Episode 50: Anti-Imperialism and MSNBC-Approved Socialism

Citations Needed | September 19, 2018 | Transcript


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

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

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

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Adam: That is Citations with an ‘s’ — remember not to give to the other one, which we still have beef with.

Nima: (Laughs) And that we do not endorse.

Adam: We do not endorse. So today we’re going to start by tackling something that is, I think is the subtext of a lot of conversations about what we talk about when we talk about the word ‘socialism’. Socialism is sort of back. It’s been back since Bernie Sanders ran for president in 2015 and ‘16 and did it quite well. And now there’s a recent resurgence in candidates who are running after the Democratic Socialist label and even major Democratic Party primary challengers like Cynthia Nixon are vying for and, I wouldn’t say begging, but they’re campaigning and lobbying for the endorsement of the Democratic Socialists of America organization, which now has almost 50,000 members. Um, so with this rise, there’s been the term socialist and democratic socialist are everywhere. Uh, there’s been recent explainers telling people the sort of normie crowd, uh, in The Washington Post, Jacobin, Business Insider, NPR, MSNBC, they’ve all had explainers telling people what democratic socialism is and isn’t. But one thing has been missing from these explainers, many of them written by high-profile Democratic Socialists themselves, and that’s a robust account of foreign policy and the role of America’s massive imperial footprint throughout the world. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for example, who is probably the most high profile candidate for Congress in 2018 to, to carry the Democratic Party label.

Nima: Definitely.

Adam: When asked to define democratic socialism on several occasions, has solely mentioned so called domestic programs like jobs, corporate greed, gun control, Medicare and college tuition. And almost never talks about imperialism or foreign policy.

Nima: Right. And so we see this again and again, that socialism as a label and democratic socialism specifically as it has now kind of reached a new level of press coverage relies so heavily, if not solely, on how it would affect domestic policies, never anything outside of that. Um, the wave of these kinds of recent democratic socialist explainers are very quick to distance, uh, their particular brand of Democratic Party-friendly socialism with the scary brand from the Global South, namely that of Venezuela. Highlighting instead the virtues of white-majority — Scandinavian, mostly — countries, such as Sweden and Iceland and Denmark, these so-called socialist whisperers, the ones writing these explainers to make a socialism more accessible and understandable, dismiss out of hand the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela, the revolution that actually wound up reducing poverty greatly, uh, but they dismiss that with the dreaded ‘authoritarian’ label and really focus on, on the current crisis right now to explain away anything positive about socialism.

Adam: So, in this episode, we want to discuss the up and downside of this approach. Uh, whether a broader or more specific definition of socialism is even needed at all and how you know the difference between good faith critiques of social assistance such as Venezuela versus the kind of quick and cheap fetishization of small white countries, none of whom have had to grapple with the nuances and complexities of colonialism in order to ingratiate oneself to The New York Times and Vox crowd.

Nima: To talk about all this we’ll be speaking with two guests today. The first is Phyllis Bennis, Director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

[Begin Clip]

Phyllis Bennis: Somehow over and over again, the one issue that nobody does talk about is the question of war, the question of militarism. And I think that it’s the weakness of our movements and I hold my movement, the which is the anti-war movement, broadly speaking, as responsible as anybody else for that, that we haven’t yet helped the broader movements that are working on these crucial domestic issues to figure out ways to integrate the struggle against militarism, the struggle against the war economy, the struggle against wars with their own issues.

[End Clip]

Nima: We’ll also be joined later in the show by Shireen Al-Adeimi, Assistant Professor of Education at Michigan State University.

[Begin Clip]

Shireen Al-Adeimi: If we’re talking about groups that focus on justice, we can’t focus on justice here at home and ignore what our governments are doing abroad. It’s all linked together, whether at home, whether it’s related to healthcare. We can’t talk about healthcare and schooling and education here when we’re, you know, bombing schoolchildren abroad or not paying attention to what we’re doing to prevent people in different societies from moving forward without foreign interference. We can’t talk about Russian interference here without talking about our own interference in foreign countries. So I think it’s all tied together.

[End Clip]

Adam: One of the go-to complaints now when someone says they’re a socialist or even a progressive, um, when they talk about Medicare for All, the government programs spending and free colleges: ‘Well, look what happened to Venezuela.’

Nima: In late July of 2018, this past summer, there was a kind of viral clip that, uh, went around from The View daytime show where Meghan McCain was very, very upset about the prospect that the term ‘socialism’ was going to be normalized or was being normalized in our current American discourse and she had this absolute meltdown on The View.


[Begin Clip]

Meghan McCain: The problem with socialism, in the words of Margaret Thatcher, ‘At a certain point you run out of spending other people’s money.’ Venezuela, one of the richest countries in the world in the Seventies, now the average Venezuelan has lost 24 pounds because they’re starving to death. 90 percent of the country —

Joy Behar: I think she’s talking more about Scandinavia than Venezuela.

Meghan McCain: I’m sorry, I need, this is what I need from her, name one country that socialism has ever worked and also every, every democratic socialist —

Joy Behar: Copenhagen…Denmark. Norway.

Meghan McCain: Who is going on TV saying that it’s good needs to start paying 90 percent in taxes. On your tax form —

Joy Behar: Iceland. (Applause)

[End Clip]

Adam: Now what Joy Behar is doing there is something that happens a lot. Obviously, she’s not a democratic socialist or even a Leftist, but it’s a very common instinct to say, ‘Well, we’re not like those other, those other socialist countries like Venezuela, that we’re in fact more like Sweden,’ because Sweden is sort of seen as broadly being good.

Nima: Right. Sweden, Iceland, Denmark, Norway.

Adam: Right. Without any account for the fact that like, Venezuela is Venezuela for a number of reasons, not the least of which being their history of colonialism and imperialism and, and U.S. meddling. So as recently as 2002, which is in our lifetime, when I was in high school, there was a CIA-backed coup in Venezuela. There were several reports that came out at the time. We’ll have them in the show notes. The CIA at the very least knew about and almost certainly participated in or took part in or helped assist a right-wing coup in Venezuela in 2002 to overthrow Chávez. Now, so I’m going to sort of divide Venezuela apologists into kind of two camps. We’ll say sort of the pre-Madura and post-Maduro.

Nima: Sure.

Adam: Um, for the sake of this discussion, we’ll focus on pre-Maduro, focus on Chávez because there has been changes in the nature of the government. Um, vis-a-vis it’s openness jailing political opponents, but we’ll sort of sort of table that for now. We’ll talk about the Chávez era. There was several attempts by the CIA to overthrow that government. In Venezuela at that time met the textbook definition of democratic socialist. They won elections, Chávez won five elections. Overseen by the Carter Center, U.S.-based Carter Center, started by former president Jimmy Carter, the head of the Carter Center in 2013 referred to their elections as the fairest and free that he’d ever seen. I don’t think there was really a lot of debate as to the sort of democratic properties of the country itself. It was just seen that they were, that he had these long commercials, these long television shows, he was charismatic, that he had this sort of vague demagoguery. There was never really any claim until Maduro came in 2013 that Chávez was sort of a dictator. In The New York Times, when they praised the 2002 coup against Chávez they said he was quote, “a would be dictator.”

