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In a recent post on Twitter, Henry Giroux wrote, “The mainstream press appears obsessed with QAnon or should I say, the spectacle of its most ludicrous followers, such as Marjorie Taylor Green. Little, if nothing, is said about this movement being historically contextualized as part of a larger drift towards white supremacy, state violence, and fascist politics, all of which is supported by the Republican Party and its large social base. Nothing is said about the rise of extremism in the U.S. as part of the full-fledged assault against democracy. Nothing is said about the failure of capitalism to deliver on its promises and how that failure opened the door for tyrants like Trump to appear on the scene, promising to resolve the problems of groups marginalized and the age of precarity while making their conditions worse. Nobody talks about QAnon as part of the crisis of education and democratic culture, not to mention the hollowing out of civil society.”
That was Henry Giroux. I think the question of the formation of the identity of millions of Americans who can believe climate science is fake, a mask mandate during covid is a sinister plot, and so on, is a reflection of the massive failure of the public education system, especially in rural America. My seven-year old kids went to schools in Brooklyn where they were taught a history that included an understanding of racial and economic inequality. Half their class were black or Latino, and while there was still a big dose of Americanism, I doubt their education resembles in many ways what kids are learning in schools in much of rural America. Kids in much of the U.S. are born into a culture of white supremacy, nationalism, religious fundamentalism, a poisonous brew that fills the void of alienation and despair that millions of Americans feel. It’s a breeding ground for fascistization and political support for people like Trump.
Of course, the pro-Wall Street and big business economics of Obama, Clinton, and Democrats at state and local levels help reinforce the world view that the elites in the cities are out to screw workers in the countryside. The writing off of large sections of the population as deplorables or as just backward by liberal elites will continue to till the soil for the Trumps of this country. What should progressives demand from the Biden administration to address the cultural divide in America? Now joining us to discuss this is Henry Giroux, who holds the McMaster University Chair for Scholarship in the public interest in the English and Cultural Studies Department and the Paulo Freire distinguished scholar in critical pedagogy. His most recent books include American Nightmare Facing the Challenge of Fascism. Thanks very much for joining us, Henry.
Thanks for having me, Paul.
So, Henry, you’ve written a lot about this process of fascistization, but you’ve also written a lot and studied the educational system both in the U.S. and Canada. So how do you tie these two issues together?
Well, I think that when you talk about fascism, you have to talk about education, because it seems to me that fascism is an ideology, is a set of social relations, is a set of values as a vision of the future is learned. It’s a learned phenomenon. It’s probably an educational phenomenon. It points to a couple of things. That education is central to politics and that education in its most repressive forms, which takes place in a variety of sites, not just in public education, functions as a form of deep politicization that in many ways shapes people’s identities, their sense of themselves, their relationships to others in the world in a way that may address their frustrations but offers the swindle of fulfillment.
It says if you’re oppressed, it’s because blacks want to take away your jobs. If you’re oppressed and you don’t have a job, it’s because liberal elites basically don’t care about you, which may be partly true. It says that in some fundamental way, education is really about Fox News. If you really want to learn the truth and disregard evidence, then you have to go to those places where, particularly in the last four years, you’ve had a mode of education at work in the larger culture that decries the truth, evidence, and science. It raises the emotional level of the quotient of emotion over reason and in many ways begins to destroy civic culture. I think that there are two further issues that I’ll just briefly mention. Trump’s most important impact on me, which is ignored, is on political culture. He has really shaped the culture in a profoundly disturbing way. Trump, unlike previous Presidents, doesn’t hide behind the veils of the shadows. He’s an overt racist, white supremacist, and white nationalist. He’s a neoliberal, apostle of neoliberalism. He’s an apostle for the rich.
At the same time, he has a way of mastering a cultural apparatus, a pedagogical apparatus called the media. That has become the most powerful, educational apparatus in the interest of a particular political culture, a fascistic political culture that we haven’t seen since the 1920’s like the McCarthy period or the Red Scare. In that sense, to underplay the power of education with its production of progressive ideas and its elimination of institutions capable of supporting democratic values and ideas is something that we have not talked about with respect to this crisis that we find ourselves in.
What is it? It’s not only a crisis of politics, as I think you and I have often said, it’s a crisis of education. It’s a crisis of civic culture. It’s a crisis of agency and it’s a crisis of collective resistance.
