Episode 23: The Media’s Grim Addiction to Perseverance Porn

Citations Needed | January 17, 2018 | Transcript

Citations Needed
39 min readNov 3, 2018

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[Music]

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

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

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

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Adam: Yeah, we obviously appreciate any support we can get. We’ve had a pretty decent amount so far to keep the momentum going. Ideally we like to get these shows out every week. So that kind of support makes that happen, we’ve gotten pretty good about doing that lately. So we really appreciate the feedback. It’s a good moral boost to know that ‘they love me, they really love me.’ No. Um, that people are actually listening and they’re engaging. The feedback’s been mostly positive, although we did get a one star review from some guy whose sole comment was, “Citations Needed? I couldn’t find your citations. Citations Needed, indeed.” And I was like, “Oh man, he got me there.”

Nima: Yeah. Burn. That was a sick burn on iTunes. But —

Adam: I just told myself that was like my high school bully. That’s how I rationalized that one. That one one star review out of 150.

Nima: That’s right. So keep them coming and positive.

Adam: It’s not like I’m some weird insecure manic who goes and reads all of our reviews because that would be sad.

Nima: Yeah cause that would be really, really pathetic Adam.

Adam: That would be really sad.

Nima: It’s true and it would be really weird if you did a false flag one star review yourself just to say it on the show so that other people would kind of go-

Adam: What kind of sick person would do that?

Nima: That’d be really fucked up. Anyway (chuckles) this episode we are going to be talking about the mythology surrounding bootstrapism, a defining feature of our American society and the common refrain in the media of what we refer to as “perseverance porn.” And this is something Adam you’ve written about for FAIR. You possibly coined that term. Did you coin that term?

Adam: I think I did.

Nima: Yeah. I’m going to give you credit for that.

Adam: I don’t know for sure, but I don’t believe that I took it from someone, but if I did, I apologize, but no perseverance porn is broadly defined as the media macro-tizing the micro and ascribing moral properties to people who overcome seemingly large obstacles and completely stripping the stories of any context either politically or morally.

Nima: Or racially or economically.

Adam: So we’ve seen these stories a million times. You have the seven year old who collects cans to save for college. A man with unmatched moxie walks 15 miles to his job —

Nima: Uphill both ways.

Adam: Uphill both ways. A low wage worker buys shoes for a kid whose mother can’t afford them. An inspiring teen goes right back to work at a fast food restaurant after he was injured in a car accident and suffers a neck fracture and a broken arm. These are all heartwarming stories that people share. Now. I like to think that in a moral society, these stories would solicit a ‘holy shit!’

Nima: A ‘Holy shit! What have we become!?’

Adam: ‘What have we become?’ Yeah. These are the people that are holding on to like sort of, you know, like a cockroach in a toilet bowl, to like the the very rungs of society while they’re being flushed down and our response is, isn’t that really cool?

Nima: Look at that gumption. Look at that grit and determination. Look at the strength of the individual in our society against all odds.

[Begin Clip Montage]

Woman #1: We first learned about this incredible seven year old from a viewer, he started his own recycling business.

Man #1: Footlocker employee showing her Christmas spirit by buying a pair of Nikes for a 10 year old boy.

Man #2: Hakeem Tyler still went to work even though he was wearing a neck brace and a sling. One customer was so impressed, he started an online fundraiser for him. Tyler told him he got into a car accident and didn’t call in sick because he needed the money for Christmas presents and to be able to feed the homeless as well.

Man #3: Hurricane Harvey relief efforts getting an unexpected boost. Texas prison inmates donated more than $53,000. That money is used by the inmates to buy food and supplies while they’re locked up.

Woman #2: Mr. Erickson is saving up to pay for his beloved wife to get cataract surgery and some much needed dental work. Donations, mostly small amounts from students themselves, came pouring in.

[End Clip Montage]

Nima: So what are the origins of this ethos? Who does it benefit and most important of all, how does the media consistently work to reinforce this bootstrap ideology? We discuss this and more on today’s show with our guest, Tony Valdés, CEO of the Children’s Crisis Treatment Center.

[Begin Clip]

Tony Valdés: The bootstrap myth, as a term, really didn’t take off in its use until the 1980s. That’s where you saw the kind of spike where it starts to show up in the media, it starts to show up in newspapers and of course later on, you know with the Internet, we started seeing it more and more and that’s when it began to take off and if you think about what politicians have been doing in the United States since that time is that it doesn’t matter if they’re Republican or Democrat, if you notice, um, any president when he is speaking to the nation will have someone stand up in the audience, some average guy has done this amazing thing and use that person as an example.

[End Clip]

Adam: Perseverance porn is part of a broader media culture that fetishizes anecdote over sort of systemic or societal critiques. It prioritizes the micro over the macro, um, and that success is sort of seen as being an issue of moral virtue as opposed to something that’s systemic. Perseverance porn, I think more than anything, really reinforces an exceedingly right-wing ideology. They use the sort of cover of personal interest story to really address urgent issues like, for example, lack of health care for the elderly, the extreme amounts of poverty you have to get into to go to college. Each one of these stories has a corresponding societal failing that goes completely, completely unaddressed while these stories go viral, and again, they’re sort of cheap and easy and you’re kind of person that doesn’t really think much critically about these shares them and every time, every time these are shared and every time these are read, there’s a very specific ideological current in them that says if they could make it, so can you.

