five times more for Iran than it is for the largest empire on Earth.
Nima: A lot of these actually came out in the weeks following the US assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, you know, The Washington Post in January of 2020, right after the assassination had this headline, quote, “Iran has invested allies and proxies across the Middle East,” and the article says this, quote:
Iran’s emphasis on developing proxy forces goes back to the 1979 revolution that deposed the American-backed shah and gave rise to the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Shiite theocracy sought to export its revolution and empower Shiite groups in the Middle East from the outset. Middle East Institute senior fellow Alex Vatanka called this expansionist ethos ‘part of [Iran’s] DNA.’…Hezbollah, a Shiite paramilitary group and political party in Lebanon, is Iran’s earliest and most successful proxy project.
This has all of the tropes, the export and Revolution, the expansionist policy, of course, these are rarely ascribed to say the American project. A couple weeks later, Axios had the headline, “Iran’s Proxies in the Middle East.” By the end of the year the Wilson Center, December 2020, was saying, “Iran’s Islamist Proxies in the Middle East,” you know, doing a report on them, and then more recently, Brookings Institute in February of 2021, had an article, “Biden’s Decision to Strike Iran’s Proxies is a Good Start.” And so, of course, this is always ascribed to Iran, the threat that Iran poses to US Empire, US power, and this proxy argument is oftentimes also extended to allies in Latin America, which then allow this kind of crisis at the border, it’s coming to our shores idea that we saw with this, you know, creeping communism back in the Cold War that if Iran and Venezuela or Iran and Bolivia are allies, then we have proxies in our own hemisphere. Now, meanwhile, places like Israel and Saudi Arabia are rarely, if ever, I would say, never, described as proxies, right? They’re always allies, they’re always friends, they’re always partners.
Adam: Even though their financial and diplomatic relationships with the US are far more existential to their existence than that of Hezbollah or the Houthis in Yemen. The relationship is much more existentially linked between the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel versus Iran’s so-called proxies in Yemen and Lebanon, yet, of course, one never hears them referred to as such.
Adam: So we have Bloomberg in March of 2021, “Saudi Arabia and the U.S. Still Need Each Other.” The article read, Meghan O’Sullivan wrote in this column, quote:
The U.S. can only fully succeed in its efforts to counter Iran, combat terrorism, build on the wave of normalizations with Israel by Arab states, and address the horrific humanitarian situation in Yemen if it has the cooperation of the Saudis. The U.S. learned the hard way in Iraq after the 2003 invasion that shaping dynamics in the Middle East in the face of Saudi indifference or, worse, opposition is incredibly hard.
The terms “ally,” “partner” has been used with respect to Saudi Arabia for years and we see this kind of asymmetry time and time again, even within the same paragraph. So we have Kim Ghattas writing for The Atlantic in 2019 with regard to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi Arabia, quote:
…whereas the Iranians are upping their use of proxy groups and asymmetrical warfare across the region, MbS is banking on a unique set of circumstances: Aside from his own brazenness, he is helped by an American president who is unpredictable, but intent on squeezing Iran and an Israeli prime minister willing to strike Iranian proxies in Iraq and Syria.
So in the same paragraph, the US helps MbS, MbS is sort of the driving force here, right? Saudi Arabia is the driving agent making the decisions, the US simply kind of helps them whereas Hezbollah and Houthi rebels in Yemen, have no agency they’re just proxies of Iran. So you notice that the largest empire in the history of the world does not direct anyone, they merely sort of manage and assuage and sort of push along and maybe they kind of will do some diplomatic back channeling, but they don’t really control what Saudi Arabia and Israel do. Whereas Iran is basically the octopus in the antisemitic cartoon from the 1930s, right? They sort of control the world and all their tentacles. And this kind of asymmetry is by design, regardless of any empirical evidence to the counter, that these Iranian proxies, while dependent, and obviously very much influenced by Iran also have their own agendas and their own political goals and oftentimes disagree with Tehran, just as Saudi Arabia disagrees with Washington, but only one side is directing them as automatons and the other side is sort of a bumbling bystander.
Nima: Right, exactly. There’s no symmetry in terms of puppet mastery, right? That terminology of the puppet has been replaced in recent decades by this idea of proxy, that say the Shah could be described as a US puppet dictator, and yet not really seeing that in mainstream press, but now that is replaced by Iranian proxies extending their influence and extending Iran’s influence while, Of course, the United States just has friends and allies.
Adam: Yeah, and despite taking $4 billion a year from the US, $40 billion over a 10-year period, despite having diplomatic cover at the UN from the US, Israel would never be called the proxy, despite the fact that its entire military edge is based on its priority access to US weapons.
Nima: The qualitative military edge, as it’s called.
Adam: Right, but Israel is never called a proxy of the US, and in fact, in many ways people traffic in the antisemitic theory that Israel tells us what to do, that a country the size of New Jersey is in fact corrupting our otherwise pure anti-imperialist and isolationist president.
Adam: The causality is totally backwards, and you never hear about Hezbollah corrupting the influence of Tehran, it wouldn’t make a lot of sense, right? But for some reason, Israel is always said to be forcing us to do evil shit we don’t want to do.
Nima: So keep an eye out for the word proxy moving forward, you will now see it everywhere if you hadn’t already. It’s one of those things you can’t put back in your brain once you see it, you see it everywhere. But that brings us to our number two on the list, and Adam, I know this one is your favorite and it is: “hand-picked successor.”
Man #1: Chávez died of cancer in 2013 is hand-picked successor, Nicolás Maduro.
Woman #1: Hugo Chávez’s hand-picked successor is the winner and Venezuela’s presidential election.
Woman #2: And as I discovered Chávez hand-picked successor, Nicolás Maduro became steadily more authoritarian.
Man #2: Then Nicolás Maduro. He was Hugo Chávez’s hand-picked successor.
Adam: So the reason this one’s my favorite is because it’s the funniest because it describes a totally benign thing, which is a vice president, and it makes it seem so sinister. This was used very commonly in the context very, very often, and still is today, used in the context of Nicolás Maduro in Hugo Chávez. So just to give some history here, Hugo Chávez won four elections and a referendum. He won basically five elections from 1999 to his death in 2013. Prior to his death in 2013, in the fall of 2012, Venezuela had an election, Nicolás Maduro was the Vice President, Hugo Chávez won that election.
