Episode 126: Obama-Era Media Failures We Shouldn’t Rehash Under Biden (Part II)
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.
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Nima: On last week’s episode, we discussed five of the main Obama era media failures that we should be aware of, pay attention to and look out for as the Biden administration takes office. On today’s show, we’re gonna do five more, but before we do that, if you haven’t listened to the first episode, we do urge you to do that.
Adam: I really wish we had one of those things they do for network television serials like “Previously on Lost,” Previously on Citations Needed. Yeah, we could do the previously on Citations. No, instead of that you should just go listen. We went over the five first tropes, which I’ll recap here, I’ll do a ‘previously on.’ We went over number one, the aesthetic feel good bullshit, sort of the president as our best friend and the problems inherent in that approach. Number two, we went over the fact that people act like the war on drugs was over because Obama stopped using the phrase but of course, as we showed it very much was not. Number three, we went over the fetishization of bipartisanship and the lack of accountability for Republican criminality in the previous administration. Number four, we went over the rush for Social Security reform, Wall Street immunity and other ways of engaging or indulging in austerity dogma and then related to that number five was the white washing of the Republicans very sudden and disingenuous interest in austerity under the auspices of some kind of new quote-unquote “right-wing populism,” Bircherism 3.0, under Obama it was the Tea Party. Now it’s emerging as a kind of Josh Hawley, Tom Cotton, even Marco Rubio now claims that his heart bleeds for the working man, and they’re very much going to be concerned about the long term deficits of an upcoming stimulus, which has to happen, vaccine or not. Those are the first five media tropes we examined and warned about drawing parallels between the early and late Obama years and the upcoming Biden years. There is obviously major differences, but we argue that there is going to potentially be much similarities that we can draw from those lessons in history and try to not make the same mistake again, quote-unquote “mistake,” “failure,” whichever term you wish to use, most of the stuff is not exactly slipping on a banana peel. It’s not a mistake in that sense but a mistake in the sense that this time, we need to be more vigilant, more cynical, more evidence driven, more about substance and policy rather than rhetoric and puff pieces. So that’s kind of what we’re pushing here. This is a scoldy, buzz kill, two-parter. We are very much embracing and leaning into this idea.
Nima: Isn’t that why people listen to Citations Needed in the first place?
Adam: Because they love us being buzzkill assholes?
Nima: Yeah, isn’t that like the thing.
Adam: But I feel like we do need a disclaimer though, because some people are like, ‘Look, there was just an election, we had four years of Trump’ and I understand that and we’re sympathetic to that but having said that — that’s the Jerry Seinfeld — having said that, that is not what we’ll be doing here. We are now moving on to the vigilant phase because I think that that’s important to do as adults.
Nima: That’s right. Our respite is over, we have work to do. So we’re gonna get into five more tropes, and later on the show will speak with journalist and educator Roberto Lovato. He is a member of The Writers Grotto in the Bay Area, a co-founder of #DignidadLiteraria, the national movement formed to combat the invisibility and silencing of Latinx stories, and his work has appeared in numerous publications including Guernica, Boston Globe, Foreign Policy, The Guardian. Most recently, he is the author of Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs and Revolution in the Americas, which was published in September, is an LA Times Best Book of the Year, and was praised by The New York Times as a “groundbreaking memoir.”
Roberto Lovato: Instead of talking about the difference between Trump and Obama, we really should be talking about the Obama-Trump continuum, you know, a system of practices, policies, institutional shifts, that are primarily about policing, migrants and citizens because again, migrants are historically used to justify things that the citizenry would not otherwise accept like when you saw the Portland protests, the BORTAC unit, the Border Patrol Special Forces, basically SWAT units, kidnapping protesters in Portland. That was Homeland Security. We’re not going to be talking about, in the Biden era, dismantling the deadly foundation that many of us are calling to abolish, ICE, I would even say abolish Homeland Security.
Adam: So we’re going to jump right into the sixth trope. By the way, these are in no particular order so don’t think one is more awful than the other.
Nima: They’re all equally awful.
Adam: Yeah, this is an embrace of the quote-unquote “free trade deals” we saw under Obama, specifically, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and conflating left-wing opposition to the TPP, which was robust, major environmental groups, labor activists, immigration activists, dozens of progressive organizations opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but it was repeatedly painted, as of 2015 because Trump also opposed it for all the wrong reasons, that the opposition was straw maned or painted as a right-wing or nationalist or isolationist position. Therefore, the kind of progressive, open, liberal position was to support the so-called trade deals. But before we begin on that, we want to sort of establish the stakes. Lori Wallach, who’s the Director of the Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, has described the Trans-Pacific Partnership, otherwise known as the TPP, as a quote:
“…stealthy delivery mechanism for policies that could not survive public scrutiny…only two of the 26 chapters of this corporate Trojan horse cover traditional trade matters.
“The rest embody the most florid dreams of the 1 percent — grandiose new rights and privileges for corporations and permanent constraints on government regulation. They include new investor safeguards to ease job offshoring and assert control over natural resources, and severely limit the regulation of financial services, land use, food safety, natural resources, energy, tobacco, healthcare and more.”
And while the TPP was being negotiated and debated, for the most part, we didn’t even know what was in it.
Nima: Because it was on this fast track process that basically omits all of the normal kind of debate procedure, and any sort of democratic oversight. It’s the same thing that got NAFTA passed under Clinton. Basically, this pushes through a quote-unquote “fast track authority,” where effectively there’s no public scrutiny. When it came to the TPP back in 2013, Keith Ellison, when he was a congressman in Minnesota, referred to it as quote, “the largest corporate power grab, you never heard of.” End quote.
Adam: It was opposed by Elizabeth Warren, opposed by Bernie Sanders, it was somewhat hilariously, while she was running for president, opposed by Hillary Clinton, although zero people believe she actually opposed it because she, before she ran for president, she was its biggest proponent, and then later because it was so unpopular amongst the base and amongst labor and teachers unions and a host of other environmental groups, but Obama didn’t give a shit because he wasn’t running for reelection so he kept pushing the TPP and the coverage of it was fairly softball. One of the largest vectors of propaganda with respect to the TPP that we saw there was from Vox.com, who were ideologically and editorially very committed to pushing the TPP. Now, as I noted in a 2016 FAIR piece on this subject, Vox’s major investors/owner is Comcast and Comcast themselves spent millions of dollars lobbying for the TPP, which is a conflict of interest not noted at any of their articles puffing it up. So just in a short period of time in 2015, the following articles could be seen in Vox pushing the TPP. Headline reads, “Why One Top Economist Thinks Obama’s Trade Deal Is Worth Passing.” “Bernie Sanders Has Picked a Terrible Argument Against the TPP.” Those are both from the same day, May 14, 2015. This is from May 23, 2015, “Whatever You Think of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Obama Should Get His Fast-Track Authority.” That was pushing the fast-track authority to sign it. June of 2015, “Labor’s Fury Is Clouding Its Judgment.” That was on Labor opposing the TPP. October of 2015, “Hillary Clinton’s Flip-Flop on the TPP Makes No Sense.” Which is true in a sense but for all the wrong reasons. October 2015, “Why Clinton’s TPP Opposition Unnerves Me.” October 2015, the same day, “Democratic Primary Voters Say They Support Expanding Trade Agreements.” November 2015, “What Bernie Sanders Gets Wrong About Obama’s Trade Deal.” November 2015, “Why Obama Says TPP Is Historic for Workers — and Why US Labor Unions Hate It.” Then March of the next year, this was one of the more craven articles written in the height of the primary, right before the Michigan primary, where TPP was not popular. This was written by Zack Beauchamp, quote, “If You’re Poor in Another Country, This Is the Scariest Thing Bernie Sanders Has Said,” unquote, and he basically said that Bernie was opposing poor people by opposing the TPP. So these progressive groups, labor groups, environmentalist groups, clearly hate poor people, whereas the top hundred CEOs of the top hundred corporations who signed an open letter to Obama begging him to sign the TPP —
Nima: They’re the ones who really care about poor people.
Adam: Bernie Sanders doesn’t like poor people.