Nima: So can I. And this speaks a lot to how American society and the idea of the American dream, the idea of this Horatio Alger story, right? Of making it by yourself, how this idea of this rugged individualism infuses all of our society and one example of how this plays out in public opinion, there’s an oft cited 2009 Pew Research poll that found by a 71 to 21 percent margin Americans believe that personal attributes like hard work and drive are more important to economic mobility than external conditions such as the economy and economic circumstances growing up. This speaks directly to what this fundamental narrative in the American imagination is all about. The idea that you yourself are responsible for your success, for your future, that no one can help you and that you need to do it yourself. And if that means walking X miles to work every day because there’s no fucking bus routes that should be there for you —

Adam: This is a very common one. It’s been done a million times.

Nima: Yeah.

[Begin Clip Montage]

Woman #1: The 52 year old walks to work at this Braum’s from his home in Plano. 15 miles five days a week.

Woman #2: He’s been walking 21 miles to work for 10 years.

Man #1: Let alone a long walk alone while vehicles passed by no free ride today. It is the price of dedication.

Man #2: I walk slow because I’m in no hurry so it takes me about maybe two hours, three hours at most.

Woman #3: A path he’s walked the last seven months.

Woman #4: Cory Patrick told me over and over again he really does not want the spotlight, but we wanted to share his story because it really goes to show you there are no excuses.

Woman #5: So late last month in the middle of that winter storm that was shutting down all the public transportation this kid walks 10 miles because he has an interview for a job, a minimum wage job.

Man #3: But tonight one worker who is beyond committed, not just walking to work, walking 10 miles each way because he couldn’t afford a new car.

Woman #6: No excuses. Just a man leading by example. One step at a time.

[End Clip Montage]

Adam: So we got eight miles, 10 miles, 15 miles, 17 miles. I mean, it’s a fucking formula, right? In the majority of the stories the good gentleman is black and then quite a few of them, I think at least three of these examples, some nice white person comes along and buys them a car. Right?

Nima: Right.

Adam: This is the sort of the white savior, the sort of, you know, Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side comes in —

Nima: Exactly.

Adam: And says ‘we got you,’ and then so you’re really appealing to this bourgeois morality.

Nima: And that they’ve proven that they’re worthy of help.

Adam: Right.

Nima: That they are showing their value to society because they are putting themselves so out to then serve the society that is destroying them.

Adam: They’re one of the good ones. They’re Will Smith from Pursuit of Happyness or Ben Carson, they’re one of the good ones.

Nima: Exactly.

Adam: Obviously there’s a huge racial context to this which we’re going to get into later. But the, the perseverance porn, local news media’s trope I really think is a sort of pure distillation of just capitalist rot where, where you’re not only ignoring societal problems, but you’re shaming those who maybe don’t have the same moxie or grit or, or can-do-it spirit, right? Because-

Nima: Well exactly because there’s the other side of the bootstrap, right? Which is we laud those who pull themselves up from whatever mired in negative circumstances that are never actually investigated why those circumstances exist in the first place. They’re just kind of assumed to be the common nature of things. And that you have to by yourself pull yourself out of it, but the flip side of that is then those who don’t achieve that success, it’s then a moral failing of them. They’re not doing the work, they’re not exerting the effort inherent in what it takes to be successful. And so obviously this narrative comes from somewhere. This is not, this is not just like inherent to every single culture in society around the world. This is very much linked to a kind of ideology based on success equaling wealth and also what it means to kind of overcome negative circumstances, which is this whole American Dream trope.

Adam: Yeah. And when these stories are shared, they’re, they’re almost always done, and you can go to Twitter and see this, they’re always done with some moral declarative about no excuses. You know, next time you feel down, read this story.

Nima: Exactly.

Adam: Denver ABC 7’s local anchor Anne Trujillo, and there’s about a million of these examples by the way this is just one, shared the story of a man who walked 15 miles to work and said, quote, “This man is proof we all just need to keep walking no matter what life throws at us.” Now. I think a man walking 15 miles to work is proof that we need a fucking bus system that works.

Nima: Exactly. Exactly. That’s insanely fucked up.

Adam: A normal moral reaction would be like, man, that guy’s walking 15 miles to work-

Nima: Right.

Adam: That’s really weird and not right unless of course he’s like, you know, in the middle of the desert or something, and he’s —

Nima: And has decided to live there.

Adam: Sure.

Nima: Because he’s decided to live there.

Adam: Right.

Nima: It also goes to, if you need to travel that kind of distance to go to your job, what is available to you in, in your own community where you live? Why are the jobs that far? And if they are that far and that’s a, that’s a personal choice, not a necessity out of survival, you need to then be able to get to that place without an additional hardship. Like the job he’s going to is clearly already a hard job. And so it’s just compounding that.

Adam: Right you’re making a clear moral statement statement, right?

Nima: Right.

Adam: There is another example, which I thought was more cartoonishly like, I mean just mind-bogglingly stupid, but it was a CBS report on a quote “inspiring African American kid” who returned to his job at Chick-fil-A the day after he was in a car accident. He had a neck laceration and a broken arm and I guess someone supposedly spotted him working the cashier and CBS framed this with the headline quote, “Why this inspiring teen went right back to work after car accident.” And then they claim that like, ‘oh well it’s because he also was raising money for some stuff for charity for Christmas.’ Right?

Nima: So look at his dedication to not only his job but also, he’s a giver.

Adam: Right. This is why does this guy have to work with a fucking broken arm? (Chuckles.)

Nima: Right. It’s clearly because the system is not helping him.

Adam: Right. And it’s like there’s these moral, the fabric of societies unraveling before these anchors and their response is to use it as a, as a form of ideological agitprop about how hard you need to work.

