Citations Needed is a podcast about the intersection of media, PR, and power, hosted by Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
Episode 131: The "Essential Worker" Racket - How 'COVID Hero' Discourse Is Used To Discipline Labor
"Elon Musk sent a thank-you note to Tesla's workers returning to work," Business Insider squeals. Walmart teams up with UPS to air an ad "thanking essential workers." "Jeff Bezos Just Posted an Open Letter to Amazon Employees About the Coronavirus. Every Smart Business Leader Needs to Read It," insists an article in Inc.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, corporate leaders, politicians and celebrities have been quick to paint "essential workers," and those often described as "frontline" workers, as heroes — laborers conscripted, presumably against their will, into a wartime-like scenario of heroism and sacrifice as our country battles the ongoing coronavirus scourge.
The sentiment behind this rhetoric is understandable, especially from everyday people simply trying to express their deep appreciation for the underpaid labor doing the work to feed, house, care for and treat everyone else. But when deployed by powerful politicians and CEOs, the "essential workers as heroes" discourse serves a more sinister purpose: to curb efforts to unionize, preemptively justify mass death of a largely black and brown workforce, protect corporate profits and ultimately discipline labor that for a brief moment in spring of last year, had unprecedented leverage to extract concessions from capital.
As Wall Street booms and America’s billionaires see an increase of $1.1 trillion in wealth since March 2020 — a 40% increase — while the average worker suffers from unemployment, depression, drug abuse and a loss of healthcare, it’s become increasingly clear that “essential” never meant essential to helping society at large or essential to human care or essential to keeping the bottom from falling out, but essential to keeping the top one percent of the one percent’s wealth and power intact and as it turned out to be the case, massively expanded.
Indeed, 2020 saw the largest transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich in decades, a transfer largely made possible by the essential worker as hero narrative, with little discussion or debate. In March 2020 everyone agreed in this wartime framing that was going to send off millions of poor people to their deaths for a vague, undecided greater good of the quote-unquote "economy," when really it was for the seamless maintenance of Wall Street profits.
On this episode, we explore the origins of the concept of "essential work" and those deemed "essential workers"; how it's been used in the past to discipline labor during wartime; how hero narratives provide an empty, head-patting verbal tip in lieu of worker protection and higher pay; and why so few in our media ask the more urgent question of all: whether or not low wage retail, food, farming, and healthcare workers ever wanted to be heroes in the first place.
Our guest in Ronald Jackson, a worker and organizer with Warehouse Workers For Justice.
News Brief - Covid in Prisons: No One Cares Until Things Start to Burn
In this public News Brief we discuss how American media's general indifference to the Covid pandemic ravaging prisons and jails makes "riots" inevitable. Our guest, Patrice Daniels, is an activist currently incarcerated in Illinois state prison in Joliet, IL.
Episode 130: 'Heartland,' 'Middle America,' and US Media’s Vaguely Nostalgic, Racialized Code for White Grievance
“We need a president whose vision was shaped by the American Heartland rather than the ineffective Washington politics,” declares presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg. “AOC Kills Jobs Middle America Would Love to Have,” proclaims The Washington Examiner. Amy Klobuchar insists she’s a “voice from the heartland,” while The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin tells us, “[Bernie Sanders] is not going to sell in Middle America. You have to WIN Middle America.”
Everywhere we turn in American political discourse, the terms “Heartland” and “Middle America” are thrown around as shorthand for “everyday” men and women somewhere between the Atlantic Ocean to the East, Pacific to the West--homespun people who are supposedly insufficiently represented in media and Beltway circles. Those evoking their status presumably are interjecting these true Americans otherwise overlooked needs into the conversation.
But terms like “Heartland” and “Middle America” are not benign or organic terms that emerged from the natural course of sociological explanation, they are deliberate political PR products of the 1960s, emerging in parallel with a shift from explicit racism into coded racism. Their primary function is to express a deference to and centering of whiteness as a post-civil rights political project.
On this episode, we explore the origins of the terms “Middle America” and “Heartland,” what they mask and reveal, why they’re still used today and how conversations about “whiteness” as a political ideology would benefit greatly from clarity, rather than relying on code words to vaguely allude to the subject of political “whiteness,” while still trying to obfuscate it.
Our guest is Professor Kristin Hoganson of the University of Illinois.
News Brief: Finance Media's GameStop Meltdown and the Thin Moral Pretexts of Wall Street's Game Rigging
In this News Brief we break down L'Affaire GameStop and what lessons can be gleaned from about psychological gamesmanship of the stock market and finance media's goofy, reverse-engineered moral pretext for being outraged by #GME. With guest Jacob Silverman.
Episode 129 - Vaccine Apartheid: US Media's Uncritical Adoption of Racist "Intellectual Property" Dogma
“The COVID-19 vaccine is ripe for the blackmarket,” warns an NBC News opinion piece. “Iran-linked hackers recently targeted coronavirus drugmaker Gilead,” reports Reuters. “Hackers ‘try to steal COVID vaccine secrets in intellectual property war,’” blares a Guardian headline. As the COVID-19 pandemic raged and pharmaceutical companies raced to develop a vaccine, Western media routinely asserted without question or criticism the premise that vaccine “intellectual property” is a zero-sum possession that’s been “stolen” by malicious foreign actors, blackmarket criminals, and of course, dreaded “pirates.”
