Episode 168: How Faux Folksy “Real World” Advice is Employed to Limit Political Possibility and Punch Left

“Real world” exemplar Mike Rowe (right) chats with billionaire Charles Koch.

[Music]

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

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

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

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Nima: “Increasing Numbers of US Students Look for a ‘Real’ World,” read a 1965 headline from the magazine Moderator. “Academics: Get Real!,” the Harvard Business Review implored in 2009. “‘Defund the police’ runs into reality,” warned the Washington Post in 2021. “As Latin America Shifts Left, Leaders Face a Short Honeymoon,” declared the New York Times just this year.

Adam: Very frequently, we’re reminded that anyone who espouses some degree of left-wing politics — whether a student, activist, political leader, or anyone in between — is at odds with the quote-unquote “real world.” Academics, especially those in the humanities, sit in their ivory towers. Organizers and demonstrators against state violence, they have their heads in the clouds. Elected leaders campaigning on elevating living standards and creating social safety nets like universal healthcare, they just don’t know what they’re in for.

Nima: But who’s in charge of determining what’s ‘realistic’? Why is studying theory, fighting for better healthcare or working toward poverty reduction any less ‘real’ than plugging away at a spreadsheet for a weapons manufacturer or venture capital firm? And how did this pat and folksy concept of the “real world” emerge as a go-to dunk on eggheads and activists?

Adam: Today we’ll seek to answer these questions as we examine the canard that anyone to the left of a Goldman Sachs executive isn’t living in or contributing to the so-called “real world.”

Nima: Later on this episode, we’ll be joined by Bryan Quinby, host of Street Fight Radio.

[Begin Clip]

Bryan Quinby: We’ve been taught that history is like an objective truth, that the history we learn, you can learn history in an objective way, and I don’t even know if you can do that. But the real world makes it so, this real world narrative makes it so you learn a version of history in high school, if you don’t go to college, that’s the version of history you know, and you feel that that is an objective version of history, and that anybody else saying anything about it is wrong, and I think that really hamstrings people’s ability to even dream of something new.

[End Clip]

Adam: I’m excited to jump into this episode, we’ve talked about it for quite some time, if not years, this idea of the “real world” is this thing that I think universally everyone’s parents or boss, or some authority figure at some point, told them to live in.

[Begin Clip Montage]

Man #1: Pay first, then see what you’re getting. I don’t know, that logic doesn’t work in the real world, does it?

Man #2: Virtual version based on virtue signaling and virtually useless in the real world.

Man #3: They prepare them for challenges of the real world. And they don’t make excuses.

Man #4: When you bubble a child like that, when you put a protective layer on and you coddle them, they’re not prepared for the real world. There’s bullies out there.

Man #5: And in the real world, they don’t get to retake tests if they score less than 80. You know, in the real world, achievement and reaching goals is actually relevant.

Man #6: They’re learning all the wrong things, then they get out into, into the real world. And as Ted Cruz said, You get out to the real world, you have a real job.

Woman #1: I mean, I cannot wait to see these people in the real world when they leave college and they’re suddenly faced with a reality.

Man #7: I think that this really comes from the academy, comes from elite colleges where a lot of these journalists come from, and it’s there that they drink in this stuff. They haven’t really had to contend with the real world and what’s out there waiting for us.

Man #8: I think that what this country needs at a very dangerous time, is responsible leadership in the real world, not a fantasy world, but in the real world.

[End Clip Montage]

Adam: Now, I want to acknowledge that as a professional podcaster, I don’t live in the real world. I mean, obviously I do. Although I do think it’s funny, whenever I talk about abolition, or any kind of carceral nature of our system or how crime is being hyped, I always get a thousand People in my mentions being like, ‘Well, you know, Mr. Blue-check Man, for those of us who have to live with crime,’ and it’s like, I live in Chicago. I live in a neighborhood with fairly high crime and fairly high, like a lot of houselessness, it’s not like I don’t live in these things I write about.

Nima: You don’t live on Podcast Island?

Adam: It’s funny. I think people assume if you have a blue checkmark, you’re rich, but I’m not at all, you know, I have a toddler.

Nima: You’re just a Regular Joe.

Adam: I mean, I am remarkably, I mean, I’m wearing a Chicago Bears shirt. I’m like Mr. Chicago. But like, there’s this belief that if you, again, I stress that my job is kind of fake, but there’s this idea that those who talk about these issues don’t live in the real world.

Nima: Yeah. If you’re not like Mike Rowe-ing it up then you don’t live in the real world.

Mike Rowe

Adam: Yeah, if I can position my opponent as not living in the real world, by definition that makes me more authentic, I occupy this space known as the real world where I have bills and budgets and responsibilities and obligations.

Nima: You have to tighten your belt to just every Tom, Dick and Harry.

Adam: Right, and it’s like this go to trope and I’ve heard it my whole life, again, granted, I’m 38 years old, and I talk on a microphone for a living, but like 98 percent of my life though is fairly real world. It’s very normal, as is most people’s. But it’s this way of kind of trivializing or dismissing that which one disagrees with.

Nima: Right.

Adam: And so, again, I know we’ve talked about this a lot, this idea of the real world, the left versus the real world reality. So we’re excited to jump into it today and talk about its origins and what function it serves.

Nima: Yeah, the idea’s origins really can be traced to some of history’s most reactionary forces — surprise, surprise — pro-business, anti-revolutionary or anticommunist policy makers namely in Europe and then later in the US in the nineteenth century.

Let’s start with the oft-repeated, oft-memed right-wing adage, quote, “If a person is not a liberal when he is twenty, he has no heart; if he is not a conservative when he is forty, he has no head,” end quote. Now, other versions of this quote substituting the word small-r republican in a French context often or socialist in a British construction substituting those in for the word “liberal” in the quote I just read. Those are found all over these, quote, “websites” online.

Now, to be sure, quotes that circulate online are misattributed all the time, sometimes totally apocryphal, and this one may be no different. But let’s dig into this a bit. The sentiment behind the adage has been credited to people like Winston Churchill, King Oscar II of Sweden, French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, and British Prime Ministers Benjamin Disraeli and Lloyd George among others.

According to the indispensable website Quote Investigator, the statement’s origin may be found in a 1799 line by second US President John Adams, who wrote to Thomas Jefferson this, quote, “A boy of fifteen who is not a democrat is good for nothing, and he is no better who is a democrat at twenty,” end quote. Now, that’s democrat with a small-d, democrat.

The more common version’s earliest attribution lies perhaps with French politician Francois Guizot during the first half of the 19th century, before his overthrow in the French Revolution of 1848. Now, famously, Karl Marx name checks Guizot in the opening lines of the Communist Manifesto as one of the powers of old Europe seeking to exorcize the, quote, “spectre of communism,” end quote, haunting the continent.

In an 1861 book called La Loi des Revolutions or The Law of Revolutions, Guizot is pondering, quote, “why a man under the age of twenty-five, would not be a republican, nor why a man having exceeded that age would still be one,” end quote.

Now similarly, in a later French book about the Paris Commune and the War of 1870, historian Jules Claretie’s reprint of a 1872 letter from academic and politician Anselme Polycarpe Batbie, — yeah, that’s real — declared this, quote, “Anyone who is not a republican at twenty casts doubt on the generosity of his soul; but he who, after thirty years, perseveres, casts doubt on the soundness of his mind.” End quote.

Adam: Early 20th Century French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau paraphrased the quote a number of times, quote, “Not to be a socialist at 20 is proof of want of heart; to be one at 30 is proof of want of head.” And one anecdote tells of the time he was told that his son had joined the Communist Party, to which Clemenceau replied dryly, “Monsieur, my son is 22 years old. If he had not become a Communist at 22, I would have disowned him. If he is still a Communist at 30, I will do it then.”

