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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Adam: Yes and as always for our patrons, there’s about 80 or so Patreon-only News Briefs, if you sign up there you can listen to the back catalogue of those. We try to keep up with those and other AMAs and other events for patrons. If you sign up there you get access to that, that helps us keep the show sustainable.
Nima: “US Think Tank Takes Heat for Hosting Putin-Linked Oligarchs,” writes Voice of America. “China building offensive, aggressive military, top US Pacific commander says,” reads a headline from CNN. “As Venezuelans Go Hungry, The Military Is Trafficking In Food,” scolds NPR.
Oligarchs. Aggressive, military build-ups. Spending money on weapons while your people go hungry. All of these common tropes seen in Anglo-American media when describing official villain states, yet mysteriously absent when talking about ourselves or our allies. This is Part II of our Citations Needed episode on what we’re calling: Enemy Epithets.
Adam: If you haven’t already listened to the previous episode on this, Episode 137, where we recapped some other Enemy Epithets those were: Proxy, Hand-picked successor, Strongman, Firebrand and Cult of Personality. These are applied to Official Enemy states but never applied to the US or its allies in any meaningful way. Today we’re excited to do the second part of this top 10 listicle —
Nima: Oh yeah, we have five more, five more good ones.
Adam: We have five more, packed in five episodes in one, the best bang for your buck you can possibly get.
Nima: And later on this episode we will again speak Janine Jackson and Jim Naureckas of the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. Janine Jackson is FAIR’s program director, and the producer and host of FAIR’s syndicated weekly radio show CounterSpin.
Janine Jackson: Once it gets into foreign policy, and again, foreign policy even that term, you know, we should think about, once it becomes The US and Iran and China and whatever, people are being erased, people are being smothered in that language.
Nima: Jim Naureckas is the editor of FAIR.org and, since 1990, has edited Extra!, FAIR’s monthly magazine.
Jim Naureckas: You know, so you can divide the line wherever it’s convenient to divide it. I think people from Mars would think that the people in the Middle East, they look pretty much the same as people in southern Europe, but we have made that, the fact that there’s a different dominant religion in that area, becomes like a genetic change, like it’s mutated them.
Adam: So we’re really excited to complete this list. We’ve done the first five, now it’s time for the last five on our top 10 list.
Nima: Oh, yeah.
Adam: Number six on the list is a classic of asymmetrical application, which is the word: “oligarch.”
[Begin Clip Montage]
Man #1: Let’s see Russian oligarchs, Kazakhstan oligarchs, China, Chinese nationals, Ukrainian oligarchs.
Man #2: He’s not the only oligarch who’s shown up.
Man #3: A second Russian oligarch.
Woman #1: Linked to a Russian oligarch.
Man #4: Cooperating with Russian-backed Ukrainian oligarchs.
Man #5: From a pro Russian-Ukrainian oligarch.
Man #6: It’s the perfect way to let your lover know: I am a Russian oligarch.
[End Clip Montage]
Adam: The word oligarch is used typically for billionaires either historically in Russia, increasingly in China, but basically where billionaires emerge in baddie countries, typically implying a kind of level of ill-gotten wealth, which for the most part is true. Whereas our billionaires are said to have not had ill-gotten wealth, which is for the most part, if not categorically untrue —
Nima: Yeah, they don’t have undue influence, they’re not corrupt, they didn’t steal their money or get it in some sinister way. No, no, no, they were just savvy. And they just —
Adam: Yeah, no, just the free market of ideas, they just worked really hard and woke up every morning at 5:30.
Nima: That’s right, don’t hate the player, right?
Adam: Did pushups and really persevered. So this term “oligarch” started being used widely in the media in the late ’90s, particularly around 1998. At the time, there were a couple of references to oligarchs in Latin America, but for the most part, it was a term that was associated with post-Soviet Russian politics. The New York Times, William Safire used the term a lot, David Remnick, The New Yorker, at that time was a syndicated columnist. It was sort of the way you looked like you were hip, like you knew Russian politics, you talked about oligarchs.
Adam: And this worked to obscure the US’s role in Shock Doctrine, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the University of Chicago School that we sent over there to free them from the Soviet tyranny so they can have capitalism, and the average lifespan of a male went down by 10 years, led to abject poverty, a run on suicides, that we were now going to say, ‘Okay, well, all these resources that were handed over to these billionaires,’ which was part of the plan, that increasingly they were seen as oligarchs.
Nima: Right off the bat in January of 1998, as Adam noted, William Safire was talking about the “seven criminal oligarchs” that Russians would have to choose from as quote-unquote “Boris Yeltsin totters.” But the same month, David Remnick wrote this, the article was headlined, “Russia finds itself in a sorry state.” It started this way, quote:
Power in Russia is now adrift, unpredictable and corrupt.
In the new Russia, freedom has led to disappointment.
Since Boris Yeltsin’s reelection as president, the bankers, media barons and industrialists who had financed and in large measure run the campaign got the rewards they wanted: positions in the Kremlin, broadcasting and commercial licenses, and access to the national resource pile.
Before 1991, these oligarchs had been involved mainly in fledgling small businesses — some legitimate, some not — and then, under the chaotic conditions of the post-Soviet world, they made their fortunes.
Both within and outside the Kremlin, the oligarchs see themselves as undeniably lucky, but worthy as well. They righteously insist that their fortunes will spawn a middle class, property rights and democratic values.
Adam: Now, of course, it’s not that there aren’t oligarchs in Russia, there are lots of oligarchs in Russia, that is not what’s being argued here. The question is whether an oligarch should apply to the obscene billionaires in the United States, and that is almost never the case. So a search for The Washington Post over the last year shows four instances of oligarch being used in a non-Russian context. Indeed, if one looks up the definition of oligarch, if you type in “definition oligarchy” in Google, the first definition you get is, quote, “A ruler in an oligarchy.” Two: “(especially in Russia) a very rich business leader with a great deal of political influence.”
Nima: There’s a location applied to the definition of a word.
Adam: This is a very strange way of having a definition.
Nima: “Especially in Russia.”
Adam: Which is it has to apply in one country, which we’ve deemed to be, by sheer coincidence, over the past 10 years or so, have deemed to be existentially evil. Well, that’s kind of convenient, and of course, the gains of billionaires in the US, which in almost all instances far exceeds the wealth of the oligarchs in Russia, is seen as being wholesome and legitimate. There was a really good example of this on the night of the Iowa caucus, Bernie Sanders surrogate Nina Turner of Ohio, referred to Michael Bloomberg as an oligarch, which is a pretty correct definition of the oligarch, if the word is going to really mean, I think he’s worth $50 billion. He basically tried to buy an election, he bought his mayoral election, he barely won reelection the last year he ran in 2009, outspent his opponent 10 to one, was basically trying to buy his way into a big Super Tuesday win.
Adam: So she called him an oligarch.
Nima: Let’s remember that in David Remnick’s rendering back in 1998 of what an oligarch is, it included bankers, media barons and industrialists, yet, when it’s Bloomberg, this is what happens.
[Begin MSNBC Clip]
Chris Matthews: I want to ask you about this money thing, because under Buckley Valeo, the constitutional ruling, a guy or woman who has all the money in the world, and can spend all that money, and I bet that Mike Bloomberg makes enough on a daily basis to finance this campaign. How do you beat him?
Nina Turner: Well, he’s doing that Chris already, and we should not, we should be ashamed of that as Americans, people who believe in democracy that the oligarchs, if you have more money you can buy your way. Now, but to your point.
Chris Matthews: Do you think Mike Bloomberg’s an oligarch? Come on.
Nina Turner: He is, I mean, he’s not, he skipped Iowa, Iowans should be insulted, not going to New Hampshire, buying his way into this race. Period. The DNC changed its rules. They didn’t change it for Senator Harris, they wouldn’t change it for Senator Booker, they didn’t change it for Secretary Castro. They changed it for the man with money.
Chris Matthews: Did he buy his way into the debates?
Nina Turner: Absolutely he did and it is a stain on democracy. But back to your point. Money can buy you, you know, it can’t buy you —
Chris Matthews: Can’t buy you love.
