War on critical thinking

Print edition : February 05, 2016
A compelling book on the crisis of modern American life in the context of normalisation of mass surveillance and remaining in a state of relentless war.

AMERICA is inhospitably Orwellian in its Big Brother arrogance. A world overridden with mainstream politics, it undervalues dissent and appraisal as well as the institutions that scaffold collective struggles indispensable for social equality. In such a milieu, we find the paucity of thinking beings where, as Henry Giroux, the Canadian intellectual, maintains, “historical, political, and moral forgetting are not only wilfully practised but celebrated” to promote “accommodation, quietism and passivity”. Prophetic and eloquent, Giroux gives us, in this hard-hitting and compelling book, the dark scenario of Western crisis where ignorance has become a virtue and wealth and power the means of ruthless abuse of workers, of the minorities and of immigrants. However, he remains optimistic in his affirmation of radical humanity, determined as he is to relate himself to a fair and caring world unblemished by anti-democratic political depravity. It might be argued that the responsibility for our present bleak situation lies not only in the inadequate governing elite but also in the people who retreat from public space, thus allowing a state policy that bullies through regulatory stratagems of Orwellian doublespeak and understatement. The moral fibre that Giroux finds missing prevents the public at large from standing up against the opening of any window of thought, action or critical practice that might authorise new non- conformist practices that oppose an America governed by the principles of an anti-civic market economy and forces of privatisation: “The structures of neoliberal violence have diminished the vocabulary of democracy, and one consequence is that subjectivity and education are no longer the lifelines of critical forms of individual and social agency.”

For the iconoclast Giroux, it becomes a pedagogical exercise, critically engaging and informed of its social responsibility, where received assumptions and antiquated beliefs are defied to overcome the “clerical nature” of our monotonous work. The war against critical thinking and public literacy gains validity in view of the constructed nature of the aggressive neoliberal narrative with its international finance and bourgeois reactionary forces. Giroux gives examples of “shock-and-awe” austerity measures such as “tax cuts that serve the rich and powerful and destroy government programmes that help the disadvantaged, 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 militarisation of everyday life; the destruction of public education, if not critical thought itself; and an ongoing attack on unions, social provisions and the expansion of Medicaid and meaningful health care reform.”

Giroux upholds those individuals who can defend themselves from a world of exploitation, who can protect themselves from adversity or mediocrity and are capable of reacting to the replacement of distressing situations of citizenship by consumerism under the dominance of a voracious corporate world of profit and power. These public intellectuals have the sensibility of undertaking a concerted and committed campaign to head off, he argues, “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 prisons”.

The contemporary industrial world, with its faceless professionals, reeks of unregulated admiration for markets accompanied by a collective disregard for social responsibility. The pervasive belief in neoliberalism insensitively cultivates the pursuit of self-interest under the patronage of what Noam Chomsky calls “the unaccountable private tyrannies that control most of the domestic and international economy”.

Consequently, the collective capacity of humans is compromised by a strict social control, thereby constraining civil rights and any significant engagement with the world leading to a mass amnesia of our role as citizens of a pulsating robust democracy. Historical memory, Giroux argues, is deemed dangerous today “because it offers the promise of lost legacies of resistance, moments in history when the social contract was taken seriously (however impaired), and when a variety of social movements emerged that called for a rethinking of what democracy meant and how it might be defined in the interest of economic and social justice”.

The question involves the resistance against the overpowering of the public and the waning of the spirit of struggle. It thus becomes obligatory to interrogate not simply the crisis of modern life in the context of normalisation of mass surveillance and the state of relentless war, but also the corporate bailouts paired with public austerity programmes that thwart any desire for dissidence against a state machinery that controls the individual. Such indiscretions push the public intellectual to challenge the closure of our political horizon to initiate a possibility of emancipatory change. Radical intellectuals and artists need free space; any disruption of it by the conservative corporate world must not go unaddressed.

Giroux uncovers some of the deeper changes stirring beneath the ostensible volatility, and moves the debate to a new radical position. The need is to endorse the spirit of enquiry, giving free space to decorum, dignity and debate that allow criticism and reflection within a multiple world where tradition and modernity can coexist. The subversion of the “careful” civil functionaries and the self-righteous neoconservative forces who employ the rhetoric of self-defence and national honour becomes the need of the hour. This rebellious vision is what gives hope and strength to an oppositional discourse that Giroux advocates. The challenge may well come from intellectuals who temper their scholarship with judicious activism, following an “anti-academic fervour” of reaching out to participate in social struggles, rather than being shielded in the intellectual lap of academia. Is not politics all about how we perceive and relate to the world? The loss of ideals and ideas brings to mind philosophers such as Jean Paul Sartre and Raymond Aron, whose conscience was the most unswerving instrument of analysis ready to “disturb and unsettle”, to ask “embarrassing” questions and “force people to think of alternatives”. To realise this, the chasm between the private and public intellectual has to be bridged so as to outwit the attempts of the rich and the powerful to douse any opposition to social discrimination.

Republicans, the Tea Party ideology as well as the Democratic Party come under intense scrutiny. Giroux particularly censures the “predatory culture” that “celebrates a narcissistic hyper individualism” that leads to the subordination of the community to capital market essentials where “social solidarities are torn apart, furthering the retreat into orbits of the private that undermine those spaces that nurture non-commodified knowledge, values, critical exchange and civic literacy”.

He refers to the French philosopher Georges Didi-Huberman’s concept of the “disimagination machine” to describe the free market philosophy that “short-circuits” citizens’ ability to think critically or creatively, pushing them towards a fast-emerging apocalyptic world of moral perplexity and ennui that is contemporary civilisation. A conscious purposeful effort is now needed to overcome the sensibility of a “zombie”-inhabited world ofconformism and consumerism. The world begins to lack the “unified sensibility” that T.S. Eliot speaks of. Fusion of thought and feelings seems beyond human capability.

This is the inevitable consequence of “the violence of organised forgetting”. How we tutor the youth of a nation would matter in the very thinking process of a society that comes into confrontation with America’s Disimagination Machine.

As Giroux ferociously reasons: “Politicians such as Michelle Bachmann, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich along with talking heads such as Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck and Anne Coulter are not the problem, they are symptomatic of a much more disturbing assault on critical thought, if not rational thinking itself. Under a neoliberal regime, the language of authority, power and command is divorced from ethics, social responsibility, critical analysis and social costs.

“These anti-public intellectuals are part of a disimagination machine that solidifies the power of the rich and the structures of the military industrial-surveillance academic complex by presenting the ideologies, institutions and relations of the powerful as commonsense.”

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