Episode 154 — “Inclusive Patriotism”: How Radicals Are Retconned into Liberal Champions of the American Project
Citations Needed | February 9, 2022 | Transcript
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Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
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Nima: “Why We Need Inclusive Nationalism,” the journal Democracy declares. “Inclusion is patriotism of the highest order,” cries The Washington Post. “Try patriotism,” Bloomberg opinion writer Noah Smith proclaims.
Adam: Repeatedly, contemporary liberals tell us — amid events that should make us impugn the foundations of the United States, like police killings and the panic over Critical Race Theory — that American patriotism is inherently good, but sullied by bad apples and the far right, and that the center, center-left, and sometimes even the center-right must quote-unquote “reclaim” patriotism from the clutches of those who harm its noble reputation. In this framing, everyone, from 19th-century abolitionists to Indigenous land protectors to anti-war protesters, no matter their positions on the American project, is hailed as a “patriot,” serving to make America the very best it can be.
Nima: Meanwhile, some popular PBS documentaries, NPR broadcasts, and many other forms of ostensibly progressive media alter the stories of radical figures and movements in the US to promote this notion of “inclusive patriotism.” Instead of highlighting and elucidating the political principles and goals of Indigenous peoples, communists, anarchists, socialists,o anti-colonialists, and other activists, dissidents and combatants throughout the past, mainline US media offer a revisionist history in which these figures are either invisible or proudly American, Constitution-abiding liberals participating in some imaginary, high-minded national project.
Adam: On today’s episode, we’ll examine how media defang radical political figures as noble patriots in service of reformism and incrementalism; how they erase the power dynamics between oppressor and the oppressed; why there can’t really be such a thing as “progressive” or “inclusive” patriotism — and why that’s perfectly okay for adults to accept — and how the fiction of inclusive nationalism exist to narrow the confines to what is political possible today.
Nima: Later on the show, we’ll be speaking with Charlotte Rosen, an abolitionist organizer and PhD candidate in history at Northwestern University, specializing in post-1960s United States political history and the history of the United States carceral state. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Belt Magazine, The Nation and Truthout.
Charlotte Rosen: This white washing tendency props up and then helps to justify the continuation of contemporary racialized state violence, unequal political and economic conditions, both by, you know, on the one hand downplaying the history of the presence of massive amounts of state sanctioned inequality, and then also presenting this trajectory of US history as some kind of providential march towards progress.
Adam: So this episode is, as we say on the show, as I’m required by law to say, is a spiritual successor to very early episode, Episode 5: The Purging of Socialists from American History, and covers some similar themes, but comes at it from a totally different angle, which is the discussion of radicals, especially radicals of color, throughout history, but not only erasing them or ignoring them, but turning them into milquetoast liberals, or completely just ignoring their ideologies altogether. And so to do this, we want to sort of talk about this idea, broadly, of pop documentary making, filmmaking and histories even in textbooks and books, that is concerned with this idea of kind of a national fabric or a national project, to create a kind of holistic sense of social and civic unity in the United States, which when you put it that way, sounds very benign, and one could argue even sounds good. Obviously, social cohesion can be a good thing. Of course, it can also force social cohesion and social cohesion based on lies can be, we’ll argue in this episode, a bad thing, and so increasingly, you have this debate around this idea of patriotism, and inclusive or liberal patriotism, and an effort to make an inclusive or liberal patriotism, again, with the sort of proverbial good intentions, lots of things in history get lost, erased, obscured and what we will argue, just outright lied about.
Nima: Well, yeah, because the establishment of what our collective history is, has everything to do with the American myth making project, this, ‘If we can unify around an agreed history, and that history is then put down on film or put into writing in these very public ways that then become the main story, that becomes the story,’ if it’s in a PBS documentary, if Ken Burns does it, that becomes the authoritative history of what we are talking about, and so that is really important.
Adam: And so to talk about the history of this Americana project and liberal discourse and liberal cultural production, we want to sort of start off by talking about the origins of educational and historical broadcasting as we know them today.
Nima: The genesis of public educational broadcasting in the United States arguably dates back to the 1910s, as colleges and universities began to establish their own radio stations. But the development of US educational and historical media designed to promulgate a pro-US narrative, like PBS and NPR, that didn’t really begin in earnest until some decades later.
Now, many of the main media outlets that peddle this notion of quote-unquote “inclusive patriotism,” as we’ve been discussing, are publicly funded and ostensibly independent and nominally progressive platforms, right? Stuff like we keep saying: PBS and NPR.
PBS, or the Public Broadcasting System, was founded in 1969 by the publicly funded nonprofit Corporation for Public Broadcasting, CPB, to function as a politically centrist-to-center-left media outlet. Now, prior to the founding of PBS, CPB oversaw National Education Television, or NET, a network owned and funded by the Ford Foundation. NET produced material that, at least by US programming standards, substantively interrogated matters of race, class, and imperialism. According to the Museum of Broadcast Communications, quote:
NET producers and directors including Alvin Perlmutter, Jack Willis and Morton Silverstein began to film hard-hitting documentaries rarely found on commercial television. Offered under the series title NET Journal, programs like The Poor Pay More, Black Like Me, Appalachia: Rich Land, Poor People, and Inside North Vietnam explored controversial issues and often took editorial stands. Although NET Journal received positive responses from media critics, many of NET’s affiliates, particularly those in the South, grew to resent what they perceived as its ‘East Coast Liberalism.’
Adam: Amid the opposition of these affiliates, the Ford Foundation began threatening to withdraw its funding, and broadcasters began to look to the government to fill the void. This led to the creation of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, which established the CPB. Before signing the act into law, President Lyndon Johnson said, quote:
The law that I will sign shortly…announces to the world that our Nation wants more than just material wealth; our Nation wants more than a ‘chicken in every pot.’ We in America have an appetite for excellence, too.
And would go on to state:
[CPB] will get part of its support from our Government. But it will be carefully guarded from Government or from party control. It will be free, and it will be independent — and it will belong to all of our people.
Two years later, the CPB founded PBS as a more conservative replacement of NET. Again, from the Museum of Broadcast Communications, quote:
The CPB’s decision lay not only in its awareness that NET had alienated a majority of the affiliated stations, but also in its belief that a hopeless conflict of interest would have resulted if NET continued to serve as a principal production center while at the same time exercising control over program distribution. With the creation of PBS in 1969, NET’s position became tenuous. NET continued to produce and schedule programming, now aired on PBS, including the well-received BBC productions, The Forsyte Saga and Civilization. But NET’s refusal to end its commitment to the production of hard-hitting controversial documentaries such as Who Invited US? — the Vietnam anti-war film — and Banks and the Poor led to public clashes between NET and PBS over program content. PBS wanted to curb NET’s controversial role in the system and create a new image for public television, particularly since NET documentaries inflamed the Nixon Administration and imperiled funding. In order to neutralize NET, the CPB and Ford Foundation threatened to cut NET’s program grants unless NET merged with New York’s public television outlet, WNDT. Lacking allies, NET acquiesced to the proposed alliance…and its role as a network was lost.
Nima: A 1979 New York Times article further revealed the Nixon administration’s efforts to control public broadcasting between 1969 and 1974, included plans to cut funding to NET and discourage public-affairs subject matter in public broadcasting. According to the article, Peter Flanigan, who was an assistant to Nixon, wrote in a memo to the president dated June 18,1971 this, quote:
Probably no amount of restructuring will entirely eliminate the tendency of the Corporation [CPB] to support liberal causes. On the other hand, this Administration does have an opportunity to establish, by legislation or otherwise, structures and counterbalances which will restrain this tendency in future years and which, as a political matter, it will be difficult for other administrations to alter. It is in this direction that we have thus far been proceeding.
Now, this isn’t to suggest that PBS would have been otherwise some bastion of anti-racism and anti-imperialism if not for Nixon’s aversion to it, but the history here is important, especially since it was in this context that NPR, that is National Public Radio, also arose. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting formed NPR in 1970, and its initial broadcasts aired the following year, 1971, among them, Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings on Vietnam and the flagship news show All Things Considered.
Adam: So from the beginning Public Broadcasting, because it was reliant on government money and foundation money from government aligned spook shows like the Ford Foundation, et cetera, was basically the far left flank of patriotism. I mean, these were sort of good liberal kind of democratic aligned, this wasn’t right-wing schlock, that didn’t really happen until the ’80s when they started doing entire documentaries with Milton Friedman, but it was not really going to go much further than that to the left, because the last time it did they got shut down. So we’re gonna listen to the premiere broadcast of All Things Considered from May 1971, in which they cover a Vietnam War protests. The segment is mildly critical of police violence toward the protesters but characterizes protesters as an inconvenience, doesn’t really talk about what they’re really protesting, and repeatedly cites their quote-unquote “anger.”