Nina Turner: It can get you some likes though, it can get a whole lot of likes, but the way that senator Bernie Sanders is gonna win this election is by building a grassroots movement and that is exactly what he is doing.
Chris Matthews: Starting tonight. Are you going to win tonight?
Nina Turner: Starting tonight, that is my prediction. Our senator’s going to win.
Chris Matthews: I’m going to join you in that. Talking to Nina Turner, State Senator, one of the greatest surrogates, I think, ever.
Nina Turner: Thank you.
Chris Matthews: Thank you.
[End MSNBC Clip]
Adam: So this caused quite a row and then Dr. Jason Johnson who is also an MSNBC pundit, who’s kind of the resident anti-Bernie — well they’re all resident anti-Bernie people, anti-Sanders people.
Adam: He is one of the most vocal anti-Sanders people, had decided to plant his flag and to die on the hill of, ‘It’s wrong to call American billionaires oligarchs’ because tautologically they can only be Russian, because the definition says so, because we decided that was what it is, and he responded with this:
[Begin MSNBC Clip]
Brian Williams: Thank you, Chris. And because Jason Johnson had such a reaction to something just said, I would like you to react again to something just said.
Jason Johnson: Yeah, look, calling Mike Bloomberg an oligarch has implications in this country that I think are unfair and unreasonable. I disagree with a lot of things Mike Bloomberg has done as a mayor, but oligarchy in our particular terminology, it makes you think of some rich person who got their money off of oil in Russia, who’s taking advantage of a broken and dysfunctional system. Mike Bloomberg is just a rich guy. America is full of rich guys. And just because you’re rich, doesn’t mean that you’re an oligarch who abuses his power. The power that Mike Bloomberg got access to was given to him by the voters of New York. So I think using that kind of term, fine, it’s great in the Iowa caucuses and the, you know, supporters are going to love that sort of thing but it ain’t the kind of language that you should be using. I think it’s dismissive, I think it’s unfair and it’s the kind of thing that blows up in your face if you become the nominee and you have to work with Mike Bloomberg, three or four months from now, and that’s the issue that Sanders’s people never seem to want to remember.
[End MSNBC Clip]
Adam: Right. So he does a couple things here that are pretty clever.
Adam: Number one, he just asserts it, as again, as a tautology. Americans cannot, by definition, be oligarchs, the definition could only apply to Russians. Bloomberg did not get his wealth ill-gotten, which, of course, is not true. He’s got about two dozen sexual harassment complaints as well as a number of other instances of worker abuse. We’ll set that aside.
Nima: But also becoming a media mogul doesn’t doesn’t automatically absolve you from any sort of corruption or any sort of ill gotten gains.
Adam: He didn’t get $50 billion off the backs of the poor, he just sort of got it, it sort of fell out of a tree. The second thing he does, which is quite clever, is he says, he got, his power of being mayor, from the voters of New York was like, whoa, no, no, no. Being mayor of New York was incidental, he would still be doing the same thing even if he had —
Nima: The power was not gained through elected office, the power was gained through the $60 billion and the media platforms he has.
Adam: He also outspent more on the mayor’s race, a mayor’s race than anyone’s spent on a mayor’s race in history, he outspent his opponent 10 to one. He was only slightly challenged by Rahm Emanuel, who was also an oligarch when he ran, he outspent Chuy Garcia, I think, 13 to one.
Nima: But what Johnson is clearly saying here, I mean, he’s very explicit, right? He’s like, the implications of using that term, a term that actually means something, and believe it or not, is not a Russian term, it comes from the Greek, so the fact that it is being applied only selectively, deliberately, to powerful, influential billionaires connected with the power structure in post-Soviet Russia, is a clear indication that this is a term only to be used, right, specifically reserved for people in a foreign country, in a foreign context.
Adam: It’s not even just the country, it’s the ethnicity. It can only be used for Russians, ethnic Russians, right? Now, it’s not, that’s not racist, but it’s sort of, it’s in the ballpark of racist, right? Like, if you were to say, ‘Oh, you know, only Africans can possess this word. Only Chinese can possess this word.’ It’s a little dubious, right? It doesn’t really make any sense. We should consistently apply the definition across cultures.
Nima: Well, because it’s a word with a fucking definition. So what actually wound up happening that night on MSNBC is they came back from commercial break and Brian Williams wanted to continue this and so Jason Johnson actually doubles down on his claim and there is this back and forth with Nina Turner.
[Begin MSNBC Clip]
Brian Williams: Close viewers watching in our last segment, may have heard Bernie surrogate, Nina Turner, call Mayor Bloomberg an oligarch, to which our own Jason Johnson took exception. State Senator Turner from Ohio is still listening in Des Moines because she wanted a moment to respond, Nina.
Nina Turner: Thank you. Thank you so very much. You know, it’s just ironic to me that somebody would defend the wealthiest people in this country over the working people in this country, we need real campaign finance reform to the extent that a Mayor Bloomberg can totally finance his campaign, he doesn’t have to go out to the people., he doesn’t have to build a movement, he doesn’t have to talk to people, he can buy his way. It is the same attitude that the elites, maybe Jason likes the word elite over oligarch, but it’s the same attitude that the elites had in 1930 against FDR, all of them lined up against him, and he said, ‘I welcome your hatred,’ because he was standing up for the people and that is the same message that Senator Bernie Sanders has to the everyday people of this nation, that I welcome the hatred of the elites because I am standing up for you so crime me a river for the wealthy people in this country.
Jason Johnson: Nina you work for a candidate who is part of the 1 percent. I have no problem with criticizing the system. The system that allows Mike Bloomberg to make all the money that he makes, the system that allows him to buy what he wants to buy, the system allows him to buy himself into the administration and buy himself into the debates is a problem. But to call him an oligarch, I think, is a misnomer in this environment, and again, you’re working for somebody who’s part of the 1 percent. Do you call him an oligarch? No, you don’t. You say he’s a rich guy, because just because somebody has a tremendous amount of money doesn’t mean that they’re not necessarily representing the people and if you want to be term elite, you can use whatever kind of term that you want to use, but at the end of the day, the enemy of this country, the enemy of the poor, is not just everybody who happens to be rich, it is a capitalistic system that abuses people.
[End MSNBC Clip]
Adam: Well, who do you think props up the capitalist system, dumbass? Alright, so here’s the deal, he says Bernie Sanders is part of the 1 percent, which is factually not true, Bernie Sanders makes less than $2 million at the time, his tax filings when he ran for president had his net worth being just under $2 million due to his book sales, the number is probably closer to $700,000 to a million, the cutoff for being part of the 1 percent is 4 million. But even setting that aside, a bit of a non sequitur, is that let’s take the $1 million number, let’s say Bernie Sanders has $1 million. Michael Bloomberg, at the time, had $50 billion, he now has, I think, $62 billion. Just as a way of visualizing this, if you were to make $1 every second, you would be a millionaire in just over 11 days, which is what Bernie Sanders is, a millionaire, it would take 11 days if you made $1 a second. It would take you 31 years to become a billionaire and to be as rich as Michael Bloomberg was at the time, it would take you 1,902 years, it would take you almost 2,000 years to be as rich versus 11 days. So Jason Johnson is trying to compare these two, he’s trying to sort of equate these two in a really, really, really, really, really, really cynical way, because this is how you get on MSNBC. MSNBC is run by Comcast, it’s run by a $130 billion corporation. One of the ways you get on MSNBC is you say morally fatuous bullshit like this, right? It’s sort of someone has to be the guy, whether it’s Stephanie Ruhle defending Park Avenue, whether it’s Chris Matthews saying that if Bernie Sanders gets elected he’s going to take people out to Central Park and execute him. Like this is how you sort of guard against the left flank, right? And part of this is that what Nina Turner did is she committed a huge faux pas, especially in the year of our Lord 2020, during the height of Russia-gate, she equated Michael Bloomberg with dastardly Russian billionaires, she Slavicized him and you just absolutely cannot do that. That is a huge no-no, because the billionaires in Russia, they got their billions through immoral activities, whereas our billionaires — never mind Jeff Bezos crushing unions, forcing people to piss in plastic bottles, people committing suicide due to stress from work, never mind he grinds them down to a fucking nub, never mind the fact that Bill Gates has been palling around with serial pedophile-ring procurer Jeffrey Epstein, no, no, no — their wealth came — never mind that he monopolized software for over a decade and use this team of lawyers to fight anti-trust lawsuits, no, no, no — they got their billions through hard work, moxie and elbow grease.
