Episode 47: American Magnanimity — Spinning Crimes Against Humanity as Benevolence

Citations Needed | August 8, 2018 | Transcript

“The White Man’s Burden (Apologies to Rudyard Kipling),” Judge Magazine, April 1, 1899


Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Thanks everyone for joining us this week. Our season one finale. You can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook: Citations Needed, support the show through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. All your help has been and will continue to be so greatly appreciated. Thanks everyone for listening and supporting the show for this first year. It’s been incredible.

Adam: Yeah. This episode marks the end of Season 1. We’re going to take a break for three weeks to prep season two, which will premiere after Labor Day.

Nima: Right.

Adam: So I’m excited. I thought it was a very, very good first season. We obviously appreciate all the support. Uh, we did a lot of interviews, had a lot of great times.

Nima: Yes. And of course and I will say upfront instead of waiting for the back end credits, um, Adam and I are far from the people solely responsible for this show. So Florence Barrau-Adams, our incomparable producer, is the heavyweight of the show every single week. We could not do this show without her. And also Josh Kross, our production consultant the kind of godfather of Citations Needed. So thanks to both of them, as well as Morgan McAslan, who does our transcriptions and Sophia Steinert-Evoy, our research assistant, have been so amazing to have on this team. So it’s been a great year.

Adam: Yeah, a team that sustainable by your support. So if you can, if you’ve thought about doing it but haven’t done it, please by all means go to Patreon and find Citations Needed with an ‘s’, the black and gold logo, and please give support if you can. In any event, let’s, uh, let’s get the show on the road because I’m excited for the season finale.

Nima: So, to wrap up season one we decided to take a look at an issue that is really kind of cross cutting with a lot of the topics that we’ve talked about that.

Adam: Yeah. So we wanted to do the most Orwellian of these sort of Orwellian feats, which is something that Jon Schwarz, who was our guest recently, wrote an article on that we’ve, we’ve always found to be the most perverse iteration of propaganda, which is where you take the most terrible thing ever and you package it as actually a good thing. Something we touch on often, but we thought it was such a fantastic trope that we wanted to dedicate an entire episode to it.

Nima: Yeah. Jon wrote a typically phenomenal article for The Intercept on July 12, 2018 entitled, “A Short History of Americans Praising Their Own ‘Generosity,’ From the Genocide of Native Americans to Trump’s Child Snatchers.” And really we just thought it spoke precisely to what we wanted to talk about today, which is basically that since there’s been an America— this great country of the United States of America — there have been American war crimes and since there have been American war crimes, there’s been this parallel kind of cottage industry of various sociopaths hacks, nativists, dupes, who are willing not only to apologize for, downplay and also deny these crimes outright, but many of them actually spin them into positive. Spin them into generosity, into American goodwill, into American charity.

Adam: Karl Rove, master the art of taking a politician’s weakness and projecting it onto one’s opponent, and just the same the American political media class, they’ve really mastered the art of taking the most blatant crimes and injustices and spinning them into something that is actually good for the subject being oppressed, cleansed or killed. From family separation to slavery to cutting people off welfare to bombing people abroad, we want you to step into the Citations Needed Funhouse today and see how the most egregious offenses to human decency are actually in fact really good and good for humanity and representative of American humanitarianism.

Nima: So today we will be joined by friend of the show, Jon Schwarz, senior writer at The Intercept.

[Begin Clip]

Jon Schwarz: I think the main part is that this is the very basic part of human psychology that we have to believe ourselves to be good. People can’t, it’s very difficult for people to consciously do things that they know are evil and at the same time we also have the instinct to do all kinds of evil things and so trying to put those two things together is a challenge.

[End Clip]

Nima: For this episode, since we are taking a look at one of our most favorite Orwellian media tropes and political tropes, the spinning of the heinous and egregious into the most benevolent, the most humanitarian because we have already mentioned that it is a Orwellian I will start off the show, it’s hackneyed, but I’m going to start off the show by actually quoting George Orwell himself.

Adam: And, and for those of you who want to remind me that George Orwell snitched on communists —

Nima: We get it.

Adam: I know he snitched on communists but before that he had some interesting things to say. So we’re gonna, we’re gonna note it, and yes, in fact, we’ll do a whole episode on that at one point.

Nima: He did write this in Notes on Nationalism, October 1945, quote, “Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage — torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians — which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side . . . The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.”

Adam: And one way he doesn’t hear about them or they don’t hear about them, is to take the bad thing and spin it as a good thing. Now, I think the most current iteration of this is how the media covers Yemen. And the war in Yemen time and time again, the United States is painted as a kind of noble savior in the conflict rather than its primary driver of the conflict, which it is, for those who live under a rock or don’t listen to the show very often, actually, you don’t have to live under a rock to not know what’s going on in Yemen since this rarely reported. The U.S. provides fuel for, intelligence for and political cover to the Saudi bombing of Yemen, which has killed probably upwards of 20,000, created over one million cases of cholera and created the biggest famine in the world. Now, the U.S. has been backing this war for about three and a half years now. Both Trump and Obama and as of a few months ago, is now sending troops. There are army green berets in Yemen helping support the Saudi bombing effort. And it’s important to know that, that the war itself, according to Bruce Riedel, who’s a total centrist center-right Brookings Fellow, uh, 30-year CIA veteran, he said in a speech that if the US wanted to end the war tomorrow, it could end the war by pulling it support from the Saudi bombing, the Saudi regime, which of course it sells weapons to and supports in myriad of ways. Now that’s important to know. So this is a purely U.S. war that the US could stop whenever it wants to, but if you watch U.S. media, not only as the American participation in the war completely omitted, it is in fact painted as the savior of Yemen.