Man: Thousands of young people came to Washington willing to risk being arrested in order to end the war. They went into the streets this morning to stop the government from functioning by clogging many Washington roads during this morning’s rush hour. To many demonstrators the mobile street tactics of civil disobedience are an expected spring event. But before today, many other young people who came to Washington had not been willing to oppose the state with their bodies. These young Americans today were a major test of their commitment to the ethical code of the young and the angry. It was their freedom ride, their summer March, their Mayday.
Crowd: Stop the war now! Stop the war now!
Adam: So, fast forward to the ’80s, when PBS began to ramp up its documentary production. After airing several historical documentaries, one of which, on the Vietnam War, was praised by The New York Times for, quote, “[trying] hard not to reach conclusions” — you don’t want to reach conclusions, conclusions are bad — the broadcaster premiered the documentary series American Experience in 1988, which is pretty much the quintessence of what we’re talking about here. The first episode began with the following statement, sounding like an excerpt from some hackey presidential speech, quote, “The American experience is our story as a people. Stories about passion, and bravery. And over and over, the amazing resources of the human spirit in the face of adversity.” Such quote-unquote “as a people” rhetoric of course erases power dynamics — and of course Indigenous people — lumping all political tendencies, the oppressor and the oppressed, the colonized and the colonizer, into one kind of milieu of patriotic peoples.
The series is predicated, at least in part, on the idea, Nima, that every somewhat left-leaning historic event or political movement in the US or, generally speaking, between the 49th parallel and the Rio Grande river, is what makes the country culturally richer and stronger. Within the series, events and power dynamics and social relations, no matter how abhorrent — not labor exploitation, not police violence — don’t prompt a serious indictment of the forces that sustain the United States and its power, but rather constitute some generalized, amorphous quote-unquote “American Experience.”
Nima: So one recent example of how the American experience documentaries seek to tell a history that is about unity is about this, as we’ve been calling it, “inclusive patriotism.” One example is The Mine Wars, a documentary from 2019. Now, it chronicles the coal miner rebellions against paternalistic, abusive coal companies in the 1910s and early 1920s in southern West Virginia, and here is some context on that, these miners were living in isolated company towns, where companies operated as governments and thus exercised immense autocratic control over their workers. But the documentary, The Mine Wars, minimizes the socialist currents of the movement. As historian Patrick Huber has written, quote:
For more than a century, the epithet redneck has chiefly denigrated rural, poor white southerners, especially those who hold conservative, reactionary or racist points of view. During the 1920s and 1930s, however, another one of its definitions in the northern and central Appalachian coalfields was ‘a Communist.’ And during the first four decades of the twentieth century, redneck also referred more broadly to a miner who was a member of a labor union, particularly to one who was on strike.
Now, additionally, coal miner and union organizer Frank Keeney formed UMWA, that is the United Mine Workers of America, District 30 on Cabin Creek in West Virginia, basically the epicenter of these mine wars. According to James Green, author of The Devil Is Here in These Hills, which is a book about the miners’ rebellions, Keeney’s organization was based on the principles of democratic control by the rank-and-file and the socialist ideal of workers’ control over industry. Green writes this, quote:
Because experienced colliers understood the technology and labor processes of mining far better than the owners, the Socialists and many others in their ranks believed the miners could operate the coal industry cooperatively and manage it more rationally and safely than the capitalists did.
Adam: Yet the word “socialist” is mentioned only twice in the film, in passing, in reference to Keeney or the miners in general, and the struggle of the miners is put specifically in a kind of liberal framework emphasizing the miners’ pursuit of free speech and free assembly, while minimizing the more explicitly socialist pursuits presenting the coal miners as constitutionally abiding patriots who just want a more perfect union. Quote, “Small people going up against very big forces for a better nation.” So the miners are sort of wanting to better Americana, rather than have a socialist overthrow and worker control of the unions. We can listen to that schlocky clip here.
Woman: When you worked in a mine you never knew whether or not you would walk out again.
Man #1: In the coal mines of West Virginia, the desire for dignity ran deep.
Man #2: What these people were fighting for was the rights that they thought their government guaranteed them.
Man #3: Small people going up against very big forces for a better nation.
Man #1: The Mine Wars on American Experience.
Adam: So again, the series couches an armed rebellion as in terms of quote-unquote, “constitutional right,” it argues that the miners were fighting for the principles set forth by the Founding Fathers, redefines the labor movement, and tacitly all labor movements, as acts of patriotism and suggest the dignity among the workers is an inherently American trait. Now, what is in this documentary, which is in a lot of the things we will criticize, there’s a lot of history, there’s a lot of good stuff, right? It’s not like it’s necessarily categorically bad.
Nima: It’s just that the omissions are telling.
Adam: Right, but the actual politics of the workers, which is not to say every single miner was a devout reader of Karl Marx, but the union leaders, and a lot of the people involved in the more radical elements of it, were intimate with socialist ideals and socialist principles of various kinds, right? Different currents, different sects. This is just completely erased in the primary inspiration in the documentary that Mother Jones is supposed to have bestowed upon her — Mother Jones, the noted socialist organizer and founder of the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905 — the intellectual pedigree that she promotes is reading Victor Hugo. So let’s listen to that right here.
Man #1: Mother Jones, her followers and her antagonists would turn the coalfields of southern West Virginia into a blood soaked war zone, where basic constitutional rights and freedoms were violently contested.
Man #2: The story of the West Virginia Mine Wars is a profoundly American story of people’s belief in the principles of the Founding Fathers. What these people were fighting for was the rights that they thought their government had guaranteed them and had been denied them.
Woman: The right to free assembly, the right to free speech, and the idea that just because you worked for someone shouldn’t mean that that person had a kind of tyrannical control over you, but that you, as a worker, had certain democratic rights as well.
Adam: So again, we speak in this very liberal language. Now it’s true, certain union organizers did talk about free speech, and freedom of assembly, because that’s how you organize unions. In strictly legal terms they would have, you know, the IWW would have free speech battles out west because certain states and territories out west would make union organizing illegal and so they would speak in the kind of language of constitutional rights, but this is an entree to a broader political project of worker control of, not only the unions, but for certain syndicalist and other radicals, the entire economy. And so that whole part is left out, and this is about democratic rights, and about, you know, about throwing some stuff about dignity, I guess, but basically, any kind of radical politics is completely stripped from this and people don’t pick up arms because they’re milquetoast liberals who want modest democratic rights.
Nima: Well, right. And because that way, these struggles are cast within a kind of consistent Americanism. It’s all derived from the American project, as it was originally, you know, allegedly conceived, and therefore it’s not an aberration, it’s not to change the system, it’s to make the system work better or as it was first intended, right? So it’s all in this idea that to fight for what the miners were fighting for becomes just as American as the capitalist exploitation of them, which is then cast as almost unAmerican.
Adam: I mean, you watch the documentary, The Mine Wars, and you come away thinking that they don’t have any politics at all, that they’re kind of just laborers who mindlessly are mad at their bosses, and again, that’s true in certain circumstances, but the union leadership was absolutely run by socialists.
Nima: They were being disrespected rather than actually having an ideology that they were working toward, right? That they were fighting for, there were organizing principles. Now, similarly, NPR exemplifies this kind of revisionism every September when Labor Day rolls around. From last year, September 3, 2021, there was an NPR article, “Why We Celebrate Labor Day And Other Facts About The Holiday You Might Not Know.” Now, the article discusses the history of Labor Day but mysteriously omits that it was formally recognized by President Grover Cleveland specifically to be an alternative to May Day, which was actually the more radical version also known as International Workers Day. It was a worker solidarity day, May Day, and so Labor Day was created as an American holiday to supplant that. Now, Adam, you’ve actually written extensively on this, you wrote an article on your substack about this white washing of Labor Day and its history by NPR.
Adam: I mean, this was quintessential PBS, NPR, white washing of radical history. So they wrote an article called, quote, “Here Are 3 Pivotal Moments In Workers’ History To Remember This Labor Day.” And the first one they start off with is the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, which is a good place to start sort of, they omit a lot of things, but I understand it is a listicle, it’s a little limited. It does the sort of standard recap, there’s a fire brought on by negligent greedy owners that killed 146 mostly women laborers, and then progressives in New York respond to popular outrage by passing reforms. The article says, quote:
The horror of the fire led to legislation meant to improve factory safety standards in New York. It also helped establish a watchdog agency with powers to investigate labor conditions. Frances Perkins, who later served as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s labor secretary, would lead this agency.
