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Intellectuals as Subjects and Objects of Violence

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Posted on Sep 13, 2013
kevin dooley

By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout

(Page 2)

What the anti-public intellectuals never include in their screeds are any mention of a government corrupted by the titans of finance, banks and the mega rich, or the scope and extent of the military-industrial-academic-surveillance state and its threat to the most basic principles of democracy. What does arouse their anger to fever pitch are those public intellectuals who dare to question authority, expose the crimes of corrupt politicians, and call into question the carcinogenic nature of a corporate state that has hijacked American democracy. This is most evident in the insults and patriotic gore heaped recently on Manning and Snowden, who are the latest in a group of young people whose only “crime” has been to expose the abusive powers of the national security state. Rather than being held up as exemplary public intellectuals and true patriots of democracy, they are disparaged as traitors, un-American or worse.

The role of the anti-public intellectuals in this instance is part of a much larger practice of self-deceit, self-promotion, and the shutting down of those formative cultures that give rise to intellectuals willing to take risks and fight for matters of freedom, justice, transparency and equality.  For too many intellectuals, both liberal and conservative, the flight from responsibility turns into a Faustian pact with a corrupt and commodified culture whose only allegiance is to accumulating capital and consolidating control over all aspects of the lives of the American public. Liberal anti-public intellectuals are more nuanced in their support for the status quo. They do not condemn critical intellectuals as un-American, they simply argue that there is no room for politics in the university and that academics, for instance, should save the world on their own time. Such views disconnect pedagogy from any understanding of politics and in doing so make a false distinction between what Gayatri Spivak calls “the possibility of civic engagement and democratic action and teaching in the classroom.” She argues that “this is a useless distinction because I think what you have to realize is that it is with the mind that one takes democratic action.  . . . The Freedom to teach, to expand the imagination as an instrument to think “world” is thus deeply political. It operates at the root of where the ethical imagination and the political mingle.” C.W. Mills goes further and dismisses the attempt to take politics out of the classroom as part of the “cynical contempt of specialists.” He then offers a defense for what public intellectuals do by insisting that:

I do not believe that intellectuals will inevitably ‘save the world,’ although I see nothing at all wrong with ‘trying to save the world’- a phrase which I take here to mean the avoidance of war and the rearrangement of human affairs in accordance with the ideals of human freedom and reason. But even if we think the chances dim, still we must ask: If there are any ways out of the crises of our epoch by means of the intellect, is it not up to intellectuals to state them?

Intellectuals should provide a model for connecting scholarship and public life, address important social and political issues, speak to multiple audiences, help citizens come to a more critical and truthful understanding of their own views and their relations to others and the larger society. But they should do more than simply raise important questions, they should also work to create those public spheres and formative cultures in which matters of dialogue, thoughtfulness and critical exchange are both valued and proliferate. Zygmunt Bauman is right in arguing that it is the moral necessity and obligation of the intellectual to take responsibility for their responsibility - for ourselves, others and the larger world. Part of that responsibility entails becoming a moral witness, expanding the political imagination, and working with social movements in their efforts to advance social and economic justice, promote policies that are just, and make meaningful the promises of a radical democracy.


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What might it mean for intellectuals to assume such a role, even if in limited spheres such as public and higher education?  At the very least, it would suggest educating students as informed and critical citizens by providing them with a language that will extend their sense of individual and social agency, deepen and enlarge their intellectual perspectives, and broaden their ability to think critically and engage with wider audiences.  Instead, we educate them to be either low-paid workers who despise the social wage or to become a potential workforce for the Walmart-prison-industrial complex. College campuses, once a hotbed of dissent, have become prime sites in developing weapons of death. Faculty has largely been reduced to adjuncts - out of 1.5 million faculty, more than 1 million hold temporary jobs.  Learning is being turned into a form of commerce or training.  Critical thought is now viewed as an excess in a culture in which a college education is simply a credential for getting a well-paid job.  At best, students are now trained or groomed to be ardent, unquestioning consumers - the children of Aldous Huxley’s nightmares - who eventually define their intense investment in pleasure through forms of violence that provide increasingly the only thrill left in a society dominated by surveillance cameras, Reality TV, the culture of cruelty, and the mind-numbing experience of the ever-present shopping malls.

Against the onslaught of anti-public intellectuals, there is a more laudable role that intellectuals can develop such as working with other intellectuals and community groups in a variety of sites to address those important social, political and economic issues that are now destroying all vestiges of the public good and democracy - issues ranging from poverty, war, militarization, the war on women, the privatization and commodification of education, and the full-fledged corporate destruction of the environment.  Though the conditions supporting such practices are diminishing in American society, such public concerns and political interventions, which are largely educational in nature, are particularly crucial issues for those young people, educators and engaged citizens who are struggling to make education a central feature of politics. Instead of holding up billionaires such as Bill Gates, former trader and hedge-fund manager Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and celebrities such as Irish rocker Bono as public intellectuals, there is a need for this generation of youth to be exposed to public intellectuals who are working actively to develop those formative cultures in which social, cultural and economic conditions can be put in places that provide opportunities for young people to learn how to be engaged, socially responsible and critical agents.

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