The quote passed into English through a 1923 Wall Street Journal article attributing it to King Oscar II of Sweden and inspired the title of a 1929 play by Keynon Nicholson, called, Before You’re 25.

In 1970, Ford Foundation program officer Mario D. Fantini wrote an essay entitled, quote, “The Student Movement and School Reform,” which was published in a collection about the 1960s activism on college campuses, called, “Student Unrest: Threat or Promise?” In it, Fantini swapped the term, quote, “liberal” for, quote, “socialist”:

Adolescent rebellion has been tolerated, and even sanctioned, as a ‘normal’ stage of human development. After all, ‘if you aren’t a liberal when you’re young, you have no heart, but if you aren’t a middle-aged conservative, you have no head.’

Nima: Yeah, exactly. This notion that the frivolity of youthful ideology evaporates once you hit adulthood because of work and responsibility, and so this idea had long before morphed into this notion of the hardscrabble “real world.” At the turn of the 20th century, the “real world” framing would be applied to schools, informed largely by the interests of industry. In 1908, Chicago Public Schools educator and later superintendent William McAndrew penned a criticism of public high schools for the magazine World’s Work, positing that public high schools were too academic in character, influenced by what he called quote-unquote “aristocratic” colleges. Here, in World’s Work, from 1908, is McAndrew’s remedy, quote:

The high school should abandon its idea of being an ‘institution’ with traditions, cults, doctrines and holier-than-thou proclamations; it should get down to a humble endeavor to serve all children. It should cease maintaining that its mental food, cut and dried by experts of unproved fitness for life here and now, is the only proper nourishment for growing boys and girls. It should study the real world about us and try to reproduce the best of it under the best conditions in the class-room.

End quote.

Adam: This all sounds well and good of course, like a more egalitarian and democratic approach. But it seems McAndrew’s chief motivation in incorporating “the real world” into the classroom was to train students to become compliant workers, and to an extent, to model schools after businesses. Throughout his career, McAndrew was an adherent of Taylorism, or scientific management, a largely dehumanizing form of management that drew the ire of unions and activists.

According to a 1992 academic paper by Arthur Norman Tarvardian, quote:

The influence of Taylorism which McAndrew brought to Chicago was evidenced in his vicious pursuit of educational cost accounting. Since McAndrew regarded students as ‘per capita expenditures,’ he despised traditional professionals who were reluctant to accept business criteria in education. ‘We are accustomed,’ McAndrew wrote, ‘to regard ourselves as above business and incapable of measurement by dollars and cents, yet the past ten years have made it more clear that one of the best things that can be happen to us is the realization that education is public business and that a dollar-and-cents measurement is inevitable.’

Nima: Yeah. So here’s another example that came from the following decade after McAndrew wrote that article in 1908. This is from 1916 from the Oklahoma Daily Live Stock News, and this article promotes a skill building and community service club for college students. Here is an excerpt. The headline is, “Making College Practical,” with the subhead, “New Experiences Will Be Added to the Ordinary Curriculum.” The article says this, quote:

The college student of other days lived in a little world of his own apart from the real world about him. Nor was the course of study designed to fit one for practical life.

End quote.

The article touts skills include helping farmers with apple raising and forestry, the, quote, “investigation of water and milk supply,” end quote, and the following, quote:

…instruction of foreigners in the customs and ideals of the country, working for prohibition, law enforcement and town improvement, and helping boys through the ‘Big Brother’ movement.

End quote.

Now, much of the skill building mentioned is totally fine, sure. But the implications that (1) indoctrinating “foreigners” with US ideals and (2) aiding cops help cultivate valuable practical skills raise some serious questions about who gets to define what the “real world” is.

Adam: This messaging would escalate in the decades that followed, starting in the 1960s. Irving Kristol, father of Bill Kristol and “godfather of modern conservatism,” as the New York Times puts it, famously repackaged the 19th-century quote we cited earlier, defining a neoconservative as a liberal who had been, quote, “mugged by reality,” unquote. Kristol, once a New Deal Democrat, cut his teeth working for liberal anti-communist and CIA-funded magazines like Encounter. He channeled his more baldly right-wing sentiments into his own magazine, The Public Interest, which published invectives against modest of social reforms, among other things, in the 1960s and 1970s, things like immigration.

Irving Kristol

In 1964, inaugural Peace Corps director, and JFK’s brother-in-law, and Arney’s father-in-law, Sargent Shriver delivered a speech entitled, quote, “Should We Encourage College Dropouts?” The excerpt reads, quote:

In our trainees we notice an overwhelming desire to get out and do something. Many of them suffer from campus fatigue. They are in search of reality and are fugitives from the grove of academia. When they return from two years in Africa, they are likely to be concerned about the relationship between studies and the problems of their own lives and the problems of the world. The pace and sophistication of their school work will be edifying and exhilarating to their teachers and rewarding to their fellow students.

There’s no room in the 20th century for the tender turtles who sit at rest while others take pains. So drop out if necessary.

In October of the next year, 1965, the magazine Moderator polled college students who’d left school temporarily or permanently to gauge their motivations. Moderator ran a widely republished article noting its findings with the headline, quote, “Can a University Drop-Out Find Happiness? Increasing Numbers of U.S. Students Look for a ‘Real’ World.” Here’s an excerpt:

Says one boy who quit school to become a dishwasher on a freighter bound for Buenos Aires: ‘I felt that there was a vitality in life which couldn’t be found in a textbook. I was certain that there was something more exciting to life than attending classes and going to fraternity parties. I wanted to live in the real world, not a vacuum. Education means a combination of formal learning and true-life experience; I was getting plenty of the former and a deficiency of the latter.’

Nima: Now, this article was accompanied by a series of illustrations, four panels next to each other all showing basically what is described in the captions:

Even ‘A’ students quit college —

Some go to Israel and plant trees —

Others work and teach in slum areas —

But many eventually return to the campus.

Now, look, this isn’t to say it’s not good to ask all of these questions; the one boy in the quote, Adam, that you read, right, get out, get real life experience. This is great, vital to measure factors like school effectiveness and student satisfaction, mental health, what people want to do with their lives, don’t just be stuck in academia, you know, expand your horizons, sure. But this article also reinforces the notion, as I just said in those illustrated panels, that places like say Israel and or post-colonial nations in Africa should be playgrounds for the soul-searching US college student, right, that somehow those experiences are real, at least more so than what happens when they then return to campus, and God forbid, become activists on campus.

Adam: There’s also a sense of irony here of course too, because students making these trips may build skills or learn to appreciate their own lots in life, but, these quote-unquote “real-world” experiences, they’re also spared the realities of apartheid against Palestinians and plundering of African resources, to name just a couple of examples. But since then, there has been this idea of academia versus the real world. The assumption being is that academia doesn’t really interface with the real world, and also is a place of fantasy, what is the opposite of the real world, a fantasy world, right? It’s a place of imagination and unicorns and rainbows.

Nima: And no accountability, right? You’re kind of free, free to explore, free to think, whatever, but then when it comes down to it, you’re not accountable to anything, you can kind of get away with everything. Unlike the real world, Adam, where obviously your decisions have consequences.

Now, little has changed since the ’60s in this idea that there’s the real world versus the academic world, but even less so the academic, than the activist world. Now, this really came into focus when activism, say, during the Trump administration was much more public, maybe it was much broader, right? People who hadn’t usually felt that they were advocates of social change became more activated in that or energized and engaged. And So lo and behold, of course, we have the Washington Post Magazine come along with an opinion piece by John Judis, this is from the heady pre-pandemic days of January 2020, the article entitled, quote, “A Warning from the ’60s Generation,” claiming that contemporary activists must learn from the mistakes of the 1960s left, which, quote, “succeeded in captivating a noisy subgroup of Americans but never came close to commanding a political majority,” end quote. The article was even originally headlined like a Pitchbot come to life this, quote, “I was a ’60s socialist. Today’s progressives are in danger of repeating my generation’s mistakes,” end quote.

