Henry Giroux is a phenomenon. He has written more than sixty books, authored hundreds of essays, won numerous awards, and been an outstanding teacher for nearly forty years. His influence on the field of critical pedagogy is without parallel, and he has made significant contributions to many other areas as well, including both cultural and media studies.
What distinguishes Giroux’s writing is a combination of lucid analysis and incisive and justifiably harsh criticism of the deterioration of the human condition under the onslaught of a savage modern-day capitalism. However, his examination of this savagery does not stop with a description of the vicious attacks on working people by corporations and their allies in government. Nor is it content to enumerate the economic, political, and social consequences of these assaults, such as the rise in poverty, stagnating wages, unconscionably high unemployment, deteriorating health, the astonishing increase in the prison population, and a general increase in material insecurity to name a few. Instead, he goes beyond these to interrogate the more subtle but no less devastating effects of neoliberal capitalism, and by implication capitalism itself, on our psyches and on our capacity to resist our growing immiseration.
In this book, he uses his consummate skills to examine what he terms “America’s addiction to terrorism.” As he makes clear in these essays, especially those on race (see chapters 5 and 6, “Racism, Violence, and Militarized Terror in the Age of Disposability” and “The Fire This Time: Black Youth and the Spectacle of Post-Racial Violence”), terrorism is as American as apple pie. This nation was founded upon terrorism, namely that of slavery, whose unspeakable degradations hardly ended with formal emancipation. Jim Crow, the Ku Klux Klan, thousands of lynchings, mass imprisonment, and an orgy of police torture and murder have tormented the lives of black men and women right up to the present day. Black men, women, and children became the nation’s torture template, and what has happened to them set the stage for that directed at workers who dared defy their employers and to the peoples of the world as the United States rained misery down on its many enemies, reaching its apogee but by no means its end with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (see the chapter titled “Hiroshima, Intellectuals, and the Crisis of Terrorism”). Giroux excoriates all of this terror, as well its contemporary raw, naked, and ever more diabolical forms: drone strikes, waterboarding, renditions, rape, presidential kill lists, and all of the horrors documented in the U.S. Senate’s recent Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program.
To the casual observer, the fact that the Senate report has generated very little public outcry, no prosecutions, and indeed brought forth an outpouring of angry justifications by the Bush administration officials who sanctioned the torture that the report detailed, seems unbelievable. However, as Giroux explains in his introduction, “The Neoliberal Reign of Terror,” the turn away from even a moderate social welfare state, represented by the neoliberalism begun in the mid-1970s after the end of the postwar era of rapid economic growth, has first gradually and then rapidly and radically changed the political and ideological landscapes.
In the wake of falling profits and the perception by businesses that labor was too strong, corporations launched an all-out attack on workers, marked most ominously by Ronald Reagan’s firing of air traffic controllers. Along with the assault on the working class, employers demanded and soon won an end to regulations on businesses, especially banks and other financial institutions, as well as the freeing of capital to move around the globe without political impediments. Soon manufacturing began a long decline, hollowing out hundreds of communities once dependent upon it, creating vast wastelands of empty streets, boarded-up houses, and destroyed local economies. The impact on racial minorities was especially devastating. The changes wrought by neoliberal capitalism weakened the strength of labor and raised significantly the degree of economic insecurity faced by those not already financially secure. This, in turn, greatly strengthened the power of those who controlled the economy’s commanding heights, which today are dominated by financial capital. The inevitable result has been an unprecedented flow of money to those at the very top of the distributions of income and wealth. We are witnessing a new Gilded Age, with unimaginably wealthy people able to buy whatever they want and do whatever they please, the rest of us be damned.
Given that wealth is power, and given that the newly minted billionaires desire nothing more than to increase both their wealth and power, the super-rich will try by whatever means possible to destroy any impediments to their desires. We see all around us the fruits of their efforts. Nearly all of life, every aspect of it from birth to death, has been commodified, and public services have been eliminated or made subservient to the profit motive.
