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Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Politics of Cruelty

America’s Descent Into Madness

By Henry A. Giroux
Information Clearing House
Thursday, August 15, 2013

America is descending into madness.

The stories it now tells are filled with cruelty, deceit, lies,
and legitimate all manner of corruption and mayhem.

The mainstream media spins stories that are largely racist,
violent, and irresponsible, stories that celebrate power and
demonize victims, all the while camouflaging its pedagogical
influence under the cheap veneer of entertainment.

Unethical grammars of violence now offer the only currency with
any enduring value for mediating relationships, addressing
problems, and offering instant pleasure.

A predatory culture celebrates a narcissistic hyper-individualism
that radiates a near sociopathic lack of interest in or compassion
and responsibility for others.

Anti-public intellectuals dominate the screen and aural cultures
urging us to shop more, indulge more, and make a virtue out
of the pursuit of personal gain, all the while promoting a
depoliticizing culture of consumerism.

Undermining life-affirming social solidarities and any viable notion of the public good, right-wing politicians trade in forms of idiocy and
superstition that mesmerize the illiterate and render the thoughtful
cynical and disengaged.

Military forces armed with the latest weapons from Afghanistan
play out their hyper-militarized fantasies on the home front by
forming robo SWAT teams who willfully beat youthful protesters
and raid neighborhood poker games.

Congressional lobbyists for the big corporations and defense
contractors create conditions in which war zones abroad can
be recreated at home in order to provide endless consumer
products, such as high tech weapons and surveillance tools
for gated communities and for prisons alike.

The issue of who gets to define the future, own the nation’s
wealth, shape the reach of state resources, control of the
global flows of goods and humans, and invest in institutions
that educate an engaged and socially responsible citizens has
become largely invisible.

And yet these are precisely these issues that offer up new categories
for defining how matters of representations, education, economic
justice, and politics are to be defined and fought over.

The stories told by corporate liars and crooks do serious harm to the
body politic, and the damage they cause together with the idiocy they
reinforce are becoming more apparent as America descends into
authoritarianism, accompanied by the pervasive fear and paranoia
that sustains it.

The American public needs more than a show of outrage or endless

It needs to develop a formative culture for producing a language of
critique, possibility, and broad-based political change.

Such a project is indispensable for developing an organized politics
that speaks to a future that can provide sustainable jobs, decent
health care, quality education, and communities of solidarity and
support for young people.

At stake here is a politics and vision that informs ongoing
educational and political struggles to awaken the inhabitants of
neoliberal societies to their current reality and what it means to
be educated not only to think outside of a savage market driven
commonsense but also to struggle for those values, hopes,
modes of solidarity, power relations, and institutions that infuse
democracy with a spirit of egalitarianism and economic and social

For this reason, any collective struggle that matters has to
embrace education as the center of politics and the source of
an embryonic vision of the good life outside of the imperatives
of predatory capitalism.

As I have argued elsewhere, too many progressives are stuck in the
apocalyptic discourse of foreclosure and disaster and need to develop
what Stuart Hall calls a “sense of politics being educative, of politics
changing the way people see things.”

This is a difficult task, but what we are seeing in cities that stretch
from Chicago to Athens, and other dead zones of capitalism
throughout the world is the beginning of a long struggle for the
institutions, values, and infrastructures that make critical education
and community the core of a robust, radical democracy.

This is a challenge for young people and all those invested in
the promise of a democracy that extends not only the meaning
of politics, but also a commitment to economic justice and
democratic social change.

The stories we tell about ourselves as Americans no longer speak
to the ideals of justice, equality, liberty, and democracy.

There are no towering figures such as Martin Luther King Jr.,
whose stories interweave moral outrage with courage and vision
and inspired us to imagine a society that was never just enough.

Stories that once inflamed our imagination now degrade it,
overwhelming a populace with nonstop advertisements that
reduce our sense of agency to the imperatives of shopping.

But these are not the only narratives that diminish our capacity to
imagine a better world.

We are also inundated with stories of cruelty and fear that undermine
communal bonds and tarnish any viable visions of the future.

Different stories, ones that provided a sense of history, social
responsibility, and respect for the public good, were once circulated
by our parents, churches, synagogues, schools, and community leaders.

Today, the stories that define who we are as individuals and as a
nation are told by right-wing and liberal media that broadcast the
conquests of celebrities, billionaires, and ethically frozen politicians
who preach the mutually related virtues of the free market and a
permanent war economy.

These neoliberal stories are all the more powerful because they
seem to undermine the public’s desire for rigorous accountability,
critical interrogation, and openness as they generate employment
and revenue for by right wing think tanks and policy makers who
rush to fill the content needs of corporate media and educational

Concealing the conditions of their own making, these stories
enshrine both greed and indifference encouraging massive
disparities in wealth and income.

In addition, they also sanctify the workings of the market, forging
a new political theology that inscribes a sense of our collective
destiny to be governed ultimately and exclusively by market forces.

Such ideas surely signal a tribute to Ayn Rand’s dystopian society,
if not also a rebirth of Margaret Thatcher’s nonfiction version
that preached the neoliberal gospel of wealth: there is nothing
beyond individual gain and the values of the corporate order.

