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Opinion | Q & A

Henry Giroux Puts a Lens on the Nightmare of Neoliberal Fascism

Alt-right demonstrators clash with counterdemonstrators at the entrance to Lee Park in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017. (Steve Helber / AP)

Is there a chance to defeat the forces of neoliberal fascism? Henry A. Giroux explains why we must understand the historical and contemporary context of fascism to understand what we are up against.

Mark Karlin: Why is it important to have an historical understanding of fascism to shed light on the age of Trump?

Henry A. Giroux: The conditions leading to fascism do not exist in some ethereal space outside of history. Nor are they fixed in a static moment in the past. As Hannah Arendt reminds us, the protean elements of fascism always run the risk of crystallizing into new forms. Historical memory is a prerequisite to the political and moral witnessing necessary to successfully counter growing fascism in the United States today. As Richard Evans, the renowned historian of modern Germany, observes, the Trump administration may not replicate all the features of Germany and Italy in the 1930s, but the legacy of fascism is important because it echoes a “warning from history” that cannot be dismissed. What historians such as Evans, Timothy Snyder and others have suggested is that it is crucial to examine history in order to understand what tyranny and authoritarianism look like and how we can use the past to fight against such forces. While the United States under Trump may not be an exact replica of Hitler’s Germany, the mobilizing ideas, policies, passions and ruthless social practices of fascism, wrapped in the flag and discourses of racial purity, ultra-nationalism and militarism, are at the center of power in the Trump administration. When selected elements of history are suppressed and historical consciousness and memory no longer provide insights into the workings of repression, exploitation and resistance, people are easily trapped in forms of historical and social amnesia that limit their sense of perspective, their understanding of how power works and the ways in which the elements of fascism sustain themselves in different practices. Fascism is not unvarying and expresses its most fundamental attacks on democracy in different arrangements, which is all the more reason for people to develop what Timothy Snyder calls “an active relationship to history” in order to prevent a normalizing relationship to authoritarian regimes such as the United States under Trump’s rule. Surely, a critical understanding of history would go a long way in enabling the American people to recognize the elements of a fascist discourse in much of Trump’s racist tweets, speeches and policies.

History unexpurgated provides us with a vital resource that helps inform the ethical ground for resistance, an antidote to Trump’s politics of disinformation, division, diversion and fragmentation. Moreover, history reminds us that in the face of emerging forms of authoritarianism, solidarity is essential. If there is one thing that the important lessons of history in the work of writers such as George Orwell have taught us, it is that we must refuse to be complicit in the mockery of truth. This is especially crucial in the current historical moment, given the way the Trump administration — along with far-right media giants, such as Infowars, Sinclair Broadcast Group, Fox News and Breitbart News Network — work to aggressively propagate a vast disimagination machine. With the death of historical memory comes the nightmare we had thought was no longer possible to witness again. The lessons of history are crucial because they can readily be put to use in identifying present-day abuses of power and corruption. History not only grounds us in the past by showing how democratic institutions rise and fall, it is also replete with memories and narratives of resistance that pose a dangerous threat for any fascist and authoritarian system. This is particularly true today, given the ideological features and legacies of fascism that are deeply woven into Trump’s rhetoric of retribution, intolerance and demonization; its mix of shlock pageantry, coercion, violence and impunity; and the constant stoking of ultra-nationalism and racial agitation. Memory as a form of historical consciousness is essential in repaying our burden to the dead and the current victims by holding accountable those who … retreat from any sense of moral responsibility in the face of their reprehensible actions, if not crimes. Given the danger of right-wing populism and the incendiary rise of fascism in our time, Hannah Arendt is useful in reminding us that thinking and judging must be connected to our actions. Moreover, such thinking must grasp the underlying causes of the economic and political crisis at hand while acting collectively to fight neoliberal fascism and its embrace of white supremacy, social and economic inequality, and its hatred of democracy. That is why historical memory as a register of critical thinking is so dangerous to Trump and his acolytes.

How are state violence and white nationalism related?