Nima: That’s right. That’s just the system Adam, right? And so the very next day, Jason Johnson also took to Twitter to defend this again, and in one of his tweets said this, quote:
Oligarchs are evil businessmen who oppress the masses. Good luck convincing people Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos are oligarchs even if they fit the textbook definition.
So that is one of my favorite tweets of all time, clearly aged really well, making it clear that, you know, American billionaires are always just the rich or a rich person or even philanthropists, while Russian billionaires are only ever oligarchs, and you have to write that with a Cyrillic R.
Adam: And he does something that is very popular amongst people who don’t really believe what they’re saying or know that what they’re saying is bullshit, where he launders it through what Americans want and if you say all Americans don’t think this, well, okay, well, that’s a separate issue from whether or not it’s true and it’s also the kind of smarmy bullshit, right? Forty percent of Americans believe in QAnon. What the fuck do I care?
What do I care what most Americans want? What does that even mean? Most Americans are racist. Most Americans are assholes. What does that have to do with anything? Again, this is what we call the descriptive to normative shuffle where you say, it’s a classic pundit trick, Matt Yglesias does that all the time, it’s ‘X is not popular, therefore, who cares if it’s bad?’
Adam: Well, I don’t know, because people have shitty dumb ideas and we’re here to talk about ideas and that’s why you’re in the fucking media.
Nima: Right, so maybe use definitions of words. I mean, CNN actually entrenched this in its published work in April of 2018 with an article “Russia’s oligarchs are different from other billionaires,” and it just quotes at face value an oligarch expert, Thomas Graham, chimes in to define the term oligarch. He is apparently the co-director of the Russian Studies Program at Yale, Managing Director at Kissinger Associates Inc.
Adam: Noted moral authority Kissinger Associates run by Henry Kissinger, yes.
Nima: Yes. That Kissinger. And a Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Russia on the National Security Council staff during the administration of — who? — George W. Bush.
Adam: Another moral authority, George W. Bush, but go on.
Nima: That’s right, moral giants. So this is oligarch expert Thomas Graham’s definition of what an oligarch is and why it’s different from American billionaires. Quote:
Oligarchs are rich Russian businessmen who are close to the seat of power in Russia… almost any rich Russian businessman is an oligarch, because in Russia there is a close relationship between private wealth and public power.
Adam: I mean, that’s just a shocking statement to me. That literally, again, we’re not even, we’re not arguing that’s not true in Russia.
Nima: Bill Gates and his foundation has spent billions of dollars to literally shape the public policy of education, of climate change, of public and global health on this planet.
Adam: There was about five years where Bill Gates was the de facto secretary of education in this country. Obviously, our last president for four years was a billionaire oligarch who became president.
Adam: We had Michael Bloomberg try to run for president, kind of close to the seat of power. Obviously, billionaires have way outsized influence in elections, vis-a-vis campaign donations, super PACs, which now they can give unlimited amounts of money. They shape policy on a local level, they certainly shape policy on a state level, the Koch brothers have been shaping Republican policy for decades. This idea that, quote, “Russia there is a close relationship between private wealth and public power” is one of the most jaw-dropping things I’ve ever read. I mean, it is, that is literally what we have in this country. If that’s not an oligarchy, if David and Charles Koch were and aren’t, I know one of them’s past tense, are not oligarchs, then the term has no fucking meaning other than a way of smearing a foreign enemy or sort of making it seem illicit, because, again, the number one feature of empire is projection, we project things we do on to other countries, because it absolves us of our own sins and so we have a country that has massive inequality, that has concentrated wealth and power in the hands of a few, vis-a-vis our political process, especially again, on a sort of state level, and we wash our hands of this by saying, ‘Actually, this is a unique feature of the Ruskies,’ and anyone with any kind of moral intuition knows this is bullshit.
Nima: Exactly. Particularly in Russia.
Adam: Thank you, definition Google.
Nima: (Laughs.) Thank you. Google definitions.
Adam: Particularly in Russia, particularly in Slovenia, this word applies. Okay, well.
Nima: (Laughs.) Exactly. But this is going to take us to our number seven enemy epithet, and frankly, Adam, this I think is my favorite on our entire list and it is —
Nima: Love it.
[Begin Clip Montage]
Man #1: I don’t think he’s intimidated by these hardliners in China.
Woman: Is it the conservative hardliners?
Man #2: Remember in previous years, there was a conservative, someone considered a hardliner in power.
Man #3: The issue of hardliners, look, I think that first of all, I think it’s wrong to compare hardliners in Iran with anyone here in the United States.
Man #4: Estimate the will of the Iranian hardliners to crush change.
Man #5: You’re exactly right. They have politics in Iran, they’ve got a spectrum from hardliners to elements that are not nearly as extreme.
[End Clip Montage]
Nima: “Hardliner,” a term almost routinely applied now to Iranian politicians and otherwise kind of public figures, sometimes religious figures. “Hardliner,” god I love this one. So hardliner first appeared in The New York Times as a noun, sometimes it is “the hardline president,” so used an adjective but hardliner as a noun first appeared in The New York Times in 1960. It was really at the time used exclusively for — who else? — the Soviet Union to describe members of the Soviet or aligned governments perceived to be ideological communists and not open to pro-Western quote-unquote “reforms,” right? So the hardline of being a communist ideologue. Now, Newspapers.com reflects a similar dynamic. A search of over half a million uses of the term shows that hardliner was really not widely used until the early ’60s, about 1961 and it peaked in its use in media in the early 1990s with the so-called 1991, Soviet coup d’etat attempt. Now those opposed to Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin’s quote-unquote “reforms” within the Soviet Union at the time, as the Soviet Union was collapsing, were termed hardliners.
Adam: Yeah, basically, “reform” is used synonymous with coming closer to the wants of the United States military and national security establishment and hardliners, those who are viewed as being antagonistic to it and hardliner implies a kind of irrationality or hybrid ideology.
Adam: Whereas neoliberal reforms in Russia in the 1990s are viewed as non-ideological, they’re viewed as obvious, they’re viewed as science-driven, whereas those who oppose them and those who maybe don’t want to hand over the state capitol to Jeffrey Sachs and Larry Summers, and a bunch of American economists who wanted to do shock therapy, those people were irrational, and as a term it was popularly used, if not the Soviet Union, its second most popular and current most popular usage was, of course, with Iran.
Nima: So the way that it’s currently used in Anglo-American media is often as a party signifier for Iranian politics, but trying to use the American system to break down two different sides as if it’s a binary. Even though that’s, again, not at all how Iranian politics breaks down. But the term itself is meant to immediately conjure images of, as we’ve seen, either a Soviet politburo official like banging his fist on a podium or a necktie-averse Iranian leader, if not a, you know, beturbaned cleric — oh, sorry, we’re supposed to say Mullah — railing against the great Satan at Friday prayers, right? It’s like a shorthand in American media for the intractable anti-Americanism, like an outdated revolutionary driven only by irrational grievances, previously communist, and now Islamist.
Adam: Needless to say, the word hardliners is almost never used in an ideological context to describe hardline capitalists in the United States. There was a brief time in the early 2000s when pro-war forces in the Bush administration like John Bolton and Paul Wolfowitz would be referred to by The New York Times as hardliners, as in like those who want to go to war, but never as an ideological epithet for people who support the American-driven project of US-led global capitalism and those who promote US global capitalism, even extreme versions of it — like what was done to Russia, like Jeffrey Sachs or the Chicago Boys of the University of Chicago who went into Chile and supported Pinochet.
Nima: Yeah, that’s never seen as being hardline, right?
