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Beyond Savage Politics and Dystopian Nightmares

Posted on Sep 26, 2013
Eduard V. Kurganov (CC BY 2.0)

By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout

(Page 3)

Evidence for the death of the American dream is everywhere: Millions of people have lost their homes, and young people are living with the nightmare of a future without jobs, hopes and security, if not dignity. At the same time, many soldiers returning from the senseless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and suffering from a wide range of illnesses are given shoddy and sometime death-dealing treatment by the veterans’ hospitals. In some cases, they are turned into drug addicts because the hospitals, in their efforts to keep them quiet rather than give them proper treatment, overprescribe painkillers. Unfortunately, such neglect does more than keep them quiet; it often results in their needless deaths. Poor children are denied proper health care and school lunches. The poverty rate in America grows to unimaginable numbers matched only by the increasing growth in income and wealth by the super-rich. The corporate educational reform movement teaches young people how to be stupid and dissolves all vestiges of creativity in the mad frenzy of an audit culture. At the same time, students find themselves in a job market that offers them little but dashed dreams and low-skill jobs, if they are lucky enough to find one.

The small change of human cruelty and a savage politics was evident recently in newspaper accounts about the rise of expensive condos in the Upper West Side of Manhattan that have one entrance for the rich and another for “working people who won a city lottery to obtain affordable apartments in the building.” There is a larger politics at work here than the obvious class and racist implications. Connect the dots of this particularly racist and class-based policy to the rapidly proliferating decisions on the part of Tea Party politicians to produce policies that force the frail, poor and aged to choose between medicine and food. Or the decision on the part of the state of Nevada to dump “1,500 mental patients onto other states by putting them on Greyhound busses and sen[ding] them over state lines with no prior arrangements with families or other mental hospitals once they arrive.” This is a new kind of authoritarianism that does not speak in the jingoistic discourse of empowerment, exceptionalism or nationalism. Instead, it defines itself in the language of cruelty, suffering and fear, and it does so with a sneer and an unbridled disdain for those considered disposable. Neoliberal society mimics the search for purity we have seen in other totalitarian societies.

Right-wing market fundamentalists want to root out those considered defective consumers and citizens, along with allegedly unpatriotic dissidents. They also want to punish the poor and remove their children from the possibility of a quality public education. Hence, they develop schools that are dead zones of the imagination for most children and highly creative classroom environments free of the frenzy of empiricism and test-taking for the children of the rich. It gets worse. In Pennsylvania, right-wing Gov. Tom Corbett and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter are intent on destroying the public school system. Instead of funding public schools, Corbett and Nutter are intent on crushing the teachers union and supporting vouchers and charter schools. They also are fond of claiming that money can’t help struggling public schools as a pretext for closing more than 23 schools “while building a $400 million state prison.” As Aaron Kase reports, “Things have gotten so bad that at least one school has asked parents to chip in $613 per student just so they can open with adequate services, which, if it becomes the norm, effectively defeats the purpose of equitable public education, and is entirely unreasonable to expect from the city’s poorer neighborhoods.”

Vouchers and under-regulated charter schools have become the unapologetic face of a vicious form of casino capitalism waging war on the imagination while imposing a range of harsh and punitive disciplinary methods on teachers and students, particularly low-income and poor white minorities. The vast stores of knowledge and human creativity needed by young people to face a range of social, economic and political problems in the future are not simply being deferred, they are being systematically destroyed. When the emancipatory potential of education does emerge, it is often couched in the deadening discourse of establishing comfort zones in classrooms as a way of eliminating any pedagogy that provokes, unsettles or educates students to think critically. Critical knowledge and pedagogy are now judged as viable only to the degree that they do not make a student uncomfortable. There is more at stake here than the death of the imagination; there is also the elimination of those modes of agency that make a democracy possible. In the face of such cruel injustices, neoliberalism remains mute, disdaining democratic politics by claiming there are no alternatives to casino capitalism.


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Power in the United States has been uprooted from any respect for public value, the common good and democratic politics. This is not only visible in the fact that 1 percent of the population now owns 40 percent of the nation’s wealth or took home “more than half of the nation’s income,” it is also evident in a culture that normalizes, legitimates and thrives in a politics of humiliation, cruelty, racism and class discrimination. Political, moral and economic foundations float free of constraints. Moral and social responsibilities are unmoored, free from any sense of responsibility or accountability in a permanent war state. Repression is now the dominant mantra for all of society. As Zygmunt Bauman and David Lyons point out, the American public has been turned into “security addicts,” ingesting mistrust, suspicion and fear as the new common sense for a security state that seems intent on causing the death of everything that matters in a democracy. The surveillance state works hard to not only monitor our phone conversations or track our Internet communication but to turn us into consumers, ratchet up the desire to be watched, and enforce new registers of social exclusion between those inside and outside the official temples of consumerism, social rights and captainship itself. Confining, excluding and vigilantism is one register of the new face of authoritarianism in the US.

As America enters a historical era dominated by an authoritarian repressive state, the refugee camp as a symbol of exclusion and suffering is everywhere, visible in the material encampments for the homeless, urban ghettoes, jails, detention centers for young people, and in the tents propping up alongside highways that hold the new refugees from the suburbs who have lost their jobs, homes and dignity. The refugee camp also has become a metaphor for those who question authority, because they are increasingly rendered stateless, useless and undesirable. Critical thought is now considered dangerous, discomforting and subject to government prosecution, as is evident in the war being waged against whistleblowers in the name of national (in)security. The technologies of smart missiles hunt down those considered enemies of the United States, removing the ethical imagination from the horror of the violence it inflicts while solidifying the “victory of technology over ethics.

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