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The New Authoritarianism in the United States


www.dissidentvoice.org
January 3, 2006

Recent revelations in the New York Times about the Bush administration’s decision to allow the National Security Agency to spy on Americans without first obtaining warrants, the Washington Post disclosure of the chain of secret CIA torture prisons around the world, and the ongoing stories about widespread abuse and torture in Iraq and Afghanistan are just some of the elements in the popular press that point to a growing authoritarianism in American life. The government, as many notable and courageous critics ranging from Seymour M. Hersh to Gore Vidal and Robert Kennedy Jr. have pointed out, is now in the hands of extremists who have shredded civil liberties, lied to the American public to legitimate sending young American troops to Iraq, alienated most of the international community with a blatant exercise of arrogant power, tarnished the highest offices of government with unsavory corporate alliances, used political power to unabashedly pursue legislative polices that favor the rich and punish the poor, and disabled those public spheres not governed by the logic of the market. Closer to home, a silent war is being waged against poor young people and people of color who are either being warehoused in substandard schools or incarcerated at alarming rates. Academic freedom is increasingly under attack, homophobia has become the poster-ideology of the Republican Party, war and warriors have become the most endearing models of national greatness, and a full-fledged assault on women’s reproductive rights is being championed by Bush’s evangelical supporters -- most evident in Bush’s recent Supreme Court appointment and nominee. While people of color, the poor, youth, the middle class, the elderly, gays, and women are being attacked, the current administration is supporting a campaign to collapse the boundaries between the church and state and even liberal critics such as Frank Rich believe that the U.S. is on the verge of becoming a fundamentalist theocracy. [1]

 

A number of powerful anti-democratic tendencies now threaten American democracy. The first is a market fundamentalism that not only trivializes democratic values and public concerns, but also enshrines a rabid individualism, an all-embracing quest for profits, and a Social Darwinism in which misfortune is seen as a weakness and the Hobbesian rule of a “war of all against all” replaces any vestige of shared responsibilities or compassion for others. Within neoliberal ideology, the market becomes the template for organizing the rest of society. Everybody is now a customer or client, and every relationship is ultimately judged in bottom-line, cost-effective terms. Freedom is no longer about equality, social justice, or the public welfare, but about the trade in goods, financial capital, and commodities. The logic of capital trumps democratic sovereignty, low intensity warfare at home chips away at democratic freedoms and high intensity warfare abroad delivers democracy with bombs, tanks, and chemical warfare. The cost abroad is massive human suffering and death, and at home, as Paul Krugman points out, “The hijacking of public policy by private interests” parallels “the downward spiral in governance.” [2] With the rise of market fundamentalism, economics is accorded more respect than politics; the citizen has been reduced to a consumer -- the buying and selling of goods is all that seems to matter. Even children are now targeted as a constituency from which to make money, reduced to commodities, sexualized in endless advertisements, and shamelessly treated as a market for huge profits. Market fundamentalism not only makes time a burden for those without health insurance, child care, a decent job, and adequate social services, it also commercializes and privatizes public spaces, undermining not only the idea of citizenship but also those very spaces (schools, media, etc.) needed to make it a vigorous and engaged force for a substantive democracy. Under such circumstances, hope is foreclosed, and it becomes difficult either to imagine a life beyond capitalism or to believe in a politics that takes democracy seriously.

 

