• Episode 165: Labor Union Depictions in Hollywood (Part II): The Rare Pro-Worker Narrative

    Citations Needed | August 3, 2022 | Transcript

    Sally Field in 1979’s Norma Rae. (20th Century Fox / Everett Collection)


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

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

    Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

    Nima: 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 are 100 percent listener funded. We have no commercials, no billionaire benefactors that we know of, because we are completely listener funded and cannot thank you all enough for that.

    Adam: Yes, if you haven’t, please support us on Patreon, it’s very much appreciated, it does help keep the episodes themselves free and keeps the show sustainable. Also, if you could rate and subscribe to us on Apple Podcast, that’s very much appreciated, and as always, check out Bonfire for our merchandise, shirts, tote bags, mugs, what have you, it helps also support the show and also makes you look cool because you’re with the coolest podcast in the world. I believe that one marker of a cool podcast is they tell you they’re cool.

    Nima: (Laughs.) I like how your voice made that a question at the end.

    Adam: I don’t know. I don’t know what’s cool anymore. I’m old. I have a kid.

    Nima: It’s definitely a Citations Needed tote bag.

    Adam: Yeah, clearly.

    Nima: This is also our season five finale of Citations Needed. We’ll be taking a little summer break after this episode, spending some time with our families and gearing up for next season, season six, which will begin in September.

    A white-collar worker wrestles with whether to accept a promotion or help his co-workers organize. Salt miners stand up to the company that’s taken over their town. A factory worker exposes her employer’s union-busting tactics.

    Adam: Stories like these represent something we don’t often see in Hollywood: Unions and labor organizers as the good guys. Not as egomaniacs, zealots, radical left-wingers, mafiosos or thugs or grifters, but as heroes willing to risk their health, homes, and livelihoods for the greater good.

    Nima: This is in stark contrast to the anti-union depictions in pop culture we explored on Citations Needed in Episode 164, part one of this two-part series on depictions of labor and unionization in film and television. On the previous episode, we discussed Hollywood’s emphasis on corruption in labor organizing, focusing noticeably on depictions of bloated bureaucracy, organized crime, and autocratic union bosses in films like On the Waterfront from 1954, Blue Collar from 1978, and The Irishman from 2019.

    Adam: This week, in part two, we’re going to address the inverse of that, looking at the rare but nontrivial examples of pop film that celebrates the accomplishments of labor movements, centers beleaguered workers with everything to lose, and positions abusive employers as the villains, while embracing themes of worker courage and heroism. While very often not perfect, these examples show that compelling, award-winning narratives can be crafted out of tales of collective action and collective bargaining.

    Nima: Later on the show, we’ll be joined by Angela Allan, a lecturer on history and literature at Harvard University, who writes about pop culture for The Atlantic magazine.

    [Begin Clip]

    Angela Allan: And I think the way that we see places like the New York Times or The Washington Post, how they’ve been covering unionization efforts at Amazon warehouses and at Starbucks, that they already are casting them as having this kind of narrative flair, you know, so if Martin Ritt is like, ‘I was really inspired by Crystal Lee Sutton,’ people like Chris Smalls or Jaz Brisack feel like Norma Rae-esque figures. I think that does suggest that there’s an appetite for these victory stories in real life.

    [End Clip]

    Nima: So last episode, we discussed a number of films that kind of do this common trope, Adam, of unions are generally corrupt, certainly their leadership is, sometimes, you know, solidarity between workers is a good thing, the working man, the working woman, more occasionally than the man depicted in Hollywood, especially in the so-called Golden Era of Hollywood, that there can be power in workers banding together and finding solidarity together. But generally, unions, as they are depicted, are that of overbearing, autocratic, and certainly corrupt institutions, just as corrupt as the companies that they’re supposed to be organizing against.

    Adam: Right. But let’s be honest, Hollywood, especially maybe in the ’40s and ’50s, and on to the ’60s and ’70s, less so I think today, but certainly decades ago, has left-wingers in it, has socialists, communists, fellow travelers et cetera, or bleeding-heart liberals, who empathize with unions, what have you. So obviously, there’s going to be some representations, pro-labor representation in Hollywood, that kind of slipped through the cracks, either because a director or writer is so established they can do whatever they want based on previous work or they’re indie films that are maybe outside the Hollywood studio production, which is definitely something we’re going to cover in this episode, but they still kind of get widespread releases based on critical acclaim or other independent vectors for success, if you will, or they’re just crypto, let’s be honest here, right? Much of people’s politics have to be crypto in certain ways, just by the nature of how popular culture works, by definition it must be popular, it must be broad, and the absolute biggest sin one can engage in is to have an agenda or a politics, that’s sort of seen as being declasse, that you can have message pictures where it’s say no to drugs or whatever, but you can’t have a message pictures that’s like down with capitalism. That’s too far. As you noted, legendary Hollywood producer Samuel Goldwyn is credited with saying, “All they want is a story. If you have a message, send it by Western Union.” Of course, we argue in this episode that all movies have messages whether we want to or not, there’s no such thing as a non-message movie. And some of those films will have a message that is pro-labor in inclination, if not intent. So we’re excited to get into those today and talk about those and then talk to our guest about how they worked, what makes them work, and what we can learn from them.

    Nima: Now, obviously, normal qualifier to start, Adam, this is a huge topic, we can’t cover every single labor film, even the good ones. There are incredible documentaries like Harlan County, USA, directed by Barbara Kopple. There are films like Warren Beatty’s Reds from 1981 about journalist John Reed and the chronicling of the 1917 October Revolution in Russia and John Sayles’ Matewan from 1987 about the 1920s coal miner strike in Matewan, West Virginia. There is stealth communist propaganda by Disney, Newsies from 1992. There’s the 2000 film directed by Ken Loach, Bread and Roses, about the struggle of poorly paid janitorial workers in LA and their fight for better working conditions and the right to unionize. It’s based on the very real Justice for Janitors campaign of the SEIU.

    Warren Beatty in 1981’s Reds. (Paramount Pictures)

    Adam: There is a very famous episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine that is very pro-union propaganda. To give some context, one of the characters, who’s an alien, works at the bar of Deep Space Nine station, and is consistently abused and exploited by his brother, played by Quark, the scrupulous bar owner who we come to love. And he begins to talk about starting a union to demand more rights, which for the Ferengis is unheard of, since they’re, like, a race of hypercapitalists. In this clip, he’s discussing with two of his crewmates, Dr. Bashir and Miles O’Brien, about his frustrations with his boss and his desire to have collective bargaining.

    [Begin Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Clip]

    Rom: Dr. Bashir, I’m glad you’re in. I need your help.

    Dr. Bashir: Your ear acting up again?

    Rom: My ear’s fine. I need some advice about…unions.

    Dr. Bashir: Unions?

    Rom: You said the other day I should form a union, so I did.

    Dr. Bashir: Rom, I was speaking theoretically.

    Rom: And I put your theory into practice! All of Quark’s employees have joined. We’re going to force Quark to treat us better. I hope.

    Miles O’Brien: A union, huh? Good for you.

    Rom: You know about unions?

    Miles O’Brien: Who do you think led the Pennsylvania coal miners during the anthracite strike of 1902?

    Rom: I have no idea.

    Miles O’Brien: Sean Aloysius O’Brien.

    Dr. Bashir: I didn’t know that.

    Miles O’Brien: There’s a lot of things about my family you don’t know. Eleven months, those mines were closed. They didn’t open again until all the miners’ demands were met.

    Rom: You mean we should force Quark to close the bar?

    Dr. Bashir: Only as a last resort. If he’s reasonable about your requests, there’s no need to strike.

    Miles O’Brien: Quark? Reasonable? Ha! Unlikely. You’ll have to strike. Mark my words. And when you do, you’ll have to be strong.

    Rom: Just like Sean O’Brien.

    Miles O’Brien: Exactly. You know, he had the biggest funeral in all of Western Pennsylvania.

    Rom: Funeral?

    Miles O’Brien: Mm. They fished his body out of the Allegheny River the week before the strike ended. 32 bullets he had in him. Or was it 34?

    Dr. Bashir: Well, he died a hero.

    Miles O’Brien: He was more than a hero! He was a union man!

    [End Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Clip]

    Adam: I think it’s funny that Miles O’Brien does this thing where he traces his lineage back, like, 400 years at this point.

    Nima: (Laughs.) Yeah, when Pennsylvania existed.

    Adam: Yeah, when people take their genealogy tests, they’re like, ‘Oh, I’m a descendant of King James II.’ I’m like, well, everyone’s a descendant of King James II at that point.

    Nima: Hey, it works, even later in the episode, Rom even quotes from the Communist Manifesto, saying, “Workers of the world, unite.”

    Adam: Right.

    Nima: It is very exciting. Now, I must admit I am not the Star Trek scholar that you are, Adam, but I’m thrilled that we were able to get this one in. The episode is called “Bar Association,” directed by LeVar Burton, and aired originally on February 19, 1996. Just two days later on February 21, 1996, an episode of Sister, Sister aired called “Paper or Plastic” when one of the characters’ co-workers on the show working in a grocery store are going on strike to demand higher wages, and this episode of Sister, Sister is remarkable for its pro-union advocacy, as documented on Twitter a couple years ago by Diana Hussein, who is the comms director for the pro-worker group UNITE HERE! Everyone should absolutely check that out. They call the replacement workers scabs. They tell folks not to cross picket lines. It is really fantastic and kind of amazing that within the span of just three days, Deep Space Nine and Sister, Sister ran pro-union episodes.

    Adam: An anomaly indeed. Our usual disclaimer here by the way, before we get into the films, there are spoilers to the films we will be discussing.

    Nima: While on part one of this episode last week, we began in 1954 with On the Waterfront, we are going to return to that year to start off this episode but this time we’re going to talk about the film Salt of the Earth, again from 1954, directed by Herbert J. Biberman.

    The story goes basically like this: Esperanza Quintero, played by Rosaura Revueltas, and her husband, Ramón, played by Juan Chacón, live with their two, and soon to be three, children in precarity in her home village — now the company town of Zinc Town, New Mexico. Ramón, a union miner for Delaware Zinc, is forced to work in the mines alone, a policy that only applies to Mexican-American, not white, miners, which creates extremely dangerous conditions of course. Ramón and other miners decide to strike for worker safety, and their wives encourage them to expand their demands, marking the beginning of an instrumental role that women will play in organizing for the rights of the miners’ union and the health and safety of their families.

    Adam: During the strike, the company hires out-of-town strikebreakers, but they leave after seeing the size of the picket line. In one scene, the superintendent and an executive drive up to the picket line and speak manipulatively to Ramón, but Ramón doesn’t take the bait. Now keep in mind, this is 1954, the same year On the Waterfront came out. This is extremely based shit. So we’re gonna listen to that here.

    [Begin Salt of the Earth Clip]

    Alexander: Well, they’re like children in many ways. Sometimes you have to humor them, sometimes you have to spank them — and sometimes you have to take their food away. Here comes the one we were talking about. (Chuckles) He’s quite a character. Claims his grandfather once owned the land where the mine is now.

    Ramon: Want to go up to your office, Mr. Alexander?

    Alexander: Naturally. You think I parked here for a cup of coffee?

    Ramon: You’re welcome to one.

    Alexander: No thanks.

    Ramon: The men would like to know who this gentleman is.

    Alexander: That’s none of their affair.

    Hartwell: That’s all right — it’s no secret. My name’s Hartwell. I’m from the company’s Eastern office.

    Ramon: You mean Delaware?

    Hartwell: No. New York.

    Ramon: New York? You’re not the Company President by any chance?

    Hartwell: No.

    Ramon: Too bad. The men have always wanted to get a look at the President. But you’ve come out here to settle the strike?

    Hartwell: Well, if that’s possible.

    Ramon: It’s possible. Just negotiate.

    Hartwell: Are we talking to a union spokesman?

    Alexander: Not exactly. But I wish he were one. He knows more about mining than those pie-cards we’ve had to deal with. I mean it. I know your work record. You were in line for foreman when this trouble started. Did you know that? You had a real future with this company, but you let those Reds stir you up. And now they’ll sell you down the river. Why don’t you wake up, Ray? That’s your name, isn’t it, Ray?

    Ramon: No. My name is Quintero. Mister Quintero.

    Alexander: Are you going to let us pass or do I have to call the Sheriff?

    Ramon: There’s nothing stopping you…

    I was wrong! They don’t want Jenkins for general manager — they want me!

    [End Salt of the Earth Clip]

    Adam: Some context, the guy who says he isn’t the president is, in fact, the president.

    Nima: President of the company, that’s right. Undercover Boss.

    Adam: Ramón is soon arrested by the violent, racist police after confronting a scab he knows. At the same time, Esperanza goes into labor. The strike continues for months, and strikers and union locals from around the country provide food and other aid for the families. Later, the sheriff issues a Taft-Hartley injunction ordering the striking workers to stop picketing. At a meeting, one of the strikers’ wives offers a solution, to much derision and resistance, which we’re going to listen to in that clip here.

    [Begin Salt of the Earth Clip]

    Teresa: If you read the court injunction carefully you will see that it only prohibits striking miners from picketing. We women are not striking miners. We will take over your picket line. (Men laughing.) Don’t laugh. We have a solution. You have none. Brother Quintero was right when he said we’ll lose fifty years of gains if we lose this strike. Your wives and children too. But this we promise, if the women take your places on the picket line, the strike will not be broken, and no scabs will take your jobs. (Applause.)

    [End Salt of the Earth Clip]

    Theatrical release poster for Salt of the Earth, 1954. Pictured: Rosaura Revueltas.

    Nima: Now, before the union members vote on whether to introduce the women into the picket line, as suggested, Esperanza insists that the women be allowed to vote, and the motion narrowly passes. People begin marching immediately, though some women’s husbands, including Esperanza’s, prohibit them from joining the picket line. But eventually Esperanza joins the picketers and is arrested herself, along with her children, other picketers, and their children. In jail, the women make demands for baby formula, bathroom access, and other necessities, mirroring those of the miners.

    The children are released, and Ramón handles the housework while Esperanza is forced to stay in jail. Ramón, resentful of Esperanza’s growing independence, insists that the women have no chance of winning, but Esperanza maintains that they can outlast the company and criticizes her husband Ramon for treating her just as the bosses treat him.

    [Begin Salt of the Earth Clip]

    Esperanza: Have you learned nothing from this strike? Why are you afraid to have me at your side? Do you still think you can have dignity only if I have none?

    Ramon: You talk of dignity? After what you’ve been doing?

    Esperanza: Yes. I talk of dignity. The Anglo bosses look down on you, and you hate them for it. “Stay in your place, you dirty Mexican.” That’s what they tell you. But why must you say to me, “Stay in your place.” Do you feel better having someone lower than you?

    Ramon: Shut up, you’re talking crazy.

    Esperanza: Whose neck shall I stand on, to make me feel superior? And what will I get out of it? I don’t want anything lower than I am. I’m low enough already. I want to rise. And push everything up with me as I go.

    Ramon: Will you be still?

    Esperanza: And if you can’t understand this you’re a fool because you can’t win this strike without me! You can’t win anything without me!

    [End Salt of the Earth Clip]

    Nima: Later, the company obtains an eviction order against the strikers, and the police start the process at the Quintero house. The strikers’ families defy the eviction order however, returning the Quinteros’ belongings to their home. Vastly outnumbered, the police leave, meaning the families have won the strike and that they can stay in their houses. Ramón thanks Esperanza for her work and for preaching a message of unity.

    Adam: The film was produced by Independent Productions Corporation, founded by Simon Lazarus, Herbert J. Biberman and producer Paul Jarrico, both of whom were blacklisted at the time and used the company to hire other blacklisted filmmakers. Writer Michael Wilson had been blacklisted as well. Salt of the Earth was also produced in partnership with the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers.

    The story was based on the actual strike of 1951–1952 by the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers against Empire Zinc, a subsidiary of New Jersey Zinc. Two of the film’s cast members — Juan Chacón, who played Ramón, and Clinton Jencks, who played another character named Frank Barnes — were actually members of the union and strike participants. Chacón, in fact, was president of one of the union locals.

    Nima: So yeah, this was basically a lefty labor-made film starring actual union organizers, past strikers as, you know, actors in the film. Now Unsurprisingly, the film Salt of the Earth had many powerful detractors. According to the American Film Institute, quote:

    In February 1953, during filming, California Republican Representative Donald Jackson, a member of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) from California, declared that [Salt of the Earth] was ‘deliberately designed to inflame racial hatreds,’ and was ‘a new weapon for Russia.’

    End quote.

    Simon Lazarus, founder of the film’s production company, was called to testify before Jackson’s committee that same year, 1953, the year before Salt of the Earth was even released.

    US entertainment unions opposed the film as well. IATSE and the Screen Actors Guild reportedly tried to halt production of the film for over a year, and director Biberman and producer Jarrico stated that they had hired people who had been effectively blacklisted by IATSE, including four Black workers — the assistant to the director, an assistant cameraman and two technicians — all of them excluded under IATSE’s Jim Crow policies.

    On May 24, 1959, the New York Times reported that the United States Information Agency included Salt of the Earth on its list of movies that it refused to show overseas. The film however was subsequently re-released in the US in 1965.

    Adam: Yeah, so if your film was too overtly pro union, centers race and racist cops, centers women’s liberation in the context of unionization, all a lot of bad stuff going on there. Hiring Black crew members. All that was very icky and so this movie was effectively thrown into a memory hole.

    Nima: It was so un-American that it wouldn’t be shown overseas.

    Adam: So un-American it is the only film ever to be blacklisted. Not a filmmaker, but the actual film, the only film ever to be blacklisted. Next up is Norma Rae from 1979. This is a more mainstream film, but one that has not so subtle politics, maybe slightly more subtle than the previous entry.

    In the Southern rural town of Henleyville, single mother Norma Rae Webster, played by Sally Field, works with her parents in a textile mill under conditions threatening the health of her, her family, and her co-workers. To shut her quote-unquote “big mouth,” management gives Norma a promotion, which she initially accepts but eventually rejects after realizing that the modest raise isn’t worth betraying the rank and file, her friends or family. When New York-based labor organizer Reuben Warshovsky, played by Ron Leibman, comes into town to encourage the mill workers to unionize, the galvanized Norma Rae takes an increasingly active role in the pursuit of victory for the mill workers.

    Sally Field and Ron Leibman in Norma Rae, 1979.

    Nima: So Norma Rae, of course, is widely known as kind of a high watermark of labor depiction in films. It’s from 1979. If you haven’t seen it, I’m sure you can find it at your local library, you can stream it on Vimeo, you can probably pick up a DVD somewhere, I encourage you to do that, it is a fine film. But it really does mark this labor as shown in Hollywood as being a real hero’s journey. Also, similarly to Salt of the Earth, shone through this idea of powerful women being the kind of center of a story and moving, not only labor solidarity, but also women’s liberation and almost a feminist ideology that combines to really push the labor movement forward.

    Adam: Yeah, though, as our guest notes, and we’ll talk about, its depiction of race is a bit simplistic and tokenizing. But that aside, let’s get into the breakdown of the film itself. The first scene we’re going to watch here is when the union organizer from New York, Reuben, knocks on Norma’s door, explaining that he’s a traveling labor organizer seeking a room to rent. Norma’s father Vernon denies Reuben’s request, stating that Reuben and the union are not welcome. So to start off, we’re going to play a clip where Norma has been making too many demands of management so management decides, which is a typical tactic, decides to give her a promotion, and basically turn her against her own co-workers. So let’s listen to that clip here.

    [Begin Norma Rae Clip]

    Norma Rae: Whatever it is, I didn’t do it.

    Gardner: Norma, you got the biggest mouth in this mill. “Give us a longer break.” “Give us more smokin’ time.” “Give us a Kotex pad machine.”

    Norma Rae: Do it and I’ll shut up!

    Gardner: Well, we’ll do better than that. We figure the only way to close that mouth is to hand you a promotion. You’re goin’ up in the world, honey.

    Norma Rae: Yeah? How far and for how much?

    Gardner: Well, we’re gonna put you on spot-checkin’.

    Norma Rae: Well hell, it sure ain’t gonna make me any friends.

    Gardner: It’ll make you another dollar and a half an hour.

    [End Norma Rae Clip]

    Nima: Now, Norma demands to be fired after realizing that this promotion is effectively a betrayal to her co-workers, and that you know, she should be fired instead of getting the raise. Later, Norma and one of her co-workers attend a Textile Workers’ Union of America meeting held by traveling organizer Reuben Warshovsky, in which Warshovsky evangelizes about the unifying potential of organizing.

    [Begin Norma Rae Clip]

    Reuben Warshovsky: Ladies and gentlemen, the textile industry in which you are spending your lives and your substance, and in which your children and their children will spend their lives and their substance, is the only industry in the whole of the United States of America that is not unionized. Therefore they are free to exploit you, to lie to you, to cheat you, and to take away from you what is rightfully yours. Your health. A decent wage. A fit place to work. I would urge you to stop them… by coming over to the room at the Golden Cherry Motel to pick up a union card and sign it. Yes, it comes from the Bible. “According to the tribes of your fathers ye shall inherit.” But it comes from Reuben Warshovsky: “Not unless you make it happen.” Thank you.

    [End Norma Rae Clip]

    Adam: So Reuben tours the factory with management. After Norma sees how he defends the workers, she seeks to partner with him and improve the union’s outreach, cutting through years of anti-union propaganda fed to the textile workers. It has a kind of city-boy-meets-country-girl flair, but it’s very well done.

    As the labor organization attempts become more visible, the company retaliates. Management forces workers into longer shifts and posts a letter telling white workers that Black workers would use the union as a tool of control. Both of these tactics have dire consequences for the workers.

    Management later attempts to fire Norma after she tries to copy the letter to send to the union, hoping to expose the company’s illegal union-busting tactics. In response, in what has become an iconic scene, Norma stands up on a worktable at the mill holding a sign that reads “UNION” as the workers turn off their mechanical looms in solidarity, one by one.

    The company has Norma arrested for “disorderly conduct,” and Reuben bails her out. Norma is distraught, but Reuben is unfazed and used to hostility from police. He explains that this kind of institutional antagonism is a routine part of labor organizing, offering a glimpse into the ways that police and the state enact violence against unions. So let’s listen to that clip here.

    [Begin Norma Rae Clip]

    Reuben Warshowsky: It comes with the job.

    Norma Rae: (Crying.)

    Reuben Warshowsky: I saw a pregnant woman on a picket line get hit in the stomach with a club. I saw a boy get shot in the back. I saw a guy get blown to hell and back when he tried to start up his car in the morning. And you just got your feet wet on this one.

    [End Norma Rae Clip]

    Adam: Yeah, so spoiler alert — which in case you haven’t noticed this whole episode is — the risks pay off and the mill holds an election over whether to unionize, and the result is a victory for the union.

    Nima: Norma Rae was quite faithfully based on the story of Crystal Lee Sutton, a cotton mill worker at the J.P. Stevens plant in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. Sutton became active in union organizing after meeting Eli Zivkovich, on whom Reuben Warshovsky was modeled. Sutton was fired after copying a racist, anti-union letter posted on the company bulletin board and responded just as we see in Norma Rae: climbing onto a worktable, holding a sign reading “UNION” above her head. Unionization at J.P. Stevens took much more time than it did in its fictional counterpart, but it did happen nevertheless eventually in 1980.

    TWUA flyer featuring labor organizer Crystal Lee Sutton, the inspiration for Norma Rae.

    The film’s director, Martin Ritt, was known for his catalog of tales of the oppressed, such as the 1972 film Sounder, about Black sharecroppers during the Depression. Like the makers of Salt of the Earth, Ritt had been blacklisted himself in the 1950s, an experience he captured in the 1976 Woody Allen/Zero Mostel film The Front. He said this in 1986, quote, “I make the kind of films that not too many people get to make in this town, though sometimes I’ve had to take the risk myself,” end quote.

    Adam: According to the American Film Institute, quote:

    Columbia Pictures, Warner Bros. and United Artists turned down the project. As explained in a 25 Feb 1979 NYT article, Alan Ladd Jr., President at Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp., acquired it after Ritt convinced him that the film would be perceived as uplifting and not depressing…During negotiations with the studio, Ritt agreed to cut his salary in half to $250,000.

    $250,000 is still a lot of money in 1979, so our hearts don’t bleed too much. But the point is to further demonstrate the friction filmmakers encounter when they do try to have pro union narratives, it requires them to, in this case, eat shit on half their salary.

    Nima: Both Salt of the Earth, from 1954 and 1979’s Norma Rae depict unionization as going hand in hand with cross racial solidarity and the third film we’re going to discuss is no different. This is Sorry to Bother You from 2018.

    Adam: The film was written and directed by Boots Riley, who has a history of activism in the Bay Area and has a history of pretty overtly left-wing politics, which of course, explains the politics of the film.

    Sorry to Bother You tells the story of Cassius “Cash” Green, played by Lakeith Stanfield, who works, out of desperation, as a telemarketer for Oakland-based company called RegalView, where management repeatedly floats the abstract promise of a promotion. As Cassius’s co-worker Squeeze, played by Steven Yeun, hopes to start a union, Cassius ascends the ranks to become a handsomely paid and steadily promoted “power caller,” on the condition that he enthusiastically performs work far more grim than he could have possibly imagined.

    Nima: So Sorry to Bother You certainly is one of the more ideological films that we are discussing in this two-parter, Adam. It is an allegory more than it is based on a true story or the, you know, story of a certain hero as emblematic of a movement. It is really a fantastical look at labor, at capitalism, and the horrors within those. So we’re going to break down some of the scenes from Sorry to Bother You.

    At one point in the film Cassius somewhat reluctantly participates in a work stoppage organized by his coworker Squeeze and is called into the manager’s office, where his three supervisors offer the allure of a promotion to dissuade him from going any further, you can see parallels here to what happened to Norma Rae, right? We’ll give you a promotion if you just shut your mouth. Here is a clip from that scene from Sorry to Bother You.

    [Begin Sorry to Bother You Clip]

    Cassius: All right, hey, I know you’re gonna threaten to fire me and go ahead, whatever, I don’t care anymore because we’re gonna take this fucking place down.

    Johnny: (Laughs.) Pack your shit and get out.

    Cassius: Well, fuck you and fuck you and fuck you! Fuck you!

    Anderson: Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no, Mr. Green. You’re starting to sound a little paranoid here. We’re the bearers of good news. Great news.

    Johnny: Great motherfucking news.

    Anderson: Great motherfucking news. Power caller.

    Cassius: What the fuck?

    Anderson: Yeah we just got the call. They think you’re A1 material, you’re going upstairs my compadre. Yes, you are getting a promotion. at 9am tomorrow morning. Do you have a suit?

    Diana: Of course he does. Powerful, young, strong, intelligent, power caller.

    Cassius: But they —

    Anderson: Oh, God, they’re gonna do what they’re gonna do. You’re not going against their actions. All their issues are down here. Not up there. Two very different kinds of telemarketing.

    Cassius: Okay. Um…

    Anderson: This is your moment. Don’t waste it.

    [End Sorry to Bother You Clip]

    Nima: Cassius soon discovers that as a power caller, he’ll be selling repugnant yet lucrative products from a company called WorryFree. The work stoppage has become a full-blown strike at this point, and Cassius tries to play to both labor and management, telling the workers trying to organize that he supports them quote-unquote “from the sidelines” while simultaneously reaping the financial rewards and class signifiers of his new position as a power caller.

    [Begin Sorry to Bother You Clip]

    Salvador: Cassius? What’s up, man? Where you been? What’s up with the suit?

    Cassius: I got promoted.

    Squeeze: What does that mean? Are you a manager now?

    Cassius: That means I’m a power caller now. About to be paid.

    Squeeze: We’re all trying to get fucking paid. But we’re going to do it as a team. Are you on the team?

    Cassius: Yeah, I guess I’m still on your little team but I’m playing from the bench. The bench where you sit and get your bills paid. You know, my uncle is about to lose his house.

    Salvador: Cash, I’m Sorry about your uncle man, but they don’t mean sell out.

    Cassius: I’m not selling you all out. My success has nothing to do with you. All right? You just keep doing whatever it is that you’re fucking doing and I’ll root for you from the sidelines and try not to laugh at that stupid smirk on your face.

    [End Sorry to Bother You Clip]

    Nima: Later, Cassius is invited to an especially decadent party at the mansion of WorryFree executive Steve Lift, played by Armie Hammer —

    Adam: Who we now know was playing himself basically.

    Lakeith Stanfield and Armie Hammer in Sorry to Bother You, 2018.

    Nima: The scene plays as a clear parody of the wealthy US tech executives, where Cassius realizes his role is to entertain them and be mocked by the white guests in attendance. At the mansion, Cassius discovers that Lift is experimenting with a horrific, grotesque way to improve the quote-unquote “efficiency” of WorryFree’s laborers, sanitized in a twee, Michel Gondry-style stop-motion video scene.

    [Begin Sorry to Bother You Clip]

    Neanderthal Woman: We study. WorryFree is carrying forward this lineage of natural developments that began in prehistoric times. We realized that human labor has its limitations and our scientists have discovered a way of chemical change to make humans stronger, more obedient, more durable, and therefore more efficient and profitable. We are proud to announce to our shareholders that a new day in human productivity is dawning.

    [End Sorry to Bother You Clip]

    Nima: Lift asks him to lead the workers, an offer that Cash is really surprised by, appalled by. Cassius then makes a series of appearances on morning and late-night talk shows to blow the whistle on WorryFree and what they’re doing. He implores people to call their representatives in Congress but soon realizes how ineffective that approach is.

    Cash later joins the striking workers, who are beaten, tear gassed, and hit with cars by riot police. Not long after, the RegalView workers have successfully formed a union, and, in a more confrontational turn of events, WorryFree’s plans to improve worker output are used against the company itself.

    Adam: The central conflict in the film, obviously it has sci-fi and fantasy elements, but the central conflict is about worker solidarity and the mechanisms with which management and capital and society in general uses to pick away at that solidarity, to dangle promotions in front of you, to use race to divide people, all the kinds of ways in which unionism is dissuaded, and the film was obviously a very pro-labor, pro-union film for that reason, and quite explicitly, which a lot of people found refreshing, and many of the critics at the time who praised the film noted that union and unionism as a plot point hadn’t really happened in some time, which is what made the film very refreshing for a lot of people, especially in the climate of increased union activity, which of course, has since been even more frequent. So it’s a movie that is explicitly a movie about labor and the ways in which labor and solidarity are eroded, and in that sense, I think it’s a very refreshing and positive depiction of unionism that we almost never see in contrast with, offline we were talking about, it’s the anti-Office Space.

    Nima: Totally.

    Adam: Because Office Space, you know, as funny as that movie is, as iconic as many of the lines have become, it’s like a lot of Mike Judge stuff, it’s deeply nihilistic, and very libertarian at its heart.

    Nima: There’s no real solidarity, you have your buddies at work, but you only kind of have kinship with them to exact a little bit of revenge or, you know, things to make yourself feel better in the drudgery of work, but a lot of the scenes parallel with Sorry to Bother You like going into the office with the three managers who are going to assess your performance or whatever, there’s the Bob scene in Office Space, but the results are very different. The way out is very different. It is not about them coming together and forming a union. Unions are never discussed in Office Space, it’s just about this pitiful cubicle life, right? It was 1999 Mike Judge, it wasn’t a union-y time.

    Adam: Yeah, without being too, again, we want to be careful not to be too prescriptive or literal minded — we understand that art doesn’t necessarily have to be a constant commercial for unionism — but I do think that there are politics that ooze out of these films, and there’s a certain political point that is being made, whether we want it to or not. And again, that was very much a marker of its time in the late ’90s. There’s a kind of slacker libertarianism that was descended at the time and I think that that maybe has changed a little bit or that’s not as attractive today, because I think we sort of see where that led us, this kind of end of history, whatever man mentality. I mean, of course, Mike Judge also made Idiocracy, which is a film we could do a whole episode on.

    Nima: Indeed it’s slightly problematic.

    Adam: What I view as a very pro soft eugenics or even hard eugenics film.

    Nima: Totally.

    Adam: At its core it and sort of dripping with misanthropy, which I think Mike Judge would even probably agree with

    Nima: Yeah, I think that’s kind of the point of a lot of what he does. But to discuss labor in film more, we are now going to be joined by Angela Allan, a lecturer on history and literature at Harvard University, who also writes about pop culture for The Atlantic magazine. Angela will join us in just a moment. Stay with us.


    Nima: We are joined now by Angela Allan. Angela, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

    Angela Allan: It’s great to be here to talk.

    Adam: Let’s begin by talking about Norma Rae, the quintessential labor sympathetic mainstream Hollywood film, film you wrote about in your excellent essay in The Atlantic. It has a lot going for it in terms of its kind of broad message of unionization as an avenue for racial solidarity while, as you note, the film itself lacks meaningful diversity, the Black characters are largely ornamental. It was still a fairly unique Hollywood message picture for the late ’70s, which by this point, the rest of the country, Hollywood has sort of begun to veer more right-wing, most notably Rocky, a racial disciplining film. I know it’s popular, I like it, but let’s be honest, its racial politics are pretty shitty. Let’s begin by talking about what makes Norma Rae work as an underdog story in a pro labor film, despite, as you note, this is not even really being the director’s objective, so he says, although I’m a little skeptical about that. What to you makes it work and what are some of the sort of lessons that can be taken away from what makes it work?

    Angela Allan

    Angela Allan: Yeah. So I would first say that I share your skepticism about this because I think Martin Ritt, the director, Norma Rae is from 1979, but he directed The Molly Maguires in 1970, which is obviously hugely about labor issues, and even I think his first film, Edge of the City is about labor. So it might be a little bit disingenuous for him to have said that. But at the same time, what Martin Ritt does claim is that he was mostly interested in Crystal Lee Sutton’s organizing work, and she’s, obviously, the basis for the character. He said, you know, it’s her story, not particularly the unions that he’s interested in. But I think even if we take him at his word for that, if we want to see this as a film that’s about interpersonal relationships as opposed to labor organizing, it’s a film that shows just how much Norma Rae’s private life can’t be disentangled from her labor life as a worker. And so it’s a film, I think, that’s largely about consciousness raising. She knows that her life has been hard, she knows that it’s because her job sucks, and she knows that it’s not satisfying. But there’s this kind of question about, well, what do you do about that? And so in the beginning of the film, it really kind of shows Norma Rae as the squeaky wheel who’s dissatisfied, who’s raising concerns with her boss, who they’re largely able to ignore her. So the narrative arc is more so well, how do you do something about that? And this is, as the plot goes, when she meets with the labor organizer, how do you go from being an individual voice to how do you work together with a collective to be able to do something? And I think where the underdog aspect of it comes in is this idea that it depends upon individual courage. So whether or not it makes the most idealistic version of an individual acting, I think, given the very real union busting tactics it portrays in the film, it is worthwhile to note that, even if it is ultimately the collective struggle to organize, it does require a lot on an individual to be able to face harassment, intimidation, and to ultimately have faith that the collective can come through. And the one other thing I’ll say about Norma Rae, that I think it’s really interesting that the film doesn’t show the bargaining or the victory of the union to get whatever their demands may be. The happy ending isn’t about winning the better contract, the ending is one where organizing the union itself is the victory, and we’re left to imagine that the victories that the union can go on to achieve, but that the first step is even realizing the potential power of organizing where this film sort of imagines that that in itself can be a happy ending, not necessarily all of the things that can come from that, but just that as a first step.

    Nima: Yeah, you know, you mentioned how union busting is actually a, you know, through line, the barriers, the adversity that is faced by, you know, Sally Fields character Norma Rae, but also by, you know, those that she’s organizing in the textile factory. But can you talk about how the real threat, the real kind of union busting tactics take on a different tenor when there is cross racial solidarity shown at the factory. Can you talk a little bit about how race enters into the storytelling, but also then the politics but also like social environment, I guess, of the film Norma Rae, and maybe how that is different than the union busting tactics are therefore different than what we would see in, say, a documentary from around the same time like Barbara Kopple’s, Harlan County, USA. Where are the levers of storytelling different from, you know, the kind of Hollywood vision to the documentary?

    Angela Allan: So I think a large part of the way that they choose to depict this is that the racial aspect is there to serve a couple of different functions. So first of all, it’s set in the South. This is a community that the film portrays as having deep seated racial divisions Norma Rae’s husband, played by Beau Bridges, is very upset that she brings over her fellow Black workers to their home for an organizing meeting, and that this is something that heroically she says, you know, that, ‘This doesn’t matter to me, it matters that they are workers.’ So the film wants to celebrate that as a major touchstone of this is what’s necessary to organize, while also showing how this is something as a particular tactic that happened in real life, of course, and in many circumstances other than just the J.P. Stevens plant, but that because of these tensions that are present in real life and present in the film, that the union busters see this as a real opportunity to find a particular wedge to drive to say, ‘Oh, this is going to actually create big problems, you’re going to have different wages, you’re going to have to work with different types of people,’ and that using race in particular, as this moment where they post this sign, and then it’s up to her to copy it down and show that this is the intimidation that’s happening as a solidarity building moment, I think that that’s largely how the film wants to play this in a couple of different ways. One is, look at the success of organizing, and the need to have that kind of cross racial solidarity, but also look at how labor itself can create racial solidarity too. So I think it’s important for the film largely that it thinks about the mutual relationship, and for the 1970s, you know, as you’re saying, films like Rocky are very much rooted in thinking about the oppression of white people that Norma Rae is recognizing that the oppression is one rooted in class, not race.

    Adam: Yeah, because I mean, I think a lot about the Brotherhood of Timber Workers being a kind of an early example of the narrative about cross racial solidarity, the barracks in the East Texas and Louisiana timber workers were divided into white, Black and Italian, and they put the Mexicans with the Italians, we’re not sure why, and how the BTW was so radical, and the IWW later took it over. But similar kind of radical organizations. Their basic premise was that racial solidarity is a necessary component of unionization in the South, obviously, scholars have documented this to death about how one of the reasons that union levels are so low in the South is because racial divisions are used to divide workers, both by management and also kind of preexisting cultural currents that have nothing to do necessarily with management just, you know, a lot of racist white people. But also that it’s the opposite is true that if there’s going to be a meaningful reconciliation with our racist past that has to take the place of a worker led movement, which is a very sort of romantic idea, and it’s one that I think is central to most left-wing ideology, certainly central to our ideology. It’s mostly just an assertion, who knows, maybe it’s not true, kind of an article of faith or kind of axiom. And I think one of the things that Norma Rae does a good job of sort of showing that it’s a, I think, a fairly subversive idea. So, of course, you know, anti-union sentiment is not Hollywood’s fault entirely, and probably not even mostly, the ties to organized crime are real — obviously, they’re popular in Hollywood, but they did exist, and that was not good for the brand, as they say on Madison Avenue. Right-wing think tanks that emerged in the early ’70s, pretty much dedicated all the resources convincing people that unions were an artifact of the past, and obviously, some of the racist histories of kind of more mainstream unions like AFL, but it does seem like at least from our perspective, that anti-union depictions contribute somewhat to it, you know, it’s impossible to say exactly, but we do think it kind of contributes generally to this idea that you don’t need unions, because they’re this corrupt vestige of the past.

    Now, when we sort of asked why a town like Hollywood, which is ostensibly quite unionized, I think it’s very compartmentalized in its unionization, right? All films have a lot of union labor through some mechanism or another. Why at the end of the day, it produces such an anti-union, like on average, produces such anti-union content, or at the very least just ignores it altogether, we lay out the argument that the Red Scare had a lot to do with it, that kind of set the tone early, letting Hollywood know that all the kind of closet commies and left-wingers in Hollywood basically needed to not go too far, and then that leads to a backlash of, ‘Well, I need to prove I’m not communist by either ignoring or bashing unionization.’ But also, of course, how Hollywood is funded. Rich people largely fund Hollywood. They’re the check writers, they’re the bosses. I want to get your thoughts on kind of what you think the structural reasons for the negative depiction of unions is. Would you agree with that, or do you think it’s something maybe more than that, or is it just a general cultural hatred of unions in America in general?

    Angela Allan: Well, I think from the cultural perspective, there are just a lot of different demands on the kind of narratives that Hollywood wants to tell, and one of the things that’s really interesting to me is that you don’t see the absence of corporate critique in film. So even if pro-labor films largely disappeared in the 1980s, the 1980s is a moment where you also see this huge rise of films about evil corporations like Terminator, Aliens, Robocop, et cetera, et cetera. And the evil corporation films are mainstays for Hollywood. So it’s not as though filmmakers or audiences aren’t interested in addressing or representing corporate injustice, it’s not necessarily solved in the same kind of way, you know, I’d love if the most recent Jurassic Park movie had been about like InGen employees unionizing against their extremely unsafe labor conditions of dinosaurs running around eating them.

    Nima: (Laughs.) Totally.

    Angela Allan: But I think there’s something that from a narrative standpoint, there’s something sexier, more profitable storyline for like a couple of heroic, exceptional individuals to really fight back in these very spectacular ways, they’re action packed, they lack the kind of more quiet drama of having conversations with people making those connections in order to be able to organize into a union, and you know, from a political perspective, I think it’s so interesting that these evil corporation stories are so over the top. They create this additional sense of removal of well, this is only in sci fi dystopia type things, and that therefore those things that these corporations perpetuate are removed from the very real-world reach of corporations. So I think there’s some sense that we can critique labor-busting institutions, we can critique institutions that have bad policies, but only in these hyperactive, hyperinflated hero narratives that want to focus on individuals rather than the collective.

    Adam: Yeah, because I think that speaks to two things, which is you’re right, there’s evil corporations, but it’s largely abstracted, and even in the context of like a Jurassic Park, it’s about some innate human hubris, rather than something more kind of structural or economical, which makes sense, because that kind of is a more humanistic way of making it. Which sort of gets to something that, Sarah and I wrote a book, and one of the things we confronted was like, okay, well, what does it mean to have like a socialist, or a kind of a more collective narrative, because the sort of Aristotelian hero narrative is, by definition, about the individual. The point I was making was, it’s something I’ve thought a lot about, which is like, is the individualistic narrative inherently not about collective action in that it is just an artifact of — what? I don’t know — Greek literature that has nothing to do with some sinister plot by corporations, is just kind of the nature of how we tell stories.

    Nima: It’s also how stories are told in a very Western sense, right? This isn’t the world over necessarily the hero’s journey, you know, the kind of Joseph Campbell, Power of Myth, but at the same time, yeah, I think, you know, in Hollywood, you know, and, Angela, to your point, how emerging from the ’70s into the kind of Reaganite ’80s, tales of oppressive corporations, super powerful, corrupt, violent corporations are action movies, right, with oftentimes a singular hero or a band of heroes, but usually, there’s a main character, right? It’s not always like a John McClane individual. But you know, oftentimes there is that primary hero narrative, as opposed to what we’ve been talking about, which is stories about companies but where the solution is solidarity, right? The solution is collective and it isn’t necessarily putting a bullet through someone’s brain.

    Adam: Yeah, but that’s way cooler, though. Come on.

    Nima: Well right. I mean, is that kind of a function maybe of how politics also changed over that time? You know, I mean, you point out in your piece, Angela, how, Norma Rae almost as this, you know, symbolic, high point of labor narrative in Hollywood, also signals, I mean, the fact that it is almost it’s apex, what you then see is the vanishing of that kind of labor oriented storytelling in film throughout the ’80s. I mean, yes, there is Gung Ho, I guess, but what would you say in terms of how Hollywood is following the politics or maybe even creating the environment for that kind of politics to thrive, right? It’s kind of a chicken or egg scenario.

    Angela Allan: Yeah, I think Gung Ho is a really funny example of this because the 1980s when labor unions do come up, you know, I can think of two examples that kind of fall outside the mob version and that’s in Gung Ho and in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, and you know, I think the fact that you have one of these stories coming from a more white collar perspective and one coming more from a blue collar perspective, and yet they have similar kind of anxieties is really interesting about how these ideas perpetuate into insidious ways. So in something like Wall Street, you know, everyone remembers that the Gordon Gekko insider trading storyline and part of it is that he wants to buy up this airline so he can carve it up and sell for the rate that union pension plans, and that, of course is what convinces Charlie Sheen’s character that greed is not good as it turns out, but the union leaders do play a significant role in this central deal that they want to make. So, you know, Gordon Gekko falsely promises that he’ll give the workers stock options if the airline is profitable in exchange for concessions of a 20 percent pay cut and extended hours for one year. And so I think the very fact that union concessions are something that are coming up in this film as just sort of a necessary part of dealmaking, even after they decide that they are not interested in working with Gekko, and they want to find this new buyer, these aren’t imagined as evil corrupt union leaders, Martin Sheen’s character is the voice of reason within it, who’s very skeptical of this, but the film, you know, it accepts this logic that pay cuts are just good business sense and concessions don’t generally work in favor of the workers.

    Nima: Yeah, and it’s interesting actually, the year that Wall Street came out, which is 1987, John Sayles released his film Matewan, which is about mine workers unionizing across racial lines, incidentally, in West Virginia. So interesting that then toward the end of the Reagan years, right, there’s this little peek into union coming back into Hollywood.

    Angela Allan: But Matewan is also such a romanticized take though, it has to go into the past to find these storylines.

    Nima: Totally.

    Angela Allan: I don’t necessarily mean romantic in a good way, because you know, having these extremely evil coal mining people coming at you and shooting up your entire town is not a desirable thing. But at the same time, it sort of, again, creates this sense of removal of these workers who are really fighting for principles but yet isn’t this so extreme? Who could ever imagine being in this kind of circumstance as compared to the kinds of union storylines that are coming up more so in ’80s specific narratives like Wall Street or like Gung Ho, which has some of the most bizarre labor politics I’ve ever seen.

    Adam: Well, let’s fast forward to today, which is Sorry to Bother You, which was probably the most, I don’t want to say, it’s an indie film, but it was popular, wide acclaim, had a pretty wide release, was probably the first overtly mainstream pro union film, I would argue, since Newsies, which is strangely socialist propaganda. We talked about that earlier. So I don’t know how that movie ever got made.

    Nima: Don’t tell Disney.

    Adam: No, it’s so weird and then Teddy Roosevelt comes in at the end as a Deus Ex Machina, you’re like, okay, yeah, right, so it was TR the whole time. But Sorry to Bother You was an interesting movie that was more about what you’re talking about, which is contemporary, more representative of your average worker today, which is kind of maybe white collar, beaten down by circumstance. Obviously, Boots Riley is very openly a socialist, communist, I’m not exactly sure how he actually defines himself, but something in that vein, but still was kind of critically acclaimed. I think it made Sonny Bunch of The Washington Post very angry. I think he even wrote an article about why the CIA needs to go back to funding films after it came out. But that obviously kind of touched a nerve. I know union organizers even today, many of the kinds of Amazon salts that I’d spoken to had mentioned that movie. So what are your thoughts on that film? And does it, I know, it’s, you know, a couple years old now, but do you think that maybe portends some mainstream-ification of labor sympathetic narrative in light of more and more union victories, more high-profile union victories, whether or not it adds up to more is debatable, but more high-profile union victories, we’re seeing more and more, as there’s more worker unrest right now?

    Angela Allan: Yeah, I mean, I love Sorry to Bother You and I think it is a film that resonated with a lot of people, because although it does have that sort of same over the top aspect of a lot of the evil corporation films, since they are turning people into horses, it raises really important points about how corporations suppress workers, the stakes of organizing, that’s also a film that has a lot of investment in building cross racial solidarity, and I think it’s easy to see how that narrative of coming together to fight a corporation that looks a lot like Amazon, can have a sense of like, ‘Okay, we really can do this.’ And I think the way that we see places like The New York Times or The Washington Post, how they’ve been covering unionization efforts at Amazon warehouses and at Starbucks, that they already are casting them as having this kind of narrative flair, you know, so if Martin Ritt is like, ‘I was really inspired by Crystal Lee Sutton,’ people like Chris Smalls or Jaz Brisack feel like Norma Rae-esque figures, and you know, I don’t know that that’s necessarily a vote that we should remake Norma Rae or anything like that but I think that does suggest that there’s an appetite for these victory stories in real life.

    Adam: Yeah, because what spawned this episode was I had written an article basically arguing that there was some backlash to the Chris Smalls veneration and I wrote an article where it basically said, like, look, you always have to be careful not to hero worship, that’s always a bad thing, but at the same time, why doesn’t the left such that it is or labor have more heroes? That’s, I think, a normal human instinct to want to have hero narratives so long as they’re positioned within a kind of collective effort. I think there’s something maybe it is Western, I don’t know, maybe it’s somewhat culturally ingrained into the DNA of how we perceive narratives but it seems like that’s a good thing. People need heroes, you know, growing up, you would see a cop blow someone away and say, ‘I want to be a cop.’ You know, I mean, I can’t tell you how many people in Washington D.C. literally went to D.C. because of The West Wing. It’s an ungodly amount of people. I know it’s declasse to talk about, but it’s obviously true. I mean, I had a friend who joined the military because he watched too much 24 one summer. So it seems like you would need to have hero narratives.

    Nima: Yeah. Heroic attorney films I’m sure have inspired plenty of law school.

    Adam: Yeah. Oh, God. How many people went to journalism school because of All the President’s Men? So yeah, you know, I think that there was something human about that. I think that’s okay. As long, again, as long as it’s not too far in the direction of great man theory or such things that are problematic, but that seems okay to me, personally.

    Nima: Well, yeah, I think the idea that whether it’s a Norma Rae or, you know, Atticus Finch, or even like a John McClane, right, what are those stories that are going to inspire people? And you know, Angela, in the work that you do, analyzing history and literature and pop culture, what would you say about the importance of having these kinds of narrative heroes in what we are absorbing through, I mean, not only say, news media, where heroes may be cast in a different kind of way, but certainly, through art and culture, where’s the power in that and up against so many competing narratives, right, endless pro corporate narratives or pro cop narratives, there’s only a drop in the bucket of Sorry to Bother Yous out there or Norma Raes out there or even the romanticized Matewan. So where do you think that storytelling can get even more powerful? How can we start seeing more of those stories?

    Angela Allan: Yeah, I mean, well, I guess, right now, and hopefully this will change, but we see that the union busters really have this stranglehold on narratives, and these are things that they, you know, show their employees videos of, of saying, you know, ‘The union leaders, they’re just stealing from you, they don’t care about you, we’re really the ones looking out for you, and we’ll take care of you don’t worry about it,’ and it’s easy to see how they are able to so successfully send those messages through narrative retelling and what we don’t see enough of on the other side is that that can be wrong, that, in fact, people can have victories in unionizing, and that collective action is a positive and can affect positive change. So I mean, I think having heroes, you know, whether that is routed through a figure of an individual or whether that is just the possibility, the heroic narrative of a movement, those stories are so useful, because they encourage other people to believe that, yes, unions are good, they are worth fighting for, they are worth having people be involved and invested and that they can win even going up against these large forces. So it would be wonderful to have more films kind of perpetuating these messages and narratives, but at the same time, you know, that’s always going to be most effective when we see it happening in real life, and I hope that’s the kind of thing that we’re seeing now.

    Adam: Yeah, it’s a feedback loop. Of course, you don’t want to overemphasize how much pop culture influences people, but I definitely think it feeds off each other. So yeah.

    Nima: Yeah, yeah, I mean, writing stories that are based on a true story helps keep that loop going.

    Adam: But the true story has to happen first.

    Angela Allan: Right.

    Nima: Well, I think that’s a great place to leave it. We’ve been speaking with Angela Allan, a lecturer on history and literature at Harvard University, and an occasional writer on pop culture for The Atlantic magazine. Angela, thank you so much, again, for joining us today on Citations Needed.

    Angela Allan: Thank you for having me.


    Adam: Whenever we discuss film and television and the kind of politics in film and television, I know as two people who love film and television, that we were always kind of, I don’t want to say hesitant, but we’re always a little bit, we want to be very aware that art, of course, doesn’t necessarily need to have a clear or perfect political line to be enjoyable. I think that kind of gets you to a very dogmatic and intellectually uninteresting place that can veer into anti-intellectualism or stifle quote-unquote “creativity.”