Under the Trump regime, state violence and white nationalism are two sides of the same register of white supremacy and domestic terrorism. Trump’s call to “Make America Great Again,” his slogan “America First” and his emphatic call for a “law and order” regime are shorthand for legitimating state violence against Black people, Muslims, undocumented immigrants, and those “others” who do not fit into his racist notion of ultra-nationalism and his attempts to resuscitate a white public sphere as emblematic of American white supremacy. Ta-Nehisi Coates is right in stating that, “Trump’s ideology is white supremacy.” The merging of state sanctioned racism and state violence is the ideological signpost that informs Trump’s notion of white Christian nationalism, which allows him to assemble a broad coalition of bigots, white supremacists, super-patriots, apocalyptic populists and militarists. Under Trump, identity politics has surfaced with a revenge as the Republican Party unabashedly embraces itself as the white people’s party. Under such circumstances, Trump’s supportive response to incidents of violence by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, should surprise no one, given the history of racism in the United States in general, and in the Republican Party (and Democratic Party as well) in particular. This is a racist legacy that extends from Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” and George W. Bush’s treatment of the Black victims of Hurricane Katrina, to Clinton’s welfare and “law and order” policies to current Republican efforts at expanding the carceral state and suppressing the voting rights of Black Americans.

Trump not only embraces white supremacy, he elevates it. How else to explain his administration’s announcement that it would no longer “investigate white nationalists, who have been responsible for a large share of violent hate crimes in the United States?” How else to explain his willingness to lift restrictions imposed by the Obama administration on local police departments’ acquisition of military surplus equipment, such as armed vehicles, bulletproof vests and grenade launchers? How do we explain the endless tsunami of racist tweets and comments that he produces relentlessly with gleeful relish? Clearly, such actions deliver on Trump’s Jacksonian approach to “law and order,” escalate racial tensions in cities that are often treated like combat zones, and reinforce a war culture and notions of militarism over community-building among police officers.

Such behaviors do more than reinforce Trump’s endorsement of white nationalism; they send a clear message of support for a system of violence, amounting to acts of domestic terrorism. Moreover, they indicate a resounding contempt for the rule of law, and an endorsement not just of racist ideology, but also of institutional racism and the primacy of the racially-based incarceration state. Trump’s “law-and-order” regime represents a form of domestic terrorism because it is a policy of state violence designed to intimidate, threaten, harm and instill fear in particular communities. His relentless rhetoric of bigotry, racism and demonization of selected groups not only plays to his white nationalist base, it also normalizes support for state violence and signals an official position regarding racialized assaults against immigrants, especially Latin Americans. In addition, Trump’s conduct emboldens right-wing extremists, giving them the green light to support profoundly intolerant legislation and ideologies, and in some cases, engage in acts of violence against those who oppose their racist views. Trump’s overt racism and militant views have also inspired a number of overt white supremacists and neo-Nazis to run for public office. Trump’s overt nod to right-wing extremists and neo-Nazis is evident in his deportation policies, his cruel “law and order” policies that separate children from their immigrant parents, his renewed call for racial profiling, his silence in the face of voter suppression in a number of states, and his endorsement of white nationalists and overt racists running for public office.

How have we devolved into a nation of civic illiteracy?

Donald Trump’s ascendancy in American politics has made visible a plague of deep-seated civic illiteracy, a corrupt political system and a contempt for reason that has been decades in the making. It also points to the withering of civic attachments, the undoing of civic culture, the decline of public life and the erosion of any sense of shared citizenship. As market mentalities and moralities tighten their grip on all aspects of society, democratic institutions and public spheres are being downsized, if not altogether disappearing. As these institutions vanish — from public schools and alternative media to health care centers — there is also a serious erosion of the discourse of community, justice, equality, public values and the common good. At the same time, reason and truth are not simply contested or the subject of informed arguments as they should be, but wrongly vilified — banished to Trump’s poisonous world of “fake news.” Under the Trump administration, language has been pillaged, truth and reason disparaged, and words and phrases emptied of any substance or turned into their opposite, all via the endless production of Trump’s Twitter storms and the ongoing clown spectacle of Fox News. This grim reality points to a failure in the power of the civic imagination, political will and open democracy. It is also part of a politics that strips the social of any democratic ideals and undermines any understanding of education as a public good. What we are witnessing is not simply a political project to consolidate power in the hands of the corporate and financial elite, but also a reworking of the very meaning of literacy and education as crucial to what it means to create an informed citizenry and democratic society. In an age when literacy and thinking become dangerous to the anti-democratic forces governing all the commanding economic and cultural institutions of the United States, truth is viewed as a liability, ignorance becomes a virtue, and informed judgments and critical thinking are demeaned and turned into rubble and ashes. Under the reign of this normalized architecture of alleged common sense, literacy is regarded with disdain, words are reduced to data and science is confused with pseudo-science. Traces of critical thought appear more and more at the margins of the culture as ignorance becomes the primary organizing principle of American society.