When we say that the powerful will exercise their financial supremacy to secure still more wealth, we should be clear exactly what we mean. Austerity—by which, to put it bluntly, the rich take from the poor—requires the threat of, and under certain circumstances, the use of force. Giroux makes a telling point when he states in “Death-Dealing Politics in the Age of Extreme Violence” that neoliberalism is itself a form of terrorism. Here he focuses on what he calls our war on young people, who are among the primary casualties of neoliberalism:
The pernicious effects of neoliberal policies…amount to an act of domestic terrorism in light of the suffering such policies and practices impose on children in the United States. Rampant poverty, senseless levels of inequality, lack of adequate health services, racially and economically segregated schools, the rise of the prison state, a crippling minimum wage, police violence directed against poor minority youth, the return of debtors’ prisons, a generation of young people burdened by excessive debt, and the attack on public and higher education only scratch the surface of the effects of what might be called a culture of war aimed at children.
However, more needs to be said. The fact that the policies are terroristic requires also that their implementation has a veiled threat of violence to those who might oppose them. As Giroux makes transparent in this chapter and throughout the book, it has become clear that neoliberalism necessitates a cruel state, one that must punish or threaten to punish anyone who interferes with the smooth flow of commerce. And cruelty was given new life by the events of September 11, 2001, which the Bush administration used to speed up the transition from a weak democracy to a full-fledged police state.
Still, punishment is normally not enough to quell dissent, at least over the long haul. What was needed was a second arrow in neoliberalism’s quiver, namely an ideological blitzkrieg. As income and wealth began to flow relentlessly to the top, those with the most money exercised their phenomenal economic and political might to gain commanding control over the media, the schools, and governments at all levels, using this power to inundate us with a plethora of “commonsense” propositions. Giroux expounds on these propositions in nearly every chapter in the book. We were and are bombarded daily with neoliberal “wisdom” on Fox News and CNN, in the Wall Street Journal and most large-circulation newspapers, from both Republican and Democratic politicians, from various think tanks, in films and reality television shows, and now even in our schools. The message is that only private enterprise can solve our problems, and that public enterprises such as Social Security and Medicare are inherently inefficient and corrupt; success is marked solely by our income and wealth; happiness is a function of consuming; we reap what we sow and have only ourselves to blame for our failures; those who fail and are thus poor are therefore inferior people, and since blacks and Hispanics are overrepresented among the poor, they must be especially inferior; and poverty has much less to do with crime than with individual character, which explains why minorities occupy most of our prison cells.
On top of this mass ideological brainwashing has been added a layer of noxious nationalism, this especially promoted since September 11. America is the envy of the world, the greatest nation on earth, ever. Many people in the world are jealous of our freedoms, enough so to terrorize us. The world has become so dangerous that the government must engage in any methods, no matter how repugnant to the country’s core values (this is said with a straight face), to ensure our safety and the defeat of our enemies. Of course, rabid nationalism is nothing new to the United States, having been used to justify gross violations of human rights abroad and at home. It is, itself, a form of ideological brainwashing. And it has always played well, breaking down only with the Vietnam War and then after many years of wanton slaughter. However, the war on terror declared by Bush and his band of madmen has given the most virulent kind of jingoism a renewed vigor. Our enemies are everywhere, waiting to kill us. They are even among us, our fellow citizens. Anyone might be a terrorist, and any activity might be aiding the terrorists’ cause. Taking advantage of the legitimate horror felt by Americans at the callous acts of murder perpetrated by the plane hijackers on September 11, the federal government enacted a series of draconian laws, invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, made up Orwellian interpretations of laws, and killed many times more people than died in the Twin Towers. President Obama has continued these policies, and has added the new touch of an official kill list, even claiming the right to kill U.S. citizens.
The United States is now engaged in an endless war. If we can say anything about military conflict, it is that war breeds authoritarianism. Wars are inimical in all respects to democracy, and a country perpetually involved in them must perpetually subvert human rights both in foreign lands and at home. To keep the public on board, propaganda has to be incessantly intensified, with new enemy horrors, home-grown terrorist sympathizers, red alerts, rumors presented as truth, punishment of “subversives,” secret courts, psyops and covert operations. Efforts must be made at all times to get media support, whether by “embedding” journalists with the troops in the field, giving “scoops” to favored press lackeys, trumpeting pro-war movies, or by prosecuting journalists who get too close to the truth (see chapter 10, “Hollywood Heroism in the Age of Empire”). As veterans return from combat suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder, mayhem on the homefront rises as they begin killing their spouses, other soldiers, and themselves. Police departments recruit mentally unstable former soldiers, who then treat those they confront on the streets as enemy combatants, with predictable results.