Nima: Right. We are the hand wringing humanitarians who have a responsibility to help the poor civilians who are being attacked, not by our Saudi friends, but by “Iran-backed Houthi rebels.” That’s the story.

Adam: And this is done through two ways. The U.S.’s humanitarian aid through the U.S. Food Program and also the accepting of the sort of token accepting of a few Yemeni refugees. Uh, the United States has a long history of taking in victims of it’s bombing campaigns and then patting itself on the back for being a home of immigrants.

Nima: Right.

Adam: But let’s, let’s start off with our, with one of our favorite recurring characters on Citations Needed.

Nima: Yes. Good old editorial page editor for The Washington Post, Jackson Diehl.

Adam: So he’s kind of mastered this. He is the ultimate national security state apologist. So back in June of 2017, he wrote an op-ed hand wringing about the humanitarian crisis in Yemen entitled, “No One Is Paying Attention to the Worst Humanitarian Crisis Since World War II.” So this is a very bold rhetorical gambit because Jackson Diehl himself had not written about the war in Yemen since the beginning of the war. So this is a humanitarian crisis that no one’s talking about, including the person who tells you no one’s talking about it.

Nima: Because they, who work for a newspaper, are not talking about it.

Adam: Right. This is the editorial page editor who can write an editorial whenever he wants. No one’s talking about this thing that I’m literally just now talking about. So it was always sort of a great way to position oneself as a kind of moral guide. So he talks about the war in Yemen. He correctly mentions Saudi involvement, he correctly mentions the bombing, mentions the humanitarian crisis, but mysteriously totally left out of the Op-Ed is the role of the Americans are playing in terms of supporting arms, political cover and so forth, totally ignored and not only that, he does the 180 degree and paints the United States as the savior and in fact he says, quote, “The United States is not the problem here.” He went on to say, “By early June, Washington had pledged $1.2 billion in relief to the four countries [meaning Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, and Nigeria, also facing famine], including a supplemental $329 million announced on May 24. There’s more coming, thanks to a bipartisan coalition in Congress, spearheaded by Republican Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, that inserted $990 million for famine relief in this year’s budget.” That is 2017.

Nima: Lindsey Graham, famous savior of Middle Eastern people. The champion of humanitarianism Lindsey Graham — perennial warhawk, Saudi defender, Lindsey Graham.

Adam: Yeah, so Lindsey Graham is the number one defender of the bombing campaign, along with John McCain, in Yemen. So this is of course omitted and time and time again, you see that Lindsey Graham and John McCain and the US military, they light a house on fire and then they come about twenty minutes later with some fire blankets and they get credit for being humanitarians.

Nima: We also saw this in what is now almost like an infamous 60 Minutes report, that we actually have spoken about on the show before, where five months later, 60 Minutes did this thirteen minute long propaganda piece, this was November 2017, that not only totally ignored again, the US’ complicity, it’s direct role in the Saudi and other Gulf bombing of Yemen, but really centered the story around this guy, David Beasley, the director of the UN’s World Food Program, uh, the organization that is currently coordinating humanitarian aid to the war torn country.

Adam: And then, about four months later, MSNBC joined into this gambit of Yemen. They did a puffy Q&A in April with a handpicked Yemeni refugee by the name of Mohammed Al Samawi, who wrote a book called The Fox Hunt, which is sort of an inspirational telling of the Yemeni war for the kind of politically checked-out, Oprah said —

Nima: The book club version of war crime reporting.

Adam: Yeah, and the interview was kind of a mixture of interfaith pabulum, poverty porn and then of course it ended with congratulating the U.S. for taking in refugees, uh, without, of course acknowledging that the reason why the Yemeni refugees were created in the first place was because the U.S. backed the Saudi, the Saudi war. So, so MSNBC from July 2 [2017] to the day you’re listening to this has not done a single story on U.S.’s war in Yemen. So it’s been over a year. It’s been about 14 months since MSNBC has done a segment at all on America’s role in Yemen. And the one story they have mentioned Yemen in was this interview on Morning Joe, the sort of softball kind of Starbucks commercial, uh, that is just sort of on either when you’re at the gym or at the DMV. So they interviewed him, talked about Yemen, didn’t mention America’s role in it once, and then, uh, in this clip you’ll hear that we kind of patted ourselves on the back for being a haven for refugees.

Mohammed Al Samawi, on April 25, 2018, tells the hosts of MSNBC’s ‘Morning Joe’ that what’s happening in Yemen is “a war between two big countries — Saudi Arabia and Iran — and they’re doing the war in Yemen.” No mention whatsoever was made of the United States’ role in supporting the Saudi bombing, siege and destruction of Yemen. (MSNBC)

[Begin Clip]

Mike Barnicle: None of us here on this panel this morning can imagine what it’s like to come to America because we’ve lived here all of our lives, but America to many people has always been more of an idea than it has been just a physical reality. So, in your mind, tell us what you imagined America was and what you know it to be now.

