Winter in America: Democracy Gone Rogue


The absolute … spells doom to everyone when it is introduced into the political realm.
- Hannah Arendt [1]


Democracy in the United States is experiencing both a crisis of meaning and a legitimation crisis. As the promise of an aspiring democracy is sacrificed more and more to corporate and military interests, democratic spheres have largely been commercialized and democratic practices have been reduced to market relations, stripped of their worth and subject to the narrow logics of commodification and profit making. Empowerment has little to do with providing people with the knowledge, skills, and power to shape the forces and institutions that bear down on their lives and is now largely defined as under the rubric of being a savvy consumer. When not equated with the free market capitalism, democracy is reduced to the empty rituals of elections largely shaped by corporate money and indifferent to relations of power that make a mockery out of equality, democratic participation and collective deliberation.

The undoing of democracy as a substantive ideal is most visible in the illegal legalities perpetuated by the Bush-Cheney regime and reproduced under the presidency of Barack Obama that extend from the use of military commissions, the policy of indefinite detention, suppressing evidence of torture, maintaining secret and illegal prisons in Afghanistan to the refusal to prosecute former high-level government officials who sanctioned acts of torture and other violations of human rights. As part of the crisis of legitimation, democracy’s undoing can be seen in the anti-democratic nature of governance that has increasingly shaped domestic and foreign policy in the United States, policies that have been well documented by a number of writers extending from Noam Chomsky to Chris Hedges. What is often missed is how such anti-democratic forces work at home in ways that are less visible and when they are visible seem to become easily normalized, removed from any criticism as they settle into that ideological fog called common sense.

If the first rule of politics is to make power invisible, the second rule is to devalue critical thought by relieving people of the necessity to think critically and hold power accountable. And always in the name of common sense. Under the rubric of common sense, democracy is now used to invoke rationalizations for invading other countries, bailing out the rich and sanctioning the emergence of a national security state that increasingly criminalizes the social relations and behaviors that characterize those most excluded from what might be called the consumer- and celebrity-laden dreamworlds of a market-driven society. As democracy is removed from relations of equality, justice and freedom, it undergoes a legitimation crisis as it is transformed from a mode of politics that subverts authoritarian tendencies to one that reproduces them. Used to gift wrap the interests and values of an authoritarian culture, the rhetoric of democracy is now invoked to legitimate its opposite, a discourse of security and a culture of fear enlisted by pundits and other anti-public intellectuals as all-embracing registers for mobilizing a rampant nationalism, hatred of immigrants and a bunker politics organized around an "us" versus "them" mentality. When tied to the discourse of democracy, such practices seem beyond criticism, part of a center-right mentality that views such policies as natural and God-given – beyond ethical and political reproach.

As the country undermines its own democratic values, violence and anti-democratic practices become institutionalized throughout American culture, their aftershocks barely noticed, testifying to how normalized they have become. For instance, one major report indicated recently that more "than 60 percent of children were exposed to violence within the past year … [with] nearly half of adolescents surveyed … assaulted at least once in the previous year [and] one-quarter had witnessed an act of violence."[2] In one week, the media reported on a 12-year-old student who was arrested for doodling on her desk at school. Her teacher thought it was a criminal act and called the New York City police who promptly handcuffed her and took her to the local police station.[3] In Montgomery, Maryland, a 13-year-old student at Roberto Clement Middle Schools was taken out of class by security officers after she refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.[4]  The mainstream media provide glimpses of such assaults, but rarely are they analyzed within a broader political and social context that highlights the political and economic conditions that make them possible. For instance, such assaults say nothing about the increasing militarization of public schools, the right-wing attempts to defund them so they can be privatized, the rampant inequality that approximates a form of class warfare, or the racism often at the heart of such practices.[5]

Such actions are now normalized within the discourse of a bunker politics fueled by both the increasing militarization of all levels of society and legitimated further through a harsh and cruel notion of economic Darwinism. There are no shades of gray in this militarized discourse, no room for uncertainty, thoughtfulness or dialogue, since this view of engagement is modeled on notions of war, battle, winning at all costs and eliminating the enemy. Complex understanding is banished under the call for thoughtless, one-size-fits-all zero-tolerance policies in schools, intelligence is now quantified using formulas that may be useful for measuring the heights of trees but little else, and teachers are deskilled through the widespread adoption of both a governing-through-crime pedagogy and an equally debilitating pedagogy of high-stakes testing. Resentment builds as social services either collapse or are stretched to the limit at a time when over 17 million people are unemployed and over "91.6 million people – more than 30 percent of the entire population – fell below 200 percent of the federal poverty line."[6]  Emerging out of this void and shaping a more militaristic anti-politics are the anti-public intellectuals and their corporate sponsors, eager to fill the air with populist anger by supporting right-wing groups, Sarah Palin types, Glenn Beck clones and self-styled patriots that bear an eerie resemblance to the beliefs and violent politics of the late Timothy McVeigh, who bombed a federal building in Oklahoma in 1995.[7]