Adam: Milton Friedman’s never referred to as a hardliner. Capitalism doesn’t have hardliners, it’s seen as sort of natural and obvious. Whereas those who are anti-American, whether it be communist or nationalist, right, forget whatever the ideology is, it’s always seen as being pejorative, you’re a hardliner, because nobody wants to be a hardliner, right? It sounds bad. You don’t, I don’t want to be a hardliner.
Nima: Right. You’re immovable and you’re kind of strict.
Adam: Irrational, hot-headed, sort of sitting around just reading Lenin all day, being mad at the world. Your kid comes up to you to play catch, and you’re like, ‘Fuck off. I’m a hardliner.’
Nima: It’s very scowl-y, the whole thing is meant to just be you’re supposed to see images of Khrushchev or Khomeini in your mind when you hear the word hardliner.
Adam: But meanwhile, these totally inhumane fringe positions the US has like refusing to join the ICC, refusing to sign cluster munitions bans, refusing to sign chemical weapons bans, or refusing to sign any kind of broad-based global condemnation of Israel’s actions in Palestine, these very fringe positions that only the US has are never considered hardline positions, there’s sort of just or even say, for the sanctions regime, sanctions regime killing tens of thousands of people in Iran prior to the invasion of Iraq, of course, Venezuela, North Korea, we just kill tens of thousands of people with sanctions, that’s not considered a hardline position, that’s considered obvious and normal, and it’s slick, and you can go to conferences with lanyards and talk to celebrities and it’s totally normal human behavior, that is not considered a hardline position, even though even though of course it is and these are very fringe positions. These are positions opposed by 90 percent of the world, 90 percent of the world oppose most of these sanctions, they oppose America’s support for Israel, they oppose America’s refusal to join many global packs with respect to weapons of mass destruction or cluster munitions or landmines, but these are not considered hardline positions, because hardline just means you can’t be bought off by some CIA black bag basically is what it means. It’s nothing to do with the moral content of what it is you’re supporting, right?
Adam: It’s that you can’t be won over by the banalities of quote-unquote “American-led reform.”
Nima: Well, right. I mean, I think that’s why like former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was routinely, I mean, almost exclusively referred to as, you know, I mean, of course, “firebrand,” combative stuff that we’ve heard already in last episode, but also always “hardliner.” So having nothing to do with actual policies, because those weren’t really ever discussed, it’s like he was an enemy leader, and so that was it. Hardliner. He’s not going to become a CIA asset, and therefore the line is drawn in the sand and it is immovable. But that takes us to our next enemy epithet, number eight: an “aggressive military buildup.”
[Begin Clip Montage]
Man #1: Iranian aggression, buckle up.
Man #2: What we’ve seen is a maturation of America’s allies in the Middle East that are most affected by Iranian aggression.
Woman #1: And we know that this is not just economic warfare, this is also military aggressions.
Man #3: Russia’s military aggression.
Man #4: China’s stepping up its military aggression in the East China Sea.
Woman #2: Antony Blinken is speaking out about how the US plans to deal with China’s growing influence on the global stage, including the country’s recent military aggression.
[End Clip Montage]
Nima: What we do here in the United States or our allied nations, we build deterrence.
Adam: We deter or we assist allies, assist allies. So there’s a bunch of examples of this, one of the more clear cut ones was there was back to back Business Insider articles, in 2016, one headline read, “NATO is planning its largest military buildup in Eastern Europe since the Cold War,” Okay, military buildup in this context is not aggressive, it sounds benign. And the headline from a few days later was, quote, “How NATO should respond to Russian aggression in the Baltics.” So when Russia puts military presence in the Baltics, its aggression, when the US does it, it’s just a military buildup. The Guardian in 2016 got into this as well. So one headline for 2016 read, “Pentagon to restore Obama’s troop cuts in Europe to address Russian aggression.” Another headline from a few months later said, quote, “UK to send five ships to Baltic as part of NATO buildup against Russia. Britain will also contribute troops to a new 6,000-strong force that is intended to act as a deterrent.” So the UK and NATO have deterrents, they have buildups, and Russia has aggression and more aggression, right? So this is something we’ve seen time and time again, we especially seen recently in the context of Russia. In April 2021, “Satellite images show huge Russian military buildup in the Arctic.” New York Times, quote, “In Russia, a Military Buildup That Can’t Be Missed.” April 19, 2021 in Reuters, “OFFICIAL Russian military build-up near Ukraine numbers more than 100,000 troops, EU says.” And meanwhile, when the US has the greatest military, the greatest military in the world 800 military bases, it only increases military presence or expands operations defensively in order to deter threats or to support our allies. So The New York Times the same month, same year, quote, “U.S. Signals Support for Ukraine and Will Add Troops in Germany.” So we add troops, we don’t have military buildup or military aggression. Defense One, “Saudis Expanding US Military Access to Airfields, Port, to Counter Iran.” So notice, we’re always sort of, we’re always reactive, we’re always countering the bad guy who’s built up first, because it’s important as an empire with 800 military bases throughout the globe, 51 out of the 54 countries in Africa, you know, Japan, South Korea, all throughout Latin America, DEA agents swarming in every crevice of South America, it’s important that you be always on the defensive, you’re just matching the bad guy, right?
Nima: Exactly. Now, we see this with China a lot and especially recently. A 2019 Reuters investigative series was entitled “The China Challenge: How Beijing’s military build-up is ending U.S. supremacy in Asia.” That was like a multi-part series about the growing threat of Chinese military expansion. The very next year, 2020, Reuters again, ran what they call a special report with this headline, quote, “China expands its amphibious forces in challenge to U.S. supremacy beyond Asia,” and in it reporter David Lague wrote from Hong Kong this, quote:
China launched its military build-up in the mid-1990s with a top priority: keep the United States at bay in any conflict by making the waters off the Chinese coast a death trap. Now, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is preparing to challenge American power further afield.
So again, who’s allowed to be in the waters off China? I don’t know. I guess, you know, it’s frustrating that the Chinese are there, because that’s supposed to be where the United States of America reigned supreme. This was picked up by World Politics Review, and on July 22, 2020, they ran the article, “Behind China’s Military Build-Up, an Effort to Project Power Globally.” Later in the year, September 1, 2020, The Washington Post ran an article, “China is ramping up nuclear and missile forces to rival U.S., Pentagon says,” and in the article, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for China is quoted during a briefing referring to the Chinese Communist Party as viewing US alliances and partnerships, as quote “‘destabilizing and irreconcilable with China’s interests.” He also described Beijing’s military buildup as a key element of China’s broader effort to quote “revise the international order.” End quote. Ooh, terrifying. Earlier this year in March 2021, NPR ran the article, “Pentagon Pushes For Bigger Effort To Deter China’s Growing Military Might.”
Adam: Notice that we are not building a military because we’re an empire, we need to have a big military or that we’re the aggressor, we simply have to respond to a growing threat, which we’ve talked about on the show before about the US sort of always catching up, right? We’re always positioned as defensive. Can one even imagine, can you even imagine an NPR headline that read ‘China pushes for bigger effort to deter United States’ growing military might.’ You would never read that.
Nima: The same month, March 2021, CNN’s Brian Lendon, maybe presented the clearest example of what we’ve been talking about. The article was headlined, “China building offensive, aggressive military, top US Pacific commander says.”
Adam: As opposed to defensive, non aggressive military.
Nima: Peaceful, gentle military?
Adam: Its military, it’s fucking, by definition it’s aggressive. What the fuck does that mean?
Nima: And the article starts like this, and I’m gonna read a bunch because it’s pretty amazing, again, this is a report from Hong Kong, starts like this, quote:
China is assembling an increasingly offensive military and expanding its regional footprint, as Beijing steps up efforts to supplant American military power in Asia, a top US commander warned Congress on Tuesday.
Adam: Noted American continent: Asia. Yes.
‘I cannot for the life of me understand some of the capabilities that they’re putting in the field unless it is an aggressive posture,’ Adm. Philip Davidson, the head of US Indo-Pacific Command, said in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
‘I see them developing systems, capabilities and a posture that would indicate that they’re interested in aggression,’ Davidson said.
