June 19, 2013
Beyond the Politics of the Big Lie
Posted on Jun 19, 2012
By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout
The late Tony Judt stated that he was less concerned about the slide of American democracy into something like authoritarianism than American society moving toward something he viewed as even more corrosive: “a loss of conviction, a loss of faith in the culture of democracy, a sense of skepticism and withdrawal” that diminishes the capacity of a democratic formative culture to resist and transform those antidemocratic ideologies that benefit only the mega corporations, the ultrawealthy and ideological fundamentalists.(32) Governance has turned into a legitimation for enriching the already wealthy elite, bankers, hedge fund managers, mega corporations and executive members of the financial service industries. Americans now live in a society in which only the thinnest conception of democracy frames what it means to be a citizen - one which equates the obligations of citizenship with consumerism and democratic rights with alleged consumer freedoms. Antidemocratic forms of power do not stand alone as a mode of force or the force of acting on others; they are also deeply aligned with cultural apparatuses of persuasion, extending their reach through social and digital media, sophisticated technologies, the rise of corporate intellectuals and a university system that now produces and sanctions intellectuals aligned with private interests—all of which, as Randy Martin points out, can be identified with a form of casino capitalism that is about “permanent vigilance, activity and intervention.”(33)
Indeed, many institutions that provide formal education in the United States have become co-conspirators with a savage casino capitalism, whose strength lies in producing, circulating and legitimating market values that promote the narrow world of commodity worship, celebrity culture, bare-knuckle competition, a retreat from social responsibility and a war-of-all-against-all mentality that destroys any viable notion of community, the common good and the interrelated notions of political, social and economic rights. University presidents now make huge salaries sitting on corporate boards, while faculty sell their knowledge to the highest corporate bidder and, in doing so, turn universities into legitimation centers for casino capitalism.(34) Of course, such academics also move from the boardrooms of major corporations to talk shows and op-ed pages of major newspapers, offering commentary in journals and other modes of print and screen culture. They are the new traveling intellectuals of casino capitalism, doing everything they can to make the ruthless workings of power invisible, to shift the blame for society’s failures onto the very people who are its victims and to expand the institutions and culture of anti-intellectualism and distraction into every aspect of American life.
Across all levels, politics in the United States now suffers from an education deficit that enables a pedagogy of distraction to dictate with little accountability how crucial social problems and issues are named, discussed and acted upon. The conservative re-education machine appears shameless in its production of lies that include insane assertions such as: Obama’s health care legislation would create death panels; liberals are waging a war on Christmas; Obama is a socialist trying to nationalize industries; the founding fathers tried to end slavery; and Obama is a Muslim sympathizer and not a US citizen. Other misrepresentations and distortions include: the denial of global warming; the government cannot create jobs; cuts in wages and benefits create jobs; Obama has created massive deficits; Obama wants to raise the taxes of working- and middle-class people; Obama is constantly “apologizing” for America; and the assertion that Darwinian evolution is a myth.(35) Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney continues spinning this spider web of lies unapologetically, even when members of his own party point out the inconsistencies in his claims. For instance, he has claimed that, “Obamacare increases the deficit,”(36) argued that Obama has “increased the national debt more than all other presidents combined” and insisted that Obama has lied about “his record on gay rights.” He has falsely claimed that, “Obama promised unemployment below eight percent,”(37) dodged the truth regarding “his position on climate change” and blatantly misrepresented the truth in stating that, “he pays a 50% tax rate.”(38) Diane Ravitch has recently pointed out that in making a case for vouchers, Romney has made false claims about the success of the DC voucher program.(39)
The politics of distraction should not be reduced merely to a rhetorical ploy used by the wealthy and influential to promote their own interests and power. It is a form of market-driven politics in which educational force of the broader culture is used to create ideologies, policies, individuals and social agents who lack the knowledge, critical skills and discriminatory judgments to question the rule of casino capitalism and the values, social practices and power formations it legitimates. Politics and education have always mutually informed each other as pedagogical sites proliferate and circulate throughout the cultural landscape.(40) But today, distraction is the primary element being used to suppress democratically purposeful education by pushing critical thought to the margins of society. As a register of power, distraction becomes central to a pedagogical landscape inhabited by rich conservative foundations, an army of well-funded anti-public intellectuals from both major parties, a growing number of amply funded conservative campus organizations, increasing numbers of academics who hock their services to corporations and the military-industrial complex, and others who promote the ideology of casino capitalism and the corporate right’s agenda. Academics who make a claim to producing knowledge and truth in the public interest are increasingly being replaced by academics for hire who move effortlessly among industry, government and academia.
While a change in consciousness does not guarantee a change in either one’s politics or society, it is a crucial precondition for connecting what it means to think otherwise to conditions that make it possible to act otherwise. The education deficit must be seen as intertwined with a political deficit, serving to make many oppressed individuals complicit with oppressive ideologies. As the late Cornelius Castoriadis made clear, democracy requires “critical thinkers capable of putting existing institutions into question…. while simultaneously creating the conditions for individual and social autonomy.”(41) Nothing will change politically or economically until new and emerging social movements take seriously the need to develop a language of radical reform and create new public spheres that support the knowledge, skills and critical thought that are necessary features of a democratic formative culture.
Getting beyond the big lie as a precondition for critical thought, civic engagement and a more realized democracy will mean more than correcting distortions, misrepresentations and falsehoods produced by politicians, media talking heads and anti-public intellectuals. It will also require addressing how new sites of pedagogy have become central to any viable notion of agency, politics and democracy itself. This is not a matter of elevating cultural politics over material relations of power as much as it is a rethinking of how power deploys culture and how culture as a mode of education positions power.
James Baldwin, the legendary African-American writer and civil rights activist, argued that the big lie points to a crisis of American identity and politics and is symptomatic of “a backward society” that has descended into madness, “especially when one is forced to lie about one’s aspect of anybody’s history, [because you then] must lie about it all.”(42) He goes on to argue “that one of the paradoxes of education [is] that precisely at the point when you begin to develop a conscience, you must find yourself at war with your society. It is your responsibility to change society if you think of yourself as an educated person.”(43) What Baldwin recognizes is that learning has the possibility to trigger a critical engagement with oneself, others and the larger society—education becomes in this instance more than a method or tool for domination but a politics, a fulcrum for democratic social change. Tragically, in our current climate “learning” merely contributes to a vast reserve of manipulation and self-inflicted ignorance. Our education deficit is neither reducible to the failure of particular types of teaching nor the decent into madness by the spokespersons for the new authoritarianism. Rather, it is about how matters of knowledge, values and ideology can be struggled over as issues of power and politics. Surviving the current education deficit will depend on progressives using history, memory and knowledge not only to reconnect intellectuals to the everyday needs of ordinary people, but also to jumpstart social movements by making education central to organized politics and the quest for a radical democracy.
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