    Nima: Sure.

    Adam: We talked about the fact that movies that do discuss labor and labor unions, they do have a political output and a political effect and I think it’s okay to talk about that while still understanding that we can enjoy a good Scorsese mob movie as much as the next guy, but of course, I think over time, with enough depictions, they begin to sort of paint a certain picture and they, you know, I think we do have some creatives who listen to this show, people who are involved in the film and television industry in various means, whether it be writing, directing, production, art direction, etcetera, and I do think we are being a little bit dogmatic here in that I think we would say, maybe if you’re going to depict unions, think about how you do that, and also, maybe if you’re looking for a source of drama, think about the histories, the history of labor action, there’s a ton of historical examples. Obviously, there are really dramatic historical examples from the CIO strikes of the 1920s and ’30s to the textile strikes in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the coal miner wars in West Virginia, the western mind strikes of the 1900s and 1910s, the free speech battles out in California, I mean, yeah, we can go on and on. There’s so much there that hasn’t been, so many stories that haven’t been told about about unionism, and it is inherently dramatic, that I guess we would say, you know, maybe give that a look or think about that, think about the ways in which we can romanticize labor in a way that the 10,000 cop shows and 10,000 prosecutor shows romanticize those professions. I do think it matters. I mean, like you said, the year after All the President’s Men came out, journalism school skyrocketed. The year after Top Gun, Navy recruitment went up 400 percent. The year after Birth of a Nation, the KKK was refounded after being dormant for 45 years. So, yeah, media does influence how we perceive certain things and I think it actually does matter that historically, our representations of unions have been mob bosses. I do think that does affect the attractiveness of unions.

    Nima: And then it becomes almost like a trope, right? So, you don’t want to be too preachy by avoiding a trope that seems to work or seems to lend itself to drama, right? But at the same time, what is that doing? It is further entrenching this same idea again, and again, that labor unions are supported by the mob, or that that is the only way that you can understand them or that there is kind of this more blue collar side to it like a Deer Hunter kind of background, where folks are at the factory all day and then they go out for a beer and that’s solidarity but there doesn’t really wind up being any story to be told about management or why people’s lives are a certain way or how they maybe could be different or what solidarity could mean as a bargaining tool in a collective. These things don’t have to be boring, they can be just part of the stories because they actually have a lot to do with people’s lives, right? I mean, a number of the films we’ve talked about do this really well. Films we weren’t able to touch on, things like The Organizer, the 1963 Italian film by Mario Monicelli is another one, right? It’s literally called The Organizer. Go check it out if you haven’t seen it.

    Marcello Mastroianni in 1963/64’s The Organizer. (Continental Distributing, Inc.)

    Adam: There’s a lot of fields we missed, by the way. So if there’s one we missed, sorry, you know, let us know, obviously, we can’t be exhaustive.

    Nima: That’s right.

    Adam: There’s a lot of bad and good we will miss by the very nature of the scope of the episode.

    Nima: But what is fun, when we talk about film and TV and the ideologies that are infused in there, the narratives that get woven in and further entrenched and sometimes enhanced, sometimes broken, sometimes replaced by this art, it’s a conversation that I always love having on Citations Needed. It also, I think, discussing what art can do and how art so often, I mean, as you said, can not only imitate life, right, to be hokey about it, but it can also influence life. The fact that how we understand cops and lawyers and the military and the CIA and labor unions all kind of work in this environment. And so yeah, I’m glad we were able to talk about this.

    But that will do it for this episode, this two-parter, and indeed, this season of Citations Needed. Since 2017, we’ve done over 160 episodes, more than 120 News Briefs, spoken to over 200 different guests. On behalf of our Citations Needed team — Adam, Florence, Julianne, Trendel, Marco, Morgan and myself — thank you so much for listening, for your ongoing support, and for spreading the word, sharing the show, and making it possible for us to keep doing this thing that we love. So really, thank you all so much.

    Adam: Yes, thank you so much for listening this season. This is our fifth season. We celebrated our fifth anniversary over the past few weeks, so we’re very grateful for all the support. We absolutely love doing the show. We love the opportunity of doing the show. We’re really excited to come back for season six and bring up a whole host of new topics, push new conversations, and try to excavate heretofore unknown layers of bullshit. There’s always more to go over, so we’re excited to do that. Thank you again for all your support.

    Nima: We’ll be taking a brief break and then we’ll come roaring back with all-new episodes of Citations Needed in September. We may even post some goodies for patrons in the meantime. And of course, you can grab some sweet Citations swag in our merch store at Bonfire.com/store/citations-needed. Stay up to date on all things Citations by following the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and please do consider becoming a supporter of the show through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated as we 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: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. So have a wonderful rest of the summer, or if you’re listening from way down south, enjoy your remaining winter, and we will see you all again in September. Thanks again, everyone, we’ll catch you then.


    This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, August 3, 2022.

    Transcription by Morgan McAslan.

  • Episode 164: Labor Union Depictions in Hollywood (Part I): From Demonized to Ignored or Mafia Plot…

    Citations Needed | July 27, 2022 | Transcript

    Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront (1954). (Columbia Pictures)


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

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

    Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

    Nima: 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 are 100 percent listener funded.

    Adam: Yes, and as always, you can rate and subscribe to us on Apple Podcast, that’s appreciated, and remember, you can get Citations Needed merch, t-shirts, tote bags, mugs, et cetera at Bonfire.com/store/citations-needed and get some merch there. It looks good. It’s good and good for you.

    Nima: Chances are you’ve seen this storyline play out on either a big or small screen: An FBI agent investigates a prominent labor leader. Or maybe a union boss orders a hit on a recalcitrant member of the rank and file. Or perhaps a union president skims money off a pension fund to make an illegal loan.

    Adam: Plotlines like these derive from one of Hollywood’s longstanding and most favored tropes: the corrupt, mobbed up union, and more specifically, the corrupt union boss. It lends itself to countless stories: The rise and fall of a Mafia-backed labor head, the rebellion of rank-and-file workers against their tyrannical leadership, the precarious union on the verge of implosion. Accordingly, over and over again, we’ve seen stories of labor unions entangled with extortion, bribery, blackmail, theft and murder.

    Nima: But, even if union bosses can make compelling characters, why is it that they must be corrupt mafiosi? Why is it that heroism in pop culture is overwhelmingly the domain of police, attorneys and doctors and hardly ever people fighting for labor rights and the collective power of their co-workers and communities? Why, instead of highlighting the courage of labor organizers and the life-changing protections won, must Hollywood repeatedly emphasize only unions’ historical ties to organized crime and a seamy underbelly of corruption, murder and intrigue?

    Adam: On today’s show, part one of a two-part episode on labor depictions in Hollywood, we’ll explore organized labor and unions in film and television, and how these pop depictions inform broader public sentiment about unions. And next week, we’ll discuss some of the more positive portrayals of labor and unionism in film and TV.

    Nima: Later today, we’ll be joined by writer and organizer Ken Margolies. Ken has spent his life in the US labor movement, starting as a member of the Teamsters in NY and continuing with director positions with SEIU, CWA and the Teamsters. He worked for nearly 30 years for the Worker Institute at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, providing training, consulting and advice to a wide range of unions.

    [Begin Clip]

    Ken Margolies: Besides the mob theme, there was an ineffectual theme that was in the news all the time in the ’60s, ’70s. It was all about auto workers making too much so that the companies can’t compete with Japanese made autos, steel workers were demanding too much so they got laid off, plants were closing. So that was coexisting with the mobbed-up image that they did.

    [End Clip]

    Nima: And on next week’s show, we’ll speak with Angela Allan, a lecturer on history and literature at Harvard University, who writes about pop culture for The Atlantic magazine.

    [Begin Clip]

    Angela Allan: From a narrative standpoint, there’s something sexier and more profitable storyline for a couple of heroic, exceptional individuals to really fight back in these very spectacular ways. They’re action-packed, they lack the kind of more quiet drama of having conversations with people making those connections in order to be able to organize into a union.

    [End Clip]

    Adam: Disclaimers, we typically do. Well, two disclaimers, number one, there’s going to be a lot of spoilers in this because as we talk about movies and to some extent television. Many of these movies are 50, 60, 70, 80 years old, some are over 100 years old.

    Nima: Yeah, so spoiler alert for On the Waterfront but maybe go see On the Waterfront.

    Adam: Yeah, there’s no longer an actual waterfront anymore. But sorry about that. Number two, obviously, we’re going to be talking about the depictions of organized labor and the Italian mafia being chief among them. Now, we, of course, are not saying that there were not a lot of connections between organized labor and the Italian mafia, in case there’s any confusion. Obviously, that was a major problem for many, many decades, and the courageous efforts of the progressive union activists within the unions to get rid of the mafia element, if you will, is of course its own story worthy of telling, and we wanted to clarify that because we were talking offline, is everyone was going to think that we’re like sponsored by the Italian mob now? No, that is not the central focus of this. But of course, the history of organized labor in the United States and throughout the world, but the United States in particular, is only a fraction of that really has anything to do with organized crime, and we are going to spend a great deal of time talking about why that 10 percent becomes the exclusive focus, for the most part, with rare exceptions we’ll talk about, and the other 90 percent is ignored almost entirely.

    Nima: Also, quick note that we can’t possibly talk about everything that we want to talk about, we would love to do an entire episode on the second season of The Wire, but we can’t cover everything. So we have selected a few films that are emblematic of larger trends, and we will do some honorable mentions as we go, but apologies if your favorite pro- or anti-union film is not discussed today.

    But let’s get on with it. Hollywood power structures have a long history of anti-labor maneuvering, dating all the way back to the earliest days of Hollywood unions. Much of the foundation upon which Hollywood is based is rooted in anti-unionism — including one of Hollywood’s hallmarks, the Academy Awards. In 1926, producer Louis B. Mayer, then the head of the newly formed studio Metro Goldwyn Mayer or MGM, hired some of MGM’s construction workers to build his Santa Monica beach house, expecting the work to be done in just six weeks. The studios were about to sign an agreement with the union representing studio laborers, soon to be known as the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, or what is now known as IATSE. Fearing the potential now for construction workers to secure good pay and overtime, Mayer opted to pare down the studio workers and outsource the rest to cheaper labor.

    But Mayer still feared that unionization could spread throughout Hollywood, with writers, actors, and directors taking cues from carpenters, electricians, and painters. He and his colleagues thus devised a plan to both serve as a PR vehicle for the entertainment industry and to quell any labor agitation. Now first they formed a trade group, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, to prevent Hollywood creatives from unionizing. Second, they dangled vaguely prestigious awards in front of their Hollywood talent in hopes of distracting them from pursuing better worker conditions. This, of course, marked the dawn of the Academy Awards, the first ceremony of which was held in May of 1929. Louis B. Mayer stated, quote:

    I found that the best way to handle [filmmakers] was to hang medals all over them. If I got them cups and awards, they’d kill themselves to produce what I wanted. That’s why the Academy Award was created.

    End quote.

    Now, much to Mayer’s chagrin, creative unions throughout the entertainment industry began to gain a foothold in the 1930s, building on the successes of craftspeople and seeking to improve working conditions in response to the Great Depression and related exploitation by film studios that were gaining power. The Screen Writers Guild and Screen Actors Guild became official in 1933, while the Directors Guild of America was founded three years later in 1936. The Screen Writers Guild would become the Writers Guild of America, or WGA, in 1954, and the Screen Actors Guild, SAG, would merge later with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, AFTRA, forming SAG-AFTRA much later in 2012.

    Adam: And with unions’ rising power grew studios’ — and governments’ — rising antagonism to this power. In 1947, the Taft-Hartley Act was passed, limiting the power and activities of labor unions. At that time, the Cold War and its attendant Red Scare were escalating, and studio heads like Walt Disney sought to leverage the anticommunist climate to smear organized labor, which was, of course, undermining his bottom line. In 1947, Disney testified in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee against “suspected” communists in the industry. Here’s an excerpt from Disney’s testimony in front of HUAC. For some context, Disney animators went on a five-week strike in 1941 to pursue unionization. So in this clip, Walt Disney is asked if he believes that the unions and Hollywood have been taken over by communists.

    [Begin Clip]

    Walt Disney: I don’t believe it’s a political party I believe it’s an un-American thing, and the thing that that I resent the most is that they are able to get into these unions, take them over and represent to the world that a group of people that are in my plant that I know are good 100 percent Americans have been trapped by this group, and they represented to the world as supporting all of those ideologies and it’s not so and I feel that they really ought to be smoked out and shown up for what they are so that all the good free causes in this country all the liberalism’s that really are American can go out without this taint of communism. That’s my sincere feelings on it.

    [End Clip]

    Adam: In 1947, the year Taft-Hartley passed, the House Un-American Activities Committee subpoenaed 41 screenwriters, producers, and directors quote-unquote “suspected” of being communists — some of the information came from a column authored by Hollywood Reporter owner William R. Wilkerson. Ten refused to testify, becoming known as the Hollywood Ten, and kicking off the era of the Hollywood blacklist.

    Walt Disney testifies before the House un-American Activities Committee, 1947.

    Characterizations of unions in film, from the early 20th century on, reflected this disdain of unions from Hollywood’s top brass. Now, while the rank and file and the writers and the workers and many of the actors of course were lefties, and many of them were in fact communists, that is true. The ones actually calling the shots and green lighting projects, by definition, were not. So oftentimes more left-wing messages, socially progressive, antiracist, you name it, those messages oftentimes had to be kind of shrouded in more liberal framing or done cryptically or done through analogy or metaphor.

    Nima: Now, while certainly not singularly anti-union, labor-centric films from the pre-WWI period through the subsequent decades often portrayed labor leaders as “outside agitators” — a trope long used to discredit political movements and one kind of echoed in that Disney clip, right? — it’s that these real Americans are being influenced by these outside groups or by the communist infiltrators. Now, obviously the infiltrators, you know, impulsively and selfishly provoked strikes unrelated to any legitimate American labor grievances. Now, as historian Ken Margolies, our guest on today’s show, wrote in 1981, quote:

    The agitator was presented in a variety of ways, but all of them negative. In Pete Wants a Job, made in 1910…the labor leader is portrayed as an opportunistic loser who fails at every job he tries until he leads a strike. In The Agitator from 1912, the troublemaker is a ranch foreman who comes back from a vacation in the city infected with crazy ideas. He uses whiskey to persuade the other cowboys to strike and demand that the ranch owner divide his wealth.

    End quote.

    Adam: So we’re going to read a synopsis about 1912, The Agitator from the Moving Picture World magazine, which was a trade magazine at the time. So unfortunately, the film could not be found, but we do have a synopsis of it, quote:

    While the foreman is absent in the city, with a train load of cattle, the ranch owner, finding himself short of men, employs a new hand. Young and extremely handsome, with a fine personality, Jack Williams makes quite an impression on the ranch owner’s daughters, and he is himself attracted to the elder sister. During his absence the foreman becomes inflamed with socialistic ideas by attending socialistic gatherings and listening to impassioned speeches by hot-headed men. He returns to the ranch with his head full of socialism and finds that the new ranch hand has made great headway with the ranch owner’s daughter, whom he had hoped to win himself. He attempts to force his attentions on her, but finds them unwelcome, and when he carries it to the point of rudeness her father interferes, thereby gaining his foreman’s enmity. In order to retaliate for his suffered grievance he stirs up the cowboys with whiskey and talk gleaned from socialistic meetings. Under his leadership the boys are ready to fight and in this dangerous mood the foreman leads a delegation to the ranchman with a demand that he divide his wealth equally among them.

    So, unionization was used as a plot device typically of radical hotheads, foreigners, et cetera.

    Nima: Yeah. Now, in the silent short The Strike, which came out two years later in 1914, the union organizer character is a thug who blows up the plant in which he works thereby ruining the whole town when the company relocates. So it’s the union’s fault that the company moves to a different town.

    Adam: So the Los Angeles Times publisher, Harrison Gray Otis, was a very right-wing, very anti-union, very anti-anarchist, anti-socialist publication, and Los Angeles was one of the few large cities that had absolutely no union activity whatsoever at all, and largely with the help of the Los Angeles Times, which was a mouthpiece of the rich and the city. Some important context to know is that on October 10, 1910, the McNamara brothers, James and John McNamara, were convicted, they denied it, but I think it’s consensus at this point that they had bombed the Los Angeles Times building killing 21 people and injuring over 100. They did it overnight without realizing that there are people still working there. And famously, Clarence Darrow was their lawyer. They ended up pleading guilty. So this is the context with which Hollywood has a very early relationship with unions and unionization.

    Nima: Yeah, just ask Upton Sinclair. So by the 1950s, Ken Margulies argues, depictions of union leadership shifted away from this “outside agitator” archetype and toward that of the “union boss.” Again, Margolies writes this, quote:

    As unions became legally recognized and more established, the union leader was portrayed as just another boss, abusing the union’s dues and giving orders to the members instead of representing their interests.

    End quote.

    So we’re actually going to take three movies as examples of this anti-unionism in Hollywood: 1954’s On the Waterfront, 1978’s Blue Collar, and the 2019 film The Irishman. Each of these films includes themes mentioned earlier, portraying unions as mobbed-up vehicles of corruption, their bosses savage egomaniacs with ties to the mob. Each movie is, at least to an extent, based on real events. That’s the thing, right? Indeed, some unions — the Teamsters, the International Longshoremen’s Association, the Laborers Union, and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union — do have historic connections to and in some cases been infiltrated by the mob, right? We know this, and as Adam, you mentioned earlier, not trying to say that isn’t necessarily the case, but the issue, as we’ve said, isn’t necessarily just one of accuracy; it’s one of emphasis. The films we’ll explore all focus on organized crime, dysfunction, and power plays in unions, rather than on the actual organizing and meaningful gains that are achieved by unions. Furthermore, on the whole, these films ignore the history of mafia infiltration of unions, which started in the 1910s and ’20s as employers hired mobsters to break strikes — though in some cases these strikes were conducted by white workers protesting the hiring of underpaid immigrants. This all laid the groundwork for organized crime to start to permeate and exert control over unions. Now, of course, the film’s don’t focus on any of that, but they tell the stories that are going to cast the unions usually in the worst light possible.

    Adam: Nor does Hollywood by and large focus on the mob infiltration of police, which was far, far greater than that of unions. But police are not associated with mob infiltration as unions are.

    Nima: So let’s start with On the Waterfront from 1954, Directed by Elia Kazan. Now, On the Waterfront tells the story of Hoboken longshoreman and former prizefighter Terry Malloy played famously by Marlon Brando. Malloy works loyally for mob boss Johnny Friendly, played by Lee J. Cobb, the head of the dockworkers’ union. Malloy abets and witnesses the murder of a longshoreman, Joey Doyle, who was rumored to be planning to testify against Friendly in an investigation of mob control of the docks. After much hesitation, Malloy eventually breaks his fealty to Friendly. Allying with Doyle’s sister Edie, played by Eva Marie Saint, who also won an Oscar for her performance, the local priest Father Barry, played by Karl Malden, Malloy musters the courage to testify, exposing the union’s rampant corruption.

    Now, notably, Elia Kazan, the director, testified in front of HUAC, naming names of suspected communists. On the Waterfront, as many have observed, was made in part to justify Kazan’s actions in front of HUAC, which occurred in 1952, just two years before the film’s release. The film’s screenwriter, Budd Schulberg, who was a former member of Communist Party USA, also testified to save his own reputation, naming people in the process.

    On the Waterfront was a smash with moviegoers, critics and the Academy alike when it was released; it was nominated for 12 Oscars and won eight, including Best Actor for Marlon Brando, Best Screenplay for Schulberg, Director for Kazan and Best Picture of the year. It is hailed to this day as a cinematic masterpiece and one of the greatest American movies of all time. Brando’s Terry Malloy is routinely named one of, if not the greatest screen performances ever.

    So here are some examples from the film of this kind of anti-union sentiment, the way that unions are presented. In this first clip, we see Johnny Friendly, again Lee J. Cobb, explaining the necessity of having Joey Doyle killed in order to preserve control of the docks.

    [Begin On the Waterfront Clip]

    Johnny Friendly: You know, Taking over this local took a little doing. There were rough fellas in the way. They gave me this to remember them by.

    Charley: He had to keep his hand over his throat to stay alive and he still went after them.

    Johnny Friendly: I know what’s eating you. I got two thousand dues-paying members in this local, that’s 72 thousand a year legitimate. And when each one of them puts in a couple of bucks a day just to make sure the work’s steady, well, figure it out. That’s just for openers. We’ve got the fattest piers and the fattest harbor in the world. Everything moves in and out, we take our cut.

    Charley: Why shouldn’t we? If we can get it, we’re entitled to it.

    Johnny Friendly: You don’t suppose I can afford to be boxed out of a deal like this, do you? A deal I sweated and bled for, on account of one lousy little cheese-eater, that Doyle bum, who thinks he can go squeal to the crime commission. Do you?

    [End On the Waterfront Clip]

    Adam: Later a priest, Father Barry, invites the dockworkers to meet without fear of Friendly at his church. At the meeting, Father Barry asks who killed Joey Doyle, and no one answers.

    [Begin On the Waterfront Clip]

    Father Barry: Hey, Dugan, Dugan, how about you? Are you?

    Dugan: One thing you have to understand, Father, on the dock we’ve always been D and D.

    Father Barry: D and D? What’s that?

    Dugan: Deaf and dumb. No matter how much we hate the torpedoes, we don’t rat.

    Father Barry: Rat? Now boys, get smart. I know you’re getting pushed around, but there’s one thing we’ve got in this country, and that’s ways of fighting back. Getting the facts to the public. Testifying for what you know is right against what you know is wrong. Now, what’s ratting to them is telling the truth for you. Now, can’t you see that? Can’t you see that? Huh?

    [End On the Waterfront Clip]

    Nima: Later in the film, Terry is subpoenaed and doesn’t want to participate. But after a series of further murders clearly organized by the union leadership, he vows to get revenge against union boss Johnny Friendly. In this clip, Father Barry tells Terry not to kill Friendly, but rather again, to do the right thing and just testify.

    [Begin On the Waterfront Clip]

    Terry Malloy: Now what am I going to do?

    Father Barry: You want to be brave?

    Terry Malloy: And it’s none of your business!

    Father Barry: You want to be a brave man by firing lead into another man?

    Terry Malloy: It’s none of your business! Why don’t you mind your own business!

    Father Barry: Firing lead into another man’s flesh isn’t being brave!

    Terry Malloy: It’s none of your business!

    Father Barry: Do you want to hurt Johnny Friendly? Huh? Do you want to hurt him? Want to fix him? Do you really want to finish him?

    Terry Malloy: What do you think?

    Father Barry: For what he did to Charley and a dozen other men who are better than Charley? Now don’t fight him like a hoodlum down here in the jungle because that’s just what he wants. He’ll hit you in the head and plead self-defense. You’ll fight him in the courtroom tomorrow with the truth. As you knew the truth. [Music] Now you get rid of that gun. Unless you haven’t got the guts, and if you haven’t, you better hold onto it.

    [End On the Waterfront Clip]

    Nima: Eventually, union leaders are probed and revealed to be super corrupt, Terry testifies against Friendly, and becomes a pariah, basically stared at blankly by the D and D rank-and-file of the union, and shut out of his job, and then there’s the climax of the film, which if you haven’t seen it, you should go see it. But obviously there is a hero’s journey, where Terry triumphantly is able to get back to work and do the important labor. But we have shown that the union is what is corrupt and dangerous.

    Now, back to Director Elia Kazan. On the Waterfront is really an allegorical defense, many have written, of Kazan’s HUAC testimony. As multiple authors have argued, Terry Malloy, the character in the film, his willingness to defy Friendly and do what’s right is meant to parallel Kazan’s own testimony in front of Congress, for which Kazan remained unrepentant throughout his life and career. In Kazan’s mind, apparently, communists were just as threatening and domineering as mob bosses. Author Victor S. Navasky argues in his 1980 book Naming Names that On the Waterfront, quote, “makes the definitive case for the HUAC informer or at least is … a valiant attempt to complicate the public perception of the issue,” end quote. Los Angeles Times business columnist, Michael Hiltzik, has called On the Waterfront, quote, “Kazan’s ultimate effort to justify his informing,” end quote.

    Elia Kazan (second from left) holds his Best Director Oscar for On the Waterfront, 1955.

    Now, On the Waterfront isn’t necessarily an anti-labor film, right? It doesn’t depict the rank-and-file as corrupt — though it does suggest they’re spineless up until the climax of the film — and the film’s voice of conscience, Father Barry, played by Karl Malden, speaks in defense of dockworkers’ rights and unionization, and distinguishes the leadership of the dockworkers’ local from that of the labor movement in general. But the themes of corruption overshadow any pro-labor sentiment that the film does offer. As Ken Margolies, our guest today, has written the film’s, quote, “chief contribution to…portrayals of unions is an indelible portrait of union corruption. Johnny Friendly, the racketeer union boss of the waterfront, became a symbol of the labor leader.” End quote.

    Adam: Next up is 1978’s Blue Collar, written by Paul Schrader, who’s famous for Taxi Driver and weird Facebook posts, among other film accomplishments. The synopsis of the film is fed up with their bureaucratic and negligent union and in need of fast cash, Detroit auto workers Zeke Brown, played by Richard Pryor, Jerry Bartowski, played by Harvey Keitel, and Smokey James, played by Yaphet Kotto, decide to steal the funds from the union. Initially disappointed with the amount, they’re surprised to learn that they made off with the union’s ledger, which is rife with proof of illegal loans and other links to organized crime. They use the ledger to blackmail the union, only to be forced to quote-unquote “look the other way” or be attacked by its leadership.

    In the movie, Zeke, Jerry, and Smokey are approached by John Burrows, who claims he’s a college instructor who’s writing a thesis on union corruption. Smokey thinks he’s an FBI agent conducting a federal investigation. Burrows approaches Jerry separately later, specifically asking about the shop steward, Clarence Hill, and union corruption. Let’s listen to that clip here.

    [Begin Blue Collar Clip]

    Burrows: Yeah, well, you know, Clarence Hill, don’t you?

    Jerry: I mean, you were his key man before he was promoted to shop steward.

    Burrows: I heard he just bought a big house on Woodland Hills.

    Jerry: I don’t know nothing about that.

    Burrows: Come on. Come on.

    Jerry: I know nothing about house. Nothing about no Clarence Hill. Nothing about no union. I don’t know shit.

    Burrows: Well, everybody knows your local’s the most corrupt in the city.

    Jerry: Yeah?

    Burrows: Yeah.

    Jerry: I also know that you got your man inside the union and the union’s got its man inside the government and if I farted upwind I’d be out of a job in an hour, wouldn’t I?

    Burrows: Yeah but you seem to me like a guy —

    Jerry: I ain’t talking to no government agent.

    [End Blue Collar Clip]

    Adam: Later, as money the troubles and their resentment of the union mount, Zeke, Jerry, and Smokey start hatching a scheme to break into the local.

    [Begin Blue Collar Clip]

    Smokey: Be like we was takin’ what belonged to us anyway, huh?

    Zeke: How many night guards they got?

    Jerry: I don’t know.

    Zeke: What do you think, huh?

    Jerry: Nah, I couldn’t do it.

    Smokey: Somebody oughta show ’em a lesson. They treat us worse than the company does.

    Jerry: There ain’t no way to do it but I’d sure like to see the look on their faces.

    [End Blue Collar Clip]

    Adam: Eventually, the union leaders discover who committed the robbery, and one of said leaders, Eddie, hires two men to break into Jerry’s house. Smokey catches on and thwarts their plan. Meanwhile, Zeke is promoted to leadership in exchange for the ledger, taking Clarence Hill’s job, and is assured that he, Jerry, and Smokey will be protected. Smokey is later killed in a quote-unquote “accident” on the job; the connection to Eddie is implicit. Zeke confronts Eddie about Smokey’s death, and Eddie tells him he’ll simply have to “look the other way” whenever the union commits murder, bribery, or other illegal activity, especially if he wants to keep his new job as a Black man.

    [Begin Blue Collar Clip]

    Eddie: Blacks got jobs because guys like me knew when to stand up and when to look the other way.

    [End Blue Collar Clip]

    From left: Yaphet Kotto, Richard Pryor, and Harvey Keitel in Blue Collar (1978). (Universal Pictures)

    Adam: The movie ends with Zeke and Jerry embittered and divided, each viewing the other as a sellout. This sense of nihilism pervades the film, culminating in the message that unions have outlasted their usefulness, degenerating into just another weapon of surveillance and control of the American worker, which is reflective of Schrader’s politics when he discusses the film.

    In a 1978 interview he gave about Blue Collar, Paul Schrader, who wrote and directed the film, states that he sought to portray unions as another boss, tantamount to employers in terms of their corruption and oppression, because apparently, that’s the way people view unions. He was asked the question, “When you first decided to do a film on Detroit auto workers, what did you want to say with the film?” He said, quote:

    I didn’t set out to make a left-wing film. I had no visions of making this into a concrete political thing; it had to operate in the area of entertainment. I wanted to write a movie about some guys who rip off their union because it seemed to me such a wonderfully self-hating kind of act, that they would attack the organization that’s supposed to help them. It’s so symptomatic of the way that workers think about the organizations that surround them. You know, in their minds, and in the minds of a lot of people in this country, the union, the company and the government are synonymous. They have different logos but they’re essentially the same thing.

    So this idea that the company and the union are part of some nebulous system that oppresses them kind of flattens these differences is very much reflected in the film itself, which is good in many ways, like a lot of these movies are — again, it’s not that the movies are bad — but it contributed to this increased kind of proto-Reagan belief that unions were not only corrupt and inefficient, but had outlasted their usefulness and were no longer necessary.

    Nima: Also, as Eithne Quinn, author of A Piece of the Action: Race and Labor in Post–Civil Rights Hollywood, has revealed in her own research, the Black story-creator of the film Blue Collar, a man named Sydney Glass, has alleged to have had his idea stolen by writer-director Paul Schrader. Quinn writes that, quote:

    Glass was finally granted his story credit only after he mounted a challenge against Paul and his co-writer brother Leonard, backed by the Black caucus of the Writers Guild of America. The brothers relented only because ‘the guy had a gun to my head,’ as Schrader put it.

    End quote.

    Now Schrader was a longtime collaborator with filmmaker Martin Scorsese. So it seems fitting that we should now transition to a Scorsese film. We’re going to talk about the 2019 film The Irishman. The basic synopsis of the film is this, in 1950s Pennsylvania, truck driver and WWII veteran Frank Sheeran, played by Robert De Niro, becomes entangled with the Bufalino crime family after his lawyer, Bill Bufalino, played by Ray Romano, introduces Frank to his cousin, Russell Bufalino, played by Joe Pesci. Russell takes a shine to Frank, noting Frank’s ability to take out enemy soldiers during his time in the military. After Frank’s first kill, he begins to ascend the ranks to become a top hitman for the mob. Now, Russell offers Frank a job with Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa, played by Al Pacino, for whom Frank begins to serve as a bodyguard and confidante. Frank eventually becomes president of a Teamsters local, all the while becoming enmeshed in the illicit power plays among the union’s top brass.

    The Irishman is based on Charles Brandt’s 2004 book, I Heard You Paint Houses, which chronicles the life of Frank Sheeran. Quote-unquote “painting houses” is a euphemism for killing people, and the title is, by Sheeran’s own account, a quote from Jimmy Hoffa, who Sheeran claims said this to him during their first conversation. Let’s listen to this clip from The Irishman. This is Frank as he grows closer to Jimmy Hoffa. In the clip we’re about to listen to Frank’s daughter Peggy is giving a presentation in her school class about Hoffa and the Teamsters interspersed with scenes of backroom deals about the Teamsters own Las Vegas developments.

    [Begin The Irishman Clip]

    Peggy: “​​If you have it, a truck brought it to you.” This is what Mr. Hoffa says. He’s the president of the Teamsters Union with over a million members. They all support him because they have steady jobs, great pay and a pension for when they retire.

    Frank: The Teamster Pension Fund had eight million dollars in it, and Jimmy had complete control over every bit of it.

    Jake Gottlieb: Isn’t this a beautiful presentation? I mean, a bridge loan is really all I’m asking, Jimmy.

    Jimmy Hoffa: I’m not gonna piss away my members’ pension dough on something too risky.

    Jake Gottlieb: This is not a risk, Jimmy. I got Minsky’s Follies. I got the first topless act on the Strip. I’m telling you, we’re booming in there, I can’t get the drinks out… Just asking for a golf course. You know you never lost a dime with me.

    Bill Bufalino: Jimmy, we’d really just appreciate whatever you could do to help Jake along here.

    Jake Gottlieb: One-five is all I need for a completion bond.

    Jimmy Hoffa: Okay. Okay. Go to the bank.

    [End The Irishman Clip]

    Adam: So while the movie is called The Irishman it’s, of course, primarily about Jimmy Hoffa, Jimmy Hoffa is the main focal point. He was the head of the Teamsters for several decades. There’s been several Jimmy Hoffa films made, notably among them the 1990s film Hoffa with Armand Assante. So of course, mafia stories are Scorsese’s bread and butter. Nima and I are both big Scorsese fans, so we’re not trying to disparage Scorsese. We love his mob movies. I especially love Casino.

    Nima: I love bread and butter.

    Adam: Right. But this, of course, contributes to a broader popular narrative that the extent to which we get any union stories, with notable exceptions, they are almost always mafia stories and stories involving the mafia. Now, one could say, Nima, that mob stories are inherently interesting, and while that’s true, I think that’s a little bit of a cop-out because stories of unionization, of David versus Goliath, of the small worker versus the big boss, can and very often have been interesting. Many directors and writers have made them interesting without resorting to mob crime tropes. So it’s not as if there is some law of nature that says every representation of a union has to be mobbed up, because again, the police historically have been just as mobbed up and you see only a fraction of police stories involving the mafia, chief among them, Serpico and others. So, I think this is part of a sort of broader trend, of course, because I remember, I think the original germ of this episode was when I was watching The Irishman when it first came out three years ago, and I remember thinking that it really sucks that this is the only representation we ever really get of unions. This is your sort of average person’s, this is how they interact and interface with the concept of unions, and this is not, of course, Martin Scorsese’s fault, it’s not any one discrete party’s fault. But put together it is part of a broader cultural pattern where this is how people engage with and understand unionization in this country that created, as President Joe Brandon says, created the middle class, assured the middle class, won the middle class, and it is almost always viewed as being a mechanism of theft and murder and bribery and corruption.

    Nima: To discuss this more, we’re now going to be joined by writer and organizer Ken Margolies. Ken has spent his life in the US labor movement, starting as a member of the Teamsters in NY and continuing with director positions with SEIU, CWA and the Teamsters. He worked for nearly 30 years for the Worker Institute at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, providing training, consulting and advice to a wide range of unions. Stay with us.


    Nima: We are joined now by writer and organizer Ken Margolies, an avid film buff. Great to have you on the show today Ken Margolies. Thanks for joining us.

    Ken Margolies: My pleasure.

    Adam: So yeah, you’ve been observing the depictions of labor for some time now, having written about it in your 1981 essay, “Silverscreen Tarnishes Unions.” Obviously much has changed since then, that was 40 years ago, over 40 years ago, and of course, much has not changed. So I want to sort of set the table for our listeners, as we try to do on the show, by talking about some of the kind of broad strokes of Hollywood’s relationship with labor as an ideological subject. I specifically want to maybe begin the conversation by talking about the impact of McCarthyism in the ’50s on how Hollywood as a kind of industry engages this topic, Hollywood itself is incredibly unionized in many ways, actors, trades people, less so with the kind of Hallmark-ification of Hollywood as of late, but generally speaking, the people there are oftentimes very lefty, especially back in the ’50s and ’60s, and are themselves in unions. But this is, of course, not really reflected necessarily in the output. So I want to sort of start in broad strokes about what you feel like Hollywood’s relationship with labor was in the quote-unquote “golden age” of the ’40s and ’50s and how McCarthyism’s impact affected that course.

    Ken Margolies

    Ken Margolies: Well, of course, many writers are blacklisted, and some of them wrote some things under someone else’s name to try to get things out there. I mean, I think one of the big examples is The Grapes of Wrath, which won an Academy Award and the studio had, I forgot what studio made it, I think it might have been Mayer, said, ‘You want to send a message, go to Western Union,’ and originally he told the writer, ‘Who wants to read about a bunch of Okies, who wants to watch a movie about a bunch of Okies?’ But, you know, it ended up winning the Academy Award, good writing, good acting stars, and the question is, did it really make an impact on how people felt about workers and about how they’re treated? And perhaps people in cities looked at it and said, ‘Oh, those poor farm workers out there, that’s too bad,’ but maybe didn’t see it as relevant to them.

    Nima: Yeah, I mean, the idea that a big John Ford movie, right, I think it was produced by Darryl Zanuck, starring Henry Ford, and you have, you know, Tom Joad, the legendary character in both literature and film. Yeah, I’d love to kind of talk about how that sort of character driven plot line maybe brought labor and unions, the idea of unions into the more mainstream American consciousness. I mean, I would say probably most of the people going to see the films were actually in unions or members of their family where, but it wasn’t really depicted that way up until that point, and also, of course, you know, the very next year, John Ford does, How Green Was My Valley, which has its own labor through lines, but in a, you know, kind of different thematic elements to it, and this is all kind of coming off of, you know, I mean, as you’ve written, Ken, about the silent film era, and how unions and labor movements were depicted throughout. I’d love for you to kind of talk about maybe what shifted from the kind of silence into the say, John Ford made films, in terms of depicting unions as things, you know, maybe initially as unions equal striking workers in industry, and then how that may be shifted as films shifted themselves.

    Ken Margolies: The silent films tended to be shorter and simpler, of course, the plot wasn’t ever really that will developed, and so there was a whole spate of them that I wrote about in that article, where some agitator convinces a bunch of good workers to strike or take some sabotage, and then they acknowledged they have some legitimate issues, and then lo and behold, the owner’s son sees the light, marries the heroine from the workers, and everybody’s happy.

    Adam: Right.

    Nima: Oh right. Just like real life.

    Ken Margolies: That was one scenario. The other is that, you know, they blow everything up. There was a, I think it was Disney, it’s an animated film called Little Red Henski, and it’s about a communist hen who tries to get the farm animals organized and it just ends up with everything blowing up. There’s, I think, the classic cartoon of a bomb, you know, round thing with a fuse on it.

    Adam: Yeah. So, I want to talk a bit about that real quick, because one thing we discussed earlier was the sanitization of union politics to the extent to which unions are depicted very often their radicalism is watered down, both currently and historically. They’re kind of vaguely nonideological, they’re usually loyal patriots. In even a movie like Newsies, which is sort of surprising in its pro union propaganda for kind of a Disney musical in the early ’90s, I’m not sure how it snuck through the cracks, but even that, at the end the hero is Teddy Roosevelt. There’s always this gravitation back to the sort of patriotic narrative. I want to talk about, from your observations and what you’ve written, the defanging of unionism as a kind of, for want of a better expression, it’s a Costco membership for steel workers. It’s sort of a passive thing you’re part of, but it’s not necessarily violently hostile to the interests of capital or industrialists.

    Ken Margolies: So it went from radicals, bombers, people who overturn things, and then in the ’40s, one of the reasons why a film like Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley may have been more acceptable was there was a huge unionization in the ’40s. After World War Two factories were just going left and right union with hardly any resistance. Franklin Roosevelt said, ‘If I was a factory worker, I’d vote union.’ And so huge upsurge of unions, and it was probably the most density that unions have ever had. So the reaction then became switching from they’re a whole bunch of radicals to they’re a bunch of gangsters.

    Adam: Right.

    Ken Margolies: And, unfortunately, were gangsters in the labor movement, and so by focusing on that, they kind of started eroding the positive image of unions, and then I think it evolved into mostly just ignoring them like they’re not really a topic that has much substance to make a movie about. So unions were not on TV much, they were not in movies much, and it was rare. We can name the ones where there was some mention of them, because they are so rare.

    Adam: Right. You mentioned the mafia being the primary lens with which unions are discussed in cinema, TV and film. That is something that we talked a great deal about. Now, as we mentioned, there are probably pretty good reasons for that. Number one the mob is sexy, people like mob stories, obviously the mob is going to be more interesting than some boring committee meeting between union reps. But secondly, I do think it is kind of a, it became a kind of convention, it became a trope, where the only way we can understand, you know, even a television show like Abbott Elementary discusses unions in Philadelphia, and I was like, oh, cool, a union plot that eventually degenerated into a gag about a sort of ethnically stereotypical Italian talking about being in the mob, not the sort of criticize or singled out that show, it’s a trope. To the extent to which I think it’s fair to say when public sentiment against unions began to shift in ’70s and ’80s, that there was a broader cultural assumption that well, unions are basically just nothing but mob types, and this of course, was reinforced by films, mafia films, Scorsese films, as much as Nima and I love those movies, they’re obviously reinforcing that.

    Nima: But I mean, Hoffa and The Irishman, you know.

    Adam: Right, right, right. And again, it’s not as if there were not a lot of mobbed-up unions. I mean, the Teamsters being chief among them.

    Nima: TV shows like The Wire did the same thing.

    Ken Margolies: Right. Besides the mob theme, there was an ineffectual theme that was in the news all the time in the ’60s, ’70s. It was all about auto workers making too much so that the companies can’t compete with Japanese made autos, steel workers were demanding too much so they got laid off, plants were closing. So that was coexisting with the mobbed-up image that they did.

    Nima: Yeah. Along with this life-to-screen depiction of unions and how they kind of evolved from this agitator trope to the useless trope or the lay about trope to the mafia trope, are there other stereotypical depictions of unions that, you know, you’ve seen in our entertainment media that you think are just really critical to talk about and as a corollary to that, where are those molds broken? Where do you see those cracks kind of emerging?

    Ken Margolies: Well, Norma Rae was by far the best change after all that other, even with some exceptions of unions that showed in films or TV that showed unions in a good light. On the ineffectual side, there is a movie that I love, but I don’t like that I love it, called, I’m All Right, Jack. It’s a British movie and it’s hilarious but it plays off that unions are there to make employers hire people who don’t work and things like that. So there’s this one scene where the union leader goes into the shop and there’s this group of workers that are playing cards, these are workers whose job was phased out, but the employer has to still pay them. So they come to work every day and play cards. The union guy comes in and says, ‘Brothers don’t you know there is a strike on? You have to walk out,’ and you know, they have this reaction, like, ‘Oh, no, we’re not going to break any strikes,’ meanwhile they were doing no work. So it was a joke about, you know, padding the payroll and inefficiencies and things like that. But it’s so funny, I liked it. But, you know, I didn’t like that I liked it, because it’s a bad message.

    Nima: Well, it has a really good cast. I mean, you have Peter Sellers and Richard Attenborough, and Terry-Thomas, incidentally.

    Ken Margolies: Now Richard Attenborough, in another movie, he’s a scab, he’s a strikebreaker.

    Adam: The Angry Silence.

    Ken Margolies: Right. And the whole movie is sympathetic to him as the one guy in this whole plant who decides, ‘I’m going to work regardless.’

    Adam: A noble scab.

    Ken Margolies: Yeah, the others are sheep and mean and nasty, and he has a family and he’s doing what’s right and all the good things. Now, the other movie, you know, we didn’t mention yet, but we talked about mobbed up movies, the probably the king, the winner by far of all of them, is On the Waterfront.

    Nima: Sure.

    Ken Margolies: It’s another movie I like a lot, but there’s things about it that bother me. So first was Elia Kazan was one of the people in Hollywood who named the names, outed people for being communist in Hollywood, and most of the reviews at the time when the movie came out were saying he made that movie to make being a rat respectable. So, you know, at the end, Marlon Brando goes against the mob, the union testifies in a way that gets them kicked out, and he’s the hero, and then all the workers will, you know, rally behind him. So it showed worker strength, they said, ‘We don’t go to work unless he goes to work,’ and he’s all beat up and he staggers in and they all follow him. It’s a very inspiring scene. So you got all these mixed messages there. So you got the mobbed-up thing, you got the individual as opposed to collective is really what it’s all about, and then you got being a rat can be okay, depending on who you’re ratting out.

    Nima: Oh, totally. I mean, I love that you brought up On the Waterfront, you know, you can’t talk about labor in films without talking about On the Waterfront, but I think that’s such an important distinction to make that it’s, there is worker solidarity or human solidarity, but shown explicitly outside of a union framework, right? So Lee J. Cobb’s a villain, Karl Malden, who signifies, you know, faith, you can have your faith, you can have your patriotism, you can have your solidarity with your community, with your neighbor, with your friend, but don’t do it under the auspices of a union, which is seen as corrupt, and an alternative to that. That then is seen as sinister.

    Ken Margolies: Yeah, and you know, I’ve watched that movie so many times. When I did the article, I went to the Library of Congress, I was living in Washington, D.C., and they let you take films on a viewing machine, and so I would, you know, view certain scenes over and over, and I noted in the article that they had this little crumb that they threw to unionism, Karl Malden says, “No good union would ever let this happen.” So that was the only thing that said, this is the exception, this is not what unions are. But no one’s going to remember that if they even heard it when it happened.

    Nima: Right.

    Ken Margolies: In fact, I don’t know how many people would remember that unions were a big part of that movie. I mean, it’s all the taxi scene, “I coulda been a contender.”

    Adam: Yeah, because it seems like the broader architecture was that the Red Scare scared the shit out of so many people in Hollywood, for understandable reasons, that the approach to unions from there on, with obvious exceptions, but rare exceptions, was to just not really talk about it. It’s almost less so that it’s anti-union as much as it’s they live in a world without unions, which, even though, you know, at least for me, personally, and something we’ve talked about at the top of the show quite a bit is that unionization lends itself very much to drama. It’s a story of underdogs versus the big guy. It’s a story of, and people say, ‘Oh, well, they were all mobbed up.’ It’s like, well, the police were more mobbed up than anyone for decades, and yet we still have a million pro police stories. So, clearly, that’s not the real reason, right? There was a sense that if we touch this, we’re going get painted as red, or we’re going to be painted as subversive, and you know, there’s a thousand more stories about brilliant, genius, entrepreneurs as these great tales, because it sort of lends itself to like a save the rec center plot where you sort of have to get together to save your job, and it’s just interesting when you watch —

    Nima: The gung-ho model.

    Adam: Yeah, something that’s such a ripe topic for heroism, and for stories about underdogs, you basically, you know, the amount of examples we can list I can do on both hands, and that strikes me as kind of, I guess, in many ways that was sort of the point of McCarthyism, that they were viewed as being, that Hollywood was too left-wing, it was too Jewish, it was too subversive, it was too Black, and we had to just scare the shit out of everybody so they’ll give us the kind of vanilla centrist Democrat line.

    Ken Margolies: The other is the studios are a big business that had to deal with unions themselves, and even though at times, they had relatively peaceful labor relations, the key thing about Hollywood unions, that I should have figured it out, but I didn’t know until I did some, met some of the people in those unions to talk about their history, the stars got on the union train, and that’s what gave them their power, and so, you know, the Humphrey Bogarts, and people said, unless you sign a contract that protects mostly the not-star actors, or the up-and-comers, because the stars didn’t really need it, they had agents and they got great compensation and that’s kind of true with the writers. I don’t know so much about the directors. I’ve done a lot of work with the IATSE, which is stagehands, camera people, sound people, et cetera. What keeps individual Locals strong is when the best of the craft are pro-union, and often they get elected off to be officers, you know, so you got, you know, a three-time Academy Award winning sound engineer, and he’s saying, ‘I’m with the union.’ Well, other sound engineers who hope to win Academy Awards listen to that, and it makes you much stronger.

    Adam: And I know that a lot of the reason for that is that actors make demands about union labor because it’s safer, it’s more professional, it’s more predictable, you know, what I mean? It’s a mutually beneficial relationship.

    Ken Margolies: Well, you know, the death on the site, Alec Baldwin’s situation, there were rules against that that should have prevented that. I don’t know all the ins and outs of who did what wrong, but certainly unions try to prevent things like that, and you know, and then less dramatic accidents, like just people falling off ladders or walking off a stage or getting sick from mist, things like that. That was a big thing for a lot of musicians on Broadway, was they would put smoke on the stage and it would settle down in the pit and they would start getting respiratory illness.

    Adam: Oh, really? I didn’t know that.

    Ken Margolies: Yeah.

    Adam: Makes sense, though.

    Ken Margolies: Yeah.

    Adam: I was always curious if that was inert because I did a post-apocalyptic Antigone in high school and I swear to God, I was sick by the end of that production.

    Nima: It was just all dry ice and the lungs.

    Adam: Well, yeah, every hacky high school director has to mask the horrible high school acting with a bunch of smog, and the lack of sets. Anyway.

    Ken Margolies: I wanted to mention a couple of films. So equally good to know, but not as much recognition is Bread and Roses. So that was about the Justice for Janitors campaign in Los Angeles, and it had Adrien Brody, who was in this before he won his Academy Award. So then this, I think, came out after he was an award winner so that helped get it out there more. But it’s just a really excellent film, shows what it’s like to try to unionize. Lots of drama, romance, so really a good film. The other film that I really liked, but it doesn’t necessarily give a great view of unions, is Pride. So a British film, it’s about miners are on strike, they’re losing their strike, kind of radical gay man who’s active in radical politics, as well as gay politics, decides they’re going to help the miners and they start bringing in the money and other support, and the real drama of the movie is the miners need the help, but they’re kind of uncomfortable, and so what you see in the movie is how they finally accept the help, and they’re in solidarity with the gay rights people. But it just, again, sort of shows the union people, except for a few enlightened ones, as kind of crude, backward, you know, Archie Bunkers. But it’s just a great, great film.

    Pilar Padilla and Adrien Brody in Bread and Roses (2000).

    Nima: Well, Bread and Roses, you know, is directed by Ken Loach, and he’s a British filmmaker and has made a number of, you know, pro-labor films. Yeah, I mean, but I wonder, Ken, you know, before we let you go, have you seen a distinction between American films and British films in depicting labor, you know, you were mentioning, I’m All Right, Jack, right? So that’s a British film, with a British cast, Richard Attenborough, Peter Sellers, just as much as On the Waterfront is Elia Kazan, Hollywood, Marlon Brando, right? So, do you find that there is a distinction in the way that maybe those two filmmaking hubs, the US and the UK, view labor films or is it really just kind of a united front?

    Ken Margolies: I think there’s a difference. I think, in general, in Britain, there’s much more class consciousness in the arts. In the US, it’s more complicated because of race and ethnicity and other divisions. But in England, I think for so long, I mean, they are very diverse now, but for so long, there was a real clear division between the working class and upper classes, and I think that a lot of times the storylines have that and the unions sort of come along, incidentally. So there’s the series on Netflix, which is Last Tango in Halifax, and very incidental to everything else that goes on in the series, is that the male star talks about how he’s always concerned about workers, and then you find out he was in a union, and he’s got a pension from his union, and he often says things like, ‘These people should be in a union.’ But you know, those go by pretty fleetingly and only people like me notice it.

    Adam: Yeah, it’s largely incidental, you know, the union participation and even the threat of unionization is such a central key fact of so many people’s lives. I mean, I know it’s not the 35 percent, whatever number it was back in the day, but still, you know, 10, 15 percent, and yet it’s almost just not an issue. I mean, again, it’s doctors, lawyers and cops, and that’s kind of the way it is, and it’s a conspicuous absence, indeed.

    Ken Margolies: And, you know, and a lot of what the creative media does reflects what the news media does, and right now there’s some interesting things happening. So the public view of unions is at its most positive ever now. Amazon unionizing is in the news. Starbucks unionizing is in the news. A lot of media companies, you know, like more independent web-based media companies and reporting are starting to unionize, and so there might be a movie there that we might get to see.

    Nima: That’s right.

