Episode 74: Liberal Gandhi Fetishism and the Problem with Pop Notions of ‘Violence’
Citations Needed | April 24, 2019 | Transcript
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Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
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Nima: “The United States believes any Palestinian government must renounce violence,” a U.S. official told Ha’aretz. When it comes to nonviolence, writes Barbara Reynolds in The Washington Post, “Black Lives Matter seems intent on rejecting the proven methods.” “Violence Is Never the Answer,” New York Times columnist Charles Blow insists. Over and over again we are told that violence is inherently and unequivocally bad, something — when it comes to advocating for social justice and human rights or against military occupation and fascism — that’s always to be avoided, condemned and renounced. Something that must be rejected, we are told, in favor of non-violence, so-called “peaceful protests” and the so-called “democratic process.”
Adam: But in popular discourse, discussions of violence really aren’t about violence, they’re about sanctioned and unsanctioned violence. The routine violence of poverty, racist policing, U.S. militarism — which is presently bombing seven countries and propping up apartheid in Palestine — is almost never called “violence”. Violence that is “factored in”, that’s on the ledger at the beginning of the year is not really seen as violence, but sort of just the way things are, a law of nature, or in other words: stability.
Nima: Unsanctioned violence — namely that carried out by activists, non or sub-state actors, and those generally distant from the halls of power — causes outrage. Some is justified. Clearly, wanton attacks on civilians is bad but a great deal of it is condemned on its face without any coherent reason to do so.
Adam: What is and isn’t “violence” we’ll show on this week’s episode is largely a function of proximity to power, and whether or not quote unquote “violence” challenges or serves the interests of the status quo.
Nima: We’ll be speaking today with journalist and author Natasha Lennard. A contributing writer for The Intercept, Natasha’s work has appeared in The New York Times, New Inquiry, The Nation — and even outlets that don’t start with N, like Esquire, Vice, Salon and elsewhere. She teaches critical journalism at the New School for Social Research, and recently co-authored the book Violence: Humans in Dark Times with Brad Evans. Her latest book is Being Numerous: Essays on Non-Fascist Life which is published by Verso Books and comes out this month.
Natasha Lennard: What’s more important clearly is the framings that we see and what kind of political actions get framed by the state and by media establishments as perpetrating horrors and monstrosities and that are easy to use to up criminalization and mass arrests and profiling and all those things that we really don’t want and that the media should be formal careful if they also purport to not want those things too.
Nima: As we’ve both noted before — online, offline, on Citations Needed in past episodes — historically and systematically oppressed people are always expected to display quiet grace and dignity in the face of violence, terror, state intimidation. Really let’s think about why that is. The onus is always placed on the oppressed to maintain decorum and civility; never are colonialists expected to behave differently than they already do. Empathy and perseverance, non-violence and dialogue, diplomacy. These things are always demanded of the victims of violence, yet never actually the main perpetrators. This is how resistance is routinely twisted into terrorism, self-defense and survival rendered as aggression and barbarity. The demand that the oppressed show deference and respect to their oppressors is a fundamental tenet of white supremacy.
Adam: Much of this stems from kind of post World War II, liberal Gandhi fetishism. This moral standard by with whichever one will be held up to without a real proper historical understanding about what nonviolence is a tactic and when it’s useful. And of course both the civil rights movement and independence in India, the histories of those are terribly simplified into this singular nonviolent movement. When of course there was lots of violence in the Indian resistance movement and there was lots of violence during the civil rights movement. That of course gets wiped out of history and we’re sort of given the sanitized version. So you get people like Nicholas Kristof who demand, in literally these terms, demand Palestinians throw themselves on the barbed wire and constantly call for this Palestinian Gandhi, which again, we’ll get into later, but I think this is a fundamentally racist, patronizing, and ultimately very conservative position, right? Because if you have this incredibly boutique moral standard that one has to meet before they can fight for their own liberation, they’re never really gonna meet it, so the status quo will maintain itself. For this episode, I think we want to focus on three popular genres of reporting and commentary when it comes to our notions of violence. These fickle definitions of violence. Number one is protests. Specifically for the purposes of the discussion today, Black Lives Matter and the violence of lighting cars and garbage cans on fire. Demanding Muslims “renounce violence.” A very popular cliche. And three, quote unquote “politically” motivated domestic violence versus US imperial violence abroad.
Nima: In the earliest days of the Black Lives Matter protests, which at this point were concentrated primarily in Ferguson, Missouri, the day after Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson was not actually indicted for the crime of killing Mike Brown, the local community responded, and not unreasonably, by lighting roughly a dozen buildings on fire. No injuries resulted since these buildings were long empty, but it was then immediately condemned and described as “violence has erupted.”
[Begin Clip Montage]
Woman #1: Violence has erupted in Ferguson, Missouri overnight.
Man #1: Rage and violence in Ferguson.
Man #2: Violence erupts in Ferguson, Missouri.
Woman #2: Violence erupting overnight in Ferguson. A dramatic scene far worse than the protests that took place immediately after Michael Brown’s shooting death and August.
Man #3: Brand new violence erupting in Ferguson, Missouri overnight.
[End Clip Montage]
Adam: Notice all of them save “violence erupted.” This is a very common cliche whenever there’s property damage after a police shooting. They never call the initial act of police shooting violence. It’s always violence erupted after a police shooting, which is a pretty Orwellian phrase. So USA Today, August of 2016 “Violence erupts after police shooting in Milwaukee.” The Advocate magazine, July 2018 “Violence Erupts After Chicago Police Involved in Fatal Shooting.” Financial Times November of 2018 “Violence erupts after botched Israeli incursion into Gaza.” This was an Israeli incursion by the way, that killed seven Palestinian civilians. BBC the same day “Israel-Gaza violence erupts after covert op killings.” So you have this very interesting praise where violence erupts after a killing. Now logically, the killing would be when the violence erupted.
Adam: But it’s only property damage that’s done or missiles that are launched into some field somewhere or whatever have you. I know all these cases aren’t exactly the same, but, but violence doesn’t start with the initial transgression by the colonizer or the state. The violence only magically appears in response to that initial violence. That violence is sort of this morally agnostic thing like officer involved shooting or fatal incident or incursion. These kind of terms that don’t evoke the image of violence or some sort of moral transgression.
Nima: Or the fact that someone has literally been killed. And so yeah, you get this kind of spectrum of hand wringing where the initial killing or deliberate murder or assassination or raid and arrest and occupied and colonized area, all of these things are seen as basically just the nature of the world, not as some aberration in and of themselves. The aberration is when someone throws a rock or god forbid a molotov cocktail through a store window. Because breaking glass is somehow deemed to be vicious, violent, unspeakable, unwarranted, and always, always deemed truly illegal as opposed to the just general basic nature of the world, which is where black and brown people just get gunned down cause whatever.
Adam: We saw this with J20 as well, the protest on the inauguration of President Trump on January 20th, 2017 where the protests were said over and over again to have “turned violent,” quote unquote “turned violent.” But what was that violence? A few broken windows, Starbucks, I believe there was a McDonald’s.
Nima: Corporations that definitely cannot afford to replace windows.
Adam: Right? Then there was some trash cans lit on fire. This was said to be violence. So we have this kind of term that encompasses everything from shooting unarmed black people to burnt trash cans. All these things are said to be violent, although of course the former, it isn’t always usually called violence. It’s, it’s called an officer involved shooting or fatal incident.