So there’s no mention of the Local 25 of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, which actually organized the preceding New York shirtwaist strike of 1901 — the largest strike of women workers in the US that had ever taken place up to that point. No mention of the labor leaders like Pauline Newman, a Jewish immigrant from present-day Lithuania who had worked in the Triangle factory since the age of 13 and there is no mention of upward pressure from any other contemporary labor movements at the time, the Western Federation of Miners, which led a series of strikes in Colorado in the preceding years of 1903 and 1904. There’s no mention of the Industrial Workers of the World, which had dozens of radical strikes at the time. There’s just this idea that there was this fire, and then progressives responded, rather than there being preexisting labor unrest.
The next pivotal moment the NPR article mentions the creation of the National Labor Relations Board in 1935. Again, the primary mover of labor reform comes from white Protestants in government, not from below from radicals. Now, there is a lot of good in the NLRB, also a lot of bad — we don’t really need to get into it — but there is no mention of the preceding threats of capital which made the NLRB necessary in the first place: no mention of the all-black Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union a decade prior who engaged in mass unrest and mass protests; no mention of the massive 1934 longshoremen strike from workers in Washington, Oregon, and California who shut down the entire West Coast for almost two months; and there’s no mention of the general strike in San Francisco. There’s no sense that these laws are part of a coherent regime of ideologically motivated labor unrest.
And then the third pivotal moment in labor is Ronald Reagan crushing the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Association’s strike in 1981. So if this is supposed to be this kind of broad recap of pivotal moments in labor, and the article itself doesn’t mention any actual unions, it doesn’t say the words “socialist,” “anarchist,” “syndicalist,” “communist,” doesn’t appear anywhere in that. So if I’m reading — and again, I know it’s one NPR article, but there’s actually several more they do every Labor Day that are just like this — I would have no sense that labor rights in this country were born from blood and violence and struggle and conflict and violent suppression, and Pinkertons killing people, spying on people, ruining their lives. The Burns Agency sending in agent provocateurs to spread racist hatred in the south, I mean, I could go on and on and on. You would just think there was this kind of white Protestant sitting around in government either in New York or DC thinking, ‘Man, I really want to do things good for labor.’
Nima: ‘Yeah, did you hear about that fire? That’s sad. Let’s fix some things.’
Adam: There’s no sense that reformers necessarily respond to uprisings from the masses. They don’t just randomly decide to do things and this is a consistent current in the cultural output. This is not specific to just public television and radio, we’re just using them as a starting point. As we’ll get into later, this is more broad than that. But one more thing on PBS, which is a common thing you watch when you watch popular depictions of the Black Panthers, although it’s less so nowadays, but the 2016 documentary Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, which PBS produced, it actually debuted at Sundance in 2015. This doesn’t really cast Black Panthers as part of an American tradition, but what it does is it really erases their politics entirely, you can watch the whole documentary, and it’s not really clear that they were a communist organization, specifically a Maoist organization, and this is typical of reducing Black Panthers to an aesthetic. Now, Nima, you and I talked offline, there’s a lot about the documentary that we like.
Nima: Yeah, actually, there’s incredible archival footage. It does, you know, some really powerful storytelling in many ways, but the deliberate omission of foundational beliefs, of foundational ideology, and the kind of core tenets of how the Black Panthers and why the Black Panthers were founded and how they operated in terms of their politics, right? Not just their strategies or their tactics or their challenges of their successes, but actually, their underlying politics, that is really completely erased, which is not only unfortunate, but it seems deliberate.
Adam: Yeah, so it’s a two-hour documentary that discusses anti-capitalism for about 25 seconds, and how they were dedicated to the dismantling of quote-unquote “global capitalism.” The documentary makes a reference to the Black Panther Party’s Ten-Point Program, but omits references to capitalism. The third point has been expressed in different ways, including, quote, “We want an end to the robbery by the capitalist of our Black and oppressed communities” and “We want an end to robbery by the white man of our Black community,” though the former is the official wording. The documentary includes the point multiple times, but omits the version that mentions capitalism at all. The documentary, of course, glosses over their communism; it never mentions “Marxism,” “Leninism,” “Maoism,” or any grammatical variants of those words.
Nima: Yeah. Communism does not appear in the documentary at all.
Adam: It spends far more time on their aesthetics. But again, to be a member of the Black Panthers of Chicago, you had to read twelve books, six of which were on or about Mao Zedong. I mean, this was a doctrinaire Maoist organization. I know it evolved later, I think by the ’70s it had become more of a democratic socialist organization, for want of a better term, and obviously, not every member of the Black Panthers was a commie for life. I know some of them have had different tendencies since then, of course.
Nima: Right. Sure.
Adam: But you’d watch it and you wouldn’t really know that that was the animating force of the ideology of the organization, especially as it was a response to the more civil rights focused black leadership of the early and mid-‘60s that was focusing on negative rights such as the right to vote, and the right to not be discriminated against and things like housing versus your more positive rights of economic redistribution, anti-imperialism, et cetera. The documentary also does not include, or relegates to the very end with no elaboration the Black Panthers’ points about free healthcare, ending wars of aggression, freedom for all Black and incarcerated people in the US, land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, peace and people’s community control of modern technology — this one is mentioned at the end, and it fades out. So again, a lot of good stuff in the documentary, but I watched it the whole time, and I was sort of curious if they would talk about where the Black Panthers fit into a kind of broader North American Communist group at the time, you know, you’re kind of Young Lords, and I was watching it sort of wanting where they fit into this kind of ideological current, but you watch it, and you think it’s purely seen as a kind of Black organization, per se, and, of course, they were explicitly were very much anti imperialist, and they did delegations to Cuba and North Korea, which the documentary briefly touches on, but doesn’t really go into detail about and that fits within a PBS framework, where we get the aesthetics, we get the kind of vague strokes of the politics, but it’s not part of a continuous political project and I find that interesting. Again, this is not a documentary that necessarily tries to put the Black Panther Party in the same corner as American experience, I mean, it’s not that bad, but it is part of a broader PBS trend of fear of isms, a fear that ideology is an animating force of radicals in history.
Nima: Now, this also happens not just in documentaries, and certainly not just in public broadcasting. So for instance, take the 2015 Roland Emmerich Hollywood movie Stonewall, which of course recounts the 1969 Stonewall uprising, and which was — the film that is — roundly criticized for centering a fictional white character and crediting him with throwing the first brick among many other glaring offenses in this film, but it’s notable for another form of revisionist history, and that’s this, that turning the Stonewall activists who were risking their lives to oppose police and state violence into — what else Adam? — US patriots. The trailer for the movie Stonewall opens with excerpts from multiple Obama speeches celebrating equality in the United States and specifically naming Stonewall. So again, this is a trailer for the Hollywood film Stonewall. Let’s take a listen.
Obama: Our nation was founded on a bedrock principle that we are all created equal. Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall. Ordinary people can do extraordinary things.
Man: I have got you all figured out, you grew up in Kansas and Mama probably baked apple pie. Y’all everybody, this is Danny. Danny, welcome to New York.
Adam: Yeah, so Stonewall fits into this American tradition of rebellion. But not totally clear that people at Stonewall would have considered themselves part of this American tradition that wanted to chemically castrate them if they were arrested for homosexuality in a majority of states at the time. Which then leads us to our next pop culture product, which we’re gonna discuss in more detail with our guest, who wrote about it for The Nation, which is Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, which pretty much is this entire episode put into one movie. I know we talked about it once before when it first came out, so we won’t beat the horse to death, but this was a menagerie of shit with many various modes of shit to see. The Black Panther, Bobby Seale, totally stripped of any politics and just sort of hates the white man.
Nima: Well, I mean, it really does mute the radical politics of all of the defendants from as you said, Abbie Hoffman of the Yippies, Bobby Seale of the Black Panthers, Tom Hayden of Students for a Democratic Society, SDS, and other antiwar protesters. The film, Sorkin’s script really, relies largely on the aesthetics of protests, right? The idea, the conception that we have been fed over the past decades about what the ’80s were — riots, teargas, police, without interrogating the underlying forces that the protestors were protesting, namely the imperialism of the Vietnam War, which was going on without end, and so the movie also, as is Sorkin’s frequent want, who uses the characters as proxies for Sorkin’s own politics. The characters view elections as the supreme expression of democracy in the United States, they’ve reached their most enlightened states finally, when they reject hippie or more radical revolutionary politics and realize rather the importance of channeling their political passions into — what else? — the democratic process of voting. So Tom Hayden, for example, goes on an anti-hippie rant against Abbie Hoffman at one point in the film. Let’s take a listen to that.
Tom Hayden: No more war, no more Abbie Hoffman.
Abbie Hoffman: What’s your problem with me Hayden?
Tom Hayden: I really wish people would stop asking me that question.
Abbie Hoffman: Dave wouldn’t want us to stop. That’s right. One time.
