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Beyond the Politics of the Big Lie

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

By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout

(Page 3)

Anti-Public Intellectuals and the Conservative Re-Education Machine

The conservative takeover of public pedagogy with its elite codifiers of neoliberal ideology has a long history extending from the work of the “Chicago Boys” at the University of Chicago to the various conservative think tanks that emerged after the publication of the Powell memo in the early seventies.(16) The Republican Party will more than likely win the next election and take full control over all aspects of policymaking in the United States. This is especially dangerous given that the Republican Party is now controlled by extremists. If they win the 2012 election, they will not only extend the Bush/Obama legacy of militarism abroad, but likely intensify the war at home as well. Political scientist Frances Fox Piven rightly argues that, “We’ve been at war for decades now—not just in Afghanistan or Iraq, but right here at home. Domestically, it’s been a war against the poor [and as] devastating as it has been, the war against the poor has gone largely unnoticed until now.”(17) And the war at home now includes more than attacks on the poor, as campaigns are increasingly waged against the rights of women, students, workers, people of color and immigrants, especially Latino Americans. As the social state collapses, the punishing state expands its power and targets larger portions of the population. The war in Afghanistan is now mimicked in the war waged on peaceful student protesters at home. It is evident in the environmental racism that produces massive health problems for African-Americans. The domestic war is even waged on elementary school children, who now live in fear of the police handcuffing them in their classrooms and incarcerating them as if they were adult criminals.(18) It is waged on workers by taking away their pensions, bargaining rights and dignity. The spirit of militarism is also evident in the war waged on the welfare state and any form of social protection that benefits the poor, disabled, sick, elderly, and other groups now considered disposable, including children.

The soft side of authoritarianism in the United States does not need to put soldiers in the streets, though it certainly follows that script. As it expands its control over the commanding institutions of government, the armed forces and civil society in general, it hires anti-public intellectuals and academics to provide ideological support for its gated communities, institutions and modes of education. As Yasha Levine points out, it puts thousands of dollars in the hands of corporate shills such as Malcolm Gladwell, who has become a “one man branding and distribution pipeline for valuable corporate messages, constructed on the public’s gullibility in trusting his probity and intellectual honesty.”(19) Gladwell (who is certainly not alone) functions as a bought-and-paid mouthpiece for “Big Tobacco Pharma and defend[s] Enron-style financial fraud ... earning hundreds of thousands of dollars as a corporate speaker, sometimes from the same companies and industries that he covers as a journalist.”(20)

Corporate power uses these “pay to play” academics, anti-public intellectuals, the mainstream media, and other educational apparatuses to discredit the very people that it simultaneously oppresses, while waging an overarching war on all things public. As Charles Ferguson has noted, an entire industry has been created that enables the “sale of academic expertise for the purpose of influencing government policy, the courts and public opinion [and] is now a multibillion-dollar business.”(21) It gets worse, in that “Academic, legal, regulatory and policy consulting in economics, finance and regulation is dominated by a half dozen consulting firms, several speakers’ bureaus and various industry lobbying groups that maintain large networks of academics for hire specifically for the purpose of advocating industry interests in policy and regulatory debates.”(22)


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Such anti-public intellectuals create what William Black has called a “criminogenic environment” that spreads disease and fraud in the interest of bolstering the interests, profits and values of the super wealthy.(23) There is more at work here than carpet bombing the culture with lies, deceptions and euphemisms. Language in this case does more than obfuscate or promote propaganda. It creates framing mechanisms, cultural ecosystems and cultures of cruelty, while closing down the spaces for dialogue, critique and thoughtfulness. At its worst, it engages in the dual processes of demonization and distraction. The rhetoric of demonization takes many forms: for example, calling firefighters, teachers, and other public servants greedy because they want to hold onto their paltry benefits. It labels students as irresponsible because of the large debts they are forced to incur as states cut back funding to higher education (this, too, is part of a broader effort by conservatives to hollow out the social state). Poor people are insulted and humiliated because they are forced to live on food stamps, lack decent health care and collect unemployment benefits because there are no decent jobs available. Poor minorities are now subject to overt racism in the right-wing media and outright violence in the larger society.