Under the 40-year reign of neoliberalism, civic culture has been commodified, shared citizenship eroded, self-interest and a survival-of-the-fittest ethos elevated to a national ideal. In addition, language has been militarized, handed over to advertisers, and a political and culturally embarrassing anti-intellectualism sanctioned by the White House. Couple this with a celebrity culture that produces an ecosystem of babble, shock and tawdry entertainment. Add on the cruel and clownish anti-public intellectuals such as Jordan Peterson who defend inequality and infantile forms of masculinity, and define ignorance and a warrior mentality as part of the natural order, all the while dethroning any viable sense of agency and the political.

The culture of manufactured illiteracy is also reproduced through a media apparatus that trades in illusions and the spectacle of violence. Under these circumstances, illiteracy becomes the norm and education becomes central to a version of neoliberal zombie politics that functions largely to remove democratic values, social relations and compassion from the ideology, policies and commanding institutions that now control American society. In the age of manufactured illiteracy, there is more at work than simply an absence of learning, ideas or knowledge. Nor can the reign of manufactured illiteracy be solely attributed to the rise of the new social media, a culture of immediacy and a society that thrives on instant gratification. On the contrary, manufactured illiteracy is a political and educational project central to a right-wing corporatist ideology and set of policies that work aggressively to depoliticize people and make them complicitous with the neoliberal and racist political and economic forces that impose misery and suffering upon their lives…. There is also the workings of a deeply malicious form of 21st century fascism and a culture of cruelty in which language is forced into the service of violence while waging a relentless attack on the ethical imagination and the notion of the common good. In the current historical moment, illiteracy and ignorance offer the pretense of a community in the form of a right-wing populism, which provides a gift to the cloud of fascism that has descended upon the United States.

How does capitalism suppress an educational system that nurtures a robust democracy?

Increasingly, neoliberal regimes across Europe and North America have waged a major assault on higher education and those faculty and students who view it as crucial to producing the modes of learning and formative cultures necessary in the struggle for a strong and healthy democracy. For instance, in the United States, higher education is being defunded, devalued and privatized while also restricting access to working- and lower-middle-class students. Those underprivileged students who do have access to some form of post-secondary education are too frequently burdened with financial debts. Increasingly, universities are being turned into accountability factories designed to mimic the values of casino capitalism. Disciplines and courses that are not organized around market principles are either being underfunded, cut or refigured to serve market values. Disciplines, such as Women’s Studies, Afro-American Studies, Labor Studies and Latino Studies have lost much of their funding, have been closed or marginalized, while at the same time, the humanities and liberal arts increasingly disappear or are marginalized. The attack on higher education has a long history. Since the 1980s, the democratic principles of the university have been under assault by right-wing billionaires such as the Koch brothers, a select financial elite and big corporations, “leading to a blurring of the lines between the university and the corporate world.” Increasingly, the object of higher education is the individual consumer rather than the public good.

Under such circumstances, power is concentrated in the hands of a managerial class that too often views education simply through the lens of a market-driven culture that harnesses matters of governance, teaching and learning to the instrumental needs of the economy. Evidence of the corporate takeover of higher education is manifest in the emergence of governing structures that mimic the culture of business and modes of leadership defined almost entirely in entrepreneurial terms. Not only are these structures hierarchical and disempowering for faculty and students, but they produce massive levels of inequality among different faculty, staff and students in regards to salaries, resources and choices. Everything about education that matters appears to be absorbed into the discourse of business, metrics and a reductionist notion of efficiency. Research is increasingly shaped, valued and rewarded to the degree that it reflects corporate interests and is defined in measurable terms. Academic rewards, promotions and access to power are now tied to getting grants or outside corporate funding. Numerical signifiers and commercial values shape policies and practices at almost all levels of university life. For instance, university services are increasingly outsourced, students are defined as entrepreneurs and the culture of education morphs into the culture of business. In this instance, the distinction between knowledge and information, ideas and data diminish under the economic imperative to value knowledge in instrumental terms and to devalue ideas that serve the common good.