With rare exception, the conceit that intellectual property for the COVID-19 vaccine is a finite thing that can be leaked, spied on or stolen — presumably to the detriment of the average American, somehow — is simply taken for granted. Similarly, assumed across corporate media reports is the notion that it is the US government’s job — no, their duty — is to protect sacred American intellectual property. National security experts, weapons contractor-funded think tanks, and national security reporters uniformly decry the sinister and shadowy agents and adversaries out to snatch America’s hard-earned vaccine dominance.
Nowhere in all this fear mongering and hand-wringing is there any sense of the much greater injustice at work: that the vaccine is in fact hoarded by the security states of wealthy nations, secured for power and securitized for profit. It is virtually unquestioned that only some countries or companies should be allowed access to the knowledge of finding and developing a vaccine, and no consideration that, maybe, there’s no such thing as too many countries working toward the management and eradication of a deadly virus.
From this default capitalist — and as we will show, racist — mindset has emerged what activists have long argued would be inevitable: a global apartheid regime of vaccine access that tracks almost one-to-one with historical currents of colonialism. An extension of an IP regime that has cut off the Global South from other life-saving medicines for decades, exacerbating the devastating effects of epidemics such as malaria and AIDS.
In the wake of the George Floyd protests in the summer of 2020, much of American corporate media decided to audit their own internally racist practices, but for reasons of partisan expediency and capitalist ideology, this sudden concern for historical racism seems to have stopped at the water’s edge, and U.S. media has largely covered the emerging Vaccine Apartheid regime as an inevitable act of god, rather than springing from explicit white supremacist IP fetishization, codified and defended by leaders of both American political parties. Indeed, if one were to place a map of when a country can expect to be fully vaccinated over the next few years on top of a map of economic exploitation, colonial extraction and capitalism-imposed poverty in the Global South, it would be an almost exact match. This emerging Vaccine Apartheid — while potentially complicated by Chinese soft power efforts to vaccinate the Global South — is not only inevitable, but the deliberate result of our 1990s-era, post-Cold War economic order created by the World Trade Organization.
On this episode, we trace the colonial origins of American media’s uncritical adoption of “intellectual property above all else,” why the WTO is functioning exactly how it was designed to, and how U.S. corporate anti-racism discourse goes out its way to make sure discussions of white supremacy never examine the manifestly racist effects of the American and European-led capitalist order.
Our guest is Heidi Chow, Senior Campaigns and Policy Manager at Global Justice Now.
Episode 128 - The “Healing” Con: How Warm and Fuzzy Appeals for "Unity" Are Used to Protect Power
"Biden Calls For Hope And Healing In Speech," NPR reports. "Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot calls for return to Sept. 11 unity," writes The Chicago Tribune. Following the 2014 Ferguson protests, a CNN headline read, "Obama: Now is the time for peace, healing." "Filmmaker Ken Burns aims for healing with new documentary about Vietnam War," the San Diego Union-Tribune has told us. Everywhere we turn columnists, celebrities, pundits, and politicians are insisting we have "unity," "come together," promote "peace" and work to "heal the divisions."
On its face these concepts sound fine enough: after all, who doesn’t like peace? Unity sounds great! Who wouldn't want to "heal" our wounds? Wounds are bad! But in the majority of political contexts, these warm and fuzzy buzzwords rush past the messy and difficult work of justice, substantive change, or reparations and get straight to the part where everyone just feels good about themselves.
In a world where 2100 billionaires hoard more wealth than the 4.6 billion people who make up 60 percent of the planet’s population, where billions live in abject poverty, what do concepts like peace mean? After an administration that has carried out deliberate policies of ethnic cleaning at the U.S border, what does unity entail? In a country that has leveled much of the Middle East, Korea, Vietnam, and overthrown numerous democracies in Latin America, what does healing involve? Without concrete policies of accountability, restitution, restoration and reparation, squishy liberal notions of "unity" and "healing" achieve little more than protecting the status quo.
This isn’t a unique problem: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously reminded white liberals that "True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice," a point he made literally hundreds of times in his years of advocacy to a handwringing media insisting everyone just calm down and go home and let the lawyers at the Department of Justice take care of things.
Nevertheless the problem persist decades later: time and again, before there's been any concrete changes, policy proposals, or restitution to victims of injustice, those in power evoke abstract notions of "healing," "unity" and "peace" to shut up activists and act as of it the work is done right before pivoting back to business as usual.
On this week's episode we will examine the origins of the concepts of "unity" as a political PR gambit, detail how concepts of "healing" which can are very useful in grassroots and interpersonal psychological contexts have been cynically appropriated by those in power, and breakdown how media consumers can avoid the shallow allure of "peace" and "unity" rhetoric in the face of routine, everyday racism, violence, exploitation, and injustice.
Our guest is Lara Kiwani, Executive Director of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center (AROC).
Customer ReviewsSee All
I’m willing to get over my seething hatred of men who host podcasts to listen to these two, and that’s saying something.
Best part of Wednesday’s
Best researched podcast out there. Nima and Adam and Nima are hilarious and have some of the best takes out there. I actually look forward to Wednesday’s because of them and The Expanse.
Hands-down my favourite podcast
Hosts are a deadly combination of witty and well-read