Episode 40: The Civility Fetish

Citations Needed | June 13, 2018 | Transcript

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George W. Bush holds hands with Michelle Obama during a memorial service following the multiple police shootings in Dallas, Texas, U.S., July 12, 2016. (Credit: Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

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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.

Nima: Thanks, everyone, for listening this week. You can of course follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, like, share, comment, do whatever on Facebook at Citations Needed and help us out, fund the show, keep it going through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. You’ll find us on there. All your help is so much appreciated.

Adam: Yeah. Sorry to keep having to push that. But it actually does, it does help. So if you thought about doing it but haven’t donated, please do. It does, it does make it sustainable. And uh, we want to be sustainable because, um, that makes a better show.

Nima: (Laughs)

Adam: Uh, so. So today’s episode is, has been touched on many times but never really talked about directly. And that’s the media’s obsession with civility norms and manners and how that is uniquely incapable of protecting us from the forces on the right.

Nima: In the media we see weasel words used to describe things that really should just be called what they are, so rather than saying that lies have been told, we hear that there are “falsehoods.” It’s not racism, it’s just “racially charged commentary.” It’s not torture, it’s just “enhanced interrogation techniques.” We can’t be too crude. You can’t mock the Honorable John McCain. You can’t use bad words. You can’t be negative about public figures. For years, the U.S. media has prioritized above all else norms and civility in their discourse.

Adam: Op-eds explicitly advocating dirty wars, coups, the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, propping up fascist governments, propping up dictatorships, the shooting of unarmed protesters, the bombing of eight countries at once as we currently are. All these things are factored in, they’re just part of the equation. What’s rhetorically out of bounds traditionally and what isn’t is far more product of power than it is any, any objective notion of civility or decency.

Nima: So where did, where did these so called norms come from? A question we ask all the time on this show is who do they benefit and why is there maintenance even in the face now of overt white nationalism or a rise of literal Nazi-ism again. Even in that time, where we are now, why is the highest priority still for so many liberals and centrists in the U.S. media, why is civility the primary goal. To discuss this and more later in the show we’ll be speaking with Ashley Feinberg, Senior Reporter at The Huffington Post.

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Adam: So there was a telling incident recently over the last few weeks, we talk about language a lot on the show and I think it’s something that we prioritize a lot but sort of goes under the radar, but the term “racially charged” actually became part of the popular discourse and solicited write-ups in Slate.com and other outlets criticizing it because the second the news about Roseanne’s show being canceled. For those who live under a rock, Roseanne tweeted out an exceedingly racist tweet, her show was summarily canceled, much to the relief of I think most, most um, right-minded people. Several outlets referred to her tweet, which was by every objective measure a racist tweet as being “racially charged.”

Nima: Yeah. So you saw The Los Angeles Times write a tweet, “Breaking news: ABC cancels Roseanne following stars racially charged comments.” Channel 10 TV said that they were “controversial,” the comments were controversial. Politico tweeted, “Sitcom star Roseanne apologized for making a racially charged comment about a former Barack Obama advisor who is African American.” We saw this also from The Hill, published a number of articles where they said that Wanda Sykes was quitting the show after a “racially charged tweet,’ also referred to the tweet as “racially charged” a number of other times. We saw it from entertainment media, like Inside Edition and ET, “Roseanne canceled after stars racially charged tweet.” “Apologizes after racially charged tweet.” Even Newsweek — I don’t know why I said even Newsweek as if they’re somehow better. That was funny — also, Newsweek said, “Wanda Sykes quits Roseanne after Barr’s racially charged twitter rant.” Racially charged is apparently the new euphemism for racist.

Adam: Yeah, and then there was a pushback and then The New York Times subsequently after the pushback, used the term racist, which I think some people probably appreciated. It does show you that there’s these terms that are kind of used, that there’s a general editorial instinct to want to downplay calling things bad things. So we saw this with NPR who is the worst at this because they’re so obsessed with not looking like they’re the liberal media. They had on their spokesperson to explain why on Morning Edition to why they never call Trump’s lies, lies or refer to Trump as a liar. She said that she went to go look at the definition of Oxford English Dictionary to seek the definition of lie, which she said was quoted, “A false statement made with intent to deceive,” and then she went on to say quote, “Intent being the key word there without the ability to peer into Donald Trump’s head, I can’t tell you what his intent was.”

Nima: Right.

Adam: “I can tell you what he said and how it squares, or doesn’t, with facts.” Now by this standard, of course you can never call anyone a liar.

Nima: Right. Right. Without knowing what their intention is, which means that actually the only way you could be a liar is if you call yourself a liar because you knowingly lied.

Adam: Right. Lots of terms in English language involved theory of mind, they involve mens rea of some kind, right? You’re assuming a degree of ill intent by using what you know normal human beings do, which is pattern recognition, which is, after the hundredth time Trump has been corrected on something or the thousandth time he’s lied and he kind of winks and nods at the camera that knowing he’s lying and sort of even will tell you he’s lying that like, I think we’re in the safe spot now where we can call it a lie, but because of this civility fetish, because there are people in the media who can’t look like their partisan or they’re overreaching or too, god forbid the “I” word: ideological. We routinely come to these terms and these labels that are on their face deeply inadequate to describe the forces that are, that have emerged on the right, which is an ideology manifested by Trump but not limited to him, that is increasingly able to take this fetish, to take this fear and to use it to their advantage. Just as they have with free speech absolutism, which you know, obviously Richard Spencer just admitted was a wedge to create space for Nazi ideology. They’ve taken the civility fetish and completely dunked on Liberals and Democrats whose only recourse, is more fact checking.

