Hindsight Is 2019
BROOKE GLADSTONE This week, we reflect on 2019, a year of disorder that exposed some of the nation's illusions, delusions, and unacknowledged truths.
JEET HEER You know, whether something is actually factually true is not at all a concern. The question is, is it useful for him?
ANNA MERLAN One of their goals is to make the information ecosystem so chaotic and so unstable and so unreliable that people start believing that the actual objective truth is not knowable and that they should stop looking for it.
MAX READ You're not quite sure if they're real or if they're fake, and it can be incredibly corrosive to any sense of solidarity with other people.
KATHLEEN BELEW People in the white power movement see a whole number of social issues as fundamentally being about a threat to white reproduction.
IBRAM X. KENDI Those constant shouts of “go back to your country” causes some people to ask the question: “well, is this my country?”
BROOKE GLADSTONE Coming up after this. From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield. This week, we want to do something we seldom have the bandwidth for, which is to sit down in the studio together to take a moment to reflect on 2019, what its impact has been on our country, our press and, yeah, the show. We won't revisit all the major stories this year. Not every mass shooting, every political snafu, every weather disaster or even every sign pointing to the Republic imploding. I mean, it would take a couple of years to chronicle all of that. And anyway, that's not really our job.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So instead, we're going to return to a couple of the year's biggest themes, for us anyway. And let's start with one of the first episodes of 2019, which we called “Everything is Fake.” I spoke with New York Magazine senior editor Max Read about the endlessly innovative ways the Internet messes with our sense of how the world works.
MAX READ We know that about 60 percent of traffic on the Internet is human. Of the remainder, that's bots. And then there's this huge portion of bots that are pretending to be humans saying, “Hello, I am a user and I would like to see this advertisement and click on it and then I'm going to walk away from here.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE So what happens when a facsimile internet, where fake people visit fake websites and generate fake data begins to rival the size of the human internet? When the two become so enmeshed, they're indistinguishable. Max introduced me to the term “The Inversion,” which is a take on what can happen.
MAX READ So “The Inversion” was a name that YouTube engineers came to an event in 2013 when the site was under attack from fraudulent bot traffic. YouTube, like most platforms, has pretty sophisticated fraud detection systems, but those systems work by identifying real and fake traffic, in part based on the percentages on the site. This attack was so large that it was brushing up against about 50 percent of the traffic and the engineers were genuinely worried that their systems would start to regard real traffic as fake and fake traffic is real.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How? Why?
MAX READ They work with machine learning. So they take samples of behavior and they can say the majority of our users act like this and the minority act like this. And so this minority is likely robots.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So if the majority, at least on a given day is robot--
MAX READ The machines say, well, that's the legitimate traffic. That's the traffic that's supposed to be here. All these bots and all these silly humans who are trying to watch videos, we need to kick them off the service.
BROOKE GLADSTONE When was the moment of “The Inversion”?
MAX READ On YouTube itself, “The Inversion” never quite happened. But for me, “The Inversion” as a sort of metaphorical idea, I feel like I passed it this year. I am increasingly unable to tell the difference between the authentic and the inauthentic on the internet. Sort of everything you look at and everything you come upon starts to feel shifty. It's a vertigo-inducing experience.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You have also argued that the fakeness that we see today has also infected our politics. Our politics are fake. It's acrimonious. It's vitriolic, but fake?
MAX READ Yeah, I think when we talk about sort of the ideal version of small-d “democracy,” we think of it as a place where people come together to hash out disagreements in a rational and informed way. And what that requires is that everybody operate in good faith and that we believe that everybody operate in good faith. The problem with this sense of fakeness is that we no longer are able to assume good faith on the part of our interlocutors. On the one hand, you have liberals accusing Trump supporters of being Russian bots, of quite literally not being real people. And on the other hand, you have conservatives accusing liberals of so-called “virtue signaling,” which is this idea that they don't actually believe the things they're saying. They're just trying to win some kind of social competition to be the most virtuous person.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And you wrote, “Our politics have been inverted along with everything else, suffused with a gnostic sense that we're being scammed and defrauded and lied to, but that a real truth still lurks somewhere.”