Tom Hayden: All right. My problem is that for the next 50 years, when people think of progressive politics, they’re gonna think of you, they’re going to think of you and your idiot followers passing out daisies to soldiers and trying to levitate the Pentagon. So they’re not going to think of equality or justice. They’re not going to think of education or poverty or progress, they’re going to think of a bunch of stoned, lost, disrespectful, foul-mouthed, lawless losers, and so we’ll lose elections.
Abbie Hoffman: All because of me.
Tom Hayden: Yeah.
Abbie Hoffman: And winning elections, that’s the first thing on your wishlist. Equality, justice, education, poverty and progress, they’re second.
Tom Hayden: If you don’t win elections, it doesn’t matter what’s second, and it is astonishing to me that someone still has to explain that to you.
Abbie Hoffman: Okay.
Adam: Oh, my God, winning elections. That’s such a great, pat, liberal, smug thing to say as if it’s the only mode of change.
Nima: That’s right. Yes, yes, equality and justice are fine —
Adam: But they don’t matter if you don’t win.
Nima: You can’t get there without winning elections.
Adam: But by that logic, if the goal is just to win regardless of ideological input, then isn’t Republicans winning a good thing then? Like what does that mean? I don’t know. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense. Towards the end of the movie, Abbie Hoffman has a moment of triumph where he recognizes that voting is in fact revolutionary and he extols the virtues of US electoralism.
William Kunstler: So how do you overthrow or dismember, as you say, your government peacefully?
Abbie Hoffman: In this country we do it every four years.
William Kunstler: That’s all?
Richard Schultz: So Chicago was just a massive voter registration drive?
Abbie Hoffman: Yeah.
Richard Schultz: Did you hear the tape we played in court and Tom Hayden at the bandshell? Yes, you heard the tech.
Abbie Hoffman: Yes.
Richard Schultz: And did you hear Mr. Hayden give an instruction to his people to take to the streets?
Abbie Hoffman: His people? Hayden’s not a mafia don and neither am I.
Richard Schultz: Did you hear him say if blood is going to flow let it flow all over the city?
Abbie Hoffman: The beginning of that sentence was supposed to be… yes, yes, I did.
Richard Schultz: What did you think of that?
Abbie Hoffman: I think Tom Hayden is a badass if an American patriot.
Adam: Right so everything fits in this milieu of patriotism and Americana and voting every four years. Of course, they didn’t say any of this at the trial, you can read the transcripts. It’s all bullshit.
Nima: No, right.
Adam: So of course, there’s also a lot of pleas from liberal and center left corners of recapturing American patriotism in the wake of the rise of the alt right and Trump. There’s this idea that we need to combat it with American patriotism. So in 2016, in July, Robert Reich wrote an article called, “Inclusion: A value to celebrate on the 4th,” where he argues for a progressive patriotism.
Nima: Now, of course, this was during the first presidential run of Donald Trump, right? And so there was this idea that, this is what Reich wrote, quote, “Inclusive patriotism instructs us to join together for the common good,” end quote, and so there’s this idea that we have to reclaim something together because the Trumpists are going to take it away.
Adam: Last year, the president of the Ford Foundation, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, Darren Walker, wrote an op-ed entitled, “Inclusion is patriotism of the highest order.” In which he wrote, quote:
…the American story we should celebrate this Fourth of July is one of expanding representation — however slowly, unevenly, and imperfectly. It’s the story of a small circle of White, property-owning men in Philadelphia that, generation by generation, continues to grow wider, precisely because of the patriotic struggle and sacrifice of the people who were once excluded — above all, Black and brown people, and women.
Sounds very warm and fuzzy, but doesn’t really make a ton of sense if you think about it. Increasingly, Noah Smith and Matt Yglesias have been arguing to effectively combat critical race theory with a form of liberal patriotism. This is the John Kerry campaign of 2004, we’re going to kind of out Patriot the far right, with a fundamental epistemological category error that the right doesn’t view patriotism as some kind of American project, but in fact, a white supremacist ideology, they have a more correct understanding of what it has been historically than liberals seem to have, and Noah Smith basically makes the argument that everybody involved in this American project from the slave owner to the slave to the colonizer to the colonized to the genocided and the genocider, are all part of America.
Adam: And here’s the general argument I think we’re making, which is from a media, pop culture, kind of ideological conditioning perspective, it’s a very curious instinct, because you want to create national unity, and that maybe can be benign, but most of the time it’s not. But my basic argument is that who cares? History is developed in parallel, the history of slaves in this country exists in distinct parallel from the history of slave owners for very good reason. Just as the histories of post-1948 Palestine, they have different converging histories of Palestinians and Israeli settlers or Israeli or Zionist militias, right? They have different histories. We would not say they’re all part of some unified Israeli history necessarily, that wouldn’t really make a lot of sense. And there’s something vulgar and impish and childish about wanting to kind of retcon the peoples who were oppressed by the power structure of the United States in its most axiomatic way from the, you know, creation of the Senate to the Constitution to the sort of 3/5ths.
Nima: Well, and therefore calling everyone a true patriot, right?
Nima: Everyone from fucking Geronimo to Muhammad Ali is an American patriot in this retconned history.
Adam: And I said this to Matt Yglesias when he was making this argument on Twitter I said, well, but this isn’t really true. People that Noah Smith is listing aren’t really patriots or rather part of some Americana and it’s a bastardization of history. There’s something to be said for the truth, and he’s like, ‘No, you know, people need civic myths.’ He knows it’s bullshit. A lot of these people know it’s bullshit, and this is a criticism we’ve leveled against Ken Burns a lot. If you hear conversions when he made his Vietnam documentary, which we didn’t have time to go into, but suffers from many of these tropes, my God, he’ll say, ‘My goal from making this documentary was to heal the wounds of Vietnam. Healing wounds is not an artistic or intellectual objective, it’s a political one, and once your goal is to heal wounds, which is say ameliorate cognitive dissidence, make people feel good, which is why you get praised by George Will, John McCain — John McCain, himself, you know, carpet bombed villages — then you’re not really doing history you’re doing propaganda, for want of a better term.
Nima: Or you’re doing politics.
Adam: Well, you’re doing political history with a specific political agenda, which is fine, you know, a lot of history can have political agendas, but you should be honest about that and not launder it through this kind of touchy-feel-good language about healing and unity and civic togetherness. Because here’s the deal, I don’t necessarily think it’s, I don’t necessarily think it’s inherently valid, you know, obviously, we you know, I don’t expect PBS to release documentaries, like Maoism Third Worldism where you spell America with three k’s and burn the American flag or whatever. I understand they’re not going to do that by definition. But this is like talking to a child about the necessity of believing in Santa Claus. There doesn’t need to be some great noble national project, and presumably adults can handle that, right? I can live in a world where there isn’t some providence, some moral arc of history where the US kind of has this place in history. Dozens of countries don’t have that and they get along just fine. I know a lot do to some extent or the other, but a lot of them don’t have it, and they kind of live their lives. And again, I know other countries have foundation myths. I know we’re not alone, but I think ours has a degree of civic religion, and it’s so ingrained in people’s brains that the thought of not having this kind of quote-unquote “patriotic history” offends people. ‘What do you mean?’ It is all the liberal version of CRT, right? And it just seems like to me that we should just be adults and understand that there is no providence, there’s no destiny, there’s no sense that any of this was going to be inherently American and that if there are parallel histories with parallel people, that that’s okay. That doesn’t have to fall under some broad rubric of the American experience.
Nima: To talk about this more, we’re now going to speak with Charlotte Rosen, an abolitionist organizer and PhD candidate in history at Northwestern University, she specializes in post-1960s US political history and the history of the American carceral state. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Belt Magazine, The Nation and Truthout. We’ll talk to Charlotte in just a moment. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by Charlotte Rosen. Charlotte, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Charlotte Rosen: Great. Yeah, it’s a pleasure.
Adam: I sort of want to begin by talking about your piece on Aaron Sorkin’s grotesque butchering of the 1960s radical left’s politics in his Chicago 7 on Netflix film from 2020, which I think touched on many of the themes we’re talking about. The Yippies love cops, Black Panthers have no discernable ideology, they’re sort of just vaguely mad at the white man, everybody talks like screenwriters, which I suppose more of an aesthetic than an ideological critique, but I’m going to throw it in there anyway, state prosecutors really love justice, the system is fundamentally good, there’s just some bad apples, which I believe is basically a paraphrase of the Sacha Baron Cohen, who says, which is totally again, as you mentioned, totally not at all real. Everything’s kind of jammed into this kind of Brookings Institute model of change.
Charlotte Rosen: Totally.