Let me add to that because I should have raised this more in my introduction, I think. The education system and mass culture. The production of mass culture that is not just violent, but devoid of any kind of real values, any sense of history. There are exceptions, of course. You can find the odd film that actually deals with some real history or the odd TV show but they’re practically anomalies in terms of what the mass culture of what most Americans and Canadians get to see. It’s this degeneration of the culture, which is the grounds for, for example, a kind of religious extremism.
Like people say, “Oh, well, 20-25 percent of his vote is evangelical.” Well, how about dealing with the question why there’s been such a growth of evangelicalism, extreme evangelical. I can’t say at least 20-25 percent of evangelicals did not vote for Trump, but the kind of extreme evangelicalism that’s tied to right-wing politics is growing. I must say not only in the United States, but to a large extent promoted even elsewhere by the United States.
So talk about this more, sort of what’s happened to American culture, which includes the issue of education.
Well, I think at one level, I mean, some of this is obvious. First, there’s been an enormous defunding of American public education. Secondly, there’s been a destruction of American public education, ideologically and politically. Education since the 1980s, has basically given up on its mission of allowing itself to be defined as a public good. It now defines itself as part of a way to either train students for the global economy or oppress them and model schools after prisons. Whether you’re talking about zero0-tolerance policies or the constant introduction of the police into schools.
I think in some sense, what you have here is a massive attack on what I would call the civic imagination. I think that you’ve mentioned two things that have to be understood with respect to the transformation of schools. One is the death of historical consciousness. You can’t have a democracy without having some sense of history, without having some sense of what happened, what’s right, what’s wrong, and what the legacies of history can teach us.
Secondly, you have to have an education that in some way makes connections; allows people to understand something within a comprehensive map in which one can say, for instance, if schools are failing, they’re failing because you have massive inequality in the country. Consequently, money is being shifted away from the public goods to the rich. Therefore, schools are failing because they’re underfunded. It’s not just because they’re underfunded. You have to understand the logic, economic issue.
But I’ll tell you, here’s the real issue for. You live in a culture where we’ve been taught since the 1980s with Reagan, that not only the government doesn’t matter, and hence there’s no sense of responsibility, but that all problems are individual problems. That the people have lost the ability to translate private issues into larger public considerations so that whenever there’s a problem, the ultimate way of resolving that problem is to blame oneself and to say what is responsible for that problem.
That is such a powerful form of deep politicization. It offers individuals no tools for looking at larger social structures, no tools for understanding the constraints that are imposed on people that suggest that they may not be responsible – for instance with the destruction of the planet, or militarization, or the rise of state funding in the interest of state violence, or systemic racism. You have people who, in fact, no longer have a language understanding democracy and in some way defending it. You have the collapse of civic institutions and an ideology that strips people of the discourse that they need to be able to define themselves as collective agents who are self-reflective, critical, and can act collectively against problems they cannot solve alone. This is a real problem. Think about how that inflicts upon evangelicals who believe in community but have no vision for democracy. Think about how it inflicts on people who say, I don’t want to wear a mask, even though if I don’t, I may kill my grandmother.
This is a notion of freedom stripped of any vision, any sense of social responsibility that ties in with another of the more damaging, poisonous, toxic, neoliberal ideological assumptions. That is, the only interest that matters is self-interest. So I guess what I’m trying to say is, if education is something that is crucial to the public good, reinforces and brings together those institutions that connect us in ways in which we have shared values, some shared understanding of the truth, some shared understanding of justice. If they begin to dissolve, then it seems to me you find yourself in a fascist state.
[Theodor] Adorno said something interesting. If you really want to understand fascism, you better look at capitalism quite carefully, because it seems to me it has no vision, it’s utterly cruel, it produces massive degrees of inequality. Most importantly, it has an educational apparatus, corporate-controlled at its service that is one of the most powerful educational forces in the world. We are now seeing the consequences of that with 75 million people in the United States supporting an outright fascist. They learned this and didn’t become a fascist overnight. They buy into this for numerous reasons, as you have suggested, another conversation. This is not just because they’re racist, it’s not just because they’re economically deprived. It’s because it seems to me, we’ve lost that element of our society. That civic moment. That moment of shared consciousness where democracy is always unfinished and you have to fight and struggle for it collectively and individually. That moment has disappeared because people now presuppose that democracy and capitalism are the same thing and they’re not. Until we get by that, we’re in big trouble.