MAX READ Sure. I mean, I think if you look on YouTube, which is a kind of haven for far-right radicalization, you'll notice that the terms in which people talk often involve this sense that there is a big lie that these YouTube vloggers are going to teach you the truth behind. They call it “red pilling” from The Matrix, which is quite literally what we're talking about here. That there is a fake world, and if you take the red pill, you'll learn that feminism is a lie, that diversity is a scam. All these things are fake. And to me, this is just a reflection of the experience of being online that you are constantly confronted with these worlds and ideas, these voices, these publications that you're not quite sure if they're real or if they're fake. And it can be incredibly corrosive to any sense of solidarity with other people.
BOB GARFIELD Of course, we know that Americans are being scammed, defrauded, and lied to, but never before in modern memory has the White House itself been the epicenter of so much indiscriminate B.S.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Kind of like a cat spraying the walls.
BOB GARFIELD What a lovely image. Anyway, nowadays--not just because of the president, but because of our increasingly siloed media, that profits from protecting us from unwelcome information--there's a lot that doesn't seem to make sense, but feels ominous, even apocalyptic. We all crave explanations for things we don't understand, so some of us fill in the blanks with conspiracy theories. We dug into that with Anna Merlan, author of Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power.
ANNA MERLAN It used to be that far-right conspiracy theories went from fringe sites, some of them actual disinformation sites, to eventually places like Fox News, and that's sort of where they stopped. And now they have another stop, which is they go from Fox News to the president or from fringe sites like Infowars straight to the president.
BOB GARFIELD And this problem continues to get worse and worse. What is the logical extension of all of this out of control tinfoil-hattery?
ANNA MERLAN So one thesis is that especially state-backed disinformation sources like the ones we've seen in Russia, like the Internet Research Agency, that one of their goals is to make the information ecosystem so chaotic and so unstable and so unreliable, that people start believing that the actual objective truth is not knowable and that they should stop looking for it. We know from a lot of research that exposure to conspiracy theories can sometimes lead people to inaction. Exposure to conspiracy theories about climate change, for instance, makes people less motivated to recycle or reduce their carbon footprint. Exposure to conspiracy theories about the political system being rigged makes people less likely to want to vote. And so the result of all of this, really, is the danger that we will simply give up participating and just sort of accept the way that things are. So, you know, one thing that we can actually do is not just continue engaging in things like the political system and engaging in fights against misinformation, but also identifying where that misinformation comes from and what the point of it is, what it's meant to do to us, who they benefit politically.
BOB GARFIELD Take climate change. The president benefits by claiming that human-fueled global warming is a hoax, a Chinese invention, because it means he can continue to dismantle the EPA, deregulate and worked to upend to state rules on pollution and conservation because he believes it will yield short-term savings, boost his popularity in the red states, ensure the continued support of the deep-pocketed fossil fuel industry and help justify shirking international emissions agreements.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But you have to wonder, does the president really believe that climate change is just weather? That Ukrainians tried to stop him from winning the presidency? That his personal wealth actually exceeds ten billion dollars? Or doesn’t he? Or does it matter? I spoke to Jeet Heer, The Nation's National Affairs Correspondent, who devoted a piece to this question. Here is the famous line from the 1983 film Scarface. Some advice to an aspiring drug lord to help us parse the president's position.
SCARFACE That's right. Lesson number two, don't get high on your own supply. [END CLIP]
JEET HEER There is a very long academic tradition going back to the great Richard Hofstadter, who's one of the major 20th century American historians. He famously wrote about the paranoid style in American politics. And what he said was the paranoid style comes from the fringes, from the far left and the far right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But as he notes, Hofstadter’s view has been challenged on the idea that conspiracy theories are the products only of people on the margins of power.
JEET HEER If you actually look at the sort of history of American paranoia and conspiracy theories, you often find that they're very elite figures who believe in them. I mean, things like the Red Scare were led by J. Edgar Hoover and Joseph McCarthy. And if you think about it, it kind of makes sense. Like if you have some sort of powerful people high above society, it's very easy for them to try to blame any problems on outsider groups. And that has been the tradition just as much as there's also been a tradition of populist groups using conspiracy theories.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So as you pondered the possibility that Donald Trump actually may have fallen into the same trap as Scarface and become intoxicated, you concluded that, in fact, he has.