Nima: Yeah. It seems like the idea that agreeing to disagree is basically the highest order of partisan politics for the media and also for a lot of politicians as if basically all of this is just a matter of rhetorical flourish or like witty repartee instead of politics having like actually very real implications for the people who live and die under the rather uncivil bombs that are dropped on them and the very uncivil threats that are made about overthrowing countries and uncivil policies that encourage families to be like torn apart from each other or land to be destroyed by extractive policies. These are real things that are not civil, but as long as you kind of don’t use bad words and don’t call names, then basically it’s deemed to be totally reasonable regardless of the actual implications of this stuff.

Adam: We saw this most, I think the Twitter Terms of Service is a really great distillation of this concept.

Nima: Yeah.

Adam: Which is to say decency and civility appeals are almost always about protecting people in power because the oppression, subjugation, and condescension of and abuse of those out of power is simply factored into the equation and I thought a really a fascinating example of this was so Twitter updated their Terms of Service last year and this was their Terms of Service for violence.

Nima: “Calls for violence,” right?

Adam: Yeah. This is “calls for violence,” which are a violation of the Terms of Service for Twitter, but they said quote, “Groups included in this policy will be those that identify as such or engage in activity both on and off the platform that promotes violence. This policy does not apply to military or government entities.” So Twitter’s Terms of Service specifically has a carve out for people in power. So you can post something saying, and this is obviously happened several times, ‘we need to bomb Iran’ or ‘we need to shoot protestors in Palestine’ or ‘we need to have regime change in North Korea’ or ‘we need to have a coup in Venezuela’ that that is acceptable forms of provocation.

Nima: Right. Those are all completely civil discourse.

Adam: Right, but telling, you know, Jeff Bezos or Donald Trump to go sit on a, on a bicycle without a seat. That’s promotion of violence. Now, of course in the former example, my words are far more likely to actually effect violence, which is to say a high status person advocating op-ed in The Washington Post a coup or regime change that in the aggregate that is far more actual material effect than someone telling the president to go fuck himself or someone telling a high status journalist that they should be removed from society or some sort of, delete your existence, or some sort of thing that’s gotten people suspended. Now without focusing too much on Twitter, I do think that that asymmetry and the sort of complete formal codification of the protection of power as a way of policing, you know, civility or, or norms is a really finite and sort of I think unequivocal example of how these concepts are meant to indemnify power. They are meant to protect power. And another example of this was apiece written in The Atlantic in uh, August of last year. It was a 12,000 word, sort of magnum opus by a writer named Kurt Andersen about the, the descent of America, and to conspiracy theory that there was this radical fringe on both the right and the left that had ruined the country. Now it’s worth noting that the biggest conspiracy theory of our generation, you and my generation is the idea that Iraq helped do 9/11.

Nima: Right.

Adam: Which of course, which fits the textbook definition of conspiracy, cherry-picked evidence, paranoia.

Nima: Right. Right, literal collusion between these, like, evil entities conspiring together —

Adam: Without evidence.

Nima: — against the noble United States and its people.

Adam: Right. So this is the textbook definition of a conspiracy theory. It turns out not to be true, as most conspiracy theories definitionally don’t. This was omitted from his 12,000 word official history. And of course the reason why it was, is the person who edits him, the managing editor, the head of The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg, was the number one promoter of this conspiracy theory.

Nima: Right. Whoops.

Adam: Now. And then he says over and over again in the piece that he uses these ableist and kind of tautological labels, crazy, insane, delusional to speak about what he calls “postmodern leftists, the antiwar left.” He claims falsely that the Weather Underground set off quote “thousands of bombs in the early seventies.” The total number of bombs that were set off by all terrorists groups in the United States was 540.

Nima: Right. Right.

Adam: But the point is to sort of say, ‘Oh, there’s these loony crazies who have sort of gone too far.’ And what’s never really reconciled is that through this time period this raises the question of was it considered crazy or insane or delusional to kill three million Indochinese in Vietnam? Was the CIA’s use of torture and coups and dirty wars and executions, are these things considered crazy? And of course the answer is no, because they’re sort of factored in. That violence is factored into the system. And that the only people who can be uncivil or be conspiracy theorists are by definition people who are not factored in.

Nima: Right. And those who are then challenging that, which is why certainly from the Sixties and beyond, and I’m sure before that as well, protestors and definitely when it came to civil disobedience, that people that challenged power, that took to the streets, that actually challenged and fought against these policies, whether it was for civil rights, whether it was against Vietnam, etcetera, etcetera. And you can take that all the way up the decades, you know, since, those are often deemed to be kind of too loud, too radical, they’re not inclusive enough even though they’re pretty much the most inclusive of, you know, marginalized and vulnerable communities. And yet protests are seen like, ‘Oh well, you know, are they going to shut down traffic? Is my commute going to be fucked up because like I think there are better ways to do that.’ And so what you see is the policies that are being challenged, right? The wars, the invasions, the deportations, etcetera, whatever it may be, those are never uncivil. Those are never uncouth. But challenging them in certain ways is insufficiently respectful.