    Ken Margolies: And, you know, certainly I think there would be interest. I mean, the Amazon situation on Staten Island in New York, the head of that effort was someone probably, you know, until this happened wasn’t known, and in fact, there were leaks from the company, they didn’t think he was smart enough to win. So I think part of why they did win is they underestimated him and they didn’t want to make more of it than there was by reacting and that was a mistake on their part. But I would say he’d make a great character in a movie.

    Adam: Yeah, that’s right.

    Nima: That’s right.

    Adam: I think that story would absolutely make a great character. I don’t think it’ll be produced by Amazon Studios.

    Nima: Or they’ll try to do that —

    Adam: Or they’ll do it.

    Ken Margolies: Well, you know, they’ll make it so that they try to bargain and the company comes up with some great idea and says, ‘Now, give up this silly union idea,’ and the workers say, ‘That makes sense.’

    Nima: ‘We’ll give you Prime for life,’ and they’re like, ‘All right.’

    Ken Margolies: Yeah. Right. I’m going to mention one more movie, where I have one of those conflicts, again, is Blue Collar. So when I saw it, I was in my 20s and I love the blues opening and I love the acting and Richard Pryor and I just was really so taken by that, I sort of forgot about or accepted that it was about corruption in the union, and in this case, corruption in the union that was known for being very, very clean: auto workers.

    Adam: Yeah. Paul Schrader, you know, he made, he has a history of making fairly right-wing movies, but I think he’s just so good at it nobody really minds.

    Ken Margolies: He doesn’t like unions. That’s very clear.

    Adam: Yeah.

    Ken Margolies: You know, he has to deal with them when he makes movies.

    Nima: Right. I know. It’s true. It’s like the super right-wing films, but then you’re like, yeah, but it’s Taxi Driver. So it’s great.

    Ken Margolies: Yeah. And it’s like, Clint Eastwood makes great films. I hate him, but I like his films.

    Nima: Exactly. No, I think that’s part of why we love discussing this, right? It’s not about saying, hey, that’s why this art is so effective, that’s why, you know, it’s not about just hating on it, it’s about understanding kind of what’s animating it and how wonderful art can still have bad politics. I love so much art with bad politics. (Laughs.) I’m going to sign off of this interview and go watch, you know, True Lies again. But before we let you go, Ken, this has been so great, but in addition to your film analysis and the work that you’ve done in unions, you’ve long worked at the Worker Institute at Cornell, and are also an author. Is there anything that you have out recently that folks can check out?

    Ken Margolies: Yes, one of the things that union leaders told us that the workers needed help on is being managers of the staff of the union, and so I started a workshop series with my colleagues on that subject, and then years later, I wrote the book Managing with Labor’s Values, and it’s going to be out, published by the Labor’s Bookstore, which is online, all run together, laborsbookstore.com, and that will be out really soon. I had it posted online on the Worker Institute website. So it’s still up there now. So somebody who’s listening wants to check it out, you can go to the Worker Institute, and then search for my name, and you should get a link to the book.

    Nima: Well, that is fantastic. This has been so great. We’ve been speaking with writer and organizer Ken Margolies. Ken has spent his life in the US labor movement, starting as a member of the Teamsters in New York City and continuing with director positions at unions like SEIU, CWA and the Teamsters as well. He worked for nearly 30 years for the Worker Institute at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, providing training, consulting and advice to a wide range of unions. Ken Margolies, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

    Ken Margolies: I loved it. Thanks.


    Adam: Yeah, I think it’s a testament to the lack of labor in Hollywood, the fact that he wrote an essay that’s three years older than I am.

    Nima: Yeah.

    Adam: And it doesn’t actually need to be updated that much.

    Nima: No, it is pretty spot on. It was written a couple years after Norma Rae came out in 1979. He comments on that, and yeah, in the intervening 40 years, Adam, very little has changed. It needs not even much of an addendum.

    Adam: Yeah, it’s not every day we have a guest on where we asked him about the piece they wrote 40 years ago, but we did it here because honestly that’s most of the foundation and it’s probably 80, 85 percent of the relevant discourse. So, you know, that really just shows you how rare it is outside of a mafia context. But next week, we’re going to do something I’m very excited about, which is we’re going to talk about positive depictions of labor.

    Nima: That’s right.

    Adam: Not perfect, but generally positive depictions of labor in Hollywood films that have done what we consider to be a good job or a job that was pro-labor in sentiment, the rare examples that do exist, we’re excited to get into those and talk about what makes them work.

    Nima: Yeah, so absolutely stay tuned for that episode, which is going to come out next week and will be our final episode of the season, this fifth season of Citations Needed. But until then, thank you all so much, again, 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 are 100 percent listener funded. And as always, a very special shout-out goes to our Critic-level supporters on Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.

    Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

    Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again, everyone, we’ll catch you next time.


    This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, July 27, 2022.

    Transcription by Morgan McAslan.

  • News Brief: Biden’s Dictator Tour and the Tedium of Our “Human Rights Concerns” Theater

    Citations Needed | July 20, 2022 | Transcript

    Mohammed bin Salman and Joe Biden meet at Al Salman Palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 15, 2022. (Reuters)


    Nima Shirazi: Welcome to a Citations Needed News Brief. I am Nima Shirazi.

    Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

    Nima: You can follow Citations Needed 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 are 100 percent listener funded. We do these News Briefs in between our regularly scheduled full length episodes when — I don’t know — Joe Biden is in the Middle East hanging out with our favorite human rights abusing regimes, and yet, all we hear time and time again is that, you know, it’s probably necessary that these are our best allies because you know what, Adam? We can influence them for good from the inside by being their friend.

    Adam: Oh, yeah, we’ll get to that one. So for the sub, which you can go to thecolumn.substack.com and go subscribe, I wrote about what I call this “human rights concerns” theater.

    Nima: Harkening back to actually Citations Needed Episode 8, from September of 2017. It’s what we call a reoccurring theme.

    Adam: Right. So every three, four years, five years, the President of the United States, going back to since before I was born, they visit Saudi Arabia and they codify a long existing geopolitical relationship in the Middle East. Namely, a few things which we’ll go over, which is the US support of Saudi’s bombing in Yemen, which is seen as a quote-unquote “counter measure” against quote-unquote “expansionist” Iran. That’s how they view it. They support, everyone reduces this to oil, and oil is a part of it, but it’s much more than that. Saudi Arabia backs and supports sectarian forces that are used against Iran. Saudi Arabia has a formal alliance now but has had a de facto alliance with Israel for some time now, that is one of the other major functions Saudi Arabia serves. Saudi Arabia has 28 people in the Biden administration, thanks to a report by Sarah Lazare in The American Prospect a few months ago, showed the 28 members of the Biden White House had worked for organizations who were financial clients with the Saudi regime or the Saudi regime’s close ally, or UAE. The Biden administration, of course, sold Saudi Arabia $650 million in air-to-air missiles, they claim their defensive that’s been since debunked by people like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, not just people like me, but normie senators have said that that’s obviously bullshit, you can’t sell quote-unquote “defensive weapons” to a country that is bombing largely civilian population. We know this because if Biden had sold air to air missiles to Russia, we would not just simply call them defensive, and so you have this very warm relationship that’s existed since Biden was in White House, despite what he said on the campaign trail, because people on campaign trails, especially Democratic campaign trails to win over progressives they lie, they make things up, they want to win over The New York Times crowd who was briefly outraged by Mohammed bin Salman killing Jamal Khashoggi by chopping them up with a bone saw while he was alive, columnist for The Washington Post. So there was some sort of brief summer where people acted like they cared about these things. Saudi Arabia serves a very specific, consistent decades long function in US regional hegemony, to support US, UK, Israel, has for decades, and the thing that changes, and this is what’s frustrating, is the superficial public relations aspect to it, which is to say, is Biden going to do a person to person visit? These kinds of, what I referred to in my article as Council on Foreign Relations quasi-religious moral work around. So in the 14th and 15th century, 13th century when bankers in Italy needed to get around the church’s explicit prohibition against usury there were people who came up with really exotic ways, especially in Venice, for people to get around usury, right?

    Nima: You find either the religious, biblical, constitutional legal ways around —

    Adam: Right.

    Nima: That the obvious, say, prohibition against doing something shitty, but you figure out the justification to do it, as if ‘Oh, it was really there all along and it actually serves a different purpose than what the haters are claiming because really there’s far more going on here than all of you whiners could possibly understand.’

    Adam: In the 17th and 18th century, whenever a royal needed to get a divorce because they hated their wife or they wanted a younger wife or the wife more likely couldn’t breed them a male heir, they would have some council of priests come up with, almost always say, ‘Oh, they’re cousins, this is a violation of a taboo against marriage because they’re all cousins,’ right? So this is sort of similar to that where there’s this clergy class of reporters who needed to explain why the fist bump was not bad but because, my favorite was Peter Baker — who is the biggest fucking hack in the world — who’s a foreign policy for The New York Times wrote, quote, “As soon as Biden got out of the car and saw MBS waiting, he immediately put his fist out making clear it would not be a handshake.” This is followed by New York Times reporter Ben Hubbard who said, quote, “A chilly fist bump with M.B.S. welcomes Biden.”

    Biden “fist bumps” Mohammed Bin Salman. (Reuters)

    Nima: “Chilly.”

    Adam: Right.

    Nima: “Chilly,” see Adam.

    Adam: A “chilly” fist bump.

    Nima: They’re not friends, it was a “chilly” fist bump.

    Adam: Right. And so then you get into this whole thing where everyone’s debating whether or not this, you know, about the fist bump, the optics, you know, cozying up to dictators, human rights, that’s all bullshit.

    Nima: As if the decades long relationship, which is clear as fucking day, is not the actual story here.

    Adam: Right and so the fist bump becomes a distraction in a sense, right? It becomes a way of, then the crime is not the selling of the $650 million in arms.

    Nima: Right. Then we’re just reading fucking tea leaves instead of talking about the real issue.

    Adam: Right. And so the big crime really should be the month-long Washington Post investigation, that came out on June 4 of this year, detailing how despite the fact that Biden claimed he was going to end the war in Yemen to much fanfare when he first came in office — obviously, on this show, we said that’s probably bullshit, turns out total bullshit — the US has been continuing to support the Saudi bombing of Yemen to this day since Biden’s office. So the crime is not that we’re supporting their war on Yemen or supporting the blockade of Yemen, although we sort of speak in platitudes about ceasefires and lifting blockades. Fundamentally, they’re still giving intelligence support, replacing parts, et cetera. Literally pointing to a map saying this is where you want to, you know, this is where the Houthi rebels are or whatever. The US obviously sells them hundreds of millions of dollars in weapons. None of that’s changed. Then there’s this whole narrative that, ‘Oh, he had to do it because of Ukraine.’ There was a Bloomberg headline that read, “Soaring Oil Prices Forced Biden to Engage with Saudis He’d Spurned.”

    Nima: Again, remember, it’s not that Biden fundamentally as President of the United States is fine with the relationship with Saudi Arabia because it’s an absolutely critical relationship to what US foreign policy is and has been for decades. Biden does not have a problem with this. He is not hand wringing about this. He is not concerned with meeting with Mohammed bin Salman. This is not an issue and yet our media needs it to be this twisted, tough decision to make.

    Adam: So from June 3, 2020, “Biden forced into Saudi thaw amid rising oil prices.” “Meeting with Crown Prince would cement U-turn for a US president who labeled kingdom a ‘pariah.’” Financial Times — not a U turn at all. Fundamentally, policy never changed.

    Nima: Right. Labeling a pariah but doing nothing to create pariah status is not actually making a pariah.

    Adam: Yeah, they did legal parsing over defensive versus offensive weapons but nothing changed and that doesn’t relay anything anyway. The New Arab, “The global energy crisis has forced Biden to focus on building a relationship with Riyadh.” Politico from June 8, quote, “‘Pariah’ no more? Democrats grit their teeth over Biden’s Saudi trip.” “The president’s Middle East reset raises human rights concerns for some fellow Democrats. Others are prepared to get pragmatic.” So —

    Nima: Oh, oh, that’s a really good one.

    Adam: Pragmatic.

    Nima: Human rights concerns: niche issue. Pragmatism: reality.

    Adam: Right. So you have this idea that there was a beat change, right? This is what screenwriters call a beat change, there has to be a contrived sense that something’s changed, that Biden was opposed to Saudi Arabia, now because of the Russians invading Ukraine —

    Nima: If not for Putin, he would have spurned Saudi Arabia.

    Adam: Right. The US would have otherwise told Saudi Arabia to fuck off and stop selling weapons and sanctioned it just like they did Russia.

    Nima: Even though they were selling the weapons before the invasion of Ukraine and during and after and whatever.

    Adam: And then they say, ‘Oh, well, he has to go to Saudi Arabia and he has to sell them weapons that he has to be nice to them because otherwise something something oil prices, something something they’re going to turn to China.’

    Nima: ‘Something something Iran, something something Israel,’ it’s always something something.

    Adam: Literally everyone who’s ever partnered with a dictatorship ever, you know, say, ‘Oh, they got to do it because they got to stop China, they got to stop this other baddie country who’s worse than us.’

    Nima: Right.

    Adam: That’s literally the same argument that the baddie country uses when they, you know, it doesn’t mean anything, and then of course, there’s the whole, one thing that always bothers me about it, which is kind of a fundamental arrogance, which I want to get into, which is this asymmetrical human rights sort of incumbency.

    Nima: Right. We’re always at the top. The US is always —

    Adam: Yeah.

    Nima: The assumption is on the list of most noble, the US is all the way at the top.

    Adam: Saudi Arabia is somehow sullying us, the otherwise pristine United States, and that we’re doing their bidding, you know, he’s bowing to the crown. He’s, you know, there’s this kind of tail wagging the dog.

    Nima: Yeah.

    Adam: Which I think begins to kind of veer into this seductive, we do this with Israel, right? ‘Oh, we’re doing Israel’s bidding,’ and it’s like, yeah, I mean, look, there’s some back and forth and obviously it’s not totally a one-way street but the greatest empire in the history of the world does not do the bidding of a country with the GDP that is half the size of Illinois.

    Nima: Yeah, this is on purpose. This is for a reason. No one is pulling the US off a righteous path. This is literally the path.

    Adam: Right. It’s the path we’ve had, since, again, long before you and I were born, and so you watch this play out and there’s this, you have people like Ken Roth, who does this kind of constant —

    Nima: The head of Human Rights Watch.

    Adam: Who is the executive director of Human Rights Watch, he’s retiring in August, but he does this routine every single time the US goes to Saudi Arabia or Israel and says, ‘Hey, man, here’s a couple more billion dollars’ worth of the weapons and support at the UN.’ He says, quote, “Saudi commitments to pump more oil in response to Biden’s visit are too small to lower the price at a pump in the near term which begs the question why Biden would abandon core human rights principles for so little.” But how was he abandoning anything? They don’t believe any of this stuff?

    Nima: There’s so much packed into that. That if the tradeoff were better, it would be okay.

    Adam: Yeah. Right. Then it would be worth it, right? But of course, everyone kept doing this got you, where it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s not even going to oil prices,’ it’s because it’s not about fucking oil prices. That’s a pretext the White House gave to justify what they were going to do anyway, and what every president before them always does every single time they get into office within the first two years.

    Nima: Because again, in this thing that Ken Roth writes, and it’s like the pretense of everything we hear about these visits, all of the foreign policy, elite commentary, whenever this happens, every single administration again and again and again. ‘Why would Biden — this time — abandon core human rights principles?’ What United States core human rights principles are there?

    Adam: Yeah, and this isn’t even meant to sort of cynicism or be kind of savvier than now.

    Nima: Right. I’m not trying to get dorm room on this. Come on, let’s just be fucking real here.

    Adam: This is what a child thinks, this is like debating why Santa Claus didn’t come on the 25th hoping he comes on the 26th, none of this is real, and the reason why it matters is because even when you do the whole disappointed schtick and you ostensibly criticize the United States, by operating under the assumption that this is not existential to how our foreign policy operates, you carry water for the fundamental myth that the US cares.

    Nima: ‘It’s not that we should be better, it’s that we are better and we need to live up to the assumed betterness.’

    Adam: Right, and that’s just not true, and so, for example, when Obama went to Vietnam in 2016, Ken Roth released this breathless report saying Obama needs to pressure Vietnam on human rights and releasing political prisoners and all that stuff, and I was like, okay, that sounds fine but why does Ken Rogoff not insist that the Vietnamese leaders pressure the United States for having the largest carceral state in the world, for having racist police who at that point were tear gassing protesters for the US supporting the apartheid regime in Israel? Why is it always assumed that white European countries, UK, you know, white majority European and North Atlantic countries, and sometimes Australia for good measure, why is it always assumed that they’re the ones that have to go around pressuring people on human rights?

    Nima: Yes, scolding baddie regimes.

    Adam: Right, which we know they do after decades, we know they do selectively, we know they only do when it suits their political interest. Again, we just all Biden go to Israel and Saudi Arabia and backslap everybody and set up weapons deals and basically indulge in every single racist Zionist myth on Earth.

    Nima: Any reporter that those regimes want to murder, whether it’s Shireen Abu Akleh or Jamal Khashoggi, that’s okay, like, that’s actually not an issue.

    Screenshots from the State Department “investigation” of the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh.

    Adam: So every single time we do this we get the same hand wringing concerns and part of me is just kind of frustrated by this because I’m like, what’s the point of this theater? What’s the point at this point, in the year of our Lord, Ken Roth has been the head of Human Rights Watch for going on, you know, 35 years or going on 30 years now, right? You’d think after Clinton, Bush Jr., Obama, Trump, Biden all did the exact same trip, they greenlit the exact same weapons deals, they have soldiers stationed in Saudi Arabia who then left but then sort of came back. You have the US selling every single Gulf despot from Kuwait to UAE to Saudi Arabia the same spy technology so they can spy on dissidents and lock them up. You have these very cozy business relationships between Saudi Arabia funds Vice media, UAE funds CNN, you would think after these decades of relationships that this is not something that deviates from quote-unquote “abandoning principles,” that it’s actually the principle itself and that once you shred that pretense, again, what replaces it shouldn’t be, might makes right nihilism or kind of Kissinger view of the world about power, it should be okay, well, what would a government that actually cares about human rights both negative and positive, right? Not just freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, but freedom from poverty, freedom for education, freedom for housing.

    Nima: Right.

    Adam: Which, by the way, we’re axiomatically not part of Human Rights Watch’s founding charter.

    Nima: Right, literally stricken from the charter.

    Adam: Right. What would that regime look like and is that something we could maybe pressure our government to do or fight for? The sort of classic critique of this arrangement is that allied states, the United States and allied states, are viewed as being, when they commit human rights violations, it’s seen as a deviation whereas when human rights are committed by enemy states, they’re existential to who they are.

    Nima: Right. Fundamental to what those states are all about. They only understand power, they don’t care about their people, that’s all the stuff that we’ve that about on the show like about what these kinds of countries elsewhere deemed to be official US state enemies. They are fundamentally bad and we are fundamentally good.

    Adam: Right and we just deviate. Yeah, we need a mild talking to, we need a mild chiding. And so a very infamous version of this was in January of 2015 when King Abdullah died, this is again this sort of worst of the worst human rights violators, this is before the war in Yemen started but we’re talking, you know, women can’t drive, chopping up dissenters, mass beheadings, oppressive Shia religious intolerance, blah, blah, blah, you name it, they got it, a lot of connections to al Qaeda, which we’ll table for another episode. Yeah, Human Rights Watch’s headline was, “Saudi Arabia: King’s Reform Agenda Unfulfilled,” and the article said, quote:

    King Abdullah’s reign brought about marginal advances for women but failed to secure the fundamental rights of Saudi citizens to free expression, association, and assembly. Abdullah’s successor, King Salman, should halt persecution of peaceful dissidents and religious minorities…

    So it’s like, okay, his reform agenda was unfulfilled, right? And contrast this with Hugo Chavez who died about 21 months prior, Human Rights Watch’s headline was, “Venezuela: Chavez’s Authoritarian Legacy.” “Dramatic Concentration of Power and Open Disregard for Basic Human Rights.” Throughout the obituary of Chavez he’s seen as existential to the regime as human rights abuses whereas Saudi Arabia remains, even though of course, they commit hundreds and hundreds of more human rights abuses than Chavez ever did, Saudi Arabia is seen as having a reform, unironically, said to have a reform agenda, which was simply unfulfilled.

    Nima: Reform agenda. It just didn’t get to be completed, because the noble reformist died. Oops.

    Adam: Yeah, their dog ate the reform agenda so they had to sort of write it again, it was a whole thing. I mean, this whole thing is so, you realize again, just after years and years and years of this kind of discourse how empty it is, how much it’s meant to sort of limit the conversation.

    Nima: Well, because it’s such a performance. I mean, it is, there is nothing genuine about any of this analysis because everyone already understands what is actually happening here, and yet, time and again, it’s this straying from the path, ‘Oh, well, I guess there’s a reason why Biden has to go back on his promise to be a much tougher ally,’ right? ‘To really work from the inside, it’s always better to talk to these…’ So here, I actually want to pivot here Adam, because then there’s this entire genre of foreign policy analysis, where the justification for the approval of a US president having these close relationships with the leaders of Israel, the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the leaders of UAE, et cetera, et cetera, where that is all because of the care and concern that the United States and its leadership has for the people of those countries, and the best way forward, the best way to make their lives better, Adam, is to be close with their leaders and to change them from the inside. So one of the finest most recent examples of this genre was penned by New York Times reporter Ben Hubbard. This was published on July 14, 2022, the headline, “Biden’s Saudi Lesson: The Only Path Runs Through M.B.S.” M.B.S. being the cute nickname for Mohammed bin Salman.

    Adam: It’s the only path, Nima, there is no choice, it is the only path.

    Nima: That’s right. Now, here we go, here we go. Here’s the subhead, Adam: “President Biden tried to isolate Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over human rights abuses. Now, the United States needs Saudi Arabia, and Mr. Biden is about to visit.” So that’s the setup for this trip.

    Adam: So he tried by selling him $650 million in air-to-air missiles. That was them trying, yeah. No choice now, they need to do it. No choice.

    Nima: That’s right. And so in this piece, reporter Ben Hubbard writes this, this is a straight report, it is not an editorial, writes this, in one of my favorite five-word openings to any paragraph, New York Times or otherwise, starts like this, the mysticism and mystery truly swirls around this phrase. Here we go, quote:

    Scholars of the Middle East point out that the United States has a long history of doing business with autocrats, including every Saudi king, and that engagement could more effectively shape their behavior than ostracism.

    Perhaps, they argue…

    “They” being the scholars of the Middle East.

    Adam: These scholars of the Middle East are never named.

    Nima: Scholars of the Middle East.

    Adam: Never named. This is clearly a White House talking point, but go ahead.


    Perhaps, they argue, a closer American relationship can cultivate the good and discourage the bad in how Prince Mohammed wields his tremendous wealth, power and ambition.

    End quote.

    Adam: So this is so good. Again, this is a straight report, this is not an editorial.

    Nima: Yeah, scholars of the Middle East, the wizened scholars of the, unnamed mysterious scholars of the Middle East.

    Adam: Not me, Ben Hubbard, saying this, this is or White House communications director.

    Nima: But I also like how you need Middle East scholars, Arabists, the Arabists of old, scholars of the Middle East, they’re the ones, not just anyone knowing anything about anything, you need the scholar, the scholarly input to know that the United States has a long history of doing business with autocrats.

    Adam: Yeah, I think the scholarly is more lending gravitas to the totally amoral and psychopathic claim.

    Nima: And that engagement could more effectively shape their behavior. Exactly.

    Adam: Yeah. So they’re going to change it from the inside, man, they’re going to go work at the oil company to fight for climate change, because that’s how you —

    Nima: That’s right.

    Adam: Yeah, I mean, this is obviously a total fucking joke. But yeah, again, the scholars are not named. I asked Ben Hubbard who were these scholars, sort of curious who thinks that by giving everything to Saudi Arabia by asking nothing in return, and by writing blank checks for missile systems and helping them bomb Yemenis forever, that’s somehow going to reform their behavior, because the idea is that if Mohammed goes and runs to the big bad Russians, the big bad Chinese that he’ll be more evil. By the way, this is an argument, anytime there’s something that fits the geopolitical interests, there’s a wave of takes from liberals to say, ‘Oh, no, there’s really manifestly obviously evil and cynical thing we have to do, we have to do it because if we don’t do it, some other worse baddie is going to do it,’ which of course, we’ve talked about in the show, many, many times, is what all empires say. All empires say that we have to do this bad thing because there’s this other empire that will do it marginally more evil.

    Nima: Yeah, exactly, “constructive engagement,” and so now it’s, you know, ‘We’re going to do better in the long run, we’re going to make them better,’ right? ‘This isn’t about us.’ ‘This isn’t about us, Adam, this isn’t about the United States holding on to principles we’ve never had,’ right? ‘This is about we’re going to get Saudi Arabia,’ because somehow we’re a parent to the world and ‘we’re going to get them to act better by being nicer to them, by giving them more.’

    Adam: Yeah.

    Nima: ‘We’re going to encourage the good and discourage the bad.’

    Adam: Would any New York Times reporter without irony say that scholars of the Middle East claim that it’s best that Russia align with Iran and Syria? Because that’ll promote good behavior, dissuade, no, you would be laughed out of the room if you said that. But this goofy, childish bullshit that has absolutely no empirical basis, is based on a bunch of racist assumptions, that somehow the US is the human rights Boys and Girls Club, is going to be your mentor, it’s going to look after you, it’s just going to look after these otherwise kind of restless young countries, and we’re going to, we’re going to guide them to the right path? What the fuck is that? After school special? Saudi Arabia knows what they’re doing, we know what they’re doing, they’ve been doing the same thing for decades, they serve a very specific function, and this idea that we’re going to change them from the inside. I mean, it’s the height of cynicism and Ben Hubbard is just a total fucking White House flunky, he’s a total national security state flunky, is going to just kind of seeing how many the sophistic little ratchet pellets he can shove in his article to so liberals can go, ‘Yeah, well, I guess he’s right, I guess we have no choice.’ So all that hemming and hawing and huffing and puffing over Trump patting dictators on the back and going to Saudi Arabia and doing this, it’s like, ‘I guess that this is somehow different than that.’ Well, no, it’s not different. Oh, because he did it with a heavy fucking heart.

    Nima: Well, because see, this goes back to that sophistry, right? This goes back to the fucking sophistry, Adam, which is Trump did it because he fundamentally agreed with them and he wanted to be like them and he was impressed by dictators, right? But Biden, Biden does it because he just, ah, it’s such a bummer, he’s so forced, he’s going to, he’s going to be forced to give a “chilly fist bump” as opposed to —

    Adam: Oh, a “chilly fist bump.”

    Nima: Right. Here’s a chilly fist bump along with your $650 million worth of weapons. So before we go, though, Adam, I feel like we have to talk about the latest entry from foreign policy wizard, Max Boot, writing in The Washington Post on July 17, 2022 with this headline, is an opinion piece of course, because it’s Max, but it is shared around the beltway as if it is fucking sage advice, quote, “Cut Biden some slack. U.S. presidents have to deal with dictators.” That’s the headline, and in it, Max Boot argues, of course, what you would think which is, you know, hey, this is the way real politic is executed, why is everyone getting so up in arms about this? In the article he writes this, quote:

    “In truth, MBS is a more ambivalent figure than the cartoon villain that he is so often made out to be in media coverage. It’s true that he is cruel and repressive. He has created a climate of fear in Saudi Arabia, imprisoned dissidents and accumulated absolute power. But, while illiberal politically, he is liberalizing Saudi society.”

    Adam: Yeah, which he’s not, whatever, he’s been doing the same reform agenda for, you know, the 250 year Saudi Foreign reform agenda.

    Nima: The long game.

    Adam: It’ll be ready when my great-great grandson.

    Nima: That’s right. “Tourists are welcome for the first time,” he writes. “Theaters and concerts have been opened.”

    Adam: Oh, theaters and concerts. Okay.

    Nima: That’s right.

    Adam: Yeah. Lord knows that that’s the mark of a liberal democracy is bread and circuses that historically —

    Nima: That’s right. And meanwhile, The Washington Post is publishing this and Jamal Khashoggi, again, who was bone sawed alive by the MBS regime, by, you know, guys carrying this fucking shit out, that is the same outlet that is publishing this shit for Max Boot justifying it.

    Adam: Max Boot argues on Twitter that Nixon met with Mao Zedong, FDR met with Stalin blah, blah, blah, and it’s like, look, it’s true, I actually think that all the anger about the fist bump is a distraction. It’s not really the problem.

    Nima: Right. The meeting is not the issue. That could be diplomacy. He’s not meeting MBS for diplomatic reasons.

    Adam: Right. He’s meeting with him to talk about increasing the weapons sales that we, the substance of the relationship is the problem, which is supporting and backing the subjugation of dissidents, the bombing of Yemeni, the oppression of women, I mean, you name it, right? The support for sectarianism in the region, blah, blah, blah, which again, I think has geopolitical function for US and Israel. It’s not the actual fist bump.

    Nima: The lie is that Biden is meeting with an enemy. He’s not.

    Adam: He’s not. The problem is the substance of what the fist bump codifies and represents, so if Biden was meeting with, again, whatever, leader of North Korea, Iran, Russia, whatever, I have no problem with that. In fact, that’s usually good because, you know, the whole we can’t, you know, ‘The optics of meeting with the dictator and legitimizing the regime,’ that’s all neocon bullshit. That is also not true at all, you know, who’s in charge of the regime is who is in charge of the gene, regardless with the fucking US does, right? The issue is not that he is somehow legitimizing MBS. MBS is in charge of Saudi Arabia whether we want him to or not, the issue is that he’s in charge by and large because of US largesse and support. It is a, again, it’s not 100 percent client state relationship, there is a little bit of back and forth, Saudi Arabia will sometimes buy, you know, weapons from Russia occasionally, though not really, but it is largely a dependent relationship on the US, and it has been since the time of our fathers and our fathers’ fathers, and so to sit here and act like this is somehow abnormal or against the, this is why we have to do this every every four years. It’s become a ritual. It’s like the Olympics. It’s like, oh, we’re doing this again. Oh, it’s that time again, where the President goes there and then Ken Roth gets kind of, you know, a little bit upset, but then someone writes this take justifying it, and we kind of run through the rigmarole.

    Nima: ‘Right, and remember when Max Boot was so frustrated that Trump was meeting with dictators, well, now there’s a reason, now there’s a reason, now it’s okay.’

    Adam: Yeah, and it seems to skirt the primary issue, which is what if being agnostic to human rights, or supporting human rights violations is actually an essential feature of our foreign policy, in the extent to which we don’t, it’s largely incidental, and the extent to which we do talk about quote-unquote “human rights” it is 99.99 percent public fucking relations, it is a marketing tool to justify why the largest military in the world is in every fucking nook and cranny in the globe, that it actually is not a real thing anyone cares about, except for four or five low inflammation dopes at the State Department who didn’t get the memo that they’re not really supposed to believe this bullshit, and it strikes me as the height of credulity to keep doing this every four years because the next president, regardless of who it is, who’s elected, is going to do the same thing. We’re going to do this run to the same ritual, the same rigmarole, while avoiding the question of this is not some abandonment of principles, but it is in fact itself a principle.

    Nima: Right. That is US foreign policy on purpose. It’s not the aberration, it’s not the deviation, we’re not stepping off the path, this is the path. But that will do it for this Citations Needed News Brief. Stay tuned for more full length episodes coming at you soon. Until then, of course, you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, if you’re not already, please do consider becoming a supporter through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. We are 100 percent listener funded and so your support is the reason we are able to keep doing these shows and so endless gratitude for all you who do support us. Thanks again for listening. I am Nima Shirazi.

    Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

    Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again for listening, everyone. We’ll catch you next time.


    This Citations Needed News Brief was released on Wednesday, July 20, 2022.

    Transcription by Morgan McAslan.

  • Live Interview: How Our Simplistic ‘Inflation’ Discourse Fuels theWar on Workers — with Josh Mason

    Citations Needed | July 13, 2022 | Transcript

    Paula Newton of CNN’s Quest Means Business, Nov. 17, 2021.


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

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

    Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

    Nima: Thank you everyone for joining us for another live interview. Of course, you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and if you’re not already, you can become a supporter of the show through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast, all your help through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated as we are 100 percent listener funded. And of course, when you become a supporter, you get access to over 100 News Briefs, extensive show notes for every episode, our newsletter and goodies like these live shows, live chats, Ask Me Anythings, and of course, if you’re interested, you can grab some hot new Citations Needed merch, shirts, hoodies, mugs, and of course the requisite tote bag at Bonfire.com/store/citations-needed. But Adam, we are thrilled to have an amazing guest today for this live interview. We’re joined by Josh Mason, Associate Professor of Economics at John Jay College at CUNY, that’s the City University of New York, and a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. Josh, thanks so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

    Josh Mason: Thanks for having me.

    Adam: Yes, we’re really grateful for you coming on because this has been a very, I would say, maybe the first or second most requested topic we’ve had, a inflation, as a topic or as sort of now becoming a buzzword, is very much at its core, we think, a media story, which is to say it’s a very politically charged issue. A recent Gallup poll just said it’s the number one issue for 66 percent of Americans, which is obviously a lot, it is number one, number one on most people’s list, and so the issue then politically becomes sort of who’s to blame? The political blame is the most politically urgent issue right now, because who is blamed becomes what the solution is, right? And there is much debate about whether or not this is some law of nature handed down by the gods of Econ 101 or whether or not there’s human agency at work here, whether or not to the extent to which there is human agency, we’re told it’s kind of the logical byproduct of too generous or too liberal economic policy under COVID. So with that as a kind of table setter, I want to sort of start out with broadly speaking, how you would characterize the current present-day situation with respect to inflation, is inflation, even the right word we should be using? I know there’s some people who think maybe that’s kind of a way of loading the deck and if there was maybe a perhaps more constructive way of framing this issue.

    Josh Mason: All right, you know, the word inflation is hard to avoid, because it’s what everybody uses, but I think there is an argument that we shouldn’t be using that word, because when you say inflation, you sort of imply that there’s one thing going on, one economic process, one source, one set of causes and one solution, and the truth is, you know, that’s really not true. If you step back and think about it, there’s a lot of different prices in the economy and there’s prices that get set in different ways, you know, the price of housing is very different from the price of energy or gasoline, which is very different from rents, which is very different for the price of health care, the price of food, there are different dynamics at work in these different parts of the economy, and we certainly have a widespread, although certainly not across the board, rising prices. You know, Adam Tooze, who I think is a great historian, but has turned himself into a sort of turbocharged pundit lately, he had a piece lately where he said, all prices are rising in unison. Well, I don’t know where he got that but he’s clearly too busy now to actually look at the data because that’s definitely not at all the case. We have some prices like recently energy, that are rising very rapidly, we have other prices in the economy, you know, most of the service sector, things like education, health care, where prices are not rising very rapidly at all, and then we have areas like rents, which are rising fairly rapidly, but we’re also rising fairly rapidly back in 2018, 2019. So it’s not clear that there’s something really new here. So when you say inflation, you’re sort of assuming that there is in fact one phenomenon, where all these prices are rising in lockstep. So you might even say how does somebody as smart as Adam Tooze get such a basic fact about the situation so wrong? Well, one reason is because he’s used to talking about inflation, which we define, the sort of textbook way is all prices rising together, but that’s not the phenomenon out there in the world. Out there in the world, we have a relatively small number of prices rising very rapidly, some prices rising, you know, faster than we would like, like again rents, and a lot of prices not doing anything, particularly rising at all. So I think it’s better when we can to focus on individual prices and think about what’s driving those and what’s the solution then to talk about inflation as this one sort of undifferentiated thing.

    Adam: The way it’s framed is that typically, it sort of spirals, that things catch up to each other and then there’s, you know, you have this image of inflation. So let’s hone in on what is most politically urgent, if you will, which is I go to the grocery store, my groceries are clearly more expensive than they used to be. I buy steak, it’s more expensive than it used to be, I buy milk, it’s more expensive than it used to be, I buy gas, it’s more expensive than it used to be. This is the thing that politically is the most relevant insofar that it’s a daily reminder, psychologically, it has tremendous purchase — not to make a pun — because it’s something you notice on a daily basis versus say more of an obscure spending, you know, or the tax you don’t notice, and that this is politically going to be the thing that absolutely kicks Democrats’ asses in the midterms. So let’s focus on that kind of day-to-day purchasing.

    Josh Mason

    Josh Mason: Yeah, that’s right, and it’s really one of the unfortunate kind of ironies of this situation, that there are some prices that are extremely visible to people, I mean, look at gasoline prices, every street in every American city has giant signs announcing the current gas prices down to a 10th of a cent. So you know, you could not, if you wanted to, you could not make that price more visible to people, and yet, gasoline prices are up a lot, it’s certainly a fact, gasoline is a lot more expensive than it was, you know, a year or two or three ago. But that’s, first of all, a lot of the current price rises we’re seeing, but it’s a relatively modest part of the overall spending of the typical family, and it’s also one of the prices that is least connected to what’s going on in the US economy. The stories we tell about inflation that have to do with, you know, too much demand or too much spending or interest rates that are too low or wages that are rising too quickly, well whether or not those might be relevant for some prices, they’re definitely not relevant for gas prices because, as we know, first of all, this is a market where, you know, current labor is a trivial part of the overall costs, where there’s a global market where oil prices really move around the world, you know, in countries with very different economic policy, gas prices are still rising, because this is really a global market. So it gives people a very misleading sense of the overall situation. Food is not quite as extreme as that, it’s certainly a global market, but not to the same extent that, you know, oil is, and it’s a bigger part of people’s budgets, but it’s also, you know, not necessarily representative of what’s happening in the rest of the economy, but it’s very visible to people. You know, my older son loves limes, this is his snack, he eats multiple limes a day, just eat them like oranges, so, you know, limes used to be, you know, 10 cents a line, a quarter a lime, 60 cents a lime, you know, I mean, that’s very noticeable in our family but it’s not necessarily very informative about what’s going on. The fact that healthcare prices are not rising at all, well, nobody sees that because you don’t pay those bills typically, and when you do pay them, you’re not buying the same thing over and over the way you are with gas or groceries so you’re not aware that the price has gone up from what it was. So I think the fact that right now the prices that are rising the fastest are also the ones that are most visible is giving this issue of really outsized importance in people’s minds, relative maybe to what you see in the statistics, which is certainly a rise in prices that I think we can agree it’s not desirable, but it’s not necessarily the crisis that it’s being treated as.

    Nima: Yeah, you know, I think this idea of what is most visible, and then also, you know, as Adam you mentioned a little earlier, the idea of who’s to blame, right, the reason. So before we get into maybe a set of solutions, let’s talk about some of this blame and what we’re seeing in the media. We’ve heard from Mitch McConnell, that people are just quote-unquote “flush with cash right now,” possibly referring, or I guess effectively referring to the $700 to $1,400 checks that people got two years ago during the pandemic, somehow that is allowing people to still be “flush with cash,” right? That people have too much money and that’s what’s driving inflation. Josh, talk to us a little bit about maybe what we don’t hear. Profits are skyrocketing, and yet, the only kind of cause for inflation that we’re hearing is that too many people have jobs and too many people somehow have, you know, bursting overflowing wallets.

    Josh Mason: You’re right to be skeptical about stories that too much power for labor, too many people can be too picky about jobs, and that’s the cause of inflation. I think you’re right to be critical of that. But it is actually the case that the balance sheets, the finances of most American families are much better than they were a couple of years ago, and I don’t think we want to go so far that we dismiss the real success of the pandemic economic response in sheltering American families from what otherwise could have been an absolutely devastating economic disaster. You know, it’s not just the one-time stimulus payments that you mentioned, but also the pandemic unemployment relief, which I think it’s just an absolute model of how we should handle economic disasters.

    Nima: Yeah.

    Josh Mason: We’re not going to go around trying to sort out, you know, who’s deserving and who isn’t deserving, we’re not going to have all these ways that we qualify to get assistance — you have to work so many months at a wage at this amount and be able to document everything and show that you’re out there looking for a job so you’re one of the deserving poor — we’re not going to waste our time with any of that, we’re just going to say, ‘Look, you lost your job, you get money so that you don’t get evicted from your house, your children don’t go hungry,’ and you know what, it worked, it worked great, and the result of that is people did come out of the pandemic with less debt and more cash in their bank accounts than they went into a with. We should be proud of that and say, ‘Look, this is what we need to demand from the government going forward.’

    Nima: Yeah.

    Josh Mason: The people who say people can afford to be pickier about jobs then they were before the pandemic, they’re right, and it’s great, it’s good. That’s something we should be trying to bring about.

    Nima: And the nature of work has changed in that way as well.

    Josh Mason: Right. This is good.

    Adam: We’re definitely pro-pandemic aid. To be clear.

    Nima: Yeah.

    Josh Mason: Yes. But is the fact that workers have a little more bargaining power and not, you know, let’s not exaggerate that that way either, because it certainly doesn’t change the basic dynamic of the labor market, there is still a boss and a person who’s hoping to work and they are not meeting as equals, but they’re a little less unequal than they have been for quite a while, and that’s why I think one big reason why you’re seeing things like that, you know, successful unionization efforts in Amazon, Starbucks and so on, because when you have a little more bargaining power, one of the things you can demand is actually the right to bargain. So I think all that is real but then the question is, is that what’s actually driving rising prices? And I think we can say pretty definitely that it’s not. One reason is, as I said, the prices that are rising most rapidly in the economy are not the ones where we would expect to see a big impact from labor costs. Energy prices are not a function really of American wages at all, or not to any significant extent. Now, the interesting thing if you look at food is that the price of food at home has risen much more rapidly than the price of food away from home. So the price of groceries has risen much more rapidly than the price of restaurant meals. Now from the point of view of people’s living standards, that’s bad, because you can more easily go without restaurant meals than you can go without groceries but it also is telling us something important, which is if this was a labor story, we would expect to see that reversed because there’s a lot more labor input into restaurant meals than there is into groceries, into food at home, and a lot of the most, you know, other services, you know, rents are rising lot. Rent is really a function of the availability of housing, not current wages. So, you know, the fraction of your rent that is going to actual wage costs of maintaining that building is very small. So that’s not a function of wages. And other services, we’re seeing very little price rises. So the areas, if we had a story about, this is all about wages, we would see a very different mix of price increases than we’re actually seeing, and then, you know, as you said, there’s also the point that although wages are rising, prices are rising even more rapidly, and as a result, the profits claimed by corporations are also going up, and Lindsay Owens at Groundworks and her team, Rakeen Mabud and the other folks over there, I think they’ve been making that argument very effectively just given that the Economic Policy Institute had a nice analysis. To some extent, this is sort of a long run trend in the US economy that, you know, if you go back to the post war era, the ’50s, the ’60s, ’70s, it was generally the case that when you saw prices rising more rapidly, you saw wages rising as rapidly or even more rapidly, and that really hasn’t been the case for a while but it’s particularly not the case recently. Although one also has to be honest that profit margins have come down significantly recently. So that analysis is a little bit sensitive to exactly what time period you’re looking at. But certainly it’s very hard either if you look at the pattern of where the price increases are happening or the overall picture of rising profits, it’s very hard to tell a story where rising wages are the main thing that’s going on, and you know, at the most recent press conference after the Fed’s most recent rate hikes, even Jerome Powell, who earlier had been really stressing the need, as he said, to get wages down, actually said wages are not the main thing that are driving price increases right now. He said it really that bluntly. So when even the Fed, which historically, you know, the Fed has been absolutely on the frontlines of making workers pay for any increase in prices and putting it all on the shoulders of workers, when even the Fed is saying, ‘No, actually, that’s not what’s going on,’ I think you know that’s a pretty weak argument.

    Amazon Labor Union President Chris Smalls (center) celebrates ALU’s victory in April 2022. (Reuters)

    Adam: Yeah because I think to the average person, I don’t want to demagogue here too much, you know, kind of simple country lawyer, but to the average person witnessing the narrative unfold, there is a kind of width of, I don’t want to say conspiracy, but width of a constellation of interests that have sought to place the blame on greedy cashiers at Chick-fil-A, who had too much pandemic aid, and there is a bit of a political backlash to the pandemic aid that seems like sort of broadly, and you saw this very early on with the whole labor shortage issue, which sent a real panic through industry, you know, Retail Association, the Chamber of Commerce, right? It’s a conspiracy insofar that there are trade groups that actively kind of work to massage the media messaging around this to make sure that the blame doesn’t go to corporations or even to pro corporate policymakers, and you’ve seen people like Elizabeth Warren, there were even some half assed attempts by the White House, to say there is a little bit of opportunism going on here from the capital class that even if we accept that some percentage is probably due to there being too much money out there, we printed too much money during COVID or whatever, that people have taken that maybe otherwise organic or kind of natural force and used it to raise prices because they can, because there’s always a psychological element of mass psychology to prices, what you can kind of get away with, and when you have the CEO of Chipotle crying on CNBC telling you why your burrito is more expensive, it seems like there’s probably a combination of both. So to this issue of political blame, we want to play a clip here, which is kind of the conventional wisdom 101 from Stephanie Ruhle, who has a $7.5 million home on the upper west side, but that’s neither here nor there, we’ll play this clip, and then I want to respond to it, if you will, as far as the most important thing, which is political fucking blame — sorry for my language. Go ahead.

    [Begin Clip]

    Stephanie Ruhle: We don’t have enough people to fill our current jobs and his argument, there are going to be jobs at higher wages, higher wages are one of the contributing factors to inflation.

    [End Clip]

    Josh Mason: (Sigh.)

    Nima: Yes, the deep sigh is the best response.

    Adam: What are your thoughts on that?

    Josh Mason: Yes, yeah. No, it’s so, it’s just incredible to me people can go on saying this and saying this, and it doesn’t matter what the evidence shows, and it doesn’t matter what the data, you know, it just, you just say this over and over again. We had this line about labor shortages about a year ago when pandemic unemployment insurance was still enforced, you know, there was a decision to let that expire but it didn’t expire all at once, individual states could opt out of it. So okay, so we had this, from my point of view, really appropriately generous pandemic unemployment insurance but people like this would blame that, ‘Oh, this is why we have rising wages and prices, this is why businesses aren’t open,’ you know, this whole talk about a labor shortage, ‘restaurants have shortened their hours, businesses are closing down because nobody wants to work.’ Okay. Well, here’s the thing, we did an experiment, we did exactly the experiment, if you wanted to test that theory, which is that we cut off this pandemic unemployment insurance in some states, and we didn’t cut it off in others, not right away, eventually got cut off everywhere, but not right away, so we could do this experiment and was quite a substantial amount of money. If the number of people getting hired depended on people’s willingness to work because they were or we’re not getting this kind of public support, well, it’s a lot of money that you’re taking away from people, if that’s the factor we should have seen more jobs and nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing. Arin Dube, a really quite brilliant labor economist at the University of Massachusetts, just dug through this and no matter how you slice it, there was absolutely no increase in employment in the states that cut off pandemic unemployment insurance, it was the cleanest experiment you could ask for is this theory true, and the results were unequivocal, it is not true. You do the test, you got a theory, you do the test, and yet they just ignore the results. It’s absolutely, unequivocally the case that taking away this sort of assistance does not increase hiring at all. And why? Well, there’s no mystery because actually businesses make the decision to hire, people don’t, there’s all this talk about labor shortage, people don’t want to work. It’s like people have this vision where a business says, ‘Okay, we need workers, we’re going to post a wage and see how many people show up and that’s how many people work today,’ that is not, maybe there’s, maybe you can find some business somewhere in the country that operates that way, but it’s not the way businesses operate. They say, ‘Here’s how much we think we can sell, here’s how many people we need to make it, we hire that many people.’ The business makes a decision about hiring, not the workers. That’s the business, they decide. Now, it’s true if people are in a better position to bargain, they can say, ‘Well, I want better hours, I don’t want to have to work a split shift, give me eight hours in a row, I want a higher wage, that’s a very natural thing, or you know, maybe you get to be a little more human on the job without getting fired because they’re worried. So you get some benefits as a worker from labor being scarce, so-called, from other people not being willing, desperate enough to take whatever job is offered. But one thing that does not happen is that more people get hired, because businesses just hire the number of people they need to produce the stuff that they think they can sell, and again, you might doubt my story on that, but we did the experiment, we took away the pandemic unemployment insurance, and there was no benefit in employment at all, and people, you know, some people like Jason Furman who were making this argument over and over again, ‘Oh, my God, you know, we’re going to have this terrible disaster, it’s holding back hiring, this labor shortage, we got to cut this stuff off,’ and then once the data was clear he just stopped talking about it. Somebody like this person, I guess, hasn’t gotten the memo. So she’s still making these arguments. But there’s absolutely, there’s no reason to believe it’s true and at this point pretty overwhelming evidence that it’s not true, that there is no sense in which a labor shortage is holding back employment.

    Adam: Really what they mean is a labor pool shortage. They want 100 applicants per job, not 10, because if there’s 100, they can tell them all to fuck off and work at 3:00 in the morning.

    Josh Mason: Right. Now, look, what she could say, which would be true is it’s because we have so many jobs and not so many workers that people are organizing unions at Amazon, which they never could do before, and that’s probably pretty upsetting to her, and I’m sure it’s upsetting to Jeff Bezos and whoever else. That would be an honest thing to say, but it wouldn’t play as well on TV so they don’t say that, they make up this nonsense about how it’s what’s driving inflation or holding back employment.

    Nima: Yeah, to stick to what the media is constantly lifting up in terms of who the experts that we should be listening to are, right, you have your Jason Furmans, you know, who’s now a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

    Adam: Progressive case for Walmart, bro.

    Nima: Yeah. Former Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under Obama.

    Josh Mason: He’s just a professor of practice, right?

    Nima: Yeah, exactly.

    Josh Mason: That’s not really a faculty job.

    Adam: Okay. Sorry.

    Nima: But then you also have, you know, someone like Larry Summers, who we’ve been hearing from a lot lately, and getting kind of amplified through numerous articles, right? So you’ll see it from last month, from early June 2022, in The New York Times an article, “Why a Not-So-Hot Economy Might Be Good News,” and this was the subheadline, quote, “As the Federal Reserve tries to rein in inflation without causing a recession, slower job creation and wage growth could be a plus.” Josh, maybe just respond a bit to the Larry Summers argument of more people need to be out of work for inflation to go down and how that is this pervasive narrative that we’re hearing.

    Larry Summers (Reuters)

    Josh Mason: Yeah. Well, I mean, the reality is, right now, high wages, I think, are clearly not what’s driving inflation. I think the evidence is overwhelming. But let’s put it the other way, suppose you raised interest rates, you know, to 20 percent, and every business that had to borrow, you know, said, ‘We can’t do it, we’re canceling our plans, every home builder in the country said, we’re sending everybody home, we can’t afford to build these interest rates,’ and every business that has debt they have to rollover says, ‘we can’t do it, we got to declare bankruptcy,’ and every family, you know, that has to roll over their debt says, ‘We can’t do it, we got to,’ okay, you do that, a lot of people are going to lose their jobs, a lot of people are going to get kicked out of their houses, a lot of people aren’t going to be able to meet their basic needs, and I do think at some point, prices will come down. If enough people cannot afford to buy housing, landlords will lower their rents. If enough people cannot afford to buy gas, gas stations will find they just have to charge less, and eventually you will get prices down by that route. So, in some sense, you know, what he’s saying is not absolutely factually wrong in the sense that, yes, if you trigger a deep enough recession, and the Fed does have the power to do that, you can eventually, but it’s an incredibly wasteful and destructive and pointless and unnecessary way of achieving that. You know, this story, which is unfortunately really deeply inculcated in people in economics education, that the only thing you can do about inflation is have the Fed raise interest rates, it’s incredibly destructive, because it says there’s only this one tool, which is really not well suited to the job, which is not historically or even, arguably, legally, you know, something the Fed is really expected to do and now becomes the only tool for the job and it’s an incredibly poorly designed tool for that job. But if you insist, there’s nothing else we can do, and you insist that slowing down price increases is absolutely the only thing we care about, then okay, I guess that’s where you end up. And there’s really, there’s no reason to think, first of all, that that’s the only tool that we’ve got, and secondly, that even if it were that the benefits would be worth the cost, because another thing that really gets beaten into people is the notion that inflation is just absolutely, categorically unacceptable and we cannot tolerate it no matter what. There’s this story that if you have a little bit of inflation, it inevitably snowballs and turns into hyperinflation. I don’t think there’s a single historical case where that’s happened. Every single hyperinflation you can point to historically is basically the result of a fundamental sort of state breakdown. A lot of times it’s countries that have lost wars, it’s poor countries that really just lack any sort of capacity to raise taxes, it’s countries with a huge amount of foreign debt in many cases, that basically all their available public resources are going to that, but it’s a basic breakdown in the machinery of the state, it is not a case, there is really not a case in history, where when you get 3 percent inflation, 5 percent and 10 percent and before you know it you have 8,000 percent inflation, It’s just doesn’t work that way.