Now, the article essentially laments that movements for feminism, Black liberation, immigration rights, and plenty other issues, according to Judis, are unrealistic, as they alienate the majority of people in the United States. Here are a couple of choice excerpts from the article, quote:

Much of what these separate groups fought for was entirely justifiable and contributed to racial and sexual equality. Yet some of their stances pressed their causes to the extreme: radical feminists casting doubt on the moral legitimacy of the family; black nationalists advocating armed struggle and calling for African American communities to be subject to the United Nations rather than the U.S. government. These positions put them at odds with much of America.

And later in the piece:

At the Democratic Socialists of America convention I attended over the summer in Atlanta, delegates identified themselves on their name tags, and when they spoke, by their preferred pronoun (‘he,’ ‘she’ or ‘they’) and signaled their approval by twirling their hands. Someone who used the colloquial ‘guys’ to refer to the audience was sternly rebuked. There were charges of ‘ableism’ and of ‘triggering’ due to loud talking. These kinds of moral stances are fine for a church congregation, but not for a political organization that wants to win a majority of voters. The reality is that 80 percent or more of Americans who wandered into such a gathering would think they were on another planet.

End quote.

Adam: Yeah, it’s this idea that, I mean, again, without knowing the legitimacy or specifics of what he’s claiming at the DSA meeting, it’s this idea that there’s this real world and these activists are not living in it, because they apparently made the same mistake in the ‘60s? So I guess it’s not, this is kind of the Aaron Sorkin, Chicago 7 argument, our politics needs to be approachable and wear a suit.

Nima: We can’t be like the real Abbie Hoffman. We have to be like the Sacha Baron Cohen Abbie Hoffman that loved democracy and Abe Lincoln and voting.

Adam: Correct. With the assumption being that the things like people’s preferred pronouns are these kinds of whimsical preferences like one likes ice cream, like chocolate versus vanilla ice cream, versus something essential to their identity. That aside, it’s sort of a classic, again, pitting this idea of that which is maybe new and trying to change, you know, or sort of have a more inclusive language as being not in the real world.

Nima: Right.

Adam: Meanwhile, again, at least personal experience, barista at a Starbucks, work as a waiter at a restaurant, ‘Hey, you know my pronouns are she/her,’ no problem, sounds good, move on with their lives. But this is seen as being hostile and foreign and smug according to this particular person, as opposed to the real world where everybody is Joe sixpack, and salt of the earth and doesn’t have those fancy-schmancy pronouns.

Nima: Yeah, exactly.

Adam: The next year, in December of 2021, The Washington Post published an opinion piece by conservative pundit and American Enterprise Institute senior fellow Marc Thiessen, of the in defense of torture fame, he wrote, quote,” ‘Defund the police’ runs into reality,” maintained that “reality” is forcing US mayors to eschew calls to defund the police, the assumption is that these mayors really wanted to defund the police but “reality” asserted itself onto them.

Nima: They would have, but you know what? Reality happened.

Adam: “Reality,” in this piece, is the false notion that they cut police budgets and crime skyrocketed, of course that’s virtually never true. The article uses San Francisco and its mayor London Breed as a case study, arguing that Breed’s proposed police cuts were to blame for a rise in crime. But of course the piece neglects to mention that Breed never slashed police budgets, but rather increased them, as was the case with virtually every major metropolitan area in the United States since the George Floyd protests. The piece also opens with the infamous, the obligatory fake smart guy conservative quote about, quote “a neoconservative is a liberal who’s been mugged by reality.”

This argument has appeared elsewhere, NBC News Opinion from August of 2020, quote, “‘Defund the police’ is a slogan that doesn’t help real people who need safe neighborhoods.” These are real people, versus fake people. KRON 4 Oakland, November of last year, quote, “‘Oakland’s sad reality’ result of defunding police, POA union says.” Police officer union. The ‘sad reality’ referred to a couple of murders, of course the police budget wasn’t actually cut.

Nima: Right. Now, I mean, we see this also widely when it comes to media covering our declared official enemies, right? So, enemy states have been similarly, if not even more aggressively, targeted in news media for their lack of “reality,” for enemy government’s — uh oh! — running up against reality when they try to do things that are on their policy agenda. Consider these few examples from the last dozen years.

A June 2, 2010 Reuters article was headlined, quote, “Twitter returns Chavez to Venezuela’s reality,” end quote, and it detailed the supposed popular reaction to Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez’s then-new Twitter account. The story cautioned that, quote:

While Twitter has helped Chavez reach supporters, analysts warn it could be a double-edged sword for him at a time when the economy’s poor performance and a power crisis are denting his popularity ahead of legislative elections in September.

End quote.

Now, of course, we’re not told who these “analysts” who are doing all the warning are, there is very little context about the Venezuelan economy, but we do know that when faced with the popular opinions voiced back at him on Twitter Adam, Chavez faced a grim reality.

Adam: Yeah, fast forward a decade you have Reuters June 2022, quote, “Chile’s new leftist president gets reality check as support wanes.” So anytime a leftist goes up against a little bit of pushback or reactionary pushback or any kind of like, you know, the natural ebb and flow of popularity, it’s a reality check from their pie-in-the-sky, left-wing wishlist.

Nima: A month later, in January of 2022, The New York Times published this article, quote, “As Latin America Shifts Left, Leaders Face a Short Honeymoon.” End quote. The article says this, quote:

After years of tilting rightward, Latin America is hurtling to the left, a watershed moment that began in 2018 with the election of Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico and could culminate with a victory later this year by a leftist candidate in Brazil, leaving the region’s six largest economies run by leaders elected on leftist platforms.

A combination of forces have thrust this new group into power, including an anti-incumbent fervor driven by anger over chronic poverty and inequality, which have only been exacerbated by the pandemic and have deepened frustration among voters who have taken out their indignation on establishment candidates.

But just as new leaders settle into office, their campaign pledges have collided with a bleak reality, including a European war that has sent the cost of everyday goods, from fuel to food, soaring, making life more painful for already suffering constituents and evaporating much of the good will presidents once enjoyed.

End quote.

Adam: Yeah, we see this oftentimes anytime a president runs on a semi progressive platform and then immediately shifts to not doing anything. The New York Times comes in to cover their ass by saying ‘Joe Biden runs into reality,’ ‘Joe Biden’s legislative agenda runs into reality,’ right?

Nima: Right.

Adam: In March of 2020, Joanna Weiss, of WBUR wrote, quote, “Joe Biden Lives In The Real World. Bernie Sanders? Not So Much.” We saw ‘Bernie Sanders not living in the real world’ articles a thousand times over his seemingly 25-year campaign to become president. ABC News January of 2016, “Hillary Clinton Jabs Bernie Sanders for Ideas That ‘Will Never Make It in the Real World.’” The article would quote Hillary Clinton saying, quote, “Rather than build on the progress we’ve made, he wants to start over from scratch with a whole new system,” Clinton said, referring to Sanders’ single-payer health care plan. “Now in theory, there is a lot to like about some of his ideas. But in theory, is it enough? A president has to deliver in reality.” “I’m not interested in ideas that sound good on paper but will never make it in the real world,” she added.

So this was a similar line that Joe Biden used about how he said, ‘I support public option to Obamacare, because single payer doesn’t exist in reality.’ So Joe Biden has been in the White House for about a year and nine months, how many times has he proposed public option healthcare? Zero. Because guess what? He seems to have abandoned it. Was that because of reality? Or because he never believed it in the first place?

Nima: Who gets to define what that reality is, especially when new things are often not tried but they’re just blamed on being impossible because of reality. So this kind of reality discourse has everything to do with what the Overton Window allows.