I made a film in the spring of 2002 in Afghanistan called Return to Kandahar. If people want to see it, it’s on theAnalysis website in the documentary section. One of the stops I made, as we traveled from Kabul to Kandahar, we stopped at a place for lunch. There were some truck drivers there who had grown up mostly under the Taliban, essentially with no schools. But they knew how to drive modern trucks and they knew how to fire an AK 47. We were chatting through a translator and they asked me, where are you from? I said from Canada. I asked, do you know where Canada is? They said, oh, of course, next to Germany.
The reason they thought that is because the Germans were building a school nearby and the Canadians were building something. So they figured Canada, Germany, they must be next to each other. I said, have you ever seen a globe or an atlas and they said no. They’re literally living in a medieval understanding of what the world is like 1500-1600. They could operate what needed to be operated, which was to drive a modern truck. It occurred to me that is that really that different than what capitalism is in many countries, including the United States, where it’s been heading for decades, which is much of the working class no longer needs to be educated, they just have to do a very specific function.
In fact, the more computerized we get, the more the process of production, not just AI robots, but all you have to do is hit one button or the assembly line runs itself. I think something happened during that period of Reaganism and Thatcherism. Canada was more Roney-ism (Brian Mulroney, Canadian PM 1984-1993) and such. In this era, they started to realize you don’t need this liberal education. You don’t need people that understand history.
Just let me add one more point, I was on the advisory committee, I don’t know if it’s still there, of the Masters in Journalism program at the University of Western Ontario. I went there with some other people from the world of journalism and I found out there that you can get a Masters of Journalism with one high school history credit and you’re supposed to go do journalism. So, you know, Gore Vidal had this line about the United States of amnesia, but it’s a very deliberate creation of a culture, which has no idea of any basics of history. So, of course, people are susceptible to, you know, one crazy theory after another.
I mean, you know, look, the issue is not only the rise of a kind of instrumental rationality that limits people with the skills rather than cultivates a capacity for having a radical and social imagination. It seems to me it’s also a worldview that in many ways so diminishes their sense of agency and does it consciously because, you know, Hannah Arendt was right. Thinking is dangerous and you can’t talk about particularly critical thinking unless you talk about education in some fundamental way. I’m shocked at the way in which matters of education and the changing of consciousness, the notion of civic culture, how that’s been so separated from any sense of politics. I mean, when I talk to the people on the left about education, they say, oh, you’re talking about schools, right? I say, no, I’m not just talking about schools. I’m talking about a culture that basically operates through its cultural apparatuses, whether we’re talking about the press, the media, digital, digital media, you know, the teaching machines. They basically shape consciousness. They shape identities and it seems to me that until we begin to understand that, we need to make something meaningful, to make it critical, to make it transformative.
We’re basically in trouble and I think what I’m trying to say with that is that, look, it’s not enough just to say we need people to learn something. People need to first feel that what they’re learning is relevant to their lives. They need to see a connection between their lives and what’s going on. I mean, I find that there are academics who basically speak in a language that only five people understand and I’m not just being theoretical.
I mean, I think that they truly have removed themselves in an insular way from the larger world and believe that there’s something important about that. I’m not sure about that because I don’t even know how they defend the conditions of their own labor. Then you have journalists who believe that being balanced is more important than being truthful. You know, then you have, it seems to me, a social media that is so driven by the spectacle, which is another notion of civic illiteracy.
I mean, if I had to map this, I would say, okay, let’s put civic literacy at the top, democracy, civic literacy, civic illiteracy, and then let’s look at the various apparatuses that contribute to that. Let’s look at the history. We can talk about historical amnesia. We can talk about social amnesia, the ability to translate private issues into larger considerations, the incapacity, the attack on the radical imagination, institutions of civic culture being completely eliminated, if not privatized and commodified.
Then all of a sudden something happens, it gets normalized, it gets normalized. It’s no longer a matter of debate. Oh, education. Yeah, it’s about memorization. It’s about testing. It’s about educating people for the workforce, educating people for civic culture. I mean, the old Dewey notion that you can’t have a democracy without an informed public. Where did that go? You know, you want to say to almost every university president in North America, you know, what’s the mission of your university now?