Mohammed Al Samawi: I will totally be, to be honest with you, when I came to America, what people was asking me, what do you like about America? Is it the buildings? Is it the cars or the streets? I will say the freedom that you have here in the United States, that you can be different, that you can be who you are and nobody will come to kill you.

[End Clip]

Adam: So, yeah, this is, when it comes to the war in Yemen you see this time and again, is that not only as America’s role in the war, which it completely controls, it can end tomorrow if it wanted to, uh, the British and the Americans could end the war tomorrow if they wanted to, but they’re actually painted as, as the saviors of Yemen through their bleeding heart humanitarianism.

Nima: Right. Doing the good job of helping refugees, of fighting an epidemic even though they are directly backing a blockade of the ports in Yemen so that actually vital aid can not get in. But, um, when the U.S. decides that it wants to do something, it can obviously open up those channels and then put out press releases and pat itself on the back.

Adam: So, to the point of taking things that are very bad and making them sound very good, we wanted to dig into some history here. This was a very specific perfected propaganda technique during the time of slavery, which is to say legal chattel slavery in the United States.

Nima: At a time when the abolitionist movement was gaining traction, when there was real, um, I’m going to use a silly word, but real tension between North and South, between the politics over slaveholders and those opposing that particular institution in the United States upon which the United States was built, that it’s wealth was increased, that it’s political power was advanced, was through slaveholding states, and so there’s this debate that’s raging in December of 1859, and the president at that time was James Buchanan, noted worst president of all time by a lot of historians, I think that’s up for debate knowing what has happened since, but nevertheless, nevertheless —

Adam: Present company excluded.

Nima: (Laughs) Right. Presidential administration and the past 50 years excluded. So, um, during Buchanan’s third State of the Union address to Congress, this is December 19, 1859, he does a lot of hand-wringing about the kind of turmoil in the states at that time. And this is coming right after the raid on Harper’s Ferry, the hanging of John Brown and others. And he actually says in the State of the Union, he’s like, “I shall not refer to in detail to the recent sad and bloody occurrences at Harper’s Ferry. Still, it is proper to observe that these events, however bad and cruel in themselves,” he means the attack on Harper’s Ferry, not slavery, “derive their chief importance from the apprehension that they are but symptoms of an incurable disease in the public mind, which may break out in still more dangerous outrages and terminate at last in an open war by the North to abolish slavery in the South.” So he says that basically he doesn’t think it’s going to happen, he’s trying to make sure that that doesn’t happen and really starts kind of addressing what he believes to be to the benefit of the United States as it is then currently known. So there’s this argument that the African slave trade should be reopened, that new slaves, new human beings stolen, tortured, and brought to the United States should be allowed in the United States at that time. That had not really been happening since, I believe, 1808, and that basically the slave population was all born slaves, born into slavery, um, at that time — god, this is so horrible to even talk about — um, anyway, so Buchanan is addressing this and he makes an argument, he makes an argument for not bringing in new slaves from Africa because the slaves that are already in the US are just already so great. And this is what he says. This is, again, the President of the United States in 1859, says, so he’s talking about the slaves’ quote, “advancement in civilization has far surpassed that of any other portion of the African race. The light and the blessings of Christianity have been extended to them, and both their moral and physical condition has been greatly improved.” End quote.

Adam: Yeah.

Nima: And this continues on. He’s talking about how reopening the trade would be bad for both the native born slave but also the master. And how for slave owners, one of the quote “evils” of reopening the trade would be this quote, “the one most to be dreaded would be the introduction of wild, heathen, and ignorant barbarians among the sober, orderly, and quiet slaves whose ancestors have been on the soil for several generations. This might tend to barbarize, demoralize, and exasperate the whole mass and produce most deplorable consequences.”

Adam: Uh, yeah. And then he goes onto say that at present the slave is, quote, “treated with kindness and humanity. He is well fed, well clothed, and not overworked. His condition is incomparably better than that of the coolies which modern nations of high civilization have employed as a substitute for African slaves.” ‘Coolies,’ for those who don’t know is a pejorative for South Asians in the British Empire. And then he goes on to say quote, “Both the philanthropy and the self-interest of the master have combined to produce this humane result.” Unquote. What a coincidence that the thing that also happens to make them shitloads of money is also good for the person who they’re enslaving.

Nima: (Laughs) Exactly. Imagine that. This is but one example of this common trope at the time, basically pushing back against abolitionist movements and rhetoric, saying that basically slavery is to the benefit not only obviously of white people, but most importantly to the Africans themselves. And that the benevolence of a Christian nation like the United States is that it is helping everyone at the same time. That this is to the benefit of all humanity, completely ignoring the fact that they are talking about slaves.

Adam: Yeah. Where there’s something that prevents America’s white settler colonialism or imperialism, which of course are features of the same face, there’s always a cottage industry of people who will sort of emerge to explain that it’s not only good, but it’s actually good for the people who are ostensibly the victims of it.