Adam: Yeah. You see this over and over and over and over again with the way in which certain liberals talk about protests, that there’s this, there’s this sort of black and white rose tinted civil rights movement that was nonviolent and anything that involves a burnt trash can or a dumpster turned over is somehow in an affront to all humanity. Now, Samantha Bee did a very egregious version of this. We, I think we mentioned this on an episode for J20, but I do think it’s ironic that now she’s being attacked by an almost, and sold out by a lot of the civility police the liberal class for using the c word, cunt, which I feel weird saying, but apparently it’s pretty routine in Australia, which I find bizarre.

Nima: (Laughing)

Adam: Back when there was protests in the wake of Trump winning, she took to the air to left punch those who were doing quote unquote “anarchy shit.”

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Adam: And so the clip shows her version of a good protester as a bunch of people with like pre-made MoveOn.org signs and like one even has an infant in their arms shaking the hands of cops.

Nima: (Chuckles) Right.

Adam: Like this is somehow this sort of ideal-

Nima: The ultimate like Pepsi-ification of protests.

Adam: Yeah. Now one could argue that this theory of power she has, or this disposition about power is probably one of the reasons that she was obsessed with reaching out to Glenn Beck and promoted and helped revitalize him right after the election as a kind of anti Trump coalition. Now, a few weeks ago Beck came out as a Trump supporter and is now very pro Trump because one could argue that maybe ideology matters more than tone. Uh, and people who fetishize tone and don’t have the ideology, I think there was a really great line that Brandy Jensen used on Twitter where she said about people who use the term “alt-left” she said, “They’re like my dog. They can understand tone but not substance.” And I think that that’s part of the civility is about that it effectively renders us all dogs where we can sort of see tone and disposition, but the actual substance is secondary to that.

Nima: Well, which is why there can always be this false call for balance so that basically if a racist is fired somewhere in the woods, you must find someone else on the more liberal side who said something kind of nasty about one individual that is supposed to be revered and therefore they can be fired too and balance is restored to the universe. It’s this idea where reality of the implications and consequences of policy mean nothing and that it’s all right. It’s all about tone. That’s the reason George H.W. Bush could declare, after the U.S. Navy shot down a civilian Iranian airliner over the Persian Gulf in 1988, Bush on the, on the campaign trail at the time bellowed out that he would “never apologize for America,” no matter what the facts are. While then there was no uproar about that kind of fucking comment. When over two hundred civilians were blown out of the sky, while the same guy, George H.W. Bush, caught a little flak when he kind of quaintly called Bill Clinton and Al Gore “bozos” in 1992.

Adam: Right.

Nima: There’s a total disconnect that like that was sort of outrage because it was politically unsavory because he used the word “bozo” and yet you can just say whatever the fuck you want about the United States killing murdering hundreds of people. It’s not ever engaged the same way.

Adam: Yeah, and this is why the media has to sort of circle the wagons to make sure that we’re not too sensationalist or we don’t sort of call into question power too much. So there was another example of the limits of the term “racially-charged” was in 2015, this caused a little bit of an uproar too. There were emails that were leaked by Ferguson police officers that included lines such as a picture of Ronald Reagan feeding a baby monkey. And one of the police officers says, quote, “A rare photo of Ronald Reagan babysitting Barack Obama in 1962.” Then someone said in another email, “There’s a new Muslim clothing shop that opened in our shopping center, but they threw me out after I asked if I could look at some of their bomber jackets.” Then there was a story making fun of a black suspect in saying that Leroy’s last child support payment, um, after they had been killed.

Nima: Right.

Adam: Now when we look at this and having an objective person would say, this is, these are racist emails, this is how the, The Washington Post framed it, they said, “These are the racially charged emails that got 3 Ferguson police and court officials fired.”

Nima: Right.

Adam: Mediaite said, “Here are the three racially charged emails.”

Nima: Those are racist. And yet the headline calls them racially-charged.

Adam: Right. And the reason why editors do this, and I know this and I’m, and I can even be somewhat sympathetic, is that its sort of drilled into their mind to not be too sensational, but you can be sensational about people who can’t call you, who don’t have PR firms who can call you. Right? So I can say the most sensational things about North Korea or Syria or whatever. Like it’s not like the fucking Assad regime’s going to pick up the phone and call me, but if I criticize police officers or if I criticize Israel, if I criticize the US military, I’m going to get a lot of phone calls that are going to be super angry. So you see this constant rounding down where civility and the instinct toward civility is only reserved for one group of people and that’s people who are usually in the centers of power.

Nima: Yeah. Now the emphasis on civility has been in our discourse for millennia. I mean this is not something that is new. This is certainly not something that is born of the Trump era. Going back to the Ancient Roman term, pugna verborum, that kind of means ‘the battle of words’ or really like ‘fightin’ words,’ them’s fighting words. And Saint Augustine wrote that, you know, once you have those kinds of fighting words, the best thing to do in the face of that, especially he is talking about the existence of god because of what he wrote about, but when you, when you kind of get those, those difficult words, you’re better to keep silent. It’s better to just keep silent in the face of them. 17th century philosophers John Locke and Thomas Hobbes both address civility in their own writings favoring tolerant society, Locke called for something called quote “mutual charity,” whereas Hobbes called for quote “civil silence,” something more akin to what we would think of is like public discretion, say whatever you want in private, but don’t air those grievances in public, don’t have any kind of public debates or public outrage. And you see this all the time in our current discourse. I mean from Barack Obama, even just back in 2010 before Trump was really a thing in the way that he is now Obama speaking in 2010 at the national prayer breakfast said:

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Nima: And this is seen time and again. It’s the same impulse that lead lawyer Joseph Welch to declare famously to Joe McCarthy in 1954, “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” It’s the same thing where you see politicians falling over themselves to praise the civility that John McCain has brought to public discourse.