This emerging conglomerate and diverse group of anti-public intellectuals, political pundits, populist agitators expresses a deep-seated hatred for government (often labeled as either socialist or fascist), progressive politics, and the notion that everyone should have access to a quality education, decent health care, employment and other public services. Under such circumstances, it is not surprising that Sarah Palin in addressing the recent National Tea Party Convention stated "I will live, I will die for the people of America, whatever I can do to help." Surely, these words leave little ambiguity for members of the John Birch Society, right-wing militia groups, Oath Keepers white supremacists, and other armed anti-government groups that appear to be growing in numbers and influence under the Obama presidency. But while these lines received much attention from the dominant media, the more telling comment took place when Palin offered the Tea Party audience lines she lifted from one of the more fascistic films released by Hollywood in the last decade, "Fight Club." Inhabiting the character of a self-styled, pathologically violent maverick, Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt), whose misogyny is matched by his willingness to engage in acts of militia-inspired terrorism, Palin unabashedly mimics one of Tyler’s now famous wisecracks in attacking Obama’s clever rhetoric with the line, "How’s that hopey, changey stuff working out for ya?"[8]  Going rogue in this context suggests more than a compensatory quip for any kind of sustained analysis; instead it offers a seductive populist reference to lawless violence.

This somewhat confused but reckless appropriation of the discourse of glamorized violence suggests the not-so-subtle ways in which violence has become the framing mechanism for engaging in almost any mode of politics. Under such circumstances, politics shares an ignoble connection to a kind of soft terrorism, a kind of symbolic violence blatantly tied to the pathologies of corporate corruption, state-sanctioned brutality and authoritarian modes of engagement.

As violence and politics merge, the militarization, disciplining and oppressive regulation of American society continue, often legitimated by a popular culture in which the spectacles of celebrity idiocy and violence become the only stimuli left to shock people out of their boredom or offer them an outlet for their anger. But they continue in ways that seem incidental rather than connected, diffused of its real meaning and abstracted from the politics that informs it – hence, it slips into a kind of invisibility, wrapped in the logic of common sense. Under its common-sense rubric, homelessness and poverty are now criminalized, schools are dominated by zero-tolerance policies that turn public schools into a low-intensity war zone, school lockdowns are the new fire drills, the welfare state morphs into the warfare state, and university research is increasingly funded by the military and designed for military and surveillance purposes. In one of the more frightening examples of the militarization of American society, David Price has brilliantly documented how government intelligence agencies are now placing "unidentified students with undisclosed links to intelligence agencies into university classrooms … and has gone further … than any previous intelligence initiative since World War Two. Yet, the program spreads with little public notice, media coverage or coordinated multicampus resistance."[9] Is it any wonder that when intellectuals in the social sciences and medical fields assist in the illegal torture of "enemy combatants" or embed themselves in military-sponsored counter-insurgency campaigns, such practices rarely get the critical attention they deserve. All too often, the blathering disciples of common sense tell us that politics is rooted in natural laws, unhampered by critical thought. Such appeals to common sense suggest that thinking is at odds with politics, and its hidden order of politics is hateful of those public spaces where speaking and acting human beings actually engage in critical dialogue, exercise discriminating judgments, and address important social problems. Common sense is in effect an anti-politics because it removes questions of agency, governance and critical thought from politics itself. As part of the logic of common sense, scapegoating rhetoric replaces the civic imagination, and a brutalizing, calculating culture of fear, demonization and criminalization replaces judgment, emptying politics of all substantive meaning. In this discourse, there are no social problems, only individual failings. Poverty, inadequate health care, soaring public debt, the bailout of corrupt financial institutions, the prison binge, the destruction of public and higher education cannot be addressed by the logic of common sense, because such issues point to broad, complex considerations that demand a certain amount of understanding, literacy and a sense of political and moral responsibility – all enemies of the anti-public intellectuals who wrap themselves in the populist appeal to a know-nothing common sense. Common sense makes human beings superfluous, depoliticizes politics and transforms human beings into the living dead, unable to recognize "that politics requires judgment, artful diplomacy, and judicious discrimination."[10] Common sense occupies the antithesis of Hannah Arendt’s insistence that debate constitutes the very essence of political life."[11] This is the central message of Fox News, Glenn Beck and other right fundamentalists who live in circles of certainty and reject any real attempt at debate, persuasion and deliberation as the essence of politics. Their populist appeal to common sense to justify their various views of the world rejects enlarged ways of thinking, thoughtfulness and the exercise of critical judgment. Such a discourse creates a zombie politics in which deliberation is blocked and the ethos of democracy is stripped of any meaning.