    Adam: So okay, I want to talk kind of big picture here real quick in terms of this issue of political blame and mass psychology. I hate to keep coming back to this, but it’s kind of more in our wheelhouse, which is that it seemed like there was this brief time during COVID where there was, for the first time, a kind of meaningful welfare state in this country that was not weighed down by an exotic patchwork of means testing. Poverty was reduced, child poverty was reduced significantly. We had a sense that you could actually, I knew plenty of people anecdotally who worked, you know, as baristas or worked at Target or whatever, who had more money than they had before, and there was a sense that we did have a little bit of a welfare state for five minutes, and then that was taken from us, and then the political priority became worker discipline through these concepts like inflation, labor shortage that you heard over and over again, where the poors had gotten too uppity, and that they needed to be basically be put back into their place, and since precarity is a major driver of our economy, and I know I’m inserting a bunch of ideological truisms, you don’t have to necessarily accept them, but that because precarity is essential to how the United States economy functions, in terms of destitution being one of the threats that keeps wages low, and that if you take that away, necessarily, you’re going to have workers who are a little bit more mouthy, a little bit more union-y. Sorry, sorry to get some bad ideas in their head. And that it seems like the political priority, certainly for the Republican Party, I think, also for the centrist wing of the Democratic Party, has been to kind of go back to normal. That we need to get the men in black thing and zap people’s brains and make them forget about the 12, 18 months in which they had some semblance of a welfare state, and that inflation plays a huge role in that. Inflation was the number one talking point against the infrastructure bill last fall that we thought was going to pass but never went anywhere, and the main talking point against that was this will basically spiral inflation 20 percent. Things like school food programs for the poor, dental insurance for the elderly, things that help the poor people, by definition, by definition, caused prices to skyrocket and gas prices to go up. I mean, I can’t think of a better way to kind of have an instant way of scaring people in any semblance of social welfare states. But then people look at that and say, ‘Well, there’s lots of countries that have robust social welfare states, to some extent,’ again, various forms of it, but they have it. They have things like generous unemployment benefits, they have things like universal health care, but they don’t necessarily suffer from massive inflation all the time. So how do we square that circle? How is it that when we did five minutes of some social spending for the poor in this country we suddenly are being subjected to this inflationary crisis whereas other countries don’t have that same outcome? Can you explain that? And then, of course, also countries that, a lot of countries have the inflation issue, regardless of how much they spend.

    Josh Mason: That’s right. I mean, I think you’re right, and I think you’re onto something very important here, in some ways for a lot of people on the right, but even in the center politically, there’s a certain sense in which rising prices, you know, the fact that we have this oil price spike, food price spike that may have more to do with the war in Ukraine than anything else, but the fact that it came when it did was almost a godsend, it was almost a relief for them. Because otherwise, there were going to be some very difficult questions. You know, the reality is in the US, and not only in the US, we really relied on mass unemployment and a chronically weak economy to really settle distributional questions. When workers are kind of desperate, you don’t have to actually have a question about how are we going to divide up the product, the surplus, between labor and capital, labor gets enough to live and then the rest goes to capital when there’s people that are desperate enough, and you don’t have to have disputes about who controls the economic process, who controls the production process, the bosses do. But if you have a situation where demand is strong, and where people are not scared or as scared of losing their jobs, then those become live questions again. It doesn’t mean that it can’t be solved. It doesn’t mean, you know, there’s an argument that a lot of folks on the left are familiar with, you know, Michael Cholesky, the political aspects of full employment, where he says, you know, a capitalist economy cannot operate without mass unemployment, even if you could sustain full employment economically, you couldn’t sustain it politically, because the power of the bosses depends on the threat of firing people. Well, I think he’s onto something important here but I don’t think we want to concede all the ground to that, because as you say, there actually are historic models of social democracy, of welfare states that involve much more economic security for working people, much lower unemployment and more favorable bargaining conditions for workers that still remain capitalist economies in the sense that most of the means of production were owned by business and production decisions were largely made in pursuit of profit. Now, maybe we don’t want that, maybe we want to go beyond that, but we can say that some sort of system like that is possible. But you need a new set of institutions. It doesn’t just happen. If we were to try to run our economy with the institutions it has with sustained full employment, with a strong welfare state, I think we would see some real problems because we don’t have other institutions that allow for negotiation between workers and owners, and we don’t have other institutions that allow you to see a rise, let’s say, in the share of income going to labor, but a sort of slow and steady rise and arise that is widely shared, as opposed to going to a relatively small group of really favored workers. You know, there was a time not so many decades ago in the US, where strong unions were actually seen as an anti-inflation device precisely because they allowed you to negotiate over wages, you know, you say, ‘Okay, well, the economy is growing rapidly, businesses are selling a lot of stuff and workers are scarce and is valuable, and they are entitled to demand a bigger share of what’s being produced, a higher wage, but we’re going to negotiate over that and it’s going to go up incrementally.’ It’s not going to be a crisis where some businesses can’t operate at all and we’re not going to have a situation where, you know, I mean, we did, of course, in this country, we had big gains for industrial workers and people who were left out of that, a lot of women, a lot of people of color, were working in more precarious situations, so we certainly, but we had some notion that we’re going to do this in an inclusive way, and places like Scandinavia, of course, carried that much further. But that’s an actual, it’s a problem that has to be solved. So I think that we were going to have to have some really difficult problems that were going to take a lot of people, policymakers, opinion leaders and relatively privileged people out of their comfort zone, and so in a way, the fact that we’ve had this high inflation means that we can kind of put off those conversations for a while, hopefully not forever from my point of view, but it shifts the conversation back to something where they’re much more comfortable with about , ‘Oh, people just have too much, we just need to have less man and less economic security,’ an argument that’s much easier to make when inflation is 8 percent, than if we had a situation where prices were behaving pretty reasonably and it was just the fact that workers were getting higher wages and businesses were getting less profits, that would be a trickier conversation, it would be harder to go on CNN and squawk about that, or MSNBC, whatever the thing was we were watching.

    Adam: Right.

    Josh Mason: So I think you’re onto something actually quite important there.

    Nima: And also, you know, part of the conversation always relies on what kind of public spending is allowed to be discussed, is allowed to be on the chopping block, right? I mean, meanwhile, all of these conversations are happening, military spending continues to grow, right? So it’s what gets to be discussed as part of a solution as a part of the problem and what is kind of off the table there. As you kind of set up, there can be alternative solutions, not just the Fed can change interest rates, and you have worked a lot on this creating alongside Lauren Melodia, an alternative policy toolkit. Can you talk us through what some of these alternatives can be? What is that broader imagination of what can be different maybe in the current reality and also maybe even more expansive?

    Politico headline from June 16, 2022.

    Josh Mason: Yeah, well, I think the starting point here, the beginning of wisdom is to say there is no inflation, there are a bunch of different price increases, and different solutions are going to be called for in different cases, there’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all solution. So rents are rising rapidly today. So that’s a problem, obviously. But what do we do about that? Interest rates are not going to solve that problem. The only way interest rates help there is by making people too poor to afford their own houses, if enough people, you know, have to double up, say with live with their parents or become homeless eventually, or if people, you know, are forced to live in cheaper areas where there aren’t any jobs. Anyway, the point is a bad solution. Good solution. Well, on the one hand, we need more housing. And we can debate, it’s obviously a very lively debate, what mix of public spending and land use reform we need for that, but some combination of those things to get more housing, and then this is one area where we have price controls, rent regulation, a lot of the country has, not a lot, but some parts of the country have rent regulation, it’s actually, there’s a lot of support for it elsewhere. This is a form of price regulation that is well established, that makes sense and that works, and there’s a lot of evidence, it does not discourage new construction, because the places where rents are going up is where nothing’s getting built anyway, because of land use rules. So that’s housing. Now, should we have price regulation for cars? Maybe that’s not really a solution there. Maybe, you know, in some cases, we might even say, look, this is actually a short-term problem that private markets know how to solve, we don’t need to treat it as a crisis. If automakers miscalculated about the course of demand, they didn’t order enough semiconductors, now there’s a shortage, that’s a problem that’s going to take care of itself. They screwed up, they know they screwed up, they’re working on fixing it, you don’t need to read, you know, to feel like this is some crisis, you need to throw the whole economy into a tailspin for and it’s a purchase that people can put off in most cases. So it’s not an, maybe that’s one where we say, you know, this is not, then you look at energy prices, well, there’s a clear problem there, and maybe there again, we need some mix of price controls, maybe we target the excess profits being claimed in that industry, the way folks at Groundwork are talking about, and in the long run, we really need to build up alternatives, we need to transition away from fossil fuels, and even in the short run you can make transit free all over the country. You know, somebody said, I think somebody said, you know, we should have Biden buses, this should be a signature thing. Every bus in the country should run free, put up the federal money to make that happen, and Biden should completely own it, you know, take the bus, you can’t afford to drive a car, take the bus, everybody gets on the bus, hey, this is great, and some people discover actually, you know, the bus is not a bad option for me. Another thing here in California where I am now, they just said we’re going to send out a check to every household in the state, well, everybody who files taxes so, but it’s not the key thing is it doesn’t matter if you have a car or not, you’re going to get a check, which is basically reflects the excess amount that people are paying for gas right now. Does that bring down gas prices? No, probably there’s not a whole lot we can do in the short run to bring down gas prices. I said this is a global market, the capacity in the industry is what it is, but you can protect people from the economic hardship by sending them money, which is something the government is actually very good at doing and something you can do very quickly. And then, you know, you’ve got areas like healthcare, education, not a big source of rising prices right now, but you know, historically they have been, and maybe they would be in the future, and those are areas where there’s already extremely deep involvement by the public sector, and where direct regulation of prices shouldn’t even be controversial because so much of the funding comes from the public sector, there’s so many regulations and so many other areas, there’s really no reason not to just say, you know, we’re going to have some rules about how much college tuition can rise, but we’re going to have rules about how much you can charge for prescription drugs that has a lot of support, and then just to sort of run through it. Another area, you know, which is not necessarily a new problem, but a chronic problem, is the high cost of childcare. Well, childcare is not about corporate profits, it’s not about, you know, the margins of childcare are very, very low. These businesses, this is not a big business that’s making huge profits and it’s not about global prices. It’s not about labor shortage, it’s just about the fact that it is really expensive to care for small children, because to do it responsibly, each adult can only care for a few of them. So what do you do there? The only way you make it affordable is through some kind of public subsidy, you’ve got to put public money in to make this service affordable. That’s the only solution. So if we actually step back and say we’ve got a bunch of prices that we’re concerned about, we’re going to find, we’re going to look at different tools to manage different ones. But I think one tool we probably don’t want to use anywhere is rising interest rates. I don’t think that helps at all, except eventually if we actually trigger a recession and prices fall as people are losing their jobs and losing their homes, and that’s, you know, it’s not worth it.

    Adam: Well, sometimes you got to bomb a village to save it, right?

    Josh Mason: Yeah, well, I’m sure that’s what Larry Summers would tell us. Yes.

    Adam: Yeah.

    Josh Mason: You can have him on next.

    Adam: If people are dead from freezing to death due to homelessness this winter they can affect unemployment.

    Josh Mason: That’s right. Rents will come down.

    Nima: That’s right.

    Adam: That’s true. That’s more dead people.

    Nima: Yeah, well, I think that’s an appropriately dark way for us to end. But we have been speaking with Josh Mason, Associate Professor of Economics at John Jay College at City University of New York and a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. Josh, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

    Josh Mason: Thank you for having me.

    Nima: And that will do it for this live interview. Thank you, everyone for joining us live, especially all you patron supporters that continue to support us, we can’t do the show without you so we so appreciate that. If you are not yet a Patreon supporter, please do consider joining up and helping us keep doing these shows. You can find our Patreon link at Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast, and in the meantime, of course you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, and at Facebook Citations Needed, So until next time we want to thank you again for listening. I am Nima Shirazi.

    Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

    Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again for listening, everyone. We’ll catch you next time.


    This Citations Needed live interview was recorded with a virtual audience on Friday, July 8, 2022, and released on Wednesday, July 13, 2022.

  • News Brief: Forced Pregnancies, Gutting the EPA and Growing Frustration Over “Vote Harder”…

    Citations Needed | June 29, 2022 | Transcript

    (Drew Petrimoulx / Shutterstock.com)


    Nima Shirazi: Welcome to a Citations Needed News Brief. I am Nima Shirazi.

    Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

    Nima: You can follow Citations Needed on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support through Patreon is incredibly appreciated as we are 100 percent listener funded. We do these News Briefs in between our regular full-length episodes, and this week, Adam, I think it’s probably no surprise that we really feel like we want to talk about the Supreme Court decision about Roe, but also some of the broader issues that we’re seeing play out, some other current and pending Supreme Court decisions, and of course, the media’s response to this.

    Adam: Right. Some of this was discussed in Episode 163 that aired last week, but we really wanted to expand on some of these themes and get deeper into what we view as being the broader theme on the show, I think it’s fair to say, is the failure of liberal institutions to meet the moment, to fight the insurgent and incredibly well funded and very sophisticated right-wing media machine.

    Nima: And very successful media machine as well as the political parties that they support.

    Adam: Right. Longtime listeners to the show will not be new to this theme, and I think it’s one that we saw the full display when the Roe decision officially came down, which is just under two months ago, when the Supreme Court decision leaked in early May. We knew this was coming, but of course, there was always a sort of desperate hope, you know, kind of watching the screen like a degenerate gambler, hoping something would happen down by nine runs, of course, it didn’t happen because the decision was made. So the decision was handed down, overturning Roe versus Wade and creating 20-plus states, depending how you define it, where abortion is now illegal.

    Map of abortion law status throughout the US as of June 28, 2022. (Source: Washington Post)

    Nima: Right. So-called trigger laws.

    Adam: Trigger laws were waiting to go. This is of course going to lead to untold amounts more death, desperation, obviously broad sexist depression, all these horrific outcomes, and people were watching helplessly as two of the three Trump appointees voted in favor of it, even of course after they vaguely said they wouldn’t, but it was written in Heritage Foundation, Federalist Society-ese, if you actually read look at what they said it was quite technical. They said this is the law of the land, which is a descriptive and not normative position, and not something they said was going to be something they were necessarily going to uphold, they were just describing it.

    Nima: Sure.

    Adam: It’s a very clever thing they do. They phrase it in a very specific way. So it kind of provides cover for those who vote for them at the time knowing full well that the Republican partisan machine at this juncture was not going to nominate people who are not going to overturn Roe versus Wade, they couldn’t do it, they couldn’t be on the nose about it.

    Nima: Which was obvious to everyone paying attention, including the so-called pro-choice Republicans — what maybe two? — two of them and all the Democrats and yet, there’s still this kind of incredulity when the decision actually happens.

    Adam: Well, as we talked about in Episode 163, I did that survey in the first 48 hours, The Washington Post coverage on Neil Gorsuch and they didn’t have a single negative column. I looked at 30 different columns, articles, opinion pieces, not a single one of them was negative. It was considered borderline conspiracy theory to suggest he would rule, he would overturn Roe versus Wade at the time it was seen, ‘Oh, it’s settled law, they’re not going to do that.’

    Nima: Exactly. That’s always the line, ‘It’s settled law,’ and it’s like, well, it’s settled law until you unsettle it.

    Adam: Because he was a nice guy, they went to law school together, and he was, you know, nice in some interview he gave to The Washington Post six weeks prior. So the point being is that the liberal institutions, or centrist institutions like The Washington Post, New York Times — Ari Paul had a great piece in FAIR a few weeks ago documenting all the liberal, the glowing, glowing media coverage of pro or anti Roe justices in The New York Times, Washington Post — the news drops, the president and vice president, you know, they do the hand wringing where, you know, ‘you have to go vote,’ tweets and statements. Biden shot down immediately any idea of expanding the court or any kind of new measure that was adopted by people like FDR.

    Nima: Nancy Pelosi hit up everyone whose cell phone number she had for donations immediately after reading like an Israeli poem, like a Zionist poem as her kind of mourning dirge. This is actually the third time she’s quoted the same poem by Ehud Manor, which was written in 1982 during the Israeli invasion and destruction of Lebanon and the massacre of the Lebanese people. She’s used the same quote about, you know, ‘I have no other home and it has to get better,’ blah, blah, blah. She used the same quote back in 2019 at a J Street gala, used it again in the wake of the January 6 insurrection at the capitol as her lament for this country and the appeal to her colleagues in the Republican Party to, you know, ‘do better, be better for this country,’ and now of course on June 24, 2022 she used it again. So let’s hear that.

    [Begin Clip]

    Nancy Pelosi: I am personally overwhelmed by this decision. From time to time I quote this poem by Ehud Manor, he’s an Israeli poet. I met his wife when I’ve been in Israel. He says, I have no other country even though my land is burning. Only a word in Hebrew penetrates my veins and my soul, with an aching body and with a hungry heart. Here is my home. I will not be silent, for my country has changed her face. My country has changed her face. I shall not give up on her. I will remind her and sing into her ears until she opens her eyes.” Clearly, we hope that the Supreme Court would open its eyes.

    [End Clip]

    Adam: Right, and this is a criticism we’ve made on the show many times, which is that, and this is true of Chuck Schumer, it’s true about Joe Biden, the Democratic leadership, the face of the party, you know, I think it’s a little lazy, I think, and inadequate to kind of do the, ‘They’re old and out of touch.’ I think the generational or borderline kind of ageist argument, I think it’s probably true to some extent, but I think it’s like 90 percent, far more about ideology, I think, again, I think if we had a bunch of Pete Buttigiegs running a party, I don’t think the response would be really functionally any different. They would be better at kind of faking anger but I don’t think the basics would be much different.

    Nima: Yeah, the inertia would remain because the faith in the institutions is kind of the most important part of their argument.

    Adam: Right. Because it’s about their class interests and I think there is increasing frustration on the part of, not just progressives or leftists, but liberals, who they see leaders who don’t ever seem to get mad at anything and I noted this back in December of last year, I wrote an article for my Substack, on the same day that the Build Back Better Bill effectively died in Congress — I predicted it would, it turns out it did, which wasn’t a huge prediction, pretty much the most obvious thing in the world — they kind of quietly went to Christmas break without passing an infrastructure bill that had things like childhood tax credits, education for those who can’t afford it, school lunches for children, support for senior citizens, dental health insurance support, Medicaid and Medicare expansion, things that were essential to reducing poverty in this country, and on the same day they killed that bill, quietly, without any kind of fanfare, they voted 89 to 10 to fund the Pentagon to the tune of $770 billion. This was also the same day that Nancy Pelosi shot down a very popular piece of legislation to prevent people in Congress from selling stock. She said, quote, “This is the free market, we are a free market economy, they should be able to participate in that.” Really kind of stuff that didn’t really capture the populist outrage of the moment and still doesn’t. Obviously, Nancy Pelosi is somewhat famously, in 2017, when asked about Bernie Sanders, insisted that we were a capitalist country, she said the following in response to that question:

    [Begin Clip]

    Nancy Pelosi: Well, I thank you for your question. But I have to say we’re capitalist. (Scoffs.) That’s just the way it is.

    [End Clip]

    Adam: Which is a kind of sneering and snide way of talking to a young voter who’s concerned about existential problems. So cut to June of 2022, we have an extremist, far right-wing court that is gutting things like Roe versus Wade, the EPA, they’re achieving a decade’s long strategy of pretty much gutting anything left of the liberal state.

    Nima: Right.

    Adam: Including so-called quote-unquote “cultural issues.”

    Nima: That has been openly and proudly promised.

    Adam: That has been openly and proudly promised, and you see a Democratic Party that has utterly failed to protect even the most modest elements of the liberal state.

    Nima: So no defense and also no response.

    Adam: Yeah, even a feature of the liberal state that is, unlike other sections of the liberal state, is supported by relatively wealthy donors, like abortion — which it is, it’s one of the few leftist positions that is disproportionately favored by people of means, to use Howard Schultz’s preferred phrase — and it’s not a huge margin of difference, but it is, I mean, it’s something you can fundraise on Planned Parenthood has, you know, hundreds of millions of dollars.

    Nima: Yeah.

    Adam: So even that they can’t even sufficiently defend. Obama said he was going to attempt to codify abortion rights into law when he was running in 2007.

    Nima: Not only promised to sign the Freedom of Choice Act on day one, now, granted, that’s a campaign point, that’s a thing you say to a certain audience, we get it, right? But in a speech to Planned Parenthood in 2008, he said it would be the first thing he would sign, codifying the right to abortion, and then barely three months into his first term, at the end of April 2009, when asked about, ‘Hey, we remember that campaign promise?’ He said that it was not a top priority. He actually, in a news conference, said this, quote:

    I believe that women should have the right to choose, but I think that the most important thing we can do to tamp down some of the anger surrounding this issue is to focus on those areas that we can agree on. I would like to reduce the number have unwanted pregnancies that result in women feeling compelled to get an abortion or at least considering getting an abortion. Particularly, if we can reduce the number of teen pregnancies.

    End quote.

    That was his response, when after his first 100 days he had not done the campaign promise of codifying Roe, which would then actually mean a lot. Mean a lot right now.

    Adam: Yeah. And the cynical view of that is that it’s because abortion is really good for fundraising but you don’t necessarily want to use your capital to codify it. Largely, because I think a lot of people just assume Roe versus Wade was a thing of the past, it was in the ’70s, it was decided, and that there were other more urgent political issues that were more important, and again, I think that’s why when you say, well, some wealthy donors like abortion, that doesn’t really mean shit when you look at the broader architecture of why chaining women to the stove is important to the right wing. People oftentimes, again, they’ll dismiss it as a cultural issue, and it is in a superficial sense, but it’s very much also an end of itself. People say, ‘Oh, they do cultural issues to distract you,’ again, I think it is true to an extent if you’re defending abortion you’re not necessarily opposing tax cuts for the rich and other things, but it is also very much a material economic issue. It is about dependency.

    Nima: One of the most fundamental, self-determinative, autonomous —

    Adam: And it is an end of itself. It’s about religion.

    Nima: Yeah.

    Adam: It’s about the institutionalized contempt for women and the desire to control women’s sexual faculties just as the attack on trans people, again, it’s not a coincidence, these things are intimately related, is about attacking bodily autonomy, it’s about an attack on people’s freedom, and they’re not wanting to conform to a specific mode of living that makes them so outraged and generate so much donation dollars for the other side. And so you see this kind of waterfall of attacks, the flooding the zone of attacks on things that we thought were quote-unquote “agreed upon,” right? They’re going to go after gay marriage next, you know, you and I talked about this, we’ve no doubt that’s going to happen. The state legislators are passing these anti-trans bills, you know, you talk to people like Matt Yglesias and Jonathan Chait and you get the impression that because there’s, you know, a few high-profile trans people on Twitter that somehow they’ve won the cultural debate around trans issues, which is why they traffic so much in this bad-faith, just-asking-questions bullshit, and then you actually look at materially who has power, especially in the state legislators, and you look at the bills being passed.

    Nima: And you look at whose lives are being destroyed, if not ended.

    Adam: Right, and you’re like, oh, wait, the quote-unquote “trans issue” isn’t solved. It is not ascendant, it is not the prevailing orthodoxy. Just because there’s a trans person in a Marvel movie or there’s visible trans people on Twitter, I think people mistake that as some indication of the broader political arrangement in this country, and again, I think they do so deliberately. I don’t think they’re credulous or being tricked. I think they kind of do that for their own reasons. And then you look at how you say, okay, well, these things were settled, but now we have to kind of re-litigate them and activists are understandably extremely frustrated by the response from Democratic leadership, which pivot immediately into two things: fundraising and vote harder. Now, strictly speaking, theoretically, if you do elect more Democrats, you would, in theory, offset some of these currents. I think that’s probably fair to say. At the same time, Nancy Pelosi somewhat infamously, even after the Supreme Court ruling leaked in early May, went to go campaign for Henry Cuellar in Texas against his pro-choice opponent, keep mine he was also being investigated, raided by the FBI for potentially illegal foreign relations act lobbying for Azerbaijan, typical standard issue stuff, who amongst us hasn’t illegally lobbied for Azerbaijan the dictatorship of Azerbaijan.

    Nima: (Laughing.)

    Adam: Pelosi and other top leading Democrats went to campaign against Jessica Cisneros and she lost so it’s very likely that their campaigning was decisive. He is a quote-unquote “pro-life,” anti-choice Democrat.

    Nima: Democrat.

    Henry Cuellar and Nancy Pelosi at Cuellar’s campaign headquarters in Laredo, Texas. (Robin Jerstad / The Texas Tribune)

    Adam: Right. So there’s this disconnect that happens where people think, ‘Well, wait a second, how is this existentially the most important thing in the world but not at all a litmus test for supporting a candidate?’

    Nima: How are you crying on TV doing this and then of course, right, doing the vote harder and fundraising when clearly this is not a priority for you?

    Adam: Yeah, because it’s not as if it was like, ‘Oh, we have to make the best of two bad choices against a Republican,’ this was a primary they were helping him out with. This was clearly just, ‘We’re buddies and we go back a few decades.’

    Nima: And to stave off the, you know, terrifying, slightly more left candidate.

    Adam: Exactly. And we see this again and again with these issues where even these very pro-democratic, you know, organizations and progressives who absolutely do the, you know, get out the vote stuff every two years, still get a fuck you from Democratic leadership, but I think this frustration and this idea that Democratic politics is largely run by lawyers, people who’ve been there for decades, who can’t even remember why they got into politics, who have no firm ideological commitments at all, again, just one or two would be nice, that it’s largely a stopping point in the corporate consultant rotation world that you sort of get into politics, you do your year, two, three years within the administration or in Congress, then you either become a lobbyist or a corporate consultant or you go to a think tank, which is also funded by corporations, weapons manufacturers, you do West Execs, you do the Cohen Group, you do Albright Stonebridge or you do, in the case of the Obama administration, you know, Jay Carney, you go to Amazon, you go to McDonalds, you go on the board of directors like Hillary Clinton did with Walmart.

    Nima: And then you create the kind of next administration in waiting and then you go back in or you get pissed off and then you become a corporate lobbyist.

    Adam: And you have some vague bourgeois liberal commitments, and then I think there’s a cynicism that emerges where people say, ‘Well, wait a second,’ when it came to the Build Back Better Bill that just went nowhere, just died, not really a fight, Pelosi’s press conference in December of 2021 after the bill, she said it seemed bla​​sé about it, you know, ‘We’re working on it. We’ll get around to it. We’re gonna take a three-week break for Christmas.’

    Nima: Yeah. The Democratic Party’s biggest move, maybe their only move, is hand wringing. That’s the entire ideology, actually, of the party is hand wringing for not being able to do the thing that they know probably their base, like their widest base, I don’t mean their donor base, but they’re widest voting base actually wants them to do things, but they’re not really the party that’s actually ever going to feel like it’s in power and act like it even if they are.

    Adam: Well, because who else are you going to vote for it, right? And to be clear, you know, earlier when I said that abortion is one of those issues where people who support it and donate to it are more likely to have more money because of the nature of religion, people who are poor typically are more religious, the actual people who abortion being legal effects, in terms of availability, access, things of that nature are going to be poor, which is to say that the urgency around the issue wasn’t really there because it was a cash cow in terms of donations, but I think it was kind of just assumed that when you operate under this liberal belief that the right as always operating in good faith or that if you kind of reward the reasonable conservative that they’re going to play the game straight up, and so you have a right wing which does not play by any rules, supports fascist mobs storming the Capitol by and large, is going to support a president who incited a coup attempt, albeit one that, again, I think the Trump plan for January 6 had the election been closer, would have worked. I think the fact that Biden blew him out by 80,000, 100,000 votes is why it sort of wasn’t close to working, but it’s certainly a bad precedent, and you have a right wing that increasingly works with its fascist, openly fascist, openly white nationalist elements, doesn’t give a shit about precedent, doesn’t give a shit about good faith, doesn’t give a shit about decorum, doesn’t care about any of these things liberals care about as, again, as we talked about in Episode 163.

    Nima: Right, and care most about, I mean, that’s why you see, not only is it thinking that, you know, ‘Republicans on the other side of the aisle are my buddies and they act in good faith,’ and, ‘Oh, this is so surprising that they did this,’ but it’s not just that, it’s also as we were saying, Adam, about the nomination of Supreme Court justices, right? This idea that ‘Oh, well, you know, he’s such an independent jurist.’ “Amy Coney Barrett deserves to Be on the Supreme Court,” Noah Feldman wrote for Bloomberg, right? “A Liberal’s Case for Brett Kavanaugh,” we saw in The Times. “Why Liberals Should Back Neil Gorsuch,” we saw also in The Times, right? And then the, you know, kind of berating people years ago, almost a decade ago now, urging Ruth Bader Ginsburg to retire during the Obama administration when there wouldn’t have been the kind of Mitch McConnell case to be pushed forward of, you know, ‘Oh, well, it’s an election year.’ Like if that had happened in 2014 someone would have been the fucking Supreme Court, right?

    Adam: Yeah, and it’s like if you’ve watched these major liberal gains of the New Deal, and the Great Society, again, as flawed as they are, when you watch them slowly get eroded over the last 30, 40 years —

    Nima: Which is the long game.

    Adam: Right. And you look at who has been in charge for the last 30, 40 years, which has been, you know, Pelosi has been the Speaker of the House or the Minority Leader in the House briefly since I was in college, and I’m old as the wind. I’m 38 years old now. You would think okay, well, what’s the accountability mechanism? I mean, you know, if the White Sox just theoretically for example, were three games below 500 even though they’re expected to easily win the division, you’d say, well, shouldn’t we look at the manager Tony La Russa? That would be a logical thing to do. But for some reason, whenever you say that about the Democratic Party after they get their asses handed to them, because again, I think the context is everybody knows they’re going to get completely fucking smoked in the midterms, like bad, it’s going to be really bad. It’s even going to be worse than state legislators, where you have these anti trans bills, where you have these abortion bans, where it’s really going to hit people where it hurts the most, where you have more gerrymandering, more racist voting laws, all these things where they just continue to pick off the most vulnerable people in our society, and nobody seems to understand that this is an existential problem. Nobody seems to really have any urgency up top. It’s like the Adolph Reed quote about how liberals are, and I’m paraphrasing here, that the highest liberal value is to witness suffering, it’s not to do anything about it. So they’re always witnessing, right? ‘I stand with you, I see it, I feel your pain.’ I don’t need you to fucking feel my pain. I need you to do something about it.

    Nima: And you’re the ones with the fucking power to do it!

    Adam: Yeah, that they’re existentially failing on a broad level because that undermines, well, frankly, the gravy train, it undermines the consulting revolving door. A party almost entirely captured by PR people and lawyers. Demographics, no offense, not exactly known for their fierce commitment to defending the vulnerable and long-term ideological projects. Whereas the right has, you know, again, a very dark ideology, but it still has a coherent ideology, and you see people like Christopher Rufo, who invented the critical race theory panic, which again, high profile liberals also indulge, ‘Oh yeah, shall we , should get rid of this DEI thing I found online.’ It’s like, well, how did you find it? You found it because the right-wing weirdo fucking found it. We’re constantly indulging these bad faith actors as something we can, we can sort of triangulate against, and it’s going to be a bloodbath in November, the Supreme Court rulings, gutting things like the EPA, like Roe, are only going to get worse, again, I’m really, really hesitant to put our ideological hobbyhorse, jam it into a conversation about Roe that, because I think that can be seen as somewhat tacky, but I’m watching these videos of protesters getting beaten with clubs, run over by police cars, pushed to the cement, to things we saw in summer 2020, and I see how much the Black Lives Matter, defund, and George Floyd movements are intimately related to the broader existential failures of the liberal class and the Democratic Party because things like climate change, things like this resurgent fascist right wing in this country, that the opposition to that is by definition, because we know is sure as shit not going to be the Nancy Pelosi Move On fundraising apparatus, you know, that has its place, but for the most part, that’s not going to be sufficient, I think we can all say that. The vote harder crowd is not going to be up to the task because they haven’t been thus far and meaningful change if it has any opportunity, whether it, oh, forget, to say nothing of mass union action, to say nothing of upcoming union activity, who do you think is going to be the one clubbing people in the streets, nonviolently, or in the case, sometimes violently, whatever, you know, whatever the situation calls for — you know, I’m very careful not to be glib about violence, but whatever extrajudicial means that takes, that manifests as — who do you think is going to be the one and in the streets tear gassing and clubbing those movements that do attempt to stand up to these forces?

    Nima: Yeah.

    Adam: And when you watch the Democratic Party trip over themselves to also fund further militarization, throw billions of dollars more at police under the auspices of fighting crime, it is very clear that crime isn’t really the thing people are worried about.

    Nima: Right. It is descent, and it is a break from this current structure. I mean, you said it earlier, Adam, that there’s no sense that these are existential issues, because for the people in power, they’re not actually existential, and then when you see protesters being brutalized, it’s a glimpse of like, oh, right, when you’re trying to free yourself from oppression or you’re trying to survive, that is directly related, the protection of fundamental rights is directly related to a decrease in oppression, right? And police are the tip of the spear of that, and also, I mean, and also a foundational part, I’m not saying they’re, they’re just the tip of the spear. So the idea that defund or the idea of abolition or the idea of true liberation needs to be seen in all of these fights, and of course, in all of the right-wing decisions destroying those rights, and so that’s why I think it is important, as you were saying, to kind of not just talk about singular say, Supreme Court decisions, although again, not to be glib, not that it’s not important, but EPA decisions are critically important, gun rights critically important, the fact that there are dozens and dozens and dozens of anti-protest bills being enacted throughout the country, this is directly related, it is no shock that you saw heavily armored, heavily armed riot police, right, guarding the Supreme Court within minutes of the Roe decision coming down, obviously not a mobilization that the Capitol saw on January 6 of 2021, obviously, although apparently, they could have been mobilized that quickly, but who is that state power being mobilized against? And it’s not the people destroying those rights for millions and millions of people, the riot cops weren’t going to the Supreme Court to arrest Alito, they were going there to protect these, you know, fucking high wizards of whatever from like people.

    Adam: Right. And I mean, in 15 years if we have climate breakdown, storms, droughts, et cetera, these systems are in place for that reason, and I know that this isn’t even a theoretical problem, it’s an urgent problem right now — like abortion was just made illegal for, you know, tens of millions of Americans, it’s a right now problem, you know, this isn’t projected into the future, you don’t need science fiction here, it’s happening right now — but it’s part of a broader architecture that is only going to get worse, and there doesn’t seem to be a sense that this is part of a broader trend that is going to get worse, and there is very little urgency, there is no sense of, again, Biden just shooting down the idea of expanding the Supreme Court when we’re talking about these life-and-death issues.

    Nima: Yeah.

    Adam: Of what use is the rule if the rule brought you here, because right now, the thing you’re doing, it’s not working, and you see that frustration, and you see how so many young activists and not young activists, just activists have been around for decades, are turning to outside means, political means, there’s been a very tremendous outpouring of solidarity — donations to abortion funds, collective or mutual aid efforts being done, some of which we’ll promote at the end of the show for you to donate to, so it’s not, we’re not trying to be hopeless here, there’s people taking action into their own hands, and we want to boost that and promote that, because I think that’s great, it’s certainly better than griping on a podcast — and there are systems people are increasingly turning away from the vote harder crowd to provide those systems. I want to be clear here, it’s not as if I’m saying don’t vote or whatever, I think that’s not, you know, I don’t want to be nihilistic about this or promote a hyper cynicism, just the right exact percentile, precise amount of cynicism.

    Nima: Right.

    Adam: But I do think that every single time there’s these crises, when you do see these emails, it’s kind of these soulless text messages and emails hitting you up for donations, and these rote statements, literally reading a poem that’s been read three times prior, it doesn’t seem like those people in charge really understand the stakes and understand that they cannot lawyer or PR their way out of what is fundamentally an ideological problem or an ideological battle, and I think that’s the thing that makes me very worried, and I know that’s a bit squishy because we’re not necessarily providing, you know, a better alternative, although certain politicians, you know, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez chief among them, has listed a bunch of things that Democrats can do now that they’re not doing. Obviously, you have those who exist outside of the normal political process who are acting right now, again, which we’ll get to later. So it’s not as if people aren’t doing things, this isn’t even that novel of a point we’re making, but from a messaging and media perspective, it’s a horror show you’re kind of watching unfold in slow motion. I don’t know, you know, it’s a point we’ve made for years now and I don’t know what else to say about it.

    Nima: Well, I think what we can say is give where you are able and here are just some ideas. We’re going to share some organizations and links where you can go if you are able to donate money at this point. One is the Midwest Access Coalition, you can find them at midwestaccesscoalition.org. There’s the Yellow Hammer Fund, which you can find at yellowhammerfund.org. There’s the Access Reproductive Care Southeast group, which is ARC Southeast, and you can find them at arc-southeast.org. And Indigenous Women Rising which you can find at I W Rising, all one word, iwrising.org. Of course there are other funds throughout the country. You can go to abortionfunds.org and find one local to you. These are all vetted. Of course, do your own research, do your own vetting. Find the one that works for you or find 10 that work for you, but please do know that there are so many groups that really do need our help right now.

    Nima: That will do it for this Citations Needed News Brief. Thank you, everyone, for listening. Of course, we will be back soon with more full-length episodes of Citations Needed. Until then, of course, you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of the show through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. That will do it for this News Brief. I am Nima Shirazi.

    Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

    Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again, everyone. We’ll catch you next time.


    This Citations Needed News Brief was released on Wednesday, June 29, 2022.

    Transcription by Morgan McAslan.

  • Episode 163: The Media-Manufactured Mystique of the US Court System

    Citations Needed | June 22, 2022 | Transcript

    Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett is sworn in during the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on October 12, 2020, in Washington, DC. (Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images)


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

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

    Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

    Nima: 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 are 100 percent listener funded, we don’t have commercials, we don’t talk mattresses, we don’t do stuff like that on purpose and that is all due to the very generous contributions of our listeners that really do keep this show sustainable.

    Adam: And if you already support it and want to support it more or you just want really cool merch we know her merch store at Bonfire.com/store/citations-needed, you can search bonfire for Citations Needed there. We got t-shirts, tank tops, tote bags, mugs, anything you buy there helps support the show and helps show off to your friends that you know this really awesome podcast. So you should go there, buy it, help support us if you can.

    Nima: “John Roberts Passes Test: Politicization of Judicial Appointment is Disheartening,” read a 2005 headline from Salisbury, Maryland’s Daily Times. “Ignore the attacks on Neil Gorsuch. He’s an intellectual giant — and a good man,” Robert P. George pleaded in the pages of The Washington Post in 2017. Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court nomination, quote, “is beyond politics,” end quote, South Carolina Congressman James Clyburn told CBS’s Face the Nation just this year in 2022.

    Adam: Over and over, we hear the same refrains about the US federal court system in general and the US Supreme Court in particular being beyond politics. They’re independent judiciaries, they abide by the Constitution, the rule of law, the law of the land, they follow legal precedent, they just call balls and strikes, they’re bastions of integrity and impartiality. It’s reassuring to think of our courts as measured, fair, upholding democracy, and acting soberly in the public’s interest.

    Nima: But history shows that these articles of faith are wholly undeserved. The courts are profoundly political, and they wield power that affects every corner and facet of people’s lives, from healthcare to policing, education to climate. So why is it that the capital “T,” capital “C,” The Courts are awarded such mystique and majesty? What purpose does it serve to paint them as untouchable and unquestionable existing outside the realm of mere partisan politics? And how does this framing stack the deck against those seeking long overdue, necessary and radical change to our systems?

    Adam: On this week’s episode, we’ll examine how media have helped manufacture the sense of ennobled secrecy of the Supreme Court and broader so-called “justice system,”, looking at the ways in which the courts’ power runs counter to the will and needs of the public, the creation of campaigns to feign judicial impartiality and apoliticism, and the American Exceptionalist ideology that undergirds popular framings of one of the world’s most reactionary institutions.

    Nima: Later on the show, we’ll be joined by journalist and writer Josie Duffy Rice. A longtime analyst of the criminal legal system, she is also the creator and co-host of the Webby-nominated podcast Justice in America.

    [Begin Clip]

    Josie Duffy Rice: That court-based media, people who cover the court, people who write about the court, it tends to be this extremely insular community of people who have either clerked for the Supreme Court or know these justices personally or have this very intense relationship with the court, but also who need the court, right? They need sources, they want answers, they want to be able to know what’s happening next term, etcetera, and so there’s this really inherent incentive to not question the very fundamental basics of is this the system we should have?

    [End Clip]

    Adam: So we want to begin by going into a little history, we’re going to go all the way back —

    Nima: Way back.

    Adam: Way back.

    Nima: We’re going back and then going further back. It’s all a loop. It’s just a time loop and then we’ll wind up back in modern times.

    Adam: Yeah.

    Nima: Laws and legal systems throughout history were the product of the political environment of the times. Hammurabi’s Code, the 282 edicts of the 17th Century BCE Babylonian king, were certainly of their time. Among the legal precedents of commerce, family law, punishments and codes of justice laid out by Hammurabi, is a note about fees due to doctors for their services. An example indicates that a fee for curing a severe wound would be 10 silver shekels for a nobleman, but five for a freedman and only two for a slave. Penalties for malpractice were similarly scaled: a doctor who killed a rich patient would have his hands cut off, while only financial restitution would be required if the victim, again, were just a mere slave. The Ancient Athenian codes of Draco in the 7th Century BCE and Solon in the early 6th Century BCE were also reflections of their respective eras, relying heavily on matters of class, wealth and hereditary. The Magna Carta of 1215 was created because rich barons insisted on enshrining their right to land and property against arbitrary seizure by the crown.

    An engraving of King John signing the Magna Carta on June 15, 1215, at Runnymede, England.

    According to some historians though, the notion that courts and law exist outside of so-called “politics” is a relatively new one, arising with the expansion of judicial power in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As Penn State professor Rachel Shelden wrote for The Washington Post in 2020, quote:

    A significant majority of 19th-century justices were chosen because of their previous partisan allegiances: Most nominees had served in federal, state or local political positions. Senate majorities often declined to confirm or even take up nominations by presidents from an opposing party.

    By the late 19th century, continued Shelden, quote:

    Congress increasingly granted the court more authority by adding jurisdiction over civil suits arising from questions of federal law or the Constitution, eliminating circuit riding [wherein a judge travels to a judicial district to preside over court cases there] and giving justices the power of certiorari — the ability to determine their own docket. Bolstered by a friendly political atmosphere, the court began to seize even greater authority, although not without some resistance. Key to that transformation was former president William Howard Taft, now serving as chief justice, who used his political acumen to secure a robust expansion of judicial power in the Judiciary Act of 1925.

    End quote.

    Adam: Also starting around the 1920s, judges and lawyers began to advance the idea that law existed outside of politics, in a process that would seem to indemnify courts from public criticism about their expanding anti-democratic authority. Among other things, this took the form of codes of conduct and ethics that would establish and encourage the concept of universal judicial objectivity. By 1973, the code of conduct for the United States judges was adopted by the Judicial Conference, the national policy making body for federal courts. The code of conduct has been revised over the years, but it currently instructs federal judges to do the following, among other things, quote, “Uphold the integrity and independence of the judiciary; Perform the duties of their offices fairly, impartially, and diligently; Refrain from political activity.” In the process, media and policymakers have taken positions of deference toward the quote-unquote “law” regardless of political and moral impact, urging readers and constituents to quote-unquote “let the courts decide.”

    Here’s an example from May 1980 in the Birmingham Post-Herald, the headline read, “Halt to Social Security for prisoners urged.” Quote:

    Pressure is rising in Congress to cut off Social Secuirty benefits to thousands of American prison inmates, some of whom qualified for the benefits because of such crimes as mass murder, rape and child molestation.

    Representative G. William Whitehurst said, quote:

    …some prison newspapers ‘advertise’ that Social Security benefits are available and show inmates how to apply. ‘Word gets out on the prison grapevine,’ he said, and Social Security field representatives ‘solicit new clients’ in prisons.

    ‘If there’s a constitutional question,’ he said, ‘let the courts decide it.’

    Whitehurst said ‘it’s a heck of a note’ when: Three New Jersey murderers each collect between $214 and #351 a month in disability payments; one saved more than $6,000 and bought a car on being paroled.

    So here’s this idea that we oppose giving people in prison Social Security benefits, but we don’t want to sort of outright say it so we say we’re going to let the courts decide.

    Nima: There needs to be an impartial balance, nonpartisan, non-political entity to just arbitrate on this. But like, obviously, the courts have never just been apolitical, that’s a thing that humans are political, and so that’s a really difficult thing to actually achieve.

    Years after that 1980 article that, Adam, you just referenced, The New York Times published an opinion piece with the headline, “Let the Courts Decide.” This was published on November 12, 2000 in the wake of the presidential election of that year and the ensuing Bush v Gore legal case. The author of the piece, “Let the Courts Decide,” was Laurence H. Tribe, the Harvard constitutional law professor, and frequent liberal commentator in the media. He also previously taught such notable Americans as Barack Obama, John Roberts, Elena Kagan, Merrick Garland, and of course, Ted Cruz. In his piece, Tribe apparently sees no reason to question the Supreme Court’s authority in a matter of a supposedly democratic presidential election with global implications. Rather, Tribe prefers to simply defer to the power of the courts. Here’s an excerpt, quote:

    Our democracy is constitutionally grounded in the rule of law, and fidelity to the rule of law tells us that the Electoral College — with all its flaws — is the device through which the next president, whatever the popular vote totals nationwide might be, is to be chosen.

    End quote.

    Adam: Yeah, but what if it’s stupid? Have you ever thought of that?

    Nima: And also what if the popular vote goes to Gore, which it did, and yet the presidency, per the Supreme Court, went to Bush?

    Adam: Well, the Electoral College also went to Gore but that’s neither here nor there. Meanwhile, would-be confirmed justices, with the aid of media, have sought to obscure their ideologies and present themselves as impartial arbiters, even though many, especially those on the right, come up through explicitly ideological and partisan judicial systsems. As a prelude to the 2005 confirmation of Bush Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts — this was one of the more naked examples of this kind of, this was the peak of the post-ideological media environment — for example, media painted the judge as a measured conservative, unflinchingly reverent to the law of the land. Bush appointee John Roberts was constantly portrayed in the media as being a conservative, unflinching adherent to the quote-unquote “rule of law,” who existed outside of politics and was just all about interpreting what the authors of the Constitution thought.

    So September 1, 2005, LA Times opinion editor Andreas Martinez, who’s now the editorial director of Future Tense at Slate, wrote this opinion piece, “Roberts to overturn Roe? Don’t bet on it.” Quote:

    He is not a right-wing judicial activist eager to chisel away the liberal expansion of the Constitution in recent decades in order to restore some halcyon original intent on the part of the Constitution’s authors.

    That’s a bit too chaotic for Roberts, who seems to revere the law’s ability to provide society with a sense of order and predictability.

    Nima: Right. Now, of course, Roe seems to be one of the only cases Roberts may not default — or, you know, for a while, may not have previously defaulted — to a conservative position on, and even that is generous. Roberts has voted, since his confirmation to the court and his becoming chief justice, has voted overwhelmingly conservatively during his tenure. Between 2005 and 2016, according to FiveThirtyEight, Roberts cast a, quote, “pivotal liberal vote,” end quote, only five times. 57.9 percent, nearly 58 percent, of all of his votes were, quote, “coded as conservative,” end quote, while 82.4 percent of his votes for cases decided by any five-justice majority were similarly coded as conservative. Perhaps this says something about what “legal precedent” has meant, as well as the term “law of the land, the idea that, you know, ‘Hey, just calling it down the line, no ax to grind here,’ he, you know, believes in the sense of order, predictability of what the Constitution means, but overwhelmingly, that seems to lean in one direction, which means if you’re talking about the infallibility or the impartiality of the courts, what you’re really saying is that you want there to be staunch conservative opinions routinely.

    Adam: Well, yeah. Because when someone says, ‘I’m just going to sort of default to what the framers think,’ well, who are the framers and what do they think? It’s sort of a way of offsetting your moral responsibility and obscuring your ideology by saying, ‘I’m just going to try to interpret and ventriloquize these dead guys from 250 years ago, and, you know, I don’t believe in creating law at the bench’ as a sort of popular trope, and so there was, of course, fear at the time that John Roberts would end up being conservative, which he largely has been, of course, he was appointed by Bush for a reason, and John Roberts was really kind of played to this when he was being, as other justices have, which we’ll get into, he really kind of played to this idea that he was post partisan, post politics and existed outside of any three dimensional space that you and I understand.

    Nima: So for instance, here is John Roberts himself during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2005 outlining the way he views his role on the court and the court’s role in society in terms of a baseball metaphor.

    [Begin Clip]

    John Roberts: Judges and justices are servants of the law, not the other way around. Judges are like umpires. Umpires don’t make the rules, they apply them. The role of an umpire and a judge is critical. They make sure everybody plays by the rules.

    [End Clip]

    Nima: During the same hearing, Roberts would then throw in some very apolitical jingoism claiming that somehow the United States was more impartial, laws evolved without human context, they just appeared for the greater good. He said this:

    [Begin Clip]

    John Roberts: Is what we mean when we say that we are a government of laws and not of men. It is that rule of law that protects the rights and liberties of all Americans. It is the envy of the world because without the rule of law any rights are meaningless. President Ronald Reagan used to speak of the Soviet Constitution, and he noted that it purported to grant wonderful rights of all sorts to people but those rights were empty promises because that system did not have an independent judiciary to uphold the rule of law and enforce those rights. We do, because of the wisdom of our founders, and the sacrifices of our heroes over the generations to make their vision a reality.

    [End Clip]

    Adam: There is no agenda, just calling balls and strikes.

    Nima: That’s right. He even did a callback to the umpire metaphor later in his speech.

    [Begin Clip]

    John Roberts: And I will remember that it’s my job to call balls and strikes, and not to pitch or bat.

    [End Clip]

    Adam: That doesn’t mean anything, by the way.

    Nima: Yeah, it’s meaningless.

    John Roberts during his Senate confirmation hearings in September 2005. (Alex Wong / Getty Images News)

    Adam: Especially when you watch baseball, you know that balls and strikes are actually quite arbitrary and selective and political. But he’s just a machine, he’s just there to call balls and strikes, he has no agenda at all. As we’ve said in the show many times, if someone insists, especially more than once, that they have no politics that you should check for your wallet, because they definitely have politics.

    Nima: Yeah. And clearly the appointment of judges, I mean, especially up to the Supreme Court, but you know, the appointment of judges is routinely political. That’s why the vote harder crowd always insists that if nothing else, vote for president because of — what else Adam? — the Supreme Court! What are you going to do? Supreme Court, right? It’ll be on you when all of our rights are stripped away. So clearly, clearly, it’s a complete charade that these justices exist outside of politics, except that is the game, that is the performance that they play, during their Senate hearings, and that the Senate themselves play back in a very partisan way, right? So that if your political party is in power with the presidency, and therefore, they get to appoint, you know, the next justice, you then act like ‘Well, that justice, you know, is just going to call it straight down the line,’ but the attacks of that justice is that they aren’t completely politicized, but somehow the ‘Hey, we just have to believe in the sanctity of the court and these are the best people who are just going to not bring their own personal experiences do this,’ that somehow is supposed to win out and we’re supposed to all believe in this fiction.