Adam: Right. So this is a straight news report, ostensibly in the New York Times. This was widely criticized at the time for being basically just a thinly veiled editorial bludgeon. This is from November of 2019, the headline reads, “Sanders’ Climate Ambitions Thrill Supporters. Experts Aren’t Impressed,” in which they hand selected three experts to say, to provide criticisms of it.

Nima: Those real-world experts.

Adam: Those three people become the magical experts. David Victor, a professor of international relations at the University of California San Diego and a climate adviser to Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, also running against Sanders in their primary, he called climate change, quote, “the big challenge for serious policy in the Democratic Party.” “The progressive wing wants radical change, and climate change is one of those areas where this has really been the most palpable,” he said. “The Sanders plan claims to deliver radical change, but it can’t work in the real world.”

So there’s this real world that exists that is independent of human agency or decision. It’s just this thing that is intractable, and it’s like gravity or geology or Newtonian physics.

Nima: You know, what’s not impossible in the real world, Adam, obliterating Roe v. Wade.

Adam: Right.

Nima: That is possible, that happens in the real world, but progressive change, things that would actually improve people’s lives instead of harm them, those are often deemed to be impossible, not part of reality. Whereas, I think, you know, this is used pretty routinely as a bludgeon for the left, and of course, the “reality” gets to be created by centrists and the right, that’s just a reality that gets to be manifest, nothing is off limits, but if you try to improve people’s lives in any substantial way, well, you know what, you’re going to be up against? The real world.

Adam: Right. But of course, the New York Times, again, we talked about this before, but the New York Times is the king, they do this on criminal justice, they did this with Bernie Sanders, they did this with the single payer healthcare, of spending six months to a year talking about, doing thinly veiled editorials as reporting, and even straight editorials or op-eds, telling you how bad these policies are, how unpopular they are. Because, again, you could actually watch during the 2020 primary support for Medicare for All among all voters and Democrats started trickling down, because they started spreading lies, both Buttigieg and the Biden campaign started spreading outright lies that they were going to get rid of your private insurance overnight and that we were going to then somehow have a transition period of several months or several years, I think even one implied two years, where basically nobody would be insured until he passed the single payer plan. It was absurd, right?

Nima: Yeah.

Adam: And Joe Biden deliberately said this, explicitly lied several times, and so you started to see after these commercials ran nonstop about criticizing single payer healthcare —

Nima: People are like, ‘Well, that’s not realistic. I don’t support that.’

Adam: The numbers would go down and then the second they tipped to 60 percent, they say, ‘Oh, well, the single payer runs into political reality. It’s just not popular.’ It’s like you just created reality, like you’re in the reality creating business. That’s what the New York Times does. The New York Times curates what we perceive as being “reality” or what is political reality or what is the real world, and that’s of course, how the game works. You spend years or months to years demonizing a concept or demagoguing it or misconstruing whether it, again, whether it be crime or single payer healthcare, a number of issues, and then you turn around and say, ‘Oh, the politician you’re supporting ran into reality.’ It’s like no, they ran into this right-wing media campaign that you helped prop up.

Nima: To discuss this more. We’re now going to be joined by Bryan Quinby, host of Street Fight Radio. Stay with us.

[Music]

Nima: We are joined now by Bryan Quinby. Bryan, welcome back to Citations Needed.

Bryan Quinby: It is a joy to be back at Citations Needed. This is the guest spot, it would have to be either this or Chapo that I get the most like, ‘Hey, I heard you somewhere.’

Adam: Yeah, to some segment of internet you’re one of those that guys like Xander Berkeley or, wait, I remember, you know, since you of course, were the primary feature on our Mike Rowe episode several years ago, it only made sense to have you back for the spiritual sequel, which is discussing this kind of broader trope of the real world or reality as this rhetorical bludgeon. And Mike Rowe sort of is the epitome of that, as we discussed at the top of the show, that kind of just shooting it straight, giving you the facts, no sugarcoating. So it’s no coincidence that appeals to the real world are a popular mainstay of conservative media. After all, the real world is this kind of fixed, ordained by nature, that our British cruel, austerity economy is kind of just the way things are. So I want to begin by discussing, starting off on a personal note, which we don’t always do, but I’m sort of curious from your experiences, because I know that I heard it all the time, pretty sure everyone has, from your experiences, what were your experiences hearing from authority figures growing up in your life about the quote-unquote “real world,” in which context was evoked and to what extent was it given this, it sort of portended this immediate and inevitable suffocation of your dreams and your political aspirations or any ember of optimism and your life?

Bryan Quinby: Well, okay, I’ll say this, I had a science teacher that told me, earth science teacher, not like a sociology teacher or anything, that, so there was a prison riot at Lucasville Prison in Ohio in the early ’90s, and that’s what I was in ninth grade in like ’93 or ’94, and I had a teacher tell me that I was going to spend my adult life in Lucasville so that always sort of wore on the back of my brain that I was definitely destined for prison because a teacher told me I was destined for prison, but I think the best —

Adam: That’s wholesome.

Nima: Kind.

Bryan Quinby: Yeah, it was great.

Adam: To be fair, I did burn down the school. But yeah.

Bryan Quinby: I think the best example I’ve ever given of this is that when I was growing up, I would sort of tell my dad things I wanted to do. So, I go to see The People vs. Larry Flynt, in theater, when it comes out, and I tell my dad I want to be a free speech lawyer, and he was like, ‘They don’t make any money.’ Which, fucking probably, I don’t, I believe that free speech lawyers probably don’t make a ton of money, but he just said that. So then I would say, I want to be a DJ, and he would say, ‘Well, you’re not’ — because I wanted to be on the radio — ‘I don’t think you’re going to be able to do that. That’s really hard to get into. You got to know somebody.’ And then I remember I said, ‘I want to be in a heavy metal band. I want to be the singer.’ First he says you can’t sing. Which is crazy to say when you’re talking about a heavy metal band, you don’t really have to know how to do that, and then he said, ‘You know what you ought to do? You ought to go to this recording workshop and learn how to run the soundboard,’ and I was like, that’s like really not the same thing as being in a band.

Bryan Quinby

Nima: You’re like, ‘I don’t think you’re really understanding the dream here. I don’t just want to be at a venue at work. I want to be on the stage doing something, performing, being creative.’

Adam: Yeah, well, kids are different these days. Because again, to refocus on the kind of political formation or political rhetoric, right, because it seems like on a micro level, the concept of a real world again can be suffocating but in many ways it’s kind of like a kind of practical wake up check, to get your head out of the clouds, you know, doofus you know, the odds of you becoming a professional comedian or a bassist are nil, whereas if you go work at the at the sparks and steam factory down the street like your old man, you know, it’s October Sky shit, right?

Nima: But it also forecloses notions of change and hope, right?

Adam: It’s a political rhetorical device, you take that idea which can, again, in a certain context makes sense? And then it gets blown up in a Fox News, Mike Rowe context as a kind of folksy device. The reason why people like Mike Rowe is he kind of reminds them of their dad, right? He reminds them of their no-nonsense old man who, well, yeah, your father worked in film. Yeah, he was one of those New York types, but you know, salt of the earth people from Texas like me. But in general, it becomes this way of disciplining people, because what they really mean by ‘you need to live in the real world’ is they mean poor people need to live in the real world. Because the same people, again, Mike Rowe got a communications degree, right, we’ve discussed this before, right? Mark Zuckerberg spoke Greek and Latin when he was in high school, right? He was majoring in psychology. So if the kids of well off or upper middle class people, they’re not really necessarily given the real world speech and to the extent they are, it’s, ‘You need to go work on Wall Street,’ right? Whereas it’s sort of this horizon closing truism that when it gets blown up, it kind of poses as practical advice that seems like it makes sense. Because after all, like you don’t want to give a bunch of poor kids false hope, you know what I mean? And so this is why the sort of Charles Koch war on higher education that we discussed in detail is so predicated on this faux folksy suspender slapping every man routine, because when you’re old man says ‘You need to live in the real world,’ he’s trying to protect you from being, you know, wasting your life or being an idiot, right? Whereas when a high paid multimillionaire media celebrity tells you ‘You need to live in the real world, don’t worry about going to liberal arts college,’ it’s a way of saying ‘We don’t want the poor people to go learn about unionism and Marxism.’ It’s kind of, it’s a bullshit bludgeon.

