Morbi leo risus, porta ac consectetur ac, vestibulum at eros. Maecenas sed diam eget risus varius blandit sit amet non magna. Cras justo odio, dapibus ac facilisis in, egestas eget quam. Etiam porta sem malesuada magna mollis euismod.
Morbi leo risus, porta ac consectetur ac, vestibulum at eros. Maecenas sed diam eget risus varius blandit sit amet non magna. Cras justo odio, dapibus ac facilisis in, egestas eget quam. Etiam porta sem malesuada magna mollis euismod.
Morbi leo risus, porta ac consectetur ac, vestibulum at eros. Maecenas sed diam eget risus varius blandit sit amet non magna. Cras justo odio, dapibus ac facilisis in, egestas eget quam. Etiam porta sem malesuada magna mollis euismod.
Morbi leo risus, porta ac consectetur ac, vestibulum at eros. Maecenas sed diam eget risus varius blandit sit amet non magna. Cras justo odio, dapibus ac facilisis in, egestas eget quam. Etiam porta sem malesuada magna mollis euismod.
Morbi leo risus, porta ac consectetur ac, vestibulum at eros. Maecenas sed diam eget risus varius blandit sit amet non magna. Cras justo odio, dapibus ac facilisis in, egestas eget quam. Etiam porta sem malesuada magna mollis euismod.
Adam: You can get about 130 or so mini episodes, News Briefs we do just for patrons, as well as newsletters and other fun goodies, and any support there is very very appreciated. We do no advertising or any kind of grants or foundations or anything. We are 100 percent supported by our listeners. So if you can, if you listen to the show and you like it, please help us out there, we’d be very grateful.
Nima: Soldiers from the US Cavalrydefeat the Plains Indians, securing new territory for their burgeoning empire.A group of settlers fends off an armed Indigenous tribe on horseback in their intrepid effort to conquer new lands. A Civil War hero decides to head for the frontier in its waning days, forging an undying friendship with the Native people there.
Adam: Each of these summaries describes a film made within the last hundred years that explores dynamics between white settlers and Indigenous people in North America in what we now know as the United States, and sometimes Canada. The problem, of course, is that these films, and so many others like them, don’t — to say the least — present this history accurately. Instead, since Hollywood’s inception, the viewing public has been primarily fed a diet of reductive, dehumanizing, and paternalistic depictions of Indigenous people.
Nima: But why have stories involving Indigenous people so frequently involved the perspectives of white settlers? Why are the vast majority of these stories confined to the genre of the Western, replete with shootouts and stagecoaches? What role does the US government play when it comes to the stories we’re told about Indigenous people, how has the historically simplistic portrayal of Native people benefited the interests of the United States and Canada? And how — above all — was the expansion of US empire westward and, later, across the globe, inextricably linked to the Hollywood project of romanticized Western ideals.
Adam: On today’s episode, we’ll examine the history of Indigenous depictions in Hollywood, looking at the ways the entertainment industry has sanitized the genocide and subsequent enduring abuses of Indigenous people, recycled centuries-old “noble savage” tropes, and argue that Indian dehumanizations wasn’t just an accidental byproduct of white supremacy, but was essential and central to the establishment of America’s sense of self and moral purpose.
Nima: Later on the show, we’ll be speaking with Jesse Wente, an Anishinaabe writer, broadcaster and arts leader. A member of the Serpent River First Nation, Jesse has been a CBC Radio columnist, film critic, program director at the Toronto International Film Festival, and the founding Executive Director of Canada’s Indigenous Screen Office, where he now serves as Senior Advisor. He is also the author of the memoir, Unreconciled: Family, Truth and Indigenous Resistance, which was published in September 2021 by Penguin Books.
JesseWente: I think it’s key to understand that narrative storytelling, and both the use of it as well as the oppression of it, or the minimizing of it by certain groups, is part of ongoing, sort of colonial behavior, you know, it’s actually quite fundamental. You know, in Canada, where we didn’t fight wars, the First Nations people didn’t fight wars with the settler state for quite as long as they did in the US, I would suggest that other than occupation, actually occupying the lands, the narrative is actually really the other chief way that Canada legitimizes itself. It just tells a story over and over and over again that it has a right to exist.
Adam: Quick disclaimer here. Obviously, we can’t cover everything, depictions of Indigenous people in Hollywood is a huge topic. So there’s going to be a lot we don’t include, which, the disclaimer we give on the show quite a bit when we have kind of broader themes.
Nima: Especially when we talk about movies, because I feel like, Adam, you and I could do like 15-part series on any given movie topic, and especially this one, you know, I should say, I love Westerns, and we’re going to be talking a lot about Westerns, and so yeah, you know, the idea of Hollywood mythmaking of the stories we tell as a society as what we are meant to believe it means to be American, and then also what it is supposed to say about the American experience, and yet of course, at every single turn, we see how dangerous those stereotypes and the dehumanizing tropes are, not only on screen, but what they reflect in the history of this country and this continent.
my late father, he had a rule in our house — and I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this on the show, but this is 100 percent a true story, I’m not making this up — we were required to stand up and salute when John Wayne was on TV. It was kind of half a joke but he very much looked up to John Wayne. We had a John Wayne clock, we had a life sized portrait of John Wayne in the garage for some reason, I don’t remember why. My father was the world’s biggest John Wayne fan and we were required to watch every single John Wayne movie growing up. So the Western was very much central to my upbringing as well, for reasons, I think, we would now call on the show, problematic. Very much so, right? This kind of, you know, idealized take-charge kind of man, and obviously, he’s very iconically associated with the Western. So, you know, we were interested in doing this episode for some time for that reason. I think you and I have approached the Western in a sort of different way, but specifically how it does have all this ideological baggage. I mean, it was, you know, again, on an interpersonal level, the Western ideals weren’t just this kind of academic thing, they were actually ideological, and obviously, again, as we’ll discuss, that gets subverted a bit in the ’60s and ’70s, but very much to a lot of people, they do represent an ideological project, and that’s what I think drew us to this specific topic with the idea that there’s this idea that the US expands into West and then expands into an empire and then afterwards we have these kinds of films that reflect the past, and what we want to argue in this episode is that the expansion of US Empire West and the final conquest up until the 1910s and 1920s very much was parallel with that existed at the same time as the rise of the Hollywood Western, and of course, its predecessor, the serial novel Western, which, which really kind of created a lot of these tropes.
Nima: It was only barely, if at all, past history that was being told.
Adam: Yeah, there was a lot of overlap, and that the idea that the Western as a genre very much existed to ameliorate the kind of guilt of genocide as well as create a foundational myth to an ever expanding country going West in North America, sort of polishing off the last resistance to this genocide, and then going westward to Philippines, Cuba, whatever, all of these various sort of other colonies.
Nima: And acting like cowboys at every turn, mind you.
Adam: Right. And again, this is a term of the military doing John Wayne shit, right? It’s sort of seen as essential to that mentality, and so that’s what I think drew us to this topic that it is not incidental to but it’s actually central to this idea of America as a sort of brand, and I think it is like the number one central pillar to the American brand, the Western, and I think it sort of is for very material reasons, and we’re excited to get into what those are.
Nima: Yeah, there’s a reason why the Marlboro Man is the Marlboro Man.
Nima: So, Hollywood tropes of the quote-unquote “Indian” were born of nostalgic fantasies formed during the settling of the West of course. Between the 17th and 19th centuries, settlers in the fledgling United States developed two myths primarily about Indigenous people, both positioning them at odds with civilization: The first, often associated with Puritan settlers, was that they were bloodthirsty savages. The second, often attributed to 17th-century English writers like John Dryden and later 19th-century European Romantic writers, was that they were pure, wise, and uncorrupted by modernity, the kind of noble savage trope.
So, depictions of Indigenous people usually fell — and as we’ll see, have continued to fall — within this simple binary: the violent or the noble savage. Many scholars and critics have argued that the latter was meant as a counterbalance for the former, a way to assuage settler guilt for stealing and destroying Indigenous people’s land and lives. The effect of this attempted correction, of course, wasn’t to humanize Indigenous people, but to further dehumanize them with yet another one-dimensional quality created in the settler imagination.
Adam: And while these ideas predate the advent of film, film and its direct precursors, like novels, have been instrumental in immortalizing and reinforcing them for over a century. Some of the earliest examples of the dual stereotype of Indigenous people come from the inspirations for the genre of the Western: for example, dime novels of the 1860s and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, a traveling stage production that debuted in 1883, featuring sensationalistic, quote, “Cowboys and Indians” narratives and romanticization of the American frontier.
In 1893, historian Frederick Jackson Turner presented his thesis, quote, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” Turner lamented the closing of the frontier, which, in his mind, had inspired self-reliance and “rugged individualism” among the settlers who crossed it, sparking a unique American trait. This is something we talked a lot about on episode 139 about the connection between masculinity and meat. The third pillar of that is taming the West.
Nima: According to scholar Martin Berny, quote:
“In correlation with the closing of the frontier and the settling of the West, a certain form of nostalgia prevailed. The mythologizing of the West led to the opening of a new imaginary space that Americans could fill with their fantasies about the Natives and the land they appropriated for themselves. This tradition gave birth to the Hollywood Indian, a ‘cinematic creation springing directly from the ubiquitous images of the old blood thirsty savage and his alter ego, the noble savage.’”
By the 1910s, the US government, namely the War Department, had begun subsidizing films in a concerted effort to glorify settlers and their attendant colonization project. This is at the time that the US government was also selling off stolen Native land to Americans moving west literally in ads, saying, quote, “Indian Land For Sale,” “Fine lands in the West,” “Irrigated, irrigable, grazing, agricultural, dry farming,” end quote.
Adam: The first use of the term “Western” to describe a popular film genre, was in a July 1912 article in Motion Picture World magazine.
1914 saw the release of the film The Indian Wars Refought, was a silent feature, also known by about half a dozen alternate titles, starred and was produced by William F. Cody, AKA the showman Buffalo Bill, and recreated four battles fought between the US and various Sioux tribes. According to a 1913 Variety article, the federal government spent $100,000, about $3 million in today’s money, on the film, quote, “in efforts to preserve these scenes for future generations.”
The Hollywood trade journal Moving Picture World reported in 1914 that Cody approached Secretary of War Lindley M. Garrison and Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane about the production of the film. According to, AFI, the American Film Institute, quote:
“Garrison supplied Cody with the necessary troops from the 12th U.S. Cavalry and Lane authorized the participation of over 1,000 Sioux Indians. Lieutenant General Nelson Appleton Miles was hired as a technical consultant as well as a cast member and made sure that the re-enactments were as accurate as possible. Colonel H. G. Sickles and General Charles King recreated their parts in the original battles of Wounded Knee and Warbonnet Creek, respectively.”
Yet, while US government and military officials readily participated, it wasn’t so easy to convince the Sioux members. Moving Picture World reported that, quote, “when [the Sioux] saw the Hotchkiss guns, the rifles, revolvers and cases of ammunition, there was a feeling of unrest.” So this is similar to how we discuss that in many ways, the creation of militaristic themes, or the anti-Muslim racism aren’t only sort of cultural vectors or cultural factors, they many times are actually just paid by the government, in this case, some of the earlier Westerns were basically US propaganda projects to both venerate the military conquests of North America as well as try to lure more people into continuing to move West.
Nima: And solidify the narrative of what then became commonly understood history. So as Martin Berny, the scholar we mentioned earlier, has also written that the film, The Indian Wars Refought, quote, “became the official record of the Battle of Wounded Knee, glorifying the massacre of hundreds of Indians, mostly women and children, as an act of heroism.” A 1914 ad printed in the aforementioned Moving Picture World, a Hollywood trade magazine at the time,asserted the film was, quote, “historically correct” and, quote, “most realistic,” touting the US government’s approval as well as Cody, General Miles, and, quote, “The last of the great Indian fighters” as “leading players,” end quote.
The ad’s reference to the Sioux performers as the, quote, “last of the great Indian fighters,” end quote, is an important detail to highlight here. It implied that “Indian fighters,” at least as the US government and entertainment industry understood them, were merely a part of history. The vanishing Indian trope, the last of the Mohicans, both in novel form by James Fenimore Cooper and made into an early silent film and then, of course, later remade with Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeleine Stowe. This idea that Native people are only part of the historical past, right, a past that has now come into modernity, and that there are no longer these people, right? So the U.S., then, was a settled, invincible state that could only expand, and any robust opposition from Indigenous people was therefore over. This gets to the idea of the noble savage which our guest Jesse Wente has pointed out, the nobility in that name comes from the idea that Indigenous people in these stories are always doomed to fail. You are noble or prideful in the face of inevitable defeat, which is part of all of these stories.
Adam: Despite the U.S. government’s active involvement in the film, they actually found the film too sympathetic to Indigenous people and consequently restricted its release to the cities of Denver and New York.
Nima: Only Colorado and New York get to see that. No one else.
Adam: Yeah. Still, filmmakers couldn’t quite ignore the decades of Indigenous genocide that had laid the groundwork for the founding of the US. Between roughly 1890 and 1920, the Native population in the US was at its nadir, hovering around 250,000. The process of US territorial expansion; from 1846 to 1873, the Native population plummeted from 150,000 to 30,000 in California alone.
Building on Buffalo Bill’s selling point of the “last great Indian fighters,” Hollywood began to display a slight sense of guilt. To an extent, films lamented the US’s extermination and subsequent treatment of Native people, asserting that their ways of life were disappearing. This would usher in the perhaps well-meaning, but often reductive and condescending, trope of the, quote, “vanishing Indian.”
White officials and filmmakers would always be in control of the narrative, operating on the principle that the US was good, upstanding, and justified, and that the matter of US land ownership and stewardship had been settled.
Nima: Premiering in 1923 and opening wider the following year, the James Cruze-directed silent epic The Covered Wagon may have done more to introduce many of the cinematic tropes and conventions that we understand today as the Western than any other film to date. As film critic Roger Moore has noted, it did much to establish, quote, “the action beats and archetypes that carried John Ford and John Wayne, Howard Hawks and Henry Hathaway, Clint Eastwood and the Coens through a century of Western cinema. Moore continues, quote:
“The stoic Westerner — a good-bad man with a tainted past, looking for a reset on the American Frontier — the dewy Eastern flower, soon to be hardened by her odyssey across The Plains — the scheming rival, the colorful comic ‘trailblazer’ — cattle and horses and oxen pulling Conestoga wagons across dry, dusty flatlands, over mesas and up mountains, from Westport Landing (Kansas City) to Oregon — it all began with ‘The Covered Wagon.’”
“There’s a wide river to ford, buffalo, Indian raids, fistfights and gunplay and the distraction of ‘Thar’s GOLD in them thar Hills!’(California) landscapes.”
The film, based on a 1922 Emerson Hough novel of the same name, is explicit in its American mythmaking — the script calls the settlers of the titular Covered Wagon train “Empire Builders” who are heading West and they marvel at their pioneer technology that would soon mechanize agriculture, what would later become known as, quote, “The Plow that Broke the Plains.” But the film also does something many later films wouldn’t — it voices motivation for Native American resistance to US manifest destiny: Indigenous people speak out against the, quote, “monster weapon,” end quote, that would steal their land, constrain their free movement and chase away the buffalo.
Another film from around the same time, The Vanishing American, which takes place on a Navajo reservation in Arizona, explores themes of settler government abuse of people living on reservations, war, and Native identity. The mid-1920s film, which came out in 1925 with a wider release the following year in 1926, is also an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Zane Grey, the famous dime store Western novel writer, though the book was unfinished by the time of the film’s production.
Grey’s story, which served as the basis for the film, was originally serialized in Ladies Home Journal in 1922 and 1923. Yet the series’ interracial love story and negative portrayal of a Christian missionary ruffled many readers’ feathers, as you can imagine. Grey’s publisher for the novel, Harper’s, forced him to change the ending which then made the ending of the subsequent film more of a Hollywood ending. According to AFI, the American Film Institute, Grey complied and killed off the Navajo hero at the end.
As a quick aside: A 1955 film version of the same story displays a title card after the film’s opening credits that reads this, quote, “This picture is dedicated to Zane Grey — whose story of ‘The Vanishing American’ brought new life to a dying race. Today the forces of justice and tolerance are writing a new ending — and a better way of life.” End quote. The implication that Grey single-handedly resuscitated an entire other “race” of Indigenous people that are now being treated with justice and tolerance. So yeah, that’s Hollywood for you.
Adam: 1930’s The Silent Enemy continued this theme, produced under the premise that Indigenous stories should be preserved on film, lest they disappear permanently. The film depicts the life of Ojibwe people prior to the arrival of European settlers. Producer W. Douglas Burden decided to document the, quote, “fast-vanishing tribe,” unquote, of the Ojibwe while gathering footage for the American Museum of Natural History.
To its credit, the film featured primarily Ojibwe actors. It’s often labeled a documentary, though technically it’s more of a historical recreation. In the opening minutes of the film–the only spoken part of it, Chief Chauncey Yellow Robe, the film’s star, delivers a speech about the vanishing Ojibwe. We can listen to that here.
Chief Chauncey Yellow Robe: This picture is the story of my people. I speak for that horse. I know your language. In the beginning of the Great Spirit give us this hand. The war game was on. We were happy when the game was planning. In the years of famine, we suffered. Soon we will be gone. Your civilization will destroy us. But by your magic, we will live forever. We thank the white ones who help us to make this picture.
Adam: Yeah, you see how this idea that oh, well, it’s over, they’re dying out, and now to the extent to which we’re going to film Indigenous people, it’s going to be a kind of National Geographic, like they are behind glass, a historical record.
Nima: Like make sure you capture this old way of life before suddenly it’s gone, and we’re not really going to talk about why it may be gone, but, you know, also, we’re assuming, again, the nobility of the inevitable failure, that it will be vanishing because that is the political project of the United States. Not that this is a naturally occurring thing.
Now, some films of the 1930s took cues from these more humanizing films like The Silent Enemy, but were commercial failures. These included films like Man of Two Worlds and Laughing Boy, both from 1934. Set against the brutal economic backdrop of the Great Depression, bigger-budget films featuring Native characters leaned far more heavily into the savage trope. It was in this context that what we really now know was the Western genre was calcified. This became the recipe for commercial success.
Cecille B. DeMille’s 1936 film The Plainsman, for example, starred James Ellison as Buffalo Bill Cody and Gary Cooper as Wild Bill Hickock, legendary members of the frontier-settling vanguard who Paramount Pictures advertised as history’s, quote, “glamorous personalities.” The Natives, armed with rifles from a Civil War weapon surplus cache, are portrayed as the aggressors: they kidnap white women, torch settlements, and otherwise obstruct the process of expansion to which Manifest Destiny entitled US settlers. Indeed, producers at Paramount advised DeMille that the audience must initially recognize Indigenous characters as, quote, “really a menace — burning settlements and massacring whites,” end quote. The film was a critical and commercial success.
Adam: John Ford’s Stagecoach, the 1939 film that catapulted actor John Wayne into stardom, follows a group of settlers traveling by stagecoach through Apache land. Stagecoach echoes the Manifest Destiny-informed themes of The Plainsman, similarly pitting settlers, the avatars of progress, against backwards, violent Indigenous people.
In one scene, whiskey salesman Samuel Peacock, played by actor Donald Meek, reacts to seeing the Apache wife of an innkeeper named Chris. We’re going to listen to that clip now.
Chris: That’s my wife Jekima. My squaw.
SamuelPeacock: Yes, but she’s, she’s savage.
Chris: Si senor. She is a little bit savage I think. (Speaks in Spanish.)
Man: Something funny about this. That woman’s an Apache.
Chris: Sure she’s one of Geronimo’s people. I think maybe not so bad to have Apache wife, eh? Apache don’t bother me I think.
Adam: Multiple horse-chase scenes are filmed from the perspective of the settlers, who are always playing defense, usually attempting to fend off the arrows and gunshots fired by Apache men on horseback. In at least one version of the film, the opening titles warn of the, quote, “savage struggle” to oust innocent settlers.
Nima: Yeah, this idea of horsemanship is actually really critical to how Hollywood depictions of Native peoples worked especially like Plains Indians. As writer John G. Cawelti wrote in the Six Gun Mystique sequel, this is his follow up to his study on Westerns called the Six Gun Mystique, obviously, he wrote this, quote:
“The mythic representations found a way of emphasizing the otherness of the Indians’ relationship to horses, not by separation, but by suggesting an even closer kinship. If the Cowboys horse was his friend, the Indians horse was an extension of himself. Mythical Indians and variably rode bareback, while the cowboy had an elaborate saddle and harness implying a relationship of control rather than similarity in the hands never used spurs but directed their horses through some occult communication with them. A fellow being for the Indian, the horse symbolizes a tool of control, conquest and ultimately of civilization for the cowboy and the pioneer. For the Indian the horse intensified his wildness and savagery. The archetypal Western scene of the Indian attack on the stagecoach first developed as a favorite spectacle in the Wild West shows and later as a set piece in Western movies neatly exemplifies the differences in the Indian and white relationships to the horse. Hitched to an elaborate harness of the stagecoach, the horse brings the forces of civilization to the wilderness. Riding wildly out of the desert, the Indians seek to destroy that vehicle, and the representatives of a new order of control and settlement it carries.”
Adam: Yeah, John Ford, in his frequent partnerships with John Wayne, really kind of codified what a Western is, and what it is that it’s kind of cultural zenith. And one thing he was known for is location shooting, which was quite rare at the time, but he would actually —
Nima: Monument Valley.
Adam: Yeah. And, of course, much of the actual interiors, of course, are on a very obvious studio in Los Angeles but there was actually quite a bit of on location shooting, which really led to this idea that this was an authentic reflection of how the West was won. The U.S.’s entry into World War II marked somewhat of a turning point for Native portrayals in film. To deflect criticism of the U.S.’s own history of genocide and thereby boost its global standing, Hollywood released a series of films depicting a gentler, more peaceful relationship between settlers and Indigenous people. This is sort of the liberal version of the kind of barbaric or terrorist savage where it’s actually where everyone sort of gets along, right? There’s this kind of like, why can we all just get along? attitude, which, of course is its own form of erasure, albeit one less vulgar. The films’ purpose, essentially, was to present the U.S. and its military as an efficient, united, and racially harmonious entity, protecting the public and acting in its best interest–including that of Indigenous people. With the US government and entertainment industry in control of the narratives, however, this was neither accurate of course nor humanizing. To quote film historian Angela Aleiss, quote: “White paternalism replaced Manifest Destiny.”
One such film, They Died With Their Boots On, a biopic of George Armstrong Custer that premiered in 1941, of course later in 1941, the US would officially enter the war, although it had been supporting the side of the allies as early as 1939. Film Historian Angela Aleiss would write, quote:
“The movie’s theme of an Indian/white alliance was not far from wartime rhetoric: as Indians fought in the battlefields, they stood alongside white Americans and gradually melted into society. The Office of Indian Affairs announced that, despite years of discrimination, Native Americans ‘responded earnestly and enthusiastically’ to the challenge of war, and tribes even dropped claims against the United States for ‘patriotic reasons.’”
Nima: Now, given Custer’s place in history as one of the most brutal exterminators of Indigenous people during the American Indian Wars, one may be forgiven for finding the film’s framing a bit revisionist in this sense. This kind of why can’t we all just get along?-ism — a biopic of Custer.
This chauvinist and patronizing message of “unity” would persist into the Cold War, exemplified in 1950s films like The Proud Land,Apache, starring Burt Lancaster as the Apache warrior Massai, and Jim Thorpe–All American.
The last of those I just mentioned, Jim Thorpe–All American,whichalso stars Burt Lancaster as the title character, is based on the real story of athlete Jim Thorpe, the first Native American to win a gold medal for the United States which he did in the 1912 Olympics. Now the film Jim Thorpe preaches a clear message of assimilation, positioning Thorpe as a symbol of cross-cultural American patriotism. Here’s a clip from a trailer for that film, Jim Thorpe–All American:
Man: Jim Thorpe–All American, the man of bronze who became the greatest athlete of all time. An Oklahoma Indian lad whose untamed spirit gave wings to his feet and carried him to immortality. Here in a mighty cavalcade of sport are all the giants who paced this champion among champions, each test adding new honors to his ever growing pain.
Nima: Yes, the visuals that you can’t see, obviously, because this is a podcast, matches the amazing voice over there of course. Westerns of the 1950s continue to burnish the stardom of John Wayne, of course, no more so than the John Ford film, The Searchers from 1956, hailed as one of the greatest films ever made, a film I love and a film that is quite problematic, although it has been hailed as kind of John Ford’s apology to Native Americans. The main character, Uncle Ethan, played by John Wayne, who basically is searching, post-Civil War, for his young niece who was stolen by Indians after they massacred the rest of her family, and then John Wayne comes to find her again. Searches for her for years and years and years. That’s the premise of the film and the John Wayne character is pretty racist in its writing, it’s not veiled, and yet he is still, of course, the hero of this film, and so there’s, you know, Adam, I think there’s this whole thing where it’s like, oh, is it John Ford’s apology or is it just, you know, the same old shit told beautifully, magnificently, majestically, but of course, still doing the same thing that a lot of Westerns in Hollywood did?
Adam: Yeah, I mean, I rewatched it recently and there’s definitely like moral ambiguity at the end because he basically wants to kill her because she’s been sullied by the Indian but yeah, again, did the average American watch that film thinking of some subversive trope of America manifest destiny? No, yeah he’s a racist asshole, but he’s a tough son of a bitch and he gets results.
Nima: Right. ‘He’s our racist asshole’ and he’s out for the, you know, saving the white woman from the savage Indian, of course.
Adam: Yeah, and you know, Italian guys in red face and Natalie Wood kind of in danger, yeah, pretty much checks all the boxes. We don’t want to be too anti-intellectual about this. I mean, clearly there are nuances in these films, and they’re, you know, like you said, they are good in other ways, but it is very much a quintessential Western with a white savior hero narrative that is minimally complicated.
Nima: As our guest, Jesse Wente, has also pointed out, 1956, when The Searchers came out, was the same year that the United States expanded what is known as its Relocation Grants, which had been initially created in 1950. The United States government basically came up with this plan to solve what it had been calling, and literally calling in its formal government documents, let alone speeches by politicians, its quote-unquote, “Indian Problem.” The solution would be to pay Native Americans to assimilate with white Americans by moving them to cities across the country and by eliminating reservations. Here’s how one government official working on a Navajo reservation expressed the idea of forced relocation for the purposes of assimilation to an anthropologist named Ruth Underhill for her educational radio series called “Indian Country” in 1957, quote:
“Well, I’ve always felt that the only real solution for the Navajo was to cease to be a Navajo — to get off the reservation and become a citizen just like everybody else, and make his living in the same way as other people. Forget that he is a Navajo, in other words.”
Adam: And in the late ’60s and ’70s, as the broader political and cultural attitudes in this country began to shift, mostly in a more left-wing direction, this cultural and political shift was reflected in Hollywood in its versions of Westerns. And as a result, the concept of Manifest Destiny in the kind of jingoistic simplicity of Manifest Destiny, patriotism and assimilation, proved out of step with the anti-Vietnam, anti-McCarthy eras as well as the political formations like the American Indian Movement, which demanded political sovereignty for Native people.
By the late 1960s, 1970s, classic Westerns declined precipitously in popularity. As author Thomas Schatz, who taught when I was in film school, University of Texas, incidentally, wrote in 2007, quote:
“By the 1960s, the western had peaked both as a viable Hollywood commodity and as a national myth to ease America’s rural-urban transformation, in part brought low by a combination of market saturation and generic exhaustion.”
It’s worth looking at some major films of the late ’60s and early ’70s, as what would later be known as, quote, “anti-Westerns,” seeking a more nuanced, less settler- and war-centric approach to story and focusing on character development, and even daring to make settlers the villains.
Nima: Well, yeah, I mean, I think you know, as you mentioned, historical context is really important here. As you said, the American Indian Movement founded in 1968, the 19 month occupation of Alcatraz began in November 1969. The Trail of Broken Treaties, which is a huge coast to coast protest, took place in 1972. The Wounded Knee Occupation was in 1973. So in that context, yeah, the idea of what Hollywood was producing as Westerns began to shift as well.
1969 was kind of a major year for this. You had The Wild Bunch, you had Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid, and you have this film Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here. The film centers on a 1909 manhunt targeting Willie Boy, a young Paiute man, albeit one played by Robert Blake — which was reportedly a compromise over casting made with Universal Pictures — being pursued by police through the California desert. The film’s director, Abraham Polonsky, returning from a 20-year blacklisting exile, explained that the film was meant to represent the struggles of the oppressed against a violent empire and to explore how, quote, “the romantic investment we have in the past,” end quote, operates in tension with, quote, “a lack of comprehension for the realities of the present,” end quote.
Similarly, the 1970 film Little Big Man has been celebrated for subverting the character dynamics of the traditional Western and portraying westward expansion not as a sweeping form of progress, but as a violent, militarized process causing the privation of Indigenous people. Little Big Man was still a major Hollywood production, the titular and lead character, played by Dustin Hoffman, is a white man born Jack Crabb who’s raised by a Cheyenne tribal leader, Old Lodge Skins.
Still, according to film historians Margo Kasdan and Susan Tavernetti, quote:
“Instead of savages threatening heroic pioneers, the Indians are victims of malevolent treatment by the United States Army, which, using a highly developed technology against innocent and peaceful Natives, took the land and food sources and destroyed the Indigenous culture. Whereas most traditional Westerns do not develop individual Indian characters or their customs, Little Big Man presents the Cheyenne as living together in harmony, a flourishing tribe with a defined culture. Whereas classic Westerns portray the whites as representative of civilization and the Indians as barbarians, this one suggests the opposite.”
Five years later, in 1975, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, directed by Milos Forman and starring Jack Nicholson, had in it the heroic character Chief Bromden, played by Will Sampson, which became a high-profile example of the rare, successful, Oscar-winning, Hollywood film that didn’t reduce an Indigenous character to a relic of a bygone, Western era.
Adam: The 1990s saw the resurgence of the Western. By the 1990s, big budget Westerns had been back in a slightly modified form. While subtler characters no longer yelled “Savages!” at the sight of a Native person, blockbusters in the 1990s continued to center and most intently develop settler characters often idealizing and relegating Indigenous ones to the background.
Kevin Costner’s feature directorial debut, Dances with Wolves from 1990, stars Costner as Lt. John J. Dunbar, a Civil War hero who seeks a life of solitude and purity on the Western frontier before it disappears. After vanquishing their mutual distrust, Dunbar and the Lakota who inhabit the area develop aprofound bond. In one scene, after getting to know the Lakota people in the film, Costner’s character Dunbar writes in his diary, quote:
Dunbar: I’d never known a people so eager to laugh, so devoted to family, so dedicated to each other, and the only word that came to mind was harmony.