Nima: They’re like, ‘look at that plucky youngster.’ And then like they get a car service home.

Adam: And I think this goes hand in hand with the broader trend of, of a kind of GoFundMe economy that relies on a personal narrative. Right?

Nima: And you actually wrote about this in the piece you did for FAIR, that there’s like this almost gig notion of American ideology.

Adam: If you tether people’s worth of getting charity to their ability to go viral, you set up a very pernicious economic system, right?

Nima: Competition yeah.

Adam: So of the $2 billion raised on GoFundMe since it started in 2010, $930 million or almost half of it has been for personal healthcare expenses. Um, and the majority of that money is raised through virality. It’s raised through the ability to have a compelling narrative and to share it. So-

Nima: Right. A tear-jerking story. It’s commodifying and making competitive sorrow and suffering and being destitute, being desperate is now seen as, like, the best marketing strategy to not die.

Adam: And what’s great is the CNN’s of the world will, they’ll have hours of this type of programming, right? They’ll have the special interest story. The kid who saves up the cans, blah, blah blah, or the people who need to go to GoFundMe to raise money, they’ll do a million of those stories, but they’ll do basically 10 minutes on single-payer healthcare and they’ll bring in Randy Bryce and then they’ll, they’ll demagogue him over $32 trillion and how we can’t afford it. And it’s like you just did a story about a kid who had to show up to Chick-fil-A to make his rent with a broken arm. And then without any irony or any self awareness, you turn around five minutes later and you say, oh, you know, universal healthcare is just not realistic.

Nima: Exactly.

Adam: Well what’s realistic? But 45,000 people a year, according to a Harvard study from 2009, 45,000 people a year die of lack of healthcare in this country.

Nima: Right.

Adam: Now with Obamacare that number is probably a little lower. I’d say I mean we’ll be generous and we’ll say it’s half. That’s 23,000 people.

Nima: And there are now attempts to destroy that, I mean, to make it far worse.

Adam: Oh yeah and they probably will succeed. Right? And this is a low estimate. So you know, we talk about things like realism or what we can afford, but there’s no real sense of the stakes here. And so time and time again how we cover even healthcare is done purely in perseverance porn terms.

Nima: Yup. And that our heroes are those who are somehow surviving this system designed to destroy them. And what is then not challenged is the system in place itself. It’s that —

Adam: You’re never allowed to do that.

Nima: You know, you need to get yourself out of this fucked up situation because government is a problem because our communities are failing because there’s no infrastructure, blah, blah blah. But obviously those aren’t the things that need to be fixed. It’s you need to fix yourself, you need to do better, you need to walk 25 miles, you need to collect those cans, you need to go into debt and then create an app. Do you know what I mean? Like, like these are the things that now are the measures of human survival, which is just gladiatorial in its concept and insane and it’s lack of humanity.

Adam: It’s cause local media especially and media in general, they’re allowed to ask how they’re not really allowed to ask why, right? They’re not really supposed to say, why do we have this system? Um, the people who work in these industries are typically, the person who asks why doesn’t really get very far.

Nima: Yeah.

Adam: So again, a systemic critique of say, you know, the healthcare system is never going to get past an editor, but a cheap —

Nima: A feel good story because they’re feel good. That’s what’s so sick.

Adam: Right. But they’re also are deeply ideological too.

Nima: Right.

Adam: And I think they are ideological by design. I think there is, you know, you build up these barriers because that’s really the question is like what is the sort of mechanism for this? And this is something we will get into later, which is the idea, you have this broader culture, we have, we all sort of accept this bootstrap culture, this Horatio Alger culture, but cultural explanations, as we talked about, I find them kind of unsatisfying. I think there are sort of deliberate propaganda forces that really do reinforce this. And I think that the inherently conservative nature of, especially local media, really does continually reinforce this stuff. They’re just deeply disincentivized to ask any kind of meaningful question about capitalism or about the system itself. It is a media product that is by definition myopic and by definition conservative.

Nima: Now one other aspect of this, before we speak with our guest, that we wanted to talk about, Adam, you and I were talking about this earlier before we started recording this episode, is the idea of kind of relating bootstrapism to like inspiring sports films.

Adam: Yeah. So like I’m kind of fascinated.

Nima: (Laughs.) Yeah.

Adam: We talk a lot about pop culture on the show as I’ve said several times, I think pop culture is actually the single most common way in which people ingest ideology. Right?

Nima: Sure.

Adam: It’s not an original opinion, but I think it’s worth reinforcing that most people don’t actually read fucking what, you know, Paul Krugman or Thomas Friedman has to say.

Nima: Right.

Adam: Most people ingest ideology through pop culture.

Nima: And pop culture is not only music and TV, film, literature, it also kind of spans across, I mean faith could be pop culture, so I think there’s this whole kind of cultural aspect that goes hand in hand with when we talk about media, it’s not just news media and it’s not just entertainment media, there’s this fashion-as-pop-culture that’s kind of hugely influential. So just to kind of tease that out.

Adam: Sure yeah. The thing I find interesting in my thinking about this was the sports film as a kind of deeply ideological product. Right? And so I examined some films, some of which I’d seen, some of which I haven’t quite seen, but got the general idea, you know, movies like Invincible where Mark Wahlberg is a bartender who tries out for the Philadelphia Eagles.

Nima: Right.

Adam: Million Dollar Arm, where they find like a baseball player in India, obviously Rudy.

Nima: Rudy, sure.

Adam: Rudy is sort of the quintessential, Rocky is actually sort of the original, original, right? The Blind Side, which is the ultimate white savior version of this or-

Nima: Miracle is another one.