Adam: With about 55 percent of the vote, which for him was relatively small, but it was 55 percent of the vote. When Hugo Chávez died, unlike in the United States in Venezuela if the president dies the Vice President has to run for re-election within a few weeks and then Maduro did that and he won the election with about 51.5 percent of the vote.
Nima: Some might argue that’s a more democratic process.
Adam: Well, indeed it is but for some bizarre fucking reason for the last eight years, every single time people mention Nicolás Maduro, he’s referred to as the “hand-picked successor” of the late president Hugo Chávez. So they’ve been doing this for years. So The Daily Beast in September of 2015, after they called him a South American Hitler, that’s a direct quote, they referred to him as, quote, “Hand-picked by the late socialist strongman Hugo Chávez as his replacement in 2013.” That’s called a vice president and Maduro won the election fair and square. No one disputes the fairness of that election. There was an internationally observed, US recognized, everyone recognized that election as being totally legitimate, still hand-picked successor. So this is the BBC 2015, “The problem for Mr. Maduro, the 53 year old bus driver handpicked by Hugo Chávez to succeed him,” there’s a little classism thrown in there. This is the LA Times, “Maduro, the handpicked successor of Chávez,” the same year 2015. This is AFP in 2015, “After 16 years under the late President Hugo Chávez and his hand-picked successor Maduro.” Blah, blah, blah. This is the British Telegraph, “The elections are widely regarded as a referendum on the President Nicolás Maduro, the hand-picked successor of the late — ” So the reason why they’re using this term, obviously, is to give the impression that there was some sort of Soviet-style, but he was picked by Chávez in the same way that Obama picked Biden in the same way that Trump picked Mike Pence in the same way that any president picks a vice president and then unlike those vice presidents, when the President died of cancer in 2013, he ran for reelection within 40 days and won the election. So this is a classic example of enemy epithet and that it is totally disingenuous and completely misleading, but it is fucking everywhere. You always hear about Maduro being Chávez’s hand-picked successor.
Nima: Yeah, Vox in 2017, in their explainer about Venezuela, wrote that:
Chávez died of cancer at the age of 58, at the very beginning of his third term in office. Maduro, Chávez’s vice president and handpicked successor, temporarily assumed the office of the presidency, and was narrowly elected president in the elections that took place shortly after.
You have The New York Times in December of 2012 with this headline, “Waiting to See if a ‘Yes Man’ Picked to Succeed Chávez Might Say Something Else.” And as you can imagine, the first line is this. written by William Neuman, quote:
Nicolás Maduro, the handpicked successor of Venezuela’s ailing President, Hugo Chávez, stood on a stage this month and gave a barnburner of a speech in classic Chávez style.
Reuters in March of 2013 had this, “Venezuela’s Maduro: from bus driver to Chávez’s successor,” where they really hammer home this idea of classism in the very first line, quote:
Former bus driver and union leader Nicolás Maduro followed a simple strategy when he filled in for cancer-stricken Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez over the past three months: copy his boss’s policies, his style and even his fierce rhetoric.
And then of course you have The Washington Post in an article about Chávez’s death, this is from March 9, 2013, by Juan Forero, and has the headline, “Hugo Chávez’s chosen successor Maduro takes more Chávez-like approach.”
Adam: Yeah. In October of 2012 after Chávez won the election, he was made vice president of Venezuela, that’s the way it works in Venezuela. Again, vice presidents are always hand-picked. That’s the way vice presidents work. So, anyway.
Nima: Right. George H.W. Bush, the hand-picked successor to Ronald Reagan.
Adam: It’s a great way to sort of make it sound sinister and it’s used to disparage official enemies very often in certain countries when they have term limits. The president will exit, who’s generally popular, and they’ll pick someone to sort of be their successor sort of how Obama made a bunch of phone calls and asked everyone to drop out on behalf of Biden, sort of like the way that Trump in 2024 is apparently going to endorse whoever they support. It is sort of common protocol for them to endorse a candidate that says, ‘Okay, this person represents my legacy,’ right? Kind of like how candidates get endorsed a thousand times a day in the United States.
Nima: Yeah, exactly. The endorsement process.
Adam: But for some reason, when popular presidents in Latin America endorse a replacement or say, ‘This person should be the leader of the party or sort of succeeds my wishes,’ this is considered a pejorative.
Nima: So for example, you have America’s Quarterly in October of 2020 with the article, “Who Is Andrés Arauz, Rafael Correa’s Pick to Lead Ecuador?” So it’s his pick. Who is this person? Hand-picked successor. You have a Guardian book review in January 2021, “¡Populista! review: Chávez, Castro and Latin America’s ‘pink wave’ leaders,” and it has the subhead, “BBC reporter Will Grant has produced an excellent look at the group of strongmen who came from left field,” and includes this, quote:
The reaper may have come for Chávez and Castro — though after lives with no shortage of drama — but [former Brazilian president] Lula ended up in jail, where [BBC reporter Will] Grant interviewed him. He has since been released while his hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached over corruption charges.
Adam: Corruption charges are total bullshit, by the way.
Adam: But that’s neither here nor there. But again, Rousseff was the chief of staff for Lula da Silva and ran an election and won one after he endorsed her. That’s not really a hand-picked successor. It’s not some authoritarian decree.
Nima: Even more recently, in April 2020, when The New York Times had an article, “Latin America’s Former Presidents Have Way Too Much Power,” and in that, as you can imagine, the term “hand-picked” appears four times talking about the hand-picked candidates of former presidents, the hand-picked successors and though you may have gotten the gist so far, not only is this a very loaded term, to put it lightly, but it is more often than not used in terms of Latin and South American leaders and I think we’ll see that a lot, you know, there are some terms that are more universal when they come to, you know, official US enemies, others oftentimes will find themselves with more of a local flavor.