Nima: I like that you leave in the sweeping music.
Adam: I’m a Kevin Costner apologist, except for Prince of Thieves, when he has the worst accent in the world.
Nima: I agree. I’m a fan. I’m a fan.
Adam: During the scene, Costner gazes upon the Lakota on horseback, as they ride off into the sunset. Around the time Dances with Wolves was released, the federal government was making several symbolic liberal gestures meant to do some light damage control for the genocidal foundations of the US. Here again is film historian Angela Aleiss on the political climate around the time the film was released in 1990, quote:
“Politically, Dances With Wolves was timely: in August of the same year, Congress declared November as American Indian Heritage Month; by October, they passed the Native American Languages Act, followed by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (to return Indian remains and artifacts to tribes). Furthermore, the nation’s quincentenary was only two years away, and is nothing else, Costner’s epic reminded Americans that Indians occupied the country long before Christopher Columbus set foot on it.”
Aleiss would go on to write, quote:
“American Indians quickly became hot property in Hollywood. Studios scrambled to duplicate the success of Dances With Wolves and created a cycle of sympathetic Indian-themed movies. Agents scouted the country for Native American actors, and producers hired Indian consultants to ward off charges of cultural or historical inaccuracy.”
So now enter a series of big-budget, major-studio productions trafficking in more tropes of Indigenous purity and nobility, the 1992 film Last of the Mohicans and the 1995 Disney film Pocahontas.
Nima: Yeah, I think in in all of these films, and you know, even in Hollywood, big budget films that have come after it, I mean, now we’re talking about still 30 years ago, you know, the evolution of the Western and of Native characters continues to kind of play on the dynamic of savage versus noble versus where can we add more nuance, some are more successful than others. Obviously, when we’re talking about Indigenous people, we’re not just talking about say, Plains Indians, right? I mean, you, you have kind of the evolution of what Disney has been doing with, you know, films like Moana, right? That’s also about Indigenous people and Indigenous cultures. But all of these kinds of Hollywood stereotypes are present. I’m not saying necessarily in each and every one but I mean, Adam, they kind of, you know, continue to evolve while still representing oftentimes, most often, this notion of the past rather than something still current, still present, although that is changing a bit with, you know, say more streaming services that are allowing for a diversity of voices.
Adam: Yeah, it would be extremely dishonest to say that things haven’t improved. I think the question is whether they’ve improved enough? And the answer to that is, and we’ll talk about this with our guest, is no. But, you know, oftentimes in the show, when we do sort of surveys of cultural depictions, we’ll say, oh, yeah, it’s gotten better, otherwise, we’d be lying to you. Obviously, this sort of quasi democratic process of streaming, for all of its faults, and all the ways that rips off writers has, in some ways, allowed streamers to tell stories that otherwise wouldn’t tell, which has given us shows like ReservationDogs, and RutherfordFalls and other kind of shows that have real Indigenous creatives behind them, not just token or reduced this sort of background characters are kind of vehicles for white character to explore themselves. But still, as again, as we’ll talk with our guest, there’s a ton more to go to achieve any kind of meaningful correction to this issue, because many of the same foundational myths that make people love Westerns and the Western genre, which of course, have been adapted to other kinds of genres, whether they be military movies or other settings, people still want to kind of preserve the basic architecture of that, and that to the extent to which Indigenous people are now allowed to tell their stories, it’s still very minor representation.
Nima: Against the vast catalog of the past 100 years.
Adam: And also the sort of the existential critiques of the foundational myths have resulted in a very aggressive backlash from the right, that is now trying to reduce anything that complicates or problematizes these myths as CRT, critical race theory, woke culture, and there’s a reason why that is because they know these foundational myths are actually quite important. They’re quite important to prop up US Empire today, they’re quite important to prop up the legitimacy of the inequities in white supremacist manifestations we see today, and so even with some improvements, you now begin to see the kind of backlash to that because those foundational myths for people who don’t view them critically or don’t view them through a problematic lens are still very important to a lot of people, and the biggest, again, no matter how minor the sort of progress is made, you see an overcorrection to that which is I think where we’re at right now.
Nima: To discuss this more, we’re going to be joined by Jesse Wente, an Anishinaabe writer, broadcaster and arts leader. A member of the Serpent River First Nation, Jesse has been a CBC Radio columnist, film critic, program director at the Toronto International Film Festival, and the founding Executive Director of Canada’s Indigenous Screen Office, where he now serves as Senior Advisor. Jesse is also the author of the memoir, Unreconciled: Family, Truth and Indigenous Resistance, which was published in September of 2021 by Penguin Books. Jesse will join us in just a moment. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by Jesse Wente. Jesse, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
JesseWente: Oh, thanks so much for having me.
Adam: As you’ve documented, to sort of start off with, most non Indigenous people in North America, US, Canada, their understanding of Indigenous identity is largely if not completely invented by Hollywood, it is something we’ve talked about in the show before. There was a poll about three years ago that said that 75 percent of white people have no non white friends, and so people’s impressions are largely derived from news media, television, and of course, Hollywood. Stereotypes that have been created and maintained for over a century in television, film, Looney Tunes cartoons, sports teams, names and mascots, etcetera. You’ve written, quote:
“The misrepresentation is a purposeful one. Its aim is to undermine the value of Indigenous lives and the value of Indigenous claims to the land stolen from us, and its consequences stretch far beyond taunts and jeers. It is the narrative used to justify genocide and its tools: residential school, forced separation of families, violation of treaty rights, indifference to the lives of missing and murdered Indigenous women, lack of access to education and safe water. Storytelling is one of the key methods used by colonizers to explain and obscure their lawless treatment of the lands and people over which they claim domination.”
You then note that, quote:
“Storytelling is also one of our best weapons in the fight to reclaim our rightful place.”
So I want to sort of talk about this concept of storytelling as a counter weapon. Obviously, if storytelling can be used by the oppressor, it logically follows that it can be used as a tool by the oppressed to fight back, and this is obviously a very compelling idea to us, something we talk about a lot on the show. So I want you to sort of start off by talking about how storytelling, narrative building can be used to push back against the erasure of Indigenous identity and people, which is not just an abstract concept, but a sort of an ongoing political project.
JesseWente: Sure. I think it’s key to understand that narrative storytelling, in both the use of it as well as the oppression of it or the minimizing of it by certain groups is part of ongoing sort of colonial behavior, you know, it’s actually quite fundamental. In Canada, where we didn’t fight wars, the First Nations people didn’t fight wars with the settler state for quite as long as they did in the US, I would suggest that other than occupation, actually occupying the lands, narrative is actually really the other chief way that Canada legitimizes itself, it just tells a story over and over and over again, that it has a right to exist, even though, you know, it sort of doesn’t in any sort of legal framework that one might look to, and that’s true of even Canadian courts have struggled to find what the legal basis for Canadian existence is. So I think you have to always consider storytelling is used, both by the settler state to sort of legitimize itself, and counter actively, they have to keep the other story from being true. So, you know, in the States, you have the well known creation myth of the United States, right, manifest destiny, which suggests that it was preordained by presumably god or something that, you know, the United States would be settled in the way it was, Canada has basically the same sort of idea. They tend to refer it here as like terra nullius, or they rely on the Doctrine of Discovery of the Catholic Church, which, you know, said, if explorers discover a place that isn’t Catholic, they just get to claim it for themselves, and terra nullius was the idea that the land was empty, and it’s all the same sort of idea, there was no one here, and thus, we had to take over these places.
When you actually tell the different story, when you tell what I would say the truth, and it’s not to say that nations shouldn’t have creation myths, mine does, the Anishinaabe people, to why we refer to what many call North America, we call it Turtle Island, because that’s directly from our creation myth. Manifest destiny is just the creation myth of America, I’m not discounting it, I understand why those things occur, but of course, ours occurred is largely about an enormous turtle that exists underwater and rises to the surface with the land on top of it, whereas the manifest destiny sort of has white supremacy at its central feature. So it’s slightly different variations, and I would suggest different outcomes in terms of what has happened because, of course, Anishinaabe have existed on these lands for 13,000 years, America and Canada, not quite as much. So we can actually say, look at this sort of measuring and say, oh, this has been successful and this sort of hasn’t been. So I think, when you counteract those stories with the truth, it becomes quite powerful because the chief function of colonialism in service to capitalism, is to just dehumanize people at large, but specifically those that might impede the siphoning of wealth.
So, colonization and capitalism dehumanizes all of us in order to do this, but it will, particularly because we have class and racial hierarchies, it affects different groups differently. So one of the ways to resolve dehumanization is to do the most human thing, which is to tell a story, right? Humans are the storytelling animal. It’s what separates us from every other creature, right, the wolf, the eagle, the bear, they do not tell stories about themselves or about other people. We do, we in fact, have to tell the stories about the wolf, the bear in the eagle, so that we can understand them. That’s how we understand the world. It’s how we understand each other. It’s how we understand everything is through storytelling, and so when you are able to tell your own story, when you’re able to have what I describe as narrative sovereignty, meaning the ability to tell your own story, and nations have that ability, communities have that ability, when they have it is an incredible force for humanization. Not dehumanization. Because, of course, as you guys know, and I think most people listening to this show would know, you can go watch a movie from literally across the world, and connect with it, not because you’re from that culture, or even understand that culture, but because you’re human, and it’s telling you a human thing, and colonization and the reason why both Canada the US, and really all places that went through European colonization 500 years ago or so, they all had varying degrees of suppression of the storytelling of the Indigenous peoples that existed there pre colonization for this exact fact, right? So in the US, you pass the law that banned pagan acts, right, that was finally lifted with the Religious Freedom Act, I think in 1978, I think you passed that law in 1884, Canada passed a very similar law in 1884, called the Potlatch Ban, which outlawed Indigenous ceremonies, exactly the same as your law did, and of course, our ceremonies is where we told stories, and this is what allowed our artifacts to be collected by museums and dispersed throughout the world, for those artifacts, for those ceremonial items, for the stories about them to be told not by us, but by white curators for a white audience, and I think all of that, and again, it’s been 100 and whatever years, so I think we can safely say one of the outcomes of that been, and the outcomes haven’t been great for us. So I’m a big believer in well, if we can judge that, why don’t we try the other thing for the next 150 years so we get to tell our stories, and people listen to them, and let’s see if that might help solve some of the issues that we’re facing together on this land?
Nima: Well, I think that’s such a hugely important point, the idea that, no, it’s not just about having, oh, one or two, maybe more representative depictions, but rather, no, let’s do the same thing for the same amount of time, and then we’ll see, right? It’s like, oh, well, you know, now that there is a TV show that has some Indigenous characters. Oh, I think we’re on the right track. And I, we’re going to get to some of the more contemporary depictions in a minute, but before we do, I’d love to first talk about, since we are talking about Hollywood, we talked about the early years, the kind of advent of the Hollywood system, and the stereotypes that have been built for now, you know, well over a century, of course, and looming really large in that history is, of course, the genre of the Western, right? The basic components of the brutal savage, the noble settler, like you said, Jesse, Manifest Destiny, pioneers, taming the West, right? How the West was won. Long a staple of American filmmaking, and of course, American mythmaking. So, you know, look, yes, it’s been subverted here and there since the late ’60s, you have, you know, Butch Cassidy and The Wild Bunch, you have revisionist westerns, of course, but the basic frameworks and tropes really have remained the same, even in newer movies like Hostiles, right, which kind of tries to subvert it, but really just winds up doing the same kind of thing. So even when there’s maybe an attempted subversion of this dynamic, I don’t know, even if the intended audience is catching the subversion or really just kind of watching a Western. So let’s talk about the stakes here. How have these age old now, across our media, tropes and stereotypes about Native people, about Indigenous people, even if they’ve in some way evolved from say, outright demonization into more fetishization, how has this really done damage to the story of us, of who we — and that is a we can define the “we” in many different ways who we are, whether it’s the audience, whether it’s who’s being depicted — Jesse, how do you think these reinforce stereotypes have not only played out in our media, but then informed, as you were just saying, deliberately racist policy across North America?
JesseWente: Well, I mean, I think whenever you get sort of a concerted effort to dehumanize a particular group of people, or, in this case, a broad group of, you know, multi Nations of people, I think the outcomes are we see them. So in Canada, I’ll just give you an example from my First Nation, like, my First Nation didn’t have clean drinking water on and off for 17 years, and that was in the ’90s, right? That was resolved recently, in the last 10 years. That’s sort of an unthinkable situation in literally any other community, in Canada, and yet, in First Nations, it is rampant, and I would say that’s a humanization issue. If people saw us as human, you would understand that maybe we should have drinking water. But the issue has been for most of Canada’s history, we have been actively depicted as less than human, and so anything that happens to us, you know, so the fact that, for example, in Canada, and this is a very recent statistic, 50 percent of all women in federal prison are Indigenous. Indigenous women make up less than 3 percent of the Canadian population, but 50 percent of the federal prison population. There’s more children, more Indigenous children today in state care in Canada than at the height of the residential school system. So they’re still doing the same things. In places like a Nunavut, the high north, suicide is the number one cause of death, right? Not cancer or heart attacks, suicide. So my daughter being an Anishinaabe woman is 13 times more likely to be murdered or go missing, just because of who she is. So, those outcomes, and I want to be careful, like those aren’t just because the media has treated like this, but it’s all part of the same web, right? You don’t get policies that are so clearly unhuman, inhumane, grotesque, racist, you don’t get those outcomes if everyone sees everyone is human, and you and I are talking, you folks are in the States, you can sort of see this stuff happening right now in your country like live every day, right? Where segments of the population are actively being dehumanized in the media by others, and the results of that we already know, as humans, what happens, and frankly, sitting up here up north, I’m watching very large public figures in the US spout anti semitic tropes, and we really know what the outcome of that is. This should be fairly fresh in human memory how those things go. So I think the stories have all meant that we just aren’t able to be seen fully, and when you aren’t able to be seen fully, it’s much easier for these damaging things, and that’s the big thing. The small things are, for example, most people just don’t know who we are. So, if you watch Hollywood, most Indigenous people ride horses and come from the plains and wear those very long Eagle head dresses. Yeah, not Anishinaabe, and we’re an enormous Nation that existed north and south of the medicine line, right? Huge, huge territory, sort of swath the size of France was the Anishinaabe Nation. But we didn’t wear those headdresses and we didn’t necessarily ride horses. So in Canada, it’s still misunderstood that there’s more than 60 languages that were here. That’s the number of Nations, we were a multinational place. So it’s just even that basic stuff, let alone does anyone understand what treaty they’re on? What are their obligations under the treaty? What even a treaty is? You know, I don’t know about you but when I was being educated as a young person in Canada, we learned far more about treaties signed in Europe than we did about the treaties literally my ancestors signed here that helped Canada exist, and of course, that’s purposeful, right? They don’t want to tell you that there’s treaties, because then you might go, what are my obligations under them? And why haven’t we literally for a single day ever lived up to them? And you have to keep in mind that storytelling isn’t just on screen for entertainment. It’s in history classes. It’s everywhere. It’s why monuments matter, not because they teach history, but because they teach a specific point of view in history.
Nima: Right. They tell you what’s important.
JesseWente: They tell you what’s important. So that’s why they have to come down.
Adam: I love this idea that monuments are somehow this historical document that has no moral property. It’s like the funniest thing in the world. Wait, it’s a historical document. It was built in 1972. It’s a thing we just decided. I want to talk about that. Because, you know, something really bleak and ironic happened while I was beginning to read your memoir, now available in paperback at finder bookstores.
JesseWente: Thank you.
Adam: You got it. The opening segment or the opening tale is about you being racially taunted on a baseball field or softball field. While I was literally reading that, later that day, the Braves were in the National League Division Series, and they were still doing the racial taunt, which they do to this day. So here I am reading about the story that took place, what 40 years ago, 45 years ago about a racial taunt on a baseball field while it’s still going on today. So you talk about how things are still going on, and this is, of course, at a much grander, massive, sanctions scale. The Atlanta Braves refuse to stop doing it, you know, they put it on the little Jumbotron. It’s part of their, you know, it’s not like it’s an organic thing, although it’s probably both, and that got me thinking about how like, yeah, so much of this is ongoing and this is something that comes up I think a lot when we discuss these issues, the idea that there was this bad genocide days, then there was the black and white film days, and now it’s kind of over and now it’s an issue of having enough representation. I think the idea that history, the bad stuff just has stopped happening in 1975, or whenever we’ve switched to color film on TV is something we see a lot in the United States. I assume you see it a lot in Canada, that the sort of oppression is frozen in time and not sort of ongoing. So I want to sort of talk about it. I see this even still with some triumphalism coverage of recent depictions of Indigenous people in mainstream media and streaming services and I think, again, it’s wonderful, it’s great, like you said, it’s part of a process of changing a system. But there’s a kind of triumphalism that oh, yeah, we’re sort of past that now.
You gave this timeframe of 150, 200 years. So I want you to talk about what it really looks like to deconstruct decades, if not hundreds of years of racist indoctrination, and why storytelling is essential to that. Because again, if it was so essential to the creation of this country’s mythos, like people lose their shit anytime the woke police, or whatever they call it, pushes back against the most minor core axiom of American mythos. So it’s obviously important to the oppressor so it has to therefore be important, like you said, they pass laws and you couldn’t do certain rituals. So like storytelling obviously matters. Otherwise, they wouldn’t spend so much time themselves making —
Nima: Right, it wouldn’t be such a threat.
Adam: They wouldn’t have a meltdown every time. Yeah, exactly. There’s, you know, someone criticizes John Wayne or what.
JesseWente: Oh, god forbid.
Adam: So I want you to sort of talk about this sort of ongoing process and if I could invite you to be a little bit personal or indulge in your kind of own narrative about why you chose that path, to focus on storytelling, because I assumed there was various tools in your toolbox you thought you could have used but you chose this path. Why is that and why do the stakes matter and storytelling, because obviously we’re somewhat self interested, we’re a media criticism show, we think it matters a lot, but I want you to sort of explain why you thought it mattered and why you’ve spent your life focusing on that?
JesseWente: Before I even get to the answer, one thing I did want to say is, I think America is a particularly ahistorical place. It doesn’t really have any interest in its own history, quite the opposite, and so it’s a weird place to analyze, and Canada is actually not the same in that way. I don’t know if you saw but just this past week, in the last week, the Canadian Parliament recognized residential schools as an act of genocide. I can’t imagine the American Congress doing that.
JesseWente: We’ve also had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission around residential schools in Canada. I have cousins in the States, they can’t imagine that ever happening in the US. So Canada, at least, and I think there’s a few differences, one, our media is actually not nearly as robust and as dominant as yours has been, right? We consume a lot of American media.
Adam: Yeah. Sorry about that.
JesseWente: Honestly, we are going to have to have an accounting about that at some point.
Adam: Well, yeah.
Nima: Going to have our own Truth and Reconciliation Committee about that.
JesseWente: I think the globe needs to have a quick chat. Frankly, if we just figured out what to do about the Murdochs, we’d probably be all fine. But, I think Canada has been a little more because of the smaller population, the fact that Indigenous people have been a little more vocal or have had a little bit of a more, I don’t know how to, but we’ve been more forceful, even though we’re smaller than the states, maybe because we were just more present, so we’ve been able to push things in a way that the States hasn’t. Conversely, I would say the US entertainment industry has been actually quicker than the Canadian one, which is largely state supported, to actually make Indigenous shows because they were quicker to realize there’s money to be made, and nothing will stop America from making a buck. So they’re happy to leap on that where in Canada it’s been a bit excruciating to get these, you know, the fact that America had the first Indigenous like sitcom will forever drive me nuts, because we could have had that show 20 years ago if the powers that be it had a clue up here. But anyway, so I think there are nuance differences there that I think are important, and they’re important, because the Indigenous Screen Office, the organization that I founded, you know, so much of the work I’ve been able to do references the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, references the Commission on Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls that introduced its final report three years ago. We had a Royal Commission on Aboriginal peoples that released its findings 25 years ago. So we can really point at a sort of truth telling that has occurred at a very large level that the state was involved in and say, ‘Look, you actually already know these things.’ So I think the dialogue has been able to advance a little bit more. For example, I don’t think there’s any professional sports teams left in Canada that have Indigenous mascots or names. There used to be one that was a slur against Inuit out in Alberta, they got rid of that. I don’t think you could do a chop at a hockey game in Canada at this point, you could, I don’t think it would go well, like I think people would get fired, and like the league would be in deep crap. So there’s those sorts of nuances. In terms of the stakes, you know, it’s an interesting thing because when I think about the stakes, I actually think the stakes are more about what America and Canada stakes, not Indigenous peoples, because we were here before, and we will be here after. There’s no getting rid of us. This is where we have lived for, as my grandmother used to say, forever, and she was pretty much right. 13,000 years, I don’t know what we’re counting forever, but that’s a long ass time.
Nima: That dovetails with forever, I think.
Adam: Yeah, it’s in the ballpark.
JesseWente: I think you can draw that pretty quick. So, to me, this is an issue Canada needs to figure out for Canada to survive, and I would say America’s long past due, in needing to figure this out in order for it to survive because these countries are not immutable things. Their concepts, their ideas, there had to be work to make them real, and the truth with both of these places, and, you know, part of my family comes from Chicago. My dad’s side of the family comes from the US. So I’ve got family in the US. Both of these countries have to reckon with the truth, get past their stories, reckon with the truth, if they want to exist, because it’s just not true that they’re a permanent thing. It requires persistent work to make them real and I’m always reminded that our communities, our Nations are very old. We’ve had a long time to figure this stuff out on these lands, and it can often be a challenge for our Nations to speak to Nations that are for, you know, in all affect children. These are very young countries who are still finding themselves. We all remember when you’re a young person, a teenager, you tell a lot of stories to figure out who you are. That’s what they’re doing. But a lot of harm has been done in that time and I think it would behoove both of these nations to tell truthful stories, confront them, so that they can become mature into adult nations that actually can have these conversations, and come to resolution, because the pathway to survival for both these places is through reparations and reconciliation with a variety of communities and that’s the promise that they should be trying to uphold.
Adam: Yeah. Because after the George Floyd protests, you saw a very immediate, very well funded backlash with the critical race theory panic that really showed how much money, effort and time and energy goes into this idea of, well, there’s this school here or this school, there, not obviously it’s a way of kind of just ginning up the foaming mob, but also, there’s something particularly I don’t want to say triggering, because that seems trivializing of that concept, but very, that really kind of gets people’s juices flowing, an appeal to the reptilian brain, when there’s the most minor criticisms around the national mythology.
JesseWente: What drives me nuts about that is that those of us that criticize these things, it’s not like that’s good. When I criticized Canada, my great grandparents, they wanted Canada to exist, they didn’t kick the settlers out, they helped them live. So, I criticize it because I want it to be better. It’s funny, because we’re often called the ones that are, my dad would call it thin skinned, snowflake, but I’m sorry, I can’t criticize this thing, and then it’s, you know, I criticize sports mascots, and people left me death threats.
Adam: Oh, no. Oh, yeah.
JesseWente: Who’s the snowflake?
Adam: There were Cleveland Indian fans who were literally rioting.
JesseWente: Yeah. I’m sorry, who’s the snowflake there? What I would be interested in asking you folks is, because I find this very interesting sitting here, and we have a similar media ecosystem. I find it very interesting how much people are willing to invest in the myth, both in terms of themselves, but also financially. In the States, you guys have a very, almost your entire media ecosystem is that sort of right-wing, like it’s very interesting to watch from up here, and here, we have those media groups, but they struggle to be fully financed in the way, we don’t really have a Fox News equivalent. Although I do think we get your Fox News, and we have Rebel News, which is sort of like I guess, which would be similar to Infowars, or something down there but it seems to me Infowars is of a greater scale. So, why do you folks think people are so willing to put down their credit card number for these things?
Adam: Well, a popular explanation I’ve heard, maybe it veers into pathology, but it’s part of, again, I say this knowing full well that I meet that definition, but the sort of colonial mindset, as it were, is that you fear that if you dominate someone, and then they achieve any kind of power, you’ll assume they’ll treat you just as shitty as you treated them.
JesseWente: Well, that’s the sort of whole history of American horror movies and science fiction movies is that fear.
Adam: Exactly. Sort of a South Africa is why they talk about South Africa all the time, because there’s this panic around like, ‘Oh, well, look what happens to the — ’
Nima: Or Palestine.
Adam: Yeah, or Palestine.
JesseWente: Yeah, and I think all colonial states have that fear because they actually intrinsically understand the violence that they required to gain themselves, and they have a deep fear that a predator is going to show up and decide to eat them, and they won’t be able to stop it. What, of course, is interesting is, have they asked any of us whether that’s the desire, because I don’t think that’s the plan.
Nima: But there’s been so much dehumanization up until this point, that even if there were broad consensus, ‘Oh, don’t worry, we’re not going to treat you the way you treated us,’ the entire mythology has been built to then not trust that answer to be like, ‘Oh, well, these are inherently devious, sinister groups, communities, maybe people,’ if they are humanized even that much, and so there’s kind of no way out of that. I mean, you said it yourself, Jesse, the US relies on ahistorical education and indoctrination. It’s the most pro mythology national state that I can think of and there are many others, Israel is one, but, you know, which gets to this absurd CRT panic that then, you know, serves to take as much resources and power away from public education to then maintain the dominant story, maintain the story of status quo power, but to the point that you also made, Jesse, this idea hear that the people who are being dehumanized were here before and will be here after. It’s almost like the idea of climate change, right? The earth will continue to exist, we won’t, like the survival, as you said, is about either Canada or the US or whatever other kind of colonial nation state there may be, it’s about the survival of that thing, not what is kind of fundamental to the land or the idea that there is this eternal, ongoing presence, that just is surviving the invader or surviving, you know, a new form of government or lines drawn on a map, but that that will exist, and I think that that concept is so threatening to the colonial mind, that stories have to be maintained, and further entrenched, right? To say, ‘Oh, no, we’re not passing through, we are the eternals but the other needs to be dehumanized to the point of hopefully, either not existing or having so little power, that it won’t be a threat.’
JesseWente: And I would, I think you’re very right, I think all of that is really insightful. I would say that’s because we’ve all been conditioned, and sort of dehumanized by storytelling, to sort of separate ourselves from this fundamental truth, right, which is that human beings are part of the natural world, we are not separate from it, we do not hold dominion over it, we are fundamentally an animal, and that we exist in concert with the natural world, and that’s a challenge under capitalism. If you don’t think you have dominion over the natural world, you sort of have to believe that in order to be a capitalist, right? To buy into the whole, well, let’s rip up the land and pull the wealth from it, you sort of have to get there, and so this is actually, to circle back, why I think a couple things. You’re right, it’s that the fact that our truth has not been told that people might still view us as a threat, when if you actually understood our histories, maybe you would see us differently. But this also is why it’s so important for us to tell our stories now, not just because it will humanize us and make it maybe more, our material living conditions better for our community in the medium and long term, I think it’s actually fundamentally important for all human beings, because we need to reorient ourselves and reject these inhuman systems that we have all decided to live under, or not decided, we exist under because we’re born into them, that are literally destroying the planet and causing a species level scare in terms of our ongoing survival, and, to me, a lot of that lies in stories that don’t come from those systems or world sense, that don’t come from an idea that that is how the world is structured, right? You need to hear stories that don’t come from that place, in order for us to be able to imagine ourselves beyond it. We have lived under these systems for so long, even though it’s not been that long, but it’s been so long, that we forget that there is another way, and yet we see all sorts of, you know, you stigmatize and you demonize other ways that currently exist. But there’s other ancient ways, not even ancient, again, Ashininaabe people are still present in life here practicing these things. There’s other ways to live, and I think part of the importance of these stories coming out now, they’re, you know, I won’t get into it, but there’s a prophecy among the Anishinaabe people about this time, about what is happening right now, and about why our stories are coming back now, and the importance of them, because it is really important, not just to us, but to everyone, but I do think we really need to imagine ourselves in a different place than what this is, and that is really the big truth around why we need to hear the stories of not just from Indigenous people, not from the way we’ve classified Indigenous people in North America, because I would say Black people, lots of people are Indigenous, all over the planet who have these same sorts of stories. They’re my cousins too, their stories have been repressed, oppressed, suppressed, but hidden away. We need to hear all of that so that we can actually find a way to live and imagine a future that isn’t this.
Nima: You really touched on this, the idea that so much of what we see in our media classifies Native and Indigenous people as communities from the past, right? Very little kind of post 1900 representation. So talking about telling different stories, building a future through different storytelling, how do you see the democratization of production via more, you know, streaming competition, changing the storytelling kind of ecosystem? Obviously, there’s shows like ReservationDogs and RutherfordFalls, but at the same time, we don’t want to be naive. We don’t want to say, okay, well, there are certain gatekeepers that are clearly, you know, as you said, and finally realize they can make a profit off these stories and our green lighting them, right? We don’t want to be too optimistic, but how do you see that storytelling ecosystem kind of changing? How is this environment now different, and what are you really maybe excited about seeing?
JesseWente: Yeah, so I think there’s a couple of different things I would say. One is that the ecosystem has changed in that we have, as you obviously know, I mean, we have such easy access now. When I was a kid, if you wanted to watch, you know, a film from China, it took some effort to figure that out. It takes zero effort now, you can sit, like we all watched Parasite, right? And like in a different generation, not only does that movie not win an Oscar, that movie is barely seen in America, right? Like in the ’80s. These days, it can become a cultural phenomenon, like SquidGame or whatever. So I think that has changed. I think the idea, when I, you know, was coming up as a film critic in media, there was this whole theory about how North American audiences wouldn’t read subtitles.
Nima: Yeah, yeah.
JesseWente: Well, like that’s like, what? And so I think a lot of that has gone away, because the audience has also changed, and people have understood that. The multi segmentation of the audience and the streamers have meant you can do more niche programming or what used to be considered niche programming, take what used to be considered risks, and have huge hits, because those communities will turn out for that stuff. So I think in the US, there’s like a real move towards that, and I expect it to keep going, you know, you mentioned how depictions of us have typically shown us in the past, and that is part of the myth. What is so interesting, though, is when you look at the history of how Indigenous cinema started, it started largely in the 1960s, late 1960s, early 1970s, in Canada and New Zealand, and it was Indigenous women, Alanis Obomsawin here and Merata Mita in New Zealand, and when they started making movies, what did they end up making movies about? They were activists, they made movies about protests going on in the moment. So when Indigenous people finally had the chance to tell stories about ourselves on screen, we didn’t start by telling stories about us in the past, we told stories about what you needed to know right now about us existing right in the moment, and in a fascinating way, it was a very, I don’t think it was conscious, but what it was was a counterbalance against all of cinema history, which had depicted us in the past. Now we have the tools we’re depicting us in the present after all you folks thought the last of us had already died, and suddenly here we are depicting ourselves in the moment, and that’s still, I think, a lot of the ethos for Indigenous storytellers on screen globally, is you see most of them set their stories in the present, if not the future, because we exist in the future, too. So I think you’re seeing that move.