Nima: Vox cares about poor people.
Adam: Yeah, exactly.
Nima: Just a few months later, so this is now June of 2016 with the presidential campaign well underway, Obama looking to, you know, wrap up his tenure in the Oval Office, what do we get from Vox but a write up of an appearance that Obama did on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. So Vox writes this up, it’s written June 10, 2016, by Tara Golshan and the headline is, “Watch: President Obama sings Rihanna with Jimmy Fallon to explain the importance of the TPP,” and in the piece, Golshan writes this, quote:
“It’s no secret that Donald Trump wants to do away with the Trans-Pacific Partnership and implement his own trade rules abroad (many of which, economists say, will lead the United States into a recession and put Americans out of work). The TPP is a ‘disaster,’ he said Tuesday night, ‘almost as bad as NAFTA.’
“On Thursday night, President Barack Obama had a response, in the form of a smooth slow jam, in an appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”
Adam: So here we go, we have the opposition to the TPP was framed as something Donald Trump was opposed to, rather than the bulk of the Democratic Party base, including very normie environmentalist groups like the Sierra Club.
Nima: Yeah, like NRDC, Defenders of Wildlife —
Adam: Not radical left-wing —
Nima: Doctors Without Borders opposed it, folks.
Adam: Yeah, who also hate poor people, evidently, according to Zack Beauchamp. So this was a very typical way that you create a false debate.
Nima: The AFL-CIO, machinist unions, teamsters and steel workers all opposed this trade deal, right? So, it has unions lining up against it, as well as environmental groups, as well as consumer watchdogs and the like.
Adam: Yeah, pretty much every major progressive group opposed it, that weren’t bought off by corporations. So they have to frame it as an anti-Trump thing and so you get this kind of schlock, we’ll listen to that clip right now.
[Begin The Tonight Show Clip]
Barack Obama: And that’s why I negotiated the new trade deal called the Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP.
Jimmy Fallon: Now hold on there Prez dispenser. Are you saying you’re down with TPP?
Barack Obama: Yeah, you know, me. Look, Jimmy, the TPP allows American businesses to sell their products both at home and abroad. The more we sell abroad, the more higher paying jobs we provide here at home. It’s that simple.
Jimmy Fallon: So what you’re saying is this trade deal will help put everyday Americans back to work, work, work, work, work.
Barack Obama: Work, work, work, work, work.
Adam: So yeah, this is the sort of insipid bullshit we had throughout the Obama years, which is like, okay, this is a comedy show, I get that, but like he’s pushing a policy agenda and it’s like, okay, fine, so he goes on Fallon and gives this fatuous singalong thing about how great these environmental destroying, corporation protecting bullshit fake trade deals are but then he gets 1,000 write ups in Vox and BuzzFeed and other outlets saying ‘Look how funny this is,’ ‘Look how cute this is,’ without any context as to the progressive opposition to the bill and you saw this kind of shit with Obama over and over again and, again, I know it’s not one to one, but Biden’s marketing people, PR people will engage in a lot of this bullshit to sell to millennials these pro-corporate policies that have absolutely zero organic constituency outside of the US Chamber of Commerce.
Nima: Yeah, exactly. I think we’re gonna see a lot more of this coupled with, you know, Biden putting on sunglasses and shit like that.
Adam: Yeah, old Uncle Joe stuff.
Nima: Yeah, exactly. So, that is definitely something to look out for, how these corporate friendly policies and trade deals are going to kind of be laundered through not only friendly media write ups, but also painting the opposition, whether it’s from the left or the right as being only kind of right-wing, right? As being anti-worker and so I think we really need to pay attention to this because I am sure we’re gonna see a lot more of it. But moving on to our number seven trope, the humanitarian warfare, American empire as now a woke feminist enterprise.
Adam: Yeah, we did an entire episode on this, Episode 65, about using feminist discourse to sell war, which is not, of course, an original critique of neoliberalism, which is that it takes something otherwise valuable, which is diversity and representation and turns it into something to mask and to gloss over things that are bad to sell them to you. So, you know, just as Raytheon is now one of the biggest donors of the Girl Scouts because they want to use STEM to recruit women to build bombs, just the same, just as Saudi Arabia used women’s rights to justify why they were investing in Uber because they were gonna allow women to drive and get around without a male guardian. This is the same type of playbook and we think that under Biden, we have already seen this emerge and we think it’s going to be a reoccurring theme throughout his administration.
Nima: Yeah, we really saw this in early 2011 when the United States really pushed regime change in Libya and under the auspices of a UN-backed humanitarian operation, a no fly zone was set up over Libya, including many, many airstrikes by a American led coalition and throughout this the media kept telling us how important it was that Hillary Clinton and other very high profile female officials in the Obama administration, namely Susan Rice and Samantha Power, were the ones advocating military action and pushed President Obama to authorize it and to lead that charge against the council of other male officials in the administration setting up basically this strange media-led soap opera narrative where the women want war, and they’re the fiery warriors, and then the men who were being too pragmatic, didn’t care enough about innocent lives. So, for instance, we have The New York Times with the headline from March 18, 2011, “Obama Takes Hard Line With Libya After Shift by Clinton.” And then after regime change becomes clearly the mandate of these continuing operations you have from The Daily Beast a John Avlon article with the headline, “Libya Airstrikes: Hillary Clinton and the Women Who Called for War,” and it has this sub headline, “That a diplomatic team led by Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, and Samantha Power advocated military action against Gaddafi may be a footnote in the Libyan conflict — but it is a significant mark of our nation’s evolution, argues John Avlon.”
Adam: Yeah, so women can engage in regime change just as much as men can, this of course is pretty facile, the morally relevant question as to whether or not I mean, obviously we saw this a lot with Margaret Thatcher, she invaded the Falkland Islands and it’s like, is that a sign of progress? Or is that a sign of a weird, repressed imperial waning empire engaged in a petty conflict?
Nima: Women can be imperialist too. We know, there have been queens for a long time.
Nima: I mean, Victoria was like Queen for 100 years, we get it.
Adam: And we saw this with some of the drone coverage too. This is also from The Daily Beast in terms of how the drone program was covered in the sort of general feminization of the military. This by Kevin Maurer without any irony, the headline is, quote, “She Kills People From 7,850 Miles Away: Her name is ‘Sparkle,’ she operates a drone. She is sick of whiny boys. And she is perfectly OK with dealing out death.”
Nima: So we’re already seeing this, of course, as the Biden transition team rolls out a lot of its nominees for Cabinet positions and other appointed official positions in the upcoming administration. Before news broke late on Monday night, December 7 that Joe Biden would nominate retired four-star general, former US CentCom commander and current Raytheon board member Lloyd Austin as his Secretary of Defense, there was much speculation — and even at times bit of elation — in the media that he would pick not the first African American man to head the Pentagon, but rather the first woman. So in early November of 2020, we already started seeing articles like this from Defense News, quote, “Michèle Flournoy could become the first woman to run the Pentagon. Here’s what would change.” Followed soon after by Associated Press, noting, quote, “Biden likely to break barriers, pick woman to lead Pentagon.” End quote, that article also notes that Flournoy’s appointment as Secretary of Defense, quote, “would be consistent with Biden’s pledge to have a diverse cabinet.” End quote. Just a couple weeks later, you had this from Alex Ward in Vox, quote, “Michèle Flournoy is ready for the spotlight.” With this subheadline, “Flournoy is expected to become the first woman secretary of defense. She’s ready.” In this article, which is this glowing appraisal of Flournoy and her resume, how qualified she is, it includes this quote:
“Flournoy studied at Harvard and Oxford, worked at the Pentagon in the Clinton administration, served in various high-profile roles in Washington’s most prestigious think tanks and consulting firms, built her own prominent research organization, and starred in Obama’s Defense Department.
“Few in the Democratic Party have had such an upward trajectory in Washington’s cutthroat national security world. Fewer still earned near-universal respect while climbing the ladder — to the point that President Donald Trump’s first defense secretary, Jim Mattis, asked her to be his №2, an offer she turned down.”