A zombie politics enmeshed in the production of organized violence, surveillance, market-driven corruption and control, buttressed by an appeal to common sense, blocks the path to open inquiry. War not only becomes normalized under such circumstances, it becomes a defining force in shaping all aspects of society, including its use of science and technology. Put differently, as warlike values become more prevalent in American society, science and technology are increasingly being harnessed in the interest of militarized and commercialized values and applications. For example, the defense industries are developing drone aircraft that can be used to deliver high-tech violence not only abroad but also at home. Unmanned drones fitted with surveillance cameras will soon be used to monitor demonstrations. As the technology becomes more advanced, the drones will be mounted with taser guns, rubber bullets and other non-lethal weaponry in order to contain allegedly unruly individuals and crowds.[12] High-tech weapons have already been used on American protests and as the state relies more and more on military values, money and influence to shape its most basic institutions, the use of organized violence against civilians will become more commonplace. For instance, at the 2009 G20 summit of world leaders, democracy took a hit as the Pittsburgh police used sonic canons against protesters.[13] These high-tech weapons were used previously by the US military against Somali pirates and Iraqi insurgents and create sounds loud enough to damage eardrums and potentially produce fatal aneurysms. In public schools, surveillance has become so widespread that one school in Rosemont, Pennsylvania, issued over 1,800 laptops to high school students and then used the Webcams fitted on the computers to spy on students. The mainstream media hardly blinked and the public yawned.

Common sense may be good or bad in terms of its value, but in all cases it is unreflective sense and as such shortcuts the types of critical inquiry fundamental to an engaged public and an aspiring society. Surely, common sense is of little help in explaining the existence of brain research that is now being used to understand and influence how people respond to diverse sales and political pitches. Nor does it explain why there is not a huge public outcry over the emergence of a field such as neuromarketing, designed by politicians and corporations, who are "using MRIs, EEGs, and other brain-scan and medical technology to craft irresistible media messages designed to shift buying habits, political beliefs and voting patterns."[14]  Nor does it explain the politics or the lack of public resistance to food industries using the new media to market junk food to children. Zombie politics loves to depoliticize any vestige of individual agency and will. How else to explain a story by New York Times writer Nicholas D. Kristof, who incredulously legitimates the notion that political judgments are primarily the result of how our brains are hard-wired. This is the ultimate expression of anti-politics, in which matters of agency are now removed from any sense of responsibility, relegated to the brave new world of genetic determinism.

Under such circumstances, memory is lost, history is erased, knowledge becomes militarized and education becomes more of a tool of domination rather than empowerment. One result is not merely a collective ignorance over the meaning, nature and possibilities of politics, but a disdain for democracy itself that provides the condition for a lethal combination of political apathy and cynicism on the one hand and a populist anger and an ethical hardening of the culture on the other. Symbolic and real violence are now the defining features of American society. Instead of appealing to the principles of social justice, moral responsibility and civic courage, the anti-public intellectuals and the market-driven institutions that support them laud common sense. What they don’t mention is that underlying such appeals is a hatred not merely for government, but for democracy itself. The rage will continue and the flirtations with violence will mount. Going rogue is now a metaphor for the death of democratic values and support for modes of symbolic and potentially real violence in which all vestiges of thought, self-reflection and dialogue are destroyed. Hopefully, the voices of reason and justice will recognize how serious this threat to democracy really is and when they do, they will surely understand what Gil Scott-Heron meant when he talked about winter in America.

Notes:

[1]  Hannah Arendt, "On Revolution" (New York: Viking, 1963), p. 79.

[2] Editorial, "Violence in the Lives of Children and Youth," The Child Indicator, 10: 1 (Winter 2010), p. 1.

[3]  Jenna Johnson, "Pledge of Allegiance dispute results in Md. teacher having to apologize," The Washington Post, (February 24, 2010), p. B01.

[4]  Liliana Segura, "Arrested for Doodling on a Desk? "Zero Tolerance" at Schools Is Going Way Too Far," AlterNet, (February 27, 2010).

[5]  I have taken this issue up in great detail in Henry A. Giroux, "Youth in a Suspect Society: Democracy or Disposability?" (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

[6]  Bob Herbert, "They Still Don’t Get It," New York Times (January 23, 2010), p. A21.

[7]  Frank Rich, "The Axis of the Obsessed and the Deranged," The New York Times, (February, 28, 2010), p. WK10.

[8]  Cited in Kathleen Hennessy, "Sarah Palin to Tea Party Convention: ‘This is about the people.’" Los Angeles Times (February 7, 2010).

[9]  David Price, "How the CIA is Welcoming Itself Back Onto American University Campuses," CounterPunch 17:2 (January 16-21, 2010), p. 1.

[10]  Richard J. Bernstein, "The Abuse of Evil: The Corruption of Politics and Religion Since 9/11," (Polity Press, 2005) pp. 1-124.

[11] Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future (New York, Penguin Books, 1977), p. 72.

[12]  Paul Joseph Watson, "Surveillance Drones to Zap Protesters Into Submission," Prison Planet (February 12, 2010). For an excellent source on how the robotic revolution is being used to transform the nature of war, see P.W. Singer, Wired for War: The Robotic Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century (New York: Penguin Press, 2009).

[13] News Blog, "G20 Protesters Blasted by Sonic Cannon," The Guardian (September 25, 2009).

[14] (See, for example, Rinaldo Brutoco and Madeleine Austin, "’Spellcasters’: The Hunt for the ‘Buy Button’ in Your Brain", TruthOut, (January 10, 2010).

Leave a comment