‘We Have to Bust In and Insist That Power Be Shared in a Different Kind of Way’ – Best of CounterSpin 2019


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The December 27, 2019, episode of CounterSpin was the Best of CounterSpin 2019—featuring excerpts of Janine Jackson’s interviews with Carey Gillam on Monsanto’s manipulation of science, Arun Gupta on normalizing concentration camps, Sasha Abramsky on racist immigration policy, Dorothee Benz on “Swiss cheese civil rights” for LGBTQ people, Brian Mier  on Brazilian politics, Joe Uehlein on labor and the Green New Deal, Kevin Kumashiro on student debt cancellation and Brenda Choresi Carter on the electability myth. This is a lightly edited transcript.

MP3 Link

Janine Jackson: Welcome to the Best of CounterSpin for 2019. I’m Janine Jackson. Every week, CounterSpin looks behind the headlines of the corporate media, whose presentation of the world does so much to shape it, even though they are less a window than a reflection of the priorities of owners, advertisers and power players. We try to bring you voices you might not hear elsewhere: activists, researchers, reporters and teachers, who can illuminate what big media are getting wrong—or missing entirely—why it matters, and what we can do about it.

At year’s end, we revisit a few of the conversations it’s been our pleasure to bring you. We can only include a few, but you can find them all on FAIR.org. You’re listening to the Best of CounterSpin for 2019, brought to you by the media watch group FAIR.


If journalism isn’t a check on power, it’s just PR, which is why truly independent reporting will virtually always be under attack from the powerful. Veteran journalist Carey Gillam, now research director at US Right to Know, has been in the sights of agribusiness giant Monsanto, now Bayer, for years, precisely because of interviews like one she had with us in March, after a court found Monsanto, via its ubiquitous weed killer Roundup, liable in a man’s cancer.

Carey Gillam: “So when Monsanto says it has all of this science on its side, we know now from internal Monsanto documents, that a lot of that science they point to is science that they paid for.”

Carey Gillam: Of course, it is Bayer and Monsanto’s argument, or position, that the science is on their side, that the weight of scientific evidence shows no cancer risk, no carcinogenicity connection to its glyphosate-based herbicides like Roundup. But the evidence tells us otherwise.

And, of course, I’ve written a whole book about it, and talked about it many times. The weight of scientific evidence—published, peer-reviewed epidemiology, toxicology, mechanistic data done over multiple years, multiple countries—does indeed show a cancer risk associated with these herbicides, with clear association to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. And that’s what caused the International Agency for Research on Cancer, in 2015, to classify glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup, as a probable human carcinogen. So there’s a great deal of scientific evidence, and that’s what is convincing juries.

But the second part of this is there’s also a great deal of evidence of Monsanto’s manipulation of the scientific record. So when Monsanto says it has all of this science on its side, we know now from internal Monsanto documents, that a lot of that science they point to is science that they paid for, that they wrote, that they ghostwrote, that they manipulated—that they essentially had a hand in creating a safety narrative that really was not true.

JJ: Just framing stories around lawsuits and trials affects how we hear them. So when you hear about how Dewayne Johnson was awarded $280 million in damages, and that was later reduced to about $80 million, and $80 million in Hardeman, you have to remember that Monsanto has almost endlessly deep pockets, and, you know, money doesn’t cure cancer. So just speaking of it in terms of, “Oh, they won,” doesn’t really give you an accurate picture of what’s happening here, I don’t think.

CG: Definitely. And I spoke with the plaintiff’s attorneys, Aimee Wagstaff and Jennifer Moore, yesterday, and we talked about that. You know, it’s great to say, “We won,” and there’s money, and this cancer victim will get a few dollars.

But it’s really a larger picture and a larger problem in this world, where we’re allowing these companies, a handful of very powerful companies, to really dominate the regulatory system, the political system, food policy matters, agricultural policy, in which we all are just exposed to pesticides and chemicals that can do harm to our health.

***

Janine Jackson: You might almost miss the logical coherence of the Trump administration’s gifts to corporations and the wealthy in deregulation and tax policy, so distracting is the abject cruelty and racism of their immigration policy. But when we saw concentration camps, what did most elite media offer? A semantics debate, and an ill-informed one at that. We talked in July with journalist Arun Gupta, who was part of a call to action on the issue.

