May 23, 2013
Youth in Revolt
Posted on Feb 2, 2013
Chapter 2 discusses in further detail the cultural shift in the United States that has led to the inscription and normalization of cruelty and violence. In spring 2011, the role of the dominant media in sanctioning this culture of cruelty extended to its failure to provide a critical response when the “Kill Team” photographs were released. Even as young people around the world demonstrated against military power and authoritarian regimes, soldiers in the US military fighting in the “war on terror” gleefully participated in horrifying injustices inflicted upon helpless others. The “Kill Team” photos—images of US soldiers smiling and posing with dead Afghan civilians and their desecrated bodies—serve as but one example signaling a broader shift in American culture away from compassion for the suffering of other human beings toward a militarization of the culture and a sadistic pleasure in violent spectacles of pain and torture. Further discussion of American popular culture demonstrates how US society increasingly manifests a “depravity of aesthetics” through eagerly consuming displays of aggression, brutality, and death. Connecting this culture of cruelty to the growing influence of neoliberal policies across all sectors, I suggest that this disturbing new enjoyment of the humiliation of others—far from representing an individualized pathology—now infects US society as a whole in a way that portends the demise of the social state, if not any vestige of a real and substantive democracy. Recognizing the power of dominant culture to shape our thoughts, identities, and desires, we must struggle to uncover “instants of truth” that draw upon our compassion for others and rupture the hardened order of reality constructed by the media and other dominant cultural forces.
The third chapter suggests that even as US popular culture increasingly circulates images of mind-crushing brutality, American political culture in a similar fashion now functions like a theater of cruelty in which spectacles and public policies display gratuitous and unthinking violence toward the most vulnerable groups in the country, especially children. Despite persistent characterizations of terrorists as “other,” the greatest threat to US security lies in homegrown, right-wing extremism of a kind similar to that espoused by Anders Behring Breivik who in July 2011 bombed government buildings in Oslo, killing eight people, and then went on a murderous shooting rampage in Norway, killing sixty-nine youths attending a Labor Party camp. The eruption of violent speech and racist rhetoric within US political discourse indicates a growing tolerance at the highest levels of government of extremist elements and the authoritarian views and racist hatred they deploy to advance their agenda—which includes dismantling the social state, legitimating a governing apparatus based on fear and punishment, undermining critical thought and education through appeals to conformity and authoritarian populism, and disposing of all populations deemed dangerous and threatening to the dominance of a white conservative nationalism. Bespeaking far more than a disturbing turn in US politics and the broader culture, right-wing policymakers abetted by the dominant media are waging a campaign of domestic terrorism against children, the poor, and other vulnerable groups as part of a larger war against democracy and the democratic formative culture on which it depends for survival.
Continuing an exploration of the neoliberal mode of authoritarianism that has infiltrated US politics, Chapter 4 discusses how anti-immigrant and racist political ideology couched in a discourse of patriotism is being translated into regressive educational policies and an attack on critical education. Reminiscent of the book burnings conducted in Nazi Germany, the Arizona state legislature and school board in Tucson have systematically eliminated ethnic studies from elementary schools and banned books that: discuss racism and oppression, including several books by Mexican American authors in a school district where more than 60 percent of the students are from a Mexican American background. Within a neoliberal regime that supports corporate hegemony, social and economic inequality, and antidemocratic forms of governance, racism is either privatized by encouraging individual solutions to socially produced problems or disavowed, appearing instead in the guise of a language of punishment that persecutes anyone who even raises the specter of ongoing racism. The censorship of ethnic studies in Arizona and of forms of pedagogy that give voice to oppression points to how ideas that engage people in a struggle for equality and democracy pose a threat to fundamentalist ideologues and their war against the bodies, histories, and modes of knowledge that could produce the critical consciousness and civic courage necessary for a just society.
Chapter 5 examines the politics of austerity in terms of how it releases corporations and the rich from responsibility for the global economic recession and instead inflicts vast amounts of pain and suffering upon the most vulnerable in society. As an extension of the culture of cruelty, austerity measures encode a fear and contempt for social and economic equality, leading not only to the weakening of social protections and tax breaks for the wealthy but also to the criminalization of social problems. Austerity as a form of “trickle-down cruelty” symbolizes much more than neglect—it suggests a new mode of violence mobilized to address pervasive social ills that will only serve to hasten the emergence of punishing states and networks of global violence. Hope for preventing the escalation of human suffering must be situated in a concerted effort both to raise awareness about the damage wreaked by unchecked casino capitalism and to rethink the very nature of what democracy means and might look like in the United States. A capacity for critical thought, compassion, and informed judgment needs to be nurtured against the forms of bigotry, omission, and social irresponsibility that appear increasingly not only to sanction but also to revel in horror stories of inhumanity and destruction.