Adam: Well, it’s supposed to invoke Soviet-ness, right? There’s some politburo that was behind the curtain, made a decision, because if I say hand-picked successor, you assume that there wasn’t an election, but every one of these examples there was an election and they won the election. If party primaries are hand-picked successors, then I mean, you know, we went Bush, Clinton, Bush, Clinton four elections in a row, I mean, you need a billion dollars to run for election in the United States, to be hand-picked by Goldman Sachs. You’re hand-picked by a handful of billionaire donors. I mean, it’s completely inane.
Nima: Yeah, exactly.
Adam: And then they win the election and then that therefore makes them no longer hand-picked. That makes them someone who’s been elected.
Nima: Another one of these terms that we heard, and I think we’ve heard it a couple times, even in the hand-picked successor phraseology, is one of my favorites on this list. Number three: “strongman.”
Man #1: Well, he’s a classic caudillo of Latin American, a strongman who was infatuated with Che Guevara and Fidel Castro.
Woman: He was embraced by Venezuela strongman Hugo Chávez.
Man #2: I’ve told you before how the former strongman’s policies brought economic ruin to Venezuela.
Man #3: Iran has five different television networks in five different languages. One of them, the most recent — HISPANTV it’s called — with the help of Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez.
Now this one really offers particularly clear evidence of a liberal notion of horseshoe theory that there really is this strong attachment to this idea, you know, say left-wing leaders like Chávez and right-wing tyrants like Brazil’s Bolsonaro, are equally called strongmen, right? So there’s this notion that if you get too far away from the liberal notion of who is deemed an acceptable ally, so we have leaders on the not so okay side,, you’ll start hearing the term “strongman.” So it’s primarily a stylistic critique, oftentimes, you’ll hear of a charismatic speaker with a large personality, but there are really no meaningful distinctions made between the policies of say, left-wing “strongmen,” quote-unquote “strongmen,” and right-wing “strongmen.” Now one of The New York Times’ first uses of the term strongman to refer to a political leader appeared in 1953, during the CIA, MI-6 backed coup against Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, and reinstalling the Shah in power in Iran. But the first use, it’s actually interesting, it’s kind of the way that the term colonialism was used positively, until anti-colonial movements made it kind of unseemly. So, The Economist would talk very positively about colonialism until that became a little dicey. Same here for The New York Times in 1953. So you know, it’s one of the first CIA-backed coups, this is a positive thing that’s being talked about in the media, very pro-Eisenhower’s move to back the Shah over Mossadegh, which we’ve talked about before and so the term “strongman” is used approvingly in the times in an article about General Zahedi, who The Times reported was, quote, “the right man to put out the fire,” end quote, of, what it’s talking about, alleged Mossadegh sympathy toward communism, right? So there’s an anti-communist move, where The Times had this headline, quote, “IRAN’S STRONGMAN: AFTER ONE MONTH,” and it does this kind of profile about where Iran is, after the coup and, you know, thank god that the Iranian general stepped in on behalf of the Shah and US and UK oil interests to put out that fire of burgeoning communism.
Adam: “Strongman” has been routinely used to describe elected leaders in Latin America, you’ll be surprised to learn. A New York Times obituary of Hugo Chávez in 2013, was titled, “Death of a Strongman.” It was a book review published that doubled as an obituary of Hugo Chávez. It portrays Chávez as a kind of cartoon character, it’s very subtly condescending, and references his charismatic presence about 10 different times. There’s one excerpt worth reading, quote:
On March 5, Hugo Chávez’s extraordinary good luck ran out at last. After decades of evading an endless string of opponents — from personal poverty to the United States government — Venezuela’s democratically elected strongman finally succumbed to the one enemy he couldn’t defeat.
Adam: So here we have “democratically elected strongman,” which is a weird sort of concession, because you can’t just call him a strongman, because then people would say, ‘Well, he won five elections.’ He’s a “democratically elected strongman,” because I guess he, I guess he packed the courts, you know, which is now something that liberals want to do. But I guess when Chávez did it it was authoritarian. And there’s a really great line where he’s criticizing Chávez, he says he gave out, quote, “irresponsible handouts to Venezuela’s lower classes” end quote. And of course, we use it for Xi and China, we use it for Putin and Russia — fair enough — but one thing you’ll notice we never do, is it’s never used to describe Saudi Arabia, it’s never used for UAE, other Arab dictatorships, and it wasn’t ever really used ever for Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, despite the fact that he’s been in charge of Israel for what appears to be 85 years now, and despite the fact that he rules over four and a half million Palestinians who don’t vote and can’t vote for him, which is the definition of a dictatorship, where you rule over people who can’t vote for you, half the population of the area he controls in what is effectively a one state apartheid state have no say in his election.
Adam: That’s pretty much a textbook definition of a strongman. He was not really referred to as a strongman at all until around 2017 when Trump came into power, and then Trump was a strongman and then for some reason Netanyahu, because of his really close relationship with Trump, fell into this partisan, Russia-y, Slavic-ishy mold and then you started to more and more hear Netanyahu be called a strongman but for over 15 years he was never called a strongman and Israel has never really called a regime or dictatorship, which we’ll get into later. But this epithet really only existed when he became aligned with someone who was viewed as being Russia adjacent. But even still, MbS has yet to be given that moniker, and to be clear, The New York Times has never referred to Netanyahu as a strongman. The New York Times has never referred to MbS as a strongman either.
Nima: Yeah, I think the idea that, you know, “strongman” is meant to evoke this kind of banana republic leadership model, guy in the military uniform.
Adam: They Orientalized him really fast, he started to get a lot of these terms.
Nima: So then he was able to be deemed a strongman in a way that US presidents had never gotten that treatment before, right? That was a term reserved for the Latin American dictators, for an Iranian President, for certainly Vladimir Putin and then Putin’s association with Trump, and especially as expressed through Russia-gate media, really allowed that term to be applied not only to Trump as a — what else? — Putin proxy, right? But then the closest right-wing allies to Trump say a Netanyahu, a Bolsonaro in Brazil, Orbán in Hungary, that you get to apply the strongman term to those leaders because of their association with Trump.