Adam: So, Michèle Flournoy is also very hawkish and very right-wing. She strongly backed the TPP, which we discussed earlier. She argued against troop withdrawals in Iraq under Obama when he pulled troops out in 2011. She supported the intervention and bombing of Libya that turned into a disaster. She pressured Obama to lift the ban on oil exports. She was a longtime president and founder of CNAS, the Center for New American Security, which is funded by a who’s who of weapons contractors and oil companies, funded by Chevron, gets money from Exxon Mobil, gets money from Raytheon, gets money from Lockheed Martin. According to Responsible Statecraft CNAS is one of the leading think tanks for weapons contractor money. They received almost $9 million between 2014 and 2019 from US government defense contractors, including $7 million from Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, Boeing, etcetera. As we’ve discussed on the show, they’re very much constantly promoting fear, panic, so forth.
Nima: Flournoy also, with Antony Blinken, who is going to be Biden’s Secretary of State, co-founded WestExec Advisors, which is a consulting firm with a kind of who’s who of clients that I’m sure they don’t want to post on their website.
Adam: Yeah And as investigative reporter, David Sirota, along with The New York Times, reported that Flournoy had just recently entered into a business arrangement with incoming Secretary of State Antony Blinken, through their firm Pine Island Capital Partners, which lists Under Secretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy and retired general Lloyd Austin as a partner in the firm. In an SEC filing Pine Island describes one of its investment vehicles as quote, “A newly organized blank check company incorporated in Delaware,” unquote that will use its connections to top officials to take advantage of rising government expenditures on the national security agencies that Flournoy and Blinken could oversee. Pine Island’s first filings about the investment vehicle were made in September, the same month that Biden suggested he will not push for reductions in Pentagon expenditures. Quote:
“The reputations and networks of Pine Island Capital Partners’ team, both individually and collectively, will ensure exposure to a significant number of proprietary opportunities,” the company said in one SEC document. “We believe there will be increased demand in the U.S. defense market for advanced electronics, communications, sensor and detection processing and other technologies that enhance the modernization efforts of the Department of Defense’s military readiness. We believe this demand represents strong growth that our management team is uniquely positioned to capitalize on given our combined investment experience and deeply connected partner group of former U.S. defense and government officials.” Unquote.
So a few months later, the person who was invested in the fund and listed as a member of the fund is now becoming the feminist hero Defense Department contractor. So this is someone who is very much in the pocket of weapons industry contractors, very much is about increasing the Pentagon’s budget, and herself makes money off it more directly. This isn’t just ideological, it’s also financial. These people move in and out of defense contractors. She was on the board of directors of Booz Allen between her stints with Obama and Biden. A few months ago, she cashed out $544,000 in Booz Allen stock. Booz Allen, of course, is basically a private NSA, Booz Allen is who Edward Snowden worked for, Booz Allen is a major defense contractor. So that’s what by the way, when we say investing in electronic and communication technology, we mean also spying on you. But suddenly, we’re told this is a big win for feminism and I don’t know, this definitely seems like a way of giving a progressive veneer to what is basically just a moderate Republican administration with some I would say even uniquely corrupt, you know, usually there’s a little bit more of a veiled attempt to not be so, but she just cashed in and is now coming back after leaving Obama.
Nima: Yeah, I mean, it’s pretty blatant like revolving door shit.
Adam: But even revolving door I think kind of under sells it, you know, revolving door sounds like it’s some sort of —
Nima: Like you go from the administration to academia and then back. This is literally mercenary connections being made and yet you see NBC News November 24, 2020, “Michèle Flournoy could be first woman to run Pentagon, may bring many more women with her.” You also see this from Politico from November 25, 2020, “Flournoy gets progressive boost in Biden’s search for Pentagon chief,” and that article notes that a group of arms control veterans have written an open letter to Biden in which they say quote, “We believe Michèle Flournoy is the best candidate for the job.” That is apparently the progressive boost that she got. In Defense One on November 26, 2020 you saw this, “Tapping Flournoy as SecDef Would Be a Really Big Deal.” This is a commentary written by Janine Davidson, former Undersecretary for the Navy, and currently the president of Metropolitan State University of Denver, in which Davidson writes this, “A natsec black belt and outstanding leader, the former policy undersecretary would also be uniquely positioned to implement some long-overdue personnel changes.” So you have all of these articles and editorials coming out praising her and yet any pushback is then dismissed as anti-feminist, right? As saying, ‘Oh, well, then you just want white men to continue leading.’ It’s like, no, no, that’s not the point but someone’s record should be important, where they have made their money over the past number of years should be important, the connections that they have made to weapons contractors, and Gulf Oil states should be important and for that person to be the head of the Defense Department is then something to actually scrutinize and it is not simply to be dismissed as ‘Oh, well, you just don’t want a woman running that,’ that seems to be very facile and completely misses the point.
Adam: And then there’s a New York Times article from November 30, 2020, quote, “It’s Time For a Woman to Run the Defense Department,” unquote. “If Biden chooses a woman as the Secretary of Defense, he would send an important and long overdue message,” by Rosa Brooks. She’s the co-founder of the Leadership Council for Women in National Security, which is run by the Pacific Council on International Policy.
Nima: So this is really, you know, there are tons of former Obama folks on the Steering Committee and Advisory Council of this group, you know, including Wendy Sherman, including Laura Kennedy and Suzanne Nossel and Wendy Sherman, Ben Rhodes, David Rothkopf, incidentally, who makes hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for his consulting firm with UAE and other such, you know, luminaries, Jake Sullivan is on the Steering Committee. Linda Thomas-Greenfield is on the committee. So, basically just a conduit for the new administration. The Honorary Advisory Committee includes luminaries such as Madeleine Albright, Fran Townsend, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Avril Haines, and — who else? — Tony Blinken and Michèle Flournoy.
Adam: Right. So Michèle Flournoy is on the board of directors of the group saying why you should hire her, why that’s a feminist victory.
Nima: And that’s in The Times, that got published in The Times. Now of course, the big Biden victory for diversity and representation is that an African American general and defense contractor board member will lead the violent defenders and expanders of American empire. So, even though it’s a man and not a woman, at least he’s Black, I guess, congratulations everyone. We did it! Continuing in the NATSEC world, we get to our number eight trope, which is the soft pedaling of Obama’s drone wars and other CIA dirty wars around the world as an extension of George W. Bush’s war on quote-unquote “terror.” So throughout the Obama years, as he escalated a lethal drone strike program, and worked with people like John Brennan, who later became CIA director, and Avril Haines, who we’ve already seen is tapped to be Joe Biden’s new Director of National Intelligence and so you see articles like in the Jerusalem Post titled, “Women take spy world by storm,” we’re going to continue, this shit is endless but when it comes to Obama’s drone wars, and the kill lists, and the individual authorization that he gave on, quote-unquote “terror Tuesdays” at the White House, I think we’re prepared to kind of go back to this idea that when there is a Democratic administration in power, the way that they prosecute these war crimes around the world is smartly and strategically and surgically, and that they are going to avoid a lot of scrutiny, again, much in the way that Obama did for eight years.
Adam: So there was a big explosive report in The New York Times about Obama’s kill list in 2012 that was almost entirely ignored by the major corporate news networks. Peter Hart wrote in May of 2012 that:
“A search of the Nexis news database turns up nothing on Obama’s kill list. The program Morning Joe had one discussion (5/29/12) where the panelists mostly supported the program, though host Joe Scarborough expressed some reservations. What was more newsworthy? MSNBC‘s primetime shows seemed to have plenty of coverage of ‘birther’ Donald Trump. And it is worth noting one left-leaning TV host who did present a critical take on the Obama drone program was Current host Cenk Uygur (5/29/12). Some might remember that he briefly hosted a show on MSNBC.”