The second fundamentalism can be seen in a religious fervor embraced by Bush and his cohorts that not only serves up Creationism instead of science, but substitutes blind faith for critical reason and intolerance for a concern and openness to others. [3] This is a deeply disturbing trend in which the line between the state and religion is being erased, as radical Christian evangelicals embrace and impose a moralism on Americans that is largely bigoted, patriarchal, uncritical, and insensitive to real social problems such as poverty, racism, the crisis in healthcare, and the increasing impoverishment of America’s children. Instead of addressing these problems, a flock of dangerous evangelicals who have enormous political clout are waging a campaign to ban same-sex marriages, privatize social security, eliminate embryonic stem cell research, and overturn Roe v. Wade and other abortion rights cases. Rampant anti-intellectualism coupled with Taliban-like moralism now boldly translates into everyday cultural practices and political policies as right-wing evangelicals live out their messianic view of the world. For instance, more and more conservative pharmacists are refusing to fill prescriptions for religious reasons. Mixing medicine, politics, and religion means that some women are being denied birth control pills or any other product designed to prevent conception; sex education is limited to abstinence only programs inspired by faith-based institutions; and scientific research challenging these approaches disappears from government websites. Bush’s much exalted religious fundamentalism does more than promote a disdain for critical thought and reinforce retrograde forms of homophobia and patriarchy, it also inspires a wave of criticism and censorship against all but the most sanitized facets of popular culture, including children’s cartoon shows that either allegedly portray lesbian families positively or offer up homoerotic representations attributed to the animated cartoon character Spongebob SquarePants. [4] One conservative Texas lawmaker jumped onto the moralism bandwagon by introducing a bill that would put an end to “sexually suggestive” performances by cheerleaders at sports events and other extracurricular competitions.

 

The third anti-democratic dogma is visible in the relentless attempt on the part of the Bush administration to destroy critical education as a foundation for an engaged citizenry and a vibrant democracy. The attack on all levels of education is evident not only in the attempts to corporatize education, standardize curricula, privatize public schooling, and use the language of business as a model for governance, but also in the ongoing effort to weaken the power of faculty, turn full time jobs into contractual labor, hand over those larger educational forces in the culture to a small group of corporate interests. Public schooling is increasingly reduced to training and modeled after prisons -- with its emphasis on criminalizing student behavior and its prioritizing of security over critical learning. Educators are now viewed largely as deskilled technicians, depoliticized professionals, paramilitary forces, hawkers for corporate goods, or grant writers.

 

At the same time as democracy is removed from the purpose and meaning of schooling, the dominant media engage in a form of public pedagogy that appears to legitimate dominant power rather than holding it accountable to the highest ethical and political standards. Under the sway of a market fundamentalism, the dominant media have deteriorated into a combination of commercialism, propaganda, and entertainment. [5] In such circumstances, the media neither operate in the interests of the public good nor provide the pedagogical conditions necessary for producing critical citizens or defending a vibrant democracy. Instead, as Robert McChesney and John Nichols point out, concentrated media depoliticize the culture of politics, commercially carpet bomb citizens, and denigrate public life. [6] Rather than perform an essential public service, they have become the primary pedagogical tool for promoting a culture of consent and conformity in which citizens are misinformed and public discourse is debased. Giant media conglomerates such as Clear Channel Communications and Fox News have largely become advertising appendages for dominant political and corporate interests. Such media restrict the range of views to which people have access and, in doing so, does a disservice to democracy by stripping it of the possibility for debate, critical exchange, and civic engagement.

 

As the critical power of education within various public spheres is reduced to the official discourse of compliance, conformity, and reverence, it becomes more difficult for the American public to engage in critical debates, translate private considerations into public concerns, and recognize the distortions and lies that underlie much of current government policies. How else to explain how Bush was reelected in 2004 in the face of flagrant lies about why the US invaded Iraq, the passing of tax reform policies that reward the ultra-rich at the expense of the middle and lower classes, and the pushing of a foreign policy platform that is largely equated with bullying by the rest of the world? What is one to make of Bush’s winning popular support for his reelection in light of his record of letting millions of young people slide into poverty and hopelessness, his continued “assault on regulations designed to protect public health and the environment,” and his promulgation of a culture of fear that is gutting the most cherished of American civil liberties?” [7]

 

