Zero Tolerance


Henry A. Giroux

There
are mounting ideological, institutional, and political pressures among
conservatives, liberals, and other advocates of corporate culture to remove
youth from the inventory of ethical and political concerns that legitimize and
provide individual rights and social provisions for members of a democratic
society. One consequence is that there is growing support among the American
public for policies, at all levels of government, that abandon young people,
especially youth of color, to the dictates of a repressive penal state that
increasingly addresses social problems through the police, courts, and prison
system. As a result, the state has been hollowed out, largely abandoning its
support for child protection, healthcare for the poor, and social services for
the aged. Public goods are now disparaged in the name of privatization, and
those public forums in which association and debate thrive are being replaced
by what Paul Gilroy calls an “info-tainment telesector” industry driven by
dictates of the marketplace.

As the public
sector is remade in the image of the market, commercial values replace social
values and the spectacle of politics gives way to the politics of the
spectacle.

Privatizing
and Commodifying Youth

In
the summer of 2000, The New York Times Sunday Magazine ran two major
stories on youth within a three-week period between the latter part of July
and the beginning of August. The stories are important because they signify
not only how youth fare in the politics of representation but also what
identifications are made available for them to locate themselves in public
discourse. The first article, “The Backlash Against Children” by Lisa
Belkin, was a feature story forecasted on the magazine’s cover with a
visually disturbing, albeit familiar, close up of a young boy’s face. The
boy’s mouth is wide open in a distorted manner, and he appears to be in the
throes of a tantrum. The image conjures up the ambiguities adults feel in the
presence of screaming children, especially when they appear in public places,
such as R-rated movies or up-scale restaurants, where their presence is seen
as an intrusion on adult life. The other full-page image that follows the
opening text is even more grotesque, portraying a young boy dressed in a
jacket and tie with chocolate cake smeared all over his face. His hands,
covered with the gooey confection, reach out towards the viewer, capturing the
child’s mischievous attempt to grab some hapless person by the lapels and
add a bit of culinary dash to his or her wardrobe.

According to
Belkin, a new movement is on the rise in American culture, one founded by
individuals who don’t have children, militantly describing themselves as
“child free,” and who view the presence of young people as an intrusion on
their rights. Belkin charts this growing phenomenon with the precision of an
obsessed accountant. She commences with an ethnographic account of
31-year-old, California software computer consultant Jason Gill, who is
looking for a new place to live because the couple who have moved in next door
to him have a new baby and he can hear “every wail and whimper.” Even more
calamitous for the yuppie consultant, the fence he replaced to prevent another
neighbor’s children from peering through at him is now used by the kids as a
soccer goal, “often while Gill is trying to read a book or have a quiet
glass of wine.” But Belkin doesn’t limit her analysis to such anecdotal
evidence, she also points to the emergence of national movements such as an
organization called No Kidding!, which sets up social events only for those
who remain childless. She reports that No Kidding! had only 2 chapters in 1995
but has 47 today. In addition, she comments on the countless number of online
“child free” sites with names like “Brats!” and a growing number of
hotels that do not allow children under 18 unless they are paying guests.

Of course, many
parents and non-parents alike desire, at least for a short time, a reprieve
from the often chaotic space of children, but Belkin takes such ambivalencies
to new heights. Her real ambition has very little to do with providing a space
for adult catharsis. Rather it is to give public voice to a political and
financial agenda captured by Elinor Burkett’s The Baby Boon: How
Family-Friendly America Cheats the Childless
—an agenda designed to
expose and rewrite government policies that relegate “the Childless to
second-class citizens.” Included in Burkett’s laundry list of targets are:
the federal tax code and its dependent deductions, dependent care credits,
child tax credits among “dozens of bills designed to lighten the tax burden
of parents” and, “most absurd of all” an executive order prohibiting
discrimination against parents in all areas of federal employment. Her
position is straightforward enough: to end “fancy” benefits (i.e., on-site
child- care and health insurance for dependents) that privilege parents at the
expense of the childless and to bar discrimination on the basis of family
status. “Why not make it illegal to presuppose that a non- parent is free to
work the night shift or presuppose that non-parents are more able to work on
Christmas than parents?” Burkett demands. Indeed, why should the government
provide any safety nets for the nation’s children at all?