You know, why is it three-quarters of your faculty are part time workers some of whom have to work in Walmarts to basically survive? What does it mean when we talk about students as clients? What does it mean when somebody like Chris Hedges or I don’t know, you know, some of these more radical historians, especially coming out of Yale who are saying, hey, look, simply because I compared Trump to, I say this is fascism, it doesn’t mean that Trump has to imitate Hitler.
It means that we have to learn from history. You don’t just dismiss fascism by saying it doesn’t exactly correspond to what we saw in the 1930s. After all, we’re not putting people in trains and sending them off to Auschwitz. But we have to ask ourselves what’s happened during those periods that speak to us in a fundamentally important way that echo, it seems to me, a whole range of attitudes, practices, and ideologies that should be alarming.
That point to something about history and the present moment, because the present moment is frozen, we’re frozen in a moment of anxious anxieties and precarity and uncertainty. That has allowed the right-wing media to mobilize those fears, those elements of precarity that uncertainty into the most fascistic political culture we have seen since the 1920s. We have to ask ourselves, how did they do it?
Well, I think one of the ways it was done and, you know, this is a process, it’s not like people sitting around thinking about how to do all this. It happens as part of how capitalism unfolds. But I want to make sure I make one thing clear, which is I’m not talking about, you know, advanced cities and backward countryside, although there is some truth to it. But the delusion and I have to say rationality of people who think they’re so rational in the cities are the elites that are doing well. I’m not just talking about the one percent. I’m talking about maybe the top 10, 15, 20 percent and we have to say the majority of the population in the cities are workers, many workers of color.
So I’m not talking about them, but the people with wealth in the cities who look at the quote-unquote backwardness of the rural population, who vote for Trump and believe in all these other things. Is it any more irrational in the cities and maybe even less because people who have access to information accept a complete, not climate denial, but climate crisis avoidance? Like they actually knew the information about how dangerous the climate crisis was and the people in the elites in the cities, as represented mostly through the Democratic Party, took almost no action, certainly nothing significant enough to actually live up to what scientists say are necessary. I’ll give you another one. The complete…
Can I say something about that?
Yeah, go ahead.
If I may. Look, I’m really sick and tired of hearing that the best and the brightest come out of Harvard, Yale and Princeton and Ivy League schools.
They certainly think they do.
They think they do and I think it’s nonsense. I think they’ve done more damage. They gave us the Vietnam War. They gave us the Iraqi war. They gave us, in a sense, the displacement of millions of people from the Middle East. So I don’t buy that crap anymore. I think that what I hear you saying, and what I completely agree with, is not only do they not exercise in spite of what they know, a certain level of social and political responsibility, but they actually occupy a criminogenic culture in many ways. It’s so removed from any sense of social responsibility to anybody else other than those people in their networks, those ruling class networks and cultural apparatuses that they move in that to then claim that people in the Midwest are just dumbbells and stupid.
While they, in fact, are responsible for the underfunding, the misappropriation of funds into the military budget, rather, into infrastructures and schools. Now they’re finding something out, what they’re finding out with the coronavirus is they can’t do that anymore. That, in fact, if half of all America is not getting the vaccine, they’re going to spread the mutants to them. I mean, there’s a certain kind of logic that’s taking place in a certain kind of vengefulness that maybe we might call it the vengefulness of history. You know, a history of illiteracy, not on the part of the poor, not on the part of the working class, not on the part of rural, but a kind of contrived ignorance wrapped in degrees that seem to suggest they’re immune to it, while at the same time they’re not held accountable.
I wrote a piece on theAnalysis where I was saying, you cannot separate the process of fascistization from the process of financialization.
The destruction of the schools, the destruction of public education, the undoing of the New Deal, the social safety net. It’s all been driven by these people from Harvard and Yale that run finance. All these big brains are the people and I don’t even blame them individually. You know, the system itself has created this parasitical financial sector and it drives everything in the society, including all the culture and education and the irrationality of these such smart people is they won’t recognize they’re driving, not just the United States, but the world over a cliff. You know, we’re facing existential threats, not just climate, the complete denial of the threat of nuclear war. It’s mind-boggling that such smart people can be so goddamn stupid.
I think there are two things you’ve said that I find very, very interesting and it needs to be reinforced, certainly in my own work. That is that, you know, in the old notion that if you really want to talk about fascism, you have to look at capitalism. Financialization is an updated form of capitalism and certainly its most savage form, to say the very least, both in terms of what it does domestically and what it does globally.