Current was a short lived cable network show. So this drone list came out, big bombshell report in New York Times, basically entirely ignored because it was centrist, imperial consensus, and we saw this time and again with Obama’s drone war because it was considered or he didn’t do the Trump thing with the bravado and the ‘I did this’ and ‘I killed that,’ it was all very quiet, very polite, done in sterile tones. To a large extent, nobody really cared. In 2016, and you saw this, again, with this idea that President Obama had a hands off foreign policy, despite regime change in Libya, despite bombing Iraq and Syria through ISIS, despite the CIA program arming rebels or opposition in Syria. All these things which were done, basically handed over the kind of imperial projects to the CIA, and the secret drone wars and the funding and arming of proxies. It was seen as sort of hands off. So in 2016, when Hillary Clinton was running for president NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley said quote, “she’s experienced” and seen as “more hawkish than President Obama.” And they said that Obama was quote, “reticent when it comes to deploying military force” in the first place. But of course under his watch the US bombed at least seven countries — Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and Libya, and drone strikes deaths totalled several thousand a year. The deadliest strikes, those in ISIS territory up until that point when Jim Naureckas wrote this piece, they killed up to 25,000 people, and so this is to say nothing of the US ground troops that were deployed in six countries Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Cameroon, Uganda, and Yemen, including 50,000 troops in Afghanistan, doubling the US presence there from when he came into office, including deploying the use of special forces in Iraq and Syria. So this is seen as he was reticent when it comes to deploying military force, you know, it’s the old cliche about he who is known as an early riser can wake up at noon every day. Obama just got this image of someone who was skeptical about US militarism.
Nima: When you win a Nobel Peace Prize, in your first year as president before doing anything, except, you know, killing more people in that first year, but still getting a peace prize, right? I mean, three days after he was inaugurated, January 23, 2009, Obama authorized his first two drone strikes. They occurred three hours apart in Waziristan, Pakistan, and killed at least 20 civilians. Over the next eight years, there were upwards of 540 more drone strikes across numerous countries, killing hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of civilians and yet, we heard routinely from outlets like say The New York Times that, quote, “Civilian Deaths Due to Drones Are Not Many, Obama Says,” that’s from June 30, 2012, which states this quote:
“President Obama on Monday defended the use of drones to strike suspected terrorists in Pakistan and elsewhere, saying the clandestine program was ‘kept on a very tight leash’ and enabled the United States to use ‘pinpoint’ targeting to avoid more intrusive military action.”
You saw this, also in The Times the next month, July 22, 2012 in a Sunday Review piece, entitled, “The Moral Case for Drones,” which again, argues that, ethically, drone strikes are the way to go, they’re the way to prosecute the quote-unquote “war on terror” in a way that is humane. The media often acted during these years as a platform and amplifier of official Obama administration talking points with regards to the drone program often laundered as news because of these articles’ inclusion of like modest criticism or hand wringing. For instance, in advance of John Brennan’s Senate confirmation hearing as CIA Director in February 2013, The Guardian ran a piece headline to quote, “John Brennan defends drone attacks as he prepares for tough Senate hearing,” end quote. It had this sub headline, “Obama’s nominee for CIA chief says drones are more humane than bombs and artillery and that civilian deaths are rare.” So while noting that some civil and human rights groups oppose Obama’s drone strike program, and some senators have questions about its legality and efficacy, this Guardian piece essentially just copies and pastes Brendan’s own justifications for the program that he helped create. So it says this quote:
“In written answers to questions prepared by the Senate intelligence committee, Brennan defended drone strikes as a more humane form of warfare. He said that ‘extraordinary care’ is taken to ensure they conform to the ‘law of war principles’ — a phrase human rights groups say is notable in that it does not claim to actually adhere to international law.
So the article goes on to explain how Brennan says that drones are better than bombs and artillery, that they reduce the danger to both US troops and innocent civilians and then he kind of does a hand wringing thing about how quote, “regrettably and despite our best efforts, civilians have been killed,” end quote, but he adds, quote, “it is exceedingly rare and much rarer than many allege,” end quote. So in this piece, not a single opponent of the lethal drone program is quoted, besides a tepid comment from Senator Ron Wyden about having quote-unquote “substantial questions” and a commitment to quote-unquote “getting all the facts.”
Adam: “Getting all the facts,” more oversight, start a committee.
Nima: That’s right.
Adam: Sort of really need to think about it.
Nima: But not a single human rights group, and certainly no voices of victims’ families, nothing like that appear in the piece. The Guardian does, however, take the time to note that quote, “Brennan’s appointment has won the backing of the head of the United Nations inquiry into drone strikes, Ben Emmerson, a British lawyer.” So, that way, it makes it all good.
Adam: The British are known for their opposition to imperial violence historically, that is their main —
Nima: Right. So it all makes sense. The New York Times would also put out this article, “Drone Strikes’ Risks to Get Rare Moment in the Public Eye.” That was their way of saying that these hearings are going to elevate the quote-unquote “risks” that drone strikes pose to, I guess, human beings being alive and the rare moment in the public eye is interesting considering that The New York Times puts out a paper every day, so they would be able to maybe raise the scrutiny in the public eye of drone strikes, hut hey, I guess it just takes the Senate confirmation hearing to do that. Brookings Institution also around the same time, put out a report entitled, “Why Drones Work: The Case for Washington’s Weapon of Choice,” and of course infamously, though this was denied to be true, Obama reportedly told senior aides in 2011, quote, “Turns out I’m really good at killing people. Didn’t know that was gonna be a strong suit of mine.” End quote.
Adam: Yeah, well, it’s easy when you don’t actually have to do the killing, you just tell someone to tell someone to tell someone to fire something 7,000 miles away.
Nima: And then Sparkle does it for you rah, rah.
Adam: Sparkle does it for you, and then we’re kind of back to normal. Now, of course, these drone strikes were escalated and done under Trump, there was some concern about that. But of course, Trump was such a bloodthirsty maniac, no one thought criticizing him would actually move the needle. He didn’t move in and out of quote-unquote “human rights” circles like a lot of the Obama crowd does, progressive circles. So they’re supposedly supposed to hold to this higher standard and of course what they usually did is just build a bunch of veneers of supposed checks and balances and oversights but more or less the program continued. The CIA was charged with overseeing itself, and building a bunch of sophistic legal arguments as to why it was okay to kill American citizens. So we should see that back, I think, with Biden, many of the same people are coming back, we’ll continue the drone strike program, will continue the killing of Americans and non Americans alike unilaterally without judge, jury, trial, just execute them and so I certainly look forward to that, which again, exists under Trump, but Trump never sort of acted like he was progressive so it’s a little bit different.
Nima: So it really dropped off the media radar as well. There are hardly any articles, except to say that, you know, civilian deaths are increasing under Trump, and then it just kind of —
Adam: Well, because there’s no there was never a sense, you could pressure him to change. The whole point of having Democrats is theoretically, highlighting things and showing how hypocritical they are, you can pressure them to change because they at least in theory have some accountability to progressives and liberals, which is why there’s always going to be a bit of asymmetry there, because they’re supposed to be held to a higher standard because they’re supposedly the liberal party. So when they go ahead and deal out extrajudicial violence without any accountability, oversight or moral criteria that’s clear to anyone, that’s supposed to be a scandal, it’s supposed to be a bad thing, but it became, of course, completely normalized under Obama, and that I think, will begin to escalate and continue under Biden, which brings us to our ninth point, which is something that I know we’ve talked about a lot on the show, which is the war in Yemen, which was started in March of 2015, with the assistance of the Obama administration for about almost two years, about 22 months, then Trump took it over, it escalated, Saudi Arabia started to lose the war, they continue to sort of lose the war and under Obama, the war in Yemen was almost never covered. This was my early days writing for FAIR. In 2016 I wrote a piece showing how reports on a Shia militia firing on an American battleship completely ignored the fact that the US had been backing the Saudis during the war. This was a very common trope, surprisingly enough, it was ignored also under Trump, partially because it was started under Democrats, it was sort of seen as bipartisan, but it wasn’t until Khashoggi was killed in October of 2018, that suddenly, everybody started to say, ‘Hey, maybe this absolute monarchy, golf country that’s been destroying Yemen is not so hot.’ So then it became trendy to care again, but, you know, MSNBC went a whole year without talking about Yemen, they went a two year span only talking about it twice, once very superficially and we’re gonna see this kind of Yemen revisionism, I think, under Biden as well. There’s this thing that’s done that I think we really need to highlight that’s going to come back full force under Biden, which is this thing where everything they do that’s violent and imperial is presented as reluctant, and that they’re actually just sort of reluctant human rights warriors who have to go do this bad thing. So, we read this example in our episode on Samantha Power, but I’m going to read it again, from an August 2015 report, one of the rare instances where the media criticized the US embrace of Saudi war crimes in Yemen, by Samuel Oakford, I’ll pin this up to his editors, because this is a very sort of editor thing to do, although maybe it was his decision but you see this kind of framing over and over again, and I’m gonna read it to you. This is from July 2016 in Politico, it said, quote:
“No one has become more familiar with this awkwardness than the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, the erstwhile human-rights icon (author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Problem from Hell) who has been forced to look the other way as a powerful U.S. ally does as it pleases in Yemen with political, logistical and military cover from Washington.”
