Episode 66: Whataboutism - The Media's Favorite Rhetorical Shield Against Criticism of US PolicyCitations Needed add
Since the beginning of what’s generally called ‘RussiaGate’ three years ago, pundits, media outlets, even comedians have all become insta-experts on supposed Russian propaganda techniques. The most cunning of these tricks, we are told, is that of “whataboutism” – a devious Soviet tactic of deflecting criticism by pointing out the accusers’ hypocrisy and inconsistencies. The tu quoque - or, “you, also” - fallacy, but with a unique Slavic flavor of nihilism, used by Trump and leftists alike in an effort to change the subject and focus on the faults of the United States rather than the crimes of Official State Enemies.
But what if "whataboutism" isn’t describing a propaganda technique, but in fact is one itself: a zombie phrase that’s seeped into everyday liberal discourse that – while perhaps useful in the abstract - has manifestly turned any appeal to moral consistency into a cunning Russian psyop. From its origins in the Cold War as a means of deflecting and apologizing for Jim Crow to its braindead contemporary usage as a way of not engaging any criticism of the United States as the supposed arbiter of human rights, the term "whataboutism" has become a term that - 100 percent of the time - is simply used to defend and legitimizing American empire’s moral narratives.
We are joined by Jeremy Scahill, co-founder of The Intercept.
Episode 65: How Empire Uses ‘Feminist’ Branding to Sell War and OccupationCitations Needed add
Since the dawn of the American Empire, thin moral pretexts in our politics and press have been used to justify our wars and conquest. The invasion of Cuba and Philippines in 1898 was declared to be a fight for freedom from Spanish oppression. Vietnam was about stopping Communist tyranny. T he pioneer myth of Manifest Destiny and “westward expansion” was built about “taming” and “civilizing’ the land from violent savages.
But one current that flows through all of these imperial incursions has been the idea that the United States – as well as its allies the Great Britain and Israel – are out to protect women. Today's endless occupations in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan are, in large part, justified in perpetuity because the United States is a self-declared, unique protector of modernity and women’s rights.
All the same, the Pentagon is increasingly promoted, in press releases and media puffy pieces, as a place where women can exercise their agency: the ultimate apex of meritocracy and a vanguard of equality.
But what if this approach misses the point of equality altogether? What if this is simply a craven branding exercise, putting a liberal face on what is a fundamentally oppressive system of violence? On this episode, we explore various ways women’s rights and empowerment has been used to sell colonial objectives and how one can differentiate between actual progress and the superficial language of inclusion used cynically in service of mechanized violence.
Our guests are University of Delaware professor Dr. Kara Ellerby and University of Bristol senior lecturer Dr. Sumita Mukherjee.
Episode 64: Mike Rowe’s Koch-Backed Working Man AffectationCitations Needed add
In recent years, television personality Mike Rowe has amassed a wildly popular following due to alleged working-class straight talk about topics ranging from the affordability of college to reasserting a culture of pride in craftsmanship and labor. From his 5.2 million Facebook followers to his cable programs, his everyman schtick, on its surface, can be very appealing: after all, who doesn’t love a hard day’s work and loathe detached, ivory tower eggheads?
But hiding under his superficially appealing blue-collar façade is dangerous ideology, one funded by the Koch Brothers and other far-right, anti-labor corporate interests and specifically tailored to pick off a certain constituency of Home Depot Democrats while pushing political impotence, anti-union narratives and anti-intellectualism. Through a clever combination of working class affectation and folksy charm – often exploiting real fears about a decline in industrialization – Rowe has cultivated an image that claims to be pro-worker, but primarily exists to line the pockets of their boss.
Our guest is Street Fight Radio's Bryan Quinby.
Episode 63: Gambling and Neoliberal Rot - How Our Most Regressive Tax Flies Under the RadarCitations Needed add
As more and more states turn to casinos and lotteries to ‘fill the gap” in 'falling' state budgets, the predatory and regressive nature of gambling as an alternative to increasing taxes on the rich avoids nearly any media scrutiny among centrists and liberals. Even the Left has mostly ignored the issue––ceding criticism of our most regressive tax to the Christian Right, who largely oppose gambling for all the wrong reasons.
