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Beyond the Politics of the Big Lie

Posted on Jun 19, 2012
Pink Sherbet Photography (CC BY 2.0)

By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout

This piece originally appeared at Truthout.

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Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.
—Martin Luther King Jr.

The American public is suffering from an education deficit. By this I mean it exhibits a growing inability to think critically, question authority, be reflective, weigh evidence, discriminate between reasoned arguments and opinions, listen across differences and engage the mutually informing relationship between private problems and broader public issues. This growing political and cultural illiteracy is not merely a problem of the individual, one that points to simple ignorance. It is a collective and social problem that goes to the heart of the increasing attack on democratic public spheres and supportive public institutions that promote analytical capacities, thoughtful exchange and a willingness to view knowledge as a resource for informed modes of individual and social agency. One of the major consequences of the current education deficit and the pervasive culture of illiteracy that sustains it is what I call the ideology of the big lie—which propagates the myth that the free-market system is the only mechanism to ensure human freedom and safeguard democracy.

The education deficit, along with declining levels of civic literacy, is also part of the American public’s collective refusal to know—a focused resistance on the part of many members of society to deal with knowledge that challenges common sense, or to think reflectively about facts and truths that are unsettling in terms of how they disturb some of our most cherished beliefs, especially those that denounce the sins of big government, legitimize existing levels of economic insecurity, social inequality and reduced or minimal government intervention in the field of welfare legislation.”(1) The decline of civility and civic literacy in American society is a political dilemma, the social production of which is traceable to a broader constellation of forces deeply rooted in the shifting nature of education and the varied cultural apparatuses that produce it, extending from the new digital technologies and online journals to the mainstream media of newspapers, magazines and television. Politics is now held hostage to what the late Raymond Williams called the “force of permanent education,” a kind of public pedagogy spread through a plethora of teaching machines that are shaping how our most powerful ideas are formed.(2) For Williams, the concept of “permanent education” was a central political insight:

What it valuably stresses is the educational force of our whole social and cultural experience. It is therefore concerned, not only with continuing education, of a formal or informal kind, but with what the whole environment, its institutions and relationships, actively and profoundly teaches…. [Permanent education also refers to] the field in which our ideas of the world, of ourselves and of our possibilities, are most widely and often most powerfully formed and disseminated. To work for the recovery of control in this field is then, under any pressures, a priority. For who can doubt, looking at television or newspapers, or reading the women’s magazines, that here, centrally, is teaching and teaching financed and distributed in a much larger way than is formal education.[3]


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William’s insight about the relationship between education and politics is more important today than it was in the 1960s when he developed the idea. The educational force of the wider culture is now one of the primary, if not most powerful, determinants of what counts as knowledge, agency, politics and democracy itself. The machinery of permanent education and the public pedagogical relationships these create have become the main framing mechanisms in determining what information gets included, who speaks, what stories are told, what representations translate into reality and what is considered normal or subversive. The cultural apparatuses of popular education and public pedagogy play a powerful role in framing how issues are perceived, what values and social relations matter and whether any small ruptures will be allowed to unsettle the circles of certainty that now reign as common sense. But education is never far from the reach of power and ideology. As the major cultural apparatuses and technologies of public pedagogy are concentrated in a few hands, the educational force of the culture becomes a powerful ideological tool for legitimating market-driven values and social relations, based on omissions, deceptions, lies, misrepresentations and falsehoods benefiting the apostles of a range of economic, educational and religious fundamentalisms.

For the first time in modern history, centralized commercial institutions that extend from traditional broadcast culture to the new interactive screen cultures—rather than parents, churches or schools—tell most of the stories that shape the lives of the American public. This is no small matter since the stories a society tells about its history, civic life, social relations, education, children and human imagination are a measure of how it values itself, the ideals of democracy and its future. Most of the stories now told to the American public are about the necessity of neoliberal capitalism, permanent war and the virtues of a never-ending culture of fear. The domestic front revels in the welcome death of the social state, the necessary all-embracing reach of the market to determine every aspect of our lives, the reduction of freedom to the freedom to consume, the pathology of social relations not under the rule of commodities and finance capital and the notion that everyone is ultimately responsible for their own fate in a world that now resembles a shark tank.

Democracies need informed citizens to make them work and they can only survive amid a formative culture that produces individuals willing to think critically, imagine otherwise and act responsibly. America seems to have moved away from that possibility, that willingness to think through and beyond the systemic production of the given, the pull of conformity, the comforting assurance of certainty and the painless retreat into a world of common sense. Hannah Arendt understood the danger of such a state, which she famously called the banality of evil and described as a “curiously quite authentic inability to think.”(4) For Arendt, this was more than mere stupidity, it was a mode of manufactured thoughtlessness that pointed both to the disappearance of politics and constituted one of the most serious threats facing democracy. That threat is no longer merely a despairing element of philosophical reflection—it has become the new reality in American life. The political, economic and social coordinates of authoritarianism are all around us and through the educational force of the broader culture they are becoming more normalized and more dangerous.

There is little distance between what I am calling an education deficit and the reigning market authoritarianism, with its claim to be both synonymous with democracy and unquestionable in its assumptions and policies. The education deficit, a hallmark achievement of neoliberal capitalism, has produced a version of authoritarianism with a soft edge, a kind of popular authoritarianism that spreads its values through gaming, reality TV, celebrity culture, the daily news, talk radio and a host of other media outlets now aggressively engaged in producing subjects, desires and dreams that reflect a world order dominated by corporations and “free markets.” This a world that only values narrow selfish-interests, isolated competitive individuals, finance capital, the reign of commodities and the alleged “natural” laws of free-market fundamentalism. This type of turbo capitalism with its crushing cultural apparatuses of legitimation does more than destroy the public good; it empties democracy of any substance and renders authoritarian politics and culture an acceptable state of affairs. As the boundaries between markets and democratic values collapse, civil life becomes warlike and the advocates of market fundamentalism rail against state protections while offering an unbridled confirmation of the market as a template for all social relations.

Notwithstanding the appeal to formalistic election rituals, democracy as a substantive mode of public address and politics is all but dead in the United States. The forces of authoritarianism are on the march and they seem at this point only to be gaining power politically, economically and educationally. Politicians at every level of government are in collusion with corporate power. Many have been bought by industry lobbyists. This despicable state of affairs was particularly evident in the 2010 elections. Commenting on the colonization of politics by big money in that election, Charles Pierce captures the power dynamic and ideological relations that were in play at that time and have intensified since. He writes:

In 2010, in addition to handing the House of Representatives over to a pack of nihilistic vandals, the Koch brothers and the rest of the sugar daddies of the Right poured millions into various state campaigns. This produced a crop of governors and state legislators wholly owned and operated by those corporate interests and utterly unmoored from the constituencies they were elected to serve. In turn, these folks enacted various policies and produced various laws, guaranteed to do nothing except reinforce the power of the people who put them in office.[5]

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