Finally, a fourth anti-democratic dogma that is shaping American life, and one of the most disturbing, is the ongoing militarization of public life. Americans are not only obsessed with military power, “it has become central to our national identity.” [8] How else to explain the fact that the United States has “725 official military bases outside the country and 969 at home.” Or that it “spends more on ‘defense’ than all the rest of the world put together.... this country is obsessed with war: rumors of war, images of war, ‘preemptive’ war, ‘preventive’ war, ‘surgical’ war, ‘prophylactic’ war, ‘permanent’ war. [9] As President Bush explained at a news conference on April 13, 2004 and repeats again and again in different public venues as 2006 unfolds, ‘This country must go on the offense and stay on the offense.” [10] But as Cornel West also points out, such aggressive militarism is fashioned out of an ideology that not only supports a foreign policy based on “the cowboy mythology of the American frontier fantasy,” but also affects domestic policy because it expands “police power, augments the prison-industrial complex, and legitimates unchecked male power (and violence) at home and in the workplace. It views crime as a monstrous enemy to crush (targeting poor people) rather than as an ugly behavior to change (by addressing the conditions that often encourage such behavior).” [11]

 

The influence of militaristic values, social relations, and ideology now permeates and defines American culture. For example, major universities aggressively court the military establishment for Defense Department grants and, in doing so, become less open to either academic subjects or programs that encourage rigorous debate, dialogue, and critical thinking. In fact, as higher education is pressured by both the Bush administration and its jingoistic supporters to serve the needs of the military-industrial complex, universities increasingly deepen their connections to the national security state in ways that are boldly celebrated. For example, Penn State University, the University of Pennsylvania, Carnegie-Mellon University, and a number of other universities have recently created the National Security Higher Education Advisory Board charged with creating a link between major research universities and the FBI. The president of Penn State, Graham Spanier, has been appointed head of the board and claims, in a statement pregnant with irony, that the purpose of the board is “to foster outreach and to promote understanding between higher education and the nation’s national security, law enforcement and intelligence agencies.... It will also assist in the development of research, degree programs, course work, internships, opportunities for graduates and consulting opportunities for faculty related to national security.” [12] This reads like a page out of George Orwell’s novel, 1984 and appears to counter every decent and democratic value that defines higher education as a democratic public sphere. Maybe Spanier can bring the power of his office and the resources of the university to bear in providing advice to the FBI in light of how to handle recent revelations concerning behavior reminiscent of its COINTELPRO days when it harassed and spied on left-wing critics and dissenters. After all, the university is emerging as a central pillar of the national security state. Unfortunately, public schools are faring no better. Public schools not only have more military recruiters; they also have more military personnel teaching in the classrooms. In addition, schools now adopt the logic of “tough love” by implementing zero tolerance policies that effectively model urban public schools after prisons, just as students’ rights increasingly diminish under the onslaught of a military-style discipline. Students in many schools, especially those in poor urban areas, are routinely searched, frisked, subjected to involuntary drug tests, maced, and carted off to jail. The not-so-hidden curriculum here is that kids can’t be trusted; their actions need to be regulated preemptively; and their rights are not worth protecting. But children and schools are not the only victims of a growing militarization of American society. The civil rights of people of color and immigrants, especially Arabs and Muslims, are being violated, often resulting in either imprisonment, or deportment, or government harassment. Similarly, black and brown youth and adults are being incarcerated at record levels as prison construction outstrips the construction of schools, hospitals, and other life-preserving institutions.

 

As Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri point out in Multitude, war has become the organizing principle of society and the foundation for politics and other social relations. [13] Militarism has become the most powerful form of public pedagogy, a mode of biopolitics shaping all aspects of social life, and one of its consequences is a growing authoritarianism that encourages profit-hungry monopolies, the ideology of faith-based certainty, and the undermining of any vestige of critical education, dissent, and dialogue. Education in this case is either severely narrowed and trivialized in the media or is converted into training and character reform in the schools. Within higher education, democracy appears as an excess, if not a pathology, as right-wing ideologues and corporate wannabe administrators increasingly police what faculty say, teach, and do in their courses. And it is going to get worse.