JEET HEER Yes. I should actually qualify that a little bit by saying that with Donald Trump, the question of belief I don't think applies in the same way that it does to other people. His view of truth is very instrumental. You know, the philosopher Harry Frankfurter [sic] made a famous distinction between lying and B.S. The liar knows that they're lying, whereas the B.S.-er doesn't care what's the difference between truth and lying. So Trump, I think it's very clear from the last 50 years of his life that he doesn't really care about the distinction between truth and lies. And that makes it all the easier for him to grab onto these emotional narratives that support what he actually feels, which is persecuted. You know, whether something is actually factually true is not at all a concern. The question is, is it useful for him? And then if it is, he takes it up and it becomes part of him. The circle around him, though, definitely includes people who like seem to be really gung ho about this and not in a manipulative way.
BOB GARFIELD We've been dwelling in unreality for awhile. So let's return to the real world. And yes, there is one. Does focusing too much on the current White House lunacy distract us from the kind of pervasive unfairness that's existed under every American president? I mean, it's easy to ignore if it's not wrecking your life.
BROOKE GLADSTONE True, calling out Trump's absurdities is a breeze compared to staring down the systemic injustices that leads people to distrust the government and one another in the first place.
BOB GARFIELD So next up, the stories we tell ourselves that hold the nation down.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media.
BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. And this hour, we're reflecting on some of the throughlines that animated our coverage this year and helped us make sense of where we are. One idea that seems to strobe through our stories, especially the deep dives, is that if you dig into our national narratives and those of much of the rest of the world, racial stereotypes, suspicion and fear lay at the bottom.
BOB GARFIELD After the March attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, that killed 51 and injured dozens, we asked University of Chicago historian Kathleen Belew to lay out some of the ideological fundamentals of the white power movement. The notions that motivated that shooter and also the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
NEWS REPORT: You will not replace us! You will not replace us! You will not replace us… [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Replace us? What does that even mean?
KATHLEEN BELEW People in the white power movement see a whole number of social issues as fundamentally being about a threat to white reproduction. Abortion is a threat because it might kill white children. Immigration is a threat because of the threat of hyper-fertile populations of color overrunning a white nation. LGBT rights and feminism are a threat because they might encourage white women not to bear white children. All of this is felt not as a soft demographic change, but as a real apocalyptic threat.
BOB GARFIELD The attack on the synagogue in Pittsburgh, on the historic black church in Charleston, on the mosques in Christchurch, might seem to be prompted by different flavors of hate, but actually it's all the same hate.
KATHLEEN BELEW All of those perpetrators are motivated and connected by the same ideology, the same kind of view of what their violence is supposed to do. Certainly things like the Oklahoma City bombing and Anders Breivik attack in Norway would belong in that same story. Doing that would create a different kind of reporting that doesn't rely on the idea of lone wolves, but actually does the work of connecting these events together. It would allow a different kind of public conversation about what these events mean, and it would create a different kind of expectation about what kind of surveillance and legal resources need to be dedicated to this moving forward.
BOB GARFIELD The replacement theory reminded me of what the president tweeted this summer.
NEWS REPORT Here's what the president tweeted yesterday:
“So interesting to see progressive Democrat congresswomen who originally came from countries whose governments are complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world, if they even had a functioning government at all, now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States the greatest and most powerful nation on earth, how our government is to be run. Why don't they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came? Then come back and show us how it is done. These places need your help badly. You can't leave fast enough.” [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Then came the chants.
NEWS REPORT: Send her back! Send her back.... [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE The following week, we called Ibram X. Kendi, founding director of American University's Antiracist Research and Policy Center and author of How to Be An Antiracist, who wrote about how those chants resonated in the African-American community.
IBRAM X. KENDI When black people are told, go back to Africa, most black people would be like, exactly where would I go? I mean, I've traveled to West Africa. I've traveled to Ghana, and I don't feel as if I'm home. West Africans don't see me as one of them, just as Americans don't see me as one of them. And that's why I talked in that piece about this sort of envy. African-Americans are on some level have long been sort of searching for a nationality because we have not been made to feel as if we are American. And there was nowhere else in the world that, of course, we could consider home. And a certain segment of African-Americans have said we are American and because we're American, we deserve to be free. We deserve equal rights. While another segment of African-Americans have said we are not Americans, because if we were American, we would have freedom, we would have equal rights.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Where do you fall?
IBRAM X. KENDI Both ring true to me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It strikes me that the storm comes the same week as the Justice Department's announcement that it wouldn't be bringing federal civil rights charges against one of the officers involved in Eric Garner's death in New York City, in Staten Island. Attorney General Barr made the decision the day before the fifth anniversary of his death.