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Adam: John McCain is the human manifestation of the civility fetish, right?

Nima: Yeah.

Adam: Because he can promote the most disgusting, most violent policies, obviously the war in Iraq, we don’t need to re-litigate that, the bombing in Libya, which has led to open air slave markets, he lied, he went on Jay Leno and lied about Iraq being behind the anthrax attacks. He supports a number of other proxy wars, armed insurrections, the funding and arming of sectarian groups in the Middle East. He himself committed certain crimes in Vietnam. That all these things are sort of again they’re factored in.

Nima: And has since used racially-charged epithets about people from Vietnam.

Adam: But they don’t count because the anti Asian racism is just factored in.

Nima: Right.

Adam: And this, by the way, he reserves the right to do it till this day and told a reporter as much less than six, seven years ago. So again, this is the sort of, because he, he says nice things on the senate floor, he’s, that’s okay because the issue is not are you being civil to people of color or are you being civil to the poor? Are you being civil to people in the global south? It’s are you being civil to an ABC reporter?

Nima: Right.

Adam: Are you being civil to George Bush? Are you being civil-

Nima: To your own class?

Adam: To your own class. Right.

Nima: There’s a book from 2006 called Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, written by historian Gordon Wood, and in this book he explains about the founders of the United States, right? Those luminaries the Founding Fathers, and how they really were obsessed with this, with this notion of civility. And so here’s what Gordon Wood writes quote, “The 18th Century Anglo-American Enlightenment was preoccupied with politeness, which meant affability, sociability, cultivation; indeed, politeness was considered the source of civility, which was soon replaced by the word civilization.” End quote. So you’ll see basically how the Jeffersons and Franklins and Adams and Washingtons, especially George Washington was completely obsessed with this idea of etiquette and politeness and you’ll see how that was their version of not being this scrappy colonial upstart in kind of opposition to Europe, but of a piece with Europe that they were as civil and as civilized as the Europeans. Meanwhile, these are the people who own fucking slaves. These are the people who were genocide-ing Native Americans. I mean this, so its clear how even in the effort to say ‘we are being so polite, we write and we speak with the utmost civility,’ policies actually matter. What those people are actually doing to other humans actually matter.

Adam: Are you suggesting that ideology actually matters?

Nima: What!? No, never. Not on this show Adam.

Adam: This is a great segue to our guest who’s been wading in these waters for many years and has been the subject of many of these, of these civility police and the civility fetishists that we’re talking about.

Nima: So we will be joined in just a sec by Senior Reporter for The Huffington Post, Ashley Feinberg. Stick with us.

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Nima: We are joined now by Ashley Feinberg, Senior Reporter at The Huffington Post. Ashley, so great to have you today on Citations Needed.

Ashley Feinberg: Great to be here.

Adam: So Ashley, when we decided to do an episode about civility politics, this was specifically in relation to a media habit, which we talk about at the top of the show where people won’t say words that are kind of provocative, that there’s a kind of New York Times-ification generally in media, that if things are sort of seen as being sensational, that you’re being tabloid-y even if life itself is sensational and that we must always err on the side of watering down. And I, and of course the first thing I said, I said, actually, we should get Ashley to do this because that’s her whole shtick.

Ashley Feinberg: (Laughs) Yeah.

Adam: You have been caught in, in several, several rows involving norms and incivility. Uh, the fetishization of which I think personally has, has grown greatly under Trump, who of course doesn’t have such, such concerns. Um, now you, you’re the most famous instance was when you made a joke, I think a quite funny joke about John McCain —

Ashley Feinberg: Yeah, yeah.

Nima: Yeah, we’re all big fans of that joke.

Adam: It’s a good joke.

Ashley Feinberg: Also, the main issue with that tweet in retrospect was that it wasn’t entirely factually accurate because his wife actually has more money, so that is my biggest shame really in writing that.

Nima: (Laughs)

Adam: Assuming it was factually accurate, for those who don’t know —

Nima: Yeah yeah yeah yeah let’s actually lay it out for the —

Adam: If you don’t mind, Ashley? I don’t wanna —

Ashley Feinberg: No, I mean go for it, it’s out there, yeah.

Adam: Okay. This was right when McCain came out and courageously and bravely and maverick-ly supported the tax, the Republican tax bill, which was a huge windfall for the super wealthy, which includes incidentally the McCain family and you tweeted out “Congratulations to John McCain’s wife and children on their upcoming tax-free inheritance.”

Nima: Yeah, that’s a good joke. That’s solid.

Adam: Obviously, this was also in the backdrop of McCain being recently diagnosed with a brain tumor.

Ashley Feinberg: Well, right. That’s the thing is, actually when I first did it, I had forgotten that that was even part of it and so everyone was getting so mad and I couldn’t figure out why everyone was so mad about this and then all of a sudden I was like, oh, that’s what happened.

Nima: You’re like, oh, because of the whole, like, going to die part.