Nima: Right. “Strongman” is the, is the term preferred by the media.

Adam: Right. And so both The New York Times and The Washington Post editorial boards supported the coup against Chávez in 2002 that we now know the CIA had had a hand in. So these are all things that countries like Sweden never have to deal with.

Nima: Right. Because the United States military and intelligence apparatus has not been trying to subvert democratic socialism or more overt forms of socialism in Scandinavia in any way, and especially not the ways that it has routinely done in the 20th century, throughout the 20th century and still today in Central and South America when any challenge to U.S. hegemony in the hemisphere winds up being anything other than a complete fantasy. When that happens, the U.S. has been so fast to go in and completely undermine the will of the people and certainly those administrations and specific politicians who are pushing more overtly socialist policies. So again, that is not happening in Scandinavia. The CIA is not trying to overthrow Sweden and does not have a history of going in and fucking up elections and assassinating people and installing their own dictators, their own preferred dictators in fucking Finland. That’s not what’s happening from the U.S. perspective.

Adam: And there’s obviously a huge racial element to this as well, which is that the US sees countries run by indigenous people and Black people, um, as opposed to white people as being, even setting aside the economic element of it or the Monroe Doctrine of the Western hemisphere. They see that as being per se subversive and threatening, right? This is why Haiti has to be punished until the end of time because Haiti was a Black-led revolution. And so this of course is not to say that there is not criticisms of Venezuela. Of course there’s lots of them. Some of them come from the Left, uh, but it’s sort of a separate issue. The the point that I think is worth making is that there’s a very cheap and very easy pathway to kind of get out of that criticism. And I think that way is to say, ‘Oh, well, Venezuela’s not really socialist’ or ‘They’re just authoritarian.’ Um, and this word authoritarian does a lot of work. It does a lot of labor and it really, it really kind of erases what I think is is the imperial parallel to this, which is to say that if you can point to every single attempt at socialism, and I know there’s going to be people who dispute whether or not there is state socialism or this or state capitalism or socialism, but for the purposes of argument, if we assume every country that has attempted socialism that is brown or run by people in Asia or Black — that those are all authoritarian and that the only non authoritarian socialism is by white majority countries.

Nima: Right. Well, just like, you know, international war criminals are all from Africa.

Adam: Exactly. And it’s again, it’s not to say that there are not criticisms, but that the only way that works is if there’s two things. Number one, you’re a racist and you think that white people can do socialism, but non-white countries can’t or two, that there’s something else there which we’ll sort of broadly call imperialism, which has a huge racial element to it, which is why we meddle in those country or were allowed at least to meddle in those countries is in the first place. Now this is not a perfect science, but I think that’s as a general rule is true. So I think that the instinct to sort of get out of the conversation and to kind of win over the Matt Yglesiases of the world and to win over The New York Times crowd and to say, ‘Oh, those are all just authoritarian.’ It strikes me as a little cheap and a little pat and if one has criticisms, I think they should engage in those criticisms. But I don’t think throwing all forms of non-white socialism historically under the bus in one fatal swoop by calling them all dictator lovers and zombies is a particularly useful way of engaging that question. And one I think is gonna come back and bite them in the ass.

Nima: Sure. So one way that actually this winds up being even more disingenuous than even the issues we’ve been talking about is how the right-wing critique of anything with the socialist stink on it, the critique about Venezuela as the kind of model for socialism that like, ‘Well, you know, if, if you love socialism so much, why don’t you marry it and move to Venezuela,’ like, that doesn’t just come from the right-wing. And I think that that’s important for us to point out because on this show we examined how the media generally serves to bolster arguments that wind up being very anti-left and then they are adopted not only by the right-wing obviously, but also by the kind of liberal centrists. And so thinking back to that Meghan McCain freak out on The View, um, you know, something she, she said is that ‘Venezuela used to be this incredibly prosperous democratic country and now look, socialism descended on it and now look,’ and this comes almost directly from a Vox.com piece from September of 2017 headlined, “How Venezuela went from a rich democracy to a dictatorship on the brink of collapse.” This article starts with this line, “Not far from the US, a desperate leader is steering a once-prosperous democracy toward dictatorship.” And so the article goes on to talk about the Maduro administration, the poverty and health crises in Venezuela, the protests, the riots, etcetera, etcetera. It then goes into a bit of the history of Chávez, but what it doesn’t do is it never tells us when this magic time was when Venezuela was a rich democracy. But it does do this, it has a video explainer tacked to the end of the article, and this is part of what it says.

[Begin Clip]

Narrator: (Music) Venezuela was once the richest country in Latin America. It has the largest known oil reserves in the world and its democratic government was once praised worldwide. But today, Venezuela’s democratic institutions and its economy are in shambles. The country has the highest inflation rate in the world making food and medicine inaccessible to most Venezuelans. Over the last four years, it’s GDP has fallen 35 percent, which is a sharper dropped in the one seen during the Great Depression in the US, and the country’s murder rate has surpassed that of the most dangerous cities in the world.

[End Clip]

Screenshot from Vox video, ‘The collapse of Venezuela, explained’ (August 2017)

Nima: The examples that Vox cites for Venezuela being a rich democracy, while it doesn’t say it, it shows it in the video, they are articles from 1973 and also 1983 from The New York Times and it’s just the headlines. From ‘73, “In Venezuela Good Times Are Going” and “Democracy in Venezuela.” And then in ‘83, “It’s Democracy As Usual in Caracas.” But that has been glossed over. There is a mysterious 16-year period before Chávez that is never discussed, neoliberal policies that created such economic collapse in the country setting the stage for then two decades of Chávez are not addressed. So the Eighties and Nineties are completely omitted. And even in the Seventies, none of these articles actually talk about what was going on in Venezuela ever. That is somehow not a part of the story.

Adam: Well, because there’s not a, um, when people say a country was rich before X, Y and Z, they don’t say who was rich, who was the one benefiting from it because they need, they need a Paradise Lost narrative. That there was this original sin and that was socialism and thus began the fall of man.

Nima: Which is why you get an almost identical article from The New York Times’ Max Fisher and Amanda Taub headlined, “How Venezuela Stumbled to the Brink of Collapse,” where it talks about Venezuela being Latin America’s richest country at one point and how it had this thriving democracy, which it no longer has and it’s effectively the same article as all the rest and it is being referred to this, this idea, this, this exactly right Paradise Lost concept goes such a long way to paint socialism writ large as terrible and dangerous without actually engaging honestly in any accounting of history or ideology.

Adam: Now in fairness to some of these high-profile democratic socialists who we think, um, don’t really engage with the notion of imperialism, it’s easily, easily demagogued. This is something that’s very common that the second a high-profile democratic socialist becomes the ‘it’ thing, as is the case with Ocasio-Cortez, and, and in 2016 and 2015 with Bernie Sanders is they immediately, immediately get demagogued on the Commie question. Um, so you saw Bernie Sanders, this happened in the debate, the very first debate he had and CNN, Anderson Cooper asked about socialism nine different times. That’s nine times more than the total number of questions about climate change in all four presidential debates in 2016, 2012 and 2008. So let’s, let’s take a look at this. This is the most urgent question pressing the day. That is a very first debate of the very first democratic primary.