Nima: So as usual, there is plenty of historical precedents for this and for these turns of phrases for the often liberal hand wringing when it comes to protesting or demonstrations or really just any activism that may go beyond the most passive level of just asking for your own shackles to be loosened just a bit, just a bit. And so cliche as it may be, and I’m going to preface it that way, we can look to the civil rights movement in the sixties and namely to Martin Luther King. So on April 12th, 1963, eight Alabama clergymen wrote an open letter to Dr. King who was then sitting in a jail cell after being arrested for leading and engaging in desegregation demonstrations and protests in the state. And the letter, you know, began this way:
“We the undersigned clergymen are among those who, in January, issued ‘An Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense,’ in dealing with racial problems in Alabama. We expressed understanding that honest convictions in racial matters could properly be pursued in the courts, but urged that decisions of those courts should in the meantime be peacefully obeyed.”
And they went on, explaining that:
“…we are now confronted by a series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders. We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely.”
“…such actions as incite to hatred and violence, however technically peaceful those actions may be, have not contributed to the resolution of our local problems. We do not believe that these days of new hope are days when extreme measures are justified in Birmingham.”
Adam: Just to be clear, these eight clergymen were white.
Adam: Yeah. This was various Protestant, Catholic and Jewish clergymen who were sort of basically doing the head patting routine with MLK saying, we need to sort of go through the proper channels.
Nima: Right, exactly. That these issues, as they say, are causes that should, quote, “be pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders and not in the streets.” End quote.
Adam: So, yeah, I think one thing that’s worth noting throughout this is that Martin Luther King, because of his prominence, and he took a very strategic, and I would say moral decision to engage in nonviolence, but he was always being goated to condemn people who engaged in quote unquote “violence.” Specifically, you know, Malcolm X, the people who rioted. And to his credit, he of course— not that Martin Luther King needs me to give him credit — but to his credit —
Adam: I’m sure he’s very satisfied to know this clammy, sweaty podcaster in Chicago really thinks he did a good job — but to his credit, he, um, he of course never really took the bait. He was very good at not taking this bait. You know, and I think that this is the distinction between nonviolence as a specific tactic, even though I think it’s probably fair to say that he also viewed it as a sort of categorical imperative, versus this idea that people who engage in violence or a per se evil. Again, we’re expanding the, using the working definition of violence to mean everything from murder to lighting a trashcan on fire. But he would never really take the bait. And I think that, uh, I think that that’s interesting because so much of liberal discourse is about this left punching, this sort of, ‘I’m not one of those people. I don’t engage in violence,’ which it’s a totally bullshit thing to say because if you vote for Barack Obama as president, or if you vote for Hillary Clinton as president, which I think most liberals do, vast majority of liberals do, then you voted for violence. You voted for bombing of countries, you voted for drone strikes. You voted for the mass incarceration of tens of thousands of federal prisoners, which the president can release whenever they want.
Nima: And the mass deportation.
Adam: Yeah, exactly. Mass deportation. This why the whole language around violence and how violence is so silly because unless you’re a doctrinaire pacifist, everybody believes in violence. Politics is about the negotiation of morally acceptable and unacceptable violence. So this like, ‘Let’s not engage in violence,’ it’s obviously hypocritical. It obviously doesn’t mean anything because by definition if you support Democrats of any kind, and of course if you support a Republican, you support violence even more, although maybe not foreign policy wise, there’s not much of a difference, but we all support violence in some way.
Nima: So yeah, later in the Sixties, when there was a lot of talk about race riots, uh, you know, which has a very racist foundation in the kind of fear mongering about that. ‘Oh no, look who’s out on the street!’ Dr. King also, you know, didn’t take the bait there when, uh, you know, riots in cities were being reported on, worried about all over the media and to him personally. And so, in September of 1967, he actually in his speech to the American Psychological Association addressed this idea of riots, but you know, talked about them in terms of being social protest and added this:
“Let us say boldly that if the violations of law by the white man in the slums over the years were calculated and compared with the law-breaking of a few days of riots, the hardened criminal would be the white man.”
Adam: Martin Luther King, a lot of liberals like to, whenever there’s a riot or unrest or whatever you want to call it, I think the term we prefer to use in this show is uprising not riot, riot is more or less just a racist signaling word. He said “riots are the voice of the unheard,” which I think is actually, I’m going to, I would put an addendum to that. I would say that protests are the voice of the unheard. I think riot is the voice of the deliberately silenced, of the kind of actively oppressed, unheard has a sort of passive implication of it. And I think that whenever there’s unrest, that sort of thing you say when you don’t want to justify quote unquote “violence” or property damage because liberals are not permitted to do that, the thing you say to sort of hand ring as you quote MLK saying”riots are the voice of the unheard” cause it’s sort of, you’re sort of gesturing towards a systemic critique without having to commit to anything either way. And the only thing that ever lit a fire under the federal government’s ass in terms of breakfast programs or welfare, the only thing that really lit a fire under the government’s ass in the sixties was this, the prospect of quote unquote “violence” of, of property destruction of these uprisings that happened all throughout the country from Baltimore to Washington DC to Harlem to, to Watts. That the fear of that and, we later learned in the Eighties, under Operation Garden Plot, the predecessor to NSA, before it was public under Nixon in ’69 authorized a study to imprison quote unquote 20 million “American negroes” in internment camps, that there was a real sense that there would be an uprising. This is why many historians will categorize the quote unquote “Watts riots” of 1965, even sober academics will categorize them as uprisings not riots because people were sniping police as if you would snipe an occupying force. You know, there was looting of course, but they were not just looting. There was no financial personal advantage to doing this. This was effectively a military operation and for several weeks the rebels within Watts had control of certain territories and even developed its own internal economy. We will all of that in the show notes, but again, this sort of morphs into this idea of mindless rioting, but of course riots and what we call uprisings on this show have always had a political purpose. They’re not at all mindless. They’re actually incredibly logical.
Nima: It also completely misframes and mislabels, misdefines reality. So the idea that collective response, anger resistance, those become quote unquote “violent protests” deliberately serves to kind of create a fundamentally false baseline truth that there is some sort of normal state of nonviolence that we all begin with when we wake up in the morning and therefore people protesting in the streets, someone breaking a window, someone killing someone, that that is somehow a new thing that changes the dynamic of what we have woken up to. And it’s like that is not actually true. That is legitimately incorrect because there is a system of oppression and an ongoing system of violence.
Adam: Yeah. It’s like when people say don’t politicize a tragedy. We’ve talked about this before that a hundred times out of a hundred when someone says ‘don’t politicize a tragedy,’ what they mean to say is that ‘I’ve already politicized it, but I don’t want competition.’ So people say don’t be violent. They’re saying, ‘I already am violent. I’m the power of the state or corporate, uh, forces or whatever the kind of status quo authority is and I don’t want any challenge to that, so therefore we must condemn violence because my violence is not seen as being some new transgression.’ Again, it’s on the ledger at the beginning of the year. It’s already factored in. We see this a lot with Palestine, which is our second thing we’re going to talk about.
Nima: So hand in glove with this idea of condemning violence is the more active call to “renounce violence.” Those who are deemed to be engaging in violence must renounce it in order to move forward peacefully and effectively and create a new, more peaceful and just world. They must renounce violence. A survey for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, FAIR, actually conducted by you, Adam, of the phrase, “renounce violence” as used in The New York Times over the past decade revealed that 95 percent of the time that demand is made exclusively to Muslim organizations, people or political parties, the most prominent being the Taliban or Hamas.