Adam: Yeah, and we got that racialized, so that racialized use of “strongman” to describe Trump, where he couldn’t be this sort of independently American bad thing, he had to be Latin. So there’s a Politico article from March of 2016, where Trump is dressed like Fidel Castro, they photoshopped in with Fidel Castro’s garb and a cigar and it says, “Donald Trump Tweets Like a Latin American Strongman,” because he can only be bad and so far he represents this kind of Latin American cliché.
Adam: Then there was another article a week later titled, “Pinochet. Chávez. Trump? After decades of suffering under populist autocrats, Latin Americans have a message for the Gringos: Welcome to our world.” In this article, written by Ben Wofford, said, quote, “Better than most, the people of Latin America know how to spot a caudillo, or populist strongman,” and then it goes on to use the word “strongman” three times to indicate their disapproval. So again, this idea of strawman is inherently racialized, because that’s how you conceptualize and frame Donald Trump, not because he’s a white supremacist or he’s a white nationalist or he’s has very little regard for democratic institutions, he has to therefore be put on a stereotypical Latin outfit.
Adam: Kind of green fatigues and a cigar and say, ‘Look at it, he’s like those dirty Latin leaders that we sort of make fun of.’ It’s the only way we can kind of, and this is something we’ve talked about before, by foreignizing him over and over again, you know, he’s this foreign —
Nima: Right exactly. You have to brown-wash the white supremacist to make it acceptable to use these kinds of enemy epithets, which brings us to our number four on the list, which is closely related, you’ll often see them, I think, appearing in tandem, the term: “firebrand.”
Woman #1: The crowds calling for the ouster of the authoritarian president Nicolás Maduro, the successor to firebrand socialist Hugo Chávez.
Man: But are Venezuela’s people beginning to tire of their firebrand president?
Woman #2: Following on the disastrous economic policies of his mentor the firebrand socialist, Hugo Chavez.
Woman #3: A lot of people think at least lately, he’s actually been more of a hardliner. More of a firebrand.
Woman #4: The man known as Lula made his name as a leftist firebrand and has long been a longstanding figurehead in Brazilian politics.
Now, sometimes we’ll hear, you know, a “firebrand strongman” or a “firebrand dictator” or a “firebrand president.” This is, you know, similarly applied most often to right-wing leaders like Donald-Trump, but certainly in the process generates a false equivalency, as we’ve also seen with the use of strawman between left and right wing leaders that, you know, really, this has to do with again, charismatic leadership style, you’re not going to see ‘Tony Blair, the firebrand Prime Minister,’ like it’s not going to happen. So the term firebrand, often sometimes linked to another term like “combative” is very racialized and is meant to be.
Adam: A Reuters article from February 2013, headlined, “Ecuador’s Correa: from boyhood leader to firebrand president.” Ecuador’s, you know, Correa, he can be a little bit animated sometimes, but he mostly wears a suit and he talks in a very quiet tone. But he’s Latin, you know. France 24, March 2013, something we’ve talked about a lot now, the headline reads, quote, “Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s firebrand president, dies at 58.” From Vice magazine in August 2015, “Ever the Firebrand, Ahmadinejad Seems to Want to Mount a Comeback in Iran.” And so “firebrand” is a way of sort of conveying that they’re, it’s sort of like another word we’ll get into, “hard-liner,” where it’s like if you oppose the US in a kind of vaguely charismatic way you’re therefore a “firebrand,” but if you support the US in a vaguely charismatic way, that doesn’t make you a firebrand. Firebrand is a very racialized term.
Adam: It is meant to imply a kind of irrational, hotheaded Latin, irrational, passion, they’re not acting reasonable, they’re not the bespectacled, suit-wearing, Harvard-educated, IMF sanctioned, approved, neoliberal who kind of comes, this is I think, subtext, a lot of what we’re saying here.
Nima: They speak at a podium, they raise a fist and they rail against US empire in a language that is not is English.
Adam: Right because when it comes to these sort of strongmen, dictator, firebrand types, what you’ll notice, and the reason why pointing out these inconsistencies I think is useful, is that the things that upsets the Washington media establishment, as it were, and the US State Department and that world, it’s not the democratic properties of these countries, that’s mostly kind of a maybe a boutique thing you can fight for around the margins, but ultimately, isn’t really the issue. The issue is do you oppose US hegemony and US power? And if you’re on our side you get the white glove treatment, you get the euphemisms, and if you’re not on our side, then all these things that we view as being anti-democratic, whatever, are framed in the least generous light possible, are emphasized in a way that are meant to make everything look sinister and it has nothing to do with any kind of objective analysis of their democratic moral properties or their rule of law or whatever kind of precious liberal negative rights thing we think is really important, that has nothing to do with it and the reason we know that is because again, dictators, like Netanyahu and dictators like Mohammed bin Salman, our allies in the Middle East, in Latin America, are never referred to as firebrands, even though they themselves are huge demagogues. I mean, Netanyahu is a massive demagogue, but that’s just not a term that is ever applied to him because, well, he’s white, but also because he’s an American ally so he doesn’t get that treatment.
Nima: Right, which I think is a good segue to our final entry for this first part of our two-parter on enemy epithets, our number five, “cult of personality.”
Man: Appointing his deputy Nicolás Maduro, as his successor. Now Maduro has not gained the cult of personality that Chávez had.
Woman: How long we’ll be able to maintain that without having the same cult of personality and no matter who you talk to, nobody believes that Maduro is up to Chávez’s, you know, public stature.
Which, you know, when you see alongside “firebrand” and “strongman,” I think, you know, really does give a sense of what is trying to be conveyed, we often hear about the “cult of personality” of — what else? — Latin American leaders.
Adam: So, “cult of personality” is also one of those, I think it’s fair to say, racialized terms. Because the point is not that these are charismatic leaders who champion the poor and therefore become popular, because the worst thing you can do, especially in grossly unequal places in Latin America, where there’s massive racial and economic disparities, the worst thing you can do is become very popular.
Nima: That’s right.
Adam: By promising to take from the elite one percent their money.
Nima: We already saw that, “irresponsible handouts,” Adam.