Secondly, it seems to me we need to redefine the notion of ignorance. I think there’s a cost base, gender-based notion that operates around ignorance that makes us forget that people can be smart. But in terms of how they get seduced by power and what it means for them to be privileged within those realms of power produces consequences that are so devastating for the planet, so devastating for the inequality. Let’s even touch that just for a moment regarding your concept of financialization.
Paul, you can’t have a democracy by simply pointing to the personal and political rights. You don’t have economic rights, it’s all nonsense. You know, look, if your mode of existence is tied to a politics of survival where you have to think every day about whether you’re going to choose between food or dog food or you’re going to feed your kids and not eat yourself, do you really think that I’m thinking about who I’m going to vote for? I mean, I’m really thinking about how I’m going to really sit down and work out these issues in a kind of complex way that demands a lot of time.
Of course not. So if you really want to talk about the threat of fascism, you really want to talk about creating the conditions that make it impossible. Sorry. Let’s talk about the conditions that make it impossible and that means you’ve got to couple economic relations with political and personal rights. You can’t do it. FDR knew it and he was a liberal and he got it. He understood that and that language today is anathema.
It’s one of the reasons that liberals find it so easy. So many liberals find it so easy to say, oh, rural America. Rednecks, stupid, don’t know anything. Deplorables. Oh, boy, I’ll tell you, that formula goes nowhere. Actually, it reinforces the logic of disposability because to the degree to which you can believe those people are not really human and we don’t look at the conditions that created them but personalize the politics that we attribute to them. That’s part of a very dangerous logic that ultimately goes in very, very dangerous places, as you and I well know, if you know anything about history.
I think one of the things that need to be understood and discussed with people living in these areas, the rural areas, some of the areas in the southern states, is this attempt to destroy education, to create this hatred of the left was very much also about creating right-to-work states, which essentially meant the destruction of unionization. You know, in the end, this is all about money. This is, you know, the original fight was how do you exploit labor through wage labor or slave labor? Well, the right-wing of the elites and I would include now, because of the power of finance, most of finance, the way to maximize profit is to destroy unions and turn wage workers as close to slaves as you can get them.
Take it even further. Look, you really want to measure the essence of a democracy in any country? Ask yourself how it treats its young people? Particularly, those marginalized by class and race. Young people are a long term investment. They’re a long term investment. You build schools, you build public goods, you provide supports. Under this system of savage financialization, they’re a liability because they’re not a short term investor.You don’t pump money in and get money back immediately. You don’t do it. So all the institutions that we ordinarily in the past have pointed to, to support a future for young people so they don’t end up living in their parent’s cellars, not having jobs, and saddled with debt that will sort of rest with them and strangle their futures for the rest of their lives. I mean, you’ve got to change, you’ve got to flip the script.
I mean, you know, the fundamental question for me around education in politics is what kind of future do you want for your children? You want to talk about that? What I would say with respect to what you were just saying about people who live in rural America, let’s talk to them about the things that they understand. They really understand because these are life-saving, life-giving issues. How your health care? How’s your schools? What’s your water like? What’s your daily income? What access do you have to health care? These are the issues that matter.
Then we’ve got to take those issues and put them in a context where they can understand that they’re ascribing to an ideology that really makes it worse for them. One of the things about Trumpism, a form of fascism, that is so obvious is that you identify the malaise, then you make it worse. By making it worse, you then provide simplistic answers that have nothing to do with basically addressing those problems and widening the scope of people who are impacted by them.
Wow. Think about that. I mean, what a savage, cruel formula that is and it’s coupled by a language of cruelty. Fascism begins with language. You begin by dehumanizing people. That’s how it begins.
Let me ask you about this. It seems to me that Obama and again, I don’t want to blame him individually so much. If it hadn’t been him, it would have been somebody else. But his education policies using the cloud of federal money to push testing and to even further this progress of students as little cogs in a wheel for getting jobs and being really uneducated cogs in that wheel. Obama and his education policies under the Obama administration played a really bad role. But that being said, I think one of the demands that needs to be made of the Biden administration, and I know educators and teachers unions are raising these issues, that use that federal money to start insisting on a science fact-based curriculum.
Actually get back to this idea that children should be educated, not just trained to go out and be like my truck drivers in Afghanistan.