Adam: Yeah, and my study, it was 59 instances over 10 years, this was sparked by, there was a Trump official who said ‘Hamas must renounce violence,’ and I thought to myself ‘they must renounce violence,’ like the only time you ever hear that is in the context really of Palestine. And my data found that roughly 50 percent of the time it was in the context of Palestine. Other instances where circa 2009, 2010 in the context of Iraq and Afghanistan, but in most contemporary usage it is in the context of Palestine. I found zero instances where any reporters, pundits or anyone from March 28th, 2009 to March 20th, 2019 ever insisted, suggested or implied or asked whether or not the United States, Israel or any white majority country or its allies renounced violence. Roughly 50 percent of the time “renounce violence” in The New York Times was used for the vague umbrella of Hamas or typically kind of any Palestinian were said to need to renounce violence before you could negotiate. But again, this is never a demand made of the Israeli Defense Force or the internal security force of Israel. No one would ever even begin to think about saying, ‘why has Benjamin Netanyahu not renounced violence?’ That would be such an absurd thing to ask. Now in the context of Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s a little bit different — though not much different — because were said that the Taliban or the Iraqi insurgents for years were said to need renounce violence and that there was some sort of political process they could get into.
Nima: When they’re being occupied by a foreign military force.
Adam: Right. Now, that political process is mostly a sham. These systems are totally corrupt, especially in Afghanistan they’re pretty much run by the US government. They have no organic legitimacy, but at least you could argue that there’s some sort of vague democratic mechanism for change, but with Israel there is zero. There’s no actual real mechanism whereby which someone could renounce violence and enter some democratic process. There isn’t a democratic process. The 4.5 million Palestinians who live under Netanyahu, the Israeli government’s charge, have zero pathway for some sort of democratic process. So the idea that they need to unilaterally disarm, again, you can sort of make the argument that Palestinians should disarm, but you’d have to make the symmetrical argument that Israel ought to as well.
Nima: Which is absolutely never done and would be looked at as being a totally inappropriate demand.
Adam: But there is no historical precedent, there’s no logical reason why Palestinians, whether it be Hamas or whomever, you know, kids with a, with a sling, there’s zero reason at all why they would ever want to unilaterally disarm. Now you could sort of be like Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times and make a kind of precious moral argument that they, if they all became Gandhi and this would awaken the moral senses of the West, but I don’t, I think BDS, which is of course a nonviolent movement, has exposed that to be bullshit because it assumes, again, it assumes a baseline morality and a lack of racism on behalf of the West, which there’s no evidence that that exists.
Nima: And so what you see, because for instance, protests and movements such as BDS calling for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions on Israel, and you know, associated entities that support the ongoing apartheid and colonization of Palestine, when those are seen as being too effective by those who want to maintain the current or more desired power structures there, those acts themselves are deemed to be violent or even more explicitly when Hamas itself as a, as a political organization does actually denounce violence and supports and engages itself in nonviolent protest this too is somehow deemed violent. And so you see this, for instance, in an article written by Hussein Ibish, who is tiresome and tedious and just generally bad, a year ago, April 2018 in Foreign Policy. And so it’s headlined “The Nonviolent Violence of Hamas.” And the subhead is this: “The unarmed protests at the Gaza-Israel border are a desperate bid to provoke a crisis.” So there’s a lot here. One, there’s no border. So first off, the entire framing of this is as if there’s some international conflict rather than a subjugated population under occupation with various walls, fences, drones, air, land, sea controlled by Israel, the largest open air prison on the planet that’s been going on for decades and decades, half a century. And so you see this ridiculous framing as the Gaza-Israel border, as if Gaza is somehow a country. But then you have unarmed protests deemed to be a “desperate bid to provoke a crisis.” So then when Israeli snipers are shooting reporters and shooting children and shooting civilians, that is like, ‘well, you know, I mean, they were goaded into it’ because there were some people waving flags on the other side of a security fence, but the, you know, very, very endangered, body armored, M16 holding Israeli soldiers on the other side of the fence half a mile away somehow their lives were endangered and therefore they had to just pick off Palestinians through their scopes.
Adam: Yeah, I mean we, you know, we’ve been doing this a long time, but I’ve got to think that nonviolent violence has to be up there, all time greats, right?
Nima: Yeah. That’s a great phrase.
Adam: I mean, of course, all nonviolent protest is meant to provoke a response from the aggressor. That’s what the tactic is supposed to do. It’s supposed to provoke a crisis. That’s, that’s what it is. Um, so again, you have this constant goalpost moving with Palestinians where they’re supposed to be nonviolent. And of course there’s been all sorts of nonviolent protests in Palestine since ’48 and even before that. But even when something that’s the sort of very definition of nonviolent, and it’s not even nonviolent in the sense that it’s confrontational, it’s the most passive thing you can do, which is a boycott, this itself becomes criminalized. You have Nikki Haley calling this terrorism. You have people calling it hate speech. It’s now BDS is now considered hate speech in France, it’s against the law. You can’t do business with virtually all states in the union now because on the state level they passed laws saying BDS is a form of hate speech. So even nonviolent protests, power doesn’t make a distinction because again, the goalpost was always going to move because the point is they need to sort of forever be subjugated and they need to partake in and participate in their own subjugation. And if they don’t do that, if they don’t humiliate themselves they’re per se aggressors or a terrorist or committing some sort of transgression. And this is why this constant, the goalpost moving is so important because there is no real definition of violence and nonviolence. They’re never going to make whatever boutique standard, you know, Nicholas Kristof or Roger Cohen’s in The New York Times editorial department puts forth. They’re never going to meet it.
Nima: Because they would themselves then be endorsing violence all the time when they endorse the constant warmaking that their own country does across the world, or aggressive policing or having tanks roll down city streets, certain cities in certain neighborhoods of course. But yeah, you know, deportation is never deemed violence. The, uh, Trump administration is not roundly condemning itself for engaging in violence against migrants being put in concentration camps. They’re not deeming that to be violent. They’re never having to change anything that they do. They don’t have to renounce any tactic, any procedure, any policy that they themselves have. It’s only when they are in some, usually very minor way challenged, where their power is challenged, where their moral authority also is challenged, then it needs to somehow be renounced and condemned. ‘Oh my god, Muslims need to renounce violence because otherwise they will just deserve all the violence that we are already perpetrating against them.
Adam: Yeah, and of course, this is not just directed at Muslims. It is in the current context. But if you go back and look at The New York Times, which I did in the seventies and eighties, they’re constantly calling on Irish Republicans to denounce violence. Uh, the IRA, people who want Irish independence from Britain. So it’s not just directed at Muslims per se.
Nima: Never the Loyalists and never the British government.
Adam: Right. And it’s only directed, it’s directed basically at people who were fighting occupation through whatever means that happens to be. And of course this was very common in South Africa, as well.