EMERALD SNIPES I am very angry. I stand here in the spirit of my sister, who fought for justice until her dying day for my father. So, no. There won't be no calm. No, there won't be no peace. No justice. No peace. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE You've talked about how focusing on ignorance ignores the root of what racism really is about. Have we been focusing on the wrong news all week?
IBRAM X. KENDI We should recognize and focus on the actual policies that are being justified by these ideas of “go back to your country.” Mass deportations of people. I'm talking about people who are being mass incarcerated, people who are being killed by the police and that police officer never facing justice. I'm talking about people who are being disenfranchised and demoralized. These are many different forms of policies that are effectively removing people from the body politic of America. I see a very clear line between “go back to your country” and a police officer choking to death an unarmed black man. So that young man is essentially gone--back, into the soil. There's a very clear line, I see. And so it's not surprising that the same Trump administration has decided to not pursue civil rights charges for Eric Garner's killer and is also telling for congresswomen of color to go back to their country.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In your article in The Atlantic, you talked a little bit about this sort of inner screaming that was going on. And I wondered if you could just describe how you felt as the week went on.
IBRAM X. KENDI Well, as the week went on, which of course, was a week that in many ways was representative of a lifetime. Those constant shouts of “go back to your country” causes some people to ask the question, “Well, is this my country?” And of course, people end up probably saying, “yes, I'm an American, I'm just as American as anyone else.” But other people never even have to question whether they're an American.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I'm sorry, you have to keep explaining that.
IBRAM X. KENDI It's OK. And I think that's one of the reasons why I wrote that piece, because I wanted to give people a window. You know, a way to get into people's minds, how they're taking in the last week, specifically looking at America's history. So we have to be willing to step into other people's shoes and to be empathetic. That's essential to being antiracist.
BOB GARFIELD In a country riven with white nationalism, there are so many others--blacks, Latinos, Muslims, LGBT women, all variously targeted as polluting American society. And then there is one of history's oldest and most enduring scapegoats: the Jews. In the United States, according to the Anti Defamation League reported, anti-Semitic incidents increased by 150 percent between 2013 and 2018. On Twitter in 2017, the A.D.L. counted a minimum 4.2 million English language anti-Semitic tweets. And the violence, most recently, the murder of four in a New Jersey kosher butcher shop, has spiked as well. Leo Ferguson of Jews for Racial & Economic Justice has no illusions about reversing millennia old hatreds and tropes. But he does see some hope in a latter day rainbow coalition.
LEO FERGUSON As a Jew, and as someone who has spent some time studying anti-Semitism, one thing that I know is that Jews are less safe when people believe that they have no control over their economic destiny, that they are being crushed by wealthy, powerful people. Unfortunately, the analysis that the white nationalists and the folks on the right have is a sort of cheap one that says, “Blame the Jews. Blame George Soros. Blame the globalists.” I have a very different understanding of what it is that is hurting working people. My people were brutally murdered because too many of their fellow countrymen believed that they were responsible for poverty and real economic hardship and pain. So it means a lot that you know, since we last spoke, we saw Amazon get shoved out of New York by a coalition that included Jews and Muslims and Sikhs and all different kinds of folks saying this is not our vision for the city that we want. This is not where we believe we are going to find prosperity. That's a very powerful; us building power together across lines of difference towards a much brighter future. That's what is going to keep us safe. That is the true antidote.
BOB GARFIELD Well, it's an interesting thought that if nationalism and white separatism and general right wing extremism grows out of a sense of economic and cultural insecurity, that if these very same communities can be empowered to see the results of their own actions, that will take the pressure off the Jews, as the scapegoats for everything. But does that really deal with the underlying millennia-old forces of just plain animus?
LEO FERGUSON That makes me think of Ta-Nehisi Coates who points out that, you know, we don't have a roadmap for this. There is no manual for how to undo centuries and centuries of these ideas infecting our society and shaping the fortunes and histories of nations and people. So all we can do is look towards what looks good, what looks right. It looks better to me to have a future in which there is broad shared prosperity in which all people, including Jews, feel safe.
My sense is that's probably a step in the right direction. It doesn't mean that we don't also have to call out anti-Semitism, that we don’t have to name it and identify it and pick it apart and understand it. I don't think we have to choose. In fact, frankly, I think we can't do one without the other.