Adam: Miracle. The Rookie with Dennis Quaid and all these are very ideological products and they may seem trivial because oh lol it’s just a movie, but every one of them has the exact same premise, which is that someone is either really poor or like hard working and they overcome this huge obstacle to win. Right? And you go, okay, it’s fantasy. It’s escapism. Fair enough. The interesting thing is we actually look at, because these are all true stories, if you actually look at the actual details of the story, there’s always some huge mitigating factor that actually makes it not that much of a real rags to riches story. Like, for example, in The Rookie, he was supposed to be a science teacher who just decided to play baseball one day and because the students challenged him and then he goes out and tries out and becomes a rookie at the age of 40. And they have some throwaway line about how he was used to be in the minors, but then you actually read it, he actually played in the minors for several years. He wasn’t obscure.

Nima: (Chuckles.) Right.

Adam: Like so I mean okay that was cool he did it. Or like the movie Invincible where it’s like he’s, Mark Wahlberg plays a bartender who was like a walk on for the Philadelphia Eagles and, you know, he’s some nobody who played a little bit in high school and then he goes and walks on and then he makes the team and you’re like, oh, that’s really cool, but then you read the story and the guy actually had a private workout and was asked to do it and had played in professional football before.

Nima: Right.

Adam: Well, that’s not really that interesting.

Nima: Right, and that’s not the overall kind of success story.

Adam: Right. Now a screenwriter for Disney would say, ‘well, what the fuck do you want from me I’m writing a movie.’ I’d say, okay, no fair enough and I get that I’m litigating the veracity of Disney movies here. I’m aware that that may seem absurd on its face, but I do think in the aggregate that these types of tropes do start to wear people down and give the impression that they need to, they do need to bootstrap themselves. And again, this is just one sort of subgenre. You see this in a ton of different movies.

Nima: Of course.

Adam: And you could say narratively that’s because right-wing narratives are more interesting because I don’t want to watch some mediocre white guy overcome mediocre obstacles, which is by the way the story of my life, and that’s just not very interesting, right?

Nima: (Laughing.)

Adam: Like, you know, if I’m telling you my story-

Nima: And you had so much help along the way. (Laughs.)

Adam: Yeah, you know. I grew up in the suburbs. Yeah, it was rough being me. Um, I had to roll out of bed at 11:00 as a freelance writer. It’s just miserable. Um, I came from the mean streets of San Antonio. Um, so I think that like these ideological products that reinforce this narrative over and over and over and over again do began in the aggregate to sort of wear people down and the assumption that, oh, well the most noble thing you can do is to overcome obstacles and if you don’t, there’s some sort of moral failing.

Nima: This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t watch inspiring films. I watch those kinds of fucking movies all the time. It’s just, it’s just about being able to see how these are all interwoven and how they’re not just isolated things. I mean it’s just, you know, it’s a way of then kind of opening your eyes to what we are inundated with day in and day out.

Adam: Well and then there’s the chicken and the egg issue, which is always with media criticism, which is, is our cinema generally very bootstrapping right-wing because of some corporate conspiracy or is it because people want that? I think it’s, I think it’s a combination of both really, and they obviously do have a feedback loop because again, I think that the perseverance porn product that you see in the media is simply a iteration on that kind of Disneyfication of how we view success, for lack of a better word, right? It’s just, it’s the same product. It’s just one’s nominally news and one’s some $50 million movie, so. But they all have a sort of general premise, which we’ll get into with our guest, which is that they macrotize the micro, and they moralize what really shouldn’t be moralized. Like for example, I consider myself personally in many ways, I guess I’m sort of a conservative guy on a personal level, right? Um, it’s sort of like how like the gravity of small planets is not the same as large galaxies. We don’t quite know why that is, but it’s just the way it is. Like what’s good for the micro does not really make sense for the macro. So if I had a nephew that came to me and said, he’s 18, he says, ‘What should I do? Should I go to college?’ I’d say, well of course you should go to college. That correlates directly with how much you’re gonna make and that seems like a smart thing to do, but I also know that college is actually not a way of ameliorating poverty in the macro.

Nima: Right. That’s not the answer. And yet it is the shortcut in how we conceive of the trajectory of success.

Adam: Or the right does over and over again and even some neo-liberals, right? Vis-a-vis charter schools and, you know, the sort of concept that poverty can be solved by education.

Nima: Education. Yeah.

Adam: Is they macrotize the micro because it’s the same thing to do with federal budgets, right? It’s your family budget is the same thing as the federal budget, right? It’s a rhetorical trick and it’s one that I think has a really, in the aggregate, has a negative effect cause we really do, we personally know that if we work hard we can maybe achieve a little bit more, but that’s not a way you run a society because you know again, the example of education and jobs, there’s a fixed amount of jobs. You can have the most educated workforce in the world. It’s not going to make you more jobs. And so I think that the habit of people assuming their personal story, right? ‘I worked hard,’ ‘I did this, that,’ ‘That’s how the country should be run,’ is a really popular but really toxic idea that reinforces itself in about a million ways in our society.

Nima: We’re going to talk more about this bootstrap myth with Tony Valdés, CEO of the Children’s Crisis Treatment Center, a Philadelphia nonprofit specializing in providing behavioral health services to children and families.

Adam: Tony will explain why the bootstrap myth has a negative public harm on how we treat child development and provide services for children. Stay tuned for that.

[Music]

Nima: We are now joined by Tony Valdés, CEO of the Children’s Crisis Treatment Center. Hi Tony.

Tony Valdés: Hi. How are you?