And you saw this with the coverage of Samantha Power’s memoirs, and you saw this with the softball interviews Ben Rhodes gave in The Nation, time and time again, we are told Joe Biden opposed the opposition in Libya. Samantha Power was trying to change Saudi Arabia from the inside, they all do the Serpico routine where they’re working within the system to change it, but these claims are entirely without objective evidence. They’re just assertions from people inside the White House. So here we have Samantha Power, who went to the UN, defended by the way, Saudi Arabia’s right to be on the UN Human Rights Council, boldface to Martha Raddatz and ABC, she confronted her about it one of the few times you ever see that and she said, ‘Saudi Arabia is not really a concern of mine, you know, they’re not going to have a lot of power,’ I’m paraphrasing, but that’s what she said. She’s an erstwhile human rights icon forced to look the other way and you’re gonna see this over and over again with Biden.
Nima: That’s right.
Adam: Where they commit some more, to a certain extent, not to be too cynical about this, but we are running out of countries to bomb and invade, quite frankly, I’m sure we’ll find new ones, but for now its like I don’t even know who the hell we can go to war with anymore, but we’ll find someone somewhere.
Adam: And they’re always sort of forced to do it reluctantly and this is the frame that’s taken for granted. Now, what evidence does Oakford have that Samantha Powers was “forced” to look the other way? How do we know she didn’t want to do this? How do we know she was forced by some mysterious entity? We don’t. It’s a myth we tell ourselves because it makes us believe that people who defend Saudi bombing school buses in Yemen, who arm it, who defend it at the UN, provide cover for it, provide financing for it to a large extent, they have the CIA and US Army help them provide guidance for where they’re going to bomb, what they’re going to bomb, this square needs to fit into the circle of the liberal human rights mythology of the Democratic foreign policy establishment, and they just don’t fit. So the only way you can reverse engineer justification is by acting like there’s some mysterious force, Ben Rhodes calls it the blob, of course, Ben Rhodes is the blob, there’s some mysterious force that exerts itself that no one can control and no one’s really sure where it comes from. It’s like the forces of war, they sort of just, so there’s no real moral responsibility for Samantha Power and Ben Rhodes.
Nima: Right, the war from nowhere.
Adam: Yeah. And so this, of course, is going to be seen a time and time again in the new Biden administration, where bad things are done reluctantly, and with a heavy heart based on self serving leaks that they themselves assert, or some sort of liberal wish fulfillment when you’re reporting, right? You see this with Samantha Power all the time, erstwhile human rights icon, reluctantly agreeing, reluctantly forced to look the other way. It’s never like, no, she is doing it, because she’s looking out because she wants to punish Iran, because she’s an American imperialist.
Nima: The thing that is also missing here is that the Iran boogeyman is going to be used again and again, as it has in the past but it went kind of out of fashion under Trump, because the Democratic Party consensus is that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the JCPOA, otherwise known as the Iran Deal, was, you know, a signature Obama administration achievement, that that was a very positive diplomatic win, that was a success, and that that was taken away and destroyed by the Trump administration and so the Iran Deal has to be defended in Democratic circles. Now that Biden is coming back in, what we’re going to see is more alarmist rhetoric about how Iran is a huge threat, how the Trump administration has allowed Iran to regain its threatening posture by enriching uranium that still can’t be put in the bomb, but no one really cares about that, because it just sounds scary to say things like breakout time without explaining what they are, and so we’re gonna see this again, we’re going to see it with regard to Iran proxies, right? We’re going to see the Shia Crescent come back into full force, proxies in Yemen and Lebanon, and Palestine, everything so that the Biden administration can prove that it is still friends with Israel, that it really cares about creeping Iranian influence, and therefore must support the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia’s war crimes in Yemen, it must do these things,it must pile on more sanctions, because Iran, Iran, Iran, Iran, and so while under Trump, Democrats were like, what is Trump doing? Iran isn’t doing the things that he’s saying, he’s doing these things, he pulled out of the Iran deal, etcetera, etcetera, now that Biden’s back, we’re gonna see it flip and of course, recently, we saw the assassination of the top nuclear official in the Iranian government, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, and so these things are going to continue. Obviously, there’s a scorched Earth policy that the Trump administration is working on, probably hand in hand with Saudi Arabia and with Netanyahu and Israel to kind of, as they say, when we’re going to see this a lot too, “handcuff” the Biden administration, they’re going to make it harder for the Biden administration to conduct diplomacy but what we are also going to see at the same time, is the Biden administration itself and allied Democratic politicians do the same exact kind of fear mongering about Iran, but just have a slightly different approach to how to quote-unquote “contain” or “restrain” Iran?
Adam: Well, incoming National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan has already signaled that they’re not going to try to reenter the Iran Nuclear Deal, because what he’s saying is that to do so, which was already kind of a bullshit thing anyway, but that’s a separate show, he’s saying to do so that Iran needs to make other commitments not related to the nuclear program, which is to say, stop terror activity or whatever, stop incursions into Iraq and that has always been a deal breaker for Iran for various reasons and Obama never agreed to that when they did the initial deal because they knew if they did, that would never happen.
Nima: Right. So again, the goalposts are moving to effectively make it so that without extracting even more concessions from Iran.
