Dec 11, 2013
Youth in Revolt
Posted on Feb 2, 2013
In a society saturated with hyperviolence and spectacular representations of cruelty, it becomes more difficult for the American public to respond politically and ethically to the violence as it is actually happening on the ground. In this instance, previously unfamiliar violence such as extreme images of torture and death become banally familiar, while familiar violence that occurs daily is barely recognized, relegated to the realm of the unnoticed and unnoticeable. How else to explain the public indifference to the violence inflicted on nonviolent youth protesters who are raising their voices against a state in which they have been excluded from any claim on hope, prosperity, and democracy? While an increasing volume of brutality is pumped into the culture, yesterday’s spine-chilling and nerve-wrenching displays of violence lose their shock value. As the demand for more intense images of violence accumulates, the moral indifference and desensitization to violence grow, while matters of savage cruelty and suffering are offered up as fodder for sports, entertainment, news media, and other pleasure-seeking outlets.
As American culture is more and more marked by exaggerated aggression and a virulent notion of hard masculinity, state violence—particularly the use of torture, abductions, and targeted assassinations—wins public support and requires little or no justification as US exceptionalism becomes accepted by many Americans as a matter of common sense. The social impacts of a “political culture of hyper punitiveness” can be seen in how structures of discipline and punishment have infiltrated the social order like a highly charged electric current. For example, the growing taste for violence can be seen in the criminalization of behaviors such as homelessness that once elicited compassion and social protection. We throw the homeless in jail instead of building houses, just as we increasingly send poor, semiliterate students to jail instead of providing them with a decent education. Similarly, instead of creating jobs for the unemployed, we allow banks to foreclose on their mortgages and in some cases put jobless people in debtors’ prisons. The prison in the twenty-first century becomes a way of making the effects of ruthless power invisible by making the victims of such power disappear. As Angela Davis points out, “According to this logic the prison becomes a way of disappearing people in the false hope of disappearing the underlying social problems they represent.” As the notion of the social is emptied out. criminality is now defined as an essential part of a person’s identity. As a rhetoric of punishment gains ground in American society, social problems are reduced to character flaws, insufficient morality, or a eugenicist notion of being “born evil.”
Another symptomatic example of the way in which violence has saturated everyday life and produced a “failed sociality” can be seen in the growing acceptance by the American public of modeling public schools after prisons and criminalizing the behavior of young people in public schools. Incidents that were traditionally handled by teachers, guidance counselors, and school administrators are now dealt with by the police and the criminal justice system. The consequences have been disastrous for young people. Not only do schools increasingly resemble the culture of prisons, but young children are being arrested and subjected to court appearances for behaviors that can only be called trivial. How else to explain the case of the five-year-old student in Florida who was put in handcuffs and taken to the local jail because she had a temper tantrum, or the case of Alexa Gonzales in New York, who was arrested for doodling on her desk? Or twelve-year-old Sarah Bustamatenes, who was pulled from a Texas classroom, charged with a criminal misdemeanor, and hauled into court because she sprayed perfume on herself? How do we explain the arrest of a thirteen-year-old student in a Maryland school for refusing to say the pledge of allegiance? Or the case of a sixteen-year-old student with an IQ below 70 being pepper-sprayed because he did not understand a question asked by the police officer in his school? After being pepper-sprayed, the startled youth started swinging his arms and for that was charged with two counts of assault on a public servant and faces a possible prison sentence. In
These examples may still be unusual enough to shock, though they are becoming more commonplace. What must be recognized is that too many schools have become combat zones in which students are routinely subjected to metal detectors, surveillance cameras, uniformed security guards, weapons searches, and in some cases SWAT raids and police dogs sniffing for drugs. Under such circumstances, the purpose of schooling becomes to contain and punish young people, especially those marginalized by race and class, rather than educate them. “Arrests and police interactions ... disproportionately affect low-income schools with large African-American and Latino populations.” For the many disadvantaged students being funnelled into the “school-to-prison pipeline,” schools ensure that their futures look grim indeed as their educational experiences acclimatize them to forms of carceral treatment. There is more at work here than a flight from responsibility on the part of educators, parents, and politicians who support and maintain policies that fuel this expanding edifice of law enforcement against youth. Underlying the repeated decisions to turn away from helping young people is the growing sentiment that youths, particularly minorities of color and class, constitute a threat to adults and the only effective way to deal with them is to subject them to mind-crushing punishment. Students being miseducated, criminalized, and arrested through a form of penal pedagogy in prison-type schools provides a grave reminder of the degree to which the ethos of containment and punishment now creeps into spheres of everyday life that were largely immune in the past to this type of state and institutional violence.
The era of failed sociality that Americans now inhabit reminds us that we live in a time that breaks young people, devalues justice, and saturates the minute details of everyday life with the constant threat, if not reality, of violence. The medieval turn to embracing forms of punishment that inflict pain on the psyches and bodies of young people is part of a larger immersion of society in public spectacles of violence. The control society is now the ultimate form of entertainment in America, as the pain of others, especially those considered disposable and powerless, is no longer a subject of compassion but one of ridicule and amusement. High-octane violence and human suffering are now considered consumer entertainment products designed to raise the collective pleasure quotient. Brute force and savage killing replayed over and over in the culture function as part of an anti-immune system that turns the economy of genuine pleasure into a mode of sadism that saps democracy of any political substance and moral vitality, even as the body politic appears engaged in a process of cannibalizing its own young. It is perhaps not far-fetched to imagine a reality TV show in which millions tune in to watch young kids being handcuffed, arrested, tried in the courts, and sent to juvenile detention centers. No society can make a claim to being a democracy as long as it defines itself through shared hatred and fears rather than shared responsibilities.
