At­tempt­ing to think of col­lec­tive good in the face of in­di­vid­u­al­ist pro­pa­ganda

The Woolwich Observer - - COMMENT - ED­I­TOR'S NOTES

THE CHRIST­MAS SEA­SON – now upon us, ready or not – brings out our bet­ter na­tures. Maybe it’s years of child­hood prac­tice: be­hav­ing well lest we end up on Santa’s naughty list. Or maybe once a year we take to heart the mes­sage of com­mu­nity and good­will to­wards men.

What­ever the case, we cer­tainly find it eas­ier to be gen­er­ous and con­sid­er­ate when it comes to our fel­low man (which, of course, in­cludes women, chil­dren and small furry an­i­mals, in some cases). Once a year, we take the time to think about oth­ers, at least for as long as it takes to share a smile, a greet­ing and per­haps even a bit of char­ity. The rest of the year? Well, not so much.

That di­chotomy begs a host of ques­tions, not least of which is what ex­actly is it that we owe each other as hu­mans, ci­ti­zens and res­i­dents? It’s a ques­tion that goes back mil­len­nia, and forms the ba­sis of so­cial con­tract phi­los­o­phy, from the an­cient Greeks through Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau.

The topic flows nat­u­rally from a dis­cus­sion of the im­pact of creep­ing fas­cism and the pro­gres­sive move­ments to counter our worst in­stincts. Such move­ments chal­lenge the rest of us to think about a po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic sys­tem that in essence en­cour­ages us to be self­ish and not to take into con­sid­er­a­tion what we can do for each other as a com­mu­nity – to forego our hu­man­ity.

Gov­ern­ment poli­cies that run con­trary to the pub­lic in­ter­est – an in­creas­ing pro­por­tion of its ac­tions – surely are the op­po­site of what we’d con­sent to. They ben­e­fit the one per cent at the ex­pense of the 99, as the mem­o­rable slo­gan re­minds us.

Who is re­spon­si­ble for that? Cer­tainly those who’ve ben­e­fited have fos­tered an un­end­ing pro­pa­ganda cam­paign that’s been ev­ery bit as ef­fec­tive in sweep­ing aside ci­ti­zen­ship as the cor­po­rate mar­ket­ing has been in turn­ing us into con­sumers. We’ve hap­pily ab­di­cated power and re­spon­si­bil­ity for the com­forts of our lives. Ex­cuses about be­ing busy are just that. Still, we’ve opted for the dis­trac­tions, and can’t even be both­ered to show up at the vot­ing booth for five min­utes ev­ery four years. As a re­sult, we’ve got the gov­ern­ment we de­serve, one that acts against our in­ter­ests and against the com­mon good.

We’ve tuned out, bought into con­sumerism and the ideal of rugged in­di­vid­u­al­ism while en­joy­ing the fruits of what years of com­mu­nity-minded spirit and poli­cies brought us.

It’s a trend that has only ac­cel­er­ated in the Trump era, ar­gues Henry Giroux, an Amer­i­can-born aca­demic who is now Chair in English and Cul­tural Stud­ies at Mc­Mas­ter Univer­sity in Hamil­ton.

“The bad-faith vo­cab­u­lary of in­di­vid­ual re­spon­si­bil­ity, self-re­liance, and choice elim­i­nates the no­tions of soul crush­ing con­straints and broader sys­temic forces, and in so do­ing pro­duces armies of in­di­vid­u­als stuck in the de­bil­i­tat­ing grip of so­cial at­om­iza­tion, low self-es­teem and the anx­i­eties pro­duced in land­scapes of bat­tered schools, rust­ing towns and mean­ing­less work, if avail­able,” he says in an opin­ion piece this week. “The de­struc­tion of col­lec­tive struc­tures ca­pa­ble of re­sist­ing the dis­course of fas­cist pol­i­tics go hand in hand with a cul­ture awash in civic il­lit­er­acy and a cul­ture of cru­elty. Per­sis­tent den­i­gra­tion now leads to un­bri­dled racism, the resur­gence of white na­tion­al­ism and an in­dif­fer­ence to ram­pant crim­i­nal­ity at the high­est lev­els of gov­ern­ment.”