Nima: When it comes to anti-Apartheid efforts, the African National Congress had a paramilitary wing. They had an armed wing, MK, that was actually founded by Nelson Mandela and began attacks against the Apartheid government in South Africa at the end of 1961. And this is the reason given for why Mandela was arrested, put on trial and then imprisoned for decades. And so in our discourse now, Mandela, Nelson Mandela, is so routinely held up as a paragon of justice and fighting for what’s right and, uh, you know, a political prisoner who condemned violence and wound up helping end Apartheid and then became the, uh, you know, first democratically elected president of South Africa. What is often missing from all of that is his actual stand on violence when opposed to fascism, when opposed to white supremacy, when opposed to Apartheid. And so even in his statement that the opening of his own defense trial, the 1964 Rivonia trial, he actually addressed the use of violence in service of liberation. And said this quote:
“I do not however, deny that I planned sabotage. I did not plan it in a spirit of recklessness, nor because I have any love for violence. I planned it as a result of a calm and sober assessment of the political situation that had arisen after many years of tyranny, exploitation, and oppression of my people by the whites.”
And so he kind of goes on to give a history of the ANC and his commitment to resistance to Apartheid through nonviolent means for years and years and years, for decades, and how the South African state met every effort — unsurprisingly — with its own state violence. And so Mandela explained quote:
“We first broke the law in a way which avoided any recourse to violence; when this form was legislated against, and when the Government resorted to a show of force to crush opposition to its policies, only then did we decide to answer violence with violence.”
And Mandela later added:
“Our problem, My Lord, was not whether to fight, but was how to continue the fight. We of the ANC had always stood for a non-racial democracy, and we shrank from any action which might drive the races further apart than they already were. But the hard facts were that fifty years of non-violence had brought the African people nothing but more and more repressive legislation, and fewer and fewer rights.”
Adam: And then Amnesty International, which had just begun in the early sixties, somewhat infamously refused to call Nelson Mandela a prisoner of conscience because he refused to denounce violence, which was a, it was a criteria or a condition of support from Amnesty at the time that you renounce violence to be considered a political prisoner or a prisoner of conscience. And I think that just speaks to this really hyper idealized kind of boutique liberal western idea of how we expect our revolutionaries. Our revolutionaries, if they don’t jump through all these kinds of hoops that don’t offend our precious sensibilities, they’re not really worthy of our solidarity.
Nima: And so you see in 1990, after Mandela is released from prison, a headline in the, in The New York Times to an op-ed by David G. Sanders who was like a congressional aide at the time, June 21, 1998, with the headline, “Why Won’t Mandela Renounce Violence?” And, uh, you know, it goes on and it says, you know, “Dr. King advocated nonviolence… In sharp contrast to Dr. King, Mr. Mandela continues to call for an ‘armed struggle.’”
Adam: Yeah, Dr. King forever will be every, like, white liberal or even conservatives, like, Black best friend. Like, ‘what about this guy?’ And it’s like, well, different contexts call for different things. And his, his opinions were way more nuanced than that.
Nima: And it was also in conjunction, in tandem with other things going on at the same time. And so you have these constant appeals to, you know, oppressed people need their own Mandela, right? They need their own Gandhi. Gandhi, you know, held up as a paragon of nonviolent resistance to colonial rule. There needs to be a Gandhi. There needs to be a Palestinian Gandhi. Always needs to be, you know, a, a Palestinian Nelson Mandela. And until then, nothing’s going to happen. In May of just last year, a longtime Israeli politician, Eitan Cabel, Knesset minister from the a Zionist Union party, declared his support for applying Israeli law to West Bank settlement blocks until Palestinians find their own Nelson Mandela. And so this actual declaration that basically settlement blocks are annexed to Israel, uh, officially was met with very fierce reaction caused by this suggestion, which was kind of typical in Israeli politics. The outrage was not that annexation is bad, it was that it might lead to equal rights for all who live under the same law. So Palestinians included, which is obviously something that, uh, most Israelis refused to abide. So the Labor Party leader disapproved of this plan, even though it was just kind of an anecdotal thing that this minister said, but the kind of opposition was laid out this way. “Labor is for separation, not annexation. Separating from the Palestinians must come as part of an agreement.” And head of the ostensibly liberal New Israel Fund, Mickey Gitzin, noted also that “You don’t cause separation by annexation.” And I just want to point out — obvious though it may be — the word apartheid literally means “separateness,” literally means separation.
Adam: The whole thing is so patronizing and there’s so much head patting with this whole ‘Palestinians, they need a Gandhi.’ It’s like, it’s just this sort of, you know, ‘when you guys mature to a certain point and they become as enlightened as we do’ as Israeli F35s liquidate entire blocks and kill three generations of Palestinians with one bomb, ‘when you’re civilized like us and you can murder in this, you know, officially sanctioned way, then you could sort of be worthy to come to the table.’ The whole thing is so fucking condescending. And of course there is never a call for an Israeli Gandhi cause, you know, the oppressor doesn’t need to be Gandhi.
Nima: Let alone an Israeli de Klerk. So there’s always the demand for a passive Palestinian political prisoner basically, even though there are thousands of those and they are not deemed to be Palestinian Mandelas or Gandhis, but there is never a call for the empowered side, the powerful side, the occupying side, the colonial side, the settling side to actually come to any different understanding of how they’re going to operate. So there’s never a call in tandem or very rarely in tandem for a Palestinian Mandela to an Israeli de Klerk, who had actually worked to end Apartheid.
Adam: Which is a good segue to our third category, which is the distinction between quote unquote “politically motivated” domestic violence and US imperial violence. Anytime there’s a politically motivated shooting typically right or left, whatever you want to define it, the sort of madman lone gunman, people rightfully condemn it. They say this is politically motivated violence. And I always think this is such a particular turn of phrase, “political violence.” And I’m trying to think of violence that is apolitical other than I guess, you know, in a car accident.
Nima: Or like pulling someone’s hair on the playground.
Adam: Right. And so Ezra Klein the sort of perpetually incredulous doofus pundit Ezra Klein, so after the shooting of Steve Scalise in 2017 he wrote this thread where he said, he said quote, “Our history — and the Giffords’ shooting a few years back — is a reminder of how bad it can get, and how quickly it can get there.” “Policy itself is often violent, with war being the obvious example. But it’s still important those decisions get made nonviolently.” “The great gift of politics is that it gives us a way to make difficult decisions without resorting to violence to decide.” “That’s a recent innovation in human history.” And so he’s kind of trying to draw this moral distinction where it’s good to make violent decisions as long as you do it nonviolently, which I think is such a great like distillation of what we’re talking about where it’s sort of okay to do these drone attacks. I mean this guy is of course the biggest Obama toady in the world, it’s okay to do drone attacks, to bomb Syria, Libya, Somalia, all these sorts of areas, quote unquote “kinetic actions” are okay, that’s just factored in. But if the decisions, if politics, if it comes stateside, right? This is what we talk about in the gun control, you can sort of, you know, tweet out a picture of you with an M16 and say ‘this is meant for Iraq but not the streets of Florida.’ And it’s like, well why not both? So we can export violence, that’s routine, but violence that stateside is given this qualification, this qualifier of “political violence,” which again, you can say is bad and of course it is but that raises the question of why is the other forms of political violence not bad? And what does it mean to have political violence when by definition, any military kinetic activity the US carries out throughout the globe is of course political in nature. That’s the whole point.