Adam: And know that when you read the stories in the coming months about why they can’t re enter the deal, and why they have to continue bombing people in various places that they sort of really want to stop, but there’s forces, which kind of leads to the final point which I did a thread on this on Twitter, which I’m going to self plagiarize, self read, which is somewhat embarrassing, but I don’t care. Nima, we talked about this, I think we’re basically in agreement, how the incoming Biden administration is going to not end the war in Yemen, and what language they’re going to use and basically I say that there’s 100 percent certainty that they will not end their support for the Saudi bombing and I predict it’s going to happen in the following ways and we know this because they’re taking people from CNAS and CSIS, the hawkish defense contractor, oil company-funded think tanks, designed to make sure nothing changes. CSIS by the way takes money from the Saudi government through Aramco, the 100 percent Saudi owned state oil company is a huge funder of CSIS. CSIS is making up many of the Biden officials in the State Department, Defense Department, probably even more so than CNAS is going to be the biggest funnel into the Biden administration. CSIS has done videos on this, we talked about this in our previous episode on Yemen with Shireen Al-Adeimi which was that CSIS’ main goal is to sell weapons and so I’ll get to that. The first thing they’re going to do is they’re going to pivot from immediately cutting off support to backing a vague peace deal with the Houthi rebels in this peace process, like the Israeli peace process, will never come. So, you can see right now, in Washington, that’s where they’re pivoting, this a sort of a peace with honor, we have to withdraw, the Saudis have to withdraw, but they have to sort of have a peace deal in place before they can do it, which basically means they’re just going to keep bombing. The second way they’re going to do this is they’re going to engage in cosmetic bans on certain weapons. This is what Obama did two months before he left office, a month after Clinton lost the election and two months before Obama left office. So 22 months out of the 24 months, the war in Yemen raged, he evidently didn’t have a problem with this weapon but then it was used to blow up a school bus and a few weeks passed by and suddenly he says, ‘Okay, this laser guided missile is banned. We’re not gonna sell this to Saudi Arabia anymore.’ But of course, we still sold them hundreds of million dollars more weapons. So what you’re likely to see under Biden is this kind of progressive veneer of continued weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, while banning certain token bombs or maybe cluster munitions, which they still use in Yemen by the way. The third pretext you’re gonna see for them not to end the war. The whole better bombs, more precise bombs is something that CSIS has been auctioning off, they made a whole video about it, about how the problem with the war in Yemen is not the bombing itself, it’s actually that they’re using outdated munitions and outdated bombs, and they don’t have quote-unquote “smart enough” bombs. So by the way, guess what the solution is? More bombs from our patrons, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin. The thing they’re going to try is they’re going to do the verbal dressing down about human rights. They’ll have someone at the UN, maybe Samantha Power, maybe some other flunky, say Saudi Arabia needs to do better, they do a little crucible, verbal crucible, where everyone sort of feels good about themselves, The New York Times can praise it, that’s really for The New York Times crowd, it doesn’t really mean much. The US does this all the time with Saudi Arabia, under Democratic presidents, every six months they’ll sort of slap their wrist. The fourth thing they’re gonna do, and this is the vogueist argument, this is very popular with Syria and Afghanistan, which is that the US can’t back away from supporting the war in Yemen because if they don’t support Saudi Arabia in Yemen, the Chinese will or the Russians will, and this is why in the last year you’ve seen an increase in articles about Chinese, the Saudi pivot to China. This is to say, ‘Look, if they don’t use our humanitarian bombs, they’ll use those less discriminant Chinese and Russian bombs and you don’t want that so we have to support them.’ So one, or a combination of these four arguments will be the excuse they use, because there were similar excuses used under the Obama administration. So we’ll see it again, the empire can’t really change. What changes is the public relations, what changes is the hand wringing, the framing, the committees, the sub chairs, the feeling bad about it, the investigations, all the kind of meta crap that goes into doing everything, but fundamentally changing the relationship US has with its empire and so we’re going to see that and we’re gonna see that I think, under Obama, I predict one or a combination of all four of these things will transpire and if I’m wrong, I’m wrong. Maybe he ends the war on day one, but I doubt it.
Nima: So our tenth trope to really be looking out for as the Biden administration takes office, is the soft pedaling of our deportation regime, that when we talk about immigration reform, we’re going to hear that again and again and again in the coming days, weeks, months, years. During the Biden administration, we are again going to be confronted by what we saw during the Obama years, which is this idea coming from mainstream media that Obama didn’t have much of an immigration policy, that there were reforms that needed to be made, but largely, at least in his first term, went unaddressed. This is far from the truth considering that Obama maintained an extensive deportation regime that harmed countless people and their families. So for more on this, we’re now going to speak with journalist and educator Roberto Lovato, he is a member of The Writers Grotto in the Bay Area, a co-founder of #DignidadLiteraria, the national movement formed to combat the invisibility and silencing of Latinx stories, and whose work has appeared in numerous publications including Guernica, Boston Globe, Foreign Policy, and The Guardian. Most recently, he is the author of Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs and Revolution in the Americas, which was published in September. Roberto is going to join us in just a moment. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by Roberto Lovato. Roberto, we’re so thrilled to have you with us today on Citations Needed.
Roberto Lovato: Happy to be with you.
Adam: So, we are basing most of the segment off of a 2018 article you wrote for the Columbia Journalism Review, amongst other work that you’ve written on this topic, which is specifically around the discussion of child separation under Trump is a sort of difficult needle to thread. On the one hand, I think it’s fair to say probably much of the rhetoric coming from Trump is very escalated, obviously very racialized. That’s how he launched his campaign was smearing Mexicans. ICE raids appear to have increased significantly, local sheriff’s departments have been emboldened. At the same time, as you write, many of the basic features of family separation are in fact not new and a lot of the kind of straighten moralistic pleas under Trump while welcomed by activists, did strike, I know many of the people you spoke to, as somewhat belated and arbitrary. Can we begin by talking about the similarities between Obama and Trump enforcement policies, maybe what are some of the differences and why narratives that this is totally new can be somewhat problematic?
Roberto Lovato: Yeah, great question. Without going into an encyclopedic answer, we need to bear in mind that Trump does in fact mark a definite escalation in not just the rhetoric, but also in in the hard, literally bone crushing, caging, separating policies that destroyed migrant life, but that Trump just represents the most recent escalation, just as Obama was a significant escalation over George Bush, Obama broke records, for example, for deportation, for child separation, for all manner of just sinister immigration policy but differences that my peers in the media weren’t really covering. So, Donald Trump does represent a shift. He’s had about 400 executive actions that have fundamentally altered the immigration system making it harder for people to come into the United States, impossible for others. You know, he set in a Muslim ban, he set in a bunch of “reforms,” quote-unquote, that expand the definition of what it means to be a public charge and, you know, he’s expanded the information gathering capabilities of the state with respect not just to migrants, but up to the general citizenry, like a lot of people don’t realize that when you’re talking about immigration and US history, you’re also talking about the backdoor ways that the state will go and do things to citizens. So yeah, there’s a definite Trump difference. But at a fundamental level, at the level of structure, you just have today’s announcement that some of my peers in the Latino community are like, ‘Wow, we have a Latino heading up Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas’. Okay, well, that’s fine and dandy, but nobody’s talking about the fact that I would call a neofascist, militarized bureaucracy that came about after George Bush founded it, is the primary source of the destruction of immigrant life, the primary entity that crushes dissent, like we saw in the Occupy in 2011, under the Obama administration, and the entity that surveilled and collects data, and militarizes police, like in the ways that Black Lives Matter is trying to abolish and stop. So there’s no questioning of the massive infrastructure and instead of talking about the difference between Trump and Obama, we really should be talking about the Obama-Trump continuum, you know, a system of practices, policies, institutional shifts, that are primarily about policing migrants and citizens because, again, migrants are historically used to justify things that the citizenry would not otherwise accept, like when you saw the Portland protests, the BORTAC unit, the Border Patrol Special Forces, basically SWAT units, kidnapping protesters in Portland, that was Homeland Security. We’re not going to be talking about in the Biden era, dismantling the deadly foundation that many of us are calling to abolish, ICE, I would even say abolish Homeland Security, Border Patrol, etcetera.
Nima: Yeah, totally. I mean, I would love to kind of extend this out and project a little bit what you mentioned as the Obama-Trump continuum of border oppression, of violence of the, you know, extreme militarization of these institutions, and of course of policy. So while I think talking about Obama era immigration policy, if you want to kind of whitewash it with that term even, is often seen as ‘Oh, yes, well, liberals were hand wringing or even worse, you know, up in arms about Trump’s policies, but Obama’s were terrible’ but it’s not just about pointing out this hypocrisy, right? What should we expect to see from liberal commentators, from constituents, from politicians? What are we going to see now with the Biden administration coming in? Is the idea of, you know, family separation, of putting kids in cages, of this militarized border, are we going to see this still having the media attention that it had for the previous four years, and even was ineffectual but at least there was some attention given beyond what was given during the Obama years, are we going to see that continue under Biden or is it just kind of going to go back in the bottle?