Ashley Feinberg: Yeah. I mean like everyone, like he’s 90 years old. He’s like, maybe he’s immortal, but like I don’t know.

Nima: (Laughs)

Adam: And John McCain is really the sort of most protected of all the manners trolls.

Ashley Feinberg: Oh yeah.

Adam: Can you talk to us about what that experience and other experiences, I know that you, you’re, you’re a frequent right wing punching bag, have taught you about our notions of civility and norms and this obsession with policing people even by supposed liberals and centrists of policing those who have quote “gone too far.”

Ashley Feinberg: I mean well liberals and centrists are the ones who love norms the most because it’s how they show the right that they’re objective and that they care about standards that they are on their side actually because they just want the truth, but I mean it is all done with complete insincerity and in total bad faith on the right because they don’t give a shit about how polite you’re being to whoever, like they just want some excuse to hammer on you and they’ll find it no matter what. And just giving in has already made defeat before you even started fighting.

Nima: Yeah. So you’re also the reporter who broke the story and released the transcript of the meeting that James Bennett, the head of The New York Times op-ed page, held with staff at The Times following like one of the very many Bari Weiss related shitty tweet outrage storms. What was revealed in your reporting and certainly in kind of reading that transcript of the meeting is how the tone from Bennett and The New York Times leadership in general, is one of really just pleading for civility? How the problem is not what’s being said by the reporters or by the columnists rather, but the airing of dirty laundry publicly. Can you kind of talk about that whole episode and your take on how revealing that staff meeting was in general and what it says about where that kind of ivory tower of journalism is in terms of where it puts it’s focus?

Ashley Feinberg: Yeah, I mean well, what’s really interesting is that some of this, the questions that are being asked by the staff at that meeting had come from like questions that had been submitted beforehand and there were apparently a lot more sort of aggressive questions that some staffers had wanted to ask that they just chose not to I guess because they didn’t want to upset Bennett or seem mean or like any sort of real criticism now is equated with meanness and being crass and I mean it’s absurd. It’s, it’s how you sort of get to this place where then it gets, like I think in that meeting he said it’s basically like unquestioned that capitalism is the greatest antipoverty engine that the U.S. has ever encountered, which just went completely unquestioned. Which just blew my mind because yeah, I mean to question that is to basically question everything the Times is based on and to question that is to be unfair and their side.

Adam: That was such a revealing piece of information. I think because we talk a lot about ideology of media editors and producers and such on the show and it mostly it’s through inference. We kind of try to infer based on patterns what the acceptable parameters of debate are and this was the first time in awhile that you have someone who’s probably, I think by my estimation, the most influential media curator in English language media kind of coming out and saying there are these things we can debate. If you take Bret Stephens for example, clearly the, the baseline humanity of trans people or climate change, these are sort of debatable things, but capitalism is axiomatic and to question that is sort of outside of the box of acceptable thought that was super revealing because it shows that, I think, part of the obsession with policing norms is for lack of a better term, putting style over substance, which is we need to police how we talk, but anything that’s too sort of mean to people in power is off limits and that which is mean to people who are from marginalized communities, whether they be trans or Palestinians or people who sort of don’t have typically in centers of power, that’s totally fair game. That is not a violation of norms to say nothing of bombing countries and all the other fun stuff we talked about at the top of the show.

Ashley Feinberg: Right. I mean like the, the like the grossest of it all is that in kind of instilling these norms and trying to maintain this sort of sense of a politeness it is how you kind of get to this place where the being able to debate the humanity of your own staffers is completely out of the realm of thought and otherwise you get to have this status quo where nothing you say can be questioned because to question that is to be unprofessional and to go outside this realm of acceptable thought.

Nima: I think what we keep seeing, especially recently with the rise of Trump, but also before that, is this idea that because now Twitter exists, um, the rabble is getting too unruly and it kind of manifested in a number of ways. It’s that now that regular people, the people down there, can be heard and can react and can actually respond directly to these, you know, whether it’s politicians, whether it’s reporters, whether it’s pundits, whatever it is, the immediate backlash is what seems to be so offensive to people with these platforms, with this privilege and power. And that that’s why there’s this call for like, ‘Can everyone please be nice because you’re all yelling at me because I keep saying shit and I used to just be able to write it and I would never hear from you.’

Ashley Feinberg: Right.

Nima: So like how do you see the rise of technology both helping in this pushback but also then giving more ammunition to the people who collapse on their, on their fainting couch with the vapors as soon as someone kind of calls them out for being racist.

Ashley Feinberg: Yeah. Well that’s what’s fascinating because I mean the reason the Times says they got rid of their public editor is because Twitter is the public editor now and they have the masses who will keep them in line, but what has actually ended up happening is that as soon as any sort of larger group of people starts criticizing them, they immediately claim that they’re being attacked and they’re getting death threats because someone called them an idiot and they completely disregard any sort of criticism from this entire swath of people they claim are the ones who are replacing this public editor who they were actually forced to answer to regardless of how terrible they were at their job. But the really interesting thing I think is that the Times has been so used to not being criticized for so long that they have no idea how to handle it now.

Adam: Yeah. Their brains melt. Yeah.

Ashley Feinberg: Yeah yeah. They don’t understand why is this happening and they don’t understand that people can be making legitimate points even if they’re telling them to go fuck themselves.