Adam: I want to talk about why that’s bad, because I think some people, they’ll hear that, of course, we spent the better part of 45 minutes now talking about this in the intro, so I think we’ve made our case, but some people think, ‘Oh, well, it’s just a movie or it’s just this,’ I want to talk about why these kind of both pop documentaries, pop films, why the white Washington radicals, what are the sort of stakes of it, and specifically, how much did Aaron Sorkin butcher the ‘60s?
Charlotte Rosen: Yeah, so essentially, this movie took what I think is actually kind of a really fruitful prism for understanding both the revolutionary politics of the late ’60s era radicals and also for interrogating kind of the structurally racist counterinsurgent, oppressive politics of law enforcement. Somehow Sorkin managed to twist that into a story, as you say, about kind of the virtues of liberal reform and of the American carceral state, of course of politics that the real Chicago Seven would have roundly rebuked, and they certainly did at the time. And I think then also the film, it’s also been twisted to sort of offer subtle, or maybe even not so subtle at some parts of the film, denigration of leftist politics more broadly as unserious and doomed to fail, and so in this way, I don’t think that it’s overstating it to say that the film is kind of a counter insurgent propaganda piece that aims to shore up the legitimacy of liberal democracy and limit the horizons of radical social movements at a time, when especially thinking of when this film came out in late 2020, you know, at a time when liberal reform has and is continuing to come under particular scrutiny for its facilitation of racist state violence and mass organized abandonment, and I think, just to get into more detail about sort of how this film does this, the primary message from the film is that those on the left are unserious, they’re childish, and extreme, and must be dismissed, right? So best case scenario, they’re just idealist, pie-in-the-sky, way in over their head, right? That’s kind of one variant of it, or as in the case of mostly the presentation of the Yippies, they are just total lunatics, just have no real political values or commitments, just interested in getting high and having sex, et cetera, or when there is a kind of perhaps attempt by Sorkin to sort of valorize members of the Chicago Seven, it’s only then in these moments where he’s like, very dramatically rewritten their stories and their politics to be sheared, again, of these more sort of oppositional ideas and to sort of be oddly deferential to American institutions and the rule of law. So the way I was thinking about this in the piece, and the way I really interpret the film is it’s both of these, they seem sort of like they’re in opposition, like the left is either totally nutzo or it’s to be valorized. But I think that it’s the particular way that he sets up these two interpretations that ultimately are in service of containing the political energies of the time, of this both in terms of outrage about COVID-19, and also against racist policing into sort of a more kind of friendly, safer framework that is advocating for incremental reform, right? Working within the system, not too much fundamentally changing, if anything, all we need to do is remove a couple of bad apples, which I think a judge is meant to be a quintessential bad apple. So, yeah.
Adam: There’s one part in particular, where he does this kind of, I think it’s by far the most cynical part of the movie where Aaron Sorkin ventriloquizes Bobby Seale, criticizing the white leftist as being frivolous and unserious because for them the stakes aren’t very high.
Charlotte Rosen: Right.
Adam: That if they fail, they go home to their rich daddy, which again, not really true, again, many middle-class white kids were being drafted in Vietnam. I haven’t read everything Bobby Seale wrote, but that’s kind of like a 2020, that’s like a Hillary Clinton voter thing to say. It’s kind of a frivolous observation that was clearly just Sorkin being mad at Ocasio-Cortez and others, you know, he rants against the left quite often in public. So it’s not like there isn’t a, it’s just clearly him talking but he needs a Black puppet to speak his opinion about who he views as being unserious left, who he sort of diminishes as being white even though, again, he only inserts minority characters when there’s literal protest. But I thought that was a more craven example of this where it’s like not only are we going to make the Black Panthers this kind of mindless apolitical entity, but also we’re going to make them 2016 white Clinton voters.
Charlotte Rosen: Right, and I think in general, just the way that he rewrites a lot of the defendant’s politics in general is just so, not only just totally fabricated and historically inaccurate, but again, I think kind of serves particular ends. Not to say that Abbie Hoffman and Tom Hayden didn’t have any kind of points of disagreement, but I think there’s just a major rewriting of them being on these sort of opposing poles and Tom Hayden being much more of an incrementalist reformist, really concerned about how people down the line are going to remember the left as being unserious Yippies, et cetera, and I think, again, it’s Sorkin’s way of trying to kind of position two types of progressive politics and really sort of feature one as being more appropriate, the proper way to go about things, right? It’s interesting because even at the end, where you could argue, you know, Tom Hayden, has this moment of perhaps finally embracing of more radical disruptive politics where he’s reading out, you know, the names of the war dead, even then though that moment can’t really be coded as a full embrace of radical politics, because we have the prosecutor Schultz standing up and paying his respects.
Adam: I literally yelled at the screen and you know another thing another thing, they omitted the part where they read off the names of the Vietnamese who died, Sorkin made it so it was just American soldiers, but in reality, they read off both American soldiers and Vietnamese who had died.
Charlotte Rosen: Yep.
Adam: So even that right there, every single fucking layer.
Nima: If you read the actual court transcripts, which you can do, right, and then you look at what the Sorkinized version of it is, I mean, you truly realize what he was doing, and it’s this, you know, simultaneous making the kind of most clownish version of the ’60s, while also completely dulling it.
Charlotte Rosen: Yeah.
Nima: So it’s both hyper caricature, while also making it meaningless, you know, and we note that this is part of a broader ideological tradition. Sometimes it’s explicit as an Aaron Sorkin script or a Ken Burns documentary, but there’s this goal effectively to position all the history that has taken place on this land as some sort of capital ‘T’ Truly capital ‘A’ American political project, this political goal necessarily requires, for lack of a better term, lying about real history. What would you say are some of the downsides to this whitewashing? How does it deliberately mislead the public about the nature of real class and racial and social justice and conflict, of course, and ultimately, what forces those in power to potentially — hopefully, eventually, immediately — change things for maybe the modestly better?
Charlotte Rosen: Yeah, no, I mean, in some ways, it’s like where to begin, but I guess, you know, sort of the most, perhaps direct way to put it and the way that I think about it is that this whitewashing tendency props up and then helps to justify the continuation of contemporary racialized state violence, unequal political and economic conditions, both by, you know, on the one hand, downplaying the history of the presence of massive amounts of state sanctioned inequality, and then also presenting this trajectory of US history as some kind of providential march towards progress, and so I think this presentation then, right, this tendency feeds a common sense about then what is or is not possible or even perhaps what is or is not proper for bringing about social change. So it’s like by omitting or perhaps rewriting the actual histories of anti-Black racism, xenophobia, patriarchy, class struggle in the US, viewers are then encouraged to see contemporary incidents of injustice or violence as mere aberrations within sort of a fundamentally moral or progressively moving US liberal democracy. So in some ways, it’s like if the history were accurately portrayed, right, the broader public would actually then see how all these dynamics are, in fact, historical, they’re systemic, they’re embedded in US institutions, are more often than not durable, right, against even kind of progressive seeming interventions, such as I mean, the passage of civil rights laws is an easy one to interrogate, which then might lead viewers to sort of conclude that these inequalities, these power dynamics can only be eliminated through radical overthrow, radical revolutionary struggle.
Charlotte Rosen: So I think it’s essentially sort of like a reformist message that, you know, change, ultimately, institutions are good, the US state is good or maybe it was once bad but it has now become good, and so all that is needed, right, are sort of incremental reforms.
Nima: Right. The project itself is noble, the stewards can be at times problematic, you know, in the case of the Chicago Seven film, I mean, these are the words effectively that Sorkin puts into Abbie Hoffman’s mouth, right? ‘I love democracy, it’s just that’ —
Charlotte Rosen: So strange.
Nima: ‘I don’t like Nixon.’ It’s like, that’s not the issue here.
Adam: Yeah, ‘They’re good institutions,’ and I watched that and I was like, did I misread Abbie Hoffman? Yeah, it’s the, you know, I think the stakes couldn’t be higher, because it’s the old adage, you know, he who controls the past controls the future, he who controls the present controls the past.
Charlotte Rosen: Yeah.
Adam: Obviously, ideological reproduction — if you’re listening to the show, I’m sure it’s a concept you’ve heard of — that informs the horizons of what’s possible. That’s really what really pisses me off because when you, people naturally look towards heroes, we look towards hero narratives, we look towards struggles and if you remove all the ideology, and all the true radicalism, and again, even though that can be sometimes messy, or it can go down a path that we may not necessarily think is the right path —
Charlotte Rosen: Totally.
Adam: It fits it into this kind of squishy liberalism, by definition, most people are going to believe that that’s the correct avenue for change. And so to me, the most glaring and most cartoonishly offensive version of this, what is typically a posthumous conscription into liberal, into liberal Americana, is what we do to Indigenous people and Indigenous heroes. We’ve spent a lot of time at the top of the show talking about this, that all Indigenous people in North America are part of this American experience, that they’re called the First Americans.