Roberto Lovato: I think you have to, instead of looking at the different positions of different political parties, it is largely a waste of time, when you really look at the core principles and policies and practices and institutional foundations for immigration policy and legal foundations included. You need to look at the core of it, at that level, there’s not that big a difference. When it comes to, again, this neofascist entity that is Homeland Security, even the name right? Remember when George Bush the second brought it to a lot of people’s notice, wow, “homeland.” So rather than celebrating a Latino now heading up Homeland Security, we need to ask whether or not we need that in our lives and we also have to ask, if our policies are actually dealing with the structural causes of migration, the push factors that many of us talk about, sociologists and others, we need to look for example, do you have a coming migration from Central America again, because of Hurricane Ita and the continued economic decline, the lack of US supported economic development in the region that’s instead focused on the development of murderous police forces in Central America, COVID-19, etcetera. So you’re going to get another major migration from Central America and I predict that you will begin to see them welcomed with gentler rhetoric, but with the same hard boot of neofascist institutions like the Border Patrol and Homeland Security, and these other Trump supporting entities that are often, you know, naked in their, in their hatred of migrants. So you either look at things at the immigrant body, we can’t listen to the rhetoric of people like Ceclia Munoz, the Latina who the Obama administration put up to front for his catastrophic policies and practices like child separation, 3 million deportations, mass surveillance of not just migrants, but of citizens and we need to look at the trauma and the devastation of entire communities that were terrorized by hundreds of thousands of ICE raids in schools where children were ripped from their parents under Obama, in churches, in hospitals, you name it, Obama’s ICE brought terror to them in all manners of their lives and in their homes. There’s a study by Race Forward, it shows that at least 5,100 children were separated from their parents in 2011 alone. Another report by the Lutheran Immigration Services, a major organization, national organization, documents the tragedy of Obama’s child separation. Some of my peers in the media, including some of the fact checking organizations would ignore or play down or spin, for example, when they would say, they asked a question, did Obama have a policy of separating children from their parents? No, he didn’t. But they should have asked did Obama have a practice of separating thousands of children from their families? Absolutely, yes. Or did Obama kill children in detention? No, he didn’t. But did the Obama administration kill at least 74 adults that none of you heard about? You didn’t hear it in your media? Because nobody looked at the Human Rights Watch report produced in 2013 around this — I think it was 2013. So we need to look at things like deportations and things that are very technical like something called 287(g) Secure Communities, which are the instruments, the policy instruments the Obama administration came in promising to abolish and then instead expanded from isolated regions to the entire country. Which is why you have Obama breaking records on deportation, jailing, collaboration between police and immigration authorities. Will the child separation stop? I doubt it. Will the concentration camps be closed? Probably not. I think they will do some symbolic things like, actually that’s really important, not just symbolic, is cut off the contracts of the privately owned prisons that are running these child and mother gulags. Will Biden and border militarization that pushes in the Obama era according to Homeland Security statistics, 3,000 men, women and children to horrific death in the desert where I’ve seen their leatherized bodies and bones in grave sites and other places.
Adam: That was one of the rhetorical things that I remember thinking was a little odd when they say, ‘Obama doesn’t engage in child separation, he imprisons both the mother and the child together,’ and it’s like, well, okay.
Nima: Aw, what a sweetie.
Adam: Which is a little underwhelming to me. But you touched briefly on this question, or rather not very compelling morally, it’s sort of hard to excite the moral distinctions when we’re arguing between separating children and putting both child and mother in these prisons, but you touched briefly on climate change and hurricanes and increase of hurricanes and you note this as well in your piece, the lack of connection between US policy, which of course US is a major contributor to climate change, and the immigration crisis, specifically the violence in Central America. You note that CNN reported, quote, “43 extrajudicial murders in El Salvador” linked to US funded police and then would move on to a story about the border migration crisis, and it would never, they would never connect the two, right? We never connect, like you said, the US funding and arming these unsavory police forces and supporting governments that are very concerned with the enforcement of violence and as the Executive Director of Central American Resources Center, Abel Núñez notes, quote, “at no moment do they connect coverage of families at the border to this violence.” Unquote. I want to talk about how this connection is missing, not just in terms of, as you note, these police forces they support, but also climate crisis, and then just today, of course, Biden appoints John Kerry to frame climate crisis as a national security issue, which I think for anyone paying attention to this topic means further militarizing the border. That’s part of the military response to climate change. I want you to talk about the lack of dot connecting, which necessarily, I at least from my perspective, and you write this I think as well, it puts the burden on the immigrant rather than the system that compels the immigration.
Roberto Lovato: If you look at the immigrant body in the Obama era, you’ll notice that that body was largely absent in the reporting of my peers, by and large, you didn’t hear women talking about the terror of being separated from their children, you didn’t hear children talking about the terror being separated from their parents by the thousands. You didn’t have the voices of children caged and mothers caged, you didn’t have the families of those children and mothers pushed to horrific deaths in the desert, speaking out about border militarization that caused their family members to go to these, you know, the devil’s highway and other parts of the desert that I’ve been to, and seeing these little bones of four year old girls, you know, and the leatherized skulls of their mothers, you don’t hear any of this, you don’t see these images, it’s almost like it was Vietnam, where they hide the bodies. And in addition to the immigrant body, we don’t get the bigger story. They have decades of bipartisan US policy that made all this death and devastation possible. So I locate things first on the body, oftentimes, in my stories, because I want people to really feel what the little kids like those I interviewed in Karnes, Texas, who had scars on their necks because they tried to hang themselves, you know, six, seven year old boys, or their mothers, some of their mothers who try to slit their wrists in Karnes. So, I mean, those scars are the scars of decades of US policy of neoliberal economics that destroy entire economies, extract the resources, the mineral and other resources in Central America, that exploit the workers and maquilas, they pay a pittance of survival and these policies that are backed up by militaries and militarized policing in the region. But if you really want to understand the Obama-Trump continuum, and what’s going to be the Obama, you can even say the Clinton-Bush, Bush-Obama-Trump now Biden continuum, you have to really understand what you mentioned earlier, which was the militarization of climate change. That’s not new. What John Kerry is doing is making it official for the rest of us what many of us, or a few of us already knew maybe 15, 20 years ago, when we started seeing Pentagon reports on climate change and migration, climate-migration, people being forced because of flooding and desertification, etcetera, to migrate. You have to remember somewhere between a half a billion and a billion people are estimated to be migrating in our lifetimes because of climate change and so the Pentagon noticed and it started militarizing immigration, not just in the US but around the world. And so I go to international conferences, I’ve reported on migration, not just in Latin America, but around the world and you go to these conferences, inevitably, who’s there are US Pentagon representatives who are whispering in the ear of say the Mexican migration officials telling them to militarize and chase down Central American migrants so the US doesn’t have to, or in Dominican Republic, or in Europe, or you name it in Africa. I mean, the Pentagon is clearer than anybody and they’re really one of the major drivers of why you have these neofascist policies that cage children, separate them from their parents and kill children and mothers in these horrific ways in the desert, and so that by partisan, if you want to know why Barack Obama would join Donald Trump and these neofascist policies that kill people, you have to understand climate change, and the Pentagon’s concern, and it’s kind of the raison d’etat, the reasons of state that are driving it, but we don’t get that in the media, we get these silly debates that are meaningless by and large on TV.
Nima: Yeah, I mean, you know, it makes me think about how, as you’ve said, you know, the person in power is kind of tokenized as something that is then changing, right? So like Gina Haspel, was the, you know, first female CIA director, oh, fantastic, I guess that means all the people who are under drones, and whose countries are being coup’d, are gonna be really thrilled that the glass ceiling was shattered. And I think we’re seeing that, again, with you know, whether it’s Kerry, whether it’s, you know, as you said, Homeland Security, even Kamala Harris as Vice President, it is more about symbolism than it is about policy or ideology, certainly, or even any kind of change and so I’m curious, Roberto, what do you think about how our media is going to cover the incoming administration and if you think there’s any hope, or maybe if you have some advice for journalists, who may be listening, how they can better rather, than centering a Cecilia Munoz or Kamala Harris even, in these stories, in these policies, how do you center the frontline impacted communities to actually tell much more accurate stories?
Roberto Lovato: Yeah, you’re asking for me to part the Red Sea of bloody migration policy, it ain’t gonna happen.
Nima: It may be wishful thinking I admit that.