I would qualify that a bit. I absolutely support what you’re saying, but education has to define its mission as a public good. I mean, one that takes questions of civic literacy seriously, which would include learning science, learning history, drawing from the different disciplines, learning how to bring them together, and relating what you know in some fundamental way to expanding the capacity for making democracy work. Because in the end, education is really about having some control over the conditions in your life, that bear down on you, right?
I mean, we have to learn to educate people to govern and not just be governed. So we have to rethink the question of leadership. You have to rethink the capacity for the conditions that make the agency possible. We have to rethink the very notion of what it means to be critically literate and to embrace a civic and social imagination. I mean, all those things have to come together in a curriculum for democracy. We need a curriculum for democracy.
Well, let me build on what you just said there. Trump created this commission called the 1776 Commission, which was created to create this patriotic narrative of American history. It’s to justify every kind of racism and theme of exploitation and any sense of the real beginnings of the United States as a slave society. So Biden, one of his early executive orders was to disband the 1776 commission.
But he has to go past that, they’ve got to flip that and have a real curriculum –what is the real history of America – and tie federal funding to the teaching of such a curriculum. It doesn’t have to be propaganda, it just has to be fact-based.
I think any history that matters is a history that both celebrates and interrogates. Right? I mean this is just a ritual for religious theological form of patriotic education, I think. What I was going to say is that Trump did us a real favor. I mean, Trump made it clear that education is always a struggle over power. It’s always a struggle over narratives about who we are. It’s always a struggle over, in some fundamental way, how we want to view the future. I think the difference between you and me and Trump is we want to teach different narratives.
We want to embrace a different struggle. We want to embrace the struggle that educates people to believe that democracy is worth fighting over and that they have a role in that fight, in that struggle.
It’s a little bit of a segway, but not a big one. There’s another kind of hypocrisy that I think needs to be addressed and that’s Hollywood and New York, too. Television, movie making, you know, a lot of liberals running these institutions. But with, again, some exceptions. You know, there’s the odd film that really tries to do some social good and there’s the odd TV show that does as well. Honestly, these days, maybe more than the odd one, because there are so many streaming services and things are breaking through. On the whole, Hollywood, number one, is absolutely vicious in terms of how they treat each other. Money-making drives everything and the mass culture that gets produced for the majority of the people of the country is horrendous. But it makes money. So you can be a liberal over here. But over here, you’re creating movies that help the process of fascistization.
I mean, I think that for me, I try to, and I’ve written about this, I wrote a book on film and not so much Hollywood, but I’m looking at various films and how they contribute to this nonsense, particularly around the spectacle of violence. I mean, I think that if you look at the evolution of Hollywood films over the last 20 years, there was a time when somebody got shot and blood came out. Now they’ve got people who cut heads off and, you know, they sort of revel in the spectacle. I guess the question for me is, what is it about the spectacle that makes it such a legitimating and central organizing element of film? You’ve just said it, it’s about money. Money drives the spectacle. I mean, not thought, not contemplation, not films that basically speak to important social problems, though some do. But Hollywood is part of a machine like all the other cultural apparatuses and they’re not machines that raise fundamental inquiries about how we can expand the public good and what’s our responsibility for that.
That raises a logical question and that is, what’s the role of public intellectuals, whether they’re directors, whether they’re journalists like yourself or me as an academic? I mean, what responsibility do we have in a culture? Is it really only about producing junk in the interest of raising profits? If it is, how did we get tied into that? I mean, what are the forces that are so narrow our choices around what counts that we can’t imagine making a film that matters?
We can imagine writing a piece where, you know, Paul Jay takes a real stand and says, look, here it is. I’ve studied this sort of stuff is nonsense and I’m sorry. You know, I’m going to put myself out and take a risk because I think that’s what we should do as public intellectuals. We should take a risk. Whatever happened to the notion of taking a risk in the interests of the public good? Where did that language go? How did it devolve in such a way that you can have half a population in the United States that believes that public health isn’t important enough to collectively come together in order to save hundreds of thousands of lives? That’s a death machine. That’s a culture of death, and that’s a serious issue. That’s learned and it’s reproduced in these cultural apparatuses.
I think we also have to ask the question, why does this kind of violent spectacle sell so well?