Bryan Quinby: I do feel like, as far as this real world thing is also about, we all know that we need people to do the jobs. I mean, we need people to make our coffee, we need people to make food for people and stuff like that. And the way to get somebody to just accept that that’s what they’re going to do is to tell them, ‘Look, I can’t send you to college and you need to do something you hate, because I’m doing something,’ because like I grew up is that you were supposed to hate your job.

Adam: Yeah.

Bryan Quinby: I have friends that make a lot of fucking money that are truly miserable Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. These people are just really sad and really miserable, and just not doing what they want to do. But then three days a week, they get to go crazy and have a whole bunch of fun and do stuff. So, when you see people that you consider successful because of looking at the way they live, you know, you look at their house, they got a nice house, they got a nice car, they got all this stuff, but they’re miserable, then I think it’s hard for somebody who grew up in a working class neighborhood or anything like that, like I did, it’s hard to even see, you know, you got to think of somebody from like Ohio, never seeing anybody that they know succeed in any sort of show business.

Nima: Right.

Bryan Quinby: It’s so bad that at my high school, I’m one of like six alumni that are famous. I’m a notable alumni. You just never see people succeed.

Adam: Really low bar there, yeah.

Bryan Quinby: Yeah. You just never see people succeed in anything. This guy he’s in a band I really love when I’m in high school, and he had to put it all away and sort of go work and it just feels like a lot of the Mike Rowe stuff is, ‘I need these things done for me, if you don’t want to be one of the people that I look down on, which is like people that work at Starbucks and people that work at McDonald’s and stuff like that, then you need to get one of my stupid certificates so you can be a plumber.’ He always is like, ‘There’s all these plumbing jobs out there,’ and it’s like, dude, I grew up in a working class neighborhood, a working class kid, all I wanted to do, all I wanted in my life was a plumbing job or something like that, where they’re like you can make, at the time, they’d be like, ‘You can make $17 an hour,’ now they’re probably saying $27 an hour. I could not get that. I did not know how to get that. And it’s like, I have a brother-in-law that is an HVAC person that he had to go to a for profit heating and ventilation and air conditioning college for three weeks, and he’s still paying that back. He’s the one crawling in attics. So even these jobs that Mike Rowe says are real things —

Nima: But did he sign the sweat pledge?

Bryan Quinby: He would. He would have definitely signed it. He’s very anti union because he worked at a place where some people were union and some people weren’t. So that is another thing that a lot of these companies do to turn people against the union is that, ‘We’ll have a union, but we’ll also bring in some temps.’ The temps aren’t in the union. So they hate the people in the union, and they do that a lot. Yeah, it does feel like the real world thing is trying to filter people into things that they don’t want to do because they don’t deserve more, I guess.

Nima: Well, I want to also talk about the kind of political utility of this rhetoric and of this trope, right? The idea that we would see endless appeals too through opinion pieces or punditry saying, we mentioned some of this earlier on the show, stuff like “Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All runs into political reality,” right? or, you know, a piece headlined, “‘Defund the Police’ runs into reality,” right? This patronizing way of deliberately limiting political horizons, this reality is obviously fixed in place, and it exists to make sure that, you know, good shit can’t happen.

Bryan Quinby: Yeah.

Nima: And so also the way that people like political pundits or, you know, opinion writers, the way that it’s used in the media also, is this idea of whoever saying, ‘Oh, well, that’s unrealistic,’ winds up sounding to them, I guess, and whoever publishes them, or believes them, that they’re savvy, they’ve got it figured out, right, they know what reality is, and how far people are going to actually be able to move towards something better, and actually, let’s just be realistic here about what we can actually achieve collectively, because, you know, hey, reality is reality, and that is a fixed, permanent, timeless thing. So Bryan, can you kind of talk about this go to head patting, New York Times framing of political reality, like all these good things that we could have, well they’re going to run into the political reality. What does this do to the way that we understand and discuss politics?

Bryan Quinby: Well, I do feel like that people understand what each party is supposed to do. They don’t understand what they do, I don’t think, but I think that people look at Democrats, and they say, ‘Well, they’re the ones that want to give poor and working people healthcare and stuff like that,’ and then when they elect them and nothing happens, that becomes a thing where it’s like, ‘Well, that’s not real.’ I think eight years of Obama with hardly anything to show from it, I think that creates what reality is for people.

Nima: Right. That was a stark reality.

Bryan Quinby: Which is like nothing, we can’t really do anything. It sucks. I know. It’s horrible. And we’re not going to use any political capital to do anything and we’re just going to let people think, okay, so you can have the Republicans who are evil, outwardly evil and would love to eat poor people or you can have the Democrats, they’re supposed to want to help poor people, but they never really actually get anything done.

Adam: Well, yeah. The one thing that frustrates us is that, you know, as media critics, you’ll see this happen in real time, where it’s like, The New York Times will publish nine articles about shoplifting in New York, you know, and publish all these lurid tales of old ladies being having their purse snatched, and then, literally a week later be like, ‘Oh, reform efforts run into political reality as Democrats sour on,’ it’s like, well, you just did the thing, you just made reality. People who are in the reality making business aren’t allowed to just act as if reality is this thing outside of their control, now clearly, they don’t completely manufacture reality, there’s elements of underlying truth or other media, but to a large extent, you know, institutional media can create realities, they can create panics around certain things or, you know, emphasize certain stories over others, and so, there’s this sort of idea that this topic we’ve been demagoguing in our pages, of course, we saw this with all the intelligence laundering building up to Iraq, where they say, you know, ‘Democrats have no choice but to vote for the war because of reality,’ it’s like, because you’ve been publishing leaks from Dick Cheney for the last year. That’s the reality you created. I know, this is probably the entire theme of our whole podcast, but you know, and so this quote-unquote “reality” becomes this non-negotiable political thing we’re not supposed to, for which emerged entirely out of, you know, it’s like inflation. It’s this mystery for us that just came out of nowhere and it just sucks we can’t have nice things because of reality.

Bryan Quinby: I also think that the reality thing, political realities, or putting yourself in reality is the thing that they decide what is important, but it was critical race theory, over a certain amount of time, and like, my father-in-law was obsessed with it. Obsessed with critical race theory. He spends all day watching YouTube videos, by whoever, I don’t know who he watches, I think it is Steven Crowder, and guys like that. It’s very weird for a 70-year-old man to be watching that stuff. But I started to talk to him because he knows I have a sociology degree, and he also knows what I talk about on my show and what my politics are and stuff like that. So he sees me as his dream opponent, I guess. This guy sits all day listens to Alex Jones talk about what the leftists and communists are doing —

Nima: He has a leftist and communist right there.

Bryan Quinby: Yeah. So he’ll argue with me and I remember during the critical race theory stuff, I said, do you know what it is? And he was like, ‘It’s saying that white people are bad,’ and I’m like, well, I mean, that’s true, but it’s also just the idea that critical theory is just the idea that things look different depending on where your station is in society. That to me seems like an inarguable thing and he said the same thing. He said, ‘That’s, oh, well, that makes sense,’ and then I said, don’t you think historical things would look different if you’re Black than if you’re white? And he’s like, ‘No, I don’t think so. That’s the objective truth.’ I just was like, he’s unreachable, and that is the problem is we’ve been taught that history is an objective truth, that history we learn you can learn history in an objective way, and I don’t even know if you can do that. But the real world makes it so, this real world narrative makes it so you learn a version of history in high school, if you don’t go to college that’s the version of history you know, and you feel that that is an objective version of history, and that anybody else saying anything about it is wrong, and I think that really hamstrings people’s ability to even dream of something new.