Nima: Right.

Adam: So this was, this was an editorial from the Liverpool Mercury, which was, uh, which was a sort of center right newspaper in Liverpool, England for about two hundred years. This is an editorial from February of 1863 quote, “I have been a resident in the Southern States for over seven years, and the longer I stayed there the more I loved the institution of slavery. The slaves of the Southern States are well fed and clothed, and they are much” they love to talk about how well fed they are, like as if that’s? Sorry. And he said, quote, “The slaves of the Southern States are well fed and clothed, and they are much better treated than the poor whites of the Northern States. It is an undeniable fact that a negro’s mental organisation is in subordination to his physical faculties. If slavery is an evil, as some persons would have it, then let it die its natural death; but I am under a candid and true impression that the institution of slavery as it now exists in the Southern States of America is a very valuable institution, and worthy the support, and not the abuse, of the world.”

Um, so yeah, this, the idea that like the slave was somehow better off in slavery then they were in native Africa, is by the way a very, very common trope for a lot of imperial apologists. One we’ll get to later, which is Niall Ferguson.

Nima: Right. So this was written in, this Liverpool Mercury piece, was written five weeks after the Emancipation Proclamation. So this is like, I mean in the middle of the Civil War and it’s this, it’s this British dispatch saying how wonderful slavery is. I mean, it is truly amazing.

Adam: Right. Because it’s not enough for it to be okay or to be morally passable. You’ve got to take it the next step and say it’s actually good for the enslaved people.

Nima: It’s like in 2016 when, um, when Bill O’Reilly insisted that slaves were quote “well fed and had decent lodgings.” End quote. You know, this is a net positive for the slave being under the literal yolk of white slave owners. That this is really, really helpful to them. This is really a good thing. And actually we saw this in a lot of literature even written after the Civil War. Historian Ulrich Bonnell Phillips published this kind of massive study called American Negro Slavery in 1918. And in it he argues that, quote, “The plantations were the best schools yet invented for the mass training of that sort of inert and backward people which the bulk of the American Negroes represented.” End quote. And later he talks about how the rule of these slave owners was quote “benevolent in intent” and “beneficial in effect.” So yeah, this is this common kind of hammering home that slaves were happy being slaves. Slaves were better educated being slaves. They were in peak physical condition and had all their better faculties about them because they were enslaved. This is truly remarkable. In 1906, uh, this, this publication called The Confederate Veteran, you don’t have to wonder where this is going, publish this, quote, “The kindliest relation that ever existed between the two races in this country, or that ever will, was the antebellum relation of master and slave — a relation of confidence and responsibility on the part of the master and of dependence and fidelity on the part of the slave.”

“Information Wanted,” Grant Hamilton, Judge Magazine, June 11, 1898.

Adam: Yeah. And this kind of patronizing attitude towards the sort of inferior races was very prevalent in the Spanish American War as well. It’s the first war that was ostensibly fought over humanitarian purposes. It’s the first war that I think was almost entirely manufactured by the media. I think peoples are generally known, uh, and we’ll probably get into greater detail in a later episode that it was sort of contrived by William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal, and Joseph Pulitzer’s The New York World, who had tremendous financial and ideological interest in fighting a war in the Philippines-

Nima: And also Cuba —

Adam: And Puerto Rico.

Nima: Right. And so this was really the kind of pioneering of what is known as yellow journalism, which is this, this idea of pushing the imperial line to drive the nation to war.

Adam: So of course, to have humanitarian purpose, you have to talk about why, why this war of empire, which was the sort of first actual sort of physical war of empire, why it was actually good for the people they were trying to colonize.

Nima: Right. And so you see actually the both kind of cultural production of society as well as hand in hand with the journalists really pushing this idea that the United States is this benevolent leader that needs to bring freedom to the currently oppressed Spanish colonies. And they did this a number of ways. I mean, the Spanish American War, especially the war in the Philippines, uh, is what made Rudyard Kipling write the poem, White Man’s Burden. It comes from the Spanish American War, about how it is the duty of the White saviors to civilize the black and brown masses. And you saw the press really line up behind government propaganda here. On May 17, 1898, just a few months after the ship, the Maine, uh, like, as in “Remember the Maine!”, which was the propaganda rallying cry by Hearst to push US involvement in the Spanish American War. A few months after that, the Associated Press, the AP, resolve to quote, “loyally sustain the general government in the conduct of the war.” End quote and the way that it would do this is to explicitly avoid publishing, quote, “any information likely to give aid to the enemy or embarrass the government.” End quote.

Adam: Right.

Nima: And, and so, uh, also other cultural production, not just The White Man’s Burden poem, but there were very kind of early films made. This is right around the turn of the century, pro war propaganda films that some featured actual footage of troops marching and ships sailing, but others were completely faked and they were called like reenactments. So for instance, Thomas Edison’s film company produced six reenactment films that were set in the Philippines, but they were actually filmed in New Jersey. One of them made in June of 1899 had white American soldiers waving the American flag as they triumphantly defeated Filipinos, and those Filipinos were played by African Americans to really, really make it clear that this is a very racialized war. Other films had white actors playing Filipinos in black face. So the propaganda effects were clear.