 

Given that the Bush administration governs by “dividing the country along [the] fault lines of fear, intolerance, ignorance and religious rule,” [14] the future does not look bright for democracy. Critical race theorist David Theo Goldberg got it right in arguing that the message of Bush’s re-election was:

 

[D]on’t get ill, lose your job, or retire; don’t breathe, swim in the ocean, travel, or think critical thoughts; invest your life-savings in the stock market even though you will likely lose it all; go to community college for two years of technical training rather than to four-year universities where your mind will be turned to liberal mush; support tax cuts for the wealthy, and military service for the poor. If you step out of line, remember the Patriot Act is there to police you at home and a loaded B52 bomber hovers overhead abroad. [15]

 

Abstracted from the ideal of public commitment, the new authoritarianism represents a political and economic practice and form of militarism that loosens the connection among substantive democracy, critical agency, and critical education.  In opposition to the rising tide of authoritarianism, educators must make a case for linking learning to social change, pluralizing and critically engaging the diverse sites where public pedagogy takes place, and must make clear that every sphere of social life is open to political contestation and comprises a crucial site of political, social, and cultural struggle in the attempt to forge the knowledge, identifications, affective investments, and social relations which constitute a political subject and social agent capable of energizing and spreading the basis of a global radical democracy. Educators need to develop a new discourse whose aim is to foster a democratic politics and pedagogy that embody the legacy and principles of social justice, equality, freedom, and rights associated with the democratic concerns of history, space, plurality, power, discourse, identities, morality, and the future.

 

Under such circumstances, pedagogy must be embraced as a moral and political practice, one that is both directive and the outgrowth of struggles designed to resist the increasing depoliticization of political culture that is the hallmark of the current Bush revolution. Education is the terrain where consciousness is shaped; needs are constructed; and the capacity for self-reflection and social change is nurtured and produced. Education has assumed an unparalleled significance in shaping the language, values, and ideologies which legitimate the structures and organizations that support the imperatives of global capitalism. Rather than being simply a technique or methodology, education has become a crucial site for the production and struggle over those pedagogical and political conditions that offer up the possibilities for people to believe it is possible to develop forms of agency that enable them individually and collectively to intervene into the processes through which the material relations of power shape the meaning and practices of their everyday lives. Within the current historical context, struggles over power take on a symbolic and discursive as well as a material and institutional form. The struggle over education is about more than the struggle over meaning and identity; it is also about how meaning, knowledge, and values are produced, legitimated, and operate within economic and structural relations of power. Education is not at odds with politics; it is an important and crucial element in any definition of the notion of the political and offers not only the theoretical tools for a systemic critique of authoritarianism, but also a language of possibility for creating actual movements for democratic social change and a new biopolitics. At stake here is combining an interest in symbolic forms and processes conducive to democratization with broader social contexts and the institutional formations of power itself. The key point here is to understand and engage educational and pedagogical practices from the point of view of how they are bound up with larger relations of power. Educators, students, and parents need to be clearer about how power works through and in texts, representations, and discourses while at the same time recognizing that power cannot be limited to the study of representations and discourses. Changing consciousness is not the same as altering the institutional basis of oppression, but at the same time institutional reform cannot take place without a change in consciousness capable of recognizing the very need for such reform or the need to reinvent the conditions and practices that make it possible. In addition, it is crucial to raise questions about the relationship between pedagogy and civic culture, on the one hand, and what it takes for individuals and social groups to believe that they have any responsibility whatsoever to even address the realities of class, race, gender, and other specific forms of domination, on the other. For too long, the Left has ignored that the issue of politics as a strategy is inextricably connected to the issue of political education, and what it means to acknowledge that education is always tangled up with power, ideologies, values, and the acquisition of both particular forms of agency and specific visions of the future.

