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America Is in Need of a Moral Bailout
Posted on Mar 23, 2009
By Chris Hedges
In decaying societies, politics become theater. The elite, who have hollowed out the democratic system to serve the corporate state, rule through image and presentation. They express indignation at AIG bonuses and empathy with a working class they have spent the last few decades disenfranchising, and make promises to desperate families that they know will never be fulfilled. Once the spotlights go on they read their lines with appropriate emotion. Once the lights go off, they make sure Goldman Sachs and a host of other large corporations have the hundreds of billions of dollars in losses they incurred playing casino capitalism repaid with taxpayer money.
We live in an age of moral nihilism. We have trashed our universities, turning them into vocational factories that produce corporate drones and chase after defense-related grants and funding. The humanities, the discipline that forces us to stand back and ask the broad moral questions of meaning and purpose, that challenges the validity of structures, that trains us to be self-reflective and critical of all cultural assumptions, have withered. Our press, which should promote such intellectual and moral questioning, confuses bread and circus with news and refuses to give a voice to critics who challenge not this bonus payment or that bailout but the pernicious superstructure of the corporate state itself. We kneel before a cult of the self, elaborately constructed by the architects of our consumer society, which dismisses compassion, sacrifice for the less fortunate, and honesty. The methods used to attain what we want, we are told by reality television programs, business schools and self-help gurus, are irrelevant. Success, always defined in terms of money and power, is its own justification. The capacity for manipulation is what is most highly prized. And our moral collapse is as terrifying, and as dangerous, as our economic collapse.
Theodor Adorno in 1967 wrote an essay called “Education After Auschwitz.” He argued that the moral corruption that made the Holocaust possible remained “largely unchanged.” He wrote that “the mechanisms that render people capable of such deeds” must be made visible. Schools had to teach more than skills. They had to teach values. If they did not, another Auschwitz was always possible.
“All political instruction finally should be centered upon the idea that Auschwitz should never happen again,” he wrote. “This would be possible only when it devotes itself openly, without fear of offending any authorities, to this most important of problems. To do this, education must transform itself into sociology, that is, it must teach about the societal play of forces that operates beneath the surface of political forms.”
Our elites are imploding. Their fraud and corruption are slowly being exposed as the disparity between their words and our reality becomes wider and more apparent. The rage that is bubbling up across the country will have to be countered by the elite with less subtle forms of control. But unless we grasp the “societal play of forces that operates beneath the surface of political forms” we will be cursed with a more ruthless form of corporate power, one that does away with artifice and the seduction of a consumer society and instead wields power through naked repression.
I had lunch a few days ago in Toronto with Henry Giroux, professor of English and cultural studies at McMaster University in Canada and who for many years was the Waterbury Chair Professor at Penn State. Giroux, who has been one of the most prescient and vocal critics of the corporate state and the systematic destruction of American education, was driven to the margins of academia because he kept asking the uncomfortable questions Adorno knew should be asked by university professors. He left the United States in 2004 for Canada.
“The emergence of what Eisenhower had called the military-industrial-academic complex had secured a grip on higher education that may have exceeded even what he had anticipated and most feared,” Giroux, who wrote “The University in Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex,” told me. “Universities, in general, especially following the events of 9/11, were under assault by Christian nationalists, reactionary neoconservatives and market fundamentalists for allegedly representing the weak link in the war on terrorism. Right-wing students were encouraged to spy on the classes of progressive professors, the corporate grip on the university was tightening as made clear not only in the emergence of business models of governance, but also in the money being pumped into research and programs that blatantly favored corporate interests. And at Penn State, where I was located at the time, the university had joined itself at the hip with corporate and military power. Put differently, corporate and Pentagon money was now funding research projects and increasingly knowledge was being militarized in the service of developing weapons of destruction, surveillance and death. Couple this assault with the fact that faculty were becoming irrelevant as an oppositional force. Many disappeared into discourses that threatened no one, some simply were too scared to raise critical issues in their classrooms for fear of being fired, and many simply no longer had the conviction to uphold the university as a democratic public sphere.”
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