BOB GARFIELD Of course, it's hard to look past years of suspicion and embrace a shared destiny when the government by executive order defines your separate nature. In what he claims was an attempt to protect Jews from anti-Semitic harassment on campuses, Donald Trump earlier this month invoked a law that protects people from discrimination over nationality or race.
DONALD TRUMP My executive order prohibits federal funding to any college or university that spreads, promotes, tolerates or supports anything having to do with anti-Semitism. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD But Judaism is neither a nation nor a race. So many American Jews reacted to the order with a thanks but no thanks. The last thing they want, they say, is to put an asterisk next to American.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So who is an American? What is an American? This year we really dug into the idea of national myth-making and the ways our national narrative paint its darkest chapters with a heroic gloss. Take the “Frontier Thesis” drawn from late 19th century historian Frederick Jackson Turner, who argued that the frontier shaped the nation's unique character and democracy. In the end of the myth, from the frontier to the border wall in the mind of America, author Greg Grandin painted a detailed picture of the use of the frontier in the 19th century and at least two fronts. First, it would serve as a sort of safety valve to relieve the pressure on the class system exerted by an expanding and economically unequal population of immigrants and wage laborers.
GREG GRANDIN And the second problem the safety valve was thought to solve was the question of slavery.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You quote the editor of the Western Monthly Review, Timothy Flint. He proposed America buy Mexican territory, because it would serve as the proper escape valve from the danger of too great an accumulation of blacks in the slave states. Thinning the population by diffusing it over great surfaces. And when it comes to class, you have the Massachusetts Congressman, Caleb Cushing in 1839, who called the West the great safety valve of our population.
GREG GRANDIN One of the dangers that somebody like Cushing identified was that as the vote was extended to unpropertied white men, to working-class illiterate white men. The fear was that they would use that vote to vote in socialism, to vote in the Labor Party. So what to do? Their answer was to use the expansion West, the distribution of public land in the West as a way of diffusing and dispersing concentrated social demands.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It seems that Cushing was also a bit of a libertarian because he hoped that the westward movement would also keep the government occupied.
GREG GRANDIN Well, exactly, because that's the second problem, right? That the problem of concentrated wealth and the problem of social movements contesting that concentrated wealth is that you wind up having the growth of government trying to solve the problem, either becoming overly repressive and clamping down on the demands, or overly generous in distributing property. And either of those solutions were anathema to somebody like Cushing. So what's the solution? You go west.
BOB GARFIELD But what happens when you run out of the American West? You move in all directions. You continue to claim land to extract its resources to exploit the locals. What's usually called building an empire. That's what America did. Though you might not know it. And there's a good reason why you might not know it. The map of the U.S. you grew up with, you know, with the lower 48 spanning from coast to coast, jutting out in the southeast with a protrusion for Florida and a smaller one for Texas.
DANIEL IMMERWAHR So that map, the contiguous blob with oceans on either side and Canada in the north and Mexico in the south, that's only been the borders of the United States for three years of its history.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So for me, one of the biggest revelations of the year came in the form of a book interview with Daniel Immerwahr, author of How to Hide an Empire, which counters both our visual image of the nation and the prevailing narrative of a Republic. Seems we embarked on the project of empire practically from the moment we started running out of West.
DANIEL IMMERWAHR It's an extraordinary moment. In 1898, in 1899, the United States basically goes on a sort of imperial shopping spree. It fights a war with Spain. And as a result of that war, it takes the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico and it briefly occupies Cuba. And at the same time, almost in a fit of enthusiasm, the United States also annexes Hawaii and American Samoa. I found books that have titles like The Greater United States, The Imperial Republic, the old way of referring to the country as “the United States,” “the Republic,” or “the Union” in the 19th century, those really work anymore because it's now transparently not--not a republic and not a union. This new polity, quite transparently, has not been created by the voluntary entry of all parts. The Philippines fights a bloody war of independence that we think racks up more bodies than the U.S. Civil War.
BROOKE GLADSTONE One of the most clarifying things that you do in your book is to describe the “trilemma” that placed the central ideas of what the United States is in conflict with each other, when confronted with its imperialist role.