In addition, faculty in public universities have lost much of their power and autonomy and have been relegated to the role of part-time laborers, defined largely by the same type of workplace logic that characterizes Walmart and other service industries. The latter is designed — as Noam Chomsky points out — “to reduce labor costs and to increase labor servility.” This casualization of faculty also functions to undercut academic freedom and free expression, as many part-time and adjunct faculty are rightly afraid to speak out and address important social issues in and out of their classrooms for fear of being fired. Judith Butler is right in stating that faculty have increasingly lost the “financial and institutional support” along with “the guarantee and the conditions upon which freedom — both academic freedom and freedom of political expression — relies.” Many adjunct faculty not only have few job protections in such a precarious environment, they are also reduced to wages that in some cases force them to seek welfare and food assistance. As the university succumbs to an audit culture, it increasingly weds itself to a market-driven notion of customer satisfaction, metrics and performance measures that represses a genuine critical education, not to mention any viable notion of dissent. As critical education is subordinated to the task of reproducing and benefiting the corporate order, education collapses into training and the role of faculty is instrumentalized and devoid of any democratic vision. The attack on higher education as a democratic public good and faculty as public and engaged intellectuals has a long history in the United States.

Under this market-driven notion of governance, faculty both lose their power and autonomy. Under the reign of neoliberalism, students are often saddled with high tuition rates and a future predicated on ongoing uncertainty, economic instability and ecological peril. In addition, as democratic visions are removed from higher education, they are replaced by an obsession with a narrow notion of job-readiness and a cost accounting instrumental rationality. This bespeaks to the rise of what theorists such as the late Stuart Hall called an “audit” or “corporate” culture, which serves to demoralize and depoliticize both faculty and students, often relieving them of any larger values other than those that reinforce their own self-interest and retreat from any sense of moral and social responsibility. More specifically, as higher education both denies and actively abandons its role as a democratic public sphere, it tends to provide an education in which the citizen is transformed into a consumer, laying the foundation for the development of self-seeking agents who inhabit orbits of privatization and are indifferent to the growth of despotic power around them. Under such circumstances, education collapses into training, and the only learning that is valued is reduced to that which is measurable.

One of the challenges facing the current generation of educators, students and others is the need to address the question of what is the role and mission of education in a time of tyranny. What should it attempt to accomplish in a society at a historical moment when society is slipping over into an abyss of fascism? Central to such a challenge is the question of what education should accomplish in a democracy. What will it take for higher education not to abandon its role as a democratic public sphere? What work do educators have to do to create the economic, political and ethical conditions necessary to endow young people and the general public with the capacities to think, question, doubt, imagine the unimaginable, and defend education as essential for inspiring and energizing the citizens necessary for the existence of a robust democracy? What kind of language is necessary for higher education to redefine its mission, one that enables faculty and students to work toward a different future than one that echoes the present, to confront the unspeakable, to recognize themselves as agents, not victims, and to muster up the courage to act in the service of a substantive and inclusive democracy? In a world in which there is an increasing abandonment of egalitarian and democratic values and impulses, what will it take to educate young people and the broader polity to challenge authority and hold power accountable?

What is the “culture of cruelty in Trump’s America” and why is it important to analyze?

The United States has a long history in which the culture of cruelty has both undermined and challenged its professed claims to the democratic principles of equality, freedom, compassion and justice. The hardening of the culture and the emergence of a social order driven by a collapse of ethics, an unchecked celebration of self-interest, and a Hobbesian war-of-all-against-all have been increasingly nurtured in the last 40 years under the rise of a neoliberal form of gangster capitalism, more aptly called neoliberal fascism. Yet, this history of cruelty is not unique to the Trump administration. The attack on the welfare state, a numbing social atomization, the rise of a survivalist ethic and a growing indifference to human suffering have long been supported by both major political parties. Before Trump’s election, [the US’s] culture of cruelty resided rhetorically on the margins of power, hidden under the false rhetoric of liberal and conservative politicians who benefited from exploiting the vulnerable in order to further advance the interests of the rich and their own power.