Roberto Lovato: Yeah, yeah. No, that’s, that’s not gonna happen. I mean, there’s, I can say, I think we’ve made a difference with a few journalists who have bird dogged over the years to kind of trying to cover this better and when I say cover it better, I mean, first of all, provide larger context, provide historical context of US bipartisan policy, of economic policy, of military policing policy and climate change lack of policy, for example, or to look at the, you know, support for military dictatorships historically and violent governments. Another one would be to look at the continuum of policies, because you will see the media again, trying to create a picture where Joe Biden for example, I bet you he will, he said he’s going to institute DACA again, policy that Obama was forced into adopting, but they report it as if Obama actually came up with it and wanted to do it. Or either you’re gonna see the them rescind the Muslim ban, they’re gonna put 100 day freeze on deportations and the Remain in Mexico Program better known as the, I mean, known officially as the Migrant Protection Program, they’ve forced tens of thousands to wait in Mexico for their asylum cases to be heard. They’re going to create a task force to find separated children and raise the caps on refugees. Those are important in the lives of the people impacted, but they are a minutiae in terms of the vast infrastructure of caging, jailing, killing, murdering, mass murdering of tens of thousands. That is the bureaucracy of Homeland Security. So you’ll see my peers lower the bar of expectation and celebrate it as if it was the second coming all the while never looking at the causes of migration. You’ll see them ignoring the immigrant body in the Biden era, as they did in the Obama era, and they’ll ignore how catastrophic the policies are. You won’t hear a lot of migrant voices speaking about what’s happening to their bodies in the Biden Harris era. You’ll see a lot of Latinos and black people speaking about migration as if they there’s been a major reform to all these hideous neofascist bureaucracies like Homeland Security and, you know, you won’t really understand anything about how climate change, COVID, economic decline, violence, make migration a necessity. So you will hear protests, again, I think you’ll see revived, and that’s my great hope as always, is the social movements. Obama was made deporter in chief because of his numbers, 3 million, record breaking numbers of jailing, deporting immigrants, etcetera, but he was made, also because people stamped and organized to expose him as such.
Roberto Lovato: You won’t hear a lot of deaths in the deserts.
Roberto Lovato: I guarantee that you never have, whether it was Trump or Obama or Clinton or Bush or anybody, you know, there were like 3,000 people pushed to horrific deaths in the desert. If you talk to people, like No More Deaths, or other friends of mine, Derechos Humanos in Arizona, if you ask them, they’ll tell you the numbers, but those are conservative numbers. So I mean, that’s the kind of stuff you’ll see. You’ll see people like Nick Miroff of The Washington Post, covering for Biden and the Democrats by saying there’s a major colossal, Titanic, epic, you know, gigantic, supernova difference between Trump and Biden Harris, when in fact, there’s not much of a difference at the level of policing, surveilling, jailing, prosecuting, killing, migrants. Watch.
Adam: Pivoting to something a little bit more positive, you have a memoir that came out in September, to fairly superlative reviews, LA Times’ Best Book of the Year and New York Times Editor’s Pick and Newsweek’s 25 Best Books. It’s called Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs and Revolution in the Americas. Do you want to take a second and tell us about the book and where they can find it?
Roberto Lovato: Yeah, yeah, it’s a reported memoir, documenting thirty years of what I just told you about, documenting thirty years into my journey into different underworlds. Whether it was the underworld of migrants, like in Karnes, Texas who, like in my book, you see the immigrants not just as two dimensional voices of pain or sound bites of suffering, but you actually see migrants plotting, conspiring to organize protests on their own behalf, exercising agency. You’ll see the underground of the gang leaders that I met at the top of a gang system of 70,000 members, and I had to go to the clandestine meetings with their top leaders. And I bring people into the underworld of my own family, my father’s secrets, my family, I grew up with all kinds of pictures of my mom’s family in the living room, but no pictures of my dad’s family except my grandmother, and so my dad has this startling secret, that pretty much everybody who’s read the book, it is an astonishing secret that my dad has that I don’t want to give away because I want people to read it.
Roberto Lovato: But, you know, I bring people into the underworld of my family and family history and I expose my own secret, for example, that I was an urban commander with the FMLN guerrillas during the war. So I bring a lens to this. It’s very different from, you know, some reporter that parachutes into these stories of migration, and policy and gangs and narco violence and war, etcetera, I bring a personal perspective of not just a spectator, but a participant who decided to join the guerrilla movement opposing the fascist military dictatorship that the United Nations says in the United Nation Truth Commission Report, killed 85 percent of the approximately 75,000 to 80,000 people killed during the war. So I connect all the dots and I do it in a way that I like to think is poetic because our revolutionary movements taught us that the lyrical was never separate from the revolutionary, the poetic was never separate from the political and so, you know, I weave this story like my grandmother weaved parcels of cloth as a seamstress in a shanty town full of prostitutes during a great depression that made John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath look like a wine festival. So, yeah, I tell this epic story of epic violence, but also epic overcoming because I see the history of violence that I describe as the velvet background against which the stars of our power and our beauty as Salvadorans push us forward, despite everything. So it’s teachable, I’m offering the best practices of not just revolution in poetry, but the best practices of overcoming an apocalyptic era that we’re in right now. I didn’t just wake up to an apocalypse watching Walking Dead or looking at television with Donald Trump I lived it like many Salvadorans did. When you go to these countries that have just these bone chilling homicide rates and wars and killing and death squads, like those that I’ve interviewed and that pursued me. So, I bring it back home because it’s as much about the United States as it is about El Salvador.
Nima: Yeah, I mean, I think not only is it the best practices that you mentioned, but also those of reporting and who gets to tell their stories, who is centered in these stories, and what kind of history and context is included, but I think that’s a great place to leave it. Roberto Lovato, educator, journalist, author of Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs and Revolution in the Americas, which was published in September, a member of The Writers Grotto in the Bay Area, a co-founder of #DignidadLiteraria, the national movement formed to combat the invisibility and silencing of Latinx stories, and of course his work has appeared in numerous publications from Guernica, Boston Globe, Foreign Policy, The Guardian. Roberto, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Roberto Lovato: My pleasure.
Adam: Yeah, you know, it’s frustrating, I think for activists who sort of finally see people care about an issue like immigration, or if under Trump, you know, even to some extent, the bombings and the Pentagon budget, and then the second it becomes Democrat, it’s not important. In case you haven’t noticed that’s the theme of the show, we’ve kind of beat it over your head now for two hours, two and a half hours.
Nima: Get it?
Adam: Get it? You know, yeah, this is the metaphor. I think calibrating that, making sure that you’re not just saying both sides are the same, because both sides are not the same, while at the same time not being pollyannaish or cultish about the prospects of an incoming Democratic president. Now we are basing many of these predictions or judgments, I think, based on the people who’ve comprised the administration, the disposition of the candidate, someone who is, you know, in a 1986 article in the AP proudly called themself a centrist. This is not new information. As Peter noted, he’s a known entity, we’re not wildly speculating. These are largely predictable variables. I hope we’re wrong, I hope our cynicism is misplaced, I hope we do a mia culpa episode in two years, saying, you know, many of these predictions didn’t come to surface, our fundamental predictive properties of our ideology were off, something was wrong with the formula, our chemistry was not correct and we’ll circle back and the reason why I think these predictions are useful as far as they go, is that we’re pattern seeking mammals, we want to be able to see what happens next and I think that knowing where these blind spots are, where these kinds of omissions can begin to creep into media, because there is this constant fear of the Republican, and justifiably so many times, that this can kind of begin to set in and create a malaise of media indifference or softballness, which can create real human harm, because you need an opposition, you need to be aggressive in your criticism, you need to be thorough, you don’t want, again, you don’t want to be a troll, you don’t want to be unfair and generous, but you have to be thorough, and sober and adult in how you view these things otherwise we run the risk of obscuring or overlooking the real human suffering caused by these bipartisan policies.
Nima: Well, right, because the sheer relief from the media in not being called fake news from now on by the administration, literally in the briefing room at the White House, that’s not gonna happen anymore, and so I think there’s going to be a return to this quote-unquote “normalcy” of not really scrutinizing these things, of taking the administration at face value of saying, ‘Oh, well, when you say that you care about human rights, I guess I believe you because you’re not Trump,’ and so paying attention to these patterns, to these tropes, to these talking points that we’re going to see in the media is I think going to be really critical as a new administration takes office, as the media settles back into what they are much more comfortable doing, which is not being seen as the enemy but seeing as part of the inside, which they should not be. So that will do it for this two part episode. Thank you everyone for listening. Of course you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed and become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. All your support through Patreon is of course so appreciated and an extra special shout out those to our critical 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 episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, December 9, 2020.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.