BILL MOYERS: Welcome. A very wise teacher once told us, “If you want to change the world, change the metaphor.” Then he gave us some of his favorite examples. You think of language differently, he said, if you think of “words pregnant with celestial fire.” Or “words that weep and tears that speak.” Of course, the heart doesn’t physically separate into pieces when we lose someone we love, but “a broken heart” conveys the depth of loss. And if I say you are the “apple of my eye”, you know how special you are in my sight. In other words, metaphors cleanse the lens of perception and give us a fresh take on reality. In other words.
Recently I read a book and saw a film that opened my eyes to see differently the crisis of our times, and the metaphor used by both was, believe it or not, zombies. You heard me right, zombies. More on the film later, but this is the book: “Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism”. Talk about “connecting the dots” — read this, and the headlines of the day will, I think, arrange themselves differently in your head — threading together ideas and experiences to reveal a pattern. The skillful weaver is Henry Giroux, a scholar, teacher and social critic with seemingly tireless energy and a broad range of interests. Here are just a few of his books: America's Education Deficit and the War on Youth, Twilight of the Social, Youth in a Suspect Society, Neoliberalism's War on Higher Education.
Henry Giroux is the son of working class parents in Rhode Island who now holds the Global TV Network Chair in English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University in Canada. Henry Giroux, welcome.
HENRY GIROUX: Pleasure. It’s great to be here.
BILL MOYERS: There's a great urgency in your recent books and in the essays you've been posting online, a fierce urgency, almost as if you are writing with the doomsday clock ticking. What accounts for that?
HENRY GIROUX: Well, for me democracy is too important to allow it to be undermined in a way in which every vital institution that matters from the political process to the schools to the inequalities that, to the money being put into politics, I mean, all those things that make a democracy viable are in crisis.
And the problem is the crisis, while we recognize in many ways is associated increasingly with the economic system, what we haven't gotten yet is that it should be accompanied by a crisis of ideas, that the stories that are being told about democracy are really about the swindle of fulfillment.
The swindle of fulfillment in that what the reigning elite in all of their diversity now tell the American people if not the rest of the world is that democracy is an excess. It doesn't really matter anymore, that we don't need social provisions, we don't need the welfare state, that the survival of the fittest is all that matters, that in fact society should mimic those values in ways that suggest a new narrative.
I mean you have a consolidation of power that is so overwhelming, not just in its ability to control resources and drive the economy and redistribute wealth upward, but basically to provide the most fraudulent definition of what a democracy should be.
I mean, the notion that profit making is the essence of democracy, the notion that economics is divorced from ethics, the notion that the only obligation of citizenship is consumerism, the notion that the welfare state is a pathology, that any form of dependency basically is disreputable and needs to be attacked, I mean, this is a vicious set of assumptions.
BILL MOYERS: Are we close to equating democracy with capitalism?
HENRY GIROUX: Oh, I mean, I think that's the biggest lie of all actually. The biggest lie of all is that capitalism is democracy. We have no way of understanding democracy outside of the market, just as we have no understanding of how to understand freedom outside of market values.
BILL MOYERS: Explain that. What do you mean "outside of market values?"
HENRY GIROUX: I mean you know, when Margaret Thatcher married Ronald Reagan–
BILL MOYERS: Metaphorically?
HENRY GIROUX: Metaphorically. Two things happened. 1) There was this assumption that the government was evil except when it regulated its power to benefit the rich. So it wasn't a matter of smashing the government as Reagan seemed to suggest, it was a matter of rearranging it and reconfiguring it so it served the wealthy, the elites and the corporate, of course, you know, those who run mega corporations. But Thatcher said something else that's particularly interesting in this discussion.
She said there's no such thing as society. There are only individuals and families. And so what we begin to see is the emergence of a kind of ethic, a survival of the fittest ethic that legitimates the most incredible forms of cruelty, that seems to suggest that freedom in this discourse of getting rid of society, getting rid of the social– that discourse is really only about self-interest, that possessive individualism is now the only virtue that matters. So freedom, which is essential to any notion of democracy, now becomes nothing more than a matter of pursuing your own self interests. No society can survive under those conditions.
BILL MOYERS: So what is society? When you use it as an antithesis to what Margaret Thatcher said, what do you have in mind? What's the metaphor for–
HENRY GIROUX: I have in mind a society in which the wealth is shared, in which there is a mesh of organizations that are grounded in the social contract, that takes seriously the mutual obligations that people have to each other. But more than anything else– I'm sorry, but I want to echo something that FDR once said,
When he said that, you know, you not only have to have personal freedoms and political freedoms, the right to vote the right to speak, you have to have social freedom. You have to have the freedom from want, the freedom from poverty, the freedom from– that comes with a lack of health care.
Getting ahead cannot be the only motive that motivates people. You have to imagine what a good life is. But agency, the ability to do that, to have the capacity to basically be able to make decisions and learn how to govern and not just be governed–
BILL MOYERS: As a citizen.
HENRY GIROUX: As a citizen.