Belkin modifies
her sympathetic encounter with the child-free worldview by interviewing Sylvia
Ann Hewlett, a Harvard educated economist and nationally known spokesperson
for protecting the rights of parents, and the founder of the National
Parenting Association. Hewlett argues that parents have become yet another
victimized group who are being portrayed by the media as the enemy. Hewlett
translates her concerns into a call for parents to organize in order to wield
more economic and political power. Hewlett’s comments occupy a minor
commentary in the text that overwhelmingly privileges the voices of those
individuals and groups that view children and young people as a burden, a
personal irritant, rather than a social good.

The notion that
children should be understood as a crucial social resource who present for any
healthy society important ethical and political considerations about the
quality of public life, the allocation of social provisions, and the role of
the state as a guardian of public interests appears to be lost in Belkin’s
article. Instead, Belkin focuses on youth exclusively as a private
consideration rather than as part of a broader public discussion about
democracy and social justice. She participates in an attack on youth that must
be understood within the context of neoliberalism and hyper capitalism in
which the language of the social, community, democracy, and solidarity are
subordinated to the ethos of self-interest and self-preservation in the
relentless pursuit of private satisfactions and pleasures. In this sense, the
backlash against children that Belkin attempts to chronicle are symptomatic of
an attack on public life, on the very legitimacy of those non-commercial
values that are critical to defending a just and substantive democratic
society.

The
second article to appear in The New York Times Sunday Magazine is
titled “Among the Mooks” by RJ Smith. According to the author, there is an
emerging group of poor white males called “mooks” whose cultural style is
fashioned out of an interest in fusing the transgressive languages,
sensibilities, and styles that cut across and connect the worlds of rap and
heavy metal music, ultra-violent sports such as professional wrestling, and
the misogyny rampant in the subculture of pornography. For Smith, the kids who
inhabit this cultural landscape are losers from broken families, working-class
fatalities whose anger and unexamined bitterness translates into bad manners,
anti-social music, and uncensored rage.

Smith appears
uninterested in contextualizing the larger forces and conditions that gives
rise to this matrix of cultural phenomena—deindustrialization, economic
restructuring, domestic militarization, poverty, joblessness. The youth
portrayed in Smith’s account live in a historical, political, and economic
vacuum. Moreover, the teens represented by Smith have little recourse to
adults who try to understand and help them navigate a complex and rapidly
changing cultural landscape in which they must attempt to locate and define
themselves. Along with the absence of adult protection and guidance, there is
a lack of serious critique and social vision in dealing with the limits of
youth culture. No questions are raised about the relationship between the
popular forms teens inhabit and the ongoing commercialization and
commodification of youth culture. There is no understanding in Smith’s
analysis of how market driven politics and established forms of power
increasingly eliminate non-commodified social domains through which young
people might learn an oppositional language for challenging those adult
ideologies and institutional forces that both demonize them and limit their
sense of dignity and capacity for political agency.

Of course,
vulgarity, pathology, and violence are not limited to the spaces inhabited by
the hyper-masculine worlds of gangsta rap, porn, extreme sports, and
professional wrestling. But Smith ignores all of this because he is much too
interested in depicting today’s teens, and popular culture in general, as
the embodiment of moral decay and bad cultural values. Smith suggests that
poor white kids are nothing more than semi-Nazis with a lot of pent up rage.
There are no victims in his analysis, as social disorder is reduced to
individualized pathology, and any appeal to injustice is viewed as mere
whining. Smith is too intent in reinforcing images of demonization and
ignorance that resonate comfortably with right-wing moral panics about youth
culture. He succeeds, in part, by focusing on the icons of this movement in
terms that move between caricature and scapegoating. For instance, The Insane
Posse is singled out for appearing on cable-access porn shows; the group Limp
Bizkit is accused of using their music to precipitate a gang rape at the
recent Woodstock melee; and the performer Kid Rock is defined in racially
coded terms as a “vanilla version of a blackploitation pimp” whose
concerts inspire fans to commit vandalism and prompts teenage girls to “pull
off their tops as the boys whoop.” It gets worse.