Nima: Proto American.
Charlotte Rosen: Right.
Adam: We discussed several groups who would reject the label American, at the top of the show, this kind of Americana would probably be rejected by many of the people we’ve talked about so far, but even setting aside ideology just as a sort of people or a nation, this is the most offensive version, but we get it all the time, and unlike a lot of examples we’re talking about today, this is ongoing. I want you to touch on this kind of unified theory of American history that decides that the people, the white settlers genocided, have then been revised into this, ‘Oh, actually, no, no, they’re part of this Americana.’ Well, I don’t think most of them would agree with that.
Charlotte Rosen: Right, somehow.
Adam: Yeah. This is like Santa Claus shit.
Nima: They’re essential to it.
Charlotte Rosen: Right. Yeah, no, this is a great question, and I think, you know, I’d want to say off the top that everything I’m going to say here is stuff that I’ve, you know, learned from Indigenous historians, who have done a lot of really important work to write this narrative. I don’t think that it fully punctured the pop historian, liberal pop historian realm, probably for, you know, reasons that we can all guess. But yeah, I think there’s sort of a lot of things going on here. So on the one hand, there’s perhaps an attempt by these liberal pop historians, to not play into a sort of standard racist settler colonial narrative that Native people were primitive and culturally backwards, and they were justifiably conquered by divinely entitled white European settlers, right, they don’t want to do that. But in sort of awkwardly then sort of reasserting them as sort of part of this American experience or project or however you want to think about it, they still often sort of present Native people as historically and culturally static, as sort of frozen in time, largely acted upon by white settlers or the forces of modernity, which then of course, you know, erases not only the sort of fact of the US’ foundations in settler colonialism and the genocide of Native people, but also just kind of a racist, like the vast histories of Native knowledge production, social political organization and struggle against colonists. So there’s a sort of way in which even in their sort of, I guess, attempt at liberal inclusion, they continue to sort of present Native people as intellectually, culturally two-dimensional, and also position white modernity as kind of the center pinnacle of the American experience. And I think there’s another really problematic dynamic here and one that I think arguably also is something that even historians of the left in the US or social movements haven’t fully contended with, but there’s also complete erasure of Native people from specifically 20th century US history, right? So the there’s an implication that Native people have been so kind of thoroughly conquered or marginalized, that they like no longer feature prominently in the American experience or when they do, they’re sort of understood through this framework of liberal inclusion where Native people are struggling to gain rights and recognition in the same way that Black and Latinx communities and other marginalized communities have, and this is really problematic, right? Because Native people on the one hand, you know, it’s just important to sort of state, they’ve long theorized and continue to theorize the United States as a colony, it’s not like they don’t view it necessarily as a legitimate nation, and whose foundations are based upon the elimination of Indigenous people. I mean, you know, Indigenous tribes today are still fighting to protect and expand tribal sovereignty, and even this is, again, I’m putting on my sort of like US History hat, but even when Native people were granted citizenship, in 1924, and began to fight for the US armed forces, historians have shown that their contact with other colonized people abroad actually deepened their Native nationalism and propelled Indigenous resistance to anti-Native policymaking at home, and this is, again, something that no one really talks about, but especially as the Bureau of Indian Affairs attempted to force the relocation of Native people to urban centers, and to terminate tribal recognition, literally attempting to revoke their tribal charters enshrined in the Indian Reorganization Act that protected Native sovereignty. So again, I think the point I’m just trying to get at here is that Native people don’t theorize themselves as part of an American experience, or kind of a part of the fabric of the American political project.
Adam: Yeah, because it seems like a good rule of thumb is you should give people the American label to the extent to which they themselves embrace it.
Charlotte Rosen: Right.
Adam: So there are there are progressive movements, like we talked about at the top of show, some progressive social movements, certain elements of the civil rights movement, who did embrace the American and so that’s fine, but it seems like pretty sure that most of these people did not, you know, to the extent to which they’re even given an identity rather than spoken in broad strokes, they weren’t going around saying, ‘Yeah, I’m the First American.’ It’s like, no, I don’t know, that doesn’t seem like, that seems like something —
Nima: Well, that’s why it’s amazing to me when, you know, Time magazine put out a list of the 20 most influential Americans or the 20 best Americans, right? And Sitting Bull is on there, and it’s like, ah, you know, sure?
Charlotte Rosen: Yeah, right.
Adam: Yeah, your hearts are in the right place, but you can’t just make them part of a liberal project.
Nima: I know what you’re trying to do, but I don’t think that really works, right? It’s like, oh, well, where we’ve come to now is, that was all history, that was all, prelude to the now which is inclusive and diverse, and now we just have to move from this point forward, which makes everyone sort of responsible for getting us here. Everyone’s responsible for getting us here. The good and the bad.
Charlotte Rosen: Yeah, makes no sense.
Nima: And I think that that’s where this kind of changing, deliberate, rewriting, recasting of history is so important to this project, so that no one feels bad starting today.
Charlotte Rosen: Right. Absolutely. And yeah, I think it’s very much it’s what comes to mind is something that Patrick Wolfe has written about settler colonialism where, you know, it’s a structure, not an event, and I think what we’re talking about is sort of this attempt to kind of make Native history an event and make settler colonialism an event and not something that is sort of ongoing, that continues to structure US political institutions, and certainly the kind of structure of law enforcement in this country. So yeah, absolutely.
Nima: So what we find to be like an allergy to ideology, and the naming of ideology in a lot of these historical products, like if pop histories on PBS, NPR, a lot of Hollywood products, is to be believed, then radicals throughout history never really had any strong beliefs. They had no organized structures to how they develop their theories, their labels, their categories of thinking, they were just all vaguely pissed off and so it’s not a sectarian omission either. It includes anarchists, communists, socialists, syndicalists, like all the isms are erased from history, you just have an ideological amorphous blob lobbying for some vague quote-unquote “change,” which you also note Charlotte, in your Nation peace, let’s dismantle all the bad things in all of its quote-unquote “forms.” So radical union, syndicalism, and anarchism, Black Panther communism, Mother Jones’s socialism, they’re just completely omitted. So why do you think pop historians and filmmakers are so terrified of these kinds of labels? Why don’t we refer to people by the actual ideologies that they espoused, that they themselves deeply, deeply embraced?
Charlotte Rosen: Yeah, no, it’s a great question. I mean, I think probably first off fundamentally, many of these pop historians just simply don’t care, you know, just sort of dig deep into these histories. But I think on a deeper level, I think that they don’t go into specifics because they don’t want to actually sort of have to contend with this sort of very compelling ideas, whether that’s calls for full employment, free breakfast programs for children or, you know, an end to US imperialism abroad, that these various kind of movements and sectors and strains of the left, theorize and popularized. In some ways, if they were to actually be historically accurate and specific about the actual demands and ideologies of these groups, their films might actually turn into sort of Marxist propaganda, right, which is what they certainly don’t want to do. So I think that by kind of avoiding labels and kind of just lumping everyone together in broad strokes, suggesting that they’re just kind of angry, and maybe anti-authoritarian kind of broadly conceived, this then allows liberal pop historians to kind of present radical politics, right, as simplistic, two dimensional, either, perhaps in the best light, it’s sort of overly idealistic, they’re just having grown up and joined the adults in the room yet, or, you know, too extreme and dangerous and not properly thought out, et cetera. So it really kind of allows them to suggest that radicals, broadly conceived, no matter what sector of radical they’re speaking about, they don’t have any solutions, they’re not a part of the real world, and of course, they mean, of course, like a liberal technocratic sort of West Wing type world that Sorkin is so committed to, they don’t really understand how that works. So it really allows them to communicate to their viewers that radical leftist ideas. no matter how enticing they may seem, they’re never sophisticated enough to replace what is presumed to be sort of a morally pure, well intentioned US liberal democracy.
Adam: Yeah, because one of the reasons for this, this sort of, I think, the most benign reason, historically, at least, although I think this is a small percentage, Robin D.G. Kelley, in his book, when he did press for Hammer and Hoe, he talked about, one of the reasons why the communist history of Black organizing wasn’t raised is because of McCarthyism and the association of communism that had that civil rights leaders had to sort of shed that for pragmatic reasons historically, and then that morphed into a kind of collective anti-communist ideology kind of bipartisanship, where we were going to sort of memory-hole any positive contributions that communists had made in any context, that it had a kind of, for a lot of Black leaders had a sort of pragmatic survival system to it. So I, I kind of understand that, but just seems like it’s been 30 years since the fall of the Soviet Union, we can all kind of stop acting like —
Charlotte Rosen: It’s a dirty word.