Nima: Great.

Adam: Thank you so much for joining us. So, um, we talk a lot about the sort of way in which the media and politicians and I guess our broader culture frames the idea of the bootstrap and idea of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. I wanna start off by talking about what you view as being the cultural or ideological origins of this myth and and why you think it’s sort of never really goes away.

Tony Valdés: It’s really interesting because most people give credit of the concept to a book called The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen which was basically a comic book type story from the 1780s and it’s really meant to represent, lifting oneself up by the bootstraps is meant to represent something that’s really ludicrous or far fetched. So the concept and its origin was meant to be somewhat sarcastic about an impossible task, meaning it is impossible to lift oneself up by one’s bootstraps.

Nima: Well, right, and yet then we see that it’s been lumped in with the Horatio Alger story notion of success and humble beginnings plus hard work can equal exceptional success. You’ve done some really fascinating work tearing that apart and as you said, the idea of bootstrapism is inherently a fantasy and yet it’s used in American society now as kind of part and parcel of the American dream. So it conflates the two.

Tony Valdés: Correct. That’s exactly right. Part of the challenge is the modern version took off when we saw, in the early part of the 20th century as we saw the industrialists begin to make enormous wealth from what appeared, to the public eye, as coming from nowhere. Obviously those narratives became important for the people that were creating that wealth and make themselves look like it was coming from nowhere, but as that grew and the image grew it started to create a new image, like somehow the meaning went from being something impossible to meaning something that was possible. Almost like a lottery ticket. But one of the things that I thought was really interesting when I looked at this before, when you look at American, the language, English spoken in United States, the bootstrap myth, as a term, really didn’t take off in its use until the 1980s. That’s where you saw the kind of spike where it starts to show up in the media, it starts to show up in newspapers and of course later on, you know with the Internet, we started seeing it more and more and that’s when it began to take off and if you think about what politicians have been doing in the United States since that time is that it doesn’t matter if they’re Republican or Democrat, if you notice, any president when he is speaking to the nation will have someone stand up in the audience, some average guy has done this amazing thing and use that person as an example. And so this kind of narrative of speaking about examples, exceptions has become a norm. But the challenge with that is when we think of percentages of people who get out of a difficult circumstance, a very difficult challenge they’re very, very, very small. But when we keep repeating that person, we start turning this exceptional person who did something exceptional by getting themselves out of a very impossible situation, we start making them normal in our society, like somehow that’s what we’re all supposed to do.

Adam: And of course this mythology doesn’t exist in isolation. So why don’t you talk about how pernicious this mythology can be in your work specifically at the Children’s Crisis Treatment Center and obviously it has a very collective political effect negatively because it cuts programs to the poor and pathologizes poverty, which is the whole topic of the show. But also, I mean, does, does it actually affect the mentality of children as such? Do they actually feel like they’re failing when they, when they, when they shouldn’t feel that way?

Tony Valdés: I would discuss that piece of it in a more macro kind of way of thinking in terms of families and communities.

Adam: Okay.

Tony Valdés: So when a lot of ugly things happen to families and communities, so like violence,you know, extreme poverty, all kinds of diversity, racism, all the different kinds of things that can fall into that bucket that cause adversity in a community or a family, when we go through trauma, any of us go through any traumatic event or go through any kind of significant adversity, one of the things that happens is that we have what at the moment is an adaptive behavior. We react to that trauma or that adversity. And if it’s chronic in nature, in other words, it’s repeating over and over and over again, we kind of stay stuck with that. What was an adaptive behavior in that moment and becomes, in other settings, once the violence is not around us any longer or the danger or the adversity, it becomes a maladaptive behavior. Now what often happens in families and communities is that behavior stays as part of that community or part of that family. And so now you’re setting up kids to fail right from the beginning because now it’s not even experience that they necessarily have that leads to behaviors and maladaptive behaviors that make complete sense when you’re in the middle of the crisis, that make no sense in a more, in a safer, quieter situation. So it’s the kid that’s walking, the kid that, you know, the proverbial kid that people end up being afraid of when they see them walking down the sidewalk and across the other side of the street, but when they bump into him and the kid turns around in some sort of angry fashion, not understanding that that kid genuinely feels unsafe.

Adam: Right.

Tony Valdés: He genuinely feels unsafe. He is not turning around because he’s a punk or a bad kid or anything like that. He truly feels unsafe at that moment. But if we don’t understand it from that perspective, what happens to that kid? The whole cycle of him getting arrested, him reacting appropriately to a police officer who confronts him about something. That whole series of events that all relate to a lack of safety that has to do with past experiences, not only by that child directly, but by family members and other people that might have been passed down in a family or in a community.

Adam: I feel like there’s kind instinct to not want to, to want to, um, even if people like me who you know, I can look at a thousand studies. Study after study that shows that the single biggest predictor of one’s economic, where they’ll end up economically is where they’re born and also to some extent their family conditions and race, frankly. But at the same time, I always think, okay, well there’s something romantic about the idea of the bootstrap, right? There’s something sort of like, because I think we want to rebel against this notion of predeterminism. I think it’s sort of a human instinct in many ways. Um, even outside of the kind of right-wing trappings, you know, you have movie after movie after movie, we talked about it earlier about the sort of Disney sports movie, they all have the same premise, right? Some obscure person makes it and like it’s just ingrained into our culture even more so than I think other cultures. Do you think there’s still a place for that kind of like, for lack of a better word, optimistic output or-

Nima: Like an aspirational —

Adam: Aspirational or, you know, because there are a lot of, the big right-wing trope is like this kind of victim culture becomes self perpetuating, which I think is total horseshit. But what, what do you say to that and do you think there’s a place for that for like any kind of aspirational language when it comes to like talking to children or trying to develop policies around children?

