Donald Trump’s ascendancy in American politics has made visible a plague of deep-seated civic illiteracy, a corrupt political system and a contempt for reason that has been decades in the making. It also points to the withering of civic attachments, the undoing of civic culture, the decline of public life and the erosion of any sense of shared citizenship. As Trump has galvanized his base of true believers in post-election demonstrations, the world is witnessing how a politics of bigotry and hate is transformed into a spectacle of demonization, division and disinformation. Under President Trump, the scourge of mid-20th century authoritarianism has returned not only in the menacing plague of populist rallies, fear-mongering, threats and humiliation, but also in an emboldened culture of war, militarization and violence that looms over society like a rising storm.
The reality of Trump’s election may be the most momentous development of the age because of its enormity and the shock it has produced. The whole world is watching, pondering how such a dreadful event could have happened. How have we arrived here? What forces have allowed education, if not reason itself, to be undermined as crucial public and political resources, capable of producing the formative culture and critical citizens that could have prevented such a catastrophe from happening in an alleged democracy? We get a glimpse of this failure of education, public values and civic literacy in the willingness and success of the Trump administration to empty language of any meaning, a practice that constitutes a flight from historical memory, ethics, justice and social responsibility.
Under such circumstances and with too little opposition, the Trump administration has taken on the workings of a dis-imagination machine, characterized by an utter disregard for the truth and often accompanied by the president’s tweet-storm of “primitive schoolyard taunts and threats.” In this instance, George Orwell’s famous maxim from “Nineteen Eighty-four,” “Ignorance is Strength,” materializes in the administration’s weaponized attempt not only to rewrite history but also to obliterate it. What we are witnessing is not simply a political project but also a reworking of the very meaning of education as both a crucial institution and a democratizing and empowering cultural force.
Truth is now viewed as a liability and ignorance a virtue. Under the reign of this normalized architecture of alleged common sense, literacy is regarded with disdain, words are reduced to data and science is confused with pseudo-science. All traces of critical thought appear only at the margins of the culture as ignorance becomes the primary organizing principle of American society. For instance, two-thirds of the American public believe that creationism should be taught in schools and a majority of Republicans in Congress do not believe that climate change is caused by human activity, making the U.S. the laughing stock of the world. Politicians endlessly lie, knowing that the public can be easily seduced by exhortations, emotional outbursts and sensationalism, all of which mimic the fatuous spectacle of celebrity culture and reality TV. Image-selling now entails lying on principle, making it easier for politics to dissolve into entertainment, pathology and a unique brand of criminality.
The corruption of both the truth and politics is abetted by the fact that much of the American public has become habituated to overstimulation and lives in an ever-accelerating overflow of information and images. Experience no longer has the time to crystallize into mature and informed thought. Opinion now trumps reason and evidence-based arguments. News has become entertainment and echoes reality rather than interrogating it. Popular culture revels in the spectacles of shock and violence. Defunded and corporatized, many institutions of public and higher education have been all too willing to make the culture of business the business of education, and this transformation has corrupted their mission.
As a result, many colleges and universities have been McDonald-ized as knowledge is increasingly viewed as a commodity, resulting in curricula that resemble a fast-food menu. In addition, faculty are subjected increasingly to a Walmart model of labor relations designed “to reduce labor costs and to increase labor servility.” Students are relegated to the status of customers and clients.
In addition, public education is under siege to an almost unprecedented degree. Both political parties have implemented reforms that “teach for the test,” weaken unions, deskill teachers, and wage a frontal assault on the imagination of students through disciplinary measures that amount to pedagogies of repression. Moreover, students marginalized by class and color find themselves in schools increasingly modeled after prisons. As more and more security guards and police personnel occupy schools, a wider range of student behaviors are criminalized, and students increasingly find themselves on a conveyor belt that has appropriately been described as the school-to-prison pipeline.
On a policy level, the Trump administration has turned its back on schools as public goods. How else to explain the president’s appointment of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education? DeVos, who has spent most of her career attempting to privatize public schools while acting as a champion for charter schools. It gets worse: As a religious Christian extremist, DeVos not only supports religious indoctrination in public schools but has gone so far as to argue that the purpose of public education is “to help advance God’s Kingdom.” Not exactly a policy that supports critical thinking, dialogue or analytical reasoning, or that understands schooling as a public good. DeVos is Trump’s gift to the billionaires, evangelicals, hedge fund managers and bankers, who view schools strictly as training and containment centers — and as sources of profit.
On a larger scale, the educational force of the wider culture has been transformed into a spectacle for violence and trivialized entertainment, and a tool for legitimating ignorance. Cultural apparatuses that extend from the mainstream media and the diverse platforms of screen culture now function as neoliberal modes of public pedagogy parading as entertainment or truthful news reporting. As “teaching machines,” these apparatuses — as C. Wright Mills once predicted — have become the engines of manufactured illiteracy while producing identities, desires and values compatible with the crudest market ideologies.
Under these circumstances, illiteracy becomes the norm and education becomes central to a version of zombie politics that functions largely to remove democratic values, social relations,and compassion from the ideology, policies and commanding institutions that now control American society. Welcome to the land of the walking dead.
I am not referring here to only the kind of anti-intellectualism that theorists such as Richard Hofstadter, Ed Herman, Noam Chomsky and Susan Jacoby have documented, however insightful their analyses might be. I am pointing to a more lethal form of manufactured illiteracy that has become a scourge and a political tool designed primarily to make war on language, meaning, thinking and the capacity for critical thought. Chris Hedges captures this demagogic attack on thoughtfulness in stating that “the emptiness of language is a gift to demagogues and the corporations that saturate the landscape with manipulated images and the idioms of mass culture.” Freedom now means removing one’s self from any sense of social responsibility so one can retreat into privatized orbits of self-indulgence, unbridled self-interest and the never-ending whirlwind of consumption.
This updated form of illiteracy does not simply constitute an absence of learning, ideas or knowledge. Nor can it be solely attributed to what has been called the “smartphone society.” On the contrary, it is a willful practice and goal used to actively depoliticize people and make them complicit with the political and economic forces that impose misery and suffering upon their lives. At the same time, illiteracy bonds people: It offers the pretense of a community bound by a willful denial of facts and its celebration of ignorance.
How else to explain the popular support for someone like Donald Trump who boldly proclaims his love for the “poorly educated”? Or, for that matter, the willingness of his followers to put up with his contemptuous and boisterous claim that science and evidence-based truths are “fake news,” his dismissal of journalists who hold power accountable as the opposition party, and his willingness to bombard the American public with an endless proliferation of peddled falsehoods that reveal his contempt for intellect, reason and truth.
What are we to make of the fact that a person who holds the office of the presidency has praised popular “rage addict” Alex Jones publicly, and thanked him for the role he played in his presidential election victory? Jones is a conspiracy trafficker who runs the website InfoWars. He has suggested that the 9/11 attacks were an “inside job” and that the massacre of children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut was faked.
Illiteracy is no longer restricted to populations immersed in poverty with little access to quality education; nor does it only suggest the lack of proficient skills enabling people to read and write with a degree of understanding and fluency. More profoundly, illiteracy is also about refusing to act from a position of thoughtfulness, informed judgment, and critical agency.