The War on Critical Thought During the Most Dangerous Period of the 21st Century

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If there is no struggle, there is no progress. …This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.

–Fredrick Douglass

Henry A. Giroux looks to Frederick Douglass, Hannah Arendt, Chris Hedges, Christine Clement and Michael Lerner in a recent Tikkun editoral that everyone should read.  We are living in an extremely dangerous moment of history, in which a group of mostly White masculinists are assailing hard-won civil liberties:

Trump is the fascist shadow that has been lurking in the dark since Nixon’s Southern Strategy. Authoritarianism has now become viral in America, pursuing new avenues to spread its toxic ideology of bigotry, cruelty, and greed into every facet of society. Its legions of “alt-right” racists, misogynists, and xenophobic hate-mongers now expose themselves publicly, without apology, knowing full well that they no longer have to use code for their hatred of all those who do not fit into their white-supremacist and ultra-nationalist script.

Not simply economic betrayal, but also ideological white-washing has brought us to tis point.  Oppressive institutions and power structures oppress by enforcing collective amnesia, a forgetting of the past and by undercutting critical thinking:

Manufactured ignorance erases histories of repression, exploitation, and revolts. What is left is a space of fabricated absences that makes it easy, if not convenient, to forget that Trump is not some eccentric clown offered up to the American polity through the deadening influence of celebrity and consumer culture. State and corporate sponsored ignorance produced primarily through the disimagination machines of the mainstream media and public relations industries in diverse forms now function chiefly to erase selected elements of history, disdain critical thought, reduce dissent to a species of fake news, and undermine the social imagination. How else to explain the recent Arkansas legislator who is pushing legislation to ban the works of the late historian Howard Zinn? How else to explain a culture awash in game shows and Realty TV programs? How else to explain the aggressive attack by extremists in both political parties on public and higher education? Whitewashing history is an urgent matter, especially for the Trump administration, which has brought a number of white supremacists to the center of power in the United States

When we forget the violence and betrayals of the past, the public is more likely to swallow the toxic pablum that justifies ongoing violence against those who are not dominant.  By eroding educational traditions that encourage critical thought, those in power undercut the public’s ability to resist injustice.

The revival of historical memory as a central political strategy is crucial today given that Trump’s white supremacist policies not only echo elements of a fascist past, they also point to the need to recognize as Paul Gilroy has observed “how elements of fascism appear in new forms,” especially as “the living memory of the fascist period fades.”

Ideological violence–perpetuated by a massive machinery that wipes our memories of what has been done to us, and those like us, in the past–keeps us down because it makes us much more willing to shrug our shoulders and accept discrimination, wage slavery, unfair and deliberately misleading banking and loan policies, excessively expensive health care, the erosion of public schools, police brutality, and rampant, domestic, ecclesiastical and gendered rape and torture.   We are conditioned to accept these forms of violence because through a symbolic, or ideological, violence, that preaches to us that things have always been this way and always will be.  Erasing our memory of the past is crucial to this violence.

But the Republicans are not solely responsible for selling us all down the river and telling us that it is the way of the world.  Democrats, too, have betrayed us:

Trump’s unapologetic authoritarianism has prompted Democratic Party members and the liberal elite to position themselves as the only model of organized resistance in such dark times. It is difficult not to see such moral outrage and faux pas resistance as both comedic and hypocritical in light of these centrist liberals have played in the last forty years–subverting democracy and throwing minorities of class and color under the bus. As Jeffrey St. Clair observes, “Trump’s nominal opponents,” the Democrats Party are “encased in the fatal amber of their neoliberalism” and they are part of the problem and not the solution. Rather than face up to their sordid history of ignoring the needs of workers, young people, and minorities of class and color, the Democratic Party acts as if their embrace of a variety of neoliberal political and economic policies along with their support of a perpetual war machine had nothing to do with paving the way for the election of Donald Trump.

We can do something to create a more just society.  We must actively remember the past and critique the present.  Only by doing so can we resist what Giroux calls “the armed ignorance of the Trump disimagination machine.”

While such knowledge is the precondition for militant resistance, it is not enough. A critical consciousness is the precondition of struggle but is only the starting point for resistance. What is also needed is a bold strategy and social movement capable of shutting down this neo-fascist political machine at all levels of government through general strikes, constant occupation of the political spaces and public spheres under the control of the new authoritarians, and the creation of an endless wave of educational strategies and demonstrations that make clear and hold accountable the different ideological, material, psychological, and economic registers of fascism at work in American society. This is a time to study, engage in critical dialogues, develop new educational sites, support and expand the alternative media, and fight back collectively. It will not be easy to turn the tide, but it can happen, and there are historical precedents.

Giroux calls for a paradigm shift that will come about when the very people whose labor and passivity keep the power structures intact begin to think for themselves and resist.

This would also suggest building up unions again and putting their control in the hands of workers; working to build sanctuary cities and institutions that would protect those considered the enemies of white supremacy – immigrants, Muslims, Blacks, and those others considered disposable. Politics has to be revived at the local and state levels, especially given the control of 56 percent of state legislatures by right-wing Republicans. There is also a need to make education central to the formation and expansion of study groups throughout the country and to further a public pedagogy of justice and democracy through the alternative media and when possible in the mainstream media.

The dominant powers in society repress people through various material strategies–housing, wages, access to healthcare–but also through ideological and psychological strategies.

While it is crucial to address the dramatic shifts economically and politically that have produced enormous anger and frustration in American society, it is also important to address the accompanying existential crisis that has destroyed the self-esteem, identity, and hopes of those considered disposable and those whom Hillary Clinton shamelessly called a “basket of deplorables.” The ideological mix of untrammeled individualism, self-reliance, a culture of fear, and a war against all ethic has produced both a profound sense of precarity and hopelessness among not only immigrants, poor people of color, but also among working class whites who feel crushed by the economy and threatened by those deemed other as well as demeaned by so called elites.

It is not enough simply to point and complain at the ways the powers that be have enervated and disabled us.  Learning from the past, we need to produce new visions of egalitarianism and prosperity.  This will involve weaning ourselves from the mythologies of neoliberalism.

 As Michael Lerner insightfully observes, rather than engaging in a politics of shaming, progressives have to produce a discourse in which people can recognize their problems and the actual conditions that produce them. This is not just a political but a pedagogical challenge in which education becomes central to any viable notion of resistance. Making education central to politics means the left will have to remove itself from the discourse of meritocracy that often is used to dismiss and write off those who hold conservative, if not reactionary, views.

Progressives need to transcend the smug, self-congratulatory discourse of shaming and engage in the ” hard political and pedagogical work of changing consciousness, producing new modes of identity, desires, and values conducive to a democracy.”  Theroux continues,

Resistance will not be easy and has to take place on multiple fronts while at the same time enabling a view of politics that understands how a new class of financial scavengers operates in the free flow of a global space that has no national allegiances, no respect for the social contract, and exhibit a degree of power that is unparalleled in its ability to exploit, produce massive inequality, destroy the planet, and accelerate human suffering across and within national boundaries. Resistance is no longer an option, it is now a matter of life or death. The lights are going out on democracy across the globe and the time to wake up from this nightmare is now. There are no guarantees in politics, but there is no politics that matters without hope, that is, educated hope.

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