In this episode, we explore how lotteries and casinos have come to represent the last throes of the false neoliberal promise of "jobs” and “growth.” Throughout much of the United States, specifically the Rust Belt and Midwest, casinos and prisons are increasingly the only growth industries, entrenching the shift from an industrial economy to one that exclusively preys on the poor and desperate in a never-ending race to the bottom. Beyond the glitz and easy “tax revenue” lies a massive transfer of wealth from the poor, black and elderly to the super wealthy - achieved, slowly over decades, with zero sustained criticism from the media.
We are joined by two guests: John Balzarini, Assistant Professor of Sociology & Criminal Justice at Delaware State University, and Les Bernal, National Director of Stop Predatory Gambling.
Episode 62: Sanitizing Our Settler-Colonial Past With ‘Nation of Immigrants’ NarrativesCitations Needed add
“The United States is a nation of immigrants.” It’s a phrase we hear constantly – often said with the best of intentions and, in today’s increasingly cruel environment, meant as a strong rebuke of Donald Trump and his white nationalist administration.
The metaphor of the “melting pot” serves a similar purpose: the United States is strong and noble because we are a place that takes people in from across the globe, an inclusive, welcoming, compassionate in-gathering of humanity - e pluribus unum - "out of many, one." It’s a romantic idea – and often evoked as a counter to xenophobic, anti-immigrant rhetoric.
But how historically accurate are these phrases and the national narratives they entrench? And what if, instead of combating white nationalism, they subtly promote it?
On this episode, we dissect the notion that the United States is simply a rainbow collection of disparate groups coming together and breakdown how, in many ways, this absolves us of our past and present as a violent, white-settler colony.
Our guest is historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz.
Episode 61: What The Hell Is Wrong With MSNBC, Part II -- A RebuttalCitations Needed add
In Ep. 34: 'What The Hell Is Wrong With MSNBC', we discussed with our anonymous MSNBC informant, well, what the hell was wrong with MSNBC? Why do they routinely focused on inane horserace and RussiaGate fear-mongering over objectively important topics like climate change, the destruction of Yemen, and worker strikes?
One listener, former MSNBC host and current MSNBC contributor, Touré thought our episode was lacking in significant context and, in many ways, unfair. So we invited him on to discuss his issue with our critique and explore the broader, evergreen media criticism problem of trying to distinguish between a need for ratings and the more subtle influence of ideology and partisan cheerleading.
Episode 60: Kitten Rescues, Lip-Syncing & Christmas Traffic Stops - Your Guide to Clickbait CopagandaCitations Needed add
The media – local and national, print and TV – love puff pieces designed to make the police look good and generally improve their overall brand with the public. More often than not, these human interest stories are typically fed to local news by the police themselves. This type of pseudo-journalism is most transparent in its most overly saccharin iteration, something we like to call clickbait copaganda.
Stories involving noble patrolmen rescuing cats from car engines, helping little Jimmy find his stolen bike, raising money for charity, coaching Little League, white cops hugging black kids or handing out Christmas presents all do well on social media and help burnish the police’s image in the age of Black Lives Matter.
On this week's episode, we examine the increasingly viral nature of pro-police agitprop, dissect how organic these stories actually are, and identify the five main types of clickbait copaganda.
Our guest is journalist Ashoka Jegroo.
Episode 59: National Pastimes: Mindless Militarism in American SportsCitations Needed add
F-22 flyovers, 160-foot flags draped across the playing field, full color guards, camouflage uniforms, The Star-Spangled Banner, God Bless America, Support The Troops Nights, special perks for vets.
What is the origin of the runaway military worship so ingrained in our sports? How did our professional baseball and football leagues become so infused to our military state and what can fans of these sports do to deconstruct and pushback against the forces of jingoism and military fetishizing?
We are joined by Professor Robert Elias.
Episode 58: The Neoliberal Optimism IndustryCitations Needed add
We're told the world is getting better all the time. In January, The New York Times' Nick Kristof explained "Why 2017 Was the Best Year in Human History." The same month, Harvard professor and Bill Gates' favorite optimist Steven Pinker lamented (in a special edition of Time magazine guest edited by - who else? - Bill Gates) the “bad habits of media... bring out the worst in human cognition”. By focusing so much on negative things, the theory goes, we are tricked into thinking things are getting worse when, in reality, it's actually the opposite.
