May 22, 2013
Gated Intellectuals, Fortress America, and the Politics of Occupy
Posted on Mar 21, 2012
By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout
The gated mentality of market fundamentalism has walled off, if not disappeared, those spaces where dialogue, critical reason and the values and practices of social responsibility can be engaged. The armies of anti-public intellectuals, who appear daily on television, radio talk shows, and other platforms, work hard to create a fortress of indifference and manufactured stupidity. Public life is reduced to a host of babbling politicians and pundits, ranging from Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum to Sean Hannity, all of whom should have their high school diplomas revoked. Much more than providing idiot spectacles and fodder for late-night comics, the assault waged by the warriors of rule enforcement and gated thought poses a dire threat to those vital public spheres that provide the minimal conditions for citizens who can think critically and act responsibly. This is especially true for public education, where the forces of privatization, philanthropy and commodification have all but gutted public schooling in America.(6) What has become clear is that the attack on public schools has nothing to do with their failings; it has to do with the fact that they are public. How else to explain the fact that a number of conservative politicians refer to them as “government schools”? I think it is fair to say that the massive assault taking place on public education in Arizona, Wisconsin, Florida, Maine and other Republican Party-led states will soon extend its poisonous attack and include higher education in its sights in ways that will make the current battle look like a walk in the park.
Higher education is worth mentioning because, for the gated intellectuals, it is one of the last strongholds of democratic action and reasoning and one of the most visible targets along with the welfare state. As is well known, higher education is increasingly being walled off from the discourse of public values and the ideals of a substantive democracy at a time when it is most imperative to defend the institution against an onslaught of forces that are as anti-intellectual as they are anti-democratic in nature. Universities are now facing a growing set of challenges that collectively pose a dire threat to the status of higher education as a sphere rooted in and fostering independent thought, critical agency and civic courage. These challenges, to name but a few, include budget cuts; the downsizing of faculty; the militarization of research; alienation from the broader public (which increasingly looks upon academe with suspicion, if not scorn); and the revising of the curriculum to fit market-driven goals. Many of the problems in higher education can be linked to the evisceration of funding, the intrusion of the national security state, the lack of faculty self-governance and a wider culture that appears increasingly to view education as a private right rather than a public good. All of these disturbing trends, left unchecked, are certain to make a mockery of the very meaning and mission of the university as a democratic public sphere.
The Occupy movement and other social movements are challenging many of these anti-democratic and anti-intellectual forces. Drawing connections between the ongoing assault on the public character and infrastructure of higher education and the broader attack on the welfare state, young people, artists, new media intellectuals, and others are reviving what critical intellectuals such as C. Wright Mills, Tony Judt, Zygmunt Bauman and Hannah Arendt engaged as “the social question”—now with a growing sense of urgency in a society that appears to be losing a sense of itself in terms of crucial public values, the common good and economic justice. One of the most important challenges facing educators, the Occupy movement, young people, and others concerned by the fate of democracy is the challenge of providing the public spaces, critical discourses and counter-narratives necessary to reclaim higher education and other public spheres from the civic- and the capital-stripping policies of free-market fundamentalism, the authoritarian politicians who deride critical education and an army of anti-public intellectuals dedicated to attacking all things collective and sustaining. Public values have for decades been in tension with dominant economic and political forces, but the latter’s growing fervor for unbridled individualism, disdain for social cohesion and safety nets and contempt for the public good appear relentless against increasingly vulnerable communal bonds and weakened democratic resistance. The collateral damage has been widespread and includes a frontal assault on the rights of labor, social services and every conceivable level of critical education.
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