Davidson, who in the hearing defended budget requests for billions of dollars of new weaponry in the Pacific, said the increased investment was necessary to deter Chinese military ambition in the region.
Describing China as ‘the greatest long-term strategic threat to security in the 21st century’ Davidson said Beijing has been carrying out increasingly threatening moves, citing Chinese military activity around Taiwan, along its disputed border with India and even around US islands in the Pacific.
‘I’m worried that they’re accelerating their ambitions … to supplant the United States and our leadership role in the rules-based international order, which they’ve long said that they want to do by 2050. I’m worried about them moving that target closer,’ Davidson said.
Adam: It is always assumed that the US responds to foreign threats, and that we are simply always on the defensive, whereas foreign threats are always aggressive.
Now, of course, China’s military growth does not exist in a vacuum. Now, that’s not to say that if the US packed up and went home China wouldn’t increase its military budget, they may to some extent, but obviously, one of the primary motives for why China increases its military is because we have a country that constantly fucking threatens to impose its will in Asia. We have 30,000 troops in South Korea, we have troops in Japan, we now have a port in the Philippines. There’s this mutual antagonism that spirals and yet when we read about it, it seems like —
Nima: We’re only responding.
Adam: The fact that NATO expanded despite our promise not to, has nothing to do with Russian military regime. The fact that the US took out Putin ally Omar Gaddafi in 2011 has nothing to do with Russia’s, you know, interference in Syria, military aggression begets military aggression and yet it’s never framed that way.
Nima: It only starts somewhere else and we just respond.
Adam: The US is just a human rights aid delivery organization with gunboats sort of just sitting around twiddling its thumb in the Pacific like it, oh, China, oh, now we got to respond. Oh, it’s so reluctant, and of course, China’s becoming more aggressive because we’re becoming more aggressive. That is a logical response to the US military aggression, and obviously, the burden would be on the country going halfway across the world to impose its will, right? I mean, the US is not in Asia, it’s not part of Asia, it’s part of North America. So time and time again, this is how military budgets are justified and this is how Admiral Philip Davidson and of course, he’s going to pitch more money for the Pentagon to Congress. So what’s he going to say? ‘Actually, we need to work with China to work on climate change, and maybe we can find mutual agreement around human rights issues, we can both work on our respective internment camps, and I believe in peace and justice, and we’re going to all hang out with and smoke a doobie.’ No, I mean, he’s in the fucking military business. Of course, he’s gonna say that they are a bunch of irrational aggressive foreigners who are out to get us and so this is just presented as the asymmetry in the language of how we talk about military buildup always implies a defensive posture from the US and always implies foreigners are out to get us.
Nima: Relatedly, here comes number nine, the common trope that enemy states are always spending money on weapons, if not mansions, instead of feeding their own people. Now, of course, this popular trope is meant to denigrate official enemy states, effectively rendering any military resistance to US empire as a form of elite theft, right? Part of the oligarchic move to take food from the mouths of, you know, I think we’ve discussed this before, their own people, seen as the priorities of enemy states are completely out of whack, right? It is all about this threatening, aggressive, military posture, domestic oppression, and meanwhile, ruling over a population that they treat like shit, that they torture, that they starve, that they cage and that they oppress and we see this time and time again. We’ve seen it for well over half a century.
[Begin Clip Montage]
Man: This is not a rational actor and it’s not like Pakistan, India or USSR, you know, I don’t, this is a regime that starved its own people to gain nuclear weapons, and you’re telling me they wouldn’t use it for every international dispute as leverage.
Woman: As we have said before, being a nuclear power comes with certain standards. It comes with being responsible enough to know that you don’t threaten other countries with nuclear weapons, you don’t starve your own people in order to fund nuclear weapons, you don’t bully and play games with nuclear weapons.
[End Clip Montage]
Adam: Pittsburgh Press from March of 1966, “China War-Minded, McNamara Declares: Nation Driving For Nuclear Weapons As People Starve, Defense Boss Says.” March 7, 1966:
Red China’s drive for nuclear weapons amid starvation clearly demonstrates Peking’s aggressive intent, Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara declared today.
This is from the Journal News, 1982:
The PLO has collected billions from the Arab petro-states and has squandered the money on military supplies while the Palestinian people have languished in poverty. Long ago, the arming of the PLO ceased to be a crusade and became an industry — a highly profitable industry that has enriched thousands of arms dealers, corrupt politicians and PLO leaders.
Adam: The problem with American policymakers and pundits and politicians and warmongers is not the part where they let people, where they quote-unquote “starve their own people,” they don’t care about that, they care about the fact that they’re spending money on defenses because they want us to be able to invade them and bomb them without any opposition. In the PLO’s case, they want them to be erased off the face of the earth, they want the Palestinians to sort of just go away, either through displacement or death, that’s the thing they really have a problem with. They have a problem with China having a nuke, the whole thing where they’re like, ‘Oh, they’re building a nuke while they’re starving,’ they don’t give a shit about that part, that’s just a cool sounding catchphrase, right? Because it sounds humane.
Nima: Right, it sounds like the reason you oppose the military deterrents is because you care about human rights.
Adam: Yeah, it sounds super self-interested. You say like, ‘Oh, this country that we want to demonize and potentially maybe invade and we probably are funding and arming sectarian opposition within their own country, you know, I don’t like that they have weapons.’ Well you have weapons. Well, what’s wrong with them having them? ‘Well, no, no, no, no, they’re buying weapons instead of feeding their people.’ Okay, well, so are you gonna lift the regime or the sanctions so they can? ‘No, no, no, no, we’re not doing that. We will never lift the sanctions.’ But I thought you said you were concerned with them starving? ‘No,’ you know, cut to black, right? There’s no real answer to that. So it’s a bullshit line but it sounds so clever, it’s used all the time. It’s used all the time today.
Nima: Yeah. So for instance, The New York Times ran an article in 2007 with the headline, “Venezuela Spending on Arms Soars to World’s Top Ranks,” and it says this, quote:
Venezuela’s escalation of its defense budget, up 12.5 percent in 2006, has brought harsh criticism from the Bush administration, which says the buildup is a potentially destabilizing problem in South America and is far more than what would be needed for domestic defense alone.
Thanks for the tip, Bush administration. It goes on to say this:
The spending has also touched off a fierce debate domestically about whether the country needs to be spending billions of dollars on imported weapons when poverty and a surging homicide rate remain glaring problems.
This information, of course, sourced in the article, the United States Defense Intelligence Agency.
Adam: The Associated Press in December of 2016, “Venezuela military trafficking food as country goes hungry,” no mention of sanctions. In January of 2017, “As Venezuelans Go Hungry, The Military Is Trafficking In Food.” Reuters, September 2019, “Venezuela should spend money on food, not missiles: Colombia president,” this also, all these articles, ignore the US-imposed sanctions, which you’re killing tens of thousands of people, which were not as severe in 2016 but by 2017, almost certainly were.
Nima: Now of course, what is always omitted from these articles is that the United States, which has the largest military budget on the planet, exponentially so, also presides over a population languishing in poverty and near starvation as well, yet, we never hear about the fact that why is the United States spending so much money on weapons and on the military and on what it deems to be quote-unquote “defense,” when so many people are going hungry. Joel Berg, the CEO of Hunger Free America has calculated that the cost of ending hunger in the United States is about $25 billion. $25 billion. This year alone, military spending for the United States is going to top $900 billion dollars. Meanwhile, 42 million Americans live in households that can’t afford enough food, that includes 13 million children. That’s one in five children in the United States of America, the richest country in the history of the world.