Tony Valdés: Yeah I think there absolutely is. And we often talk about this thinking in terms of the scale. On the one side of the scale you have what’s called adversity. Right? On the other side of the scale you have protective factors. And when you start looking at those individuals that were able to survive or even flourish despite significant trauma or adversity which you begin to understand is, that scale is balanced towards the side of protective factors despite the fact that they had a lot of adversity.

Adam: Okay.

Tony Valdés: So one of the things about the sports films, which I love because it’s kind of ironic, they kind of prove the point, the number one most significant protective factor in predicting whether someone is going to be likely to be able to survive adversity and thrive despite the adversity is having had at least one loving, caring, supportive adult in their childhood. Now you take a step back and watch all those sports movies you just talked about, all those movies that someone made it despite all odds, what is it that they have in common?

Adam: Right.

Tony Valdés: Almost everyone talks about these heroic adults that were there. Some adult that came through for that kid.

Nima: Right.

Adam: Right.

Tony Valdés: So the irony is that those same movies that look like they might be telling an unfavorable story to this concept are actually telling a favorable story. That if you, if you fill a child’s life with protective factors, some people call them buffers, if you fill their life with this stuff, they’re going to be able to, they’re more likely to survive and do well despite challenges that they might face.

Nima: Now something you talk about a lot is this notion of the safety net. I think what we see often in our media, in our pop culture, just in our basic common sense in our society is almost a fundamental misunderstanding or certainly a misrepresentation of what is known as the social safety net and that I think we hear it more often in a negative context, like a handout, a crutch, something bestowed upon people who can’t help themselves rather than a foundation like the fundamental foundation of a functioning society. Can you talk to us about that safety net notion, which I think actually has a lot to do with what we even see in those sports films. There is a foundation at work there as well.

Tony Valdés: Right. You hit it on the head and the word “foundation” is perfect. I’ve stopped using the term safety net for that reason and use foundation as exactly the word I talk about when this subject comes up and the reason is because as you start looking at all kinds of planning and things that we do in communities as we think about, for example, in gentrification happening in certain neighborhoods and people move into, the people who used to live in that newly gentrified area have moved into other communities, they often are moving into communities that don’t have systems in place. Sort of that foundation in place and that’s why the struggling kind of continues going forward, despite the fact that they might have received some money for the house they sold or whatever it might be. It’s very, very, it’s a real problem in society because we’re focused on the individual. We keep thinking that the individual functions in silo, and so as a result, the idea of safety net comes out of the idea that if someone falls, there’s a net that’s going to catch them and give them the assistance that they need until they can get themselves back up again. That actually continues to push forward the concept of the bootstrap myth. It actually is promoting the bootstrap myth. A safety net concept says that this person has maybe a little bit of help, but for the most part, once they get that little bit of help for the crisis they can lift themselves back up, instead of understanding that all of us, all kids, especially kids, if you think about this from a children’s perspective, need certain foundational, uh, characteristics in their lives in order to be more likely to succeed. This is, you know, I hate to talk about this and not be thinking in terms of individuals because that’s what we do every day is work with individual kids. But this concept is macro, right? It’s about the general population and what the majority of people need. And the vast majority of people need certain characteristics in their lives so that they’re more likely to succeed and more likely to have a healthy life. And the irony of the safety net is the safety net feeds the bootstrap myth. And I think that’s and the language matters a great deal because as we, as we think, for example, about where and I’m going to use examples of cities where we put health centers, community centers, and where we think about public services and all these kinds of things that are critical to playgrounds, places for families to come together, for kids to come together. The second biggest protective factor is the idea of sense of identity, community, being part of a group. This is where safe groups come in so importantly and this is where ethnicity comes in so importantly. Family. It’s a sense that I belong to something gives meaning to my life. Well just imagine how that plays out in communities these days where people are afraid to go outside and because they think their kids are unsafe to go outside so —

Adam: Right.

Tony Valdés: We need to, this idea of building communities is actually basic and critical to the likelihood that our kids are going to be successful in the next generation and generation after that, on and on and on.

Nima: Which is fundamentally different than this more individualistic, ‘you need to do this by yourself’, ‘no one is going to help you’ ‘government is a negative, it does more to hold you back,’ there’s a 2009 Pew poll that I think is, is often referenced, we’ve referenced it before on this show, um, when we talked about deficits and, and how this kind of notion of who is a lag on society, who is more productive, Americans need to be productive and hardworking and do everything by themselves. And what you were just saying, Tony, speaks exactly to the idea of, you know, there are these communities that thrive together and that no one need be alone to actually have quote unquote what is known as “success.” I mean, you also talked about how important language is. I think the idea of this hand in hand notion of “only in America,” the “only in America” myth as well that somehow American exceptionalism is is such that all it takes is grit and determination and you can pull yourself up and out of any circumstance and that it’s really on you to do that, which then just, as you said, silos people from their communities, makes government the enemy and basically it’s kind of all on the individual lone cowboy in the wilderness to sort of make it.

Tony Valdés: The ultimate really negative that comes out of this is the concept that if it really is about us as individuals, right? If it were really, if that’s really how the world works then that would mean that that person who’s homeless, who’s poor, who’s hungry earned that situation out of their own behavior and own choices. Therefore it’s not my responsibility to do anything about it. It’s their responsibility to get themselves out of the situation and you can see the sort of cyclical nature of that and so that we can make macro political decisions and feel good about supporting those things because of that belief that somehow that person earned their bad status.