Adam: Yeah, that’s cheating. That’s playing the game on god mode, you’re not allowed to do that and so if you do super popular things like slash extreme poverty, like Chávez did by a third or do massive work programs, that’s sort of not good and then therefore, naturally, you develop a following, right? Which makes sense, given that these are, you know, countries that have extreme poverty so if you alleviate extreme poverty it makes sense people would want to follow you. ‘This guy’s a leader, we elected him, he did these great things for us that he said he would.’ What they really want when they talk about the opposite of cult of personality, and let’s be clear here, they don’t want some egalitarian, anarcho, spokescouncil, affinity group where everyone sort of gets together and does the Occupy finger wave.
Nima: They’re not about participatory democracy here.
Adam: No, no, they’re not. What they want is they want a quiet, again, IMF, WTO, US-educated puppet.
Adam: Almost always in these cases, white, though not always, but whiter, especially in Latin America, and they want them to sort of sit ahead of the government and kind of align themselves, you know, do the thing you always do, the first thing you do when Áñez takes over in Bolivia or Juan Guaidó sort of takes over in exile, in absentia in Venezuela — what’s the first thing they do? — they ask for IMF loans, that’s one of the first things that Áñez did. And the second thing they do is they recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, for some reason that is very important to the US State Department.
Nima: Critical, critical.
Adam: Right, and so, that’s really what they want. They want an interchangeable Juan Guaidó empty suit to kind of go in there and be an IMF puppet. So when someone develops a genuine populace following, which, again, given the nature of democracy is just inherent how it works, you elect people not platforms, that makes sense, right? FDR had a cult following, he had a huge cult following, right? Because with glaring exceptions and human rights abuses that we can table for now, he gave poor people a lot of shit and when you’re trying to impose a kind of neoliberal austerity order, that’s the last we want. So it’s got nothing to do with these lofty notions of democracy, it has to do with the fact that you’re somehow opposing the US-led sort of way of doing things in Latin America, which is ‘Shut up, take the IMF loans, let the DEA go and sell a bunch of drugs and use your brothels and don’t give us any fucking lip. That’s just the way it’s got to be.’ And if you oppose that, you’re a “firebrand,” “strongman,” “cult of personality.”
Nima: Right, because if those policies wind up being popular, which — surprise, surprise! — alleviating poverty often is, it then not only reflects on you as inherently anti-American, but also reflects on the people of the place as being sheep, of being, you know, so therefore the “cult of personality,” ‘Well, that’s just kind inherent to these cultures.’ So you see this play out actually in a New York Times article from November 12, 2019 talking about the former Brazilian president, entitled, “Lula’s Free. Now What?” And the print version of this story has the headline, quote, “Where the Cult of Personality Rules.” With the subhead, “The cult of personality is an unfortunate trait in Latin American politics. It must end.” The articles says this, quote:
Mr. da Silva, 74, who has dominated the Brazilian political arena for the last 16 years, has impeded generational replacement within the Brazilian left and center left. It will now be even more difficult to identify new leadership capable of tackling the far-right bombast. What Brazil needs most now is to shake off the cult of personality that has caused a toxic dependence on politics that revolves around the same cast of characters.
Now, I don’t, again, we need to point out who the cast of characters in US politics has been for the past number of decades, but a few family names come to mind.
Adam: Yeah, so when talking about Lula da Silva’s return to power, as someone who can meaningfully push back against Bolsonaro, who is great for American empire and American capital, there’s this ‘Oh, we need a third way. We need a sort of, mysterious, non charismatic, maybe moderate centrist, who’s maybe going to lose to Bolsonaro but can sort of perpetuate a certain image.’ And this is what they want, they want an empty shirt and so Lula da Silva, who again, railroaded based on totally bullshit corruption charges, now been overturned, we now know that that was a total right-wing coup, CIA supported, US-backed, US media-backed coup, they even made a Netflix show about it, all bullshit, the most normie, elected multiple times, not at all really even in the Chávez vein, right? Sort of even had good relationships to a large extent with the United States. Even this is not acceptable because he can go rogue, right? So that’s a “cult of personality,” and like you said, we have plenty of examples of a cult of personality stateside, but it’s never really referred to that way. We have people getting tattoos of Biden and Obama and Hillary Clinton, we had mass rallies, and then in the United States, again the only exception to any of these rules in the United States is Trump because Trump has been properly Orientalized. But this is just not a term that is used for charismatic American leaders, mostly because they aren’t populist and they don’t really help the poor so they don’t have the ability to, like an FDR, really develop a cult of personality that’s meaningful, although it’s not for lack of trying. There have been efforts to make billionaires like Bill Gates a cult of personality. Students in India held a massive celebration in honor of Bill Gates where thousands of them can be seen in a picture, which you can see in our show notes with a huge 50 by 50 foot picture of Bill Gates that says “Grow Rich, Help Others.” The worship of Elon Musk has its own cult following, never really referred to as a cult of personality. Jeff Bezos gets about 10 puff pieces a day written about what a business genius he is, never written as a cult of personality. The cult of personality moniker is used, for the most part, for politicians who are kind of seen as being inconvenient or unseemly, who have broad popular followings and you definitely do not want that.
Nima: I think, the most salient examples, the most oft repeated examples of what a cult of personality is, are Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, right? Like those are the “cults of personality” that really kind of define the term and create the foundation for our understanding of how that term is used now. You know, Mao, cult of personality, a lot of it is like, if you could imagine a stereotypical propaganda poster of faraway leader, that signals a cult of personality and so the idea that that would then be ascribed to say, you know, Obama or Hillary Clinton is maybe a bridge too far, right? That it’s like, ‘Well, no, because people really rally behind those people because they see themselves in them. They like their policies, they find them to be charismatic speakers, but not firebrands.’ And so only by again, properly Orientalizing political leaders and figures who are deemed out of favor, some deservedly so, some others. So you have the Trump cult of personality, which is almost embraced as part of the brand, as the entire brand, and, then you see this cult of personality label also in two successive election cycles against Trump when it came to Sanders. And so again, it’s that horseshoe theory where the left and the right are kind of the same if people are excited about potential leaders.