Anti-public intellectuals rail against public goods and public values; they undermine collective bonds and view social responsibility as a pathology, while touting the virtues of a survival-of-the-fittest notion of individual responsibility. Fox News and its embarrassingly blowhard pundits tell the American people that Gov. Scott Walker’s victory over Tom Barrett in the Wisconsin recall election was a fatal blow against unions, while in reality “his win signals less a loss for the unions than a loss for our democracy in this post-Citizens United era, when elections can be bought with the help of a few billionaires.”(24) How else to explain that Tea Party favorite Walker raised over $30.5 million during the election—more than seven times Barrett’s reported $3.9 million—largely from 13 out-of-state billionaires?(25) This was corporate money enlisted for use in a pedagogical blitz designed to carpet bomb voters with the rhetoric of distraction and incivility.

The same pundits who rail against the country’s economic deficit fail to connect it to the generous tax cuts they espouse for corporations and the financial institutions and services that take financial risks, which sometimes generate capital, but more often produce debts and instability that only serve to deepen the national economic crisis. Nor do they connect the US recession and global economic crisis to the criminal activities enabled by an unregulated financial system marked by massive lending fraud, high risk speculation, a corrupt credit system and pervasive moral and economic dishonesty. The spokespersons for the ultrarich publish books arguing that we need even more inequality because it benefits not only the wealthy, but everyone else.(26) This is a form of authoritarian delusion that appears to meet the clinical threshold for being labeled psychopathic given its proponents’ extreme investment in being “indifferent to others, incapable of guilt, exclusively devoted to their own interests.”(27) Nothing is said in this pro-market narrative about the massive human suffering caused by a growing inequality in which society’s resources are squandered at the top, while salaries for the middle and working classes stagnate, consumption dries up, social costs are ignored, young people are locked out of jobs and any possibility of social mobility and the state reconfigures its power to punish rather than protect the vast majority of its citizens.

The moral coma that appears characteristic of the elite who inhabit the new corporate ethic of casino capitalism has attracted the attention of scientists, whose studies recently reported that “members of the upper class are more likely to behave unethically, to lie during negotiations, to drive illegally and to cheat when competing for a prize.”(28) But there is more at stake here than the psychological state of those who inhabit the boardrooms of Wall Street. We must also consider the catastrophic effects produced by their values and policies. In fact, Stiglitz has argued that, “Most Americans today are worse off than they were fifteen years ago. A full-time worker in the US is worse off today then he or she was 44 years ago. That is astounding—half a century of stagnation. The economic system is not delivering. It does not matter whether a few people at the top benefitted tremendously—when the majority of citizens are not better off, the economic system is not working.”(29) The economic system may not be working, but the ideological rationales used to justify its current course appear immensely successful, managing as they do to portray a casino capitalism that transforms democracy into its opposite—a form of authoritarianism with a soft edge—as utterly benign, if not also beneficial, to society at large.

Democratic Decline and the Politics of Distraction

Democracy withers, public spheres disappear and the forces of authoritarianism grow when a family, such as the Waltons of Walmart fame, is allowed “to amass a combined wealth of some $90 billion, which is equivalent to the wealth of the entire bottom 30 percent of US society.”(30) Such enormous amounts of wealth translate into equally vast amounts of power, as is evident in the current attempts of a few billionaires to literally buy local, state and federal elections. Moreover, a concentration of wealth deepens the economic divide among classes, rendering more and more individuals incapable of the most basic opportunities to move out of poverty and despair. This is especially true in light of a recent survey indicating that, “Nearly half of all Americans lack economic security, meaning they live above the federal poverty threshold but still do hot have enough money to cover housing, food, healthcare and other basic expenses…. 45 percent of US residents live in households that struggle to make ends meet. That breaks down to 39 percent of all adults and 55 percent of all children.”(31) The consequential impacts on civic engagement are more difficult to enumerate, but it does not require much imagination to think about how democracy might flourish if access to health care, education, employment, and other public benefits was ensured equally throughout a society and not restricted to the rich and wealthy alone. And yet, as power and wealth accrue to the upper 1 percent, the American public is constantly told that the poor, the unions, feminists, critical intellectuals and public servants are waging class warfare to the detriment of civility and democracy.

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