DANIEL IMMERWAHR That's right. In the late 1890s, when many people in the United States are contemplating the future of the country, they realize that they can have an empire, they can have a country that's ruled by white people, and they can have a country that has a representative government, but they can't get all three of them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Why not?
DANIEL IMMERWAHR Well, because think about it, because now the United States includes large nonwhite populations. So if the United States is going to continue to be Republican, Filipinos should have some kind of representative government and should have some kind of voice in the federal government of the United States. Those are the principles of Republicanism. They're taxed, they should be represented. That seemed like it was a founding and core principle of the country. But there are a lot of anti-imperialists, including William Jennings Bryan, who worry about what happens to the United States if suddenly nonwhite people have political power. Some people try to solve this one way by allowing the expansion of the United States, but by rejecting its Republican principles. That's how Teddy Roosevelt thinks the United States should grow. It should have Republicanism for the mainland, but not for the entire country. Others, like William Jennings Bryan, seek to resolve this by not having empire, by limiting the growth of the country so that it doesn't have the problem of large nonwhite populations who otherwise might need political representation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And there's a really loud debate about this.
DANIEL IMMERWAHR And it's in some ways a tragic debate, because those are usually the two positions you hear. The United States should abandon Republicanism or the United States should limit itself to its contiguous borders. What you don't hear in the mainland debate is the third option: The United States should jettison white supremacy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE They never considered taking white supremacy off the table. And yet they managed to reconcile these three incompatible ideas.
DANIEL IMMERWAHR And largely this happens by not talking a lot about the territories. So if you can brush it under the rug, the United States can still present itself to itself and to others as a Republic. The distinctive and exceptional world power without being an empire. And the argument is that people who live in the territories are just too different to be included in the calculation. So essentially they are relegated to the shadows.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And so what happens to those shadow people, those who are denied full U.S. citizenship but are subject to its rule? Cornelius Rhoads, Harvard-trained doctor, arrives in Puerto Rico in the ’30s and he regards it as a sort of island-sized laboratory. Puerto Ricans are also enlisted as test subjects for chemical weapons technology the U.S. never used in World War II. The single bloodiest event to occur on U.S. soil happened during that war in the Philippines. One and a half million dead. Did you know?
BOB GARFIELD Mark Twain was referring to the Philippines when he wrote this: “There must be two Americas, one that sets the captive free and one that takes a once-captive’s new freedom away from him, picks a quarrel with him with nothing founded on, and then kills him to get his land.” For that second America, he proposed adding a few words to the Declaration of Independence. “Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed white men.”
Brooke, in your series in June on eviction in America, it was chilling to hear how purposefully racial inequality was baked into the system. From the very moment that Lincoln's promise of 40 acres and a mule was revoked by Andrew Johnson and then ever after, through redlining and zoning and denials of mortgages based solely on race everywhere, as African-Americans headed north during the Great Migration.
MATTHEW DESMOND When we first created this map, this is not what I thought it would look like.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Our partner in the series is Matthew Desmond, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City and founder of The Eviction Lab at Princeton. Matt pulls up on his cell phone, a U.S. map charting our eviction hotspots.
MATTHEW DESMOND This is kind of a shocker to me. These counties are shaded here, and the darker shading means a higher proportion of African-Americans in the county.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's blue.
MATTHEW DESMOND Right. And so if you just follow the blue, when you go through Alabama and Georgia and up to South Carolina and North Carolina, you see incredibly, stunningly high eviction rates through Virginia. These are pretty low-cost areas that have these exploding eviction rates. And then you go up the Mississippi and you can keep going into Detroit as if the eviction problem follows, like the trail of the Great Migration. Black families searched for economic security and ran away from racial terrorism to go into north cities, to be corralled into ghettos, where they didn't own the land again. And so it's an old story, but it's kind of like our story.
NEWS REPORT The people who live here block their homes from real estate speculators that double or triple their value. And they bought on contract because they couldn't get conventional or FHA mortgages. Under the contract, the buyer makes installment payments at high interest, but he builds no equity. If he defaults on even one payment at any time during the contract. He loses the property and everything he's paid into it. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Hank Roberts, a substantial man in his 60s, was 15 when his family was evicted. Hank takes me to the scene of his worst memory. His parents had bought a newly constructed home on contract in 1968. The street is quiet and plain.