[Begin Clip]

Anderson Cooper: Senator Sanders. A Gallup poll says half the country would not put a socialist in the White House. You call yourself a democratic socialist. How can any kind of socialist win a general election in the United States? The Republican attack ad against you in a general election, it writes itself. ‘You’ve supported the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.’ ‘You’ll honeymoon in the Soviet Union.’ And just this weekend you said you’re not a capitalist, doesn’t, doesn’t that ad write itself? You don’t consider yourself a capitalist though?

[End Clip]

Adam: And then, uh, later on, a debate that he had in Miami, hosted by Univision, which is not your best place to talk about Fidel Castro, uh, they cut to a clip of Bernie Sanders praising Fidel Castro for progress that he had made by pretty much any objective measure in Cuba. And then he was asked to condemn them. Now to his credit, he actually never did. But listen to this clip.

[Begin Clip]

Woman: In 1985, you praised the Sandinista government and you said that Daniel Ortega was an impressive guy. This is what you said about Fidel Castro. Let’s listen.

Bernie Sanders: You remember way back in, when was it? 1961 they invaded Cuba. And everybody was totally convinced that Castro was the worst guy in the world. All the Cuban people are going to rise up in rebellion against Fidel Castro. They had forgotten that he educated the kids, gave them healthcare, totally transformed the society.

Woman: In South Florida, there are still open wounds among some exiles regarding socialism and communism. So please explain what is the difference between the socialism that you profess and the socialism in Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela?

Woman: Senator in retrospect, have you ever regretted the characterizations that you made of Daniel Ortega and Fidel Castro that way?

Bernie Sanders: I’m sorry. Please say that again.

Woman: In retrospect have you ever regretted the characterizations of Daniel Ortega and Fidel Castro that you made in 1985?

Hillary Clinton: Economically, and I just want to add one thing to the question you were asking Senator Sanders, I think in that same interview he praised what he called the revolution of values in Cuba and talked about how people were working for the common good, not for themselves. I just couldn’t disagree more. You know, if the values are that you oppress people, you disappear people, you imprison people, even kill people for expressing their opinions, for expressing freedom of speech that is not the kind of revolution of values that I ever want to see anywhere.

[End Clip]

Nima: Unfortunately, even when given the opportunity to describe in the mainstream press a more holistic version for what a socialist America could look like, um, oftentimes self-described socialists and democratic socialists stick almost exclusively to domestic affairs. For instance, profiles of DSA-endorsed candidates around the country, a number of whom have actually been victorious in recent primaries against entrenched, establishment Democrats, have noted bold and progressive platforms built around single payer healthcare, free college tuition, tenant protection and housing as a human right, protecting public schools from privatization, expanding collective bargaining rights, decriminalization of sex work, and ending mass incarceration and deportation.

Adam: One article from Politico in early September asked a number of nominal socialist activist, advocates and political candidates the question of quote, “What would a socialist America look like?” Sort of a profoundly important one. And the answers, of course, were like we discussed, per usual, they were focused almost entirely on a housing rights, labor rights, jobs guarantee, universal healthcare, public campaign financing, education, things like that. The only two respondents who even hinted vaguely at anything beyond our own borders were the Democracy Collaborative fellow Peter Gowan. He noted that, quote, “Democratic Socialism aims for liberation of human agency and creativity not just in America, but in the countries that capital exploit’s and invades for the profits of our nation’s billionaires.” Which does sort of vaguely address the idea that our wealth as a country and a lot of wealth in Europe is based, even socialist countries in Europe, is based on the exploitation of the Global South, which is a super important thing to note.

Nima: And Sean McElwee, friend of the show and co-founder of the organization Data for Progress, actually dared to use the dreaded words, imperialism and empire in writing that, quote, “socialists recognize that a welfare state built on imperialism is not a progressive goal. The United States, as many Democratic politicians like noting, is the wealthiest country in the world. That wealth is built on violence tantamount to murder on a global scale. It is the wages of empire. A socialist politics strives for a radical flattening of the global income distribution,” end quote. So beyond this, however, nothing is mentioned in this article that explicitly asks for opinions on what a kind of re-imagined U.S., not just economy but government and broad policies, what a socialist America would look like. Basically nothing is mentioned about how actual current U.S. foreign policy could and should be impacted by movements working toward a more socialist society, but I think that I would like to hear something a bit more optimistic about all that and I think for that we can turn to our guest.

Adam: Yeah. We’re going to talk about were anti-imperialism fits into the current mold of progressives and socialists in this country.

Nima: And to do that, we will speak with Phyllis Bennis, Director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies. She’s going to join us in just a sec. Stay with us, everyone.


Nima: We are joined now by Phyllis Bennis. She is the author of numerous books including Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer, the seventh edition of which was recently released. Phyllis, it is great to have you on the show and to speak with you again.

Phyllis Bennis: Hi. It’s great to be with you.

Adam: On this episode, we are discussing the emerging popularity and mainstreamification, if you will, of the label socialism specifically with some of the DSA-endorsed candidates achieving some primary victories throughout the country. The first thing we wanted to talk about, or rather what we recapped at the beginning was the idea that in, in a lot of these democratic socialist explainers and a lot of these profiles, there’s virtually no mention of imperialism or foreign policy as, as a core pillar of what their socialism is. We suspect this is due to a couple of reasons which we’ll get into later, but I want to start off by asking you to what extent do you think democratic socialists, uh, the sort of more popular ones, the Ocasio-Cortez’s and Bernie Sanders’, and even some who what, who don’t identify as socialist but sort of consider themselves progressive. To what extent do you think that they have been better on issues like foreign policy, imperialism, Palestine and what extent do you think that they’ve not been very good and have kind of come up short?

Phyllis Bennis: Well, I think it’s an important question. I do think that it’s key that we both identify what it means that the political discourse has changed enough that electeds and people who hope to be electeds are using the word socialist to describe themselves, often saying democratic socialist, but a lot are saying socialist and that’s a good thing. That’s an important thing. It speaks to a shift away from the rather widespread fear of the word that has maintained for a very long time. On the other hand, I think that in looking at this new cohort of people running for elections, running in primaries, a lot of people of color, a lot are women, a number of them are Muslims, at least one is a refugee, at least one is transgender. Uh, these folks are unabashedly left. They are unabashedly progressive. And I think in some ways that’s more important if we’re looking at the electoral arena then is the question of which ones are using the word socialism and which ones are not.

Adam: Yeah.

Phyllis Bennis: The use of the term, I think is an indicator of where we are in terms of discourse, but I’m glad that we’re going to be talking not just about those who kind of officially identify as socialist and include those whose program, whether it focuses on single payer healthcare or free university education, issues of equality, opposition to police violence, all those things. That’s what I think is really important when we’re looking at the electoral arena.

Nima: Right.

Phyllis Bennis: Having said that, I do think that the question of international policy is not something that most of these folks have put forward as indicating what they stand for.