Arun Gupta

Arun Gupta: “The US has its own experience with concentration camps: reservations for Native Americans in the 19th century that were places of disease, death and brutality, to the strategic hamlets in Vietnam, which were essentially concentration camps. And so now we’re seeing this on the borders again.”

Arun Gupta: It’s interesting, because when we launched the campaign, the Institute for Public Accuracy, which tries to get non-mainstream voices into the mainstream, they sent out a press release about this effort, and I pretty much immediately was contacted by NPR’s reporter for the borderlands and immigration, John Burnett. And it was a bizarre and disturbing exchange, because, essentially, he was trying to set a trap for me. He doesn’t even say, like, “Oh, I’m interested in this story. What is this about, blah, blah, blah.” He just starts immediately, “Which of the facilities are concentration camps?”

And we start having an exchange, where I’m like, “I’m not going to be drawn into this game.”

And finally he admits, “Well, I’m touring the new HHS child influx center in Carrizo Springs tomorrow; so I wanted to know, like, which one of these specific shelters are concentration camps.”

And I’m like, “You were basically playing a gotcha game; you wanted me to say, like, ‘They’re all concentration camps,’ then you’re going to go on this Trump administration-run tour, and talk about how great it is.”

And in fact, that is exactly what he did in his report, but he couldn’t attribute it to anyone. He starts out by saying, you know, “Critics called these child prisons and concentration camps. But this is definitely not one of them,” or something like that; people can go listen to the report.

And then I asked him, “What do you think are concentration camps?” And he basically says, “That’s an unknowable question. And this is a controversial topic.” This is how we get euphemisms in the mainstream, where torture becomes “enhanced interrogation,” or war crimes against civilians become “collateral damage.”

Basically, anyone who is an expert in this field has said, “These are concentration camps. They meet the historical definition.”

No one is calling them “death camps.” But in 1933, the death camps were concentration camps, and there’s all the historical examples, from Spain and Cuba, Germany and Namibia, British in South Africa. This is how they began.

The US has its own experience with concentration camps: reservations for Native Americans in the 19th century that were places of disease, death and brutality, to the strategic hamlets in Vietnam, which were essentially concentration camps. And so now we’re seeing this on the borders again.

But what we have is a media that is both overly legalistic, where you can’t say anything unless it arises to a judicial level of proof.

JJ: Right.

AG: And where reality is determined by who holds the most social power.

***

Janine Jackson: In August, reporter and author Sasha Abramsky urged journalists, frankly, to stop missing the forest for the trees on the Trump White House.

Sasha Abramsky

Sasha Abramsky: “It’s a racial project, like apartheid South Africa, which is designed to narrow the definition of Americanness to a certain category of people who fit a racial and an economic profile that Donald J. Trump is comfortable with.”

Sasha Abramsky: Look, they’re referencing eugenics-era cases, they’re referencing the Chinese Exclusion Act cases, they’re referencing the laws that were used to justify Japanese internment.

And they shouldn’t be seen in isolation. This is a web of policies—from public charge, to exclusion from public housing, to the attacks on people with Temporary Protected Status, to the attempts to lock out asylum-seekers and refugees, to this latest idea that they’re going to indefinitely detain in concentration camps families of immigrants—all of this is part of this notion of locking down America, and redefining who is American.

And there’s no way you can understand it without understanding it as a racial project. It’s a racial project, like apartheid South Africa, which is designed to narrow the definition of Americanness to a certain category of people who fit a racial and an economic profile that Donald J. Trump is comfortable with, or Stephen Miller is comfortable with, or Stephen Bannon is comfortable with.

And when we are trying to understand this, it makes no sense to parse it and say, “Well, let’s look at this piece of legislation, and think of it in isolation from everything else.” You have to look at this as a political project in its entirety.

And it’s a political project we haven’t seen in this country for more than half a century. It’s an attempt to impose a white nationalist vision of what America is, on the most diverse, most pluralistic society, certainly on Earth today, but arguably, in human history. It’s an insane political project.

***

Janine Jackson: In October, the Supreme Court took up three cases involving the rights of LGBTQ people. The press called them  “blockbuster,” but coverage stuck to legal stances and court divisions, with little attention to what it meant, or didn’t mean, for people. CounterSpin spoke with writer and organizer Dorothee Benz about what she called “Swiss Cheese civil rights.”