    Adam: Yeah, the fiction thought was kind of part of it, right? I mean, I think even people who don’t really believe that it’s post partisan or extra or outside the scope of politics, they think that myth is sort of worth preserving, and you saw this again, because again, when Trump was running in 2016 a lot of people very frantically, and I think correctly, realized that the primary stakes of his election was the Supreme Court. That was absolutely true. And then there was this weird thing that happened when he finally started picking Supreme Court justices, a lot of big time liberal and liberal media outlets, turned to us and said, ‘Actually, never mind, the guys he’s picking are really great,’ because we needed to show Trump that we were not like him, we were not partisan and ideological, we were post that.

    Nima: He could be political, but we were not and therefore we were stronger.

    Adam: On January 31, 2017, we had Neal K. Katyal in The New York Times writing, “Why Liberals Should Back Neil Gorsuch,” in which he said:

    With environmental protection, reproductive rights, privacy, executive power and the rights of criminal defendants (including the death penalty) on the court’s docket, the stakes are tremendous. I, for one, wish it were a Democrat choosing the next justice. But since that is not to be, one basic criterion should be paramount: Is the nominee someone who will stand up for the rule of law and say no to a president or Congress that strays beyond the Constitution and laws?

    The Washington Post would publish an op-ed a couple days later, from Robert P. George who was a McCormack professor of jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in the American Ideals Institution at Princeton — so we have a lot of professional solidarity amongst Ivy League professors — he wrote, “Ignore the attacks on Neil Gorsuch. He’s an intellectual giant — and a good man.” I guess the fact he’s a good man is supposed to really matter here? And then I was sort of watching this unfold, thinking, well, this is really strange. We just were told that the highest stakes in the world, because again, remember that Republicans refused to seat Obama’s nominee, so the second Trump got in there, he put his right-wing ideologue in place — who by the way voted to overturn Roe vs. Wade and other far right extremist positions. I noticed that there was no critical reporting or opinion pieces in the most important outlet there was, which was The Washington Post. I noted in the first 48 hours after Neil Gorsuch was nominated to the Supreme Court, from January 31 to February 2, The Washington Post published 30 articles, op-eds, blog posts and editorials on the nomination. 13 were explicitly positive, 17 could be construed as neutral but not a single one was overtly critical or in opposition of Gorsuch. So The Washington Post in the most important political time was 0 for 30, they provided no criticisms at all, and we saw this again with Amy Coney Barrett three and a half years later. The Washington Post ran several op-eds by supposed Democrats and liberals telling us not to worry. Notre Dame Law Professor O. Carter Snead wrote in The Washington Post, “I’ve known Amy Coney Barrett for 15 years. Liberals have nothing to fear.” Again, this is someone who’s voted on the far right for every case she’s overseen including the Roe vs. Wade decision.

    Nima: But they go to conferences together. They’re pals.

    Adam: ‘Yeah, we’re all buddies!’ The author said that Barrett was known for her, quote, “incandescent mind,” “remarkable humility,” and her fealty to precedent and the constitution. Quote, “Because of her integrity and rigor,” Snead wrote, “there is no reason to fear that Barrett would casually discard precedents that conflict with the Constitution’s original meaning, or even a statute’s plain meaning.” Why does any of that matter when we knew her record on things like abortion, gun rights, immigration and other important issues that affect working class and poor people, which we knew were right-wing, and so there’s the sense that I think there’s a bit of whiplash amongst the average kind of liberal media viewer or democrat voter who says, ‘The most important thing on earth is the Supreme Court justices,’ which I think is true actually, I think that Supreme Court justices or at least making sure you don’t have the most psychotic foaming right-winger on earth being in the Supreme Court for the next 50 years, is probably the most compelling reason why people should vote, and then when finally we begin the nomination process, liberal institutions like The Washington Post, New York Times editorial boards start to do these PR routines where the people that Trump, again, this sort of racist demagogue who sort of has no respect for the rule of law, as everybody knows, suddenly we’re all supposed to act like these are questions that exist outside of those very same politics, and I think it strikes people as false, and then you have all these high profile opinion pieces and comments, and even reportage in The Washington Post saying, ‘Oh, no, this right-wing zealot who’s been nominated is actually very constitutional and sober minded.’

    Nima: ‘You may not agree with them personally on their opinions, but they don’t bring that to the bench.’

    Adam: Yeah. And it seems like what they’re really saying is they’re going to maintain the pretense of post politics, which is necessary to the self aggrandizing regard we have for ourselves in our profession, and most importantly of all, it’s central to the jingoistic mythmaking of our liberal classes that we are not like those tin pot dictatorships or those authoritarian regimes or those weird socialist countries in Latin America. We are above all that.

    Nima: That’s right. We have an independent judiciary, Adam.

    Adam: There’s this theater that emerges that I think a lot of people see and say, ‘Well, that doesn’t really ring true to me.’

    Nima: And yet it keeps continuing. January 2022 there was this Washington Post editorial. So, written by the editorial board of the Post, insisting that Joe Biden’s replacement for retiring long-time Justice Stephen Breyer needed to be — what else? — quote, “impartial” and devoid of, quote, “ideology”, writing this, quote:

    The first and foremost qualification — a commitment to judicial independence — is the opposite of what many progressive activists desire. Supreme Court impartiality is an ideal that nine human beings, each with individual biases, who consider some of the toughest questions facing American society, will not meet. But the country is undoubtedly better off with justices who strive for that ideal, preserving the legitimacy of an institution at which a case’s merits and the force of an advocate’s arguments should prevail over judges’ private partisan or ideological commitments. Some justices have remained mindful of this charge, even amid today’s white-hot partisanship. As a result, the court sometimes issues surprisingly non-ideological rulings reflecting unexpected alliances among the justices or efforts to forge compromise across the court’s divisions. At other times, however, justices issue decisions geared to achieve particular ideological ends or are otherwise inconsistent with the court’s traditions. In recent years, Justice Breyer, 83, has argued publicly that Americans should not see the court as a partisan institution, but one in which justices try to apply in good faith Congress’s instructions and the Framers’ constitutional commands. Though solidly in the court’s liberal wing, he has often sought to diminish the role that ideological differences play in the court’s decisions. It would be fitting for his replacement to share his overriding commitment to these principles.

    End quote.

    Adam: So after three Trump Supreme Court picks that radically altered the composition of the court, The Washington Post, right, the kind of holy holy clergy class of centrist orthodoxy that would throw its own, if newspapers could have mothers, it would throw its own mother under the bus to make sure that there wasn’t the slightest hint of the dreaded “I” word, “ideology,” right? The worst thing you can be as ideological.

    Nima: The stench of partisanship that sometimes wafts through, but really, we should always strive, right? The new strivers of the highest achieving judges in the land.

    Adam: Of course, there’s no institution on earth more ideological than The Washington Post. It just has an ideology that it views as being like water to a fish or air to humans. It’s just kind of always there, which is American exceptional liberal imperialism or centrist imperialism, and the attendant ideological priors that go along with that, but that to them is not ideology that’s just like, you know, gravity or the tides, sort of a law of nature, and anyone who can test those, whether it be from the left or right, but nine times out of 10 it’s really the left, they’ll hand wring about some Nazis or Trump’s, you know, attempt to have a fascist coup because that’s kind of unseemly, but fundamentally their objections are to the left, that that’s viewed as being dreaded ideology, right? Because people who are ideological are people who call out the prevailing ideology that we all swim in and that’s sort of the ultimate sin and so, so after Trump totally kicks our ass, puts on, you know, Trump appoints three Supreme Court justices after the Senate Republicans torpedo Obama’s appointment, and he lingered in limbo for over six months when Obama proffered Merrick Garland to be in the Supreme Court, and Trump appoints three consecutive right-wing justices.

    Nima: In one fucking term.

    Adam: In one term, and the second, in the first year, Biden has an opportunity to appoint a Supreme Court justice, The Washington Post rushes in to say, “No, no, no, got to make sure it’s not too left-wing,’ which is weird, because they’re very careful to say like, they’re going to have their preferences but they need to not be overtly ideological.

    Nima: Sometimes, hey, hey, they can’t be perfect, but at least they try.

    Adam: Yeah. So it’s mostly aesthetic. Basically, they have to have a career in politics where they don’t, they never really stood for anything. They’ve kind of operated within a partisan framework but nothing messy, no advocacy, no working on criminal justice reform, god forbid no allegiances to any political radical organizations. They need to be a faceless liberal kind of manager.

    Nima: Well, because in this construction, ideology is seen as anathema to reason.

    Adam: Well, maintaining the centrist consensus.

    Nima: Right, exactly. Rather than ideology being the product of actually reasoning things out, then you kind of land somewhere because you’ve thought of these things. It’s like you’re not supposed to think of anything, and that’s reason, but if you’ve actually thought of something and have an opinion, have your mind made up about maybe how the world works or how it could work, that is seen as being radical and ideological.

    Adam: Yeah, so clearly Gorsuch and Barrett, Trump appointees, were among the justices in the Roe vs. Wade decision who decided to overturn abortion protections, and so after this leak happened on May 2 of this year, we saw again, this mystique of the court and those who have a deep ideological interest in the maintenance of this fiction, rush to be outraged by this.

    Nima: Not outraged by the decision that was pending, outraged by the leak because of the decorum of the court.

    Adam: Right, because it’s important that they be not transparent and have a mystical like property where they bestow opinions on us mere humans. Washington Post opinion deputy editorial page editor Ruth Marcus was totally apoplectic, writing, quote, “The leaked draft Roe opinion is a disaster for the Supreme Court.” Her op-ed would go on to say, quote:

    Whoever the source, leaking a draft opinion isn’t bravery — it’s betrayal. I love a leak as much as the next reporter, and kudos to Politico for its scoop, but unlike Congress and the White House, the court can’t function this way. It’s one thing for information to dribble out after the fact about switched votes, but something else entirely for a draft judicial work product to make its way into breaking-news alerts.

    And as much as I fear the consequences of the current six-justice conservative supermajority, I’m not prepared to believe the institution should be destroyed, which would be the consequence of a culture of preemptive leaking.

    New York Times also ran a hand wringing piece writing, quote, “A Supreme Court in Disarray After an Extraordinary Breach.” The Hill Opinion, same day, “Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade leak: The end of integrity and ethics?” For NBC News, Ryan C. Williams, Assistant Professor of Law at Boston College Law School on May 8, later that week wrote, quote, ”Supreme Court draft leak is indefensible, whatever side of Roe you’re on.”

    Nima: Now, of course, according to much of the media, the tremendously adverse effects of overturning Roe are not a good enough reason, still, to view the Supreme Court as an institution or its justices individually as agents of political decision making, right? Especially reactionary political decision making. This was thrown into sharp relief, I mean, the idea that, you know, even this was not evidence of bias of, you know, stark partisanship, when the media condemned the act of protesting outside of the houses of conservative justices like Brett Kavanaugh for instance, the media has gone fucking apeshit about this because justices ‘need to be protected, they need to be safe,’ regardless of how unsafe they make the lives of Americans.

    Adam: From protesters, right?

    Nima: Right. So The Washington Post editorial board, of course, this is on May 9, 2022, had this to say, “Leave the justices alone at home,” was the headline.

    Here’s an excerpt, quote:

    To picket a judge’s home is especially problematic. It tries to bring direct public pressure to bear on a decision-making process that must be controlled, evidence-based and rational if there is to be any hope of an independent judiciary. Critics of reversing Roe maintain, defensibly, that to overturn such a long-standing precedent would itself violate core judicial principles. Yet if basic social consensus and the rule of law are to be sustained — and if protesters wish to maximize their own persuasiveness — demonstrations against even what many might regard as illegitimate rulings must respect the rights of others. And they must be lawful.

    End quote.

    Two days later, the Post was back with this analysis by Aaron Blake headlined, “Yes, experts say protests at SCOTUS justices’ homes appear to be illegal.” Now the Post was really going to bat for conservative justices here. Most outlets didn’t quite have the gall to state this overtly that protesting outside justices’ home is illegal, but rather framed as possibly not fully within the laws of, you know, Republicans were arguing, but The Washington Post decided to, you know, publish a piece where it just really established the illegality of doing this to, you know, shame protesters while protecting our independent judges.

    Adam: Yeah, and the whole thing is even more absurd when you consider that one of the major Supreme Court justices, Clarence Thomas, his wife, Ginni Thomas, is a foaming Trump right-wing activist. She’s a member of the Council for National Policy, the group she founded with right-wing support along with Steve Bannon and other right-wing billionaire donors, she was central to Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 elections, and reporting in The New York Times over the last few months has revealed this. As Mark Joseph Stern noted, Ginni Thomas emailed 29 Republican legislators in Arizona urging them to overturn Biden’s victory by appointing fake electors. She was involved in a lot of the, as we’re learning in the January 6 committee hearings, she was involved intimately in a lot of the efforts to overturn the election in 2020 and the line from Clarence Thomas and the conservative circles is actually they’re separated, she kind of does her own thing, but nobody really believes this, right? I mean, the whole thing is so goofy.

    Nima: Yeah, in America, decorum is always better protected than dissent. The legitimacy of the current court, with its conservative majority, Christian zealotry and deliberate destruction of fundamental — and already hard-fought, won and allegedly guaranteed — rights has rarely been more fragile — especially in light, Adam, as you mentioned, of Ginni Thomas’ ties to January 6 insurrectionists. But it’s in these very moments when decorum and sanctimony — yes, the majesty of the court itself — is strenuously advocated for by liberal voices — and namely, by Democrat-appointed Justices themselves, who justify their own job’s legitimacy by coming to the defense of their fascist colleagues. Just last week, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor spoke of her deep affection for Justice Clarence Thomas, heaping praise on him during a talk before the American Constitution Society.

    Sotomayor said that, despite being the justice whom she disagrees with the most on matters of law and who disagrees with her the most:

    [Begin Clip]

    Sonia Sotomayor: Justice Thomas is the one justice in the building that literally knows every employee’s name. Every one of them. And not only does he know their names, he remembers their families’ names and histories, He is the first one who will go up to someone when you’re walking with him and say, ‘Is your son okay? How’s your daughter doing in college?’ He’s the first one that, when my stepfather died, sent me flowers in Florida. He is a man who cares deeply about the court as an institution, and about people who work there, but about people.

    [End Clip]

    Just like we heard George W. Bush, a war criminal, torturer, a man whose administration, with of course, the bipartisan help of Congress, murdered and destroyed the lives of millions, was a good guy right? He gave people cute nicknames. He was a good dude to have a barbecue with. Share a beer with. Sotomayor defends Thomas personally as a friend, as if that has any bearing whatsoever on the relevant critiques and calls for his removal from the bench. I mean, look, everyone, except maybe Ted Cruz, has friends at work. Who fucking cares about this? KKK members go on family picnics, too. Sotomayor in her recent comments would go on to say that she and Thomas “share a common understanding about people and kindness toward them,” despite their “differences of opinion.” Now, look, personal kindness to those proximate to you doesn’t mitigate or undo the harm that you visit upon the lives and rights of others you don’t see around the water cooler every day. But this is just one more example of the liberal legitimization of this fundamentally flawed institution. But on personal grounds, right, not on structural grounds. Personal relationships are what drives Sotomayor’s belief in this system.

    And of course the media followed suit with conservative outlets like The National Review boosting Sotomayor’s comments as if that is supposed to silence critics.

    Adam: Yeah, clearly they’re political actors and a political player and so what you see is you see this double standard happen when people talk about other countries, especially countries that are on America’s enemy list, just to give a couple of examples. So in recent years, it’s become totally mainstream democratic opinion, it’s become trendy to talk about court packing or court enhancing or court expanding, I believe it’s the preferred euphemism, as a way of countering the right-wing efforts to not only co opt the court system, but also prevent any kind of meaningful legislation that’s urgently needed with respect to climate change or inequality or a number of things, and this is interesting for anyone who’s observed some of the hand wringing around Latin American socialists or left-wing pink governments in Venezuela and Bolivia specifically. In 2004, Hugo Chavez was widely condemned for court packing to try to change the constitution and change the political dynamic of Venezuela after an election where he won 65 percent of the vote. Human Rights Watch in 2004 wrote, quote:

    The Venezuelan Congress dealt a severe blow to judicial independence by packing the country’s Supreme Court with 12 new justices, Human Rights Watch said today. A majority of the ruling coalition, dominated by President Hugo Chávez’s party, named the justices late yesterday, filling seats created by a law passed in May that expanded the court’s size by more than half.

    Coverage of Bolivia’s left-wing President Evo Morales did something similar. So The Washington Post editorial in January of 2019, when they were kind of pumping the gears for the coup that would happen 10 months later, they wrote in their editorial, “The cynicism of Evo Morales’s reelection bid in Bolivia.” The excerpt said, quote:

    While socialists in Venezuela and Nicaragua lay waste to people’s standards of living, the government of President Evo Morales has overseen more than a decade of economic stability and real poverty alleviation. But it has also hitched economic competence with the standard leftist suite of authoritarian measures: packing courts with cronies, ignoring checks and balances, presiding over pervasive, unabashed corruption, etc.

    NPR, weeks after the right-wing coup wrote, quote:

    Already one of the region’s longest-serving leaders, Morales kept on reaching for more. On Oct. 20 he ran for a fourth term even after the public voted in a 2016 referendum that he shouldn’t. The Constitutional Court, packed with his allies, overruled the referendum and authorized his reelection because it said — no joke — term limits would unfairly constrain his human rights.

    Something that we also have in this country, no term limits, but whatever, until the 1950s president. Also presents the coup of Anez as a failure of Morales’s authoritarian regime. And so you see this, oftentimes they’ll say Chavez cronies or Morales allies. Well, yeah, it’s because they’re all someone’s allies. The three justices who Trump appointed are Trump cronies and Trump allies. That’s how judicial appointments work. They’re not separate from politics and so one of the reasons why it’s important to maintain this pretense of politics, of justices and Supreme Court justices existing outside of politics and partisan politics, because it’s a way of preventing activists from ever being engaged in, it’s a cultural chilling effect for anyone who wants to be, you know, any lawyer who wants to advance to stay away from nasty politics or ideological activity which is to say really trying to change the world or being overly ideological in a way that doesn’t conform to The Washington Post standards of what ideology is supposed to be. But also, it’s part of nationalist mythmaking to separate us from those sullied, dirty, authoritarian regimes. Now, of course, in the context of Bolivia and Venezuela, these are democratically elected governments that are attempting to undo constitutions or systems.

    Nima: That were written by either colonial powers or oppressive governments. Right.

    Adam: Right, that have the greatest inequality in the world, the most entrenched racism in the world, anti-Indigenous systems, overtly white supremacist constitutions, so naturally, you’re going to rely on quote-unquote “cronies.”

    Nima: But also to do that constitutionally, right? So even by liberal American standards —

    Adam: Well, they’ll just say the Constitution is fake.

    Nima: It’s not about just, you know, rewriting the constitution because the President has that whim, it’s that a constitutional court is still a process by which to do that, and so therefore, there are people appointed to that court who can therefore have the authority to change a constitution of a country from being super oppressive to maybe less oppressive, but even going through that process.

    Adam: Well, it’s a way to make things sound sinister when they’re just things that we do. It’s like when Nicolas Maduro won the election after Chavez died and they called him his handpicked successor and of course, the handpicked successor is just the vice president.

    Nima: Right.

    ABC News headline claiming that Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro can be both democratically elected and a “handpicked succesor” [sic].

    Adam: But unlike American vice presidents, he actually had to run for election and he won the election barely, but he won the election, and so you see this like, how do you take something that every country has, which is politically appointed justices, and you make it seem sinister? You say cronies or party allies or what’s another funny one they do? Party apparatchik. It’s like, well, isn’t that what we do? Isn’t that why we have elections here, so we vote, didn’t you just tell us the Supreme Court was on the ballot?

    Nima: Right, but it’s all about the veneer, right? It’s all about this facade, and so even the way that court packing is described in, you know, socialist Latin American countries, is fundamentally different from what then we see here, even though it is gaining mainstream liberal traction. So court packing in the US is presented, oftentimes in our media and in our politics, as a way to depoliticize the court, to add more seats to therefore dilute the conservative stranglehold, right,? Thereby maintaining independence. And so you see The Washington Post — keep going back to The Washington Post — October 8, 2020, with this article, “What is court packing, and why are some Democrats seriously considering it?” The article quotes Elizabeth Warren, a staunch proponent of Supreme Court expansion by saying this, quote:

    It’s not just about expansion, it’s about depoliticizing the Supreme Court. It’s a conversation that’s worth having.

    End quote.

    Adam: And so she is not called an authoritarian, even though she does the same thing that other leftists have realized, which is that if you’re a progressive or a leftist or you want to sort of meaningfully change society, you can win all these elections to your heart’s content, but if you have a Supreme Court that is a reactionary vestige of a different time, it’s very difficult to actually implement the will of the people because you’re constantly going to be said you’re overturning the sort of independence of the judiciary, and so I don’t think necessarily by design, but as a matter of manifest reality, it becomes a reactionary check against left-wing populism or broadly popular progressive movements.

    Nima: To discuss this more we’re now going to be joined by journalist and writer Josie Duffy Rice. A longtime analyst of the criminal legal system, she is also the creator and co-host of the Webby-nominated podcast Justice in America. Stay with us.


    Nima: We are now joined by Josie Duffy Rice. Josie, it is so great to have you on Citations Needed. Welcome.

    Josie Duffy Rice: I am so excited to be here. So thank you for having me.

    Adam: Yeah, obviously on this topic, there was no one we were more excited to talk to than you, you are an expert in this particular field with respect to cynicism in the law and much experience in this. I wanted to talk about the news around the Supreme Court that has made this question more urgent, and increasingly, we’re seeing some criticism around the quasi-religious like reverence for the capital “T,” capital “L,” The Law.

    Josie Duffy Rice: Right.

    Adam: Specifically, the courts and the Supreme Court. The implication of the framing around the court as kind of this, for most of the media, is that it’s an oracle-like, almost mystical, quasi-religious institution that is opaque by design. That has people who sit on there for what appears to be 250 years. As someone who is both a lawyer and who’s written, spent a lot of time trying to peel back this mystery, I want to sort of talk about the broad media convention, which we’ve detailed at great length at the top of the show, to speak about The Court, capital “T,” capital “C,” or the Supreme Court, as this kind of mystical, quasi-clerical institution and the extent to which you think media reinforces this idea and what do you think some of the negative externalities of this are?

    Josie Duffy Rice

    Josie Duffy Rice: Oh, God, I mean, the negative externalities are just countless. Anytime I think that media treats the powerful as knowing more than they do inherently, that is just the biggest mistake that media can make. That court-based media, people who cover the court, people who write about the court, it tends to be this extremely insular community of people who have either clerked for the Supreme Court or know these justices personally or have this very intense relationship with the court, but also who need the court, right? They need sources, they want answers, they want to be able to know what’s happening, next term, etcetera, and so there’s this really inherent incentive to not question the very fundamental basics of is this the system we should have? It’s very easy for people in media who cover the Supreme Court to kind of buy into this. I will say that is sort of changing, I think Balls and Strikes is really good, five/four is really good at that, right? But in general, the way that media covers the court is they said it so that it feels like there must be a reason they said it and very often there is not. But I do think there’s another thing here, which is that legal nebulounessness is exactly this, right? Anything can be law and anything can be politics and it’s really hard to draw the line between the two of them and so I think as a rule the judiciary is generally less “political,” quote-unquote, than Congress in the sense that Congress is maybe riding waves and the judiciary is maybe riding tides. But I don’t know that being less political on its face is a value, right? I think that we’re kind of taught to believe that saying, ‘Well, this person doesn’t have a right to counsel,’ as a value is less admirable than saying it as the law and I just don’t know where the line is between those two things. I think the last thing I would just say is that the law is sort of like any other job in that you often get mired in the detail, you know, you work in the factory and you sew on the buttons and you don’t often step back and realize what everybody else in the factory is doing and what you’re kind of creating together, and the law really plays into that problem, right? You end up parsing the footnotes of two Supreme Court decisions from 1961 instead of saying, wait a second, let’s talk about why would this, what do we believe in?

    Nima: Right.

    Josie Duffy Rice: What do we want? What do we want the world to look like?

    Nima: To that point Josie, you know, I think, as you mentioned, some of this feeling about the court is changing a bit — I’m not trying to be the resident optimist here, because we don’t really do that on the show — but, you know, over the past few years, certainly, the Supreme Court has gotten maybe even more brazen in its dismantling of labor rights, abortion rights, civil rights, and with that there is the kind of attendant questioning of the sanctity of the robe in liberal and certainly more progressive circles with some even adopting more radical critiques, right? We see the kind of ever so slight mainstream-ification of court packing, and obviously critiques about the nature of, say the Senate and why and how that was created in the first place are popping up more and more. Basically, as we look at existential crises like climate change, breakdown in social trust, runaway inequality, it’s clear the current system set up by a few dozen slave owning, white landowning guys in the late 18th century may not have been the best, most just most logical system, but was in fact set up to promote impotence and anti democratic quote-unquote “checks and balances” really against the will of the people. So saying this, I think, you know, offends most of the legal norm world, the lawfare blog type, because they argue without the Constitution, legal precedent, federalist papers, and reverence for that kind of holy writ, what is there in its place? What is there that we can believe in? Where is the foundation of our society supposed to sit? And so the law then becomes subject to the, you know, whim of whoever’s in political power, and that’s supposed to be okay or does there need to be power returned to the unwashed masses that it was deliberately set up again? So without this kind of reverence, without the sanctity of the court, or the law, do we lose something? What do you say to people who kind of worry about that and do you think that maybe they have a point?

    Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, I think it’s a good question, and I think, and maybe this is just Stockholm Syndrome from law school, but I don’t know if you lose something without the sanctity but I do wonder if you lose something without the checks on the other two branches of government. Do I think this is the best checks and balances? Probably not. If I were starting from scratch, I don’t think I would have thought this up. But then you can imagine how a world in which the Supreme Court looks different. You can imagine a world in which, I mean, it’s hard to imagine, but theoretically, you could think of a world in which the Supreme Court has nine people chosen from groups that are underrepresented. What if it’s nine people making minimum wage? What if it’s nine people who have felony convictions, what if it’s, you can imagine a world in which the way that we think about checks on power is not just more power. Now, there is nobody on the Supreme Court right now who has not been powerful for a very long time, even if demographically, they represent a group of people who aren’t as powerful the nature of getting to the Supreme Court is you have done, you know, you have been at the top of the top of the top for 30 years, that’s the only way you get there, and so the problem is that the Supreme Court reifies all of the patterns we see in politics and also just society, right? That hands power to powerful people and hands them more power and allows them to speak for the less powerful. So I do think there is something to be said for keeping a check on a Congress on a political system that caves to the whims of the most emotionally charged and the simplest perspective but I also think the way we’re doing it is just shrouding politics in law, as we always sort of have and that will fail you every single time. I also think, whenever I think about the founders and the founding documents, I think I think of two things. One is that it’s been so long since those documents were written, that’s like trite and everybody knows that, right? But we’re talking about, the world has changed so much, you think about the Second Amendment and what guns were back then, right.? You think about communication and how we communicated back then, you think about what the country looked like, how big the country was, all these questions, they were working with a different set of facts. But then you also think about how new those documents are, right? This is a relatively new country, relatively new society. There are so many lessons, we have not learned about preservation, there’s so much hubris. So I feel like we are always both facing both of those impasses, right.? One is that we are too far away from it and then the other is that we’re a little too close.

    Adam: Yeah, because I feel like one of the more bizarre charades is when we do the questions when the Senate does the hearings for the Supreme Court justices there’s this cheekiness around making political commitments, because they, I guess, there’s some sense that they don’t want to prejudice or bias, you know, future rulings by being clear about their intentions. So there’s this code that emerges where they kind of say, wink, wink, here’s what I expect to do politically, because this is supposedly supposed to be some Democratic authorization for this immense power. I mean, just tremendous, I would say, to some extent, you know, they’re probably, in their lifetimes, more powerful than the President.

    Josie Duffy Rice: Oh, yeah, definitely.

    Adam: You know, maybe not on a per year basis but in the aggregate — as I’m accustomed to saying — and this kind of opacity in this code becomes, the average person watching these hearings will have no fucking clue what’s going on really. So there emerges a clergy class of pundits and commentators and writers who sort of interpret this for you and then there’s this sort of parallel sense that they’re all just friends that, you know, we know, famously conservative and far right, anti woman Supreme Court justices are, they go to the same, you know, parties and have dinner parties and play puzzles with the lawyers and this is something that comes up a lot. When Neil Gorsuch was up, he was, you know, going to be central to dismantling Roe versus Wade, it was all of his former clerks who were like, ‘I’m a liberal, but he’s a nice guy.’ ‘They’re all nice guys.’ It gives the distinct impression, not only is this kind of an opaque, quasi-religious activity full of seers and priests and Franciscan monks who have to interpret this inscrutable Latin text, but also, nobody really takes, it’s kind of a game a little bit.

    Josie Duffy Rice: Mm hmm.

    Adam: And I think that makes people cynical, and also very confused, because it seems very important, but it’s difficult to sort of pin down what people’s politics are, and my question to you is, (a) to what extent do you think that that process can be more democratic? Or, again, maybe you think that’s wrong? Maybe that kind of leaves it subject to the whims of the demagogue or the whims of the foaming masses. Or (b) shouldn’t they seem a little bit more ideologically committed to these really important things that they’re supposedly doing? I mean, you know what I mean?

    Josie Duffy Rice: Right.

    Adam: I don’t know.

    Josie Duffy Rice: Do you mean just in hearings or generally?

    Adam: Well, both. I mean, the process by which we nominate Supreme Court justices and approve them is not a very democratic process by design. The President does it unilaterally, the Congress has no say, it’s just the Senate.

    Josie Duffy Rice: Right.

    Adam: It’s all kind of very magisterial.

    Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, I mean, look, I think it’s worth noting that right-wing justices are extremely ideologically committed. You saying that made me think, can I think of a decision in the past 20 or 30 years that I think a right-wing justice regrets? They think, ‘I voted for this,’ you know, ‘I ruled this way because I thought that’s what the law said but I should have followed my values more,’ and I actually can’t think of one because they always follow their values.

    Adam: Well, that’s what makes the whole thing so silly is because we’re supposed to act like they’re not doing that.

    Josie Duffy Rice: Right. But I would say that like on the quote-unquote “left” or left of center, when you think about the quote-unquote “liberal judges,” they often don’t follow their values, right? They’re often like, ‘Well, actually, you know, the 14th Amendment doesn’t allow this,’ there is kind of this weird thing where you see some people trying to pretend this is about law, and some people not pretending it’s about law.

    Nima: I feel like that sums up American politics completely.

    Josie Duffy Rice: Totally, totally, completely.

    Adam: Yeah, totally asymmetrical warfare.

    Josie Duffy Rice: Right. And I don’t know if it’s about being in good faith, or what, I don’t know what it really, you know, I’m not a psychologist, I can’t diagnose these people, but it does feel like just lying to themselves, right? That’s how I feel so often when I read Supreme Court opinions, when I listen to Supreme Court arguments. I think I have two examples about this that really stick with me. The first example would be of that healthcare decision, which I think was 2012, and I remember when that came down, and Roberts quote-unquote “voting” with the liberals, right, because he said it could be a tax, and feeling relieved, and then also feeling like that’s just made up, right? He actually just thinks this should be legal and so he made up that it can be a tax, you could completely argue the other way, everything can go either way, right? This is just, this is how fragile our judiciary is, which is that you can just argue whatever you want as the outcome. I think the other example I have of that is that there was a case in the fall called Wooden v. US that was, I won’t get into the details, but it was about a man who was facing either a couple of years or many more years, depending on how his crime was categorized when he broke into a storage facility and robbed 10 different units, was that 10 different crimes or one crime? And so you watch the arguments, and you see both sides go up there and make these deeply esoteric, detailed arguments about why unlocking this storage unit is another crime or it’s the, you know, you’re just like, actually, we all know that this is one crime. We all know that this is one storage unit, it is one night, it is one thing, we all know that, and I don’t have to actually see the statue say that it has to be seven feet apart or whatever. It’s just so fake. It’s just so made up. And I went through all of law school, three years of law school, not realizing that. I went through all of law school feeling like I just don’t get it. I guess I’m stupid because this all seems fucking ridiculous to me and it took me many years to realize it wasn’t me, it was that.

    Nima: Yeah.

    Adam: I think you’re touching on the sense that liberals have this frustration, again, I think it’s been amplified by Roe and the other major court rulings, which seemed to kind of shake the broad bipartisan social contract where the right is just basically doing a coup, obviously, handing Bush the White House in 2000 being —

    Josie Duffy Rice: Right.

    Adam: — one such example where you have a kind of firm ideological commitment to this libertarian originalist perspective that Republicans pick certain justices from, that obviously has a very clear-eyed kind of ideology, there’s edge cases here and there, but more or less, that’s where you kind of, they’re brought up through this filtering system of kind of legal societies and such, and then the liberals don’t have firm political commitments other than credentialism and formalism, and so you’re already, you know, what we can debate why this is, we can, you know, why universities and law schools are set up to kind of produce and reproduce this, but I think what you see is a frustration on the part of liberal activists or even progressive activists where it’s like, like you said, you can cite plenty of examples of liberals kind of being a little bit roguish or saying, ‘Well, technically, the law says this and that’s what the lie is,’ whereas conservatives, because they do rely on this psychological interpretation of what some crusty guy in the 18th century thought, that by definition, their positions are going to reflect that ideology at the time, and this strikes me as unsustainable politically or at least I’m hoping it’s unsustainable, where, you know, we had a more liberal Supreme Court for a few decades, right, in the ’60s and ’70s, relative to where the kind of quote-unquote “society” was. I think it was largely in line with it, but it was not, and now that’s not really the case it seems, and so this asymmetrical warfare obviously is very troubling to people who value certain things other than the rights of a golf course in Florida, which is basically the primary mascot of the Republican Party, a golf course in Florida, and its right to sort of mow over the spotted owl.

    Josie Duffy Rice: Right. Yeah, I think that’s right. I think that it’s not sustainable politically, I just don’t know which way it plays, right? I have a lot of trouble imagining 10 years down the line, 20 years down the line just because let’s take juvenile sentencing as an example, if you’d asked me three years ago, I would say we were around the corner from having the Supreme Court ruled that juveniles, it’s unconstitutional to sentence a juvenile to life without parole. That’s what I would have said, right? We’re on that path, we’ve been on that path. That’s where we’re going. I don’t think that anymore. I think we’re 30 years out from that, because the court changed and the values have changed, and you have a lot of people on the court who just don’t share my values fundamentally, party aside, they just don’t, they don’t see the world through the same lens through which I see it. I think where I have come since law school is Roe being an example, right? We’re having this long, kind of drawn-out fight over whether Roe is constitutional or not constitutional and I just don’t care whether you can read Roe into the Constitution —

    Far-right Supreme Court justices Brett Kavanaugh, Samuel Alito, John Roberts, Neil Gorsuch, and Amy Coney Barrett. (Source: CNN)

    Adam: Because Roe is also made up.

    Josie Duffy Rice: Roe is also made up. It’s all made up. Roe is valuable to me as a value, not as a law and so when you get into this back-and-forth about whether you can read Roe into the Fourth Amendment, maybe not, maybe I’m, you know, whatever. I don’t know, I’ve never practiced law for this exact reason because I actually don’t want to. I can’t do the fiction. I can’t do this thing where we pretend as if what matters is the question of how do you slot this thing into this document? Now I do understand the value of guidelines and norms and boundaries. I understood the value of norms, even a little bit more over the past, since I’ve graduated, in some sense, some norms, right? But it’s not my fight, and I’m just, I just think that every time we’re playing on the ground of, ‘Is this constitutional?’ — we’re going to lose. The right has originalism on their side, they can always just say it doesn’t say that, right? It is a losing proposition for the left every single time to fight the war on that ground, and yet, that’s the only ground we know how to fight, and so it feels just like quicksand. Again, it just feels to me like, are we excavating the actual tenets of a real conversation about who do we want to be?

    Nima: So considering, Josie, you have been to law school, let me ask you this question.

    Josie Duffy Rice: Okay.

    Nima: How much of this idea of professional norms, you’ve been speaking to this, has been just drilled into law students, and then, you know, furthermore lawyers in practice? I mean, both in law school and then after effectively normalizing what, I mean, I think, in so many other contexts would be, you know, seen as just sociopathic behavior, right? You’ve commented on this, civil rights core founder Alec Karakatsanis, who’s been a guest on the show, talks about this all the time. This dogmatic deference to “the law” permitting a state of say, let’s get real, right, let’s take it down from even where the Supreme Court is fucking things up now, but just daily city or town courts, the system of mass incarceration being set up by the system, deliberately, but then it’s shrugged away as, ‘Eh, that’s just the way it is,’ right?

    Josie Duffy Rice: Mm hmm.

    Nima: Tell me about kind of how law school does this to future lawyers, the idea that this is your role, do this thing, but don’t ask bigger questions about the moral culpability of this system, right.? And I think that, you know, someone sitting in, you know, a Kings County, Brooklyn courtroom or Cook County in Chicago, on any given day, and just watching the proceedings, would be horrified, horrified. That’s why organizations like Court Watch exist, right? But because judges just toss out sentences or fines or fees that have unbelievably terrible consequences on the people themselves, but they’re just kind of, it’s just like, run of the mill, whatever, go on about their business, right? And this somehow is seen as normal. Which kind of brings me to my long winded question. How does, again, the sanctity of “the law,” of courts, of the system contribute directly to harm of people, and certainly, you know, let’s say, for example, mass incarceration again by desensitizing lawyers, reporters, law makers themselves as to the real human stakes of our legal system?

    Josie Duffy Rice: We could do five years on this because it truly is, to me, remains like one of the most shocking parts of law school to me, which is that saying this is wrong, is seen as unserious.

    Nima: Right. Unlawyerly.

    Josie Duffy Rice: Unlawyerly, and it’s seen as almost lazy, ‘Okay, but give me the reason it’s wrong, cite the law, give me the constitutional argument,’ and in this effort to make you sort of this rigorous lawyer, it stamps out this part of us that recognizes, that immediately recognizes, the gut check that says this is wrong, this just feels wrong, and that is something that matters. When your gut tells you, I don’t like this, that’s something to trust and law school stamps that out of you so, so quickly, I mean, like week one or two. I think I have a couple examples of this that I think about, one of them is felony murder. So I just did a story in Tennessee on felony murder, so I’ve been thinking about it a lot, but when I was in law school, this concept of felony murder basically means okay, so you commit a felony, someone dies in the commission of that felony, but you didn’t kill them or intend for them to be killed, right? You are charged with murder. So the two of you are robbing a house, Adam shoots the homeowner, you both get charged with murder.

    Adam: Better yet if the cop shows up and shoots the homeowner, right?

    Josie Duffy Rice: Exactly. Right. Or someone’s in the car.

    Nima: Don’t try and avoid responsibility for what you did, Adam.

    Adam: Oh, sorry.

    Josie Duffy Rice: Right, exactly. So that is the, I mean, the example I just gave us the example they give where you’re sort of like, well, I guess it could have been either of them to shoot the homeowner, right? But then the truth is that people are getting felony murder charges for like you said, the cops show up and shoot your friend, and so you get felony murder or you’re in the car and you get felony murder. So that’s just a long way of saying on its face, felony murder makes no sense. You’re like, well didn’t kill anybody so why would I be charged with murder? That doesn’t make any sense. That’s not a value, that’s not a deterrent, you know, nobody doesn’t do the armed robbery, because they’ve heard about felony murder. Every story about felony murder is something went horribly wrong and this is the end result is that now both of us are going to prison for life, and yet, when you’re in law school, and you’re sitting there and someone explains it to you, it makes a little bit of sense, that’s how dark it gets there, where you are sorting through the statutes and not what you know as a human being.

    Nima: Yeah, because you’re like, well, but for and then therefore it wouldn’t —

    Josie Duffy Rice: Exactly.

    Adam: Yeah, and at the risk of being mawkish, to some extent you sort of understand it. Because, you know, I have a 12-year-old niece and she does CX debate, and I did CX debate when I was in high school — one of the reasons I’m an insufferable prick — but I remember thinking, oh, the part of it you spend 50 percent of your time arguing for one side and 50 percent of your time arguing for another side.

    Josie Duffy Rice: Right.

    Adam: And basically, what you learn is the kind of formalism of argument and debate.

    Josie Duffy Rice: Right.

    Adam: And you keep doing that and doing that, and you go to law school, and you do that, and at some point, you cross over to the threshold of reality, where it’s not a game anymore but there are 55-year-old adults who still think it’s a fucking game, who still think they’re my 12-year-old niece.

    Nima: That the debate is the point and that’s where the zealousness comes from, not being for justice.

    Josie Duffy Rice: And also the fact that they can see it on both sides makes them more valuable, more intelligent, and more moral than the rest of us. I mean, that’s truly the bottom line in this way, that really is just so, it obscures so deeply what drives people when you are taught to be able to justify anything by shifting your perspective on the statute just a little bit. It goes against everything we’re kind of taught as human beings, which is a value set, right? To stand for something, to stand for the law, that’s not standing for something, the law is not a value.

    Adam: And this is one of the existential criticisms of the Democratic Party is it’s a party effectively run by lawyers.

    Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah.

    Adam: Lawmakers are overwhelmingly lawyers, policymakers are lawyers. Most of the pundits are lawyers, where if the highest order is formalism and argumentation —

    Nima: And doing so civilly, right? Within a structure, where we all believe in the good faith of everyone else.

    Adam: Yeah, that you’re like, ‘Well, wait a second, what about the union guy or that Black Lives Matter activist or the committed abortion fighter,’ that these people are secondary to that kind of clergy class of law, and again, to some extent, at some point it sort of reminds me of the story of how baseball cards emerged, right? Used to get little packs of gum in the ’20s, and then to sell them they would give you a little baseball cards, and then eventually, they would add two because people really like trading them, and then they added three, and then eventually just had a pack of baseball cards with a little stick of gum. When I was a kid, and then eventually they just got rid of the gum, where the formalism to sort of, in the ’60s and ’70s, to fight the man, at some point, we abandoned the reason why all these people decided to go to law school.

    Josie Duffy Rice: Right.

    Adam: And obviously, that’s not a categorical rule. There are nonprofits, organizations, people who are lawyers who do try to, you know, this is obviously, we’re generalizing here, but similar to the way economics departments basically institute a kind of sociopathic thinking, people don’t shed the thing that was supposed to be the point to have that kind of thinking to begin with. It was supposed to be a tool pursuant to political or ideological objectives, and now we just have the baseball cards with no gum. We just have a lot of formalism, but what the fuck are we doing here?

    Josie Duffy Rice: Right. I mean, a lot of that also just ends up being about class, right, which is a set like you get a J.D. and you enter a new world of access, and in a world that’s separate from most people, and then you actually just don’t have to think about this stuff. You just don’t have to think about it. So you can think about it in theory, but you know, the example I would use is like a lot of people who argue criminal law in front of the Supreme Court, maybe have never been to a prison or met a defendant, right? This is often appellate work, I mean, I shouldn’t say never, but I would say in decades, you know, people who are teaching criminal law in law schools, when’s the last time they met someone who’s currently in the criminal justice system, right? And so there’s also this sense that, it’s almost like if you were to write a book about parenthood without ever having been a parent or met a parent in the past 20 years, the way you would talk about it would be just divorced from the emotional and moral import and the complication of what it means to raise a kid, and I think that so often the refusal to engage with people who are at the mercy of the law instead of shaping the law, contributes to this dynamic that you just noted.

    Nima: Well, I mean, Josie, you said earlier, you know, in this conversation, you were like, what would it look like if the Supreme Court were populated by people who made minimum wage? And immediately I was like, oh, imagine if you floated that idea?

    Josie Duffy Rice: Right.

    Nima: What would be the first thing that would be said, ‘Oh, but they don’t have the education. They don’t have the expertise in this. How could they do that?’

    Josie Duffy Rice: ‘They’ve never ever served on the Fifth Circuit.’

    Nima: Exactly. So automatically, it is a deliberately selected group who could even approach getting this and then you get into all the different things where like, you know, Justice Jackson has to basically, you know, disavow being a public defender, god forbid, because she wasn’t prosecutorial enough and Kavanaugh can just like, be like, hey, whatever.

    Josie Duffy Rice: Right can do whatever. I mean, I think on that same point that what the job does is it corrupts you a little, no matter if you’re the best, I’ll go with federal judge, no matter if you’re the best federal judge in history, you’ve made some decisions because of quote-unquote “the law” that stand in opposite of what you think your values are and you’ve done that nine times so the tenth time, you can do the thing that the other judge wouldn’t have done, you can do the bold thing, but what does it do to a person to every day kind of disappoint themselves under the law? That’s not good.

    Nima: Do you think, and this is maybe super naive to even say, but do you think that that’s the case much more for people who would describe themselves as liberals? Whereas conservatives are like, as you said before, do they regret any of their decisions? No, it actually works very much in line with how they want to operate in the world.

    Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, you can always take the crueler angle, right? Sometimes it’s very difficult under the law to take the humane angle.

    Nima: Right.

    Josie Duffy Rice: But I don’t think it’s ever very difficult to take the cruel one. So I think most conservative judges sleep perfectly fine at night. I don’t think they ever, you know, have to grapple with that.

    Adam: Yeah. Well, because mass incarceration built up its own moral ecology, in relation to watching our prison population become 500 percent, 600 percent greater, where it was like, ‘Oh, we’re protecting the victim,’ and the bleeding-heart liberal lawyer is actually the one who wants to harm people and that’s how you sort of got over the cognitive dissonance, and it was why every third scene in Law and Order was about them saying that because that was kind of the pro-prosecutor, Holy Bible was like, ‘Oh, well, what about the victims?’

    Josie Duffy Rice: Oh yeah, I mean, I think that there is no easier moral stance than for people to adopt than prosecution or pro prosecution judges. When you think about the bad guys, and you are able to characterize, we are able to isolate a decision, make that decision of a person and then punish them, it is like a high for a lot of these people.

    Adam: You’re taking out the trash.

    Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, it feels really good to them and that was a big thing I had to realize when I went into a courtroom with prosecutors for the first time where I thought there was going to be some sheepishness and there was none, there wasn’t any sheepishness, and so that ability to think, you know, it’s like superhero stories, there’s a bad guy, I’m a good guy, I’m fighting the bad guy, that is so pervasive, in a way that, yeah, I think that they sleep fine at night. I think it’s a lot harder to be the public defender and make the deal for the guy you think is actually innocent or you think he’s guilty, but you don’t think he deserves this deal but you need to make this deal because, in some ways, your job is politics, right?

    Adam: Yeah. And obviously fear as much, I mean, again, all this sort of work that, you mentioned three years ago versus today, and I think back on all the kind of progress that was made that’s basically pissed out the window because crime ticked up 1 percent and The New York Times decided it was going to become Breitbart.

    Josie Duffy Rice: Right. And also, we just decided to ignore the fact that we know how to solve crime. We actually know how to address crime and we’re just not going to do it because it’s expensive and it’s not as easy as saying just put them in prison.

    Adam: It’s easier to round up the surplus population.

    Josie Duffy Rice: Exactly, exactly.

    Adam: So yeah, one of the things we want to obviously not do is be, we touched on this a little bit, but not be too cynical, or overcorrect, because I guess the question that happens, I think when anyone sort of adopts a radical ideology, whatever that is, or kind of abandons liberalism as a good, it’s extremely, liberalism as a mode of change, which is to say, like argumentation and voting harder. Let’s just say, you see the existential crisis facing this country or the world in general, and you think liberalism is not going to cut it, that it’s sort of nice, but it’s just not going to work. That next breath you take is the scariest breath in your life, because you’re like, ‘Holy shit, that means I now have to replace that organizing scaffolding with something else.’

    Josie Duffy Rice: Right.

    Adam: And I think it’s because it’s easy to criticize — in fact, that’s 99 percent of what we do — and so if for all the criticisms of rule of law and norm fetishization of the kind of Aaron Sorkin dorks who comprise this contingent we’re talking about here, what replaces it is obviously a very scary question, and you see this a lot in the kind of precedent fetishizing where you’ll see like, the right-wing will do some horrible extrajudicial thing, let’s say court packing, ‘We can’t pack the courts because it will set a precedent,’ and it’s like, meanwhile, the right-wing is storming the Capitol and arming to the teeth and doesn’t give a fuck about any precedent at all.

    Josie Duffy Rice: ‘But we don’t like that precedent.’

    Adam: Yeah, they’re going after trans kids. They’re just basically begging the Supreme Court to, you know, prevent them from running concentration camps, and liberals are still talking about precedent, and I definitely feel like I’m kind of going insane or handwringing about Antifa or whatever, it’s like, they don’t care, they haven’t cared in 30 years, they probably never really cared but they’re don’t even run through the motions anymore.

    Josie Duffy Rice: Right.

    Adam: So then the question becomes, if you do talk about court packing, if you do talk about — I don’t know — whatever kind of extra legal or quasi-legal means or god forbid, quasi-constitutional means of bringing about change, my question to you is does that scare the shit out of you? I know that it’s something that people like you and like you mentioned, we mentioned five/four who we talked about, we know, I know, places like Balls and Strikes that are thinking deeply about what does it mean to kind of fuck the norms? You get it’s easy to sort of tear things down, obviously, what the alternative is a very scary prospect. So what does that look like? Is it this kind of squishy mass politics? Is it something resembling norms but without all the kind of ventriloquising people that have been dead for 250 years who wore powdered wigs? What does that look like?

    Josie Duffy Rice: You know, I think it’s a really good question and I should say off the bat that I don’t exactly have the answer or I don’t have the answer at all, I shouldn’t say exactly as if I like maybe you have an answer, I don’t have the answer. But here’s what I do think more and more constantly, which is just that all of this ends up being, for lack of a better phrase, about culture. Guns I think are a good example where it’s like, is the Second Amendment good.? Is it not good? We’re talking about something so much deeper than law, so much deeper than policy, what people shape their values around. What I think is our mistake is that we start thinking about really kind of deep rooted preferences as being about policy when they aren’t, and so one of the places in which I’m very grateful for the at least theoretical protections that exist are defendants in court, right? So you think about the fact that some norms are good, and if it was not a principle that everybody deserved a robust defense, there’s no way it would be a principle that everybody deserves a robust defense. There’s just no way that we would live in a world in which people would think no matter what, this person deserves a lawyer, no matter what the prosecution should have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, that is an incredible principle on his face, and a lot of places don’t have that principle, and when I think about what I’m grateful for, about the law, I think about protections for defendants, and I think there is something about some of the lofty values that our founding documents or our legal documents pretend to enshrine, I think they fall short very often, but I think equality is good. I think democracy as a general rule is a good thing. I think that freedom of speech is a very good thing.

    Nima: Pursuit of Happiness sounds pretty lovely.

    Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, pursuit of happiness sounds great. Let me know when I can start pursuing happiness, thrilled to start at any point.

    Adam: It’s like access to healthcare, it’s like you can try —

    Josie Duffy Rice: Right.

    Adam: You’re not entitled to a house or —

    Nima: You can pursue it, you’re not entitled to any happiness.

    Adam: Pursue it to your heart’s content.

    Nima: Go for it.

    Josie Duffy Rice: Right. You can like John Q your way into health care if you need to.

    Adam: Health care. Good reference.

    Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, I think about John Q a lot. But, you know, so, to me, I think that so often the conversation is just shallow, because it’s not actually getting at the fact that, again, if you can read Roe under the Fourth Amendment, if healthcare is attacked, none of that is irrelevant to me. What is irrelevant to me is that these are rights that I value, that the people around me value, and that I think are inherent to a healthy society, and many other people disagree with me, and to me the law matters in terms of how it plays out but it doesn’t actually matter in terms of how you solve the problem because the problem is actually not just the law. It is what we come to the law with.