Nima: It’s like they were kind of only the paper of record by default because they couldn’t hear what anyone else was saying in response to what they were writing. (Laughing)

Ashley Feinberg: Right.

Adam: This is why Jon Chait writes a piece every like six months about how, how the, the Twitter hordes are ruining the discourse because he used to be able to go onto The New Republic and write piece condescending everyone and being, you know, uh, trafficking and pro-war narratives and all sorts of. And then no, you mean what, what was the response letter to the editor? Now you just get dunked on by a bunch of assholes with rose emojis and you have no recourse. Like, you know, you’re completely stupefied. I don’t wanna get too inside the baseball on Twitter because I know that between the three of us, we have about 85 million tweets. I, I do think that the way that @Jack has handled the ways in which they police Twitter is super interesting and really I think speaks to the larger civility fetish in general, which of course has no concept of power or power asymmetry of power dynamics. Um, so as we discussed on the top of the show, Twitter has a specific carve out for allowing for the advocation of violence for quote “government and military accounts.” And I think this really speaks to the sort of this, this notion of what we mean by civility, which has that civility for some, not for others, but I think this also is not unrelated to the rise of the total asymmetrical way in which Jack deals with Nazis on Twitter versus people who say the word ‘fuck.’

Ashley Feinberg: Right.

Adam: Um, can we talk about the prevalence of Nazis on Twitter? I mean, I’ve seen several, several anecdotes, and this is not scientific, but I’m pretty sure it’s accurate, where very mild pushback or vulgarity by leftists is met with a swift banhammer, to use an old Gawker phrase, and but the worst kind of anime Nazis sort of go unimpeded.

Ashley Feinberg: Yeah. This is sort of the same impetus behind that is also what is sort of driving this whole argument for going back to this civility because it’s, for whatever reason, the right has sort of managed to get these institutions to cower to them in ways that the left still hasn’t figured out how to do. And it’s, was it exemplified when Jack sort of immediately apologized and said he launched this investigation into how Candace Owens, the TP [Turning Point] USA urban outreach person, I think is her title. She was called “far-right” and he was falling over himself to apologize to her. And meanwhile Luke O’Brien is like actively getting death threats on Twitter in public and there is mostly nothing happening to these people. And uh, I will DM Jack these like tweets and be like, hey man, like, I’m not sure if you saw this and I can see that he’s read them and he’s read all of them, but nothing happens.

Nima: Yeah. Can you actually talk just a little bit more about what you’re currently seeing with the Luke O’Brien case or situation because he’s a colleague of yours at The Huffington Post and just how his doing his actual job, being an investigative reporter, reporting on one of the most vicious and vile hate spewers on the internet, Amy Mek, what, what you’re seeing maybe either talking to him or just inside of HuffPo about what’s going on?

Ashley Feinberg: Yeah, I mean it’s basically like what has happened is, or what happened is that Amy Mek or Amy Mekelburg, before the story went up, went on Twitter and uh, told her followers that Luke O’Brien was basically trying to destroy her life and was contacting everyone she’s ever worked with, and uh, so it started even before the post went up. And, uh, yeah, I mean he’s, he’s been getting tweets, uh, sending him his own address and telling him that, like to watch his back and sending him like photos of like people shooting journalists and ISIS beheading journalists and it was like all these like very aggressive threats that are apparently not the same sort of a violent threat that Twitter sees as Luke O’Brien telling someone to perform a wrestling move on themselves, which is what got him suspended in the first place.

Adam: Wow.

Image for post
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This is a DDT.

Nima: Yeah. He actually suggested that someone “DDT themselves,” which is a great thing to tell someone to do. Its Jake “The Snake” Roberts’ signature move. And I’ve often wished people would DDT themselves myself.

Adam: I’m trying to curb the wrestling references on the show, but to no avail.

Nima: It’s not going to happen. It’s not going to happen.

Adam: Yeah. So I think to this point about what we view as being this extortion racket by the right, uh, the, that, we saw this with Roseanne stuff where it’s, they kept trying to audition liberals to go after Roseanne and then immediately the right-wing media machine needed to find some sort of symmetrical example, right? Because they, they obsess over this, this idea and then the centrist media, corporate media in general always kind of plays along with it. So first they went, they tried to go after Bill Maher, then I think they kind of realized that liberals don’t care about Bill Maher.

Ashley Feinberg: I mean everyone, I was stoked for them to go after Bill Maher.

Nima: (Laughing) We’re like, “Do it!.”

Adam: I mean even I think even less so maybe five years ago, even sort of most liberals now increasingly find him to be super gross and then they tried to go after Joy Reid again and again that was the left was like okay, but like getting Al Capone on tax evasion. Then that didn’t really have teeth and then so they started to go after Sam Bee and that kind of caught traction and she apologized and she did this thing where she submitted and so many people were pissed off about this because the whole thing is a disingenuous extortion racket. It’s similar to the whole like ‘Why don’t Muslims condemn ISIS?’ And then you show them literally fifty examples of Muslims condemning ISIS and they’re like, ‘Oh well they need seventy or a hundred and sixty.’ Like there’s all, there’s some degree of groveling that liberals are never going to achieve because the whole thing has been an extortion racket and it’s something that Peter Hart at FAIR has been documenting since the early 2000s. This is something that they do, they cry foul they complain about liberal bias in the media and then people at NPR and New York Times, they, they, they scramble to sort of placate them.

Nima: Mhmm.