Nima: Yes.

Phyllis Bennis: And I think the reason for that has far more to do with our movements then it does with individual decision making or individual lack of familiarity or individual anything of these candidates and potential candidates. What we’ve seen in recent years, and it’s unfortunately been underway for a long time, is that since about maybe 2007 or 2008, the question of US foreign policy has just not been a central thrust of the progressive movement across this country. The fact that the US has been at war with Afghanistan now almost 17 years, with Iraq since 2003, is bombing and using drone attacks in countries across the world, has basis in 80 countries and that fifty three cents of every discretionary federal dollar goes directly to the military. Despite all that our movements that are struggling for intersectionalities struggling to link racism with poverty, poverty with gender oppression, environmental degradation and the struggle against it with transgender rights. All of these things are being linked, but somehow over and over again, the one issue that nobody does talk about is the question of war. The question of militarism. And I think that it’s the the weakness of our movements and I hold my movement, the which is the anti-war movement, broadly speaking, as responsible as anybody else for that, that we haven’t yet helped the broader movements that are working on these crucial domestic issues to figure out ways to integrate the struggle against militarism, the struggle against the war economy, the struggle against wars with their own issues.

Adam: Yeah.

Phyllis Bennis: You know, the question of the role of international bases on the global environment is huge. The fact that we don’t often have good answers to how are we going to find money to pay for healthcare or college education for all? The answer is we’re spending fifty three cents of every federal dollar on the military. If we cut that in half we could do all of those things. We’re not doing that well enough, and so these new electeds, new candidates who come out of our movements, these are not just people who popped up out of nowhere. These are people who come out of years of activism and they’re reflecting that same gap between all the other movements and the anti-war side, so I think that’s really what we’re struggling with.

Nima: Do you think that there’s an inherent tension perhaps between seeking political office in this country, especially on a national level, with the concept of dismantling US empire itself? Is there inherent tension there because seeking to even question US empire, the bases, as you mentioned, is pretty anathema to the assumed job description of these electeds, in general. How can that be addressed?

Phyllis Bennis: Well, I think that is an important question. I don’t think that that’s really the main problem yet. It may become that if we had a really powerful, uh, anti-war caucus, for instance in the Congress. We don’t. A big chunk of the Progressive Caucus and the Black Caucus are in fact leaders against US wars objectively working in some ways to dismantle the empire although they don’t use that language. I think that what we’re not seeing is a situation where our movements are doing that and therefore expecting leaders who move out of our movements into the electoral arena to somehow lead around it, I think is really unrealistic. Um, when we don’t have our mainstream resistance movements, the powerful new women’s movements, the movement of young people against gun violence, the incredible environmental movement that is on the rise, the new parts of the labor movement that are linking immigrant rights with the rights of low income workers, the Fight for 15, as long as all those strong, powerful movements have not yet linked to the issue of ending wars I think expecting our elected officials to do so is not a realistic option. We have to build movements that make that link not only necessary but eagerly embraced. Then we can talk about how to move that into the electoral arena.

Adam: Right. So I think there are probably, you know, when you’re coming up with the kind of diagnostic as to why we got to where we are, I think are kind of two things. Number one is the simple fact that there is no constituency for those affected by US imperialism. Um, unlike many of the things you brought up, whether it’s environmentalism, or even a certain minority rights, while they’re very, very disempowered or they’re not, they’re not powerful people they at least have some kind of stake in the game. Whereas those affected by US imperialism with the exception of maybe even some American troops, but that’s even a small part of it, uh, that there’s no real Yemeni constituency. There’s no real Afghan or Iraqi constituency in America, you know, they can’t donate money. They can’t campaign. They can’t vote. Um, so necessarily foreign policy will always take a backseat.

Phyllis Bennis: It’s true that Yemenis are not a political constituency who are going to donate money and make the phone calls, although there is a significant Yemeni-American community that is doing those things and is mobilizing to stop the US involvement in the UAE-led coalition that’s bombing their country. But the notion that only those that are affected who are over there I think is really wrong. There’s a host of ways in which those wars directly affect people in this country. If we look at the issue of immigration, which is one of the things that has mobilized so many people across this country, the horror of the Trump immigration policies, the outrage of the children locked up in cages who are fleeing, what are they fleeing? They are fleeing U.S.-led wars of the 1980s.

Adam: In your argument that the electeds are the high-profile people who self-label as socialist, the reason why they’ve kind of fallen, haven’t prioritized issue of anti-war or militarism is because the movements themselves have died out. Now there’s a lot of reasons why that is. Number one, sort of imperial fatigue. Number two, that the really stark and I think very personal and visceral divisions around Syria. In your mind, what are the main factors that have lead to a diminished anti-war movement and what do you feel like is the way forward out of that? Is it just a simple matter of fatigue or we just War on Terror-ed out or?

Phyllis Bennis: No, it’s not fatigue. I think if we look at the trajectory of what happened from the period from 9/11 in 2001, one until about 2007, 2008 when there was not only a powerful anti-war movement, but that movement both in the U.S. and globally emerged in those years as the leading edge of the broad progressive movement in a way that issues around racism and climate and immigration right now are leading that movement both in the U.S. and globally. At that time it was the issue of the war in Iraq more centrally than anything else, and part of the reason had to do with the understanding that at that point in time that war represented the linchpin of what U.S. policy was in the U.S. and around the world. It was central to what became codified in the Patriot Act, the rising level of control and the rising level of surveillance and control in this country. All of that was grounded in this question of the war. In around 2007 and 2008, a number of conditions changed. What we sometimes hear, and I think this was a small part and not a major part, but played some role, was the election of Obama.

Nima: Absolutely.

Phyllis Bennis: Who campaigned as an anti-war president, although in fact, he said from the beginning he was against what he called “dumb wars” and he meant and said the war in Iraq, and he made clear he would escalate in Afghanistan.

Nima: Yes.

Phyllis Bennis: Which he immediately did. That was a promise kept. That was not a promise he made that he violated. He said he would do that, and he did. I think that that aspect gets exaggerated because while I think it may have affected some people who came out to protest, it did not affect the vast majority of activists who had spent their lives mobilizing and building a movement against war. Most of them were not persuaded that Obama was going to do it all and we could now take a vacation.

Nima: Right.

Phyllis Bennis: So I think that was a small piece of it, but not a major piece. I think the two major pieces were number one, the economic crisis of 2007 and 2008, where you suddenly had people who prior to that had been relatively privileged. You know, it’s not an accident that the anti-war movement in that period, as well as in earlier periods, has been disproportionately made up of white middle class people much more than our other movements. Part of the reason, not the only reason, but part of the reason for that has to do with the fact that those are people who are not struggling in their own lives and their own communities to defend their own communities from police violence or who are not threatened with losing their job, losing their home. Suddenly after 2007, 2008, they were in fact threatened with all those things and they turned as people do to focusing on the immediacy of those crises and so the work around ending US wars for many began to seem like a luxury that they simply didn’t have the time and the bandwidth to take up.

Nima: Right.

Phyllis Bennis: So I think that was a huge component of it and I think we ignore that at our peril.