Dorothee Benz

Dorothee Benz: “They come in a context of an enormous assault on civil rights from the Trump administration and others, which in turn has fueled a rise in hate crimes and domestic terrorism, specifically white supremacist domestic terrorism.”

Dorothee Benz: So much of the analysis has been narrowly on what the legal argument is, whether the Civil Rights Act’s Title VII—which bans sex discrimination—applies to LGBTQ people, whether the justices are likely to agree with that, and all those kinds of things.

And those things are important, but they come in a context; they come in a context of an enormous assault on civil rights from the Trump administration and others, which in turn has fueled a rise in hate crimes and domestic terrorism, specifically white supremacist domestic terrorism.

They come in the context of this Orwellian idea of religious exemptions from civil rights laws that the right has been pursuing for decades. Basically, they make the argument that they are being discriminated against if they can’t live their values, and their values are to discriminate against me, right?

So it becomes this truly upside-down world. And what they’ve done is, they’ve pushed that in judicial realms, they’ve pushed it in legislation, they’ve pushed it in policy. The Trump administration has embraced it wholeheartedly, and the courts have increasingly embraced it as well.

So you get things like the Masterpiece Cakeshop ruling, you get things like foster care laws that allow taxpayer-funded agencies to turn away queer kids and queer families, and you get things like the so-called Denial of Care Rule that HHS, the Department of Health and Human Services, is about to implement, announced in May, that says any healthcare provider can refuse treatment to any person if, you know, it bothers their conscience.

So, yeah, so I could leave my job that I’m protected at, get hit by a truck, and then be denied lifesaving care on the side of the road. And hence the phrase “Swiss Cheese civil rights.”

***

Janine Jackson: US media heralded the supposed anti-corruption investigations known as Lava Jato in Brazil, even as they led to the jailing of former president and popular presidential candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, paving the way for the election of an actual neo-fascist, Jair Bolsonaro. Media showed little interest in US involvement in Lava Jato, which was integral, and didn’t care much when documents revealed the whole thing as the political lawfare campaign some always knew it to be. Brian Mier, co-editor at Brasil Wire, talked with us in June.

Brian Mier

Brian Mier: “What I see the big media doing is trying to guarantee that this investigation isn’t completely undermined, that Lula stays in jail, that the PT doesn’t rise back up in power and undo the privatizations that the post-coup governments have enacted in Brazil.”

Brian Mier: I look at what Gramsci used to call the “integral (US) state,” which is the government, the political parties, educational institutions, think tanks and the big media companies. And what I see the big media doing is trying to guarantee that this investigation isn’t completely undermined, that Lula stays in jail, that the PT doesn’t rise back up in power and undo the privatizations that the post-coup governments have enacted in Brazil, that directly benefited all of these huge US companies, like Exxon Mobil, Microsoft, Boeing, Monsanto; they all benefited immensely because of this process, which started with Lava Jato, that threw Dilma Rousseff out of office—she wasn’t directly tied up in Lava Jato, but they used, the investigators leaked, all of this misinformation about her in the lead-up to the impeachment.

And also Lula’s arrest. To his credit, Glenn Greenwald’s the only big American journalist I’ve seen who, from day one, was saying Lula was arrested, obviously, to keep him from being reelected as president. And that was obvious to everyone down here, really, but at least he’s been saying it, but I haven’t seen that anywhere else in the news, all of the US news companies. Even the left media in the US is maddening, too, because they tried to act like the entire problem was due to failures of the Brazilian left. “That’s why PT didn’t win the elections, because the left sold out,” or something, which is equally ridiculous.

And that feeds into the corporate media narrative, that Brazil’s problems are their own problems; there’s no US influence whatsoever, Brazil’s this kind of geopolitical vacuum. It doesn’t fit with the history of Latin America at all, if you look. A Harvard Latin America publication a few years ago cited 41 US-backed coups in a 100-year period. That’s an average of like 2.6 coups per year in Latin America sponsored by the US, and that’s only the ones that are successful. I mean, we see unsuccessful coup attempts all the time, like in Venezuela right now.

***

Janine Jackson: You know the Green New Deal is a transformative vision that, among other things, upends a favorite corporate media setup: environment versus jobs. In May, CounterSpin asked Joe Uehlein, founding president of the Labor Network for Sustainability, how he approaches workers used to the short end of the stick.