There’s noth­ing wrong with look­ing out for per­sonal in­ter­ests, but we’re in dan­ger of for­get­ting that most of the mid­dle-class gains of the post­war years stem from so­cially-driven ideas. In purely eco­nomic terms, the col­lec­tive ef­forts are the ris­ing tide that lifted all boats – some more so than oth­ers, cer­tainly. To­day, how­ever, there’s an el­e­ment that seems hell­bent on un­do­ing pre­cisely the con­di­tions that al­lowed for the great pros­per­ity now un­der at­tack.

This is hap­pen­ing be­cause so­ci­ety wants it to. So the ques­tion is, why do we tol­er­ate, let alone em­brace this sort of be­hav­ior? Is this merely an out­let for the frus­tra­tion felt by those in dead-end jobs or who don’t have jobs and can’t find them? Is it be­cause the mid­dle-class life­style is un­der at­tack and dis­ap­pear­ing for many? Is this how we share the pain?

Given the evo­lu­tion of our so­ci­eties, es­pe­cially in­creas­ingly crowded ur­ban liv­ing, we are a col­lec­tive by de­fault, even as di­vi­sive pol­i­tics play on our basest in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic in­stincts. If we’re part of a so­ci­ety – and there re­ally is no get­ting around that – then we have to have some so­ci­etal norms and some mu­tual re­spect.

Such a view of civil so­ci­ety is un­der at­tack as we see the rise of the worst kind of na­tion­al­ism, a creep­ing fas­cism that has re­duced dis­course to a whole lot of shout­ing and slo­ga­neer­ing. The very na­ture of a shared lan­guage needed for ci­vil­ity is dis­par­aged. Govern­ments with fas­cist ten­den­cies, the U.S. be­ing a prime ex­am­ple, make a con­certed ef­fort to sub­vert the ex­change of civil ideas, Giroux ar­gues.

“The lan­guage of com­pas­sion, com­mu­nity and vul­ner­a­bil­ity is erased from gov­ern­ment me­dia sites, as is any ref­er­ence to cli­mate change. Ref­er­ences to com­pas­sion, the gram­mar of ethics, jus­tice and democ­racy wither as the in­sti­tu­tions that en­able and pro­mote them are de­funded, cor­po­ra­tized or pri­va­tized. The lan­guage of ego­ism, self-in­ter­est, hy­per-mas­culin­ity and a va­pid in­di­vid­u­al­ism erase any ref­er­ence to so­cial bonds, pub­lic com­mit­ments, the pub­lic good and the com­mons. Even worse, un­der the blitz of a rhetoric of big­otry, ha­tred and de­hu­man­iza­tion, the abil­ity to trans­late pri­vate is­sues into larger sys­temic and pub­lic con­cerns is di­min­ished,” he writes. “The lan­guage of fas­cism is now re­in­forced by a cul­ture of im­me­di­acy, stu­pid­ity, ig­no­rance and civic il­lit­er­acy, and as such pro­motes a

cul­ture in which the only obli­ga­tion of ci­ti­zen­ship is con­sump­tion and the only emo­tion worth in­vest­ing in is un­bri­dled anger largely directed at Blacks, un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants, Mus­lims, and the op­po­si­tional me­dia.

“In the age of Trump, self-re­flec­tion is a li­a­bil- ity. Rea­son and in­formed judg­ment are in­creas­ingly viewed as ar­chaic and out­dated.”

The very idea of dis­cussing what we owe each other as ci­ti­zens of a shared so­ci­ety is be­ing marginal­ized by those who don’t want peo­ple to think for them­selves, let alone come up with col­lec­tive so­lu­tions to what ails us.

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