But such attacks have taken on a more aggressive and organizing role under the Trump presidency. This is evident as Trump devotes an inordinate amount of tyrannical energy to the notion that the market and state violence are the primary solution to all social problems and constitute the only legitimate pillars of governance. This descent into the practice of cruel power, cruelty and barbarism no longer hides in the shadows and is employed without apology in most of Trump’s activities since he was elected. Trump revels in the discourse of bullies. He calls his critics “losers,” insults world leaders with belittling language and tacitly supports the violent actions of white supremacists. He endorses state torture, has remilitarized the police, relishes representations of violence and in one instance, tweeted an edited video showing him body-slamming and punching a man with the CNN logo superimposed on his head during a wrestling match. He has executed policies that bear the weight of domestic terrorism, which partly include breaking up immigrant families and separating young children from their parents while expanding the racially charged reach of the carceral state under his call for “law and order.” He has called Latinos “animals,” Mexicans “rapists” and “drug dealers,” and a number of African nations “shithole countries,” all of which echoes the dangerous, racially charged rhetoric of the Nazis in the 1930s.

Trump’s embrace of the culture of cruelty also drives policies rooted in an ongoing process of dehumanization, rancor and a racially-inspired hatred — one that views with disdain basic human emotions, such as compassion, empathy and care for the other. How else to explain his $1.3 trillion tax cut for the ultra-rich and big corporations along with a massive increase in military spending? This dreadful and harmful legislation accompanies policies that produce unprecedented cuts in low-income housing, impose punitive work requirements for those on welfare, eliminate job training programs, slash food assistance programs for the poor, decrease quality health care for the poorest populations, cut nutrition programs for new mothers and their infants, and remove billions from desperately needed programs such as the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). All of these policies serve to redistribute wealth upward while an alarming 43 percent of American families cannot afford basic needs, such as housing, child care, food or even a cell phone, and millions of the most vulnerable Medicaid recipients risk losing their health care. Philip Alston, the United Nations monitor on poverty, in an interview with the Guardian, has warned that Trump is not only producing policies that reward the ultra-rich, he is also punishing the poor and most vulnerable as a result of “a systematic attack on America’s welfare program that is undermining the social safety net.” And states that by removing “any sense of government commitment, you quickly move into cruelty.”

It gets worse. A new level of hatred, exhibition of ferocity and state-sanctioned cruelty are on full display in Trump’s willingness to end the Dreamers program, risking the expulsion of over 700,000 immigrants brought to the country as children. Moreover, Trump has put in play executive orders that end temporary protected status for more than 425,000 immigrants, including 86,000 Hondurans and 200,000 people from El Salvador, many of whom have lived in the US for decades. There is a genocidal mentality at work here, amplified by a hatred that suggests a disgust for those who do not fit into Trump’s embrace of racial purity, white nationalism and a “cleansed” public space.

This culture of cruelty has a long history in the United States and has to be connected with the intensifying and accelerating practices of a neoliberal fascism, which is more than willing to exercise cruel power in the interest of accumulating capital and profits without any consideration of social costs to humanity or the planet itself. The culture of cruelty is not simply about character…. On the contrary, it has to be connected to structural and ideological forces in the service of a financial elite. Rather than simply produce moral outrage, the culture of cruelty should point to a convergence of power, politics and newly emerging structures of domination that are as unjust as they are cruel. Gangster capitalism is the root cause of such cruelty because of its concentration of power, ongoing destruction of democratic values and ongoing production of a machinery of terminal exclusion, disposability, social abandonment and social death.

Neoliberalism fascism, as a form of extreme capitalism, views democracy as the enemy, the market as the exclusive arbiter of freedom, and the ethical imagination as an object of disdain. It is a form of zombie politics that produces a ruling elite that represents a 21stcentury version of the walking dead. To paraphrase New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, these zombie politicians and power-brokers serve as a dystopian “reminder of not only our fears but [also] what we have become.” The coarsening of American culture and society has solidified into a state-sanctioned language in which the tyranny of authoritarian zombies has become domesticated, if not normalized. What we are now witnessing is the death of compassion, a repudiation of our obligations to the most vulnerable, the death of the social and a dishonorable discharge from the obligations of a democracy. Under neoliberalism’s form of gangster capitalism, the United States has lost its sense of decency and collapsed into a society of lawlessness and moral indifference. Trump is the endpoint of a country that has become a criminogenic society, one which, as Pankaj Mishra has written, promotes “a widely sanctioned ruthlessness … that does not make for an understanding of the tangled roots of human suffering.” The current culture of cruelty is both a symptom of the war on democracy and a mirror that reveals the collapse of the United States into the abyss of fascism.