I think part of the answer is that capitalism has so little vision for a future other than decay, people get more and more deadened. You don’t feel anything. Your life is boring. There’s nothing that gets exciting. You go home, watch TV. Your life is essentially deadening. So you got to feel something and these images of violence, at least you feel something. You feel scared. I feel apprehension. At least you’re feeling something. The problem is the system itself actually has no future. I always thought it was hilarious. In most science fiction movies, including Star Trek and the Lucas films and all the rest, the future for them is actually medievalism with spaceships. You know, kings and lords fighting each other. They even dress like they’re practically in medieval costumes and that’s the future.
I think, you know, that’s such an important issue. But we may be using the wrong language. That’s a pedagogical issue for me, because when you live in a culture of immediacy where there was no broader context, we’re shocked. It becomes the endless repetition and motif for driving films, for driving various narratives, for driving shock radio, driving the news. The quotient for being emotionally uplifted or charged, gets higher and higher. You need more violence. You need more of the spectacle. Then you have to produce individuals who are celebrities who are vacant and empty. It’s stupid. They not only become role models for young people, they become people who actually have the nerve to comment on things that they’ve never thought about in their lives. Whether we should reform the prison system, the Kardashians. Well, that’s interesting. Do I really need the Kardashians to tell me about the prison system? Isn’t it interesting that, you know, they can get things done?
I mean, we have no models, Paul. We used to have Martin Luther King. We used to have, you know, Daniel Ellsberg. I mean, these are heroes in the culture, real heroes. They stood for something. They took risks. They put their lives on the line. What do you have now? I mean, what the head of IBM, I mean, Bill Gates. I mean, do I really want to believe that these business people who operate with a criminogenic culture endlessly should be brought before the American people as the people who matter? Trump as a savior? As a strong man? Wow. I mean, if we can’t figure out the conditions that produce that we’re gone. There’s no hope.
I would say I think there’s plenty of heroes out there. They just don’t get on mass media.
There’s people organizing strikes and in factories and, you know, fighting for reforms. I mean, at every level all over the country, there’s a lot of, you know, really heroic people who are sacrificing their living. Even, I’ll tell you, even I was saying the other day, it occurred to me, Larry Wilkerson, you know, who I interview all the time here. You know, he lives on a pretty modest income. You know, he was a professor. He has a pension. Larry Wilkerson could have cashed in, in the military-industrial complex if he hadn’t become such a critic of U.S. foreign policy. There are others, you know, Snowden’s and others who really have stuck their neck out.
Just as an example of how the media has decayed, In 1968, ABC had a debate between William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal. You know, by the time Gore Vidal died and I got to know him a bit, he hadn’t been on television for years and they wouldn’t allow anyone that talks like that. You simply can’t get on TV anymore. It’s this process of decay that has gotten to a point and people don’t realize how far it’s gone because it happened kind of slowly.
Let me suggest this. The politics of exclusion has become a motif that we hear everywhere today because it’s obvious with the southern border and what Trump has done. But this is another politics of exclusion, and that’s the exclusion of those thoughts, ideas, ideologies, political views that really go to the heart of what the system is about and where it’s come from and what its consequences are. In some ways, it’s worse because power is at its worst when it’s invisible. It’s at its most destructive when it’s invisible and when we talk about a fascist era in which, you know, the fascist, they control the media. They don’t need to control the media anymore it’s not dominated by corporations. Or we talk about the fascist attack on intellectuals. They don’t have to put them in jail anymore, they just ignore them. You know, we talk about the fascists attacking ideas. When Trump can come up with a notion like patriotic education and it really gets a bleep in the national media. They talk and say this is terrible, but it’s terrible not because he said it. It’s terrible because it’s been going on for 40 years and Obama supported it.
I mean, these liberals supported it. I mean, we need a new phrase here. Pedagogies of repression. That’s what they are. They’re pedagogies of repression. I mean, they’re not just simply educational tools because they incapacitate people. They depoliticise them. They rob them of their imagination and they turned him into protofascists because these people have no larger understanding of what it means to participate in a system that actually hates them, actually hates them.
Yeah, I think one of the things that’s critical for those of us that are trying to change this situation, is undoing the mythology of the Cold War and one of the biggest myths of the Cold War, which is not just pushed by the Republican Party, but was very much in recent years part of a Democratic Party narrative is the mythology around Ronald Reagan. To turn that guy who was a racist anti-working class into one of the great presidents and they call him a transformative president. When they asked Obama, where do you find your foreign policy roots? He said Truman and Reagan, which was crazy. The guy that dropped the atomic bomb and the militarist Reagan. So I’m doing a series right now with the guy who directed Matt Tyrnauer who directed the Reagans. I think we really need to undo this mythology of the Cold War because that set the plate for where we’re at now.