In the United States, society has been reconfigured to eliminate many young people’s access to the minimal conditions required for living a full, dignified, and productive life as well as the conditions necessary for sustaining and nurturing democratic structures and ideologies. The cruelty and violence infecting the culture are both a symptom and a cause of our collective failure to mobilize large-scale collective resistance against a growing police state and the massive suffering caused by the savagery of neoliberal capitalism. Unfortunately, even as expressions of authentic rage against Wall Street continue in the Occupy movement, the widespread hardship that young people and other marginalized populations face today “has not found resonance in the public space of articulation.” With the collapse of a market economy into a market society, democracy no longer makes a claim on the importance of the common good. As a mode of diseased sociality, the current version of market fundamentalism has turned the principle of freedom against itself, deforming a collective vision of democracy and social justice that once made equality a viable economic idea and political goal in the pursuit of one’s own freedom and civil liberties. As Zygmunt Bauman insists, one of the consequences of this market-driven sovereignty is “the progressive decomposition and crumbling of social bonds and communal cohesion.”
Neoliberalism creates a language of social magic in which the social either vaporizes into thin air or is utterly pathologized. Shared realities and effects of poverty, racism, inequality, and financial corruption disappear, but not the ideological and institutional mechanisms that make such scourges possible. And when the social is invoked favorably, the invocation is only ever used to recognize the claims and values of corporations, the ultrarich, banks, hedgefund managers, and other privileged groups comprising the 1 percent. Self-reliance and the image of the self-made man cancel out any viable notion of social relations, the common good, public values, and collective struggle.
The Occupy movements have recognized that what erodes under such conditions is not only an acknowledgment of the historical contexts, social and economic formations, relations of power, and systemic forms of discrimination that have produced massive inequalities in wealth, income, and opportunity but also any claim to the promise of a substantive democracy. Increasingly, as both the public pedagogy and economic dictates of neoliberalism are contested by the Occupiers, the state responds with violence. But the challenges to militarism, inequality, and political corruption with which young people have confronted American society are being met with a violence that encompasses more than isolated incidents of police brutality. It is a violence emanating from an ongoing wholesale transformation of the United States into a warfare state, from a state that once embraced the social contract—at least minimally—to one that no longer has even a language for community, a state in which the bonds of fear and commodification have replaced the bonds of civic responsibility and democratic commitment. As a result, violence on the part of the state and corporations is not aimed just at youthful protesters. Through a range of visible and invisible mechanisms, an ever-expanding multitude of individuals and populations has been caught in a web of cruelty, dispossession, exclusion, and exploitation.
The predominance of violence in all aspects of social life suggests that young people and others marginalized by class, race, and ethnicity have been abandoned as American society’s claim on democracy gives way to the forces of militarism, market fundamentalism, and state terrorism. We must address how a metaphysics of war and violence has taken hold of American society, and the savage social costs it has entailed.
It is these very forms of social, political, and economic violence that young people have recognized and endured against their own minds and bodies, but they are using their indignation to inspire action rather than despair. The spreading imprint of violence throughout society suggests the need for a politics that riot only critiques the established order but imagines a new one—one informed by a radical vision in which the future does not imitate the present. Critique must emerge alongside a sense of realistic hope, and individual struggles must merge into larger social movements.
Occupy Wall Street surfaced in the wake of the 9/11 memorials and global economic devastation rooted in market deregulation and financial corruption. It also developed in response to atrocities committed by the US military in the name of the war on terror, violent and racist extremism spreading through US politics and popular culture, a growing regime of discipline and punishment aimed at marginalized youth, retrograde education policies destructive of knowledge and critical learning, and the enactment of ruthless austerity policies that serve only to increase human suffering. With the democratic horizon in the United States increasingly darkened by the shadows of a looming authoritarianism and unprecedented levels of social and economic inequality, the Occupy movement and other global movements signify hope and renewal. The power of these movements to educate and act for change should not be underestimated, particularly among youths, even as we collectively bear witness to the violent retaliation of official power against democratic protesters and the growing fury of the punishing state. In the book that follows, I present chapters that move from negation to hope, from critique to imagining otherwise in order to act otherwise.
The first chapter provides a retrospective on 9/11 that acknowledges the way in which the tragic events of 2001 were used to unleash brutal violence on a global scale and legitimate the expansion of the warfare state and unthinkable forms of torture against populations increasingly deemed disposable. In particular, the traumatic aftermath of 9/11 in the United States was distorted into a culture of fear: heightened domestic security; and accelerated disciplinary forces that targeted youth, particularly the most vulnerable marginalized by race and class, as potential threats to the social order. This chapter exposes some of the widespread impacts of an unchecked punishing state and its apparatuses—most notably the escalating war on youth, the attack on the social state, and the growth of a “governing through crime” complex—while also paying tribute to the resilience and humanity of the victims of the 9/11 attacks and their families. It asserts that public recollection in the aftermath of those traumatic events—particularly the sense of common purpose and civic commitment that ensued—should serve as a source of collective hope for a different future than the one we have seen on display since September 2001.
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