In terms of what I think the future for Indigenous storytelling on screen is, right now we exist where we’re just getting into it in a purely commercial system like the US, you’re starting to see investment, in a hybrid system like you see in Canada, we’re starting to see dedicated supports, you’ve got an Indigenous screen office up and running, we’ve got an Indigenous broadcaster, we’ve had one here for 25 years, I don’t think there is even one yet in the US fully. So we’re starting to build that capacity. We still exist. You know, it’s funny that we founded something called the Indigenous Screen Office. Now we serve First Nations, Metis and Inuit people. Those are the three sorts of groups that we would identify in Canada. I think as we regain our narrative sovereignty, what you’ll begin to see is we’ll talk less about Indigenous cinema and Indigenous TV, and we’ll talk more about Anishinaabe cinema, Hodinoshoni cinema, Tlingit cinema, we will stop having this umbrella. Because of course, when we were storytellers before, that’s how it would have been, you would have had an Anishinaabe storyteller and a Hodinoshoni storyteller. It’s only under colonialism that we’ve been grouped in that same way, and we’re emerging out of that now as we build capacity. So 30, 40 years down the road, certainly my hope is that that’s exactly what we see, and when we get to that, we’re having this discussion because the idea is sort of like there’s this media and people are beginning to understand things differently. Imagine when you’re not just watching the Indigenous show, you can actually say I’m watching an Anishinaabe show, how you’re now gaining a new understanding of where you live, and I think that is really also important is that Indigenous storytelling writ large, while it, of course, is a benefit to us, it is an enormous benefit to those that live here now because I think big problem in both sides of the medicine line is that the people who live here now don’t actually know where they live, I mean, in a really fundamental way. Sure, you can say you live in New York City or Cleveland or whatever. But do you actually know what that means? That had a different name at a different time. There’s people that have lived there literally forever. Do you know those things? Because that’s the difference, and I think part of unifying us or coming to understand how we exist together on these lands is deepening that understanding for those parts of the population who don’t have that in their family, don’t have that in their community, whose history may stretch back 500, 600 years, which seems like a long time, but just isn’t, and it’s trying to deepen that understanding, and I think that, you know, would help all of us.
Nima: I definitely want to hear exactly what that prophecy is, because that sounds really relevant right now.
JesseWente: We have many prophecies, this is the one I’m speaking with specifically, the prophecy of the seven fire, which is here for the Anishinaabe, and it talks about a time when the world turns back to Indigenous people in order to gain the wisdom that it needs to continue to exist, and the way it was always described to me was that there was sort of like that sort of what happens, but it sort of can happen in a few different ways. The key one being sort of, people can choose to turn back and gain the understanding, or people turn back because they have to, and the suggestion has always been the have to is not the preferable option, if you understand what I’m saying. And the turning back, because you sort of figure out, oh, we might need to know some things differently, and understand the world maybe a little bit differently than we have been, that is always the one that maybe saves more people in the long run. So in our Nation, this story has been passed down, this prophecy, in terms of, there will be a time, and if you look at what’s been occurring in Canada, where we’ve had this ongoing truth telling around residential schools, where we have our communities searching the grounds, my community is searching the grounds on the place where my family went to residential school because there was a grave site there, we know there are bodies there. So they’re searching the ground. If you look at all of that, if you know that, for example, my children speak more Anishinaabe in our language than I do. These are all signs, these are all signals of our communities healing, getting strength back. It’s not a coincidence that we’re seeing these gains, like in terms of the Indigenous Screen Office, all this other stuff, also happening as we heal, and we begin to grow and get our strength back and recover from these many generations now of just violence and trauma, and this is all happening as we’re also watching these colonial settler states really struggle under the burden of their history, of the myths that they’ve told, and their inability to fully confront them. So there’s, you know, as the elders would say, the world is always in motion, and the more you can understand how the different movements interconnect can make you sort of understand what’s happening, and I’ll leave you with this, you know, or leave this answer anyway with this, one thing I often say is, you know, Indigenous people are already post apocalyptic, we have seen our world destroyed, and we lived through it, so the idea of another apocalypse, we may view it differently than others.
Adam: I mean, I remember when I was like, I was pretty old, I was way too old, like seven or eight, my stepmom sat me down and had to finally break it to me because it was embarrassing for everyone that Santa wasn’t real, and I remember I balled.
Adam: It’s a tough conversation to have, breaking myths is always hard, and the reaction is, yeah, to be expected, because it’s how one views their moral place in the universe, right?
JesseWente: You know, my parents took a very different tact.
JesseWente: They left the price tag on things.
Adam: Yeah that’s one way of handling it. I was so, I was beyond credulous. I think one of the reasons I do what I do now, where I’m just a really jaded, cynical media critic, is that I was the last person in my class to let go of Santa Claus.
JesseWente: You know, and you could still cling Adam. Why give it up now? Just hold on to it. What’s the difference at this point?
Nima: Belief is real.
Adam: You know what, you’re right. I’m going to become a Santa Clausist.
JesseWente: Yeah, I mean, at this point I’m watching from up here and I’m like, why not? I mean, might as well.
Nima: It’s no crazier than a lot of what we see anyway.
JesseWente: Oh, I think it’s way more sane.
Nima: Way saner.
JesseWente: Then a lot of things.
Nima: Well, Jesse, I think that’s a great place to leave it. This has been great. Next time you’re on I promise we’re going to grill you on what your favorite John Ford movie is, but not today. But we have been speaking with Jesse Wente, Anishinaabe writer, broadcaster and arts leader. A member of the Serpent River First Nation, Jesse has been a CBC Radio columnist, film critic, program director at the Toronto International Film Festival, and the founding Executive Director of Canada’s Indigenous Screen Office, where he now serves as Senior Advisor. He is also the author of the memoir, Unreconciled: Family, Truth and Indigenous Resistance, which was published in September of 2021 by Penguin, now out in paperback. Go pick that up. Jesse, thank you so much, again, for joining us today on Citations Needed.
JesseWente: Thank you so much. I’ll say my language chi-miigwech, chi-miigwech, chi-miigwech.
Adam: Yeah, I think the sort of liberal version of it is actually kind of worse, this sort of Thanksgiving fairy tale where everyone got along. In many ways it’s kind of more pernicious in the sense that, like the rhetoric around the, you know, the first Americans, they’re part of a melting pot. It’s like, well —
Nima: You want your Hollywood ending to be unapologetically violent and heroic on behalf of the colonizing white people. I get that. It gets disingenuous if we do something else.
Adam: There is a kind of assimilation, which itself can be genocidal, right? You have this sort of relocating, basically kidnapping Indigenous children from their parents and putting them in white households that lasted for up until the late ’70s, and to some extent, still exists today.
Nima: In both the US and Canada.
Adam: That was the sort of assimilation project and that is no more subtle form of genocide and is more subtly sinister. But when you sort of pivot to like the oh, we’re just, you know, at the it’s like the end of Outlaw Josey Wales, which tried to be a kind of anti-Western, the Clint Eastwood film from the 1970s, where the big kind of ending is that he says, like, you know, ‘Why can’t we live on this land without butchering one another, we can live together,’ and then the ten bears, like, you know, they do this blood brother ritual, and then he’s like, ‘You will live amongst us’ or whatever, and it’s like, I mean, I guess it’s better than like, the other thing, but it’s still like, well, it’s, it’s not your fucking land.
Adam: You know, you just, you’re just a parasite who’s invited yourself and in, you know, I, and obviously, that gets a little messy.
Nima: Well, I mean, there’s a whole other, I mean, look, you know, whenever we talk about film, Adam, I feel like there are multiple sequels and sub sequels and, you know, other things that we could do, we could obviously talk for so long about these, you know, tropes, like the going Native trope, the I don’t want to say mirror image necessarily, but you know, it kind of has that, you know, depiction of Native culture, but then it’s trying to be more, have that kind of liberal perspective, right? It’s not about obliteration, it’s more of the kind of vanishing trope, right, the vanishing Indian, the vanishing American that we discussed earlier, and you see this kind of in a lot of other films, it’s not just Dances With Wolves. So you see this in other genres with like, The Last Samurai, right, which is basically Tom Cruise, I think, is like a soldier who was at Little Bighorn, is that right? And then, you know, on the Wild West circuit, and then is sent to feudal Japan and goes Native there, right? So there’s a whole subsection of depictions of Indigeneity on film, from the early silents to the massive blockbusters of today that I think we could keep talking about. I mean, I promise, one of these days, Adam, we’re going to have to talk about the trope of the Indian burial ground but I know we don’t have time for that now.
Adam: You got it, I will, we’ll make that a separate sub second, sub sequel, spiritual sub sequel to the sub sequel. Someone needs to create, you know how there’s the Westphall Theory of unified TV because of St. Elsewhere, there were a bunch of other shows that like Dallas and all the shows had overlaps.
Nima: Uh huh.
Adam: And then because Dallas was all a dream, all the shows —
Nima: “It’s all been a dream” trope.
Adam: So someone needs to, and someone actually has like an elaborate chart online of all that, somebody to do that for our spiritual sequels and our sub sequels, and then at the very last episode we will tell everyone it’s just a dream.
Nima: This entire show has just been a dream folks. Sorry.
Adam: It’s all been a dream. It’s all fake. America is actually great. That was all fake.
Nima: That’s right. Anyway, that will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Thank you all for listening. Of course, you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of the show through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated as we really are 100 percent listener funded. And as always a very special shout out goes to our critic level supporters through Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Thank you for listening again to Citations Needed everyone. Our senior producer is Florence Barrau-Adams. Producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again everyone. We’ll catch you next time.
This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, December 14, 2022.
Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
NimaShirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
AdamJohnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
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Nima: “How the Left Created Trump” revealed Rob Hoffman in Politico in November 2016. “Blame liberals for the rise of Donald Trump,” insisted S.E. Cupp in the ChicagoTribune the year before.“How the left enabled fascism,” explained David Winner in The New Statesman in 2018.
Adam: For decades, and ramping up quite a bit since 2016, we’ve been fed a narrative that the rise of any right-wing tendency is the fault of leftists and liberal scolds. The electoral appeal and success of fascist movements and politicians, we’re told, is first and foremost a reaction to blue-haired wokeness warriors whose language and protests alienate and antagonize capital “R,” capital “P,” Real People. These Real People, then, have no choice but to shift further right, where they find a political home — typically shared with the likes of wealthy faux-populists like J.D. Vance, Donald Trump, Josh Hawley, and Tucker Carlson — that makes them feel included and represents their best interests.
Nima: It’s a convenient refrain. Instead of placing the blame on wealthy and powerful right-wingers and centrists who actually benefit from the preservation of reactionary politics, or giving credit to left-wing activists for challenging devastating right-wing policies, this narrative instead demonizes the powerless, while insisting that those who are fighting for a better world should simply give up, lest their agitative ways turn off potential allies and create another Trump. Who does this narrative benefit, and how do both overtly right-wing and ostensibly liberal legacy media allow it to persist?
Adam: On today’s episode, we’ll dissect the popular notion that reactionaries’ politics are the result not of their own interests or material forces, but of a snarky, out-of-touch Lefties who say too many mean things and simply bring up racism, imperialism and other injustices too much, and if they simply went away, the Trump right would starve itself to death and be replaced by moderate, reasonable National Review friendly political right.
Nima: Later on the show, we’ll be speaking with Daniel Denvir, host of The Dig podcast on Jacobin Radio and author of All-American Nativism: How the Bipartisan War on Immigrants Explains Politics As We Know It, which was published in 2020 by Verso Books.
DanielDenvir: The culpability of the Republican Party as it’s existed for decades in making Trumpism a reality from Goldwater through Reagan, Gingrich’s Republican revolution, the Tea Party, it’s pretty obvious why the Weekly Standard, Lincoln Project types are complicit in the right becoming evermore just deranged and why they would not like to be blamed for that.
Adam: So yeah, this is a thread that goes back a while, but it’s really, really been amplified since 2016, and has gotten much more acute in recent years, and it makes sense because if I’m a well-funded centrist, center left corporate Democrat or corporate Republican, which I know is a bit of a tautology, and then we have this apparent rise of fascism, it makes MAGA explicitly and overtly vulgar and cruel and chauvinists.
Adam: Right. You sort of need a thing that caused it and you can’t go back to the antecedents in the Republican Party, Reaganism, the John Birch Society, all this kind of stuff that really was the proto version of Trumpism where we sort of just kept it right under the surface, maybe not so with Bircherism, but with like Reaganism, Bushism etcetera, and it can’t say anything existential or fundamental about our country. So there’s a market to find a culprit, right? There’s a dead body and we need to sort of have a murderer, and there’s an incentive then to say, ‘Oh, well, okay, actually, it’s caused by the left going too far and that the left didn’t go so far or wasn’t so mean, or scoldy or woke’ or whatever, kind of, you know, I guess back then, as we’ll discuss in 2016, it was identity politics was the big boogeyman, ‘if they didn’t bitch and moan so much, there wouldn’t have been as robust of a market for Trumpism,’ and what’s great about this is it’s entirely impossible to know, right? It’s entirely unknowable. It is entirely unfalsifiable. Who knows how to measure that. No one’s attempted to measure that.
Nima: Without a confirmed murder of the entire Left.
Adam: Right. So it’s this very convenient and very cheesy talking because on a superficial level, it sort of makes sense. Like, ‘Oh, yeah, like there’s that one weirdo I saw on Twitter who was annoying and I could see why that may drive someone else into the arms of fascism.’ And of course, nobody themselves will sort of tell you that, and then that therefore kind of gets everybody off the hook and is a twofer, right? Because not only do I kind of justify or kind of obscure the role of the American right big funders, you know, again, Reaganism, Koch brothers, all the Walton family, all the kind of people who’ve propped up a Republican Party that oftentimes talked in code that led to the rise of Trumpism, you know, you’re sort of Lou Dobbs, you’re Fox News, all those sort of guys get off the hook but I have two for the price of one. Now I’m also disparaging —
Nima: Condemning the activist.
Adam: Yeah, blue haired academics that I sort of hate because I hate academics, and I hate gay people and it kind of serves both purposes.
Nima: Well, yeah. You know, to start, I think it’s important to refer back to a New York Times editorial from 1859 that we’ve actually brought up on the show before Adam.
Adam: Yeah, this is sort of the original version of this, right? This is the OG of OGs.
Nima: Yeah, it’s like the northern liberals made me love chattel slavery more than I would have if they had just shut their damn mouth. So this is from the New York Times Wednesday, January 19, 1859, written by The Times editorial board, it’s headlined, “The Abolition of Slavery,” and after talking about the abolitionist efforts in the north, they talk about abolitionists this way. So again, 1859 the libs made me do it, from the New York Times editorial board, they’re talking about abolitionists in the north. Quote:
“They invoke national action upon what is and must remain a local evil. If experience proves anything, it proves that the Abolition movement has retarded emancipation, and increased the evil it sought to remedy. Until the active crusade of Northern and British Abolition was commenced, the public mind in the Southern States was far from having taken on that tone of defiant, resolute hostility to emancipation which it has since assumed. The thoughtful minds of the South were beginning to consider the relation of Slavery to the social and political well-being of the communities where it exists, and to study the possibility of remedy for what was almost universally felt to be an evil. How greatly all this is changed, every day’s observation suffices to show, — and the change has been perfectly natural and inevitable. The clamor and pressure of Abolition was a hostile movement, menacing to the peace, and offensive to the pride, of Southern States. It was resented and resisted as such, and thousands of men who had previously been friendly to emancipation were compelled, when they found themselves beset by this new peril, to abandon their ground, or at all events forego all open efforts for its maintenance. Instead of being left to work out their own social problems for themselves, the Southern States found themselves compelled to assume the attitude of self-defence. And from that time to this they have found it perfectly easy to stifle every attempt to discuss the Slavery question upon its merits at home, by connecting it, however unjustly, in the public mind with this hostile crusade from without. Emancipation in Missouri would be a very easy matter but for this unfortunate feature of the movement.”
The article concludes like this, quote:
“The very best thing that could possibly be done towards the abolition of Slavery would be for the North to stop talking about it.
“Ten years of absolute silence would do more than fifty of turmoil and hostility, towards a peaceful removal of the evil. It is quite possible that the Abolition crusade may force a bloody and violent termination of the system, but this no sane man desires: and any other solution of the problem is infinitely retarded by the incessant intermeddling of parties who have neither responsibility nor power in regard to the subject. The great necessity is to let the South alone, — to leave them leisure to think of their own affairs, — to throw upon them the necessity of studying their own condition and of looking into their own future. So long as we engross their thoughts by alarming their fears, they have neither time nor inclination to examine the question except from this single point of view.
“Emancipation, whenever it comes, must be the work of the Slave States themselves. They must adopt it from a conviction of its necessity to their own well-being.”
Adam: Right. So this is the original, ‘The libs forced me to be fascist by overplaying their hand.’ The South was at some point, through some kind of moral awakening, I’m not sure through what mechanism or what leverage but was just going to wake up and decide that slavery was bad and forfeit all their money at their leisure, literally at their leisure is what they say. So let’s fast forward a hundred years or so. We saw a similar posture with the Republican victories as a backlash to the sort of hippie dippie ’60s as well as, of course, the Civil Rights Movement. One example in 1968, when Richard Nixon won the presidential election, it was often said because of the backlash to the Civil Rights Movement and other progressive mobilizations.
In May of 1973, the conservative Commentary Magazine published an interview with multiple writers headlined, “Nixon, the Great Society, and the Future of Social Policy — A Symposium.” One of the guests, historian Christopher Lasch, posited that multiple reactionary presidents were elected as reactions to the encroachments of those fighting for labor rights and racial justice. Lasch offered the following analysis, quote:
“The pro-labor legislation of the New Deal set off an anti-labor backlash when unorganized white-collar workers and professionals, originally attracted to the New Deal, began to feel themselves ground between the millstones of Big Business and Big Labor, victimized by inflation, and generally ignored. By 1952 the middle classes were ready for Eisenhower.”
He would go on to say, quote:
“The white working class also bore the main burden of school desegregation, while suburban liberals applauded from the sidelines. In addition the working class and the lower-middle class had to suffer the indignity of being called white racists. It is not altogether surprising that the white working class now supports Nixon, though not with much enthusiasm.”
Nima: Right. They begrudgingly, Adam, because they were called racist had to begrudgingly support Nixon.
Adam: The indignity of being called racist.
Nima: Right. Exactly.
Adam: Yeah, this is kind of a shortened gross cat here, whether they voted for Nixon before or after they were called racist, we can never really know. He would go on to say, quote:
“A vague sense that things are out of joint, that values and standards are collapsing, that respect for authority has declined, troubles people at almost every social level. Because the Left has only ridiculed these fears, those who are troubled by the growing disorder they see around them turn to the Right, which promises to restore order even though in reality it has no idea of how to do so.”
So to be clear, reaction to left-wing progress is a real thing, right? Reactionary politics, by definition, are reactionary, that’s where the name comes from. But this analysis doesn’t blame the reaction itself, again, funded by cynical and dark forces, funded by far right, anti communist, you know, aligned with segregationists, aligned with various spook shows, but it’s actually the social movements themselves that are presented as the cause of it with the implication being is that if they were just sort of quieter or nicer or they they didn’t protest at all.
Nima: Right, if they didn’t do as much, if they weren’t, and certainly if they weren’t at all successful.
Adam: Right. And so we have this analysis of the white working class, which of course, is really the kind of usually just mean white men, I think it’s fair to say, or white people as this Hulk-like character, where our job is to sort of tiptoe around them and to not unleash the sort of racist hawk from within. Otherwise, they’re just kind of normal jovial next door neighbors who mow their lawn, who don’t possess any reactionary policy ideas or voting habits. This again, it sort of achieves two birds with one stone, it sort of justifies and rationalizes and provides a moral justification for reactionary politics for the listener who happens to be voting for these people and also blames what is to a large extent the victims, although there are exceptions of the victims of reactionary politics for their own, they sort of had a coming, right?
Nima: Right, right. I mean, in other words, we’re to believe that activism and advocacy for justice, for expanded rights, representation, recognition of inclusion, and liberation forces, otherwise well meaning, non ideological people to suddenly just become foaming bigots, rabid racists, antidemocratic nativists, that’s the cause of it. They weren’t that before or if they were it was so dormant that it didn’t matter.
A similar analysis — that left-wing activism necessarily breeds conservatism — has been applied to the electoral victory of Ronald Reagan in the ‘80s.
So, in March 1985, this is after Reagan’s reelection, the WashingtonPost ran a piece titled “Lefties for Reagan,” claiming that, after both the Cuban Revolution and Vietnam War, the quote-unquote “Left” had become too aggressively anti-imperialist; too anti-American and mean to the American bourgeoisie; and too soft on Cuba, Vietnam, the Soviet Union, and the DPRK, North Korea. Written by an unnamed but self-identified former, quote, “civil rights and antiwar activist,” end quote, and co-author was a co-editor of the New Left Ramparts magazine — as an aside, we now know that these anonymous writers were the Marxist-turned-raging-conservative David Horowitz and his frequent collaborator Peter Collier — the piece, in the WashingtonPost in 1985, explained that, quote:
“Casting our ballots for Ronald Reagan was indeed a way of finally saying goodbye to…the self-aggrandizing romance with corrupt Third Worldism; to the casual indulgence of Soviet totalitarianism; to the hypocritical and self-dramatizing anti- Americanism which is the New Left’s bequest to mainstream politics.”
Its penultimate paragraph read, quote:
“We do not accept Reagan’s policies chapter and verse (especially in domestic policy, which we haven’t discussed here), but we agree with his vision of the world as a place increasingly inhospitable to democracy and increasingly dangerous for America.”
The following year, this time published in the VillageVoice, David Horowitz wrote an article headlined, quote, “Why I Am No Longer a Leftist.” In it, after burnishing his past radical credentials, Horowitz revealed what made him go right: it was his close association with the Black Panther Party, which he described as, quote, “a criminal gang that preyed on the black ghetto itself.” End quote.
Adam: Fast forward to the 1990s, this concept became conventional wisdom. Democratic “strategist” James Carville expanded upon this idea in the early ’90s, as one of Bill Clinton’s chief advisers to his campaign. To cite just one example — which happens to be the most infamous — Carville was the architect of Clinton’s “Sister Souljah moment” in May of 1992, during Clinton’s presidential campaign in which Carville and Clinton equated musician Sister Souljah’s lyrics to the hate speech of David Duke because she said she understood why Blackpeople may feel resentful towards white people in one of her lyrics. Clinton then got up in front of a room full of Black leaders including Jesse Jackson and officially denounced Sister Souljah to pander to racist sentiments. Carville had made his career out of pushing similar kinds of left punching and racist pandering because he believes that that’s the sort of avenue to win broad political politics.
Nima: Right. Again, back to the idea of the Real People, right? What the Real People want.
Adam: Yeah. Asterix without upsetting rich liberal donors, right? That’s really the kind of huge qualifier here because there are certainly other means you can build coalitions. But if you’re going to not want to piss off rich, liberal, almost exclusively white donors, one way to do it is to find African American one offs to make an example of to do a cheap pot shot, and to earn credibility from the WashingtonPost editorial board crowd with the general idea that you don’t want to alienate the so-called white working class, and so you have to just pander to their racism. Now, this really began to accelerate, of course, with the rise of Trump.
Nima: Yeah, I mean, in the mid 2010s we saw this over and over again. So for example, writing an opinion piece for the ChicagoTribune in 2015, during the campaign, conservative commentator S.E. Cupp proclaimed that readers should, quote, “Blame liberals for the rise of Donald Trump.” She attributed Trump’s popularity to a reaction against what she termed, quote, “unrelenting demands by the left for increasingly preposterous levels of political correctness over the past decade.” Trump, S.E. Cupp continued, quote, “is seen as the antidote.”
Similarly, a Politico article written by Rob Hoffman from November 20, 2016, just after the election, was headlined, quote, “How the Left Created Trump,” and in it he characterized Trump’s rise as the fault of a perceived ascendant liberalism and activism, seeming to make the point that we shouldn’t even try to improve the lives of the majority of people, lest it backfire in the form of resentment politics and put a right-wing firebrand in power, as had just happened. Hoffman writes this, again in Politico from 2016, quote:
“Trump’s rise in popularity — and ultimately his election to the presidency — should be seen as a long-building reaction to grass-roots liberal activism that came to dominate the cultural landscape and claim victory after victory in the social arena, whether the issue was abortion or gay marriage or transgender rights, always accompanied by that same disdain for right-wing views as worthy of the Stone Age.”
End quote. Hoffman would them continue, quote:
“While there is a clear need to rectify the indisputable disadvantages faced by America’s marginalized peoples — from the LGBTQ community to Muslims and people of color — Trump’s victory seems to indicate that unmitigated social activism can have unintended consequences.”
Adam: Nominally, at that point, progressive David Rubin, who ended up just becoming a right-winger, as most of these guys do, who was then working for the Young Turks, tweeted out after Trump’s election, quote:
“It’s almost as if you endlessly call people bigots and racists they’ll eventually get fed up and turn on you.”
Because as we all know, the sun did not exist until the Babylonians gave it a name. So I did a recap of all this in November 2016 for FAIR, for my article, “Lashing Out at ‘Identity Politics,’ Pundits Blame Trump on Those Most Vulnerable to Trump.” So this is before the term woke became the go-to racialized pejorative.
Nima: Right it was still political correctness. PC politics.
Adam: Yeah, so it began just three days after the election where evergreen PC-blamer Bill Maher said the following to his roundtable of clapping guests.
BillMaher: You’re outrageous with your politically correct bullshit and it does drive people away. And Islam. You know? Islam. Democrats, there is a terrorist attack, and Democrats’ reaction is “don’t be mean to Muslims,” instead of how can we solve the problem of shit blowing up in America.
Adam: Two days later,Vox would run a softball interview with Jon Haidt, a noted NYU social psychologist and noted diversity skeptic, to put it politely, whose big thing is about stereotype denial, the headline said, “Why Social Media Is Terrible for Multiethnic Democracies,” which sort of portends a very bad take. Ezra Klein tweeted out saying, “Interesting: Jon Haidt on why ‘diversity, immigration and multiculturalism’ are ripping apart Western democracies.” So here we have some real victim blaming coming up.
Nima: Ponder it.
Adam: Yeah. In which Haidt says, quote:
“Multiculturalism and diversity have many benefits, including creativity and economic dynamism, but they also have major drawbacks, which is that they generally reduce social capital and trust and they amplify tribal tendencies.”
Nima: That’s a chin-stroker. Yeah, so similarly, David Brooks in the New York Times would write this, “The Danger of a Dominant Identity.” In it writing, quote:
“But it’s not only racists who reduce people to a single identity. These days it’s the anti-racists, too. To raise money and mobilize people, advocates play up ethnic categories to an extreme degree.”
Adam: Yeah, so here we have a classic, they’re racist because you call them racist and the anti-racists are actually just as bad as the racists.
Nima: They’re just like racists.
Adam: Literally the same thing.
Nima: The very same day that David Brooks wrote that in the Times, The WashingtonPost published good old George Will, with an article, “Higher Education Is Awash with Hysteria. That Might Have Helped Elect Trump,” and in the piece Will cites a whole bunch of one off stories of your typical PC, college lefties, telling the reader this, quote:
“Academia should consider how it contributed to, and reflects Americans’ judgments pertinent to, Donald Trump’s election. The compound of childishness and condescension radiating from campuses is a reminder to normal Americans of the decay of protected classes — in this case, tenured faculty and cosseted students.”
Adam: Ah yes, the adjuncts making $26,000 are protected classes. Mark Lilla in the New York Times, also the exact same day, the George Will, David Brooks and Mark Lilla articles are all on November 18, 10 days after the election, called “The End of Identity Liberalism.” Clearly there was some memo about when we need to blame people on college campuses for Trump.
Nima: Yeah. They were like, ‘We’re like 10 days into this, we got to put out the message.’
Adam: No, yeah, there needs to be scapegoats because this is before they quite settled on Russia. It’s sort of, you know, Jill Stein voters, it’s anyone but the Clinton campaign, right? Or the fact that America is also just extremely foaming and reactionary. So the same day, literally the exact same day as the George Will and David Brooks piece on November 18, 2016, The New York Times also published Mark Lilla’s essay, “The End of Identity Liberalism,” in which he wrote, quote:
“But when it came to life at home, she tended on the campaign trail to lose that large vision and slip into the rhetoric of diversity, calling out explicitly to African-American, Latino, LGBT and women voters at every stop. This was a strategic mistake. If you are going to mention groups in America, you had better mention all of them. If you don’t, those left out will notice and feel excluded. Which, as the data show, was exactly what happened with the white working class and those with strong religious convictions.”
Seems like a bit of an oversimplification of what happened, just asserted, there’s no evidence for this. And then of course, he takes the sort of glib potshots at transgender people which is required by law when doing these takes. He would go on to say, quote:
“Recently I performed a little experiment during a sabbatical in France: For a full year I read only European publications, not American ones. My thought was to try seeing the world as European readers did. But it was far more instructive to return home and realize how the lens of identity has transformed American reporting in recent years. How often, for example, the laziest story in American journalism — about the “first X to do Y” — is told and retold. Fascination with the identity drama has even affected foreign reporting, which is in distressingly short supply. However interesting it may be to read, say, about the fate of transgender people in Egypt, it contributes nothing to educating Americans about the powerful political and religious currents that will determine Egypt’s future, and indirectly, our own. No major news outlet in Europe would think of adopting such a focus.”
Except, of course, a European paper did. TheGuardian actually had a very long profile on a transgendered activist in Egypt the previous year. But he apparently wanted to make a claim about the fact that Europe would never do this thing that in fact a European publication did.
Nima: Well, and it’s such a smug reference, right transgender people in Egypt.
Adam: Oh, it’s so trivializing.