The stories that dominate the American landscape embody
what stands for commonsense among market and religious
fundamentalists in both mainstream political parties:

Shock-and-awe austerity measures; tax cuts that serve the rich
and powerful and destroy government programs that help the poor,
elderly, and sick; attacks on women’s reproductive rights; attempts
to suppress voter ID laws and rig electoral college votes; full-fledged
assaults on the environment; the militarization of everyday life;
the destruction of public education, if not critical thought itself; an
ongoing attack on unions, on social provisions, and on the expansion
of Medicaid and meaningful health care reform.

These stories are endless, repeated by the neoliberal and
neoconservative walking dead who roam the planet sucking
the blood and life out of everyone they touch, from the millions
killed in foreign wars, to the millions incarcerated in our nation’s

All of these stories embody what Ernst Bloch has called “the
swindle of fulfillment.”

That is, instead of fostering a democracy rooted in the public
interest, they encourage a political and economic system controlled
by the rich, but carefully packaged in consumerist and militarist

Instead of promoting a society that embraces a robust and inclusive
social contract, they legitimate a social order that shreds social
protections, privileges the wealthy and powerful and inflicts a
maddening and devastating set of injuries upon workers, women,
poor minorities, immigrants, and low and middle-class young people.

Instead of striving for economic and political stability, they inflict on
Americans marginalized by class and race uncertainty and precarity,
a world turned upside-down in which ignorance becomes a virtue
and power and wealth are utilized for ruthlessness and privilege
rather than a resource for the public good.

Every once in a while we catch a brutal glimpse of what America has become in the narratives spun by politicians whose arrogance and
quests for authority exceed their interest to conceal the narrow-
mindedness, power hungry blunders, cruelty, and hardship embedded
in the policies they advocate.

The echoes of a culture of cruelty can be heard in politicians such as
Senator Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma, who believes that
even assistance to those unemployed, homeless, and working poor
suffering the most in his home state should be cut in the name of
austerity measures.

We hear it in the words of Mike Reynolds, another politician from
Oklahoma who insists that government has no responsibility to
provide students with access to a college education through a state
program, “that provides post-secondary education scholarship to
qualified low-income students.”

We find evidence of a culture of cruelty in numerous policies that
make clear that those who occupy the bottom rungs of American
society, whether low-income families, poor minorities of color and
class, or young, unemployed, and failed consumers, are considered
disposable, utterly excluded in terms of ethical considerations and
the grammar of human suffering.

In the name of austerity, budget cuts are enacted that fall primarily
on those individuals and groups who are already disenfranchised, and
will thus seriously worsen the lives of those people now suffering the

For instance, Texas has enacted legislation that refuses to expand its
Medicaid program, which provides healthcare for low-income people.

As a result, healthcare coverage will be denied to over
1.5 low-income residents as a result of Governor Perry’s
refusal to be part of the Obama administration’s Medicaid

This is not merely partisan politics; it is an expression of a new form
of cruelty and barbarism now aimed at those considered disposable in
a neo-Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest society.

Not surprisingly, the right wing appeal to job killing and provision
slashing austerity, now functions as an updated form of medieval
torture, gutting myriad of programs that add up to massive human
suffering for the many, and benefits for only a predatory class of
neo-feudal bankers, hedge fund managers, and financiers that feed
off the lives of the disadvantaged.

The general response from progressives and liberals does not take
seriously the ways in which the extreme right-wing articulates its
increasingly pervasive and destructive view of American society.

For instance, the views of new extremists in Congress are often
treated, especially by liberals, as a cruel hoax that is out of touch
with reality or a foolhardy attempt to roll back the Obama agenda.

On the left, such views are often criticized as a domestic version
of the tactics employed by the Taliban, keeping people stupid,
oppressing women, living in a circle of certainty, and turning
all channels of education into a mass propaganda machine of
fundamentalist Americanism.

All of these positions touch on elements of a deeply authoritarian
agenda. But such commentaries do not go far enough.

Tea Party politics is about more than bad policy, policies that favor
the rich over the poor, or for that matter about modes of governance
and ideology that represent a blend of civic and moral turpitude.

The hidden order of neoliberal politics in this instance represents
the poison of neoliberalism and its ongoing attempt to destroy
those very institutions whose purpose is to enrich public memory,
prevent needless human suffering, protect the environment,
distribute social provisions, and safeguard the public good.

Within this rationality, markets are not merely freed from
progressive government regulation, they are removed from
any considerations of social costs.

And where government regulation does exits, it functions primarily
to bail out the rich and shore up collapsing financial institutions and
for what Noam Chomsky has termed America’s only political party,
“the business party.”

The stories that attempt to cover over America’s embrace
of historical and social amnesia at the same time justify
authoritarianism with a soft edge and weakens democracy
through a thousand cuts to the body politic.