Adam: Or these movements emerged, kind of, because one of the sort of excuses they’ll make is like, ‘Oh, they used ideology as a tool, but they didn’t really believe it,’ and it’s like, you read the IWW newspaper, and you’re like, oh, no, these people like absolutely view themselves as either anarchist or socialist, depending on whatever, you know, whatever their tendency was at the time, and I know that that changes, but it’s such a rich part of how they view the world. There’s obviously a lot of reading of various radical thinkers and all that just gets flattened and we talked about at the top of the show, there’s this PBS documentary on the West Virginia Mine Wars in which they reference, they said, ‘Mother Jones was heavily, you know, the only ideological antecedent to her worldview was Victor Hugo,’ And I’m like, okay, or they didn’t say that was the only one, it was the only one they mentioned, and I’m like, okay, come on.
Charlotte Rosen: Right.
Adam: You know, everything has to fit within a very specific kind of liberal milieu in a way that it makes it all so boring. There’s not any kind of, because so many of these people were deeply, deeply ideological. If you read Elizabeth Gurley Flynn’s autobiography, which at that point, I think she was just a full on commie at that point, but so much of how they viewed the world was through a kind of very romantic vision of ideology that they really believed because I think people the last 30 years, and if history, they can’t really view a revolution happening in this country, so it seems like an abstraction, you know, it’s so cliche, it’s, it’s easier to envision the end of the world than the end of capitalism, but a lot of these people up until probably the ’70s or ’80s, they really, really, really, really, and the Chicago Seven too, they really, really thought that they were on the verge of revolution, you know, 1968, you had Mexico and Paris, France were basically crippled by student protests, they were this close to an actual revolution, obviously, and like, you know, you had the Industrial Workers of the World, you had this, you know, when the Soviet Union or when the Bolsheviks won in 1917, it really scared, you know, there was this real romantic sense that these ideologies were going to manifest as governing forces of the world and when you sort of strip that out, and you take away that romantic vision, I’m not sure what’s left other than kind of dates and names and kind of accidents of history and the kind of great man theory that there’s this sort of abstract individuals. You know what I mean?
Charlotte Rosen: No, absolutely. It’s funny, you bring up kind of the argument around anti-communism and McCarthy because I almost said that, I almost kind of offered that as a thought, because I think you’re totally on point about sort of how the destruction of the popular front during World War Two in the wake of McCarthyism and the kind of excision of radical politics from the left and what comes out of that is a sort of, perhaps, at least if not, I think there were some people who were just like, I am a liberal and I am committed to this project, but maybe even among people that sort of had more radical tendencies, there’s a sense of sort of needing to edge away from ideology, to edge away from the most radical forms of expressing their beliefs about broader US inequality, et cetera, et cetera. But I think you’re totally right that it’s even a cursory look at sort of even what Abbie Hoffman is saying during this time, which I think, you know, Abbie Hoffman in this film and even just more broadly in how people talk about the Yippies there is sort of a caricature, right? There’s a sense of they just want to get high like he loved drugs, I mean, he did love drugs, he did, you know, all of this is true, right? He was and certainly the Yippies were fond of theatrics, and have a certain kind of absurdist political theater, but at the same time they were dead serious about kind of their critiques of US imperialism, of the theorizing of certainly what was happening in the courtroom, but also more broadly kind of tendencies in US laws and law enforcement of being fascistic, and I think it’s, you know, this also makes me think of, even how they handle Bobby Seale in the film, and when he’s bound and gagged, I mean, first of all, that actually happened for much longer so that’s kind of one sort of erasure of sort of just that kind of limits the scope of how horrific incident was, but even more broadly from that, it’s like instead of being prompted to think about how that incident, although perhaps a little bit extreme, I’m not saying that was happening in every courtroom, but it was sort of indicative of a broader racism embedded into the criminal punishment system, that actually the Chicago Seven defendants were making at the time, many of them in their final statements before they were being sentenced were talking about how, you know, Black people all over the country are being thrown into prison in these courtrooms and there’s no press corps there to see it, right? They were the ones actually making those connections, and yet, we get none of that in the film, that is just totally excised and not even considered to be relevant to the story.
Nima: Yeah, I mean, I think that, you know, one of the most kind of obvious examples of this stripping away of ideology is what we see year after year with Martin Luther King Day, or every single fucking day with Martin Luther King, right? This idea that the FBI can tweet out their praise.
Charlotte Rosen: Yeah.
Adam: It’s become an annual ritual now for them to do that and everyone spend all day making fun of it to the point now, I’m pretty sure they’re fucking with us.
Charlotte Rosen: Yeah.
Nima: You know, but there really is something there, this idea of, you know, turning real people who are part of real movements, to then turn someone into an individual icon and strip away everything that is inconvenient, which is why you hear only ‘I have a dream’ and not like the ‘US government is a greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.’ You don’t hear Dr. King saying, ‘White Americans must recognize that justice for Black people can not be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society,’ because that won’t comport with this and so what part of this do you think also has to do with the deliberate extraction of individual heroes turned celebrities from movements, to focus on effectively what is always going to then be an individualized hero’s journey, as opposed to system wide movement building that is based on community and not singular individual?
Charlotte Rosen: Yeah, that’s an interesting question, I think about it in a couple of ways. I mean, I think on the one hand, what comes to mind, in particular, you know, as it pertains to, perhaps this film, is, it’s an interesting, I mean, I understand why they took up the trial as sort of the focal point, but to your point about sort of what then gets erased through kind of an analysis of these particular figures, and then being positioned as the leaders is, you know, the extent of the actual protests themselves, and then the violence against protesters, right? So I think on the one hand, it’s like, we just miss actually sort of the extent of the repression, but then also, we get, as we kind of talked about this conversation as well, a sort of flattening of what they actually stand for, the actual and also in this film we get sort of no, or very little sense of the networks and the scope of the organizations in which these individuals were attached to, or even the scope of their politics, right? I mean, even and also, this has to do with, I think how, for example, STS and Tom Hayden a sort of whitewash, you know, STS, not saying they were perfect, not saying that, you know, there weren’t internal, you know, disagreements among these different groups, but they had very radical politics, and we’re, you know, oftentimes working in partnership with SNCC, and other organizations to sort of stand against racist oppression. So I think that part of the sort of hero narrative really kind of erases not just the networks, but also the points of solidarity, which of course is that is something that Sorkinites and those in power, wish to gloss over, in focusing on these sort of squabbles among leaders and the sort of individual character of the civil rights and radical leaders, we then sort of miss the actual points of solidarity and collaboration and the real sense of power, right? As you said, Adam, this was a moment where revolution was actually thought to kind of be a real possibility. I mean, I think too something that’s really present in this film, it’s kind of the flip side, where the sort of individualizing approach, I guess, to the story, then also has the effect of, again, when we are prompted by Sorkin to think about who was the bad actor here or bad actors, it’s an individual person, right? It’s an it’s an individual judge or perhaps even Foran, the other prosecutor, who are bad people, who have racist ideologies, who have perverted morals, and that then that sort of individualizing move, which is sort of central to liberalism and liberal law and order certainly, then kind of serves to obscure that it’s not these individual people it’s a whole system that kind of structures and operates to uphold racial capitalism.
Adam: Yeah, because I mean, when it’s not just the erasure of ideologies, as well it’s the erasure of tactics and with every kind of, quote-unquote “peaceful” civil rights leader that we herald, for want of a better term, there’s a good cop/bad cop. There’s also parallel violence, there was obviously, you know, riots in cities in the ’60s, almost once a month, you had more militant organized Black groups emerge in ‘65-‘66, after the failures of the purely kind of civil rights laws of ’64 and ’65. Obviously, when people venerate Gandhi, they forget about the violent elements of anti-colonial struggle as well, this happens over and over and over again. So what we do is we sort of pick the one, and with the labor movement, right, we spent a long time criticizing this NPR Labor Day, I wrote about with Sarah, about, you know, if you read it, you would think it was just kind of liberal Protestants in the FDR administration pushing along these changes. But of course, without these huge strikes and shutdowns and steel workers, you know, shutting down 30,000 people shutting down entire trucking and steel industries and all this other stuff none of the reforms would have any, they would have no political urgency.
Charlotte Rosen: Yeah.
Adam: And so we just get the one side, the kind of liberal reformer, who I, you know, to be fair, I think in certain contexts can be very useful and be good. I don’t think they’re all just a bunch of squeamish cops, although a lot of them are, but if it’s like sort of good reform or if it’s motivated by people with good motives and good politics, it can work in concert with one another, but of course, we only really get one side of the equation, we get the kind of nice guys in suits version without understanding that without the pressure from below, to use a term I hesitate to use, then there’s not really much political will to do shit anyway.