    Adam: Right. But then I guess the politically relevant question would be less does this have any objective value? It is, can 15 liberals or leftists get into, you know, 20 liberals or leftists get into some courtroom and make enough clever arguments to trick a judge into voting their way? And I guess the question of that is not really either because the deck stacked against you too.

    Josie Duffy Rice: Right. I think court packing is a great idea. Do I think it’s a solve? No, it’s not a solve. It’s like a policy that would be good, right? But none of this is a solve.

    Nima: It’s a tactic. It’s not a strategy for real change.

    Josie Duffy Rice: Exactly.

    Nima: But yeah, I mean, you know, even saying that this is about, you’ve labeled it culture, I may also label it deep narratives, right? What are the things that motivate and animate people? And so there are these narratives about fairness and justice in the system and foundational aspects. I think that constitutionalism kind of falls into that in this way that then has horribly damaging consequences. But then there’s, you know, yeah, a reverence for due process and representation, which is wonderful.

    Adam: Twelve Angry Men, man.

    Nima: Right? Of course, you know, and due process is really the only, it’s the only thing that the Constitution mentions twice in the Bill of Rights, like it’s repeated.

    Josie Duffy Rice: They’re like, ‘No, no, you really need this.’

    Nima: ‘No, this is really important,’ and yet, then you see all of these carve outs and where things aren’t as cut and dry, and people think they are, but they’re not, right? So, if you’ve been charged with a crime, you have the right to public defense, even if you can’t afford it, right? Now, there are all sorts of problems with that, but just on paper, okay, fine. But if you’re facing detention or deportation as an immigrant, you don’t get that guarantee because you have not been charged with a crime because immigration court is basically a misdemeanor court and so therefore, you’re not guaranteed a lawyer.

    Adam: Yeah, or you’re rotting away at Rikers for two years.

    Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah or your housing or, you know, you have a right to a lawyer, but you have the right to that lawyer having funding, it falls short in almost every way, and also without the basis it would just be so much worse, and so that’s what — I am always, I am a, I’m definitely a it-could-be-worse person, not an it-could-be-better person. As a rule, I think it could be better, but I spent a lot of time just worrying about how much worse it’s going to get — but there are, you know, I believe that there are really important fundamental norms in our legal system that matter. I just think they are obscured by the ones that don’t.

    Nima: Right. Well, and because they should be the floor.

    Josie Duffy Rice: Right.

    Nima: Except conservatives make them the ceiling.

    Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, exactly. Yeah and then they’re like, actually, it’s not even a ceiling.

    Adam: So you’re basically Martin Luther, you want to reform the Catholic Church.

    Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, I’m going to nail some shit to a door.

    Nima: Let’s nail that shit.

    Adam: But you don’t want to, you don’t want to reject the divinity of Christ. Okay, you don’t believe in the vicar of God. Okay.

    Josie Duffy Rice: If you could pass on the message that I’m like Martin Luther to everybody in my life, that’d be really great.

    Nima: Yeah, please. Before we let you go, Josie, please do let us know what you have been up to, word on the Street has it that maybe potentially writing something, in maybe book form? I don’t know. Let our listeners know what you’re up to and what they can look out for.

    Josie Duffy Rice: Thank you for the question. I am theoretically writing a book. Getting to that, if you are my book agent and listening to this, I am so on it, you would be shocked. But I recently went to Tennessee and did a project for Al Jazeera about the first degree murder sentence that juveniles can get in Tennessee when convicted of felony murder, as we were just talking about. It’s the longest mandatory sentence in the country. It’s 51 years. And so that, I made a short documentary with Al Jazeera that came out June 8, it’s with a program called Faultlines Al Jazeera, and it can be found on YouTube and at aljazeera.com, and that, to me, that’s the kind of work I like to do, I got to really kind of embed with a story and really look at the human impact, as we were just saying, that’s a big deal. So, you know, and other than that, I’m just trying to be on Citations Needed all the time. So those are my plans. That’s my future. Let my kids know that I have a really good plan for them.

    Nima: Well, we can’t thank you enough for joining us today. We’ve been speaking with Josie Duffy Rice, journalist and writer covering police, prisons, prosecutions, the criminal legal system as a whole. Also the creator and co-host of the Justice in America podcast, full disclosure, produced by Citations Needed producer Florence Barrau-Adams —

    Josie Duffy Rice: Our fave.

    Nima: But Josie, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

    Josie Duffy Rice: Thank you so much for having me.


    Adam: Yeah, I think the issue of what do you lose when you lose the mystique is an interesting one. I think you have to kind of maybe build a more, because I get, I think some of the most black-hearted cynics who support this mythology will say that the mythology is important. It kind of reminds a lot of Napoleon’s view of religion where he’s like, he didn’t personally believe any of it, but he’s like people are, you know, they need some kind of mythmaking, they need to have a king.

    Nima: Right, they need something to believe in otherwise everything just sort of falls apart. Right.

    Adam: Right. And so I think in many ways, a lot of these, especially like lawyers are not gullible necessarily, they know that, and I think some of them believe their own bullshit, but I think there is probably a lot of them who kind of know that this is a lot of theater and that all these kinds of post partisan pretenses and you never see them outside of their robes, right? They have to have the robe because it’s kind of vaguely, you know, has its origins in the monastery. It has its origins in religion.

    Nima: And it’s kind of anonymized, right? It’s very formal. It’s not personal.

    Adam: Yeah, the church ran the courts for centuries. You have to have this majesty to it. Otherwise, it’s just nine ass holes, all went to Ivy League schools, except I think for one now, whose opinions are as important as anyone else’s, and the veneer of this mystique is central to this kind of jingoistic mythmaking. But if you lose it, what is the collateral damage? Is there something that’s lost in that, does it become, do people lose, because I think there’s a broader trend here, there is a broader theme to this episode, obviously, which is a broader erosion of trust in institutions that is reflected in the media, the government, Congress, the White House brought about by many forces, which we don’t have time to get into. But you see the kind of mainstream invocation of discussions about packing the court or the kind of more overtly partisan way we talk about these conservative justices where people who are losing faith in these institutions, and I think that can be for the good, I think that’s mostly for the good.

    Nima: Yeah, because it can animate positive change, but it also —

    Adam: Right, the question is, what do you replace it with? And that, I think, is frightening to a lot of people.

    Nima: Right.

    Adam: Understandably so.

    Nima: Right. Because without a clear answer, it seems like well, then at least, you know, you get into the devil you know, and then you can live in that devil you know space endlessly, which is why these systems perpetuate and become more and more entrenched, because the idea of change, the idea of imagining something different winds up being stifling, right? It winds up being almost fatalistic, or winds up being paralyzing to even view what could be different because you’ve lived with this for so long, and even if it’s imperfect, at least it has some sort of legacy, some sort of majesty, some sort of tradition that it comes from that you can look to, and you can trace back through documentation and precedent, and you can kind of lean on that instead of imagining something more just that might be a bit scary at first or may take a more kind of radical change than the incrementalism that people are much more used to.

    Adam: Right. And these are the same arguments that monarchists used for centuries, right?

    Nima: Right, well.

    Adam: If you get rid of the majesty of the, you know, ordained by god then what do you have in its place? That’s frightening, you know, you have Robespierre and mass beheadings and it’s like well, sometimes you have to crack an egg.

    Nima: Right, exactly. 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 are 100 percent listener funded. And as always, a very special shout out goes to our critic level supporters on Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.

    Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

    Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again for listening, everyone, we’ll catch you next time.


    This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, June 22, 2022.

    Transcription by Morgan McAslan.

  • News Brief: Boudin Recall Coverage and How the NYT Sells Tough-on-Crime Dogma to Squishy Liberals

    Citations Needed | June 8, 2022 | Transcript

    San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin (Beth LaBerge / KQED)


    Nima Shirazi: Welcome to a Citations Needed News Brief. I am Nima Shirazi.

    Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

    Nima: You can follow Citations Needed 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 are 100 percent listener funded. We do these News Briefs in between our regularly scheduled full length episodes when there’s an article — I don’t know — say in The New York Times that encapsulates everything shitty about police funding reporting, and Adam, you actually recently wrote about a new New York Times article, kind of an opinion piece masked as straight news on your Substack — which everyone should check out, that’s The Column — but Adam, why don’t you lay out for us this new egregious example of a trope that we’ve seen for years?

    Adam: Well, yeah, so obviously there’s the defund the police movement in the summer of 2020. It was endorsed by about, I don’t know, five elected Democrats, pretty much went away as an actual thing that was ever going to happen, but it’s now become this, I believe very much kind of right-wing watchword, and it’s a way of kind of doing a little bit of a micro Willie Horton whenever you want to, right? You sort of, whenever you need to kind of wink/nod, ‘I’m not going to be one of those liberals,’ you say, ‘I oppose defund the police.’

    Nima: Right. I mean Biden did this in the most public way possible.

    Adam: Right, and so what you see is, you see, the reason why the fund emerged, as we talked about in the show before, is an emergent frustration to the failures of the Black Lives Matter movement as a kind of slogan that had become very much stripped of its revolutionary or subversive capacity, and had become a kind of Shell Oil, Doritos catch phrase that was watered down to the point of meaninglessness because it’s more of a sort of gesture towards some kind of political awareness versus an actual concrete policy, which is how abolish or defund the police, which is of course a kind of watered down version of abolish the police, can do emerge because it couldn’t be co opted, right?

    Nima: Pepsi can’t be like, ‘Hey, defund the police, man.’

    Adam: Right. Pepsi can say Black Lives Matter, it doesn’t mean anything, right? Gwyneth Paltrow can put on Instagram saying Black Lives Matter, it doesn’t really mean anything.

    Nima: Right. But defund the police is actually an action item, right? There’s a real thing that happens and therefore, yeah, it can’t be kind of commercialized.

    Adam: Which for the consulting class of the Democratic Party is very much not good, and that’s why it was created as a slogan. It was created as a sort of, inoculated against meandering liberal co option, and then that turned into this is bad for Democrats, because people think the point of political slogans is to win elections for Democrats, which of course, it’s not. So what you see is you see, over the last year, there’s been a ton of polling, some of it push polling, basically badgering Black and brown voters into saying that they want more cops, and it’s true. If you ask the question a certain way, Black and brown voters will say they want more policing in their neighborhoods, but they’ll sort of hyper qualify it. Some of the more intellectually honest writers will explain, sort of say, ‘But along with this, this and this, this social program, more mental health centers, more rec centers, better schools, clean water,’ all the kinds of things that the defund movement supports, the sort of social interventions that can be used to reduce crime not just cleaning up the aftermath of crime, which is fundamentally what policing is, right? It’s taking social ills and jailing and arresting your way out of it.

    Nima: So for example, one of these polls came out very soon after the uprising of 2020 kicked off, at the end of May, early June 2020, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, but Gallup had a poll that came out August 5, 2020 with this headline, “Black Americans Want Police to Retain Local Presence.” Newsweek reported on this poll the very same day with the headline, “81% of Black Americans Don’t Want Less Police Presence Despite Protests — Some Want More Cops: Poll.” And so immediately, you didn’t get two months into an uprising, into the largest civil rights liberatory protests that had been seen in this country in, you know, at least one generation, probably more, and so you then have this polling that comes out that effectively supports the anti-sloganeering of the Democratic Party. So then you have this whole kind of pushback, oh, well, the protesters don’t speak for the quote-unquote “majority of communities of color,” and then that is leveraged to then say defund is not the answer therefore you have to keep funding, refunding and support Democrats who do the same because they can nod to Black Lives Matter, but they’re not trying to do anything that’s going to actually change anything.

    Adam: Yeah. Now, of course, the whole point of this is that here’s the thing that ostensibly is supposed to be for Black people, which is defund the police, but Black people don’t even want it. The point of this is that it’s supposed to say that, it’s supposed to reduce, even though the defund movement was led by Black organizations, Black leaders, Black intellectuals, Black academics, they want to sort of paint the picture that it’s a bunch of white lefty George Soros radicals kind of, or even occasionally they’ll say like the nonprofit sort of Soros Black leaders, pushing this unpopular agenda on people. Now, when you poll people and you say, ‘Do you want to take money from the police and give it to social services?’ Black people overwhelmingly support that. It’s really how you kind of phrase the question. But more to the point, there’s kind of two scams going on here with how this is phrased. Number one, policing is a last resort for when you have no other option to handle the social ills. So if this is something abolitionists have interrogated and discussed and written books about. Derecka Purnell, who we’ve had on the show, Mariame Kaba has written about it extensively and talked about it extensively in public appearances. Nobody listens to this, by the way, but these issues have been addressed, which is to say, and the analogy I use of the piece, the analogy I’ve used in the show, and the analogy I’ve used, I think, in another article, I’ll keep using it, is that poor communities are drowning, and the Democratic establishment is offering them the barbed wire of more policing, and they grab on to it, because it’s the only thing they have, and then the New York Times says, ‘Look, people want barbed wire, we polled them, they prefer barbed wire over drowning.’ And what abolitionists attempt to say is what if there’s another option other than barbed wire? What if we can envision a world where we handle quote-unquote “crime” as a social ill rather than a collection of discrete moral failings on the part of individuals, and so they have ten things that Black people say they want in these very same polls, if you ask them, they’ll say, green spaces, cleaner neighborhoods, more investment in social services, higher wages, better jobs, name it, right? The sort of social welfare state, that abolitionist claim, and I think empirically we can show, helps prevent crime. Not going to stop it 100 percent, you can’t stop the problem of evil, right? They’re not, this isn’t a Thomas Aquinas thing, but they believe that you can stop 70, 80 percent of crime by having social interventions that lessen the likelihood and motivations in the stew with which crime emerges, okay? Now, those ten things they list, if the tenth one is more policing to help with the rest of it, or help with the sort of stuff that falls through the cracks, the only thing that becomes an urgent priority for Democrats is the policing. The other nine things are literally unimportant.

    Nima: They’re like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, I mean, whatever, everyone wants that.’

    Adam: Right.

    Nima: Pie in the sky, nine things, and then there’s the concrete, ‘Oh, but they say they want more policing or they want to refund or they don’t want to defund.’

    Adam: And mysteriously, that the police thing is the only political preference that Black voters have, it seems to be terribly urgent. Now, the reason why that is, is because it just so happens to be, and again, it depends on your kind of badger the respondent into answering the question, this just so happens to be the politically urgent and very important priority of white rich liberals who read The New York Times and the real estate industry who supports more police, which is a very compelling coincidence, and so The New York Times, which has written this article now about 50 times, they do this whole hand wringing, very patronizing, ‘Black communities want more cops, and it’s dividing the Democratic Party.’ So they wrote Alexandria Burns, one of their reporters wrote this article on June 3, “Democrats Face Pressure on Crime From a New Front: Their Base,” where he kind of hand-wrings about how there’s this organic movement amongst Black and brown voters for more police that’s coming into tension with the radical activist crowd.

    Nima: The entire framing of the article, even from the start, even from the headline, and I know, you know, headlines are not written by the reporters, often, it’s the editors, but this is a thread throughout the article, the idea that there’s Democrats over here, like Democrats as a thing, as a political entity, that is somehow at the beginning of this article framed to be radical and pro defunding the police, that then their quote-unquote “base,” which by this article it actually means reliable Black voters and other voters from communities of color, that now, you know, those otherwise reliable radicals just like the mainstream of the Democratic Party, the radical defund party, now those communities of color are pushing back and this is what is making everyone kind of like thrown for a loop. But like, obviously, “Democrats,” quote-unquote, writ large, especially not Democratic Party officials or the establishment of that party, they don’t support defunding the police to begin with.

    Adam: Well, yeah.

    Nima: So, the entire frame-up of the article is disingenuous.

    Adam: Yeah. Because what they want to do is they want to create this idea that there was this progressive, nonprofit, far left radical fringe that took over the party and now it’s getting pushed back from the sort of real deal, working class Black and brown, real authentic, not Twitter people, and they’re kind of scrambling to respond.

    Nima: The voters that won Georgia, the voters that put Biden in the White House.

    Adam: And so one of the things that the author does, which we’ve seen time and time again, is they confuse polls showing public safety and tackling violence is very important to Black voters, and then he completely pivots without showing any homework at all, how that equates to having more police and longer sentences. Burns writes, quote:

    A study published in April by the Pew Research Center found that Black Americans were likeliest to name violence or crime as the top concern facing their communities, followed by economic issues and housing.

    And then it pivots directly to saying this desire for public safety equates to them supporting police and that’s not true, because again, if you drill down and you ask people, ‘What do you think would help crime?’ Police, again, are an answer that people of color give, obviously, because that’s kind of a normal way we understand crime, but they also talk about things like social services, and notice how they separate things like housing and economic issues from criminality. But of course, you can’t really do that, and so again, it’s very much how you ask the question.

    Nima: Right. Because public safety is just understood to be synonymous with policing.

    Adam: Right. Because what they’ll say is they’ll say the majority of African American voters don’t support defund. But what they never mention is that of the people who support defund, the disproportionate amount of them are Black. If you are Black, you are more likely to support either defunding, again, depends on how you ask the question, to funding or transferring the funds of police to social services way more than white people, especially way more than the white liberals who read The New York Times, who the article is actually for, and one other thing they do, one little sort of trick they do, so what they do is they love to talk about Eric Adams, the pro carceral crowd loves Eric Adams, because he’s the Black mayor of New York and he won the election. Now he had a very organic and authentic, he was borough president of Brooklyn for a long time, very good politician, but of course, basic kind of one-on-one influence on how these things work is that Burns here in The New York Times, and this is a pathology within their reporting on this in general, it treats political currents as these kinds of discreet organic things that emerged from voter preferences that have no corrupting or external forces at all. So Eric Adams defeated Maya Wiley by about nine percentage points, who came in second place and was also a Black candidate who was very much not pro cops. So Eric Adams had the full time support of the right-wing New York Post, the full time support of The Daily News, had tons of puffy write ups in The New York Times and outraised Maya Wiley by more than four times and largely based on real estate funding. Now, you would sit back and say, okay, clearly there are dozens of Black leaders in New York, why do certain Black leaders get flooded with real estate money and some don’t, and Black leaders, like white leaders, like any other leader, are going to appeal to certain constituencies, namely large donors, real estate and police unions. Now, there’s a filtering process in our democracy. Who gets elected is not a one-to-one organic representation of some pure political preference on the part of voters, right? If we thought that we would have a media criticism podcast because we believe that the media largely exists to produce and reproduce our new logical premises, and so this idea that maybe Eric Adams is not some organic manifestation of voters of color, it’s not really a concern of Burns. He doesn’t really think about maybe some of the pro-policing forces that had influence on the mayoral primary.

    Nima: Eric Adams says it well, he was elected mayor of liberal New York and therefore, is emblematic of how entire communities of color, let alone an entire quote-unquote “liberal” city thinks, right? It has nothing to do with being a former cop, a politician and receiving a ton of real estate money in campaign funding.

    Adam: Yeah, and he says this throwaway line about how, ‘Well these pro-police Democrats also support social interventions and social,’ but they don’t. Eric Adams hasn’t done any of that. Eric Adams has literally just increased the police budget and locked up homeless people and talked about how much he loves the police. So again, rhetoric is meaningless. People can say they want social interventions as well as policing, but at the end of the day, one gets priority, one gets money and one becomes an afterthought or they blame it on budgetary issues in Albany or whatever it is, and so you have this very cynical framework where the things that Black voter preferences want that are part of the social safety net that involve high taxes on the rich, which involve regulating real estate, which involve rent control, these things are not said to be that urgent, however, the one Black preference they can kind of pinpoint and turn to that happens to align with the interest of their rich white liberal readers in real estate suddenly becomes the most urgent Democratic Party in the world. Two to one Black Americans support reparations, but for some reason that’s not on the docket to The New York Times.

    Nima: Yeah, that’s a long-term thing, whereas crime is right outside your door, Adam.

    Adam: Yeah. So what you have here is a kind of, is a very typical sort of selective concern that using Black voters to ventriloquist what is ultimately the interest of wealthy New Yorkers, which is they love more police, they fund the police, they support the police, they backed Eric Adams because he was going to be the biggest cop humper other than Andrew Yang in the race, and all these kinds of more complex or nuanced political forces are just to remove from the scenario, because the ultimate media liberal virtue is good faith, everything’s in good faith, everything is right on the nose and everything’s out, and so he quotes three quote-unquote “centrist groups,” one of which, of course, is Third Way, all of which are corporate funded, all of which are backed by Wall Street and real estate interests, and says, ‘Oh, well, they found out that Defund’s a loser,’ it’s like, well, of course, they’re going to say that. Does someone think an organization funded by Bank of America and Wall Street hedge funds was going to come back and support, I mean, of course they’re not going to support that, and so this is manufacturing, you know, consent machine, it’s just sort of how it happens, right?

    Nima: Well, right, because it’s laundering what is this new Third Way report through, again, not an opinion piece, but just straight news, right? He’s just a reporter, just a journalist doing his job here, because there was a Third Way report that came out at the end of March, March 31, 2022 called, “What Communities of Color Want From Police Reform.” So the article, which again, you know, straight news, takes, you know, new polling, and this Third Way piece that is all about being anti-defund, saying all the kind of tried and true things about, ‘communities of color, they want this, they don’t want that,’ that somehow just align with Third Way’s thinking — surprise, surprise — and then we see it in the august pages of The New York Times, and then it’s like, ‘Oh, what a conundrum for Democrats. They really have to figure out their priorities here, because it doesn’t seem like their quote-unquote “base” agrees with what we hear the radical Democratic Party advocating for.’

    Adam: Yeah. So the next day, we had a very similar article in The New York Times, of course, which was written from the same kind of squishy, again, it’s just sort of pandering to white liberals who want to be reactionaries. The headline read, “In San Francisco, Democrats Are at War With Themselves Over Crime. Fueled by concerns about burglaries and hate crimes, San Francisco’s liberal district attorney, Chesa Boudin, faces a divisive recall in a famously progressive city.” They’ve written this article 50 fucking times as well. But I want to show you, so this is the same kind of like, ‘Oh, liberals are being forced to be reactionaries by circumstance,’ even though by the way, there’s a qualifier paragraph in this, which is about seven paragraphs down. Quote:

    There is no compelling evidence that Mr. Boudin’s policies have made crime significantly worse in San Francisco. Overall crime in San Francisco has changed little since Mr. Boudin took office in early 2020.

    But never mind that, we’re going to build a whole article around perceptions. So I’m going to read you these opening three paragraphs, and they’re sort of, again, this is middle school, Schoolhouse Rock understanding of how power works. This is intentionally credulous and intentionally literal minded, and again, the ultimate, the ultimate sin in liberal reportage is to not assume good faith, no one has any ulterior motives unless, of course, it’s China or Russia or Iran or some, you know, enemy country then they’re all, you know, sinister, duplicitous, but for some reason, when it comes to rich real estate interests, they’re all in good faith. So this is from June 4 in The New York Times, “In San Francisco, Democrats Are at War With Themselves Over Crime,” quote:

    As the former chair of the San Francisco Democratic Party, Mary Jung has a long list of liberal bona fides, including her early days in politics volunteering in Ohio for the presidential campaign of George McGovern and her service on the board of the local Planned Parenthood branch. ‘In Cleveland, I was considered a communist,’ she said in her San Francisco office.

    But the squalor and petty crime that she sees as crescendoing on some city streets — her office has been broken into four times during the coronavirus pandemic — has tested her liberal outlook. Last year, on the same day her granddaughter was born, she watched a video of a mentally ill man punching an older Chinese woman in broad daylight on Market Street.

    Ms. Jung, director of government affairs for the San Francisco Association of Realtors and head of a Realtors foundation that assists homeless people, wondered what kind of city her granddaughter would grow up in. ‘I thought, Am I going to be able to take her out in the stroller?’

    Mary Jung (right) with Dion Lim of ABC7 News at an event hosted by the San Francisco Association of Realtors Foundation. (Horatio Jung)

    Now, Nima, what is the director of government affairs for the San Francisco Association of Retailers? That would be a lobbyist for the real estate industry.

    Nima: Yes. Not only a lobbyist for the real estate industry, but I love how it’s set up to be, no, this is a liberal voice, this is a radical, liberal voice and even she, even she is worried about crime.

    Adam: Even she’s turning on Chesa Boudin. So as local San Francisco reporters noted, this is a woman who’s been posting right-wing memes for the past decade. She apparently volunteered for George McGovern’s 1972 campaign, Planned Parenthood, you know, does good work, but not exactly far left, and even she is now turning on it, and they bury the lead here which is that she’s a lobbyist for the fucking San Francisco real estate industry, and she’s the first person they quote in their the same boring fucking Charles Bronson narrative we’ve gotten right the kind of ‘Upper West Side liberal who’s been mugged and now he’s a vigilante.’ I mean, they run the story. They love this story.

    Nima: Yeah.

    Adam: Because it writes itself, right? Sort of liberal who’s been mugged as a conservative trope, which is true to some extent, I mean, I’ve seen it happen like liberals can be very, you know, fairweather allies, obviously, and if they perceive, they watch a couple of Walgreens viral videos of shoplifting.

    Nima: And then have their local Duane Reade close, and then they’re like, ‘This is because of crime.’

    Adam: Yeah. But like this is so typical New York Times it’s like, you know, if I’m an editor and I’m reading this and someone says the director of government affairs, which is code for lobbyist, for the San Francisco Association of Retailers, I’d say, whoa, whoa, wait a second, you just quoted a lobbyist without disclosing they’re a lobbyist, a lot of people wouldn’t know necessarily what director of government affairs is — it’s a fucking lobbyist — isn’t the story here about the real estate industry wanting to recall a progressive prosecutor in historically the real estate industries fund is the biggest supporter.

    Nima: As well as corporations. It’s real estate and corporations because it’s retailers. She’s a lobbyist for retailers. Stores.

    Adam: Yeah. Because Chesa Boudin has gone after corporate crime, he’s prosecuting DoorDash for worker abuse and not paying wages. I mean, his enemies list is quite long for this reason. But real estate industry is the biggest promoter of policing, as we’ve talked about on the show forever, like the story here is that that you’ve talked to a lobbyist for the real estate industry who wants to bring in a tough on crime prosecutor, which is what all real estate lobbies do in every city ever.

    Nima: Yeah. But Adam, she was called a communist in Cleveland.

    Adam: Oh, it’s just so and I’m just reading this, and I’m like, you must be the dumbest motherfucker, who ever lived or you’re very cynical. I think they’re very cynical. I think they know exactly what they’re doing, which is that this article was fed to them by the real estate lobby and then they went in and kind of reverse engineered and peppered in some Vox pop and a little bit of, you know, New York Times, kind of, you know, having said that, there actually isn’t an increase in crime in San Francisco, but people feel like it is so we’re just going to build 2,000 words around that and play into their paranoia.

    Nima: Well, because remember the identical role filled by someone in a city that’s not this stereotypical liberal bastion, if you have, say, Oklahoma City, you’re not going to quote the real estate lobbyist there because chances are the mayor or the district attorney are not going to be liberals, and yet, crime stats are going to be identical to what they are elsewhere, and yet there is this running narrative that like progressive DAs and progressive mayors of liberal cities have allowed crime to run rampant but there is no comparison ever made in these articles to — I don’t know — cities that maybe don’t have those stereotypes along with them that, you know, that aren’t these kind of right-wing bete noir towns.

    Adam: Jacksonville has the same population of San Francisco and has a murder rate three times more. We never hear about the prosecutor there because they’re Republican.

    Nima: You’re not going to hear about the prosecutor there, you’re not going to hear about the mayor there and you’re not going to quote the local real estate lobbyist or the retail lobbyist being like, ‘You know what we need here? We need more cops.’ Because The New York Times is trying to do this whole counter narrative thing, while only supporting one narrative and pretending that there’s a counter narrative that wields any power when actually there really is not and so they’re just reverse engineering PR from lobbyists into articles that have like, you know, an ‘Oh, my’ gasp headline for fucking liberals to read but actually there’s no there there, like there’s no reveal.

    Adam: San Francisco is the third least equal city in the country, California is the seventh least equal state, California has the largest homelessness population in the country other than Hawaii. California, according to the National Homeless Coalition, ranks dead last in supporting homeless people. California is not a socialist utopia, again, you can sort of talk about all these left wingers and radical left, but by all objective metrics, California is a capitalist state with very unequal capitalist structures. Obviously, one of the biggest predictors for crime is that it’s an erosion of social trust. So even if you grant the crime is up, which is brought about by inequality, so I mean, if you grant the crime is up one of the major drivers and one of the major reasons for that is rampant inequality, and radically increasing home prices, you know, as we talked about. Substance abuse is way worse in West Virginia and Kentucky, but they don’t have a homelessness crisis because they don’t have such high housing prices. So you have these large urban areas with very hot sky high housing prices, we know this correlates with an increase in the homeless population. So all these reactionary forces emerge as housing prices increase, as COVID pandemic aid sunseted with zero fanfare, so you see poverty increasing, you see the social disruptions of COVID-19 and everybody just reverts back to the same 1990s playbook, and The New York Times is institutionally and pathologically incurious, I think, by design, I don’t think it’s because they’re just kind of, you know, I don’t think it’s because they’re stupid, I think they do it on purpose, that everything is taken at face value, the needs of Black voters only matters when it aligns with the needs of their rich white readers and the real estate industry, and they hide behind this minority voter washing, the minority voter ventriloquizing to promote an agenda that just aligns with fucking the Third Way Coalition.

    Nima: Yeah. Well, because the most exciting New York Times article is always a stereotypically liberal place wants or does a non-liberal thing.

    Adam: Because it’s a category error. It’s assumed that because you like Planned Parenthood, and you think Trump, you spell Trump with an “F,” Trumpf for whatever, that this is somehow like the same thing as being an equitable or socialist or progressive place, and it’s true California does spend a lot on social services, but they’re, you know, they’re ranked number six of states, they’re not the biggest, you know, Alaska spends more than California per capita but it’s just assumed that this is this left-wing paradise, and the reason why the right-wing in California is so foaming and so militant, and this is one of the things that The New York Times and other publications play to, is that it’s assumed that it’s an evidence of failed liberal policies or welfare state policies, no matter how much evidence you show people that actually these are failed capitalist policies and a state and these large cities that are extremely, extremely unequal, and it’s not even no true Scotsman, it’s just, it is I mean, it’s California to the United States of America, just because you have maybe slightly higher taxes, which they don’t even really have when you when you incorporate the property taxes, does not, you know, socialist paradise it make, which is fine, but you can’t argue against a fictitious, you know, existing status quo of some far left paradise, and it’s just not true, and so the fundamental premise is clearly sort of smugly and snarkily playing to these assumptions, ‘Oh, even in progressive San Francisco,’ it’s like, ‘even in progressive New York.’

    Nima: And also just as kind of one added maddening piece of this, Adam, is the assumption that, ‘Oh, well, if say Black voters are polled saying they want more police, that therefore proves that police are good,’ that the perception or the wants or the need of a kind of monolithized community and people or identity, then kind of undermines the premise of an entire system maybe not being great, then it’s like, ‘No, I guess, I guess it is great. If everyone, since they love cops, then I guess cops are great.’ So let’s stop investigating that. So, it’s possible to poll people, all kinds of people, and have bad poll results — you know what I’m saying? — people like things that aren’t great. Also, as you said earlier Adam, the idea that cops are last resort, sure, they’re also presented as being the only option, right? So it’s last resort plus only option.

    Adam: Yes. Because it you’re not going to, you know, it’s worker discipline and austerity time, you’re not going to get, you know, we’re not going to go back to the pandemic unemployment insurance, we’re not going to go back to any kind of social welfare state, we’re not going to go back to other interventions that may reduce crime, we’re not going to do meaningful rent control or build affordable housing or reduce the cost of rent, clearly that’s all off the table. So if you’re worried about the logical byproduct of a failed social state, which is what we have, right, the only solution is going to have to be to call the cops. That’s all you’re going to get. So you can take it or you can fuck off and die. And so this is what the purpose of The New York Times is, it’s to limit the discourse to this narrow question, it’s to ask no systemic questions, it’s to selectively concern troll the needs of minority voters, again, while you ignore 95 percent of their other political preferences that they don’t seem to think are urgent issues for the Democrats, you cite these bullshit left-punching organizations like Third Way and you basically you work backwards from the starting point that we need to make reactionary, ideological argumentation seem good to squishy liberals who read The New York Times, we have to sell them on this as something that is what the minorities want, that the whole spasms, you know, all the George Floyd protests, none of that was real, that was all just sort of spasm, it was brought about by Russian trolls and white supremacists letting off some steam. ‘They actually really want more cops, the summer of 2020 was just a figment of your imagination, don’t worry, the cops who protect you and work overtime to make sure the homeless person outside of your artisanal yoga studio, the Blacks actually want that.’ That’s what The New York Times is there to do. They did this in the ’90s when they did the crack baby panic, when they sold stop-and-frisk, when the editorial board promoted stop-and-frisk and promoted the 1994 crime bill.

    Nima: People in the community want this.

    Adam: This is The New York Times,’ one of The New York Times’ primary social functions is to make right-wing or reactionary or carceral conventional wisdom seem progressive and liberal and that’s what they are very good at doing.

    Nima: And popular among the people that those liberals would want to align themselves with or claim to.

    Adam: Right. Claim to.

    Nima: Well, that will do it for this Citations Needed News Brief. Thank you everyone 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. You can also visit our Citations Needed merch store, pick up a t-shirt or tote bag at Bonfire.com/store/citations-needed. That will do it for this News Brief. We will be back very soon with more full length episodes of Citations Needed so stay tuned. But until then thanks again for listening. I am Nima Shirazi.

    Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

    Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again for listening, everyone. We’ll catch you next time.


    This Citations Needed News Brief was released on Wednesday, June 8, 2022.

    Transcription by Morgan McAslan.

  • Live Interview: “Action News” & the Rise of Anti-Black Local “Crime” Reporting — with Layla A.

    Citations Needed | June 15, 2022 | Transcript

    Still from the intro for 6ABC’s Action News, broadcast in the Philadelphia metro area in the early 1970s.


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

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

    Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

    Nima: This is a live interview, we do these from time to time for our Patreon subscribers. That is you. And then of course, the full episode gets released a little while later for every one because that’s how we do it. Of course, you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and if you’re not already, although those joining us live right now are, you can become a supporter of the show through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast, all your help through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated as we are 100 percent listener funded.

    Adam: Yes. And as always, you can subscribe to us on Patreon. As we said, for those who are not aware, you’ll get over 110 News Briefs, extensive show notes for every episode, our newsletter, and many, many other goodies like what you’re witnessing now. You know, Nike, it just occurred to me, we had talked offline about now that I have a kid I wanted to swear less, and I was going to try to swear less on the show because, you know, you want to set a good example.

    Nima: That’s very noble of you.

    Adam: But then it occurs to me that our slogan has a swear word in it.

    Nima: It’s true, but you give that to me. I’m the one who has to say that.

    Adam: So I think we have to change it to the history of power, PR and the history of poopoo.

    Nima: Caca doodoo.

    Adam: I think we’re going to have to make it PG rated now that we’re totally, totally domesticated.

    Nima: Yes. We also have official Citations Needed merch.

    Adam: We have merch.

    Nima: We have a store. You can buy Citations Needed gear and wear it every day of your lives. So you can find that on Bonfire.com/store/citations-needed. You can find all sorts of goodies there: t-shirts, sweatshirts, long sleeve shirts, a tote bag, maybe even a couple mugs.

    And yeah, so that is, you know, next level. After five years —

    Adam: I think it’s time. All right, without further ado.

    Nima: For this Citations Needed live interview we are joined by Layla A. Jones, Layla is a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer and author of the amazing piece, “Lights. Camera. Crime. How a Philly-born brand of TV news harmed Black America,” and that is one of the very first entries in a special project from the Inquirer examining the roots of systemic racism through institutions founded in Philadelphia. It’s a really amazing series called, “A More Perfect Union,” definitely urge everyone to check it out, and Layla, your piece is really striking and could not possibly align better with what we do on Citations Needed, which is talking about the media and its influence. Just want to kind of set the stage for folks listening. The idea that local news, you know, local nightly news is this thing that kind of people have a routine they, you know, finish out their day, they eat dinner, they’re hanging out with the family, they turn on nightly news, it seems almost like this organic thing that has always existed in the way that we understand it now, but that is so not the case. This is something that was created, there’s a format to it, but this idea that there’s this routine that is kind of shared, you know, something you write very early in your piece is this, quote:

    The institution of local broadcast news is a young one, but among the most ubiquitous in the United States. It’s a pair of routines that unfold each night: As Americans gather to wind down their days, the medium has worked to deepen racial tensions and reinforce racial stereotypes about communities of color.

    And I think that’s such an amazing framework to start your piece and to start your investigation, and so without further ado, I will shut up, and Adam, please do ask the first question, because we really do want to hear from you because you are the person who knows all the good stuff.

    Adam: So yeah, let’s talk about the origins of the genre. 1965, you have the kind of Eyewitness News and then Action News or certainly sounds better than passive news. Talk about the origins of the genre, and specifically how the formula kind of supercharged racist attitudes that were coalescing around the same time in response to uprisings in large cities and reactionary politics to the Civil Rights gains of the 1960s. So let’s start there, if you wouldn’t mind.

    Layla A. Jones

    Layla A. Jones: Yeah, sure. Cool. Well, thank you all for having me first of all. If we’re starting with the beginning of Eyewitness News, we go back to a man named Al Primo, who is now 87, living in Old Greenwich, Connecticut, but in 1965, he was like 30, and he was charged with leading Philadelphia’s Channel 3 KYW now owned by CBS. And as he became a news director, he learned that you could have multiple reporters on television without paying them more for their story. So prior to what you said, Nima, the creation of Eyewitness and Action News, news was not anything like it is today. It was just one person, generally an older or middle-aged white man sitting kind of reading —

    Nima: Shocking.

    Layla A. Jones: (Laughs.) Sitting, kind of reading, radio newsreader format of largely national and international news. Wartime things and things like that.

    Nima: Like a Walter Cronkite kind of version.

    Layla A. Jones: Exactly, exactly. And that was because it was expensive to pay people, they thought, to appear on television, even to have their handle on TV apparently cost a lot of money. News was not a moneymaker for stations, it actually sometimes lost stations money and they made money on their movies and their television shows. Al Primo changed all that. He monetized local television news, and he also localized it, and he did it all, you know, to earn money. So immediately, the ratings go up at Channel 3 KYW, then owned by ABC, and other ABC affiliates are like, ‘Hey, we want to do this too, we want to know why they’re earning money while they’re getting this and that from the network,’ and that’s kind of how the format took off and proliferated across the country. Obviously it created competition. They wanted eyeballs on the newscast. So five years later, also in Philadelphia, Action News comes along. Action News was interesting, because it was really started by somebody who was a statistician, he wasn’t really a newsmaker, he studied audiences, he figured out what people wanted to see, and he told newsmakers to put that on television, they wanted things super fast, 15-second, 20-second story, no more three-minute pieces that really kind of go a little more in depth, and that is how Action News came to be and it took over and it has, at least in Philadelphia, reigned supreme for decades.

    Nima: Yeah, I mean, it’s this amazing thing where, you know, once you realize that it was someone’s vision to create this, you’re like, wait, oh, this was a decision based on, as you just said, based on data, right, based on the audience, what the audience, quote-unquote, “the audience” is going to really lap up, what they’re going to want to see reflected back to them, it also then has influence on advertisers, you know, you even write that in your piece that what we’ve been sort of dancing around, of course, is that the Eyewitness News and Action News format, puts front and center, crime stories, crime, crime, crime, crime, crime, public interest piece about a lemonade stand in the suburbs, crime, crime, crime.

    Adam: And a specific version of crime too obviously. Not wage theft or corporate pollution, but a specific genre of crime.

    Nima: A specific genre of crime. So actually, we have this clip teed up, there’s this excellent, roughly 10 minute video that accompanies your piece, “Lights. Action. Crime,” you produced with a number of your colleagues at the Inquirer, and there’s a section in it that I’d like to play some audio from that kind of gets into this.

    [Begin Clip]

    Vernon Odom: Is the daily decisions on what’s going to get covered on the news. It is vastly important to have some people who understand what’s going on out there. Suburbanites, particularly white ones, don’t live in the world that Black or brown people live in in the inner city. They don’t have that perspective and they can tend to easily overlook it when that is not brought up to them regularly.

    [End Clip]

    Nima: So what that piece speaks to, yes, it’s like, ‘Oh, okay, you know, let’s have the news bring all sorts of communities into the living room,’ right? But there’s something at the heart of that that I’d love for you to speak to Layla, which is, it’s not just bringing urban life, city life to the suburbs, but a very specific kind, a very specific version, vision of city life, and especially city life as directly connected to Black and brown communities. Can you talk to us about kind of what you found, through your own reporting, on what that vision was, what was being pumped onto the screens for a primarily white suburban audience outside the city limits of Philly to kind of, ‘Oh, this is what the city means.’

    Layla A. Jones: Well, yeah, just to start off, that was the voice from the video of Vernon Odom, who is a pioneering Black reporter who worked at Action News from the ’70s until 2019. And so what happened with this is that it was really multi-layered in my opinion and from what I uncovered with reporting. It started with the desire, the need, the greed to make money. On top of that, the era suggested that only white people were on TV and so to even have one Black reporter on the screen, was a breakthrough but in the back room, it was still what Vernon Odom just said, largely white people making the decisions, and finally, they wanted eyeballs on the newscast and so they were leaning towards sensationalism. And so since you have, you know, a desire to make money, no Black people or people of color in decision making roles and then you’re appealing to a specific kind of audience, you get this conglomeration of issues that create the culture of news that we have today, and so they wanted to attract advertisers and they wanted to attract white suburban audiences so they started doing two things. First, they were broadcasting crime in largely Black and brown communities. I had Larry Kane, a really prominent longtime anchor, tell me it was cheap to cover, it was easy to cover, all people did was tell the cameraman to shoot the blood, shoot the scene, shoot the victims, whatever they got, and it took 20 seconds. That’s what he said to me. And that was the ethos and the drive behind this format. On the flip side of that, what I think was especially detrimental is that the suburbs received a completely different kind of coverage. Because the newsmakers at Action News first, I would argue, and then Eyewitness News as it tried to claw its way back to the top, because they wanted to attract middle-class white suburbanites, they went out of their way to broadcast little fun community events there so that those people felt really seen and they felt like the news was an Eyewitness for them and then it was everywhere for them. They hired videographers specifically for the purpose of going to backyard festivals and charity events in the suburbs. And so what that created, and people say this, one of their arguments against the piece is that, ‘Well, there is crime happening in Black and brown communities.’ Well, there’s crime happening everywhere. But again, the anchor, Larry Kane said, there were some crimes that he didn’t think were important enough because, quote, “They happened everywhere.” So highlighting things that happened in specifically Black and brown communities was, you know, intentional, and it created a lack of balance that has really harmed people of color today.

    Larry Kane

    Adam: Yeah, because there’s this line in the movie Nightcrawler, which is sort of an indictment of, the Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo film, which it’s politics were I thought imperfect, but I did actually think it made a very good point where they talked about creeping crime in white suburban neighborhoods is sort of the mother’s milk of local news. It’s not just about criminality, in general, or even criminality located to Black neighborhoods, but the sort of, the Holy Grail is this crime in what is considered a kind of white area or tourist area and this idea of creeping crime creates this moral panic, and one thing you write about is that the actual data around crime had no relation at all to the actual covering. So when people say, ‘Well, crime does happen in Black communities,’ and you say, well, then why is it when crime dropped precipitously in the ’90s into the 2000s and 2010s, two things happened, the percent coverage of crime and local news didn’t really change much and the evidence of that is that poll after poll after poll after poll every year, something we’ve talked about in the show, shows that people think crime is up from the previous year. So even from 1995 to 2020 when crime plummeted, every single poll from 1989 on said that people thought it was up and this is largely a product of the local sort of Action News format, which is basically pumped directly into the veins of scared white suburbanites. So it’s not reflecting reality, because there’s always an underlying reality to a lot of this stuff, right? I mean, it’s not like it’s made up out of whole cloth, but obviously editorial choices are made about what we cover and what we don’t cover and that has with it certain politics, and this kind of this sort of cheeky, like, ‘Well, that’s just the way it is or we just did for the ratings or that’s where it’s from,’ I’m sort of curious in your talking to people who kind of developed this as a genre, which I know has gotten slightly more progressive over time, it’s not as bad as it was in say 1975, and I think it’s important to make that distinction, but when you talk to people who sort of developed this format and really kind of pander to and drove this kind of reactionary politics in the ’70s, specifically white flight, which I know predates it, but I do think there was a bit of a feedback loop, what do they say? How do they sort of rationalize it? I assume they kind of hide behind the ultimate turn your brain off justification of ‘Oh, it was just the ratings,’ right? This is sort of what Rupert Murdoch always says. He says, ‘Oh, it’s just the ratings.’ And it’s like, yeah, that’s true to an extent but what are the other factors that are going on? I do think even the part where you mentioned how the advertisers wanted middle class, white consumers, kind of bakes the racism into the business model. So I want you to talk about how they defend their decisions, do they feel any kind of moral responsibility for this kind of development? Or is it just one of these, ‘Eh, it was the business, it was the ‘70s.’

    Layla A. Jones: Yeah, yeah. There’s so much there. Well, you know, first of all, what you mentioned about the disconnection from reality is super important for, you know, several reasons. Number one, the crime you see on TV a lot, it’s violent, it’s homicide, that is the smallest percent of actual crime happening anywhere, but you wouldn’t know that. If I was an alien coming from outer space, I would think, wow, that’s all that happens in cities is murder. Secondly, you know, I’m from the suburbs, I’m from a suburb in Maryland and so because I live here, you know, I can understand that crime happens where I’m from, but I don’t see that kind of thing on television and so it could allow me to say, well, my neighborhood is so much better than this neighborhood. But what you asked about what newsmakers’ justifications were, it wasn’t even as much about the ratings, and they will say, outwardly, they would get to that eventually, but when I would ask directly, you know, what do you say to the criticism that you all fueled negative opinions about Black and brown communities because of your coverage or crime, they would just say, ‘We just covered the news, this is what was happening, and we just covered what was happening,’ and, you know, I pushed back on that, because study after study, based on research that I spoke to, they addressed these newsmakers, specifically in Philadelphia, and they told them, your formats we’ve proven in a lab, are responsible for increasing attitudes that are harmful toward Black people, it increases white people’s attitudes that Black people are criminals, it increases the likelihood that people would support policies that fosters mass incarceration, like longer incarceration periods, even higher likelihood to increase death penalty, you know, they were presented with these findings and that was, at least one that I know it was in the ’90s, and so 30 years later, I’m asking you, what responsibility do you feel about this? And, you know, they responded that it was just the news. But one person in particular did say this far beyond that, you know, 30 years later, you just have to focus on moving forward.

    Adam: Well, that’s convenient. Well, because I mean, I’m not, you know, without being too sanctimonious about it, it does seem like when people place the burden, the moral burden on the market, or the news, it absolves them of any responsibility as editorial newsmakers, and as you note, you can empirically show, as researchers have, that the news wasn’t some organic product of reality, it wasn’t that they were just holding a mirror to society, there were deliberate editorial choices made with deliberate policy outcomes that were invariably going to happen based on those editorial choices.

    Layla A. Jones: Well, yeah. And if it was reality, Black and brown communities that do have higher rates of certain kinds of crimes also have positive things happening there, too. They have backyard festivals, and they have block parties and charity events. But that lack of balance under the veil of objectivity, that’s not objective. It’s subjective that you would even choose which stories to cover in which communities.

    Nima: Yeah, exactly. I mean, the idea of holding up a mirror, it depends on where you point the mirror, right, what is being reflected back, and what and what is outside of that, in terms of how you’re framing this. I mean, you’ve noted today, and also in your piece, you know, there’s the Kerner Commission, there’s the 1979 Department of Justice Report, you know, much more recent examples as well of, you know, the influence that media, especially news media, has on the perceptions of their audiences, and of course, when the audience is primarily white and suburban, it does all of these, you know, very, very sinister things, you know, in between, as I kind of touched on earlier, and as you have in your piece Layla, you write, quote, “Between the scenes of desperation, lawlessness, and urban Chaos, ads featuring white families sold cars, bank loans, household cleaning supplies, and pizza dinners.”

    Adam: Right. You’re selling middle class-ness.

    Nima: Exactly, which then gets Adam to the whole like creeping-ness, right? So if it’s, you kind of point the camera at a dangerous Black neighborhood, and you do a very quick piece, and then you show that, ‘Oh, but what is the urban life like, what are your concerns?’ It’s not those concerns, and then there’s that holy grail of reporting where it’s like, oh, is there a town that’s kind of closer to the suburbs that’s seeing something dangerous or violent? Because then it’s even more sinister and what are the only solutions? Obviously, all the more cops. But something I’d love for you to touch on, Layla, is the idea that these quick pieces, you know, sometimes 20 seconds, sometimes 11 minutes, whatever, but they’re still really short, they put forward this, you know, story, they tell a story, but then that story is never revisited, right? It’s on on a Tuesday night, never heard from again, but the people who are part of that story are living with the consequences of that and sometimes the follow up that never comes tells a very different story of what, you know, was reported in that very quick piece. Can you talk about kind of how the, you know, communities where the cameras are focused on are affected by these reports, and how this model makes no room for any kind of follow-up revisiting actually telling a much longer story than just that single one, sensational one.

    Layla A. Jones: Yeah, yeah. Thanks so much for that question because the piece, “Lights. Camera. Crime,” it opens up with a story about one of these individuals, a Black man who lived in a at the time diverse neighborhood, and whose family was the victim of a racist attack, literally, they were called n-words before he was stabbed, and so he talks about how he felt that a week’s worth of coverage from that incident felt good to him, it felt sufficient, he felt like news tried to tell his story but then he released to me a few details that he felt were never followed up on. His father and brother were arrested, he never knew why. The young man who he said stabbed him, he said, was convicted of ethnic intimidation and not attempted murder. He never knew why and so there were these really huge questions that failed to be answered in that snapshot, whether it was a 22-second story, like you said, two minutes, or even a week’s worth of stories. That’s not sufficient when, you know, someone almost lost their life. But I want to say that it’s multilayered, again, there are reporters who gave me feedback, television reporters on this story today, Black people who work in the media industry and who appear on camera who said they are still trying to change that format, but they’re just kind of cogs in the wheel, and since it’s about making money, and since it’s about ratings, the higher-ups have an agenda, and what I’ve said a lot that I want to reiterate is that I don’t believe from my reporting that Al Primo and Bob Feldman and the white man who made these formats in the ’60s and ’70s said, ‘I don’t like Black people, I don’t like Hispanic people, I want to portray them negatively, and I want white people to be afraid of them,’ but I think that a part of racism in this country in general, and this format specifically, is the disregard of Black people. You ignore what they say and we are often just collateral damage. Intent is never enough when the impact is what’s actually harming Black and brown people. Another thing you mentioned about the commercials that I wanted to talk about was that our research, something that didn’t make it in, a bunch of people worked on this, not just me, and our researcher, Brenda Holland, found that there were increased advertisements for security systems too at this time. So alongside white suburban families getting pizza or buying new cars, there were ads that were saying, ‘Make sure you get some cameras and security systems for your home, while this crime may creep into your white picket fence community.’

    Adam: Yeah, because I think even something to get away with murder, you know, Action News will have, over the course of two years they’ll have 10 stories about a pedestrian being struck at an intersection in a poor neighborhood, right? And they’ll show the bloody body and they’ll have a kind of, but they’ll never do an investigative report about why these communities aren’t given proper sidewalks and lights and the systemic issues are just not part of the genre and when everything is about one-off “discrete” crime, quote-unquote, as opposed to broader systemic critiques, you’re necessarily going to have a kind of moralistic and patronizing vision of quote-unquote “crime,” and that sort of seems like one of the driving factors, everything is just kind of cut off discrete thing and murders are not the product of poverty or social failure or lack of social services, they’re just cultural or whatever, which is going to have its own proxy for eugenics. But I want to talk a little bit about those trying to kind of work their way within the system. You touched on this. You note that there were Black reporters, and to some extent producers, who tried to kind of add a little humanity, if you will, to their communities. I want to play that clip right now and then I want to talk about it real quick.