Nima: And so you see an almost crystallized example of this when in February of 2019 former head of the Department of Homeland Security under Barack Obama, Jeh Johnson, whose ICE detained thousands and who helped the FBI entrap dozens of mentally unwell Muslims during his tenure. We’ve discussed these things on the show before. Jeh Johnson is now a director at where else? Lockheed Martin. And he wrote just a few months ago about what he called “political violence” on both sides and you know, warning, giving lessons to be learned to political leaders on both sides that words have consequences. And so the kind of impetus for this was after a white nationalist US Coast Guard lieutenant was arrested for plotting an attack with over a dozen firearms more than a thousand rounds of ammunition, Jeh Johnson took to the pages of The Hill to write this quote:
“This wave of violent extremism is by no means limited to targets on the left. In June 2017, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) almost lost his life when he and others were shot by James Hodgkinson, a man who belonged to a group the aim of which is to “Terminate the Republican Party.” Hodgkinson intended to do exactly that when he went to the softball practice of a group of Republican congressmen, carrying a loaded rifle and handgun.”
So here you have Jeh Johnson, who now is a director at the world’s largest weapons manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, whose 500 pound laser guided Mk 82 bomb obliterated a school bus in Yemen with 40 children aboard, just last year. He’s here to, you know, preach to us about the dangers of so-called “political violence.”
Adam: Yeah. And then Jonathan Chait, who the biggest war cheerleader in liberal media bar none, supported the war in Libya, the war in Iraq and famously had a headline in The New Republic at the time called “Give War a Chance.” The big supporter of the subjugation of Palestinians in Gaza, West Bank after “antifa,” quote unquote “antifa” allegedly attack members of the media in Europe. He tweeted out, “Who could have predicted that an extremist faction dedicated to political violence would attack the news media?” Cause again, this qualifier of political violence, they view these bombings and invasions and destructions and 500,000 to a million dead Iraqis. These are not political. These are sort of above politics. And I find this, I find the hand wringing about antifa from war boosters in this country is I got to say the biggest cognitive dissidence mindfuck of the last few years because antifa is, you know, punching people who are self described Nazis, for the most part, I suppose there’s some debate around that, but more or less just punching Nazis and you know, they’re not murdering people, they’re disturbing white supremacist public displays, which is I think a pretty clear cut worthy thing of doing. But then people who of course call for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Arabs, they are in full hand wring mode whenever they have an action.
Nima: Oh yeah, no and those people get promoted. They get to be, you know, the editors in chief, they get to be lead pundits, lead writers, lead scholars on this testifying in front of Congress. That somehow is, you know, totally normal. And so you see actually the kind of codification of this distinction between power and who is able to wield violence and who is to be condemned if not shut out for it. Oddly enough in the Terms of Service of Twitter and so, you know, maybe this seems unimportant, but actually it’s kind of fundamental to how things are considered when it comes to talking about things, communicating about things in our mass media and now in our social media. And so this arbitrary distinction between state and nonstate violence, uh, is described in these Terms of Service. So you have Twitter saying this: “Accounts that affiliate with organizations that use or promote violence against civilians to further their causes” are going to be banned basically. “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.” And this literally is the next sentence. “This policy does not apply to military or government entities.”
Adam: Right. So there was US military, they do this on YouTube, they post videos of drones taking out people they’re snuff films basically. And they oftentimes will post these on Twitter. They post, there’s an infamous tweet in February of 2018 where the air force tweeted out a bomber firing, exploding shrapnel and the tweet said “Her-cu-les, Her-cu-les!” I reference I guess to Nutty Professor, and they went on to say quote, “You don’t want to be on the receiving end of this gunship, aka the Angel of Death.” Now this is completely sanctioned by Twitter. Whereas if Nima or I or you know Hezbollah or a sub state actor of some kind was to go on and say ‘you don’t want to be on the receiving end of this’ with a weapon, they would be banned within five seconds and justifiably so. So it’s, it’s interesting that we talk about the difference between non state and substate actors and state actors, people in power and those not in power. And of course there are sort of, I think this, this policy would also apply to quote unquote “states” that were poor or in bad standing with the US national security state as well. It’s not just a state versus non state thing, but generally the fact that it’s actually in the Twitter Terms of Service, where they say quote, “This policy does not apply to military and government entities” is a huge tell about what we mean when we talk about violence.
Nima: And Twitter also, it’s even more specific. So Twitter Terms of Service actually says this as well, this is about, you know, who can be kicked off the platform or you know, have their accounts shut down or suspended and they say this quote, “Content that glorifies violence or the perpetrators of a violent act.” So when we think about the “Her-cu-les, Her-cu-les!” tweet for example from the U.S. Air Force, what is that if not glorifying violence and also the perpetrators of that violent act? They say, “you don’t want to be on the receiving end of this.” They’re not talking about a fucking NFL flyover. They’re not talking about the technical, mechanical achievements of this airship. This is not about that. They are literally threatening violence and reveling in it because they’re, you know, chest thumping and being really macho.
Adam: Yeah. And it’s also telling about what we consider violence in normal discourse. So sanctions against countries for example, like Iran, Venezuela, which routinely kill thousands of people, they killed hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq, they’re never framed as violence and indeed in a very perverse fashion are seen as an alternative to violence. Whereas war is sort of seen as violence. But starving a country cutting off its economy, cutting off its medical supplies, cutting off its ability to, to run an economy, which again throws people in poverty is not seen as violence. And then there’s the issue of poverty and racism, which we would sort of argue on this show, and I think very convincingly, that racism and poverty state side are a tremendous force of violence. In fact, poverty and racism are the most ubiquitous forms of violence.
Nima: In fact, one 2011 study in the American Journal of Public Health looked to turn our general conception of violence on its head just in this exact way by calculating how deaths are caused in the United States by poverty and racism. And they found this as reported by The New York Times, quote, “For [the year] 2000, the study attributed 176,000 deaths to racial segregation and 133,000 to individual poverty. The numbers are substantial. For example, looking at direct causes of death, 119,000 people in the United States die from accidents each year, and 156,000 from lung cancer.” End quote. So while it’s not, you know, perhaps direct cause like being shot with a bullet, many death factors we talk about aren’t actually those either. So The New York Times continued quote, “Dr. Galea, who is the chairman of the department of epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. ‘If you say that 193,000 deaths are due to heart attack, then heart attack matters. If you say 300,000 deaths are due to obesity, then obesity matters. Well, if 291,000 deaths are due to poverty and income inequality, then those things matter too.’”
Adam: Yeah. So there you have it. You have 176,000 deaths caused by racial segregation and 133,000 deaths caused by individual poverty in just the year 2000 alone. So these things are never called violence. So poverty reduction, anti-racism efforts are not seen as anti-violence efforts because they’re not included in our definition of violence even though they are again the most ubiquitous and common and routine form of violence.
Nima: To talk more about this, we’re going to be joined by journalist and author Natasha Lennard, contributing writer for The Intercept, and author of the new book Being Numerous: Essays on Non-Fascist Life which comes out this month. Natasha will join us in just a sec. Stay with us.
Nima: We are thrilled to be joined now by journalist and author Natasha Lennard who is back on the show. Natasha, thank you so much for joining us again on Citations Needed.
Natasha Lennard: Thank you for having me again.
Adam: Yes, so we are tackling a very, uh, a very weighty subject, which is violence and what we mean by the word violence and all that it implies. When the average person thinks of violence, specifically the context of political violence, based on what you’ve done in your research and your interviews and writing, what do you think is the sort of biggest inconsistency or hypocrisy in our sort of general understanding of what that word means?
Natasha Lennard: It’s one that I kind of find myself answering and writing about again and again in all kinds of contexts, be it occupy, the inauguration protests, riots for black life, all kinds of situations this question needs to be asked and re-asked because it’s dealt with so consistently badly, both by the media and the political establishment. I wouldn’t say it’s inconsistently dealt with. I would say it’s dealt with consistently badly.