Joe Uehlein

Joe Uehlein: “We have to solve the climate crisis, and we have the opportunity to do it in a way that improves the world we live in for working people and everyone.”

Joe Uehlein: I start with two things. One is that climate change is the real job killer, not the answers to climate change. And we’ve done studies to show that, but, for a lot of working people, it’s very obvious.

For example, if you work in the public sector, which a lot of people do, the only way you can negotiate good contracts is if you have healthy state and local budgets; those budgets will be decimated by the impact of climate change. And we’re seeing that, not only in New York, in the aftermath of Sandy, but up and down the entire West Coast, with the budget increases those states have seen to fight forest fires. As Sara Nelson talks about—she’s the president of the Flight Attendants Union—they’re already losing jobs to more and more flights being grounded, due to increased turbulence caused by climate change. And that list goes on and on.

But I start there, and then point out that the Green New Deal, this 14-page resolution—and I always stress that, because everybody says, “Well, what are the details? It’s short on specifics.” Yeah, it is. It’s a framework—it’s the best framework that we, in labor, have seen in a very long time for advancing workers’ rights. It sets a federal jobs guarantee for people who want to go to work fighting the climate crisis, and it also provides for what they call living wages, or family-supporting wages, in that jobs guarantee. And it steps up to the plate on climate.

JJ: Media often speak, kind of crudely, about “winners and losers” under policy changes, but of course it’s true that societal shifts have fallout. If we get Medicare for All, well, people who are now in the insurance business will need new jobs. But we don’t say, “Well, we need to keep making asbestos,” you know, “because those people need work.” It’s really more about whether you acknowledge the possibility of guaranteeing people’s well-being through a transition that society needs to make.

JU: Yeah, I mean, there are 10 industries right now, including healthcare, that are in transition, with no guarantee that that transition will be just. The Green New Deal does call for just transition for all displaced workers.

So, again, regardless of the industry you work in, whether it’s food or healthcare or transportation—energy, obviously—lots of people are going to either lose jobs in an unjust and unfair way, or transition into other jobs, with income maintenance and the retention of their health and pension benefits. That’s what we’re fighting for.

I do feel like this is it. And I do feel that it is a great opportunity. And I’m disappointed when I hear labor leaders, including Rich Trumka the other day, who said, “We’re opposed to the Green New Deal.” And then he rattled off some reasons that kind of indicated maybe he hasn’t read that resolution. He said there’s no worker interest in it. There’s more worker interests in that 14-page resolution, like I said before, than anything we’ve seen.

So I do think this is it. Not only because of the absolute urgency of the climate crisis—and we see a whole new wave, now, of really young people, rising up and striking, not going to school, that’s going to grow—and this better be it. We have to win this. We have to solve the climate crisis, and we have the opportunity to do it in a way that improves the world we live in for working people and everyone. Why don’t we take that?

***

Janine Jackson: When a fake lifeboat mentality, fomented by elite media, is telling us to triage fundamental human rights, thinking bigger isn’t just hopeful, it’s necessary, Kevin Kumashiro, author and founder of Education Deans for Justice and Equity, talked about that in relation to another big, but entirely possible if we want it, idea: student loan debt forgiveness. We spoke with him in June.

Kevin Kumashiro

Kevin Kumashiro: “Pre-K through college, you have the right to get the level of education that you need to be successful and happy in the world.”

Kevin Kumashiro: One of the things that I think the proposals force us to think about is, what are our priorities right now, and how should that be reflected in our national budgets. Like budgets reflect priorities, and if we were to fairly tax the rich and the corporations, and if we were to invest in education rather than in instruments of violence and repression, like prisons and war and so on, I think we would be able to create a budget that reflects that. This is absolutely affordable.

One of the things that I like to argue, however, is that as ambitious, as controversial, as some people think that these proposals are, I actually would say that they don’t quite go far enough, in the way that we’re talking about it still. And what I mean by that is, right now, the debate seems to be, how do we make education more affordable? As if education is a commodity, where those who have the wealth can afford to buy the best.

And what I would say is, yeah, we could engage in that debate, but maybe the bigger debate is, should education be seen and treated as a commodity in the first place, right?