Adam: We just read you a dozen or so headlines about writeups in CNN, New York Times, NPR for more Pentagon budgets and what would you never ever, ever, ever see in those articles covering increased military budgets, especially in 2017 when the military budget increased in real terms, even adjusting for inflation, 11 percent, the greatest leap since 9/11, what did you never hear about that? ‘US spends a trillion dollars a year on military while its own people go starving, while there’s mass hunger, while there’s mass poverty, while there’s an epidemic of homelessness, and America’s major cities and even rural areas,’ you would never hear that, you would never hear those two things tied together. But anytime there’s a leap in military spending of foreign baddie countries, it’s always framed as taking food off the poors’ plate and out of the poor people’s mouths, even though that is true in both contexts, but you only hear it in one context. Even setting aside the omission of sanctions, even setting aside the fact that they have cynical motives, because of course, what they want is they want to non militarized compliant country and the poor in the Global South we can just sort of do whatever we want with, regardless of what one thinks about the moral properties of those countries, the people in power don’t give a fuck about the poor. They just want to mow them over whenever their heart desires. You never hear that apply to the US, even though it is most applicable in the United States where we have the most obscene, proportionate to GDP and in real numbers, the most obscene military spending, and we still have for a quote-unquote “developed rich country” an unconscionable amount of poverty in this country but you never ever, ever hear those two things tethered when they do write ups on military expenses as seen in Washington Post or New York Times.
Nima: To take this top 10, two-part episode home, we have our final entry and what list about Enemy Epithets would be complete without the granddaddy of them all, Adam: “regime.”
[Begin Clip Montage]
Man #1: Hamas regime again is launching rockets at Israeli communities.
Man #2: His question is what is Russia and Iran going to do about this because they’ve been obviously so close to Hugo Chávez’s regime now close to Maduro’s regime there in Venezuela.
Man #3: In this one incident alone, the regime murdered as many as a hundred Iranians and possibly more. When it was over the regime loaded the bodies into trucks.
Man #4: But it’s deadly and it’s serious and the regimes of Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah are using classical forms of European genocidal anti-semitism.
Man #5: The war crime is committed by the Gaza regime, by Hamas.
Woman: Perhaps this is what Obama wants to do with respect to the Mullah regime in Iran.
[End Clip Montage]
Nima: So of course, the term “regime” blindly, deliberately used to conjure imagery of the iron-fisted, anti-democratic, authoritarian rule of Bad Guy states. We hear this all the time.
Adam: Of course we have the Atlantic Council, quote, “The Syrian regime wheels and deals minorities to remain in power.” Wall Street Journal, “Inside the Secretive Group Trying to Bring Down North Korea’s Regime.” The New Yorker, “The Underground Movement Trying to Topple the North Korean Regime.” We routinely refer to non democratic or countries we don’t view as being democratic countries as regimes when they’re enemy states, but when they’re allied countries, one rarely hears the pejorative “regime.” So let’s take a state like Venezuela which had entirely uncontested, very democratic. The Carter Foundation called them the most democratic elections they’d ever seen for almost 15 years. Greg Shupak ran a search in Factiva of uses of “regime” with respect to Venezuela and found that, quote:
…nearly 20 years since Venezuela first elected a Chavista government, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post have used the phrase ‘Venezuelan regime’ 74 times, ‘regime in Venezuela’ 30 times, ‘Chávez regime’ 68 times, ‘Maduro regime’ 168 times and ‘regime in Caracas’ five times.
So this is a country that has elections, I know, recent elections, there’s been more dispute, but prior to those recent elections, there was no dispute at all for almost 15 years. But they routinely refer to it as the “Chávez regime,” even though they were democratically elected. Of course, we never ever, ever hear — beating a dead horse, we mentioned this in Episode 1 — we never hear the term Israeli regime, even though four and a half million of its citizens can’t vote and it’s running an ethnic cleansing campaign against Palestinians that it has control over, but it’s a basically apartheid system, it is the definition of a regime, it’s undemocratic for half of its ethnic minority population, we almost never hear Saudi regime, typically, sometimes maybe they’ll mention they’re a monarchy, you know, if regime was consistently applied, you could also make an argument that a country where the person with the least amount of votes becomes president could be regime e.g. Trump, George Bush, you could argue that a country where money has a wildly disproportionate influence and determines which of the two candidates we get to choose could be considered a regime. But we’ll even set that aside and limit it to just kind of technical, autocratic countries, who are allies of the US who never really get the regime treatment, whereas it’s used for even democratic countries who are enemies of the US because they are not democratic in the sort of precise way we like e.g. they give money to the poor.
Nima: You’re not going to see any article in The New York Times with a phrase like “the Joe Biden regime,” right?
Nima: And yet it is routinely applied across the world.
Adam: Routinely applied to Hugo Chávez, routinely applied to countries that yeah.
Nima: Whether it’s Iran, whether it’s China, whether it’s Russia, it’s always going to be regime. Regime, regime, regime. I think, as we mentioned last episode, there were a few tongue-in-cheek references, I think, over the past few years to the “Trump regime,” because again, Trump for a lot of corporate media, signaled something that was foreign, allegedly foreign, to our noble democratic, non regime-y system here, not be — God forbid — banana republic of insurrection and dictatorship, no, no, no, our noble democracy, and so because Trump was the character Trump was there were times where you would hear about the Trump regime, but it was, again, this Orientalizing, it was this foreignizing of what Trump signified, that it was inherently for so many in the media anti-American, and so that was used that way, which is why you see some of these terms, when they are applied domestically, were done so with the intent of Orientalizing American leaders. So yes, there it is. Number 10: “regime.” Maybe the most important one on the list in a way, the real signifier, but to discuss this more, we’re going to return to our interview with Janine Jackson and Jim Naureckas of the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. Janine Jackson is FAIR’s program director, and the producer and host of FAIR’s syndicated weekly radio show CounterSpin. Jim Naureckas is the editor of FAIR.org and has edited Extra!, FAIR’s monthly magazine since 1990. Janine and Jim will join us again in just a moment. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by Janine Jackson and Jim Naureckas of the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. Janine and Jim, thank you so much for joining us today, again, on Citations Needed.
Jim Naureckas: Thanks a lot.
Janine Jackson: Thanks.
Nima: When the US does something bad, I mean, it could even be all the way up to a war crime, that people recognize this is absolutely horrendous, it’s still really analyzed as, you know, a product of either misinformation or stumbling into something, ‘This was a mistake, we were duped into it by a so-called ally,’ but of course when the othered official bad country or group does something of a similar nature that speaks very directly to the existential evil, that they are.
Janine Jackson: Exactly.
Nima: I mean, we saw this on Slate’s Slow Burn podcast recently that Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi defector duped the neocons into invading Iraq. They were hoodwinked. They commit acts of violence we hear about because that is who they are. What do you think this kind of idea of the United States, it’s government entities, it’s 800 military bases around the world somehow still being this shapeless, agency-free blob whenever it does something that we all kind of begrudgingly have to acknowledge is terrible?
Jim Naureckas: Well, you know, the Iraq War was such a kind of legitimation crisis for the United States, where this was sold as this kind of purifying act of violence that was going to rid the world of a monster and transform the Middle East, and it hinged on the idea that there were these weapons that Saddam Hussein was lying about. He’s claiming not to have them, and of course, he had them and we had to go in there and get rid of them and then they weren’t there, simultaneously, the war did not go the way that the sunny forecast predicted that it would, we were not greeted as liberators of, you know, a new Switzerland in the Middle East. And so, it could have been a moment when a lot of institutions were called into question, and instead, you had these like weird delusions to replace the old delusions of the idea that even though we’ve spent years talking about how Saddam was lying to us about not having weapons of mass destruction, and then the new story was that Saddam Hussein had fooled us into thinking that he had weapons of mass destruction.
Jim Naureckas: And that was why, it was because of his treacherous duplicity that he hoaxed us into invading his country and there is really, there’s no evidence to this. When you look at it under a microscope, there was nothing at all to it but it was such an appealing story that people bought into it anyway and it served to save the whole, you know, the media didn’t have to acknowledge that it just pedals officials lies, the government didn’t have to admit that it was corruptly selling wars of aggression based on disinformation. Instead, it was just like, ‘Wow, you really put one over on us.’
Janine Jackson: Yeah, and then you add it, you bring it into the future where news media say they don’t need to acknowledge that they bought wholesale government disinformation, and in fact, amplified it and, you know, pushed it aggressively. They can now say, ‘Oh, hey, short attention span theater, US citizens, we’re just going to tell you, everybody was deceived. Everybody believed that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. Everyone believed it. We all believed it.’