Nima: Yeah, like, ‘Oh, who cares that has no real bearing on the reality of politics,’ right? And yet Americans are so focused on identity to the detriment of the real issues. It’s a really strange take, obviously, but one that does a lot of heavy lifting in terms of who Mark Lilla and, you know, by extension, those who agree with them, seek to blame for our political fortunes, and who they absolve, of course.
In September of the next year, from all of these articles, this now being 2017, The Atlantic ran a piece by writer Peter Beinart entitled, quote, “The Rise of the Violent Left,” which blamed many of the usual suspects — climate and racial justice demonstrators in Portland and Berkeley, “antifa,” anarchists and the like — for, quote, “fuel[ing] the fears of Trump supporters,” end quote and thus accelerating right-wing authoritarianism. Specifically, Beinart lamented the loosely defined groups’ efforts to prevent fascists from holding rallies and other political events.
Telling a supposedly cautionary tale of the harms of the “violent left,” Beinart wrote this, quote:
“When antifascists forced the cancellation of the 82nd Avenue of Roses Parade, Trump supporters responded with a ‘March for Free Speech.’ Among those who attended was Jeremy Christian, a burly ex-con draped in an American flag, who uttered racial slurs and made Nazi salutes. A few weeks later, on May 25, a man believed to be Christian was filmed calling antifa ‘a bunch of punk bitches.’
“The next day, Christian boarded a light-rail train and began yelling that ‘colored people’ were ruining the city. He fixed his attention on two teenage girls, one African American and the other wearing a hijab, and told them ‘to go back to Saudi Arabia’ or ‘kill themselves.’ As the girls retreated to the back of the train, three men interposed themselves between Christian and his targets. ‘Please,’ one said, ‘get off this train.’ Christian stabbed all three. One bled to death on the train. One was declared dead at a local hospital. One survived.”
Beinart concludes his piece like this, quote:
“Revulsion, fear, and rage are understandable. But one thing is clear. The people preventing Republicans from safely assembling on the streets of Portland may consider themselves fierce opponents of the authoritarianism growing on the American right. In truth, however, they are its unlikeliest allies.”
Now, interestingly, Beinart cites no examples of physical violence from the so-called “violent Left,” which is the title of the piece, but however he recounts multiple acts of violence from the right. Yet those on the right, he’s claiming, are apparently the real victims here, right, prevented from exercising their right which then doubles back on itself and turns them violent because those pesky black bloc-ers want to infringe on Republicans’ rights to speak or to peaceably assemble, and so therefore, the backlash is their fault, right, is Antifa’s fault.
Adam: Yeah, this sort of these white nationalists were kind of otherwise going to go about their business until they were provoked. One of the more annoying examples of this and someone we talked about on the show quite a bit, because he’s horrible, is Senator-elect from Ohio J.D. Vance. The New York Post ran a piece in June of 2021 headlined, “How liberals turned on JD Vance, working-class author of ‘Hillbilly Elegy’.” “Working-class” is a strange descriptor for someone who has a law degree from Yale, worked in a corporate law firm and at a number of Silicon Valley investment firms, including Peter Thiel’s venture capital firm, and now has an estimated net worth of $7 million. But nevertheless, the article contended that liberals and leading media feted J.D. Vance around 2016–2017, the time HillbillyElegy was released, then abandoned him as he expressed openly right-wing political ambitions and points of views.
This is, of course, kind of true. Vance is quoted in the article as saying, quote:
“‘Once it became clear that I was more on the side of Trump and the conservatives than I was on the side of the left, it went pretty hard. Before Trump was elected, people were trying to understand the forgotten man, the white working class, however you want to put it.’
“After Trump won, ‘it quickly became one of two things: Either these voters are all racists or Russia hacked the election.
“The whole culture of the media has shifted from, ‘Let’s try to understand the other half of the country,’ to ‘Let’s just beat up on the other half of the country.’”
Months later, in January of 2022, the WashingtonPost chimed in to speculate on why Vance had, quote, “adopted a bellicose persona at odds with the sensitive, bookish J.D. of his memoir.” Headlined “The Radicalization of J.D. Vance,” the analysis, though with some requisite light criticisms here and there, was either incredibly naive or knowing PR for Vance and would write, quote:
“Vance’s new political identity isn’t so much a façade or a reversal as an expression of an alienated worldview that is, in fact, consistent with his life story. And now there’s an ideological home for that worldview: Vance has become one of the leading political avatars of an emergent populist-intellectual persuasion that tacks right on culture and left on economics.”
Which of course is absolutely not true that they turn left in economics, that’s a total fabrication. That piece provides no support for that, he does not support the Jobs Act, does not support union. Yeah, it’s a total lie, but whatever. The piece would go on to say, quote:
“The project is animated by a real-life political gambit: that as progressives weaken the Democratic Party with unpopular cultural attitudes, the right can swoop in and pick off multiracial working-class voters.”
Evidently we’re expected to believe in this article that Vance and his right-wing funders, who constantly lambaste wokeness and China as a threat to the American worker, that they somehow really want to attract a multi racial voters kind of in earnest.
Nima: In a post from July 3, 2021, written by Kevin Drum, headlined, “If you hate the culture wars, blame liberals,” Drum writes this, quote:
“Democrats have stoked the culture wars by getting more extreme on social issues and Republicans have used this to successfully cleave away a segment of both the non-college white vote and, more recently, the non-college nonwhite vote.”
And of course, how can we not mention James Carville just one more time when that same month, July 2021, he took to CNN to deliver his perennial message that any policy with the faintest whiff of meaningful change would be electoral poison for the Democrats. Now, this is after Carvel gave an interview with Vox in the spring of that year making the same exact point. In both interviews, Carville also insisted that terms like, quote, “communities of color” and the term “Latinx” — not, say, thing like austerity politics or violent rhetoric toward gay and transgender people — that those terms would alienate potential Democratic voters.
And on November 3, 2021 PBS NewsHour host Judy Woodruff asked Carville why he believed Republican Glenn Youngkin defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the Virginia gubernatorial race, and what went wrong for the Democratic party. Here’s Carville’s response:
JamesCarville: What went wrong was this stupid wokeness all right. Don’t just look at Virginia and New Jersey, look at Long Island, look at Buffalo, look at Minneapolis, even look at Seattle, Washington. I mean, this Defund the Police lunacy takes Abraham Lincoln’s name off of schools, I mean, people see that, and it just really has a suppressive effect all across the country. The Democrats, some of these people that need to go to a woke detox center or something. I mean, they’re expressions of language that people just don’t use, and there’s a backlash and a frustration at that.
Adam: Yeah, and again, with all of these, Terry McAuliffe was the most anti-woke, normie, white, McKinsey and Company candidate so one of the beauties of this idea that the far left is responsible for the right is that even if the far left has no power, if they don’t win any primaries, if they have no say or constituency within a centrist, normie, CIA, Wall Street guy, milk toast guy they throw up to run against Republicans, that they’re staining the brand. So it’s again, it goes back to being unfalsifiable. So even someone like Terry McAuliffe, the kind of insiders, insiders’ insider, right? When he loses, it’s still wokeness’ fault. It’s a skeleton key for whatever problem we have. It doesn’t matter what it is. It’s the overreaching left’s problem.
Nima: Yeah. The wokes did it.
Adam: Right. It’s not that the guy was uncharismatic or that he didn’t provide any vision for the future or didn’t provide an alternative narrative to the fears around critical race theory and other kinds of right-wing boogeyman or didn’t respond aggressively enough that he didn’t stand for anything. No, it’s the fact that students at the University of, you know, whatever bullshit liberal arts school, were too mean on some stories on Tucker. I mean, again, it’s unclear how you can even measure these things, much less overcome it, right? Because if you’re going to nominate all the anti-woke guys, from Biden to McAuliffe to whatever, and they still lose, that they’re still going to somehow blame the wokes, even though they have, again, they have zero actual power, because it’s a win-win situation, you can’t lose.
Nima: To discuss this more, we’re now going to be joined by Daniel Denvir, host of The Dig podcast on Jacobin Radio and author of the book All-American Nativism: How the Bipartisan War on Immigrants Explains Politics As We Know It, which was published in 2020 by Verso Books. Dan’s going to join us in just a moment. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by Daniel Denvir. Dan, great to have you back on Citations Needed.
DanielDenvir: Really great to be here. I love your podcast.
Adam: Oh, well, thank you, and I yours. So I’m excited to have you on to talk about this. I’m very excited to talk about the topic in general, but specifically with you because I know it’s something that you’ve thought a lot about. But the idea that the left kind of pushes otherwise sensible, normie, liberals and centrists into the arms of the far right, it’s a trope that dates back many years, if not decades, as we documented at the top of the show, but it really kind of began to accelerate and became its own sub genre take with the rise of Trump in 2015 and 2016. So I want to sort of begin there. There was a cottage industry of explanations as to why a plurality of voters elected such an objectively vile, cruel and racist person in Trump. And the idea that a sizable chunk of these voters did so not because they agreed with the vile, cruel and racist positions of Trump, but because they wanted to sort of strike a blow, a protest blow against the woke far left contingent. This was kind of before woke became the preferred racialized pejorative, this was back when it was political correctness or any other kind of shorthand for trans bathrooms or whatever. Days after the election, David Brooks, Bill Maher, Mark Lilla, John Haidt, and many others blame so-called identity politics for driving people to Trump. I want to sort of begin at that point, November/ December of 2016. Why do you think this narrative was so attractive? It’s obviously very unfalsifiable. I don’t know how to show that’s not true. I guess maybe there is some statistical way that you may be aware of, but it does seem like it sort of gets everybody off the hook.
Nima: That’s why you’re here. Yeah. To prove John Haidt right.
Adam: Yeah, yeah. Did you do a statistical analysis? But I want you to talk about why you think that’s attractive and who it kind of served and why because it was very, very common immediately after the election.
DanielDenvir: Yeah, I mean, I will first answer the question of why it’s attractive and what function it serves, but I would later on like to attempt to demonstrate that it’s definitely, verifiably false. So, why do people blame left-wing, woke mobs for driving otherwise calm, reasonable, sensible Americans into becoming far right extremists? I mean, the narrative, like you suggested, is attractive to extreme centrist pundits and politicians, because it washes the hands of the neoliberalized Democratic Party and the old Republican establishment of any culpability for making MAGA a reality. Instead, conveniently, it blames us, their political opponents on the left. And I mean, I can’t say for sure if that’s their intention, some of the people making the argument, I imagine, probably sincerely, believe it, or whatever that means, but that is the arguments principle function without a doubt. The culpability is very clear here, the Republican Party, I mean, it’s almost not even worth repeating, because it’s so obvious. The culpability of the Republican Party as it’s existed for decades, in making Trumpism a reality from Goldwater through Reagan, Gingrich’s Republican revolution, the Tea Party, it’s pretty obvious why the Weekly Standard, Lincoln Project types are complicit in the right becoming evermore just deranged and why they would not like to be blamed for that. But the Democratic Party is also very, very complicit here, as well, which is less obvious to a lot of people. I mean, you mentioned the book that I published in 2020, which was basically about the Democratic Party’s role in working with Republicans to preside over just the steady immiseration of working class Americans for decades and decades, and then legitimating the demonization of immigrants as the scapegoat, the principle scapegoat for that immiseration. So the function it serves is pretty clear, and it’s to get them off the hook for the monster they’ve created.
Nima: Yeah, I mean, part of this also speaks to, I mean, something we’ve talked about a whole bunch on Citations Needed, which is this idea of civility. The left has gotten so shouty, and so cancel-ey. That’s really what’s doing it. People just don’t want to hear that anymore. And yet, somehow, then the alleged reaction to the breakdown of civility in politics is not somehow to go to, you know, those who maybe collectively want to make people’s lives materially better, or, you know, enhance access to rights that should be inalienable, or at least legally enshrined, but no, the woke mob is so annoyingly shrill, that the only recourse, the only refuge for the normals, who just, you know, don’t want to hear that cacophony anymore, is to go full blown Nazi. What do you think this idea of the, you know, reaction to this kind of scold-ey shrillness is to then be like, ‘Oh, I can finally be the Dennis Leary asshole that I truly am.’
Adam: And you made me do it.
DanielDenvir: Yeah. To paraphrase Michelle Obama from years back, you know, when we go low, you know, they go into the burning pits of the deepest hell, that’s what you get for going low, is just people becoming absolute Nazis, for just being mean on the internet, even for a moment, that one moment of weakness. I mean, one basic problem here is that this constant focus on, you know, the so-called swing voters in the middle who are swinging between Democrats and Republicans, which totally ignores — and this is insight, an insight other people have had, I’m not making this up here — but ignores the swing voters on the left, people who are swinging between voting for Democrats and voting for third party or voting more likely for absolutely no one at all because they’re totally alienated from a political system that has done nothing for them their entire lives. So Republicans understand the importance of keeping their base fired up, Democrats hold their base in contempt.
So that’s one problem is the whole basic framing of which voters were concerned about. But I will stipulate that it’s indeed a problem that an increasing proportion in recent decades of white working class people have been voting Republican, particularly since the great financial crisis, and the problem with the argument that blames wokeness for doing that is — and this is where my promised demonstration using history that this is wrong — that blames wokeness is that it gets the historical sequencing all wrong. White working class people did not get pushed out of the Democratic coalition by anti-police protests or people with pronouns. They were pushed out by the Democratic establishment. This was the project of the New Democrats led by Bill Clinton, it was their explicit program — something that Lily Geisler, this amazing historian has written about at great length — an explicit program of turning away from the working class, not just the white working class, but the whole working class, turning away from them and unions, towards suburbanites, and professionals, and so white working class people, not all of them, but many, were for much of the 20th century embedded in the Democratic Party through institutions, namely, labor unions, and those unions had a certain position in the United States’ social, political, economic order, and what happened was the neoliberalized Democratic Party alongside American capitalism going into crisis in the ’70s, and reconstituting itself in neoliberal form, that severed the link between working class people including, but by no means exclusively, white working class people, severed them from the Democratic Party by separating them from those unionized jobs and from their unions and then imposing a new economic and social order with an entirely different moral sensibility. This, you know, there was an ethos, not trying to be pollyannaish about the past by any means, but you know, ethos of solidarity and social welfare replaced by one that prizes individual achievement in a zero sum world.
So there are these moments of crisis that the Democratic Party has exploited to drive working class people away from the party, and Obama is a case in point here. On the eve of Obama’s election, working class white voters measured very imperfectly by non-college graduates, they were more or less evenly split between the two major parties. And I mean, that doesn’t include the large number who were alienated and not voting for anyone. But today, it’s two thirds nearly voting Republican. So what happened? What happened was a once in a generation event, the global financial crisis, and the government’s response to it. A once in a generation event that had the capacity to radically remake people’s identities, subjectivities, political allegiances, and the Democratic Party, led by Obama at the time, was perceived, understandably, as bailing out the banks, whereas the right, with the Tea Party, swept in and framed the crisis as one where big government had allied simultaneously with the greedy big banks and the parasitic poor people to screw over hardworking, everyday Americans. And I just can’t overemphasize enough how critical that 2010 election that wiped out democratic state legislators, that would never be reelected in places all over this country, Obama won Indiana, something like that will never, or not anytime soon, happen again. Those are the kinds of things that radically remake people’s political consciousnesses, identities and allegiances, not getting annoyed by something someone said to them on Twitter. It’s just an absurd assessment of how history operates.
Adam: Yeah, I think that’s what made the kind of Hillary Clinton adopting this kind of DEI language in 2016 do bizarre because her husband and her 2008 campaign against Obama, deliberately played to racism and pandered to racists. Hardworking white Americans. Obviously, Clinton who had his, because again, if you’re doing the sort of unpopular neoliberal economic policy, you have kind of two tracks to try to pick off the so-called moderate white swing voter, you can appeal to upwardly mobile professionals using superficial appeals to, you know, social justice that don’t really mean much, but kind of sound good for people with law degrees or you can try to peel off Bubba with racism. They did the Bubba racism thing in the ’90s, quite explicitly, and then suddenly, around 2014 there was this shift where ‘Oh, actually, no, Bernie Sanders in all his supporters are racist, and we’re the anti-racists.’ I’m just like, what? In 2008 you ran the most, you ran a pretty shamefully race baiting campaign against Obama and I think that kind of shows you that they realized that they had got as much out of that lane as they could and then realized that the only thing, that they needed some kind of angle to latch on to and so they adopted a kind of superficial, for want of a better term identity politics. So that always struck me as strange people have the memory of goldfish, but I want to, I want to sort of be fair here and kind of try to prop up the strongest argument for those who make this point. Strong being a relative term, I don’t think it’s actually that strong, which is the idea that liberals and leftists have increasingly been quick to banish, yell at, censor, morally condemn rather than try to convince or argue. I think this is kind of true. But I also think it emerged from a place of frustration with a concern troll posture from the right where you always, you’ve constantly had to re litigate and debate the basic humanity of Black people, trans people, gay people, and that kind of gets exhausting after a while, because I don’t think Dinesh D’Souza is really interested in having a debate, I don’t think the 75th debate on the campus of Middlebury College is really going to be very, so a part of me is like, yeah, okay, so we decided to just yell at people that works, that’s fine with me. But I want to sort of talk about this dynamic, because on the one hand, I do think that is kind of true. But again, I also think it’s sort of pollyannaish about where the professional right comes into play, which is, I don’t think they’re really concerned with debate. To me, it’s about the power dynamics of the person you’re talking to, or trying to convince, right? I don’t think, like Bret Stevens recently published a column where he said, ‘Oh, I, you know, I was finally convinced of the truth of climate change, because I flew out to Greenland,’ and I’m like, you know what I love about this is how scalable it is? Let me just fly every climate denying American out to Greenland for the price of $7 trillion, maybe we can convince 51.4 percent of them. Yeah.
DanielDenvir: And it won’t cost a lot of carbon either to do that.
Adam: Yeah, exactly. And John Chait says, ‘Oh, look,’ you know, John Chait holds up and says, ‘look what happens if you try to convince rather than try to get someone fired.’ I’m like, but Bret Stevens is not like some normie, 26 year old, half Latino, half white Uber driver who listens to Joe Rogan and is curious about, who has a kind of hodgepodge, he’s not some under, he’s a political operative who is there to sort of repackage the post Trump Republican Party. And that, to me seems to be the issue. I think, all these people, all these centrists all, you know, the Bill Maher’s and Lillas, all the people I notice on Twitter, they get yelled at all day, and they like, they’d say, ‘Oh, well, this is not good politics,’ and it’s like, yeah, because you’re a rich piece of shit, who’s not going to be convinced anyway, this is not like door-to-door retail politics, which most union organizers and people who do real organizing around these things, this is a different, you may as well be in fucking Greek or Chinese, right? It doesn’t mean anything. So I want you to talk about this idea that the left has gotten super scold-y. I think that’s true in certain contexts, but I actually think it’s mostly not true, but maybe I’m pandering to our listeners. I don’t know. Tell me if you think that’s a fair description of the criticism.
DanielDenvir: Yeah, I mean, first, before I answer that, I do want to very much agree with what you said at the top of your question about Clinton era social politics. I think it is very important given just how unhinged from historical reality the debate over all of this has become today. Very important to emphasize that the very same neoliberalized Democratic Party that in the ’90s was so aggressively selling out the working class, white and otherwise, was not at all woke, like not a little bit. Very, very reactionary. Their attempts to woo this more high end constituency were accompanied by a major crackdown on immigrants, the end of welfare as we knew it, mass policing and mass incarceration, the Defense of Marriage Act. So yeah, I mean, that’s an important piece of context. But to answer your question, I think it’s very safe to say that people like Bret Stevens having a fragile ego does not explain deep structural transformations in American politics that have taken place in the last few decades. That just doesn’t make sense. So, yes, yell at Bret Stevens, if that makes you feel good on Twitter, and it’s probably like, there’s probably something healthy about that, maybe. But yes, that is very different from yelling at individuals, which, you know, ordinary everyday people, whatever, yelling at individuals is not the way to change their mind. In fact, you can’t really change people’s minds at all, I don’t think by talking to them, even if it’s really nice. I mean, and to the extent that you can sometimes that doesn’t create the sort of system level mass changes in ideology that we need to change politics in this country.
Adam: You have to pair the convincing with some meaningful material policy changes.
Nima: You need to see the benefit.
DanielDenvir: Yeah, and people need to be reinvented in communities, organizations, institutions — like unions, which I keep returning to — and there is actually good social scientific research, being a member of a union makes you less likely to be racist, and before your listeners yell at you, yes, of course, there are many racists who are members of labor unions, but it does make people less racist, which is not shocking. Just as the dismantling of unions made people available for right-wing ideology in a way that they were less available to when they were union members. The corollary of that is that we have to recreate institutions where people can build power together through concrete struggles over the conditions of their own lives, whether as workers, as tenants, as over policed people,, whatever. And then that’s how people’s minds change, but not through, just as people’s minds don’t get changed to the right by encountering scold-y people on the left, on Twitter, and it can’t be scold-y, but mostly that just kind of makes it suck to be on the left sometimes is how shitty we are to each other on Twitter. That’s like the shitty thing about that and people should be better comrades. I think that’s like the real problem that there’s so much sectarianism and meanness within the left, but that’s not turning people in some structurally big way into right-wingers. Yeah. It’s bizarre. People are just too online as well, and so they are political analysts, and they don’t read their, you know, people like Bret Stevens probably don’t read that many books.
Nima: I mean, the flight to Greenland is pretty long.
DanielDenvir: Yeah, but their analysis is based on whatever annoys them on Twitter.
Nima: Well, right. I mean, so much of this, I think, speaks to, I’m going to talk about Adam as if he’s not here right now, to a piece that Adam wrote in FAIR way back in 2016. This idea that the reactionary ideological switcheroo effectively blames the victims of the far right for the power of the far right, right? It’s not a call in from a concerned ally, it’s rather painting anyone with any social justice grievance as fundamentally anti-white, right, like an anti-white radical that’s out to get you, get your family, get your job, whatever, right? Can we talk about this idea that the white male voter is again centered in this entire frame of argument or political understanding, as a hulk like, you know, creature, and that the point of moderate sensible, again, kind of civil politics is to avoid, at all costs, awakening the beast of their inner reactionary, right? That they have to always be top of mind because they just don’t say anything to piss them off because they are just one snarky comment away from going full on Hitler.
DanielDenvir: Yeah, I mean, first, like I said before, it’s a weird, obsessive focus on a certain portion of the electorate. But that said, that portion does matter, as do other portions in terms of winning, which is a big part of what I think we’re all thinking about when we choose to think about electoral politics and beyond electoral politics. People’s ideologies matter for a lot of other reasons that are of interest to us on the left beyond presidential, congressional, gubernatorial, whatever, elections.
So it assumes, it’s bizarrely infantilizing, as though white working class people operate, their brains operate in a distinctly different way than others that I think is probably generated mostly amongst white professionals who only have a sort of distant NationalGeographic-like relationship to white working class people. It doesn’t at all explain how different forms of identity can become more or less salient for a person is their identity as part of a working class that might be multiracial, more salient, or is their identity as white people more salient, or as a Americans or as white Americans, there are all kinds of identities that people inhabit, often simultaneously, and that history that we were talking about earlier, that history, particularly since the neoliberal turn, disembedding people from organizations that created a grounded material basis for more progressive ideologies, that vacuum is then filled by other identities, like whiteness, and just presuming that there’s some timeless immemorial, I don’t know, like Scotch-Irish sensibility or something that makes all white working class people tick, and if you use a pronoun in front of them, they’re gonna go fascist, it doesn’t allow us to understand how white working class people have behaved in very different ways politically, in very different moments in very different contexts throughout American history, it doesn’t make sense.
Nima: Yeah, they’re all just like subjects from Walker Evans photographs.
Adam: Because the other side of the coin, I think, suffers from similar fallacies, which is that there’s this kind of fix to inextricably racist, white working class voter who there’s like, you shouldn’t make zero effort to try to win over in any way, which is its own form of anti-politics, right? Because in my mind thinking, well, what the fuck are we doing then?
Adam: The point of politics, it’s an evangelical enterprise, and I don’t know if any evangelical enterprise, whether it’s, you know, Baptism or Methodism or Islam or communism, where you write off whole populations, you know, 1/3 of the country’s white men, right? And then I guess, suddenly, again, the meaningful percentage who voted for Obama, but then voted for Trump that they got more racist, I guess? I don’t know how that works exactly. Or they were not racist. But anyway, it’s confusing to me. And this serves a similar function that these are kind of non dynamic, you know, the kind of the extreme centrist says we have to pander to their racism and not spook them with Black Lives Matter, George Floyd, but then the corporate liberal mercenary says ‘Oh, well, they’re all, fuck them anyway let’s just ignore them,’ because the real reason of course they do that is because they don’t want address economic populism as one way of rearranging those identities, right? That it is a sort of fixed moral failing on the part of people and that it’s a useless waste of time to try to win them over and it’s like yeah, I mean, again, politics are about coalitions, and those things get really messy, and if you just had coalitions with people who had the most perfect ideological proclivities, then you really wouldn’t ever build coalitions. But that’s different than like, are they, you know, but at the same time, obviously, you’re not gonna build a political coalition with Richard Spencer, because he also supports Medicare for All, right? I mean, there are limits to that, obviously. But you can’t be that precious about these things, and it strikes me as both of those dynamics serve a similar function, which is to say that there’s nothing we can do so let’s all just forget any kind of rearranging of economic, left-wing politics, and let’s just sort of assume that everything’s fixed and hand millions of dollars over to consultants.
DanielDenvir: Yeah, and that goes back to the distinction that you’re drawing earlier about the difference of how to think about relating to right-wing leaders and ordinary people with right-wing ideas, and I’m doing a bunch of tenant organizing right now in Rhode Island and a couple of our tenant leaders are without a doubt Trump supporters, but in terms of the campaign, they are behaving like communists.
DanielDenvir: I hope they’re not listening to this.
Nima: This will not be shared with them.
DanielDenvir: And that is, is a complex and contradictory and sometimes uncomfortable process? Definitely. Is it the only way I believe that we can build working class and left-wing power in this country? Also yes. But yeah, I think that’s right, that there is a corollary on the left, and particularly maybe amongst like, liberal elites, to this argument that, you know, don’t bang on the white working class guys cage or he’ll flip out, which is, as you say, this argument that any kind of push forward for racial justice or justice for any sort of oppressed people will inevitably face white racist reaction, because white people are just fundamentally, almost biologically racist, and there’s some truth to the fact that any push forward for justice for oppressed groups will elicit a reaction given that the history of this country is so thoroughly racist, something we don’t need to get into the details of for Citations Needed listeners. It is true that, you know, for example, any attempt to include excluded people into the mid 20th century social and economic New Deal compact would have generated some white racist reaction. I mean, Adam, you’re in Chicago, where Black people when they tried to move in to white neighborhoods got their houses firebombed, and that was the kind of violence that Black people faced in their struggle to in a sense universalize the New Deal promised from which they’d been excluded in the 1960s and ‘70s.
Nima: Thankfully, I’m in New York where there’s never been racism.
DanielDenvir: Where everything’s been totally chill, as Spike Lee has demonstrated in his past films.
Nima: And as current education and housing policy continues to affirm.
DanielDenvir: Yes, everything’s very chill, lots of multiracial bonhomie, definitely no problems to look at, especially in what are those schools called, those admit only schools. But Adam, like you said, the analysis has to be more dynamic in that. So looking back to that history, which I think is really key, in the ’60s and ’70s, this push to universalize the promises of economic security of the New Deal from which Black people had been excluded, it took place at the very moment when that system, in part because of those exclusions, was going into severe crisis. There was a crisis because of stagflation, oil shock, intensifying global competition, and capitalists, so capitalists were tearing up the New Deal settlement, and going on the offensive against labor and against the welfare state at the very moment that women, Black people, queer people, etcetera, were fighting to get a piece of something, and it was getting torn apart at that very moment. So that means that in that moment, white people are reacting to this in a context of newly intensified scarcity. If that context had been one of plenty, instead, one of a deepening welfare state, rather than one that was getting eviscerated, I think that would have mitigated, though certainly not eliminated the white reaction, like things are dynamic.
Nima: Yeah, abundance will create different outcomes than austerity, right? I mean, fundamentally, and so feeling like things are being taken away, is going to then produce a kind of backlash, as you’ve been saying. Without getting too deep into Bernie related things, I am really curious, though, about your take on how campaigns like Bernie Sanders,’ were such a threat to this idea of ‘Oh, well, you know, there’s a certain segment of the population that you just have to write off,’ and then with the whole kind of Bernie to Trump voter, seemed to then double back on itself and reaffirm these ideas that have been so long entrenched in, you know, whether it’s elite politics or kind of mainline media, talk about that, the threat and then the affirmation there in terms of how solidarity worked and then was broken.
DanielDenvir: Yeah, I mean, it is pretty twisted that the very fact that Bernie could appeal to voters who might also find Trump appealing, was then used in like either, you know, great ignorance or incredibly bad faith, one of the two, to attempt to portray Bernie, and his kind of class struggle Social Democratic campaign for the presidency as a racist in some way, especially, to emphasize this again, coming from the sort of Clintonite political world, the people who brought us mass incarceration, the war on immigrants, I mean, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden all voted, and it was either 2006 or 2007, for the Secure Fence Act, which was signed into law by George W. Bush, which built like 600, 700 something miles of fencing that looks very much like Trump’s wall across the border.
Adam: It’s fencing, not a wall, buddy. Big difference between the two political parties.
DanielDenvir: Yeah, it’s just the fence.
Adam: This is like the cages versus fence discussion. How we housed immigrants. When you’re getting to that degree of semantics, it’s not a good sign.
DanielDenvir: Well, I mean, do you remember, it was sometime during the Trump administration, that Jon Favreau, he posted something on Twitter, a photo of two young girls sleeping on the floor of a cage was like, ‘Look at how monstrous this is,’ and it was monstrous, but it turned out the photo was from under the Obama administration, when Jon was working for him.
DanielDenvir: I mean anyhow, that’s why none of us will ever stop being triggered by the 2016 primary, until the days that we die. I think fundamentally, there is class-based universal projects that are also fundamentally anti-racist that Bernie was not always perfectly, but I think very powerfully putting forward, and the real historical predecessor to that is Jesse Jackson’s social democratic Rainbow Coalition project of the 1980s, which was precisely trying to not, like today’s liberal elite identity politics, not just diversifying the upper ranks of this immiserating system that’s grinding people in the dust, which is an alienating form of identity politics. It’s not the primary thing driving people to the right, but that is alienating, that combination of being like, look how diverse Wall Street is, etcetera, that does alienate people. But it’s a sort of politics that precisely, that version of identity politics was precisely to emerge, precisely to kind of brutally replace that Rainbow Coalition identity politics of the 1980s, which was about stitching all of these particularities into a majority with a universalistic bent.