Tracing the trajectory of class struggle and inequality in America up to the present day, Chapter 6 argues that a growing concentration of wealth in the hands of the ruling elite means that the political system and mode of governance in the United States are no longer democratic, even as state power is subordinated to the interests of corporate sovereignty. In this chapter, an account of the political, social, and economic injustices confronting the vast majority of Americans—the result of a decades-long unchecked supremacy of corporate power, the reign of corrupt financiers, and a ruthless attack on the social state and social protections—sets the stage for what emerged as the Occupy Wall Street movement in September 2011. While making visible the ongoing significance of class as a political category, the Occupiers did much more than rehash the tired rhetoric of “class warfare” (marshaled by their opponents in an effort to position the ruling elites as victims of class resentment) Quite to the contrary, the Occupiers revealed the potential for a broad collective movement both to expose the material realities of inequality and injustice and to counter prevailing antidemocratic narratives while also fundamentally changing the terms of engagement by producing new images, stories, and memories that challenged the complacency of the public and the impoverished imagination of political and corporate leadership in America.
Chapter 7 concludes the book by reviewing the impact and legacy of the Occupy movement, particularly how it exposed the many ways in which US society has mortgaged the future of youth. The Occupiers have become the new public intellectuals, and they are creating a newpedagogy and politics firmly rooted in democracy, social justice, and human dignity that increasingly occupies the terrain of public discourse and poses a fundamental challenge to the control of the public sphere by corporate elites and their teaching machines. At risk of losing ideological dominance, the authorities retaliated against Occupy protesters by resorting to brutal forms of punishment. This police violence at once made visible the modes of authoritarianism and culture of cruelty that permeate American society—as was seen even at universities and colleges across the United States, institutions charged with contributing to the intellectual, social, and moral growth of society’s youth.
As I complete the writing of this introduction, the Occupy struggle for social and economic justice continues on American university campuses—where the influence of austerity measures is increasingly being felt, although the working conditions for faculty and the quality of education for students began to deteriorate under the neoliberal ascendancy decades ago. The issues impacting higher education are undoubtedly symptomatic of the accelerated pace with which the withering away of the public realm is happening. The book finishes, however, by suggesting that the Occupy movement is far from over— despite the shrinking of physical space in which it can protest. As it expands and spreads across the globe, the movement is producing a new public realm of ideas and making important connections between the deteriorating state of education, antidemocratic forces, and the savage inequalities produced by a market society. The response of young people as the new generation of public intellectuals offers us both critique and hope. It is a call to work collectively to foster new modes of thought and action—one that should be actively supported by higher education and other remaining public spheres in the United States, if American democracy is to have a future at all.
1. Clearly, there are many reasons for the various youthful protests across the globe, ranging from the murder of young people and anger against financial corruption to the riots against cuts to social benefits and the rise of educational costs.
2. Christopher McMichael, ‘The Shock-and-Awe of Mega Sports Events,” OpenDemocracy (January 30, 2012), online at: http://www .opendemocracy.net/christopher-mcmichael/shock-and-awe-of-mega-sports-events.
3. Zygmunt Bauman, Wasted Lives (London: Polity, 2004), p. 76.
4. See Loic Wacquant, Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009).
5. Amanda Peterson Beadle, “Obama Administration Ends Medicaid Funding for Texas Women’s Health Program,” Think-Progress (March 16, 2012), online at: http://thinkprogress.org/ health/2012/03/16/445894/funding-cut-for-texas-womens-health-program.
6. Maureen Dowd, “Don’t Tread on Us,” New York Times (March 14, 2012), p. A25.
7. See, for example, Daisy Grewal, “How Wealth Reduces Compassion: As Riches Grow, Empathy for Others Seems to Decline,” Scientific American (Tuesday, April 10, 2012), online at: http:// www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=how-wealth-reduces-compassion&print=true.
8. Azam Ahmed, “The Hunch, the Pounce and the Kill: How Boaz Weinstein and Hedge Funds Outsmarted JPMorgan,” New York Times (May 27, 2012), p. BUI.
9. Anne-Marie Cusac, Cruel and Unusual: The Culture of Punishment in America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), p. 3.
10. David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 19.
11. Stuart Hall, “The Neo-Liberal Revolution,” Cultural Studies 25:6 (November 2011): 706.
13. Wendy Brown, Regulating Aversion (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), p. 16.
14. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas, “Translators’ Note,” in Jean-Luc Nancy, The Truth of Democracy (New York: Fordham University Press, 2010), p. ix.
15. Jean-Marie Durand, “For Youth: A Disciplinary Discourse Only,” TruthOut (November 15, 2009), trans. Leslie Thatcher, online at: http://www.truthout.0rg/l 1190911.
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