Natasha Lennard: And that is that violence is consistently situated in the wrong place. In terms of protests, it’s almost a trope now that you’ll have newspaper articles or commentary talking about how protestors “turn violent” or protests “turn to violence.” And this violent turn I think is really dangerous rhetoric, violent rhetoric in and of itself because in the occasions where this happens, take for example the protests in Ferguson after Mike Brown’s point blank murder by cops and in Baltimore, the background state of affairs is violent, right? Like the state of affairs wherein we need to say Black Lives Matter is a violent state of affairs, so to put the violent turn onto protestors who are countering this violence in a sort of counter violent protest, I find that really problematic. Another site of problematic framing of violence that again very much serves state narratives is when the term is applied to property damage. I’m not saying that there can be no victims of violence via property damage. For example, the burning of a black church, that’s property damage that it has real human victims and we should speak out for those victims and against that kind of violence. Do I think we can apply the term to a massive corporate bank who’s window got smashed or a Starbucks window when there’s lots of insurance and the aim and the target is a kind of vast corporate infrastructure? No, I don’t think we can see or should necessarily seek to see victims of violence there. But of course the media does and the criminal justice system does. And so yeah that’s where I see some pretty bad consistencies cause they fail to address undergirding power structures and undergirding violences.
Nima: I think the term “riot” is used a lot as a real dog whistle. You know, I think it has so much to do with exactly, as your kind of speaking about Natasha, property damage. I mean riots have kind of everything to do with like things being smashed as opposed to people making demands. Can you speak to just like how words like that are often used and abused and like weaponized against, against victims of perpetual violence in support of those who actually either profit or do that violence themselves? Like, you know, exact violence onto those populations.
Natasha Lennard: Riots often are a kind of dog whistle and often a racist one to disavow something as senseless. Right? You know, and one response to that could be like, ‘no, we won’t call it out. We won’t own that. We won’t reappropriate the term and say, yeah, you know, that wasn’t a riot. That was a protest.’ I actually think we shouldn’t avoid the term, but we should just reject that it’s necessarily a bad thing. Uh, you know, riots are sometimes hugely crucial catalysts to historic change and have long been.
Adam: Yeah. The term that a lot of people use and we used earlier in the show is uprising, which I think is a more historically accurate term. I think there are times where you definitely have like riots where there’s not any kind of political context. Like after, you know, uh, Texas Tech wins a football game.
Natasha Lennard: The Great Pumpkin Riot. I don’t know if remember that one?
Adam: I do. I think the Black Lives Matter prefers the term uprising. I’m curious what you think about that word.
Natasha Lennard: I mean, it’s obviously got more of a edifying ring to it and I think uprising totally applies to Ferguson, to Baltimore. But I, you know, I don’t know if we need to agree that riot is a problematic term nor do I think looting is problematic. Writer Vicky Osterweil has written a brilliant essay, In Defense of Looting, that can seem senseless and opportunistic, but in a world that denies so many people so much, what is always so problematic about being opportunistic in a moment of uprising? So I think there are a lot of questions here that it’s not necessarily clear cut either way. Whether we choose better words or give credit to words that have been demonized, what’s more important clearly is the framings that we see and what kind of political actions get framed by the state and by media establishments as perpetrating horrors and monstrosities and that are easy to use to up criminalization and mass arrests and profiling and all those things that, that we really don’t want and that the media should be more careful if they also purport to not want those things too.
Adam: I was surprised, um — and surprise to my kind of general disposition of kind of credulous white, upper middle class white guy — when I went to Baltimore and actually walked the path from Freddie Gray’s, from Mondawmin Mall to the CVS, that burned, April 2015, the burning CVS, the shot heard around the world. If you actually go to, if you sort of walk the path, I did it with a couple local people. They deliberately passed by several local black owned stores and went for the CVS. The CVS was actually targeted and then you say, okay, well why is that? It’s like, ‘oh, everyone hates the CVS.’ They allege, and I don’t have evidence for this, but the, the people allege that they raise prices on the day that SNAP comes in on, I think the six of the month it is.
Natasha Lennard: Oh wow.
Adam: They routinely have police like harass people in the store for like loitering. Same with Mondawmin Mall. Mondawmin Mall, which is right next to where the purge moral panic happened. It doesn’t allow the, the local students into the mall. You’re not allowed to go into the mall from four to six if you wear, or from three to six if you wear the charter school outfits, which is basically saying ‘we don’t want black kids in our mall’ and it’s the only mall in the black part of Baltimore. And so there’s all this sort of context that when you really dig deep, you see that like what looked like mindless was violence and to some extent it may have been, but there was a huge context to that. There was, there was businesses that deliberately were not looted, that had a good relationship with the local neighborhood. And I found that, I found it interesting that even in something like looting, which we call looting, you’re, you’re right. Like there’s such a, there’s still political properties to that.
Natasha Lennard: Yeah. And, you know, I, I think it’s important too, I don’t think we can flatten all targets of, of looting or a writer’s protest as exactly the same as you say, there’s different consequences for a mom and pop store then there is a big CVS or like the QuikTrip.
Adam: Yeah. But I mean, who’s going to shed a tear for CVS? Right?
Natasha Lennard: And if you do, then you know, you’re definitely on the wrong side of history. But I will also say that we also have to question our readiness to be like ‘they chose bad targets! That was a mom and pop store!’ Like, sure, that sucks. It really sucks. But sometimes in a moment of rightful rage and anger caused by nonstop oppressive, murderous, deadly forces on so many oppressed bodies, things can’t always be clean and clean cut. We can’t debate our way into that kind of justice and it’s not going to be politely handed over. And I think a recognition of where we really want to be placing our criticisms is so crucial in the media and so, so poorly addressed. And we see it in the kind of two sides-ism about white supremacist gatherings and neo Nazis and anti-fascists counter protests as if any sort of counter violence and I do insist it is counter violence because the presence of neo Nazis gathering in public is to me a violence, even if it doesn’t have a physical confrontational aspect. When there’s an anti-fascist counter violence, I have an interest as a commentator to not say there was violence on both sides or to call the violence something equal just because it may be looked physically equal. And I think as you guys discussed, Adam has been super helpful on keeping tabs on this stuff, the way in which this two sides-ism keeps playing out and uses the kind of spectacles of violence to collapse any sort of moral differences that we should be drawing.
Nima: Yeah, I think that, you know, so much of what we wind up talking about, and I know the three of us kind of go around about on this, you know, on social media that we, there’s always endless examples to kind of call out, you know, both sides certainly is one. I think there’s the, the kind of pat cliche that we see all the time, which is violence is not the answer, right? Violence is never the solution. And you know, the people who always wind up saying that, using that platitude are people who don’t bat an eye when defense budgets go up, that vote for every war or that support, you know, ongoing invasions or you know, propose and endorse new ones. You know. So I think that on a political scale, there’s the obvious disingenuous hypocrisy. At a maybe lower level, no one’s really, I mean, except for like your most doctrinaire pacifist, right? No one’s really opposed to all violence. They’re just opposed to like the violence that they’re opposed to.