 

Fortunately, power is never completely on the side of domination, religious fanaticism, or political corruption. Nor is it entirely in the hands of those who view democracy as an excess or burden. Increasingly, more and more individuals and groups at home and around the globe including students, workers, feminists, educators, writers, environmentalists, senior citizens, artists, and a host of other individuals and movements are organizing to challenge the dangerous slide on the part of the United States into the dredges of an authoritarianism that threatens not just the promise but the very idea of democracy in the 21st Century.  

 

Henry A. Giroux currently holds the Global TV Network Chair Professorship at McMaster University in Canada. He has published numerous books and articles and his most recent books include: Take Back Higher Education (co-authored with Susan Giroux) (Palgrave-2005); The Terror of Neoliberalism (Paradigm-2004); Against the New Authoritarianism (Arbeiter Ring-2005); America on the Edge (Palgrave-2006); and Beyond the Spectacle of Terrorism (Paradigm-2006). His primary research areas are: cultural studies, youth studies, critical pedagogy, popular culture, media studies, social theory, and the politics of higher and public education. He can be reached at: henry.giroux@gmail.com. Visit his website at: www.henryagiroux.com. Many of the ideas discussed in this essay are developed more extensively in Against the New Authoritarianism.

Other Articles by Henry A. Giroux* Religious Fundamentalism and the Growing Threat to Democracy
* Double Speak and the Politics of Dissent
* Neoliberalism and the Demise of Democracy: Resurrecting Hope in Dark Times
* George Bush’s Religious Crusade Against Democracy
* Higher Education is More Than a Corporate Logo
* Authoritarianism’s Footprint and the War Against Youth

*
Why Aren’t Children Included in the Debates About the Impending U.S. War with Iraq?Interviews with Henry A. Giroux

* Rebel Without a Pause: An Interview with Henry Giroux
* Interview: Reflections on the Crisis in Education and Democracy in the US

ENDNOTES

 

1. Frank Rich, “I Saw Jackie Mason Kissing Santa Claus,” New York Times, December 25, 2005, Late Edition, p.8. 

2. Paul Krugman, “Looting the Future,” New York Times, December 5, 2003, A27.

3. What now seems a typical occurrence is the take over of school boards by right-wing Christian fundamentalists who then impose the teaching of creationism on the schools. See, for example, Associated Press, “Wisconsin School OKs Creationism Teaching,” Common Dreams News Center, November 6, 2004.

4. Frank Rich, “The Year of Living Indecently,” New York Times, February 6, 2005, AR1. 

5. On the relationship between democracy and the media, see Robert W. McChesney, Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times (New York: The New Press, 1999). 

6. Robert McChesney and John Nichols, Our Media, Not Theirs: The Democratic Struggle Against Corporate Media (New York: Seven Stories, 2002), 52-53. 

7. Paul O’Neill, former Treasury Secretary who served in the Bush administration for two years, claimed on the television program, 60 Minutes, that Bush and his advisors started talking about invading Iraq only ten days after the inauguration, eight months before the tragic events of September 11th. See CBS News, “Bush Sought Way to Invade Iraq” (transcript, 60 Minutes, January 11, 2004). For a chronicle of lies coming out of the Bush administration, see David Corn, The Lies of George Bush (New York: Crown, 2003). On the environment, see Seth Borenstein, “Environment Worsened Under Bush in Many Key Areas, Data Show,” Common Dreams News Center, October 13, 2004.  

8. Andrew J. Bacevich, The New American Militarism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), p.1. 

9. Tony Judt, “The New World Order,” The New York Review of Books (LII:12 (July 14, 2005), p.16.

10. Tony Judt, “The New World Order,” The New York Review of Books (LII:12 (July 14, 2005), p.16.

11. Ibid., 6. 

12. Penn State News Release, “Penn State’s Spanier to chair national security board.” (September 16, 2005). 

13. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, “Chapter 1: War,” Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, (New York, NY: The Penguin Press, 2004), pp. 12-13. 

14. Maureen Dowd, “The Red Zone,” New York Times, November 4, 2004, A27. 

15. David Theo Goldberg, “The Sovereign Smirk,” Open Democracy, November 3, 2004.