Adam: Yeah, I think about, for the episode we did on unions and film, I watched the film Pride. Basically, it’s about the solidarity between 1984 —
DanielDenvir: The coal miners?
Adam: Yeah, and the radical gay and lesbian radical groups, they completely erased the fact that the guy that did it is a communist, because all the time I’m watching this movie, I’m like, oh, this guy’s totally got to be in the Communist Party, and then I look it up on Wikipedia and it’s like, oh, yeah, totally Communist Party. They have like one offhanded reference, and there’s like a hammer and sickle in the very far back. He starts doing fundraising as a gay and lesbian group for the miners strike to provide a labor support fund. And of course, they have the obligatory scene where he goes into this small town in Wales, and faces a lot of bigotry, but then he keeps, he sort of keeps kind of at it, right? He sort of faces the bigotry. Now, look, as someone who has never faced those kinds of vectors of oppression, it’s obviously much easier said than done, and I don’t want to be too romantic about it, and obviously it’s a fictionalization, although much of the basic outline is true, where he said, ‘Okay, we have a mutual,’ and they keep repeating this in the movie, it’s actually what the best part of the movie I think, is that like, where they say like, ‘Who are the minor strikes enemies?’ It’s Margaret Thatcher, cops and the tabloid papers. And who is the gay and lesbian communities enemies? Margaret Thatcher, the cops and the tabloids, right? And so they have a shared mutual enemy. And he’s like, that’s a good enough reason to go do fundraising for them, because we hate the same people. And then he goes to Wales, faces all this kind of discrimination, but of course, again, it gets a little squishy and liberal, where they kind of overcome the differences and so forth, and I was watching this and I was thinking like, okay, so this is actually fundamentally a movie about convincing people, right? It is a movie about evangelizing rather than sort of saying, we’re going to write off this whole town, and again, much of the outline is true, right? The fact is that the miners did strike in the gay and lesbian Pride Parade in 1985. All that is is true, all that is factually accurate. Again, not perfect, still lots of homophobes, obviously, the strike itself is largely seen as a failure, but there is some possible, again, if you don’t believe in the fundamental premise that we can use working class solidarity to better our lot and overcome prejudices to do so, then I don’t know what the fuck you believe in.
DanielDenvir: Then we are fucked.
Adam: Yeah. Then we may as well all go eat a gun. I’m being serious here.
DanielDenvir: Yeah. I agree.
Adam: Without being too pollyannaish or romantic, one of the things that annoys me about this idea is that like, again, there’s this fixed hulk-like white working class, and our job is to either write them off or tiptoe around them and not ever confront their prejudices, and I have to think there’s a third way here.
DanielDenvir: Yeah. And that third way, there’s an amazing article by this young political scientist named — not like, super young, I mean, young in terms of like, just finished grad school and just got a job young — Jared Clemons called, I just pulled it up, “From ‘Freedom Now!’ to ‘Black Lives Matter’: Retrieving King and Randolph to Theorize Contemporary White Antiracism.” I did an interview with him on it, I think, a couple months back, and basically, what he does is goes to Martin Luther King and A. Philip Randolph, the early and mid 20th century Black labor and civil rights leader, and looks at their writing in speeches, and excavates a just brutal critique of liberal identity politics. Basically, King and Randolph are like elite white allies, you know, garbage, ephemeral, useless. What we need is materially grounded solidarity with white workers regardless of what ideas, good or bad, those white workers have in their head, because that is the only way we are going to build enough power to win freedom.
Nima: I think that all of these different ways of conceiving of the don’t wake the beast, tiptoeing around nature of this, you know, who is centered in this story in this framework, who are its victims, who is to blame? Yeah, it’s kind of everything here, right? Because it tells a story of kind of what we’re supposed to believe, which then opens up possibilities, but also forecloses a lot of things. And so I think that’s a great place to leave it. We, of course, have been speaking with Daniel Denvir, host of The Dig podcast on Jacobin Radio and author of All-American Nativism: How the Bipartisan War on Immigrants Explains Politics As We Know It, published in 2020 by Verso Books. Dan, thank you so much for joining us again on Citations Needed.
DanielDenvir: Thank you, it’s really fun to be the guest on a podcast.
Adam: You know, the interesting thing about this is it’s sort of a variation on the like, ‘I was a liberal until I was mugged’ or ‘I saw like a crime committed’ or ‘I saw a homeless person’ and you saw this during a lot of like the never Trumper post was like if you need to win me over you need to do X, Y and Z it’s like there’s a sense of like —
Nima: I’m as liberal as you get but the reality is —
Adam: Yeah, but I saw, you know, there’s always homeless people so now I have no choice but to vote for a kick ass sheriff.
Adam: Yeah, again for the average voter I understand that that’s how normal people are but pundits, they always do this Bret Stevens and Tom Nichols would do this, if you, you know, if Democrats are going to win me over they need to do X, Y and Z. It’s like that viral Tiktok where the guy is like, ‘I don’t care,’ you know, like, it’s like well, okay, then go fuck yourself. I don’t, you know, it’s like your votes are going to be dispositive. It’s not like you’re really important to this coalition. It’s like, why are we always having to pander to you?
Adam: And your fucking boutique list of needs? It’s like, if you don’t like it tough shit. There’s the fucking door. As a form of mass politics, that doesn’t really work, then this is where I think the one of the major issues with this as a category error. It’s like, I don’t care what Bill Maher thinks. I mean, to the extent he influences people I care about, but I don’t really personally care what he thinks. But it matters if, and he ventriloquises this vague working class, which I do care what they mean, because some meaningful percentage of them can decide the fate of elections, unions, campaigns, right? You have to convince the quote-unquote “average people,” but I don’t think we need to spend a lot of time and effort convincing millionaire pundits, multimillionaire pundits speaking on their behalf, if that makes sense.
Nima: Well, because they’re doing this thing that’s like, you know, ‘Some people say,’ or ‘I’ve been hearing that,’ right? They kind of filter and launder their own bullshit through the working man.
Adam: Yeah, it’s like Chris Matthews, ‘In suburbs in Pennsylvania I’m hearing blah, blah.’ It’s like did you go door to door in the suburbs of Pennsylvania? Because when he was talking about why he basically was lobbying why Fetterman was going to lose and why he needed to drop out, of course, he ended up winning, and he’s like, oh, people in the suburbs are just talking about crime, crime non stop, and he outperformed Biden by three points, you know, he outperformed Clinton by quite a few points.
Nima: You also don’t have to necessarily appeal to dominant narratives that are based in oppression and racism. So, there’s that piece of it too where just because you’re like, ‘Oh, I’ve been hearing this,’ or ‘The media constantly talks about crime so we have to respond to them,’ it’s like, no, no, those are built. Those are stories that are built up and maintained, and so part of the work of politics, and of organizing, right, is building solidarity around narratives that aren’t harmful like that.
Adam: Right. So people go, you know, because again, what Chris Matthews is responding to is he is responding to the fact that he was probably in Pennsylvania or in the general Philadelphia television market, and saw the non stop ads about Fetterman being, you know, I think one said ‘Fetterman letting killers kill again.’ While gangbangers spray Uzi fire over a crowd of civilians. He saw those, and he’s like, ‘Oh, I bet those lesser people are going to be convinced by this.’ And it’s like, yeah, some percent will, but evidently there was a pretty low ceiling because it ended up not really fucking mattering, he ended up getting outperformed the previous two presidential campaigns. So clearly, again, instead of saying, ‘I saw this ad, and it scared me,’ it’s, ‘Well I’m hearing from this mysterious cohort,’ it’s like, no, it’s just you. That’s the thing you want.
Nima: It’s you in your hotel room watching local news.
Adam: Right, and this kind of ventriloquising, as we’ve talked about the death, I know, we had a whole episode on it, but like you see it with this whole, libs need to chill out all the time. Because it’s like, just admit that you’re older, you’re more conservative, you’re white, again, don’t want to be the white guy is too cool for white people, but you’re white, clearly that will lead you to have a hair trigger about certain shit. Historically, that’s kind of one of our features, and you are projecting that on to other people, and it’s like, okay, fine, just be a cranky old white guy who thinks, you know, Oberlin sophomores with purple hair are annoying and have at it, but don’t like, don’t say, ‘Oh, well, you know it, you know, they have to cool off or I’m going to be forced to be a Nazi. It’s a hostage situation,’ you know, ‘If you don’t lower the capital gains tax, I’m going to shoot this dog.’ And it’s like, well, okay, thanks for your politics of solidarity and grace.
Nima: Well, right, because it truly affirms that someone’s ideology is not firm.
Adam: Which is again, for the average voter is fine, because our goal is not it’s not about moral hygiene.
Nima: But it’s the idea that like, ‘Oh, if you don’t do this thing, I’m so close. I’m so close to doing the thing that I’m telling you that I even know is harmful. I’m going to be forced to do terrible things and to reveal myself as a fascist, white, nativist, but all you have to do is not call racists racists, and then we can all realize that we’re in this together, but if you actually say things that offend my sensibilities, that I can then launder through other people’s assumed sensibilities that you’ll believe on behalf of them when I can’t really speak for myself, because I’m clearly in a different tax bracket than, yeah, you have to change your messaging to appeal to me.’
Adam: Because they don’t want to do the other thing, which again, I don’t want to valorize one election too much, but it’s like, yeah, clearly Fetterman, his poll numbers on crime were low because they ran nonstop psycho ads about it. But guess what? And so we talked about with Dan, he went and he found other things you could build solidarity coalition’s around like higher wages, like better Medicare or Medicaid, like being pro union, protecting unions in Pennsylvania, which are now making a slight bit of a comeback. And so that’s sort of the nature of politics. One current wants us to just write everyone off as loser racists, and let’s send in Jordan Klepper to go put this microphone in front of a bunch of dipshit MAGA slack-jawed yokels, that really low effort kind of political orientation. The second one would say, and they conveniently have the exact same take, which is that they’re all intractably and permanently fixed racists, and therefore we have to become racist or therefore we have to become transphobic or we have to speak in code about crime. But of course, the third way is like, look, you just need them to pull the fucking lever for you on election day or need them to fill out a union card or need them to, you know, you don’t need to be drinking buddies to them necessarily, that’s a political coalition’s work, so why don’t we try to find other things that appeal to people that transcend those differences?
Nima: Right, find the shared values without relinquishing any of your values, right?
Adam: You don’t need to relinquish your values, and we don’t need to say, ‘Oh, this policy is racist, but also it hurts white working class people here’s why.’ Again, this was a common left-wing, pillar of left-wing sort of propaganda up until about five years ago, this was sort of a normal way of approaching it rather than saying, like, ‘Oh, actually, let’s just give up and let’s have two versions of the same defeatist politics,’ one of which, of course, is primarily concerned with never ever, ever having to adopt any economic populism and the other one of which is just about the politics of being morally superior and having a greater moral hygiene and being better than sort of those people, and I think that’s not a binary that I think is very useful and it’s incredibly popular because it’s sort of the vast majority of takes we see pumped out about this topic.
Nima: Well, that will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Thank you all for listening. You can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of the show through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated as we really are 100 percent listener funded. And as always a very special shout out goes to our critic level supporters through Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Thanks again for listening to Citations Needed. Our senior producer is Florence Barrau-Adams. Producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again everyone. We’ll catch you next time.
This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, November 16, 2022.
Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
NimaShirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
AdamJohnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
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Nima: That’s right. Odes. Odes will come your way.
Adam: Odes. They’ll be significant ode-age.
Nima: “Clinton Says He’s Not Leaning Left but Taking a New ‘Third Way,’” reported TheNew York Times back in 1992. “It’s not left. It’s not right. It’s forward!” proclaimed former presidential candidate Andrew Yang during a 2019 Democratic debate. “Neither left nor right,” reads the slogan of far-right French political party Front National.
Adam: Every few years, or perhaps even more than that, we hear about a new, trailblazing political vision that transcends traditional party binaries, leaning not to the right or the left, but straight ahead. No longer, we’re told, must we conform to antiquated political notions of “liberal” or “conservative,” nor must we continue to tolerate the corrupt duopoly. Instead, we can embrace a forward-thinking alternative; a third way; a pragmatic, modern, new, radical, inclusive political paradigm.
Nima: But for all the enthusiasm and talk of moving “beyond left and right,” there sure is a lot of right-wing sentiment there. Rhetoric like this almost exclusively comes from neo-fascists, libertarians, and centrists — Glenn Beck, Bill Clinton, Andrew Yang, and the like — and virtually never from figures on the left. So why is that? What political purpose does the false notion of transcending right and left actually serve? And why does this hackneyed concept continue to surface, resonate and get plenty of air time?
Adam: On today’s episode, we’ll examine the vacuous nature of claiming to reject political categories of “right” and “left.” We’ll analyze how this rhetoric disguises garden-variety right-wing austerity politics as a novel, barrier-breaking political vision, as well as how it taps into real frustrations with a political system, but obscures and absolves the causes of these frustrations through sleazy, sales-pitch style tactics.
Nima: Later on the show, we’ll be joined by Osita Nwanevu, contributing editor at The New Republicand a columnist at The Guardian. You can also find his work at The New Yorker, Slate, Harper’s Magazine and elsewhere. He is currently writing a book on American democracy called The Right of the People.
OsitaNwanevu: I definitely don’t think we should give short shrift to the fact that two party systems suck and that our two parties do genuinely suck. They are really terrible, and if you ask the American people, we’ve seen this in survey after survey over years now, American people very clearly do want more options in our politics, you get high support in these surveys for the notion of a third party. Gets very vague and kind of cloudy when it comes to what kinds of choices that third party would actually represent as a matter of policy, but I do think that the basic intuition that American people should have more choices when they go to the polls, more viable choices that is, because there are other parties, is basically correct.
Adam: Yeah. So I’m excited to get into this. I want to be clear, this is not really, the pitch is neither Republican nor Democrat, although I think there’s a lot of crossover but it’s not about liberal/conservative, right? It sort of sounds so profound. It’s not about liberal and conservative, it’s about X, it’s about the country, it’s about going forward, it’s about the people. It’s not about right and left. It’s about those with power and those without it, which we’ll get into later, that’s become popular with some certain YouTube celebrities, and so we want to be clear here, we are not saying that everything must fall within a specific left/right binary. Obviously, people’s politics are oftentimes a hodgepodge or they’re confused or they’re sort of grab bag. The average voter has sometimes contradictory, ideologically inconsistent opinions, that is quite normal, that is quite true. That is obviously a true statement —
Nima: Which is why these appeals are so attractive.
Adam: Why I think we need to sort of look at who’s actually saying them because it isn’t just one particular ideology. It’s corporate centrist, it’s neo-fascist, it’s libertarians, as we talked about. So we’re going to get into the weeds of why this appeal of not being right or left is so attractive to people and why it keeps resurfacing and who it really serves and what it obscures.
Nima: While it’s taken various forms over the last century or more, the rhetoric of “neither right nor left” is largely rooted in opposition to socialist and communist currents, or at least right-wing conceptions of them.
According to scholar James Petras, initial stirrings of this perspective can be traced to reformist, anti-revolutionary sentiment in late 19th-century Germany. In his 1899 book Evolutionary Socialism, German theorist Eduard Bernstein argued for a middle ground — a third way, if you will — between capitalism and revolutionary socialism.
Bernstein would be joined by other reformist writers throughout Europe who championed a gradual approach to social change — hence “evolutionary” descriptor rather than “revolutionary” socialism — in which they advocated for electoralism, and to some extent, the preservation of liberal capitalist institutions.
As James Petras wrote, quote:
“The reform socialists argued that capitalist growth and social reforms were producing a growing middle class which, properly understood, would become a major ally of the socialist reformers in extending social ownership and greater equality. This perspective was contrasted with the revolutionary analysis, which argued that the process of capitalist concentration was undermining the middle class and proletarianizing the workforce, polarizing society between capital and labor.”
Adam: An early example from 1935 appears in the News Journal referencing Franklin Roosevelt, the article says, quote:
“For the present, the Democratic leadership contends he will adhere to his announced policy of going neither right nor left but ‘straight ahead,’ and keep ‘hands off’ Congress as concerns details of legislation.”
The type of rhetoric would resurface in Europe after WWII. To quote James Petras again, quote:
“Led by the mass German and Swedish Social Democratic parties, the new Third Way paradigm accepted capitalist property relations and opposed communism in exchange for increased social expenditures, progressive taxation, and the extension of public services in health, education, and recreation.”
And so what we see now is the idea that the third way is basically saying, similar to a kind of, what we’d like to see in the non aligned movement is not pro-rah rah capitalist, but it’s also not Communist, and so it sort of a compromise, to avoid a communist revolution, but also isn’t going to go full blown capitalist because nobody really wants that anyway. And in the U.S., around the 1960s, the way you sort of showed you were above the political fray and broadcast that you were not a Communist or a radical, you would claim you are for this kind of third way, and those who claim to kind of transcend political labels.
For example, just a few years later, a column in the York Dispatch of York, Pennsylvania would uncritically explain this rhetorical tendency among US figures. This by John Chamberlain, the article is called ,”These Days,” written in August 1964, quote:
“The word ‘liberal at the Democratic convention suddenly has no friends. Hubert Humphrey tried to dodge it the other day when they sought to pin it on him; he said something about meeting issues as they come up, in the context of changing times and without regard to labels.
“Eric Goldman, the Princeton history professor and TV interrogator who is in charge of channeling new ideas and introducing new personalities into the White House, talks very much the same way. A pleasant, undogmatic, unassuming man who does not fit anyone’s stereotype of the academic, Dr. Goldman expatiates on the need to forget the ideological confrontations of the Nineteen Thirties.
“The idea is that we are beyond ‘left’ and ‘right’; we have reached what has been called ‘the end of ideology.’ The operative idea is to use brains to the end of solving particular problems, not impose any particular philosophy on the community.”
So this is an idea that we’ll touch on more in a second, that third way, Wall Street-backed groups like Third Way which emerged in the late 2000s, and now Andrew Yang’s iteration, which pretty much has many of the same kind of funders and rhetoric, is the idea that it’s not about right and left it’s about doing what’s evidence based.
Nima: Yeah, ‘we are beyond ideology. We’re going to use our brains, we’re going to use data, we’re going to use common sense, right? We’re going to use proven solutions.’
Adam: ‘We’re going to be empirically-driven, science-driven,’ and this is extremely attractive, especially to upwardly mobile professional types who comprise a lot of media and punditry. It says, ‘Oh, well, yeah, left and right are so lame and just want to follow the data,’ right? It has a very attractive appeal, because that way, you don’t have to make any kind of messy argumentation or philosophical points or there’s no real sort of objective you’re fighting for, there’s no real end game, there’s no vision. It’s just as the data comes in we’re going to tweak here and there around the margins.
Nima: To really kind of hammer this point home, and going back to Dr. Eric Goldman, who was referenced in that 1964 article, Goldman is perhaps best known for his 1952 book entitled Rendezvous with Destiny: A History of Modern American Reform. Recounting the main thrust of the book, author Priscilla Roberts wrote about 40 years later that Goldman, quote:
“…argued that the fundamental liberal tradition of the United States was moderate, centrist, and incrementalist, and decidedly non-socialist and non-totalitarian. While broadly sympathetic to the cause of American reform, Goldman was far from uncritical toward his subjects, faulting progressives of World War I for their lukewarm reception of the League of Nations, American reformers of the 1920s for their emphasis on freedom of lifestyles rather than economic reform, and those of the 1930s for overly tolerant attitude toward Soviet Russia.”
Now, this phenomenon was certainly not limited to the U.S., it’s not a purely American notion to claim that you want to be neither right nor left. So in the late ’70s, neo-fascist political factions in Italy known as “Spontaneista groups,” according to scholar Giacomo Loperfido, often referred to themselves as, quote, “neither left nor right,” taking cues from fascist European groups from the 1920s and 1940s that fashioned themselves as neither socialists nor capitalists.
Similarly, a neo-fascist organization called Third Way arose in 1980s France, adopting the slogan, “Neither trusts, nor Soviets” — again, an ostensible condemnation of both capitalism as well as a rejection of communism.
Adam: So here in the US and the UK, in the 1990s, we saw emerge a more centrist current that used similar rhetoric, but towards totally different means, this idea that there was a Third Way, which post-Cold War was not really or I guess the tail end of the Cold War and post-Cold War, we reached the end of history now there was no real needs for isms.
Nima: End of ideology, end of history, facts only now.
Adam: And this would embrace capitalism and neoliberal ideology, but neoliberalism and capitalist ideology, once you had won the Cold War, or you were perceived to as about to win the Cold War, were no longer ideologies. They were like gravity or climate change. They were sort of just accepted science.
In 1985, as a reaction to the electoral victories of Ronald Reagan, centrist Democrats led by political quote-unquote “strategist” Al From formed the Democratic Leadership Council, or the DLC, which they described as a, quote, “reform movement that is reshaping American politics by moving it beyond the old left-right debate.” What this really meant, of course, was that the Democrats would become more right-wing in an attempt to court Reagan voters, and more importantly, Reagan donors. Among the DLC’s signature causes were, quote, “spurring private sector economic growth, fiscal discipline and community policing,” unquote, as well as, quote, “work-based welfare reform, expanded international trade, and national service.”
So they were going to win elections by basically co opting Republican ideas and having two Republican parties, one that was a little more socially liberal and a little more fiscally liberal, as it were, and that way, those are basically your only two options. Ostensibly, this was done for pragmatic reasons, but of course, it was also done for ideological reasons. The DLC’s most prominent members included Al Gore, Joe Biden, and of course, Bill Clinton.
Nima: Now, the DLC’s prescriptions were made most visible during Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign and subsequent election. Here is an article from the New York Times from September 26, 1992, from a section in the paper dedicated to the presidential campaign, and the subsection about the Democrats was this headline, quote, “Clinton Says He’s Not Leaning Left but Taking a New ‘Third Way.’” The article covers Clinton’s response to attacks from his Republican opponent, then incumbent, George H.W. Bush, who characterized Bill Clinton as a tax-hiking liberal. Rather than counter with any sort of robust progressive policy proposals, of course, Clinton’s strategy was to position himself as a “third way” Democrat Adam, neither left or right. The very same month that this NewYork Times article was published, again, September 1992, Clinton had already begun to brand himself as a quote-unquote “new Democrat” who would lead the country into an era of change.
Now, spoiler alert, for those who were maybe not around then or just don’t remember, but Bill Clinton was, indeed, not leaning left, but hewas definitely, actively leaning right. There was no “Third Way.” This was merely a sneaky euphemism for having a Democrat kind of lean right and offer right-wing policies such as gutting government spending on social programs. After all, post election, what were some of Clinton’s most famous legislative victories? The 1994 crime bill of course and “welfare reform” bill two years later in 1996, to name just a couple, both of which expanded the carceral state while further impoverishing the poor.
Adam: What was the most visible gesture that Clinton did to show that he was quote, “a new Democrat?”
Nima: He ensured that someone would get the Death Penalty.
Adam: Yeah, he very very conspicuously flew down to Arkansas from the campaign trail in New Hampshire in January of 1992 to oversee the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, who at that point was severely mentally intellectually disabled, and made a huge show of it that he was a new Democrat, that unlike Dukakis, he was going to be tough on crime — wink wink wink — and do welfare reform — wink wink wink wink wink.
Nima: Right, because Michael Dukakis four years earlier had lost the election to George H.W. Bush, I’m not going to say solely because of, but he was famously, and then perhaps infamously, anti-death penalty.
Adam: Yeah. But that’s always kind of been an excuse for why Clinton had to go right, right? I mean, that’s kind of bullshit. I don’t think that’s why Clinton went to go oversee someone getting executed. I think that was partly it, and I also think he’s long he had long, long before that supported capital punishment.
Nima: He had been that, he had been that guy, sure.
Adam: Right, which is why he was handpicked. And this influenced politics in Britain as well. Tony Blair attempted to do virtually a carbon copy of the Clinton campaign and he would take cues from him. In 1997, just before becoming Prime Minister, Blair delivered a speech pledging to maintain the policy of selling off state-owned enterprises and properties. Blair couched the announcement in language about so-called quote-unquote “public-private partnerships” as a third way rejection of both “state control” of industry and laissez-faire governance of industry. So let’s listen to that clip right now.
TonyBlair: We believe in our relationship with business and industry, there is a third way, a new way between some command economy, state control of industry, and the politics of laissez-faire. This third way seeks a partnership between government and business but this time limited to certain key specific objectives, whose aim is not to undermine the market, but to enhance the dynamism of the market.
Nima: Now, of course, Tony Blair was simply announcing the continuation of already existent right-wing policies of privatization in the UK. Never mind that the effect of this “public-private” partnership is invariably to further privatize public goods, not often the other way around, offering massive giveaways to corporations at the expense of the public. But these points are obviously and conveniently omitted.
Now, Clinton and Blair both sought to broaden the Third Way ideology, meeting together in 1998 in order to, to quote a contemporaneous Washington Post article, quote:
“give formal direction to the general trend in which liberal, labor and socialist parties are abandoning government ownership of major industries and tax and spending programs that aggressively seek to redistribute income.”
Now, 1998 was also the year that London School of Economics director Anthony Giddens published his own book entitled — what else Adam? — The Third Way: The Renewal of Social Democracy, which, according to Foreign Affairs magazine, made the following illuminating arguments: that unemployment benefits increase joblessness and that rights, quote, “come hand in hand with responsibilities,” end quote. Giddens would provide a blueprint for Tony Blair’s subsequent policymaking.
Adam: The momentum generated by Clinton and Blair, and other neoliberals — because they are, of course, neoliberals — resulted in the codification of Third Way politics. In 2005, a think tank based on these politics — or what we call on the show sometimes anti-politics — was founded, aptly named Third Way. Since its founding, Third Way has been on a crusade to move the Democratic Party further to the right, namely through gutting social spending and broadening corporate power. Over the years, Third Way executives have published op-eds in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post denouncing policies like universal pre-K, Medicare, Social Security, and other forms of what they call quote-unquote “liberal populism.”
Nima: Ah, yes.
Adam: It may come as no surprise, then, that the majority of Third Way’s funding comes from wealthy corporations. The think tank’s board of trustees roster includes real-estate developers, venture capitalists, billionaire hoteliers, investment bankers, and so on. In 2013, according to The Nation, Third Way senior Vice President Matt Bennett conceded that, quote, “the majority” of Third Way’s donor support came from the group’s board of trustees, most of whom were from the finance sector. Bennett declined to specify further.
Nima: Throughout the 2010s, we’d see other right-wingers parroting much of the same rhetoric. Rand Paul, for instance, released a book in 2015 entitled Taking a Stand: Moving Beyond Partisan Politics to Unite America, in which he claimed to go, quote, “beyond the left-right paradigm kind of thing,” end quote. In a 2016 book, Fox News’ Glenn Beck stated that fear mongering quote-unquote “progressives” were, quote, “on the right and the left,” end quote. In an interview, Beck added, quote, “I believe we’re in America 2.0,” end quote.
We’ve seen this with French politicians in recent years as well. Marine Le Pen’s hard-right Front National party slogan is “Ni droite, ni gauche, Francais,” which means “Neither Right, Nor Left, [but] French.” Meanwhile, during his presidential campaign, Emmanuel Macron ran with a similar slogan, quote, “neither left, nor right,” end quote. Yet Macron’s governance has been overwhelmingly right-wing, including appointing center-right politicians to his cabinet, considerably reducing taxes paid by the wealthy, making it harder for immigrants to acquire asylum in France, and seeking to dismantle worker protections.
This is a popular trope among conservative hucksters of course. Writing in his book The O’Reilly Factor, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly does much of the same thing. Here is an excerpt from his audiobook.
BillO’Reilly: If you haven’t seen The O’Reilly Factor, you might be wondering whether I’m conservative, liberal, Libertarian, or exactly what. I hope you’re still wondering after you’ve listened to this program. See, I don’t want to fit any of those labels, because I believe the truth doesn’t have labels. When I see corruption, I try to expose it. When I see exploitation, I try to fight it. That’s my political position.
O’Reilly would later tell NPR’s Terry Gross the following year:
BillO’Reilly: I’m not a political guy in the sense that I embrace an ideology. I mean, to this day, I’m an independent thinker, I’m an independent voter, I’m a registered Independent. I basically look at the world from the point of view of let’s solve the problem, right? Whatever the problem is, let’s find the best solution to it. And if the solution is on the left, I grab it. If it’s on the right, I grab it.
Adam: And fellow Fox News huckster, Glenn Beck, would often employ this, ‘I’m not about right and left,’ he always says, ‘I don’t just support Republicans or Democrats, I’m all about the truth.’ He would traffic and similar superficial rhetoric. Here’s a typical rant from 2009 when he was promoting the 9–12 Project, which was about America unifying, just like they did on 9/12, which as we know worked out great for a lot of parts of the world. So let’s listen to that now. It’s really exquisite, audience flattering hucksterism.
GlennBeck: Hello, America. They’re waiting. I’m backstage right now at Fox, I’m getting ready to show you that you are not alone. This is your country, you’re still in control, but it seems today, like nobody gets it. You know, you’ve lived your whole life in a responsible way. You didn’t take out a loan that didn’t require any kind of proof of income. Yet, now you’re being forced to bail those people out. You’ve been concerned about this country through the last administration, in this administration. If you’re like most people, both administrations, it’s not about politics, you actually believe in something, and you thought for a while there, your politicians did as well, and now you kind of realize, well, maybe, maybe they don’t.
Adam: I love this so much. Because it’s like you criticize both administrations. Like, no you didn’t. Not really. No, 90 percent of your criticisms are aimed at Democrats, because you’re at a partisan network.
Nima: Yeah. And then you’re doing a conspiracy theory, chalkboard weirdness with Obama’s name, but like, no, you, you just want to have the facts guide you, you just want to, you just want to know how to kick your feet up after a hard day of work, you just want facts to guide you. You’re not about ideology.