For the TEDtalk set, that the world is awesome and still improving is self-evidently true - just look at the data. But how true is this popular axiom? How accurate is the portrayal that the world is improving we so often seen in sexy, hockey stick graphs of upward growth and rapidly declining poverty? And how, exactly, are the powers that be "measuring" improvements in society?
On this episode, we take a look at the ideological project of telling us everything's going swimmingly, how those in power cook the books and spin data to make their case for maintaining the status quo, and how The Neoliberal Optimism Industry is, at its core, an anti-intellectual enterprise designed to lull us into complacency and political impotence.
Our guest is Dr. Jason Hickel.
News Brief: Consumer Society and the Curation of CultureCitations Needed add
Focus groups have long-been derided by the left, right, and center for watering down culture and reducing creative and political endeavors to dull, show-of-hand reductionism.
But what if focus groups – which first arose from socialist experiments in 1920s Vienna – are not inherently bad? What if they've simply been exploited by the capitalist class and could, potentially, have much to offer a left-wing, democratic vision of the world?
We are joined by author and professor Liza Featherstone to discuss the problems and potential of the much-maligned, but often scapegoated, focus group.
Episode 57: A Matter of Survival - Trivializing Trans Rights as a Boutique “Identity” IssueCitations Needed add
In the wake of the 2016 election, many conservatives, liberals, and - unfortunately - even some on the left pointed to Democrats' reliance on so-called "identity politics" to explain Donald Trump's upset victory over Hillary Clinton.
One of the most popular manifestations of this sentiment was the controversy surrounding bathrooms and transgender rights. The general theory was that some unspecified cohort of voters, outraged by the oppressive nature of trans politics, responded by voting for a reactionary bigot they otherwise wouldn’t have supported. “Identity politics” – and its close cousin “political correctness” – had gone too far, we heard, and Trump's election was the blowback.
Commentaries in corporate media pushed this narrative, while missing the essential point: The alleged “identity issues” of trans people are not a matter of self-esteem or feeling good about themselves or about some academic notion of "being recognized." In many concrete ways, they’re quite literally a matter of life and death. Yet conveying this notion to the broader, cis public has been almost impossible as media narratives surrounding trans issues – when they’re not outright hostile or glib – have disproportionately focused on surface-level improvements among the wealthy and within spaces that even help advance U.S. militarism.
How do we breakthrough the corrosive narratives of either contempt on the one hand, or imperialist inclusion on the other? And how can we elevate narratives that affect the vast majority of trans people, like housing, police terror, legal status, healthcare and basic human dignity, while pushing back against liberal and left holdouts who dismiss trans issues as simply another “distraction.”
We are joined on today's episode by Dean Spade, associate professor at Seattle University School of Law.
Episode 56: How The Media Learned to Worry About War Without Ever Opposing ItCitations Needed add
“Bush didn’t send enough Troops.”
“Trump needs authorization from Congress before launching a war.”
“Israeli settlement expansion in the occupied Palestinian territories are not helpful.”
We hear these liberal objections to war and occupation all the time. On the surface, they sound opposed to injustice—and maybe sometimes are—but what if, more often than not, they nitpick process, protocol, and procedure without ever offering substantive, existential critiques of American war-making and military destruction. Their function, primarily, is to give the appearance of dissent where none really exists.
In spycraft, the term “limited hangout” is defined as a “public relations or propaganda technique that involves the release of previously hidden information in order to prevent a greater exposure of more important details.” Just the same, this limited opposition to war, or pseudo-opposition, serves as a way of superficially opposing war or imperialism or military occupation without the mess of actually taking a stand against it.
From the invasion of Iraq to the Israeli occupation of Palestine to the boundary-less and boundless perma-war on terror, this pseudo-opposition has taken many forms over the years. In this episode, we discuss the sophisticated nature of this technique, how one can differentiate between good faith nuance and concern-trolling, and how discrediting pseudo-opposition can open space for real conversations about the true consequences of empire.
We are joined by Nora Barrows-Friedman, associate editor at The Electronic Intifada.