Adam: Right and of course the racial aspect was a huge part of the moral narrative, which is kind of the general theme here, right? So President Roosevelt, who fought in the Spanish American War, and then of course became president a few years later when McKinley was shot in 1901-

Nima: Right.

Adam: And he became, he was his vice president, became the youngest president ever. He was obsessed with this idea of what he called quote “the master race.” He said that it was the moral obligation of the United States government to make sure that the Filipinos were quote, “fit for self-government” or else they would lead them to quote, “fall into a welter of murderous anarchy.” So, uh, this was this, the idea of expanding civilization and white civilization, teaching people what’s in their best interest before it got more sophisticated and we started calling it other things, uh, in our present term was, was very clean, sort of like a racial liberation. There was mass, mass torture in the Philippines in the Spanish American War.

Nima: Oh yeah. Waterboarding and just mass civilian deaths. Senator Albert Beveridge got in on the kind of civilizing mission act as well. This is from, uh, the, just the turn of the century in 1900, a sitting Senator said this, “And of all our race, He” meaning god, “He has marked the American people as his chosen nation to finally lead in the regeneration of the world. This is the divine mission of America, and it holds for us all the profit, all the glory, all the happiness possible to man.”

Adam: Well that, again, that worked out fairly well for us. What are the odds? And you know, what? We’re still the moral beacon of the world. Somehow that keeps happening. I would say one of the more modern, uh, propagandists of this vein, who’s still somehow accepted into proper company is British historian Niall Ferguson, who is the most, I would say, prolific and public apologist and I would say promoter of British imperialism.

Nima: Yeah. He has actually written explicitly about this. He is not shy about it. He really kind of falls into the revisionist class of neo-con writers where yeah, sure, I guess, you know, there was some bad stuff that happened when the British colonized half the world. But you know what, it was mostly for the good of humanity.

Adam: It was in their own interests.

Nima: Right. So Ferguson wrote a piece called “Why we ruled the world” and this came out in January of 2003 and it is no coincidence that he was doing this right at the time that the arguments for the Iraq invasion, were really ramping up. This is just a couple months before the invasion itself by US and British forces. Um, and so Ferguson was kind of at the forefront of this and using the history of British colonialism to really advance the notion that invading and occupying and controlling other countries and their resources when it’s done by western nations is really to the benefit of the entire world. So he wrote in this piece “Why we ruled the world” this. “Nevertheless, the fact remains that no organisation in history has done more to promote the free movement of goods, capital and labour than the British Empire in the 19th and early 20th centuries. And no organisation has done more to impose Western norms of law, order and governance around the world. For much (though certainly not all) of its history, the British Empire acted as an agency for relatively incorrupt government. Prima facie, there therefore seems a plausible case that empire enhanced global welfare — in other words, was a Good Thing.” Capital ‘G’, capital ‘T,’ Good Thing.

Adam: And the idea that the violence that is leveled upon countries is not just okay, or not just denied or not just sort of downplayed, but it’s actually good is something we still have with us and we still do today and that’s something that guest Jon Schwarz at The Intercept is gonna discuss with us today.

Nima: Indeed. So stick with us. We’ll be joined by Jon Schwarz, senior writer at The Intercept in just a second.


Nima: We are joined now by Jon Schwarz, friend of Citations Needed. It is so great to have you back on the show, especially for our season finale. Jon, great to talk to you.

Jon Schwarz: Well, it’s very great to be here.

Adam: So the theme of the show is, obviously we deal with propaganda a lot, different modes of propaganda, uh, but Nima’s and my favorite is the thing where you take something that’s obviously and sort of manifestly terrible and paint it as in fact being very, very good. Specifically doing something to person X and actually saying that’s in person X’s best interest. Trust us. We know there was a recent example which was the sort of inciting incident for you to write this piece where the secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar went on Wolf Blitzer to talk about the child separation crisis. And he painted it as a good thing. Can you talk about that instance and then we’re gonna go into the history of this as a, a kind of a reaction to criticisms of violence perpetuated by the United States or other sort of white settler colonial powers.

Jon Schwarz: Right. Well, so, you know, you believed the general you, believed that pretty much everyone had agreed by this point that taking children and ripping them away from their parents and putting them in little child prisons was bad.

Adam: Yes. So let’s play the clip real quick.

[Begin Clip]

Alex Azar: It is one of the great acts of American generosity and charity what we are doing for these unaccompanied kids who are smuggled into our country or come across illegally.

[End Clip]

Nima: Yeah. What a champ.

Jon Schwarz: But here’s what I would say and, and is, you know, sort of why I wrote this article is that like, this is kind of a bizarre casual monstrosity like, like this praising yourself for how wonderful and generous you are is not unusual, in fact, you see it throughout history in the United States and really actually across the world. Like it’s a sign of people doing the worst things imaginable when they start praising their own generosity.

Nima: Right.