Nima: Right.

Tony Valdés: That’s really the ultimate ugliness that comes out of this kind of thinking that is dangerous for us as a people.

Adam: Yeah. The key issue here is one of social mobility. From a 2011 study of OECD countries that rank social mobility, um, the United States was fourth to last. It was ahead of Chile, Italy and United Kingdom and there was greater social mobility in Switzerland, France, Spain, Germany, New Zealand, Sweden, Australia, Canada, and the best social mobility was the top three we didn’t really associate with, I guess Socialism or Democratic Socialism, was Finland, Norway and Denmark. So the sort of core axiom of the bootstrap myth, which is, you know, social mobility, is empirically time and time again proven not really true. And when I try to explain this to people, they sort of just won’t accept the data and it’s like it’s been shown across studies and it seems like that would be the sort of fact that would disprove the religion of bootstrapism. And I guess I’m curious, do you think it’s just ingrained in our culture that we just refuse any kind of empirical data?

Tony Valdés: Well to some extent, you know, I’ve certainly held the opinion that during the fight of the Cold War, we fought so hard that anything that might have sounded anything like socialism-

Adam: Right.

Tony Valdés: That we tend to implement an amount of internal propaganda around this concept for over 50 years. But I do think the, um, the uh, concept of individualism is like a drug for the person who’s doing well. You know, ‘I’ve earned this,’ ‘I’m special,’ ‘I’m better,’ ‘I’m doing well because I’m better than the other guy.’ So it’s a little bit of a drug involved in this as well in terms of it feeds one’s ego if you’re on the positive side of that formula. So it’s not an easy thing for someone who has, who’s built their entire life on a concept of ‘I’ve earned everything I’ve done.’ ‘Everything I have, I’ve earned.’ How many times have we all heard that phrase? ‘I’ve earned everything I have.’

Nima: Its the whole, you know, ‘you didn’t build that.’ And the backlash based on that.

Tony Valdés: Right.

Adam: ‘Cause Nima and I were talking offline about that this idea is, I think, most hard grained in, bizarrely enough, immigrant communities, obviously very much so I think especially ones that are from middle class upbringings within the countries themselves, um, because they obviously have a different experience than people who are poor who come from these countries. But also people who are sort of lower or middle class whites who then become middle class or upper class who sort of gain some mobility and small business owners especially. Um, time and time again, the most predictable Republican voters, who I think are the ideological vanguard as far as the whites go, that was basically the core-

Nima: Constituency —

Adam: Constituency of the Tea Party and that was their entire like ethos. Its funny cause people say, ‘Oh, the Tea Party is a bunch of dumb rednecks.’ Empirically that wasn’t true. The Tea Party was actually had a higher rate of education than the population in general and was wealthier than the population in general. They weren’t poor and they were like educated in a very technical sense. Right? Um, so I think it’s interesting that they’re kind of the vanguard of this ideology. I don’t know. It seems to me like they’re the ones who are so obsessed with protecting it because they are the ones who sort of slightly benefited from it and they want to make sure that they pull the ladder up from behind them.

Tony Valdés: And I just would add that I truly believe as individuals, it makes them feel good.

Adam: Right.

Tony Valdés: I mean the fact is that the more you can say to yourself that ‘I have achieved everything I’ve achieved because I’m awesome.’

Nima: Right.

Tony Valdés: You know, it’s not, it’s a bit like a drug. Your ego being stroked.

Adam: Libertarianism is a drug.

Nima: (Laughs.)

Adam: I mean, yeah, because a lot of the people who are the hardcore Libertarian billionaires, which is pretty much all of them, you’re sort of Bezos’, you’re Peter Thiel’s, like they probably yeah, they legitimately believe, as you know, as the Calvinists did that like their wealth is representative of their moral properties, which you know, when you believe that shit, I mean, any degree of sociopathy is allowed.

Tony Valdés: (Laughs.)

Nima: Well. Right. And then basically what winds up happening is because they have credited themselves with earning their wealth, their power, their prestige, their influence, if they were to admit anything different, if they were to admit that actually ‘I benefit from a system of’ whatever it may be from ‘I went to school on the GI Bill’ or ‘I was part of a community that was really supportive’ or I, you know, etcetera, etcetera. ‘I got this kind of help from so and so’ or, or from a government agency or state and local. Like if you do that, then you have to admit that other people could benefit that way too which makes you far less exceptional.

Adam: Right.

Tony Valdés: Yeah. And the shame is of course there is the other side of this too which is that this exceptional concept has been turned into normal for many people though. In other words, it’s like when people don’t achieve it, they’re viewed as failures. So there is that whole negative side of this coin that actually labels those who are not achieving as failures.

Adam: Moral failures. Well, I think that pretty much wraps it up. Um, I really appreciate this perspective. It was really good, especially in terms of like early childhood development. I don’t think it’s how a lot of people think about it, but to me it actually seems like where the rubber hits the road on this question.

Nima: Yeah. Thank you so much Tony Valdés, CEO of Children’s Crisis Treatment Center, for joining us on Citations Needed.

Tony Valdés: Thank you very much. Take care.

[Music]

Nima: That was Tony Valdés, CEO of the Children’s Crisis Treatment Center, a Philadelphia nonprofit providing behavioral health services to children and families. I thought that was great.

Adam: I thought that was a good angle to take because it’s one thing to say, here’s the data about social mobility and here are the negative tropes about the negative effects on healthcare, on social safety net, how we perceive those things, but when you actually look at it from the early development perspective, you realize that all the generic language we use and all the cliches don’t really mean shit in that-

Nima: Because they have serious implications.

