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America’s Descent Into Madness

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Posted on Aug 19, 2013
Jayel Aheram (CC BY 2.0)

By Henry A. Giroux, CounterPunch

This piece first appeared at CounterPunch.

America has entered one of its periods of historical madness, but this is the worst I can remember: worse than McCarthyism, worse than the Bay of Pigs and in the long term potentially more disastrous than the Vietnam War.
—John le Carré

America is descending into madness. The stories it now tells are filled with cruelty, deceit, lies, and legitimate all manner of corruption and mayhem.  The mainstream media spins stories that are largely racist, violent, and irresponsible —stories that celebrate power and demonize victims, all the while camouflaging its pedagogical influence under the cheap veneer of entertainment. Unethical grammars of violence now offer the only currency with any enduring value for mediating relationships, addressing problems, and offering instant pleasure. A predatory culture celebrates a narcissistic hyper-individualism that radiates a near sociopathic lack of interest in or compassion and responsibility for others. Anti-public intellectuals dominate the screen and aural cultures urging us to shop more, indulge more, and make a virtue out of the pursuit of personal gain, all the while promoting a depoliticizing culture of consumerism. Undermining life-affirming social solidarities and any viable notion of the public good, right-wing politicians trade in forms of idiocy and superstition that mesmerize the illiterate and render the thoughtful cynical and disengaged.  Military forces armed with the latest weapons from Afghanistan play out their hyper-militarized fantasies on the home front by forming robo SWAT teams who willfully beat youthful protesters and raid neighborhood poker games.  Congressional lobbyists for the big corporations and defense contractors create conditions in which war zones abroad can be recreated at home in order to provide endless consumer products, such as high tech weapons and surveillance tools for gated communities and for prisons alike.

The issue of who gets to define the future, own the nation’s wealth, shape the reach of state resources, control of the global flows of goods and humans, and invest in institutions that educate an engaged and socially responsible citizens has become largely invisible.  And yet these are precisely these issues that offer up new categories for defining how matters of representations, education, economic justice, and politics are to be defined and fought over. The stories told by corporate liars and crooks do serious harm to the body politic, and the damage they cause together with the idiocy they reinforce are becoming more apparent as America descends into authoritarianism, accompanied by the pervasive fear and paranoia that sustains it.

The American public needs more than a show of outrage or endless demonstrations. It needs to develop a formative culture for producing a language of critique, possibility, and broad-based political change. Such a project is indispensable for developing an organized politics that speaks to a future that can provide sustainable jobs, decent health care, quality education, and communities of solidarity and support for young people. At stake here is a politics and vision that informs ongoing educational and political struggles to awaken the inhabitants of neoliberal societies to their current reality and what it means to be educated not only to think outside of a savage market-driven commonsense but also to struggle for those values, hopes, modes of solidarity, power relations, and institutions that infuse democracy with a spirit of egalitarianism and economic and social justice. For this reason, any collective struggle that matters has to embrace education as the center of politics and the source of an embryonic vision of the good life outside of the imperatives of predatory capitalism. As I have argued elsewhere, too many progressives are stuck in the apocalyptic discourse of foreclosure and disaster and need to develop what Stuart Hall calls a “sense of politics being educative, of politics changing the way people see things.” This is a difficult task, but what we are seeing in cities that stretch from Chicago to Athens, and other dead zones of capitalism throughout the world is the beginning of a long struggle for the institutions, values, and infrastructures that make critical education and community the core of a robust, radical democracy.  This is a challenge for young people and all those invested in the promise of a democracy that extends not only the meaning of politics, but also a commitment to economic justice and democratic social change.

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The stories we tell about ourselves as Americans no longer speak to the ideals of justice, equality, liberty, and democracy. There are no towering figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr. whose stories interweave moral outrage with courage and vision and inspired us to imagine a society that was never just enough.  Stories that once inflamed our imagination now degrade it, overwhelming a populace with nonstop advertisements that reduce our sense of agency to the imperatives of shopping. But these are not the only narratives that diminish our capacity to imagine a better world. We are also inundated with stories of cruelty and fear that undermine communal bonds and tarnish any viable visions of the future. Different stories, ones that provided a sense of history, social responsibility, and respect for the public good, were once circulated by our parents, churches, synagogues, schools, and community leaders. Today, the stories that define who we are as individuals and as a nation are told by right-wing and liberal media that broadcast the conquests of celebrities, billionaires, and ethically frozen politicians who preach the mutually related virtues of the free market and a permanent war economy.

These neoliberal stories are all the more powerful because they seem to undermine the public’s desire for rigorous accountability, critical interrogation, and openness as they generate employment and revenue for by right-wing think tanks and policy makers who rush to fill the content needs of corporate media and educational institutions. Concealing the conditions of their own making, these stories enshrine both greed and indifference encouraging massive disparities in wealth and income. In addition, they also sanctify the workings of the market, forging a new f political theology that inscribes a sense of our collective destiny to be governed ultimately and exclusively by market forces. Such ideas surely signal a tribute to Ayn Rand’s dystopian society, if not also a rebirth of Margaret Thatcher’s nonfiction version that preached the neoliberal gospel of wealth:  there is nothing beyond individual gain and the values of the corporate order.


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