Adam: Yeah. When the top of the show we discussed it’s frequent use and Yemen, how we spin the bombing of Yemen into actually its we help provide food and secure passage for refugees. Uh, we discussed how it’s very common in a lot of discourse around slavery how it was actually good for the slaves to be in the United States and forced to work. Um, you list some other historical examples. Do you want to sort of go over them? I guess we can start with, um, the treatment of Native Americans, which obviously was sort of the original original sin in parallel of slavery.

Jon Schwarz: Or was it the original act of generosity?

Adam: You’re right. Sorry. How wrong I am.

Nima: (Laughing) Please tell us, Jon. Tell us, Jon.

Jon Schwarz: Yeah, it was the original act of generosity. You know, something that no one ever talks about but really is amazing and hilarious is that the seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, uh, for most of the 1600s was a Native American and he was saying, “Come over and help us,” and you can, you can go online and find this. This is on the Massachusetts State website and we helped them a great deal.

Nima: Well, right, because the Native Americans at that time, just like the Iraqis and Afghans and anyone else really are just so thankful that white people can come over as liberators and civilizers.

Jon Schwarz: Yes, they were desperate for our help and we delivered.

Nima: (laughs) Right.

Adam: Um, and then Andrew Jackson who is very proud of this, um, because he, he was sort of the first president who was descended from the kind of Scotch-Irish settler colonial class that really was the kind of vanguard of colonization in the Ohio and Kentucky areas and Indiana down South. And he, and he said, quote “Towards the aboriginals of the country, no one can indulge more friendly feeling then myself. Rightly considered the policy of general government towards the redman is not only liberal but generous.”

Jon Schwarz: Right. And so the Indian Removal Act was passed the next year and that was the basis for the Trail of Tears. So you really should go and like read that whole speech because that is just two sentences of the flood of self praise from Andrew Jackson. You know, about, no one loves American Indians more than than Andrew,

Nima: Right. It’s no Trail of Tears, it’s just a pathway to generosity.

Jon Schwarz: Exactly.

Adam: If you ever get a chance to read Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s book, An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, it’s full of examples, and we’ll put that in the show notes. It’s full of examples of this kind of, it’s for their own interest framing, and one of the ways that I know that they very, very commonly framed it as in their best interest was the idea that the land was being misused, underused, or kind of neglected by the natives and that the Americans had to come in and actually help them and teach them the ways in which they could use the land properly. That of course was sort of largely based on a myth. A lot of native cities and civilizations had you know very sophisticated irrigation systems. They have very sophisticated, um, corn and maize, sort of farming enterprises. But this idea that somehow we’re here to help you out.

Nima: Right.

Adam: Um, oh, and by the way, we’re going to murder and commit mass genocide later, but for now we’re going to help you, is a very common kind of moral framing because people generally need a moral framing.

Nima: You see that also in the Zionist settlers have made the desert bloom in Palestine. It’s the exact same rhetoric that the land was somehow being misused and that Jaffa oranges, I guess, had not been abundant enough for centuries, if not millennia, and that it really took the kind of Zionist know how to really turn Palestine into finally, like, an actually productive place.

Jon Schwarz: Yeah, I mean I, I believe that it is universal in colonialism like it’s an American colonialism in European colonialism. You look at all of the different countries in Europe, the way they colonized the rest of the world. It’s true in Japanese colonialism, like you have to have some explanation for what you’re doing. Like, you know, you go out to these other places on earth at start just beating the crap out of people and human beings can’t live with themselves if they’re looking at reality in those situations. It’s like, you know, for a long time I thought I was just killing folks, but actually when you think about it, I’m really making their lives better, like you have to do that, that’s kind of uniformly true.

Front page illustration from William Randolph Hearst’s ‘New York Journal,’ 1898.

Nima: Yeah, I mean I think you see it behind all the rhetoric of invasion and occupation throughout time. I mean, you know, just to use one tiny example, the kind of idea that women in Afghanistan needed western help, that the way that they would be free is by being bombed and occupied. That that would be freedom and actually that has huge parallels to what you saw earlier in the show. We were talking about the Spanish American War, so much of the Hearst and Pulitzer rhetoric in the press was about how savagely the quote unquote “Spaniards” treated women in Cuba and also the Philippines, and so they needed this kind of Western, American White civilization to come in and protect women at all costs and the way that we did that is by carpet bombing and torturing everyone.

Jon Schwarz: Yeah. There’s nothing the United States cares more about than the well-being of women. I think our history demonstrates that.

Nima: (Laughs) Right.

Adam: Yeah, noted feminists, the United States military, yeah. I think one of the more interesting historical examples of this, which is something that I think gets oftentimes overlooked, which was the sort of civilizing framework and liberation framework with the Vietnam War, which you, which you touch on. You note that David Lawrence, who was the editor of US News and World Report, which was always a kind of centrist, spooky rag, claimed in 1966 quote, “What the United States is doing in Vietnam is the most significant example of philanthropy extended by one people to another that we have witnessed in our times.” Now, killing three million people of a population or roughly ten percent of a population, it’s strange to read that as philanthropy. It’s a unique form of philanthropy. I guess, again, you see this time and time again, this idea that somehow we are so generous and this of course goes up to today. This goes up to our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and our clandestine support of wars in Syria and Yemen, as well.