Adam: Yeah, again, in some sort of abstract sense or maybe even isolated or academic context, I could see people having concerns with cult of personality as sort of, maybe not very sustainable, right? It’s not a sustainable way to run a democratic system. But the reality is how its used manifestly has nothing to do with those precious concerns. It is, as it’s used, almost always a way of discrediting people who are broadly seen as popular or populists — I don’t know why I just did the Oprah “Were you silent or… silenced” — and the reason we know this is because there’s no real sort of objective usage of it. I mean, Obama got really close to a cult of personality, which some people have kind of tongue in cheek referenced, but no one really seriously accuses him of having a cult of personality but we have, you know, homemade art, we have all kinds of fanfic, he gets very fawning coverage in the media, everyday, some tweet goes viral about how he’s with kids or his tan suit. I mean, there’s a huge cult of personality around Obama, but he doesn’t get that pejorative, because his policies don’t really threaten that consensus and I think that’s really the issue here.
Nima: That will do it for our first five enemy epithets that we’re going to discuss. Next week we’re going to get to our next five so stay tuned for that. But to discuss this more, we’re now going to talk to Janine Jackson and Jim Naureckas of the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. Janine Jackson is FAIR’s Program Director, and the Producer and host of FAIR’s syndicated weekly radio show CounterSpin. Jim Naureckas is the editor of FAIR.org and, since 1990, has edited Extra!, FAIR’s monthly magazine. Janine and Jim will join us in just a moment, stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by Janine Jackson and Jim Naureckas of the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. Janine and Jim, friends of the show, thank you so much for joining us today, again, on Citations Needed.
Jim Naureckas: Thanks for having us on.
Janine Jackson: It’s a pleasure.
Adam: This episode was pure media criticism, so we had to call on the big guns. I really appreciate y’all coming on because when in doubt, go to the originals. So, I want to start off by kind of talking about the way we organize the show. Last time, Janine we had you on, we talked about, we did another listicle we’re not above listicles, never have been.
Nima: We mostly invite you both on for listicle episodes.
Adam: We did foreign policy euphemisms. This time, we’re doing sort of the opposite, which is the other side of the equation from foreign policy euphemisms of American meddling and warmaking, is that there’s very sinister, very loaded terms used for the baddies and highlighting the asymmetry of language we feel is a very effective way of kind of inviting people into media criticism, certainly, at least from my personal experience, this is when FAIR would do that, because I was obviously a fair reader for 10 years before I began writing for them — now I’m being a fanboy a little bit — but one of the things that I originally was sort of drawn to was this very stark contrast in language. So I have a little bit of a navel gazing question, but I want to sort of begin by asking you, which is, from your perspective, do you feel like that’s an effective way, is that an effective model of kind of highlighting inconsistencies and more importantly, what do you think the asymmetry of language exposes? So it’s obviously a sort of symptom of a broader disease, can you sort of diagnose what you think that disease is and what maybe some of its causal mechanisms are?
Janine Jackson: Well, that’s a big one and I would just start by saying, I think that foreign policy, even in that term, is one of the things where corporate media bias is clearest, but also at the same time most insidious. I think that even people like listeners to this podcast who are smart and savvy, we imagine that when we read The New York Times or The Washington Post, that we’re kind of threshing out the imperialist bias, but it’s so baked into the language, it’s so baked into the framework that even the smartest and the leftist among us, it requires a proactive effort to actually sort out that kind of America first exceptionalism, whatever the US does is good, that that bias is so incorporated into the very language of reporting, that even when you think you’re sorting out the information, you still have to do some work to unpack the framing. So just to support the question that you’re asking, it’s very true that words like “regime” and words like “empire” and words like “proxy” and “puppet,” those are employed, they’re not neutral terms they are terms that are employed by corporate media in the service of US imperialism, not too find a point on it and all I want to just say at the start, is that even if you think you’re not getting it, you’re still getting it, you know, you’re still soaking in it, it’s very hard to avoid, and I think all of us have to make a proactive effort to kind of deconstruct the language that media use to talk about the way that the United States interacts with other countries. So I’ll just start with that.
Jim Naureckas: The fundamental myth of the media is that it is providing a window on the world, you’re looking through them and seeing reality, and the beginning of understanding what’s really going on is when you realize that you are not actually seeing these other countries through The New York Times, that you’re seeing a picture made of words and, you know, just like when you’re watching television, you’re not actually seeing actual baseball players, you’re seeing little colored dots that are brought together to look like a baseball player and since Te New York Times and The Washington Post and NPR’s pictures are made of words, looking at what those words are, it’s kind of the beginning of deconstructing it and when you realize that the words that they use to describe a thing are not the words that they use describe the exact same thing, when it’s, you know, on team blue instead of team red, then you begin to understand the beginnings of how they’re manipulating you.
Adam: I guess what I’m curious about, just to give our Zoomer listeners, what are some terms throughout the years that you saw employed that you don’t see employed anymore or you see them employed symmetrically? Because, again, if they referred to the same things in the US, using the same loaded terms, I think it wouldn’t really bother us, because then there would be some effort towards consistency and of course, this would challenge some cognitive dissidence about the nature of our system, but what are some terms that you’ve seen that used to exist, that maybe have been phased out because they’ve been considered problematic or even some to some extent, racialized?
Janine Jackson: You know, Adam, truth be told, it seems like an area where everything old is new again, things like, “strongman” or all that language I’m not sure, we were trying to think, you know, what’s the thing no one says anymore? And we were like, no, they’re saying them all again, you know.
Jim Naureckas: Well, I do think that the sort of legend that they would tell us used to be more focused on the idea of, basically, you know, an international communist conspiracy.
Janine Jackson: Yeah.
Jim Naureckas: Where you had the Kremlin really controlled everything that was bad and so you had words like communist was used a lot more?
Janine Jackson: Yeah.
Jim Naureckas: And “red,” “totalitarian,” “puppet.” It’s interesting, “proxy” is the new puppet.
Nima: Yeah, totally.
Adam: Yes, that’s true. That is an updated version.
Janine Jackson: Yeah, I was gonna say the thing that I think of from my youth is a whole lot of Soviet imagery, and the idea of anti-individualism, and it’s just another face of US exceptionalism, the idea that there were communists who were going to try to smother US citizens’ individualism and freedom and ability to speak, you know, when there was kind of a menace idea that maybe we don’t see quite so much, the idea of a red menace.