How else to explain the Obama administration’s willingness to
assassinate American citizens allegedly allied with terrorists,
secretly monitor the email messages and text messages of its
citizens, use the NDAA to arrest and detain indefinitely American
citizens without charge or trial, subject alleged spies to an
unjust military tribunal system, use drones as part of a global
assassination campaign to arbitrarily kill innocent people, and
then dismiss such acts as collateral damage.

As Jonathan Turley points out, “An authoritarian nation is defined
not just by the use of authoritarian powers, but by the ability to
use them. If a president can take away your freedom or your life on
his own authority, all rights become little more than a discretionary
grant subject to executive will.”

At the heart of neoliberal narratives are ideologies, modes of
governance, and policies that embrace a pathological individualism,
a distorted notion of freedom, and a willingness both to employ
state violence to suppress dissent and abandon those suffering
from a collection of social problems ranging from dire poverty
and joblessness to homelessness.

In the end, these are stories about disposability in which growing
numbers of groups are considered dispensable and a drain on the
body politic, the economy, and the sensibilities of the rich and

Rather than work for a more dignified life, most Americans now work simply to survive in a survival-of-the-fittest society in which getting
ahead and accumulating capital, especially for the ruling elite, is the
only game in town.

In the past, public values have been challenged and certain groups
have been targeted as superfluous or redundant.

But what is new about the politics of disposability that has become a
central feature of contemporary American politics is the way in which
such anti democratic practices have become normalized in the
existing neoliberal order.

A politics of inequality and ruthless power disparities is now matched
by a culture of cruelty soaked in blood, humiliation, and misery.

Private injuries not only are separated from public considerations
such narratives, but narratives of poverty and exclusion have become
objects of scorn.

Similarly, all noncommercial public spheres where such stories might
get heard are viewed with contempt, a perfect supplement to the
chilling indifference to the plight of the disadvantaged and

Any viable struggle against the authoritarian forces that dominate
the United States must make visible the indignity and injustice of
these narratives and the historical, political, economic, and cultural
conditions that produce them.

This suggests a critical analysis of how various educational forces
in American society are distracting and mis-educating the public.

Dominant political and cultural responses to current events, such as
the ongoing economic crisis, income inequality, health care reform,
Hurricane Sandy, the war on terror, the Boston Marathon bombing,
and the crisis of public schools in Chicago, Philadelphia, and other
cities, represent flashpoints that reveal a growing disregard for
people’s democratic rights, public accountability, and civic values.

As politics is disconnected from its ethical and material moorings, it
becomes easier to punish and imprison young people than to educate them.

From the inflated rhetoric of the political right to market-driven
media peddling spectacles of violence, the influence of these
criminogenc and death-saturated forces in everyday life is
undermining our collective security by justifying cutbacks to social
supports and restricting opportunities for democratic resistance.

Saturating mainstream discourses with anti-public narratives,
the neoliberal machinery of social death effectively weakens
public supports and prevents the emergence of much needed,
new ways of thinking and speaking about politics in the twenty-
first century.

But even more than neutralizing collective opposition to the growing
control and wealth of predatory financial elites, which now wield
power across all spheres of U.S. society, responses to social issues
are increasingly dominated by a malignant characterization of
marginalized groups as disposable populations.

All the while zones of abandonment accelerate the technologies
and mechanisms of disposability.

One consequence is the spread of a culture of cruelty in which human
suffering is not only tolerated, but viewed as part of the natural
order of things.

Before this dangerously authoritarian mindset has a chance to take
hold of our collective imagination and animate our social institutions,
it is crucial that all Americans think critically and ethically about the
coercive forces shaping U.S. culture, and focus our energy on what
can be done to change them.

It will not be enough only to expose the falseness of the stories
we are told.

We also need to create alternative narratives about what the
promise of democracy might be for our children and ourselves.

This demands a break from established political parties, the
creation of alternative public spheres in which to produce
democratic narratives and visions, and a notion of politics
that is educative, one that takes seriously how people interpret
and mediate the world, how they see themselves in relation to
others, and what it might mean to imagine otherwise in order
to act otherwise.

Why are millions not protesting in the streets over these barbaric
policies that deprive them of life, liberty, justice, equality, and

What are the pedagogical technologies and practices at work that
create the conditions for people to act against their own sense of
dignity, agency, and collective possibilities?

Progressives and others need to make education central to any
viable sense of politics so as to make matters of remembrance
and consciousness central elements of what it means to be critical
and engaged citizens.

There is also a need for social movements that invoke stories as
a form of public memory, stories that have the potential to move
people to invest in their own sense of individual and collective
agency, stories that make knowledge meaningful in order to make
it critical and transformative.

If democracy is to once again inspire a populist politics, it is crucial
to develop a number of social movements in which the stories told
are never completed, but are always open to self and social
reflection, capable of pushing ever further the boundaries of our
collective imagination and struggles against injustice wherever they
might be.

Only then will the stories that now cripple our imaginations, politics,
and democracy be challenged and hopefully overcome.

Mr. Henry A. Giroux currently holds the Global TV Network Chair
Professorship at McMaster University in the English and Cultural
Studies Department and he is a Distinguished Visiting Professorship
at Ryerson University.

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