Nima: Um, I find it really, really remarkable that you were even able in your piece, Jon, to bring in the voice of noted humanitarian Michelle Malkin. Can you talk to us a little bit about her perspective on how generous the United States has been toward those that it captures overseas and then holds in a concentration camp?

Jon Schwarz: (Chuckles) Yeah, that’s right. Well, people may remember that three Guantanamo Bay prisoners committed suicide and unbelievably disgusting like the reaction in the United States. I, I think, uh, like one of the military commanders in Guantanamo spoke about this as being like a form of irregular warfare against us, that these people committed suicide. But Michelle Malkin said that, “The manipulative detainees reportedly used the generous civil liberties protections we gave them to plot their suicide pact.”

Adam: Wow.

Jon Schwarz: So it’s really our fault for being so nice.

Nima: For being so generous. And actually Michelle Malkin, let’s not forget, is the author of a book literally entitled In Defense of Internment —

Jon Schwarz: (Laughs)

Nima: Uh, in which she makes, and this again is the sub heading (laughs) for her own book, The Case for “Racial Profiling” in World War II and the War on Terror. So she is wholly in favor of Japanese internment camps during World War II and wholly in favor of Guantanamo and other such prisons and camps currently. Um, this is all in line with the kind of magnanimous American humanitarianism of really just, you know, putting people who look a certain way and are from a certain place behind gates and fences and bars.

Jon Schwarz: Yeah, I was a fool not look through her book and tried to find out if your book talks about Japanese internment as a particularly generous act by the United States. I’m sure that if she didn’t use those precise words then she said something along those lines and that people, of course, were talking about it at the time as you know how nice we were, locking everybody up.

Adam: Yeah. I think, I guess I want to back up and sort of get to what you think is the kind of 30,000 foot, what is the sort of psychological mechanism or kind of rhetorical logic behind this, this kind of gambit? It’s, as we’ve shown it sort of very common. In your opinion, what is, is it kind of the sort of pat projection where you sort of take your bad thing and make it, throw it on to someone else or take something that’s bad and make it good? The way I read it and I want you to tell me what you think, I read it as a kind of like, it’s the, the vanguard of imperial apology, um, it’s kind of testing the waters to see how far and how sophistic and how gross they can be morally and then that opens up space for people who are more in the soft-pedaling or, kind of, denialist crowd.

Jon Schwarz: I think it’s a bunch of things including those like all mixed up together. But I think the main part is that this is a very basic part of human psychology that we, we have to believe ourselves to be good. People can’t, it’s very difficult for people to consciously do things that they know are evil. And at the same time we also have the instinct to do all kinds of evil things. And so trying to put those two things together is a challenge. And you know, human psychology reacts by just deciding that the terrible things we are doing are actually good. You know, you can see this in Notes on Virginia, the, I think it’s the one book that Thomas Jefferson ever wrote, you know, he was an intelligent guy, but he also really, really wanted a ton of people working for him for free who could never leave.

Adam: Right.

Jon Schwarz: And in Notes on Virginia, he writes about the difference between Europeans and Africans and he explains Africans need less sleep. We can tell they are a different kind of creature. They need less sleep than Europeans. And then like three sentences later, he explains how Africans need more sleep than Europeans. And so what are you see in that is like, look, he was not an idiot, but his psyche was so desperate to find (laughs) some way of explaining-

Nima: Right, (laughing) just like whatever inconsistency is fine.

Jon Schwarz: Yeah. It doesn’t matter. They can sleep more, they can sleep less, they can sleep more and less. What matters is that they’re like, you know, different from me and so it’s cool for me to do this.

Adam: Yeah. This, this is sort of how like the African American during slavery was sort of industrious and hardworking and meek, and then the second reconstruction came they became lazy and feckless and unreliable overnight. I mean literally within like a few, like a year or so, this sort of trope switched on it’s head because they needed to be lazy to justify not having any kind of institutional support from the government. The sort of stereotypes surrounding the colonized people can shift on a dime. You saw this during World War II from the Japanese to the Chinese as well when they went from the good guys to the bad guys. The stereotypes shifted as needed and I think just the same the kind of colonial, the humanitarian pretext will always sort of follow the imperial needs.

Jon Schwarz: Yeah, I mean when, when you look at this kind of thing and you think that doesn’t make any sense, it’s like well making sense is not really the point.

Adam: No, no, it’s definitely not the point.

Nima: And so you see actually this in the welfare debate, if there is a debate, as well, that, you know, welfare makes people lazy, right? Uh, you know, Clinton was a pro at this to end welfare as we know it. The way that the, we was quote, “knowing it” was that black and brown people were just loafing around getting government cheats.

Jon Schwarz: Yeah. So, so I mean it’s just, it’s a, it’s a universal aspect of human psychology. (Chuckles) I mention in this article, other examples, my favorite examples of people praising their own generosity. The first is in 1939, just before Germany invaded Poland, the British ambassador to Germany wrote a note home to the British government to say, you know, Hitler in our last meeting expressed how frustrated he was that he was not getting credit for his generosity. And the note said, “Herr Hitler replied that he would be willing to negotiate, if there was a Polish government which was prepared to be reasonable… He expatiated on misdoings of the Poles, referred to his generous offer of March last, said that it could not be repeated.”