Adam: It’s coming back now.
Janine Jackson: But it’s coming back now and maybe now it’s going to be China. It could come from a different place, but the idea of an encroaching menace, which in my youth was Soviet communism, that was this vague thing that was coming to starve you of your ability to be an individual.
Nima: Yeah. The whole Body Snatchers trope?
Janine Jackson: Yes, yeah, yeah.
Jim Naureckas: There are words like strongman and autocrat are useful because you can apply them to people who are in fact elected and since I think the greater percentage of our official enemies are elected now than they were back in the day.
Nima: So dictator doesn’t work as well, but you can use “hard-liner” and it does the same.
Janine Jackson: Exactly, exactly.
Adam: Or autocrat, whatever kind of —
Janine Jackson: Right and then also the corollary of that is that you have to portray the people as deceived, as cowed, as confused, as silenced, you know, you have to do, and I think about that with Venezuela, you know, you have to think, oh my gosh, they’re so deceived they don’t even understand what it would mean to make their lives better. That’s the underside, that’s the other side of US media’s depiction of dictators, autocrats, strongman is that they are cowering over people who somehow are not connected to the outside world who don’t know their own self interest, and who are somehow pandered to, and therefore baseline confused about what their well-being would actually mean. That’s another part of US media’s really horrific deception on official enemies.
Jim Naureckas: You can always flip that, the people of the official enemy nations can be oppressed masses who are longing for liberation by the United States or they can be Serbs during the Kosovo War, the people of Serbia were depicted as these kind of like orcs, basically, inherently evil people who really deserved a little bit of collateral damage to show them the errors of their ways.
Nima: Well, yeah, I mean, I think there’s also this aspect of American people, the American public are informed, whereas others in other countries, in you know, countries where people are, quote-unquote “oppressed,” they are not informed, right? And so the media, by using these terms, are not only doing a bit of projection, of course, or a lot of projection, but they’re also touting themselves as, you know, ‘Well, at least here we have a free press, which is why you’re all informed. The most informed voters are clearly Americans,’ right? There’s this kind of thing that happens here, you know, everything you’ve been saying, really kind of reminds me of the Anaïs Nin quote or, you know, at least that is attributed to her, which is “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are,” this idea of really projecting the reality. But I think that this use of language does that. Now, you know, yes, you can kind of see this as hair splitting or being a little too critical, I think, we hear this a lot, I see this a lot in pushback to pointing out these kind of linguistic differences, pushback, like, ‘Oh, well, you know, but the systems aren’t the same,’ right? This isn’t like a one to one correlation, because there’s, you know, say, democracy on this side and totalitarianism on that side. But I think that there’s this need on the part of pundits, reporters, certainly, quote-unquote “experticians” at think tanks to draw this clear moral line between our empire and the baddies and we talk about this, you know, a ton on Citations Needed, but if you would both maybe play psychiatrist just for a second, where does this impulse come from, this defense of us, our good empire? Is it just kind of like routine, you know, imperial chauvinism, is there a cognitive dissonance there, is there something maybe just that you’ve seen in your work for decades, that could explain this impulse?
Jim Naureckas: I feel like the media are functional, you know, they play a role in a society, the organs of communication serve the power structure and if they don’t, then the power structure probably will not maintain itself as a power structure for long and the need of a society of a power structure built around imperialism is to sell the idea of imposing your nation’s power around the world as a benevolent operation that is done, not for self serving ends, but to benefit humanity and so the idea that the US is for peace and democracy is kind of the starting point of the ideology of the media, at least as —
Nima: Truth, justice, and the American way, of course.
Jim Naureckas: Well —
Janine Jackson: Yeah and what I would say, you know, my first inclination is to say yes, and there is as individuals there is a, frankly, personal psychological desire to identify with the good person, with the good benevolent side and to think that to the extent that there are flaws, they are tweaks, they are things that we could work on to be better, but it still is coming from a place of power, it still is coming from, what could we concede to other forces, to other people, and of course, we want to say that this is not just about foreign or international policy, we see the same things that work in domestic policy where certain people are designated as being not smart enough to really know their own self interest and wiser heads have to prevail. We know this is not just a framework that applies internationally but I think there’s a desire that’s natural to not think that you are coming from a standpoint of evil, of wrong. So that’s my first inclination is to say that, well, US citizens are just kind of generally inclined to think of themselves on the side of right and maybe it’s flawed or complex, but we’ll take it from a general basis of good. But then I’m always reminded that, who’s we? The United States is made up of lots of people who are not the media’s rhetorical “us,” we are immigrants, we are first-generation immigrants, we are black people, we are queer, we are a mix of different people who are not on top of the pyramid and so when people say, ‘The US thinks they’re the boss of the world,’ there’s a whole large percentage of US citizens who are like, ‘I, you’re not talking to me, you’re not talking about me, you’re in fact bombing the country where my parents live.’ So we have to kind of fragment and break up our whole understanding of it and think about what the gap is between the populace and the political power structure, and of course, I know, that’s what you guys talk about all the time, but I just think we need to be thoughtful, you know, when we’re talking about what do we believe and what do we think and I know what we mean, and at the same time, there’s a whole lot of us who really aren’t thinking in those terms at all.
Jim Naureckas: Everyone who is in a decision-making capacity in a major media outlet is someone who has done very well under the current system, by definition, you don’t have one of those positions unless you have been placed in a position of power, you’ve been trusted by the people who place people in power, and you are rewarded for having achieved that position. And so you can, it’s very likely that you are picked for that role, if you are trying to subvert that power structure and it’s also, you know, you could be working for the power structure and hating it, but then you’re going to have — I guess that’s what causes ulcers — but more likely, you have learned to manage the cognitive dissonance by deciding that this power structure, even though it seems like it benefits a tiny few, actually is good for everybody.
Adam: Right, which is very convenient.
Janine Jackson: Yeah.
Jim Naureckas: So that I think is the kind of natural stance for someone who is at the top of a pyramid to take, is that the top of the pyramid is benefiting the whole pyramid.