Giroux pays special attention to the transformation of education, which has been a prime target of neoliberals. For him, education has a special role to play in stimulating critical thought, challenging the powerful, and bringing forth citizens worthy of democracy. In fact, Giroux sees education as a form of transformative and regenerative politics, without which society is doomed to ignorance and autocracy. No democracy can function without the people having a strong sense of public values, seeing themselves in others, and willing to suppress self-interest for the common good. It is critical education that embodies and disseminates this sense.
To Giroux’s horror, most of education’s potential to fulfill its democratic promise has been debased or destroyed (see chapter 9, “Barbarians at the Gates: Authoritarianism and the Assault on Public Education” and chapter 8, “Academic Terrorism and the Politics of Exile”). Here it is best to let him speak:
These are ominous times.… In a society controlled by financial monsters, the political order is no longer sustained by faith in critical thought and care for the other. As any vestige of critical education, analysis, and dissent are disparaged, the assault on reason gives way to a crisis in both agency and politics. The right-wing Republican Party, their Democratic Party counterparts, and their corporate supporters despise public schools as much as they disdain taxation…. Not only are both parties attempting to privatize much of public education in order to make schools vehicles for increasing the profits of investors, they are also destroying the critical foundations that sustain schools as democratic public spheres in which learning actually takes place.
Some teachers are revolting against this, but not nearly enough. With notable exceptions, the teachers’ unions have gone along with it, even offering strong support. In colleges and universities, tenured faculty have vacated their duty to “profess” critically, and instead have retreated into meaningless scholarship and offered their services to the highest bidders. There are almost no awful actions to which some scholars won’t give their imprimatur, including torture and mass murder, as in Iraq and Afghanistan. Professors have stood idly by while their workplaces have been turned into academic factories, relying on cheap adjunct labor and using managerial control techniques that would make Frederick Taylor proud. Few professors now are public intellectuals, with a felt duty to speak and write about important social issues and not afraid to walk an independent path. They have helped to create a climate of fear among academics, who are either afraid to lose any opportunity for a secure job or terrified that what happened to Steven Salaita and many other brave academics who dared to speak truth to power will happen to them.
The combination of a pitiless capitalism and the unremitting ideological bombardment telling us that what is happening is both inevitable and good for us has produced millions of warped personalities: afraid, full of worry, devoid of altruism, inward-looking, and uncritical, tending toward narcissism and callousness. In an inspired essay, Giroux presents the ubiquitous use of “selfies” as testament to the willingness of people to lay bare their images and explicit personal information on social media and thereby open themselves to further exploitation, in a way, torturing themselves (see chapter 2, “Terrorizing the Self: Selfie Culture in the Age of Corporate and State Surveillance”). Neoliberalism has spawned creatures in its own image and likeness, incapable of piercing the veil that masks reality and easily won to an extreme and violently vindictive politics. If this continues, soon we will be living the Orwellian nightmare and not even know it.
If Giroux ended his book with chapter 2, he would have authored a caustically brilliant jeremiad. Thankfully, he did not. All of the chapters contain a consistent refrain. We must resurrect and further develop critical education, making it an active component of all politics and every political agitation and movement. He sees great hope in youth, especially minority youth, who have begun to build a strong movement aimed not only at ending police oppression of black communities and young people but at constructing a radically new, democratic, and egalitarian society. What all of those who seek to participate in this new politics must do is infuse it with a democratic and radical spirit, one that, in Giroux’s astute phrase, “flips the script.” Using his own intellectual development as paradigmatic, he tells us that what turned his life around was seeing that the working-class character traits that the powerful viewed as weakness were actually his strengths. Working-class kids internalize behaviors that end up condemning them to lives of subservience to the very people they think they are rebelling against—aggressiveness, violence, racism and sexism, macho posturing, allowing hatred of school to become disdain for learning. What they need to do instead is to uncover, through both self- and more formal education, the values often intentionally hidden by schools, churches, even parents, another set of working-class values—solidarity, compassion, collective self-help, fearlessness, hatred of official authority. As they do this, they will discover the myriad struggles that have embodied these values, both those that succeeded and those that failed. Those who are educators have a special duty to aid in any way we can this process of discovery and to make it an integral part of every contemporary social upheaval, of every organization that seeks to transform anger into radical political change. Only if we do this will it be possible for people to, first, envision a new society, and second, to create one. In these essays, Henry Giroux helps show us the way.