    [Begin Clip]

    Trudy Haynes: It was quite obvious we needed to tell our own stories about our own people. They’re part of the American culture and surely had everything happening to them that were happening to anyone else. And so why shouldn’t they be covered? Why shouldn’t their lives also be counted?

    Vernon Odom: Sometimes, some given days the only Black people you’d see on TV were criminals or ballplayers, you know? I covered hard breaking news from crime to Three Mile Island. My philosophy was that I always worked hard to be balanced and give, in many cases, a Black perspective.

    Vernon Odom: Sensational hit, New Attitudes. I’m Vernon Odom, join me this Saturday night at 7:30 on Visions.

    [End Clip]

    Adam: So talk about these reforms. Obviously, they have their limits, because at the end of the day certain people own certain things and certain people don’t own them, but talk about those efforts, what kind of inroads were made, and what you found in your interviews and your research.

    Trudy Haynes reports on the weather for WXYZ-TV, 1960s.

    Layla A. Jones: Yeah, yeah. Thanks for playing that. That was starting off it was Miss Trudy Haynes who is 95 and still hosts a show on YouTube on her YouTube channel. So, Trudy Haynes, she was hired in 1965 at the onset of Eyewitness News. Al Primo brought her on because one of the things he found in his audience surveys and research was that there was this gap in what he called “minority,” but I would prefer, you know, Black or people of color, on television and their audiences, especially in Philadelphia, a majority Black and brown city wanted that. And so in her work, she talked about how she always found the color in the audience, how she always sought to bring the Black perspective. Vernon Odom too, the show you showed at the end is called Visions, it was a public affairs program that he took on and hosted for years, especially through the ’80s, and so there were always attempts by Black people at these companies to bring context and color to what was largely a white world. Even when it came to covering crime, Vernon said he always tried to explain, there’s poverty here, there’s lack of education because of systemic failures at government level. But when I asked Miss Trudy, you know, do you feel like what you did made institutional change? She said, ‘I couldn’t say that.’ She said, ‘I just did my best to stay there as long as I could,’ and I think feedback that I hear from Black and brown creators at these stations now kind of confirms that it is much of the same. While I think one of y’all mentioned that there are some changes being made, but I think there’s still a lot more that needs to be done, we can still turn on the TV right now — what time is it? 2:38 here on the east coast, whatever — you turn it on at 6pm and you’re going to see crime lead the show nine times out of ten, and so while there have always been attempts to right the ship, I think that it’s institutionalized now, this whole series is about institutions, and so changing that type of bureaucracy is very, very difficult.

    Adam: Yeah because so much of it is about kind of preconceived narratives. There’s this whole recall effort against Chesa Boudin, the reformed prosecutor in San Francisco, which I write about, I occasionally will defend him in the pages of the Chronicle and have unleashed the most rabid weirdos in the world, and you tell someone, okay, well, Jacksonville, Florida has a murder rate three times that of San Francisco, and that’s the same population and has a Republican mayor and a Republican police chief and a Republican prosecutor and has much more strict, severe laws, and they just, they don’t listen, because there’s a narrative, which is weak prosecutors create more quote-unquote “crime.” Because right now we’re in this kind of reactionary moment to the George Floyd protest, and the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s kind of taken hold.

    Nima: And especially in liberal cities.

    Adam: Well, especially in liberal cities, which have all unleashed their inner Charles Bronson, and it doesn’t seem like no matter how many times you bang your head against the wall and try to show them this crime statistics data, it just doesn’t sort of seem to matter because there’s a kind of narrative in people’s heads and one of the reasons is, is because of, you know, local news in San Francisco had a couple of viral clips of people stealing stuff from Walgreens that had this sort of visceral feeling that, ‘Oh, Walgreens is Bedlam,’ this and that and it’s this idea that kind of these sensationalist one-off cases are curated in a very specific way to create a certain narrative, because you’ll bring it up and they say, ‘Oh, what are you trying to say there’s no crime?’ And it’s like, no, of course, people steal shit from Walgreens in San Francisco, like, obviously, if you’re there for 10 minutes you’ll see it. But the reality is if you actually look at the crime stats it is on par with even neighboring Sacramento, which also has a conservative prosecutor, but it doesn’t fit a particular narrative, and so the news keeps feeding that narrative over and over again. This is obviously not a very original point but it seems like once you sort of see what goes viral, because local news now is all about Facebook traffic and getting people angry in the Facebook comments, and you see that if it confirms to a narrative which is far-left, radical, Black Lives Matter, politicians have gone too far, and this is leading to this erosion of society. It doesn’t matter how many examples you show of conservative led states and cities that have higher crime rates, it just fits into a narrative and that’s reflected back even today in local media. So I want to talk about the kind of present tense a little bit because the same fundamental incentives are still there, which is the monetization of white anger without sounding too much — I don’t know, I don’t want to be too much like, ‘I’m one of the good ones, trust me,’ — but like there’s this kind of white anger element to it that seems highly, highly monetized and viral, and that still informs, from our perspective, local news, which is why we talk about local news a lot on the show. So getting out of Philadelphia a little bit, do you think the fundamental economics are the same?

    Layla A. Jones: You know, what I was thinking of when you were talking is something that wasn’t touched on in the piece but has been talked about a lot for the last few years, which is coverage of the opioid epidemic, and I think that that shows what happens when news changes its own narrative, and so we talk about the monetization of white anger but one of the researchers I talked to said, ‘Well, have audiences really ever been shown anything different? How do you know that you can’t make money by doing other things?’

    Adam: Right.

    Layla A. Jones: And so the flip side of that is, when Black and brown people weren’t involved, or were perceived as being less involved during the opioid epidemic, which is ongoing and has been affecting several families, you see a flip toward the criminalization of drug use to drug use as a public health issue. That’s something that has now become enshrined in coverage and we use people first language, even when sometimes people who have been addicted to drugs don’t use that kind of language, we use the language because we want to humanize them to our audiences, which are white suburbanites, who we understand might not know what’s going on here, and so I think that that’s a roundabout way to say that race is a really specific driver, in my opinion, of this format and of the penchant towards monetizing white anger because when similar problems that affect swaths of people and a variety of races took off in the news, we saw an intentional shift in its coverage and that’s something that we still haven’t seen, I mean, now we kind of hear gun violence being called a public health issue sometimes, but nothing like we saw what can happen when newsmakers are intentional about how they cover vulnerable people and communities.

    Nima: Yeah, I love that you brought that up, this idea that there is an example, there are examples of doing this differently, and so the choice to continue to perpetuate this model, this format is just that, it is a choice. You know, Adam and I on the show have previously talked about how crack was reported on in the ’80s and early ’90s, you know, and have shown like a Time magazine cover that, you know, says like, “Crack Kids” in this kind of kindergarten font, and you know, like, ‘Their mothers used drugs, and now they’re paying the price,’ and it shows just like a sad kid, and juxtaposing that against a much more recent Time magazine cover that has a black and white image, doesn’t show anyone’s face just shows an arm with a needle, you know, going into it and it says, “The Opioid Diaries,” in like a serif font, it’s much more concerned, it’s much more official, it’s a diary, it’s about you know, personal —

    Adam: I like that even the font choice is racist.

    Nima: Yeah, exactly. Totally, right? And so speaking exactly to what you’re saying, Layla, this idea that this isn’t just, ‘Hey, that’s news, that’s the way it is, you point the camera at the thing, and that’s what it is,’ you know, and ‘Hey, if it bleeds, it leads, whatever,’ it’s that no, there are these choices, there is the ability to, you know, I mean, even to get kind of wonky about it, like changing style guides, you can have people first language embedded into the methods by which people report and edit and produce news, and you know, we’ve seen that change over time, in certain ways. Maybe instead of saying, “racially charged,” just say, “racist.”

    Adam: So can you discuss a little bit, we typically like to end on a quote-unquote “positive” note, which is to say, because people here, you know, complain and whine for an hour, they’re like, ‘Well, what are we going to do?’ So let’s talk about that, talk about sort of ways in which academics, scholars, activists, journalists themselves, think there can be interventions to maybe create better practices with an understanding that, again, there are limits to that, but what what kind of reforms do you think are useful in your research and talking to people who’ve been talking about this for 40 years?

    Layla A. Jones: Yeah, literally. Well, first of all, experts and researchers said similar things to what you said, which is that crime can’t be covered as episodic. It needs to be covered as systemic and we need to point to the causes and then infuse few solutions oriented journalism. What are the solutions that the government needs to explore or anyone? Additionally, there are people who are definitely already doing things right now and have been for decades, organizations that are investing in hyperlocal and grassroots news gathering is something that I think is helping to shape Philadelphia locally. One of them is the Germantown Info Hub and one called Resolve Philly, and what they do is plug into the legacy in mainstream mass media systems, including the television stations when they want to tap in with them, and they teach them different ways to standardize how you cover certain communities, different ways to build community connection. Actually, some of my colleagues were at a workshop that was talking about crime coverage, they were happy to see a lot of television journalists were there and they also said that they discussed this piece, that they played the video, and that there was buy in from TV reporters to learn how to better cover communities of color and crime. And so I think that there is a spirit for it right now. I think, another major change that has to continue happening, and has improved since the ’60s and ’70s, is having Black and brown decision makers, Black, Hispanic and other people of color decision makers inside of those newsrooms, not just on television, because again, the people on television usually have kind of the least, the least amount of power in these systems. So I think those are a few things that are happening and that can happen to continue to improve things. But also an acknowledgement, like of that Time cover, Time needs to acknowledge, and other other entities need to acknowledge that harm and really be intentional about equity moving forward.

    Nima: So Layla, before we let you go, what are you now working on? Where can people follow your work? What should they be paying attention to? Where should they follow you? Because this piece you did for the Inquirer is fantastic and I’m sure you have more in the works.

    Layla A. Jones: Well, thank you. Yes, well it was a bunch of us, my editors, the videographer, Carrie, and Brenda, the researcher, but we’re also, again, as you mentioned at the beginning, this is an ongoing series. So the next piece that I’m working on is about medicine. Philadelphia is home of the first hospital, first med school. So I’m going to be focusing on that and that should be coming out sometime in the next month or two. To follow along, definitely subscribe to The Philadelphia Inquirer’s newsletter, it is Inquirer.com, I’m sure you can sign up anywhere there. Me personally, I can be followed on Twitter @bae_lay, and I think that’ll be it.

    Nima: Well, I think that is a great place to leave it. We have been speaking with Layla A. Jones, reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer and author of the piece, among others, “Lights. Camera. Crime,” which is one of the first entries in the A More Perfect Union series by the Inquirer. Layla, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed and giving us a look behind the kind of anchorman trope that, as you said, you know, I mean, started in Philly and spread across the country to 200 plus stations. It’s been great to talk to you today.

    Layla A. Jones: Thank you so much, it was fun.

    Nima: So that will do it for this live interview from Citations Needed. Of course 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 appreciated, we are 100 percent listener funded. Also feel free to go pick up some new merch through Bonfire. But thanks again for listening. We will be back very shortly, soon, with new full length episodes. But until then, thanks again. I’m Nima Shirazi.

    Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

    Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter is 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 live interview was recorded with a virtual audience on Friday, May 20, 2022 and released on Wednesday, June 15, 2022.

  • Episode 162: How the “Data-Driven” Label Sanitizes Cruel Austerity Politics

    Citations Needed | June 1, 2022 | Transcript

    Barack Obama and Melinda Gates visit the Gates-financed TechBoston Academy in Dorchester, Massachusetts, in 2011. (Doug Mills / The New York Times)


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

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

    Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

    Nima: 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.

    Adam: Yes, if you can, please give to our Patreon, it helps us out a lot. We have special little goodies there, over 110 or 120 or so little mini episodes, it helps keep the episodes themselves free, and helps keep the show sustainable.

    Nima: “Follow The Data” is the name of a Bloomberg Philanthropies podcast that debuted in 2016. “How Data Analysis Is Driving Policing,” a 2018 NPR headline read. “Data suggests that schools might be one of the least risky kinds of institutions to reopen,” an opinion piece in The Washington Post told us in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Adam: Over the last 20 years or so, a trend of labeling concepts as quote “data-driven” emerged. It applied, and continues to apply, to policies affecting everything from education to public health to policing to journalism. Decisions affecting these areas will be more thoughtful, the idea goes, when informed and supported by data. In many ways, this is a welcome development: The idea that a rigorously scientific collection of information via surveys, observation, and other methods would make policies and media stronger seems unimpeachable.

    Nima: But this isn’t always the case. While gathering “data” is a potentially beneficial process, the process alone isn’t inherently good, and is too often used to obscure important and requisite value-based or moral questions, assert contested ideological priors and traffic in right-wing austerity premises backed by monied interests. When our media tell us a largely unpopular, billionaire-backed idea like school privatization or “targeted” policing or tax incentive handouts to corporations all have merit they’re backed by “the data,” what purpose does this framing actually serve? Where does the data come from? Who is funding this gathering of data? What data are we choosing to care about and, perhaps most important of all, what data are we choosing to ignore?

    Adam: On today’s episode, we’ll look at the development of the push to make everything data-driven, examine who defines what counts as “data,” which forces shape its sourcing and collection, and how the fetishization of quote-unquote “data” as something that exists outside and separate from politics is more often than not, less a methodology for determining truth, and more a branding exercise for neoliberal ideological production and reproduction.

    Nima: Later on the show, we’ll be speaking with two guests: Abigail Cartus, an epidemiologist at Brown University where she focuses on perinatal health and overdose prevention in her work at The People, Place & Health Collective, a Brown School of Public Health research laboratory.

    [Begin Clip]

    Abigail Cartus: This push towards policy-based evidence-making just conducting analyses that justify a political goal that has already been decided with basically no opportunity for public input or public deliberation, and then forcing the debate over that to take place on the terrain of statistical methods, data quality, you know, things that laypeople and the general public really can’t always weigh in on.

    [End Clip]

    Nima: And also with Justin Feldman, an epidemiologist and a Health and Human Rights Fellow at the Harvard FXB Center for Health and Human Rights.

    [Begin Clip]

    Justin Feldman: I think there is this liberal value of trusting science, trusting expertise, and some of what we’re seeing in Emily Oster’s work, in the writing by David Leonhardt in New York Times Daily Newsletter, these are people who are basically laundering right-wing arguments and trying to make them appealing to liberals.

    [End Clip]

    Adam: So to start off with a typical caveat we do in the show, we of course, are not against data collection. What we’re examining here is capital “D” Data journalism as a kind of branding exercise. This is similar to our episode we did on investigative journalism, similar to the episode we did on capital “S” Science as a tool of white supremacy and colonialism. Where we’re not opposed to the idea as such, obviously data can be good. We use data on the show, I’d like to think.

    Nima: Yeah, that’s a lot of our citations.

    Adam: What we’re criticizing is this idea of data journalism as something that exists outside the realm of politics or ideology, and that people promote their particular political agenda, whatever it may be, and are coy and cheeky about the fact that they have one and insist that they simply believe in X because that’s where the data led them. So the data is this kind of abstract thing that exists in nature and that a person sat down and followed the data to their conclusion instead of having a sort of preconceived notion of what they believed before, it’s sort of this, it’s kind of a quasi-scientific method. The data told them what to believe, they didn’t have something to believe, and what we’re going to argue is that’s kind of mostly bullshit. There are instances where I do think that around the margins, data can maybe push someone one way or the other on a particular given issue, but mostly as a kind of branding exercise if somebody claims that they’re post ideological, and that they’re just following the data, you probably need to check for your wallet.

    Nima: Yeah, it’s true. I mean, similar to the ideas of, you know, tech, and AI, these aren’t just naturally occurring organic things in nature, they are created by people and therefore, are flawed the way people are flawed. They have the biases the way people have biases, it’s sometimes garbage in, garbage out in terms of how these things are produced, created, what methodologies are used, what the data is actually seeking to find, and therefore how it is analyzed and used, and as you said Adam, you know, we’re not against data, we’re not against science, do all the stuff, do all the studying, do all the research, do all the surveys. Cool. But what we are investigating on this show, is how this trend of journalism tells us more about what the journalists or the data journalism verticals, what is ideologically motivating them, what are we seeing when we’re just supposed to quote-unquote “follow the data.”

    Now, there’s no singular definition of quote-unquote “data journalism.” When ostensible journalistic authorities do try to define this term, those definitions usually are not terribly specific or particularly meaningful. For example, Alex Howard of the Columbia Journalism School’s Tow Center describes data journalism as, quote, “gathering, cleaning, organizing, analyzing, visualizing and publishing data to support the creation of acts of journalism,” end quote. The American Press Institute states that those who practice data journalism, quote, “tend to agree on one principle: data journalism is, first and foremost, journalism. It simply uses data as a source in addition to humans,” end quote.

    Adam: So on the origins of data journalism, data and journalism have, of course, of course, have been inseparable since journalism’s inception. It would seem impossible to think of an example of journalism that isn’t dependent on some form of data. W.E.B. DuBois and Florence Nightingale famously designed imagery meant to convey information that we might now, perhaps somewhat insultingly, call “infographics” or “data visualizations.” But by many accounts, “data journalism” started to be considered a formal discipline in the mid-20th century, as computing technology became more accessible and large numbers were able to be quantified and represented.

    One of the most commonly cited early examples of “data journalism” comes from the Detroit Free Press’s reporting on the Detroit uprisings of July 1967. Journalist Philip Meyer conducted surveys of political stances among 437 Black people in the vicinity of the uprisings in East and West Detroit. The surveys were sponsored by multiple major Detroit-based businesses and their philanthropic arms, including the Campbell-Ewald Foundation and Henry Ford II, and would garner a Pulitzer Prize for Detroit Free Press.

    The survey itself was in theory a useful form of journalism, as it gave much attention to the voices of an oppressed and aggrieved group. But the piece, again, funded by corporate philanthropy, still editorialized against the quote-unquote “rioters.”

    Nima: Yeah, so “rioters” is something that we’ll hear again and again, that apparently, you know, a term that the data reinforce. So here’s an excerpt from one of the articles by Philip Meyer, again of the Detroit Free Press. This is from August 20, 1967, quote:

    These, then are the rioters: Young people, raised in the North, with little concern for their fellowmen and a frustration in meeting near-term goals — people susceptible to the black nationalist philosophy that the law and order of a white-built society is not worth preserving.

    In contrast, look at Detroit’s Negro community as a whole:

    Only 10 percent of the Negroes in the survey believe their situation is getting worse. Fifty-one percent say they are better off than they were three years ago.

    End quote.

    Now, Meyer would go on to call this style of reporting, quote, “precision journalism,” end quote, and would author a book on this topic in the next decade.

    Adam: Inspired by Meyer’s reporting on the uprisings, or as they call them, “riots,” the Guardian introduced a “data-driven” series in 2011 on the quote-unquote “riots” in Tottenham, North London, after uprisings began in response to the 2011 police killing of Black London resident Mark Duggan. One of the headlines from this data-driven project read, quote, “Riots report shows London needs to maintain police numbers, says mayor” — that mayor was Boris Johnson. The paper also surveyed residents in an initiative called “Reading the riots — community conversations,” yet the majority of the interviews — at least two-thirds, probably more — led with condemnation of or condescension to the so-called “rioters,” with headlines reading: “Peckham riots: ‘We need to help young people make better decisions.’” “Liverpool riots: ‘They wrecked what little they have here.’” “Croydon riots: ‘People were like animals that night.’” “Birmingham riots: ‘It was a bandwagon thing.’”

    The, quote, “Reading the riots” project happened just a few years after “data journalism” had started to become a full-fledged genre, spearheaded by technocratic aspiring media personalities. In 2008, Nate Silver, whose dubious poll-based work we spent much time dissecting in Episode 87, launched the quote, “data blog” FiveThirtyEight. Prior to launching FiveThirtyEight, Silver had been pseudonymously blogging the 2008 election outcome predictions at the Daily Kos. This was the time that so-called data journalism began to explode, but more on that later.

    Nima: Yeah, so, while data journalism didn’t really begin in earnest, or at least, you know, being called that as a new genre of the industry until really the Obama era, the first instances of the term quote-unquote “data-driven” were appearing in news media around the early 1980s. The term was primarily used by industry, showing up in computer science job ads and business management news articles. But eventually, the term’s application broadened. Around the late 1990s and early 2000s, it appeared more frequently in local news reports about schools, which increasingly touted their use of — what else? — quiet-unquote “data” like standardized test scores in order to preserve funding. As we’ve discussed on Citations Needed before, schools are one of the, if not the most common targets of “data”-related sanitization of right-wing agendas.

    One of the earlier education-based data driven articles appeared in an Indiana newspaper, The Palladium-Item from Richmond, Indiana, at the beginning of 1999. In an article, “Testing Education,” the sub headline reads, “Richmond schools become data-driven,” and the article starts like this, quote:

    By requiring administrators to systematically collect hard numbers about student performance for publication, ‘I’m trying to immerse data into the culture,’ said Associate Superintendent Sharon Studebaker-Puckett. ‘I want this to be the most important document we have.’

    The article continues this way:

    The goal is to use the data to identify trends district-wide and in individual schools and use that information to improve curriculum and instruction, school officials said.

    ‘In the past, we’ve tended to add programs, but we didn’t have a good way to evaluate whether one program was more successful than another, and in this time of increasingly scarce financial resources, we have to be smarter about how we use those resources,’ school board President Robert Green said.

    In a similar article, also from an Indiana newspaper, about a year later, this is from February 2000, there’s this headline, “School scores reflect work,” and the article talks about school rankings in the state of Indiana quote:

    Smoky Row Elementary third-graders jumped from number nine last year to number three this year.

    Smoky Row Elementary School Principal Rhonda Buzan said the school scored well for several reasons.

    ‘We are a data-driven school,’ Buzan said. ‘Our testing and assessing that we do promotes common instructional focus.’

    End quote.

    Adam: This “data-driven” model culminated in the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, legislation enacted by George W. Bush that required all states to test every child annually in grades 3 through 8 in reading and math and report test scores by race, ethnicity, low-income status, disability status, and English proficiency. The NCLB threatened to slash schools’ Title I funds if their test scores didn’t meet certain benchmarks in a stated effort to improve US education.

    The No Child Left Behind Act has been roundly criticized for replacing curriculum in subjects like arts, history, civics, physical education, science, and foreign language with standardized test training. Many have noted that it was responsible for driving teachers and students out of public schools, unfairly testing special-ed and English language learner students, and further entrenching funding disparities in schools in wealthy vs. poor neighborhoods by increasing punishments for quote-unquote “underperforming” schools. Education historian Diane Ravitch in 2013 would state, when commenting on the No Child Left Behind Act, quote, “The thirst for data became unquenchable.” Of course, following this, this very specific, very ideologically driven definition of quote-unquote “data schools” were then deemed failures and were at risk of being closed or turned into charter schools, which, of course, was the goal.

    George W. Bush waves during a bill-signing ceremony for the No Child Left Behind Act in January 2002. (Tim Sloan / AFP / Getty Images

    The Obama administration doubled down on this policy. In 2009, the administration implemented its Race to the Top program, which was functionally identical to the No Child Left Behind Act, with some minor differences. As implied by its title, the initiative encouraged states to “compete,” mostly via standardized testing, in order to qualify for federal funding. Race to the Top continued to punish districts, schools, and teachers who failed to produce consistently rising test scores and forced states to adopt uniform curricular standards in order to compete for federal funding. This was an agenda pushed by Bill Gates, helped subsidize it and basically, therefore, became what the Washington Post called the default secretary of education under Obama. And to be eligible for the program, states had to increase the number of charter schools and, for quote-unquote “underperforming” schools take steps like firing staff and closures. Despite the longstanding criticism of the similarly structured No Child Left Behind Act, legacy media like the New York Times lavished praise upon Race to the Top:

    Nima: Now, of course, this was an Obama administration policy and here is a clip of President Obama himself explaining the goal of new quote-unquote “data systems” to track student performance as part of the program Race to the Top’s alleged reforms.

    [Begin Clip]

    Barack Obama: We urge states to use cutting edge data systems to track a child’s progress throughout their academic career, and to link that child’s progress to their teachers so we know what’s working, and what’s not working in the classroom.

    [End Clip]

    Nima: Much of the data, as one might by this point guess, was standardized test scores. Curiously, data not mentioned by Obama offered some unflattering insight into the program. A 2009 National Research Council report found that the competitive structure engineered by Race to the Top had no empirical evidence to suggest it would be effective.

    The incorporation of what Obama called “data systems” was also a massive opportunity for the private sector. The director of Race to the Top, Joanne Weiss, was previously COO of NewSchools Venture Fund, who received millions of dollars from Eli Broad and Bill Gates and their respective foundations to assist charter management organizations. By 2010, the Gates Foundation had given at least $650 million to projects that advanced charter schools, testing, and what it called, quote, “teacher effectiveness.” This “data systems” push would open the door for the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative as well.

    Relatedly, the same year, in 2010, the Gates Foundation and Scholastic Corporation released a survey claiming to reflect the opinions of 40,000 public school teachers on how to “improve” US schools — a cause the foundation called “education reform.” The survey found that, quote, “Teachers aren’t opposed to standardized tests as one way to measure student performance,” end quote, and proposed that one way to improve schools would be to, quote, “Innovate to Reach Today’s Students,” end quote. The Washington Post eagerly reported on the study in December 2010 under the headline, “Gates foundation research finds test score growth is sign of a good teacher.” And here’s an excerpt, quote:

    While debate rages in the education world about how to measure effective teaching — or whether it is even possible to do so — research funded by a prominent advocate of data-driven analysis has found that growth in annual student test scores is a reliable sign of a good teacher.

    End quote.

    Adam: But this study, as is often the case with polls, was full of misleading questions which were clearly set out to achieve certain outcomes. For example, one of the questions from the poll read, quote, “How much of an impact do you believe the following efforts would have on improving student academic achievement?” And the options were:

    “Clearer academic standards for students.”

    “The establishment of common standards across all states.”

    “Tougher academic standards for students.”

    “Fewer academic standards for students.”

    “Fewer academic standards for students” doesn’t sound very good, right? “Clearer academic standards for students,” on the other hand does, which is technically a category under which standardized testing and common core standards which Gates helped pay for, fall under. The answer choices are designed to steer respondents in a particular direction, specifically that which favors a testing heavy charterized, privatized, and union free education model.

    Here’s another example, question: “How important do you think each of these items is in retaining good teachers?” The options were:

    “Supportive leadership.”

    “Time for teachers to collaborate.”

    “Access to high-quality curriculum and teaching resources.”

    “Clean and safe building conditions.”

    “Professional development that is relevant to personal and school goals.”

    “Higher salaries.”

    “Collegial work environment.”

    “Opportunities for alternate careers in the classroom, like mentor teaching.”

    “Pay tied to teachers’ performance.”

    Now, one might be tempted to ask why teachers should have to rate things like decent pay, supportive leadership, clean and safe buildings, and high-quality curriculum. It should be a given that all of these things would be provided and necessary in public education, but they wanted to reinforce the Gates’ agenda. The Gates Foundation would publish subsequent studies, which would reliably receive uncritical coverage in mainline press. The Washington Post in January of 2013, “Gates Foundation study: We’ve figured out what makes a good teacher.” Denver Post: “Denver schools, Gates foundation identify what makes effective teacher.”

    Now for years, up until probably 2015, 2016, Bill Gates’ sudden and mysterious interest in education was seen as largely this altruistic, philanthropic effort. It was not seen as someone who had an ideological and financial agenda into privatizing education. So there wasn’t a lot of skepticism on reporting what his foundation found. The Gates/Obama charterization model was widely influential. Over a period of just under 20 years, there was a significant increase in privately managed charter schools. During the 2000–2001 school year, there were 1,993 charter schools in the United States. By the 2019–2020 school year, there were 7,547 charter schools throughout the United States. So clearly, the obsession over data and standardization in education is not necessarily by definition a right-wing agenda. In theory, these things are kind of politically neutral. But how they manifested was to set up a situation whereby the teachers unions and school boards, which are democratically elected, are viewed as being in the way of accountability, and the way we get accountability is to measure things, and how we measure those things is informed by political preferences and ideological priors. But it sounds bad to say we’re doing a privatized takeover of your education system, because people genuinely like their school, you know, somewhere between 75 and 80 percent of people if you poll them like their school. Now, if you ask them if they think public education is good, in general, the numbers are 28 to 30 percent. But if you ask them if their particular school is good, people actually really, really liked their public schools.

    Nima: Yeah, I like my Congress member, but Congress in general sucks.

    Adam: Right. So what you have to do is you have to start measuring things based on your own preferences and then when you measure those things, again, with a kind of loaded framework, then you start to create systems and models whereby if they don’t meet a certain threshold, they’re deemed failing, and then once things are deemed failing, they therefore are susceptible to privatization, which, of course, was the goal. The more cartoonish version of this is what happened in New Orleans, which we talked about in great deal on Episode 1, where they arbitrarily changed what was a failing school from 60 to 86, just so they could justify privatizing the entire New Orleans school system, which now to this day is almost entirely a charter. Because you can kind of just make the data whatever you want to make it. We don’t say that to be obviously nihilistic or anti-intellectual, that is not to say that data can’t be a somewhat objective metric for certain things if given certain context, but as a political tool, this idea that, ‘Oh, we’re just following the data,’ it’s just an easier pill to swallow than, ‘Oh, yeah, we totally want to fire the school board and privatize education and bust all the unions,’ because that doesn’t really sound good.

    Nima: Well, also, because, you know, standardized testing doesn’t fall from the heavens, right? It’s created by people. There is context.

    Adam: And a lot of it was created by the Gates Foundation, because they’re the ones who were underwriting much of the Race to the Top programs for the states. They were giving grants to states based on their participation in Race to the Top, and, again, Bill Gates is just some guy, he’s not someone anyone elected. He wasn’t appointed by the president. He has no democratic input into his authority. He just, for about 10, 15 years from, you know, the mid-2000s to the end of the Obama era, he kind of just ran education because he had so much money, and, again, he’s just some guy. He has no experience in education, no masters in pedagogy. He’s just a guy.

    Nima: But he’s a guy, Adam, who really liked the data.

    Adam: Right. It’s not ideological, he just likes data, Nima.

    Nima: Exactly. He just, you know, Bill Gates likes data. So, in this climate of Obama-era neoliberal tropes like this Privatization for the Good of Education, data journalism as a practice continued to accelerate. The New York Times introduced its, quote, “politics, policy, and economics” site The Upshot in 2014. The Upshot claims its aim is, quote, “to help readers better navigate the news using data, graphics and technology,” end quote. In 2016, Bloomberg launched its podcast “Follow the data,” which is effectively a PR series for Michael Bloomberg’s own foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies. Interestingly, while the series focuses heavily on “public health,” the data it cites never seems to include the benefits and popularity of — of, I don’t know — a single-payer healthcare system.

    Bloomberg Philanthropies CEO Patti Harris and Bloomberg Associates’ Katherine Oliver record an episode of “Follow the Data.”

    “Data-driven” policing began to surface around the late 1990s and early 2000s, roughly the same time public schools were rolling out “data-driven” test-based instruction. The term was often meant to convey a successful tool for crime reduction, but it denoted “predictive policing” — policing that further targeted and surveilled poor Black and brown communities under the guise of identifying, quote, “crime hot spots,” end quote. The term “predictive policing” was often used to describe, and in fact sanitize, the policies of Bill Bratton, the former NYPD commissioner and LAPD chief infamous for expanding the use of broken windows policing and stop-and-frisk.

    Adam: The New York Times Editorial Board in August of 2016 wrote, quote, “Moving Past ‘Broken Windows’ Policing.” The piece makes a few reformist overtures, gestures but ultimately defends Bratton taking his stated goals at face value, quote:

    “Mr. Bratton is known for pioneering aggressive, data-driven policing that targets hot spots of crime, seeks to contain mayhem before it spreads, to catch dangerous criminals and scofflaws for minor violations, to get guns off the street. Few would argue that those goals, in the abstract, are anything but good.”

    Nima: I mean, hey, especially when you’re tracking down scofflaws Adam in 2016.

    Adam: So again, you take this idea of like, ‘Oh, well, there’s a lot of liberal backlash to stop-and-frisk and the unconstitutional detaining of Black and brown people to frisk them. So around this time, you started to see post Black Lives Matter and increasing obsession with this idea of precision policing, data driven policing, targeted. There’s a reason why they use the same language when they do cruise missile strikes. It’s targeted, it’s smart, it’s sort of very sanitized. NPR continued this trend, publishing a June 2018 an article headlined, quote, “How Data Analysis Is Driving Policing,” that celebrated the LAPD’s sleek new data search system, sold by the quote-unquote “somewhat controversial” Palantir. With a few obligatory quotes from activists opposing the system buried halfway down the article, it mostly relied on the Deputy Chief’s word that data-driven policing had brought crime down.

    Nima: Now, police departments and media manipulate data in order to make reactionary points that they want to make in the first place, right? They just need the data to back themselves up so that liberals can be like, ‘Oh, it’s the data.’ One of the more recent examples of this is the narrative about how crime was surging after the onset of the pandemic. Founder of Civil Rights’ Corpse, and former guest of the show, Alec Karakatsanis, has detailed how the bulk of reporting on so-called “crime surges” uses low raw numbers so that increases can appear artificially high. As Karakatsanis has noted, an increase of 10 shootings to 12 shootings over a certain time period is then reported as a 20 percent increase which sounds incredibly ominous even though the raw number is two. Now, furthermore, the overall crime rate in 2020 was down, however media emphasized rising rates of killings, conveying a sense of a “surge” or “wave” of crime sweeping the nation. This framing continued throughout last year, 2021, and into this year.

    Adam: Yeah, so I wrote about this for The Appeal in 2019 and 2020 several times, specifically New York Times writer Ali Watkins was obsessed with creating these, clearly spoon fed to her by the police or public relations to the police, these totally arbitrary, you know — like ESPN does those factoids, where they’re like, you know, he’s only the third pitcher since 1970 to have 11 strikeouts, less than two walks, on a Tuesday.

    Nima: When the temperature was beneath 42 degrees.

    Adam: Yeah, and then you look at that you’re like, I guess on the surface that sounds impressive but clearly, they just had the data and then they went back and reverse engineered something, some meaningful stat, which is what people at ESPN do, they do a quite a good job at it, because you know, you have to make this shit seem interesting, right? I mean, otherwise, it’s just another fucking meaningless baseball game in July. Who cares? Ali Watkins was obsessed with doing this. In 2019, in early April, she wrote a report about the quote-unquote “murder spike” in Brooklyn, telling the reader that, “As of March 24, the borough had recorded 28 homicides so far this year, compared with 17 in the same period last year, a 64 percent increase.” A 64 percent increase, which is in the social media context that was reported by other media, is kind of this big number. But then the piece hedges on whether this is even meaningful with their To Be Sure section, acknowledging that, quote:

    “Crime rates rise and fall periodically and it is too early to tell if the increase in killings foretells a new crime wave that would challenge the sense of security that has become part of the city’s identity. Over time the increase may be offset by quieter periods, and trends that appear worrisome in March often level off by August.”

    So by August, five months later, the aggregate murder rate in Brooklyn it was actually down 12 percent, and then cut to August, Watkins writes another piece, she moves the goalposts. She now says that quote-unquote “shootings” are up 10 percent across northern Brooklyn for that year in some neighborhoods, like East New York and Crown Heights, they have doubled. All of these stats are true enough, but they omit important contexts such as that shootings did indeed double in these neighborhoods but the total murder rate in North Brooklyn was virtually unchanged from 39 to 38. Shootings in South Brooklyn were down 26 percent and murders in South Brooklyn have been down 32 percent since 2018. So this is kind of a good example, and she did this all throughout 2019, 2020 — this is before murder rates sort of actually increased during COVID — where you have this, I can look at a very detailed map of New York in the CompStat data that NYPD releases, and basically you just go where the little red line goes up, and then you go interview three people in the neighborhood and you say crime has increased in northern Brooklyn. Well, if crime is down in 10 other precincts, where’s that story? So this is another sort of example of how the sort of crime surges, crime spikes stories are almost all bullshit, because you can pretty much take anything you want and make it look like a crime spike, and now again, I know that murder rates, crime is actually down, but murder rates are actually up quite significantly in most major metropolitan areas, there are lots of explanations for that, and that is objectively true. This was not true, however, when this story was written, and it was clear for many months that there was an effort to basically scare rich liberals who read The New York Times, and if you’re going to sort of keep moving the goalposts, again, her article goes from Brooklyn to North Brooklyn to two precincts in Brooklyn. I mean, that’s not a very meaningful stat, and of course, it was only over a couple of weeks, and The New York Daily News and The New York Times, and of course, The New York Post, are obsessed with this. They do this all the time, and they especially did this when there was a token handful of police departments that quote-unquote, “defunded” the police, which is to say they didn’t increase the funding. In Minneapolis, especially, they would go in and target every little thing, this crime, that crime, to create the illusion that there was this warrior-like despotism of crime. And then, of course, in 2022, when all the police departments in New York, Chicago and LA saw their police budgets balloon by five to fifteen percent, and then crime increased, still, for, again, reasons that have very little to do with the actual budgets of police, with the discretion of prosecutors, we didn’t really get all the panic, selective crime stories, because it didn’t fit the narrative, and so, again, it’s not as if the data is false, it’s just that if you have a lot of data, you can sort of paint whatever narrative you want to paint. Because there’s a political context here, which is at the time Brooklyn had someone who was quote-unquote a “progressive prosecutor,” which is clearly why they were focusing on Brooklyn, they were trying to demagogue Eric Gonzalez, who’s not even a progressive, but they were trying to make them look bad, and clearly, this was an NYPD curated story. So again, this kind of idea of data as this value neutral thing flies out the window when you spend 10 minutes interrogating this kind of reporting, because what data are we going to highlight and why are we zooming in on this fucking obscure precinct?

    Nima: Well, yeah, and so this very thing was actually replicated across the country throughout 2021. Not only Fox 5 NY saying, “NYPD top cop blames bail reform for surge in crime,” but you also have articles like this from USA Today in April of 2021, “Why violent crime surged after police across America retreated.” You have May 2021 in The New Republic, “Can the Politics of Police Reform Survive the Crime Rates of Our Pandemic Year?” The Denver Gazette said, “Denver police chief says early release has contributed to crime surge.” PBS Channel 13 said, “Is criminal justice reform to blame for the rise of crime in NYC?” The Atlantic said, “Why America’s Great Crime Decline Is Over.” The Wall Street Journal’s opinion page said, “Crime Is Up and Democrats Are Scrambling.” The Heritage Foundation, unsurprisingly, said, “FBI Statistics Show a 30% Increase in Murder in 2020. More Evidence That Defunding Police Wasn’t a Good Idea.” While the MacIver Institute in September of 2021 said, “New FBI Data Proves ‘Defund the Police’ was a Deadly Mistake.” You had CNN saying, “How US cities are preparing for a potentially bloody summer of gun violence,” and also saying, “Defund the police encounters resistance as violent crime spikes.” The Economist says, “As violent crime leaps, liberal cities rethink cutting police budgets.” The Wall Street Journal, back again, said, “Police Wrestle With Surge in Crime in U.S. Cities Amid Defunding Efforts.” NPR said, “Rising Violent Crime Is Likely To Present A Political Challenge For Democrats In 2022.” Bloomberg, “How Bail Reform, Crime Surge Mix in an Angry Debate,” and Newsweek saying, “New York City Is Cutting Police Budgets As Murders, Shootings Surge.”

    Adam: To be clear, they never actually cut the budget, they moved the money around to a different department, the budget never decreased under de Blasio. Now, we saw these headlines over and over and over again in 2021, they would hone in on the handful of obscure cities that may have cut it a little bit, talked about how they’re going to rethink it. Now, we’re now almost six months into 2022 and I wrote about this, on my Substack, we have not seen any similar pattern of articles at all about whether or not we need to rethink refunding the police or funding the police in lieu of the fact that crime in most of these major cities is up even more than it was in 2021, and their reason is because there are many other factors which are contributing to this with zero to do with the actual police budgets, and so this is again, you have this torrent of stories about defund the police in 2020 and 2021, second half of 2020 and 2021, nonstop defund the police, never fucking shut up about it, and yet we get no such corresponding stories when crime increases in 2022.

    Nima: No, of course not. Police funded for 100 years yet crime still exists. Maybe it’s time to rethink funding police.

    Adam: I mean, this is why the whole data driven policing is so silly, because if you looked, if you were data driven, you would say that the US has the highest murder rate of developed nations quote-unquote, “developed nations,” “wealthy nations,” it’s not even close. Data from 2010 showed that the average American was 25 times more likely to be shot by a handgun than any other country. Consistently the highest murder rate even after the murder rate fell precipitously since the 1990s and yet we also have 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population, despite having only 5 percent of the world’s population, we have by far five times the mean prison population, we have the most incarcerated, we’re the most incarcerated country, and it’s not even close. Certain states have numbers that are higher than that, that are 8, 9 times the national average, states like Mississippi, Oklahoma. So you would look at that if you were data driven, and you’d say, ‘Man, this doesn’t seem to be working,’ we still have an extremely high murder rate compared to other countries, and in some cases we have a higher violent crime rate too than comparable countries, and yet, we also lock up the most people. So the data would suggest that maybe what we’re doing isn’t working, but it never works that way. Carceralism is an ideology that can never fail, it can only be failed.

    Nima: That can never be investigated by the numbers.

    Adam: Yeah, and so the whole numbers thing is like, okay, clearly you just want more police funding, because that’s the cheapest, easiest way to deal with surplus populations and real estate people want them and rich liberals want them and Republicans of course want them so we’re just going to have more police, and the reporters just goes out and finds data that conforms to that. So stop acting like at some fucking, like you’re some bespectacled sage-like monk who’s sitting on a mountain seeking wisdom. Clearly you have a fucking charge. You have a top down editorial decision to go find scary fucking crime numbers. So let’s just say that’s what you’re doing.

    Nima: “Data-driven” policing was not the only media story during the pandemic. Around the same time, charter school donor-backed “data-driven” surfaced in attacks on public education. One of their chief ambassadors has been Emily Oster, a Brown University economist who’s been on a crusade to get children back into classrooms regardless of what the public health data says, yet, using data to make her point. Oster has been platformed heavily. She’s been cited and interviewed in hundreds of articles, she’s appeared on TV and radio and leading media about schools and the COVID-19 pandemic and has written over a dozen pieces for the Atlantic, Washington Post, and elsewhere. Among them headlines like these, quote, “Opening schools might be safer than you think,” end quote. That was written in May of 2020. The same month, she wrote this, “The ‘Just Stay Home’ Message Will Backfire.” She also wrote in August of 2020, “How the media has us thinking all wrong about the coronavirus.”

    Emily Oster (Cody O’Loughlin / The Guardian)

    Adam: Oster’s work has influenced US public health policy quite a bit, or has provided the pretextual narrative for pre-existing needs of capital and our political class. It’s been cited favorably by Florida’s ultra-right-wing Governor Ron DeSantis, Rhode Island state officials, and institutional scientific authorities like the CDC and the EU’s European Center for Disease Control. In 2020, Oster created a “data dashboard” to track K-12 schools’ responses to the pandemic. The project attracted funding from mysteriously a lot of the pro-charter education privatization organizations. The Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, the Walton Family Foundation, Arnold Ventures, and Emergent Ventures, a project funded by Peter Thiel and the libertarian Koch funded Mercatus Center.

    Unsurprisingly, Oster’s data is somewhat spurious. Oster authored an October 2020 piece for the Atlantic, quite brazenly headlined, “Schools Aren’t Super-Spreaders,” that argued COVID transmission rates in schools were too low to warrant school closures and remote classes. So, you know, we couldn’t do a quote-unquote “data driven” episode without talking about Emily Oster. In many ways, she’s the, which we’ll talk about with our guests, she’s the successor of John Stossel and has many similar funders, which is to say, the basic premise of most of her work is that liberals are not rational, they don’t understand the real concept of risk trade offs, and that we need to think like economists and make rational decisions in that a bunch of bedwetting liberals and tort lawyers need to look at the data and numbers and we’re not being rational. We’re being too scared. We don’t manage our fears appropriately like a true economist does.

    Nima: Right. David Leonhardt of The New York Times does a very similar thing.

    Adam: He does a very similar shticks. So we’re going to talk about that with our guests who wrote probably the definitive takedown of Emily Oster and the whole genre of economic thinking and data driven analysis.

    Nima: We are now going to be joined by our guests Abigail Cartus and Justin Feldman, co authors of the Protean Magazine article, “Motivated Reasoning: Emily Oster’s COVID Narratives and the Attack on Public Education,” which was published in March of 2022. Abigail Cartus is an epidemiologist at Brown University where she focuses on perinatal health and overdose prevention in her work at The People, Place & Health Collective, a Brown School of Public Health research laboratory. And Justin Feldman, also an epidemiologist, and a Health and Human Rights Fellow at the Harvard FXB Center for Health and Human Rights. Abby and Justin will join us in just a moment. Stay with us.


    Nima: We are joined now by Abby Cartus and Justin Feldman. We are thrilled to have you with us today on Citations Needed. Welcome.

    Abigail Cartus: Thank you.

    Justin Feldman: Thanks so much for having me.

    Adam: Your March 22 article, “Motivated Reasoning: Emily Oster’s COVID Narratives and the Attack on Public Education,” places Oster squarely in a kind of Freakonomics current of pop media. You argue that she, along with others, is the successor to not only a particular brand of economic style of reasoning, as you put it, but also a libertarian or neoliberal ideology dressed up for the NPR set — for liberals basically as her primary market. Since the style of writing is something we’ve spent a great deal of in this, I guess, media posture for want of a better term, we spent a great deal in the intro talking about, I kind of want to begin here. What is the brand of economic style of reasoning? Why do you think it’s been embraced by both the far right, think tank world and the sort of more centrist media and think tank world?

    Justin Feldman: I think we got very lucky in the timing of when we wrote this piece for a few reasons, but the reason I’ll highlight here is that we knew there was something about Emily Oster that reminded us of people like Nate Silver, Matt Yglesias, people who come up often on your show, I imagine, Twitter, people on the left get pretty annoyed by them. So we wanted to frame theoretically what’s going on there with the through line between these people and through Freakonomics? And what was lucky was that this sociologist named Elizabeth Popp Berman came out with a book a week after we wrote this, but essays beforehand, laying out her argument, and she described something called the “economic style of reasoning,” which is not identical with economics as a field. It’s a way of seeing the world making decisions, making arguments about policy, that prioritizes efficiency, and I would say, shores up the power of the ruling class in most cases, and kind of waves away concerns about social injustice, and Popp Berman argues that this style of reasoning actually predated neoliberalism and came up through the Great Society programs and sort of liberals and Democrats imposing order on this newly expanding set of government programs. It then took on a life of its own and spread, as you said, to centrists and right-wingers, and it’s very powerful, because it allows the person wielding it or the institution wielding it to obscure their interests, and not make debates about questions of values or ethics, but of basically what they’re describing as objective constraints on what we can do given the resources they claim we have or given the particular costs that a policy move will incur society as a whole, never really understood as particular groups in that society incurring costs.

    Justin Feldman

    Adam: Yeah, because it’s a superficially attractive posture. I think it’s very attractive to a lot of people, specifically people in technocratic fields, people who maybe are software engineers, or economists or corporate types. It’s something we’ve criticized a lot on the show. But we haven’t actually focused on this kind of data driven punditry aspect of it, which I think is quite pernicious, this idea that somehow these people approach these problems as a blank slate, and they just call balls and strikes, and they go where the data takes them. Obviously, for a sort of jaded idealogue like us, this obviously reeks of bullshit. This is a branding exercise more than anything, because it’s a way of obscuring what is more often than not very glib or very cruel policy or policy that talks about trade offs or tough decisions or limited resources, it evokes very often a sense of false austerity, that’s kind of just asserted. From your experience, it is kind of a romantic vision of the world, this post ideological vision of the world, one that I think many people thought had fallen out of favor, but seems to be making a bit of a comeback of late.

    Abigail Cartus: Yeah, to me, the really salient aspect of the economic style of reasoning, especially as it has sort of pervaded the field of public health during the pandemic, specifically, is that it allows for the replacement of values and value based arguments with highly technical methods and arguments over, you know, statistical methods, and I think that part of that also is the replacement of the work of politics with, you know, the work of policy or policy making, which is, I think, to most people’s minds, you know, policymaking is a step removed from the democratic process. We’ve been reading throughout the pandemic about all of these private consulting companies that are, you know, like McKinsey is like fucking up vaccine distribution and stuff like that. I think that the economic style of reasoning is definitely a value orientation but the sheen of mathematical rigor and the sheen of kind of numbers-based objectivity allows for some kind of mystification about that. I’ve been reading a lot about strategic governance initiatives and the role of private consultants in public health, which is why I’m kind of thinking about this, but it’s interesting that you brought up this austerity, this is always a cover for deregulatory moves, and it’s always justified by crisis rhetoric, ‘We have to do this because we have no time to do anything else, we just have to take a look at the data and do what the data are telling us,’ and you know, we can get into this more later on, but data don’t speak for themselves, and that kind of represents a fundamental misunderstanding about what data are and the role of uncertainty in scientific knowledge generation. But I think that is the key to the whole thing, and I think that this speaks to why it’s been embraced by the right-wing, centrists and liberals is that it’s this collective fiction that we can achieve optimal outcomes or reach optimal decisions through a process that doesn’t involve conflict, and through a process that doesn’t involve explicit articulation of values.

    Abigail Cartus

    Nima: Let’s talk about this broader media trope of focusing on quote-unquote “the data.” There’s just steely-eyed facts here, we’re going to put it in a dashboard, we’re going to ban it, we’re going to have a data dashboard that’s constantly updated, we have all the data analysts on it, we have scientists checking this. Let’s talk about this, not only dashboardization, but also this data-driven kind of reporting and punditry, that always, shockingly, winds up aligning with the interests of those pushing more economic modes of reasoning, right, rich people, those who benefit from current economic setups. In your excellent piece, Justin and Abby, you write this quote:

    This brings us to the cornerstone of the economic style of reasoning: the data. The evangelists for the economic style of reasoning exhort their audience to “follow the data” — the alternative being, it is implied, to capitulate to the irrational demons of fear and anxiety.

    End quote.

    So as we’ve been discussing, far right think tanks love to name things, “reason,” “rationality,” “rational discourse,” right? The rational reason institute of sane conversation funded by the Koch brothers, sober economic choices fellow at the reasoned and rational discourse society of America. So the implication as you’ve laid out, being that leftist socialists, even liberals, are just a bunch of super emotional, and there are all kinds of gendered issues here, feminizing is too emotional, you just have to look at the hard data, it’s not based on empiricism. Whereas economists are post ideology, they just look at the data. Leftists and others are just, you know, running around chickens with their heads cut off. Talk to us about this kind of framing, why it is so widespread, why it is so appealing, and why it is appealing not only to rich people and right-wing ideologues but why does it capture this individualistic liberal imagination?

    Justin Feldman: Yeah, I think there is this liberal value of trusting science, trusting expertise, and some of what we’re seeing in Emily Oster’s work, in the writing by David Leonhardt in New York Times Daily Newsletter, these are people who are basically laundering right-wing arguments and trying to make them appealing to liberals, I imagine mostly professional class liberals, but they are not going to be approaching it from an explicit ideological standpoint that makes it clear like, ‘Oh, we value small government, we don’t think workers should have power.’ Instead, it’s going to be, ‘Well, the risks posed by this pandemic are actually small or the costs imposed by the social welfare programs are too big, we simply can’t do it, the balance doesn’t doesn’t make sense when you add the numbers together.’ They’re often not actually doing any kind of data analysis. Certainly that is also a thing, there is data journalism of varying quality, but often it’s just a rhetorical allusion to the existence of different quantities of risk, and that’s something, you know, as epidemiologists, we are seeing again and again, about every activity supposedly being of minimal risk, and it makes you wonder how we got 2 million deaths in the US.