Nima: Yes.

Phyllis Bennis: You asked though, what are ways that we could fight against that? What are ways that we could challenge that? For one thing, aside from the economic crisis, we also faced a significant shift in the nature of the wars. Suddenly we were looking at wars that we’re not being fought with 100,000 US troops in Iraq and 50,000 in Afghanistan. We were now looking at wars with much smaller footprints of direct US engagement. So we had wars that were being launched by drones and by airstrikes and by special forces, far more than ground troops. When we look at examples of where the issue of fighting against wars, fighting against militarism, fighting against the war economy, the poor people’s campaign is one of the great examples rooted in what Dr. King taught us back in 1967 at his Riverside speech are the “evil triplets” as he put it, of racism, poverty and militarism, and then adding climate to that. Those four issues and the intersections between them are the collective basis of what this extraordinary movement that involves people of color, involves white people, involves women as well as men, involves gay people as well as straight, trans people, immigrants. It’s pulling in everybody around the country and that movement puts front and center the struggle against militarism, the struggle against the war economy and makes those links between how wars distort our economy, how military bases destroy our environment, how wars destroy women’s rights. All of the intersections are right there. So that’s the kind of example I think that we and the rest of the movements need to be looking at when we look at where we have failed to engage all of these other important movements with the issue of war and militarism, the poor people’s campaign really provides a great example of how that works.

Nima: So Phyllis, as someone who has written so much, and so much wonderful stuff, on both the Palestinian issue, uh, as well as Iran, Israel-Palestine and Iran, how do you see those issues coming to the fore not only in the movements that you’re talking about, but then rising to the level — or maybe sinking down to the level, however way you want to look at it — in terms of actual political campaigns, it seems like those issues, and especially Israel-Palestine is like a progressive killer and there’s a lack of willingness to often engage on a level that seems properly intersectional and kind of in line with the other tenants of that ideology.

Phyllis Bennis: Sure. I actually think there has been an extraordinary shift in public discourse on this issue. If we look at the last twenty years, it’s been incredible the amount of change in public discourse including how the polls are playing. The discourse shift in the press has been significant though not as massive as the shift in public discourse. The shift in policy has not yet caught up.

Nima: Right.

Phyllis Bennis: But it’s incredibly important that it is no longer political suicide to criticize Israel. The problem is that in the Washington bubble, members of Congress, including some of the most progressive, don’t realize that. They think it still is. But if you look at the shifts that are underway, even in Congress, three years ago when the debate over the Iran nuclear deal was at its height, what we saw was that 60 members of Congress, many of them not well known firebrands, many of them not particularly known for having ever criticized Israel, suddenly were willing to skip the speech of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, when he came to that outrageous joint session of Congress to lobby Congress to vote against their president, to vote against the Iran nuclear deal. 60 members publicly said, ‘we are not going to show up.’ That had never happened before, and guess what? The Sky didn’t fall. Nobody lost their seat. Bernie Sanders, then one of the official Democratic Socialists, took the further step a year later in in the campaign period when he said, ‘I’m not going to show up again.’ He skipped the speech he would have given that he was expected to give at AIPAC and every candidate is expected to come to AIPAC. He just said, ‘no, sorry, I’m otherwise engaged,’ and he gave a speech in the campaign that would have been the speech he would have given he said, which was for the first time a speech based on the notion of Palestinian rights and equality. It was extraordinary. Now, that’s one example. If you look at the example of Representative Betty McCollum, who’s a fascinating member of Congress from a white suburban district outside of St. Paul, who describes herself as a white middle class woman, very middle of the road Democrat on many issues, very progressive and principled, but hardly a firebrand. She has introduced for the first time an explicit bill in Congress that is calling for protection of Palestinian children to make sure that U.S. military funds, which are now at $3.8 billion a year of our tax money, is not used in the Israeli system of juvenile military detention. Israel, of course, is the only country in the world that has a military juvenile system for detention and trials for children as young as 12. It’s an outrage. It’s a horror show that has been condemned by every children’s organization around from UNICEF on, and she has had this on the agenda. She has now, I think it’s 29 co-sponsors and again, the sky didn’t fall. She didn’t lose her seat. None of the cosponsors have been attacked for it. It’s just not the way it used to be when APEC could call the shots. You have now in the Jewish community and enormous shift of political views. You don’t have, like when I was growing up as a young Jewish kid in in Los Angeles, if you wanted to identify as Jewish, you were a Zionist. That’s what there was. There wasn’t any other option. Now you have AIPAC on the right, you have an organization like J Street in the center, which defines itself as pro-Israel and pro-peace, not pro-Palestinian, but pro-Israel and pro-peace. They’ve done a lot to to break the taboo in Washington and then you have on the left Jewish Voice for Peace that has something like 15,000 members, paid members and 250,000 online supporters. It’s the most popular organization out there on the college campuses among young Jews supporting the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions issue. So you have a right, a left, a center. It is no longer political suicide. Our job is to show that to these candidates, to show them that they don’t have to worry, they need to be conscious of it. Some districts are harder than others. And it’s not to say that AIPAC doesn’t still have a huge amount of money. The right-wing of any organization, of any movement always has the most amount of money. They have money and they will not hesitate to use it most often by threatening to fund a candidate, uh, against any candidate or any person in office who doesn’t do what they say, but increasingly they just don’t have the power to do that. So there’s been these enormous shifts underway and you do see it in the media. You know, it wasn’t too long ago that you never saw a Palestinian voice on the op-ed pages of The New York Times. Now you have it all the time and that’s just one example. You have an organization like the Institute for Middle East Understanding who started out as one person desperately trying to get Palestinian voices placed in the mainstream media. They now have a staff of 18 or 20 people all over the country who can’t keep up with the requests. So that has simply changed. It’s just not like it used to be.

Adam: So that obviously shows a little bit of hope —

Phyllis Bennis: Absolutely.

Adam: — that if activists creative a community, as many in the Palestinian world have done, and they’re tenacious, that things can sort of shift. Ideally within the next five to ten years this will manifest more materially in terms of US support and things like that, beyond just sort of scolding letters, which I think it will. And I know that people inside of Sanders’ campaign even say that he’s gone left on Palestine because I think he was kind of, I don’t want to make excuses for him, but I think in many ways he was sort of just ignorant and kind of from a different generation that had a different perspective of what Israel was.

Phyllis Bennis: Could be. But he also was the first at the level of a serious candidate of one of the two major parties to make the kind of speech he did. I don’t make excuses for him. I think it was an incredible speech.

Adam: Yeah. It shows where the bar is, right? That even just acknowledging Palestinians exist and he even acknowledged the disproportionate death count in Gaza, which I know was a —

Phyllis Bennis: Right. He talked about unemployment in Gaza. He talked about water in Gaza.

Adam: Right.

Phyllis Bennis: He talked about it being known as a, as a prison. I mean, this went very, very far.