Adam: Yeah, and it’s so good because Glenn Beck, like a lot of these people, understands that the American brain doesn’t like to feel like they’re being labeled or they’re predictable, that everyone grows up watching John Wayne and Jack Bauer and all these badass independent rogue people and they think, ‘I’m that fucking guy.’ ‘I can’t be boxed in.’ ‘I don’t play by any ism.’ And it’s like, so exquisitely modeled towards that person. At the end of the day though, what he’s selling you is just pat Republican, conservative, corporate ideology, right? But you don’t want to say that because especially after the economic crash, and the Wall Street bailouts and the shit fire that was the last three or four years of the Bush administration, you know, lowest approval ratings ever, that needed to be rebranded, and so, again, this not right and left not, you know, you hate both administration’s rhetoric is so timeless, because you can pretty much jam whatever you want into it. Barack Obama has done a sort of version of this prior with his 2004, you know, it’s not about blue states and red states, it’s purple this or whatever —
Nima: That was like political rhetoric, just slightly. Yeah.
Adam: But it wasn’t really his primary schtick. Bernie Sanders can sometimes traffic in this language, but he does it more like people are frustrated with both parties, which is slightly different, right, because it is true that both parties do suck. But I don’t think he sort of shies away from the fact that he’s on the left, right? He sort of embraces that.
Marianne Williamson went on Jesse Watters on Fox News, Jesse Watters is the most vile person on Fox News, which is saying a lot. He rose up the ranks of Bill O’Reilly by basically harassing homeless people in Penn Station, and doing these gotcha interviews with homeless people and harassing them. He incited violence against the abortion doctor George Taylor, who was later assassinated, just the biggest scumbag in the world, of course, now he has pretty much his own afternoon show on Fox News. And she went on there last year and said, quote:
“The real political divide in this country is not between Left and Right; that’s an almost cartoonish version of our political reality. The real political divide is between the powerful and the powerless.”
This rhetoric just makes me want to fucking pull my hair out. So I responded to that tweet that she tweeted out saying that, and she posted with a video clip of her and Jesse Watters, who, again, I know if you’re a politician, you have to, I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with going on Fox News, I don’t believe in staining people because if you’re getting your message out, that’s fine. But if you do go on Fox News, and you parrot this crypto right-wing bullshit to flatter because, you know, Jesse Watters is nodding the whole time, yes, because basically what he’s saying is it’s about the right. I do think that’s pretty shitty, and to her credit, she actually did respond and say, ‘Oh, I actually meant this and sort of wanted to clarify,’ because I was like, if you say it’s not about the left and right it’s about the power and powerless, then it’s about the left and the right, because the right typically is the system of power and the left is trying to change that power. It’s not always that simple but it’s broadly true, and that broadly true political, the right/left dichotomy broadly does explain the world, that the typical centers of power that she’s referencing corporations, the military, industrial complex, wealthy interests influencing politics, environmental destruction, oil companies, these are on the right. What I think she means to say is it’s not about Democrat and Republican, which is slightly more true, but also equally pretty fatuous if you don’t really explain what precisely you mean by that, and whether or not you think the problem with Democrats is that they’re too right or too left. And again, I know that the average person cannot necessarily fit into these gradients of right and left but I do think broadly speaking politicians do and should, because that’s the way in which politics articulate themselves, and this is a similar framing that is popular with Andrew Yang.
Nima: Yeah, I think one of the best recent examples, and in part, the impetus for this entire episode is the rhetoric of Andrew Yang and his so-called “Forward Party.” Now, Yang famously trial-ballooned his above-the-fray kind of message during his techno-libertarian campaign for the 2020 presidency. Here is Andrew Yang speaking at the second 2020 Democratic debate.
AndrewYang: I have done the math. It’s not left. It’s not right. It’s forward and that is how we’re going to beat Donald Trump in 2020.
Nima: So, Yang has continued this ever since. Of course, his putative third party, Forward, was officially formed in October 2021 as a political action committee, a PAC. In July 2022, the already dubious Forward Party merged with the equally dubious Serve America Movement, as well as the Renew America Movement, both of them helmed by current and/or former Republican political officials. Now, Yang quickly got to work as Forward’s hype man, co-authoring an announcement of the party’s formation with the other parties’ top brass, which the WashingtonPost ran on July 27, 2022. Here’s an excerpt outlining the party’s centrist bona fides, complete with cartoon-villain depictions of — what else? — not the right, but the quote-unquote “far left.”
Nima: Here is from the party platform, quote:
“On guns, for instance, most Americans don’t agree with calls from the far left to confiscate all guns and repeal the Second Amendment, but they’re also rightfully worried by the far right’s insistence on eliminating gun laws. On climate change, most Americans don’t agree with calls from the far left to completely upend our economy and way of life, but they also reject the far right’s denial that there is even a problem. On abortion, most Americans don’t agree with the far left’s extreme views on late-term abortions, but they also are alarmed by the far right’s quest to make a woman’s choice a criminal offense.”
Adam: Here’s these two positions that I’ve kind of straw manned and and we’re right in the middle, and the middle, the golden mean fallacy on steroids here.
Nima: That’s right.
Adam: And so he posted a pic, he posted this picture on Twitter. It is just two panels, one of which says “Partisans” and the other one says “Forwardists,” we’ll put it in the show notes.
Nima: It’s a square divided into two rectangles side by side. Right.
Adam: Side by side “Forwardists” is a triangle with three different sub triangles. Anyway, it’s obviously bullshit. It was pretty skewed media. We’re not saying anything new. This was from August of 2022.
Nima: So, Andrew Yang tweets these two images out, “Partisans” versus “Forwardists,” right, with this message, quote, “If we stay falsely divided by the media into two camps we clash and clash and nothing gets done. But if a new dynamic emerges real change is possible.”
Adam: What does that mean? I don’t know what that means.
Nima: Means he’s moving forward Adam.
Adam: So as others have noticed, and I wrote on my Substack, I wrote an article called “Andrew Yang and the Superficial Appeal of the ‘I’m Not Left or Right’ Guy.” The Forward Party is bankrolled and merged with the Renew America and Serve America PACs, whose funders are not transparent. However, you can infer some of their funders, they’re similar to other third way initiatives, where they’re funded by wealthy backers. This project is backed by Silicon Valley, hedge fund, and Wall Street money. As Rafael Shimunov has noted, Serve America Movement’s co-founder Eric Grossman led Morgan Stanley’s legal department, while Christine Todd Whitman, co-founder of the Renew America Movement and former governor of New Jersey, is a banking heir and a big fan of stop-and-frisk. Additionally, Serve America is majority funded by former vice chairman of Philip Morris, Charles W. Wall, of the getting kids to smoke cigarettes fame. And so when he first announced it last year, everyone’s like, ‘Okay, this looks stupid,’ but seemed harmless enough, but then he re re launched it this August, and it was clear that he was merging with Republican-backed, corporate funded-backed organizations. So we’re just rehashing third way? Well, a lot of people are fooled by this shit. I mean, Andrew Yang does have followers. But we want to be very clear here before we move on to our guest, there are legitimate frustrations with our two party system.
Nima: Yeah, there’s a reason why this is so appealing, right? And it’s kind of what makes a lot of this third way, neither right nor left messaging so kind of sneaky and insidious, because yeah, in large part, it tries to address or it kind of pretends that it’s going to address a very real public frustration with American institutions, with American media, with American political mechanisms. It’s a lot of what we actually talk about on this show. It’s just that it’s not done genuinely.
Adam: Well, it’s not channeled to actually good things.
Nima: But this is a widespread feeling, right? This frustration with a political party binary, where, you know, neither party can be trusted. In a January 2022 NBC News poll, 44 percent of participants said they viewed the Republican Party negatively, while 48 percent said they viewed the Democratic Party negatively.
Confidence in American political institutions is also incredibly low. Earlier this year, Gallup found that only 23 percent of poll respondents had a, quote, “great deal/quite a lot” of trust in the US presidency. For Congress, that number, as always, bottom of the barrel, this year it was 7 percent approval. Also according to Gallup, as of July 2022, just 16 percent of American adults said they had, quote, “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in newspapers. For TV news, it was 11 percent. Now, both readings were down five percentage points since the previous year’s poll. Gallup reported these numbers as record lows.
Adam: So, there’s obviously widespread frustration with this idea that both parties are working for the same people, again, this gets muddied and all kinds of bumper sticker politics about how they’re all the same, it’s everyone just looking out for number one kind of, you know, sort of faux populist rhetoric, and there’s a real place for those who are trying to advance some more left-wing economic populist agenda, whether it be candidate or particular proposal, there’s a real opportunity to take that vague kind of generic frustration that a lot of Americans have, and channel it into things that are good, and there’s a real opportunity for people on the left or people who are trying to create a working class movement, of working class policies to speak to that frustration, but there’s so much money and so much incentive and so much media attention paid for those on the right or on the corporate center, which is really the right, another version of the right, or the fascist right, to take those frustrations and channel them into what is either just churning out Republican votes or pushing the Democratic Party further to the right, and we think that that’s dangerous and that the frustrations are real and the vague feeling of sort of getting at something but it’s being misdirected by hucksters and demagogues.
Nima: To discuss this more, we’re now going to be joined by Osita Nwanevu, contributing editor at The New Republic and a columnist at TheGuardian. You can also find his writing at The New Yorker, Slate, and Harper’sMagazine. Osita will join us in just a moment. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by Osita Nwanevu. Osita, thank you so much for joining us again on Citations Needed.
OsitaNwanevu: Yeah, glad to be back. Thanks.
Adam: So, the not left or right guise, a spiritual successor to our episode on polarization, which you helped us out with some many, many, many months ago, because we think it sort of appeals to a similar current of narcissism and is equally kind of superficially attractive, it falls into the distinct category we can anti-politics, which is to say looking like you’re saying something profound, but most of the time, you’re really not. This third way gambit that we’ve discussed at the top of the show, it’s been around for a while, and takes on various iterations throughout the years, but the most recent and most popular version is this Forward Party fronted by former presidential candidate Andrew Yang and Silicon Valley guy, sort of vaguely, which is really kind of a rebranding of two different third way Republican groups, the Renew America movement and the Serve America movement.
Nima: They’re doing things to America, and now we’re moving forward.
Adam: Yeah, they merged back in August. So, to sort of start off with, I guess, I want to ask you why you think we keep rebooting and rebranding the same kind of vaguely post partisan, third parties. Obviously, third parties are nothing new, but there’s a specific kind of slick, GOP connected and conservative Democrat, frankly, connected, third way rebranding every five minutes. What is the sort of big picture here at play for the donors from your perspective, and why do you think it gets the same kind of credulous media coverage every five minutes?
OsitaNwanevu: Yeah, so first, is that I do think that, although that we’ve seen various iterations of this kind of third party movement before, this does seem to me, you know, not being a rich donor, but sort of like projecting and trying to imagine what it’s like to be rich donor for a second, it does seem to me that this is a little bit of a different political moment than what we’ve experienced when we’ve seen these kinds of third party efforts before. I think that for a lot of centrist donors, right now, they look to the Democratic Party, and they see still mostly in their nightmares more than in reality, but you sort of see social democratic energy that they’re kind of worried and anxious about. They sort of were spooked by the Bernie Sanders movement and are wondering about the extent to which Democratic Party can retain a more centrist character, and I think that they look at the right right now in the Republican Party, and they see a party that while it hasn’t actually substantively broken from corporate America in any real way, it’s a party where you’re hearing more and more people talk about woke capital, talking about how mad conservative voters are about corporate diversity and climate investment, and so you know, again, while there hasn’t been a kind of substantive break we see in policy, it does feel very uncomfortable right now on the right in certain ways, and in ways I think are new to a lot of centrists. The other thing too I think they’re worried about is that if the Republican Party keeps going off the wall with cultural politics, I think there is an anxiety that that will lead to the Democratic Party, and it’s this kind of social democratic ferment that’s happening on our side of things, that we hope is happening, they see the cultural politics of the right as a point of vulnerability that might allow for more progressive politics to succeed. So I think that that is an impetus or set of motivating factors that are driving a kind of third way reinvigoration of interest in this kind of movement, again. But whenever these movements come up, I think it’s primarily a matter of trying to discipline the two parties and trying to push a particular set of narratives within the media. I don’t think anybody gives to Andrew Yang, with the expectation that the Forward Party is actually going to replace the Democratic Party or Republican Party, that it’s going to become a genuinely major party that’s going to contest elections in a real way. But I do think that centrist donors see it as a way that they can keep putting out a certain set of messages into the media. Entrepreneurs are good, low taxes are good, get out of the way of business, and work with them to achieve the social, and economic goals we all want. They want a kind of reliability, instead of institutions, putting those messages out there all the time, and I think they look at the Democratic Party and Republican Party right now, and they’re wondering whether or not those institutions are going to get the job done in the same way that they have in the past.
Adam: Yeah, it seems very much a sort of, kind of disciplining mechanism of the Democratic Party specifically.
Nima: The party to restore sanity.
Adam: Yeah, which is to say, you know, the only time you really see third way in the media anymore, and they’ve kind of morphed into a weird, initially they were supposedly, they put this pretend Thomas Friedman talking about, ‘I run for office,’ that, of course, never happened. But a lot of these groups and similar groups like Serve America Movement, Renew American Movement, the only time you really see them is really when they’re providing a foil in some left punching story in The New York Times about how progressives have gone too far, you’ll see like, third way says we need to not defund the police or third way is worried about immigration rhetoric that seems too inclusive. They sort of just show up, they constantly play the role of capital “V,” capital “C,” capital “V,” Very Concerned Voter, and they’re presented as this sort of, where the kind of gravity of the moderate center, the moderate center is implicitly viewed as being good and moral and democratic, that is sort of representative of this sort of normal center.
Nima: Non extreme.
Adam: Non extreme. And then otherwise, it’s not really clear what they do. I think they do some research here and there, and again, this is kind of the ghost of the previous iteration of third way, they’ve kind of morphed into another organization, as we discussed at the top of the show, but they mostly sort of exist to pop their heads in and talk about how far left the Democrats have gone, that seems to be their primary function, and it seems like they wanted to kind of reboot that by picking off this energy, this Yang kind of quasi subversive, even vaguely Bernie adjacent, just people who are just vaguely mad, and it seems like Yang was the kind of the face of that because his candidacy didn’t have, you know, some organic buy in to it. Yeah, I think it seems like it’s mostly just a disciplining apparatus. It’s a thing that shows up and then slaps the squad back into line every five minutes.
Nima: But that said, you know, I’m going to play the role, uncharacteristically maybe, of genuinely concerned voter here, right? And kind of throw out the idea here Osita that this isn’t just always the third way ploy. This isn’t always just a vanity thing, sparked only by donors. But there is maybe some kind of popular-ish appeal here, right? Genuine, widespread frustration in American voters that the two party system is broken or never has worked, it stifles people’s voices, stifles this idea of true democracy. Clearly, both parties are captured by wealthy elites that largely agree on many issues. Certainly foreign policy is one of them. Probably anti unionism is another one. Polls show Americans are increasingly cynical about this quote-unquote “system” we have. Media is no good. Institutions are no good. Post office is no good. Congress is the worst, can’t trust anyone. And so this skepticism about elites, and our political system is very real. So, where do you think this kind of Yang, third way, neither left nor right guy schtick kind of lands in that? Where do you think there is kind of genuine support there, and how does that square with the fact that the donors are just the same donors for the rest of our political system, so therefore, maybe there isn’t really a difference there?
OsitaNwanevu: You know, I definitely don’t think we should give short shrift to the fact that two party systems suck, and that our two parties do genuinely suck. They are really terrible, and if you ask the American people, we’ve seen this in survey after survey over years now, American people very clearly do want more options in our politics, you get high support in these surveys for the notion of a third party. Get very vague and kind of cloudy when it comes to what kind of choices that third party would actually represent as a matter of policy, but I do think that the basic intuition that American people should have more choices when they go to the polls, more viable choices that is, because they are other parties, is basically correct. The issue with Yang’s effort, is that it tries to position itself outside of politics and outside of ideology in a way that doesn’t satisfy I think that yearning, and that genuine, legitimate desire. So if somebody came along and said, ‘Look we need a left-wing party that is going to stand firmly for socialism is going to be a workers party or, you know, for social democratic values, we need some kind of distinctly progressive political party that will stand apart and aside from Democratic Party,’ that would make some sense. Frankly, I wouldn’t like it as much, but if Andrew Yang came out and said, ‘Look, I’m going to join up with Liz Cheney, and we’re going to do a conservative party that is self consciously and proudly conservative, but it’s for laissez faire economics and we’re going to get rid of all the culture war stuff, and we’re just going to do rapacious, clear cut capital,’ that would make the kind of ideological sense, right?
Nima: There would be something genuine in that, yeah.
Adam: Yeah, that’s actually how they marketed the original tea party, right? And then they ended up just banning abortion. But they were like, ‘Oh, we’re not about cultural issues. We’re just about economics.’ And I was like, ah, then they got in power and were like, ‘Oh, by the way, let’s chain the women to the radiator.’
OsitaNwanevu: Right. But so what Yang is doing is neither of those things. He’s saying that we’re going to create a party that is distinct for being not ideological, we’re not conservative, we’re not liberal, we can draw people in from either side that what we’re going to do is try to get the good ideas, the best ideas from where we find them, and just sort of cobble them together, and it’s going to be post ideological, and it’d be a way of bringing people together, and that’s the kind of pitch you get for a lot of these efforts, no labels is the one I think about a lot. But in practice, what you end up getting, if you actually look at the content of their platforms, most of the time is a kind of center, right, pro business, anti regulation, but you know, not quite as nakedly evil, as you know, dyed in the wool Republicans, that ends up being what you get in substance. The thing I think is interesting about Yang’s effort, though, and maybe a little bit distinct, and that speaks to the nature of this particular political moment and what’s novel about it, is that he seems to be front ending democracy. So if you go to the platform page, the first things you’ll see, I think, maybe the only things you’ll see, I tried clicking around, I didn’t really find anything else on there, but you have a set of democratic reforms. They talk about redistricting reform, they talk about protecting the votes and all things that I think most people, at least on the left side of things, would think that, you know, that’s good. People should be allowed to vote and not have their ballots thrown away and we shouldn’t have elections being overturned. That’s great. Why is that a distinct set of goals now or why should we understand that is something we have to detach from things like the For the People Act and rent electoral reforms, the Democratic Party has been pushing. I think the goal there is to say that look, you can have the pro democracy stuff as its own thing without attaching yourself to the rest of the Democratic policy agenda in terms of economics and all these other things Democrats want to run for it, there should be a way of talking about democracy and talking about only those narrow reforms that are inoffensive, and that aren’t attached to sort of expanding the actual power of ordinary people in this country. Separate that out, get people to think that this is democracy, and leave the other stuff aside, right?
OsitaNwanevu: And again, the point of this, I don’t think is to replace either party or to genuinely put Andrew Yang up there as the guy who’s going to be president or whoever they run as candidates, but I do think it is a means of saying in the media and to put out, you know, in newspaper columns, and in interviews and whatever else, the idea that we should be able to talk about democracy in a way that is non ideological, and that doesn’t lead to the empowering of the Democratic Party and it’s sort of political coalition. I think that’s the distinct goal.
Nima: That’s the secret sauce there.
Adam: Yeah, 90 percent of their platform is process. I mean, that’s what’s so fascinating, like we were talking about at the top of the show, but it’s like, no labels did a ton of stuff around oh, we’re going to fight for election reform and rank choice voting.
Nima: Just like vaguely pro democracy stuff.
Adam: These things that sort of sound good and they poll very well, polls love the stuff.
Nima: But the thing is that, fundamentally they exist, because they’re not, you can say you’re for that stuff, right? ‘We stand for common sense and good ideas.’
Nima: Because everything that they refuse to do, it’s kind of embedded exactly in what you said, Osita, which is they refuse to examine why there are those problems, they’re anti the problems, right? ‘We are anti-voter suppression, we think everyone’s voices should be heard,’ but then they’re not going to say why there’s voter suppression or who is suppressing votes, for what purpose, it’s just like problems exist from nowhere, and so you need good ideas, and market solutions, and then that’s their entire non platform.
Adam: Yeah, because one of the things I do want to talk about something that is distinct about the Yang iteration of this schtick, which is that he focuses a lot on quote-unquote “cancel culture.” In 2019 when he ran, I sort of was trying to figure out what his schtick was or what his appeal was, because he did have some small, quite a few small donors — he also had a lot of very large donors, Silicon Valley where he’s from — and I remember thinking, oh, this is the candidate for people who either have been canceled or are worried about being canceled, and he talked in his kind of very quiet, very reassuring, almost like a therapist, or like a hostage negotiator, kind of tone about how he was going to be more inclusive, and he wasn’t going to judge you, and we can’t judge people, there’s this sort of defensiveness, where he leads everything with, if you feel like you’re being pushed out of both parties, or you’re being canceled by the left, and you’re being, you know, you’re not a radical right-winger you can kind of come to us, and there is a sort of, kind of vague inclusive theme there, right? It sort of seems forgiving, like you’re going to be forgiven. I want you to comment on this concept, because basically, I think part of his appeal was that there exists in the center or center left in this country a contingency who thinks that the sort of woke police, as it were, have gone too far, and that we need someone to kind of come in, you see this a lot in center left media, the sort of the Atlantic, the you know, John Chait’s of the world. Do you think that that has any sort of meaningful appeal? Why is that now the thing a bunch of Republican donors are pumping money into? Do you think that has maybe some legs in terms of a political coalition or is that just like Atlantic writership?
OsitaNwanevu: I think it’s just about Atlantic writership. It’s not to say that there aren’t voters who are hopping mad about canceled culture who think that it is a deeply important issue, and they’re worried about online censorship and the fact that you can’t say the n-word and that there’s a constituency of voters like that, and they’re called Republicans. There’s enough people who are up for grabs in politics. As a wider issue, there have been several polls about this over the last couple of years. You ask the general American public, you know, are you sort of anxious about the extent to which people can’t say things or express themselves anymore in certain ways? And yeah, you know, you get a proportion, Americans who are thinking that way, and who have those anxieties. Is the live voting issue that’s driving the electorate? No, not in any way. I think Data for Progress did a poll actually earlier this year where they found, you know, north of 70 percent of people say that they don’t personally know anybody who’s been canceled. You know, it’s ridiculous to even have to ask these questions. But like, if you ask the American people what is actually going to sway their vote in November, what actually is at the front of their minds, it’s inflation, it’s abortion, it’s immigration, it’s crime, it’s jobs. It’s the central state of issues that determines every election, and you get the most talk about cancel culture and most sort of active, the most angst about it amongst people who are already conservatives and biting a lot of conservative media who are never going to change their vote anyway, and amongst political elites, and even frankly, even there, and I’ve been heartened to see that we’ve, I think we’ve had fewer and fewer of these, these columns now than we did maybe a year ago, two years ago, I think people are sort of tired out, it was always kind of a journalistic fat. That being said, I really do hope that when it comes time to vote in November, people are going to go around to the polls and meet up with people after they come out of the ballot box and genuinely ask them, you know, how much did Kanye West factor into the decision you just made in the voting booth? I really do hope we see that as a way of sort of putting this whole thing to bed.
Adam: Yeah, because I actually did a survey for an article I wrote for my column, where I looked at the Atlantic, New York Times and The Washington Post, and found they had read 28 different stories on canceled culture from May 1 to July 24 of this year — because I was comparing it to the how many stories they did on the overheating and prisons, and it was zero — and it definitely seems like, again, I’m not saying there are people who are concerned with cancel culture, but you’re right, they’re sort of mostly just Republicans or Republican voters, I should say, and this does seem, again, like third way or labels is kind of another avenue to sort of get more publicity. It’s a publicity machine in some sort of key ways, the goal is to kind of keep your face in front of the camera and keep your ink in the column space of the Atlantic or the WashingtonPost, and Yang has written several op-eds, sort of talking about the Forward Party, and there does seem like there’s an anxiety, you know, every time that Politico does these leaks about, you know, the Democratic consultants are worried about X, the sort of woke too far stuff. I mean, they do these all the time, and WashingtonPost just had one again, where they say they think the party is too much associated with being a bunch of —
Adam: Pro defund, scolds, and canceling this, and again, it’s a gradient, but the anxieties of the donor classes, which I think is the reason why Yang is attracted those same donors, does seem to focus on this idea, and I think the concern is bullshit, I think they’re ideologically more conservative, right? I think the concern is pretextual. It’s sort of, you can’t say, ‘I don’t like this thing, because I think men should be able to sexual harass, and we should drop the n-word.’ That sounds bad. You say, ‘Oh, voters are going to be concerned.’ Bill Maher does this all the time, you know, ‘I don’t care, but you know, Joe Sixpack in the swing state of Michigan cares.’ It does seem like there’s a focus on that as being part of the Democratic brand, which is ironic is Biden’s president. He’s like the least —
OsitaNwanevu: Well, this is kind of the point I’ve been making since the beginning of this presidency. I mean, if you wanted to have a battle within the Democratic Party about its overall direction, and you wanted to elevate a candidate who is going to stay to the middle of the country, and not try to push too many buttons, and Joe Biden was that person and he won the primary and he won the election, and to the extent that he is still facing political problems, he’s still underwater, you know, in terms of popularity, that should be an indication that all of that wasn’t enough, right? There’s something more that people expect from politics than somebody who’s going to flatter their sensibilities and seem like a stable, easygoing, kind of not PC guy. There’s more to it than that, right? We saw that with Obama. We’ve played this over and over again.
Nima: They’re both the third way guy.
Adam: That’s what’s so funny about this whole thing is that they won. Economically, again, maybe they’re more pro-union than they’d like, but like they’ve mostly won, and that’s what makes this so frustrating. Yang says, you know, we’re not left and we’re not right, and like, yeah, you’re fucking the Democratic Party.
Nima: That’s Joe Biden, who like, yeah, you want your guy to kind of not be that into cultural accountability for things and maybe pinches a waitress’ butt sometimes you’re like, ‘That’s my guy!’ ‘That’s my Yang!’ And they have that and yet, right, as you’re saying, clearly there is something more that’s expected. It’s not as pat as just ‘Oh, we want neither left nor right,’ because I guess maybe, do you think the idea that anyone is actually non ideological just falls flat on its face, like people maybe like to think they’re not, but actually know that they are.
OsitaNwanevu: Yeah, and we see that sort of empirically. So people who call themselves Independents, for instance, it’s this open secret, I guess, in political science, or people who actually look at these numbers, that most of the people are reliable partisans, they just call themselves independent, because they’ve been told by the press, and by culture, that being in the middle and not being attached to either party too much, is the way to be. That’s how you’re a good political citizen. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never voted for a Republican, it’s a matter of just sort of distancing yourself culturally and is a matter of your disposition. People have real, you know, they’re fuzzy, and they’re not always well defined, and they can contradict themselves in certain places. But people have real political and ethical intuitions that shape their politics and that’s fine. I mean, it’s how politics works. That’s how democracy should work. This idea that politics only works if you sort of abstract yourself into this entity with no commitments and you’re just sort of this thicket of ideas from nowhere, that you have to sort of combine in the right ways to solve problems. That’s not how society works. It’s not how people behave or function. And when we tell ourselves that I think that we do democracy a real disservice, and we make it work worse than it should.
Adam: So that’s a good segue to our next question, which is, I want to sort of do a little bit of pop psychology here, not to pathologize too much, but I do think there is something kind of uniquely American, again, it’s not unique to America, but I do think it’s more profound here, where there’s this idea that people don’t like to be labeled or boxed in. And you said, they’re kind of conditioned by media to think that as well, right? Bipartisanship is the holiest of holies but then when you get into the weeds of what people want, it sort of breaks down. Now, fundamentally, what kind of drove the impetus for this episode, and what made annoyed me more than sort of ideological beef with is that having grown up in an Evangelical Church and sort of seeing how you kind of work over an audience, the not right and left play was such an obvious smarm hucksterism, because it’s a vanity play, and Glenn Beck was so good at this. Glenn Beck was the master at this. ‘You’re not left, you’re not right. You just want politicians to work for you. You work hard all day, and you put your feet up afterward.’ It’s like there’s this appeal to narcissism. ‘You’re this Maverick, you’re above the fray, you’re not the left or the right, you’re not Democrat or Republican. You’re a free thinking fucking libertine.’ And there’s such working of the audience, there’s so much flattery of the audience that it just makes me want to fucking throw up because it’s like, you can just see this sort of smarm. It’s audience work.
Adam: And Yang is very, very good at this audience work, and it’s sounds, again, because it superficially appeals to people’s narcissism. It’s like, yeah, totally man. I’m above it all.
Nima: But that’s why we’re told to love John McCain, because he’s the same kind of Maverick, even though he’s a Republican.
Adam: So if you could indulge me for a second, could you kind of comment on that pathology? Again, maybe it’s not uniquely American, maybe it’s universal, but can you comment on that pathology a little bit, and maybe, if you will, as a sort of second part to that, talk about how that can maybe be directed into some policy that’s good. Because I actually think that Bernie Sanders did that, too. But I do think he actually had very high numbers with independents, and he did kind of appeal to this post-politics, but then I felt like, and not to be too much of a Stan here, but he would then kind of redirect you into something resembling a kind of social democracy. Can you both comment on the sort of huckster kind of con man play, and then say, well, maybe that con man play, how can you channel that into non evil shit?