In your new book, American Nightmare: Facing the Challenge of Fascism, you argue that there is a connection between neoliberalism and fascism. Can you speak to that connection?

Actually, I bring the two terms together in the phrase “neoliberal fascism,” which I define as both a project and a movement. Neoliberalism is an enabling force that weakens, if not destroys the commanding institutions of a democracy while undermining its most valuable principles. It is part of what Sheldon Wolin called a totalitarian imaginary that constitutes a revolutionary break from democracy. This is a form of fascism in which state rule is replaced by corporate sovereignty and a culture of fear, insecurity and precarity reinvigorates executive power and the rise of the punishing state. Consequently, neoliberalism as a form of gangster capitalism provides a fertile ground for the unleashing of the ideological architecture, poisonous values, and racist social relations sanctioned and produced under fascism. Neoliberalism and fascism conjoin and advance in a comfortable and mutually compatible project and movement that connects the worst excesses of capitalism with fascist ideals: the veneration of war and a hatred of reason and truth; a populist celebration of ultra-nationalism and racial purity; the suppression of freedom and dissent; a culture which promotes lies, spectacles of disparagement and a demonization of the other; a discourse of decline, brutal exploitation and ultimately, state violence in heterogeneous forms. All vestiges of the social are replaced by an idealization of individualism and all forms of responsibility are reduced to individual agents. Neoliberalism creates a failed democracy, and in doing so, opens up the fascists’ use of fear and terror to transform a state of exception into a state of emergency. As a project, it destroys all the commanding institutions of democracy and consolidates power in the hands of a financial elite. As a movement, it produces and legitimates massive economic inequality and suffering, privatizes public goods, dismantles essential government agencies and individualizes all social problems. In addition, it transforms the political state into the corporate state, and uses the tools of surveillance, militarization and “law and order” to discredit the critical press and media, and undermine civil liberties, while ridiculing and censoring critics. Moreover, what is quite distinctive about neoliberal fascism is its aggressive war on youth, especially Black youth, its war on women, and its despoiling of the planet.

In addition, corporate control of the cultural apparatuses provides the public with endless spectacles of violence, toxic and banal illusions, the celebration of market-driven values, and an empty obsession and worship of celebrity culture. With the collapse of the social state, the punishing neoliberal fascist state emerges in full force, criminalizing a range of behaviors that are in fact expressions of social problems such as homelessness and poverty. The model of the prison and the state-sanctioned embrace of violence and lawlessness are now unleashed with impunity on youth, people of color, undocumented immigrants and all those others considered disposable. Massive inequality horribly accentuated by neoliberal policies that destroy basic social services, needed infrastructures and essential public goods provide a fertile ground for advancing a sinister turn toward a collective anger and resentment open to a newly charged populism willing to embrace white supremacist ideology, state violence and authoritarian beliefs. Neoliberalism is the face of a new fascism. After decades of the neoliberal nightmare both in the United States and abroad, the mobilizing passions of fascism have been unleashed unlike anything we have seen since the 1930s and 1940s. Extreme capitalism has destroyed any vestige of a substantive democracy, produced massive economic suffering, tapped into a combination of fear and a cathartic cruelty, and emboldened a brutal lawlessness aimed at those considered “disposable.” It is time to repudiate the notion that capitalism and democracy are the same thing, renew faith in the promises of a democratic socialism, create new political formations around an alliance of diverse social movements and take seriously the need to make education central to politics itself. As Walter Benjamin reminds us, fascism is the product often of failed democracies, and under the reign of neoliberalism, we are in the midst of not simply a dysfunctional democracy, but in the grip of an extreme form of gangster capitalism wedded to unbridled forms of corporate power that produce massive inequalities in wealth and power, and aggressively wage war on everything crucial to a vibrant democratic society.

Mark Karlin is the editor of BuzzFlash at Truthout. He served as editor and publisher of BuzzFlash for 10 years before joining Truthout in 2010.

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