Dec 10, 2013
The Violence of Organized Forgetting
Posted on Jul 22, 2013
By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout
This piece first appeared at Truthout.
People who remember court madness through pain, the pain of the perpetually recurring death of their innocence; people who forget court another kind of madness, the madness of the denial of pain and the hatred of innocence. — James Baldwin
Learning to Forget
America has become amnesiac—a country in which forms of historical, political, and moral forgetting are not only willfully practiced but celebrated. The United States has degenerated into a social order that is awash in public stupidity and views critical thought as both a liability and a threat. Not only is this obvious in the presence of a celebrity culture that embraces the banal and idiotic, but also in the prevailing discourses and policies of a range of politicians and anti-public intellectuals who believe that the legacy of the Enlightenment needs to be reversed. Politicians such as Michelle Bachmann, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich along with talking heads such as Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck and Anne Coulter are not the problem, they are symptomatic of a much more disturbing assault on critical thought, if not rationale thinking itself. Under a neoliberal regime, the language of authority, power and command is divorced from ethics, social responsibility, critical analysis and social costs.
These anti-public intellectuals are part of a disimagination machine that solidifies the power of the rich and the structures of the military-industrial-surveillance-academic complex by presenting the ideologies, institutions and relations of the powerful as commonsense. For instance, the historical legacies of resistance to racism, militarism, privatization and panoptical surveillance have long been forgotten and made invisible in the current assumption that Americans now live in a democratic, post-racial society. The cheerleaders for neoliberalism work hard to normalize dominant institutions and relations of power through a vocabulary and public pedagogy that create market-driven subjects, modes of consciousness, and ways of understanding the world that promote accommodation, quietism and passivity. Social solidarities are torn apart, furthering the retreat into orbits of the private that undermine those spaces that nurture non-commodified knowledge, values, critical exchange and civic literacy. The pedagogy of authoritarianism is alive and well in the United States, and its repression of public memory takes place not only through the screen culture and institutional apparatuses of conformity, but is also reproduced through a culture of fear and a carceral state that imprisons more people than any other country in the world. What many commentators have missed in the ongoing attack on Edward Snowden is not that he uncovered information that made clear how corrupt and intrusive the American government has become - how willing it is to engage in vast crimes against the American public. His real “crime” is that he demonstrated how knowledge can be used to empower people, to get them to think as critically engaged citizens rather than assume that knowledge and education are merely about the learning of skills - a reductive concept that substitutes training for education and reinforces the flight from reason and the goose-stepping reflexes of an authoritarian mindset.
What is particularly new is the way in which young people have been increasingly denied a significant place in an already weakened social contract and the degree to which they are absent from how many countries now define the future. Youth are no longer the place where society reveals its dreams. Instead, youth are becoming the site of society’s nightmares. Within neoliberal narratives, youth are mostly defined as a consumer market, a drain on the economy, or stand for trouble. Young people increasingly have become subject to an oppressive disciplinary machine that teaches them to define citizenship through the exchange practices of the market and to follow orders and toe the line in the face of oppressive forms of authority. They are caught in a society in which almost every aspect of their lives is shaped by the dual forces of the market and a growing police state. The message is clear: Buy/ sell/ or be punished. Mostly out of step, young people, especially poor minorities and low-income whites, are increasingly inscribed within a machinery of dead knowledge, social relations and values in which there is an attempt to render them voiceless and invisible.
How young people are represented betrays a great deal about what is increasingly new about the economic, social, cultural and political constitution of American society and its growing disinvestment in young people, the social state and democracy itself. The structures of neoliberal violence have put the vocabulary of democracy on life support, and one consequence is that subjectivity and education are no longer the lifelines of critical forms of individual and social agency. The promises of modernity regarding progress, freedom and hope have not been eliminated; they have been reconfigured, stripped of their emancipatory potential and relegated to the logic of a savage market instrumentality. Modernity has reneged on its promise to young people to provide social mobility, stability and collective security. Long-term planning and the institutional structures that support them are now relegated to the imperatives of privatization, deregulation, flexibility and short-term profits. Social bonds have given way under the collapse of social protections and the attack on the welfare state. Moreover, all solutions to socially produced problems are now relegated to the mantra of individual solutions.
Public problems collapse into the limited and depoliticized register of private issues. Individual interests now trump any consideration of the good of society just as all problems are ultimately laid at the door of the solitary individual, whose fate is shaped by forces far beyond his or her capacity for personal responsibility. Under neoliberalism everyone has to negotiate their fate alone, bearing full responsibility for problems that are often not of their own doing. The implications politically, economically and socially for young people are disastrous and are contributing to the emergence of a generation of young people who will occupy a space of social abandonment and terminal exclusion. Job insecurity, debt servitude, poverty, incarceration and a growing network of real and symbolic violence have entrapped too many young people in a future that portends zero opportunities and zero hopes. This is a generation that has become the new register for disposability, redundancy, and new levels of surveillance and control.
The severity and consequences of this shift in modernity under neoliberalism among youth is evident in the fact that this is the first generation in which the “plight of the outcast may stretch to embrace a whole generation.” Zygmunt Bauman argues that today’s youth have been “cast in a condition of liminal drift, with no way of knowing whether it is transitory or permanent.” That is, the generation of youth in the early 21st century has no way of grasping if they will ever “be free from the gnawing sense of the transience, indefiniteness, and provisional nature of any settlement.” Neoliberal violence produced in part through a massive shift in wealth to the upper 1%, growing inequality, the reign of the financial service industries, the closing down of educational opportunities, and the stripping of social protections from those marginalized by race and class has produced a generation without jobs, an independent life and even the most minimal social benefits.
Youth no longer inhabit the privileged space, however compromised, that was offered to previous generations. They now occupy a neoliberal notion of temporality of dead time, zones of abandonment and terminal exclusion marked by a loss of faith in progress and a belief in those apocalyptic narratives in which the future appears indeterminate, bleak and insecure. Progressive visions pale and are smashed next to the normalization of market-driven government policies that wipe out pensions, eliminate quality health care, punish unions, demonize public servants, raise college tuition, and produce a harsh world of joblessness - all the while giving billions and “huge bonuses, instead of prison sentences . . . to those bankers and investment brokers who were responsible for the 2008 meltdown of the economy and the loss of homes for millions of Americans. Students, in particular, now find themselves in a world in which heightened expectations have been replaced by dashed hopes. The promises of higher education and previously enviable credentials have turned into the swindle of fulfillment as, “For the first time in living memory, the whole class of graduates faces a future of crushing debt, and a high probability, almost the certainty, of ad hoc, temporary, insecure and part-time work and unpaid ‘trainee’ pseudo-jobs deceitfully rebranded as ‘practices’ - all considerably below the skills they have acquired and eons below the level of their expectations.”
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