Nima: Yeah, I mean, I think that there’s this idea that, as we were putting this episode together, you know, I was thinking about how, even like the MTV show The Real World, the use of that term, and it’s obviously tongue in cheek, because clearly, a bunch of young people in a house that’s paid for it, and they don’t have to really do anything except, you know, bitch at each other, that’s not the real world, but the idea that there’s this kind of fantasy after, you know, after high school, right, that this almost Friends sitcom version of the real world to some people, if that’s an attractive way to live, right, and that there is a real world that you’re going to inevitably have to contend with.

Adam: It’s constantly looming, it’s constantly menacing you. The real world.

Nima: Yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly. At some point, you know what, reality is just going to come crashing down, and you’re going to have to give up all of that silly nonsense about, you know, what you actually want to do with your life or what kind of policy changes can actually be made, how people can actually live together or fight for one another or be in solidarity, but the real world is that honestly we’re just trying to pay rent or buy this house or find time to mow the lawn or go see a movie, and that’s the real world, and there’s no time for anything else, and therefore, we shouldn’t even really think about what to aspire to because even that kind of aspiration, right? Even reading poetry or having a book club or painting, well, those are escapes from reality, those can’t be something you do for real, and if you do, then you are escaping reality, right? ‘Oh, I’m just gonna go to a movie because I escape reality,’ it’s like, or, actually people work to make that movie and you going to a movie may be actually part of how you then understand the world. That’s how pop culture works. That’s how culture works, right? All of this is going to inform you in different ways, and so what do you think this brand of hucksterism that, you know, I hate to bring it back to Mike Rowe, but you know, hey, I’m talking to you, Bryan — and you make me think of Mike Rowe because when we did our episode, right — but this idea that there’s the hardscrabble shit, right? There’s the dirty jobs and then there’s all the fluffy stuff, right? Never mind that Mike Rowe used to, you know, sing opera, but he’s the hardscrabble guy, and that that’s real life, that’s the real world, and anything else outside of that is just bullshit nonsense. What does that do to us as a society?

Adam: Well, it’s not, yeah, it’s egghead, it’s feminine and it’s gay.

Nima: Yeah.

Adam: And there’s the real world, which is typically seen as being more masculine and more prudish.

Bryan Quinby: Yeah, and fake and a whole fake version, because we did talk about this the first time I was on about Mike Rowe, I think he sincerely believes that he wanted to be on TV so he went to a movie theater and got a job and learned how to run a projector, and him being on TV and being able to be rich is because he started at the bottom, the movie theater, and worked his way up to being on the screen, and I think like that to me is the weirdest thing about the guy because he, yes, he went around with people and he touched sewage pipes and stuff like that and that’s really great that he showed people what the small business owners in the country are doing, and what their employees are up to. He doesn’t talk about what they pay their employees. He doesn’t even talk about the fact that they do have employees on Dirty Jobs. I’ve watched a lot of Dirty Jobs, because, you know, he’s a charming guy, I can’t help it. When I was younger, he would come on, and I’d be very charmed by him.

Adam: Oh, for sure.

Bryan Quinby: And like I said, when he was just going around and like running around in sewage pipes, he was great. He was perfectly fine. It’s when he starts telling you that you can’t have what you want despite the fact that he got everything he wants.

Nima: He moved from the soundboard to the mic.

Bryan Quinby: Yep.

Adam: Well, that’s the thing that cannot be overemphasized. It’s the real world for the fucking poor people and the precarious lower middle class. Everybody else gets to have their four years at Harvard or their four years at Stanford and they get to explore themselves because they can afford to do that. But for everyone else, buckle up. You don’t want to go $100,000 in debt. So go get in line at the Koch Industries’ sparks and steams Institute.

Nima: And if you are in debt, and then there’s a chance to get out of it, well, then you’re skirting reality.

Adam: Right.

Bryan Quinby: Yes, yes. Yeah. The reality that you have to live with is that we can’t cancel student loan debts —

Adam: Because of reality.

Bryan Quinby: Yes, because of reality, I mean, where would you get all the money? And it’s like, well —

Adam: The free money tree.

Bryan Quinby: Yeah. Yeah, I think you can just print more money. I’m not like a big —

Adam: We’ve been doing that for a while now and it seems to be working.

Bryan Quinby: It’s great. It would make everybody so much happier.

Adam: It’s not the Middle Ages, you can actually do that.

Bryan Quinby: Yeah, I mean, that’s the other thing, too, is I feel like there’s a lot of people that are really because of this inflation and because everything is more expensive, I’ll say you this, I had worked my way out of living paycheck to paycheck very shortly before Trump was out of office or whatever. I had money left when I got paid the second when I got paid the next month or whatever, and, you know, I’m not anymore, I am scraping together again, and it just feels like when you’re in that middle zone there, I’m not saying middle class, because I don’t even know if I’m middle class, I don’t even know what middle class is, but when you’re in that kind of middle zone, it just feels like once you start to get ahead, the punishing reality of like, oh, well, some people have to be on the bottom so time to start pushing that rock back up the hill. That’s what the real world is, that’s what life is, and if you want good things, and you want to do something, then go get a job at the turd pipe factory or whatever it is.

Adam: Yeah, because I think part of the appeal of that discourse, Rowe, and we talked about this with the sweat pledge, is that the one thing he was good at that I think liberals have been very bad at for a long time, and the left is good at but they’re marginalized, is being romantic about labor, that there is something, people want to be romantic about the thing they do 40, 50 hours a week, and here this guy comes along and says, You with this shit job, I’m going to make you the hero.’ Now granted, I’m actually going to make your boss the hero and never mention unions, and talk about how you need to, you know, not ever try to unionize or complain and this other kind of masochist bullshit, but there was some element there that is the reason why he was popular.

Nima: And safety regulations are for pussies.

Adam: Right. Because there is something, I think, inherently appealing to this idea of sucking it up. I mean, my old man always told me the definition of adulthood is doing things you don’t want to do, but because others need you to do them, right? It’s like, there is a little bit of romance to that. I think where it begins to break down is when you start to, like we talked about a lot in the show, when you take that kind of Mike Rowe, even maybe sensible life advice, and you begin to abstract it out to a political philosophy for an entire group of people, because again, there’s so much hypocrisy, where it’s hardship and austerity and stoicism for you, but for me, and again, the sort of Josh Hawley and J.D. Vance’s, all of whom went to Ivy League universities, and all of whom worked at hedge funds, right? None of this is real world shit, right? They’re allowed to do the non real world things, but the poors are destined to sort of suffer in obscurity, and then you realize that they’re actually taking maybe something on, again, on a personal level, can be a romantic view of viewing labor, and they’re using it as a way of worker discipline.

Bryan Quinby: Right. To them, I mean, when they say these things about, ‘You’re the real heroes out there,’ but not you because there’s always an out group with them anyway. There’s workers that, again, Mike Rowe doesn’t have respect for workers, specifically workers that do what I would consider Dirty Jobs, like I don’t know, working at a fast food place and having to go into the parking lot when it’s 100 degrees outside and pick up cigarette butts and just these really hard things. I worked at McDonald’s for a period of time, and that’s the hardest job I ever had. I was a roofer. I was a cable guy. I did so much stuff and McDonald’s —

Adam: McDonald’s was harder than roofing?