Nima: Yeah, I mean, I think the idea that the press is seen as the fourth estate, there’s this idea that the press is far more adversarial than it actually is.
Jim Naureckas: Yes, they love that.
Adam: Yeah, I want to talk briefly about, because I mean, this sort of get to the point of the episode, which is that in many ways, it’s not like someone wakes up and picks out a word because they think it’s pejorative or kind of asymmetrically smearing of some other country, that is just sort of a language, it’s like a fish in water, that they operate with, work with and are oftentimes funded by this sort of think tank or political influence world, right? And these ideological frameworks are sort of established and they kind of come in and out of these kind of NED circles, sort of liberal democracy circles, which have a disproportionate focus and emphasis on a very specific concept of negative rights, which itself is sort of very ideological, which is to say, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press in a very sort of specific way, and you can have all that stuff, but one person owns 99 percent of the newspapers in this town. But we have freedom of the press. And this idea of positive rights, so this idea of social justice as an outcome based metric as a socialist ideology would lend itself to, it simply doesn’t register in that framework, right? And so, for example, one word we didn’t cover on here, but we are going to cover later is this term “authoritarian,” which I find very curious, because I got into a spat one time on social media because I said, well, of course the United States is authoritarian. It has 20 percent of the world’s jail population, despite having five percent of the population, it has it as a meat-grinder rate prison system and that disproportionately puts in concentration camps, its ethnic minorities, it is the definition of authoritarian. Just because there’s some thin pretext of law, the outcome is very authoritarian, and there was just this wave of kind of blue-checkmark people who just refuse to sort of acknowledge this because it seems like once you acknowledge this —
Nima: It was an unauthorized descriptor, Adam.
Janine Jackson: Yeah.
Adam: Well, because the basic cognitive dissonance, I think of most, we’re generalizing here, so forgive me, but I think you sort of have to, is that America can do wrong, it can do bad, it can have quote-unquote “mistakes” in its past, but at the end of the day, we have to be better than the other guy. I think liberalism acknowledges that America is not perfect — conservatism doesn’t even bother with that — liberalism sort of says, ‘Oh, of course, we’re flawed and Abu Ghraib and Vietnam, but at the end of the day, we’re better than the other empire,’ which, incidentally, was the same argument that British imperialists made in relation to the Belgian empire, right? ‘We’re better than them. We don’t have as many slaves as they do.’ I find this kind of psychological and it’s very, very rigid, and I hate to be sacrilegious here, but it’s sort of like telling someone that religion is not real. It’s very emotional, very personal, because it is a civic religion.
Jim Naureckas: Yeah.
Janine Jackson: Yeah.
Adam: And it seems like these words largely exist to prevent that kind of cognitive dissonance, that sort of acknowledgment that one’s religion is just that, it’s a religion, it’s something that is sort of self-serving and reverse-engineered.
Janine Jackson: Absolutely, absolutely.
Jim Naureckas: Can I use the word “other” as a verb?
Adam: Yes, please.
Jim Naureckas: I feel like othering is one of the main tools of propaganda and the main principles of othering is that the other has an essential quality to them. We were talking about Thomas Friedman earlier, and how Thomas Friedman would call for war crimes in Serbia, or wherever, and that’s just Tom, you know, he’s just, he’s just popcorning.
Adam: It’s his deal.
Jim Naureckas: That’s his, you know, he’s thinking outside the box and it doesn’t reflect on, it’s not like America wants to commit war crimes, it’s just his idea, you know, or Bill O’Reilly or whoever. Whereas if a prominent Iranian politician or pundit were to suggest that what really needs to happen is for New York City to be burned to the ground.
Nima: Well, the headline would be like, ‘Tehran threatens Manhattan.’
Jim Naureckas: Yeah.
Janine Jackson: Yeah, exactly.
Jim Naureckas: And not just the Iranian government, but the Iranian people probably would be associated with this vicious idea of wanting to kill you and your family and that the ability to separate individuals, it’s why you never have to ask a white politician if they are willing to denounce Son of Sam, you know, because Son of Sam doesn’t have anything to do with a white politician.
Janine Jackson: Or Kyle Rittenhouse, just to update it, you know, just to bring it into the recent. Yeah, white politicians don’t have to answer for every white yahoo who does something and the same thing applies in terms of foreign policy and the other thing is that there’s this essentialism that says that the United States, that media reflect, that corporate media reflect, that says the United States can have missteps, can have flaws, can have mistakes, can have just total aberrations and screw ups, but it’s all on this understood path to happy, healthy democracy for everyone in the world, and so anything that happens, it might be terrible, but you have to understand that the intention is good and the United States’ intentions are always good and they always have to do with helping other people around the world. And then when you say, well, helping them how? Well, exporting what we have here to them, and then you say —
Jim Naureckas: Yeah, our electoral system.
Janine Jackson: So it’s so good? We’re long overdue for a news media that reflect the actual understanding of the United States’ citizens who understand that we are a state, we are a nation like any other nation, we have hella problems, we have a government that doesn’t reflect all of us, and that there’s not a simple us/them, that we don’t want to hear news media talking about, ‘We are going into Iran’ or ‘What is Syria meaning for us,’ there’s just more and more people understand that there’s no “we,” there’s no “us,” it’s much more complicated than that and that’s why we’re looking for sources of information outside of the freakin’ corporate news media because it’s gotten so, I mean, it was always weird and a megaphone for the US government, but now I think more people are onto that and are looking for other sources of information.
Nima: We’ll hear more from Jim and Janine next week when we get to our next five enemy epithets. To recap the ones we went over this week, “proxy,” “hand-picked successor” — Adam’s personal favorite — “strongman,” “firebrand,” and “cult of personality.”
Adam: Yeah, I’m excited to finish this list. Be sure to catch us next week when we finish this episode in our two-parter. There’s more gems to come.
Nima: So that will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Of course you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of the show through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. All your support through Patreon is incredibly appreciated, we are 100 percent listener funded, and as always, an extra special shout out goes to our critic level supporters on Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again, everyone. We’ll catch you next time.
This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, June 2, 2021.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.