Natasha Lennard: Right. And the kind of spectacle and the disruptive violence. Cause it’s not, because if they’re not used to their lives being disrupted by an illness that will kill them because they can’t pay for medical care, they don’t see that consistent disruption of so many people have lives as a violence because it doesn’t go bang and have fire. So yeah, there’s the kind of structural issue and the kind of available nimbyism like ‘I don’t have to see it, so I don’t want to call it violence.’ And then there’s the kind of empty passivism of the, ‘they go low, we go high’ and that often calls upon, you know, MLK’s principled nonviolence whilst forgetting that yes, a lot of principled nonviolent action advocacy and protest did do so much and is also necessary. A lot of the way that tactic worked was on the presumption that the police and white supremacists would act violently to nonviolent protest as thus drawing the spectacle of white supremacist violence into the media frame. Like the idea was not that there would be no violence, it was just that the spectacle of violence would be coaxed because it was inevitable. And you know, we have to remember that MLK wrote decrying the white moderate who called even these tactics too radical because they were more invested in order then injustice and you know, I think that actual same ideology is at play when you hear upset and decries of the violence of smashed windows.
Adam: We focused earlier on the kind of total lionization and fetishization of Gandhi and MLK in the liberal discourse. This is kind of the go-to rejoinder when people say, well, because again I want to be clear like at least on a personal level, you know, non violence, seems like a really good first option. It has its tactical uses and it can work in certain contexts I think we would all agree with that and we can talk about this later with the whole “renounce violence” thing that’s always placed upon Palestinians, but there’s no, again, if you vote for Democrats, if you vote for Obama, if you vote for Bernie Sanders, if you vote for anyone that’s a mainstream politician or pretty much even the Green Party or whatever it is, you’re voting for someone who supports some degree of violence. And what we’re really debating is we all agree violence is necessary in certain contexts. The real political conversation is what is the moral criteria for when that’s acceptable. And I think you used the term, I don’t know what term you used, but the kind of mindless veneration of MLK and Gandhi as this kind of liberal sibilith, which is really way of telling people to shut up and sit down and to kind of maintain the status quo with maybe some token reforms thrown in there.
Nima: Just go on marches so we can put you in jail and you can become a political prisoner.
Natasha Lennard: Right. And it’s also like I just, you know, cause when it is often coming from a place of like demands for civility and demands for moderation, I’m like even civil rights liberation fighters who didn’t opt for more radical confrontational tactics would have hated you guys! Like, shut up!
Adam: Right. So that was my question. Like to what extent are we completely erasing that both the, the Indian freedom struggle and the civil rights had a huge violent component to it? And this just gets completely erased from history or, or it’s seen as somehow anathema to or in contrast to MLK without understanding that like, look, it’s a good cop/bad cop thing like that makes sense to me. Right? Historically.
Natasha Lennard: I just, yeah, I don’t think, yeah, it’s, it’s difficult to say what could have happened anyway. But like you clearly what did happen is that both principled nonviolence and principled violence have in history got the goods. And we’re also at an interesting time now in terms of the veneration of sort of the big marches of the sixties like, ‘oh, you know, we’ll, we’ll figure it out, we’ll just have a big, big march.’ Which is always, I think great. You know, the Women’s March showed a lot of passion, but getting a million people on the National Mall now is a lot easier than it was 40 years ago given technology. So it doesn’t show the same potency. It doesn’t show that like, you know, ‘we can get this many people here now imagine what else we could do.’ Whereas now it can kind of show not the beginnings of your capacity but the extent of it at times, which is not to say and therefore we need to like up our radicalism. But it is worth thinking about, you know, tactics over time change and have different political potency given what kind of threat they do or do not suggest to the powers that be.
Nima: Yeah. I think that you actually point out something brilliantly, which is the conflation or confusion or replacement may be of what used to be a tactic is now a goal. And so the marches or the rallies are now, ‘Oh, look what we did.’
Natasha Lennard: Yeah.
Nima: And equating that with having done something or having achieved something. It’s like, ‘Look at all those people we got together: resistance achieved!’ As opposed to the march is the tactic that then leads you to power.
Natasha Lennard: Yeah. And I think there are still, you know, people do find each other and build from there, but often it is just like celebrated per se. And the media does this too, cause they, you know, they, they love using the term “historic” just because something is technically the biggest. And so like in a certain very literal sense, it’s true. It’s historically the biggest.
Nima: It’s like inflation.
Natasha Lennard: But I’m just like, okay, you’re cool. Like you, that doesn’t mean it was like going to shift history aside from being the biggest thing. Like good. Do you want to have a Guinness Book of Records Award?
Adam: So what would you say to, um, we, we have a general rule on the show, which is, which has never punch left, but I’m going to kind of do it a little bit here just to sort of get your response to this.
Nima: Because it’s a violent show.
Adam: A violent show. Exactly.
Natasha Lennard: So we can punch everywhere.
Adam: No pun intended. Um, to people who say, okay, there is a thread or occurrence in left spaces of a kind of fetishization of violence or fetishization of property destruction that doesn’t have a lot of strategic coherence and that usually when the backlash happens to this violence — and I’m not saying I endorse this opinion, but I, I’m curious to get your response — and when the backlash happens to this violence, it’s leveled upon people who aren’t the proverbial white college kid at Oberlin, my kind of go-to.
Nima: I love that. Thank you.
Adam: I know. Anytime buddy. You’re not white so it’s cool. That there’s this sort of anarchist fantasy camp mentality. I think this is vastly overblown, but I guess I’m curious to what extent do you think that people who make a purely strategic and rather not a moral argument have some reservations about things like for example, the tactics of antifa, which again, I know as a tactic, not a group —
Natasha Lennard: Yeah.
Adam: What would you say to that? Do you think that’s a legitimate concern? Do you think that, and I’m concern trolling a little bit here, but —
Natasha Lennard: No, I think it’s a legitimate concern that is vastly, vastly overblown such that any legitimacy gets lost. So if it’s a legitimate concern and we don’t have, say we don’t have a kind of empty lionization of nonviolence as if it’s like even a possible state of affairs in the world and we have some room for counter violence or room for confrontational struggle. And then knowing that there’s obviously a huge responsibility, obligation on any community engaging with that to be careful, right? And to address the risks of everyone involved in a given space and whether you’re kind of risking putting people with vulnerable identities, vulnerable legal situations, vulnerable integration situations in a kind of police environment that’s dangerous by you breaking a window. That would be brash and that would be unthoughtful and that would be stupid. And it’s, you know, the job of activists who want to engage in this sort of thing to try and be as careful as possible. I mean, of course mistakes happen and again, it would still be the state’s fault and the police’s fault and the broader totality of horrible things against which these protests are amassing, like that remains at fault. So I think it’s, yes, it shouldn’t be ignored, especially if you’ve got young, sometimes protestors coming from privilege who haven’t, for want of a better, less hip term checked their privilege. You know, I don’t find it particularly inspiring or compelling when people just fetishize smash jobs and fire even if they see the kind of political importance of occasionally like disrupting the scene and disrupting the status quo and the patina of capitalism. I don’t like that brashness and I don’t like unthoughtfulness, but I think it actually is quite rare and it’s about building communities so these conversations are hard. So tactics aren’t just taken in this sort of adventurist individualistic way. And that when and if something does happen that made people uncomfortable or put people at risk or you know, messed up, that we still keep eyes on the prize, which is yes, critique, do better. Think about what went wrong. Do community care and outreach but throwing each other under the bus because of a tactical misstep is not as important as realizing that like police violence is the undergirding floor. American white supremacy is the violence.
Adam: Yeah. Cause you were, you were present during the, during the J20 kettle, I believe you were-?