    Abigail Cartus: Yeah, and if I can just add an example from this, our piece was kind of about Emily Oster’s COVID advocacy, which mostly has to do with schools and learning, and the major lightning rod question was, you know, should school buildings be open during times of very high COVID transmission? To Justin’s point, I think it’s a salient example, you know, a lot of the actual epidemiologic research on school reopening or transmission of COVID in schools was really just designed around the kinds of questions that economists or epidemiologists or statisticians could answer with available information. So I think what we saw was a lot of studies that were correlating the case rate in schools with the case rate in the community and, you know, looking at the lower rate in schools to say, ‘Well, look, it’s a little lower so it must be, you know, the unspoken,’ well, sometimes it was spoken, the implication being that transmission isn’t happening in schools, schools are safe. But I think, really an analysis that just correlates case rates in versus out of school is not the same thing as a study that actually tries to answer the question that we’re really interested in answering, which is are kids getting COVID in school? Are they spreading it to other kids or to teachers? Is transmission happening in schools? The answer to that question is obviously, yes, but, you know, a scientific study that shows that is not really very convenient. So the use of data and data analysis to steer the discourse towards asking more convenient questions is something that we really noticed a lot with the schools debate, and, you know, there are studies that show that transmission is happening in schools, but especially in the US discourse, those studies, they have to meet a higher evidentiary threshold, in my experience, because they’re formulated in a very inconvenient way.

    Nima: Right, then just some random assertion in the pages of The Atlantic magazine.

    Adam: To be clear, for those who are listening may be confused, y’all are both epidemiologists, it’s not as if empiricism and data aren’t important, I want to be very clear here, the issue is that the institutional biases and the sort of pop media function of quote-unquote “data” is logically going to serve a political ends, and it’s incredibly insulting to everyone’s intelligence to act like that isn’t what’s going on here. It’s sort of like, very often in a nonprofit or an educational establishment or even in corporations, if you want to push out a CEO, nobody really wants to do it so what they oftentimes do is they’ll sort of, ‘We’re going to hire a third party consulting firm to tell us how we can be more efficient,’ and they come back with an answer that’s like, ‘Oh, you got to fire the CEO,’ because nobody sort of wants to be the one who’s the executioner, and it’s the way you launder responsibility and off put moral responsibility, and so much of this data driven framing is basically like, ‘We need to do this really cruel and mean thing, but nobody really wants to take credit so we’re going to take this moral burden off of policymakers and off of electeds, and mayors and school officials and governors, and we’re going to put it on the data.’ It’s very similar to the function of the crusades in the Middle Ages that said, ‘If you do this, you’ll sort of be free of sin.’ ‘It’s the data, it’s no one’s fault, it’s kind of the way it is,’ and one of the things when you talk about Oster, and this is what you guys did, is you you sort of broke the taboo about talking about funding sources, and how those can lead to conflicts, if not corruption, in terms of charter school, billionaire Arnold Foundation, Koch brothers, well, Koch brother, and this caused a lot of outrage from that circle, because I really think it’s capital “T,” capital “T,” The Taboo, you’re sort of really not supposed to talk about that. People kind of broadly understand that money has influence until you get into the think tank academic world, and then it’s nonstop pearl clutching, and I think that was a huge point of criticism of your piece, I thought unfairly, but there was so much institutional pressure to basically say COVID is over. People sometimes will claim there was an opposite incentive to be more panicked, but that was never real. That was true for maybe like the beginning for five minutes. But mostly, it was like, holy shit. It’s austerity time. It’s inflation time. It’s time for Grandma to die and for Junior to go back to school, and, you know, what happens happens, basically, especially with Omicron. And then we’re all supposed to sort of assume that oh, actually, like, what are the odds, the data went to the part that the Chamber of Commerce and the Republican Party were pushing six months prior and the Democrats now due to inflation have absolutely no choice but to embrace. The capital classes very clearly have this agenda? What are the, out of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, what are the odds that the data happens to align with that? I mean, you have to be a toddler to not see there being biases built into the system. So if you can comment on those biases, you talked about the conflicts, and how that poked the hornet’s nest of that world a little bit.

    Justin Feldman: I think one of the reasons we wrote this was because each of us have gotten pushback in the past for identifying and criticizing funding sources in the context of the pandemic, and what happens when you raise that point, at least within academia, is that people accuse you of accusing the researcher of essentially making up, fabricating data at the behest of their funder, and that very well may happen. Certainly there are historical examples where that did happen. But that’s not what we are necessarily arguing. So what we wrote the piece in part to do was to answer the question, why does it matter that Emily Oster is taking money from people like John Arnold and Peter Thiel and the Walton Family Foundation?

    Adam: Right.

    Justin Feldman: Why does that matter, even if she is doing what she believes to be rigorous and honest research? And we still got some pushback about that, I mean, the answer to why it matters is because there is a convergence of interests. These organizations have sort of this ecosystem around pushing what they call education reform, which is school privatization, and charterization, breaking the backs of teachers unions, and they, particularly the Walton Family Foundation, cited Emily Oster’s work, included her at their events, including an event by their other grantee called Bellwether Partners during the Chicago teachers’ strike, where she was there with the person who was then the Chicago Public School CEO, talking essentially in favor of the pro-management, anti-union position. So Oster served as a cog in this machine that existed before the pandemic, and also produced research that we show, based on the work of others who have examined it and our own critiques, is quite flawed, despite some of it being published in peer reviewed journals, though not necessarily through the standard process, because one of these papers only took two weeks to be accepted, which is not normal for most journals or for this journal.

    Nima: So I’d actually love to shift gears a tiny bit and talk about some larger threads that are woven through your entire piece, and through this study of, you know, Oster’s work, but also this type of reliance on data to do a thing. It’s not reliance on data for data’s sake, to report on research, it’s to do a thing and it is ideologically driven, as we’ve been discussing. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you kind of discuss both the precautionary principle versus this gospel of personal choice, how those two modes of thinking are inherently in conflict. Let’s discuss what they are, and how they inform this kind of, ‘Hey, we’re just looking at the facts,’ but actually, it’s doing this other thing, which is, you know, all about personal responsibility, and this veneer of control, which is so attractive to not only an American audience, but as you’ve really identified, Oster and others audiences as predominantly white, affluent, cisgendered, et cetera.

    Adam: Well, people who read The Atlantic.

    Nima: Yeah, exactly. Let’s unpack why people who listen to The Daily really love this gospel of personal choice, and reject, or are open to rejecting the precautionary principle, but I’d love for you to talk that out a bit.

    Abigail Cartus: The precautionary principle is kind of like a heuristic for making decisions under conditions of great uncertainty and where there is potential for harm. So the precautionary principle is used, traditionally, quite a bit in public health, and it would argue in favor of, for example, closing school buildings in March 2020, when almost nothing is known about COVID, and how it transmits, because COVID could be very dangerous, there could be significant substantial harms associated with allowing COVID transmission to happen unchecked, and so the precautionary principle militates in favor of exercising, or erring on the side of caution, if there’s potential for harm, but you don’t really know what it is. On the other hand, this kind of personal risk, personal choice thinking is extremely common, I think, in American culture, generally, but it’s also extremely common in, I would say, the biomedical fields and biomedical research, and particularly in the practice of medicine, where I feel like the last 10, 15 years has been this push towards personalized medicine like where I’ve even heard the term precision medicine, precision public health, which doesn’t make any sense.

    Nima: That sounds like, you know, surgical bombing strike?

    Abigail Cartus: Yeah, yeah, exactly. There’s something interesting to me about this risk orientation, because there are two distinct senses of the word “risk” that I think get conflated, especially in the discourse around this. One sense of the word “risk,” or, you know, the idea of risk, is what I would call maybe, like, empirical risk, right? So you can look at a data set of 100,000 people, and see how many of them got COVID, you can come up with a proportion, and that is like, essentially, a risk estimate. There’s another sense of the word risk, which is like the probability, the stochastic probability of an unknown future event, and I feel like David Leonhardt really does this all the time, right, just collapsing these two things together, and I think that’s really not appropriate to do. But this idea of being able to calculate your personal risk, I think, appeals to the American psyche, maybe for obvious reasons, but it also has a very real basis in the very statistical methods that we use to understand things like the pandemic. So a lot of the statistical methods that we use require that you treat individuals as independent from one another, right, that you break things down to the smallest possible unit, it’s almost I don’t, you know, I’m not a philosopher of science, but it’s almost a little bit positivist, and I think that that really appeals to people, you know, there have been all sorts of risk calculators, I think Emily Oster herself came up with a risk calculator where you can type some inputs into an excel sheet and come up with, you know, a number that’s supposed to represent your risk of either contracting COVID or having a severe outcome from COVID, and that just makes not a lot of sense because, again, your risk of contracting COVID is like either zero or one.

    Justin Feldman: For people who are in power and don’t want new policies in place, for instance, like paid sick leave that would keep workers home rather than in the workplace infecting people, they want to do a couple of different things, they want to downplay the risk of COVID, and they want to shift all the risk on to individuals. If you only wear a mask, if you only got vaccinated, if you only got boosted, then everything would be okay. Which I think Americans being as individualistic, and vindictive, as they often can be, often are on board with because they’ve been hearing arguments like this, we’ve been hearing it our whole lives.

    Adam: Yeah, another Koch funded pundit. This was a stick that John Stossel did for years on 20/20 and elsewhere, it’s sort of America’s too risk averse, here’s why risk is off, you know, again he’s a fellow at the Cato Institute and sort of talks about how everyone’s kind of an irrational, highly feminized alternative. And I want to dig in, if you don’t mind, a little bit to the Oster data, because I think some people listening would say, ‘Oh, you’re just a bunch of a kid Ivy League liberals who want us all to wrap ourselves in bubble wrap forever,’ the extreme COVID scold end of the spectrum, and obviously, there are going to be trade offs, right, there are social and deleterious effects to not going to school. I mean, I think everyone sort of broadly agrees with that. Not socializing, not going to football games, like these things have social value. It is true that on a basic level, what they say is superficially true, you do have to make trade offs, you have to sort of do a cost benefit analysis, and come up with that. I think where we call bullshit is that they’ve gone to this extreme of every individual atomized, Randian hero, this sort of protagonist thrown narrative has to make these highly individualized choice and basically forfeited on any concept of public health, that there’s no public health anymore, it’s basically the individual’s job to go get an N95 mask and to do their own thing, and I think a lot of public health experts have been, forgive me if I’m not summarizing this correctly, but I’ve been very disillusioned by that, that we’ve sort of given up on any concept because this pandemic doesn’t really seem to be going anywhere, there’ll be new variations. We now kind of foreclosed on any sense of public health, and I think the sophistry of the data and the risk aversion, everybody’s too risk averse element is, is appealing to a certain kind of person, because everyone’s frustrated, right? Universally, people are frustrated, and so there’s a market for someone to come along and say, look at this graph, and look at this graph. ‘This is The Atlantic, you’re not crazy. Public health officials are a bunch of fucking weenies and we can go back to normal.’ That’s very attractive, right? Nobody wants to be the one who has to tell you to eat your vegetables. If you can, can you please kind of go into the actual, and your article does a really good job doing this, can you talk about the actual empirical or data or science criticism of the Oster narrative, what your objections are to it and where there’s flaws in this narrative, especially in the sort of last winter and last spring?

    Justin Feldman: Sure. What’s interesting here is that there was never a debate over whether or not to open the indoor seating area at Arby’s. That was kind of taken as a given that it was going to be open and there was not going to be any public debate or scientific debate about what kind of risk that posed because there’s no children involved, necessarily, you can have your children there or not, and probably more importantly, their workers have no power and are low wage, whereas teachers are unionized, work for public institutions that are supposed to be publicly accountable. So we were in a unique place with schools, where there was a lot of debate that took place in the usual spheres of punditry, but also on the pages of scientific journals, and inspired many studies, and this is where we find Emily Oster square in the middle, and she’s put out a couple of studies. So there were arguments over time, under what conditions is it safe for children to be in school, safe for children, safe for their caretakers, save for teachers, and each step of the way, where we saw shifts from remote learning to hybrid, hybrid to in person, in person with testing and quarantine and masks, to gradually peeling away each of those layers, making each of them individual choices or even stigmatized, you know, if you’re one of the few people wearing masks, there’s social pressure against it. So one key moment we highlight in Emily Oster’s role in these debates was back in early 2021, when schools were largely back in person, but in hybrid mode, where students would go every other day, and every other day, they would be at home doing remote instruction on their computer. So there were debates then about how safe it was to have all of these children in the classrooms together, and these debates were phrased as three feet of distancing in classrooms versus six feet of distancing, where three feet of distancing would allow students to come back five days a week. So her paper that she wrote with several other people looked at schools in Massachusetts, at COVID case rates for schools that had policies requiring six feet of distancing versus those allowing three feet of distancing, and presumably being fully in person. The study was quite weak, I would say, it committed some basic statistical errors, such as I don’t want to get too technical, but there is a scenario where you interpret what we call wide confidence intervals, or a high amount of uncertainty, that is not supposed to be interpreted as no difference. So she took that scenario where there was wide uncertainty between the case rates in three foot distanced schools versus six foot distanced schools, and said, ‘Look, there’s no difference,’ instead of saying, ‘Look, it’s inconclusive.’ But there are other ways of criticizing these studies too. Actually a postdoctoral fellow and a graduate student obtained the data, tried to reproduce the study, found basic flaws in the data, and also found that changing an arbitrary threshold that the Oster study set, even the slightest bit, this was a threshold saying what school districts are we going to consider fully remote in a given week, if you changed it from 5 percent to 5.1 percent, excluded a slightly different set of schools from the analysis, you showed a clear benefit of further distancing. This isn’t to say that schools should have been hybrid or remote at the time or fully in person, that is kind of a tangential concern. The concern here is that Oster, and her colleagues had a clear policy preference and produced very low quality research in line with their policy preferences, in line with the funders policy preferences, and it did make a difference, at very least, in serving as a piece of evidence that people like Rochelle Walensky, Tony Fauci could point to, in changing CDC guidance to no longer recommend six feet of distancing.

    Adam: I wanted to get in the weeds a little bit because, I mean, I do think the details matter here and if there are —

    Nima: We do like citations.

    Adam: If there’s sloppy work going on, it is valuable, and the whole time I see this because, you know, I looked at The Atlantic’s output, and it’s very clear, okay, there’s clearly an editorial line here. Whether or not it comes from the woman who owns it or whether or not it comes from Jeffrey Goldberg, there’s clearly a political directive to convince liberals that COVID is over, and then you sort of torture the data, you know, they get the data in a room, they put a light bulb over its head, and they interrogate it until the data tells them what they want to hear. I’m just thinking the whole time this is so stupid, why are we insulting everyone’s intelligence by acting like, I mean, what was Emily Oster going to do? Take money from the Waltons, the Koch’s and the Arnold Foundation and come back and be like, ‘Oh, sorry, actually, we got to close schools for another six months.’

    Nima: We got to listen to teachers’ unions.

    Adam: I mean, was that ever going to happen? I mean, money doesn’t corrupt, can you even envision that world ever? ‘Oh, sorry. That’s where the data took me, incidentally.’ It’s like no, come on. That’s bullshit. The decisions have already been made before we sit down and crunch the numbers, because that’s what her ideological position is. So why don’t we just skip all the bullshit and say that’s what she’s doing? And the reason is, of course, is that because liberals don’t want to hear that, they want to believe in this kind of capital “S” Sciencism to justify why they think teachers unions are a bunch of malingering, greedy, layabouts, because otherwise it’s a tacky position to have.

    Abigail Cartus: I think that there are real dividends for these institutional funders, as well as this emerging public health policy elite, I think there are real dividends to forcing these discussions to take place on the terrain of statistical evidence, and I think that that also kind of serves the function of removing that debate from any real public deliberation, and so, you know, as Justin pointed out that 2020, 2021, you know, that winter when we were getting ready to come back from winter break, it was a political priority for the Democrats at that time to get schools open because, you know, as we noted in the piece, I think we, you know, we had more about this in earlier drafts of the piece, but, as we noted in the piece, another reason why we think that this debate has exploded so much over schools is that schools serve crucial social reproductive function, which is, you know, it’s obviously not in the interests of Koch industries, or whatever, to have schools closed, because if schools are closed, then people can’t go to work, and I think the Democrats really took that up as a political problem, and we’ve seen it ever since Biden took office, I mean, even before that, but like this push towards policy-based evidence-making, you know what I mean, just conducting analyses that justify a political goal that has already been decided with basically no opportunity for public input or public deliberation, and then forcing the debate over that to take place on the terrain of statistical methods, data quality, you know, things that lay people and the general public really can’t always weigh in on.

    Adam: And I think in fairness, I do think also, it’s important to note, there was a gendered aspect to the labor of childrearing at home, that I did think animated a lot of the liberal 180 on this, especially from professional women, what you heard a time and time again, not necessarily from those who are sort of conflicted or partisan, but genuinely struggling with this, that this was falling upon women more and that that was a key demographic and from a purely cynical political perspective, Democrats were going to lose that demographic. I do think that is something that was real. What are your thoughts on that argument? Obviously, the teachers unions of Chicago aren’t a bunch of dudebros so it’s either way, right?

    Justin Feldman: Yeah, we get to some of this in the piece. But there are some complicated gender, race, class dynamics going on in combination with one another. For professional class women, and particularly white women, we saw in the opinion polls that they were most in favor of fully returning to in person instruction. This even included time periods. I think we have a tendency to view things from the perspective of the present, to remind everyone, this was before vaccines were available, or were just starting to become available so the risk was much higher, and at that time, there were expanded unemployment benefits that were primarily going towards working class people, they were at points quite generous, at points these expanded unemployment benefits brought people’s income to higher than what they were earning on the job. You could also take advantage of these benefits for childcare. But if you were someone who was in a professional-class job and a woman and tasked with childcare, you were also tasked with continuing to remain on your job, because you could do the job technically, from your home. So you have these two impossible competing tasks of childcare and remote work at the same time, and that is, you know, an untenable situation, I do sympathize, and I also think it’s important to understand like, what’s going on sociologically, also taking time off from work, extended unemployment, gaps in your resume, maybe a little more important to be able to explain if you are in more of a professional class career trajectory, despite being more economically privileged and having higher levels of education, and all of that. So that’s all very real. The problem was that by downplaying the harms of COVID transmission in school, and at points to harms of the virus itself, it made it so that there were no minimum standards set for schools. It was not as if there were groups of organized scientists out there, or politicians out there saying, we are not going to open schools in our country or our state unless we have surveillance testing of everyone, rapid tests in some, you know, regular basis, certain standards of ventilation, certain standards of masks, they’re basically saying, just open the school under whatever circumstances you can muster, and whatever that is, the benefits outweigh the costs regardless of the specific conditions.

    Abigail Cartus: The Democrats, I think, just shot themselves in the foot with this, because, and this is something that we touch on in the piece, and we actually, we got a lot of criticism, I think, mostly from one specific person about this, but we sort of note that this whole episode, everything that’s happened since Biden took office, all of this, well, I mean, and even before that, all of this advocacy, all of this explosive fighting, you know, all this summer over the school board meetings and everything, we really see Emily Oster’s, the effect, I don’t know about the intent of her project with her COVID advocacy, but I think that the effect of it has been to sort of make a connection between these extreme far right and libertarian think tanks and foundations, and otherwise sort of progressive, liberal, upper class, white mothers, and I think that the Democrats just weren’t on the ball with that.

    Nima: Shocking.

    Abigail Cartus: Right, it should have been framed like, well, your government is failing you, we need to get COVID under control, you need to pressure not the teachers’ union at your kids’ school, but you need to pressure your local government to close bars and indoor dining and stuff so that it could be safer for kids to go to school. But the Democrats couldn’t figure that out.

    Adam: Well, because of inflation, too.

    Abigail Cartus: Yeah, well, yeah.

    Adam: To close bars, you’d have to pay people to stay home and that was completely off the table. I mean, this is like with a lot of the big-city mayors, like, you know, I put myself in Lightfoot’s position when she just forces open bars and restaurants and, you know, without any deficit spending available it’s true, the whole thing was just extortion, you really had no choice, because there was no money to give people to stay home.

    Abigail Cartus: Yeah.

    Adam: You know what I mean? Inflation, you know, had basically foreclosed on that.

    Abigail Cartus: Yeah.

    Justin Feldman: I think they took it a step further than that, there was a White House speech back in, I think it was the fall of 2021, where Biden himself explains that, at least in their White House theory of why inflation was happening, it was that there was not enough spending in the service sector and too much spending on products that were affected by supply chain shortages, and if only they could convince people to spend more money on services that were in person, that were potentially dangerous to their health, could they get the economy back on track and inflation under control. So we’ve not just seen, we’ve not solely seen a shift from collective responsibility to individual responsibility in the context of the pandemic, but we’ve also seen a convincing of people to actually take riskier behaviors, because they are good for both inflation and for profit of certain industries.

    Abigail Cartus: Yeah, well think about what happened just this past winter with the Omicron surge. You know, we found out about Omicron right around Thanksgiving, and the Biden administration’s response was, ‘No, it’s fine. Like, travel. If you’re unvaccinated, you’re going to die, but that’s not a reason to cancel your flights, definitely still take your flights.’ That was a completely disastrous response. But yeah, I don’t know, I don’t know to what extent, you know, the Democrats are constrained by economic realities but that was not good.

    Nima: It seems like so much of the function of this data forward, pseudoscience writing has to do with turning people’s very real personal frustration, and giving it license under the auspices or the or the guise of scientific, credible research, to do the thing that they just would rather do, right? And then ascribing a villain for the people who are like, maybe that’s not great because of all these reasons, and then they become the villain, and that villain is the villain that is identified by the funders. So it’s like, the individuals may not be like, ‘You know what’s really pissing me off about this whole COVID thing? Teachers unions.’ That’s probably not as much on the radar for Emily Oster readers who are just like, ‘Oh my god, it’s really frustrating that school is remote, and I can’t go out and we’re terrified about everything and there’s this plague and I believe that that is real, but I wish it weren’t.’ It just gives license, you know, but it’s who those people are, having the privilege to be frustrated in the ways that they are, you know, omits entire swaths of the population, I mean, therefore, we’re not thinking about immunocompromised people, we’re not thinking about people who don’t have the ability to work from home, who don’t have the ability to make that choice, and yet, it just seems like the focused audience for this kind of reporting is focused on purpose, right? And by speaking to what they most want to hear deeply, because they just wish it were true, you then get a new set of villains, which further the political project that maybe they’re not even thinking about.

    Abigail Cartus: Yeah, well, this is David Leonhardt’s entire thing, right, is making just these asinine comparisons between the rate of the pediatric mortality from COVID versus car crashes, I mean, he loves to talk about car crashes, completely omitting the entire kind of regulatory apparatus around automobile safety that actually could be much better, automobile road safety in the US is not amazing.

    Adam: Right. It’s a huge public policy failure.

    Abigail Cartus: Yeah, and this is also part of, I think, Emily Oster’s larger intellectual project as kind of a public intellectual because she’s written these books on parenting, and the parenting books are very, very similar, you know, mostly they are arguing, or mostly she is arguing in these books, that universal guidelines, for example, health guidelines for pregnancy are overly cautious, Justin has identified this as a deregulatory attitude, and that the implicit reader of her books, which is an upper class, professional class, white woman, that those guidelines need not really apply to you, the reader, because, you know, you have all these unacknowledged privileges, obviously, and you have now with Emily Oster’s help the ability to evaluate this data for yourself and make your own risk assessment, and, you know, if you’re dying to eat salami while you’re pregnant, be my guest, you know what I mean? I’m not interested in necessarily being prescriptive about individual people’s behaviors, but that is a through line that we picked up on in her work on pregnancy and parenting that has carried through to her COVID advocacy, you know, maybe a federal program to curb COVID transmission would be great, but COVID is not really that big of a deal for children, your kid is so much more likely to die in a car crash, like all these really kind of ghoulish and heinous comparisons that rest on this idea that a certain type of professional-class person can exempt themselves from the social contract through personal risk assessment.

    Adam: Leftism, or any ideology, socialism, whatever, progressive liberalism, et cetera, should be empirically driven. We don’t want to come off as anti-intellectual or anti-data, of course, which is sort of different than wielding the label of capital “D” Data to kind of inflate one’s ideological output. With an understanding that lowercase “s” science is very, very important as a foundational tool of any worldview, rather than, say, like a branding tool to wield to sort of shut down critics and call them all a bunch of irrational women. What is the role of data in progressive spaces? How can it be used for non-cynical reasons? And I guess, more important than anything, what are its limitations? What is the sort of limitations of data as above-the-fray, apolitical concept?

    Justin Feldman: I’ll speak for Abby for a second, if I may, we’re scientists, we do believe not in science, but in the value of scientific inquiry, I would say. And that’s what I think science and data offer the left or any particular political movement, is a tool of inquiry. One thing we can do is help people identify problems that they may not know exists, because your lived experience is a very important source of information, but there are things that are beyond one’s lived experience. Like maybe there’s a chemical contaminant in your community’s drinking water that you would not have been aware of. Another thing we can do is give people tools to use the power they already have. I’m thinking in particular, Abby and I spoke with various groups of teachers, especially in the winter 2020 into 2021, about COVID safety, and some of these teachers were unionized, and some of them were not organized, and we helped them navigate questions about what they should be fighting for, what should be sticking points in negotiations around things like community case rates and masking and testing. That’s something we drew on our reading of what was out there in the science, including its limitations, and how to weigh the uncertainty that existed with that science. And there were groups, there was this group science for the people in the late 1960s and ’70s, that asked exactly this, like, ‘What can science and scientists and engineers offer the left?’ And that group has been restarted and some of us have been trying to do similar efforts during the pandemic.

    Abigail Cartus: The only thing that I will add to that is that, I would just say that, you know, the biggest thing is being upfront about your value orientation. In science, we often pretend that a good scientific question or a meaningful scientific question is self-evident, but, you know, those questions are actually highly socially constructed on both sides, right? So I think it’s good just to be upfront about your value orientation, and upfront about how uncertainty is just a constitutive part of scientific knowledge and knowledge production, being explicit about what your values are in approaching that uncertainty, and whose values are being prioritized and what outcomes you would like to see.

    Nima: Well, I think that’s a great place to leave it. We have been speaking with Abigail Cartus, epidemiologist at Brown University where she focuses on perinatal health and overdose prevention in her work at The People, Place & Health Collective, a Brown School of Public Health research laboratory, and also with Justin Feldman another epidemiologist and a Health and Human Rights Fellow at the Harvard FXB Center for Health and Human Rights. Abby and Justin, we really cannot thank you enough for joining us today on Citations Needed.

    Abigail Cartus: Thanks so much. It was really fun.

    Justin Feldman: Thanks so much. Great to be here.


    Adam: Yeah, I think how the quote-unquote “left” or “progressives” or wherever you want to call them, or even liberals, like how they use data is an interesting one, because it’s not, my general thing is you can’t really out wonk yourself with most of these people. Like if someone comes into an argument, and their priors are hardwired, showing them a bunch of polls and data, it’s not going to do a ton without really going back and interrogating those priors, without getting to dorm room about it, because I do think you can become a little bit, ‘What’s the real crime, man?’ But I think that’s an interesting question, because one of the clever things Oster does when she talked about reopening schools for children, was effectively hand wave away the risk to the people who work in schools, which was the key element of the labor condition, again, we do not have robots that teach children and feed them and provide the medical care and provide security.

    Nima: And they have lives outside schools. They don’t live in the school.

    Adam: And so much of that was just completely ignored from this cost benefit analysis. ‘Well, they’re children, they’ll be safe.’ Well, okay, even granting that, which is a huge thing to grant, but even granting that, there’s people who work there, and this is why you had this kind of cohort of wealthier, most likely urban people, who basically, ‘But they’re the help, aren’t they basically just there to teach kids?’ It’s like, well, no, it’s a job. I know, we want to be romantic about these things but it’s a job and jobs require certain, unions have an obligation to maximize the employee’s health outcomes, right? I mean, that’s sort of a one-on-one union thing you would worry about.

    Nima: Right. But because teachers’ unions are relatively strong in a country where unions are declining, where unions don’t have as much power as they did, but teachers’ unions do have some semblance of unity, power, influence, but because of that, they wind up being the villains of the story. But it’s also important to note that teachers, by and large, not every single individual teacher necessarily, I don’t have the data on it, but teachers want to be teaching and they have trained to be teachers in person with students, not to be online University of Phoenix professors. So the issue is not that teachers’ unions were backing something where teachers just wanted to be lazy and phone in or zoom in their fucking work, they wanted to be in person, teachers had an incredibly hard time and are still during the pandemic. It fucking sucks to have to do that job remote, but the issue is that if there were unsafe working conditions, those needed to be addressed either by not going in or, as we’ve said a million times, right, better ventilation, better PPE.

    Adam: The main problem was that the teachers’ unions didn’t gather millions of dollars to create a school data tracker. See that was their problem. They had to rely on the Arnold Foundation and the Waltons and the Kochs.

    Nima: And now that the data, Adam, shows that roughly three of every four kids in the country have gotten COVID, but you know, remember, kids don’t get COVID.

    Adam: Right.

    Nima: Right. Schools can’t possibly be places where people contract this disease that the entire globe has.

    Adam: Yeah, liberals just love to close things and shut themselves inside, they love —

    Nima: That’s the liberal — (laughs) — that’s what the data shows.

    Adam: Liberals just have a pathological irrational fear of everything, they all just have brain disease, unlike the Koch billionaire-backed Center for Economic Reasoning and sanity, so you’re not just a bunch —

    Nima: That’s right.

    Adam: Of crazy women.

    Nima: Where you just, you know, stare down a virus that cowers in fear. Exactly. That will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Thank you, everyone, for joining us. Of course you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and you can support the show in a couple of different ways. If you’re so inclined, you can go to our new merch store, where you can pick up a Citations Needed t-shirt or a tote bag. You can find that at Bonfire.com/store/Citations-Needed. And of course you can become a supporter of the show at Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support through Patreon is incredibly appreciated as we 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: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again for listening, everyone, we’ll catch you next time.


    This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, June 1, 2022.

    Transcription by Morgan McAslan.

  • News Brief: Right-Wing Media’s Increasingly Goofy, Hyper-Militarized Non-Solutions to Mass…

    Citations Needed | May 27, 2022 | Transcript

    Sean Hannity has opinions on the shooting in Uvalde, Texas. (Courtesy of Media Matters)


    Nima Shirazi: Welcome to a Citations Needed News Brief. I am Nima Shirazi.

    Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

    Nima: You can follow Citations Needed 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 are 100 percent listener funded. We do these News Briefs in between our regularly scheduled full length episodes when the news requires it and where we’re seeing a lot of tropes that we really want to dissect. That happens, of course, all the time, kind of the basis of our show in general. Adam, this week, the United States has seen yet another mass shooting at a school, this time in Uvalde, Texas. I am beyond furious at the country that we live in, and so this has been kind of all-consuming lately. The media has been covering this consistently. We wanted to talk about how the media covers these, but also namely what we are seeing in terms of excuses for the impossibility, of course, the political infeasibility of doing anything about the fact that this happens all the fucking time and that children’s lives in this country are apparently not important enough to actually try and protect with reasonable policy, what we’re seeing from the right-wing echo chamber in terms of their own solutions.

    Adam: Yeah, so, I mean, look, it is a legitimately complicated question. I think there are basic bottom-floor things any country can do, any society can do.

    Nima: And that every society but ours does.

    Adam: Right. Well, yeah, a vast majority of them do. Which is things like basic background checks. We’ve had an episode on the show before where we argue against carceral solutions, specifically, the liberal tendency after school shootings to pass laws on a local and state level that tack on five to 10 years to people’s prison sentences. So anyone who’s dealt in criminal justice reform knows that one of the huge drivers of mass incarceration and how many years people spend in prison is gun laws. So you have to be careful not to just immediately start criminalizing poor Black kids to get some kind of vengeance because the right doesn’t really care about that. So they kind of let it happen. The non-carceral solutions, like universal background checks, things like going after gun manufacturers to make them criminally and civilly liable. Things that are non-carceral that are incredibly basic that I think everyone can agree on would not in any way eliminate mass shootings, but would certainly reduce them. I think there’s a ton of empirical evidence that shows that’s the case. That’s off the table in this country.

    Nima: Of course, always.

    Adam: Because guns are such a, you know, I don’t want to get too much into the sort of psychological profile or the pop-psychological or sociological profile, but they are a quasi-religion. They’re tied up in all kinds of patriarchal and racial inferiority complexes. Again, I will sort of spare you that, because I know most people sort of know that, but it’s a very visceral, very emotional topic for a certain cohort of, I think it’s fair to say, partisan Republican. Obviously there are pro-gun Democrats, but I don’t think it carries the kind of psychosexual baggage it does for Republicans.

    Nima: Well, and also pro-gun Democrats are also very pro-background checks and shit like that.

    Adam: Yeah, it’s a fairly recent phenomenon. It wasn’t so staunchly and aggressively partisan until fairly recently. But one thing you do see is every single time there’s a mass shooting, Republican senators and Republican pundits and Fox News and partisan messaging apparatuses of those institutions, they clearly have a whiteboarding session where they come up with new reasons why gun control isn’t the solution, and we wanted to sort of start off by, and much of what we’re going to be citing today is this from the people at Media Matters, again, who document Fox News, and so we’re grateful for that.

    Nima: Yeah, absolutely. So that we don’t have to actually watch —

    Adam: We’re gonna start off playing a video by Katherine Abughazaleh at Media Matters who did a montage if you will, a supercut of pundits on Fox News giving solutions to mass shootings, none of which involve any kind of gun control at all.

    [Begin Clip Montage]

    Man #1: I advocate always for an armed security guard

    Man #2: Armed School Safety Officer

    Man #3: Armed deputy

    Man #4: Arming teachers

    Man #5: Potentially arm and prepare and train teachers and other administrators

    Man #6: Armed school staffers

    Man #7: Bring in policeman

    Man #8: Training. The students themselves

    Man #9: Retired military, retired law enforcement, we can offer them tax breaks.

    Man #10: If you give law enforcement the opportunity to impose martial law we can guarantee safety and security.

    Man #11: Securing that perimeter, kind of provide a kind of a ring of steel

    Man #12: If you have the fences, you have the main administration building and then you have wide gaps on either side. The fencing is not very high.

    Woman #1: Were the doors locked?

    Woman #2: Bulletproof glass

    Woman #3: All of these shootings have happened at the same time that we see religion and Christian values and Judeo Christian values declining.

    Man #13: Anybody who decides that they want to do something like this should immediately know that attacking a school is a death sentence for them.

    Man #14: Kids are afraid of being the school snitch.

    Woman #4: We have to stop letting these schools be gun free zones.

    Man #15: People need to put their phones down and get to know the person next to them.

    Woman #5: We have spent billions of dollars on COVID related measures for our schools. Let’s take some of that money and divert it over to hardening these soft targets.

    Man #16: A lot of these private schools, they take security way more serious.

    Woman #6: Parents take your children to church.

    Woman #7: This anti-police narrative is forcing people not to call police.

    Man #17: A series of interlocking doors at the school entrance that are triggered by a tripwire and it traps the shooter like a rat.

    Woman #8: God is the answer to that.

    Woman #9: There’s a moral rot going on that we all need to dig in and try to address.

    Man #18: I vote for decreasing social media exposure.

    Man #19: We need to start focusing on mental health.

    Man #20: Tell us why you think it’s important to pray in a moment like this.

    Woman #10: It calls for faith and prayer.

    Woman #11: Why is it that schools aren’t protected in the same way that airports.

    Woman #12: There are some people who don’t want police officers in schools with guns because other people are triggered.

    Man #21: Assault rifle and enhanced body armor

    Man #22: Notification system to let everybody in the school know what’s happening.

    Man #23: Single point of entry.

    Man #24: I don’t like talking about this stuff as it happens because I don’t think it contributes to anything positive.

    Man #25: Parents should be held accountable for raising their children properly.

    Woman #13: Ballistic blankets,

    Man #26: We just don’t have the resources to get law enforcement there quickly.

    Man #27: How about an executive order for these mental health facilities

    Woman #14: We have to start rebuilding this country and returning to God.

    Man #28: I arm myself everywhere I legally can.

    Man #29: It’s up to you to protect yourself.

    [End Clip Montage]

    Adam: They get increasingly goofy. Senator Ted Cruz proposed, Nima, that we need to limit the amount of exits and entrances in schools to one.

    Nima: There are too many doors in schools. So that seems to be something that we really need to figure out in this country, Adam, the guns obviously are not the problem. The doors, doors, too many fucking doors. As they say on Reading Rainbow, ‘don’t take our word for it,’ you have to hear the too-many-doors argument from Ted Cruz himself. Senator Ted Cruz of the State of Texas said this on Fox News on May 25.

    [Begin Clip]

    Ted Cruz: One of the things that everyone agreed is don’t have all of these unlocked back doors. Have one door into and out of the school and have that one door armed police officers at that door. If that had happened, if those federal grants had gone to this school, when that psychopath arrived, the armed police officers could have taken him out and we’d have 19 children and two teachers still alive.

    [End Clip]

    Nima: Of course, you know, more locked doors, fewer doors, that is but one of the options of course in that supercut that Media Matters put together, we are losing our Judeo Christian values, Adam, we need more God in school. That’s the problem.

    Adam: That’s a classic mainstay, that’s not new. One of the newer ones, which I find to be probably the most cynical because it really, we’re going to be talking about this on next week’s episode to some extent, but the idea that lockdowns, COVID lockdowns because supposedly one reporter said that this particular mass shooter who we will not name, stopped going to school after COVID, and so we’re going to listen to the absolute most, content warning here you have to listen to Tucker Carlson speak.

    Nima: Yeah, sorry about that.

    Adam: I’m not being ironic. I know that it’s actually somewhat disturbing to certain people because of the fucking way he talks. So we’re going to listen to Tucker. Now of course, this was the line all day on right-wing media, Zaid Jilani, others have pointed to the COVID lockdowns are what caused the shooting.

    [Begin Clip]

    Tucker Carlson: Oh, so the lockdowns dramatically increased the incidence of mental illness among young people and in 10 days we’ve seen two mass shootings by mentally ill young people, could there be a connection? Now that’s not finger pointing, it’s not to blame Fauci for yesterday’s shooting, we’re not that low. We’re not Joe Biden. But if people are becoming mentally ill because they’re disconnected from others, what can we do to connect them to others and thereby reduce the incidence of mental illness? That’s a real conversation. Is there a more important one?

    [End Clip]

    Adam: Clearly here what you, what we’re seeing is that they need to come up with new excuses, because the old ones don’t really seem to, the thoughts and prayers is not working anymore.

    Nima: New excuses to pretend that they care, right?

    Adam: Right.

    Nima: They don’t give a shit that this happens all the time, on an average of more than one mass shooting a day, and then when there are things that happen like in Buffalo, that then becomes a different kind of media cycle, as well it should when these horrific things happen, that are even less ordinary than the ordinary mass shootings that just fucking happen every day. But Republicans obviously have no interest in changing any gun laws and curbing anything about gun manufacturers, doing anything about this and so they resort to let’s come up with some things that we can say to hand wring, and obviously blame liberals, blame Democrats, blame progressives and certainly the far left for all of this that of course has nothing to do with the right-wing refusal to do anything about this. It is all about — what? — making sure people are safe during a pandemic or maybe, I’m sure, mask mandates probably drove mass shooters to this point, right?

    Adam: Well, their only solution is to come up with an increasingly militarized school system which we already have, and of course, we know that the police officers who were present based on reporting right now, I hesitate to be too harsh —

    Nima: Right. That there were law enforcement officers on site.

    Adam: Based on current reporting, again, we could learn more later so I don’t want to be too smug about it, but from what it appears that the law enforcement who were there were fucking useless.

    Nima: But that’s why, you know, Rambo teachers just need to have AK-47s in the classroom.

    Adam: But as we know, with all kinds of carceral ideology, it can never be disproven. So if there’s five cops there, and they all run away, we actually need 20 Cops, and we need to turn teachers into cops, and then the cops themselves need to be super cops, and then the cops need to mate and have sub cops and then they need other cops, and then basically, we should just have a school that’s like 500 Cops and 10 students —

    Nima: Who turn into Robocop.

    Adam: This is the solution, just have 15 ED-209s roaming the hallways, I mean, this is, I mean, I’m being sarcastic, obviously, but every single time there’s a mass shooting, the solution Republicans come up with is to just throw more fucking police, law enforcement and armed teachers at the problem because they obviously can’t touch the third rail of sensible gun laws.

    Nima: And also turn personal safety, the ability for, say, children to stay alive at fucking school into a personal responsibility.

    Adam: Of the teachers and the children. Right.

    Nima: Right. So they need ballistic blankets, they need to know how to hide better, they need more places to hide.

    Adam: Again, a clip pulled by the Franciscan monks at Media Matters, this is from Nicki McCann Ramirez who pulled this clip from Fox News guest Maureen O’Connell, who is said to be a former FBI agent.

    Nima: Hmm. Yes.


    [Begin Clip]

    Maureen O’Connell: I mean, this is just beyond shocking. I would like to see this national push toward, instead of parents buying their kids all these tools and toys and games, invest in the classroom to make it safer. There are companies out there that will do that, they’ll come out and they’ll do threat assessment of the whole school, they’ll say this is an area of vulnerability that you might want to address and this is how we would address it. And they have, I mean, they have blankets that you can put up on the wall that are colorful and beautiful, but they’re ballistic blankets. I mean, there are ways to obscure the classroom windows so that the shooter can’t have target acquisition. I mean, there’s just a million tools out there, and we’ve been banging this drum for years. Let’s start investing in our kids and in the safety of our children.

    [End Clip]

    Nima: Okay, so that’s just fucking ridiculous, right? That she’s hand wringing and saying, ‘Oh, my God, let’s care about the children finally, let’s put up Kevlar tapestries in schools,’ that that’s the way to care about kids that, you know, there are so many things they can do, Adam, right?

    Adam: Yeah.

    Nima: There’s so many solutions, except the obvious ones.

    Adam: Yeah. And then there’s the sort of other argument that you see from, I don’t want to get Democrats totally off the hook here, but for the purposes of this episode we’re going to focus on, well, there was the Matt Yglesias take that was, would have been infamous which is, quote, “For all the very real problems, one shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the contemporary United States of America is one of the safest places to live in all of human history and there’s a reason tons of people of all kinds, from all over the world, clamor to move here.” Setting aside the narcissism and chauvinism of that statement —

    Nima: Oh great, the Nick Kristof argument.

    Adam: Yeah, what the people will say very often is that school shootings are actually very rare, that you shouldn’t legislate around what is basically a one in a million chance of your kid dying, you shouldn’t sort of live in fear of the one in a million chance of dying. And while that’s true, the US still has way more gun deaths in general and also way more mass shootings than even countries with comparable amount of guns, forget the comparable population, just actual amount of guns, because there’s basically no regulation and the last two major mass shootings would have been stopped, had there have been some form of background check. You know, they say, ‘Well, bad guys are going to get guns no matter what.’ Some will, but some won’t, and the point is mitigation and lowering the possibility.

    Nima: Seatbelts don’t save everyone in every single fucking car crash. But seatbelts are important, right? It’s about mitigation.

    Adam: Yeah. And so this leads us to the next, this is not a new one, this has been popular forever, which is this idea that the left only cares when white suburban kids are killed in these mass shootings, which of course are definitionally senseless and have no, you know, there’s no sort of social factors. They’re random, this is why they strike at the heart.

    Nima: Right. That’s the narrative that these totally come out of nowhere, unforeseen.

    Adam: Whereas largely Black and brown children who die from gun violence in cities throughout this country, that the left doesn’t sort of care about them. Now, aside from the fact that that’s not true at all, there is obviously a lot of left-wing activism around guns in cities, interventions, violence disruptors, there’s tons of grassroots left-wing activists who deal with violence every day. lobbying to build up things like mental health social programs, after school programs, that all gets cut by asshole, you know, conservative governors and cop pumping Democrats. That aside, it’s a very popular refrain. So we’re going to listen to a Sean Hannity clip here which, again —

    Nima: Yeah, so apologies for Sean Hannity.

    Adam: This is pretty sick stuff, but we want to play it real quick because we want to give you a sense of how popular this is, a line they use every six months since I was in high school.


    [Begin Clip]

    Sean Hannity: In fact, they don’t even really seem to care about gun violence at all, unless and until it fits a preferred political narrative. Now, take a look at your screen. Since 2019, 4,598 children have been shot and killed in the United States. Of those, of that number, 43 of those deaths were school shootings, and of course, we on this program have stated over and over again, you know, this literally is our national treasure, these lives, these precious kids, all lives definitely matter. One death is a tragedy. So why on the left, why do they seemingly always ignore the young kids routinely being gunned down in cities like Baltimore and Washington D.C. and New York, Los Angeles, Chicago every single week. We had 28 people shot in Chicago last week, by the way, that’s on the low side for a typical weekend there. No one on the left ever talks about it. They don’t seem to care. On this program, we have been scrolling the names of murder victims, people that have been involved, that have been shot in the Windy City. We have done this since 2009. Since that time, 1,381 children under the age of 19 have been shot and killed in Chicago. That includes eight years of the Obama/Biden presidency and vice presidency.

    [End Clip]

    Adam: So obviously Sean Hannity is very concerned with poverty inside South Chicago. Now, notice that Fox News always references Chicago when they talk about high murder rates, gun violent rates, right?

    Nima: Yeah.

    Adam: There’s a reason for that. It’s a racial watchword. It’s meant to diminish Obama. It’s a holdover.

    Nima: Yeah. It’s just a shorthand. It’s just a dog whistle.

    Adam: So they focus on Chicago because it’s a racial watchword, since the Obama era. It’s sort of this Obama, it’s Fox News shorthand for what about Black on Black crime? It’s a go to retort, right? Now, Chicago, depending on what metric you use, doesn’t crack the top 20 in murder rates of American cities, and in some metrics that doesn’t crack the top 10. Cities that have higher murder rates, St. Louis, Baltimore, New Orleans, Detroit, Cleveland, Las Vegas, Kansas City, Memphis, etcetera, etcetera. But that’s not shorthand, right? So you never hear them say what about, sometimes they’ll do Baltimore, because that’s also very racialized, but you’ll never hear ‘What about Kansas City or St. Louis?’ Because it doesn’t quite have the racist code punch. Now, of course, Sean Hannity doesn’t give a shit about Black kids dying from gun violence in Chicago, or anywhere else, for that matter. It is a way of hand waving away or distracting from the central issue and so they have to sort of unload the crocodile tears and what about Black on Black crime?

    Nima: And he literally says “all lives matter” in that clip.

    Adam: Yeah, literally that day, Governor Pritzker had passed a law banning ghost guns. Again, we can debate the sort of carceral response, whether that’s wise or not, this was not as bad. But it’s not as if big city liberal Democratic mayors are not passing gun control or don’t talk about gun crime in their poor areas. They do it all the fucking time. Now, again, we can debate the solutions to that, but it’s quite literally probably the thing they talk about most, and then when they say the liberals don’t care about that, that’s obviously just fake. I mean, they’re throwing slop to their pay pigs, right? I mean, it’s just this sort of lowest common denominator, then they love to say, ‘Oh, it’s the Democrats who are politicizing it.’ Well, it’s a political issue.

    Nima: Right.

    Adam: We’ve said this before on the show, I’ll say it again, 100 times out of 100 whenever someone says the other side is politicizing something, they’re mad because they’ve long politicized the issue, and they’re just mad someone else disagrees with them.

    Nima: Right, because it is a major political issue for them and their base.

    Adam: Politicizing is saying, ‘Well, I don’t want any competition in the ideological space. I just want to have my own way.’ Now someone is criticizing my worldview, ‘Oh, you’re politicizing a tragedy.’

    Nima: Right.

    Adam: One of these things that exist outside of politics, someone please let me know what those things are. I have yet to see them.

    Nima: Thoughts and prayers, thoughts and prayers Adam. That’s what exists outside of politics.

    Adam: Yeah, Ted Cruz really raised the stakes of thought and prayers, because again, the thoughts and prayers thing is now a meme so they can’t do thoughts and prayers anymore. So now they’re having to reword they’re completely morally unserious responses to these shootings. So for example, Ted Cruz says, “Heidi and I are fervently lifting up in prayer the children and families in their horrific shooting in Uvalde.” This is the senator from the state where the shooting happened.

    Nima: Yes, who incidentally gets the most campaign funding from the gun lobby.

    Adam: Right. So Ted Cruz can’t do thoughts and prayers so now we’re raising the stakes, we’re adding an adverb. “Heidi and I are fervently lifting up in prayer.” “Fervently.” Oh, you strenuously object? Oh, well, by all means.

    Nima: It’s fervent. Fervent lift.

    Adam: So again, this is obviously a political faction that is completely, the idea that you wouldn’t even consider things like something as simple as a background check is so out of bounds that you have to come up with a sophistry industry that comes up with excuses which liberals mock because they’re so absurd on their face. I mean, the solution is to have an increasingly hyper militarized public education. Of course they just want to gut public education in general.

    Nima: Well, that’s also amazing, I mean, they hate teachers, they hate public education, but then when these things happen they say they want to then arm the teachers who they hate, right? So they can’t trust teachers not to brainwash their kids with accurate history of this country, but we can give them guns, that somehow those same teachers can be trusted. When they’re not busy grooming their kids, they can defend them with firearms.

    Adam: Yeah, one quick thing, so while we’re recording this, over the wire here, the AP has confirmed apparently many witnesses say the cops literally just stood outside. So that’s another data point indicating that the cops sat there and did nothing. Heavily armed police. So, you know, carceralism cannot fail, police ideology cannot fail, we just need more of them.

    Nima: Right. We need more good guys with more guns. It was the lack of enough good guys with guns.

    Adam: Yeah.

    Nima: Not that they weren’t there to begin with, which apparently they were there but they weren’t good enough Adam, we need gooder guys with gooder guns.

    Adam: Well, we need just one entrance and exit. We need a two by two square.

    Nima: Right, and razor wire fencing, and there were also talking about, you know, these schools described as quote-unquote “soft targets,” which I mean, what the fuck is wrong with everything here? Need more, maybe booby traps outside, right? So, we need to do the thing where, you know, Swiss Family Robinson catches a tiger outside of our public schools so that our children can be safe.

    Adam: Don’t you love all of our fresh references. All the Zoomers listening going, Swiss Family Robinson? Yeah, I’ve definitely seen that. Hey, kids.

    Nima: Hey, that’s what you get, Ol’ Man River here.

    Adam: How old are you again? I feel like you’re lying about your age. I feel like you’re actually 75.

    Nima: I’m 76 years old.

    Adam: I made a reference to Robocop which is already very borderline and you’re going back to the ’50s. Not good. Anyway, kids.

    Nima: Anyway kids, don’t watch Swiss Family Robinson because it’s super racist. But also don’t watch Fox News because it is super racist. All you will see are these ways to launder doing nothing, pretending you care and ensuring that this happens again and again and again.

    Adam: Yeah, pretty much.

    Nima: That will do it for this Citations Needed News Brief. Thank you all for listening. Of course you can catch the show regularly on Wednesdays when we drop our full length episodes. In the meantime, of course, you can follow us on Twitter @CitationsPod, follow us on Facebook at Citations Needed, and if you’re so inclined, please do support our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. We are 100 percent listener funded so your support is so appreciated. I am Nima Shirazi.

    Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

    Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again for listening, everyone. Be well. We’ll catch you next time.


    This Citations Needed News Brief was released on Friday, May 27, 2022.

    Transcription by Morgan McAslan.