At one level,
“mooks” are portrayed as poor, working class, white kids who have seized
upon the most crude aspects of popular culture in order to provide an outlet
for their rage. But for Smith, the distinctive form this culture takes with
its appropriation of the transgressive symbolism of rap music, porn, and
wrestling does not entirely explain its descent into pathology and bad taste.
Rather, Smith charges that black youth culture is largely responsible for the
self-destructive, angst-ridden journey that poor white male youth are making
through the cultural landmines of hyper-masculinity, unbridled violence,
“ghetto” discourse, erotic fantasy, and drugs. Smith points an accusing
finger at the black “underclass,” and the recent explosion of hip hop
which allegedly offers poor white kids both an imaginary alternative to their
trailer park boredom and a vast array of transgressive resources which they
proceed to fashion through their own lived experiences and interests. Relying
on common racist assumptions about black urban life, Smith argues that black
youth culture offers white youth a wide-screen movie of ghetto life, relishing
the details, relating the intricacy of topics like drug dealing, brawling,
pimping, and black-on-black crime. Rap makes these things seem sexy, and makes
life on the street seem as thrilling as a Playstation game. Pimping and
gangbanging equal rebellion, especially for white kids who aren’t going to
get pulled over for driving while black, let alone die in a hail of bullets
(as Tupac and B.I.G. both did).

Trading
substantive analysis for right-wing cliches, Smith is indifferent to both the
complexity of rap as well as the “wide array of complex cultural forms”
that characterize black urban culture.

Smith alleges
that the problem of white youth is rooted in the seductive lure of a black
youth, marked by criminality, violent hyper-masculinity, welfare fraud, drug
abuse, and unchecked misogyny. Smith unapologetically relies upon this
analysis of black youth culture to portray poor white youth as dangerous and
hip-hop culture as the source of that danger.

Whatever his
intentions, Smith’s analysis contributes to the growing assumption that
young people are at best a social nuisance and at worse a danger to social
order.

These articles
reflect and perpetuate in dramatically different ways not only the ongoing
demonization of young people, but also the growing refusal within the larger
society to understand the problems of youth (and especially youth of color) as
symptomatic of the crisis of democratic politics itself.

As the state is
divested of its capacity to regulate social services and limit the power of
capital, those public spheres that traditionally served to empower individuals
and groups to strike a balance between “the individual’s liberty from
interference and the citizen’s right to interfere” are dismantled. At the
same time, it becomes more difficult for citizens to put limits on the power
of neo-liberalism to shape daily life—particularly as corporate economic
power is feverishly consolidated on a transnational level. Nor can they
prevent the assault on the state as it is being forced to abandon its social
role as the guardian of public interests. The result is a state increasingly
reduced to its policing functions, and a public sector reduced to a replica of
the market. As neoliberalism increases its grip over all aspects of cultural
and economic life, the autonomy once afforded to the worlds of cinema,
publishing, and media production begins to erode.

Public schools
are increasingly defined as a source of profit rather than a public good.
Through talk shows, film, music, and cable television, for example, the media
promote a growing political apathy and cynicism by providing a steady stream
of daily representations and spectacles in which abuse becomes the primary
vehicle for registering human interaction. At the same time, dominant media
such as the New York Times condemn the current cultural
landscape—represented in their account through reality television,
professional wrestling, gross-out blockbuster films, and the beat-driven
boasts and retorts of hip-hop—as aggressively evoking a vision of humanity
marked by a “pure Darwinism” in which “the messages of popular culture
are becoming more brutally competitive.”

Unfortunately,
for mainstream media commentators in general, the emergence of such
representations and values is about the lack of civility and has little to do
with considerations of youth bashing, racism, corporate power, and politics.
In this sense, witness to degradation now becomes the governing feature of
community and social life. Most importantly, what critics take up as a
“youth problem” is really a problem about the corruption of politics, the
shriveling up of public spaces and resources for young people, the
depoliticization of large segments of the population, and the emergence of a
corporate and media culture that is defined through an unadulterated
“authoritarian form of kinship that is masculinist, intolerant and
militaristic.”

At issue here
is how we understand the ways youth produce and engage popular culture at a
time in history when depravation is read as depravity. How do we comprehend
the choices young people are making under circumstances in which they have
become the object of policies that signals a shift from investing in their
future to assuming they have no future? Certainly not a future in which they
can depend on adult society for either compassion or support.
                                                  Z


Henry Giroux is on the faculty of Penn State and is the author of
The
Mouse That Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence. (Rowman and
Littlefield).