Episode 55: Jake Tapper and the Art of Faux-AdversarialismCitations Needed add
Jake Tapper’s career trajectory is an object lesson in how to succeed in corporate media. The formula generally goes like this: go after the fringes of the left and the right––but mostly the left. Never offend any traditional centers of power. Mug. Constantly mug for the camera. Hitch your brand to “The Troops” And-always, always––attack from the neoconservative right. As previously discussed in our John McCain News Brief, the issue with John McCain was less so about the man himself but what he represented: posturing National Security state jingoism at the heart of America’s civic religion; a phony notion of self-importance that animates US militarism. Just the same, this week’s episode is less about Tapper and more about what he represents: the dead center of American corporate media; hollow, faux-adversarialism marked by military worship; less interested in original reporting than serving as a bouncer for Club Acceptable Opinion. We are joined on this week's episode by journalist Natasha Lennard.
Episode 54: Local 'Crime' Reporting as Police StenographyCitations Needed add
"The suspect fled on foot, police said. Call this number if you have any information." "The incident took place at the 1200 block of Grove." "Police say." "Police sources are telling us." "Suspect is thought to be armed and dangerous."
We’ve all heard this type of Official Copspeak before. The local press dutifully informs us about "suspects" and "gang members" and "burglars." They're infiltrating our neighborhoods, rampaging through our streets, climbing in our windows. The police, of course, are just doing their part to keep us safe. Local media and community-based message boards they pander to read like police blotters. "Dial 1-800-985-TIPS for your friendly neighborhood detective!"
But what if publishing police department press releases isn't really journalism, but rather free public relations for an already extremely powerful, routinely violent, often corrupt and deeply conflicted institution? What if the genre of so-called “crime’ reporting is inherently reactionary and the whole enterprise of how we think about “crime” needs to be deconstructed and reconsidered?
On this week’s episode, we discuss why local "crime" reporting widely suffers from racist tabloidism and what overworked and under-resourced journalists can do to gather information from sources that don't wear badges.
We are joined by Chicago-based activists Sharlyn Grace and Malcolm London.
Episode 53: The Increasingly Dull Edge of 'Hypocrisy' TakedownsCitations Needed add
Trump says he opposed the war in Iraq, but in fact said he supported it in an obscure interview in 2004. McCain was for the tax cuts before he was against them. Republicans say they’re Christians, yet support a philandering liar. Hypocrisy takedowns – which reached peak popularity during the heyday of The Daily Show – have been the bread and butter of liberal discourse for years.
Gawker founder Nick Denton famously said that “Hypocrisy was the only modern sin”––doctrine-driven ideologies had been replaced by the nihilistic ersatz ideology of not contradicting oneself. Consistency, even in the service of nothing and in defense of power, was the highest moral achievement.
But as outright lying and contradiction were not only ignored but embraced by Trumpism, this worldview began to lose any remaining purchase. And as the emptiness of this approach grew more stark, a new generation of politically engaged people sought out traditional ideologies based on first principles, on the left this broadly manifested as a resurgence of socialism, which offered an alternative to the self-contained cult of self-satisfaction.
On today's episode, we discuss the limits of hypocrisy-as-critique, when it can still be useful and why never contradicting oneself is often evidence more of cowardice than principle.
Our guest is Roqayah Chamseddine.
Episode 52: Attacks on Affirmative Action and the Commodification of DiversityCitations Needed add
"Diversity" is a simultaneously important and buzzword-y term beloved by the media, corporations, real estate agents and elite universities. It’s something to strive for and take pride in, a symbol of inclusion and tolerance.
While diversity is a noble feature – and something all large systems should strive for – it originally was not supposed to be an ends in-and-of-itself. Diversity, in this vein, has morphed under capitalism into a PR industry, supplanting notions of equity, decolonization and desegregation for something much more sanitized.
The term is now often used as a catch-all for making white people feel better about the schools they go to, businesses they run, neighborhoods they gentrify. It largely exists, in its current iteration, to ameliorate whiteness rather than confront it, allowing for the commodification of the idea while giving existing power structures a glossy patina of liberal race-awareness.
We are joined this week by journalist and author Jeff Chang, Vice President of Narrative, Arts, and Culture at Race Forward.