Adam: And that’s what Slate argues, by the way, just to be specific here, their podcast argues that even people on the left and the people that hold up on the left are The New Republic, New York Times.
Janine Jackson: Yeah, you know, I guess I was alone, you know, in the street marching against the invasion before it started. I guess there weren’t thousands of other people with me. I guess that’s all a delusion.
Nima: There certainly weren’t the largest coordinated anti-war protests around the world.
Adam: There was FAIR, there was Democracy Now! Actually sort of did a retrospective, because I know that in 2007 Peter Hart assembled a retrospective of all the various people who were like, ‘Oh, yeah, this is bullshit.’
Janine Jackson: There were, McClatchy at the time, there was all kinds of news media, and there were large numbers of the population. There were people who were saying, they were not only saying that they were skeptical of the case for war, they were saying, ‘We don’t want our response to be war.’ They were saying, ‘Whatever has happened, we don’t want to inflict more terror and violence on other people,’ and this is what always happens is that what is represented as once it gets into foreign policy — and again, foreign policy even that term, you know, we should think about — once it becomes The US and Iran and China and whatever, people are being erased, people are being smothered in that language and in the case of the Iraq War, when they were saying that the US wants to go to war, there were millions of us saying that is not what we want, that’s not what we want, that’s not what we want. And when the news media subsume all those voices and pretend that they are representing the whole country in their conversation, it’s a violence. It’s a violence that’s being done to all of us who are not represented in that conversation who want to say something emphatically different than what’s being represented in that conversation, and again, it’s why folks look for other sources, it’s why we have to go outside of corporate news media, I know they influence us, and they have, we can’t ignore them but when we are looking for what we need to feed us to think about, we have to go somewhere else.
Nima: What you were saying about the idea that if Saddam said something to the effect of there are no weapons of mass destruction, then that was clearly going to be deemed a lie, but then discovering that there was nothing is then further evidence that we needed to invade and I think nothing speaks to that as directly as this quote from Ari Fleischer, who was, of course at the time, George Bush’s press secretary, this is December 2, 2002, and Fleischer, so this is in the run up to the war, you know, building momentum, Democrats in Congress, of course, along with Republicans have already voted to effectively authorize the “use of force,” quote-unquote, so that the Bush regime can commit war crimes and Fleischer said this, quote:
MR. FLEISCHER: I think the history of people who accept Saddam Hussein at face value and take his word for accurate is one of disappointment because they have been deceived. Saddam Hussein does not exactly have a track record of telling the world the truth. So he, on December 8th, has to indicate whether or not he has weapons. Let’s see what he says. If he declares he has none, then we will know that Saddam Hussein is once again misleading the world.
And then, you know, some of the press asked, “How will you know?” And he was like, quote: “We have intelligence information about what Saddam Hussein possesses.” And there’s a follow up: “So you say that you do have information that he has these weapons,” and Fleischer says, “It’s no secret.”
So I mean, setting up like, there was no way what they wanted to happen wasn’t going to happen, right? It was, you know, heads, I win, tails, you lose.
Janine Jackson: And yet we can have news media, serious news media, tell us that the US Defense Department lied, straight-up lied about civilian casualties in this or that place, and then they “walked back,” quote-unquote, their estimates of their impact in this or that place, but the Defense Department never becomes a suspicious source. The Defense Department is never, they don’t get the little apostrophe the next time they’re quoted, ‘The US Defense Department, which lied about the amount of civilian casualties in, you know, in Fallujah,’ you know, like that, that never attaches to them. They shake it free every time and are born anew like a phoenix as a reliable source every damn day. Whereas other places, of course, that’s the way you should know them is that they misled on something or the other.
Jim Naureckas: China. They lied about the coronavirus because they’re liars.
Janine Jackson: Exactly. Because they’re just inherently liars, you know?
Nima: Yeah. You see it, I mean, in real time, you know, with Israel and Palestine, right, that Israelis are killed, whereas Palestinians just die, but even so in the construction that media reports on these things, it’s oftentimes, you know, ‘An Israeli worker was killed by a rocket’ and ’15 Palestinians died in an explosion according to Hamas officials.’
Janine Jackson: And it’s not even just that you disbelieve the sources, they don’t only do it when it’s about what source should be believed, they do the same misleading linguistic technique when they’re trying to represent public opinion. So they will say, news media will say for example, you know, ‘A black person was killed by police and black people are really upset,’ you know, when you think well, actually, no, lots of people are upset, not only black people, but that kind of language that narrows who is saying something, who is concerned about something, who is responsible or accountable for something, that kind of language is in every article that you read and that’s why you have to, it kind of washes over you, you know, that sort of, ‘According to Hamas,’ or ‘Women are very upset about encroachment on abortion rights.’ Well, is it only women? Because I know a lot of men who are upset about it.
Nima: Right. ‘The Arab world is up in arms.’
Janine Jackson: You know, so that kind of language, we have to be mindful of all the freakin’ time because it’s silencing a lot of people and misrepresenting opinion on a lot of issues that we care about.
Adam: Yeah and I think that speaks to the broader theme here, which is that Iraq is one of the rare examples of something that nobody sort of would really try to defend. I think, you know, recently some have tried to kind of revisionize it and so this is sort of the broader theme of these episodes, which is that we sort of work backwards from an assumption of benevolence or at the very least, at worst it’s incompetence, and then we build a moral framework around that, because we have to, because, again, I don’t want to be too psychobabble here, but because of cognitive dissonance, we can’t acknowledge any kind of sinister plan and one thing I note is that this kind of bumbling narrative just does not exist for official enemies and this is a major asymmetry. We never would say that Putin was duped into invading Crimea, we would never say that China was somehow tricked into subjugating the, you know, Uighur population, this kind of the war crimes US commits are the only ones that have this kind of psychological, cutesy-wutesy liberal narrative, and this is, this is partly I think, why these kind of totalizing sinister terms that we talk about in this episode are so revealing, because the reason why we don’t use those terms symmetrically with respect to the US is because if you did that, you would have to eliminate this kind of bumbling empire shtick, or this kind of fall from grace, good intentions gone wrong narrative and so we use the sort of totalizing sinister language, which again, this language of “regime” and “strongman” speaks to a kind of top down totalizing motive and intention, whereas the US is this disparate, connected series of bumbling departments who are always kind of pissing one another off.
One thing I do want to touch on before we let you go is what I believe to be some of the kind of racial subtext of some of these terms specifically with an understanding that Slavic countries of Russia can be kind of quasi-racialized, but even setting that aside, terms like “strongman,” terms like “firebrand,” terms like “cult of personality” with respect to Venezuela, we discussed earlier that several of the discussions of Hugo Chávez’s cult of personality really kind of ignored or mocked or kind of stepped over some cultural differences within Venezuela, specifically, the way animism informs Catholicism or informs people’s understanding of people who’ve passed in the afterlife, right? And Maduro and other leaders use this to effect because that’s the sort of culturally specific thing. That’s all ignored and we get this kind of cartoon ‘Look at all these stupid people who worship Hugo Chávez,’ never mind that they may have worshipped him because he reduced poverty by 35 percent, but I want to talk about some of the racial subtext of many of these terms, and how that othering that Jim, you talked about, is boosted by and sort of propped up by some of these racial subtexts.
Janine Jackson: Well, absolutely, you know, I mean, masses, you’re talking about masses of people, masses are always brown, people who just sort of mindlessly follow a leader are always black and brown people, people who are, whether they’re in other countries or in this country, people who, their votes are based on emotion, you know, they’re not intellectual, they’re just visceral, they just vote based on their emotions. Those are always black and brown people. It’s very racialized. It’s extremely racialized in terms of what communities again, whether they are in Haiti or in Detroit, are seen as needing wiser white heads to come in and show them their better interests, you know, why does Flint have an emergency manager? Why does Detroit have an emergency manager? You know, it’s all very much racialized in terms of who are seen as people who think for themselves, and might be confused or deceived, and who are people who are just kind of mindlessly following a leader and need somebody else to come in and help them. It’s very much racialized. I think you’re absolutely right about that. It’s very much a racialized kind of imagery.