Ashley Feinberg: Right. I mean, it’s sort of like The Times today has an article about how Luke’s reporting hurt this local business in Brooklyn and uh, and basically implying that he should have called her brother’s business because he mentioned that it exists in the article when like a large reason that Luke is getting so attacked right now is that he contacted the WWE because her, her husband used to be employed there. But I mean that was a large part of the story. Her husband’s business used to secure business in Muslim countries while she was trolling on Twitter. It’s directly relevant and people are completely oblivious to that fact and it’s wild.

Nima: Well yeah, the idea that the outrage is that there are consequences for people being super racist and super bigoted and that it’s like, ‘Oh well, you know, look, if she was doing this online, just let her do it, don’t ruin the livelihood of her husband.’ And it’s like, no, no, no, no, it doesn’t work that way. Like the WWE — sorry, Adam — got to decide if the fact that the wife of one of its employees who, who does like, you know, publicity at partnerships specifically like a gigantic multibillion dollar deal with the monarchy of Saudi Arabia, which is itself completely grotesque, but that was apparently deemed to be pretty at cross-purposes with all the money that the WWE wanted to make. And so they let this guy go, but the victim here is not her husband and it’s not her. It’s a complete misunderstanding. I mean, on purpose. It’s deliberate to kind of shift who is being attacked when meanwhile, you know, if there are any repercussions, then it’s the fault of a reporter.

Ashley Feinberg: Right. I mean and the Times’ instinct to sort of think that contacting the business to like let them defend themselves in the first place, its like easy to look through the prism of sort of their lens and think, ‘Oh, she should have called for comment,’ but clearly its been abundantly clear over the past few days that people would have seized on that as just more fuel to attack Luke for trying to tear families apart and there’s no, the way they see as there’s some line where you can be civil and the right will be assuaged and not attack you is insane and I feel like there, there’s no learning that no matter how many times this happens.

Adam: Right, cause it’s an extortion racket and every single extortionist in the history of mankind the reason why you don’t negotiate or try to placate them is that they’ll just ask for more and more and more to the point where I mean again with the NPR has institutionally gaslighted themselves to not state simple facts, right? We talked about this earlier in the show. They won’t say the word “lie” institutionally to describe Trump. During the Bush administration they wouldn’t use the word torture, neither infamously would The New York Times because they’re so obsessed and I think it’s worse at things like NPR since they’re reliant on Congress for a meaningful chunk of their money. There’s this thing where I think people seriously think that they’re somehow being prejudice as if being, being right-wing and believing that the earth is flat and that women should be chained the to the stove is somehow an opinion worthy of being aired.

Nima: Right, right.

Adam: Um, and I kind of get the instinct right? Because, you know, nobody wants to, nobody wants to sort of stifle debate as it were, but like I mean, every single, every single time you publish something or you write something or you air a news broadcast, you’re making editorial decisions about what is part of the acceptable parameters of debate. But the Overton Window I think moves more and more to the right because of this extortion racket. And I, and I think to some extent people are saying that, you know, at some point we need to draw the line in. And that’s why like, you know, as much as I may dislike Samantha Bee or find her politics to be, the irony is of course Samantha Bee traffics heavily in these civility politics and spends a great deal of time going after protestors for not shaking the hands of cops, which we also talked about. But like it’s worth defending people like that even if you don’t like them, it was worth defending Joy-Ann Reid because they’re going after them for all the wrong reasons.

Nima: Right.

Adam: Like they’re not, there’s no earnestness here. It’s like with the whole, ‘Oh, Bill Maher compared Trump to an ape.’ But it’s like clearly they know that that’s not the same thing.

Ashley Feinberg: Right.

Adam: Like they know that they’re not operating in good faith. Why should we act like they are?

Ashley Feinberg: And yet people still argue with them as though there’s like they will ever say, ‘Oh, you know what? You’re right. I hadn’t considered it that way. Like I’ll stop sending you pictures of the journalists being beheaded.’ I mean, there’s no point where that happens.

Nima: What do you think, Ashley, beyond continuing to call people out, continuing to refuse to play the civility game while still, as Adam just said, still really believing that it’s not about just being vulgar, right? Like that’s not the end game like calling Israel an apartheid state is not to be vulgar —

Ashley Feinberg: It’s to be accurate. Yeah.

Nima: It’s to be accurate, and yet that is seen through this prism of civility, through the prism of balance, as uncouth alongside things that are literally racist. Things that are literally destructive. What do you think beyond kind of continuing to call that out, continuing to do your work, like where do you see this going? Is it just going to kind of amble along? This is just where we’re at and we have to hope that like enough people who deserve to get fired get fired and enough people who don’t deserve to get fired, keep their jobs? Like where do we go from here?

Ashley Feinberg: Oh, I wish I had a more optimistic outlook on that, but, and I keep thinking that we’ve reached a breaking point where something has to change, but that has felt that way for years. And, I mean, I have a hard time seeing any future that doesn’t kind of go further down the path of couching these grotesque and obscene views in polite language to make them palatable. I mean, I fully anticipate that I will, one day, if not like a month from now, like a year from now, get fired over some tweet where I tell Mitch McConnell to go fuck himself and like that’ll be it.

Adam: Yeah. I think it’s fair to say that the day John McCain dies, we, we, we will all three be fired.

Nima: (Laughing) We’re all going to be fired.

