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The Violence of Organized Forgetting

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Posted on Jul 22, 2013
Grahambones (CC BY 2.0)

By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout

(Page 4)

Public values are not only under attack in the United States and elsewhere but appear to have become irrelevant just as those spaces that enable an experience of the common good are now the object of disdain by right-wing and liberal politicians, anti-public intellectuals and an army of media pundits. State violence operating under the guise of personal safety and security, while parading as a bulwark of democracy, actually does the opposite and cancels out democracy “as the incommensurable sharing of existence that makes the political possible.” Symptoms of ethical, political and economic impoverishment are all around us.

One recent example can be found in the farm bill passed by Republicans, which provides $195 billion in subsidies for agribusiness, while slashing roughly $4 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). SNAP provides food stamps for the poor.  Not only are millions of food stamp beneficiaries at risk, but it is estimated that benefits would be eliminated for nearly two millions Americans, many of them children. Katrina vanden Huevel writes in the Washington Post that it is hard to believe that any party would want to publicize such cruel practices. She writes:

In this time of mass unemployment, 47 million Americans rely on food stamps. Nearly one-half are children under 18; nearly 10 percent are impoverished seniors. The recipients are largely white, female and young. The Republican caucus has decided to drop them from the bill as “extraneous,” without having separate legislation to sustain them. Who would want to advertise these cruel values?

Neoliberal policies have produced proliferating zones of precarity and exclusion embracing more and more individuals and groups who lack jobs, need social assistance, lack health care or are homeless.  According to the apostles of casino capitalism, providing “nutritional aid to millions of pregnant mothers, infants and children . . . feeding poor children and giving them adequate health care” is a bad expenditure because it creates “a culture of dependency - and that culture of dependency, not runaway bankers, somehow caused our economic crisis.

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But there is more to the culture of cruelty than simply ethically challenged policies that benefit the rich and punish the poor, particularly children, there is also the emergence of a punishing state, a governing through crime youth complex, and the emergence of the school-to-prison pipeline as the new face of Jim Crow.

A symptomatic example of the way in which violence has saturated everyday life can be seen in the increased acceptance of criminalizing the behavior of young people in public schools. Behaviors that were normally handled by teachers, guidance counselors and school administrators are now dealt with by the police and the criminal justice system. The consequences have been disastrous for many young people. Increasingly, poor minority and white youth are being “funneled directly from schools into prison. Instead of schools being a pipeline to opportunity, schools are feeding our prisons.  Justified by the war on drugs, the United States is in the midst of a prison binge made obvious by the fact that “Since 1970, the number of people behind bars . . . has increased 600 percent.” Moreover, it is estimated that in some cities such as Washington, DC, that 75 percent of young black men can expect to serve time in prison. Michelle Alexander has pointed out that “One in three young African American men is currently under the control of the criminal justice system in prison, in jail, on probation, or on parole - yet mass incarceration tends to be categorized as a criminal justice issue as opposed to a racial justice or civil rights issue (or crisis).”

Young black men in American have an identity ascribed to them that is a direct legacy of slavery. They are considered dangerous, expendable, threatening and part of a culture of criminality. They are guilty of criminal behavior not because of the alleged crimes they might commit but because they are the product of a collective imagination paralyzed by the racism of a white supremacist culture they can only view them as a dangerous nightmare, But the real nightmare resides in a society that hides behind the mutually informing and poisonous notions of colorblindness and a post-racial society, a convenient rhetorical obfuscation that allows white Americans to ignore the institutional and individual racist ideologies, practices and policies that cripple any viable notion of justice and democracy. As the Trayvon Martin case and verdict made clear, young black men are not only being arrested and channeled into the criminal justice system in record numbers, they are also being targeted by the police, harassed by security forces, and in some instances killed because they are black and assumed to be dangerous.

Under such circumstances, not only do schools resemble the culture of prisons, but young children are being arrested and subjected to court appearances for behaviors that can only be termed as trivial. How else to explain the case of a diabetic student who, because she fell asleep in study hall, was arrested and beaten by the police or the arrest of a 7-year-old boy, who because of a fight he got into with another boy in the schoolyard, was put in handcuffs and held in custody for 10 hours in a Bronx police station.  In Texas, students who miss school are not sent to the principal’s office or assigned to detention. Instead, they are fined, and in too many cases, actually jailed.  It is hard to imagine, but in a Maryland school, a 13- year old girl was arrested for refusing to say the pledge of allegiance. There is more at work than stupidity and a flight from responsibility on the part of educators, parents and politicians who maintain these laws, there is also the growing sentiment that young people constitute a threat to adults and that the only way to deal with them is to subject them to mind-crushing punishment.

This medieval type of punishment inflicts pain on the psyche and the body of young people as part of a public spectacle. Even more disturbing is how the legacy of slavery informs this practice given that “Arrests and police interactions . . . disproportionately affect low-income schools with large African-American and Latino populations” Poor minorities live in a new age of Jim Crow, one in which the ravages of segregation, racism, poverty and dashed hopes are amplified by the forces of “privatization, financialization, militarization and criminalization,” fashioning a new architecture of punishment, massive human suffering and authoritarianism. Students being miseducated, criminalized and arrested through a form of penal pedagogy in prison-type schools provide a grim reminder of the degree to which the ethos of containment and punishment now creeps into spheres of everyday life that were largely immune in the past from this type of state violence. This is not merely barbarism parading as reform - it is also a blatant indicator of the degree to which sadism and the infatuation with violence have become normalized in a society that seems to take delight in dehumanizing itself.

Widespread violence now functions as part of an anti-immune system that turns the economy of genuine pleasure into a mode of sadism that creates the foundation for sapping democracy of any political substance and moral vitality. The predominance of the disimagination machine in American society, along with its machinery of social death and historical amnesia, seeps into in all aspects of life, suggesting that young people and others marginalized by class, race and ethnicity have been abandoned. But historical and public memory is not merely on the side of domination.

As the anthropologist, David Price, points out, historical memory is a potent weapon in fighting against the “desert of organized forgetting” and implies a rethinking of the role that artists, intellectuals, educators, youth and other concerned citizens can play in fostering a “reawakening of America’s battered public memories.”  Against the tyranny of forgetting, educators, young people, social activists, public intellectuals, workers and others can work to make visible and oppose the long legacy and current reality of state violence and the rise of the punishing state. Such a struggle suggests not only reclaiming, for instance, education as a public good but also reforming the criminal justice system and removing the police from schools. In addition, there is a need to employ public memory, critical theory, and other intellectual archives and resources to expose the crimes of those market-driven criminogenc regimes of power that now run the commanding institutions of society, with particular emphasis on how they have transformed the welfare state into a warfare state.

The rise of casino capitalism and the punishing state with their vast apparatuses of real and symbolic violence must be also addressed as part of a broader historical and political attack on public values, civic literacy and economic justice. Crucial here is the need to engage how such an attack is aided and abetted by the emergence of a poisonous neoliberal public pedagogy that depoliticizes as much as it entertains and corrupts.  State violence cannot be defined simply as a political issue but also as a pedagogical issue that wages violence against the minds, desires, bodies and identities of young people as part of the reconfiguration of the social state into the punishing state. At the heart of this transformation is the emergence of a new form of corporate sovereignty, a more intense form of state violence, a ruthless survival-of-the-fittest ethic used to legitimate the concentrated power of the rich, and a concerted effort to punish young people who are out of step with neoliberal ideology, values and modes of governance.


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