Natasha Lennard: Yeah. I wasn’t in the kettle, so I was in that march.
Adam: Right. Yeah. You were in the surrounding area, if I recall.
Natasha Lennard: Yeah. So I joined the anti-fascist block and you know, everyone’s in masks and things, you can’t really see what’s going on. But this idea that because there was a mass arrest that, you know, all the charges got dropped because it was such a mass arrest. I mean it did ruin people’s lives for two years because they were terrified of facing 70 years potentially in prison. These sort of things defang movements. And this is one of the more radical arms of the “#resistance” and yeah so that arrest made it easy for people to talk about bad protestors.
Adam: Yeah. That was, seemed like that was the, cause I was, I was three blocks away in a Starbucks. But when I talk about it I make it sound like I was in Vietnam. I was live-tweeting it like I was there. Um, cause I, yeah, cause I feel like J20 really brought to surface a lot of this stuff. Right? This kind of, um, I mean there was, there was the famous photo of photojournalists taking pictures of the tiny little garbage can on fire and it really kind of summed up.
Natasha Lennard: Yeah.
Adam: And even the limousine of course wasn’t even lit on fire until after the kettle began. So there was such a, there was such a disproportionate obsession with this idea of violent protests when it was, uh, it seems to be very trivial, trivial property damage.
Natasha Lennard: Right. And look for the most part it was because if that, that area of DC is, is all corporate or chain stores. Like corporate, like bank buildings or stores, chain stores. Um, so the windows that were broken, the few that were, were all just a kind of on a corporate row. And then, you know, so there was this mass arrest and then there was sort of scuffles and the limo got lit on fire after that big march. So later in the afternoon. But it all got kind of put together in a media like clambering for violent spectacle. Keep in mind that like people were standing around with maga hats on, which is its own violence, and then the next day that was the very kind of placid but joyful but massive Women’s March and some, you know, there was some great solidarity for some of the more radical sides of those organizers and there are them, they certainly are. But one columnist whomst I think is shit, she was like, ‘uh, the Women’s March was amazing. So amazing that no one got arrested. So proud, no one got arrested.’ I’m like, oh hang on a second.
Nima: Except for all the people who got arrested.
Natasha Lennard: Except for all the people that got arrested the day before, not in the Women’s March and it was this idea of the Women’s March was good because we didn’t get arrested. It’s like or you didn’t get arrested because the police are fine with you guys.
Nima: Right. Because you’re not a threat.
Natasha Lennard: Because you are literally not a threat. And in celebrating that you’re also and as a point of self congratulation your sort of saying it’s people’s fault when they get arrested always. And we know if that were true, the US policing system would not be the US policing system.
Nima: Right. That it’s a matter of, you know, we were able to protest by staying behind all the stanchions and staying exactly in line and obeying all the rules and getting all the permits. Therefore that was a success. Right? Like that was, that was the right way to resist fascism.
Natasha Lennard: And especially, you know, and even outside of a protest context you get arrested walking while black. So is that, did you do something wrong? This idea of celebration of non arrest is not understanding again like where violence is located and the state will decide if you’re a bad protester. Like whether you decide to behave or not. It’s not, you know, if your named as an ideological enemy you will get profiled. You will have immigration trouble. Like you will not have an easy time. So you know, this idea of ‘let’s be the good protestors’ puts you’re on the side of a state that is also putting you on the wrong side of history, I would say.
Nima: Yeah. I think that it’s this idea that, you know, unless someone gets punched, there is no violence.
Adam: Or a garbage can is lit on fire.
Nima: Right, a garbage can is lit on fire.
Natasha Lennard: The sad trash.
Nima: Yeah, yeah. Who’s going to speak up if ‘first they come for the trash’? You know, so just this idea of, you know, and I think it speaks so much to those kinds of bullshit, dark web garbage people who, ‘Oh, this is just a, you know, war of ideas and so why are you so afraid of ideas?’ And it’s like, no, no, no. It’s like some ideas are literally violent.
Natasha Lennard: Cause some ideas are genocidal, right?
Natasha Lennard: And some tactics or about countering genocidal ideas. And sometimes the idea of that countering, taking, needing a confrontational stance isn’t just because it’s so horrifying we must punch it. It’s a Nazi. That is, I think, where we can end up, it’s that if you understand that kind of violent ideology and there’s violent desires that are the root and formation of fascist collectivities, they’re not based on reason. They’re not based on well thought out ideologies they’re priore racist as first principles driven by these awful hierarchical authoritarian desiring practices and tendencies. So they are only intervened with successfully, often confrontationally not through civility because they’re not, they’re not ideas really. Their tendencies and habits and they are essentially violent ones as you say.
Nima: So Natasha, can you tell us a little bit about your new book Being Numerous: Essays on Non-Fascist Life and maybe how it relates to your previous book, Violence: Humans in Dark Times and you know, tell our listeners where they can find the stuff and what kind of drove you to do this work.
Natasha Lennard: Okay, yes, sure. So the violence book, it’s called Violence: Humans in Dark Times, which I co-authored with a philosopher from Britain named Brad Evans, who is excellent. And we had a series at The New York Times’ philosophy blog, the little red New York Times’ philosophy blog “The Stone.” It’s not actually that little red, it’s great. And we interviewed artists and philosophers and thinkers and historians and we carried on the series at the LA RB too and we interviewed uh, you know, queer theorists, aporn star, lots different people about the question of violence in different contexts. So that is a series of interviews that is now a book by City Lights and you can get that anywhere you get books. And then Being Numerous: Essays on Non-Fascist Life is just by me and it is a collection of more deep diving theoretical essays and longer reportage from Versa May 2nd coming to books near you and from the bad place, Amazon on preorder. And yeah, it’s, it’s a, it’s actually about a whole bunch of things. But there is an essay on the philosophical defense of punching Nazis. There’s an essay on the limits of using a discourse around rights when we’re talking about things like illegal protests like J20, and like the protest at Standing Rock. There’s also an essay about believing in ghosts and believing and disbelieving in things at the same time, which is just my way of taking a dig at like the worst of ghostbusters like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.
Adam: I actually, I actually attend church every week just to spite them. No, I don’t go to church. You know, it’s funny you mentioned rights discourse. We’ve been discussing a show about rights discourse for a long time. It’s such a fascinating topic in liberal rights discourse. We’ve, we’ve, we’ve touched on it here and there but that itself could be its own, its own like eight part series.
Nima: Well this has been so great Natasha talking to you, journalist and author, Natasha Lennard, contributing writer at The Intercept. Her work has appeared everywhere. You can find it everywhere and her latest book is Being Numerous: Essays on Non-Fascist Life. And Natasha, thank you so much again for joining us on Citations Needed.
Natasha Lennard: Thank you.
Adam: Yeah, so she was great. Always great. Definitely check out her books that we talked about specifically the one on violence which can be found at finer bookstores everywhere.
Nima: That will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Thank you everyone for listening. This is a topic I think we kind of revisit a lot because it’s super, super important. It just speaks to how our systems of power discuss itself and also uses language routinely to criminalize and delegitimize any efforts to actually challenge power. So thank you everyone for joining us this week. Citations needed can be found on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed. Please if you have not already become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. And a very special shout out goes to all of our patrons on Patreon and especially our critic level supporters. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Production consultant is Josh Kross. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Lead engineer for this episode is Josh Wilcox. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks for listening again everyone. We’ll catch you next time.
This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, April 24, 2019.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.