Adam: Right. Yeah. Um, I guess my question is this, one of the things that talking to some people from About Face and, and uh, which was formerly the Iraq Veterans Against the War, the other day, one of the things that came up was this idea that what you had mentioned earlier, that the wars had gotten more clandestine, smaller footprint, more CIA arming and funding of groups, and then in addition to that, the increased reliance on drones, that there is a kind of moral hazard. Whereas the technology in clandestine operations take over some of these wars that the urgency in anti-war movements will be lost. Do you see there being a kind of empathy gap emerging? You know, where whereas when I was, when I was 25, 26 years old, they were body bags coming home from Iraq everyday that has words get more technologically savvy, more special forces, more covert operation, more CIA, that there’s a risk that the visceral nature of war will kind of be divorced from the average person in this country?

Phyllis Bennis: I think that is a very serious problem. I think it’s already underway as we see the nature of the military has changed. You know, when I was that age, back in Vietnam era, the disproportionality of who was in the in the military was, it was disproportionately young men who were black and Latino from inner city ghettos. These days the disproportionality is not by race. The military is relatively proportional by race. Not all aspects of it, but mostly, but it’s completely just disproportional in terms of people from rural areas and small cities of less than 25,000. So in that context it also goes to the question of because there’s no official legal draft, there is a poverty draft, but who are the journalists covering these wars? They’re not from communities that are affected by that poverty draft. They go to mainly elite schools, elite journalism schools. They end up, they mostly go from the coasts, or from Chicago maybe, from big cities. They go to elite colleges, they go to journalism school. They don’t know anybody in the military. They don’t know anyone in the military. And that distinction is a huge one that makes it really hard to keep up the focus on who’s doing the fighting. The bigger issue, of course, is that the people doing the dying are so disproportionately now, people from those countries. It’s not to say there, there’s no impact here, but the impact here is environmental. It’s economic, it’s a bunch of other ways, but it’s not in life and death, in the main. So in that context, yes, the people dying are Syrians, they’re Afghans, they’re Iraqis, they’re Somalis, they’re brown and they’re black and they’re Muslim. And those questions make it much, much harder than when you had huge numbers of U.S. soldiers who were also doing the dying.

Nima: I think that that’s a very excellent place to leave it. Phyllis, thank you so much for joining us. Is there something you want to tell us and our listeners about that they can look out for on the, on the horizon?

Phyllis Bennis: Our website at IPS, ips-dc.org usually has all of our most recent work right up there and available.

Nima: Thank you so much Phyllis. Take care.

Phyllis Bennis: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.


Adam: That was great. I think the thing that stuck with me is this idea that there are two factors that have created this massive empathy gap and how we cover war, which is the class gap of the poor, the ones that are going to die such that they die and then the other factor, the other dynamic of, it’s increasingly technological and the people that die are the poor in Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, that they are completely erased and the extent to which even the poor in the United States are given some kind of purchase that those who are poor and brown overseas of zero and that when it was Vietnam and people were coming home in body bags, there was more of a sense of people were at stake. Middle class white kids were dying in Vietnam because of the draft. Working class white kids were dying Vietnam because of the draft and that’s what, they had skin in the game.

Nima: Right, right, exactly, and that to have a drone operator go home at night in Nevada to his family is a very different kind of warfare and not that the sanitized remote control video game style is good, it is absolutely horrific, but what it does is that it alleviates the pressure for politicians also to then address that. To address that at home because their constituents are not coming home, again, like in flag-draped coffins in the same way and that you can completely close your mind to what effect our military conquests, our military arms deals, our partnerships and coalitions with other countries around the world that are committing their own atrocities with our guns, with our bombs, with our fuel and with our diplomatic cover. You don’t have to address that in the in the same way and so you know, we’re seeing this kind of really come to a head. All of these things in this kind of bloody confluence of both US empire and Saudi aggression and then who covers for all of that and who is not talking about any of that in Yemen.

Adam: Yeah. Speaking of Yemen, I think this will segue to our next guest, who has written about it for In These Times for several months.

Nima: Yes. We will be speaking with Shireen Al-Adeimi, Assistant Professor of Education at Michigan State University. She’s going to join us in just a sec. Stay with us.


Nima: We are joined now by Shireen Al-Adeimi. Shereen, it’s so great to talk to you today on Citations Needed.

Shireen Al-Adeimi: Thanks so much for having me.

Adam: So this episode we are talking about what it means to have a socialist or democratic socialist notion of foreign policy and, even though the word foreign policy, we don’t particularly care for because I feel like it makes it makes American imperialism seemed like some sort of benign system and pulleys and levers, and what that looks like in the broader context of what it is to sort of oppose war and oppose American military aggression. You write often about such aggression that the US exercises through what is effectively a proxy for us in Saudi Arabia, and I know you’ve spoken about this in public events, DSA events specifically. Can you give us a sense of what you feel like the blind spots are amongst certain democratic socialists or nominal democratic socialists when it comes to imperialism and how you think that the notion of anti-imperialism or even just generic foreign policy should fit into notions of socialism in the United States?

Shireen Al-Adeimi: Well, I think there’s really an opportunity for Democratic Socialists of America and other socialist groups in this country to really take on this cause and to see it as a broader, uh, aspect of American imperialism. So this isn’t a war, this Yemen war, it’s not happening to other people that, you know, we’re not just standing by and witnessing as it’s happening. The U.S. is in fact directly involved in this, is profiting from it. And um, I think there’s an opportunity for people here in this country to say, well, this shouldn’t be happening in their name, this speaks to the broader imperialist notions and um, it’s an opportunity for us to do something about it.

Nima: The pushback that I’ve seen a lot actually on calling out rising voices from a more progressive side of politics, calling them out on their, maybe less than awesome statements about, you know, foreign policy related issues often kinda hear, well you know, DSA or kind of being a more socialistic in the American political context really is about domestic politics and it’s about healthcare and it’s about wages and it’s about collective bargaining and etcetera. And it tends to skirt any notion of all these things wind up being linked. That you can’t have a war machine abroad as a separate entity from justice at home. And I think that there’s this idea that those things are separate and well, you know, when they get into Congress or they get into office then they’ll address that but right now it’s really just about domestic issues. How do you see the two being merged and how vital is it that they are seen as interrelated?

Shireen Al-Adeimi: Well, the word you used is justice and you can’t be just in one country and not think about our government’s influence in other countries and causing so much injustice abroad. So for example, one thing comes to mind when the elections were taking place, some people in Yemen were messaging me and saying, ‘hey, maybe this Trump guy is not so bad for Yemen because we haven’t heard anything about him, you know, cooperating with the Saudis, unlike Hillary Clinton.’ So Yemenis view Americans as, whether Democrats or Republicans, as people who are going to be very bad for them and who will shape their future and intervene in their civil society issues and not just Yemenis but people abroad in general. So I think if we’re talking about groups that focus on justice, we can’t focus on justice here at home and ignore what our governments are doing abroad. It’s all linked together, whether at home, whether it’s related to healthcare. We can’t talk about healthcare and schooling and education here when we’re, you know, bombing schoolchildren abroad or not paying attention to what we’re doing to prevent people in different societies from moving forward without foreign interference. We can’t talk about Russian interference here without talking about our own interference in foreign countries. So I think it’s all tied together.