Charlotte Rosen: To me, it’s like there really isn’t. If you look at the history of the Chicago Seven, and looking at kind of assessing the politics of the defendants at the time in which they were on trial, there isn’t really a reformer, you know, that’s what’s so funny about it is he sort of had to actually work hard to insert narratives of reform, you know?
Adam: Well, he made 1967 Tom Hayden, 2017 Tom Hayden, 2016 Hillary Clinton supporter Tom Hayden.
Charlotte Rosen: Totally. Right. No and that’s a story to be told, right? But it just glosses over the actual kind of, I mean, he was a rabble rouser, he was the one riling people up, you know, while they were on trial, et cetera. So yeah, it’s just funny to me how he actually had to work really hard to make this story fit his kind of standard, you know, veneration of liberal democracy that is, you know, his bread and butter.
Nima: Right. To make everyone then stand up and salute at the end of it.
Charlotte Rosen: Right, yeah.
Nima: Right? That’s the end point of every Sorkin script, you’re supposed to slowly rise —
Adam: You have to honor the troops. Yeah.
Charlotte Rosen: Right. Or the fabricated FBI agent, who when she’s put on trial is somehow not going to sell out, sell out the defendants to the judge.
Adam: The nonexistent cop.
Charlotte Rosen: Yeah, I’m like, are you sure? I don’t know. Yeah.
Adam: The noble prosecutor was unbelievable, but the noble cop was, ‘I’ve been working COINTELPRO for five years. I’ve been planting drugs on Martin Luther King, but you know what? This is too far.’
Charlotte Rosen: Yeah.
Nima: ‘This is too much.’
Charlotte Rosen: Oh, my God.
Nima: He seemed really sweet.
Charlotte Rosen: This is my line. Totally.
Nima: Well, Charlotte, before we let you go, can you let us know what you are up to these days? You know, I’m sure you’re busy, busy, busy. But tell us what you got going on and what people can look out for.
Charlotte Rosen: So really what I’m working on is my dissertation. So I don’t have too much to promote or boost other than I’ll just say you can follow me on Twitter. Is that kind of bogus? I don’t know. You can follow me on Twitter @CharlotteERosen, and yeah, I’m hoping to do some more public writing here and there. This was really great. Thank you so much for the opportunity.
Nima: I think that’s a good place to leave it. We have been speaking with Charlotte Rosen, an abolitionist organizer and PhD candidate in history at Northwestern University, specializing in post-1960s United States political history and the history of the US carceral state. Her work has appeared in various publications such as The Washington Post, Belt Magazine, The Nation and Truthout. Charlotte, thank you again so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Charlotte Rosen: Thank you.
Adam: Yeah, we, you know, we have a strict quota. There’s only so much Aaron Sorkin you can do on the show. He’s just so bad in such a specific way. It makes my blood boil and he somehow produces five movies a year now.
Nima: And what you mean is there’s only so much Aaron Sorkin that we’re going to do on this show.
Adam: Well, Aaron Sorkin is sort of cartoon version of a general ideological formulation and pop history and pop documentary making of this need, this urge, which I think is both an editorial top-down choice, but also I think, has sort of human, maybe a more psychological explanation, which is the need to turn things into grand narratives.
Nima: But also the need to be good.
Adam: Well, right.
Nima: Then this gets into like the CRT stupidness here, but the idea that critically or honestly interrogating history or strands of history movements throughout history, power dynamics throughout history, that doing so somehow sullies the nobility of the thing that you are a part of, that’s kind of a vague way of being like, you know, US history is pretty fucking bloody, it’s pretty fucking white supremacist, it’s pretty fucking genocidal, and not everyone needs to be working toward this Founding Father idea, the framers of patriotism, that it doesn’t have to be the same trajectory. Not everything has to be in service of this mythological American project.
Adam: Because we’re fucking adults. We don’t have to believe in Santa Claus.
Adam: That’s what makes the CRT panic so potent, it cuts to the sort of a bare core of who we are, and not just people work for the government, you know, the half a million people who work for the State Department or the Defense Department, the 50,000who work for the State Department, the 23,000 who work for the CIA, it’s sort of for them too, but it’s also just like, no, the average person they want to believe they’re part of a coherent political ideology, and I could find you ten sociologists and political scientists who don’t even believe, who agree with us in principle, who still say you need a national myth anyway, it’s important.
Adam: I mean, there are cynical, I mean, Matt Yglesias will tell you ‘Yeah, that’s bullshit. I don’t care.’ And I guess what I would argue is that there is actual, that there are huge political consequences to that lie, that it isn’t an honest lie, this isn’t like Miracle on 34th Street where you lie about Santa Claus. It’s not an innocent lie. Although we can debate whether or not that’s actually innocent — my wife and I have the debate all the time, I want to do Santa Claus, she doesn’t, long story — it’s not an innocent lie, that it actually has consequences, that if you narrow the horizons of what’s politically possible by rewriting radicals out of history, and making them all milquetoast incrementalists that you’re going to condition people to believe that that is the extent to which they have power.
Nima: But it also does so much other work, right? It kind of frames centrism as the only real coherent ideology. It winds up kind of absolving liberal guilt over these systemic issues that I think Democratic Party partisans as it were, or, you know, kind of your generic liberal is going to know that there are major problems and that there are historic problems, but at the end of the day, it comes down to — what? — what did fictional Aaron Sorkin Tom Hayden say? It comes down to fucking voting.
Adam: Which is fundamentally an endorsement of the process versus other forms of resistance.
Nima: Right, exactly. So it does that, it becomes electorialism, it becomes this kind of cathartic centrism, but what it also does simultaneously, which is so essential, Adam, is it makes protest and dissent, and this is actually something that our guest, Charlotte Rosen, wrote in her Nation piece, that we’ve been referencing, it serves to dismiss protest and dissent as powerful and viable, and part of a more radical revolutionary trajectory. So by whitewashing activists, by whitewashing people and movements and communities that have strong ideological underpinnings, that have a political and power analysis, when you completely omit that, and you’re like, these people were angry, or these people wanted dignity, or these people wanted less racism, without interrogating further the ideologies behind what motivated them to determine what their strategies and tactics were going to be, what world they were working toward ultimately, when you do that, you further marginalize the idea of dissent, you marginalize and discredit the idea of protest, because it just comes down to these whitewashed icons, these singular heroes who can work toward the betterment of society because of their great love of country, because ultimately, even though they have problems with the American project, at heart, they’re patriots.
Adam: Well, yeah, because everything has to circle back, you know, you can go on the rollercoaster of descent and talking about genocide, and this and the murdering of, you know, this and the horrors of slavery, but the rollercoaster always has to come back to where it started to drop you off, which is that fundamentally we’re good, and that’s what makes the CRT panic so potent.
Nima: You want us to be the best version of ourselves.
Adam: Because people have to believe they’re part of a project that’s fundamentally good. Whereas I don’t really see how it’s relevant or how it’s morally interesting. Because I don’t put a lot of, I don’t really see the point in attaching one’s identity to these arbitrary power structures that one happens to be born into. You should work for an idea, not an institution, and I think that that City on a Hill narrative that we’re fundamentally good, it’s such a fascinating concept, just from a purely psychological standpoint, we sort of need to have it. We have to have it. It’s not debatable. It’s non-negotiable. And so you watch a sanction, you know, 13,000 people a year die from Iran sanctions. 40,000 over two years from Venezuelan sanctions. We’re starving Afghanistan right now, Biden administration is ignoring even the fucking New York Times who’s begging them to release the funds to Afghanistan. Thousands of people are currently dying and will die this winter in Afghanistan because we took half of their government money, we sell weapons to Saudi Arabia, we sold two weapons packages to Egypt, which completely suppresses its population, we sell weapons to Israel, we do all these evil things, all these manifestly very clearly bad things overseas, and yet, we come back and say, ‘Oh, we’re actually human rights advocates. We care about human rights.’ Nobody believes this shit, but that’s the liberal version of the right-wing, CRT panic, which is you sort of have to believe in the city on a hill mythology in its various forms because if you don’t fundamentally believe that we’re the good guys versus the evil ChiComs and the evil Ruskies and the evil Venezuelans and the evil Iranians and the evil Hamas-ians, if you don’t believe that, then this whole fucking system doesn’t work. So we have to fundamentally come to that conclusion, which is why you have this cultural production that pumps out of things like Hollywood and PBS and NPR that sort of has to kind of ultimately reaffirm that, and again, I come back to this idea that adults should be able to face reality and if the reality is messy, and it makes us look bad, then that’s the reality we should face.
Nima: Well, I think that is a good place to leave it, fucking grow up people. That will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Thank you all for listening. Of course you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of the show through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support through Patreon is incredibly appreciated as we are 100 percent listener funded. And as always, a very special shout out goes to our critic level supporters on Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again, everyone, we’ll catch you next time.
This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, February 9, 2022.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.