The failing state Henry A. Giroux lectures on radical democracy; a Lannan Foundation event
Henry A. Giroux and radical democracy
For decades now, cultural critic Henry A. Giroux has been sounding the alarm that the U.S. is on a quick decline, its institutions and its leaders in the grip of what he calls a “new authoritarianism.” Widely published in both academic circles and the popular press, Giroux is a staunch advocate of radical democracy and writes in an engaging if controversial manner about youth, public education, police brutality, and American politics. Typical of his sweeping pronouncements are this one from his 2013 book America’s Education Deficit and the War on Youth (Monthly Review Press), in which he declares, “Governance is now in the hands of corporate power and the United States increasingly exhibits all the characteristics of a failed state.”
It’s a radical, scurrilous claim about which Giroux is dead serious. To his many doubters, he would ask them to consider what the U.S. looks like from the viewpoint of a typical eighteen-year-old citizen. In the case of this hypothetical young man, for nearly all his life, the country has been bogged down in foreign wars and trapped in a recession that has not ended for those without college degrees. His public school education has been consumed by standardized tests and a zero tolerance policy that has amped up expulsions and normalized law enforcement arrests of students on campus as a form of routine discipline. The result, he writes, is that “schools increasingly take on an uncanny resemblance to oversized police precincts.”
On the digital screens where youths dwell and (Giroux would argue) also where they are largely educated nowadays, videos of domestic police in militarized riot gear firing tear gas at young protesters have become routine. In politics, what was once a fringe view of the radical right — forcibly deporting millions of unauthorized immigrants — has now entered the mainstream of Republican policy talking points. Put together, Giroux argues, these troubling movements testify to America’s quickly eroding democratic traditions.
“I think the country is in such a bad state that the tipping point has arrived,” Giroux told Pasatiempo. “We can’t have democracy in a country this unequal. The younger generation can’t rent anything anymore. They are going to be the generation that was unable to move out of the house.”
Giroux will speak on Wednesday, Oct. 14, at the Lensic Performing Arts Center as part of the In Pursuit of Cultural Freedom series sponsored by the Lannan Foundation. A prolific author of more than 50 books and over 300 academic articles, Giroux lives in Canada, where he serves as the Global TV Network Chair in English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. He appears with Maya Schenwar, author and editor-in-chief of Truthout, a progressive online news organization.
The scholar said his Lannan talk will focus on ongoing attacks to American traditions of justice and equality. In particular, he will address the “seemingly untenable notion” that U.S. has become a breeding ground for authoritarianism. As he outlined in a recent article for Truthout, Giroux believes “four fundamentalisms” have crept into American political and cultural life — market fundamentalism, religious fundamentalism, educational fundamentalism, and military fundamentalism — all which threaten to eviscerate America’s status as a free nation.
These fundamentalisms, Giroux argues, dismiss critical thought, justify large-scale violence, and encourage citizens to look away from their public responsibility and instead focus on their own selfinterests. Through the lens of these ideologies, several of Giroux’s recent articles have looked at the emergence of Donald Trump as a Republican presidential candidate. “Trump is not some penultimate example of this growing authoritarianism. Trump is rather consistent with what’s going on in the Republican party. The only thing new is that Trump admits it,” Giroux said.
Despite his polemic focus on the more sordid spaces in American politics, Giroux is not without hope for the future. The success of the same-sex marriage movement in the United States has impressed him. So too has the consciousness-raising of Black Lives Matter activists. “They are looking at police brutality not as isolated events but drawing connections between policy and politics,” Giroux said. “They are asking the state why it thinks it doesn’t have to deal with the social costs of its actions.”
But what troubles him about these various movements of the left — environmentalists, prison reformers, and corporate watchdogs, among others — is their failure to find a unifying clarion call to their various issues. That’s something, he admits, that the right has been able to achieve through organizing a fractious coalition of libertarians, evangelical Christians, and traditional old-line conservatives under a banner of free markets and strong national defense.
Giroux believes that in education, the left has a unifying plank that it has failed to utilize. By education, Giroux has something in mind far more sweeping than grade schools and colleges. “One of the great failures of the left is not understanding how education is one of the most powerful forms of consciousnessraising.” Outside of his political writing, Giroux is well-known in academic and education circles for his work on public pedagogy, a term that refers to the way in which young people are increasingly receiving their most affecting civic education and their norms of morality from a ubiquitous media stream that includes everything from advertising to sports, reality TV to Tumblr, churches to smartphones. In other words, education is a political battlefield and one that the left is losing. Giroux believes that children grow up mired in an entertainment media that promotes boundless self-interest and consumerism. Wrapped in the glamour of celebrity, these soft-media messages echo the explicit political ideology of conservative and neoliberal movements that seek to privatize public goods such as water, education, and health care.
Through a new type of education that engages youth through their immersion in a global internet culture, Giroux feels that progressive activists may find a future for their type of politics. As he summarized his hope in last year’s book, The Violence of Organized Forgetting: Thinking Beyond America’s Disimagination Machine (City Lights), it is, “A politics that merges critique and hope and recognizes that while the idea of the good society may be under attack, it is far from being relegated to the dustbin of history.”