Jim Naureckas: One of the fundamental myths of white supremacy, is that to be white is to be regular, is to be an ordinary kind of person who does not have a type, a race is to be a kind of person and white is the normal kind of person.
Jim Naureckas: And race is such a, you describe the Russians as Slavic, you know, that’s just like, you can racialize the difference between people who live in Eastern Europe versus Western Europe if you want to, if you need to, if it’s useful to you, the Germans, the idea of Western culture is something we get from World War I and Western culture was defined in opposition to Germany, which was the Hun.
Jim Naureckas: The threat to Western culture, and we have to mobilize, we had to sacrifice millions of people in the trenches in order to fight that threat, you know, so you can divide the line wherever it’s convenient to divide it. I think people from Mars would think that the people in the Middle East are pretty much the same, they look pretty much the same as people in southern Europe, but we have made that, the fact that there’s a different dominant religion in that area becomes like a genetic change like it’s mutated them.
Janine Jackson: Yeah.
Nima: Yeah, I remember the line, I don’t personally remember this, but I’ve seen, you know, World War I-era propaganda posters, US Army enlistment posters, that really do this exact kind of, you know, threat against Western civilization. There’s one that says kind of heading is “Destroy this mad brute,” and the image is like a King Kong-style gorilla. Granted, you know, World War I’s pre-King Kong, the film, but this huge kind of rabid ape, which has like the kind of German pointy helmet on its head, a club, a bloody club that says “culture” in it, and it has crossed the ocean and landed on American shores, and in its arm, the arm that doesn’t have the bloody club, it has a bare-breasted white woman, who is, you know, wailing for her — I’m sure — purity and life and innocence. So I mean, this is so exactly, as you said, Jim, like, that was Germany, right? So the kind of whiteness of civilization has then gotten, I think, you know, kind of absorbed as is befitting empire post, you know, certain wars and kind of deliberately maybe pushed east.
Janine Jackson: Yeah, and I just want to say one other thing in terms of news media and foreign policy, which is one of the strongest biases and even a racialized bias is just that of silence. News media are very interested in talking about what the United States is doing in the Mideast, and even what the US is doing in Latin America, but you’re not hearing about sub-Saharan Africa, you’re not hearing about India, not very much. There are large swathes of the world where it’s not that the United States isn’t acting, isn’t, you know, bringing its power to bear, it’s just that they don’t want us to look at it and so news media aren’t pointing the camera that way.
Adam: We’re not called on to condemn it, right.
Janine Jackson: And I always think, you know, when something comes in the news, it’s Syria, and you hear people in the bar talking about Syria and I just know you couldn’t find it. If I talked to you a month ago, you couldn’t find it on a map, but you care about it now because the paper you’re reading and the TV show that you’re watching are telling you to care about it, we are very much as smart as we think we are and as savvy as we may be, we still are very much influenced by news media, pointing our attention in particular places, and so we have to not just think, ‘Well, I’m smart so I’m going to thresh out the imperialism from The New York Times that I’m reading,’ we have to actually proactively engage in unlearning, in deconstructing the US exceptionalism, US imperialism, those frameworks, from the information that we’re getting, it’s not enough to just think ‘I’m pretty darn critical,’ you know, you still have to really think about why am I never hearing about the Biden regime? Why doesn’t the US have a regime? Why is that only other countries? You have to always be actively asking yourself those questions and part of what you have to say is, why am I not even hearing about this whole sector of the planet where obviously people live and things are going on? So it’s not just what media do when they cover something? It’s what they’re doing when they don’t cover something?
Nima: Well, I think that is a great place to leave it. We, of course, have been spending time with the great Janine Jackson and Jim Naureckas of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. Janine is FAIR’s program director, and the producer and host of FAIR’s syndicated weekly radio show CounterSpin. Jim is the editor of FAIR.org and, for the past few decades, has edited Extra!, FAIR’s monthly magazine. Janine and Jim, thank you, as always, for joining us on Citations Needed, you are truly the reason we have this show.
Jim Naureckas: Thank you so much. It’s been enlightening.
Janine Jackson: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure.
Adam: Yeah, you know, I think if you’ve been at this game long enough, you start to see the way that these linguistic asymmetries emerge and I think some people are hesitant to point them out or to talk about them because I think there’s this allergy we have as a culture and I understand why, you don’t want to look like you’re defending the bad regime.
Adam: You sort of don’t want to look like you’re apologizing for dictators, or whatever kind of extortive —
Nima: ‘Well, it is a regime, what would you call it?’
Adam: Well, right, it’s like, well, that’s not really the point. The point is not to defend anything the point is to show that these terms are just not applied consistently at all because when we have to turn, again, this sort of Chomsky 101 stuff, this is not groundbreaking, but when we have to turn these terms on ourselves, it starts to ask difficult and messy questions about the very nature of what we spend money on and what we prioritize and the violence we exercise overseas and I think that that’s sort of the point, right? The point is that I think countries should be like people, we should be introspective first before we start lashing out at others. Now, in my personal life, I’m not a perfect example of this but in principle, right, it’s a good thing one wants to teach their sons, right? Keep your nose clean and then keep your shit together and then before you start going around scolding other people, right, it’s good practice.
Nima: I love how you’re bringing your new-dad vibes to this, Adam.
Adam: I am bringing my new-dad vibes to this because we just pathologically, as a country, don’t do this. We are so, the sort of sanctimonious judging of others is so ingrained into our DNA, we use these kind of high-minded concepts like liberal rules-based order and human rights and it’s all, this is not new, right? The British empire used this, the Belgian empire used this.
Nima: Well, right, because as you said, you know, empire is really built on, thrives on, relies on the self righteous projection.
Adam: Which I wish we didn’t do, I wish we would be a little bit more introspective, especially when it comes to things like Pentagon spending. I mean, this idea that we’re always being attacked by these foreign enemies and that we just respond is such a fundamentally, it’s a textbook marker of a sociopath, they’re always the victim, we’re never the aggressor and there’s zero efforts have introspection on any of this shit and it has real consequences and so the goal is if you’re going to use a pejorative to describe another country, fine enough, but let’s think of ways to apply those equally to us, because then maybe, just maybe, we can begin to think critically about the nature of the sanctions and the bombings and the various things that we do, which obviously we oppose, maybe physician can heal thyself.
Nima: And it’s all meant to obfuscate, which is why all of these terms are laundered through our media to do our thinking for us, the reason why these epithets stick and why they are shorthands and why they are ubiquitous, is because it gets readers and absorbers of media to think about these enemies states the way that is most beneficial to maintaining the empire, to maintaining hegemony, to maintaining the demonization of these other states in service of maintaining sanctions, of continuing to bomb, of continuing to starve, of continuing to oppress, to sell weapons to those that preside over apartheid regimes, and so, this is how this is done and by laundering those terms, and ingraining them by having them be so consistent — “regime,” “firebrand,” “strongman,” “hardliner,” hand-picked successor” — all of these terms, do the job of demonization by applying these kind of adjectives, by these adjectives, these descriptors that just shortcut to what the inevitable agenda is.
Adam: Well, there’s this thing called the moral line, right? There’s a moral line that you can sort of accept the US makes mistakes or has bad actors or has bad apples. It’s like this with police too. You can sort of accept that premise but you could never ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, undermine the axiomatic and fundamental belief that the US is morally superior to other empires or other countries in our crosshairs. You have to accept that. It is just not negotiable to work at a CNN or AP or Reuters, you have to accept that premise and the ways in which that clear moral line is reinforced is through this language, this othering language, which is why when you get something like “oligarch” it gets so goofy where for to make any sense at all and for it not to apply stateside you have to literally just put Russia in the definition. So you sort of have to cheat, you have to rig the game.
Nima: We don’t mean here, we mean there.
Adam: Right. By definition this has to be a term only applied to the Bad Guys, by the definition that we just wrote five minutes ago.
Nima: Well, that will do it for this two-part episode on Enemy Epithets. Thanks, 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. Of course all your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated, we are 100 percent listener funded, and as always, a very special shout out goes to our critic level supporters through Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again, everyone. We’ll catch you next time.
This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, June 9, 2021.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.