Education, I think many of us would argue, is so fundamentally important, not only to individual wellness and livelihood and success, but also to the health and well-being of the community and the society, right? It strengthens democracy, it strengthens participation, social relations, global health. And so one of the things we should be thinking about is how education should be a fundamental human right for everyone. And what does it mean to invest in that?

Where pre-K through college, you have the right to get the level of education that you need to be successful and happy in the world. And I think that’s where I would like to see the conversation going. And, hopefully, that’s a reframing that we are heading towards.

***

Janine Jackson: Finally, while many CounterSpin guests have urged us to distinguish ideas from their vessels, it’s clear that a preeminent issue of the year has been removing Donald Trump from office. Here again, corporate media curtail and police our conversation and possibilities. And we have to work to remember that their power to frame doesn’t make their frames accurate.

In July, we spoke with Brenda Choresi Carter, director of the Reflective Democracy Campaign, about their media challenging research project, The Electability Myth.

Brenda Choresi Carter

Brenda Choresi Carter: “The problem of political gatekeepers is one that I think even engaged voters often don’t understand, because it’s so invisible.”

Brenda Choresi Carter:  We found that when we looked at who was on the ballot in 2018 by race and gender, and who won by race and gender, white men have no electability advantage; they do not win at higher rates than other groups, and, in fact, if you really want to get specific about it, they actually win at slightly lower rates than other groups. So they are not the safe bet they are often assumed to be when thinking about political candidates.

JJ: Now, you note at the outset, of course, that white men dominate politics. And so when you say they don’t have an electability advantage, what is it that you’re tracking that is showing that?

BCC: The reason that white men disproportionately hold political power—well, there are a lot of reasons. But in terms of just looking at the data, it’s because they’re disproportionately on the ballot.

JJ: Right.

BCC: So when candidates get on the general election ballot, regardless of their race and/or gender, they win at the same rates. So the real problem here is who’s ending up on our ballots, who voters are offered to choose from when they go to vote.

When voters go into the voting booth to vote, they are presented with a ballot that is the result of a long and usually invisible process of selection and support. There are pretty high barriers to entry into politics for everyone, but women and people of color face even higher ones.

And, in particular, the problem of political gatekeepers is one that I think even engaged voters often don’t understand, because it’s so invisible. So political parties, major donors, advocacy organizations, groups like the Chamber of Commerce or the Sierra Club, or other organizations that shape who is on the ballot, and which candidates get the support to run and win, are crucial bottleneck in the system here.

Those political gatekeepers are themselves disproportionately white men; they really capture the phrase “old boys’ club.” And when they’re looking around, deciding who they’re going to support for political office, they often choose from their own networks, from people they already know, and from people who end up looking a lot like themselves.

We are so used to one group, white men—and in most cases, wealthy white men—dominating political life and political decision-making, that to imagine anything else seems just to be almost like it’s hoping for the impossible. But our data shows that that’s not the case.

JJ: Exactly. Yeah.

BCC: And so that’s why I do think our research and the data that we found is actually incredibly hopeful. The problem here is not, by and large, voters; they are not the reason we don’t have a reflective democracy. They are voting for women and people of color just as often as white men.

JJ: It’s not, after all, an artificial exercise to get more women and people of color into elected office; it’s working towards there being a real relationship between power and people.

I’m also heartened that so many women and people of color see electoral politics as a place for them, as a ground that they won’t cede, despite the way they’re often treated, as we’re seeing right this minute. And so part of my takeaway from this report is that people are thinking, “The water’s not fine, at all, but you should still jump in.”

BCC: Yeah, I think that’s true. I mean, we saw a real uptick, really a surge of women of all races in 2018, running and winning up and down the ballot. And I think it reflects the incredible urgency that people feel about the moment that we’re in, given how really unwelcoming the political field is to nontraditional candidates.

Like you said, the water is not fine. People are still willing to plunge into it, because it’s very clear that leaving decision-making power in the hands of the groups who have long held it, to the exclusion of the rest of us, is not working. And we can’t wait for that to somehow work itself out, because it won’t work itself out. We have to bust in and insist that power be shared in a different kind of way.

***

Janine Jackson: That was Brenda Choresi Carter. Before her, you heard Kevin Kumashiro, Joe Uehlein, Brian Mier, Dorothee Benz, Arun Gupta and Carey Gillam. And that’s it for this year-end Best of CounterSpin for 2019.

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