OsitaNwanevu: Yeah, I mean, so I don’t know if that attitude or the desire to be seen as fully independent of external influences and attachments to ideology, I don’t know if that’s distinctly American, and might be, but one thing I do think is distinctly American — I’m going to sound like a broken record on this, for anybody who’s ever read me or heard me in these interviews — one thing that is distinctly American is the American Constitution, and I think it matters not just in the sense that it’s a bad political system that we’re working with, but it matters in the sense that it produces a particular kind of political culture. So every American goes through school, and comes away having been told we have the greatest rootin tootin democracy that anybody has ever created, we have this perfect document that was handed down to us from the clouds by these perfect men. It is this perfectly balanced system. All the pieces work really well, they were ingeniously designed, it’s great. And if you’re told this throughout your education, if the message is being reinforced by the media, if it’s actually being reinforced too but our political readers, at some point, you have to start asking yourself, well, if the system is so perfect, then why is it that we can’t get the things that we need to get done done? Why is it that workers don’t have enough power? Why is it that I can’t afford health insurance? Why is it that I can’t afford housing? Why do we still have these problems if the system itself is so great? I think that the answer that a lot of Americans turn to is, well it must be the temperament and the attitudes of the people who are occupying the system. If only these damn politicians in Washington, these clowns in Congress could get their act together and use this perfect system we’ve been handed down and the right way, then all these problems would be solved. It becomes a matter of figuring out the right political personality, and that can mean two different things. That can mean, what we’ve been talking about this episode, this kind of the sense that the right way to be as political actors is to detach yourself from ideology, become this kind of automaton that sort of rationally, independently sort of comes up with political solutions that are just kind of correct in this kind of abstract, nonpartisan way. That’s one way to do it. But the other version of that is actually Trump, right? The other version of that is saying, ‘Look, these guys can’t get their act together, we need somebody who’s a strong personality, who knows how to get things done from the business world, who can’t be bought because he’s a billionaire, that’s the kind of guy we need to put into our politics, and that’s going to make all the gears start turning the way that they’re supposed to,’ right? These are two sides of the same coin, the coin of understanding our political problems, as problems of personality and temperament manifested within political leadership when the problems we actually face are structural. Structural in terms of the design of our political institutions, and as far as the structure of the economy is concerned, but the American people aren’t told that. We don’t have a language really for discussing that in our politics still in the way that we ought to and so we keep coming back to these solutions that are about civility and comedy and compromising and all this kind of stuff, or conversely: fascism. Where we are going to now on the right. So that’s a long winded answer but I do think that that is, if there is a distinctly American political personality that is operative here, and that is fueling these kinds of third way movements, or these kinds of movements from political outsiders, it stems, I think, from the particular defects of the American system, and the fact that we aren’t encouraged to think critically about those defects, and I think this relates to the Bernie thing too, because, you know, as much as I really liked the Bernie Sanders platform, that was why I liked him as a candidate, for a lot of people it was about, you know, Bernie seems like a good guy, right? Bernie seems like a guy who was independent. I don’t know, you know, I haven’t read his website, I don’t know exactly what he’s talking about when he talks about labor rights, or this or that, but he seems like an earnest genuine person, he wears these like rumble clothes, and so he’s the kind of person who is not like those other politicians, he has the right kind of personality to go in there and change things. It helped Bernie Sanders, you know, as a political figure, but it still was not engagement with political institutions and economic structures in the way that I’m talking about. It’s still a kind of absence there that’s going to keep us going around and round in circles unless we’re willing to talk specifically and directly about power.
Adam: Yeah, because I think that people vaguely sense something’s wrong, and you’re right, because they don’t have the grammar to talk about the existential nature of these problems it really does become a, yeah, let’s sort of pick the guy with the right personality. I feel like we’d be remiss to not sort of acknowledge that that kind of genuineness is filtered through gender and racial lenses pretty profoundly.
Nima: But that’s what I think makes the whole Andrew Yang thing fascinating, because it’s not like there’s a personality to glom on to, it’s almost like, through all that, without investigating the systems, you rely, as you said Osita, on individuals, right? So, it’s the individuals who keep fucking this up, because we’re led to believe that the system is infallible, but people aren’t the problem. So who do we need? And then you’re like, okay, well, you can have what the media are telling us and what we can sometimes see as blowhard politicians on the left or the right, and what we want is someone who seems to care less, like why do people care so much in such loud ways? Why can’t we just have the quiet middle?
Nima: I think that’s this weird creation of this Forward Party nonsense that is almost like, yeah, yeah, you know, we know your concerns, but we’re not going to scream about it, and we’re not gonna go too far in either direction, we’re just kind of take these problems from nowhere, and bring them to the market, and that will be the solution. And people are like, yeah, alright. Except, again, who is actually supporting that? As you’ve been saying, is there an actual constituency there or is it really just donor forward, the forward in the Forward Party is actually donor forward?
OsitaNwanevu: I guess, in the same sense that I said that there was a constituency for the kind of raging anti cancel culture stuff and it’s on the right, I think that there is a constituency for the kind of mild mannered, ‘Oh, you know, let’s just sort of come together and figure out what works’ stuff. And it’s people who are already Democrats. I mean, those people exist. I don’t think that they’re a huge part of the electorate, but to the extent that they are a part of the electorate, I think you’ll find most of them comfortably ensconced within the Democratic Party, and I think those people to probably have a healthy distrust for people who, you know, like Yang are doing the same thing, but outside the bounds of the party. So yeah, I mean, I think that the only people who sort of not tethered down to a camp right now who are going to be receptive to Yang’s message are political donors who I think we know have real material interests in propping up these ventures over and over and over again. I don’t know that there’s any kind of mass support beyond that.
Adam: Andrew Yang shared a meme that one of his fans, who may or may not be organic, posted and it was like, ‘The corporations control both parties,’ and if you actually look at the corporations the one that’s under Democrat includes like five major unions, and I’m like, wait a second, those are corporations? You know, it was just such a fatuous vanity play that you sort of never have to make sense. It’s kind of just, you just have to sort of sound good to a certain group of, frankly, low information voter and maybe that’s sort of the point of this episode is I’m trying to reach maybe some of those people being like you’re being fucking scammed. By no means in a million years am I ever telling you you need to be a Democrat, because there are third parties, right? There are non parties, there are anarchists and communists and socialists and sort of all these sorts of various tendencies, there’s people who are syndicalists or whatever, union whatever. Go to do that. I don’t really care what your ism is, but don’t do whatever this fucking slick bullshit is.
Nima: So this has been great. But before we let you go Osita, we’d love to hear about the book you’re writing, you are what I can only imagine is mercifully offline right now, so congratulations for that. But it may be in service to the book that you are writing, which is called The Right of the People. Please tell us about it and let our listeners know when they can look out for it.
OsitaNwanevu: Yeah, so I’m extremely offline right now, and it is entirely in service to this book that I’ve been working on for the past year. It’s still a while out, I think it’s going to be 2024. But it is about basically what I was talking about in response to I guess a couple of questions ago. It is about American democracy from a kind of structural perspective. I think, as I’ve written before, people know this if they follow my writing, the American Constitution is just irreparably bad. We need to get to a point, not tomorrow, not in the next 25, 50 years, but a time where we do replace it with something else, and it needs to be part of an active conversation in politics, about how we get there, and the steps we can take to improve political democracy along the way. But I think another thing that I’m saying in this book, that I think is equally as important, is that democracy cannot function well and we can’t really say that we have achieved democracy as long as ordinary people are denied real agency and authority within the economy. Without that, political democracy doesn’t work very well and people are subjected within the economy to amounts of arbitrary authority that we would not accept from a state. You know, in the places where we spend most of our time, most of our lives, in places where we derive our livelihoods, we take it for granted that democratic principles don’t apply. Even though decisions are being made at the top of corporations often affect us much more directly, and much more immediately than decisions being made in Washington or in our state house or city hall. That’s not good. We can’t abide that if we really care about democracy. And so the conversation about bringing America closer to democracy for real, has to be not only improving our political institutions, but bringing democratic values to the economy, and I think that’s going to be kind of, that is, I think, novel grounds for the American progressive movement, you add a little bit of talk about ideas in this vein, of course the primary advanced by both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, but I think that in the years ahead, we’re going to need to be talking a lot more about economic democracy and how we can bring it about.
Nima: Well, that sounds absolutely fantastic. I can’t wait to read that book, even if I have to wait until 2024. But we will leave it there. We have been speaking with Osita Nwanevu, contributing editor at The New Republic and a columnist at The Guardian. You can also find his work at such publications as The New Yorker, Slate, and Harper’s Magazine. And as just discussed, he is currently writing a book on American democracy called The Right of the People. So look out for that. Osita, thank you again, so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
OsitaNwanevu: Thanks for having me.
Adam: Yeah, I think what Osita said about it being a kind of brand of politics is true. It’s very much an aesthetic, that even if, you know, 95 percent of what Donald Trump promotes is boilerplate Republican policy, corporate tax cuts, bloating the military budget, you know, etcetera, but he has this aesthetic of being —
Nima: Yeah, it’s a vibe.
Adam: And I think there’s nothing inherently wrong with the vibe. Again, Bernie Sanders has that vibe, to some extent, it’s an aesthetic, but it’s channeled into something that we would argue is far more humane, valuable and genuinely populace than what Trump sells, and I think that people want someone who can speak to those frustrations, and, you know, all politicians do it. It’s, to some extent, everybody has some bullshit applause line about, you know what I mean? Biden, does it. Bush did it. I mean, everybody does it.
Nima: Well, because you don’t want to be like I am and idealogue, right? Because then that’s like the worst thing you could be in American politics.
Adam: Yeah. You want to be everything to everybody.
Nima: We’re all smart. We’re going to go forward together.
Nima: We’re going to be forwardists.
Adam: I do think it’s like 60 percent sort of what people are conditioned to think. I think it’s a top down thing, but a part of me thinks that is also just kind of like 70 percent a top down kind of propaganda thing that’s captured most people’s understanding of politics, and I do think it’s born from an organic frustration, but I think it’s like 30 percent really just a vanity thing. Not to psychoanalyze too much, but I really do think it’s like, everybody wants to be a Maverick, and that rhetoric appeals to that kind of narcissism which is why it’s so popular.
Nima: I’m not captured by any one way of thinking.
Adam: Yeah. Nobody wants to be in the box, man.
Nima: ‘I’m outside the box.’
Adam: I’m not a joiner. I’m not a lever puller. I ride a motorcycle and smoke cigarettes and ride off into the sunset. Yeah, you know, that’s what I always, it’s like nails on a chalkboard to me when I see Andrew Yang, you know, it’s like, you know, you’re not about the right and left and Glenn Beck, you know, you criticize both parties. It’s like, shut up.
Nima: ‘I’m an independent. I’m non-partisan.’
Adam: It’s just so smarmy.
Nima: ‘I just also happen to believe in totally free trade and locking up all homeless people.’
Adam: Yeah. ‘I’m a rebel libertarian.’
Nima: ‘It’s incidental. I just follow the data.’
Adam: ‘My opinions are 87.6 percent what was Fox News.’ So pretty much they’ve done their job.
Nima: Right. Well, that will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Thank you all for listening. Of course, you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of the show through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support through Patreon is incredibly appreciated as we really are 100 percent listener funded. And as always a very special shout out goes to our critic level supporters through Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Our senior producer is Florence Barrau-Adams. Producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again everyone. We’ll catch you next time.
This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, November 9, 2022.
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to a Citations Needed News Brief. I am Nima Shirazi.
AdamJohnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: You can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated as we are 100 percent listener funded. We do these News Briefs in between our regularly scheduled full length episodes when, oh, I don’t know Adam, drug dealers from Mexico are putting drugs in our kids’ Skittles.
Adam: And China, don’t forget.
Nima: Oh right. It’s also the Chinese.
Adam: ‘China.’ The Chinese, the Mexican cartels.
Nima: Yes, the cartels are out to get our kids, and what is happening, we hear from our politicians and the press, is that we now have to look out for brightly colored fentanyl pills that are going to be snuck into our kids’ Halloween candy — for what purpose? I don’t know, getting them addicted and then murdering them.
[Begin Clip Montage]
Woman #1: Federal authorities want you to be aware of so-called rainbow fentanyl pills. The DEA warns the drug targets children because it looks like candy.
Man #1: This is a picture of real fentanyl. These are Sweet Tarts, and if you opened up this little container of Sweet Tarts, it would look about the same.
Man #2: With an estimated 12,000 fentanyl pills disguised as bags of candy and snacks.
Man #3: Parents need to hear with Halloween coming up. It’s about potentially deadly fentanyl pills that look like candy. Drug officials in New York confiscated 15,000 of the rainbow colored pills and many of them were hidden in a Lego box and they’re turning up all over the country.
Woman #2: This morning federal agents with an urgent warning to parents about rainbow fentanyl. Pills, the colors of candy.
Man #4: This is every parent’s worst nightmare as Halloween fast approaches.
Woman #3: This is a five alarm crisis and the Biden administration needs to step up, close our border and actually take this seriously.
[End Clip Montage]
Nima: Basically this moral panic, this mass hysteria, which is now spreading through the media and being boosted obviously by all manner of our elected officials, is something that we wanted to address today. It is the kind of next iteration, although it also harkens back to Halloween candy scares of yesteryear, but kind of the next iteration of this, you know, cops looked at maybe where fentanyl once was and passed out, those kinds of stories, and so who better to have on our show to discuss this hysteria, Adam, then friend of the show Zach Siegel, journalist and researcher and at this point Citations Needed’s own senior drug correspondent. Zach is also the co-writer of Substance, a newsletter about drugs and crime, which is written with journalist Tana Ganeva, also who has been a guest of the show, and you can find Substance at Substack and the URL is tanag.substack.com. Zach, senior drug correspondent to Citations Needed. Welcome back to the show.
ZacharySiegel: [joking] Hey, guys, I’m on the scene at LAX where the security just nabbed a pervert with Halloween candy going through security!
Adam: So, the best part of the story, which we’re not going to get into, I just want to throw it out there, is that allegedly they caught someone with 12,000 pills, which is a lot of pills, at LAX, Los Angeles airport, and then like a throwaway line in the initial sheriff’s press release and then the initial report by ABC was ‘Oh, the suspect got away,’ and it’s like, wait a second, how do you get out of an airport? I mean, LAX is like the most secure place on Earth. The guy just got away?
Nima: I can only imagine this was done by taking a handful of the pills and throwing them behind him as he ran away and then all the cops banana peeled it and fell on their butts and it was hilarious.
Adam: I know that technically TSA doesn’t have the authority to arrest you but I know that there’s like a thousand airport security, Army, military customs agents who are deputized to arrest you so I don’t know how that works. But anyway.
Nima: This is the menace of the cartels, Adam.
Adam: Yeah, so just to set the table a little bit for those listening, there’s been kind of two parallel fentanyl-related Halloween themed panics in the last few months. It’s gotten more acute with this recent Los Angeles airport bust a couple of weeks ago. So there’s two kinds of parallel Halloween themed fentanyl related panics. There’s number one, there’s the rainbow fentanyl that we’ve heard about for a few weeks now, if not a couple months, about rainbow colored fentanyl meant to attract kids that they’re going to hand out on Halloween. And then you had this airport bust where allegedly Whoppers and Skittles packages were being used to put fentanyl in them. Of course, this was not an end user thing. They were not going to hand out the Whopper packages with fentanyl, that would obviously be somewhat unusual, not very effective in terms of poisoning people because you’d be like what is this random pill doing in a Whopper bag? But is in fact, was a sort of device to smuggle them in. So those are kind of the two big ones. This of course is a Vibe story, right? These stories are being pushed out by county sheriff’s departments who are all uniformly anti-Democrat — I think that’s pretty much fair to say — and police unions who vote for Republicans about ten to one, nine to one depending on the election, and Republican media and Republican aligned media and Republican politicians running for Congress. We’ve heard everybody from US House Representative candidate Ronny Jackson to Ken Buck to Congresswoman Debbie Lesko, to Herschel Walker, who told Sean Hannity on his radio show, quote, “Halloween is right around the corner. Right now China, who’s not our friend, is trying to dress fentanyl up to look like candy. So we got to be very vigilant about that.”
ZacharySiegel: Friends don’t do that to other friends.
Nima: That’s right.
Adam: Right and so every single news media outlet has covered it, all the Sinclair broadcast stations, KSAN, KTIV, KFVA, KWTX, Yahoo, News9, WGN, WHAS, Eleven, CBS Nightly News, like an official, you know, sort of ostensibly centrist news outlet did this sensationalist report.
Woman: Security check at LAX Airport in Los Angeles led to a disturbing discovery. 12,000 suspected fentanyl pills were found inside what appeared to be bags and boxes of Skittles, Whoppers and Sweet Tarts. The seizure of the deadly drugs prompted officials to warn parents to check their children’s Halloween candy after trick or treating this year.
Adam: CNN did something, Fox News has been running it nonstop. Obviously, this is a vibe story because as we mentioned, there’s kind of two things that dissect here. So I want to get to our guest, Zach, I want you to sort of chime in here. Start off if you would with the sort of second phase of this moral panic, which was the alleged fentanyl bust at LAX kind of seemingly lending credibility to this idea that children are going to get on Halloween night — by the way, if a child dies of an overdose, this episode is not going to age well — that is supposedly being given out to kids, presumably, while they’re transporting these very expensive drugs they forget, I guess, and then give the package to somebody? Start with that and the validity of that claim.
ZacharySiegel: I’ll try my best without having a brain aneurysm. So —
Adam: Okay please, I know it’s hard.
ZacharySiegel: The most recent airport kerfuffle, the drugs happen to be hidden, concealed away in boxes of candy, and I think rewinding back just like a week or two before that, there was a huge media event around fentanyl found in boxes of Legos, which are also fun things that children like. So what’s happening here is that the media or the police or just everybody seemingly has no idea or is just totally incompetent at their jobs, forget the fact that drugs are often smuggled in innocuous things that don’t draw attention, like a box of candy, a box of Legos, or through ports of entry, they are in trucks full of avocados, tractor trailers, hauling lines. This is how drug trafficking works.
Adam: They’re not typically in a package marked drugs is what you’re saying?
ZacharySiegel: Typically not.
Nima: So I should be very careful about guacamole at this point. That’s what I have now learned.
Adam: That is how Trump would do it because he would have emails being like “crime of the day,” but everyone else who has half a brain cell typically masks drugs. That’s the way smuggling works. Right?
ZacharySiegel: Right, and we are talking about street fentanyl here, we’re not talking about lab grade, pharmaceutically manufactured, FDA approved stuff you get from a hospital or a doctor, this is bathtub gin-style fentanyl, it’s made somewhere off in probably a very rural part of Mexico where there’s barrels of chemicals and a big witch’s stew of liquids, and this gets turned into fentanyl, and so to cross the border, it goes through ports of entry, and it’s hidden in, it could be in anything, literally it could be hidden in anything. And so the fact that suddenly the concealment has become an object of doom, basically —
Adam: Titillating headlines, yeah.
ZacharySiegel: Yeah, exactly. And so that’s really that kind of second whole wave that you’re talking about here. But with the LAX thing, what’s remarkable is just how dumb this drug trafficker appears to be just sending pills through a carry on. That’s bonkers because TSA agents, they’re mostly looking for bombs and metal guns, that’s the stuff that triggers that alarm. So to send 12,000 pills through airport security, can you imagine that? Walking through security with a bag of edibles or gummies or something. People get nervous and ditch it, right? This is so brazen to carry 12,000 pills through security, but maybe the guy’s really smart because they got away or this whole thing is fake and who knows what the fuck happened?
Adam: Right. Because this is very much vibes, which is obviously the goal is that this is, what we’re arguing in this episode, and when I’m arguing in an upcoming piece — if it hasn’t come out yet it will soon — is that obviously this is being pushed out by sheriff’s departments who are a hotbed of reaction and pro Trump sentiment. I think it’s fair to say, sheriff’s departments even way more than police departments, which is wild, when you think about it —
Nima: That’s saying a lot.
Adam: Are bastions of Trumpist sort of politics and panic around drugs, because the goal is to sort of, say, Halloween, drugs, October, two weeks before the midterms, week before the midterms, they want to kind of create this general sense of disarray. So the goal is to just put fentanyl and Halloween in the same headline because it’s about vibes. And so just at the risk of self plagiarizing, I don’t want to make this point twice, I’m actually going to read my tweet, because it’s really weird just because —
ZacharySiegel: Do it.
Adam: So I said, “In 2018 when a man was caught smuggling cocaine into Portugal using a fake butt we didn’t issue a warning to everyone who eats ass.” Which is a very vulgar way of saying that, I can’t think of any other time which the device for the smuggling has been presented as the device that’s going to go to some unsuspecting, I’ve never seen that before, right? Like you said, we have avocados, we have toaster ovens, we have coffee beans, we’ve never been like, watch your coffee after watching Beverly Hills Cop 2, watch your coffee that’s going to have cocaine in it.
Nima: Beverly Hills Cop 1. One, my friend.
Adam: Was it one? I’m sorry. I have never, ever seen that happen until this week where it’s that somehow that these drug dealers are going to take what is, I assume, $200,000 worth of fentanyl in some package and just give it to Jimmy.
Nima: Well, there’s also the idea here that drug dealers are going to fake our kids out by dropping expensive drugs into Halloween candy, and then what? Why is that possibly a good business practice? None of this makes fucking sense. It is all based on panic, and to kind of make this even more official, going beyond Sheriff’s Department panic, beyond cop panic, beyond political rhetoric, we saw in a US Drug Enforcement Administration, that’s the DEA, press release on August 30, DEA official Anne Milgram saying this quote, “Rainbow fentanyl — fentanyl pills and powder that come in a variety of bright colors, shapes and sizes — is a deliberate effort by drug traffickers to drive addiction amongst kids and young adults,” end quote. And so this is basically what was picked up on by everyone. Now Chuck Schumer is insisting that there be something like $300 million dedicated to fighting rainbow fentanyl.
Woman: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is warning about the dangers of rainbow fentanyl. He’s calling for an additional $290 million in funding to help in this drug fight. Senator Schumer says more drug dealers are pushing brightly colored fentanyl to make it more appealing to young teens and children.
Nima: So before we get any further, Zach, I’d love for you to talk to us about the kind of kernel of truth that then is allowed to pop into a full blown mass panic, the kind of, you know, mass panic pipeline. So what’s the real risk about fentanyl? It’s a high potency opioid, it is definitely responsible for many, many deaths, but talk to us about how that is then twisted and turned into this panic again and again, from everything from cops touching a pill to what we’re now seeing in the drug traffickers are out to get your suburban kids addicted to drugs.
ZacharySiegel: Right. So because this is like a Halloween special, we’ll go with the kind of urban legend theory here because this is a spooky story kind of a thing. It’s a vibe, like Adam is saying. And so in order for an urban legend, or a scary story, to have any pull in the real world, there has to be some actual horror happening in reality, to draw us, to pull us in, to make us believe it, and the horror here in real life is that more than 100,000 people in the last year have died from drug overdoses, and these deaths are totally preventable. These are needless, tragic deaths and they don’t need to be happening. Bad drug policy is no doubt producing so much of this mortality, and all of that is being totally obscured by the rainbow fentanyl panic and the Halloween candy scare stories and also with the police officers touching trace amounts of fentanyl and passing out. The real harm in all these stories is completely obscured, hidden, unspoken, unnamed, and that’s why this stuff matters, and that’s why I spend time going batshit crazy trying to issue correctives and talk about it, because fentanyl is actually a serious crisis right now, and on the street especially, the drug market, in various places, is totally contaminated if you’re trying to use cocaine, trying to take a bump at a bar, that could very well just fucking end it for you, and that is new and scary and isn’t really being metabolized or messaged around in any way. And so, the DEA, especially here, they could be issuing all kinds of pertinent public health information, they could be issuing very useful harm reduction messaging to the public, telling people to use fentanyl test strips, telling people where to get naloxone, it’s the opioid overdose antidote, it is how overdoses specifically from opioids get reversed. They reverse respiratory depression, naloxone knocks the opioid off of your receptor allowing you to breathe again. So all of this information is not being communicated whatsoever, and instead we’re getting the cartels want to kill your children, there is a plot to poison the youth of America, and what do we need? A more militarized drug war, we need the sheriff’s to audit your child’s candy this Halloween. We’re getting totally batshit useless directives.
Nima: It does kind of multiple things. It promotes law enforcement solutions as well as anti immigrant sentiment. So all of this does kind of a lot of heavy lifting.
ZacharySiegel: They call that a twofer.
Adam: Yeah, because, you know, that to me seems to be the thing that’s frustrating, because, you know, anytime you push back on these stories, you always get a lot of people say, ‘Oh, well, you know, fentanyl is a real threat, you don’t care about the real threat,’ and and I think we’ve used this analogy before, but it’s like as if it is the 18th century and someone is suffering, mental illness or a really bad fever, and I’m like, well, I don’t think the leeches are working, and they’re like, ‘Oh, you don’t want to fix the fever, or you don’t want to think, like you want them to die?’ And it’s like, no, your solution has absolutely no basis in reality, of course, I think a lot of them know that. I think they know it’s cynical bullshit. This is a public health issue that police departments lead the messaging on, they lead the charge on, they lead the social policy on. And so by definition, all their solutions are going to involve more arrests, more militarization, more raids, more border, sitting in front of a table with a big pile of pills saying we caught another baddie to get it off the streets. There’s, you know, people keep talking about after the drug war, post drug war, the drug war is still here, it’s the same shit. Again, we’ll have some more enlightened progressive branding around the margins. But fundamentally, you know, nothing really as much changed, especially when it comes to these quote-unquote “hard drugs.” And so I want to sort of back up here a bit and say, well, okay, again, because this is all about vibes and funding the police and dinging the Democrats before the midterms, I think that’s really obvious. This has absolutely nothing to do with trying to educate people about the threats of fentanyl. So if Zachary Siegel, tomorrow, was the head of the US policy for drug response, or something similar, obviously, pumping out these silly stories would not be your approach, what would be your approach? What would be kind of like a 1, 2, 3 step education policy you would have that you would try to disseminate to the media, again, assuming you lived in an alternate universe where people had an intelligent public health approach to these things, rather than just scare the shit out of fucking white women voters in the suburbs, which is clearly what they’re doing here, but what would you say the kind of top three messaging outputs would be for you?
ZacharySiegel: Right. I love the magic wand policy questions. So absolutely, the number one thing that everyone should know about is that whether you’re an entrenched IV drug user on the street, or a weekend warrior, or a finance bro doing bumps at the bar, the drugs out there are absolutely contaminated and baseline everyone has to know that, and what that does, it opens up the terrain for so many possibilities and solutions, and namely, we are just very much trapped in these prohibition markets, which it’s a good word for it because it doesn’t prohibit anything. Prohibition is not prohibiting the use of fentanyl. It’s not prohibiting the illicit manufacture, trafficking and retail level sales of this drug, and so it’s almost like American drug policy right now is perfectly calibrated to be producing the worst of all possible worlds, which is not only can you not, if you’re a drug user, like you have to navigate this disastrous market, but you know, everyday people too, they’re at major risk of just dying, and so like I want to harp on the DEA’s messaging here, which is, they recently unleashed their campaign called One Pill Can Kill. That’s their big kind of fentanyl-era slogan, and there’s been a big PR push on their part, and it’s a new riff on an old trope that has been false for a very long time, which is one hit and you’re hooked. Now it’s one hit and you’re dead, and technically, their message is true in some instances, but it’s almost the message that they’ve been longing for, it’s the message they want, and part of what their practices do in terms of drug enforcement is create dangerous drug markets. That’s kind of the outcome that they’re always gunning for. Every time, and this happens at a very, very micro level, every time the cops raid a trap house or arrest a local supplier, that creates volatility in that local market, and so that disruption is actually the cause of so many overdoses. There’s so many fascinating interviews, ethnographic qualitative interviews out there from drug users who say, ‘After my dealer got arrested, I had to go find someone else, and so that’s when I found their supply, and that’s when I overdosed,’ or something. So it’s like, they’re saying one pill can kill, and how bad and awful this is, while their exact policy avenue that they’ve been pursuing for decades, led us right to that.
Adam: Right. Because it seems like, again, this is something that’s touched so many people’s lives, everybody knows, themselves personally, or knows someone who knows someone who’s had a fentanyl issue, either that’s been fatal, quite frankly, I think it’s fair to say, I mean, this has affected so many people. I mean, I just anecdotally, just myself, people, relatives, friends of friends, like I’ve seen it happen. So you have this thing that’s killing people, there doesn’t really seem to be a coherent public health response by Democrats in the White House. Not to sort of, I want to be careful not to blame them too much, because I do think Republicans will make hay of this bullshit no matter what, I mean, they’re deeply bottom of the well, fucking cynical, right?
ZacharySiegel: It’s very beyond both parties at this point.
Adam: Yeah. Because obviously, the Democrats are still doing the war on drugs, right? That’s their response to this, and with some modest public health discourse around the margins, again, I don’t think they would demagogue it as much in such a cynical fashion in terms of right before the midterm, but there really doesn’t seem to be anyone kind of dealing with it, and I think that in the absence of people looking like they’re fixing this problem, everyone’s going to just default to the police posture, and so this keeps getting worse and worse every year, as you note in your work, the deaths are either remaining the same or increasing. No one really seems to have a solution other than to sort of yell about China or yell about One Pill Can Kill, and I think that that’s kind of why we see this vibe stuff work because people, again, it feels like they’re doing something, it feels like, well, the cops are kind of being proactive. They’re trying to do something about it.
Nima: And they’re trying to protect, right, this is all about protection.
Adam: Yeah, and all that matters in politics is looking like your capital “D,” capital “S” is Doing Something, and the only one seemingly doing something right now are these far right sheriff’s departments, and drug hawks, and I think that, again, like you said, what is the solution? So you listed a couple of things. I want to ask you a bit about the other solutions, which you touched on earlier, because I think that’s actually a key point here about actual harm reduction techniques. I think that when you bring about harm reduction, people get a little queasy, because it seems like, oh, you know what, doing drugs that you’ve never seen before is no big deal, just carry some stuff on you. And obviously, we’re not going to say just say no, but there has to be some middle ground versus like, okay, actually, one pill can kill you, but instead of just being scared shitless or assuming that it’s a moral failing on the part of the average drug user, that you sort of meet them where they are, and you say, ‘Well, here’s the steps you can do to help yourself.’ So not to pivot too much into fucking after school special and progressive PSA here but for those who are listening who are curious what they can do or do have loved ones who are drug users, what would be steps they can take beyond just the kind of glib mocking of dipshit cops.
ZacharySiegel: Yeah, this is the sad part about the state of affairs in the US where the options for people are actually quite limited, very narrow, and it’s sort of like with COVID, it’s all on you, you the consumer. You navigate this fucking hell world. Okay.
Adam: But assuming that we do live in a hell hole where everyone has to look after themselves what would you suggest?
Nima: Granting that reality?
Adam: Granting reality. Yeah. Because you’re right obviously there would be policy prescriptions. But assuming we live in hell, what is the solution here?
ZacharySiegel: It’s hard to speak about it in a broad brush, because this gets back to the DEA’s failure, which is they have a major communications misfire. So, there has to be a message tailored to the audience in a very specific way that’s legible to them. Telling a ten year long heroin user that there’s fentanyl in their candy is not a message that they give a shit about and they’ll laugh it off, and so part of what I think is totally twisting everything is there’s a total audience mismatch, and so I’ll get to some specific things in a second here, like with the DEA and the whole rainbow fentanyl, and fentanyl candy, it’s like, what I would love to see in their press releases is we analyzed the chemical composition of this seizure and these rainbow fentanyl pills, they are X percent purity, they are cut with Y and Z other chemicals and if you are encountering this, use this information and hopefully this can shape user behavior if they actually know what the fuck it is they’re doing, and that’s the main crux of this whole problem that overdose is a mismatch between dose and tolerance, people are taking too much of something that they cannot tolerate, because they don’t know what the dose is, and so in terms of messaging, and drug education, we’re just so light years behind from actually having a reality-based messaging here, and I think with the way things are right now, teenagers especially, where there’s pharmaceutical pills being traded around or your friend gave you an Adderall or you bought a Xanax off some guy, it’s like, I don’t think a lot of the younger people really know that unless they saw the pill bottle that this came from, they really should be testing it, which is a lot of work for a teenager who wants to use drugs, by the way, that’s probably unlikely.