HANK ROBERTS You could imagine I was just like seventh heaven. We're moving into a five-bedroom, two-kitchen house. All my family was going to be there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The Roberts family settled in, unaware that despite making their monthly payments, they'd never hold title on the house and that the contract was a scam. Once they understood, they joined the Chicago Contract Buyers League.
NEWS REPORT Why haven't you been sending your payments in sir?
HANK ROBERTS Because I feel that the contracts that we have are illegal.
NEWS REPORT I see there are so many people around, would you tell me a little bit about it. Why are they here, sir?
HANK ROBERTS We're together. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE 400 contracts were renegotiated between the tenants and the owners, but not all of them. Not Hank's family’s. It happened on a March morning in 1970.
HANK ROBERTS It had to have been a weekend day and we were all at home and we were having breakfast and it was all over the radio.
NEWS REPORT Four more members of the Contract Buyers League were evicted this afternoon on the South Side in the 80 hundred block on South State. At the scene, Task Force Commander William Mooney said some arrests have been made in connection with the evictions. This is John Adams WGN News… [END CLIP]
HANK ROBERTS And I can recall sitting at the kitchen table and hearing like a baton or something, banging on the door like boom, boom, boom, boom.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In Hank's neighborhood police were conducting mass evictions, block after block. From his front door, he could see his older sister's house, her stuff being hauled out and dumped.
HANK ROBERTS There was just no sympathy from anyone to our plight, from the guys that threw the things in the street to the people that were coming by trying to take stuff, to, I just have to say this, the way that I saw it then, I mean, I still sit here and go, “God. Did you have to do it that way?” It was a torrential rain storm. It's like everyone just pounded on us. And all that we were sitting there doing is saying, “This is wrong.”
BOB GARFIELD Coming up, the hazards of trying to cram current events into a historical frame and how the last decade has transformed how we make this show.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media.
BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. This year, something about Washington politics and attempts by localities to reach past the arguments in civility and the gridlock seem to call for deeper historical understanding of how we arrived at this time and place by opening our eyes to what we may have complacently looked past.
BOB GARFIELD In an interview this winter, Corey Robin, journalist and professor at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, gave us the term “Historovox,” which refers to what we lose when we take a short view of history or try to force current events into a pseudo-historical frame. Robin explained with a quote from Orwell.
COREY ROBIN To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle. He said one thing that helps toward it, that is seeing in front of your nose, is to keep a diary. Or at any rate, to keep some kind of record of one's opinions about important events. Otherwise, when some particularly absurd belief has exploded by events, one may simply forget that one ever held it.
We all have a picture of the world, and in the age of the “Historovox,” that picture of the world is provided to us by this nexus of journalists and academics. But that picture seems to change with a kind of an alarming rapidity. And we forget that not so long ago we had a very different understanding of these things. Let's take the last couple of years. There were all kinds of historical arguments that were advanced about Trump as a reprise of Mussolini and his fascism.
NEWS REPORT I think that Donald Trump's rhetoric of law and order is very Hitler-like. [END CLIP]
COREY ROBIN The problem, as I saw it, was not so much that people were cherry-picking from the past. It was the total indifference and lack of curiosity about what was happening, as Orwell said, right in front of your nose. For the first two years when the Republicans completely controlled Congress, Trump sent up two budgets. He asked for things like “cut off all funding for Planned Parenthood,” “25 billion dollars for the wall,” “billions of dollars more for hundreds of new enforcement officers in ICE.” Those budgets were repeatedly rejected by a Republican-controlled Congress. The simplest definition of authoritarian is somebody who substitutes for the rule of law his will. And yet Trump was singularly incapable of acting upon his will. So the problem here is not cherry-picking from the past. The problem is a composite picture from the past that's overlaid on the present that is indifferent to some pretty strong facts.
BOB GARFIELD If this is a question of framing, how should we frame the current moment?
COREY ROBIN A couple of elements. Number one, rather than representing a break with the right, Trump represents an intensification of longstanding tendencies on the right, particularly with respect to questions about race. Number two, that intensification on the right goes hand-in-hand with what I think is a steady weakening of the conservative movement. In other words, rather than seeing Trump and conservatism as embodying a new ascendancy, I think that a proper historical reckoning would see everything about the Trump regime as a sign of growing weakness. I sometimes use an analogy from the past. If you were in Britain in the second half of the 1970s, on the left there were a group of Trotskyists and they became increasingly militant. If you were to focus on them, you would think the story of the second half of Britain in the 1970s is the rise of the militant tendency. But of course, we know the real story was the rise of Thatcherism. A group can become more radicalized, more extreme, precisely in concert with its marginalization. And all the signs are that compared to somebody like Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush, Trump is presiding over a very weak Republican presidency. Not because the presidency is weak, but I would argue, because the conservative movement and the Republican Party have gotten weaker. And that has gone hand-in-hand with a kind of intensification of certain extreme tendencies on the Republican Party.