Episode 51: How 'The West Wing' Poisoned the Liberal MindCitations Needed add
Post-Cold War liberal chauvinism knew no better ideological conduit than the hit NBC series The West Wing. Foreign policy was imperial, staffers were self-satisfied, and Serious Democrats fended off radical leftists and made the Tough Choices needed to run a benevolent superpower. The West Wing, created and primarily written by Aaron Sorkin, heavily influenced the politics of dozens of high-status Obama-era liberals. By their own admission, we know it had among its superfans Obama staffers Sam Graham-Felsen and Eric Lesser, Vox founders Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias, The New Statesman’s Helen Lewis, MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell (who produced and wrote for the show), Democratic party hacks Meredith Shiner and Micah Lasher, and many more. Indeed, it’s fair to say anyone under 40 who came up through the ranks of liberal public relations and politics during the Obama years was either directly impacted by The West Wing or, indirectly, by those under its comforting, Starbucks-color-palette worldview. On this week's episode, we discuss how this Sorkinized worldview both informed and reflected prevailing thought in the Democratic Party, promoted smugness as the highest virtue, and––more generally––how ideology is spread through seemingly benign cultural products like schlocky television dramas. We are joined by Toronto-based writer and co-host of the Michael and Us podcast Luke Savage.
Episode 50: Anti-Imperialism and MSNBC-Approved SocialismCitations Needed add
With recent primary election wins by candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, James Thompson, Julia Salazar and others, the terms “socialist” and “democratic socialist” are everywhere. Media outlets across the political spectrum - from The Washington Post andBusiness Insider to NPR and MSNBC to Jacobin - have rushed to publish explainer articles, demystifying the tenets of socialism and its variations for a mass American audience.
But one thing missing from the bulk of these explainers – many of them written by high-profile Democratic Socialists themselves - is a robust account of foreign policy and the role America’s massive imperial footprint would play in any future Democratic Socialist America. Instead, descriptions of socialism stick primarily to domestic issues.
Similarly, the wave of recent democratic socialist explainers are quick to distance their brand of Democratic Party-friendly socialism with the scary brand in the Global South, namely that of Venezuela. Highlighting instead the virtues of white-majority countries like Sweden and Denmark, many socialist whisperers dismiss out of hand the Bolivarian Revolution with the dreaded “authoritarian” label.
In this episode, we discuss the pros and cons of this approach and how to know the difference between good faith critiques of socialist systems in the global south and quick and cheap fetishizing of Scandinavian countries – none of which have had to grapple with the complexities of colonialism.
We are joined by two guests: Phyllis Bennis, Director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies and Shireen Al-Adeimi, assistant professor of education at Michigan State University.
Episode 49: Shifting Media Representations of Abortion (Part II)Citations Needed add
In the mid-1990s there was a rhetorical and cultural shift on the issue of abortion, namely the result of anti-abortion activists successfully introducing the term "partial birth abortion" into both the media and cultural lexicon.
Major Democrats conceded the language, along with the moral high ground, to the extremist right-wing. They hammered home the message that abortion should be "safe, legal, and rare" - signaling that abortion was something to be ashamed of, a barely tolerable abomination.
Eventually, avoiding the issue – largely seen as legally settled – became the preferred tactic of liberal Democrats. But what resulted was a long-term sacrificing of the moral framework surrounding reproductive rights and justice, leading to the place we are now: dozens of state laws effectively preventing access to abortion in large sections of the country and Roe v. Wade under real threat for the first time in 50 years.
This week, we speak with Cait Vaughan of Maine Family Planning.
Episode 48: Shifting Media Representations of Abortion (Part I)Citations Needed add
From the shame-inducing “safe, legal and rare” framing of the 1990s to normalizing efforts like the #ShoutYourAbortion campaign and an uptick in abortion plot lines in mainstream television, dialogue surrounding abortion has shifted in recent years from one of apologism and soft-pedaling to a more frank, straightforward approach. These efforts, largely animated by Republican attacks on reproductive health since the Tea Party wave of 2010, seek to take back the moral high ground on an issue Democratic Party leaders abdicated 25 years ago.
In this two-part episode, we explore the history of how popular culture and the news have framed the issue of abortion, from the “othering” of those who have abortions to treating the issue like a shameful, seedy affair to an over-reliance in film and TV on twist endings to avoid addressing the issue head-on.
We are joined this week by Dr. Gretchen Sisson, a sociologist and researcher at the Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) Institute at the University of California, San Francisco.