Adam: So let’s talk about testing because you’ve talked about that. What would a testing regime, again, with an understanding this is totally a libertarian hellscape, everyone’s on their own, what would a kind of testing system look like? Obviously, some places provide that vast, majority don’t. Can you talk about that real quick? I’m sort of curious what testing would look like because that seems to be a point where you can actually kind of make an intervention.
ZacharySiegel: It would be great if there was actually some infrastructure for this that had the right technology, and people felt comfortable bringing their substances to it to get a readout, and this happens at raves all the time, people buy pills, and they go over to the Dance Safe tent, and Dance Safe is a wonderful harm reduction organization, and they will do a reagent test, they’ll test your pill and they’ll tell you, ‘You know what, this is safe. Enjoy.’ Or they’ll tell you, ‘You know what this is bunk or this is actually looking really funky, be careful, don’t take this.’ That kind of thing is all premised on the fact that you, a drug user, or not a piece of shit because you want to do this, and so there’s just so many hang ups before we can even get to a place where drug checking and testing is viable, and the best we could do in the Randian hellscape is you order fentanyl test strips online or if you’re in a more metropolitan area, there is for sure a harm reduction organization that distributes fentanyl test strips, and these give you a simple yes/no is fentanyl present in the substance and it’s becoming more of a thing where bars are kind of conscious of this and they’ll have Naloxone and test strips in bathrooms and stuff like that, the more that’s a normal thing, even though it portends and signals something really dire and scary and fucked up, but the more that’s normal, the more people are kind of aware of, okay, you know, the drugs are different now.
Nima: Well, but also it’s a difference in the way we understand care as opposed to shame, which kind of gets me to this next point, which is, you mentioned, this has to do with dose and tolerance, right? But that’s not how we hear about this. That’s not how drugs are in American media or pop culture. It’s hysteria and temperance. I mean, and so the idea that what we’re seeing here whether it’s the, you know, rainbow fentanyl or other kinds of hysteria here, we really see this as coordinated campaigns, I mean, you brought up the kind of new tagline One Pill Can Kill, and I mean, this was basically put out as a PR piece hidden as a Yahoo News article. So Jayla Whitfield Anderson published this piece on September 29th of this year, 2022, with the headline, “‘One pill can kill’: Drug cartels use rainbow-colored fentanyl to attract children” and has a couple very sad anecdotes about young teenagers who took pills and died. It then goes into what the DEA has said, it goes into all this stuff, right? One Pill Can Kill. And then you see this kind of proliferate, not only in media, but also in political speech. You have the official GOP party Twitter account putting out a video from Rhonda McDaniel, the Republican chairperson, the tweet tech says, “Rainbow fentanyl is finding its way across Biden’s open border and into schools across the United States. The GOP is sounding an alarm.” Ronny Jackson, a US House candidate from Texas with this tweet, quote, “Cartels are disguising fentanyl as CANDY. To ERADICATE the next generation of American children!! This is happening RIGHT NOW at our border and Biden is not only silent, he’s HELPING!” Representative Ken Buck with this on October 20th, quote, “Drug cartels are smuggling fentanyl disguised as rainbow colored candy across our overwhelmed southern border. Heading into the holiday season Americans should take extra precautions to stay safe.” Congresswoman Debbie Lesko had a similar tweet, quote, “12,000 fentanyl pills were found packaged in candy boxes. As Halloween approaches parents should remain vigilant and double check their kids’ candy to help keep them safe from this deadly drug,” end quote.
Now, what we are seeing here, and what I want to ask you about Zach, is this idea that the only way American young people, kids and young people — kids, I’m not saying like elementary school trick or treaters but let’s say, you know, younger teens and then you know young adults — that the only way that our precious youth would ever get involved in drugs is if they are tricked by drug dealers. The idea that these are devious either foreigners or baddies in our urban neighborhoods, not our safe suburban spaces of course, ever, that are smuggling this stuff in to trick our kids, which then completely and conveniently avoids the idea that maybe people want to do drugs, and that that is something that is itself its own reality, and that protection is maybe different, safety, when it comes to drug use is different than pure kind of prohibition, which obviously has everything to do with then drug enforcement policies, law enforcement policies. So kind of, can you talk to us about this idea, this kind of puritanical view of like, were it not for the evil doers who are putting drugs into our kids’ candy and unknowingly killing them with one single pill, were it not for that we would have this city on a hill utopia, because obviously our kids would not want to do drugs.
ZacharySiegel: Yeah, this actually brings us right back to the urban legend framing here, which I think is quite appropriate. Sociologists study this stuff, and urban legends in particular, they provide people with an alternate story to understand reality, and respond to reality, and so in order for an urban legend like this to kind of fester, this gets back to like the kernel of truth here in all of this, there has to be something horrific and terrible in the real world going on, and basically what I think is happening here, on kind of the collective hysteria level and the levels of mass psychology, is that the truth of the matter that people are dying en masse from fentanyl overdoses is undigestible, and the only way that people can kind of wrap their heads around this is all these teenagers who took a pill got tricked, or something, or they unknowingly, unsuspectingly got dosed by an evil doer. Drug users are criminalized and marginalized and scapegoated and widely loathed as a group of people, and, of course, people are seeking an alternative story to explain it, because the reality that we’ve created is so fucked.
Nima: Because if it’s your kid, your kid isn’t evil. So you have to figure out a way to square that story.
Adam: The guy on the corner with a trench coat story has always been a convenient pandering to people because it’s an iteration of Stranger Danger. Whereas of course, usually, almost always, it’s peer influence, or it’s other issues, psychological issues, emotional issues, etcetera. Which I think is kind of the thing that, it’s just amazing how we’d have no discussion of this, and I know that there are state lawmakers and people even in some school education programs that are a little more nuanced these days, I don’t think it’s quite the same thing as we had when we had DARE, although, DARE is back back, as you note, we still have this kind of simplistic carceral, war on drugs narrative, and we’re getting the same kind of output from it, which is to say, we are funding a lot of cops and putting a lot of people in prison, but the actual rates of death don’t really seem to be changing much, if not going up, and so, you know, that’s what makes this whole thing so sad, and it’s kind of what makes J.D. Vance’s schtick so sad, where he’s like, talking about China pushing opioids and fentanyl, meanwhile, the think tank he works for, American Enterprise Institute, took $3 million from the Sackler family.
Nima: Yeah, exactly.
ZacharySiegel: Yeah. So J.D. Vance on the campaign trail said that Joe Biden’s drug policy is specifically trying to kill MAGA voters.
ZacharySiegel: And it’s just like, holy shit, dude.
Adam: I mean, that’s just white genocide shit, and the reason why that appeal becomes attractive to a certain set of people is because a lot of people are actually dying. There’s an underlying reality to it.
ZacharySiegel: And they need an explanation. They need something.
Adam: Yeah, they need it to be a foreign boogeyman, they need it to be cartels, whatever, for awhile they even tried to, you know, maybe give it a bit of a corporate face but that didn’t really stick, so now we’re back to the old Chinese Sicario thing. And it’s sad, because people are so desperate, and it’s like, why would we do an episode like this, you know, and liberals can dunk on all this sort of right-wing panic, and I think it’s important to do that, because I do think it’s important for people understand that this stuff is cynical bullshit. But then the question becomes, well, yeah, if Republicans are exploiting this issue, then what are Democrats offering other than basically a variation of the same thing, but without the kind of pure cynicism? Right?
Nima: Chuck Schumer wants to give $300 million to the same kind of programs that we’ve been funding the whole time.
Adam: We don’t have anyone really pushing for robust public health harm reduction effort, and of course, from the White House, as we talked about, well, you know, nine months ago, when they did have a brief moment of trying to do harm reduction, they got demagogued every night on Fox News with the whole crack pipe thing. So any kind of science-based, evidence-based, safety-based humanists approach to this issue, it just doesn’t go anywhere, either due to venality or cowardice and it’s sad to watch, you know, it’s like this is a sad fucking topic. You know, we can dunk on these asshole sheriffs all day because they’re obviously craven assholes trying to put their finger on the scales of the midterm elections. But it just seems so hopeless, you know?
ZacharySiegel: It’s majorly a bitter pill for me to swallow, because for probably five years straight, all I’ve done for a living is report on public health approaches to substance use, to kind of unraveling the theory, philosophy and practice of harm reduction, of telling stories about international, global countries that do things like prescription diacetylmorphine, which is heroin safe supply, the idea that there needs to be an off ramp for people out of the kind of toxic contaminated illicit drug supply, and that that’s called medicine. We have the capability to help people, and it’s not being done, which gets back to the saddest fact of all is that these deaths are so preventable, eminently preventable, and the fact that they’re not being prevented and so little is done to prevent it that I’m honestly like, I get why there’s this kind of horrific imaginary coursing through the American mind about open borders and reverse opium war with China and Joe Biden’s drug policy and anonymous sadists trying to kill your children. This is the stuff that the brutal reality is producing because I think it is such a bitter pill to swallow if we just take reality as it is and see it for what it is, which is a massive fucking failure and a huge disaster.
Nima: Right, because we always need the external boogeyman. That’s how we justify this to ourselves because then it’s not our actual problem, and so instead you get, it’s drug traffickers trying to kill your kids, has to do with where the blame falls for either addiction stories in our media, in our society, in our communities and neighborhoods, all the way up to political posturing, pro police messaging, all of this is kind of wrapped up into this lovely Halloween treat of scare stories and hysteria.
And so Zach, just thank you so much for joining us on this News Brief to unpack this a bit. Of course, we’ve been speaking with friend of the show Zach Siegel, journalist and researcher, and now I can safely say Citations Needed senior drug correspondent. Also, the co-writer of the newsletter Substance, which is done in partnership with journalist Tana Ganeva, and you can find Substance at TanaG.substack.com. Zach, thank you as always for joining us on Citations Needed.
ZacharySiegel: Thank you both guys. Happy Halloween. Be safe out there.
Nima: That will do it for this Citations Needed News Brief. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Of course, you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. We are 100 percent listener funded so all your support through Patreon is incredibly appreciated. But that will do it for this News Brief. We will be back soon with another full length episode of Citations Needed. Thank you for listening everyone.
Our senior producer is Florence Barrau-Adams. Producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again everyone. We’ll catch you next time.
This Citations Needed News Brief was released on Friday, October 28, 2022.
Nima: Once again, before we get to this News Brief that you are trying to listen to, apologies in advance, we’re excited to announce that tomorrow night, if you are listening to this when this comes out on Wednesday October 19th, tomorrow night, Thursday October 20th, at 8:30pm Eastern Time, Citations Needed is going to hold a live Beg-athon, and by Beg-athon, we mean, a podcast fundraiser with amazing guests talking about pop culture.
Adam: Yeah, we’re talking StarTrek, Nima’s going to talk wrestling.
Nima: And we will also talk to each other during that.
Adam: We will, but those are our two kinds of niche things that we love on our own, so we’re kind of doing a fun little thing for that. It’s going to be a fundraiser for the podcast as you mentioned, the first one we’ve ever had. So definitely check that out, tomorrow night, at 8:30pm Eastern, 7:30pm Central for those of you, like myself, who live in flyover country. So we’re very excited about that, it’s going to be a lot of fun. Please check it out if you can. It’s going to be on YouTube. And if it works we may do more YouTube stuff. We may pivot to YouTube celebrities and just completely debase ourselves.
Nima: Well that’s right. We’ve been doing this show for five years. This is our sixth season. We would love it if more people supported the show. So that is partly why we’re doing this but also so that we can talk StarTrek with Dr. Robert Greene II, History Professor at Claflin University, and pro wrestling, which I am so excited about, with Brandi Collins-Dexter, Associate Director of Research at the Technology and Social Change Project and author of the brand-new book, Black Skinhead: Reflections on Blackness and Our Political Future. As Adam said, you can find that Thursday night, October 20th, 8:30pm Eastern on YouTube. You can either search Citations Needed on YouTube, find the channel with our logo on it, or go to or go to Bit.ly/CitationsNeededYouTube and you will find us there, again, that is Bit.ly/CitationsNeededYouTube, Thursday, October 20 at 8:30pm Eastern. I now sound like a Crazy Eddie commercial. We are excited about this live show and hope to see you there. And now on to our regular News Brief.
But today’s News Brief, Adam, is about one of our very favorite local news stories: The investigative report on fare evasion.
Adam: Yeah, so these reports were designed in a lab by some dark right-wing force to make us pissed off and it’s very much in our wheelhouse, though, surprisingly, we’ve never talked about the fare evasion trope on our show. So I actually wrote about it for the Substack about two weeks ago. I also have a piece on the subject in the Real News that came out yesterday, which is this idea that anytime local officials, police or pro police local officials, want to clamp down on so-called fare evasion, which is to say typically, it’s about kind of making sure homeless people don’t go into the subway system, to some extent, there are budget shortfalls that city officials may be considering because of artificial austerity, but a lot of it correlates with basically trying to get homeless people out of underground subway systems.
Nima: Even though honestly the only videos you will ever see, the anecdotal videos, are going to be like teenagers with backpacks hopping turnstiles, and that is somehow supposed to enrage the average subway rider or bus rider or whatever into this story where there is now you know, broken windows panic, and what is the solution Adam? Chances are always more cops.
Adam: Right, and so typically, you’ll see these stories kind of pop up around wintertime, that’s obviously when unhoused people are more likely to seek shelter in the subway system, and so it’s October, so cue the local DC area news who, they do one of our favorite tropes, we’ve talked about in episode 156, which is kind of the faux investigative journalism posture when you’re doing power serving sort of demagoguery, but you need to look like it’s journalism. So Washington NBC 4, in two different stories, they used the word “staggering” and then another one they used the word “eye-popping.”
Nima: That’s the amount of fare evasion that’s going on.
Adam: Right. “Eye-popping” fare evasion, “staggering” amount of fare evasion because they need to kind of editorially puff it up because the reality is that most people don’t give a shit. They just simply don’t care because it’s a total abstraction to them, and they see, especially in DC, which is a federal budget item. They’re like, ‘Well, okay, like the federal budget is trillions of dollars I can’t even put my mind around it. Why do I give a shit about $40 million in fare evasion?’ So we’re going to listen to that clip right now. You can sort of see the Breathless kind of moralistic tone that the journalist takes.
Adam Tuss: Take a ride on a metro bus these days and you’ll likely see it. Riders walking right past the bus operator and the fare box, simply not paying. The News4 I-Team going undercover recently capturing fare evasion again and again and again. But far and away the Metro bus line that has the most reported fare evasion is the X2 line right here. It runs from Lafayette Square Downtown to the Minnesota Avenue Metro Station. Through a public access to records request, the I-Team is able to uncover the Metro Bus lines with the most fare evasion, and the numbers are eye-popping. In calendar year 2021, the X2 line that we mentioned, had over 914,000 reported fare evaders, the 70 bus line between Silver Spring and Archives over 724,000, the B2 line between Anacostia and Mount Rainier had over 667,000 reported fare evasions.
Man: But we want people to respect that this is a community system and everyone, I think, you know, we’ve heard loud and clear, if I’m paying why are you not paying?
Adam Tuss: Metro GM Randy Clark tells News4 some new fare evasion tactics are on the way.
RandyClark: We have more information coming out on fare enforcement probably next week and citations are certainly part of that process.
Adam Tuss: However, in the district, the council has voted to decriminalize fare evasion. It’s still a civil penalty though and Councilmember Charles Allen says Metro should be taking action.
CharlesAllen: You are not allowed to fare evade. MATA can enforce it if they would and they have the absolute ability right now to stop someone from fare evading, remove them from the system, issue them a citation and they haven’t done that.
Adam Tuss: Metro’s bus operators and station managers are instructed not to get involved in fare evasion disputes. Transit Police are supposed to enforce that rule in the district. Adam Tuss, News4.
Adam: And then add to this Victoria Sanchez, anchor and reporter, which is really just an anchor, at 7ABC News DC tweeted out an underground video of someone’s sort of watching these people go through the fare turnstiles and you kind of leap past them or jump over them.
Nima: Yeah. It’s almost like a timelapse of just constant fare evasion.
Adam: Right. And so she posted this video on Twitter and she says, “We’ve been watching Metro fare evaders all morning. Our camera isn’t hidden and people are blatantly hopping turnstiles live on air. Metro estimates $40 million in lost revenue 7News DC ABC.” And so this, they’re not blurring out faces, they’re showing people’s faces, and this is of course, one of these great kind of faux populist stories that are easy to demagogue because, you know, for people haven’t thought about it much, they say, ‘Oh, yeah, well fare evasion. I pay fares. Everyone else should pay the fare.’
We’ve been watching @wmata fare evaders ALL MORNING. Our camera isn’t hidden and people are blatantly hopping turnstiles live on air. Metro estimates $40 million in lost revenue. @7NewsDCpic.twitter.com/WCnKZGaeo9
Nima: I pay, right. I have a card that I swiped through like, yeah.
Adam: Right. It’s only fair that people pay their fair share, you know, blah, blah, blah. And then of course, if you drill down on really what they’re advocating, they’re advocating for increased fines and arrests, because keep in mind while fare evasion is technically decriminalized, although that’s not quite accurate in DC, it is heavily criminalized in other areas of the Metro in Virginia and Maryland. And so they’re pushing DC city council people and those who run the Metro and state officials who regulate the Metro and the federal government to increase policing in and around the Metro system of the Greater Washington DC area. In 2018, it was decriminalized largely because studies showed 86 to 92 percent of people who were ticketed were Black or brown. That’s pretty typical. It is absolutely a way of punishing people for being poor. It is absolutely a way of keeping homeless people out of the subway system. The sort of false austerity of over $40 million in quote-unquote “lost revenue” from fare is, of course, totally artificial, and a time of catastrophic climate change and people driving gas guzzling cars, absolutely, public transit should be free to everybody. That would be the most rational thing to do.
Nima: That should be subsidized, and people should be almost forced to ride buses and subways at this point.
Adam: Right. The government should be paying people to ride the subway, not the other way around, but of course, the dollars and cents aren’t really the issue because, as we talked about this offline, Nima, during COVID, in a lot of places public transit became free — and guess what? — the sky didn’t fall.
Nima: That’s right. We were able to support that in a lot of cities and elsewhere around the country. DC specifically, between March 24, 2020 and January 3, 2021, Metro buses were free in DC. They resumed having fares on January 3, 2021. And so basically, as you can see, when there is deemed a, you know, an emergency, certain normal social services, right, public services can actually happen and things can get better, people’s lives can improve. We saw that in certain ways. You have moratoriums on evictions, you have deferred debt payments, like these things can happen. Granted, they are always put into place with the assumption that they will resume and the finger wagging will continue, but as we have seen through this pandemic crisis ongoing, things can happen and our society does not fall apart, right? You can take away public transportation fare and nothing horrible, horrible, horrible happens except for these news reports saying that there is now such a huge budget deficit that, you know, other services have to be cut, except as we have seen, especially say in a place like New York City, there’s always more money for more cops to be patrolling subways and platforms.
Adam: Right. So there was one 2019 report in Streetsblog that noted then Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed to stop $200 million in fare evasion, right? So his proposal was stopped, the so-called $200 million fare evasion every year. His proposal calls for an increased number of cops and an increased budget of the NYPD, that was $250 million. So they wanted to spend an extra $250 million to allegedly stop $200 million in fare evasion, which of course is absurd on its face, but of course, it’s not about dollars and cents. That’s a pre-tax, but it’s a sieve, and we know that money’s from public goods that are not planned, they can mysteriously find that money when they want to. So for example, the fiscal year of 2022, which just ended this past June, the NYPD casually exceeded its overtime budget —
Nima: As they do all the time.
Adam: Which they do every year, by the way.
Nima: Year after year.
Adam: Now, this is not the money they spent on overtime mind you, that was $762 million. They exceeded the money that was set aside for overtime by $155 million. So City Council voted on the budget, said that they were allotted $607 million in overtime, okay, $.6 billion in overtime, and then they said, fuck it, we’re going to do $762 million, and they do this every single year, and it all my days and all my reading and all my research and all my Google and all my readings of New York Post, Daily News, New York Times, I’ve never once seen any breathless coverage about NYPD overtime.
Nima: We got to cut back on police overtime.
Adam: Over overtime, right? So the initial overtime is already budgeted in, this is now over overtime. I have never once seen anyone frame that as somehow stealing or robbing from the taxpayers, even though it’s in effect from a budget standpoint, the exact same thing, right, except in one case, you’re giving a public good to someone who’s almost by definition poor, despite the fact that the New York Post wants you to think it’s a bunch of Wall Street guys in suits to make you feel good about it. It’s kind of like this sort of Law & Order politics where you give people the impression all the police do all day is arrest doctors on the Upper West Side. It’s not really the case. It’s mostly poor people, which is why they want to do it. That austerity is completely arbitrary. The things we decide to sort of hand wring and care about and invite outrage are completely inconsistent and so, to use another comparative example, that piece I wrote for The Real News, I analyzed a $61.7 million settlement that Amazon had with the Federal Trade Commission last November, where they stole roughly $62 million in tips and had to pay them back. Now, when you’re Amazon and you break the law, god forbid, of course, you don’t ever get a criminal sanction, you never go to jail, you’re never arrested, Jeff Bezos or some executive is not dragged in front of a court, they don’t go to, you know, pretrial. That is of course laughable. That is sort of unthinkable to think about. But not only do you not get fined, you get no punitive damages for the fine, you just have to basically pay back what you owe. So if I stole from Walgreens and stole $400 worth of goods and ran out, and the cops said, ‘Oh, hold on you just stole that? Okay. So your punishment is you need to give this stuff back, and then you’re free to go.’ So you can sort of try it out. Right? The FTC was merely fining Amazon the exact amount they stole with no, purely compensatory, no punitive damages whatsoever at all, and they had to pay almost a $62 million fine, which is equivalent to the average person paying $2 because they’re a $1.15 trillion company market cap. Totally meaningless, right? Now, to be clear, this was money they stole from people’s tips, this was actually taken from their pool of money they have at the end of the day, they stole it from them. This was theft, right? And the average Amazon flex worker makes between $45,000 and $55,000 a year, which is basically nothing, some make as low as $32,000 a year, Amazon stole from 140,000 Amazon flex drivers. So this is 140,000 instances of individual theft times however many times they stole from these people. The average person they stole $422 from them, about 20,000 of the drivers 20,000 of 140,000 drivers, they stole $600 or more. One driver, Amazon stole $28,000. Now for the people who are at the lowest of the wage spectrum, which Amazon flex drivers are, this could be the difference between paying rent and being evicted. This could have been the difference between being able to afford baby formula or not. This is the difference between diapers or not. This is the difference between being able to have good blood sugar or having to ration your insulin for diabetics and so this story got a couple of write ups in like, you know, Verge, WashingtonPost, Slate, no one ever talked about it, no moral outrage, no hand wringing, no sense of perception of destruction. Sort of no sense that this was part of some broader erosion of society and the WashingtonPost editorial on why we need to crack down on fare evasion, they said fare evasion, quote, “Adds to perceptions of disorder and disarray in the system.”
Nima: Oh, that’s broken windows shit right there.
Adam: $40 million allegedly stolen from some vague or, because whenever they talk about welfare fraud stories — because this is fundamentally a welfare fraud story, which is sort of, again, a feature of kind of faux investigative journalism — they need to have a victim and because there’s no victim here, they always go to the almighty, heavily racialized taxpayer, right? This taxpayer is put upon.
Nima: That’s right. They’re stealing from you.
Adam: Right. They’re stealing from you. And of course, it’s just an iteration on Ronald Reagan’s 1976 speech in Mississippi about the strapping young buck getting T bone steaks while yeah, yeah, yeah, welfare fraud. It’s all welfare fraud bullshit, right?
Nima: Well, now beyond that Adam, though, is the idea of why these stories are so attractive to local reporters because then there’s this whole, as we’ve been discussing, NBC4 investigation, right, or like Eyewitness News ABC7, you know, this investigation. Where do you think the data that’s being investigated by the local news reporter comes from? How did they possibly, Adam, get a hold of the official data for fare evasion, I wonder?
Adam: Well, I mean, to be fair, some of them will say like, you know, Metro releases data, here’s our story. But Adam Tuss, of NBC News, Washington, said the NBC News Washington NBC$ investigative team got a hold of the top five bus lines for fare evasion last year. So to be clear, Adam Tuss did not meet some whistleblower within Metro at a parking garage in Foggy Bottom like fucking Deep Throat, right? The police called them and were like, ‘Hey, we’re thinking about cracking down on this and we want to pressure lawmakers, do you want to publish the story?’ And the guy was like, ‘Yeah, of course.’
Nima: Yeah. Check out where our, you know, budget shortfall comes from, all these fare evasions, look at these numbers. And they’re like, ‘All right.’
Adam: Wither the police department or some pro police forces within city council pretty much wanted to further criminalize and increase police presence in subways and so they sent it to Adam Tuss, again, these are, as I wrote my piece, morally incurious JC Penney models, their job is not really to question the context of why the story’s been given to them. It’s just seen as per se this moral outrage that ‘Oh my god, all these people are stealing fares.’ Of course, you cannot steal fares. It’s like stealing, you know, water or oxygen. It’s an abstraction. It doesn’t mean anything because no one, there’s no sort of, there’s no victim. You have two weeks to go find me a victim of fare theft. I can find you victims of Amazon flex, you know, wage theft, I can find you 140,000. Their names are listed on the class action lawsuit as the plaintiff. I can find you those victims. But find me a victim of fare evasion. What? Anyone who lives in the greater DC area? It’s meaningless, right?
Nima: You know, it’s Joe taxpayer.
Adam: Joe taxpayer. Put upon taxpayers always just has the AtlasShrugged, just completely on his back at all times because of all these freeloading fare evaders. Meanwhile, the cop sits around, you know, in a car with his dick in his hands and runs up the overtime tab and nobody really gives a shit, right?
Nima: Yeah, that’s not getting, you know, breaking investigative news reports.
Adam: Not getting breaking investigative news reports, and this is a trope we’ve seen a thousand different times. They love running out these fare evasion stories, again, especially when things start to get chilly and we need to get rid of those dirty, smelly homeless people in the subway who we don’t like, but we can’t really say that so we got to kind of do a workaround and talk about how it, ‘No, no, no, it’s about law and order.’ It’s about perceptions of law and order, I guess? There’s sort of this meta-take.
Nima: And then it’s about the budget. So then it’s blaming the good things you want that you can’t have, because there have to be municipal cutbacks, because there are public transit and thereby municipal shortfalls, and as a result, you can’t have the good things you want because of the teenagers hopping turnstiles. That’s why. So you should hate them. You should want them in jail.
Adam: All austerity stories are fake. I mean, they’re not real. Nobody really cares about austerity. No one really cares about dollars and cents. Again, we know that because police budgets just mindlessly balloon $155 million over their allotted overtime, and literally nobody cares. Nobody even reports on it. The only people who report on it are like technical blogs like, by the way, you know, whatever, no big deal. Nobody editorializes. The fare evasion got a Wall Street Journal editorial, got a Washington Post editorial, it got nonstop coverage in the WashingtonExaminer, in the local affiliates. I mean, it’s a full-blown meltdown in the local media.
Nima: If you read the New York Post on any day, you’re going to have six fare evasion stories.
Adam: Yeah, again, it’s just this evergreen thing, you know, it’s holding in football, it happens in every play, but whether or not you call it, it is the ultimate fake story. There’s fare evasion all the time, because people are poor, and we have a deeply unequal society, and a lot of people can’t afford to pay for public transportation. Yeah, is there occasionally someone who’s got like $500,000 in a briefcase who just walked past it because he, you know, he wants to risk, you know, a fine or jail time because he likes the lulls? Yeah, okay, maybe that’s 1%. But mostly because people are fucking poor. And this is getting mad that we’re not effectively taxing the poor for the privilege of being able to move around the city, especially to go to their low-wage, low-paying jobs at fucking Burger King or as domestic workers and that’s just unacceptable, and so now we’re in this sort of post-COVID austerity regime where we have to go back to disciplining the poor, we have to go back to make sure we flood these places with cops, and we have to go back to business as usual, even if it costs $50 million more, as it did in the case of the Andrew Cuomo plan.
Nima: That’s right. Because it’s not about the money. It’s about the discipline.
Adam: It’s about the discipline. It’s about making sure homeless people stay out of public places. It’s just another form of warrant roundup, which is what, again, they say, ‘Oh, it’s decriminalized in DC.’ Yeah, but it’s a warrant roundup, because every time they, you know, they’re not going to necessarily put you in jail for that per se, but it’s pretextual just like stop-and-frisk, right? It’s pretextual to run your warrant, to do a gun check, do a check for contraband, do a check for drugs, all of which are still very much illegal in DC, and so that’s sort of the goal.
Nima: That’s right, and then if you say, ‘Hey, leave me the fuck alone.’ They’ll arrest you for disorderly conduct.
Adam: Yeah, and it escalates and someone gets shot, right? It’s a whole thing. Again, this is why these encounters need to be minimized, not maximized, with this totally petty, I mean $40 million is a fucking rounding error. I mean, intuitively everyone can look at that and be like $40 million? Literally in the last 10 minutes since we started recording this Elon Musk’s net worth has gone up more than $40 million. I mean, that has no meaning, right? That’s a total abstraction. So to get people to care, they have to do the whole Ronald Reagan Philadelphia, Mississippi.
Nima: Yeah. It’s all just broken windows shit.
Adam: It’s broken windows shit.
Nima: Well, that will do it for this fare evasion News Brief of Citations Needed. Thank you all for listening to the show. Of course, you can follow us on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, become a supporter of our work if you are so inclined, we hope you are so inclined, at Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. Of course, tomorrow night, as we said, October 20th at 8:30pm Eastern, please do join our YouTube live stream beg-a-thon, we’re going to do book giveaways, merch giveaways, and we have amazing guests. Please do join. Just go to YouTube, search for Citations Needed, look for our logo or do the whole Bitly thing and do Citations Needed YouTube to find us there. But until then, and until our next regularly scheduled episode, thank you all so much again for listening.
Citations Needed’s senior producer is Florence Barrau-Adams. Producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again for listening, everyone. We’ll catch you next time.
This Citations Needed News Brief was released on Wednesday, October 19, 2022.