Adam: I can’t even be fired and I’ll somehow be fired.

Ashley Feinberg: I think about how much I just cannot tweet on that day. And uh, I, I don’t know what’s going to happen.

Adam: The Republicans, Republicans are going to be so outraged at the slightest transgression that day.

Ashley Feinberg: Twitter is going to be terrible.

Adam: Not even Republicans, liberals and centrists, he is the Holy Grail.

Ashley Feinberg: Yeah. Twitter is going to be a nightmare.

Adam: Jake Tapper will be “Sir, sir.” Like the entire internet —

Ashley Feinberg: Jake Tapper will be weeping on air for an hour straight.

Adam: Oh god. He does owe his career to him.

Nima: Wrapped in a flag.

Adam: That’s where he got his start as one of his court sycophants on the Street Talk Express, so.

Nima: (Laughs)

Ashley Feinberg: Huh. I didn’t know that.

Adam: When he was at Salon, he was his number one envoy to like what, what was the left, I guess, at that time.

Ashley Feinberg: Once a maverick, always a maverick.

Adam: Yeah. Well.

Nima: I will say this that the editor, Nick Baumann at HuffPo seems to be standing very strongly behind Luke and other reporters these days and I hope that that continues.

Ashley Feinberg: Yeah one of the best things I learned from Gawker basically is that it’s an editor’s job basically to, even if privately they might have some qualms, to publicly like defend the writer against any sort of mob because it’s almost never in good faith and Nick Baumann is very good at that.

Adam: You can’t negotiate with terrorists.

Ashley Feinberg: Exactly.

Nima: Unless you’re Jeffrey Goldberg and you are a terrorist and you hire horrible people and then you’re called out on it and you try to defend Kevin Williamson and you’re like ‘Eh? Yeah. I guess he’s a piece of shit. Never mind.’

Adam: That’s true.

Ashley Feinberg: True.

Adam: That was some liberal pushback that actually worked. Well, thank you so much for coming on Ashley, this was extremely insightful.

Nima: Yes. This has been so great. Ashley Feinberg, Senior Reporter at The Huffington Post. Thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Ashley Feinberg: Thank you.

[Music]

Adam: Yeah, so these things are not abstract. I think the issue of Luke O’Brien and what happened to her colleague at Huffington Post and the backlash about that shows that these intellectual conceits about manners and norms and civility and both sides of them sort of have their collateral damage that they have limits and that kind of exposes those limits. That the media should have closed ranks to protect him from these right-wing onslaughts, but instead decided to again accept these kind of super bad faith, right-wing attacks as being in earnest when they’re not. I mean they’re not in earnest. The Federalist is not in earnest.

Nima: Right.

Adam: The Daily Caller is not in earnest, so they, they don’t, they know the game and they know how to play it and again, time and time again. the right plays asymmetrical dirty warfare and the left and I say the liberals —

Nima: Yeah.

Adam: They line up in a single file line like they’re the British.

Nima: Well, right. No, and like to accept their fucking paddling. And, I mean, talking to Ashley was so great because as the reporter who broke the story about James Bennet talking to the staff of The Times, it’s reminded me that there was a note actually before that meeting, there was like an all staff note sent around by the leadership of The New York Times that includes CEO, Mark Thompson, Executive Editor, Dean Baquet and Bennet himself. This was sent, you know Bari Weiss said some stupid shit on Twitter and it was all this back and forth internally and externally at The Times, and the message sent around to staff is literally titled, “A Note on Civility.”

Adam: Indeed. Of course.

Nima: Nothing better encapsulates the idea that obviously it didn’t matter what Bari Weiss had said, and then subsequently I should point out because of the backlash, Bari Weiss then penned a piece declaring quote, “the end of civilization,” and Bret Stephens obviously rushed to her defense calling the outrage directed at his, at his right-wing colleague, “insane.” And so it’s almost like this quintessentially American thing of being brazenly aggressive and then being so offended personally, so easily taking offense and yet having no conception of what your actions and your words actually do to other people.

Adam: Yep. Be really nice.

Nima: Before we end, I will say that David fucking Frum is one of the most egregious examples of this civility discourse. So, David Frum, the person who coined the phrase “axis of evil,” has established through his words and through his work in the George W. Bush white house, a forever war that I don’t know if we’ll ever actually see the end of and just recently, early June 2018, David Frum took to the pages of The Atlantic where he’s an editor, of course, to write a piece called, “The Antidote to Trump is Decency.” David Frum ends his piece thusly, quote, “There’s a lesson here. Donald Trump and the political movement behind him are empowered by ugly talk. Their own talk stands out less sharply in contrast. ‘You did it first… you did it worse… you did it more’ are accurate enough answers, but they are not as powerful as not doing it at all.”

Adam: Well, I think on that note we should call it a show. I think this was very civil. We didn’t cuss a lot, so that’s good.

Nima: And so with that lullaby of inaction, of inactivity, we will thank you all again for listening to this episode of Citations Needed. You can follow the show of course on Twitter @CitationsPod. Facebook, Citations Needed. Help us out, support the show through Patreon/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson, and an extra special shout out to our Critic-Level supporters. Thanks again for listening. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Our production consultant is Josh Kross. Research assistant is Sophia Steinert-Evoy. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Granddaddy. Thanks again, everyone. Have a great one.

[Music]

This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, June 13, 2018.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.

Written by

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

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