Dec 6, 2013
Intellectuals as Subjects and Objects of Violence
Posted on Sep 13, 2013
By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout
In an age of intense militarization, selfishness, commodification and widespread injustices, educators, teachers, artists and other cultural workers must find new ways to struggle against being reduced to what Gramsci once called “experts in legitimation.” Of course, there are remnants of such intellectuals such as Jeffrey St Clair, Eric Alterman, Katha Pollitt, Glenn Greenwald, and Thom Hartmann, among others, writing for alternative media such as The Nation, The Guardian, Truthout, CounterPunch, Truthdig and AlterNet and appearing on news programs such as “Democracy Now,” but they constitute a small minority. And there is a small subgroup in and outside of the university - people such as David Theo Goldberg, David Palumbo-Liu, Stanley Aronowitz, Carol Becker, Chris Hedges, Angela Davis, Cornel West, Robin D. G. Kelley and others, but they constitute a small minority.
Some have argued, wrongly in my estimation, that such intellectuals, because they address a broader audience and public issues, betray the scholarly tradition by not being rigorous theoretically. I think this is a massive misreading of much of the work published by such intellectuals, as well as a distortion of what is often published in online journals such as Truthout, CounterPunch, and Truthdig. In fact, Truthout often publishes substantive theoretically rigorous articles under its Public Intellectual Project that are accessible, address important social issues, and at the same time, attract large numbers of readers. I am inclined to believe that at the heart of this misinformed critique is an unadulterated nostalgia for those heady days when one could publish unintelligible articles in small journals and make the claim, generally uncontested, that one was an intellectual because one wrote in the idiom of high theory. Those days are gone, if they ever really existed so as to make a difference about anything that might concern addressing significant public issues.
What does it mean to be a public intellectual at a time when intellectual culture, thoughtful analyses and rigorous criticism are held in such low regard by much of the American public? At the very least, public intellectuals should work diligently to enable people to translate private issues into public concerns. As C. Wright Mills pointed out some time ago, one of the great threats to a democracy is the collapse of the public into the private and the loss of the ability on the part of the public to connect private troubles to larger systemic issues. This politics of disconnect and its refusal to understand issues within broader historical and relational contexts is the function of a neoliberal mode of public pedagogy that is central to the success of the right-wing counterrevolution and has to be stopped. Clearly, there are a host of issues public intellectuals should be addressing extending from the assault on the environment and the social state to the increasing destruction being promoted worldwide by neoliberal policies against the social state and all democratic public spheres. Understanding how larger structural forces impact our lives offers a challenge to a society that begins and ends with the false chimera of individual responsibility and the myth of unlimited choices.
The influence of this type of atomization so central to casino capitalism does not merely play out as part of the paralyzing logic of the market. It is also present in the endless obsession with identity politics and the distressing fragmentation that has crippled the left and impeded the development of broader social movements in the United States. This is not to suggest that the feminist movement or the struggle for gay rights and related identity-based movements are not important, they are crucial to any viable struggle for a radical democracy, but they cannot be allowed to ossify into dogmatic ideologies and forms of political purity based on exclusionary principles and practices. What is crucial is that such intellectuals not get caught up in isolated and fragmented issues and movements that undermine their potential strengths as well as the ability to recognize the limitations of movements whose struggles are organized around particularistic rather than a more general sense of freedom and justice.
The dominant reactions to Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA and the PRISM program should shame us as a nation. As a result of revealing crucial information that the government unlawfully kept secret, he has been vilified by the media and labeled a criminal by the Obama administration. The real crime in this case is revealing that your government is wrongfully spying in multiple ways on almost all Americans, regardless of whether they have committed a crime or not. Kirsten Powers is right in arguing that the “real problem is that Snowden didn’t understand that his role is to sit and be quiet while the ‘best and the brightest’ keep Americans in the dark about government snooping on private citizens.” In this scenario, the crimes of an authoritarian government appear to be off limits and beyond critique or accountability. In this Orwellian script, peace is truly war, and the acts of criminals are heroic.
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