Adam: Darn purity politics and trying to be consistent.

Shireen Al-Adeimi: Right.

Adam: How dare you be consistent. One of the things I know that people who write about Yemen such as you do, and I know that some of your writing has been very great on it, definitely check it out if you can in the show notes, is that there has been not much coverage really. Um, there’ll be a sort of your down the middle BBC, CNN reports, you know, so and so dead, move on. Very little context. And the role that America’s played in it is largely whitewashed. MSNBC hasn’t covered the war in over a year, as we mentioned earlier, 60 Minutes did a whole report, 13 and a half minute long report and they did decent journalism in their report but didn’t mention America’s role at all. And in fact painted America as the good guy, as the one that was actually helping through food aid programs. How frustrating is it as someone who operates in the American media landscape such that it is, where this is just really not talked about a at all, specifically in Yemen? And to what extent do we get people who are high profile, who can get it on it on MSNBC, progressives like Bernie Sanders or these people that are supposed to care to care? How do we get people to care? Or is it just because the US is so involved and the Saudis are so overlooked that this is just not going to register on people’s radars?

Shireen Al-Adeimi: Well it’s extremely frustrating. And I think what’s interesting is that here I am watching this American journalistic landscape and many journalists in the US are operating like state agents unfortunately. I understand if the state wants to absolve itself or not highlight its role in atrocities committed by the Saudis and Emiratis with U.S. assistance, but why are journalists then covering up for what the government is doing? Um, I hoped that, you know, the Iraq war and the consequences of the Iraq war had played a significant, was a significant moment of reflection for journalists and corporate media or just media in general to reflect on their role in enabling the war in Iraq. But instead we have the situation in Yemen where it’s the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. It doesn’t get any dire than this and we have a direct hand in profiting from this war, but also being directly involved in this war, yet you’ll turn on CNN and MSNBC and Fox and you will not hear about the role of the US, you will barely hear about the war in Yemen there. So it’s been extremely frustrating. Even when Bernie Sanders introduced the War Powers Resolution in the Senate trying to get Congress to vote against this war against the American involvement in the war, there was barely any coverage of that. So it’s perplexing, you know, when we supposedly have free press, but many people within this free press are acting like state agents.

Nima: Right. Well I think that one of the really unfortunate, one of the many unfortunate aspects of what happened post invasion of Iraq, was that the reflection that the media did wound up being driven from the media itself in some circles and no one paid a price for what they actually did at the time. That, except for maybe like Judith Miller, who kind of is now persona non grata in like elite liberal media circles, except for her, everyone still has their jobs and so like there’s no price that’s being paid at least on the, on the media side for doing such a terrible, terrible, vicious, violent, dangerous job at that point. And now we’re seeing it with Yemen. We’re seeing it with Iran again in earnest and the media just continues to fail. And when politicians who I think have more progressive views are not then using those platforms to go on those media outlets and to talk to those reporters to go on those shows, um, it just winds up silencing all of it all over again.

Shireen Al-Adeimi: Exactly. It’s extremely sad and frustrating to witness all of this happening. You know, like you said, people have no consequences. They have no skin in the game, so to speak, but also in the, in 2018 when there’s so much footage and documentation of the war, you know, Yemenis are turning on their cameras and posting them online. There is no denying what’s happening and the atrocities that are being committed in our name in Yemen on a daily basis. Just August 9th, the Saudi coalition bombed a school bus full of children and killed at least 50 people and you know, these things happen on a daily basis, small scale, large scale massacres and we have the footage. We have the evidence. It’s a matter of people choosing not to report, choosing not to highlight what’s going on.

Adam: One of the major factors, at least from my perspective, is that the reason why quote unquote “foreign policy” is so deprioritized is because those who are affected by it don’t have a constituency here, don’t really have a voice here. Now you have people in the diaspora, you have people who have ideological commitments, but there isn’t a sense that if I oppose, you know, Israeli occupation of the West Bank or if I oppose U.S. involvement or U.S. bombing of Syria or if I oppose the Saudi-U.S. bombing of Yemen, that there is not any upside really. And I guess the question is for activists that you’ve talked to or people who work in this space, especially in Yemen, which is such a dire situation, what are the methods? What are the rhetorical methods? What are the sort of outreach methods people are using to sort of, for lack of a better word, to bridge the empathy gap, to sort of get people to care? Is it simply just appealing to their better angels? Are there other means people are trying to employ?

Shireen Al-Adeimi: I think it’s really sad. You know, people are posting graphic photos that should never be posted. They serve in the end to dehumanize these people who are getting killed. But it’s one of the ways the Yemenis are trying to shed the spotlight on what’s happening in Yemen. They say to me, ‘well, maybe if people see how gruesome these war crimes are, maybe they’ll do something about it.’ Of course people just look away or you know, they’re not interested. Oftentimes people tell me, you know, this is, in the end a U.S.-sanctioned war. The Saudis cannot wage war on Yemen without extensive U.S. support. And so we have to do these, we have to stop this war through legal means, and so people have written open letters, people in Yemen have written open letters to the Congress, urging them to pass legislation that would end U.S. involvement and you know, they, they realized that there’s a democratic process in this country and they’re trying to get citizens to care enough to engage in that democratic process. So somebody here might be thinking, well, it may not matter if I call my representative. It absolutely matters when it comes to Yemen. Ending this war through legal means is really our only hope because we can’t appeal to people’s humanitarian senses if they cared about the humanitarian crisis, this war would have ended three years ago.

Nima: Yeah. I think that we’re seeing progressive politics come to bear I think a lot more substantially than we have in recent years. I think that there’s this backlash obviously post Trump and we’re seeing, you know, whether it’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York or Rashida Tlaib in Michigan, you know, things are moving. And yet there are still these barriers to telling the whole story as people are rising up the political ladder. People who have really, really far better ideology that I think most corporate democrats, most kind of party line Democrats and yet there there’s a barrier when it comes to speaking honestly about these issues of foreign policy. And so I’m just wondering like how is this all gonna shake out and are we supposed to just allow candidates to not really speak honestly until we really hope they do once they are in office and then just kind of hold their feet to the fire? Like, is that where we’re at?

Shireen Al-Adeimi: I mean I hope not. I hope that we don’t rely on these candidates all of a sudden then bringing to light these issues that they’ve been silent on. You know, it’s, it’s kinda scary seeing candidates going through the process and becoming more and more, you know, moving toward the center in their ideology and not speaking up about these issues now, not making it part of their platform now I think it’s just an indicator of what’s going to happen later on. They’ll just become like any other member of Congress who are just concerned about where the money’s coming from and you know which toes to step on, so we really need to see these candidates make this part of their platform now and I think many people will vote for them for being consistent along these issues and if they don’t, they don’t. But I personally am not very hopeful when I see candidates trying to cover up this aspect of their policy because for me the best indicator of future behavior is past behavior. So if they’re not speaking about it now, then how do I know they’ll speak about it once they’re in office and once the stakes are higher for them?

