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The dead that walk

Published : Sep 23, 2011 00:00 IST

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The book is focussed on the idea of authoritarianism and how it has injured the very body of democratic public spheres.

HENRY A. GIROUX's is one of the most important contemporary voices in the West intervening in debates on subjects ranging from globalisation to terrorism, from existing pedagogical conditions in the United States to the state of zombie politics which arises out of an increasingly authoritarian public realm. He is in full agreement with Hannah Arendt that we are living in dark times where there is a need to emphasise the value of education to the world that we engineer for future generations. As Arendt wrote many decades ago and what is true today, Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable. And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.

Indeed, we live in dark times. The intellectual, ethical and emotional needs of our youth are constantly marginalised by an education system that lacks a passionate concern for democratic and civic values. A just and critical pedagogy is, therefore, the need of the hour so as to counter the neoliberal onslaught and the reactionary education system that operates for the gain of political and economic power and, largely, for the continuance of the status quo. This is the clear and present danger to the institutions of democracy, resulting in a society of, according to Ira Shor, monopolised wealth and distributed poverty, a culture of endless war, legalised torture, detention without trial, bursting prisons, and schools that turn our bright children into data. This, in turn, has given birth to the politics of cynicism and despair, which conspicuously shows up in those who are conscious and alive but, sadly, are slowly dying in the face of the world of the dead that walk. Such images of the living dead haunt the contemporary world through the reality of persistent ecological disasters, wars, terrorism and economic meltdown.

Giroux is, therefore, outraged by the birth of zombie politics in our culture. What kind of children are we producing in a world in which movies, comics and video games abound?

Zombie ideologies proliferate like the breathing, blood-lusting corpses in the classic Night of the Living Dead'. They spew out toxic gore that supports the market as the organising template for all institutional and social relations, mindlessly compelled, it seems, to privatise everything and aim invective at the idea of big government but never at the notion of the bloated corporate and militarised state. Zombie culture hates big government, a euphemism for the social state, but loves big corporations and is infatuated with the ideology that, in Zombieland, unregulated banks, insurance companies and other megacorporations should make major decisions not only about governing society but also about who is privileged and who is disposable, who should live and who should die.

Zombie politics rejects the welfare state for a hybridised corporate and punishing state. Just as it views any vestige of a social safety net as a sign of weakness, if not pathology, its central message seems to be that we are all responsible for ourselves and that the war of all against all is at the core of the apocalyptic vision that makes zombie politics both appealing as a spectacle and convincing as a politics. Zombie violence and policies are everywhere backed by an army of zombie economic advisers, lobbyists and legislators, all of whom seem to revel in spreading the culture of the undead while feasting on the spread of war, human suffering, violence and catastrophe across the United States and the larger globe.

As is so obvious, the mass market relentlessly and insidiously preys on the spectacle of the violent, grotesque and ethically comatose.

The Western world is thus fascinated by the world of vampires and zombies condemned to live an eternity by feeding off the souls of the living. Matt Taibbi, a writer for Rolling Stone, has aptly described this as a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money. Media culture feeds on such monstrosities backed by the mindless generation that is spewed out by the spell of voodoo economics and compelled to acts of obscene violence and mayhem. They are the living dead, whose contagion threatens the very life force of the nation.

The new zombies not only inhabit the financial institutions but are visible in the circles of power and the mainstream media, which are backed by the corporate elite. And to their rescue come extreme right-wingers such as Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, who will do everything to perpetuate casino capitalism and play down any discussion on social responsibility or justice, always standing up against any move towards civil rights, questions of social security, desegregation in schools, immigration rights or Medicare.

Such zombie politics promotes an ideology that opposes any policy intended to mitigate human suffering or advance social progress. It is amazing that the unemployment of millions does not anger the new zombies in the least. They blatantly dampen the significance of critical exchange, trade in the fear, hatred and hyper-nationalism that has resulted in the adoption of racist anti-immigration laws in Arizona recently as well as the move to end ethnic studies in schools, and dump millions of people of colour into prisons. Views about a bright future of prosperity and freedom from hunger are replaced shamelessly by nightmares of a future holocaust under the regime of Barack Obama as the contemporary Stalin.

At the forefront of such a discourse stands Sarah Palin and her Tea Party that conjures up images of death and war that overwhelm the country's psyche. She and her comrades are the political zombies wallowing in xenophobic laws, endorsing violence and cheerfully embracing the new face of white supremacy: The current descent into racism, ignorance, corruption, and mob idiocy makes clear the degree to which politics has become a sport for zombies rather than engaged and thoughtful citizens.

The thin line between reason and distortion stands dissolved. Self-interest remains their ruling motivation, a convenient counterpart to a culture of cruelty that rebukes, if not disdains, any appeal to the virtues of a moral and just society.

Weak democracy

Thus, a weak democracy slowly and imperceptibly turns into an authoritarian state where Islam-bashing continues unthinkingly by radical right-wing extremists, where there is no anger at pushing thousands out of jobs and their homes and no demonstration against the casino capitalism of reality TV and gossip-laden entertainment or the endless and arrogant display of wealth, greed and power on which the American public is constantly fed.

Interestingly, these zombies who control the state institutions and industry have nothing to say or complain about the over-bloated military budget, a sign that stands for death-dealing institutions and the rise of the punishing state and its expanding prison system. They smile with patriotic glee, anxious to further the demands of empire as automated drones kill innocent civilians conveniently dismissed as collateral damage and the torture state rolls inexorably along in Afghanistan, Iraq, and in other hidden and unknown sites. Such are the politics of death that take over the democratic veneer of a state that has ended among the living dead of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land:

Unreal City,

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn, A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, I had not thought death had undone so many. Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled, And each man fixed his eyes before his feet. Flowed up the hill and down King William Street, To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours With a dead sound on the final

stroke of nine.

The book in review thus becomes a remarkable study of such political and pedagogical conditions that have given rise to a culture of death and cruelty, of fear, humiliation and torture, of rabid nationalism and visible right-wing teaching practices/machines as well as the war on anti-racist ideology. The book is focussed on the idea of authoritarianism and how it has injured the very body of democratic public spheres, sucking out its life-blood.

The antidote that Giroux offers is an engagement in critical thinking and debate that would counter the very basics of the zombification of politics that has brought about the crisis of public values and the rise of the politics of illiteracy, leading to hardship and suffering experienced by the youth of America. It is death and destruction taking precedence over democracy and public life, a kind of economic Darwinism that underpins the entire system and therefore wipes out the human aspect.

The zombie metaphor becomes Giroux's way of responding to this deep-seated human crisis of bare survival and social death, a type of politics in which necropolitics, to use Achille Mbembe's term, operates through the misuses of state secrets, detentions without habeas corpus, bailouts of huge corporates that leave millions homeless and destitute, and the blatant opposition of any intellectually meaningful challenge to the supremacy of the neo-right culture of the zombieland that we see all around us.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Sep 23, 2011.)

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