Adam: They have serious implications and also like, again, when you grow up in a society where we associate poverty with a moral failing, it has to, in the aggregate, have a negative reinforcing effect on children and teenagers who are poor. You know, did my parents fail? Am I failing? The constant shame goes along with that, right? You have, you have EBT cards, right? Where you have to go and it’s clearly labeled when you’re in the store, you know what I mean? They could make those look like credit cards, but they don’t because they’re using social shame as part of it, right?

Nima: Exactly.

Adam: Um, you have to go drug test to get welfare. Even some children, right? Of a certain age have to drug test to get welfare. So society is constantly shaming poverty. Um, and I think the, again, the bootstrapism, is, is a huge factor in that because again, if I can make it, why can’t you? Again, that has to at some point take its toll. In theory a more I think civilized or more a humane society would eliminate the moral dimension from poverty altogether.

Nima: And eliminate the shame.

Adam: The shame aspect of it, right?

Nima: Yeah.

Adam: Um, because look, we all fall, you know, we all are in situations, you know, where we are, assuming were economically precarious, which I think most of our listeners probably are, that we’re all a couple of paychecks away from being poor.

Nima: Or a medical problem away from being broke. Yeah.

Adam: Exactly.

Nima: Sure.

Adam: And like there’s just, there’s a mean streak in the how we, how the media deals with this and how I think a lot of the older, a lot of Democrats and almost all Republicans, all Republicans by definition, they deal with it, deal with in a very cruel and very punitive way. And we were talking how do you sort of trace the origins of that? Is it cultural? Is it, is it more like top down media? We think it’s probably a combination of both.

Nima: Yeah. It is also fundamental to capitalism I mean you can’t have this kind of tiered system of the haves and the have-nots without this moral dimension of some people are deserving because they worked hard. Some people didn’t do enough to do what their superiors did.

Adam: Yeah. And our guest touched on it, but there’s a reason why references to bootstrap blew up in the eighties, right, because that’s when the trend of inequality started and the ideology follows the economics, right? When you consolidate media a to handful of corporations, the more likely to welcome those kinds of bootstrap, you know, stories and bootstrap agitprop. When you have a country that’s wildly unequal, we begin to sort of reverse engineer our morality around that. It has gotten worse in many ways. And again, liberals and Democrats have kind of bought into that. Obama, when he talked about education, he talked about race to the top and used a lot of that kind of right-wing language of using education as a way of getting out of poverty, which of course is a way of saying that we’re not going to fix the problem as such, we’re not going to redistribute wealth. That it’s up to you and if you don’t succeed, if you don’t, you know, go to the right charter school, you don’t stand on the piece of tape the right way, that it’s your fault, right?

Nima: Right. That there’s a blame, there’s a blame game, so it’s on you to overcome the system that is set up against you.

Adam: And I do think there’s even a tinge in the most left-wing person where you think, okay, is there something to be said for like the aspirational elements of that? Are we being too defeatist or being too, um, I guess deterministic, right? Because we don’t want to feel like we’re being deterministic and I presented that to our guest and I felt like I’m sympathetic to that, but it’s just empirically not true.

Nima: I don’t think we’re against aspiration on this show. I don’t think, (chuckles) Citations Needed is not about, you know, let’s not aspire to work hard or to improve your circumstances and you know, get yourself what you want to achieve. Right? But I think that there’s a difference between the way that it is exploited and the way that, that, that sort of always, you know, moving the goalposts, as you know, is a common phrase, like that you as a person want to get from here to there. And then when you get there, well that’s not good enough because the success has then moved down the field. That you can’t ever make enough. You’re never keeping up. Right? It’s like the Lupe Fiasco song. So that’s an aspect to it. It’s not to be too, you know, as you said, kind of fatalistic, but just to identify what these tropes are that are so common to, I think, who we are as a society and that inform every aspect of our news media and also pop culture.

Adam: So we’ve talked about it before and we’ll talk about it again a million times before the show is over, but it’s this puritan punitive streak in our culture that I think is uniquely American. It exists in other cultures, don’t get me wrong, but it seems to be very heightened in our culture and I feel like I can’t quite put my finger on what the mechanism is because to say it’s cultural is sort of reductionist and doesn’t really get you anywhere. And then of course to say that the media asserts it, I think, is maybe selling culture a bit short. So I think we’ll try to explore that more as we go through and why, why we have a society where someone sees someone walking 15 miles to work and there’s not a mention of the transportation system?

Nima: Right. And that they say, ‘oh look at that, doesn’t that show grit?’ As opposed to like, ‘oh my god, this is a nightmare, welcome to hell.’

Adam: Right. I mean and you would think even with the kid saving the money with the cans, you think if there’s children involved there would be some like instinct of protectionism. But no, it’s, ‘that’s really cool that this kid’s literally digging through garbage for the, for the right, no nay, the privilege to learn.’

Nima: The privilege.

Adam: He’s trying to learn. He’s not, he’s not buying, he’s not saving up cans to go to a strip club. He’s trying to learn. We look at that not as a failing on our part but as something that’s aspirational and good on his. And I think that’s where we’ll leave the show.

Nima: So thank you everyone again and again for listening to Citations Needed. A special shout out to our critic level supporters on Patreon. Thank you for listening everyone. This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Our production consultant is Josh Kross. The music is by Grandaddy. Thank you so much for listening. We will catch you next time.

[Music]

This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, January 17, 2018.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.

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Citations Needed

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