Bryan Quinby: Yes, I still have stress dreams about McDonald’s. I still wake up in the middle of the night.

Adam: No, I mean, I worked at restaurants, but I would never ever think, I guess McDonald’s, I mean, I worked at Chick-fil-A but you know, I just, I’ve always heard roofing was the hardest job in the world.

Bryan Quinby: No, roofing sucks, right? But you’re not getting yelled at all day.

Adam: That’s true.

Bryan Quinby: You’re not getting screamed at by people that you hate all day. You’re just up there doing the thing that you want. I roofed in January in Columbus, Ohio. So it was cold and stuff, but, you know, it wasn’t an easy job or anything like that. But I felt satisfied with it, and I never felt as miserable in my life as I did when I was working at McDonald’s or when I was driving for Lyft. Those were the two periods of my life where I just felt like, you know, I’m driving for Lyft. I’m working 16 hours a day. That’s looked at as a side hustle. So I would drive for 16 hours a day and then think about the person who went to work and then jumped in their car and drove people on their way home for another six to eight hours a day and just barely getting by. These are things that guys like Mike Roweare like, ‘Well, isn’t it great that there’s Lyft because then you can take your car and make money out of it,’ and that kind of thing is, he hates everything that is in the service industry, and most of the jobs now are in the service industry. Like almost all of them, you can go roof, I’m sure they would hire you, but there are a lot of roofers’ unions throughout the country, and they pay the same amount. I know when I was roofing I made $9.50 an hour, and then when I quit I got a job washing dishes for $9.50 an hour. So, it was like, ‘Well, this is easier. I’m not outside on top of a building all day.’ So I guess it’s just to me, he ignores the jobs that most people are doing in order to tell them that they deserve whatever the punishment is, ‘Oh, you went and got an English degree and now you’re working at Starbucks? Serves you right. You should have gotten a degree in turd pipe management or something.’ I don’t know. I don’t know what the jobs he says are. ‘Welding, you should have got a welding degree.’

Adam: Yeah, there’s 5 million welders in this country.

Bryan Quinby: There’s 5 million welders in this country, and we need another 15 million welders, and people just don’t want to weld, which is the thing. Every guy, I’m not saying this because I was one, every loser I’ve ever met has wanted to be a welder, or wanted to do these jobs, it is hard to get those jobs, you have to know somebody to get those jobs, and so I don’t even know, these extra jobs, these excess jobs that are just out there that —

Adam: That skills gap claptrap, it’s one of the things Charles Koch pays money for.

Bryan Quinby: Yes. Yeah, it just doesn’t make sense to me at all. It’s such a hard world to get into. We’ve had people call into the show who are doing welding, skilled labor and stuff like that, who worked for no money for years before they actually got to start making money doing it, and that’s the same thing with journalism and stuff like that. If you don’t start out with some ability to work for nothing, then you’re not going to get to do it, and you just are going to have to move on to something where one of the jobs where you work for money, which is the way that most people have to do it.

Nima: Well, right. I mean, and so, you know, I kind of want to bring it back to this idea of real world rhetoric as being deliberately stifling. That any movement toward something different, right? And a perfectly realistic example, let’s say unionization efforts at Chipotle or Amazon or Starbucks, that we can see that things can change, right? There’s a reality for Starbucks executives one day in Astoria, Queens, and the next day there’s a union at the Starbucks in Astoria, Queens —

Bryan Quinby: Yeah.

Nima: And reality has changed both for say, the bosses and for the workers. So, we know that things can change. We know that the real world, the reality of the real world, is malleable, is flexible. It changes based on human action, right? And so what do you think this idea of, you know, saying, ‘Well, there’s a real world out there,’ and hearing that again, and again, and again, in the media, it is deliberately a stifling frame so that, I think, people will stop organizing, will stop organizing for something better to actually, this is going to sound hokey, but create the fucking change, right? To change reality for themselves, which can happen, but once you just say, ‘Well, you know, there’s a political reality or there’s a real world out there.’ Oh, well, status quo, therefore, don’t even try.

Bryan Quinby: Yeah, I mean, that’s been the thing that has been so, because I am, I feel impending doom all of the time, and it’s like, I hate to be the negative guy who’s like, good things can’t happen. But I think I did feel that way a lot of times during COVID. Maybe it wasn’t something I said out loud. And like watching these first, you know, these people at the Starbucks kind of sort of agitating for hazard pay, there was a lot of agitating for hazard pay during COVID, during the beginning of COVID, and that really worked, and I think a lot of that stuff was like, hey, I think people are noticing that they have power now, and I do think that younger people, because they’ve seen what has happened after like deindustrialization and stuff like that, they understand that we’re a service economy, we’re not going to get factory jobs anymore, and during the labor movement, you know, there were a bunch of rich guys saying working in a factory is bullshit. It’s idiots’ work and they don’t deserve any money, and I think we’re, you know, now we valorize working in a factory, because there’s no factories.

Nima: Right.

Bryan Quinby: I think the same thing is starting, we’re starting to get to the point where people are starting to understand these jobs don’t exist, these are $30-an-hour jobs working, I mean, you can get a job on a construction site as a laborer, you’re going to make maybe $15 an hour or something like that, and I think that people are just starting to see, well, they need me, and especially what they call the labor shortage, which is really weird. I don’t think, when they say it’s a labor shortage, I’m like, what if you paid them?

Nima: Yeah, exactly.

Bryan Quinby: I’m watching the Starbucks unions and I really love it and I’m loving seeing other coffee shops pick it up, and, you know, I’ve seen a few like, really great initiatives when it comes to the Starbucks unions about something that our listeners, and especially just over the years, a lot of our listeners are people who work at coffee shops, and restaurants and stuff like that. I’m seeing a lot of those people saying, ‘I want a schedule that stays the same.’ You know what I mean? ‘I want to know, I want a predictable schedule. I want this amount of money per hour, I want health insurance, and I want some time off.’ Those things are very easy for Starbucks to do. That’s not a hard thing for Starbucks to do and I think Starbucks fighting that, I really feel like Starbucks fighting it is going to be the thing that galvanizes a lot of people to start pushing for it, and I’m starting to think, I’m starting to think like the sky’s the limit. I’m really starting to think like when you say Chipotle, I’m starting to think McDonald’s and Wendy’s and Burger King, and I’m just starting to think all of these places are susceptible to this, and it’s interesting, did you catch the article on NPR where they talked about two separate coffee shop union drives, and one of the guys was like, ‘I always dreamed of working with coffee, working at a coffee shop, and I finally got to buy my coffee shop, and now there’s a union and my dream is ruined.’ It’s the best article I’ve ever read.

Coffee shop owner Derek Lucey was profiled in an NPR article as a struggling small businessman whose woes were compounded by his employees’ unionization. (Darren Hauck / NPR)

Nima: You know what? That guy was faced with the real world.

Bryan Quinby: He was! There’s a new real world and I don’t think —

Nima: There’s a new real world.

Bryan Quinby: I think the problem we’re going to have the most when it comes to unionizing and stuff like that, I really think those middle jobs, those, we always call them spreadsheet farms or, you know, my wife works on spreadsheets all day, I think those are going to be the jobs that are very difficult to kind of agitate and organize for more, because I really feel like a lot of those people are some of the most hit with that real world rhetoric in that you got the best job, you won. And it’s like, no.

Nima: Right. Because it’s me, I have to bring it back to the show Friends, because I’m that age, but yeah, it’s like Chandler’s job was, remember, no one knew what he did, and the guess was like, ‘What are you like a transponder? It’s the transponders, right? They’re going to have a hard time, this kind of middle management somehow, you’re on a laptop all day, and yeah, you can work from home, maybe, but what agency do you actually have? And so I think that’s right. There’s unionization efforts at a certain kind of work environment, right? But then there are those people who are not, you know, bosses, right? Are not owners of companies, but are going to have to find that solidarity and that power, and I think, you know, as you’ve been saying, the awareness that they have agency, and that the real world is something that can shift based on what people make of it.