BILL MOYERS: A citizen is a moral agent of–
HENRY GIROUX: A citizen is a political and moral agent who in fact has a shared sense of hope and responsibility to others and not just to him or herself. Under this system, democracy is basically like the lotto. You know, go in, you put a coin in, and if you're lucky, you win something. If you don't, then you become something else.
BILL MOYERS: So then why when I talk about the urgency in your writing, your forthcoming book opens with this sentence, "America's descending into madness." Now, don't you think many people will read that as hyperbole?
HENRY GIROUX: Sometimes in the exaggerations there are great truths. And it seems to me that what’s unfortunate here is that's not an exaggeration.
BILL MOYERS: Well, madness can mean several things. It can mean insanity. It can mean lunacy. But it can also mean folly, foolishness, you know, look at that craziness over there. Which do you mean?
HENRY GIROUX: I mean, it's certainly not just about foolishness. It's about a kind of lunacy in which people lose themselves in a sense of power and greed and exceptionalism and nationalism in ways that so undercut the meaning of democracy and the meaning of justice that you have to sit back and ask yourself how could the following, for instance, take place?
How could people who allegedly believe in democracy and the American Congress cut $40 billion from a food stamp program, half of which those food stamps go to children? And you ask yourself how could that happen? I mean, how can you say no to a Medicaid program which is far from radical but at the same time offers poor people health benefits that could save their lives?
How do you shut down public schools and say that charter schools and private schools are better because education is really not a right, it's an entitlement? How do you get a discourse governing the country that seems to suggest that anything public, public health, public transportation, public values, you know, public engagement is a pathology?
BILL MOYERS: Let me answer that from the other side. They would say to you that we cut Medicaid or food stamps because they create dependency. We closed public schools because they aren't working, they aren't teaching. People are coming out not ready for life.
HENRY GIROUX: No, no, that's the answer that they give. I mean, and it's a mark of their insanity. I mean, that's precisely an answer that in my mind embodies a kind of psychosis that is so divorced– is in such denial about power and how it works and is in such denial about their attempt at what I call individualize the social, in other words–
BILL MOYERS: Individualize?
HENRY GIROUX: Individualize the social, which means that all problems, if they exist, rest on the shoulders of individuals.
BILL MOYERS: You are responsible.
HENRY GIROUX: You are responsible.
BILL MOYERS: If you're poor, you're responsible if you're ignorant, you're responsible if–
HENRY GIROUX: Exactly.
BILL MOYERS: –you're sick?
HENRY GIROUX: That's right, that the government– the larger social order, the society has no responsibility whatsoever so that– you often hear this, I mean, if there–I mean, if you have an economic crisis caused by the hedge fund crooks, you know and millions of people are put out of work and they're all lining up for unemployment, what do we hear in the national media? We hear that maybe they don't know how to fill out unemployment forms, maybe it's about character. You know, maybe they're just simply lazy.
BILL MOYERS: This line struck me, "The ideology of hardness and cruelty runs through American culture like an electric current…"
HENRY GIROUX: Yeah, it sure does. I mean, to see poor people, their benefits being cut, to see pensions of Americans who have worked like my father, all their lives, and taken away, to see the rich just accumulating more and more wealth.
I mean, it seems to me that there has to be a point where you have to say, "No, this has to stop." We can't allow ourselves to be driven by those lies anymore. We can't allow those who are rich, who are privileged, who are entitled, who accumulate wealth to simply engage in a flight from social and moral and political responsibility by blaming the people who are victimized by those policies as the source of those problems.
BILL MOYERS: There's a new reality you write emerging in America in no small part because of the media, one that enshrines a politics of disposability in which growing numbers of people are considered dispensable and a drain on the body politic and the economy, not to mention you say an affront on the sensibilities of the rich and the powerful.
HENRY GIROUX: If somebody had to say to me– ask me the question, "What exactly is new that we haven't seen before?" And I think that what we haven't seen before is an attack on the social contract, Bill, that is so overwhelming, so dangerous in the way in which its being deconstructed and being disassembled that you now have as a classic example, you have a whole generation of young people who are now seen as disposable.
They're in debt, they're unemployed. My friend, Zygmunt Bauman, calls them the zero generation: zero jobs, zero hope, zero possibilities, zero employment. And it seems to me when a country turns its back on its young people because they figure in investments not long term investments, they can't be treated as simply commodities that are going to in some way provide an instant payback and extend the bottom line, they represent something more noble than that. They represent an indication of how the future is not going to mimic the present and what obligations people might have, social, political, moral and otherwise to allow that to happen, and we've defaulted on that possibility.
BILL MOYERS: You actually call it– there's the title of the book, “America's Education Deficit and the War on Youth.”
HENRY GIROUX: Oh, this is a war. It's a war that endlessly commercializes kids, both as commodities and as commodifiable.
BILL MOYERS: Example?
HENRY GIROUX: Example being that the young people can't turn anywhere without in some way being told that the only obligation of citizenship is to shop, is to be a consumer. You can't walk