Nima: (Laughs) They just didn’t understand how good he was being.

Jon Schwarz: Yes. And then a few years later, Goebbels wrote an article titled, “The Jews are Guilty!” Exclamation point. And in it he said, it’s 1941, this is like, you know, the height of the German brutality during World War II, “If we Germans have a fateful flaw in our national character, it is forgetfulness. This failing speaks well of our human decency and generosity, but not always for our political wisdom or intelligence. We think everyone else is as good-natured as we are.”

Nima: Right. That’s literally during the Holocaust.

Adam: The Germans, uh, historically known for their, for their generosity.

Nima: For their generosity and human decency.

Adam: Yeah.

Jon Schwarz: Particularly at that moment in time, people all over the world would be like, my God, what a generous group of people.

Adam: Well, I feel like now that we’ve gone full Godwin, maybe we’ll end the conversation there because I feel like anything we say after this won’t top Germans saying literally during the Holocaust saying that they’re generous, that that’s got to be peak right?

Nima: That they’re super generous. I know, I know.

Adam: It’s got to be peak.

Jon Schwarz: Yeah. So it’s just, it’s just a good rule of thumb that when you see government officials praising their own generosity, like run as fast as you can.

Nima: Right. Because a lot of people are dying or about to die.

Jon Schwarz: Yeah.

Adam: There’s no limit to human projection. Well, thank you so much for coming on, Jon. That was very informative. A lot of history there. We will have a lot of that in our notes.

Jon Schwarz: Yeah. Well thank you so much for having me. Like this is actually, I think one of the most important things to understand about politics, that the terrible people have twisted things around so much in their ugly little minds that they really do believe they’re doing the right thing. Like, you can’t understand, you can’t comprehend what’s going on in politics.

Adam: Yeah, totally. And we talked about this in last week’s episode was just, I think people obsess too much over good faith. Um, I think good faith is sort of like the wrong way to read it because I think a lot of people have good faith. You know, and you wrote about this for the Ken Burns Vietnam thing, right? A lot of people have good faith. Well everyone who’s ever started any war ever thinks they have good faith. That’s kind of irrelevant.

Nima: Right. Exactly. Hitler thought he had good faith, like that was the point. That was literally the point.

Adam: Yeah, he really did believe it. That doesn’t matter. Right? People’s good faith is somewhere, it’s totally irrelevant. The question is what is their ideology?

Jon Schwarz: Right.

Nima: Well, thank you Jon Schwarz, senior writer at The Intercept, for joining us. Uh, it is so great to talk to you again. We will certainly have you back at some point in season two of Citations Needed, but it’s been great and have a great summer.

Jon Schwarz: Thanks. Same to you. Congratulations on a great Season 1.

Adam: Thank you.


Adam: Uh, yeah, the, um, never underestimate the capacity to make things the opposite of what they are. And I think that’s a good, a good note to end season one on. This is a very sort of broad trope. It wasn’t that specific, but I think that’s kind of what makes it interesting because it is timeless and it almost always appears on a context of colonialism or, or white settler colonialism where it’s sort of, you need a moral reason to do tremendous acts of violence.

Nima: Yes, exactly. This is the kind of animating justification behind so much of what we see both in politics and also in the media’s treatment of politicians and what they do and the policies that they promote. There is so much inherently believing the good faith arguments which are made in such bad faith, but that the idea is no one would willingly want to decimate entire populations. No one would willingly want to impoverish and discriminate against and imprison entire populations of people. Obviously that’s not what’s behind all this. There has to be a good that is behind this. And then we can quibble about reform. We can quibble about how best to do these things, but basically behind it all, we all just want what’s best for everyone. And that is never the case when these arguments are being made. And yet they are treated as inherently benevolent, inherently generous by both the politicians themselves or the leaders themselves, or the pundits themselves and repeated ad nauseum in the press without any scrutiny as to why these terrible things are being promoted in the first place.

Adam: Uh, and I think a general rule of thumb is, and this is maybe the last thing I’ll leave the listeners for this season, is that if something seems a little pat, if it seems a little convenient, um, if your religion happens to be the correct one or your country happens to be the only benevolent one on earth or your moral pretext happened to always align with the interest of capital and the interest of the wealthy or the interest, frankly, of yourself, I would pause and question why that is and ask ‘what are the odds?’ And then start to reexamine those fundamental assumptions. I think that’s kind of where I would leave it.

Nima: So, we will leave it there for this first season of Citations Needed. Thank you everyone for listening. Follow us on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, send in your reviews and ratings on iTunes and elsewhere, uh, wherever you get this show and listen to it. And of course you can help us out, support the show, become a patron through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast, and that’s with Nima Shirazi, which is me, and Adam Johnson, which is the other guy. All your help has been so incredible and appreciated throughout this season. And extra special thanks and praise and groveling goes out to our critic-level supporters through this first season. Have a great one, everyone. It’s been a wonderful year, have a wonderful summer. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Our production consultant is Josh Kross. Our research assistant is Sophia Steinert-Evoy. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thank you all for listening. We’ll see you in September.


This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, August 8, 2018.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.