I think there are two issues here. One, the mythology goes beyond the Cold War, it’s the mythology of exceptionalism. American exceptionalism basically legitimates this Cold War narrative. But it does something worse. It operates off the assumption that democracy has never died, the United States, that it’s always been its central organizing principle, and that whenever anyone seems to suggest that democracy died for good in 1692, the conversation ends. You become unpatriotic, you become unamerican. Terms that you don’t really see in other countries anymore. So it seems to me until we can begin a narrative in a form of interrogation about where this country has come from and what it means and where it’s going and what institutions we need to develop that, at least, interrogate this nonsense, then we’re going to believe that people like Obama, who parade as progressive, have to be progressive simply because they’re marginal. They’ve been marginalized by color or race or whatever else.
I want to talk about their politics. I don’t want to talk about the notion of being colorblind. I don’t want to believe that people who are now being elevated to higher offices who come from different positions, somehow we should celebrate that without talking about a system that creates them. That they eventually get seduced by and then reproduce. This question of getting at the political heart of what we’re about is absolutely central to saving the country.
I want to make one suggestion that people listening can do at a very local level with their own school, their own kids, something I did when I was in the US. I would do something similar here, is I told my kids in the morning when they went to school, don’t stand for the Pledge of Allegiance and take that on. They didn’t quite understand it, but they sort of did. But to my surprise, when I told the teacher, now, again, this is a difference between Brooklyn and some other places in the country, I told the teacher that I didn’t want the kids standing.
She said, I’m with you. I’m not going to make the kids stand. Increasingly, there is a certain amount of support in the schools for kind of ignoring this pledge. I mean, to pledge allegiance to the flag. This idea of American identity. Like, I will not say the words. I’m a dual citizen so I can say this both as a Canadian and an American. I will never say I love my country.
I will say I love the people of my country, but my country is the institutions and the flag is the symbol of the state. To pledge allegiance, with your hand over your heart, if that isn’t a kind of fascist culture, which, of course, came out of the Cold War where they started getting people to stand up and pledge allegiance because it was all part of the Cold War hysteria against the left and socialists and communists, I think, at a very local level, take it on with your school. Start a fight over the content with your school. I don’t know what you think and maybe you’ve got some other suggestions.
Well, I think there are two things. I think that all nationalism contains the poison of fascism. I think that we really need to talk about democratic globalism. I mean, we really need to recognize the fact that nation-states are not even in control of themselves anymore financially. I mean, you know, my former friend, the late Zygmunt Bauman, he used to say, hey, look, power and politics are now separated. Power floats, you know, power’s global, but politics is local, you know, and they have no funds. They have a sense of what they want to do. They can’t fund it.
We live in a different world and this world really needs to begin to rethink a notion of internationalism. Where, you know, in some ways these borders begin to break down because, you know, viruses don’t recognize borders. Wars on the nuclear war won’t recognize borders. The climate catastrophe won’t recognize borders. I think regarding making that more concrete and not too abstract, I think that communities have to get control of their schools. I think that we need to have national funding with communities getting control of their schools.
I think we have to talk about curriculums that matter. We have to talk about schools being related to everyday life. We have to stop talking about bureaucrats dictating to working-class people what schools could do because working-class people don’t understand the language. When I lived in one part of the United States, at one point, you know, I was mobilizing people in the community to learn how to speak to administrators and it was shocking.
They would come into the meeting with a language they’ve never had before. These administrators would say, well, we’re going to do this, it’s the testing protocol. They would say, no, we don’t buy that. We don’t want that. You know why aren’t we looking at local history here? Why are you talking to families about what should be done with the schools? For me, the question is not just pushing back in terms of structures, but shifting power.
What do we do to shift power relations? That’s the key. I don’t want to give these power relations to governors. Right-wing governors who control the states and legislators. You know, people have to assume that schools are public goods. They should be owned by the people and decided by the people, not just simply dictated to by idiots whose only allegiance is to financialization and profits.
All right. Thanks for joining us, Henry.
OK, thanks, Paul.