Adam: Yeah. I think, you know, I’m definitely not going to sit here as a sort of crusty old white guy and tell, like for example, a Palestinian or an Arab politician, to me, when it comes to the Israel issue, they get a little bit more slack because I get that they’re going to get demagogued and called a terrorist and on one level I can appreciate that. But I definitely think there’s a real fear setting in that things like universal healthcare and things like free college don’t really undermine the kind of core pillars of empire really and so they’re kind of, they’re kind of permitted, but the second, any kind of real anti-imperialist critique is leveled you’re called a nut or you’re called a, you know, someone who hates America.

Nima: Yeah. Or worse.

Adam: I guess to take your thinking, you sort of think that now is the time, now is the time to sort of make these clear anti-imperialist critiques.

Shireen Al-Adeimi: Yeah. One thing that comes to mind is that this isn’t an issue, like specifically about Yemen, this isn’t an issue that is bipartisan or you know, I think both Republicans, Democrats, independents, whoever can agree that we shouldn’t be intervening in other people’s affairs at the expense of our own goals. So for example, the U.S. publicly states that it’s against Al-Qaeda and against terrorism and whatnot. Yet here we have extensive reports coming out of Yemen where our allies, the Saudis and the Emiratis, are working hand in hand with Al-Qaeda, they are fighting alongside them, they’re paying them off to move, to shift from one location to another. Uh, the government we’re trying to reinstate has people who the U.S. designates as terrorists within its government. And so here is a no-brainer. If you’re going to take on any cause you will not be called a terrorist for standing against people that the U.S. already labels as terrorists. We’re just saying, you know, just stop intervening in Yemen. You’re making things worse for everyone.

Adam: I wish there was something more actionable to do. It’s just, I feel like this is one of these topics that is so deprioritized and so not talked about that you just to some extent all you can kind of do is scream into the void and hope at some point someone notices so.

Nima: Well. Yeah, I think that if there is something positive, actually, I can kind of try and spin a little bit so that we don’t have to leave this feeling completely dejected, is that I think what some more progressive candidates are trying to do is allow themselves to use the language of more domestic socialistic policies, whether it’s healthcare, whether it’s college, whether it’s labor and whether it’s also racial justice, to sort of leverage that sometimes and use that language to then discuss foreign policy. So for instance, I’ll give an example, so Rashida Tlaib, who I was just talking about, congressional candidate in Detroit, you know, comes from a Palestinian, uh, background and while endorsed by J Street and doing the kind of both sides-ism, ‘we want to reach a two state solution,’ and then, uh, you know, ‘there’s the hate on both sides,’ like doing all that stuff has also said this, she told The Washington Post that quote, “What I bring to the table, growing up in a Palestinian-American household, and coming to Detroit, is an understanding that there’s so much comparison between what happened there [meaning Palestine] and what happened to African-Americans here.” End quote. So I think bridging those is something that hopefully is going to continue to happen and that it winds up being kind of an idea of what’s the best messaging to bridge the domestic and the “foreign” and I just hope that that’s what we’re seeing even though the past may not, may not indicate a better future.

Shireen Al-Adeimi: I hope so too. This is an issue that I think everybody has the moral obligation to speak up against, whether it’s ordinary citizens or people running for Congress and if, you know, candidates are running on a democratic socialist platform than I hope that they are not, uh, that they don’t have these blind spots in their thinking and to find the language, find the means to talk about foreign policy as well as domestic policy.

Adam: And I think it’s important that activists and journalists keep their feet to the fire and don’t do this like this bullshit DSA hoorah-ism. I mean, I just think that stuff is so useless and there’s a thousand different articles like that a week.

Shireen Al-Adeimi: Absolutely.

Nima: Yeah. Well, thank you so much for joining us today Shireen Al-Adeimi, Assistant Professor of Education at Michigan State University. It’s been so great to talk to you today on Citations Needed.

Shireen Al-Adeimi: Great talking to you guys. Thanks so much for having me.


Adam: Yeah, I think the empathy gap, which is, it sounds super corny and like I’m on a self-help seminar.

Nima: It just sounds a little anodyne, but like —

Adam: But it is an empathy gap.

Nima: Right.

Adam: There is a lack of empathy for both systemic reasons, racial reasons and getting people to care about and you do this a lot. I think when you’re on the quote unquote “left” and you criticize people over imperialism or having a bad stance on Palestine or having a bad stance on Yemen or whatever, the first instinct is to do paradoxically what Clinton stands did to Bernie stands by saying, ‘oh, purity politics,’ right? ‘This is only goes left. How dare you have purity politics.’ And it’s like, look, I get that there’s like a super, super ultra left solipsistic, but the other alternative is to sort of just be hoorah no matter what and I got to think there has to be like a good faith way you can level criticism, especially in kind of internal dynamics. Without it being —

Nima: Well, because it, it really can make a difference and if you actually force people through, you know, not just online trolling but like, you know, if you actually address these things when it matters and not just saying, well you know, you know, once they hit the fucking state house or the Congress, then that’s the time to embark on that. Like, that’s a huge problem because they’re not going to do it.

Adam: And there are issues with, you know, this gets to the core of some of the critiques of entryism and whether or not a democratic entryism in is the right approach. And I know that even within DSA’s rank and file there are different opinions about that and how much do you sort of, and this is the response, ‘oh, so and so can’t talk about Palestine until they got elected. They have to avoid the-’

Nima: Exactly. It’s the reason why, you know, there’s the progressive except Palestine term, like it’s that you can only go so far and then that is always going to be the number one first road bump on your campaign because you, it’s going to have to be addressed and the way you address it is going to kind of set the terms for then how you address foreign policy in general, how you then react to push back on that and how you push back to that pushback.

Adam: What I, what I, I would, I would argue that existential critiques of American empire and American exceptionalism and the sanctity of the American soldier are just as taboo as criticizing Israel if not more. That’s my-

Nima: Well, I think all that should be criticized. (Chuckles)

Adam: And that maybe I guess it’s a question of, like, what is the existential but, but I thought this was a, this was productive. I think these are questions that people have been asking around the margins, I think that we kind of tried to dive into them fairly.

Nima: And that you actually can have good and consistent politics. I think it’s possible.

Adam: Or at the very least we should strive to, right?

Nima: That’s right.

Adam: Reach for the moon, land among the stars, even though that scientifically makes no sense, but yeah.

Nima: Yeah, you would actually be going way further but, you know.

Adam: Stupid.

Nima: That works too. So thank you everyone for listening to Citations Needed. You can follow us on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed. You can find the show wherever you get your excellent podcasts, whether that’s iTunes or Libsyn or Stitchr, whatever. Any reviews that you write are much appreciated, especially if they’re really nice. And of course you can help out the show financially, help us keep going, we are independent, we don’t have billionaire donors backing us, so we’d like to keep it that way. You can do that through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson, again that’s Citations — with an ‘s’ — Needed Podcast through Patreon.com.

Adam: Yes. Thank you so much.

Nima: And an extra special thanks, as always, goes out to our Critic-level supporters. Thank you everyone for listening. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Our production consultants are Josh Kross and Sarah Lazare. Our research assistant is Sophia Steinert-Evoy. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks for listening everyone. Catch you next time.


This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, September 19, 2018.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.