Bryan Quinby: Do you think that also it kind of, people have seen the world shift in a way when 10 years ago, 15 years ago, Donald Trump was not ever going to be the President of the United States. It just, it felt like the most impossible thing, he was just a goof, and he was president now and I feel like people saw it change. I’ve been beating a drum recently about, I never thought that a wrestler could be president, but I fully think that The Rock can be president now. I think he’s maybe going to be the president someday.

Nima: Right.

Bryan Quinby: And those guys are so, wrestlers specifically, are so able to sort of manipulate feelings and get people on their side or get people to dislike them. That’s their whole job.

Nima: Yeah, I mean, it’s the ultimate kind of world building and kind of storytelling that motivates people to really feel one way or another, right? And it doesn’t have to be kind of like black and white. That’s what makes characters, you know, I mean, that’s what makes The Rock or Steve Austin so compelling, right? Because they weren’t just heels or faces all the time. But this idea of kind of playing a role that gets people to feel a certain way. I think that’s exactly right. Because, I mean, that’s why even though, I think we saw a lot of articles about how, ‘Oh, Trump is just doing like a WWF thing,’ and it became sort of like a media trope, but at the same time, it’s like, yeah, but also Vince McMahon wanted to be Donald Trump and Donald Trump wanted to be Vince McMahon. They kind of loved certain aspects of the other, and they kind of became each other.

Bryan Quinby: I’ve always felt that real world stuff, especially the stuff you’re talking about with New York Times editorial page, that stuff all operates in kayfabe. There’s the kayfabe one, the one bit of kayfabe, where it’s the Democrats do this, and the Republicans do this, but neither one of them do that stuff, and it’s really worth thinking about what Joe Biden’s aspirations are, and he’s going to get voted in based on what we think he thinks he wants to do.

Nima: Right. Whatever Michael Cole is telling us Joe Biden is going to do is what we’re supposed to believe Joe Biden is going to do. Not actually what he does in the ring.

Bryan Quinby: We’re supposed to vote for Republicans because they are mean, and they attack the people that we don’t like, but we’re supposed to vote for Democrats based on nothing really? That Obama said he wanted to close Guantanamo Bay, and we’re like, well, as long as he wants to close it. That’s fine. I guess that works.

Adam: Well. You’re supposed to witness suffering, not do anything to fix it.

Bryan Quinby: Yes. Yeah.

Adam: In Democrats defense, they’ve done some things to alleviate suffering recently, right? But it’s always because they have no other choice. It’s always the last resort, right? The infrastructure bill, the NLRB stuff, it’s like, because they didn’t do that they literally would have no legitimacy at all.

Bryan Quinby: Wouldn’t even know what to, like watching them try to run on, ‘We just kind of like didn’t do anything really at all. Sorry, that was four years.’

Nima: But that’s still what they would do, because they could still run on, ‘Yeah, but we’re not them.’ ‘Yeah but we’re not Republicans.’

Bryan Quinby: Yeah.

Adam: It’s all part of this idea that despite all the sort of manifests corrupting influence of corporate money in politics, and the class interest of those in charge of the party, that anytime something doesn’t get done, you could just lay it nice and gently at the feet of reality, and it’s like, ‘Well, its reality,’ there’s this Super Bowl force. So yeah, it’s like, why would I not always use that as a cop out? You know, if I can, if I can use it as reality, you know, why did I not show up to the recording tonight? Reality. Reality got in the way.

Nima: I ran headfirst into reality. But Bryan, it has been wonderful talking to you again. Bryan Quinby, host of Street Fight Radio, you can follow him on Twitter @murderxbryan. That’s Bryan with a ‘y.’ Bryan, it is always a pleasure having you on the show. Thanks again for joining us on Citations Needed.

Bryan Quinby: It was very fun. Thank you for having me.

[Music]

Adam: I mean, there is something, again, I think on a micro level, you can sort of appreciate it, right? If I was a struggling immigrant working three jobs driving an Uber to put my kid through school, and he was like, 17, he’s like, ‘Dad, I want to be a professional trombone player,’ maybe I’d be like, ‘Okay,’ I’ll give him the real world speech a little bit, you know, I get that, I’m sympathetic to that, I get that the real world such that it exists is largely very much defined by our socio economic position in the world, right, and what opportunities we have, and people adapt to those realities. The question then becomes is that, this is a classic example of sort of descriptive statement that’s actually a normative statement masquerading as a descriptive one, because poor people should not have their options limited to what is quote-unquote “practical.” Higher education should not be an indulgence or a luxury of the rich, it should not be something that drives up, you know, $80,000, $90,000, $100,000 in debt for the poor and working class. So I think this idea of the sort of smug evocation of the real world in a political context carries a lot of weight because, again, it seems so folksy and practical because everybody got the real world speech from their dad, right? It’s this thing you always get, the real world, you know, the real world here, this is going to happen in the real world, no one’s going to give a shit about this. It’s like, well, maybe the real world should care.

Nima: Right.

Adam: Maybe the real world should care that I have a stutter. Or maybe the real world should care that I have pronouns that I prefer, right? The real world can change and it has many, many times.

Nima: Right, and the real world has changed. Exactly. I mean, that history is the real world changing again and again and again. And so to foreclose any notion of, ‘Oh, you want to change things for the better? Well, you know what, things weren’t better for me.’ So therefore, we have to stay in that real world, right? It’s the, ‘You can’t cancel debt, because I had debt,’ ‘You can’t be a musician or a philosopher or a poet because you got to pay the bills because your mortgage sucks,’ or because, you know, rent is really high. All these things, there should be new realities that we’re all creating to allow people to live the lives that they want to live, right, without precarity and scarcity and fear, and you know, hey, you know, maybe I’m sounding like I don’t live in the real world, but you know, I think that is part, politics are nothing if not creating what the real world is. That is the work of politics, not in the kind of media sensationalism, horse race politics, the sort of soap opera of politics, but the work of politics, it’s not just one party against another. It’s the work of changing the world in a certain way. And oftentimes, that world has changed in terrible, terrible ways because of who wields power. But there are ways to shift that, and when you shift that and you create new policies, new ways of thinking about things, new narratives in general, that change the way that people view the world, what is responsible for where we are, where we’re going, what imagination we can have about what, you know, new realities may come, that is the work to foreclose that instantly by being like, ‘Oh, well, you know, all that pie in the sky, Bernie, single payer, millionaires and billionaires shit, that’s going to run up against the real world.’ The hardscrabble real world, Adam, is that nothing can really fucking change, suck it up, just try and like put food on your kitchen table and don’t think about anyone else. I think what it really has to do is with refocusing people on their individual struggles, and limiting any idea that there’s a collective way forward.

Adam: Yep. That’s the idea. Everyone’s atomized, you have to live in your own real world, and nothing better is possible. Don’t bother talking to the barista next to you or the construction worker next to you. Maybe you form a union. That’s not the real world. Suck it up, take the Mike Rowe sweat pledge and just adapt.

Nima: And that’s it. Be where we are and where we will always be, and don’t try, of course, for anything better.

That will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Of course, you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, you can pick up some merch through Bonfire.com, just search for Citations Needed, and of course, you can always become a supporter of the show through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated. We really are 100 percent listener funded. The way that we are able to keep doing the show is because of the support that we get from listeners like you and as always a very special shout out goes to our critical level supporters on Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Thank you for listening to Citations Needed. Our senior producer is Florence Barrau-Adams. Our 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.

[Music]

This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, September 28, 2022.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.

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A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.

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Citations Needed

Citations Needed

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A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.