BOB GARFIELD What you seem to be describing is a supernova burning brightly with tremendous amount of destructive energy because it's a dying star.
COREY ROBIN I think that's perfectly put.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So this edition of the show has been all about the lens through which we as a nation have viewed our place in time. Now let's end with some thoughts about the lens On the Media applies to them. As you listened to these clips over the past hour, you may have observed in a show called On the Media an odd paucity of reporting and criticism about news media. If you're a longtime listener, you might also have noticed a gradual and of late not-so-gradual shift away from the news of the news. Once upon a time, we devoted most of our efforts to the failures, foibles, conflicts, challenges and unseen machinery of the plural “media.” In our first “Brooke and Bob” OTM ever, 19 years ago next month, we had 10 segments, including a profile of a despondent New York Post overnight-shift police reporter, a skeptical look at the White House press corps, an obit for George magazine and a parable of media concentration focused on the shutdown of--obviously--modern Ferret Magazine.
BOB GARFIELD Since 1995, they have combined puckish wit and service journalism to explore everything from ferret heart disease to ferret products. Eric, the publisher, reads from the tag attached to one of them, a furry mechanical ferret.
ERIC: I'm a little poo, pal. I'll tell you what I mean. Squeeze my little tummy. You'll get a jelly bean.
They poop jelly beans. Some people find it offensive. Yes. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Not that we've ever been solely focused on news organizations. Also in our portfolio was any First Amendment issue. The unraveling media economy and the sometimes twisted relationship between journalists and officialdom. And in the midst of dubious wars that began soon after we recreated the show in 2001. We very early on examined government misinformation, propaganda, and stonewalling to influence coverage and public opinion. But even in the early years, we realized we were subject to mission creep. You know, in a good way. But which sometimes required some contortions to qualify for a media angle. We even wrote a song about it, almost 20 years ago. Over the years, we broadened and broadened and broadened our scope, eventually deeming almost any episode or phenomenon that was processed by the media to be deserving of our scrutiny. And we began talking a lot about narratives, the stories we tell ourselves based largely on what we've heard for our whole lives, often through the media. Then two years ago, a true turning point. Brooke’s series on poverty in America, which explored and challenged the assumptions, tropes, prejudices and gigantic misunderstandings about America's poor. Since then, we've explored evictions, incarceration, transportation, right-wing movements here and abroad, abortion law, money, the Internet, all through the prism of how the story is told. They say men think about sex every seven seconds. At OTM, we think about narrative every two seconds.
BROOKE GLADSTONE We've always relied on history to provide context. But to question that history, to focus on the systems that have pushed our history forward, to examine the cracks and the jerry-rigging and what we may have once viewed as the best of all possible machines. That seems increasingly to be our job now.
BOB GARFIELD All of which is to say OTM has evolved or at least mutated. And I suspect that there will be many more changes to come. Mind you, this does not mean we'll stop holding media organizations and public officials accountable for their outrages. Such scandals have yielded some of our most memorable moments. Please be assured the weasels are still very much in our sights. But the ferret branch of the weasel family, sorry to say, our best days on that beat are behind us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE There's media all around us. Media big and small.
BOB GARFIELD There are media that are hard to kill. Like in that movie by Seagal
BROOKE GLADSTONE There's so much media everywhere. It's hard to find relief.
BOB GARFIELD There's media in the food we eat and in the air we breathe.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I don't know what you're saying, but I know this much is true.
BOTH: Our name is On the Media. And we’re the show for you.
BOB GARFIELD That's it for this week's show. On the Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, John Hanrahan, and Asthaa Chaturvedi. Our show was edited by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Katya Rogers is our executive producer. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme song. On the Media is the production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE OK, let's say it together. One, two, three.
BOTH: Happy New Year!
BOB GARFIELD That’s lame, but let’s keep it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Okay.